By Tony Peregrin
One minute Brother Vito is dancing shirtless at the Roxy, and the next he is teaching a classroom full of Catholic school students. Make no mistake, Seventy Times Seven is not another story about a closeted priest struggling with his sexuality.
This debut novel from Saugatuck resident Sal Sapienza explores a young gay man's desire for incorporating his sexual nature with his spiritual nature—something the author once wrestled with when he decided to enter religious life and honor the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Seventy Times Seven is erotic, poignant and romantic, and roughly half of it is based on Sapienza's own life—but it's up to the reader to figure out which half.
Windy City Times: What does the title Seventy Times Seven refer to?
Sal Sapienza: In Matthew's gospel, the apostle Peter asks Jesus, 'Lord, how often must I forgive my neighbor if he wrongs me? Seven times?' Jesus replies, 'Not seven I tell you, but seventy times seven.'
The novel's protagonist, Brother Vito, teaches this gospel passage to the boys in his high school religion class, but it's Vito himself who struggles most with forgiveness—trying to forgive the Catholic Church, the gay community and, ultimately, himself.
The original manuscript used the graphic '70x7' as the title. I thought that was cool, but my publisher suggested it be spelled out. Less confusing, they said.
WCT: Talk a little about the relevance of the themes explored in your novel with what has been going on with the Catholic Church in the last couple of years.
SS: The novel takes place in 1992, and it's interesting to see how much more conservative the Church has gotten since then. Recent events have caused the Church to regress, but progress seemed possible back then.
In the novel, an openly gay Vito enters religious life admirably—yet somewhat naively—with the hopes of bringing the Church that he loves into the 21st century. An AIDS activist, he truly believes that he and the other forward-thinking young men entering the Church will effect profound change. What he discovers is that the Church is often unwilling to look at its own faults, and is more concerned with keeping the status quo.
Unlike the generation of men before him, Vito does not enter religious life as a means of escape or a way of hiding his sexuality. Many of the men Vito lives with, however, have repressed their sexuality entirely in order attain a greater spiritual connection, but Vito does not see the two as mutually exclusive.
WCT: Is your novel autobiographical in some ways? Do you keep a journal?
SS: Some of the things that happen to Vito in the novel did, in fact, happen to me when I was a religious brother. The book, however, is a work of fiction. I kept a journal throughout my six years in religious life, and it was an invaluable resource when I was writing the novel.
In my journals from that time period, I wrote a lot about my work with Father Mychal Judge, the gay New York City fire chaplain who died on 9/11. I worked with him in the foundation of St. Francis AIDS Ministry, one of the first Catholic AIDS organizations in the country. As I stated earlier, this was an exciting—almost pioneering—time of progress in the Church, but it didn't last long.
When I first submitted my manuscript for Seventy Times Seven, I was encouraged early on to write the book as a memoir, but I like the freedom fiction provides. I can re-create certain events for thematic reasons or create entirely new ones for symbolic effect. In the James Frey era, you're no longer allowed to do that when writing a memoir!
WCT: Do you think readers who feel as if they are 'turned off' by novels with religious themes would still enjoy reading Seventy Times Seven? Why?
SS: Many of us in the gay community are turned off by organized religion, and understandably so. It's often been in our churches where we've been most made to feel shameful about our very natures. This has led many gay people to dismiss religion entirely from their lives, which is totally understandable.
Yet, I know for a fact that many of us are still seeking a spiritual path, so I think there's a wide audience out there for the book. And, despite its heavy subject matter, the book is actually an easy read filled with lots of wit and pop-culture references, so even those with little interest in the spiritual will be entertained, I hope.
WCT: The book quotes scripture and song lyrics by Madonna. Talk about your decision to use both.
SS: Madonna is an artist who juxtaposes spirituality and sexuality in her work. Since these are the two worlds Vito is struggling with unifying, it made perfect sense to quote lyrics from her songs, especially Like A Prayer. In many ways, she's a role model for Vito, because she's saying it's okay to be both spiritual and sexual.
WCT: When the reader closes the book after reading the final line, what do you hope he/she walks away with?
SS: Mostly, I hope readers are entertained. Despite the religious subject matter, the book is actually quite funny, sexy and romantic. If some readers come away with some deeper connection to their own spiritual journey, then that's icing on the cake. I have a feeling, though, that many readers will be left humming the song Peace Train, which pops up throughout the novel from the Cat Stevens' original to the 10,000 Maniacs and Dolly Parton cover versions.
WCT: Talk about your writing process. Do you write every day? Do you have certain rituals or habits you adhere to when writing?
SS: When I was in high school, one of my English teachers—a religious brother, in fact—told us on the first day of class that we'd each be writing a book. It seemed overwhelming at first, but he assigned us to write just one page a day. It was a manageable task and at the end of the school year, we each had over 200 pages written.
Of course, the craft of writing of novel isn't that simple, but the page-a-day discipline has stayed with me. Most of these daily pages are rarely gems in and of themselves, but even pulling out just one amazing sentence or idea keeps me going.
WCT: You live in Saugatuck and own a B&B [ bed-and-breakfast ] there. Describe your transition from New Orleans to Saugatuck.
SS: My partner and I owned a successful B&B in New Orleans for many years. We loved being innkeepers, but running a large inn in a year-round tourist destination left little time for me to write. We were looking for a smaller B&B in a seasonal gay-friendly tourist town, and Saugatuck fit the bill. We bought a lovely place for sale in town, the Beechwood Manor Inn, and we couldn't be happier with our move.
I was apprehensive about the winter here at first, but I absolutely love it. There's a great year-round community in Saugatuck, and there are many pot-lucks and dinner parties during the winter. We actually find ourselves socializing more in the winter than the summer.
WCT: Talk about your film career and living in California. Do you miss expressing yourself through acting?
SS: Well, it wasn't much of a career. I was really nothing more than a glorified extra, but just being on film set and watching people like Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman work was an incredible experience. It was a bit surreal at times—splitting a bagel with John Travolta or changing in a wardrobe tent next to Jeremy Piven—but I feel so fortunate to have met so many talented people.
Writing, though, is really my passion and where I think my talent lies. Although I am not actively pursing an acting career, there has been some interest in turning Seventy Time Seven into a film and, if so, I'd love to be a part of that.
WCT: What are you working on now?
SS: Once, again, I'm exploring the spiritual. The working title for the next book is Sitting Shiva. In the Jewish tradition, the practice of sitting shiva following a loved one's death is a time of shutting out the world and all things vain ( hence, the covering of mirrors in the home ) .
Using my experiences on film sets and my life in Saugatuck, the plot of the novel revolves around a Hollywood film crew setting up camp in a small tourist town. The main characters ( a major film actor and an unknown local hired as his stand-in ) sit shiva, both literally and figuratively. This one is taking longer to write but, as always, it's one page at a time!
Sal Sapienza will read Oct. 25 at Borders Books ( 2817 N. Clark ) at 7:30 p.m. as well as Oct. 26 at Barnes & Noble, ( 1 E. Jackson ) at 12:30 p.m. For more info, see www.myspace.com/70x7book.