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Bestselling author Robert Rotenberg talks about crime, craftsmanship and learning from the past

What We Buried by Robert Rotenberg

“For you the war is over, but for many of us here it never ended. We buried the bodies, not the memories.”

What we buried (Simon & Schuster), the seventh bestselling novel by Detective Ari Greene, Canadian author Robert Rotenberg delves into two unsolved cases, dark family secrets, and a gruesome event straight out of history. From modern-day Toronto to Nazi-occupied Italy, Rotenberg takes readers on an impeccably researched thrilling journey with themes that resonate through history to the present day. You can read our full review of the book here—and below you can read us speaking to the author himself about all things inspiration, research, and how Rotenberg's experience as a criminal defense attorney informs his writing.

Q: What impact has your work in criminal law had on the unsolved cases in What we buried?

A: I like to say that I am a better criminal defense attorney as a writer and a better writer as a criminal defense attorney. Both are about people. Their secrets. Their mistakes. Their true personality. And both are about storytelling. In many ways, every criminal case I have ever done is a cold case because I am always digging into the past and peeling back the onion, as we like to say. That is what I have done in imagining and writing. What We bury. Only this time the unsolved case was an all too real Nazi massacre of 40 innocent citizens in a remote Italian mountain town. A crime of immense proportions that still resonates today, and I was honored to be able to shed light on it and preserve it. I believe that is why this novel evoked such an emotional response from my readers.

Q: What inspired you to set the story in historical Italy and in particular in Gubbio?

A: One summer, more than 25 years ago, we were traveling through central Italy and ended up in Gubbio, a perfectly preserved medieval hill town, in the middle of a 500-year-old crossbow competition. It was held on the most beautiful elevated square in all of Europe, complete with costumed competitors, musicians and flag wavers. This was before I had written any novels. But I knew that one day I would have to include this spectacular scene as the introduction to a book. In my first novel in the series, Old Town Hall, I gave one of my main characters, Daniel Kennicott, the backstory that his older brother Michael was on his way to Gubbio the night he was murdered. Over the next five novels, readers kept writing to me and asking: When will Daniel return to Gubbio to find out who killed Michael? Finally, he did.

Q: In the introduction of the book, you mention that writing the book required a lot of research and painful conversations. Tell us more about that process and the experience.

A: My first six novels were legal thrillers based on my life as a criminal lawyer and the contemporary world of Toronto. In the series, I gave my characters a rich backstory, particularly Detective Ari Greene and his father, Holocaust survivor (and reader favorite) Yitzhak Greene. I am not the child of a survivor, but most of my friends and my partner in the legal profession are. For years, I spoke to their parents, who told me their extraordinary stories. The same goes for WWII veterans and, for this book, a 98-year-old British woman who was a “Morse Code” spy. Years ago, I visited the small Polish town of Ivansk, where my family came from, and where all but two of its Jews were massacred. And 25 years later, I returned to Gubbio and met, among other things, a priest who, at great risk to himself, saved a Jewish family. The past is not past, as Faulkner said, and I hope it comes alive in this novel.

Q: What we buried is written so vividly – ​​as a screenwriter, do you imagine that your novels play out like a film before your eyes as you write them?

A: Yes and no, and thank you for the compliment. I don't think I ever write a screenplay. But I see every chapter of my books in my head, down to the smallest detail. One of the reasons I returned to Gubbio was to walk the streets day after day. I became Daniel Kennicott turning right (not left, as I had written in an earlier draft) as he runs away from the crossbow competition. For me, the drama is the individual in the crowd. There is a great French film made during the occupation called The children in paradise. In the final, suspenseful scene, the hero is stuck in a crowd of people desperately trying to get through. That's the kind of moment I'm looking for. Cinematic? Yes. But even more so: gripping drama. William Shakespeare was pretty good at creating vivid scenes too, and this was a few decades before cinema existed.

Q: Although the book focuses on true historical events, the impact of those events still resonates into the present day. What do you want modern audiences to take away from the story?

A: I have never had such a response to any of my books as I have to this novel. One example of many. The book contains many true historical events, one of which is Canada's brutal fight against the Germans to liberate Ortona, an Italian coastal town. The fight took place in December 1943. Every time I give a talk, someone raises their hand and says: his father fought there, his uncle died there. Almost every day I get an email from someone saying the same thing, or telling me a story about their family during and after the war. I like to say that fiction lets us tell the truth in a way that touches people and stays with them. So many people thank me for bringing them to life, educating them, entertaining them, and inspiring them. That makes all the hard work of writing a novel so worthwhile.

Q: Are you working on another novel?

A: Just finished. Released on February 25, 2025. Title: Just a minute. Again, I set my fictional characters in real historical settings. It's 1988. The G-7 conference is taking place in Toronto. This book is a prequel. Readers will see young detective Ari Green sent to the Quebec-Vermont border during a Fourth of July parade (there's your vivid cinematic opening scene) on a tip-off that an assassin is on his way to kill the world's leaders. My previous novels were legal thrillers à la Grisham and Torow, this is an action-packed chase novel à la The Day of the Jackal. It's a lot of fun to write and, I think, to read too. “The bath water got cold,” said my editor when she read the first draft. Now I'm starting book nine. It's May 1945, the war is over and Ari Greene's father Yitzhak is about to meet General Dwight Eisenhower and…


Around Robert Rotenberg:

Robert Rotenberg is the author of several bestselling novels, including Old Town Hall, The confession of guilt, Ricochet, chokehold, Heart of the cityAnd Downfall. He is a criminal defense lawyer in Toronto with his firm Rotenberg, Shidlowski, Jesin. He is also a screenwriter and writing instructor. Visit him at robertrotenberg.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertRotenberg and Facebook @RobertRotenberg.

What We Buried by Robert Rotenberg

Release date: 27.02.2024

Genre: Historical fiction, Thriller

Author: Robert Rotenberg

Number of pages: 320 pages

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 9781982179649