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Blogcritics chats with Gabriel Valjan, author of the Roma Series novels.

Interview with Gabriel Valjan, Author of ‘Turning to Stone’

author picGabriel Valjan lives in the town where Friends of Eddie Coyle and Ted 1 and Ted 2 were filmed. He likes the New England Patriots, but is not a member of Red Sox Nation. Gabriel has written the Roma Series novels, published by Winter Goose. His circle of life includes two cats, Squeak and Squawk, and writing short stories, which appear both online and in print.

Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Turning to Stone, book four in your Roma Series. When did you start writing and what got you into mystery and suspense fiction?

I started writing in 2008. In 2010, my short stories started to appear online and in print, and I was also short-listed for the Fish Prize. I wrote Roma, Underground in late 2010, submitted it to a call-for-manuscripts from Winter Goose Publishing in early 2011, and the rest is history. The first Roma Series novel appeared in 2012.

I know people read for different reasons, but ultimately it is for pleasure, for some connection with either the character or with the plot. The Roma Series began as a challenge from a coworker, who asked me to write a short story about an intelligent, but flawed, woman. I choose to write in the mystery and suspense genre because it is a challenge to keep the reader engaged, turning the pages. Everything has to count, has to contribute to the pacing or the character’s development; it is a genre in which readers see another mind (or minds, in the case of my series) at work in order to solve the mystery. Suspense comes from the ticking time bomb. Something has to be at stake.

How was this book different from the earlier ones in the series? Where there any special challenges you had to face?

Each book is written as a stand-alone, but I designed the series in such a way that readers will see a range of emotional development and responses in each of the main characters. The main character, Bianca, will confront her issues with intimacy. Readers will have had hints about what happened to her, but its magnitude is not exposed until Book 5. With each book, readers will learn more about – and love, or, understand – how each character ticks.

TurningtoStone_FlatforeBooks (1)Each book presented its own challenges. I had to research a variety of topics for my plots: archaeology, biotechnology, economics, and terrorism. Since the Series is set in Italy, with the exception of Book 2: Wasp’s Nest, I had to research each of the Italian cities in the respective books and rely on my travel experience. Every dish that is mentioned in my books is food that I have eaten. The greatest challenge is writing foreign culture, having it authentic and not some stereotyped composite of Italian culture, as it is presented on American television or in movies. My Italians are not Tony Soprano or Joey Tribbiani; they are cultured individuals, who look at life in ways that are alien to Americans.

Your books shine with authenticity when it comes to international intrigue, organized crime, and the different police organizations. Can you share with us your research method?

My travel experience has always been the backbone to the Roma Series. I threw myself into the culture on my second visit. I knew a smattering of Italian, just enough not to starve to death or die of thirst, but I made a conscious effort not to speak any English. When I didn’t know the Italian, I spoke French. Readers have to understand just how rich and diverse spoken Italian is. Case in point: when I was in Milan, the friends I was staying with had an unexpected visit from a friend of a friend who happened to be from Calabria. Let me preface this with just one small tidbit: each region of Italy has its own dialect. There is standard Italian, which you’ll hear on the RAI television network (think of BBC English). Romans speak an Italian all their own, as do the Milanese, so there we were resorting to hand gestures with our guest from Calabria. We all had a good laugh.

There are hundreds of books on the mafia, but I suggest that you read ones that are focused on the culture and not the criminal activities. Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily is an Australian’s take on La Cosa Nostra. Henner Hess, a German academic, wrote Mafia & Mafiosi: Origin, Power and Myth, a powerful and thorough sociological examination of the Sicilian mafia. One of my characters in Turning is a sociologist. Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah was helpful in writing Turning.

From first idea to finished book, tell us about your writing process.

