Today I’m very pleased to welcome JOHN DESJARLAIS, the author of VIPER, BLEEDER and other books. 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 TodayReaders 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. 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, andWho’s Who Among America’s Teachers.
On All Souls Day, Selena De La Cruz’s name is entered in her parish church’s “Book of the Deceased.”
The problem is, she’s not dead.
And someone thinks she should be.
Is it “The Snake,” a notorious drug dealer Selena helped to put in prison when she was a Special Agent with the DEA years ago? Or someone far, far more dangerous?
VIPER a mystery
by john desjarlais coming March 2011 from Sophia Institute Press
the thrilling sequel to BLEEDER
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, small town 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?
That certainly sounds intriguing. Tell us a little more about your latest novel, Viper.
VIPER is the sequel to BLEEDER, a mystery published in 2009. It features a minor character from the first book as the protagonist, Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz. Since the first book touched upon immigration issues in rural Illinois and my main character Reed Stubblefield was disabled and dealing with insurance problems, Selena provided a way to present a positive and empowered Mexican-American character while at the same time addressing those insurance claims. As soon as she walked on the stage in those cherry high heels and with that attitude, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I’d originally envisioned. Then, in thinking about the next book and the “Book of the Dead” on All Souls’ Day, I learned that the Mexican holiday called “The Day of the Dead” runs nearly concurrently with that feast. It was clear to me then that the sequel would feature Selena and the story would be told against a rich tapestry of Aztec mythology and Mexican Catholicism.
What age were you when you decided to write a book and what prompted you to do it?
I was 35 and working as a scriptwriter in a small media company that produced videos for corporate training and public relations. I produced a documentary on the history of Western Christianity and became intrigued by the Irish monastic movement – scholarly men and women who valued art, literature and poetry, who were close to nature and champions of womens’ rights. Columba of Iona fascinated me in particular – a hot-tempered monk with “Second Sight” from a royal family who went to war over a disputed manuscript. 3,000 men were killed in the “Battle of the Book” in 560 AD, and in remorse, Columba exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. He’s also the first man in recorded history to have encountered the Loch Ness sea-beast. This was material for a novel, I told myself, and I wrote “The Throne of Tara” in 1989 (it was published in 1990 and re-issued in 2000).
You have written historical novels – do you have any plans to write more?
No – I’m hooked on mysteries for the time being.
Did you find your background in teaching a great help when it came to writing novels and if so, why?
Teaching literature and writing has provided me with a short cut in learning the elements of style, perhaps, although I’ve benefited more from writers’ conferences and books about genre novel-writing.Being a teacher allows me time to write, especially since I have summers free – and my college granted me a sabbatical to finish a draft of BLEEDER.I imagine, as your books combine history, religion and mystery that you must do a lot of research. How do you set about this? Does the research take longer than writing the novels?
Research is time-consuming but opens up many character and plot possibilities. I love libraries, and the Internet has changed everything. I conduct interviews where needed. You might think that the historicals require more research than the mysteries, but it is a different kind of research and nearly as demanding. For historicals, one must re-create a world and pay assiduous attention to every detail of clothing, customs, architecture, weapons, food, the works. Everything contributes to atmosphere and authenticity but must never be overbearing. With contemporary mysteries, there are a whole new set of concerns. For BLEEDER, I needed to do research on blood diseases, cancer treatment, anxiety medications and other medical things. I needed to learn about the mystical phenomenon of the stigmata and the Catholic Church’s procedure for investigating such things (they are quite rigorous and skeptical about it), as well as know the process of canonization. I was not Catholic at the time of drafting and so I needed to learn about the Mass and the special services on Good Friday (I didn’t know there was no Mass on Good Friday). Then there’s all the police procedure, police interrogation techniques, police report writing, coroners’ inquests, etc. VIPER was even more of a challenge, since I had to create a credible Mexican-American female protagonist in the insurance business with a troubled background in the DEA and ongoing issues in her family.So research about Aztec religion, snake handling, vintage car repair, firearms, DEA undercover operations and crime scene management were all easier than learning to “be” a 30-something Latina.
