Bill Petrocelli

The Omnimystery News Interview

Here’s the newly-pubished interview with the Omnimystery News It raises wide-ranging questions about the process of writing the book. But the most interesting issue it raises is this: How do you fact-check the future?


Q) What criteria do you use to decide whether a book will feature a series character or not? Do you come up with a plot outline first, then decide whether or not it is more suitable for a series character?

A) I like books with series characters, but as I was writing The Circle of Thirteen I realized I could not create it with a sequel in mind. The main reason is that the book covers a wide time-span with a big canvas of characters and topics. As I thought about a possible sequel, I realized that it would have to be radically different in tone and scope from the original. I didn’t think that was a good idea.

That said, it has occurred to me that a prequel to this story might be possible. I’ve thought about the early days of Maya, one of the major characters in the book, realizing that I could probably craft a story out of her early life before she enters into the pages of The Circle of Thirteen. I’m still thinking about that as a future project.

Q) How would you categorize The Circle of Thirteen?

A) That’s an excellent question. As I was writing the book, I knew that it would not fit neatly into any of the convenient categories that publishers normally use. A friend of mine, who used to run a literary journal, calls it a “novel of ideas.” I kind of like that characterization. Probably a good way to describe it is like this: A character-driven thriller set in the near future.

Q) Tell us something about The Circle of Thirteen that isn’t mentioned in the publisher synopsis.

A) As a I was well into the writing of the book, I began to realize that the back-story about the thirteen women – the fallen leaders of Women for Peace – seemed to fall into an archetypical pattern. There’s a recurring theme in literature about a “band of brothers” — the Knights of the Roundtable, the Seven Samurai, the Three Musketeers — who devote themselves to a higher cause. Although I didn’t set out to write that kind of book, I’m beginning to think that it may have evolved into that genre. If so, it’s an archetype with a twist. This band of brothers is a band of sisters.

Q) How much of you or your experiences are in The Circle of Thirteen?

A) There’s a lot of me in the book, although that may not be obvious since the story is set mainly in the future. I’ve been involved in protest demonstrations against big companies, and I’ve walked in my share of peace marches. However, the story is mainly written from a woman’s point of view, so that made it harder for me to base it just on my own experiences. The biggest test, I suppose, was to see how much I had absorbed from the gender revolution that was going on around me.

Q) Describe your writing process. Do you outline your plots or create biographies of your characters? Do you write a detailed synopsis then expand from there? Do you let the story develop as you write? Does your expected cast of characters expand/contract as you write the story?

A) I started the book with a definite story in mind, but that story changed radically as I went through the many revisions. I began with an outline, but as I wrote I had to go back and revise that outline considerably. It was definitely a back and forth process. I’d try to outline a tightly constructed plot, but then I would revise my ideas completely as the story unfolded on the page. That led to another outline with a different version of the plot, but then the reality of writing would force me to change that outline again. The final book is completely different from what the story was at the beginning.

The best example of that dynamic at work is with the character of Maya. At the beginning she was just a walk-on character. But then she began to “speak to me” as I was writing the scenes in which she appeared. After a while, I realized that she was a compelling character who was essential to the plot. She ended up being one of the most important people in the book.

Q) Describe your writing environment.

A) Er, ah ….. messy. I’ve gotten much neater now, since the book is at the printer and I can’t just fiddle with the manuscript at any time of day. I know that some people write only in the morning, only in the evening, or at some fixed time. Others write 500, 700, 1,000, or some other magic number of words per day. In my case, I would just dive in whenever the spark of an idea hit me. I could keep going for several hours like that, as long as I was able to absorb myself in the scene. And in those moments when that kind of inspiration didn’t happen, I would just basically waste a lot of time.

Q) Do you take liberties with your setting, or do you try to be true to its geography and/or local environment? How did you research and plan the parts of the novel set in the “future?” How important is this setting to the character(s) and/or plot(s)?

A) I tried to not to take liberties with any of the basic facts. Any peace march down Market Street in San Francisco is likely to follow the route I mentioned. When Julia takes off on a run up Mt. Tamalpais, she’d be following the route I mentioned. The Italian lake that Julia retreats to when she is in a state of crisis is just as I described it. The pivotal event at the U.N Headquarters takes place on Monday, May 4, 2082, and I checked a perpetual calendar to make sure that May 4 actually falls on a Monday that year.

But a more interesting question is how does a writer fact-check the future? I went round and round on that question. Basically, I wanted to create an environment that was recognizable to the readers but that was different enough that it felt like the future. There are hundreds of decisions that a writer has to make about the world of the future just to tell a story. The challenge is to convey all that as part of the story without slowing down the plot or turning the characters into mere mouthpieces. I thought about what things are likely to change in future decades and what things are likely to remain pretty much the same.

