Tell us a little about what inspired you to start writing, and how it’s evolved in the last few years.
I’ve been writing since third grade when my story ‘A Present for Polly’ was mimeographed and handed out to the class. I wrote spy novels in junior high (it was the age of James Bond, The Man from UNCLE, The Avengers, I Spy and so on) but I didn’t publish anything until I was in my thirties.
I began to place short literary fiction in magazines. I got interested in a novel after studying Irish monasticism for a documentary I was scripting (I was working for an educational media company).
The thrilling true story of Saint Columba of Iona captured my imagination. Here was a hot-tempered warrior-monk who went to war over a book and, in remorse over the thousands slain, exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the Druids, miracles versus magic, to prove the power of God. He’s the first man recorded to have encountered the Loch Ness monster.
This was great stuff for a novel, I thought, and it became The Throne of Tara, released by an evangelical publisher in 1990 and re-released in 2000.
My research included the rich trade in relics during medieval times, and the thriller/romance Relics set in Crusader Palestine was the result, published in 1993 (re-released in 2009).
I’d planned on another historical, with Aristotle, the Father of Logic, solving a crime. But I learned early on that a British writer had done this already, and I changed my idea. I’d have a rhetoric/classics professor who was familiar with Aristotle solve a seemingly irrational mystery by applying Aristotelian logic. The research during Relics exposed me to mystical phenomena such as the stigmata, and I had my premise: a stigmatic priest seems to bleed to death on Good Friday – a miracle or a murder? This became Bleeder.
I became a Catholic toward the end of the drafting, and the book took on a deeper Catholic coloring as a result, with wise advise from my editor at Sophia Institute Press.
The sequel, Viper, also has a strong Catholic flavoring to it, but it is an organic part of the story and never forced, never preachy. Because of this, I’ve had good reviews from both secular and Catholic reviewers. I’m pleased about that.
What’s the greatest challenge you face as a Catholic writer?
Strange to say, it may be to avoid becoming known as a ‘Catholic writer.’ I’d like my work to have broad appeal and not be judged in advance by such a tag.
I realize there are marketing considerations where Catholic readers want some assurance that the work is respectful and accurate about Catholic matters. And I’m not embarrassed at all about being knownas Catholic.
Even so, there is the possibility of becoming ‘ghetto-ized’ as a writer, that is, so identified with a religious niche that no one else will want to touch the stuff. I’d prefer to be known as a thoughtful, stylish writer who happens to bring his worldview to bear on his work without becoming overbearing.
That doesn’t mean we can’t deal with openly Catholic characters and practices. But we needn’t be limited to them, either.We just have to be true to how we understand the world works. I’m very interested in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, and Episcopalian Susan Howatch is another writer I admire who walks this fine line.
In keeping with the spirit of your question, though, a great challenge is to avoid becoming sentimental, saccharine, and so certain about everything that the work comes across as contrived or preachy.
Give us a glimpse of what we can expect in Viper.
Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last.
Working against time, small town prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe or, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death?
What was the greatest challenge you faced as you worked on Viper?
By far, the greatest challenge was developing a credible Mexican-American woman as the protagonist. So much could go wrong with me, a 50-ish Anglo man, writing her story. I was so obsessed with getting this right that my wife says I was speaking Spanish in my sleep – and I don’t speak Spanish.
What’s your favorite part of the story?
Clearly, it is the climax where – well, that would be spoiling it. I’ll just say that it involves a really, really big snake that is aggressive, poisonous, and always hungry.
What inspires the crime and action that we find in Viper and Bleeder? How do you come up with the authenticity when you’re obviously a law-abiding citizen? Does your day job play into your fiction at all?
Let me reply to the authenticity question first. This is where skillful research comes in. There are many books and web sites on police procedure, crime investigation, forensics and so on, and every mystery writer I know works hard at getting the facts right. I’m a college professor, so I take research seriously. For example, I took a firearms course to learn how to shoot the pistol that Selena uses, a P226 Sig Sauer.
Your first question touches upon why we write (and read) mysteries at all. Mysteries – classic murder mysteries, I mean – connect with something deep inside all of us. They are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman (or EveryWoman) who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and her own flaws to expose evil and to restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful hero or heroine feel a little better about the world and about themselves.
A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy world in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But what’s wrong with that? That’s healing.
In addition, mysteries are close to the barest human desires and fears, and because they deal so openly with death, they have a built-in opportunity to explore life’s higher mysteries. Bleeder is a book-length contemplation on the mystery of undeserved suffering.
All literature tries to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birthdate and departure date on our tombstones. The mystery novel is a good vehicle for this, and is entertaining, too.
As someone who can’t wait for the next book from you, tell us what you’re working on next.
I’m working on the third book in the series, which deals with life insurance fraud and ‘viatical settlements’ where life insurance policies are sold to brokers who bundle them, securitize them into bonds and sell them to third-party investors who divide the full death benefit upon the death of the original seller. They are called ‘death bonds.’ It’s a huge industry in this country. It’s in many peoples’ interests to make sure the sellers die within a prescribed time fame, before the investors must take over paying the premiums. Selena, an insurance agent, notices something very odd going on with some of her clients – well, that gives you an idea.
John Desjarlais blogs as Johnny Dangerous and the scoop about all of his writing is featured at his website. You’ll find Bleeder, Viper, and all of his other work at Amazon.
There are plenty more Quick Takes over at Conversion Diary, so be sure to visit!
Thanks for a fascinating interview. I’m relatively new to the mystery genre (I’ve never really read them until recently), and I like John’s insights about why we love these kinds of stories.
The comment about “Catholic writers” reminded me of something Paul Wilkes wrote in In Due Season … that he finally realized he was not a Catholic writer, but rather a writer who was Catholic. I appreciate the distinction … it makes sense to me, too.
Thanks for sharing!
In fact, Ginny, most of my favorite Catholic writers (fiction, anyway) are
those who say just that. 🙂
Glad you enjoyed the interview!