The LadyKillers are proud to welcome guest John Desjarlais on his whistle-stop blog tour. John is author of VIPER, featuring former DEA agent Selena De La Cruz. A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John 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 his new release, VIPER (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. Welcome John!
Since John has radio experience, we decided to interview him for this stop on his blog tour.
LK: Your main character, Selena, is very different from you: she's a woman, a Latina, and she worked for the DEA. Why did you choose her as your point-of-view character, and what was the hardest part about writing her?
Selena is a minor character in BLEEDER, the first mystery. I wanted a local insurance agent to assist protagonist Reed Stubblefield who was wounded in a school shooting and who had insurance/disability issues to resolve. Since the book also touched upon immigration issues and the struggle of a small rural town dealing with an influx of poor illegals, I wanted a positive portrayal of a Latin character and decided it would be the insurance agent. I wondered if making the character female might possibly introduce some romantic tension, too. When Selena walked on the stage in those cherry heels, with that attitude and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own.
In casting about for a story idea for the sequel, I came upon the Catholic practice of placing a 'Book of the Dead' in parish churches around All Souls' Day where people wrote in names of deceased relatives so they could be remembered and respected. A premise came to mind: what if there were names in the Book of the Dead of people not dead yet? What if they were getting killed in the order they were listed? Whose names would be on such a list and why would they be getting killed and by whom? Then I learned that Mexicans have a holiday called 'The Day of the Dead' that is celebrated at about the same time. It became obvious to me that Selena's name would be on that list and this would be her story.
The hardest part about writing her was making sure all the cultural material was accurate and respectful. I did a great deal of research about Mexican-American families, customs, holidays, the works. I subscribed to Latina magazine, interviewed Latinas, browsed Latina blogs and so on. I needed to learn what it means to be bicultural, living in two worlds at once, navigating the New World with Old World expectations. The Latinas who read the work-in-progress told me I was getting it right - down to the high heels.
LK: Your book uses a number of classic noir devices: a race against time, flashbacks, and a setting that is very dark. Typically noir books are nihilistic, yet yours has a redemptive arc and an a point of view that shows religion integrated into daily life. What made you choose mystery in general, and a noirish structure in particular, to tell this kind of story?
I always read and admired mysteries and hoped I might write them someday. Beside liking the genre for entertainment, I see its potential for thoughtfully exploring 'higher mysteries.' One must be careful not to preach, of course. But mysteries, dealing so openly with death, have an opportunity to make meaning out of the frightfully short dash between our birthdate and departure date on our tombstones. That's what all literature does, anyway. Mysteries in particular 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. The noir element reminds us that the world is dark. But I believe John 1:5.
LK: You frequently present images of the Virgen de Guadalupe and Xochitetzal in comparison or juxtaposition, structurally and literally. Can you tell us more about this?
Our Lady of Guadalupe is an immensely important figure in Mexican culture, the Virgin Mother of Christ who appeared dressed in the robes of a pregnant Aztec princess to a poor peasant in 1541. Her image, preserved in Juan Diego's cape, is still on display in Mexico City. She figures in the book when a young local visionary claims that a 'Blue Lady' appears to her to announce the next killing on the list. Some in the Mexican community believe it is Our Lady calling her people to repentance and renewal, while others believe it is the Aztec goddess of death coming to claim another soul. There are more than one female Aztec deities of death; Xochitetzal is one of them and her star-spangled mantle looks a lot like Our Lady of Guadalupe's. Coatlicue is another, the 'mother of gods' pictured with a skirt of rattlers who birthed the sun god to whom the Aztecs sacrificed millions of beating human hearts. Once the Aztecs embraced the Catholic faith as a result of the Marian apparitions, the horror of human sacrifices stopped. There are some Mexicans today who are trying to revive a devotion to Aztec deities as a way of reclaiming an authentic Mexican identity. The killer in the story is one of them.
LK: How does the dark tale of VIPER inspire its readers?
I think Selena is inspiring in the way she negotiates her bicultural identity, living in two worlds at once and, in addition, making her way as an independent, intelligent woman in a man's world. There is also a darkness in herself that she overcomes.
LK: I must confess ignorance, the last writer who was famous for being Catholic that I've read is Flannery O'Connor. Can you tell us more about the new surge in Catholic literary creativity?
Pope John Paul II was a playwright and poet, and his "Letter to Artists" inspired many writers to recover a rich tradition of Catholic Arts and Letters. There are some fine writers today producing work across many genres, including mystery (Terrence Faherty, Ann Margaret Lewis) , thriller (Piers Paul Read), YA (Regina Doman), science fiction (Karina Fabian), women's fiction (Michelle Buckman) and 'literary' fiction (Andrew McNabb, Michael O'Brian, Ron Hanson - clearly I'm just naming a few here). Like O'Connor, they have a 'sacramental' view of life, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. The work is smart and stylish. Interested readers might want to visit the Catholic Writers Guild online to learn more.
LK: VIPER is delightfully free of dogmatic discussions of religion or faith--it tells a ripping good story, and the point of view is in the theme, the imagery and word choice, like any literary mystery. Is it hard to sell a story with a well-integrated religious theme to a mainstream audience?
Not really. "The DaVinci Code" proved that, although its spurious premise and superficial research did a serious disservice to readers. I prefer the smart writing of Susan Howatch, Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris and older writers like GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Morris West, William Barrett and Grahame Greene. These writers bring a deep religious sensibility to their fiction in ways that are subtle and moving.
LK: What is your next project, and when and where will we be able to buy it? Do you think the Sophia Institute Press will start publishing eBooks soon?
I'm researching the third mystery in the series. It is turning into a political thriller connected to the assassination of Cardinal Posadas of Guadalajara in 1993. The Vatican just re-opened the case. They're not convinced the Cardinal simply got caught in the cross-fire of a drug deal gone bad. Selena will figure this out and resolve a mystery in her own life, her father's sudden flight from Mexico, leaving behind an executive position at PEMEX for the Mexican consulate job in Chicago when she was a kid.
As for eBooks -- BLEEDER is available on Kindle; VIPER will be at some point. I don't know what their plans are otherwise. I'll probably self-publish a literary short story collection via Kindle Direct this year. I have some mystery short stories in mind, too, that I might publish as an eBook.
Thanks for the opportunity to meet your readers!
You can find out more about John Desjarlais and his mysteries at http://www.johndesjarlais.com.