One way to approach the problem of the future is to think about how much life has changed – or not changed – in the last several decades. Would I have recognized 2013, if I could have gotten a glimpse of it in 1963, 1973. 1983? As I thought about it, I realized that social and technological changes occur very unevenly. If I could have seen 2013 back then, I would have been rather startled by things like the internet and cell phones, but I would not have noticed any big difference in the way we fly around in jet airplanes. The social changes – or non-changes – are even more uneven. For example, we’ve gone through some major civil rights developments over the last several decades, but we’re still fighting the same poverty, choking on our own pollution, and knocking heads with the Russians.

Given all that, I pondered how to portray the future? I decided that certain technological changes were likely to occur: e.g. household robots, magno-trains, hologramic-interaction during meetings. But it also seemed to me that some of our current bad tendencies would probably just continue and get worse, such as global warming, a potential collapse in world-wide food production, and criminal-control over the world’s finances.. It seemed quite conceivable that technological progress could march hand in hand with social regression. Optimist that I am, however, I surmised that we will reach a point in the sixth or seventh decade of this century when we will have turned things around and found a way to live in a more positive environment. I don’t know the exact means by which humanity will gain control over its economic, social and environmental future, but in The Circle of Thirteen I write as if it will happen.

Q) What kinds of books did you read as a child? Did the genre you read most influence your decision to become an author? What specific authors or books, if any, influenced how and/or what you write today?

A) I read just about anything I could get my hands on. I suppose history and geography had a big influence on me, because they opened up new horizons that I might not have seen as a kid growing up in Oakland.

Q) What types of books/genres do you read now for pleasure?

A) Mysteries, histories, and science. That sounds a bit glib, but I usually head first to those sections in our bookstore to see what’s new.

Q) What are your hobbies, interests outside of writing? Do any of these activities find their way into your books?

A) My favorite hobby is music. I used to play the guitar a lot, but lately I’ve gravitated towards the piano. My taste is music lies somewhere near that point where jazz, rock, and pop all intersect. There is one character in The Circle of Thirteen who is a piano player, and I’m planning a somewhat bigger role for music in the next novel I’m working on.

I think there is a direct connection between writing and music – at least for me, anyway. In playing the piano, I’m always improvising – I never want to play a piece the same way twice. And that’s how I feel about writing. I would hate to get to the point where I thought I was repeating myself.

Q) Create a Top 5 list on any topic. For example, Top 5 books you should read; Top 5 films you should see; Top 5 places you should visit; Top 5 foods you should try; etc. (This question is particularly appropriate for those authors who write themed mysteries.)

A) Wow – I could go just about anywhere with that type of question! Do you want the five best pasta dishes in Northern Italy, the five best players in Cal basketball history, the five best bars for ordering a Rye Manhattan? I could come up with any of those, but I suspect you’re asking for something a little more weighty.

How about this as a topic? The one hundred-year anniversary of World War I is just a few months away, and that is something worth thinking about – if for no other reason than to make sure that we don’t stumble into a disaster like that again. Almost everyone agrees that it was the worst catastrophe in human history, but almost no one can say why the hell it happened. Barbara Tuchman called it “a band of scorched earth dividing that time from ours.” Like everything else Tuchman wrote, she was right on point with that observation.

There are only four books on my list, but they are so engaging and so well-written that the reader won’t feel cheated:

Though is not as famous as her The Guns of August, this is in many ways a richer book with unforgettable portraits of Europeans just before the war. The people she portrays all had one thing in common: none of them knew that their world was about to collapse around them.

Clark circles around the fateful month of July, 1914, like a mongoose circling a cobra. Why did the assassination of the Archduke at the end of June lead to the massive outbreak of hostilities at the beginning of August? His conclusion was that no one really wanted war, but the leaders were all too weak and narrow-minded to stop it.

Hochschild is a passionate and surprising writer with books like Bury the Chains and Leopold’s Ghost to his credit. This is an unforgettable portrait of a proud and arrogant England that becomes ripped apart by the war.

The war eventually had to end, but the world was left was in ruins. The allied leaders who met in Paris the following year tried to pick up the pieces. MacMillan, the great-granddaughter of one them, David Lloyd George, tells the compelling story about how these well-meaning men got just about everything wrong.

Q) What is next for you?

A) Another novel. The book I am working on now will be quite different from The Circle of Thirteen, but I’m hoping to create the same intense relationships between the characters.