Interview with Author Mark Conte

My guest today is Mark Conte.  Hello!  Welcome back to Writing in the Modern Age!  It’s such a pleasure to have you here again.

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book? When did it come out? Where can we get it?

The Easter Lamb was released on April 2nd on Amazon and Smashwords, and via paperback on CreateSpace. My family had a tradition to buy a live lamb on the morning of Good Friday, fatten it up Friday and Saturday, then my father would slaughter the lamb Saturday night and we would have it for Easter dinner.  I always wanted to save the lamb from it’s fate but couldn’t get my siblings to agree, so I did it in a fictional book and I used a lot of the funny things kids say and do to make it comical at times, but the ending is somewhat joyful and will make you laugh and cry too.


Is there anything else you can tell us that inspired you to write The Easter Lamb?
I have always had a love of animals especially the peaceful ones who are named as food through no fault of their own.  When I was little, I had 14 different kinds of pets in my house and we lived in a big city.
All right. 
So, if this book was made into a film, who would you cast in it?
They have so many new actors today I would not have any idea, but they are pretty good at casting so I would leave it to them.
Let's tackle some general questions.
When reading, do you prefer traditional
printed books or ebooks?  And why?
Right now I prefer ebooks because my eyes are not as good as they used to be and I can enlarge the print on my computer.
So, what are you reading now? 
Right now I am concentrating on a new book I am writing about an American sailor who falls in love with a Cuban in the time of the Cuban revolution. It may be my best book. I have the first  five chapters, the last chapters  and 34 pages of notes to fill in the rest of the book. But I have to warn you. You may need a box of tissues or a large handkerchief to read it. I also have a sequel to The Ghost that is finished and out to publishers.

Great! Let's try another question.
When you get an idea for a book, what comes first usually? Dialogue, the characters, a specific scene?  Or do you plot it out before you write?
Every book is different.  The Easter Lamb I got the memory and started from page one to the end.  Of Flesh and Stone, I got the image of the ending when he went to see the woman who had done everything for him who he had left for another woman and he is told she is in a mental hospital.  I saw him going to the hospital and when the attendant takes him to where she is, it’s a grave and on the stone, it says, “One Love.”  I did not want to forget one nuance of that dramatic ending, so I wrote the ending first, then started on page one.  This was a hard book.  Every once in a while I would stop to think how I want to do this scene or another.  The male character had to be a normal guy.  He is even a hero at times. Men are clueless.  He has no idea what he has done until he sees her grave and those words.
What do you have planned next? Or is that a secret?
I have the Cuban story I told you about and a crime story about the arrest of a man 30 years after he has committed a terrible crime and he goes on trial.  Of course, there are things I am not telling you about the case.
Is there anything you'd like to add? Any advice for new writers?
Pick a song for the book you are writing.  It could be any song, but from then on it’s the theme for your story.  Every time you play that song, you will see your characters and you will see how they react to the situations you want to put them in.  It’s a great way to write a book and you’ll never have writers block.

Wow, such a great writing tip! I'll have to try that one. Thanks, Mark.

Readers, here is the blurb for The Easter Lamb.


In the Vianello family a lamb is bought on Good Friday, fattened up all day Friday and Saturday, and slaughtered Saturday night to be cooked for Easter dinner. But this year, the three Vianello boys, Dante, Johnny and Carlo, along with the Irish girl next door, become fond of the lamb, which they have named Delilah, and devise a daring plan to rescue it from this fate. An amusing and inspiring family story for all ages.  

