Interview with John Desjarlais, author of Bleeder and Viper
Marilyn: Please tell me a bit about your background.
John: I was a Radio/TV/Film major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked in radio and video production for nearly twenty years. When I was let go by Wisconsin Public Radio in the recession of 1993, I returned to grad school for a master’s degree in English/Writing so that I could teach at the college level and continue to write.
Marilyn: When and why did you start writing?
John: I wrote spy novels in junior high and high school for my entertainment and perhaps because I fancied myself becoming a TV scriptwriter someday. I worked on the high school newspaper and literary magazine. In college, my attention turned to radio and TV.
After graduation, I worked for a small media company writing scripts for training videos and fundraising material for non-profit groups.
My serious fiction writing came in my 30s, after a documentary I produced on the history of Western Christianity got me interested in Irish monasticism. In the process of research I discovered Columba of Iona, a 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. It sounded like material for a historical novel – and it became “The Throne of Tara.”
In the course of writing that, I learned about the rich trade in relics across medieval Europe and the Middle East, and this prompted the next stand-alone, a Crusades-period thriller titled “Relics.” I kept going from there.
Marilyn: What prompted this particular book?
John: VIPER is the sequel to BLEEDER (Sophia Institute Press 2009), featuring a minor character from the first mystery as the protagonist in the second, Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz.
In BLEEDER, my hero Reed Stubblefield is disabled in a school shooting and retreats to a rural town in Illinois to recover. There, he becomes involved in the mysterious death of the local parish priest, reputed to be a healing stygmatic. Along the way, given his insurance and disability issues, he encounters a local insurance agent, the feisty Selena De La Cruz, who assists him with his claims.
I wanted a strong, positive Latina character as part of the ‘local color’ where this little town is struggling with the huge influx of Mexican immigrant farm workers. As soon as she walked on the stage with those red heels, that 69 Dodge Charger and that attitude, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I had anticipated.
In thinking about the second story, I came upon the Catholic Church's tradition of placing a "Book of the Dead" in the sanctuary on All Souls' Day where people can write in the names of relatives who have died that year. I wondered: what if there were names in the book of people who hadn't died yet? At the same time, I learned about the Mexican holiday called "The Day of the Dead," celebrated nearly concurrently with All Souls' Day. It's a major fiesta where deceased relatives are honored with elaborate home altars and families go on picnics in cemeteries, among other things. I knew then that Selena's name had to be in the Book of the Dead, and the story took off from there.
Marilyn: I think your subject matter is fascinating. What kind of research did you do to write this?
John: VIPER was my most challenging book so far mainly because I had to become (in a sense) a 30-something Mexican-American woman. It’s hard enough to write from a woman’s point-of-view, as I did in parts of “Relics.” But I had to come to a heart-and-gut-understanding of what it means to be a second-generation Mexican daughter, sister, niece and professional working single woman who is trying to come to terms with her bi-cultural identity in a man’s world.
So this involved a great deal of research about Mexican-American culture: families, food, customs, religious practices, language, the works. I was anxious about getting the cultural material both right and respectful, always concerned about someone asking, “what right do you have, a middle-aged Anglo man, to write our stories?”
I read Latin American literature widely in addition to all the other book research. I subscribed to Latina magazine (for information on fashion, cosmetics, relationships, music, social and racial issues, all that) and browsed Latina blogs. I asked real Latinas to review the work-in-progress to make sure I was getting Selena and her family right. A professional translator worked with me on the Spanish. At one point she wrote me to say, "I am SO into Selena!" That's when I knew I was getting it right.
The rest of the research – Aztec religion and mythology, Mexican Catholicism (especially devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe), The Day of the Dead, the drug cult of Saint Death, Mexican immigration, DEA undercover operations, crime scene processing, police interrogation procedures, snake handling and the workings of a 69 Dodge Charger were all easier to manage, thanks to the Internet and the Illinois library system. Making Selena culturally authentic and fully-layered as a person, though, was the real challenge.
One last thing: Selena uses a P226 SIG Sauer pistol, and so I took lessons in handguns and practiced shooting her gun to feel its kick in my hand, to smell the powder, to hear its report. Golly, it’s loud – like her car, “The Beast.”
