I like to give a warm welcome to mystery author John Desjarlais. Hi John!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
My third grade teacher mimeographed my first story, “A Present for Polly,” about my dog Polly giving away a beloved Christmas toy to a stray. I suppose it all started there. I became more serious in junior high and high school, writing spy stories (it was the age of James Bond and ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’) and writing for the school newspaper and literary magazine.
How did you pick the genre you write in?
When I worked as a scriptwriter for a multimedia company in the 1980s, I produced a documentary on the history of Western Christianity and became fascinated by the Irish monastic movement. These artistic, scholarly monks saved civilization at a time when barbarians were burning their way through Europe. Saint Columba of Iona was especially interesting – a hot-headed warrior and poet with Second Sight who went to war over a disputed manuscript and, in remorse over the thousands slain, exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. So his fictionalized biography, The Throne of Tara, was my first novel. I learned about relics along the way and the rich trade in them (and battles over them) in the Middle Ages and that became the basis for book 2, Relics. I’d begun researching a third historical wherein Aristotle, the Father of Logic, would solve a crime. But I learned this had already been done (and well) by a British writer not long ago. So I fancied a classics professor who was familiar with Aristotle’s writing and who would apply Aristotelian logic to solving a crime that defied reason. That’s how BLEEDER began, a story of a stigmatic priest who bleeds to death on Good Friday. I always enjoyed reading mysteries and now I’m hooked on writing them.
Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?
I plot less as I go along in my career. I need some sort of skeleton at the beginning (pardon the mystery image) on which to hang some initial premises and characters and ideas. I do ‘clustering’ and make up charts. I have the opening and ending in view – though these change and intensify late in the game. The broad and terrifying middle is where I can only go so far as the headlights reveal a road on a foggy night. I don’t ask ‘what happens next’ but I follow the decisions of the main characters. With my latest book, a sequel to BLEEDER titled VIPER, the plot depended heavily on a police investigation. Since those procedures tend to be rather methodical, I could follow its course and expand where I needed to do so for reversals and surprises. For my short literary fiction, there’s no plotting at all. It comes out all at once.
What do you know now that you are published that you didn’t know pre-published that you wish you knew?
You won't believe how many times you'll read your own book in the proofing process. You do want it to be perfect and avoid typos and such. But what tedious work.
Promotion and marketing are harder than writing the book, more time-consuming, and potentially a real hindrance to writing. 15 years ago, my publishers invested in my titles with advertising, solicitation of reviews and other things. We've all heard how little publishers are putting into marketing these days, backing only their top-sellers who don't need much publicity anyway. The business side of writing, the selling side, is a real challenge. There's always something you could be doing, and this can bite into the work you like most - writing.
How many rejections have you received?
Dozens. And I’m sure my last agent received a bunch I never knew about. It’s especially painful when an editor asks to see the full manuscript, having seen a partial and a synopsis, showing high interest. Then the manuscript returns in the mail many weeks later looking beat-up and exhausted. You print a fresh copy and send it out to the next person on the list.
Why did you pick the publisher that ultimately published your book?
When my last agent left the business after a serious car accident, I was participating in an online writers’ conference (for encouragement!) where an acquisitions editor for a small house, Sophia Institute Press, gave a presentation on genre fiction. Her company was launching a new imprint for genre work and she was actively seeking manuscripts, especially mysteries with a spiritual angle. I pitched BLEEDER to her immediately. She asked for the first three chapters and a synopsis and contacted me two days later asking to see the full manuscript. In a week she offered a contract.
What was the best writing advice someone gave you? What was the worst?
The best: “A half-finished book is no book at all; finish it.” --Ernest Hemingway
The worst: “Start with short stories before trying a novel.” They are simply too different.
Please describe your latest books.
BLEEDER is a contemporary amateur-sleuth mystery where a stigmatic priest bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or bloody murder? Aristotle professor Reed Stubblefield needs to find out, because police regard him as the prime ‘person of interest’ in the mysterious death. He applies Aristotle’s logic to get at the truth before he is arrested or killed by people who don’t want this mystery solved.
VIPER, the sequel due out this fall, features a minor character from BLEEDER as the protagonist. Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz learns that her name has been written in her parish church’s ‘Book of the Deceased’ on All Souls Day. The problem is, she’s not dead. But someone wants her to be.
How did you come to write about Selena?
As soon as she walked onto the stage of BLEEDER with those heels, that attitude, and a 69 Dodge Charger, I knew she had a story of her own. For this book, I had to think like a second-generation Mexican-American woman. I researched Mexican-American families, holidays, food, music, customs, Catholicism, Aztec mythology, dichos (proverbs) – sheesh, the works. I subscribed to Latina magazine to get some insights. I passed my work by a Latina writer who checked the Spanish as well as the accuracy and fairness of the cultural and gender treatment. I was very worried about this – but she said I got it right.
How can others get in touch with you?
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org – my web site is www.johndesjarlais.com – I look forward to hearing from your readers. Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.
A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John teaches English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval crime novel Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press 2009 and forthcoming 2010, respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. A member of The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who's Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America's Teachers.