Here is an excerpt.
On the afternoon of Good Friday, between the hours of noon and three PM, the people of Juniper Street prayed at statuettes and crucifixes in the corners of their bedrooms, or sat in silence in their living rooms to do penance for the sins of the crucifixion. However, to the children of Juniper Street, this was always a time of wonder and excitement as the Vianello family returned from Ninth Street with the Easter Lamb.
After the evening meal, the children crowded into the Vianello home, forming a double line on the cellar stairs, waiting their turn to touch the lamb, to pet the head and shoulders of the woolly creature, and for the brave ones, to put their arms around her, to hug her, and then move on to exchange versions of the lamb’s size, dimension and warmth with the other children.
There were two windows that opened out to the street where smaller children, reluctant to get that close to the lamb, jostled each other for position, gawking at the wonder of the strange beast as it walked around the cellar, baaing and shaking her woolly head as if she were a prize horse.
Lucy Gamboli and Rene O’Neill were waiting their turn at the foot of the steps. Rene had just celebrated her tenth birthday, reaching the double figure mark in spite of a broken arm,(scored a touchdown), a broken toe, (stole second base), and a broken finger, (won the fight). She had pale blond hair that hung unevenly to her shoulders and freckles across her tiny nose. Her father was a ferryboat captain on the Delaware River Ferry, and everyone called her Skipper. She lived next door to the Vianello family and had exchanged gifts with Dante Vianello for the first time the previous Christmas.
Lucy Gamboli was chubby and wore satin dresses. She was eleven years old, but still played house with her tea set on occasion, and though they had little in common, Lucy and Skipper were considered the best of friends.
“Can I make my little brother ride the lamb?” Lucy said.
“Okay,” Dante said. “But you have to be careful putting him on her. Delilah’s not tame like the dogs and cats we have around here. She’s a wild animal and used to running around open country.”
Lucy’s brother waddled off the stairs in his white short pants.  Lucy picked him up and put him on Delilah. Delilah shuddered under his weight and gave a loud, “Baa-aa-aa!”  She slid from under the boy’s legs and trotted to the front of the cellar, near the coal bin.  Dante and Johnny went after her and held her tightly.
“Whoa, Delilah,” Johnny said.
“She’s just shy,” Dante said. “Let’s try again.”
Lucy picked up her fat baby brother and put him on Delilah again. Delilah bucked with her hind legs, then lunged forward and trotted to the rear of the cellar near the wine barrels. The children at the windows were laughing and shouting.
“Hey,” one of them said. “Can we see her buck again?”
“Back up from those windows before you fall in,” Dante said.
He turned to Johnny. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s bring her back here.”
Johnny picked up a small stool and held it in front of him as he advanced on Delilah. Dante looked at him and said, “For Christ’s sake, Johnny. We’re not going to tame her. We’re just going to take her back to the cellar steps.”
“You don’t think she’ll jump us?” Johnny said.
“No,” Dante said. “She won’t jump us.”
“Okay,” Johnny said. “You grab her first.”
“We don’t grab her,” Dante said. “We just walk up to her, nice and easy, and then…”
At that moment Delilah bolted between Dante and Johnny and ran around the cellar in circles. The children ran up the stairs screaming, climbing the steps two at a time, until they were safely on the top of the stairs. The small children at the windows laughed and shrieked, calling the lamb by name, “Hey, Delilah. Come on, Delilah, do it again.”
“You can come back down,” Dante said. “She’s just scared.”
“So are we,” Lucy said.
Dante took some lettuce leaves from a paper bag and walked slowly toward Delilah. When he was almost beside her, he stopped and held out the lettuce, kneeling on one knee. Delilah hesitated a moment. She looked from left to right, then took a step forward and started nibbling on the lettuce. The children at the windows cheered. Lucy and Skipper came down the steps followed by Ginger Scarlotti and Lucy’s brother, Tommy.
Ginger Scarlotti giggled. “Boy, that was fun.”
They gathered around Delilah, patting her neck and head, playing with her ears, and running their hands along her woolly back. The children began to drift from the windows as their mothers called them in for the day. Dante stood on the stool and closed the cellar windows, latching them with the small hooks.
