Writers@Work: An Interview with Jon M. Sweeney
October 29, 2019
Note From Rochelle
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I’m delighted to welcome Jon Sweeney to the blog today to talk about his new book, St. Francis of Assisi. Sweeney will be appearing at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee on Wednesday, October 30 at 7:00 PM.
Writers@Work: An Interview with
Jon M. Sweeney
By Rochelle Melander
Thanks for visiting the blog today. I imagine it is hard to write about someone who has been written about so many times. What did you do to keep the book fresh and interesting for readers (and you!)?
Happy to. Thanks for inviting me. That’s true—I’ve written about Francis of Assisi in many books before. I see this one differently, however, and that’s why I took it on. The publisher approached me and said: We’re creating a new series of classics in spirituality and we want the first three to be on The Buddha, The Bhagavad Gita, and St. Francis. Will you write the one on St. Francis? Now how could I turn that down? It was an opportunity to reframe, retell, and retranslate for an audience of readers who are, perhaps, completely unfamiliar with the subject. I loved that. I loved the challenge of showing why he matters.
Are you familiar with the painting by Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb at the Milwaukee Art Museum? How does the artist’s view of St. Francis connect to your understanding of him?
Yes, I love that painting. I carry it on my phone, in fact. (And I have been known to visit the Museum on the first Thursday of the month when I can get in free!) Zurbaran’s is a very dark Francis. His is the Francis of contemplation, and that’s just one side of the person, the saint.
You also write a fun series for children, The Pope’s Cat. Can you talk about that book and how that came about?
I’ve essentially raised two generations of kids, since my eldest daughter is 26, and my youngest is 8, so I love telling stories for children. Always have. I came up with the idea when my wife and I were adopting our daughter, Ana; we adopted her just 2 1/2 years ago, when Ana was a teenager. I had this idea: I should teach kids something about what popes do, through the story of a friendly pope who goes walking outside the Vatican by himself, sees a stray cat on the streets of Rome, tucks her in his cassock, and brings her inside.
You’ve written many books on spirituality, many that require a lot of research. What are some of your secrets to juggling research and writing?
I think of the research as living with the subject, and I wouldn’t research and write about any subject that I didn’t want to live closely with for at least a year, usually longer than that. I’m a reader, first and foremost, and then a writer. So the research is, truly, a pleasure. Also, ever since the word processor, research-driven writing has been easy. Writers today have it way easier than writers had it pre-1985 or so. Remember index cards and typewriter ribbon? I do. We have it easy today.
Do you have any additional tips on productivity for our readers?
Take notes. Always be taking notes. And always be reading. Write when the rest of the house is away or asleep.
What are you reading now?
I’m on a Georges Simenon kick. I love the Penguin Classics reprints that have been published recently. And his prose is so very clean and simple. I appreciate the clarity of Simenon, perhaps because there isn’t the same kind of clarity in many other aspects of reading, research, and in life itself!
About the author. Jon M. Sweeney is an independent scholar and a respected writer. A biographer of St. Francis and translator of his writings, Sweeney’s books on Franciscan subjects have sold 200,000 copies. He’s the author of over thirty books including The Pope Who Quit, which was optioned by HBO. Sweeney is editor in chief and publisher of Paraclete Press. He’s appeared on CBS Saturday Morning and numerous other programs. Jon is married to Rabbi Michal Woll, the father of four, and lives in Milwaukee.