Tell us about your heroine, Selena De La Cruz, and why you decided on her character. Is the choice of name of any significance?
Selena is a thirty-something Mexican-American woman in a family of three brothers; her Mami and Papa were well-off since he was a PEMEX executive before becoming an official in the Mexican consulate in Chicago. The family was raised in the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago. Selena’s fraternal twin Antonio developed a drug problem in the Army and was killed in a car accident in Germany, leaving her with his chili-pepper red 1969 Dodge Charger called “The Beast.” Always a tomboy anyway, Selena was motivated by this incident to join the DEA where she applied her finance degree from Loyola in the Financial Tracing division before hitting the streets where she really wanted to be. She is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol, does undercover work well, and knows how to maintain her awesome car. She’s fond of expensive shoes (seized drug money pays for them) and struggles with living in two worlds at once, being bi-cultural and being an independent woman in a man’s world. Her real name is Selena Perez; she changed it to De La Cruz when she left the DEA under a cloud and wished to start afresh as an insurance agent in rural Illinois. The name is from a medieval Spanish poet and mystic she admires, Juan De La Cruz (John of the Cross).
Here are some reviews for VIPER
“I just couldn’t put it down! More compelling than BLEEDER!” Regina Doman, author of The Shadow of the Bear and The Midnight Dancers
“Non-stop action, nail-biting suspense –and enough genuine compassion to warm the coldest heart. A winner, start to finish.”Jeanne M. Dams, author of the Dorothy Martin and Hilda Johansson mysteries
“A compelling mystery that will keep readers in suspense.”spiritualwomanthoughts
“Desjarlais keeps you guessing as the action accelerates faster than De La Cruz’s souped-up vehicle. VIPER strikes fast and sinks its teeth in you. You won’t be able to put it down.”Tony Perona, author of Second Advent and Angels Whisper
“A don’t miss it page turner that blends ancient Aztec mysticism, Catholic Mariology, and a good old-fashioned whodunit.”Mike Manno, author of Murder Most Holy and End of the Line
Wow! As we can see, above, you’ve had some tremendous reviews. So what next for John Desjarlais? It sounds as though your novels would make for exciting movies. Is there anything in the wind?
No movie options yet. I need an agent for that, and my previous agent left the business after a serious car accident. I managed to sell BLEEDER and VIPER on my own. What are you currently writing?
I’m working on the third book in the mystery series and, at the moment, I think it will be the last in this arc. I’d like to try a stand-alone thriller and pitch it to an agent next year. Let’s see if Selena has other ideas.
Clearly religion has played a big part in your life. Tell us about your upbringing, where it happened and the importance that religion had in it.
I was raised Roman Catholic in north-central Massachusetts but it didn’t mean anything to me and I chucked it all in high school. However, I discovered Jesus in college and was utterly transformed. After bouncing among churches, I finally landed in the Presbyterian Church where I was a devout disciple for years along with my wife. Around age 50 I began reading the Church Fathers and Catholic poet and intellectual Thomas Merton, seeking a closer, more ‘sacramental’ union with God through contemplative prayer. I went to Catholic monasteries on retreats and came to see that the majesty, mercy, and mystery in the Catholic tradition was completely fulfilling. It was nothing like what I knew as a kid. There is a beauty, peace and wisdom here that has made me a new man. I appreciate the Catholic social teaching on justice for the poor and the weak, and the historic support of the fine arts is also a wonderful thing.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that your readers would like to know?
My wife and I are involved in retired racing Greyhound rescue. These gentle creatures make excellent family companions and I’d encourage everyone interested in adopting a dog to do a little research at a site like regapgreyhounds.org in Illinois (REGAP is “Retired Greyhounds As Pets”);there are REGAP chapters in many states and rescue organizations in many other countries.
Thank you, John. A most interesting interview. I was intrigued to learn about your background and the widely divergent style of your novels.