Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Interview with John Desjarlais

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. In the Small World Department, Malta is not that far from my hometown of Moline. Welcome to my Travels, currently located in Taylor, Texas, John.

His two mysteries, VIPER and BLEEDER, are both published by Sophia Institute Press, a publishing house devoted to Catholic fiction.  BLEEDER came out in 2009 and VIPER is scheduled for March 25th. 

KAYE: There's a lot that fascinates me about this series. First, there's the sleuth, a female Mexican-American insurance agent, formerly with the DEA. Can you tell us a bit about Selena De La Cruz?

JOHN: Selena is a thirty-something second-generation Mexican-American woman with midnight hair and a cafĂ©-con-leche complexion from a family with three brothers, one of whom was her fraternal twin. Her Papa was an executive with the Mexican oil company PEMEX before taking a position at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago where Selena was born and raised in the Pilsen neighborhood. She can be feisty and tomboyish, a tough competitor (given her brothers) and, like many Latinas, is struggling to come to terms with living in two cultural worlds (Old World expectations versus New World aspirations) and also living in a man’s world. She speaks Mexican Spanish well, graduated from Loyola with a finance degree (Papa insisted) and went to work with the DEA over her Mami’s objections shortly after her twin brother was killed in a car accident in Germany where he was stationed with the Army (drugs were involved). She inherited his chili-pepper red 1969 Dodge Charger and she knows how to maintain it and race it. She is fond of expensive shoes (seized drug money paid for the high-end brands); she is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer and was excellent in undercover work until she was compelled to leave under a cloud. She took a new name and an insurance franchise in rural Illinois in order to start afresh. Every weekend, she visits her beloved Madrina Maria (her godmother-aunt) who has been her mentor especially since her parents’ passing. She is very modern and independent (and an ‘independent Latina’ is seen by many as a contradiction in terms) who likes to keep many old tradiciones.

KAYE: I can't help but notice your unusual last name, which doesn't look Spanish. How did you get the idea to write not only a female (and I suspect, being named John, you're male), but a Mexican-American?

JOHN: “De La Cruz” is really from St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet whose writings Selena admires. Her real last name was Perez (and, of course, she had many names working undercover). Selena was a minor character in my first mystery, BLEEDER. Taking place in rural Illinois, that story considered the issue of Latino immigration (in the background) and I needed a positive, educated Latin character who would be seen as a counter-balance of sorts to the many day-laborers, legal and otherwise, who were a poor and distrusted underclass. My protagonist, Reed Stubblefield, had been disabled in a school shooting and so I decided to have the local insurance agent be with his company and handle his claims. Well, once Selena walked on stage in those cherry heels, that attitude, and that kick-butt car, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I’d anticipated.

When developing an idea for the sequel, I went with a premise about the Catholic custom on All Souls’ Day where a ledger called “The Book of the Dead” is placed in church where families record the names of relatives who died that year so they can be remembered and respected. I learned that Mexicans celebrate a holiday concurrently called “The Day of the Dead” where families respect their departed relatives with home altars and cemetery picnics, among other things. And then I realized that, in blending these ideas, Selena’s name would be found in her church’s “Book of the Dead” – and the problem, of course, is that she isn’t dead. But someone wants her to be. It was clear then that Selena would take the lead in the sequel, with Reed as a minor character this time.

KAYE: The second intriguing factor is your publisher. How did you convince a Catholic publishing house to take on a book involving drug dealing, serial killing, and just generally sordid topics? I suspect this isn't the usual fare at Sophia.

JOHN: Sophia Press had been known a long time for re-issuing older classics of Catholic literature and philosophy (like Thomas Aquinas). However, partly in answer to Pope John Paul II’s call to engage the culture and get real with art (he was, you may recall, a fine playwright and a good poet), Sophia hired an editor whose job it was to find stylish genre fiction that told the full truth about our humanity, in both its nobility and fallenness. She had a particular interest in mysteries, a genre that explores the best and the worst of our human nature and is concerned with justice. We met at a writers’ conference and BLEEDER, which had been looking for a secular home for a few years through an agent, intrigued her. It had a distinctive Catholic coloring (it HAD to, given the stigmatic issue) but was never preachy, and the hero was a lapsed Presbyterian, to boot. She asked for the manuscript and offered a contract within a few days. Both BLEEDER and VIPER portray the worst consequences of people’s poor choices and desire for selfish power, but in a way that is not sensational or gory or gratuitously violent.

KAYE: Do you have more books planned in this series?  Do you think you will stay with your present publisher?

JOHN: I’m working on the third book in this series now. I expect to stay with this publisher for the series.

KAYE: I see mentions, in your summaries and reviews, of Aztec mysticism. Is this novel straight mystery, or is there some paranormal business included?

JOHN: Not ‘paranormal’ in any way, as understood in the publishing biz today. Catholics, like other Christians, have a particular understanding of ‘the seen and the unseen,’ and all of it is ‘natural,’ that is, part of the created order. The ‘supernatural’ is actually ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ because it is part of the universe God made.  But perhaps I quibble too much with the definition. Scratch a professor, get a lecture.

