The Ingram Interview

An Interview with Bill Petrocelli about The Circle of Thirteen

Ingram Advance Magazine

 This interview with Bill Petrocelli about his new novel The Circle of Thirteen appeared in Ingram Advance, a book industry trade Journal.

The Circle of Thirteen is your first novel. Where did the idea for the story originate?

I wanted to write a story about the emerging role of women. There’s a lot about this subject that hasn’t been explored in fiction – particularly, in books by men. But as the story unfolded in my mind, I realized that I wanted to tell it from a different vantage point. I needed to step a few decades into the future so that the reader and I could look back and see certain trends in sharper focus. That’s why this book is written as a form of “future-fiction.” The main story-line is set in New York City in May, 2082, and all of the narrative strands lead to that point.

The backlash against the women’s movement is a major part of the story, but there are other themes woven into The Circle of Thirteen. There’s the looming crisis of global climate change, the persistence of war and violence, the gaps between wealth and poverty, and the corruption of political and economic power. And when I tried to take into account the inevitable technological changes over the next few decades, I realized that the story had become an exhilarating opportunity.

The novel begins in 2012 with a horrific act of violence that affects the world 70 years later. How did you map out the links between characters and time periods?

This was a major challenge. At one point I had to put everything on a spread sheet so I wouldn’t confuse myself!

I didn’t think the story would work as well as a straight-ahead narrative, so I had to find a way to bring in earlier events and weave them into the main story line. I finally settled on a structure similar to that used by Katherine Neville in The Eight and Robert Wilson in a A Small Death in Lisbon. In Wilson’s book the narrative switches back and forth from the main story-period to a series of events that happened earlier. As the earlier events gradually work up to the main story, the connection becomes clearer and clearer. That’s what I tried to do in The Circle of Thirteen, and I think it worked out well.

You served as a deputy attorney general for the state of California for many years. Were parts of the story inspired by any real-life cases you prosecuted?

I actually drew more inspiration from the job I had right after that – running a poverty law office in Oakland. You can’t do that kind of work for very long without coming to understand the grinding effects of poverty and the resilience that many people will show under those circumstances.

But the main thing I learned during those years is the importance of community organizing and what it takes to put together a successful, sustained movement. As I was writing The Circle of Thirteen, I had in the back of my mind the image of people patiently working with others to bring them into the movement and use their collective strength to achieve their objective.

You also are a longtime advocate for women’s rights. Did this help you in developing the unforgettable characters of Julia, Madeline, Maya, and the Women for Peace who make up the Circle of Thirteen?

Thank you for your kind words about those characters!

The thirteen Women for Peace leaders are based on many women that I’ve known or observed over the years. They are women with a vision who are willing to subordinate their egos and work closely – sometimes behind the scenes – to organize for a common goal. Maya is part of that group early in the story even though her life takes her in another direction. Still, Maya remains the link that holds the entire story together.

Julia is the most important character in the book, and she is the narrative voice throughout most of the story. I wanted someone who was both a good observer and restless enough to try and make things better around her. Although her emotions are in turmoil, she is someone who is physically fearless.

Of the characters you mention, only Madeleine, the U.N. Director, is based on a real person. I freely admit that I had Madeleine Albright in mind the entire time I was writing her scenes.

The Circle of Thirteen has received stellar reviews from such noted and bestselling authors as John Lescroart and Martin Cruz Smith. What was your reaction to their praise?

It pleases me in ways that are hard to express. Novelists usually write with several audiences in mind. You want to please your agent, your editor, book reviewers, the book-buying public, and many others.

But for me the greatest satisfaction is praise from other writers. They know how difficult it is to create a novel, and they know when a story works on the printed page. When you receive praise from someone like that, it is the most important recognition you can have.

You and your wife, Elaine, operate the San Francisco Bay Area Book Passage independent bookstores. How did you go from a legal career to running a bookstore?

My wife, Elaine, decided to open a bookstore in the 1970s, at a time when I was still practicing law. Not long after, I represented the NCIBA in a price-discrimination case against a couple of major publishers. The case was successful, but a year or so later I gave up practicing law to focus more on writing. But in the course of watching Elaine and other booksellers at work, it wasn’t long before I became actively involved in the book business.

Bookselling is a great business. It’s not a way to make a lot of money, but it’s a wonderful way to make a lot of friends. When I think of the thousands of readers, authors, teachers, community leaders and others who have come through the store over the years, it makes me feel good all over. I think we’ve helped develop a love of reading in many children, and I know that our programs have helped many new writers get started. I’m very happy that Elaine got me into this business.

So what’s next on the horizon for you? Is there another novel in the works?

I have another novel that I’m working on, and I’m anxious to get back to it. The time frame on my next book will be more conventional than The Circle of Thirteen, but I’m hoping that readers will find the plot and the characters just as interesting.

As I’m promoting my current book, I’m experiencing a feeling that is probably common to most novelists: the characters in my next book keep whispering in my ear, “How come you have written about us lately?” I’ve just about run out of excuses.

By the way, one of the main characters in my next book is a bookseller.

See The Circle of Thirteen Discussion Guide