Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Author John Desjarlais
I am so pleased to have John Desjarlais at The Imaginarium today. He has crafted some of the most provocative and intriguing fiction out there. His latest is Viper, a mystery due out in March from Sophia Institute Press.
Hi John, welcome to the Imaginarium. I must say I’m looking forward to reading Viper. Can you tell us little about your protagonist Selena De La Cruz and what inspired her creation?
Selena is a late-thirties second-generation Mexican-American woman, curvy but concerned about her butt and the Aztec hatchet of a nose planted in her café-con-leche face. Loyola educated with a degree in Finance, she has an eye for stylish heels (think Giuseppe Zanottis and Stuart Weitzmans) and fast cars (she drives a 69 Dodge Charger she inherited from her deceased twin brother Antonio, an Army mechanic who was killed in a car accident in Germany – drugs were involved). A bit of a tomboy as a kid with the three brothers and a stern-but-also-doting Papa, she is both tough and tender, an independent Latina (a contradiction in terms for many Mexicans) who can have a temper especially as she comes to terms with her bicultural identity and the challenges of living in a man’s world. Her family is rather well-off; her father was a PEMEX oil executive before he took a position in the Mexican Consulate in Chicago where Selena grew up, near the Pilsen neighborhood and “Little Mexico.” She speaks Mexican Spanish well and can identify different Spanish accents quickly. She’s a risk-taker, which suited her well for undercover work with the DEA, a career she took after her brother’s death from drug use. She first worked with the Financial Tracing Division (given her college degree) but wanted very much to do dangerous street work and trained hard for it (she’s handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol). She left the agency under a cloud and has tried to start afresh as an insurance agent in rural Illinois with a new name – but her DEA background catches up to her in VIPER.
Selena was a minor character in my first mystery, BLEEDER. The story took place in rural Illinois, where Latino immigrant issues were part of the story’s color. I wanted to portray a very positive image of an educated and socially-conscious Latina as a balance to the hardly-educated farm laborers and poor day-workers that the Anglo townspeople were nervous about. Since my protagonist, Reed Stubblefield, was in town to recover from a school shooting and had insurance and disability problems, I cast Selena as the local insurance agent who might assist him. As soon as she walked on stage in those red heels, with that attitude, and driving that chile-pepper-red muscle car, I knew she had a story of her own, and that her role in BLEEDER would be larger than I’d anticipated.
How difficult was it to get inside the head of a character from a different culture? Was there anything about writing from the female perspective that proved especially challenging? And how did you deal with Selena straddling the line of two worlds?
I’d written from the point-of-view of women before in my earlier historical novels, “The Throne of Tara” and “Relics,” but only in a few scenes. Remaining for a whole novel in a woman’s sensibility – and a Mexican-American woman at that – was much more challenging and frankly, a bit frightening. The first hurdle to leap was the sheer audacity of it. I anticipated some objections from the Latin American community: How can you, an Anglo man, dare to write our stories? In addition, how can you, an Anglo man, presume to assume the role of a proud Latina? I worried about this terribly the whole time. I did assiduous research on Mexican-American customs, proverbs, family life, holidays and all that in libraries, on the Internet, and through interviews. I subscribed to Latina magazine to get a sense of fashion, relationships and other lifestyle issues. I read Mexican literature, history and so on, all with the aim of trying to think like my character. I passed along bits of the work-in-progress to a Latina writer and translator who made sure I got the cultural stuff right, as well as the language correct. At one point she wrote, “I am SO into Selena!” and that’s when I knew for sure I was getting the character right.
As far as Selena straddling two worlds, I knew from all my reading and interviewing that this was an ongoing issue among Latinas. There’s a great line in the movie “Selena” where the father complains, "We've gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It's exhausting!" So I included material along the way where this conflict is seen. Here’s a brief example where Selena is at a Holiday party with the DEA and FBI. A guy at the table, Andy, has already said something racist/sexist to her: “Hey Selena, this dip is spicy, like you” and she is recalling an earlier conversation before this action starts:
You do know the real reason you’re here at all, don’t you? Agnes Bloomberg, the office gossip, had confided to her behind her knuckles. Di-ver-si-ty, honey. They needed to report more female and Hispanic recruitment. They got to check off two boxes with you.
A waitress dropped a plate of chopped iceburg lettuce and tomatoes in front of her.
“Salads?” Andy spat. “That’s girly food. Where’s the meat?”
“Excuse me,” Selena said, bunching her napkin and throwing it on the table.
“Hey, aren’tcha hungry?”
She didn’t answer. She grasped her clutch purse and weaved around tables toward the cash bar. On the way, a seated silver-haired woman in ruffles grabbed her arm.
“Pardon me, miss,” she said, wiggling a mug, “but when you get the time, could you bring me more coffee?”
Selena pulled away without a word.
“Maybe she doesn’t speak English…” a voice behind her trailed.
