By John Clement
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP is the third book in Kristi Belcamino’s acclaimed series of thrillers chronicling the life of Gabriella Giovanni, an Italian-American crime reporter who happens to make a mean biscotti on the side. Not for nothing, Belcamino is herself Italian-American, and she knows a thing or two about baking biscotti as well, but it’s her career as a crime-beat reporter that imbues her fiction with a unique and rare note of authenticity. Her readers have come to expect suspenseful and gripping page-turners, and they’ll be happy to know that this new book does not disappoint.
I sat down with Belcamino to talk about her life, her work, and her latest novel.
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP is out this month, and it’s already receiving high praise from readers and critics alike. Can you talk a little about the story?
Gabriella stumbles onto a horrific crime scene with only one survivor—a baby girl found crawling between the dead bodies of her family members. Reeling from the slaughter, Gabriella clings to the infant. When Social Services pries the little girl from her arms, the enormity of the tragedy hits home. Diving deep into a case that brings her buried past to the forefront, Gabriella is determined to hunt down the killer who left this helpless baby an orphan. But one by one the clues all lead to a dead end, and Gabriella’s obsession with finding justice pulls her into a dark, tortuous spiral that is set to destroy everything she loves …
It is a story about family, forgiveness, betrayal, and government cover-ups.
As a crime-beat reporter, your job is to report the facts. As a writer, you create them. Is it hard to keep the two separate? Do characters sometime overlap? Are there liabilities or legal concerns to consider?
When I wrote my first two books, I’d been out of the crime-reporting world for nearly a decade so I didn’t find it difficult to keep the two worlds separate. When I wrote BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP, I’d been a reporter again for about a year, but really have no difficulty keeping them separate. Instead, I find myself jotting down ideas at work as I hear things on the scanner or talk to police and victims.
For instance, one day I heard something on the scanner about some police following an ambulance to the hospital for security reasons because “We’ve got a real live wire in the back of that rig!” So, of course, I jot something like that down and hope to use it in a book one day!
There are a few characters in my books that are based on people I know. My defense is that I always try to paint an extremely flattering portrait of the person so they won’t complain! I had one nerve-wracking moment last summer. I was in Oakland, California and stopped to visit my favorite priest in the world, and my good friend, Father Seamus Genovese. We arrived just in time for his nightly happy hour where a few friends gathered around with drinks in hand and lots of good conversation and laughter in his study. At the time, he didn’t even know I was a published author and so I waited for everyone else to leave the room for a few minutes before I broke the news:
“Um, I wrote a book. And you’re in it.”
I told him a little bit about his character and said I’d send him the book. A few weeks later, he called me.
“I had Sister Mary (something like that) read your book and I think she found the part with me in it.”
Good grief, I thought. A nun was reading my book. The same book that drops the “F” bomb no less than 15 times in the first two pages alone.
“Are we still friends?” I asked.
He laughed. “I don’t drink bourbon. I’ve never drunk bourbon. I drink gin.”
I apologized profusely; saying when I wrote the book it had been more than a decade since we had happy hour together. Ironically, he never mentioned the priest character I based on him being connected to the IRA, having a safe room in the rectory, and owning a lot of guns. Instead, he was irritated about his choice of drink. God love the man! Before I hung up, I told him the priest character would be in another book and asked if there was anything he wanted his character to do in the next book.
“Yes! I want to go back to drinking gin!” he said.
Your first book, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, was inspired by your real-life interviews with Curtis Dean Anderson, accused of the kidnap and molesting of an eight-year-old. He confessed to a number of un-related murders, and led investigators and reporters on a Hannibal Lecter-style goose chase, providing cryptic clues and asking for money in exchange for information, not all of which turned out to be accurate. When and how did you decide you wanted to write about it? Had you written crime fiction before?
That is the story that has always haunted me. I became close with the little girl’s family and probably broke some lines of journalism ethics by my emotional involvement in that story. When I left my job as a reporter and moved to Minneapolis, I carted with me an entire box full of reporter’s notebooks and letters from Anderson.
