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Catholic writers meet

NCR Staff
Tucson, Ariz.

During a Catholic writers’ conference held here Feb. 2-6, Redemptorist Fr. Tony Smith recalled a passage written by Paul Monette, a National Book Award-winning author and friend who died in 1995. In Monette’s book Last Watch of the Night, written just before his death from AIDS, he described visiting the house where St. John is said to have completed his gospel.

“The beautiful one, the record of a poet,” Monette wrote in his book.

Smith, in his homily at a Mass for conference participants, said Monette had felt a deep connection to St. John despite the distance of nearly two millennia and their opposing beliefs. It was not a bond of believer to believer that attracted Monette, for he described himself as an atheist who regarded Christianity’s founding story as “a pretty myth.” Rather, Smith said, it was the bond of “writer to writer” that drew Monette to John.

That writer-to-writer bond turned out to be one of the greatest benefits cited by authors and would-be authors at the conference -- a benefit more important, some said, even than the information about publishing imparted by several experts in the field. Billed as a first of its kind, the gathering was a rare chance for Catholic writers to share their stories and ambitions, their successes and fears.

“I was so excited when I heard about this conference,” said Leo Luke Marcello, a poet who teaches at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, La. Marcello said he had attended other writers’ conferences only to find himself marginalized when he said he was a Catholic. “Most conferences are made up of nonbelievers,” he said.

“As Catholic writers, we need to accept our identity but resist being stereotyped,” Marcello told the group.

The conference drew about 50 writers and editors. It was sponsored by the Alphonsian Institute, a ministry of Redemptorists in Tucson, and held at the Redemptorist-owned Picture Rocks Retreat Center.

Participants ranged from 96-year-old Arcadia H. López, a retired educator from San Antonio, who wants to write about her experiences during the Mexican Revolution early in the last century, to David Nantais, a just-turned-30 Jesuit-in-training at the University of Detroit who writes about religion and culture. John J. Bohuslaw, features editor for the Catholic Transcript in Hartford, is doing research on circuit riders who built Catholicism in early 19th-century New England before the waves of Catholic immigrants arrived. Victoria Carlson-Casaregola, who teaches creative writing at St. Louis University, hopes to produce a book about spirituality and adoption.

Writer Mitch Finley, author of more than 30 books for the Catholic market and one of the conference presenters, spoke of a need for Catholic humor, and some participants hope to meet it. St. Joseph Sr. Eileen McNerney, who works with troubled youth in Los Angeles, wants to document some of her “zanier” experiences of church. Charlotte Ostermann of Lawrence, Kan., hopes to do more writing about raising and homeschooling eight children. Ostermann, who writes a column for Canticle magazine, said such a life is either fodder for humor or it’s … “well, tragedy.”

Some participants were already published authors. Among them: Vinita Wright, editorial director at Loyola Press (Velma Still Cooks in Leeway, a second novel just out); Mercy Sr. Virginia Froehle (Loving Yourself More: 101 Meditations for Women); Frank Tuoti of Tucson (Why Not be a Mystic); and Fr. Bill Fitzgerald of Scottsdale, Ariz. (Blessings for the Fast-Paced and Cyberspaced).

Writers learned what publishers of books on religion and spirituality are looking for and how to get their attention. Spirituality continues to be one of the strongest niches, presenters agreed.

Thomas Grady, a literary agent specializing in books on religion and spirituality, said Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk had been “a real watershed” in the publishing industry, opening the door for other writers with “literary sensibilities” interested in exploring traditional spiritual disciplines.

But if any writers had been lured by news reports of multimillion dollar advances for celebrity books, they got a dose of Catholic reality. Michael Leach, executive director of Orbis Books, told them Catholic publishing houses offer an audience worth connecting with, “but they won’t make you rich.”

“If Doubleday or Harper will publish your book, go for it,” said Leach. “But if they won’t, we have this wonderful Catholic ghetto.”

Presenters said censorship from conservative U.S. bishops and the Vatican, compounded by the self-censorship it produces, is increasingly a problem for Catholic writers and publishers, especially those owned by religious orders. Only three Catholic publishers are independent of church controls, Leach said: Crossroad, Continuum and Twenty-Third.

“These things often redound to the benefit of the general houses,” Grady said.

“Writing is risky on all kinds of levels,” Finley said. “You’re going public with what you think, and you take a chance when you do that. You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I going to be honest?’ ”

Finley said he had been passed over for some assignments after he expressed a controversial opinion in one of his articles. While lay authors can’t be silenced by the Vatican in the same way a priest can, “there are ways people have of getting to you,” Finley said.

The conference was the brainchild of Redemptorist Fr. Thomas Santa, formerly publisher at Liguori Publications and now director of the Tucson retreat center, and Charles Roth of Roth Advertising, Manhasset, N.Y. Roth does advertising and promotion for Catholic publishers.

A second conference is scheduled for Feb. 2-6, 2002, at the same place.

Pamela Schaeffer’s e-mail address is pschaeffer@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 16, 2001