Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Author Spotlight: Stephen Kitsakos

I can still recall the release of my first novel like it was yesterday. The anticipation and excitement of it all. Now, a very good friend of mine, Stephen Kitsakos, (who has also been a writing partner on musicals in the past) gets to experience that same thing with the release of his book The Accidental Pilgrim. The book is a fascinating read that crosses multiple genres and several decades. It explores the intersection of science, religion, and the unexplainable. Summer of 1974, Dr. Rose Strongin disappears for three hours at an archaeological dig on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Twelve years later, she begins to put the missing pieces together, but it is not until the family gathers to say goodbye to this strong matriarch in 2014 that the family secrets start to make themselves known.

I'm thrilled for Stephen experiencing this moment in his life! Check out our interview below, take a look at his website and if it's a book that interests you, help him climb the Amazon charts!

Greg: Happy Official Book Launch Day, Stephen! You know that I love when people reinvent themselves and try something new. What made you decide to write a novel at this point in your life?

Stephen: Thank you! Up until now almost all of my writing has referenced the dramatic arts: in music theatre as a lyricist and composer, or in opera as a librettist. My work in academia as a theatre professor also led me into theatre journalism and scholarly writing which included authoring textbook chapters or contributing to articles on theatre pedagogy.  So I didn’t actually sit down to write a piece of fiction. In fact I had always been (and am still) uncomfortable with the solitude of the novelist compared to the collaborative nature of writing for the performing arts.

I had worked an idea for a dramatic piece - unsure of whether it was the outline for another opera libretto, a music theatre piece or, perhaps, a liturgical cantata. But as I began to develop it, I realized that I wanted to tell a narrative story for a reader, one that did not need to be performed. That's when the novel itself began to take shape.

Greg: All of that blows my mind, but I've always counted you as one of my smartest friends. :) Let's share a little of your varied background from Corporate America to Professor. Share some of that journey.

Stephen: Well now that I am firmly in my middle age I can look back and see that every
experience I have had, both vocationally and inspirationally, has brought me where I am now. Since I was a youth, I had always discerned a vocation in the arts, but was unsure where the calling would actually be. Turns out it's called from a lot of places. Because I have been a writer in one form or another for as long as I can remember it seemed easy for me to look to the business world, early on in my work life, and write corporate materials, manuals, training guides, etc. in order to be able to support myself.

But concurrently I fed my artistic self by writing for the theatre and working in the theatre as a director, music director, and conductor. At the same time, in New York City, I also made some strong connections within the Episcopal Diocese of New York which led me into a ministry in the Hudson Valley of New York that enveloped both the performing and liturgical arts. Eventually I combined my experience over many years as a theatre writer, generalist and administrator and accepted a position on the Theatre Arts Faculty of the School of Fine & Performing Arts at SUNY New Paltz. I spent fourteen years there as "Prof. Kitsakos" - teaching, mentoring, creating and, in my final two years there, serving as Assistant Chair of the Department. My time in academia nurtured my writing and, I believe, my writing informed my vocation as a teacher. 

Greg: I can't believe that was 14 years at SUNY - but I've known you for over 20, so it makes sense. So what type of reader do you think would be drawn to your book?

Stephen: The book is definitely popular fiction. I make no bones about it. It's a story about a family who had come together to say goodbye to their mother - an enigmatic woman, a scientist steeped in contemporary rationality who undergoes an irrational experience. I've meant the book to be multi-generational literary fiction or at least women's fiction. But since it deals with archaeology, specifically biblical archaeology, I believe it would also appeal to readers who like a good mystery.  Though my story is fictional, some of the events, including the discovery of the so-called "Jesus Boat" in Israel in 1986, and the midair collision of two airplanes over New York City in the early 1960s are real events. I've always appreciated writers like Ruth Rendell who can draw you into a comfortable place and then turn you upside down in the last thirty pages.

Greg: I've said before how smart you are which you definitely display in this book - yet you never made me feel stupid as a reader. :) What is it about those subject that pulled you in?

Stephen: The book is heavily researched. Trust me, I'm not all that smart. The accessibility of the internet has made that logistically so much more convenient. I did also use library sources, looking at photographs and illustrations, and I had profitable conversations with a few scientists and clergy. 

I set the book in two locations I have never traveled to: the Galilee in Israel and the Atlantic Maritimes of Canada. Because the landscape of these places is integral to the plot, I wanted to write with a sense of authenticity. Perhaps because I was absorbing as I was learning I approached the writing by not taking for granted that readers would comprehend certain scientific terminology, semantics or ideas.

Greg: I'm very jealous that you can spend your summers in New York and your winters in Florida (yes, I'm spilling the beans on this blog) - so share a little more about yourself outside of escaping to warm weather.

Stephen: I feel both privileged and grateful to be able to split my time in two locations - especially avoiding the northeast in the deep winter. But this is only a recent transition and based on years of hard work and juggling. Key West is a tropical paradise in many ways and definitely attracts a larger than average population of people in the fine, performing and literary arts. I really enjoy the ability to leave home and travel mot places on a bicycle to parks, beaches, restaurants, and events. Thankfully the island is mostly flat! It's easy to be busy here, but it is also equally easy to be alone. However, when I return to New York City it's a bit like drinking a tall, cold glass of water after a long, hard thirst.

Greg: What's a guilty pleasure that you have?

Stephen: Binge-watching TV shows that are streaming over a multitude of platforms. I recently did that with the show Transparent. I was hooked in an instant.

Greg: If you could sit with any author (living or dead) and talk about writing - who would that be?

Stephen: Probably Graham Greene. His novel, The End of the Affair, was groundbreaking for me. It is said that he saw human existence not as 'black and white" but as "black and grey." Though his reputation is as a suspense writer, especially political suspense, his books are imbued with a sensibility that has always appealed to me.

Greg: What emotion or feeling do you hope readers have when they read your book?

Stephen: I'd be happy if after they finished reading the book they continued to think about it!

Greg: Thanks for joining my blog. AND - he just recently joined social media, so show him some love and follow him on twitter. He's still learning! 

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