Today, I’m honored to tip my virtual hat to Mark Sullivan.
Mark is the author of the newly released historical novel, Beneath a Scarlet Sky (Lake Union)—a #1 Kindle bestseller based on the true life heroism of World War II hero Pino Lella, Mark has written eighteen books, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Private series co-authored with James Patterson. He has received accolades that have included the WHSmith Fresh Talent Award; his works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. Mark grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Hamilton College with a BA in English before working as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. Upon his return to the United States, he earned a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and began a career in investigative journalism. Mark and his family make their home in Bozeman, Montana.
Praise for Beneath a Scarlet Sky:
“Exciting … taut thriller … Beneath a Scarlet Sky tells the true story of one young Italian’s efforts to thwart the Nazis.”—Shelf Awareness
“Meticulous research highlights this World War II novel of a youth growing into manhood … a captivating read…”—RT Book Reviews
“An incredible story, beautifully written, and a fine and noble book.”—James Patterson, New York Times bestselling author
“Action, adventure, love, war, and an epic hero—all set against the backdrop of one of history’s darkest moments—Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky has everything one can ask for in an exceptional World War II novel.”—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
From the publisher:
Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man’s incredible courage and resilience during one of history’s darkest hours.
Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager—obsessed with music, food, and girls—but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.
In an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier—a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders.
Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share.
Fans of All the Light We Cannot See, The Nightingale, and Unbroken will enjoy this riveting saga of history, suspense, and love.
Now, Mark shares the intimate story of how the collision of past and present ignited an eleven year transformative journey …
John Valeri: What inspired you to undertake the research and writing of Beneath a Scarlet Sky – and how did the book’s origin serve as a turning point in your own life story?
Mark Sullivan: My worst moment in life came on a snowy Montana highway in February 2006. My brother and best friend had drunk himself to death. I’d written a book no one liked. We teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. I realized I was worth more dead than alive and considered driving into a bridge abutment so my family could collect the insurance.
Thankfully, images of my wife and sons stopped me. But pulling over, I was shaking, rattled to my core. I put my head on the steering wheel and begged God and the Universe for a story with meaning, a story to give me purpose.
Believe it or not, that night at a dinner party my wife forced me to attend, I heard snippets of an incredible story featuring a teenager who guided Jews escaping Nazi-occupied Italy over the Alps into Switzerland. Pino Lella also became a spy inside the German High Command and fell in love with a woman who haunted him his entire life.
I didn’t believe it at first. But Pino was still alive. I called him, told him he was a hero. He dismissed that and said he was more a coward, which only intrigued me more. With the last of our dwindling money, I flew to Italy.
In a decaying villa on Lake Maggiore, on the streets of Milan, and high in the Alps, I spent weeks listening to a tale Pino had kept buried for nearly six decades, an epic story of struggle, triumph, and tragedy that reduced us both to laughter and sobbing, again and again. My problems soon paled. And the old man’s insight into life’s heartbreaks gave me a new perspective on my own. Leaving Italy, I vowed to tell Pino’s story to as many people as possible.
After eleven years of research and writing, I’m making good on that vow.
JV: Though a historical novel, this work is based on the life and heroism of Pino Lella. Why did you choose to tell his story through the lens of fiction – and in what ways did your unlikely friendship with him enhance the narrative.
MS: My original intent was to write it as narrative non-fiction, but after years of trying to dig up the documented, fully corroborated story, I threw up my hands.
So many other characters had died before I heard about Pino Lella, and the Nazis had burned so many documents surrounding his story that even after a decade of research I had to make informed assumptions in the narrative. Once I surrendered to that, I knew I was in the realm of historical fiction and writing a novel. I gave in to it and adjusted by switching obligations.
The obligations of the non-fiction writer and the novelist are different. The former must hew to the documented facts and eyewitness accounts. The latter should dig for the deeper, emotional truth of the story.
Over the course of years, my friendship with Pino allowed him to open up the deep and sometimes dark emotional journey he endured in the last two years of World War II, so I could in turn try to give readers the same experience.