VIPER is part mystery and part thriller because there are crimes to be solved ( a quality of ‘mystery’) but also a “ticking clock” to be beaten (a characteristic of ‘thriller’). The “clock” is that “Book of the Dead” in the church, where there’s a list of eight Latino names with Selena’s name written last. All the names are of drug dealers who are being killed one at a time in order. Police and DEA officials believe it is a hit list of “The Snake,” a dangerous dealer Selena helped put in prison years ago who is now out and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. Just before each killing, a mysterious “Blue Lady” appears to a local girl visionary to announce the death. Many in the Mexican community believe it is Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of Mexico), but others believe it is the Aztec goddess of death (you see, Catholics wouldn’t call a Marian apparition ‘paranormal,’ but again I quibble with the term). And we see our killer from time to time in the story, in first person, tending poisonous snakes and offering devotion to Aztec deities (snakes were very important in Aztec myth and religion). Modern Mexicans are becoming more aware of their Aztec (and Toltec and Mixtec etc) heritage; it is a growing part of their self-identity as they seek to acculturate into American society without becoming assimilated.

KAYE: Are your characters mostly devout Catholics? How much religion is included, if any?

JOHN: No, not many main characters are practicing, devout Catholics. In BLEEDER, my protagonist is actually a lapsed Presbyterian, a secularized Aristotle scholar who wants little to do with religion of any sort. Still, he enters a cautious friendship with the local parish priest, an amiable Aquinas scholar – who dies on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. My hero becomes a prime ‘person of interest’ in the case as a result. He interacts with a diocesan investigator and other clerics as part of his investigation. He does not ‘convert’ at the end. Selena is a ‘cradle Catholic’ like so many in the Mexican community. It’s more of a cultural thing. Catholicism is a bit more forward in VIPER, since my heroine Selena is Mexican and for most Mexicans that means being Catholic, if only in a cultural manner. It is a very rich part of their identity, and their distinct customs add a great deal of color to the story. The secondary ‘mystery’ of the story is whether or not the “Blue Lady” is Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Aztec goddess of Death or someone else. I don’t think anyone will be put off by all this, but instead will rather enjoy the rich tapestry of Mexican Catholicism and Aztec mythology that forms a backdrop to the story, and informs my main character, Selena – who isn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

I don’t think readers mind ‘religion’ in their mysteries – Dan Brown proved that. My issue is this: Let’s get the ‘religion’ right and be honest with the material. Brown had everything wrong.
I think you can have a mystery with a distinct Catholic coloring that respects the tradition by being accurate, genuinely informs the story, and has an appeal for everybody. Consider Andrew Greeley’s work, or Ellis Peters, or Ralph MacInerny. The same thing could be said about mysteries with a Jewish flavor, like Harry Kemmelman’s Rabbi Small series.

KAYE: Can you give links to your webpage and places to buy your books? Is there anything else you'd like my viewers to know?

JOHN: Gladly. Readers can find me at www.johndesjarlais.com and email me at jjdesjarlais@johndesjarlais.com.

VIPER isn’t out yet, but it will be available through Amazon.com and can be ordered through bookstores sometime later this Spring. BLEEDER and RELICS and THE THRONE OF TARA are at Amazon, too:

BLEEDER at Amazon


8 comments:

Ellis Vidler said...

Very unusual story! She has quite a backstory. Interesting interview.
John, good luck with your books.

Kaye George said...

I agree, the latest character sounds like a winner!

Geraldine Evans said...

As a lapsed Catholic myself and with a main character who is also lapsed, I'm happy to read about religion in a story as long as I don't have to partake in real life! Good luck with your book,John. Hope it does well for you.

Donna Fletcher Crow said...

Amen, John, "Get the religion right." And, as you say, don't be preachy--sounds like you've got it just right. I really look forward to reading your books. Love the titles and the VIPER cover is stunning.

johnny dangerous said...

Thanks, Donna - I chose the model for the VIPER cover. I don't know her name. I found a series of her photos at a photo web site, and I said to myself, 'That's her.' I paid the license fees to download a few shots and posted them around my desk for inspiration. My sweet wife didn't mind, bless her. When the publisher asked for ideas and possible images, I emailed the shots of 'Selena' that I had, and they chose one of them.

Kaye George said...

Thanks for stopping in today, John, and the rest of you, too!

I've been off getting crowns worked on. The kind in my mouth, unfortunately. I'm glad to wake up finally and see the interest here!

jennymilch said...

Hi again, John--nice to see you here! I think religion & theology can provide fascinating depth to crime fiction, and you identify some of the keys to incorporating them successfully.

johnny dangerous said...

Hi, Jenny- I suppose it goes back to the story of Cain and Abel, where God interviews the prime person of interest in the murder case (who is belligerent and uncooperative but shown mercy anyway after a just verdict). OK, that's a bit tongue-in-cheek but the oldest detective story in world literature is in the Bible's "Apocrypha," where Daniel solves two mysteries: one is a locked room mystery and the other is a courtroom cross-interrogation drama to save the life of a falsely-accused woman (the stories are titled "Bel and the Dragon" and "Susanna").