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Interview: February 2, 2007

February 2, 2007

In this interview with's Marcia Ford, author J. G. Sandom recounts the true incidents upon which his book GOSPEL TRUTHS (originally published in 1992) is based and describes the research he performed on a wide variety of subjects in preparation for the novel. He also reveals how he first became interested in studying gospel origins, explains the transition from his career in Internet advertising to writing for both adults and teens, and discusses the possibility of film adaptations of his work. Can you describe for us the true incident that GOSPEL TRUTHS is based on?

J. G. Sandom: All of the details concerning the Banco Fabiano scandal at the beginning of GOSPEL TRUTHS are based on real events. Banco Fabiano is modeled on Banco Ambrosiano, which was at the center of the largest financial scandal in banking history. The head of Ambrosiano was a gentleman named Roberto Calvi, who --- like Pontevecchio in my novel --- was disgraced when it was learned he had secretly transferred more than $1 billion from his bank and used it to make illicit investments overseas. Calvi later made his way to London, where he was found hanged under Blackfriars Bridge. The first City of London Police inquest ruled the hanging a suicide, but since then, people have come to believe it was probably murder. To this day, the case has never been solved.

Calvi was being manipulated by the leader of a secret pseudo-Masonic Lodge called the P2, or Propoganda Due, which in the book is named the IQ, Informazione Quatro, led by a real former Nazi Black Shirt and arms dealer, Licio Gelli. And at the heart of the scandal was the head of the Vatican Bank (the Istituto per le Opere di Religione --- IOR), Paul Marcinkus. The character of Archbishop Grabowski in GOSPEL TRUTHS is based loosely on Marcinkus. In fact, it was Marcinkus who inspired me to write the novel.

I grew up in Europe, spending almost five years in Rome as a boy. Archbishop Marcinkus was my cousin. He'd come over for my mother's dinner parties, which were famous in Rome, overflowing with film producers and bishops, fashion designers and executives, media barons and movie stars --- Felliniesque affairs. Marcinkus was a regular at these parties. We introduced him to everyone as our Cousin Paul. They knew him as the Mayor of the Vatican City and head of the IOR.

Marcinkus was a very practical man, once quoted as saying, "You can't run the Church on Hail Marys." And I always wondered when I watched him at our dinner table --- just as Koster does in the novel, as he sits across from Grabowski --- how did this man of God, of faith, who had worked in the slums of Central America as a young priest just out of seminary, become a man of numbers, of provable verities, God's banker? This was the central question that intrigued me, the journey from Gospel Truth to Gospel Truths.

Marcinkus "retired" to Sun City, Arizona, after the Vatican was forced to pay creditors around $200 million as a result of the scandal. He worked there as a parish priest until his death in '98, of undisclosed causes, at the age of 84.

BRC: The plot centers on a quest for the Q document, the intriguing gospel upon which scholars believe the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke may have been based. What prompted your interest in Q and the other Gnostic gospels?

JGS: One of my sisters is a born-again Evangelical Christian. We've had long debates about her immovable faith in a literal interpretation of the Bible. I was raised Roman Catholic but now attend an Episcopal church. We sing the same hymns that I sang as a youngster when I attended English boarding schools, and in a world of impermanence, there's a lot to be said for such rituals.

Perhaps because of my personal feelings about my cousin, Archbishop Marcinkus, all that I knew about him, the myth and the man, coupled with the Church's political stance on certain issues, I eventually developed a crisis of faith in the Catholic Church. It also didn't help that the incense made me nauseous. In my quest for some religious truth, I studied the gospels and how they've been passed down to us. I asked questions.

This brought me to the early history of the Church, and I read Elaine Pagels's seminal work, THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS. I became intrigued with the way in which some gospels were blessed by Bishop Iraneus of Lyon, validated for inclusion in the synthesis of the Bible, while others were expunged, deemed heretical. Leveraging a technique known as form criticism, I studied how passages in the Bible are made up of various Gattung --- modes of speaking --- that enable us to calculate their age. The Beatitudes, for example, existed as logoi (sayings) long before the Sermons on the Mount and Plain. The sayings of Jesus were dropped into the narrative framework of the gospels of Matthew and Luke some time later.

