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Q&A with beach volleyball book Burning Sand author R.J. Ruggiero

BURNING SAND is the debut novel from R.J. Ruggiero, a screenwriter and playwright living near Boston.

It’s rare to have a novel about beach volleyball, but Ruggiero does a nice job of drawing in readers with robust character development, varying levels of suspense, and championship-level intrigue all while laying out details of beach volleyball play for novices and experts alike.

From the liner notes: From the dimly-lit alleyways of Boston’s North End to the sun-drenched beaches of Southern California, BURNING SAND is the action-packed journey of a man who discovers who he is, only after forgetting who he thought he was.

The interplay between Michael Delaney learning to embrace his life as Quinton Squid while combatting unknown demons from his own and Quinton’s past, kept our VBM readers on the hook from beginning to end. As Michael seeks clues to his true identity, he and the reader are taken along on a journey that includes great friends, mortal foes, and plenty of time in the sand. visited with Ruggiero.

VBM: What was the inspiration for writing this book? 

Twofold. My brother’s sudden and all-consuming interest in volleyball, and a transformational story I had started writing. The story explored going from the dark to the light, nature vs. nurture, and to what extent each influences who we are and who we become.

My brother and I had been athletes our whole lives, growing up in an athletic family, my mother having played basketball and my father football. Like many athletes, playing sports and physicality was not as much a conscious decision as a natural manifestation of who we were and what we loved to do. It was our greatest joy – like so many of us, we connected to sports on a deeply spiritual level. I played most sports and studied martial arts, but there were no volleyball teams at our school. For me, volleyball was an athletic delicacy the gym teacher brought out once a year, like a dessert cart at a fancy restaurant. And I loved it. 

A year later, my brother became obsessed with volleyball when he went to a different high school with a team. It was not a passing fancy, he was serious about it. He pursued his dream and went on to become an outside hitter in college volleyball, then played pro beach.

Beach volleyball affected him on a primal level. He always said ‘Beach Volleyball is God’s sport – you’re connected to the earth, your toes are in the sand, the ocean is by your side and the sun above is shining down on you, feeding you. It’s a combination of explosive power and incredible finesse, these athletes use their body like a paintbrush, the court their canvas.’ 

His connection to the sport was deeply spiritual, firmly rooted, and continuing to flourish. I wanted to connect with him about it and understand what had so completely captured him, so I began to voraciously learn about the sport, imbibing all I could. I then realized that this was the light I had been looking for to balance the dark in the story I was writing. The character needed to go from the dark to the light, and to me, beach volleyball represented the light in a myriad of ways. I have always liked the idea of putting human themes in entertaining packages. 

VBM: What was the most difficult part of writing Burning Sand?

Having traditionally been a writer of dialogue for most of my career, one of the biggest challenges was capturing the energy of the game in a novel. I thought it was very important to mirror the game, and to structure both the story and the volleyball scenes in a highly kinetic way. It doesn’t stop, it just keeps moving. 

As any athlete knows, preparation is paramount. And as in all walks of life – know your subject. It was imperative to be credible to the reader, so thorough research was key. I would watch and read everything I could get my hands on. I got stacks of out-of-print volleyball books from the library. I especially enjoyed the stories Gene Selznick wrote about his experiences with the Olympic team and Olympic Games. I also devoured countless copies of Volleyball Magazine and other periodicals from the 1990s. 

I think the biggest challenge was to write a book for people who already knew and loved volleyball, as well as those who didn’t know anything about it. It was essential that the seasoned volleyball player could enjoy it and not be bored with ‘instructions,’ but that it also be a novel that novices could read, understand, and be drawn into the sport by. We bring the reader into it through Quinton Squid. Almost childlike after losing his memory, he is ostensibly a newborn – as he learns about volleyball, so does the reader. To do so in such a way that didn’t interfere with the broader story was of paramount importance to me. 

VBM: How did you decide on the title Burning Sand?

The working title was originally Quinton Squid, but I felt it was too specific to the title character only, and didn’t really exposit some of the broader elements of the story. 

Burning Sand works on several levels. Literally, the sand really does get that hot and you have to play on it for hours at a time. More symbolically, the hybrid character of Michael/Quinton is actually conceived in fire, exists in a state of lava-like flux in his inner life, and is trying to adapt throughout the story to the shifting sands of his life’s past, present, and future circumstances. These are often fluid and sometimes painful. 

As one character says to Quinton, “Fire certainly has taken a lot from you.”  In a sense, he is like the Phoenix rising from the ashes. As his old life literally burns away, a new life and new journey can begin. So fire can be destructive but is also transformative, and in this case ultimately creative.

VBM: Michael’s transformation into Quinton is expansive. What steps led you there? 

In creating the character of Michael Delaney I wanted to explore the idea of finding oneself in a situation not of one’s own making (in this case a benevolent child being adopted into, and having to come of age in, the Mob), and the steps they take to try and protect their integrity, while doing the minimum required by the situation to survive. 

When he tries to escape, his old self is physically destroyed, and he is thrown into the life of Quinton Squid. 

At first glance, we see that Quinton was not a good person, but as Michael learns more about the life of this man he now believes himself to be, it becomes clear that the original Quinton’s own journey is what had brought him to that level of absolute callousness & cynicism. 

I was intrigued by the idea of a person trying to piece together a new identity from the ashes of two men, Michael and Quinton, and in the process finding out who he really is. 

In having a blank slate he can be something more real, not just his culturally created self. And in doing so, he becomes a catalyst for growth for the people around him. Repairing the damage that his former self had done. Creating a new hybrid self with which he can live.

VBM: What was the inspiration for Holly O’Connor?

It was essential to have a strong female lead character who was also a top beach volleyball player, in order to balance out the force of both the original (and then hybrid) Quinton’s personality, both on and off the court. 

Holly O’Connor is a badass, and she is introduced to us as such. We also see that honesty and loyalty are her touchstones, along with her strength. She is not impressed by Quinton’s career or his looks, as she has her own intellectual and physical power. She is an emotional grownup with no guile, a whole person on her own. She’s not lacking in any way. If he never came along, she would be fine. They find a true partnership in each other not based on need or lack.  

VBM: What’s next?

I would love to write a sequel. Perhaps Holly & Quinton have a daughter, who grows up to be a top beach pro. Maybe she moonlights in international intrigue while on tour. Maybe Gina is her ‘Godmother’? Who knows – the sky’s the limit!  

I would also love to see this book made into a movie and am working on things in that regard.  

Burning Sand is now available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Or check it out anytime on Kindle Unlimited.