A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 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.
Tell us about the genre of your work.
I am currently writing a contemporary mystery series featuring an amateur sleuth and a former DEA Special Agent, but I have written historical novels with a crime element before. I teach a course in Detective Fiction at my college, and so it is fun to be writing in the genre also.
Why did you choose this genre?
I fell into it quite accidentally. I was writing historicals, and I had an idea wherein Aristotle, the Father of Logic, would solve a crime. Detective fiction is all about the celebration of reason, and I thought this had great possibilities. I learned early in the research, though, that a British writer already did this – and rather well – so my thinking took a turn. I conceived of a classics professor who would be conversant in Aristotle’s works, so much so that Aristotle would be his ‘mentor’ or ‘sidekick,’ solving a seemingly irrational mystery. The result was BLEEDER.
What are some of your books, stories that have been published?
Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993; reissued 2009, ISBN: 0840767358
Bleeder (Sophia Institute Press 2009, ISBN: 978-1-933184-56-2)
Viper (Sophia Institute Press June 2011, ISBN: 978-1-933184-80-7)
I have had many short stories published in literary journals; the most recent include “Assisted Living” in Dappled Things and “Lovebird,” scheduled for the summer edition of The Rockford Review.
Give a short description of each and where they can be found.
The Throne of Tara, set in Dark Age Ireland, is based on the dramatic true story of Saint Columba of Iona, the hot-headed 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.
Relics is a medieval crime thriller set largely in Crusader Palestine, involving a suspicious cathedral fire, a stolen relic, and a terrorist plot to assassinate King Louis IX of France.
Bleeder is a contemporary mystery where a stigmatic priest collapses and dies on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or, bloody murder? Classics professor Reed Stubblefield applies Aristotelian logic to learn the truth, since police regard him as a prime person of interest. But, not everyone in this little town wants the mystery to be solved.
Viper is the sequel to Bleeder, in which Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz – a minor character in Bleeder - learns her name is in her parish church’s All Souls Day, Book of the Dead. The problem is, she is not dead. However, someone wants her to be. Is it “The Snake,” an ambitious drug dealer she helped to arrest years ago when she was a DEA Special Agent, or someone far, far more dangerous?
You can see fuller story summaries at my web site, http://www.johndesjarlais.com/. My blog, “Johnny Dangerous, is at http://jjdesjarlais.blogspot.com/
How do you come up with the names of places and characters in your books?
For the historicals, I do research to make all the settings and their names authentic. Derry and Tara are real places in Ireland; Acre and Aigues-Mortes are real Mediterranean ports. Some of the characters are real historical figures that I bring to life through research and, where needed, an informed imagination. Therefore, in Tara, Columba is a fully realized historical personage, as are his mentors and companions in Relics. I have re-created King Louis IX using biographical material from contemporaries. Other characters are the sorts of people you would find in that time period, so, like the real historical figures, I do research about them. I work hard to make the monks, warriors, washerwomen, serfs, kings, craftsmen, lords and ladies accurate.
My mysteries are set in rural Illinois. The towns are composites of real places in northern and northwestern Illinois, around the Sterling-Dixon area. Sterling becomes “Sterling Falls,” for example. “Prophetstown” is a real town and the name is too cool to change. As for character names, Bleeder’s protagonist “Reed Stubblefield’s” name is derived from harvested cornfields in Illinois – stubbled fields where the leftover stalks remind me of the verse in Isaiah 42:3 – “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice.” Selena De La Cruz’s name comes from the Spanish mystic and poet, John of the Cross (de la Cruz).
How did you develop the character of your protagonist in your latest book?
When insurance agent Selena De La Cruz walked onto the stage of my first mystery Bleeder in those cherry heels, with that attitude and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own. For the moment, however, I only needed her to handle the insurance problems of my protagonist, Reed Stubblefield. In addition, I wanted a positive portrayal of an educated Latin character, since the story had a background involving the flood of illegal Mexican immigrants in rural areas. That is all I wanted from this minor character. However, Selena insisted on having a larger role than I had anticipated.
The sequel, Viper, began with the idea that a Catholic church’s, Book of the Deceased, the ledger of the parish’s dearly departed put on display on All Souls’ Day, would have names of people still alive – but getting killed in the order in which they were listed. I learned early that Mexicans celebrate a holiday nearly concurrent with this, called “The Day of the Dead,” a fiesta with flower garlands, sweet breads and home altars to honor deceased relatives, candy skulls for the kids, and family picnics in cemeteries. It was obvious that Selena’s name would be on that list (the last name, I decided), and that she would be the protagonist.
This frightened me half to death. How could I, an Anglo guy in his 50s, presume to present a 30-something second-generation Mexican-American woman?
It wasn’t that I had not written from a woman’s point-of-view before. I had done so a few times in earlier novels, but in shorter scenes. This called for a sustained, novel-length treatment that was credible and compelling. I wanted to be sure I got all the cultural material right and I was respectful with it. So much could go wrong.
Therefore, for nearly two years I became a second-generation Mexican-American woman.
Well, not literally. Vicariously, I guess you would say. I immersed myself in many books written by Latinas about coming to terms with Old-World expectations placed upon women while trying to fit into New-World American society (there are quite a few books out there on this subject, reflecting the growth of this population). I took careful notes, as with any other research I had to do for VIPER -- DEA undercover operations, police interrogation techniques, snake handling, Aztec religion and so on. I subscribed to Latina magazine for fashion, beauty, relationship and lifestyle issues. I paid attention to any news related to this community, especially immigration issues. I browsed Latinas’ blogs and web sites to see what everyone talked about, especially with regard to living with a bi-cultural identity. Just like the Dad says in the movie Selena, “We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!"
I interviewed Latinas and I noticed things that were common to them all that I could easily adapt and make my own – well, Selena’s own. I built a very thorough backstory – life story – for her based on all this research. I had pages of notes and stacks of cards that I browsed through obsessively to remind myself of small details that were of possible use as ‘bits’ in the story or for possible flashback scenes.
What about an antagonist…is there a unique “bad guy” or a recurring nemesis of any kind?
No, there is no Blofeld or Professor Moriarty in the series. My generic antagonist/villain is someone who is the hero of his/her own story, someone who is trying to do (what they think is) the right thing but in the absolute wrong way. That is what ‘evil’ generally is all about.
What is your favorite thing about your newest book, VIPER?
It is the heroine, Selena, a feisty and fiercely independent Latina who is tough and tender, comfortable in overalls and boots one minute and a taffeta dress and killer heels the next, who has a temper when it comes to injustice but patience with those in trouble. I find her struggle to live with a bicultural identity fascinating and her effort to live in a man’s world admirable.
How is writing in the genre you write different from other genres?
Readers of mysteries are intelligent and savvy about the genre’s conventions. They read widely and voraciously; they pay attention to detail. They expect the traditional ‘puzzle’ mystery writer to ‘play fair’ with clues such that one can guess the culprit and yet be delightfully surprised at the end. Absolutely everything in the plot must fit logically. The characters must be strongly motivated and completely plausible, especially crime-solving professionals such as police and forensic lab scientists. You cannot make a mistake about crime scene processing or guns or fingerprint databases and so on. While the mystery affords itself to social comment and human insight, in the end the story must be an entertaining and page-turning yarn. In the literary debate about character-driven stories versus plot-driven ones, mysteries must be both.
Why and when did you begin writing?
I wrote spy novels in junior high for fun (it was the age of James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Avengers, etc) and worked for my high school newspaper and literary magazine. In college, though, I majored in radio and TV and later worked with a small media company in Madison, Wisconsin and then Wisconsin Public Radio. I wrote a script for a documentary on Western Christianity and became fascinated by the Irish monastic movement. I learned about Columba of Iona, the fiery poet and warrior-monk who fought in battles and challenged the druids to contests of power. He is the first person in recorded history to encounter the Loch Ness creature. I thought all this had great dramatic possibilities, so I wrote a fictionalized biography of him, “The Throne of Tara,” in 1988-89. I found an agent rather quickly at a writers’ conference, and the book was published in 1990. The agent sold my second historical, “Relics,” and it came out in 1993. Then came the recession of ’93 and I was let go from my job. I decided to return to graduate school for a second Master’s degree, this time in English/Writing, so I could teach at the college level and continue writing. I turned to short stories and – as you might expect – academic writing for a while before trying another novel.
What is your writing schedule?
My teaching schedule is erratic and so my writing schedule is, too. When I worked a 9-5 job, I arose regularly at 5 a.m. to write until 8 a.m., and then I went to the office. In the evening, I would do research. Today, I write in chunks. During the school year, I research and gather material and my thoughts, and draft in a very concentrated way during the summer and winter breaks.
What projects are you working on now, or plan for the future?
I am gathering material for the third mystery in the series, featuring the characters from the first two books. The plot revolves around insurance fraud. That is all I should say about it, since the story is still forming in my head and it is not a good idea to ‘talk out’ a book before it is written. The energy for it dissipates.
I would like to try some mystery short stories and I have a few ideas in mind, using the characters from the book series.
I have a sprawling historical novel in my cabinet, set in the late Roman Empire. I am not sure if I should return to it or not. I think every novelist has a few manuscripts that flame out and are best kept locked away.
What kind of advice or tips to you have for someone who wants to write and get published?
You absolutely must educate yourself in the craft and in the business. Read the magazines “The Writer” and “Writers’ Digest” regularly. Find the reference book Writers Market and read the articles in it. Attend a writers’ conference with the kinds of seminars that address your needs and that you can afford. Find the ‘writing and publishing’ section of the public library and start browsing through those books. Take a Continuing Education course at your local community college or University Extension in writing; I attended some great ones at the University of Wisconsin when I lived in Madison.
You must think of yourself as a writer and write regularly.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I am a college professor so I am reading, researching, prepping and conducting classes on campus and online, grading papers and so on. I can focus on writing over the summer and winter breaks.
What “Made It” moments have you experienced in life?
I can think of at least two worth mentioning. The first was when my first agent phoned and offered representation. It was a ‘happy dance’ moment and a confirmation that I could really write sellable material. He sold my first two books.
The other was during the drafting of my latest mystery, Viper. It features a Latina protagonist, as I have said, and I was deathly afraid of the whole project. I wanted to be sure that I got the ‘woman’ thing right and all the Mexican-American cultural material both right and respectful. One of my Latina readers emailed me at one point and said, “I am SO into Selena!” That is when I was reassured that I, an Anglo guy, was getting my Mexican-American female character Selena right.