interview with Gabriel Valjan, Author of Five Before Rome: 5 preludes to the Roma Series

Previous interview on his author journey HERE!
It's been 3-1/2 years since Corporate Citizen - book #5 in your Roma series - during which time you shifted to write 2 books in a new series called The Corporate Citizen. What drew you to return to the Roma Series?

Yes, the Company Files is another series, also available from Winter Goose Publishing, and it is historical crime fiction. The Files start in Vienna in 1948 with The Good Man and return to Los Angeles for The Naming Game during the McCarthy Red Scare. The first novel discusses the early days of the CIA. In the second installment readers will learn about intrigues in a Hollywood studio when a script doctor is murdered. The Naming Game was nominated for an Agatha for Best Historical Mystery at Malice Domestic 2020 and an Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original at Bouchercon 2020.

As for a return to the Roma Series, Five Before Rome is a prequel to meeting Bianca, the intelligent and flawed American woman on the run in Italy. I had started writing the novellas before Corporate was published. My publisher, Winter Goose Publishing, asked me to write a giveaway for folks who signed up for the WGP Newsletter. My intention was to introduce readers to the “supporting cast of male characters” around Bianca, who each have a unique experience with organized crime. I had a lot of fun writing the first story and decided to write four more. I edited all five novellas in January 2020 and provided extensive Cultural Notes for readers who enjoy Italian culture and history. I hope readers will will enjoy each novella enough to seek out the Roma Series.

Review HERE!
After such a long break to work on The Corporate Citizen, did you find the characters in the Roma Series seemed like old friends you were reconnecting with, or did they feel new and unknown?

I’ve always felt close to my characters. What was different and a lovely challenge this time was to visit an earlier version of Alessandro, Farrugia, Silvio, and Gennaro. Each man has his own distinct personality in the five books of the Roma Series, but here we get a glimpse of their early life, how their environment shaped them and provided them with the motivation to fight organized crime. Most writers age their characters. Here, in these novellas, I had to do a Benjamin Button with each character and work backwards in time to the Italy of the 1980 and 1990s. It was challenging but fun, and I learned how organized crime evolved and mutated in Italy.

What inspired the story line for each of the five individuals? Were each character's backgrounds being fleshed out in your mind when you wrote the Roma Series books 1-5, or did the idea for an event in their past evolve as you approached this project?

Each character in the Roma Series has a dominant trait, which is not to say they are one-dimensional. As with every team, a variety of personalities is necessary for the group to succeed. Dante is the romantic idealist. Farrugia is the impulsive hothead. Gennaro is the older, wiser, and somewhat cynical man of the world. Alessandro is the womanizer, the Peter Pan of the group. Silvio is the bumbling, sensitive, and humorous foil for the intensity the other four men bring to a scene. In writing the novels, I do have a longer arc as to what happens to all the characters, and I think these novellas help contribute to their stories.

As for inspiration, I wanted readers to learn about the different organized crime groups in Italy. When Americans think of organized crime in Italy, they think of the mafia, the Sicilian criminal organization. I wanted to correct that perception. In addition to the Sicilian mafia, Italy has the Camorra in Naples and Campania, and the ’Ndrangheta in Calabria. Readers of the Roma Series have met these organizations, but in the novellas, I’m taking them back in time before Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino damaged the infrastructure of organized crime with their legal strategies. Again, the magistrates had dealt only with the Sicilian mafia; they had not attacked the other groups. Also, we need to remember that later the Sicilian mafia had not only retaliated by assassinating Falcone and Borsellino; it was linked to the upper echelons of government in Italy. In the last novellas, all five men are working to solve a murder that may or may not implicated the Vatican.

Each novella tried to show how each criminal organization is different, how each infiltrated aspects of society, and how their unique structure made legal prosecution possible or impossible. The 'Ndrangheta in Calabria, for example, has remained resistant to legal strategies. The repentant mafiosi from the Falcone and Borsellino trials do not exist within the Calabrian mafia. Italian prosecutors have never been able to get 'Ndranghetisti to flip on their associates. Now we are seeing female leaders rising in the ranks of all three organizations, and organized crime has become increasingly sophisticated and white collar. In a bizarre way, because the novellas are set in the 80s and 90s, there might be a sense of nostalgia for how both law enforcement and organized crime have evolved.

