Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kaye George interview

In case you missed the Kaye George interview (at March 2:

A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill. In the Small World Department, Malta is not that far from my hometown of Moline. Welcome to my Travels, currently located in Taylor, Texas, John.

His two mysteries, VIPER and BLEEDER, are both published by Sophia Institute Press, a publishing house devoted to Catholic fiction. BLEEDER came out in 2009 and VIPER is scheduled for late spring 2011.

KAYE: There's a lot that fascinates me about this series. First, there's the sleuth, a female Mexican-American insurance agent, formerly with the DEA. Can you tell us a bit about Selena De La Cruz (pictured here)?

JOHN: Selena is a thirty-something second-generation Mexican-American woman with midnight hair and a cafĂ©-con-leche complexion from a family with three brothers, one of whom was her fraternal twin. Her Papa was an executive with the Mexican oil company PEMEX before taking a position at the Mexican Consulate in Chicago where Selena was born and raised in the Pilsen neighborhood. She can be feisty and tomboyish, a tough competitor (given her brothers) and, like many Latinas, is struggling to come to terms with living in two cultural worlds (Old World expectations versus New World aspirations) and also living in a man’s world. She speaks Mexican Spanish well, graduated from Loyola with a finance degree (Papa insisted) and went to work with the DEA over her Mami’s objections shortly after her twin brother was killed in a car accident in Germany where he was stationed with the Army (drugs were involved). She inherited his chili-pepper red 1969 Dodge Charger and she knows how to maintain it and race it. She is fond of expensive shoes (seized drug money paid for the high-end brands); she is handy with a P226 SIG Sauer pistol and was excellent in undercover work until she was compelled to leave under a cloud. She took a new name, De La Cruz, and an insurance franchise in rural Illinois in order to start afresh. But her DEA past comes back to haunt her in VIPER.

KAYE: I can't help but notice her unusual last name. And how did you get the idea to write not only a female, but a Mexican-American?

JOHN: “De La Cruz” is really from St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet whose writings Selena admires. Her real last name was Perez (and, of course, she had many names working undercover). Selena was a minor character in my first mystery, BLEEDER. Taking place in rural Illinois, that story considered the issue of Latino immigration (as a backdrop) and I needed a positive, educated Latin character who would be seen as a counter-balance of sorts to the many day-laborers, legal and otherwise, who were a poor and distrusted underclass. My protagonist, Reed Stubblefield, had been disabled in a school shooting and so I decided to have the local insurance agent be with his company and handle his claims. Once Selena walked on stage in those cherry heels, with that attitude, and driving that kick-butt car, I knew she had a story of her own. She played a larger role in BLEEDER than I’d anticipated.

When developing an idea for the sequel, I went with a premise about the Catholic custom on All Souls’ Day where a ledger called “The Book of the Dead” is placed in church where families record the names of relatives who died that year so they can be remembered and respected. I learned that Mexicans celebrate a holiday concurrently called “The Day of the Dead” where families respect their departed relatives with home altars and cemetery picnics, among other things. And then I realized that, in blending these ideas, Selena’s name would be found in her church’s “Book of the Dead” – and the problem, of course, is that she isn’t dead. But someone wants her to be. It was clear then that Selena would take the lead in the sequel, with Reed as a minor character this time.

KAYE: The second intriguing factor is your publisher. How did you convince a Catholic publishing house to take on a book involving drug dealing, serial killing, and just generally sordid topics? I suspect this isn't the usual fare at Sophia.

JOHN: Sophia Press had been known a long time for re-issuing older classics of Catholic literature and philosophy (like Thomas Aquinas). However, partly in answer to Pope John Paul II’s call to engage the culture and get real with art (he was, you may recall, a fine playwright and a good poet), Sophia hired an editor whose job it was to find stylish genre fiction that told the full truth about our humanity, in both its nobility and fallenness. She had a particular interest in mysteries, a genre that explores the best and the worst of our human nature and is concerned with justice. We met at a writers’ conference and BLEEDER, which had been looking for a secular home for a few years through an agent, intrigued her. My agent had recently retired, and so I was shopping the book on my own. BLEEDER had a distinctive Catholic coloring (it HAD to, given the stigmatic issue) but was never preachy, and the hero was a lapsed Presbyterian with Aristotle as his ‘mentor’, to boot. She asked for the manuscript and offered a contract within a few days. BLEEDER’s underlying theme about the higher mystery of undeserved suffering made it attractive to Sophia, and VIPER’s rich backdrop of Mexican Catholicism and Aztec mythology suited them, too. It helped that the murder elements were not sensational or gory or gratuitously violent.

