Local Author Spotlight: San Diego Literary Scene Talks With John Van Roekel

            Welcome to our Local Author Spotlight! 

The Local Author Spotlight features interviews with San Diego writers, affording them the opportunity to share information about themselves, and their work, with the community.  Our first interview is with John Van Roekel.  John was selected by the Friends of the San Diego Central Library as their Writer to Watch for February.  Writers To Watch (W2W) is a new program, designed to promote self-published authors in the San Diego area. 

John Van Roekel is the author of 3 novels:  "Braver Deeds", "Prisoner Moon", and his latest, "Lorenzo's Assassin".  All 3 books are works of historical fiction. It is "Lorenzo's Assassin", published in 2016, that led to his receiving the W2W recognition. John's reception will be on February 18th at 1pm in the Mary Hollis Clark room at the Central Library.  We sat with John on January 28th.  Our discussion was so lively, and covered so much territory, that we decided to publish it in 2 parts.  This is because we wanted to share this information in an easily digestible form, making for - hopefully - a more enjoyable read.  Below is Part 1 then, of our two-part interview.


SDLS:  Congratulations on being selected as February's Writer to Watch.

JVR:  I have to say, I was really thrilled.

SDLS:  The San Diego Central Library has two programs:  the Local Author Exhibition and now, the W2W program.  For the Local Author Exhibition, writers who meet the criteria submit their work to the library for display.  The books submitted can be self-published, or not. There is no judgment of the work beyond whether or not it meets the submission criteria. 

However, for the W2W, it is a committee from the Friends of the San Diego Central Library who determine which self-published author(s) will be nominated for the honor.  In this regard, you have control over the Local Author Exhibition, as it is up to you whether or not to submit your work.  However, you have no control or decision-making over being chosen as a W2W.

JVR:  That's right.  I'd pick myself every time otherwise.  (laughter)

SDLS:  I think it's particularly great that the Friends of the San Diego Central Library chose to acknowledge the self-published authors specifically.  This helps bring some more attention to work that does not have the power or influence of the publishing industry machine behind it to promote the book.  And, of course, both programs - W2W and the Local Author Exhibition - are so important in terms of increasing awareness of local authors as well as supporting them.

One of the benefits of being selected as W2W is the reception hosted at the Central library.  Yours will be on February 18th, at 1pm.  What can attendees expect?

JVR:  I'm working hard to make this a lively, entertaining talk.  I'm not going to stand there and drone on.  I'm not going to do any extended readings from the text.  I have pictures about the research, pictures about things that struck me as funny, about going to Italy for the book, and sword-fighting.  So, I hope people will come in.  I guarantee, it won't be too long.  I want to leave them wanting more.  (laughter)

SDLS:  Speaking of wanting more, you will also have a table where you will sell and sign your books at the event, right?  And you will do a Q&A?

JVR:  That's right.  And, if people already have a copy of any of my books, they can bring those as well, and I'll sign them.

SDLS:  The book that we're talking about, which is currently on display in the San Diego Central Library's 51st Annual Local Author Exhibition, is "Lorenzo's Assassin."

JVR:  That's right.

SDLS:  But, you have also written 2 other novels, "Braver Deeds", and "Prisoner Moon", which you also adapted into a screenplay.

JVR:  Yes.

SDLS:  Before we talk about those 2 novels, I want to talk about "Lorenzo's Assassin", because this is the book that led to your being named a W2W.  Why did you want to write about Pope Sixtus IV, and the plot to murder Lorenzo de Medici?  What drew you to that story?

JVR:  My wife, Pam, and I took our 1st trip to Europe in 2004.  (during that trip) We spent 3 days in Rome, and 1 day in Florence.  I came back with a sort of fetish about Italian history, ancient Rome, and the Italian Renaissance. 

I read a lot on both periods, and listened to a lecture on the Italian Renaissance.  He (the lecturer) mentioned the Pazzi Conspiracy, and the fact that the Pope - Pope Sixtus IV - wanted to assassinate Lorenzo de Medici.  He (Pope Sixtus IV) told his captain of his Apostolic Guard, Giovan Battista de Montesecco, to organize the plot, which was to kill Lorenzo and his brother, Giuliano.  And then he (the lecturer) said the thing that got me.  He said, when the time came to assassinate Lorenzo, at the Duomo under Brunelleschi's Dome, Giovan couldn't do it.  And I said, "Now there's a story!"

