TODAY I AM STARTING a series of interviews and guest blogs for what I call “Mondays With Mike.” Each week I’m going to try to have a guest author, most will be mystery authors, but some will write in other genres. I am pleased that my first interview is with my good friend John Desjarlais. John is a former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, and now teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his second historical novel, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder (Sophia Institute Press 2009) is his first mystery and it will be followed soon by another mystery,Viper.
Mike: I'm interested in the main character in BLEEDER, Reed Stubblefield. He is a college professor and so are you. How much of John is in Reed? Or is Reed based on a real person or a composite of several people?
John: Reed is me but smarter, more witty, and much better looking. He's intellectually curious, open minded, and a big fan of Aristotle, like me. While married (he's a widower) he was deeply in love with his wife, Peggy, and totally committed to her, especially when she took ill with leukemia - and I adore my wife of 31 years. Still, in many ways, he is not like me at all. He's a lapsed Presbyterian, full of doubts, and I'm a devout Catholic (a 'convert' from Presbyterianism, somewhat recently - in fact, during the drafting of BLEEDER). He can be a bit of a whiner, but considering how badly wounded he is in body, soul and spirit, we can cut him a break. My son says that when he read the book, he heard my voice whenever Reed spoke. I'd always heard that it was not recommended that a mystery writer base a first-person narrator on oneself, and I see the wisdom of that, but speaking as Reed came rather naturally.
M: BLEEDER involved the death of a priest, Fr. Ray Boudreau, on Good Friday in front of his parishioners. The priest was widely believed to be a stigmatic and miracle worker. So, two parts here: how 'Catholic' or religious is the book? And second, how big a role did your own faith play in writing the book?
J: My secular reviewers are pleased to note that BLEEDER is 'an intellectual delight where faith is neither demanded nor held up to ridicule' (Mystery Scene). TheGenReview said "Desjarlais is able to have his characters address deeply human issues in a manner that is in no sense heavy-handed or preachy. [BLEEDER is] a story that transcends any particular set of beliefs, and is a good mystery besides." I wanted that 'crossover' appeal and it looks like I succeeded. I had a secular publisher in mind all the way (it ended up with a small Catholic house). Readers do not need to be Catholic or religious in any way to appreciate the story. Millions read mysteries by Ralph McInerny or Andrew Greeley, which have a Catholic coloring, and aren't put off. It adds depth and another level of 'mystery,' I think. My Catholic reviewers appreciate the understanding and respect of Catholic traditions and practices. As the reviewer for Saint Anthony Messenger said, "It's not often that you come across a book that captures your full attention on an emotional level, and challenges you intellectually and spiritually, too. BLEEDER was such a book for me." I had to look up a lot of this since I was a devout, practicing Presbyterian when I started the book. I didn't know, for example, that there is no Mass on Good Friday and the first draft had Fr. Ray celebrating Mass that day. That got fixed. Now I'm Catholic. Reader beware! Ha! Seriously, unlike some 'Christian fiction,' I have no intent to proselytize, and the hero doesn't get converted in the end. As for your second question, I feel my own faith was deepened and broadened by the experience and helped me to explore the problem of undeserved suffering. One reviewer called the novel a book-length contemplation of the problem of suffering. Like I said, writing the book was part of my journey into full communion with the Catholic Church (which has a wonderfully nuanced understanding of the mystery of human suffering). This is actually a hard question to answer since, for a believing and practicing Christian, everything is filtered through that sensibility.
M: Let me get a little background from you. I know you were with Wisconsin Public Radio and a screenwriter, and you've written two other novels, Relics and The Throne of Tara. First, tell us how you got your start writing, and second, tell us a little about your first two books and if they are still available.
J: I wrote scripts for films and videos while working in the media department of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational campus ministry. One of these was a documentary on the history of Western missionary movements, and I came across the Irish monistics. This fascinated me, and I discovered Columba of Iona, a hot headed monk who went to war over a disputed scripture manuscript. Three thousand men were slain in the Battle of the Book in AD 560, and in remorse, Columba exiled himself among the savage Picts of Scotland, vowing to win as many souls to the Church as were lost in the battle. He faced the Loch Ness monster and dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. This was the stuff of a novel, I thought, and wrote it. A Protestant house picked it up in 1990, and when it went out of print in 1999, I got the rights back and re-issued it through iuniverse.com. It's still available there or at Amazon.
In my research for that, I came across the rich trade in relics that pervaded dark age and medieval Europe and how that was tied into the crusades. That brought me to Relics, a medieval thriller/romance set in France and Crusader Palestine around AD 1250, after Louis IX's disastrous invasion of Egypt. Thomas Nelson published it in 1993 and re-issued it in 2009. It's available at the Thomas Nelson web site or Amazon.
BLEEDER began as my third historical. The idea was to have Aristotle, the Father of Logic, solve a crime. But early on I found that someone else had done this. So I imagined a college professor who knew Aristotle well and who would apply Aristotelian logic to solve a crime with a non-rational element to it.
M: You have a new book, Viper, due out. Can you give us a little teaser about it?
J: 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. Against a rich backdrop of Aztec myth and Mexican Catholicism, Selena fights time, small town prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community 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?
Selena was a minor character in BLEEDER. Once she walked onto the stage, I knew she had a story of her own.
M: What is Viper's release date?
J: It's in the editing process now and the publisher, Sophia Institute Press, is aiming for a fall release, in time for the Christmas season.
M: Finally, can you give us a little information about your writing style, such as how often do you write, how you develop characters, plot, and so on?
J: When I'm cranking on a book I write every day for about two hours, and in the summer, all day if I can. I used to be more regular with a 9-5 job, very methodical, on a daily schedule. But now that I'm teaching, my hours are irregular and I find I write irregularly and in binges.
A premise comes first, a 'what if' that is then populated quickly with interesting, motivated characters. The plot develops from choices they make when confronting obstacles or complications that get in the way of their goals. I work hard at having small recognitions and reversals along the way - plot points - leading to the grand recognition and reversal, the climax. It's all very Aristotelian, really. Tara was somewhat different, being a fictionalized biography. The 'plot' - Columba's life - was largely known, though I had to imaginatively fill in gaps and make it all come alive. I set intermediate deadlines for myself and that's a good way to manage a large, long project like a novel.
M: John, I want to thank you for taking the time to visit with us today. If anyone is interested, how can they get in touch with you?
J: Thanks for the opportunity to share with you and your readers, Mike. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via my blog at http://jjdesjarlais.blogspot.com/ and people can get more details about my work at http://www.johndesjarlais.com/