Books 1-3 in the Roma Series

Did you find the process of writing a book with 5 novellas easier or more difficult than writing a full book with a single storyline?

Easier. The novella is the perfect compromise between a short story and a novel. I’ve followed several online discussions in which readers talked about why they don’t read short stories. The prevailing conclusion was that short stories fell short on character development and there was less satisfaction with their endings. The conclusions to short stories were either too neat or too rushed. I do think the short story format has shrunk in length the last hundred years. With the exceptions of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Hemingway’s short stories, I remember that most of the short stories I read in my literature classes were thirty to sixty pages. Calls today for short story submissions limit the word count to between 3,000 to 5,000 words, which is six to ten pages in standard format.

A novel is larger and expansive and it allows the writer more breathing room and opportunities to experiment. The risk you run with the novel is juggle too many balls and you’re liable to forget one. The writer must have an innate sense of rhythm and structure over 50,000 to 100,000 words and know when to sew up each thread and at the right time to achieve that sense of satisfaction. A novella, at about 25,000 words, is a blend of the short and long fiction formats, and I’d encourage writers afraid of writing a novel to attempt a novella.

Books 4-5 in the Roma Series

As each story stood on it's own, did that increase the amount of planning and research time needed? Any other differences in the process?

Research came in two varieties for these novellas. The first is historical time and cultural elements. What was Italy like in the 80s and 90s? Take for instance, Italian media. Berlusconi was building his television empire in the 80s and he changed the way Italians watched television. He had his own version of MTV, and we all know what an impact MTV had here in the United States: it altered the landscape of entertainment. Musicians, to continue the example, became visual performers, whether it was a story told in three minutes of visuals for the video (think of Michael Jackson’s song Thriller), or demanded that the musician step up his or her game with snazzy choreography and background dancers.

The second form of research involved capturing the spirit of the place. Gennaro’s story, “Dance of the Spider”, takes place in a region of Italy that I think is unfamiliar to most people. The region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy, looks austere, Biblical and lunar, with its white rock formations. Silvio’s story occurs in Trieste, a unique city for its mix of eastern Europe and Hapsburg vibe. His story, “The Fallen One”, also introduces readers to the taboo topics of Italy’s Fascist past and the one concentration camp in wartime Italy. I had to research the country’s unique relationship with Italian Jews.
Books 1-2 in The Company Files Series

What's next for you as an author? Now that you have returned to these characters by writing this prequel, do you think you'll continue their story with a book #6? Or will you focus on book #3 in The Corporate Citizen Series? Or perhaps create in a totally new series and set of characters?

Diminished Fifth, the third book in the Company Files series, is scheduled for publication in April 2021.

I have another series with Level Best Books, which is set in Seventies Boston. The title of the first in the Shane Cleary series is Dirty Old Town. A second entry, Symphony Road, will appear in January 2021. My contract with Level Best is for five books. I’ve drafted the remaining three.

I did start the sixth Roma Series novel, Crunch City, which is set in London. I’ve held off on writing it because of Brexit: I wanted to see how Brexit played out first.

I have several short stories out this year:
  • A romance with a twist of horror in “Coming Up Roses” will be out in the Sandy River Review 2020. Summer issue.
  • A locked-room mystery that involves the President of the United States: “Dead in the Nest” will appear in A Room is Locked Anthology from Antimony and Elder Press (1 August 2020).
  • A story about foreign interference in the 1948 Italian election: “Goodbye Beautiful”, is in the charity anthology Low Down Dirty Vote: Vol. 2. Berry Content. (4 July 2020). Proceeds are directed to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
  • Another horror story “Star of the Sea” is in the charity anthology Writers Crushing COVID-19 Relief. (1 August 2020). Proceeds are directed to various COVID-19 relief agencies.
  • A murder mystery set in 1940s Los Angeles, “Elysian Fields”, will appear in the Bouchercon 2020 Anthology. California Schemin’ from Wildside Press. (October 2020).

I'd love to end on a personal note. What is your life away from writing like? How do you like to spend your free time. What is your favourite way to relax and let your mind rest?

Cooking, reading, and enjoying movies. I find that during this surreal time of COVID-19, I seek out films or series that are uplifting and make me laugh. I think we all need lightness and levity in uncertain times.