Finding Your Place at Any Age
By Dawn Ius
Long before he began writing what would become his debut thriller, Robert Desiderio had been well versed in the trials and tribulations of the artist’s life.
Back in 1980, he made his debut not as a writer, but as an actor, kicking off what would become a somewhat tumultuous tumble through Hollywood, landing roles on then popular TV shows such as Ryan’s Hope, Remington Steele, One Life to Live, Family Ties, and Knot’s Landing—and in later years, the Sopranos, Ugly Betty, and Modern Family.
Indeed, a scroll through Desiderio’s IMDb credits reveals an impressive list. But Hollywood is a tough grind, and for Desiderio, he didn’t feel passionate enough about the trade to want to weather the ups and downs of the industry. Plus, there was already one star in the family—Desiderio is married to actress Judith Light—and there didn’t seem room enough for another one.
Desiderio then turned his sights to screenwriting—but that too is a discipline fraught with long periods of waiting, and more rejections than green lights. Despite some success—Desiderio wrote the screenplay for the 2007 movie Save Me—he knew he hadn’t yet found his true calling.
Until a seemingly simple question refused to stop picking away at his creative brain—a somewhat controversial question that begged to be explored: What if the war on terror came to an end?
True, that particular question isn’t necessarily cause for controversy, but Desiderio took his concept one step further and asked himself: What if an ISIS leader has a mystical experience that leads to a stream of consciousness that shows him a way to peace?
Now he was getting somewhere.
Desiderio first pitched the idea to his agent as a TV pilot. No go. He then tried turning it into a screenplay. His agent rejected that too.
“But the characters kept evolving,” he says. “I didn’t want to let them go. And I got to a point where I had to accept that this had to be a novel.”
Except he’d never written one of those before, and while he can bang out a script fairly quickly, he found that this was an entirely different experience. Writing dialogue was easy—he’s been doing that or reading it most of his professional life—but the biggest challenge was “the descriptive stuff. Which is why the chapters are so short.”
To help with the transition from screenwriter to novelist, Desiderio worked with a book coach. But this was only the first of a few obstacles he had to overcome on his journey to publication.
THE OCCURRENCE covers a lot of ground—a near-death experience in the Iraq desert, an ancient past, the ideology of reincarnation, and yes, a terrorist, a fact that has already soured one audiobook deal and raised a few eyebrows.
“I think it’s a love story, beyond anything else,” he says. “But I guess in a sense it’s also a bit of wish-fulfillment because I hope it provokes people into action.”
Speaking of action, there’s a lot of that too—Desiderio is wired for fast-paced storytelling. But THE OCCURRENCE also features a lot of characters. A lot. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a US Marine, a visionary from Peru, a terrorist on the FBI’s most wanted list and his young disciple—and a handful of others.
Desiderio handles this eclectic cast with the skill of a seasoned pro, but he recognizes that juggling the characters is a bit like speed dating—you get limited time with each of them. Thanks to the book’s whiplash pace, there’s little opportunity for confusion. In fact, the characters help solidify the book’s underlying theme: we are all connected.
“I think we all share a universal soul,” he says. “Right now, in this environment, and because of the political set-up, we’re driven by fear—and fear is an easy emotion to tap into. But ultimately, we all started from the same place. All the religions that have been created…they weren’t created for separation. They were created for unity and love.”
That’s not always an easy sell—especially in today’s social environment—but it’s not readily accepted by the characters in Desiderio’s book, either. Some embrace their shared mystical experience and subsequent revelations without question, while others grapple with it.
“We all struggle at different levels when we’re trying to understand things we can’t see or know,” he says. “Our experiences point us in the directions our lives can take…”
And often, fresh experiences guide us down a different path. That’s certainly the case for the characters in Desiderio’s book—and for the author himself.
“I’ve failed a lot, been rejected a lot,” he says. “But I’ve always known I was a late bloomer. I never felt motivated before—there was never a driving passion like there was when I started writing this book. Living with Judith, who is this big celebrity star, has chipped away at my ego, but I realized I’m not going to compete with Judith. So when writing appeared, it just felt very comfortable. I’m 68 years old—there’s a lot of wisdom that comes with age.”
That comfort level is evident as Desiderio talks animatedly about his first book signing experience late last month in LA.
“The place was packed,” he says. “The reading was fantastic—Judith was right there in the second row. It was such a unique and amazing experience, and it reminded me of the tortures we sometimes go through to find our place—the successes and the failures. I always knew that if ever I was in a place of success, it would be very natural. Because I’m not coming to prove anything…I just know this is where I belong.”