Joining us today is literary author Garasamo (Gary) Maccagnone whose novel, St. John of the Midfield has received rave reviews. I’ve had the pleasure of coordinating Gary’s virtual book, and after reading some of the book and browsing through some of its reviews, I knew I had to have Gary stop by to chat with us.
Welcome to The Book Connection, Gary. It’s wonderful to have you here.
Thanks for having me.
Before we talk about St. John of the Midfield, please tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been writing? Are you a full-time novelist? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
To some extent, I’ve been writing since I was about sixteen. During my High School years I was fortunate to have a teacher named Carol Cross for three years. She was the type of teacher who forced you to be better. She made it uncomfortable for you to be mediocre in her class.
It was there that I started experimenting with prose or poetry. Like most young writers, I worked on the student newspaper and also was on the yearbook staff. A lazy teacher allowed a lot of my satirical quips to be published in the yearbook without being edited. There was a minor stir.
In college, I was again fortunate enough to study under Lawrence Pike, Sam Astrachan, and Stuart Dybek. That formidable trio sharpened my skills as a craftsman and helped spark a life long interest in writing.
I am not a full time novelist. Since I was twenty-three, I’ve been involved in some capacity in the trucking, airfreight, crating, or logistic industry. I’ve also been involved in politics and the sports entertainment business. To write, I’ve taken sabbaticals from my business interests.
At this time, I enjoy coaching youth soccer in my spare time. Being around the kids keeps me young and focused. Teaching the game as I have been taught gives me a sense of purpose.
Two of your three books have been sports-related. Do you considered yourself to be a competitive person?
My parents had four boys in a five-year period. There was competition just trying to get a second biscuit at the breakfast table.
In one way or another, we fought every day. In those days, if you traveled beyond eight houses from your own home you were in somebody else’s turf. That meant if you couldn’t take care of yourself, somebody was going to put a whipping on you. Fortunately, my father was a trained boxer and he taught all of us how to fight. The day after he taught me how to throw an over hand right, I blew up the noses of two boys who started mouthing off to me. After that, only the toughest boys on their streets knew they had a chance with me.
Our entire culture is competitive. As I have played just about all the major sports, I have witnessed some of the ugliest events in the history of competition. I have seen fathers physically fight. I have seen mothers pulling each other’s hair out. I’ve been caught in the middle of an all out brawl that seemed like a fight in an old western movie.
I personally know club coaches of high status who have plotted against youth players simply on account of their dislike for one of the parents, or because that specific player chose to sign with a different team. I was also propositioned once by an unwed mother to keep her daughter on the top team in the club. All of this was done, in the name of competition.
In my case, whatever it is I choose to do, I want to do it well and to be taken seriously. To that extent, I guess I’m very competitive.
Let’s talk about St. John of the Midfield. What is this story about?
The main character, Georgie “Bobo” Stoikov, a world class soccer player, escapes communist Bulgaria with his brother Jordan during the late 70’s. During their escape, the two had to jump off a moving train going sixty miles per hour. Both of them were injured during the fall and the five-month journey through the Bulgarian wilderness to Macedonia. Though the American team was praying the two could successfully defect and play for the Americans in the World Cup, both brothers are unable to play ever again. Over time, Bobo is content to coach youth teams in America to make his living. Though he is successful at every stage of his coaching career, his eccentric ways and style of teaching clash with the American coaching status quo. He makes enemies, especially with one coach who is an ex-con named Sonny Christopher. Mario, the narrator, who becomes the assistant coach on the team, and who has a son who is a soccer prodigy, is forced into the fray simply due to his involvement with the team and the game. What Christopher and all the others in the soccer community don’t know is that Mario comes from a Sicilian family, a family who has a history of its own, a family that is purposely hiding out in the suburbs to mask their true nature from the community and the authorities. In the case of Christopher, who was used to being a bully, the misfortunate encounter he has with a crime organization more evil than himself hopefully leaves an impression on the reader that you better be certain about whom you pick your fights with. Eventually, the forces of evil must do battle in some way or another. When they do the rising action starts and the innocent pay the price.
You sent me some photographs at the beginning of our correspondence. There was one of an older gentleman who you said inspired this book. What can you tell me about him and how did he inspire your novel?
Jordan Mitkov is the inspiration for the book. He actually played for the Bulgarian National team and made the fateful leap off the train as depicted in the book. When I first met him, he told my son and myself that to play in the midfield, a player must be a good person, a person willing to sacrifice, a player willing to pass the ball to all his teammates to score. He told that to me ten to twelve years ago and it burned in my mind until I built a story around it.
Unlike so many of the American coaches who scream, degrade, and ridicule their players, Jordan Mitkov is the kindest, most gentle, and most sincere coach in the entire nation. His only motive is to make a youth player better.
St. John of the Midfield opens with Bobo retelling the story of the day he and his brother, Jordan jumped from a train to defect from Communist Bulgaria to fulfill Bobo’s dream of playing soccer as an American. Bobo has a very distinct dialect. How did you use dialects to create unique voices for your characters?