She stood in a short line at the bar, arms crossed, tapping her black patent leather Sergio Rossis. She made a face. Could you bring me more coffee? she mouthed. The nerve.
“What was that, miss?” asked the Latino barkeep.
“A screwdriver, por favor, y va fácil en el hielo porque duele los dientes.”
“Ho-kay, not much ice,” he said. The pinched lips and the glint in his eye said you’re not really one of us. He reached down for a glass and muttered pocha.
“What was that?” she fired back.
“Six dollar, please.”
“Míreme, look at me in the eye. That’s not what you said.” It was an insult, as bad as agringada, so Americanized no longer truly Mexicana, a sell-out.
“Six dollar,” he repeated.
I’m fascinated with the religious undertones and themes in your stories. How did you come to weave spirituality and mysticism into your tales?
This all came quite naturally. “The Throne of Tara” is more-or-less a fictionalized biography of Saint Columba of Iona, the hot-headed Irish monk from the Sixth Century 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, in a contest of power. It’s all historically documented material, and where the facts were lacking (or appeared embellished) then my imagination took over. But I did careful research on the Celtic Church, Irish monasticism and the practices of the druids to get everything authentic. It’s simply not possible to write about that period and place without interweaving the Christian and indigenous understandings of “the unseen” and the Otherworld.
During that research I learned about the rich trade in relics in Europe and the Middle East, and this became the focus of my second historical thriller, “Relics.” I tried to treat medieval Catholicism and the various branches of Islam with the same complexity, respect and authenticity. Again, nothing needed to be forced. All this was part of being a complete medieval person.
BLEEDER, a contemporary mystery, was a bit different. During my research for “Relics” I encountered material about mystical phenomena such as the stigmata – the wounds of the crucified Christ appearing on the bodies of especially devout and holy people (Saint Francis of Assisi being the first). At the time I was considering a story featuring Aristotle, the Father of Logic, solving a crime. But I quickly learned that this was already done (and well) by someone else. So instead, I imagined a classics professor who would apply Aristotelian logic to solve a seemingly irrational mystery, and that’s where my interest in the stigmata came in. I suppose I was writing in the tradition of John Dickson Carr, who often wrote along similar themes. Beyond the ‘mystery’ of the stigmata and the crime story itself, I also wanted to examine the higher mystery of undeserved suffering. This is something all of us ponder, and this story had the opportunity to contemplate it thoughtfully – while also providing an entertaining detective tale.
Something like this occurs in VIPER, too, where Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism play a strong role. On All Souls’ Day, Selena’s name is entered in her parish church’s “Book of the Dead,” a ledger where people record the names of relatives who have died that year. The problem is, Selena’s not dead. But someone wants her to be – since there are eight other Latino names in front of hers, all drug dealers who are being killed in the order in which they are listed. Her name is last (she’s on the list because of her DEA work in the past). Along the way we get into the mind of the killer who reveres Aztec deities (and tends a collection of snakes, important in Aztec religion) and would like to see them honored by the Mexican people once again in order to recover their true heritage. Meanwhile, a mysterious “Blue Lady” appears to a local girl visionary announcing the next death in the list, and the Mexican community wonders if it is Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Aztec goddess of death. So again, all of this enriches and motivates the characters and is never ‘forced’ or unnatural. I rather like how these ‘higher mysteries’ provide some layering to the stories and the people in them.
Are there any misconceptions you’ve encountered about religious writing, Catholicism in particular?
The chief misconception is that writing by committed Christians is superficial, saccharine, and shallow in characterization and plot, full of smarmy religiosity and always ending in a conversion of some sort. This stereotyping may be deserved since there is a body of work by well-meaning Christian writers that is aimed for their own market, where there are expectations of sexual purity and spiritual safety and re-inforcement. I understand that. There are also many smart and stylish writers whose work is more complex and ambiguous. Frederick Buechner, Susan Howatch, Kathleen Norris and Walter Wangerin Jr. come to mind among Protestants. On the other side of the Tiber, as it were, Catholics have a long and complicated literary heritage, informed by a “sacramental” view of the world and a high respect for narrative. By “sacramental” I mean that Catholics take the physical world very seriously and are on the lookout for the good, the true and the beautiful in what is seen that points to what is unseen. By ‘high respect for narrative’ I mean that if you ask a Protestant what he believes you’re likely to get a list, and if you ask a Catholic you’re likely to get a story. Catholics are historically committed to excellence in art, in imitation of God the Creator (just think of the immensely rich tradition of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music). But Catholics, to their credit, are not so absolutely certain about some things, and carry humility and ambivalence into their literary work. They are deeply aware of the conflict of good and evil in the human heart. That’s why we get such great Catholic writers as Flannery O’Conner, Morris West, Evelyn Waugh, JRR Tolkien, William Barrett, Michael O’Brian, Ron Hansen – well, it’s a long list most people are unaware of. There is an emerging movement of modern writers who are bringing their authentically Catholic worldview to their work – not to force it on anyone, but because to them it most honestly represents what it means to be fully human in both our dignity and fallenness. To put it simply, we write who we are. To do otherwise is to be dishonest, and art, above all else, must be honest.