“Are we going to walk her on Broad Street Easter?” Tommy Gamboli said.
“I’m afraid not,” Dante said. “She won’t be around Easter.”
“Because,” Johnny said. “Papa is going to slaughter her so she can be our Easter dinner.”
“You mean you’re going to eat Delilah?” Lucy said.
“Not me,” Carlo said.
“We’ve got to eat her,” Dante said. “Mama said it was like eating turkey on hanksgiving. Only it’s like the pilgrims did when they had to go out and hunt their own turkeys.”
But you’re not hunting Delilah,” Lucy said hugging the lamb.
“Papa said it was a tradition. You have to buy a lamb on Good Friday, kill it on Saturday night, and then eat it on Easter Sunday,” Dante said.
“How does he kill her?” Skipper said.
Johnny took a small stool and sat on it.  “Papa sits on this stool and ties the lambs front and back feet together real tight. Them he takes a long knife from the cutting table, raises it in the air, and whammo!’ He brought his hand down hard on the stool, making a loud thump. “Right in the lamb’s neck!”
Ginger screamed and ran up the stairs. Tommy Gamboli began to cry, hiding his face in Lucy’s stomach.  Mama Vianello came to the top of the stairs and called down
to them.
“Boys, what are you doing down there?”
“Nothing, Mama,” Dante said. “Johnny just told Lucy how Papa kills the lamb.”
“Three boys I have to have. Your aunt has three beautiful daughters. Angels they are. Tre santi. I have to have boys,” and she walked back into the kitchen.
Skipper and Lucy sat on the steps holding their stomachs. 
“What’s the matter with you two?” Dante said.
“We don’t feel too good,” they said.
“You want to feed Delilah some lettuce?” Dante said.
“I have to go home,” Lucy said. “You do it, Skipper.”
Skipper took the lettuce and held it out to Delilah as Lucy went up the stairs.
“Pretty Delilah,” she said.
“We still have all day tomorrow to play with her,” Johnny said.
“Can we sneak downstairs tonight, Dante?” Carlo said, “After Mama and Papa go to sleep?”
“Maybe,” Dante said. “We might be able to sneak down for a little while.”
“What about me?” Skipper said. She rubbed Delilah’s head.  “Boy, I wish I could sleep over tonight.”
“Why don’t you ask your mother?” Dante said.
“You ask your mother first.”
“Mama won’t let you sleep over,” Johnny said. “We asked her before.”
“Yeah?” Skipper said. “Why not.”
“Because you’re a girl,” Johnny said. 
“What’s that got to do with it?” Carlo said.
“Girls can’t sleep with boys,” Johnny said. “Because …”
“Don’t you say it,” Skipper said.
“Cause girls ain't got no pee pee,” Johnny said laughing.
Skipper balled up her left hand in a fist and swung at Johnny with all her might. The blow knocked Johnny back, and he fell in front of the wine barrels in a sitting position. Dante grabbed Skipper from behind and pinned her arms.
“Stop it,” he said.
Johnny jumped up and took a fighting stance.
“I said stop it,” Dante said. “That’s enough.”
Mama Vianello came to the top of the steps again.  “Hey, what is going on down there?”
“Nothing, Mama. We’re just playing cowboys and Indians,” Dante said.
“Well, play quietly, hey?”
Dante put a finger to his lips, and they waited until they heard mama Vianello walk away from the cellar door.
“He asked for it,” Skipper said.
“Tell her you’re sorry,” Dante said to Johnny.
“The hell I will.”
“Tell her you’re sorry,” I said.
Johnny looked from Dante to Skipper.
“You’re wrong and you know it, Johnny,” Dante said.
The tension eased away from Johnny’s face. He put down his hands.  “Okay,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Now shake hands,” Dante said.
Johnny put out his hand. Skipper hesitated a moment, then took Johnny’s hand in a firm handshake.
“Pals again?” Johnny said.
“Pals again,” she said.
Johnny felt his jaw.
“Boy, you sure can punch hard,” he said.
“Yeah?” Skipper said. “That was my left hand!”
Mama Vianello came to the stairs.
“Come on, kids. It’s time for bed. Skipper, you mother is calling
They walked upstairs and stood behind Mama Vianello who was kneading the cake dough at the kitchen table. Mama Vianello was a tall woman with the color and texture of central Italian women, with high cheekbones and jet black hair that she kept rolled up in a bun at the nape of her neck. She had deep black eyes that carried emotion to extremes and matched her hair. The boys were carbon copies of their mother with two exceptions.  Carlo had Papa Vianello’s clear blue eyes, and Johnny had his Roman nose. Dante had all of Mama Vianello’s features, including her chiseled nose.
“Mama, can Skipper sleep over tonight?” Carlo said.
“I’ll be good and quiet, Mrs. Vianello,” Skipper said.
“No, Carlo. Skipper is a girl. She can’t sleep in any of your beds.”
“I can sleep on the sofa, Mama,” Dante said.
“Please?” Carlo said.
