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by Leslie Croxford
1. Woohoo! You are a published author. Describe a strong character trait you possess, good or bad, and how it helped you become a published author. I am very persistent and did not allow myself to become discouraged by rejection by publishers and agents. In fact I always tried to listen to their criticisms and revised my work in the light of them. This, I suppose, indicates that I always believed I had something worth saying if I could only get the means of expressing it right.
2. Sometimes an author begins writing a story before they are aware of its genre. Did you choose your genre, or did it choose you? I have never worried about genre. It is a prefabricated way of looking at fiction. I just wrote and tended to find what I was saying fitted across the borders of genres – something that pleases me.
3. The plot thickens, or does it? Which one are you, a pantser or a plotter? I start with a situation or image and then the story just develops. As Humpty Dumpty says: how do I know what I mean till I hear what I say.
4. Fear 101: As writers it is our duty to make our characters face their fears. Have you ever included one of your own fears in a storyline? My novels are about things I want to explore, which necessarily means anxieties I wish to disentangle. No single character embodies it all. It can pervade the entire atmosphere and even style of the novel.
5. Fear 102: Yes, deadlines are terrifying. Have you conquered the juggling act between writing and the rest of your life? What do you do when it feels like the balls are dropping all around you? I have a day job that is demanding as well as a determination to write. Miraculously I’ve been able to sustain both activities. But when the pressure mounts I sleep as much as possible – which is the advice given to me by the Nobel Prize winning Egyptian novelist Naguib Mafouz.
6. Switch positions with one of your main characters in a scene. What is the outcome, disaster or divine intervention? The outcome for my characters is usually a greater accommodation to whatever case they find themselves in.
7. Where is your favorite place to write? Add that one comfort food that you can’t do without. I write in my study and need tea until 11: 30 am, then coffee.
8. Writing inspirations? My inspirations are unclassifiable. They are ideas that suddenly open up to me when I’m not seeking for them. In fact, not striving for them seems essential. As many writers have said, they are moments of grace.
9. You are introduced to your favorite author. Who is it, and what is that one burning question you must ask them? As I said above (in 5.) I met Naguib Mafouz who, though he may not have been my absolutely favourite author, gave me the very good advice to my question about how to deal with difficult moments: sleep.
10. I’ve gone mad – why don’t you come with me? Some people just don’t understand us writers. Name a quirky, writer-thing you do that friends wish you didn’t. I like to sit down to write immediately I rise in the morning, but my wife likes me to have a long, leisurely breakfast with her.
Klaus Werner travels to the Algerian Sahara to research a book on desert insects. He is billeted in a local monastery, but upon arrival he finds it empty of its inhabitants. He soon discovers that it is a recent crime scene.
I left Rome in the summer of 1980. The day before that, I went to see Father Carlo. He had asked me back for a final visit, although he’d already given me the travel information.
Late for my appointment, I hastened toward the German Catholic Church of Santa Maria dell’Anima, on Vicolo della Pace, not far from Piazza Navona. My mother used to take me there every Sunday during my boyhood. The rector had been German; now, its priests were not necessarily so. Yet even the Italian ones spoke the language, knew the country and were likely to have carried on their ministry in Germany at some point.
That was the case with Father Carlo. He was sitting in his office in the adjoining building. It gave onto the courtyard at the back of the church. The blinds were drawn against the summer afternoon glare when I finally entered.
Recalling the priest now, it’s hard to bring him into focus with all that’s happened since. Even then, I was still feeling the effect of the sedatives I’d been taking.
My wife Anja had died. But what I suffered was not only her loss, but the loss of myself, in a total breakdown.
I’d been in our apartment the week after she died. Staring vacantly at some mirror in the empty bedroom, I winced. Something had just moved in the glass. It was a stranger: me.
Father Carlo was waiting for me at his desk. He sat beneath a framed photograph of what I’d later come to know was the young Pius XII as Apostolic Nuncio to Germany in the 1920s. It was at one of the parties Pacelli – as he then was – threw for the political and diplomatic elite in the Tiergarten quarter of Berlin where he’d lived.
Father Carlo adjusted his monk’s habit over an ample midriff as he shifted in his chair to look up from the desk. But he continued 10 straightening its contents, then the rimless spectacles he was taking me in through.
I was sweating and out of breath. I apologised for being late, but explained that, having sold my car, I had walked all the way there from my apartment.
Mentioning it made me recall its shadowy silence, shuttered, too, against the city’s brilliance and traffic. My possessions were half-packed there – the few I would be taking with me tomorrow. Standing there alone, I had simply looked at the rest and left them to move only later if the owner absolutely demanded it. Anja and I had accumulated so much together.
“You’re not very late,” my spiritual advisor said. (For this was what the monk, now indicating the chair at the other side of the desk, had more or less become for me over the last few weeks, regardless of my lack of religious belief. With Anja’s death I had soon found myself using Carlo as a secular Father Confessor, judging it better to rely on him than on the doctor, who’d been of little help.)
“Anyway, you’re here now,” Father Carlo said, “ready to move on. That’s all that matters.”
The priest told me how pleased he was that I had finally decided to undertake the publishing project I’d been offered; how personally helpful I was sure to find it; how conducive to work the monastery would prove. These were all things Father Carlo had said several times before, but which he nevertheless chose to repeat now, with this show of paternal concern.
“Look, I’ve written a letter of introduction to the Abbot for you.” Father Carlo passed me one of two envelopes lying on the desk. They were sealed and made of fine paper.
“He’ll make sure you’re well looked after. And then it occurred to me that while you’re here for me to wish you Godspeed, I might as well also send a note with you for another monk, Father Erich. He’s one of the Order’s hermits, in permanent retreat even further south. I hope you’ll meet him too. There’s every reason why you should.”
“How can I, if he’s a hermit?”
“They come in when the monastery holds a chapter. And the Abbot will take care of giving him the letter. Or any of the monks should know how to get it to him.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I said. “It’s most important that he should receive it,” Father Carlo said, glasses glinting as he handed over the letter.
Taking it, I could not see beyond the opaque lenses.
Leslie Croxford is a British author and Senior Vice-President of the British University in Egypt. Born in Alexandria, he obtained a doctorate in History from Cambridge University. He has written one novel, Soloman’s Folly (Chatto & Windus), and is completing his third. He and his wife live in Cairo.