Friday, June 10, 2011

Around the Globe with JOHN DESJARLAIS

So, after a night of heavy storms, the weather is cooler, but not uncomfortable. I hop in my transporter and I'm off to the state next door to talk with this week's author and to do a little bird watching.

1. Who is John Desjarlais and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?

I’m a mild-mannered, absent-minded college professor in his 50s, married 33 years and a recent convert to the Catholic Church who kills people in his spare time. Well – in fiction. The killing part, I mean. I’ve turned to writing mysteries lately, though I’ve also published historical novels, literary short fiction and poetry.

Thanks for visiting with me out here in the Screen House adjoining my home in northern Illinois. I hope you enjoy the view of the restored prairie as much as I do. That’s the Rock River glimmering through the trees. At this time of year, there’s a fine perfume of lilac in the air. We’ll see quite a variety of birds at my feeders, too. The goldfinches are back. And hear that? Believe it or not, it’s a Baltimore oriole. There he is.

2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?

Besides being a birder? I’ve taken voice lessons (I’m a tenor) and play the mountain dulcimer. I’m teaching myself acoustic guitar. I want to play songs for my granddaughters Lillian and Lyndsey, and perhaps play in church sometime.

Also, my wife and I are involved in retired racing Greyhound rescue. That’s how we got Monte over there, snoring on the pillow. People expect Greys to be ‘hyper’ but they’re such couch potatoes. Can you tell he’s not a birder? But when he sees a squirrel or another ‘fuzzy,’ look out. That explains the low decorative wire fencing around the Screen House – so he won’t leap through the screen after a squirrel or chipmunk – or the neighbor’s cat.

3. What interested you to be become a writer rather than something else such as becoming a NASCAR driver?

Not that I’d mind having a growling muscle car, like my character, Selena De La Cruz – but I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I wrote spy novels in junior high (the era of James Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Avengers, The Prisoner and all that) and published short stories in my high school literary magazine. In college, I turned to radio and TV. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that a documentary I was scripting about Western Christianity got me interested in the Irish monastic movement, where I discovered Columba of Iona. This deeply conflicted, gifted and pious warrior-monk went to war over a book, and in remorse over the 3,000 men slain, he exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. He’s the first man to have encountered the Loch Ness monster. This was great stuff for a novel and it became “The Throne of Tara” in 1990. Having rediscovered fiction, I kept going with short stories and another historical thriller, “Relics,” which came out in 1993.

4. Writers are readers. With which author(s) would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?

I’d love to sit in on a meeting of The Inklings, that English assembly of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams and others who gathered at the Eagle and Child public house in the 1930s into the 1960s. If GK Chesterton could join the group, that’d be great too. These intelligent and imaginative writers brought their faith to bear on their work without ever becoming overbearing, able to entertain and also enlighten.

Ah, there’s Charlie and Charlene Cardinal. They mate for life, you know. Somehow Charlie got trapped in the Screen House once and I had to capture him with a bedsheet and release him gently outside. I have no idea how he got in here.

How’s your iced tea? Need a refill?

5. If I were stranded on a deserted island (or suffering a four hour layover at the airport), why would your book(s) be great company?

Nearly all my reviewers say that my mysteries are un-put-downable page-turners and some have said they were compelled to read them through in a single overnight reading, robbing them of a night’s sleep. So I guess my stories have the ability to transport and transfix readers – exactly what you’d need for that delay at Heathrow. And who wouldn’t want to spend four hours with Selena? She’s smart, sexy and stylish, tough and tender by turn, opinionated and slyly witty, always interesting to listen to.

6. Share the Desjarlais process of writing in regards to: idea and character development, story outline, research (do you Google, visit places/people or make it up on the spot?), writing schedule, editing, and number of rewrites.

This changes with each book and differs for each genre. My first historical was, in effect, a highly dramatized biography, and so I had to do tons of research on the main character Columba, his times and culture. I had to entirely re-create the 6th century world in which he lived, down to every detail, even flowers and birds. Ah – hear that rat-tat-tat? I’ll bet it’s a male Downy Woodpecker, Piccoides pubecens. Where is he? There – see the red patch of feathers behind his head?