As a novelist, the notion of layers is something familiar. Books don't spring forth --- from the head of Zeus, as it were --- fully formed. They're built and re-built, civilizations of letters, laid down over time.

Scholars believe the Beatitudes were present in the Q, Quelle (Source), an ancient document used in the construction of the gospels. This led me to the notion of a source manuscript, something so old that it would more truly reflect the words Jesus spoke. And I wondered, what if Iraneus got it wrong? What if some early Gnostic gospel, based on the historically accurate logoi of Christ, also revealed Him to be a heretic? This was the MacGuffin I needed. For I asked myself, as Lyman does in the novel, after the collapse of his bank, why did Calvi --- or Pontevechio --- go to London? Why not to Buenos Aires or someplace else? What did he have to trade in London that was so vital it could rehabilitate his career, force the Church to cover his massive debts? Thus, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas became the focus of the quest. In the book I'm writing now, THE GOD MACHINE, it's the Gospel of Judas.

BRC: The book also weaves in fascinating detail about freemasonry and medieval architecture, specifically that of cathedrals and labyrinths. You clearly spent a great deal of time researching this book. What did that research involve? Did it include visiting the sites, poring over musty volumes in church libraries, or reading far less romantic reference books?

JGS: Anyone who has ever stood in one of the cathedrals of Notre Dame --- in Paris or Chartres or Amiens --- knows the power of their beauty. For the mostly illiterate people of the Middle Ages, the cathedral was a book in stone. And like peeling back the layers of the Bible to expose the more primitive texts beneath, studying the cathedrals required me to understand the history of their construction, and the masons who built them.

I read over 30 books while researching GOSPEL TRUTHS, on subjects ranging from mathematics and topology, to medieval architecture and masonry, to early Christian theology. I spent several months in Paris, Chartres and Amiens. I asked for and received special access to the cathedrals. I pored over the labyrinths that are carved within their floors. I studied ancient texts. (Thanks to my classical British education, I took seven years of Latin and Greek as a boy, and do a bad job of speaking five languages.) Like Koster, I'm convinced the labyrinths share a mathematical kinship with the layout and construction of the cathedrals themselves. They also reveal a more fundamental secret about the nature of the universe, but you'll have to read GOSPEL TRUTHS to discover what that is!

BRC: Which of the characters do you best relate to? Nigel Lyman, the British detective; Koster, the American mathematician…or perhaps another character altogether?

JGS: I spent the first 15 years of my life in Europe, mostly in England, and I have a special relationship with Lyman and his natal city of Winchester, where I went to boarding school. Perhaps my favorite section of the book is at the beginning of Chapter XIII, when Lyman and his childhood friend Teddy Bashall poach that 5-pound rainbow from the River Itchen, one of the best trout streams in all of Britain. The two sides of the moral river are more easily defined in our youth, but as we get older it gets harder to know where to stand, which side is right. That uncertainty, reflected in the uncertainty of the Gospel Truths themselves, is what makes Lyman resonate for me as a character. It's what makes him human.

Koster, on the other hand, is all about definable truths: his mathematics, his architecture, his regulated life. It's his journey from a man of numbers and provable verities to one of faith through his unquantifiable love for Mariane that balances Grabowski's journey in the novel. The archbishop and the architect start at different points, at opposite ends of the same continuum, but their journeys are integrally connected.

As one partial to villains, I also find myself drawn to Scarcella. The scene in which he listens to the rape and torture of that young girl in the next room, I find particularly chilling. "Scarcella is not like an ordinary man, Mr. Lyman," says Mrs. Pontevecchio, the dead banker's wife. "He is pestilenziale…like a disease. There is something about him, something of the devil, I think. Something evil. It was never what he did to my husband. It was what he made my husband do." And she says this to Lyman, who is forced to snap the neck of his son's dog with his own hands after Scarcella's henchmen feed him glass.

