(A substantial portion of this Profile was drawn from an interview by Mike Mastromatteo of Catholic News Service, in September 2021.)
by Jeremiah Norris (Colombia 1963–65)
Roland Merullo served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Micronesia from 1979 to 1980, after receiving a B. A. and an M. A. in Russian Language and Literature from Brown University.
He then worked in the Soviet Union for the U. S. Information Agency, and before publishing his first book, he was employed as a cab driver and carpenter. Roland taught creative writing at Bennington College and Amherst College and was a Writer in Residence at Miami Dade College and North Shore Community College.
His first published essays appeared in the early 1980s, including a humorous
“My Turn” column for Newsweek. Thereafter, a virtual flood of essays and novels followed. His first novel, Leaving Losapas was published in 1991. It was quickly followed by his second novel, A Russian Requiem (1993), depicting the isolation and poverty of a city far removed from Moscow. It explored the psyches of individuals caught in the conflicts between their ideals and careers.
Roland’s early works have been termed thoughtful and reflective. He portrays himself as a person who cares about the emotional life of people. He spends a lot of his time on the emotional experiences of his characters — rather than, say, their intellectual experiences. Yet, some of his works like Golfing with God (2005) or Breakfast with Buddha (2007) and American Savior (2008) exhibited a more overtly spiritual theme, albeit humorous in tone. The seeds of this thematic shift can perhaps be traced to A Little Love Story (2005) thriller.
In the Fall of 2008, Roland surprised many with his release of Fidel’s Last Days, his first thriller. He addressed these changes by saying: “I had editors counsel me to write the same book over and over, and some readers who complained that I hadn’t kept writing books set in greater Boston. But it would be like trying to keep a migratory bird in your backyard. I just want to go places, to see things, to observe the human predicament in different forms. Like most novelists, I have a peculiar fascination with the way people behave and the psychological range of, or reasons for, their behavior”.
Roland cites much of his writings in fiction and memoir in Revere, Massachusetts, a colorful but ragged community just north of Boston. A recent novel, From These Broken Streets, is a story of Italian families coping with the devastation of Naples during the waning days of Mussolini’s fascism, published in 2020.
While he was raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family, Roland has traded his long-standing Catholicism for an exploration of the Buddhism faith tradition. He is spiritually comfortable with many aspects of it, as revealed in several of his novels, such as Breakfast with Budda (2007), Golfing with God (2005), and Driving Jesus to Little Rock (2021). In the latter novel, a reviewer found that “even non-Christians will find this road trip intriguing. A winningly thoughtful metafiction exploration of the modern nature of Christianity.. Another reviewer, this one from Publishers Weekly, called The Delight of Being Ordinary (2017), “a thoughtful compassionate and mature work, a Christian-Buddhist agnostic prayer” to the world. He raised this provocative question in Driving Jesus: “what would happen if Jesus ran for president”? Given our currently polarized nation, his portrayal of a biblical figure in a contemporary context is pertinent and timely.
Roland has written 19 novels, numerous memoirs, travelogues, 12 audio books, and not surprisingly, a book on advice for writers. Many of his novels have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, German, Chinese, Turkish, Bulgarian, Croatian, Slovenian, Czech and Italian. Most assuredly, he is living a life of purpose and meaning through multiple forms of literature and media outlets, earning him a well-deserved Profile in Citizenship.