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Inspired by faith, Catholic businessman seeks to underwrite beauty in Catholic fiction

(This article first appeared in the August 23 issue of The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse)

The modern Catholic fiction writer has a tough row to hoe. On the one hand, he is expected by his fellow Catholics, at least those unfamiliar with the complexities of modern literature, to write simple moral stories where good wins out over evil, the princess is saved and happily ever after becomes the only acceptable conclusion to a story.

On the other hand, the Catholic fiction writer is also hoping to reach out to the modern non-Catholic and mostly non-Christian reader with the assumption that his story is worth hearing – and yet he must not say too much about the “R word” (religion) lest his readership begin heading in a panic for the exits.

The 20th century southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor puts the dilemma this way in her 1957 essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer:”

“Part of the complexity of the problem for the Catholic fiction writer will be the presence of grace as it appears in nature, and what matters for him is that his faith not become detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is. No one in these days, however, would seem more anxious to have it become detached than those Catholics who demand that the writer limit, on the natural level, what he allows himself to see.”

In fact, besides being pressured by secular and Catholic readers to fit into their own notions of what fiction should be, the Catholic writer’s row is made all the tougher to hoe because of the dearth of publishing houses willing to give Catholic writers a chance to show that they can write compelling, well-written and grace-infused stories for the Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

But Boston businessman Peter Mongeau is doing his best to make sure that the Catholic writer does find a voice within the milieu of today’s bestseller lists.

Fed a steady diet of good Catholic fiction throughout his life – including works by O’Connor, Graham Greene, G.K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh – Mongeau has started Tuscany Press, a startup publishing company which seeks to provide the Catholic fiction writer a platform and the Catholic fiction reader a lodestone for quality storytelling. He’s also announced an annual prize through the press which pays winning fiction manuscripts in cash and publication contracts.

A graduate of Boston University, Mongeau received his master’s in business administration from Boston College. After working in New York City for a time in the investment field, he returned with his wife and four children to Boston.

Boston bookworm

It was in Beantown that Mongeau first got the itch to enter the publishing business.

Before starting Tuscany this past June, Mongeau had already founded Christus Publishing, a Catholic press which specializes in books on traditional Catholic spirituality, with a strong emphasis on Carmelite writers.

As coordinator of his parish’s book club, Mongeau became familiar with Catholic publishing and noticed a demand for books on Catholic spirituality – which led to his starting Christus. Developing plans to expand the number and kinds of Christus’ titles, Mongeau noticed the hunger for quality fiction.

“As I looked into expanding Christus, I kept running into two things,” he said. “First, that people were looking for Catholic fiction along the lines of Flannery O’Connor, Chesterton, Percy, and Graham Greene, the Catholic literary novels of the 50s and 60s,” he said. “Second, there was a dearth of modern-day Catholic fiction.”

Talent and treasure

Consulting publishers, literary agents and writers, Mongeau undertook an analysis of the publishing industry which led him to recognize an underserved market of writers and readers.

“I thought there was a definite need from a reader’s perspective in terms of Catholic fiction and from a writer’s perspective with people writing Catholic fiction but couldn’t get published,” he said. “So that’s how Tuscany Press was born.”

Mongeau also took his cue to start a Catholic fiction publishing house from the writings of Blessed John Paul II. Quoted on Tuscany’s website (www.tuscanypress.com), the late pontiff’s 1999 “Letter to Artists” encourages writers to use their talents to promote a culture of life.

“In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art,” John Paul II writes. “Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God. It must therefore translate into meaningful terms that which is in itself ineffable…. The Church has need especially of those who can do this on the literary and figurative level, using the endless possibilities of images and their symbolic force.”

In Tuscany’s light

It was another Christian writer – Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky – who led Mongeau to naming his foundling press after the picturesque region of central Italy.

“Dostoevsky said that ‘Beauty will save the world,’” Mongeau said. “God is beauty and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been has been Tuscany. That’s why I chose the name – it’s where I found beauty. When I was out in Tuscany, it epitomized the beauty we have in art – and the beauty that God provided us in this world.”

While Mongeau is banking on beauty being a bestseller, he also wants to sweeten the deal for writers – by attracting them to Tuscany with a literary prize. With cash awards and publication in the novel, novella and short story categories, the Tuscany Fiction Prize has four criteria, Mongeau said.

“Is it a good story? Is it well written? Does it capture the imagination of the reader? And does it have the presence of God?” he said. “If a book doesn’t have these four things, it’s not going to be good Catholic fiction.”

