When Literary Paths Converge

An F&M professor and alumnus kindle a serendipitous partnership

Nicholas Montemarano, associate professor and chair of English at F&M. (Photo by Dave DeBalko)

More than a decade ago, Nicholas Montemarano and John Parsley ’01 just missed each other in their academic home in Franklin & Marshall’s Keiper Liberal Arts Building. Montemarano joined the College’s Department of English a year after Parsley, an English major, walked across the Commencement stage.

But Parsley became a fan of Montemarano’s work from afar. Now executive editor at Hachette Book Group’s Little, Brown and Company, Parsley says: “From my first day working in publishing, I knew I wanted to see what Nick would write next.”

John Parsley ’01 edited “The Book of Why,” by Nicholas Montemarano (top).

When Parsley was invited to return to campus in 2004 for a panel discussion on publishing at F&M’s Philadelphia Alumni Writers House, he was joined by Montemarano’s literary agent, another invited panelist. Parsley expressed his eagerness to not just read Montemarano’s next work, but to be a part of the process.

It’s what the fictional Eric Newborn, the character in Montemarano’s new novel, “The Book of Why,” calls the power of setting an intention. Parsley would know—he served as the book’s editor.

Published in January by Little, Brown and Company, Montemarano’s book is the product of a literary partnership that thrived between the professor and alumnus over the past few years. “I chose to work with John because I just liked the way he connected with ‘The Book of Why,’ how he spoke about it, and his vision for it,” says Montemarano, associate professor and chair of English at F&M.

When Parsley heard Montemarano was working on a novel several years ago, “I was right there and ready,” he says. That the book was about such strange confluences made it even more attractive.

“I think we crave serendipity in our lives—the feeling that things work out, that things are connected—but we can often look back and feel that’s what was at work, forgetting the time and effort we put in to make it possible in the first place,” Parsley says. “So much about [the book’s] publication feels serendipitous to me—not to ignore the years of work Nick put in perfecting the book.”

In “The Book of Why,” self-help author and inspirational speaker Newborn preaches the power of positive thinking to remedy all of life’s problems, then struggles internally when his world view doesn’t align with the pain of reality and his own loss. Through magical thinking and the help of an ardent fan, Newborn rediscovers his faith in the world.

Montemarano says he does believe “there is a mysterious logic and order to the universe.”

“Almost every good fortune that has come into my life has arrived not when I’ve wanted it but when I’ve least expected it. In other words, you get what you need—good or bad—when you need it,” says Montemarano.

Parsley says that he and Montemarano share a similar world view. “We’re rational and seek evidence for everything. At the same time, we find stories that have no explanation very compelling,” he says. The view bears striking similarity to the novel, as the characters imbue coincidences with deep meaning.

As for the editing process itself, Montemarano notes: “We work very well together. John’s a careful, close reader—I’d expect nothing else after an F&M education—and made some valuable suggestions as I revised the manuscript for publication.”

Parsley views the editing process as “the beginning of a conversation. If the author inhabits a book, lives with it for years, I’m a stranger. I’m the first in a wave of people who will come to it with fresh eyes.”

Although the story was fresh, there’s a sense of familiarity for Parsley—and for many F&M alumni—as the characters inhabit the city of Lancaster for a time, dining at the former eatery Wish You Were Here, walking the city streets, and spending time in Lancaster Cemetery.

“I tend to write about places I know; it helps the fictional dream come vividly alive for me as I’m writing and therefore, one hopes, for the reader,” Montemarano says.

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