“The problem for me,” says Roland Merullo, “is that I’m interested in everything and everybody.” That enthusiastic eclecticism is evident in his 17 books: Merullo has published novels set in Micronesia (Leaving Losapas), the Soviet Union (A Russian Requiem), and Havana (Fidel’s Last Days); he’s chronicled real-life travels with his family (The Italian Summer) and imagined Jesus running for president (American Savior); he’s written about his favorite sport, in fact (Passion for Golf) and, in fantasy (Golfing with God).
Nonetheless, a sense of spiritual inquiry informs most of Merullo’s wide-ranging work and has become increasingly explicit in recent years. His latest novel, Dinner with Buddha, coming from Algonquin in June, is a third installment in the adventures of editor Otto Ringling and his brother-in-law, Buddhist guru Volya Rinpoche. Like its two predecessors Breakfast with Buddha and Lunch with Buddha, the book mingles humor and sharp social observation with Otto’s struggle to let go of his doubts and appreciate the sacred found in the everyday. “My idea of spirituality is that it’s part and parcel of life,” says Merullo. “It doesn’t have to do with going to church or temple or to a mosque; it has to do with how I speak to my children, how I do my work, what I do with my time.”
Seated in a New York hotel room, headed back home to western Massachusetts after a South Carolina vacation with his wife and teenage daughters, Merullo is as thoughtful and unpretentious in conversation as he is in his books. “I’ve always been devout in different ways,” he says. “I was raised a very devout Catholic, and meditation has been a huge part of my daily life for 35 years.” He wasn’t sure, though, that readers would be receptive to novels incorporating his spiritual preoccupations. “It pleased me when one review used the word ‘brave’ to describe these books, because I think it does take a certain amount of career courage to write about spirituality for educated people in a way that is open-minded and not cynical; it’s easy for intellectual critics to dismiss writing about religion, especially from someone who doesn’t have a degree in it.”
Writing “quirky spiritual novels” turned out to be a good career move. Golfing with God got a sales boost from being prominently featured on National Public Radio, while Breakfast with Buddha, published by Algonquin in 2007, built more slowly. “It didn’t sell that well the first year in hardcover, about 10,000 copies,” Merullo says. “But then it just kept going; it actually picked up over time. It got onto the book club circuit, and word of mouth is really what sells books, in my opinion. There are a lot of people in the reading community, I think, who want to have some sort of spiritual aspect to their life but are not completely comfortable in any one tradition. Breakfast tapped into that and continues to sell surprisingly well.”
No one was more surprised than Merullo by his success. “I don’t spend a tremendous amount of time worrying about what’s best for me marketwise; I write from what I’m thinking about most.” As an example, he points to the four-year period 1998-2002 that produced the novels Revere Beach Boulevard and In Revere, In Those Days and the memoir, Revere Beach Elegy, all about his working-class Massachusetts hometown. “Those books were written at a time when I was trying to figure out my relationship to Revere, because to grow up there and go to the places I’ve been”—he was a scholarship student at Exeter Academy and Brown University—“I felt very torn between those very different worlds, and I was trying to sew up that tear.”
Merullo says that he “feels badly that my father died before my first novel was published, because he and my mother really made sacrifices to get me the great education that I got, and they never gave me a hard time about working as a carpenter while I was writing at night and on weekends. I had a weird way of living, purely intuitive; I would just go with what I felt like, and I didn’t look too far into the future. I still don’t, and my wife is that way too; we’re not as ruled by security as maybe we should be. We’ve paid a high price for it in terms of stress at times, but we’ve also had a wonderful life. We’ve traveled and we spend a tremendous amount of time with our kids. It did worry me a little that Leaving Losapas wasn’t published until I was 37!”
After moving from publishing house to house for his first three books, Merullo settled into a happy editorial relationship with Shaye Areheart at Crown; she published his non-religious fiction while Algonquin did the spiritual titles. “Shaye was a friend and a real supporter of mine. I would write whatever I wanted to write; she would be enthusiastic, and she would make great editing changes. It was a real blow when she left Crown. [Areheart is now director of the Columbia University Publishing Course.] It made my career much more difficult, and I really miss her.”
Luckily for Merullo, around the same time he made contact with Peter Sarno, an instructor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who regularly assigned Revere Beach Elegy in his literature class but discovered in 2010 that the book was out of print. “We didn’t know each other growing up, but Peter is from Revere too,” Merullo recalls. “He came to me and said, ‘What can I do?’ I got the rights back, and he started a publishing company based on Revere Beach Elegy!”
PFP Publishing has since issued reprints of several other books and some e-book singles by Merullo; it has branched out to reprint the backlist of other authors, such as Craig Nova, Suzanne Strempek Shea, and Sterling Watson. The company has also released a small number of new titles, including the final novel in Merullo’s Revere series, The Return, published in October 2014. “The Return is a sequel to Revere Beach Boulevard,” Merullo explains. “I had written a lot of it earlier, then went back and reworked it. Peter and I are good friends now, and given where we grew up, The Return seemed like a book that was right for his house.”
Merullo’s next book, under contract to Doubleday, stars the Dalai Lama and the pope (unnamed, but much like Pope Francis, whom Merullo admires). “They want to get away from their official duties for a while, so they sneak away and take a three-day road trip,” says Merullo, who used the same narrative device in his Buddha trilogy and based the fictional travels on trips taken with his family. “That makes it pretty easy to write, actually, because I have a nonfiction skeleton. Everything about the road trips in the Buddha books is absolutely true: every road, every restaurant, everything seen or heard on the radio is stuff that actually happened. Then I just have to put a flesh of characters and conversations and ideas on that skeleton; it’s easier than making up an entire universe. Besides, I love road trips, trying new places to eat and meeting new people. I could happily drive back and forth across the world.”
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar, reviews books for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast.