John Donatich is no stranger to publishing. Over a storied career spanning 20+ years, the 51-year-old director of Yale University Press has shepherded the work of such prominent authors as Christopher Hitchens and Steven Pinker into print. But he never gave up on the dream of publishing a novel of his own. After writing the well-received 2005 memoir, Ambivalence: A Love Story, about his marriage with wife and fellow industry veteran Betsy Lerner, he became interested in the Catholic archdioceses that were closing down along the eastern seaboard.
“I don’t consider myself a religious person, but the idea of someone who gets up and contemplates the good life every day, without hipster skepticism and irony, is appealing,” says Donatich.
That someone became Father Dominic, the beleaguered protagonist of The Variations (Holt), a priest who loses his church, his mentor, and even the ability to pray. The priest’s blog draws interest from an editor in New York as he tries to help a young pianist master Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Donatich jokes, “I was obsessed with three endangered things—classical music, the Catholic Church, and novelists. That’s this novel.”
Jack Macrae, the special projects editor at Henry Holt who acquired the book from Bill Clegg of William Morris Endeavor, was instantly intrigued by the main character’s journey. “He is spiritually disillusioned, and that’s a wonderful way for a priest to present himself,” Macrae says. “This novel poses the big questions we all at times have to face.”