Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mitch Malone Mondays - John Desjarlais

Mitch Malone here and I’m happy to help out W.S. when I can but she is taking advantage when she’s off cruising and having fun. Somewhere you have to draw the line. However, I don’t want it to be said that I’m unprofessional. I’ve got a dynamite author her with a Latino main character that is hot. Reminds me of another dark-haired beauty but I don’t want to get distracted. Today’s guest is John Desjarlais whose newest book is slated to be out any day now. It’s called “Viper!” Where did you get your inspiration to write about the main character, Selena? She sounds hot!

Latina insurance agent Selena De La Cruz was a minor character in my first mystery, BLEEDER. The story takes place in rural Illinois where there’s been a large influx of Latino laborers for agricultural operations such as slaughterhouses and canneries. With all the unease among the townspeople about so many poor and ill-educated immigrants, I wanted to balance this by portraying a positive, well-educated Latin character that cared about this issue. Since my protagonist, Reed Stubblefield, had been injured in a school shooting, I also needed a local insurance agent to assist him with disability claims. So I invented Selena, a thirty-something second-generation Mexican-American insurance agent from a well-to-do family in Chicago, a Loyola finance major. When she first walked on the stage in those cherry high heels, with that attitude and driving that fast car, I knew she had a story of her own. She insisted on a larger role in BLEEDER.

Cherry high heels. Hmmmm. Do you find it hard to write about a woman, being in her head?

This was the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. Not only did I need to get the ‘woman’ thing right, I had to get the “Latina” thing right – all the cultural stuff: family, customs, language, the works. I interviewed Latinas and subscribed to Latina magazine. I read several books (aimed at this growing U.S. population) about the struggle to acculturate to New World realities while holding to tradition and Old World expectations. I browsed blogs and web sites by Latinas, to overhear their conversations about dealing with a bicultural identity and being a woman in a man’s world. I sent pieces of the work-in-progress to a Latina who checked the language (she’s a professional translator) and who made sure I was accurate and respectful with all the cultural material. I knew I was getting it right when she once wrote, “I am SO into Selena!” What a relief to hear her say that.

I’m not exactly very religious but you’ve included that aspect. The Catholic Church figures heavily in this book especially with Selena being on the All Souls list. What prompted you to include that?

I’m a relatively new convert to Catholicism and so I am fascinated by all the details of Catholic faith and practice that I never knew as a faithful evangelical. I was casting about for a premise to begin the sequel to BLEEDER and noticed this practice of placing a “Book of the Dead” in the sanctuary around All Souls Day for families to record the names of loved ones who had died over the year so they could be remembered and respected. Well, if you’re a mystery writer and you hear a phrase like “Book of the Dead,” you sit up straight. What if there were names in it of people who weren’t dead, but they were being killed in the order in which they were listed?

At the same time I learned about the Mexican holiday that runs nearly concurrently, “The Day of the Dead.” It’s a fiesta where Mexican families decorate home altars with flower garlands, special breads, candles and photos of deceased relatives. They give candy skulls to children and have picnics in cemeteries where they call out insults to a female grim reaper figure called “Lady Death,” saying “Hey, you old baldy, you missed me this year!” It’s all very light-hearted and is loosely connected to old Aztec customs and folk beliefs. Anyway, I knew that Selena’s name had to be on the list (the last name) and that she’d be the protagonist of the sequel.

I also had the idea that a local girl visionary would claim that a “Blue Lady” appeared to her announcing the next death in the list. While some in the Mexican-American community would believe it was Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico (whose apparition in the 16th Century led to the conversion of millions of Aztecs and stopped the slaughter of human sacrifices), others believe it is the Aztec goddess of Death. So the “Catholic” and “Aztec” religious aspects worked into the story quite naturally.

Many times when authors include religious items in their works, many people are turned off. How do you balance the religion in a fast-paced thriller?

I’m not sure it is a matter of ‘balance’ so much as a matter of ‘blending’ in a way that is both subtle and necessary to the story. It isn’t so much another added ingredient in the stew (much like it shouldn’t be compartmentalized in one’s life); it’s in the very aroma of the whole pot. If it is something forced, extraneous or – God forbid – preachy, then a reader may feel manipulated. The reader might suspect that the story has a hidden agenda of proselytism. People are rightly ‘turned off’ when the spiritual material is handled poorly, whether it is in-authentic or inaccurate or in-your-face.

All of this material in VIPER, however, is natural and an organic part of the story and characters. My story premises – the Book of the Dead and the mysterious “Blue Lady” - are necessary to the criminal investigation aspect of the story. As for characters - Mexicans still identify themselves strongly as Catholic even if their practice isn’t exemplary – it’s part of the culture. For example, Selena is not a deeply devout Catholic but she still goes to Mass with her family dutifully and she has santos y virgencita figurines around her house. By habit, she crosses herself when passing a church. She doesn’t pray the rosary, but her faith-filled godmother gives her one as a gift and Selena carries it with her. I think she’s newly intrigued by the mercy, majesty and – ahem – mystery found in the fullness of the Catholic faith.

No one was ‘turned off’ by Dan Brown’s inclusion of religious elements – except for every educated Christian who knew Brown got everything wrong, and it was insulting. I think the book served to reinforce some prejudices against the Catholic Church and caused some who were poorly catechized to derail. When a writer deals with religious material, it must be dealt with honestly.

The mystery genre is full of religious characters and themes, and one reason may be that the genre is a good place to explore the ‘higher mysteries’ of the human heart. It looks closely at our deepest desires and fears, it faces the mystery of death and undeserved suffering squarely, and is concerned with justice. Done well, it fully examines the mystery of what it means to be fully human. It tries to make sense of the frightfully short dash between our birth date and departure date on our tombstones. How ‘religious’ can you get?

Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael stories and GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories are instructive in this regard, Andrew Greeley less so. As Emily Dickinson said, ‘Tell ALL the truth, but tell it slant/ Success in circuit lies.”

Will there be other Selena mysteries and if so what can we expect and when?

Yes. I’m working on the third story in the series and I hope to have a draft completed by the end of summer 2011. I’d expect it might be published in Spring or Summer 2012.

After several life insurance clients die in rapid succession, Selena De La Cruz learns their policies were recently sold to a "life settlement" broker for their cash value, with the full death benefits converted to bonds and paid to third party investors. Though such a practice is legal, Selena suspects the clients were murdered to guarantee a high return on the ‘death bonds.’

I’m in a research-and-outline stage at the moment.

Thanks for having me as a guest, Wendy! Your readers can find me at and my blog, and they can email me at

Thanks, John. Can't wait to read Selena's story.

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