“No,” Mama Vianello said. “I told you and that is that. Skipper is a girl and I don’t think her mother wants her to sleep over with you three ruffians. She has to go home and sleep.”
“Cripes,” Skipper said. “It’s not my fault that I’m a girl. Besides, I don’t see what me being a girl has to do with anything.”
“Someday,” Mama Vianello said, “You’ll find out just how important that little difference is,” then she laughed as if she had told a great joke, and turned back to the kitchen table, kneading the cake dough and humming.
The boys walked Skipper to the living room. Papa Vianello sat by the window cracking nuts for the Easter cakes. Carlo walked up to him and leaned against his leg. Papa Vianello put the bag of nuts down and looked at Carlo.
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Papa, why do we have to kill the lamb?” Carlo said.
“Because it’s our Easter dinner. Have you ever tried eating a live lamb?”
“I’m not hungry, Papa,” Johnny said.
“But I will be Sunday,” Papa Vianello said, laughing.
“I’m not going to eat it,” Carlo said.
“Suit yourself,” Papa Vianello said. He picked up the bag of nuts, then put them down again. He looked at his sons.
“Okay, what is it?” he said.
“Papa, do we have to kill Delilah?” Dante said.
“Yes,” Papa Vianello said. “The lamb is a sacrifice.”
“What’s a sacrifice?” Johnny said.
“It is the law of Moses.” Papa Vianello said. “We kill the lamb and offer it to God.”
“Can’t we offer Him a live lamb?” Carlo said.
“It’s not the same thing,” Papa Vianello said.
“Does the priest make you kill the lamb?” Johnny said.
“No,” Papa Vianello said. “I told you. The killing of the lamb is a special tradition, an old custom in our family for many generations.”
“Does the Pope make you kill the lamb?” Skipper said.
“No, no,” Papa Vianello said.
“Does God make you kill the lamb?” Carlo said.
Papa Vianello grabbed the bag of nuts from the floor and took the nutcracker from the end table.
“That’s enough,” he said. “I have work to do. Go ask your mother.” He motioned to Skipper.
“Your mother is calling you,” he said.
Dante walked Skipper to the front door.  “Boy, I sure don’t understand people,” he said.
“Poor Delilah,” Skipper said. “She doesn’t even know what’s going to happen to her.”
They opened the door and stood on the top step a moment.  The sun had fallen behind the row houses on Wharton Street and slid behind the church tower.  The sky began to turn light gray with large puffy clouds streaking across the sky.  A ragman shoved his pushcart up the street, chanting in his singsong voice, “Any rags today?  Any rags today?  I take your old rags and give you new pots.  Any rags today?”
Skipper’s mother called from her second floor window.
“Coming, Mom,” Skipper said. She hurried down the steps.  On the last step, she turned and looked at Dante.  “Two taps on the wall for ‘in the bedroom’ and three taps for going to sleep,” she said.
“Okay,” Dante said. “And four taps for emergency,” though they had never had one.
Skipper waved once then darted to her house next door, running up the steps two at a time as her mother called again from inside her house.
Dante looked down the street. One by one the lights in the houses went on, lighting each window with a glow. An old lamplighter, carrying a small ladder on his back, hobbled up the street. He put the ladder against the lamp pole, climbed up and turned on the gaslight.  Down the street, Joey Carbo was practicing on his French horn. The voices of all the mothers called out for their children,  Mama Vianello was in the kitchen singing, ‘Return to Sorrento’, and in the basement the voice of Delilah called, “Baa!”
Interesting! Thank you for visiting us on Writing in the Modern Age, Mark! :)

Author Bio

I have had fiction, poetry, articles and guest columns in 67 publications, including Yankee magazine, Crazy Horse, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry International, Potomac Review, Philadelphia Daily News and New York Times.  I Won Honorable Mention in the PEN American award for short fiction, First Prize in poetry in the Barbwire Theater in San Francisco, California and first prize in the Packard Poetry Awards in the New York Quarterly magazine. I was director of the Florida State University Poet series and appointed Master Poet by the Florida Arts Council. My current books are The Ghost, 2013, The Death of Sherlock Holmes, 2014 and The Easter Lamb, 2015. I also have a short story, “Fall Semester”, in the anthology Steps in Time, April 2015; and a short story, “Magic”, in the anthology Love Matters, out in August.  I am a member of the Authors Guild and the Academy of American Poets.

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