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 Teachers.
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 in mind.
4. Your protagonist Selena De La Cruz is a smart, gutsy young woman who comes alive on page one. How did you develop her character?
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 reading now?
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 day.