My intention was to sit down and write a true crime novel about it, but when I actually sat down to write the book it quickly became fiction. Partly because when I first wrote BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, Anderson had not yet been convicted of killing the little girl. It is hard to write a true crime book that says, maybe he did it, but we don’t have solid proof. And he was still alive at the time.
I wrote the book to purge him out of my head. As the mother of two small little girls, I was especially haunted by all of the horrible things he had told me. By writing the book, I was essentially engaging in a form of self-administered therapy. Getting it all out of my head and on paper did help.
So, although I had dreamed of writing fiction since I was a small child, I sort of fell into writing my first book in an effort to rid myself of the memory of this man.
Has it changed the way you see the world?
Definitely. I’ve written articles about how I fight against being a helicopter mom and how I’m insanely jealous of parents who casually let their children ride bicycles across town WITHOUT helmets and without adult supervision. I’m the mom who would check on my kids in our FENCED back yard every five minutes. I’ve gotten slightly better about this over the years, but yes, as I titled one article, “I’ll never be a normal parent.”
The woman who raised the little girl who was kidnapped and killed by Curtis Dean Anderson is the mother of two other children. We have spoken on the phone about how we can never be normal parents. Both of us spent countless hours in a dark visiting room talking to this predator in an attempt to get him to reveal his crimes.
On the bright side, I nearly never take a minute of my life for granted. I am always extraordinarily grateful for what is right in my life. I don’t take things like having a healthy and safe family for granted. So seeing the dark and tragic sides of life are constant reminders of the blessings in my own life.
Do you read crime fiction yourself? Crime non-fiction? What are you reading now? Is there a writer whose work you’re most influenced by?
Once I realized I had written a crime fiction book I began devouring as many books as I could in that genre. Before that, my favorite writer was Adriana Trigiani, who writes about Italian-American characters. I still love Trigiani, but right now would say Lisa Unger, Alex Marwood, and Laura Lippman are the authors I admire and want to emulate the most. I’m still on cloud nine that Marwood read my book and liked it. Right now I’m reading Jamie Mason’s Monday’s Lie and loving every page.
Talk about your writing process. Do you stick to a set schedule?
I’m a parishioner of the Church of One Thousand Words as my pal, Brad Parks, calls it. I write from 9 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. I shoot for a minimum of one thousand words during each writing session, which to be honest, is not that hard if you are a journalist.
I outline and use index cards for plotting. I write up a three-page synopsis of the book and then use index cards to map out key moments in the plot before I actually sit down to write. Then as I write, I fill out an index card for each chapter, listing where it is, what day it is, and what happens. I carry the index cards, bound with a rubber band, around in my bag and can jot down scene ideas while I’m waiting for the kids to finish a piano lesson or at a soccer game.
BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO WEEP is your third book about Gabriella Giovanni. I’ve read you planned to write four. What’s next for Gabriella? Will it end there? Do you have plans for another series?
I’m knee-deep in the fourth book in the series, Blessed Are Those Who Mourn, and I feel like everything I learned in writing the first three books is making this fourth book the best. It is so much fun to write. I’m really delving into Gabriella’s Italian family life and showing how she has grown as a character.
As far as ending there, we will see. I will continue to write more books as long as there are readers who want to read more about Gabriella.
Ed note: After our interview, Belcamino received the news that Father Seamus had passed away. “Sadly,” she says, “I never got the chance to tell him that I dedicated this latest book to him.”
Kristi Belcamino is a writer, reporter, and Italian-American mama who also bakes a yummy biscotti. Along with writing mysteries, she covers the cop beat part-time at the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As a crime reporter at newspapers in California, she flew over Big Sur in an FA-18 jet with the Blue Angels, raced a Dodge Viper at Laguna Seca and hung out at the morgue, watching autopsies and eating barbecue with the deputies who worked there. Her debut mystery novel, BLESSED ARE THE DEAD, (HarperCollins 2014) is based on her dealings with a serial killer while she covered crime in the Bay Area.
To learn more about Kristi, please visit her website.