It helped that I spent a big block of time with him that first trip. I was able to go to Madesimo and ski the escape routes and understand what Pino and the refugees had endured. I was able to walk the streets of Milan with him, and see where various events in the book took place.
JV: Tell us about your immersive research process. How did you endeavor to grasp the nuances of the time period – and when did you know that it was finally time to start putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys, as the case may be)?
MS: I understood much of the story’s frame by the time I left Italy, though I could see I had a lot of work to do to grasp Pino’s experience in the context of the war. I just never expected it would take me 10 years. But between other novels, I kept at it. I read every book I could find about the war from a military perspective and from the Italian perspective. There weren’t a lot, so I went to Germany and spent two weeks with a Fulbright Scholar in the Nazi war archives in Berlin and in Friedrichsberg, Germany. I dug through the U.S. National Archives for about the same amount of time, reading files of the OSS, World War II Italy, and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.
In 2015, nine years after I started, I went to the British war archives so I could understand the bombing campaign against Milan, and I returned to Italy to drive the road to the Brenner Pass. I also went back to Germany and together with an excellent translator and researcher, I was able to track down the dying daughter of General Hans Leyers, the mysterious Nazi who complicates the heart of the story.
I’d already started writing at that point, drafts of the bigger scenes, anyway. But talking with the general’s daughter, his minister, and his aide gave me, and in turn Pino, closure on what had become of Leyers after the war. It also gave me a slightly new perspective on the story as a whole. At that point, I really started to write.
JV: It’s been said that what’s past is prologue. What are the keys to bringing history alive for readers – and how is this story particularly relevant/resonant, given the current world climate?
MS: The keys are facts, memories, and emotions. If you’ve got all three about a time period, you can bring it to life. Music helps, too.
I was lucky to have had Pino to guide me through the story and recollect the times from his personal perspective. I also read enough and talked to enough people that I was able to construct a timeline of factual events that jibed with Pino’s memories. Through the facts, and through his memories, I was able to find the emotions of the times, which were whipsawing, kind of like a boogie-woogie or jazz tune. I listened a lot to both while I was conjuring. It helped get my head in the times.
I think the book’s striking a chord because there are atrocities and horrors occurring in the world today. And right now, probably in a zone of conflict and strife, I believe there’s some unsung person like Pino doing good in the face of evil, and doing it selflessly. In times of struggle and hardship, these unlikely heroes always appear to counter the forces of darkness through deep and abiding faith in the promise of a better tomorrow.
And yet, most of these stories are never told. Pino’s story didn’t get told for more than 70 years, and yet there’s a universality about it that’s as relevant today as it was at the end of WWII.
JV: I have to ask: How did your ongoing collaboration with James Patterson come about – and what is the greatest lesson you’ve learned from him about storytelling?
MS: Mr. Patterson had read several of my novels and liked them, and we’d met and chatted a few times early in my career. Years later, it turned out we were both represented by the same foreign agent. When he was looking for a co-author to write Private Berlin, she put the two of us together. I’m a lucky guy.
I’ve learned a ridiculous amount about storytelling from Patterson. He really is a story genius, which makes talking to him like having a sit down with Yoda. But of all the things he’s taught me, one thing stands out: focus on the emotion. To write a compelling story, you must write compelling characters, and to do that you have to understand the emotional forces at play in every scene. You must also understand the long emotional arc that the protagonist travels in the entire book.
Early in the book process, it’s all about outlining and drafting. But in later drafts, the focus is on the emotion and whether, stated or not in any scene, it’s there like a compass wiggling toward north. No emotions, and you’ve got wooden characters and mechanical plots. Invest in the characters’ emotions and the story comes alive.
JV: Leave us with a teaser—what can readers expect from you next?
MS: I continue to work with Mr. Patterson because I like it, and I’m still learning from the best. On my own, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to write next. I am actively seeking another untold historical story that moves me. When I find it, when I feel passionate about it, I’ll know what’s next. Until then, I’m trying to tell Pino Lella’s story to as many people as possible.
With thanks to Mark Sullivan for his generosity of time and thought and to Claire McLaughlin of Little Bird Publicity for this interview opportunity.