Now maybe that's a bit of a spoiler, but you could certainly find it (this information) on Wikipedia.  There are very few historical facts that aren't easily available.  There are still major reveals throughout the story, some having to do with the fictional characters, and some of them - which I will not go into - are historical surprises that, to this day, still surprise me.  I hope the readers will be too.  One of the things I did was, I added an Appendix called "Facts And Fiction", and one of the things it does, it says, "Yes, these things really happened!".  It gives a list of some of the more amazing things in the story (that are true).

I built this novel around the Pazzi Conspiracy, and around this soldier who was an ex-mercenary, and worked for the Pope.  He was dedicated, religious, loyal servant of Pope Sixtus IV, who underwent a great personal re-evaluation of his priorities.  The reason we know some of this is because, after the fact, Giovan Battista de Montesecco was arrested and condemned to death.  He was put in prison and told to write out his confession.  At this point, he had nothing to lose, so, probably, what he wrote was true to the best of his knowledge.  We have that confession, so a lot of what we know about the Pazzi Conspiracy comes from that confession.

When I heard about that document, I wanted to read it, but I could not find an English version.  So, I commissioned a new translation of Giovan Battista de Montesecco's confession from a translator who has experience in that period of Italian history.  She did a great job with it.  It helped to inform my story, and I put a copy of it in the Appendix so that readers, if they want, can read that confession.

SDLS:  What was Pope Sixtus IV's issue with Lorenzo de Medici?  Why order a hit?

JVR:  We have this view of the Italian city-states of the 15th century - the 1400s - as being combative.  There were rivalries and striving for control, minor wars between city-states, and Florence was in the middle of this.  Sixtus was very ambitious.  He had a large family - a nephew, in particular - who wanted land.  Lorenzo de Medici, who was very powerful in Florence, kept getting in his way.

Sixtus claimed, and there is some evidence for this, he claimed that he didn't want him (Lorenzo) murdered.  But Sixtus' words were said as a "wink-wink" kind of thing, as the Cardinal - who ultimately recruited Giovan - clearly understood the Pope's orders were to assassinate Lorenzo & his brother.  A lot of this was about simple greed.  Greed for power, greed for land, and greed for money.

SDLS:  In addition to the this storyline, there are 2 others within this novel.  You also tell the story of Lorenzo de Medici's brother and his girlfriend who, after feeling spurned by him, indulges in witchcraft, and there is also a storyline involving a Greek Scholar.  Is it in these additional stories that most of the fictional aspects of the novel are found?

JVR:  Yes.  Fioretta Gorini is a historical figure.  We know her name, and we know a little about her.  She's mainly known to history for a reason I will not tell you today, because it is a key thing that comes at the end.  Anybody can look it up, if they want, but it is, again, one of the things that fascinated me about her story.

Guiliano, who was Lorenzo's handsome younger brother, she was his mistress.  In my telling of the story - which is highly fictionalized - they have a difficult, on-again off-again, relationship.  He appears to be fickle.  Lorenzo is pressuring him to marry a different woman in order to consolidate power for the family, and she's (Fioretta) threatened by this, and rightfully so.  So, she and Lucia, her servant and friend, go off to Lucia's hometown and enlist the help of a practitioner of the pagan arts.  One of the things that was interesting to me, we think of Italy of the Renaissance as being totally Roman Catholic, but Paganism was very much alive, especially in the countryside.  So, the introduction of witchcraft into the story really helped to spice things up, and it was really a lot of fun to research.  (laughs)

SDLS:  And then you have the Greek scholar's storyline.  So, presumably, these 3 stories intertwine at some point?

JVR:  Yes.  All 3 of my books are written with 3 points of view.  I publish under the imprint, my own imprint, Triptych Press.  A triptych is an altar decoration with 3 panels that are each, 3 individual paintings which, together, tell one larger story.  It turns out that my 3 novels have 3 points of view (within them).  They, all 3, have separate stories in the beginning, which overlap more and more towards the end, where they merge into a - hopefully - dramatic finish.

This concludes Part 1 of our discussion with San Diego author, John Van Roekel.  We continue our discussion with John in Part 2, where we discuss his other books, self-publishing, and more.  Part 2 will be published tomorrow, January 30th, so stay tuned!

REMINDERJohn Van Roekel's Writer To Watch reception will be on February 18th, at 1pm in the Mary Hollis Clark room at the Central Library

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