A Conversation with Mark Sullivan
The beginning of 2006 was a terrible time for Mark Sullivan, but then he discovered Pino Lella’s story and Mark had to share it with the world. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the end result of all that hard work. It was released yesterday and the whole world can finally learn of Pino and his important story.
Who is Pino Lella?
At the age of 17, Giuseppe “Pino” Lella helped Jews escape the Nazis in northern Italy, guiding them from a Catholic boys school north of Lake Como, up and over the Alps, and into neutral Switzerland. The following summer, he became a spy inside the German High Command, risking everything to serve the Italian Resistance and suffering mightily for it long after the war ended. Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the untold story of the most inspiring and heartbreaking years of Pino Lella’s life.
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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.
JRR (Jessica’s Reading Room):Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in southwest Montana and have been a full-time author for more than 25 years. I write mystery and suspense novels by myself and with James Patterson. I write the #1 New York Times bestselling Private series with Mr. Patterson.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is my first historical novel. It took me 10 years to write, which proves again that I’m a little slow on the uptake.
I have been married to my best friend for 33 wonderful years. Betsy and I spend our free time outdoors trying to enjoy the miracle of every moment.
JRR: I have read a few James Patterson books. Ten years to write Beneath a Scarlet Sky!?! In my opinion it’s better to take your time and get it right than to rush it and not have a respectable book. Did you always want to become an author?
From the age of seven. We did not have a television until I was 10, and my mom taught me to read when I was four, so books were my earliest entertainment. I got in a fight in second grade that the vice principal, a formidable Catholic nun named Sister Mary Joseph, broke up. My “punishment” was to enter the school storywriting contest. I got home, told my parents nothing about the fight, and, petrified I would be discovered, went upstairs to “write.” I didn’t know what to write about and sat there worrying I’d be found out, until a cottontail rabbit went ripping through our backyard with the neighbor’s dog in full pursuit. I decided to write about that, and, to my amazement and Sister Mary Joseph’s, I won the contest. I had to read the story to the entire school and got a standing ovation. I was completely hooked from that point on.
JRR: That is quite a start! Let’s all be glad for that punishment that Sister Mary Joseph made you do! What inspires you to write?
Everyone and everything I have ever encountered.
JRR: What is your writing process like? Do you research? Do you hand-write or type? As you are writing do you listen to music or not?
My process is to work from premise through research toward a complete outline. I do this both handwritten and at the keyboard. I often listen to music as I’m getting prepared to write, something that inspires me. But when I’m actually writing, I listen to “brown noise” through Bose headphones to block out all distracting sound, and I face a blank wall so the only way out is through the screen.
JRR: What kind of advice can you give to aspiring authors?
Schedule your writing time, and to the extent you can, make it the same time every day. This is important psychologically, as your subconscious begins to anticipate writing if it occurs with frequency at the same time and place. Also, use an App like www.freedom.to to shut down Internet, social media, and the like on your computer and on your phone. I am shut down and unreachable from 11am-5pm every day. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you’re not distracted.
JRR: That is good advice. And I did not know about that App! It could benefit many people. Now, Who is your favorite author as an adult?
The late, great Jim Harrison. During my years as a reporter, I tried to read modern fiction and could not relate until I read Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. The prose was like thunder, and through it he packed an epic, sweeping story of early 20th-century Montana into an unforgettable 95-page novella. I was flabbergasted and inspired. I still am.
JRR: If will look into that novella and Jim Harrison himself. If you could have dinner with three authors (living or dead) who would they be and why?
Harrison, certainly. I met him a couple of times and heard him speak several more, but I never got to sample his cooking skills, which were said to be remarkable. Charles Dickens would also be there. I learned much of what I know about novel writing from a course I took in college in which we had to read all of Dickens’s work. What’s stunning is when you realize he wrote most of his books and stories in serial form with deadlines every month. He did some outlining, but really he just sat down and set sail. He was the master of understanding instinctively where plot lines will go, and I’d love to be able to pick his brain regarding that. Third? Probably Steven King, just because I like his sense of humor, and I think he’d make it a good time. I also think he’s a writing genius.
JRR: Those are good choices. What made you want to base Beneath a Scarlet Sky on Pino Lella’s story? How did his story affect you personally?
January of 2006 was a terrible time for me. My brother and best friend had drunk himself to death the prior June. My mother had drunk herself into brain damage. I’d written a book no one liked, was involved in a lingering business dispute, and on the verge of personal bankruptcy.
That day I realized darkly that my insurance policies were more valuable than my life and potential. During a snowstorm, I seriously considered driving into a bridge abutment on an interstate freeway near my home, but I was saved by thoughts of my wife and sons. I was as shaken as I’ve ever been, and in a Costco parking lot of all places I prayed for a story with meaning, a story I could get lost in.
Believe it or not, that very night at a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana, I heard the first snippets of Pino Lella’s tale. Larry Minkoff, a fellow writer, told me he’d heard a little about Pino and his story but wasn’t going to pursue it. Minkoff introduced me to Bob Dehlendorf. In the late 1990s, Dehlendorf was on an extended vacation in Italy when he met Pino by chance. Dehlendorf was a few years younger, but they bonded. After several days, Dehlendorf asked Pino about his experiences during the war. Pino had never told anyone, but felt like it was time, and so he started telling Dehlendorf about Father Re and the escapes and the Nazi general he’d driven for. Dehlendorf was stunned. How had the story never been told?
That was my reaction as well, and that was enough to get me on a plane to Italy in late March 2006. Over the course of those first three weeks, as Pino opened up more and more, I experienced his deep pain and marveled at his ability to go on after being so depressed and traumatized—he, too, had contemplated suicide. I had to comfort him repeatedly during the course of his long recounting, and I was moved again and again.
During that time, and apart from the details of his war story, Pino taught me about life and his values and the many, many joys he’d been blessed with after the trauma of World War II Italy. It made me realize how much I’d put in jeopardy even thinking about killing myself. I had a great, loving wife and two remarkable sons. I had an amazing story to tell. I had a new and dear friend. I was more than lucky. Leaving Italy that first time, I felt blessed to be alive. I went home a different person, grateful for every moment, no matter how flawed, and determined to honor and tell Pino’s story to as many people as possible. I just never thought it would take this long.
JRR: Wow, thank you for sharing all this. Everything seems meant to happen at a certain time for reasons we don’t know and that was the time for you and Pino to meet. What was it like to meet and interview Pino after all that time looking for him and thinking about his story?
I actually met Pino in person within six weeks of first hearing about his story. It was a remarkable experience, listening to an old man summoning up a past he had long ago buried away in the deep recesses of his soul. As I said, I was deeply moved by what he’d gone through at such an unfathomably young age and was inspired by his determination to go on despite the tragic things that had happened to him.
JRR: What do you want readers to get out of reading Beneath a Scarlet Sky?
I think people deserve to know about Pino Lella and the war in northern Italy. Pino was and is a thoroughly remarkable soul, and I believe his story is restorative. I hope readers will be moved not only his indomitable spirit, but by his belief in the miracle of every moment and in the promise of a better tomorrow, even when that belief is not deserved.
**Special thanks to Mark Sullivan for your time with this interview and for sharing these experiences!**