This last criteria – the presence of God – Mongeau acknowledges, isn’t a matter of making sure God is a character in the novel so much as the writer sees in a fallen world a possibility for redemption. He stresses that the Catholic imagination seeks to bring God to readers “symbolically, subtly and deliberately.”

“The Catholic imagination takes into consideration the whole world as we know it, as we live it, as we believe it,” he said. “God is present in the world and events don’t just happen. There is a God, a living God who is active in the world in which we live.”

The deadline is Sept. 30, he said, and already he’s being inundated with manuscripts in all three categories.

“The prize is there to encourage writers to take up the craft of writing Catholic fiction and stories, to promote Catholic fiction and to recognize the talent when it comes along,” he said.

Rewriting the market

Optimistic about the success of Tuscany Press, Mongeau said the publishing world is vastly different from what it was before the so-called information age dawned.

“The barriers to entry are lower today in publishing than they’ve ever been,” Mongeau said. “Technology has provided the ability to start a publishing company on short dollars. While it’s still significant dollars, it’s not like it was years ago. The industry has changed dramatically in 15 years.”

In those 15 years, Mongeau said, the advent of online distribution through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the creation of e-book platforms – Kindle, Nook and I-Book – have led to an explosion of independent publishing houses.

“The distribution channel alone has changed dramatically,” he said. “If you’re selling books through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and electronically [through e-books], I’d say you have over 50-60 percent of your distribution channel. Plus you have global worldwide distribution that way also.”

In addition, it goes without saying, Mongeau said, that Tuscany Press is also taking advantage of the social media empires to spread the word about Catholic fiction – including Facebook, Twitter and a blog which Mongeau maintains on Tuscany’s website.

“We have to go out there and prove that Catholic fiction works, and is written well, and there is a market for people to buy Catholic fiction,” Mongeau said. “But we do believe we can do this.”

For more information about Tuscany Press or the Tuscany Prize for Catholic Fiction, call (781) 424-9321 or contact Peter Mongeau at publisher@tuscanypress.com.

OH SNAP

50% of Kollektiv members are included in the latest issue of Dappled Things. OBSERVE:

JOB reviews Beauty Will Save the World:

The idea of the Church today serving as patron of the arts seems as outmoded as arranged marriages and the divine right of kings. At least, artists in general no longer look to the Church for both guidance and support for their creative endeavors. Given the mostly bankrupt pop-cultural shenanigans that pass for “art” these days, things have come to a sad pass indeed for the artist, the Church and the world in general. So what happened, can it be fixed and if so—how?

Read more…

Potter’s poignant poetry:

The day before you died I thought I’d bring
You tulips for your bedside table, bright
Ones, pink and white, to give your gaze a place
To rest, to make your labor seem less harsh.
Read more…

And whatshername interviews Friend of this Blog, Amy Welborn:

Sicily was far away and someplace I’d never been and never thought of going. So in a way, it was sort of like “going to” death in this sense. Although I did think about it, fearfully, it was not someplace I took seriously about traveling to—death, that is. It was also someplace that Mike would never, ever have traveled to. I could not imagine it being part of a family journey in the hypothetical land of “If Mike were still alive.” It seemed very far away from life with him, as well, and I suppose I hoped that if I went to Sicily, I wouldn’t be as burdened with the loss.
Didn’t work, of course, since, as I write in the book, even seeing a crucifix made of lava rock festooned with glitter in a souvenir shop on Mount Etna can make you miss your husband just as much as driving by the YMCA where he died back home. Read more…

Peruse the Pentecost issue!

Inter: Ference

I seem to be running into Ference a lot.

[rimshot!]

BTW: The Franciscan Sister who threw the Boss into the trashcan was Sister Martina, who by the time I attended was principal of St. Rose. And, yes, she was all that. Fearfully wrought and simmering with equal parts love of God and Dies Irae…

The priest who allegedly knocked the Boss down while serving Mass could very well have been Monsignor (then-Father) Thomas Coffey, who retired from active ministry in 1990. I too served under him, a meaty Irish priest with an inscrutible depth of reserve – even for a descendant of Hibernia… It is this which makes me wonder either a) what Mr. Springsteen could have done to warrant arousing the emotions of Msgr. Coffey or b) perhaps it was not Msgr. Coffey at all, but some anonymous assistant pastor.

BTB: Note that DT is under new management and y’all could do worse than subscribe to the magazine if you haven’t already. Lots of good stuff in this issue, which is, as always, a gorgeous gift to the eyes, the ears and the mind…

Also, the new look to the website – what can I say? It’s built for speed…!

Matthew Lickona nominated for Pushcart Prize

Pushcart PrizeCongratulations to our own Matthew Lickona, whose short story “Meat” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize by Dappled Things.