My father had a gift for mimicry. Somehow, genetically, he passed that talent to me. I recall one story where my father was involved as a union negotiator in an intense bargaining session with a management group. One of the other negotiators on the union team had a thick Albanian accent that was so deliberate you could fall asleep by the time he would finish a sentence. When the sessions broke down, my father waited until after midnight to start calling the hotel rooms of the individuals on the management team. In each case, he pretended to be his friend, impersonating the Albanian accent and characteristics of the voice so perfectly nobody suspected my father. Once he had a person on the phone, my father would ask ridiculous questions on obscure parts of the contract. The slow pace of the questions, the stuttering of the broken English and the redundancy of the questions drove all of the individuals crazy. Not one of them got any sleep and they were fit to be tied the next morning at the bargaining table. As expected, initially there was a lot of tension and hostility in the talks, but after a few hours, the management team, too tired to think or go on acquiesced to labor demands. My father’s talent and strategy won out.
In my case, though I’m an amateur, my impressions have always entertained my friends and family members. In my soccer club, I can hold the interests of my under eight students by doing all my Tigger and other cartoon impersonations. I knew I was pretty good with the Bobo voice when I called my house as if I was Jordan Mitkov and fooled both my daughter and wife for five minutes or so in a phone conversation. Once I had that voice in my head, I was able to write Bobo’s dialogue in a way that made it seem real. The thick Bulgarian dialect of Bobo showcases the innocence of his nature but also camouflages the wisdom within his thoughts and ideas.
Bobo is retelling the story of his defection to Mario Santini. What can you tell us about Mario?
Mario’s a good Catholic boy. Even though he’s the son of a hoodlum, he continuously wants to do good deeds, to bring his son up in the tradition of the Catholic Church. Like his mother, he longs for the Catholic promise in the after life. Though he could solve problems like his father, he chooses to live normally in the legitimate world.
He is trapped though. Like a good Catholic boy, and like a good son, he’s loyal to his father and to his family. Beyond the corruption, he knows where the heart of his father is. There’s a loving bond between them, which proves that all human beings have some goodness in them.
Though Mario’s character is rooted in goodness, as a flawed human being he falls victim to sin as many Catholic men do. His guilt and realization of the seriousness of his sin force him to seek an opportunity to confess so he may be absolved. Mario also comes to understand that the more he tries not to be like his father the more he begins to have the same anger and hatred toward his enemies - especially when his son falls victim to a despicable rumor campaign by his nemesis Sonny Christopher. The false accusations by Christopher that Mario’s son Luca has had a sexual relationship with his coach is too much to bear for Mario. His father’s compulsion to kill erupts inside of Mario and he gives his father the nod to proceed with his vigilante justice.
In St. John of the Midfield, you’ve brought together youth soccer and the Mafia to create a powerful story. What were some of the challenges you faced writing this novel?
Having parallel stories, with two evil characters, one in which I’m hoping the audience will have empathy for, was certainly a challenge. The entire story had to be broken down in an outline form to my editor to show where the stories would intersect and how the fates of Frankie and Sonny Christopher would be revealed. The challenge about writing on the underworld is to do so, you have to appear credible. The characters, their history, and their actions cannot come across as being contrived. In my case, being Sicilian, I had places in my childhood I could dig deep into to find the proper voices, the proper tendencies, and the proper characteristics of individuals I knew to pull it off.
At the end of the book, there is a story titled, My Dog Tim. Why is it included? What it is about?
I promised my family a long time ago I would write a story about our beloved dog Tim. For me, it’s important to always keep my word.
That story is written in a totally different voice, a voice that one reviewer told me was similar to the voice in the “Wonder Years.” For me, it was important not to write the typical soppy dog story we’ve all read a million times in the magazines left on the tables at the doctors office. I owed Tim a lot more than that. I also knew I wasn’t up to pulling something off like Jack London.
The story is basically a little portrait of my life from the time Tim was brought to us in the early sixties to his death at seventeen years old. Since I was born only a few months prior to his arrival in our house, Tim and I grew up together through the tumultuous sixties and seventies. I remember holding him the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated as my father screamed obscenities at the television.
The early departure of a neighborhood father to the Viet Nam war foreshadows the loss of innocence those times brought about. The narrator, who recalls how his dog protected him in his youth from all the imaginary monsters floating around the house and his head, later encounters real monsters, like the fear of his father’s anger and a group of thugs who hurt him while he delivers papers on his route. Later, after two children are murdered in Oakland County, the realization by the entire community there is a serial killer terrorizing the neighborhoods clearly defines a new world is emerging for the young man.
In that story, I have two loves that protect me from what terrifies me. One is Tim, who defends me against a menace of a dog-named Bongo, and my little Polish Grandmother Clare, who is willing to fight against my Sicilian father in order to protect her daughter and her grandchildren.
Where can readers purchase a copy of St. John of the Midfield?
What’s up next for you? Are there future projects you would like to share with our readers?
I’m doing a lot of research now. Within six months, I’ll begin writing my second novel entitled, “He Lay Low.” It takes place on the Mexican/Texas border. There won’t be any sports themes in this one.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Yes. Al Ochsner, my college roommate and the illustrator of my children’s book, “The Suburban Dragon,” has just gone through his third operation to remove cancer from his vocal chords and esophagus. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers. Thanks.
Thank you for being our guest today, Gary. I wish you great success. Have fun with the rest of the tour.
ST. JOHN OF THE MIDFIELD VIRTUAL BOOK TOUR '08 begins on Feb. 1, 2008 and continues all month. If you would like to follow Gary's tour, visit http://www.virtualbooktours.wordpress.com/. Leave a comment at any of his stops and become eligible to win a free copy at the end of his tour! One lucky winner will be announced on this page on February 29!
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