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Interview: March 4, 2005

March 4, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Richard Montanari, author of THE ROSARY GIRLS. Montanari talks about the creation of his two main protagonists, the research he conducted for the law enforcement aspects of the novel, his love for Philadelphia, and how his own religious background has influenced his writing. Your pairing of rookie Detective Jessica Balzano and veteran cop Kevin Byrne makes an interesting matchup. From the start did you see your lead characters as we see them, or did they evolve into the personalities that we are reading?

Richard Montanari: When I began my research into the inner workings of a homicide unit, I realized I had a basic understanding of what they did on a day-by-day basis but no clue as to the challenges of doing such difficult and dangerous work. I created the character of Jessica Balzano, who experiences her first day on the job in THE ROSARY GIRLS, as a way of taking me, along with the reader, by the hand. Kevin Byrne, who has seen it all many times and still believes, was the rock. Although there is an arc to his character --- he is not the same man at the end of the book that he is at the beginning --- it is not quite as profound a journey as Jessica's.

BRC: Are Byrne and Balzano based on anyone you encountered in law enforcement?

RM: Byrne and Balzano are composites of people I met on the Philadelphia police force. Externally, Kevin Byrne was easier --- there are a lot of men in the homicide unit who have more than twenty years on the job. Jessica was more of a challenge because there are not a lot of women homicide detectives.

BRC: Religion has been a theme that you have touched upon in a couple of your novels. In THE ROSARY GIRLS you reference a number of Catholic rituals and practices. What drove your writing in this direction?

RM: Unvarnished, deep-rooted, paralyzing guilt. Kidding. Sort of.

BRC: What is your own religious background and how did it influence your writing?

RM: I was raised Roman Catholic during the period of transition from Vatican I to Vatican II, and I think a lot of the mysteries of the faith, specifically the mass being said in Latin, fostered an aura of intrigue and mystery that is missing in this era of drive-in churches. I wanted to create a killer who lives in that netherworld created by the melding of ritual and madness.

BRC: Did you have any qualms about writing a book that grappled with religious themes in this raw a manner?

RM: I think any pathology that examines the disturbed mind is nightmare fodder, for both the writer and the reader. I also believe there is a prism through which sociopaths view the world, and whether it is religion, or sexual compulsion, or just garden variety rage, it can be difficult to write about.

BRC: Your writing is both gritty and edgy. Are there times when you are writing where you find yourself going too far and feel a need to pull back? Conversely, when are there times where you find yourself going to a darker place than you personally want to be?

RM: I've never found the need to pull back on the edgier parts of my books. (I once had an agent who wanted me to ratchet it up a bit.) I think the story dictates the level of mayhem, and you have to be true to it. I have found it interesting that some readers and critics over the years have thought that my books described certain crime scenes and murder scenarios in graphic detail, when they have only hinted at it. The power of suggestion.

BRC: You've never had a career in law enforcement, yet THE ROSARY GIRLS is a convincing police procedural thriller. How did you research the law enforcement parts of the book?

RM: I spent a great deal of time at the Roundhouse (the main police administration building in Philadelphia), as well as at their forensic lab. I rode with the detectives in the homicide unit, hung around their holding cells (the worst place in the world) and watched as the DNA team at the lab cracked cases. The PPD has been very forthcoming and welcoming to me, and their advice and patience has been invaluable in the creation of THE ROSARY GIRLS.

BRC: Your earlier novels were set in Cleveland. What made you decide to set THE ROSARY GIRLS in Philadelphia?

RM: I've spent a lot of time in Philly over the years. I have family there. It has everything that Cleveland has, but a lot more of it. More people, more crime, a larger and somewhat more diverse population. Cheesesteaks. If the police department had not welcomed me in as they did, I might not have made the decision. The reception THE ROSARY GIRLS has gotten from readers in Philly has been overwhelmingly positive. I think I have found a new home. Plus, although the city has a lot of great writers, no one is writing the sort of fiction I write. It seemed like a natural to me.

BRC: Is this book the start of a series? If so, what can we expect to see in upcoming books?

RM: I have three books plotted in this series, and then we'll see. There is much material to mine between those two rivers.

BRC: Do you plan to continue writing stand-alone novels as well?

RM: I hope so. I have an outline to a stand-alone ready to go. It's a man-on-the-run story with a number of twists and turns.

BRC: What inspired you to make Kevin's daughter deaf? Will we see this aspect of his daughter's life take a larger role in a future title?

RM: I believe Colleen's deafness speaks to Kevin's character as much as it does to hers. The fact that it has presented more challenges to him over the years than to her informs Kevin's development as a father and a man. Colleen Byrne is a very interesting character to me. She has a bigger role in the next book.

BRC: What's your writing day like?

RM: Up at six, over to my beloved Rancilio Silvia espresso machine (known as bella machina around these parts), check the headlines online, find my glasses, and I'm off.

BRC: Do you outline or just write? Do you create "dossiers" on your main characters or do you flesh these characters out as you write?

RM: Outlines, yes. Dossiers, no. I have characters in mind, and I write down basic information (dates of birth, hometown, family stats, education). After that, I send them off into the world of the story. I follow them, and they quite often take me to places I'd never go alone.

BRC: How do you relax after a day of writing?

RM: I love to cook, so I usually make dinner for friends and family. I polish the day's work, answer correspondence, watch a film or two, and go out to a jazz club.

BRC: Who have your literary influences been? Have there been any influences outside the literary world?

RM: Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Shirley Jackson, Shane Stevens, Andrew Vachss, Thomas Harris, of course. I'm influenced a lot by filmmakers. The masters: Hitchcock, Lean, Fellini, Kubrick, Kurosawa. The moody: David Lynch, David Cronenberg. The mavericks: David Fincher, Darren Aronofsky, Atom Egoyan. Outside of the literary world: my father. He is a master builder. He taught me order.