Who or what inspired you to embark on a career in writing? Who are your major writing influences?
My first published story was in third grade when a story I wrote about my dog giving away her Christmas bone to a stray, “A Present for Polly,” was mimeographed and handed out. I wrote spy novels in junior high (probably due to James Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and other TV fare) and published stories in my high school literary magazine. I turned to broadcasting in college and worked in radio and TV for a long time. It wasn’t until I worked on a documentary on Western Christianity that I picked up fiction again, having discovered the thrilling story of Columba of Iona and seeing the dramatic possibilities in it. The success of that first novel moved me to continue writing book-length fiction.
My major writing influence is my wife who allows me to pursue this crazy habit! But I know what you mean – I admire stylish American noir detective writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James Ellroy. Then there are the writers who showed me you can bring your faith to bear on your fiction without being overbearing: CS Lewis, Susan Howatch, Morris West, William Barrett.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
First, because I write ‘genre’ literature, my aim is to entertain. So the first ‘take-away’ value is that my reader has been refreshed and delighted for a few hours. That’s healing.
Secondly, I hope readers will ponder some of the ‘higher’ and unresolved mysteries that my stories explore: the mystery of undeserved suffering and whether there is any redemptive meaning in our common struggle with sorrow, or, on the other hand, the mystery of undeserved graces in life, and how it is we can hope for love and justice in a bent world.
What has surprised you the most about being an author and the actual business of writing?
The amount of promotion and marketing that is required. In the old days, one could rely on a publisher’s publicist to manage reviews, book-signing tours, interviews, bookmarks and all that. This is all up to the writer today and it is very time-consuming and can become expensive.
I was surprised and very pleased by the warmth and cordiality among mystery writers. It is a very welcoming and supportive community, where the ‘stars’ mingle amiably with newcomers and share their insights gladly. At mystery writer conferences, you get to sit at dinner with these ‘celebrities’ and they chat away as though you were family. You’d never guess that people who kill for a living could be so nice.
Aside from writing, what are some of your other passions and pursuits? I noticed Selena tools around in a vintage Dodge Charger; are you by chance a car guy?
I drive a ‘vintage’ 1995 Toyota Corolla, so I’m not really a car guy. When I was a teenager, the family car was a Dodge Charger and it was the car in which I learned to drive. I have great memories of that, and it’s why Selena got a Charger.
My wife and I are involved in retired racing Greyhound rescue and adoption. These are sweet and gentle dogs who make affectionate and loyal companions. They are quiet couch potatoes, and some are real jokers.
I play the mountain dulcimer and am a tenor in the church choir. What smart sweethearts those people are. I look forward to practice every week.
Thank you so very much, John. This has been a fascinating interview and I’m so happy to have had you here today.
Thanks, Melissa! I appreciated the opportunity to share with you and your readers.
Selena De La Cruz finish-welded the high flow exhaust tubes at the manifold flanges, twisted off the white flame and lifted the mask to inspect her work. Perfecto. She blew at the torch as though it were a smoking gun and thought about the next tasks: install a low-temperature thermostat to keep the Charger’s engine cool, check the brake bleeder valves, and - line one on the garage phone trilled.
¿Ay, ahora qué? she sighed with a roll of her eyes. Hadn’t she made it clear to her new receptionist Felicia that her lunch hour in the insurance claims garage was sagrada and she was not to be disturbed while working on her car? She ducked from under the Matco lift, tugged off her work gloves and crossed to the Formica counter, her Filas sneakers squeaking on the glossy concrete floor. She raked her fingers through her sable hair. It must be an emergencia, she thought, her heart rate accelerating with each quickened step. Un accidente malo with injuries. Lord knows how the early November drizzle had slicked the roads.
She seized the chirping phone and punched a button. “¿Sí, Felicia?”
“Selena? Is that really you?” asked a man’s voice.
She wrinkled her brow. It wasn’t her brother Francisco asking for another loan. It wasn’t her brother Lorenzo looking for a place to crash, now that his wife had kicked him out again. It wasn’t Reed Stubblefield, calling about their weekend date; he knew better. And it felt a bit presumptuous for an insurance agency customer to call her by her first name. The nerve. And how did he get this direct line number? She drew a cleansing breath and used her softest business voice. “How may I help you, sir?”
“Selena Perez, ex-DEA?”
“Who is this?”
“Geez, you don’t know how hard it is to find you.”
Her heart hammered against her ribs. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Sure you do. But being hard to find was the whole idea, wasn’t it?”
Please visit John at his website, http://www.johndesjarlais.com.