Interview with John Desjarlais

From 6th Century Irish legend to Mexican-American woman: John Desjarlais entertains, thrills, and intrigues.  Mycatholicblog is honored to present our interview with this incredibly talented author, professor, and former radio producer.

Let’s start at the beginning.  Your first book The Throne of Tara, first published in 1990, is based-off the true story of Columba of Iona.  What compelled you to write this story, and what kind of message are you hoping readers will take away from it?

I began “Tara” soon after producing and scripting a documentary on the history of Western Christianity. During the research, I became fascinated by Irish monasticism and discovered Columba in particular. This was the best man the 6th Century could produce: a warrior, scholar and poet, gifted with Second Sight and a thunderous voice, a natural leader with a serious flaw – his Irish temper. He went to war over a book (a copy of the Latin Vulgate, most believe, that he copied by hand but lost in a court dispute to the owner of the original) and in the “Battle of the Book” in A.D. 560 nearly 3,000 men were slain. In remorse and in order to avoid excommunication, Columba exiled himself among the savage Picts of Scotland, vowing to win as many souls to the Church as were lost in the battle. The records say he encountered the Loch Ness monster on the way. Once in the royal court (which he entered miraculously), he dueled the Druids, miracles versus magic, in a contest of power. Well, all that said ‘great novel’ to me and I was off.

As for the ‘take-away value,’ it’s hard to say. Writers with a message in mind often mess up a great story. There are some clear themes, though, such as the conflict between nascent Christianity and the Old Religion of the druids. Both respected nature and recognized power in the natural order but had a different understanding of where the power came from.

And what made you transition from a producer with Wisconsin Public Radio to college professor?

I was let go during the recession of 1993 and since I’d just published my second novel, “Relics,” and I was placing short fiction in magazines, I decided that earning a second Master’s degree in English or Creative Writing that enabled me to teach writing at the college level would be a wise career path. Funny thing is, given my media background, I also teach the mass communication courses at my community college, including Radio Production.

Looking at more current literary achievements, your novel Bleeder tells of protagonist Reed Stubblefield, a professor who must face the challenges of physical disability, the loss of his wife and (as the story progresses) becoming a murder suspect. Why did you feel it necessary to portray a character that has faced so much suffering?  How does it facilitate the character’s spirituality and religious perspective?

One reviewer called BLEEDER ‘a novel-length contemplation of the mystery of undeserved suffering,’ and that captures it pretty well. Surely a traditional ‘mystery’ is about an unsolved crime and the restoration of justice, but I wanted to explore “higher mysteries” that we all think about: why is there evil and injustice in the world at all? Why do we endure undeserved suffering? Is it, in any way, ‘redemptive?’ What meaning can we draw from the suffering of Christ – exemplified in the stigmata of Father Ray – to comprehend our own? All mystery novels consider to some degree the problem of human grief, loss, and woundedness – but awfully few go beyond the solving-of-the-puzzle. The Catholic understanding of human frailty and fallenness, of human promise and potential, is very deep and profound, and something that moved me as I wrote the story as a devout Presbyterian. Soon after finishing the book I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church. My character Reed doesn’t. One of the things that makes so much “Christian fiction” sentimental and spiritually smarmy is the inevitable conversion at the end. Reed, an Aristotle expert and logician, comes to recognize new possibilities beyond his secularized understanding of the world. He grows to respect people of faith as intelligent and winsome, and not as superficial or saccharine. One might say he is newly opened to the mysteries of faith, hope, and love, although much remains unresolved at the end.

Along these same lines, with so many deep questions to ponder, why did you decide to write Bleeder as a mystery novel?

Mysteries – classic murder mysteries, I mean – connect with something deep inside us. They are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and his 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. I really think the ‘entertainment’ aspect comes first. This is why people read mysteries.

However, 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, as I mentioned earlier. All literature tries to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birth date and departure date on our tombstones, and the hardships during that short dash. So the ‘mystery novel’ is a perfect vehicle to consider the mystery of undeserved suffering and the problem of evil in a world created by a good God.

What can you tell us about the inspiration for your newest novel, Viper?  How did you create the character of Selena De La Cruz, and how do you write so convincingly as her?  Was much research into the Mexican American community necessary?

As a new Catholic, I was excited by observing all the new customs and practices I hadn’t known as a devout Protestant. One of them was the “Book of the Dead” on All Souls’ Day, where a ledger is placed in the church for relatives to record the names of loved ones who have passed away during the year so they can be remembered and prayed for. The mystery writer in me asked, “What if there were names in the book of people who weren’t dead yet? And what if they were killed one by one in the order in which they were listed? Who are they, and who would kill them and why? At about the same time I learned about the Mexican “Day of the Dead,” a festival celebrated at about the same time and blended with All Souls’ Day in Mexican-American culture. That’s when I knew my Mexican-American insurance agent minor character from BLEEDER, Selena De La Cruz, would be the protagonist in the sequel. And her name would be last on that list. Once she walked on the stage in BLEEDER in those cherry high heels, with that attitude and driving that vintage Dodge Charger, I knew she had a story of her own. It took me a little while to realize she had a former career with the DEA and she’d left it under a cloud and was trying to start her life over as an insurance agent in rural Illinois. It took off from there.

And I was scared to death. How could I – an Anglo guy – presume to write the story of a Mexican-American woman? I feared the audacity of it and anticipated objections from the Latino community: “How can you, an Anglo man, tell our stories? And how can you, an Anglo man, represent a proud Latina?

So for nearly two years I became a second-generation Mexican-American woman.

Not literally, of course. Lacking any personal experience as a Latina, I immersed myself in the experiences of Latin women vicariously in many ways. With the recent meteoric rise in this population’s numbers in the USA, there are many new books in circulation by Latinas about coming to terms with one’s culture and traditions (especially family traditions and the Old-World expectations placed upon women) while trying to fit into New-World American society. I read most of them and took careful notes, as with any other research I had to do for VIPER (DEA undercover operations, police interrogations, crime scene processing, shooting a SIG Sauer which I really did, snake handling which I really didn’t, Aztec religion and so on). I studied Mexican holiday customs (especially The Day of the Dead and the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe), Mexican Catholic practices and Mexican cooking and proverbs and on and on, all online. 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 family life, work and social life, negotiating two cultures at once and 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 visited social spaces online where Latin American women (Cuban, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan and so on, not just Mexican) talked about their life experiences. By dipping into so many other Latinas’ life experiences, I noticed things that were common to them all that I could easily adapt, and other things I could tweak 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 repeatedly to remind myself of small details that were of possible use as ‘bits’ in the story or for possible flashback scenes. In these ways I was able to construct an authentic Mexican-American woman with a real family and real-life inner conflicts most Latinas could identify with – not a ‘composite’ but a unique and genuine person.

A Latina translator helped me with the Spanish phrasing and reviewed the work-in-progress, and at one point she told me, “I am SO into Selena!” That’s when I knew I was getting it right – down to the 3-inch heel faux leopard Giuseppe Zanottis.

Finally, what else can we expect from John Desjarlais in the upcoming year?

I’m gathering material for the third book in this series and it’s all vague at this point. Insofar as VIPER considered Selena’s relationship with her mother in some detail (to correspond to her developing relationship to Our Lady of Guadalupe), I think the third book needs to consider her troubled past with her father, a former PEMEX executive who suddenly moved to Chicago to take a position with the Mexican Consulate there shortly before he died under questionable circumstances. I expect Selena will have to investigate and resolve all this before she can move ahead in her life.