The Pen and Muse Interviews Kenneth Atchity
The Messiah Matrix
by Kenneth John Atchity
A gold coin reveals the true origins of Christianity.
Where are you from? Tell us a little about yourself!
I was born in Eunice, Louisiana, and raised in Kansas City, alternating back and forth between Missouri and Louisiana until I left for college at Georgetown. Graduate school at Yale, then professor at Occidental College for twenty years until I left to become a producer and literary manager.
How do you create your characters?
I think of someone I know well and care about, use them as a starting point, shaping them as the story demands.
Tell us about your book? How did it get started?
In Jesuit high school, my teachers kept comparing Jesus Christ to Julius Caesar. Then I ran into research that led me further into the connections between Augustus and Christianity. The more I read, the more the story leapt out at me.
What inspires and what got your started in writing?
My mother told me I had a terrible imagination, and urged me to start writing stories as she and her south Louisiana siblings did with their front porch tales.0
Where do you write? Is there something you need in order to write (music, drinks?)
No. I write everywhere. Love writing on the plane, and in exotic locations looking out at wonderful sights like Victoria Harbor in Hong Kong, Campo dei Fiori in Rome, or the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.
How do you get your ideas for writing?
Things that intrigue me, and that I’m willing to spend a year on, are candidates for a new story. Ideas are everywhere, as omnipresent as air.
What do you like to read?
When I’m not sneaking time to re-read a classic like Don Quixote, I prefer thrillers and historical nonfiction, like William Manchester’sThe Death of a President, which I recently re-read as background for the film we’re developing, The Kennedy Detail, based on Jerry Blaine and Lisa McCubbins’ bestseller by the same name.
What would your advice to be for authors or aspiring in regards to writing?
Don’t let a single day go by without writing. Never give up. Don’t hesitate over rejection, but go out and get as many nos as you can before you get to the yes you need.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Go for it! Use yourself up, body, mind, and soul. That’s what we’re here for.
Read an excerpt:
PrologueThe three-wheeled truck, having weathered World War II and every day after, carried its battle scars proudly as it hovered on the curb of Via del Plebiscito. Its V-shaped bumper was as jagged as a saw. Behind the wheel its latest owner, Zbysek Bailin, waited patiently, as though he were long accustomed to assassination on a rainy Wednesday evening.
A red umbrella rounded the corner from the Piazza del Gesù. Zbysek took in a breath and turned the ignition key. The engine coughed to an idle, purred raggedly awaiting further command from its driver. The silver-haired man ambled toward the intersection of Via degli Astalli that flanked the rear of the massive church. Purposely leaving his headlight off, Zbysek shifted into gear and bounced into the street. His foot pressed on the reluctant accelerator, the ancient vehicle climbing all too slowly up to speed.
The man had reached the intersection, and as he passed beneath the streetlight Zbysek thought he might well be deaf—he was so lost in thought he didn’t seem to hear the rumbling truck, even as it barreled toward him at full speed.
Clutching tight to the shaky steering wheel, Zbysek was hunched forward in the cab, eyes intent on his target. All he could see was the man’s bent back, crawling up Via Astalli like a praying mantis.
In seconds the truck had jumped the curb and was upon him.
The man swung around with his books and umbrella, a look of sudden shock on his face—the smile erased. His coat fell open.
For the first time, Zbysek saw his victim clearly in the light of the street lamp—the crisp white collar and the purple piping on his black vest.
His target was a monsignor!
Zbysek hauled at the wheel—but it was too late. His head struck the roof as the vehicle jerked over the body and slammed straight into the lamppost, thrusting Zbysek into the windshield and cracking his head on the glass. He climbed clumsily out of the cab and fell to his knees beside his victim. “Forgive me, father,” Zbysek finally choked out.
The old man’s face was twisted with pain. His narrowed eyes were glistening, blood trickling from his lips. He reached his hand toward his Angel of Death. He seemed to want to speak. Zbysek lowered his head to hear. The monsignor’s final whispered words confused and frightened him, and he leapt for the three-wheeler and fled from the scene.
Father Ryan McKeown’s mood was less than reverential as he headed for the confessional where he was to perform his priestly duties. The lines of penitents in Gesù were short today. Perhaps because there’d been no major holidays recently or any coming soon, the “occasions of sin” were easier to avoid. Just as Ryan was about to step into the polished mahogany cubicle, a bedraggled man burst into the nave. The man headed for the first confessional, and knelt briefly. Moments later he unceremoniously leapt to his feet to join a short line at the next confessional booth, causing bowed heads to look up in curiosity. Ryan was bemused. Could a man’s sins be so grave he feels the need to come clean of them to several confessors?
Ryan settled himself behind the ivory baffle and listened, in turn, to an old man cursing God because his arthritis no longer allowed him to play bocce; to a teenager who abused himself fourteen times in the past seven days, using the image of his teacher, a nun, as inspiration—Father Ryan, doing his best to repress a smile, told him to say the rosary and promise never to sin again; and to a seminarian barely out of high school who asked if having concerns about his faith meant he should quit the seminary.
“Doubts are not in themselves a sin,” he told the young man. “Thomas, though he doubted, went on to become a great apostle and martyr. Not to mention Mother Teresa, whose troublesome doubts dogged at her heels even more persistently than Calcutta’s poor. I can tell you, it’s what you do with doubt that matters.” He questioned whether his comments had been of any service, or whether he should have simply referred the seminarian to a therapist. He’d often wondered where he’d be today if he himself hadn’t rejected psychotherapy as an option.
He was removing his stole to leave when a tardy penitent thumped down on the kneeler and activated the tiny red light. Ryan slid open the grate. In the obscure light he could see only enough to determine that his supplicant was a male. “Yes, my son?”
“Are you Father Ryan?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Ryan answered, before he could consider how the penitent could know his name.
“Thank God I’ve found you.”
Ryan realized he was speaking with the lost soul who’d been playing musical confessionals. “How long has it been since your last confession?”
“I killed a priest.” Ignoring the sacramental protocol, the man blurted it out in a coarse accent that Ryan had never heard before. Then, remembering the ritual formalities, the man added, “I don’t remember my last Confession. Many years ago, in Tirana.”
So the accent was Albanian. “What do you mean you killed a priest?”
“I hit him with my truck. He was a monsignor. I tried to help him. His eyes…oh my God! I got scared and drove away.”
Ryan’s heart went out to the man on the other side of the grate. The anguish in the man’s voice was dreadful. “An accident, no matter how grievous, is not a sin,” he said. “You simply have to—”
“It wasn’t an accident,” the immigrant interrupted. “I was paid to run him down.”
Ryan fell silent. What fate had led this man to his confessional today among so many hundreds in the Holy City?
“They didn’t tell me he was a monsignor.” Now the man was choking, the guttural sound poignantly wretched. “Oh, my God, I am damned to hell for all eternity.”
“Why would you accept payment for such an act?”
“I was desperate—I am desperate. My family has no money, my children need doctors—” The man’s explanations gave way to wrenching sobs. Then he regained control. “He looked at me. He told me words I didn’t understand. But I will hear them for the rest of my life.”
Reflexively Ryan slipped into his persona as an investigative scholar. “What were his words, my son?”
The poor man’s scream echoed in the hollowness of the empty church. “No!”
“It’s all right to tell me,” Ryan said. “You’re protected by the Seal of the Confessional, Holy Mother Church’s—”
“You don’t understand! It was Holy Mother Church…that paid me!”