I write early in the morning every day. If I feel cluttered or unfocused, I’ll go work out to clear my mind. I’m disciplined and focused. I know what I want to do. The hardest part in starting a novel is that first scene. Readers have to have enough information, but not too much; they have to have a compelling WHAT so they turn the page to understand HOW and WHY. In shoptalk, it is ‘the hook’ and I find that often the best strategy is not to have a windup, but to throw the reader in medias res. In Threading the Needle’s first scene a student is murdered execution-style. In Turning, there is an assassination, but the mystery starts with the arrival of a package of five books.

Is there a book 5 or a new series on the horizon?

There is, at least in the case of the former. Corporate Citizen is Book 5. Each of my books gives the reader a taste of the next book in the Series. Bianca is back in Boston for Corporate Citizen to help an old friend. She doesn’t care about the dead hooker, about the drug overdose, or the other body at the scene. She does care that her former employer is implicated. Her enemy Lorenzo Bevilacqua has made startling revelations about U.S. Attorney Farese and Loki. Confused, shocked, and with little time to think, Bianca must save lives: her own, the lives of her friends, and that of a new ally, a troubled military veteran, who may just have the key to Rendition’s true purpose and Loki’s real identity.

There seems to be pressure these days, especially with authors who write series, to write fast and publish multiple books a year. What are your thoughts on this and are you able to write first drafts fast?

I can’t say that I’ve experienced that pressure, although I can see that the rationale behind it is to maintain visibility and momentum. I wrote Turning in three months, but spent about twice as much time editing and revising it into shape before I gave it to Winter Goose, where it went through another two rounds of edits before it went to press. A friend of mine proofread the manuscript. Another friend, a native speaker of Italian, read it for the story and as a cultural editor. I committed their edits and then sent it off to a line editor, who does his work. Winter Goose applied their editorial process to Turning. Emails were exchanged, copies were read, proofs were examined, and then a galley was spot-checked. It is no exaggeration to say that each of my books has gone through eight to ten rounds of robust scrutiny.

What was your publishing process like?

My proofreader gets a day’s work while I move forward in the trenches the next morning. My cultural and line editors get a complete manuscript. In working with my line editor, we do fifty-page batches from start to finish. I walk through the comments (we use Word revision control), read the changes, and see whether I agree or not. I will say that most times I defer to my editors. I rarely argue against an edit, but I’ll ask for clarification or present my rationale. Editors do think differently. I respect what they bring to my work and we are a team in agreement on one thing: best, possible story.

How do you define success?

Success is to me a matter of how you leave the world a better place after you’re gone. It could be how you affect one person’s life, your family, or writing a story that changes lives, gives hope or a fresh perspective to others. Life is about finding your purpose and fulfilling it, about helping others.

George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” What do you think of this?

Orwell said that precisely because he had a painful illness (TB). I disagree with his statement for one reason: if you allow yourself to be overwhelmed or frightened by the task at hand, whether it is writing or some other thing then you will always be easily defeated. Trying is still something because you learn about yourself. It comes down to how you define success and a sense of perspective. I would rather try and fail (however that is defined) than be haunted by the Terry Malloy Syndrome: ‘I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody,..” Too much energy in wishing, too much paralysis in that, so simply do it.

Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

The fact that you can read this page and understand the words is proof that you have some command of the English language. That should not be dismissed lightly. You have eyes and can read. You can speak. You can read. You may or may not have money, but the most powerful thing that you own is your health and your mind. The most dangerous possession you own is a library card. Read to free yourself, read to understand others, read to learn how you think and feel about what you discover between the pages in the next novel. I offer my best effort in the pages before you. I will get better. I am grateful that you have spent your precious time with me; time that is irreplaceable and for that I am humbled.

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About Mayra Calvani

Mayra Calvani writes fiction and nonfiction for children and adults and has authored over a dozen books, some of which have won awards. Her stories, reviews, interviews and articles have appeared on numerous publications such as The Writer, Writer’s Journal, Multicultural Review, and Bloomsbury Review, among many others. Represented by Serendipity Literary.

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