April showers are probably not as welcome in parts of our nation as they have been in years past, especially given the bomb cyclones experienced by California since the start of this year. As I construct our interview for this month, my local weather forecast promises two to five inches of rain. Holy sump pump! But the rain can’t dampen my excitement at introducing you to this month’s featured author, John Desjarlais. John comes to us as a former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio and a retired English professor. He writes historical novels, mysteries, and YA adventures that “awaken wonder,” a quality important to him in his writing and in his personal life. His books include The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990), The Light of Tara (KDP 2020), Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993), Bleeder, Viper, Specter (Sophia Institute/Chesterton 2008, 2011, 2015), and The Kill Floor (Torchflame 2022). His stories and poems have appeared in a variety of journals such as The Critic, Conclave, Lit Noir, Apocalypse 9, Dappled Things, and Kakalak. John is a member of Mystery Writers of America, The Rockford Writers Guild, The North Carolina Poetry Society, and The North Carolina Writers Network. He is a graduate of the Writing Program at Illinois State University, where he studied fiction with David Foster Wallace.
Janet Irvin: Hi, John, welcome to my author’s nook. Let’s start with the writing itself. When did you decide to turn seriously to crafting novels?
John Desjarlais: In the mid-1980s I worked with an educational media company producing documentaries. One concerned the Irish monastic movement and I came across Columba of Iona, a royal-born scholar, poet, and hot-headed warrior-monk who went to war over a disputed manuscript where 3,000 men were killed. In remorse, he exiled himself to Scotland where he dueled the druids, miracles versus magic. I thought: there’s an exciting novel here. It became The Throne of Tara in 1990.
JEI: Why did you decide to focus on the historical, then mysteries, and YA?
JD: This is a fairly long journey. History always fascinated me; I nearly became a classics major in college but my practical self opted for broadcasting.
In researching Tara, I read about the rich trade in relics during the medieval period and decided to write about the greatest relics of all, the Holy Places in The Holy Land, and the tragic “crusades” to protect them and then to control them. This became Relics in 1993. I was set to write a follow-up to Tara based on the dramatically dangerous life of St. Patrick, but I was let go from my media job and thrown into survival mode. I decided to get a second Master’s degree, this time in English and Writing so that I could teach at the community college level and still have time for writing.
After landing a position, I turned to short stories and academic articles, largely to attain tenure and to stay employed. In teaching composition and rhetoric, I read a lot of Aristotle and thought: how cool would it be for the Father of Logic to apply his principles of logic to solve a crime as a detective? Very early in the research, I discovered that another writer had already done this, and had done it well (Aristotle, Detective, by Margaret Doody, in 1978). I re-directed: how about if a rhetoric professor who is well-acquainted with Aristotle’s logic went about solving a crime with Aristotle as his “mentor”? This became Bleeder. The publisher wanted more, as publishers often do when it comes to a mystery with series potential, so I followed with Viper and Specter. The publisher went out of business, but I had one more story to tell in this “universe”, which was The Kill Floor. As for YA, I’ve composed a Christmas poem for my granddaughters for years, and last year I decided to write a story as a birthday present for the one turning 13. It ended up being 40,000 words. I’m revising it now to deepen the story and get to a proper YA novel-length of at least 55,000.
JEI: The search for wonder is something you state lies at the heart of your writing. How do you find the topics that send you on that journey?
JD: I don’t really know. As Catholics say, “It’s a mystery.” It may be more accurate to say we do not search for wonder but Wonder searches for us. Writers just need to pay attention. “Be someone upon whom nothing is lost,” William James advised. In my sacred tradition, we say we believe “in all things visible and invisible,” but more than that, we believe that the invisible is seen in the visible. It’s what you might call a sacramental view of life, where the universal is evident in the particular, the wondrous in the ordinary. We just need to be quiet enough to notice.
JEI: You enjoy hiking in the mountains. How does that pastime contribute to your sense of wonder and then translate into your writing?
JD: Walking, for me, is prayer that moves. It’s a mini-retreat that engages all the senses and reminds you that you are a part of Nature. Humility is the prerequisite to Wonder. Only when we enter The Silence do we have anything worthwhile to say.
JEI: I agree with you about the spiritual and meditative qualities of walking, which is why I do it, too. It’s easy to see that your historical novels have a strong spiritual theme yet don’t demand that readers adhere to any one religious philosophy. Or do they? How does that broader approach contribute to reader accessibility?
JD: My editor once told me, “Your work is too religious for secular people and too secular for religious people.” I remember that I felt complimented. My historical work has a Catholic ‘coloring,’ I suppose you’d say, but that’s just being true to the period and to the place of the story. It’s not heavy-handed; it’s simply accurate for Celtic Ireland and High Medieval France. My mysteries have a supernatural element because I’m interested in exploring the higher mysteries of what it means to be mortal. I write in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy whose worldview informed their work but never overwhelmed it. Like them, my work doesn’t require readers to adhere to one view, but invites them to be open to wonder.
JEI: I’m impressed by the wit and the humor you inject even into the blurbs for your novels. Is this intuitive for you or do you have to work at it?
JD: I think I may be a frustrated stand-up comic. Call me the Catholic Seinfeld. I just enjoy wordplay and irony. It comes through especially in my poetry, where language is up-front and personal.
JEI: Since you write in different genres, what is the deciding factor in starting a new project?
JD: In fiction, it’s if the initial idea gives me goosebumps, characters present themselves, and it seems sustainable.
In poetry, it’s whether an observation of any sort—in the neighborhood, at the market, in the news—touches an emotion in me and can be rather quickly drawn. I should add that I’m in my Poetry Chair every day with a prompt. Some of those turn into viable poems; the others are push-ups and bicep curls.
JEI: Which aspect of the craft – plot, characterization, setting, theme – is most important to you?
JD: Character is everything. Everything else comes from that. Plot is characters making choices in response to conflict. Dialog is what they say. Setting is where they are and what has shaped them. Theme is what they learn. When we finish a book, we remember the characters. That being said: in the traditional mystery, a plausible, air-tight plot is expected by fans of the genre. Everything must make sense and be explained in an orderly way. The well-designed puzzle is part of the pleasure.
JEI: You’re also a poet. How does the poetic appear in your novel writing?
JD: The attention to language. It has to be enjoyable to read. I read my work aloud and listen for sound, rhythm, beat. Not that I’m trying to rhyme things or appear too cute with assonance or alliteration, no. Those things can call attention to themselves in a bad way. I mean noting sentence variety for interest, using vivid verbs, placing phrases in power positions. Also, I write tight. Poetry’s chief feature is an economy of words. So I cut clutter. The downside is that I struggle to get to a commercially-proper word count in my novels.
JEI: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gleaned at a writing conference?
JD: Poetry must be playful. That is to say, you must allow yourself freedom to experiment.
JEI: On your website, you mention a favorite picnic spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Do you have a favorite trail?
JD: Oh, there are so many around here. DuPont State Forest has several that are out-of-the-way, that pass by waterfalls, and that are manageable for an older fellow like me. I bike, too, and there’s an expanding network of paths in the area suited for my hybrid.
JEI: Who are you reading this month?
JD: James Michener, Alaska. My wife and I traveled there recently. I read half of this enormous novel before going, and now I’m in the other half. Hardly anyone sketches characters more colorfully or more quickly than Michener. Also reading Desiderius Erasmus, the medieval Catholic George Carlin, in The Essential Erasmus. He’s hilarious. Finally, I subscribe to a couple of literary journals and so I read a lot of poetry every month.
My thanks to John for this awesome interview. To find out more about his work, check out www.johndesjarlais.com.