Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Authorsday -John Desjarlais

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

My third grade teacher mimeographed my first story, “A Present for Polly,” about my dog Polly giving away a beloved Christmas toy to a stray. I suppose it all started there. I became more serious in junior high and high school, where I worked for the school newspaper and literary magazine.

How did you pick the genre you write in?

When I worked as a scriptwriter for a multimedia company in the 1980s, I produced a documentary on the history of Western Christianity and became fascinated by the Irish monastic movement. These artistic, scholarly monks saved civilization at a time when barbarians were burning their way through Europe. Saint Columba of Iona was especially interesting – a hot-headed warrior and poet with Second Sight who went to war over a disputed manuscript and, in remorse over the thousands slain, exiled himself among the Picts of Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. So his fictionalized biography, The Throne of Tara, was my first novel. I learned about relics along the way and the rich trade in them (and battles over them) in the Middle Ages and that became the basis for book 2, Relics. I’d begun researching a third historical wherein Aristotle, the Father of Logic, would solve a crime. But I learned this had already been done (and well) by a British writer not long ago. So I fancied a classics professor who was familiar with Aristotle’s writing and who would apply Aristotelian logic to solving a crime that defied reason. That’s how BLEEDER began, a story of a stigmatic priest who bleeds to death on Good Friday. I always enjoyed reading mysteries and now I’m hooked on writing them.

Do you plot or do you write by the seat of your pants?

I plot less as I go along in my career. I need some sort of skeleton at the beginning (pardon the mystery image) on which to hang some initial premises and characters and ideas. I do ‘clustering’ and make up charts. I have the opening and ending in view – though these change and intensify late in the game. The broad and terrifying middle is where I can only go so far as the headlights reveal a road on a foggy night. I don’t ask ‘what happens next’ but I follow the decisions of the main characters. With my current work-in-progress, a sequel to BLEEDER titled VIPER, the plot depends heavily on a police investigation. Since those procedures tend to be rather methodical, I can follow its course and expand where I need to do so for reversals and surprises.

For my short literary fiction, there’s no plotting at all. It comes out all at once.

What do you know now that you are published that you didn’t know pre-published that you wish you knew?

You won't believe how many times you'll read your own book in the proofing process. You do want it to be perfect and avoid typos and such. But what tedious work. Promotion and marketing are harder than writing the book, more time-consuming, and potentially a real hindrance to writing. 15 years ago, my publishers invested in my titles with advertising, solicitation of reviews and other things. We've all heard how little publishers are putting into marketing these days, backing only their top-sellers who don't need much publicity anyway. The business side of writing, the selling side, is a real challenge. There's always something you could be doing, and this can bite into the work you like most - writing.

How many rejections have you received?

Dozens. And I’m sure my last agent received a bunch I never knew about. It’s especially painful when an editor asks to see the full manuscript, having seen a partial and a synopsis, showing high interest. Then the manuscript returns in the mail many weeks later looking beat-up and exhausted. You print a fresh copy and send it out to the next person on the list.

Why did you pick the publisher that ultimately published your book?

I was participating in an online writers’ conference where an acquisitions editor for a small house, Sophia Institute Press, gave a presentation on genre fiction. Her company was launching a new imprint for genre work and actively seeking manuscripts, especially mysteries with a spiritual angle. I pitched BLEEDER to her immediately. She asked for the first three chapters and a synopsis and contacted me two days later asking to see the full manuscript. In a week she offered a contract.

What was the best writing advice someone gave you? What was the worst? Did you know it at the time?

The best: “A half-finished book is no book at all; finish it.” --Ernest Hemingway

The worst: “Start with short stories before trying a novel.” They are simply too different.

Describe your book.

BLEEDER is a contemporary amateur-sleuth mystery that examines ‘higher mysteries.’ I received a gracious blurb from thriller author Tom Grace this week: "BLEEDER is an intelligent, deftly written mystery that offers a skillful blend of reason and faith. John Desjarlais skillfully combines a wounded scholar, a stigmatic priest, and Aristotle himself in a fascinating tale."

Who is your favorite character in your book?

A minor character -- Selena de la Cruz, the Latina insurance agent. As soon as she walked onto the stage with those heels, that attitude, and a 69 Dodge Charger, I knew she had a story of her own. She’s the protagonist of the sequel. So now I have to think like a second-generation Mexican-American woman. I’m researching Mexican-American families, holidays, food, music, customs, Catholicism and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Aztec mythology, dichos (proverbs) – sheesh, the works. I subscribed to Latina magazine to get some insights. I’m passing my work by a Latina writer who is checking the Spanish as well as the accuracy and fairness of the cultural and gender treatment. So far, so good. I asked my wife if I could get a vintage Charger like Selena’s so I could experience what it’s like to drive one full-throttle on country roads. She said that if I learn to fix it, I can buy it. Hmmm…the community college where I teach has an auto repair program...

Author Bio:

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990), was a Christianity Today Readers Choice Award nominee, and his second historical novel, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder (Sophia Institute Press 2009) is his first mystery. A member of The Academy of American Poets and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Contemporary Authors, Who's Who in Entertainment, and Who's Who Among America's Teachers.

Book Blurb:

A stigmatic priest bleeds to death on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. A miracle? Or bloody murder? Aristotle scholar Reed Stubblefield needs to know. After all, police say he’s the prime suspect. And not everybody in this small town wants the mystery solved…

Investigate Higher Mysteries

Got RELICS?A medieval thriller/romancesee the video trailer at

BLEEDER: a mysteryA miracle? Or bloody murder?see the video trailer at



Margaret Tanner said...

Hi John,
A stigmata priest bleeding to death, if that doesn't grab a reader I don't know what will. Sounds fascinating.
Best of luck with it. You sound like a very busy writer.
Best wishes

Mary Kennedy said...

Hi John, your book sounds terrific. And I love the Hemmingway quote!