I enjoy revisiting the Countess de Rochambaud from time to time. She's so no-nonsense and intelligent, so quirky and surprising, so full of life, although a wisp of an old woman, so unambiguous and mysterious all at once. And then, of course, there's Guy Soury-Fontaine and Mariane. I guess I should warn you here and now. This new edition of GOSPEL TRUTHS has a markedly different ending than the original. And it's rather grisly, I'm afraid.

BRC: GOSPEL TRUTHS was first published in 1992, long before THE DA VINCI CODE. Your book is far more complex, but also is a thriller that centers on the pursuit of an ancient religious artifact. How would you describe GOSPEL TRUTHS with regard to THE DA VINCI CODE and so many of the novels it inspired?

JGS: First, I have to admit that I'm one of the dozen or so people on the planet who hasn't read THE DA VINCI CODE. GOSPEL TRUTHS may have presaged the genre, but it was Dan Brown who launched it, made these concepts accessible to millions of readers. I wish him nothing but the best and hope that his next book does well. A rising tide lifts all boats.

BRC: GOSPEL TRUTHS is such a visual novel with a compelling storyline that it seems a natural for a film adaptation. Any chance we'll see this made into a film one day? And what's the production status of another of your novels, THE HUNTING CLUB, which Warner Brothers optioned?

JGS: You never know in Hollywood. The HUNTING CLUB was optioned by Warner Bros., and two knock-offs were made: Very Bad Things, a very bad movie with Cameron Diaz and Christian Slater; and the made-for-TV and more derivative Stag. The movie Ron Bass wrote for Warner Bros. based on my book, which Joel Schumacher was scheduled to direct, never got made; the option went into turnaround. But the book sold pretty well in seven countries. Since then, other producers have shown interest.

GOSPEL TRUTHS, on the other hand, was a first novel. It received great critical acclaim, but no interest from Hollywood and no foreign sales, even though the book is set largely in Europe. My new agent is looking to change that as we speak. He's received a lot of inquiries about THE GOD MACHINE too, the sequel to GOSPEL TRUTHS, which I'm working on now for Bantam.

BRC: You also write YA fiction under the name T.K. Welsh. Tell us about THE UNRESOLVED, your award-winning 2006 YA release. Share with us what you see as the differences of writing for adults and YA.

JGS: After I left the world of Internet advertising and sold my loft in New York, I moved out to the country, went through a divorce and became a single, stay-at-home dad. My daughter is six. I'd already given some thought to writing for younger readers, so when my agent at the time at ICM encouraged me to write something for young adults, I jumped at the chance.

I've written three YA books to date: THE SEED OF ICARUS, which I wrote as a practice novel back in high school; plus THE UNRESOLVED and RESURRECTION MEN, both from Dutton/Penguin.

Inspired by the tragic events of 9/11, THE UNRESOLVED reaches back into history to explore what was, until recently, the greatest disaster in New York City history. Based on the sinking of the General Slocum steamship, which caught fire in New York's East River in 1904, THE UNRESOLVED is a decidedly unconventional ghost story. It's also a courtroom drama, an examination of immigrant life, and a tale of love, redemption and revenge. THE UNRESOLVED dramatizes how a single life --- and death --- can have a powerful influence on history. Think of it as Ghost or THE LOVELY BONES meets Titanic.

RESURRECTION MEN is my second Young Adult (YA) novel, to be published by Dutton/Penguin this April. Inspired by the 1831 "Italian Boy" trial of body snatchers in London, England, it's a murder mystery that pits a beggar boy named Victor against a nefarious group of Resurrection Men. In this tumultuous dark underworld, where a "fresh subject" can fetch as much as nine guineas --- the yearly salary of a working man --- Victor must risk his life to uncover the identity of the murderer who is at the heart of London's furtive trade in human corpses.

Although THE UNRESOLVED and RESURRECTION MEN are being billed as young adult novels --- since the protagonists are teens --- I think they work just as well for adults. I don't "write down" for YA. That said, I do pen my young adult novels under the name T.K. Welsh because some of the novels written under my birth name are inappropriate for younger readers.

