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Backstory of Pope Francis in His Own Words

If you follow along here, you’ll know that the earliest weeks of 2013 were not as successful or as filled with hope and promise as I had planned. And if you’re a freelance writer yourself, I’m willing to bet you were in similar straits; writer friends and I have been privately lamenting what has felt like an unusually sluggish season, the holiday slow-down seeming to slump right into the new year.

While it appeared that I was knocking every ball out of the park, that wasn’t what life felt like if you were seated at my desk, in front of my computer. Pieces I’d filed months before were getting published, yes, and I was proud of those publications. But I’d been paid for them or was still awaiting payment, and pitches and queries that were circulating through editors’ inboxes weren’t generating responses. As you know, I was getting worried.

Mentally, I was viewing where I was at as the long, deep trough of a sine curve, a phase that’s familiar to every writer. I knew it would swing up again, but it was really hard to wait out the trough. A friend described the feeling more vividly (and, really, more accurately) as the crash after a high. “The highs are so, so good,” she wrote. The lows? Yeah, not so much.

That same friend (who, by the way, is a successful writer) confessed that she’d resorted to scanning Craigslist ads, and I confessed that after years of not needing Craigslist, I’d been doing the same. I’d even applied for two “real” writer/editor jobs—the kind that involve going to offices—and I’d interviewed for one of them. Though I dreaded the thought of going back to the 9-to-5 and almost everything that accompanied it, I was also being realistic: when you’re a parent, you can’t budget your family’s needs on the hope that an editor is going to respond to your query this week (much less that you’ll get paid within 90 days). I needed something solid.

And then, the phone rang.

It was early-ish in the morning and I didn’t recognize the phone number, so I didn’t answer. When I listened to the voice mail, I heard my friend Lisa say, “Call me back ASAP. I’ve got a job for you! It’s important!”

And that’s how, suddenly, the upswing of the sine curve began.

Lisa, one of the most interesting people I know, has written about almost everything: food, wine, and travel (which is how we met), but also American military service dogs, Barack and Michelle Obama, Dan Brown, Stephen King, and everything along the spectrum that you could possibly imagine (and plenty you couldn’t). She’s got I don’t know how many book credits to her name. She carries a chicken-shaped purse named Peckerhead and she drives (or drove) a hearse and she’s been on Oprah, uh huh.

She asked some friends recently what her “brand” is (because she avoids the kinds of silly marketing language conversations that so many writers get trapped in). My response: quirky intelligence or intelligent quirk. She thought that was about right.

Lisa has been a lifesaver for me in more ways than she knows. She has made several suggestions and introductions that have resulted in key assignments and gigs. And this time, she was calling to ask me if I wanted to work with her on a book.

A book, people!

I’ve got a few book contribution credits to my name (The Voluntary Traveler, No Foreign Lands, and Fodor’s Puerto Rico and Fodor’s Caribbean), but this would be the first book where my name would appear on the cover. It would also be the first one involving signing with an agent, receiving advances and royalties, and consenting to media interviews.

Was I interested?

Lisa explained that her agent had proposed the idea of putting together a compilation of quotes based on the writings of the newly installed Pope. Several of Lisa’s published works have followed this format (including books about Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as Bill Gates), so we’d have her experience and a general template to guide us. The only caveat was that we’d have to turn this book around fast… as in one week fast.

Now, putting together a book of quotes is probably simpler than writing your own manuscript from scratch, but it’s not as simple as you might think. My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to review everything that Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, had written in Spanish, stretching at least as far back as 1999. I’d been brought on board because I’m fluent in Spanish, was raised Catholic and so have knowledge of Catholic traditions and beliefs, and because I’m deeply familiar with Latin America history and cultures. I’d select quotes I felt were most representative of his thoughts and beliefs, as well as most compelling for readers, would start organizing them into categories, and work with Francisco to translate those into English. A rich archive of Bergoglio’s homilies, letters, and speeches were available in Spanish, as were several books (many of which are now being translated into English for the first time). I’d read them all.

Lisa, meanwhile, would be reviewing English-language interviews and primary sources, and would be tracking new developments as the Pope offered his first Masses and gave new interviews. She’d also be writing the book’s introduction and a timeline of the Pope’s life.

Had you asked me if I EVER thought I’d write about the Pope, my answer would have been “Definitely not.” Though I love many rituals and traditions of the Catholic Church, I am no longer a practicing Catholic, and that is largely because I feel that the Church has been unable to resolve many of its beautiful traditions with some of its strictures that are decidedly outdated and exclusionary. The thought of working on a book that would involve massive amounts of research and as-objective-as-possible analysis of the words and beliefs of the top figurehead of the Church would have been inconceivable… until this opportunity arose.

And while I expected, correctly, that it would be an incredible professional opportunity, it has, surprisingly, been a profound personal opportunity, too. Reading Bergoglio’s work—going back to every single bit of primary source material that was available—meant not relying upon the not-so-objective filters of the media. Though the pace of this project was fast and intense, it was comparatively slower than that of international journalists who had to report Bergoglio’s ascendance knowing little, if nothing, about him. And that comparatively slower pace meant that I had to come to my own conclusions about a Pope that people were already pigeon-holing based on secondary and tertiary accounts about him, many of which were translated (and mis-translated, or translated poorly). It also meant that I got to read in full context what others were reading taken completely out of its original context, and shaped to fit a particular set of assumptions or motives.

What I read left me hopeful about the direction of the Catholic Church under Francis’ leadership. Throughout his career, he has been remarkably consistent in his thoughts and actions, but not dogmatic. Above all, he seems to value conversation, inclusiveness, radical honesty, thoughtful action, and love. His views on homosexuality, women, and many of the flash-point issues that tend to divide Catholics are actually far more progressive than you might believe, and I’m proud that I was able to find, translate, and share his thoughts on these topics so that misperceptions might be corrected.

So where are we now?

Manuscripts have been fine-tooth-combed by heroic teams of editors, copyeditors, and proofreaders, who are some of the most courteous and professional folks I’ve ever worked with. The book is now in proof stages, headed to printers. The UK edition, published by HarperCollins UK, will be a hardcover, projected to be on shelves around May 9. The US edition, published by New World Library, will be a softcover, projected to be on shelves around the same time. Both are available for pre-order right now on Amazon… though I urge you to support your local bookstore and purchase the book there if you plan to buy it. So far, foreign rights have been secured in Brazil, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, so editions by a variety of international publishers will follow.

Believe it or not, there are Pope books that are hitting shelves before this one and the process of “crashing” a book has been a fascinating one that has taught me a lot. Practically speaking, there has been a lot about the process that is likely to be of interest/use to many readers: How does a book come to be? Who’s involved? What do agents do? What do contracts entail? How do advances and royalties work, anyway? How do you choose which press publishes your book? What are foreign rights and how do they work? What’s the work flow like once the manuscript has been submitted? As the process continues to unfold, I’ll share the answers to some of those questions and others you might have here. Feel free to ask your own question in the comments section below.


6 responses »

  1. You are incredible, Julie! Congrats again, and shine on.

  2. One week to write a book??? That is SUPER aggressive! Huge kudos to you!

  3. That’s absolutely incredible Julie. Was it one of those crunches where you turn your space into a giant nest of papers and empty coffee cups? Or where you just have a trail of nest-like material running from kitchen to desk? 🙂

  4. Rich- It was definitely a trail from bed, to living room table and work desk, to kitchen. Lots of coffee mugs and empty seltzer glasses. And 25 windows open on my Mac simultaneously.


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