Marilyn: I’m always interested in what kind of promotion an author plans for a book; what all are you doing?
John: As you probably know, the bulk of marketing depends on writers these days and publishers – especially small houses – aren’t doing much. My publisher does more than most: an email blast to loyal customers, posters and bookmarks to use at trade shows, ads on Facebook. I have a Virtual Book Tour this Spring and Summer on a fair number of blogs like this; some are secular and mystery related, and some Catholic (given the Mexican-Catholic and Our Lady of Guadalupe angle in the story).
I’m working to get blurbs and reviews from a variety of sources (both print and web-based, both secular and Catholic), too numerous to name here. I have a web site and a blog, “Johnny Dangerous,” where Selena has been a guest blogger (see her 6 entries in March 2010, for example). I’ll set up some book store and library events as I did with BLEEDER, though these tend not to be very productive (at least they get your name in the local newspapers).
I’ll attend some mystery conferences such as “Love Is Murder” in Chicago, “Magna Cum Murder” in Muncie, Indiana and “Bouchercon” (The World Mystery Convention, in St. Louis this year). I make postcards and sell sheets and mail them to a number of different mailing lists, including mystery book clubs, Independent Mystery Booksellers and regional libraries who (according to Mystery Writers of America) are crime-writer-friendly and might be open to an appearance. I send a Press Kit to regional media (radio, TV and newspaper, both daily and weekly shoppers – especially if there’s an event to promote). By ‘regional’ I mean my Chicagoland ‘region’ – Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa.
When I travel, I distribute bookmarks and visit stores to sign stock or to leave a sell sheet behind. I’ll arrange radio interviews (a publicist helped with this for BLEEDER; she left the business recently but I’ve saved all the contact information). I have a presence on most of the social networking spaces: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Crimespace, DorothyL, ShoutLife, Good Reads, Shelfari. I’ve teamed up with three other area mystery authors and we do some school and library appearances together as a panel. I write book reviews for The New York Journal of Books and so every review has my little bio at the end, which gives me some visibility there. There’s more, but I’ll stop here. As you see, this is very time-consuming and has the potential to sap one’s energy and prevent one from writing.
Marilyn: Have you thought about what’s up next for you?
John: I am in the planning and research stages for the third entry in this mystery series featuring Selena De La Cruz and Reed Stubblefield. I also have some mystery short stories in mind with these characters. I have a body of short literary fiction that I might make available through the Kindle store. I think that is ‘what’s up next’ for all writers – figuring out how to work with the revolution of ebooks and e-readers.
Marilyn: Where can my readers find your book?
John: All my titles are available at Amazon.com; some are at BN.com (Barnes & Noble). BLEEDER and VIPER are distributed by Ingram and so they can be ordered through any bookstore. BLEEDER was placed on Kindle late in January.
Marilyn: Why do you write in the mystery genre?
John: 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. Mysteries are a good platform to explore social issues, too (as I do with immigration and Latin American themes). But they must be careful not to preach.
Lastly, I think that mysteries, close as they are to the barest human motives and fears, have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries, such as the mystery of undeserved suffering. Like all literature, mysteries try to make some meaning out of the frighteningly short dash between the birth date and departure date on our tomb stones. They try to understand what it means to be fully human, in both our high dignity and tragic fallenness.
Marilyn: Thank you so much, this was truly an interesting interview. And by the way, the covers for you books are spectacular.
Bio: 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 (Sophia Institute Press 2009) and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, forthcoming Spring 2011) are the first two entries in a mystery series. His work has appeared in periodicals such as Student Leadership Journal, U Magazine, The Critic, On Being, Student Soul, Apocalypse, The Upper Room, The New Pantagruel, The Karitos Review, Dappled Things and The Rockford Review. A member of The Catholic Writers Guild, The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Contemporary Authors, Who's Who in Entertainment, and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.
Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last. Working against time, prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name while a girl visionary claims a “Blue Lady” announces each killing in turn. Is it Our Lady of Guadalupe or, as others believe, the Aztec goddess of Death
Investigate Higher Mysterieshttp://www.johndesjarlais.com