In the end, I think the issues that concern me, the themes I like to write about, are prevalent in all my work --- thrillers, mysteries, YA --- no matter how the market carves them up. My characters are all people who are tested by life, oftentimes harshly, and who are forced to make difficult moral decisions. Through faith, sometimes lost and rediscovered, relying upon their own personal moral compass and hard work, they generally manage to break through and overcome their hardships. Despite my European upbringing, these are particularly American themes.

BRC: You're known as one of the pioneers of Internet advertising, dating back to 1984 before most of us knew there was an Internet. How did you make the transition to fiction?

JGS: Yes, there's a listing at Wikipedia. I founded the world's first interactive advertising agency, Einstein and Sandom Interactive (EASI), back in 1984. It grew to become the largest digital marketing services firm when it was purchased by DMB&B (MacManus Group) a decade later. I continued to manage EASI on behalf of DMB&B through 1996, and then became Director of Interactive at OgilvyOne Worldwide.

OgilvyInteractive was named the "Number One Interactive Ad Agency" by Advertising Age magazine in 1999. It was a rocket ride. Unfortunately, by the time we grew to that size, I no longer knew everybody's name. I would walk down the halls and see strangers nodding at me. I missed that entrepreneurial feeling from the early days.

From November 1999 through 2001, I served as President and CEO, and then Vice Chairman of a new start-up --- RappDigital Worldwide, the interactive arm of direct marketing/direct response agency giant Rapp Collins Worldwide, an Omnicom Company. While I was running these agencies, I used to write on the weekends. That's when I produced and sold THE HUNTING CLUB and GOSPEL TRUTHS.

I'm proud of my role in helping to monetize the Net through advertising. In my small way, I helped to create the economic engine that powered the growth of the Internet.

Then came the birth of my daughter, 9/11 and my divorce. I reevaluated my priorities and determined to move out of the city, to find someplace and raise my daughter where she could catch fireflies at night. I exchanged client conference calls and brainstorming sessions for play dates, sandwich making and chauffeuring my daughter to riding lessons…with a little writing in between.

I still consult in the interactive realm. And I'm Chairman of CDIP, a Web 2.0 holding company. We're launching a vertical market, healthcare search engine and Net community later this year.

The interplay between my digital world and my world as a writer is interesting. While new digital media and Web 2.0 enterprises such as MySpace, facebook and YouTube are assisting to democratize media development, while they are helping to bring people together in unprecedented ways, they've also spawned the anemic language and idiom of the instant, text and email message. The way we read, and the way we write, is changing as a result of new technologies and these new communications vehicles. But there is an intimacy available only to the reader of novels, to those who care to spend some time within another person's mind, to live somebody else's life, inside another world.

BRC: Tell us what you can about your next book for adults, THE GOD MACHINE, which is scheduled for release in 2008.

JGS: When Ben Franklin's coded journal is accidentally unearthed in Philadelphia, it reveals the presence of a secret map, hidden by Franklin at the birth of our nation, a map to the possible resting place of the Gospel of Judas --- a 2,000-year-old Gnostic text that threatens to unravel Christianity and to undermine the very foundation of the Church.

Working unwittingly for a secret Gnostic Masonic lodge, mathematician and architect Joseph Koster (who appeared in GOSPEL TRUTHS), accompanied by the beautiful and intelligent engineer Savita Sajan, begin a quest to discover the gospel's hiding place, a quest that takes them from Philadelphia to England and France.

But they are not alone. For the Knights Templar, military agents of the Catholic Church in Rome, and minions of the Evangelical Christian right, are right behind them...and they'll do anything, kill anyone, to prevent the discovery of the Gospel of Judas.

All seems lost when Koster realizes that Franklin's map leads not just to the Gospel of Judas, but reveals a plan for the construction of a terrible device --- a God machine --- that, if completed, would open a doorway to heaven itself...or to hell.