The Secret Novelist

Novelist Tom Grace has written a thriller based on the story of Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei.

CNS Photo
CNS Photo

TOM GRACE has penned a thriller, The Secret Cardinal (Vanguard Press), which revolves around the state of the Church in the People’s Republic of China, China’s relationship with the Vatican, and an imprisoned bishop who has been declared a cardinal in pectore (in secret).

Grace, a 45-year-old architect and novelist, father of five children and member of the Knights of Columbus, spoke about his writing with Register correspondent Judy Roberts.

The hero of your novels, Nolan Kilkenny, is Catholic. Tell us about your own life as a Catholic and how that ties into your book.

I’m a cradle Catholic and I come from a very long line of Irish Catholics. I’ve traced them at least to the 1790s to Tipperary and Kilkenny.

I attended 12 years of parochial schools all the way up through what is now Novi Catholic Central, then went on to the University of Michigan. I met my wife there. She was a lector and I was an extraordinary minister of [Communion] at St. Mary’s Student Chapel in Ann Arbor. We actually met in the first 12 hours of school.

The Good Lord knew that I was in my shell and wouldn’t know what to do with a girl if I met one. My wife quite literally fell into my lap so I decided to keep her. We got married two weeks after I finished graduate school.

I’m a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Dexter, Mich., though I grew up in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit. My home parish is St. Maurice in Livonia. In fact, one of the characters in The Secret Cardinal is Cardinal Cain, named for Father [Thomas] Cain, founding pastor of the parish. I was an altar boy for him for years. And most of the cardinals in the book are based on Basilians from Catholic Central.

Your success as a novelist is quite recent and your primary work is that of an architect who designs high-tech research facilities. How did you happen to start writing suspense novels?

I’d never been a writer in my life. I’ve since met a lot of writers, and one thing I’ve found that we all have in common is that we devour books. We just breathe them and love them. You get to the point where you want to start telling stories.

As an architect, I’m used to long-term projects.

When I laid out the goals I wanted to accomplish, one was to write a novel. I’ve always enjoyed writing and thought I’d like to take a crack at writing a book just to see if I could do it. I had the opportunity in the ’90s to do it over my lunch hour. I took a job with the University of Michigan Medical Center and my boss told me we work eight hours a day and the lunch hour is yours, so do whatever you want. You can go work out, nap, whatever. So here I have a nice quiet room that I could sit in and write a book if I want to. Within a year, I had the draft of my first novel, Spyder Web.

How did you get it published?

Writing it was easier than finding a publisher. The first draft was 300,000 words, which was Lord of the Rings-length. It took me six years to edit and find a publisher. I ended up having to self-publish it and had a very good first run in Michigan. I sold 1,000 copies in a short time and then New York got interested. I signed a three-book deal with Warner Books, wrote a few for them, then went with Pocket Books. I’m now on my fifth book.

How does The Secret Cardinal compare with your other novels? Did you tone down the sex and language because of the subject matter and the audience it was likely to attract?

I’m not comfortable writing about sex. If it isn’t really necessary to the plot, I’m not going to use it to spice things up. My characters don’t swear a lot, either. Military guys use it as military guys would because it’s their vernacular. It’s not excessive because really you don’t need it.

I tell my kids: “Profanity is an excuse for poor vocabulary. You should be able to come up with something better than that.” So there’s very little profanity in the book and some of it is in Chinese.

How did you hear about the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei, the model for Cardinal Yin in your book, and why did he capture your interest?

I read about Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s tribute to Cardinal Kung and then looked up the full transcript. It’s like reading the old stories of the saints when Saul of Tarsus was stoning Stephen. I didn’t know martyrs were being made today, certainly not in a state-sponsored sense. Here’s a government that has said we’re going to wipe out this people. It fascinated me — the example given by Kung — that someone could put up with this much abuse and not have animosity.

A normal person would be angry at the people who persecuted him for years. He’s what you would want in a priest. And certainly that became the driving characteristic for Bishop Yin in my book.

When you look at the bigger picture, here we are in the 21st century and we think this stuff is not going on and it is. This is a political action taken by one government against another government. They look at Christianity as something foreign, the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign country. In that sense, we have Beijing vs. the Vatican.

The story operates on so many different wavelengths: pure political drama, the story of faith, the history of cultures. This story touches 2.6 billion people. A huge percentage of the world’s population is somehow wrapped up in this thing.

Has anyone approached you about making a movie of The Secret Cardinal?

Not yet, but I agree it would make a good movie. I storyboard a lot of what I write, and I write a lot of what I do visually.

You get a very strong sense of place in this book, and I think that would help a moviemaker.

You include a list of facts at the end of your book separating real life from the fiction you wrote. Was this your idea?

I took the idea from Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code.

Dan Brown starts his book with the facts. He comes out in front and says Opus Dei really exists, so he kind of lays down what he believes are tantalizing facts that will create the aura of believability. What he did was very effectively lower the disbelief.

What I did was I laid out the whole book and left the question: “Could China really be doing stuff like this?”

Has anyone at the Vatican read your book?

Not that I know of, but some copies are on their way over there. One is with Cardinal [Stanislaw] Dziwisz, who was John Paul’s personal secretary. I’m doing a presentation at the Legatus International summit in February with Archbishop [Claudio Maria] Celli [president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications] in Naples, Fla. He’s an expert on the politics of Sino-Vatican relations.

What response have you received to the book from fellow Catholics?

Resoundingly positive. A lot are amazed. I’ve had more than one tell me I made them cry. This book has a lot of heart to it. It speaks to Catholic culture and Catholic sensibilities.

It’s not a religious book per se. Where you’re seeing Catholicism is in the actions of the characters, not their words. It’s what they do. Where else are you going to find a book where the victim forgives the people who have abused him for decades and the hero doesn’t actually kill anybody?

Judy Roberts writes from

Graytown, Ohio.