Former Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis was at the South End library on November 28 to talk about the genesis of his first novel, A Hero of Two Worlds, which he said he wrote for two reasons: he simply wanted to write a novel set in Italy where he had lived and worked as a journalist and Time bureau chief and he hoped that, after his 2011 retirement, having a clearly delineated project would keep him and his wife from going at each other with knives. He succeeded at both.
His wife was his first reader, he said, but was not nearly as forgiving and kind as author Doug Bauer, a longtime friend who introduced him at the library talk, or as the editor of a New York publishing house who loved the book but was unable to pick it up for publication. "They helped me hugely," Allis said. "My wife, when reading the first chapter, said 'no one's going to read this shit.'" But Allis ploughed ahead, doing an enormous amount of research in Boston on the large expatriate community of American (many from Boston) and British artists and intellectuals living in Rome in the early to mid-19th century. He read dozens of books about Roman history, and took courses on the subject at Harvard University.
"I could have written non-fiction all day long but it's true what they say about writing fiction," Allis commented: "It's hard." He could do it only four hours a day and found that writing dialogue was 'the hardest thing in the world.' He also was not able to let his imagined characters go off and do their thing, wherever it might lead. "I needed to structure them," Allis recounted. He had lived in Rome for several stretches, with his family and as a working foreign reporter. His book's character, Rufus, was a sculptor caught up in the revolutionary fervor of Italy at the time. Italians wanted to unite the fractious collection of political fiefdoms, controlled by the Austrians, French, and other foreign interests, into one republic. That republic lasted for five months and Rufus married into an Italian family. After the deaths of his wife and son, he returned to the United States where he fought another war, this time to keep America from tearing apart in the Civil War. Based on his research Allis knew that in Rome at that time "there was a conversation between the Yankees and the Southerners" about the causes of the Civil War. Allis's hero was killed in the Battle of Little Round Top, where he had joined the Maine division and "died the way he wanted to, charging down a hill to face the enemy," Allis said.
Doug Bauer, the author of the award-winning collection What happens Next? Matters of Life and Death, introduced Allis and compared their many years of friendship to the many games of tennis they played, keeping down the cut-throat competitive instincts that lives in both of them and instead just enjoying the game and not keeping score. He praised the novel's 'emotional sprawl' and how it offered verbal glimpses of the private ways in which the characters executed their civil wars, in Italy to create one country out of many entities and, in America, to save the country from being torn apart.