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
1. You have an impressive bio: a Wisconsin Public
Radio producer, journalism and English teacher, and a poet. What drew you to
the world of mystery writing?
I've always read
mysteries for fun and with admiration. They are the guilty pleasure of the intellectual.
They can be by turn cleverly entertaining and insightful about human nature. My
second historical novel, Relics, has a crime element to it. What really
pushed me into the field, though, was the failure of another historical novel I
was writing. I planned a book with Aristotle, the Father of Logic, solving a
crime. But I discovered quickly that another writer had done this, and so I
changed direction. I imagined a modern rhetoric/classics professor who knew
Aristotle's works well and who would apply Aristotelian logic to solve a
seemingly irrational mystery. In BLEEDER, Aristotle is a minor character of
sorts, my hero's 'mentor' who 'speaks' to him through remembered quotations.
Anyway, now I'm hooked.
2. Being an active member of the Catholic Church
and a member of the Catholic Writers Guild, your religion plays an important
role in your writing. How do you meld your beliefs with story telling?
I'm a recent convert to
the Catholic faith and I've found my imagination wonderfully baptized.
There is a rich tradition here of respect for the arts and seeing life in a
'sacramental' way - looking for the unseen in the seen, discerning the
spiritual in the sensory, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. It's a holistic
way of looking at the world. This informs my fiction in subtle ways. It's
important for me to be sure my work isn't preachy but tells the truth
about what it means to be human in both our dignity and our fallenness. We
have the terrible power of choice for good or ill and the possibility of
redemption. My work may have a Catholic 'coloring' but my secular
reviewers appreciate its universal appeal.
3. Describe your writing process. Do you have a
schedule, set goals, etc?
I used to write according
to a regular daily schedule but with teaching a full college load I now go in
spurts. The academic year is a time to gather ideas and collect research
material, and I write in a more focused way over the winter and summer breaks. I
used to write longhand on legal pads but I've turned to the computer keyboard
now to speed things up and research things on the fly. I'm not under contract
so I have no external deadlines to meet. Once I begin drafting in earnest, I'll
set some production goals and aim for a finish date - usually with a conference
4. Your protagonist Selena De La Cruz is a smart,
gutsy young woman who comes alive on page one. How did you develop her
Developing a credible
Mexican-American woman is the most demanding work I've tried. This required
thorough research about Mexican American customs, families, the works. I worked
hard to find out what it means to be a Latina today living in two worlds
at once, meeting Old World expectations while adjusting to New World realities.
There are several good books about this struggle to shape a bicultural
identity, and I browsed Latinas' blogs and websites to listen in to
their experiences. I subscribed to Latina magazine and interviewed Latinas
of varying backgrounds - since this is a diverse population. Cubans,
Guatamalans, Mexicans, Panamanians and so on - all unique. Selena is a
composite of all these sources. I asked a Latina in the Catholic
Writers' Guild to look over the work-in-progress to make sure I was getting all
the cultural material right (and the 'woman' stuff). At one point she wrote, 'I
am SO into Selena!" and I knew then I was getting it right.
5. Your stories are fast-paced, your characters
bold and confident, and the dialogue is fresh and snapping. Do you have
favorite authors who have been influential in your writing style?
I like the noir detective
writers - Dash Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy. And I like stylish
literary writers who can also tell a great story like Grahame Greene, Morris
West, Frederick Buechner, William Barrett and Susan Howatch.
6. Can you give us a synopsis of your next Selena
De La Cruz mystery and when it might be released?
It's in a very early
stage so there isn't much to talk about. Inasmuch as VIPER dealt in part with
Selena's relationship with her mother, the next one will probably explore her
tumultuous relationship with her father, who left his executive position with
PEMEX (the Mexican nationalized oil company) under suspicious circumstances.
7. What advice would you give to someone who is
beginning his or her first novel?
Learn the craft and teach
yourself something about the business. Read "The Writer" and
"Writers Digest" magazines and find books about the craft of writing
in the library. Attend a writers' conference where the seminars and workshops
are appropriate for the genre you write in; groups such as Mystery Writers of
America, Romance Writers of America and many others offer conferences that are
affordable and get you trained, motivated and networked. Consider a creative
writing class at your local community college; many 'continuing ed' programs
invite published authors to teach these brief sessions at a reasonable cost.
8. Authors today are expected to do much of
their own promoting. How do you balance social networking and writing? What
promotions work best for you?
I've backed off from much
social networking since the benefits are questionable and the amount of time
sucked up is considerable. Getting reviews is important to me, so I send out
many queries and review copies. I like media interviews and I've been on many
radio programs. I arrange a 'virtual book tour' via blogs each season and this
is one stop of 20 I set up for Fall. Public speaking engagements - conferences,
women's clubs, book groups - work well; bookstore/library book signings don't.
9. What are you
I'm teaching a science fiction class so
that's what I'm reading this semester. But I also began a James Lee Burke
mystery that is wonderful and a friend gave me a vintage Ellery Queen novel
yesterday that I want to get into. I'm halfway through David Copperfield.
And I read a small portion of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth every