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Paradise Found: Barry Libin on 'The Mystery of the Milton Manuscript' (Q&A)

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Barry M. Libin.

An author, playwright, composer, and lyricist, Mr. Libin is also the debut novelist of The Mystery of the Milton Manuscript (Urim Publications, $24.95). He graduated from the University of Rochester and the NYU College of Dentistry. His Play, “The Triangle,” tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; he also composed the book, score, and lyrics for the forthcoming musical, “The Fiftieth Floor!” and contributed lyrics to “Bring Them Peace—A Song for Haiti,” which raised funds for relief efforts following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Mr. Libin is a member of the Milton Society of America and The Dramatist’s Guild; he and his wife make their home in New York.

The Mystery of the Milton Manuscript was published earlier this month, and reader response has been enthusiastic. Douglas Brode, author of Dream West: Politics and Religion in Cowboy Movies, heralded the title as “a top-flight work of fiction that involves the reader as a taut thriller while also having something very serious to say about classics and their resonance in our own world of today … Highly recommended … Don’t miss this one.” Further, The Mystery Gazette noted, “This is a fabulous mystery that is at its best with the deep look into Milton, his beliefs, his era and his masterpieces.”

From the publisher:

This thrilling mystery is the story of Keith Jessup, a PhD student at Oxford, whose professor is murdered before delivering a lecture disclosing Milton's own explanation of his great epic poem, Paradise Lost. In his stead, Keith takes up the quest to find the hidden Milton Manuscript and finally unravel the long lost meaning of the poem. The scholarly hunt proves perilous as he discovers a plot to conceal the manuscript. Why? What could it contain that would spark such fear and murder over the centuries? In this historically rich book, Libin uncovers the interpretation of Milton's poem and reveals how Milton justified the ways of God to man.

Now, Barry M. Libin enlightens readers as to the backstory of his first novel …

1) What inspired you to write THE MYSTERY OF THE MILTON MANUSCRIPT – and how do you feel about the book being described as the “Jewish Da Vinci Code”?

I wrote THE MYSTERY OF THE MILTON MANUSCRIPT to reintroduce readers to John Milton, his thoughts and his times. Milton is one of four English poets, along with Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare that have been studied over the past three hundred years, and yet, to me, Milton has far greater significance, delving deeper into our most pressing spiritual, political and ethical concerns. To help explain these concerns, I wrote this book as a tale of mystery and intrigue whose content includes history, literature, and religious conspiracy. I suppose I am flattered to be associated with such a successful novel as THE DAVINCI CODE. Dan Brown had me underlining his book. I would certainly enjoy the same results. But, to be honest, the book is as much about Christianity as Judaism, and one of the key conflicts is between Pauline Theology and Mosaic Law.

2) How do you hope that your work might influence modern readers in regard to their understanding of Paradise Lost?

There is no poem as great as Paradise Lost in terms of form or content. However, to answer the question let me quote directly from Professor Sundstrom, one of the characters in the novel. “The fact is Paradise Lost long ago became a basic expression of Christendom . . . Never forget the power and beauty of its language and the questions that every man must answer to himself: If the world was created by a just and loving God, then why must the righteous suffer? If man is created in the image of God, then what is that image? Understand what I am about to say: the greatness of Milton’s epic is that is transformed myth into doctrine! Hear me now. Myth into doctrine! Never underestimate the significance of Milton’s poem on a world seeking meaning.”

3) Though you are a composer, playwright and lyricist (among other things), this is your first novel. How did you find the experience to compare to your expectations – and how do these various creative disciplines impact one another?

Good question. I have found that the novel gives me greater freedom to expound in more detail upon issues that I believe are of concern to me and my readers. If I am writing a musical, and the book is 100 pages long, 30 of those pages is music. That means I must develop an entire plot with only 70 pages of written material. That being said, reading a novel makes the reader the active participant in making the book come alive, and a great responsibility for the novelist to transform the written word into drama. But in theater we have a saying: if you can’t say it, sing it. So the dramatic effect is more palpable in a play, where the scenery, the set, the costumes and the music are, shall we say, setting the scene. And most dramatic of all, the cast is before your eyes translating the written word. There is very little for the audience to do but sit back and enjoy.

4) How do you endeavor to balance entertainment with education when dealing with history/theology --and did you have any initial reservations, given the subject matter?

For some reason I did not find that a problem. I enjoy teaching, and when I choose an interesting subject that involves history, science, or the arts, placing those into an exciting story is a great way to teach, even though it may be a new interpretation of factual material. I believe readers want to be challenged, and I offer them that challenge - the evidence is presented, let them decide.

5) The narrative globetrots a bit. What are the challenges of using multiple locations – and how can doing so enhance the overall story?

Another interesting question. Many people who have read it tell how they immediately have pictured it as a movie. Indeed, that genre does have the advantage of scenes moving from one location to another. In the case of my genre, which has been compared to the intellectual mystery novel, the constant movement makes the information I wish to impart a more exciting method of learning.

6) Leave us with a little teaser: what comes next?

Aha, you are very good. I will tell you only this: it is a period of great and controversial history; there is one character that continues into the next novel; and the working title is: THE VATICAN’S VAULT.

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With thanks to Barry M. Libin for his generosity of time and thought and to Rachel Hundert of Meryl Zegarek Public Relations, Inc. for facilitating this interview.

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