Anyway, I had a time-line in hand from Columba’s early biographers. Where the facts were missing or too embellished to be believable, I filled in with a well-informed imagination. Most of the characters are historical figures that I brought to life, and of course I added minor players as needed. I did the same thing with “Relics,” though I had fewer real historical figures to work with, such as King Louis IX of France.

For mysteries, in general, I begin with a premise. For BLEEDER, it was ‘a stigmatic bleeds to death on Good Friday: miracle or murder?’. For the sequel VIPER, it was ‘names listed in an All Souls’ Day ‘Book of the Dead’ aren’t dead but are being killed in the order in which they’re listed.’

Every mystery must begin with a consideration of the three main characters: the sleuth, the victim, and the killer. Once you have these three, the rest follow: sidekick, police or other investigators, suspects, family members and friends, co-workers, information providers.

For BLEEDER, I wanted the sleuth to be a classics professor who knew Aristotle well, so that The Philosopher would be his ‘mentor’ and help him apply Aristotelian logic to solve an irrational problem. The victim was clearly a stigmatist – a fellow full of unsolved mysteries. The killer changed a few times. I suppose that if is a surprise to me, it will be a surprise to the reader.

For VIPER, the protagonist surely had to be Selena De La Cruz, the fiery Latina insurance agent who was a minor character in BLEEDER. That’s because the premise about the Book of the Dead on All Souls’ Day coincides with a Mexican holiday called “The Day of the Dead.’ That fact alone made it clear that this was to be her story. I did a great deal of research about Mexican-American families, culture and customs in order to get this character right. I researched the issue of balancing a bi-cultural identity through reading, interviews and browsing Latinas’ blogs. I subscribed to Latina magazine. I asked Latina readers to review the work-in-progress to make sure I was getting it all right, and they assured me that I was.

Mysteries involve as much research as historicals, to my surprise. Police procedure, medical and forensic stuff, firearms. For VIPER in particular, I researched DEA undercover ops, Aztec mythology, Mexican Catholicism, Marian apparitions, snake handling, race car driving – just an awful lot of work in libraries, on the Web, through interviews and sometimes visiting places. But the most challenging, as I mentioned, was portraying a Mexican-American woman credibly.

I outline less and less as I get more experienced. I try several different beginnings before I get it right. I have an ending in mind but it always changes a bit. I try to plan ‘plot points’ along the way, like a screenwriter does, in three ‘Acts’ with scenes and sequences that build to mini-climaxes having a revelation and a reversal- very Aristotelian.

I have an irregular writing schedule, given my teaching schedule. Therefore, in the summer, I push to get a whole draft done, having collected research in bits during the school year. So by the time summer comes around, I’ve already thought through much of the story and I’m ready to commit to paper.

I edit a great deal on my own and I’m blessed to have a good editor working with me in a small house whose suggestions are always dead-on. BLEEDER needed quite a bit of re-working at both the story and scene level. VIPER hardly needed any changing at all – just one added scene, and changing the name of the villain. That’s it.

7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”

Find some excellent books on the craft of writing. I recommend John Braine’s “Writing a Novel,” and if you are mystery-specific, try “Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel” by Hallie Ephron, “How to Write Killer Fiction” by Carolyn Wheat, or “Writing the Modern Mystery” by Barbara Norville. You might also consider attending a writers’ conference where there will be many seminars and workshops on the craft and business of writing.

8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read ‘Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” What is your philosophy of life?

“This, too, shall pass.”

9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing? What’s next for you?

I’m working on the third entry in the mystery series, featuring the main characters from the first two: Reed Stubblefield and Selena De La Cruz. It involves life insurance fraud and that’s about all I think I’ll say. It’s easy for writers to ‘talk out’ their stories and then never write them.

Excuse me a moment, the blue jays are trying to get into the sparrow’s birdhouse again.

OK, thanks for waiting. They’re beautiful, but killers nonetheless. Like some villains in mysteries, right? Where were we? Oh yes -- I might try a mystery short story with my novel characters. I’m also considering publishing a short story collection on Kindle. They’re not mysteries, they are stories that have previously appeared in a variety of literary magazines

10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?

Folks can visit my web site,, or drop into my blog “Johnny Dangerous” at All my books are available at

Thank you, Stephen, for visiting with me out here in the Screen House. Now, if you look carefully over there, you might spot a bald eagle. They’re back, big-time, and there are aeries all along the Rock River now. Aren’t they gorgeous? Aren’t they – lethal?

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