The Pushcart Prize – Best of the Small Presses series, published every year since 1976, is the most honored literary project in America. Hundreds of presses and thousands of writers of short stories, poetry and essays have been represented in the pages of our annual collections.
Writers who were first noticed here include:
Raymond Carver, Tim O’Brien, Jayne Anne Phillips, Charles Baxter, Andre Dubus, Susan Minot, Mona Simpson, John Irving, Rick Moody, and many more. Each year most of the writers and many of the presses are new to the series.

Our Pushcart Prize editions are found in most libraries and bookstores. Each volume contains an index of past selections, plus lists of outstanding presses with addresses.

See, if I left it up to him to mention it, it would be buried deep within a turducken of self-mockery and dry wit, and we can’t have that.

Dappled Things – new edition, new website

Dappled Things has a new edition out, with a lengthy, insightful interview with Heather King about her new book, Shirt of Flame – and lots more goodies. Poetry, art, essays, fiction, chimichanga – no?

We took those out at the last minute?

Well, come for the nonexistent chimichangas, stay for the actual literary content.

Feelin’ a little punchy! It must be my excitement over joining their team as Web Editor. Under an assumed name, of course.

Anyway, take a look at the new website, subscribe to our RSS feed, follow us on Facebook! Twitter! Email newsletter! And, best of all, SUBSCRIBE TO THE PRINT EDITION!

“The hangover stumbles in like laity…”

Youth warns no one when it leaves the party.
It does not thank the hostess, then air kiss,
Then wave, hailing the hot night’s last taxi….

But if it knows what’s good for it, youth – and old age – will hie themselves over to Dappled Things where Anne Babson has written a terriffic update on Wilfred Owen’s Anthem to Doomed Youth.

Of course, there’s a lot more than that – but you have to subscribe and you have to find something more useful to do with your finger muscles (one page at a time) than tapping plastic chiclets all day and tapping mice on the head.

New Dappled Things Released

The SS. Peter & Paul 2011 edition of Dappled Things has just been released today, featuring prose, poetry, and artwork that you don’t want to miss. Our offerings include a timely exchange between Villanova professor Robert T. Miller and John C. Medaille, author of Towards a Truly Free Market, in which they discuss which economic system, capitalism or distributism (the economic philosophy famously advocated by G.K. Chesterton), is most compatible with a Catholic understanding of the good life. If our troubled times have ever made you wonder about the economy, these dueling articles by Miller and Medaille should be required reading.

But it’s not all about the economy, stupid. The new edition is also thick with short stories, poems, artwork, and even a brilliant short play, that touch on themes far more important than money. Take Rosemary Callenberg’s “Dust,” in which she depicts, with unnerving realism, the inner life of a married couple struggling between hope and an encroaching sense of futility:

Ellen nodded, but didn’t say anything. They continued eating without speaking. When she finished, she carried her plate over to the sink and paused to look out the window. That was when she noticed the kitchen was dusty, too. It lay more thickly here, on the windowsill and the angel statue that stood over the sink. It covered even the leaves of the houseplant in the corner. Somehow that was the most depressing; that even this living, growing thing gathered a layer of dead dust. She blew gently on the leaves, but most of it stayed put. Grabbing a paper towel from the rack beside the sink, she moistened a corner and dabbed at it. A few leaves came off in her hand. She hadn’t remembered to water it lately. She crumpled them and threw them in the trash, suddenly angry.

Then there are poems like Ron McFarland’s “My Favorite Deadly Sin” and David Athey’s “Celestialness” that draw one to contemplate, by turns, the dark and light that meet in human existence.

Subscribers will enjoy all this and much more in a gorgeously printed edition that will at once adorn your mind and your coffee table. If you haven’t done so yet, we invite you to subscribe now.

New Dappled Things!

Dappled Things, the little online Catholic literary magazine that could (and did) become a rather less little print Catholic literary magazine, has a new issue out, one which includes, oddly enough, work by the Korrektiv Kollektiv’s own bard of the Great Northwest, Jonathan Potter.  The cover feature is on sculptor Andrew Wilson Smith, whose frankly kickass Johnny Cash adorns this blog post.  Go thou, etc.

The Fine Delight Interviews Bernardo Aparicio García

Our friend Bernardo talks about Dappled Things:

I think many people today are frustrated with much of the literature being produced, either because it flattens and brutalizes human nature through reductionism, or because it fails to explore our spiritual dimension with seriousness and honesty. We try to fill that gap, and it’s something that readers and writers who hear about us appreciate. More