KAYE: Do you have more books planned in this series? Do you think you will stay with your present publisher?

JOHN: I’m working on the third book in this series now. I expect to stay with this publisher for the series.

KAYE: I see mentions, in your summaries and reviews, of Aztec mysticism. Is this novel straight mystery, or is there some paranormal business included?

JOHN: Not ‘paranormal’ in any way, as understood in the publishing biz today – y’know, ghosts, vampires, werewolves and such. But Catholics are all about ‘higher mysteries’ and they affirm ‘the seen and the unseen,’ and all of it is ‘natural,’ that is, part of the created order. The ‘supernatural’ is actually ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ because it is part of the universe God made. But perhaps I quibble too much with the definition. Scratch a professor, get a lecture.

VIPER is part mystery and part thriller because there are crimes to be solved (a quality of ‘mystery’) but also a “ticking clock” to be beaten (a characteristic of ‘thriller’). The “clock” is that “Book of the Dead” in the church, where there’s a list of eight Latino names with Selena’s name written last. All the names are of drug dealers who are being killed one at a time in order. Police and DEA officials believe it is a hit list of “The Snake,” a dangerous dealer Selena helped put in prison years ago who is now out and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. Just before each killing, a mysterious “Blue Lady” appears to a local girl visionary to announce the death. Many in the Mexican community believe it is Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of Mexico), but others believe it is the Aztec goddess of death (see, Catholics wouldn’t call a Marian apparition ‘paranormal,’ but again I quibble with the term). And we see our killer from time to time in the story, in first person, tending poisonous snakes and offering devotion to Aztec deities (snakes were very important in Aztec myth and religion). Modern Mexicans are becoming more aware of their Aztec (and Toltec and Mixtec etc) heritage; it is a growing part of their self-identity as they seek to acculturate into American society without becoming assimilated.

KAYE: Are your characters mostly devout Catholics? How much religion is included, if any?

JOHN: No, not many main characters are practicing, devout Catholics. In BLEEDER, my protagonist is a lapsed Presbyterian, a secularized Aristotle scholar who wants little to do with religion of any sort. Still, he enters a cautious friendship with the local parish priest, an amiable Aquinas scholar – who dies on Good Friday in front of horrified parishioners. My hero becomes a prime ‘person of interest’ in the case as a result. He interacts with a diocesan investigator and other clerics. Selena is a ‘cradle Catholic’ like so many in the Mexican community. It’s more of a cultural thing. Catholicism is a bit more forward in VIPER, since my heroine Selena is Mexican and for most Mexicans that means being Catholic, if only in a cultural manner. Selena has prayer cards, framed images of saints and small statues (what Mexicans call virgencitas y santos) around the house, and she goes to Mass with her family out of duty. She's not very devout, but like with other Mexicans it is a very rich part of their identity, and their distinct customs add a great deal of color to the story. The secondary ‘mystery’ of the story is whether or not the “Blue Lady” is Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Aztec goddess of Death or someone else. I don’t think anyone will be put off by all this, but instead will rather enjoy the rich tapestry of Mexican custom and Catholicism blended with Aztec mythology that forms a backdrop to the story, and informs my main character, Selena – who isn’t quite sure what to make of it all.

I don’t think readers mind ‘religion’ in their mysteries – Dan Brown proved that. My issue is this: Let’s get the ‘religion’ right and be honest with the material. Brown had everything wrong. I think you can have a mystery that has a distinct Catholic coloring that respects that tradition, genuinely informs the story, and has an appeal for everybody. Consider Andrew Greeley’s work, or Ellis Peters, or Ralph MacInerny. The same thing could be said about mysteries with a Jewish flavor, like Harry Kemmelman’s Rabbi Small series.

KAYE: Can you give links to your webpage and places to buy your books?

JOHN: Gladly. Readers can find me at and my blog and email me at
VIPER isn’t out yet, but it will be available through and can be ordered through bookstores sometime later this Spring. BLEEDER and RELICS and THE THRONE OF TARA are at Amazon, too:

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