Don't mess with Selena...
Fans of John Desjarlais' mystery novel Bleeder will be happy to know that its sequel, Viper, is scheduled for release in June!* Viper places insurance agent Selena De La Cruz from Bleeder front and center. Selena's harrowing past comes back to haunt her when she discovers her name inscribed in St. Mary's parish's Book of the Dead -- along with the names of others who are being killed off one by one! I am happy to have John with me today, virtually, as I find out what he's up to with this latest mystery.
Q: You've spoken in other venues about the challenges you faced as a white, middle-aged male creating a credible young Mexican-American woman from whose point of view the story is told. But briefly, for my audience, can you talk about the research that went into bringing Selena De La Cruz to life as a full-bodied protagonist after her stint as a side character in Bleeder?
A: As with other research, I did a lot of reading. There’s an emerging body of work aimed at the rapidly-growing Latin female population in the USA that discusses the struggle of developing a bicultural identity. These books and articles discuss the delicate and on-going balancing act of maintaining Old World (Mexican, Guatemalan, Cuban etc) traditions and expectations with New World realities regarding faith, family, marriage, education, work – everything. I interviewed Latinas from various backgrounds about their experiences; I browsed Latinas’ blogs and websites to listen in on their cultural conversations. I subscribed to Latina magazine for insight into relationships, fashion, and other lifestyle issues. There was more, but I’ll stop here.
All of this material went onto note cards that I obsessively reviewed as I developed Selena’s ‘backstory’ about her family, education and so on, seeing patterns in the life experiences of the women I’d read about and making them Selena’s own. I sent the work-in-progress to Latina readers, asking them for absolutely honest feedback on whether or not I was getting the ‘woman’ thing right and all the cultural material right. They corrected me on occasion (“Oh, a woman would never say that” or “That’s a Cuban custom; the Mexican one is…”). A professional translator worked with me on the Spanish and all the rest (Thanks, Maria!). In addition, I read some other crime novels that featured Latina protagonists to see how the characters were handled (there aren’t many), such as Lupe Solano, the PI created by Carolina Garcia-Aguilera (a Cuban), and Nashville-cop-turned-FBI-Agent Romilia Chacon, created by a fella, Marcos Villatoro (a Salvadoran).
That brings me to the other part, the part that isn’t strictly ‘female’ or ‘cultural.’ Selena is an insurance agent, and so I had to do research on the business – again, by books and by interviews with real agents, including my own (Thanks, Gregg!). She is a former Special Agent with the DEA, and so there was all that research about Academy training, DEA undercover operations, interrogation techniques, drug raids, financial tracing, the works. I may have overdone the sexism but I wanted to add a layer about a woman in a man’s world, which is also a cultural one (men have certain privileges in Mexican culture that a woman doesn’t have). I took firearms lessons to feel Selena’s favorite pistol, a P226 SIG Sauer, in my hand. Man, is it loud – like her car. Lastly, I found a Latina model at a photo website that was Selena, dead-on, and I printed out (and paid for) several of her shots to display around my desk. My DEAR wife didn’t mind, God bless her. So there was Selena, always watching, and if I had a problem with the story, I’d ask her about it. She always has an opinion. That’s her on the cover art.
Q: Selena knows more about cars than most men, and more about shoes than most women I know. Do you yourself have any native expertise in either of these subjects, or is it all Selena? How important is it to her to excel in both of these areas? Is she aware of how attractive and imposing a woman in hot shoes with a fast car can be?
A: It’s all her. It’s very important for her to excel in both areas. She’s a tomboy but also very feminine; she can be in denim overalls one minute and a taffeta dress the next.
As for the car: Selena learned everything from her fraternal twin brother Antonio who became a mechanic in the Army and who bequeathed the vintage Charger to her in his Army will.
As for the shoes – well, Latinas dig the zappatos and they are very much a part of a Latina’s femininity and power as a woman. A girl receives her first pair of high heels from her father at her ‘Quinceañera,” a lavish prom-like coming-of-age event at age 15. One of my Latina readers of the work-in-progress made some suggestions for the footwear but I made most of the choices. Nothin’ weird – you just go to zappos.com and browse.
As for attractive -- Selena was aware of the power of her sexuality just before her Quince on that Family Swim Day at the Y when she took a dare and dove from the top diving board, made a clean entry into the water, and emerged with her purple maillot swimsuit glistening and the twist-front neckline a little too low. She shook out her hair, every eye at poolside fixed on her and every male jaw slacked in wonder. Her three protective brothers threw towels on her and hustled her away, warning their friends not to get any ideas, while Selena objected in virulent Spanish ¡Permita que vaya! ¿Está loco? not yet realizing the impact she’d made.
Q: When writing this mystery, how much of the story did you discover as you went along, and how much did you construct in your head beforehand? At what part in your creative process did you finalize the plot for Viper? When did you know who the murderer was? (No spoilers please).
A: This is an excellent question because some writers are outliners and some are blank-pagers, but I’m both. I knew how it started and what the ‘set-up’ was, and I knew (in general) how I wanted it to end – the ‘pay-off’ – but the broad middle was a process of discovery. I had the ‘advantage’, one might say, of the story being a police procedural of sorts. Police investigations are very methodical and so I followed what might be the normal course of an investigation (you asked about research before – this was part of research, too). But I had a terrible time trying to find the real relationship between the ‘hit list’ killings of the “Book of the Dead” and the appearances of “The Blue Lady” to the local girl visionary, Jacinta. I wondered if it might be a separate story altogether, but no – it was part of the whole Mexican angle since it might be Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Jacinta represents Selena’s chance to finally redeem her mistake of shooting a little girl Jacinta’s age in a botched drug raid. The identity of the killer changed twice – or was it three – no, four times. I didn’t realize who it really was until near the end. Then I had to go back and make revisions that provided clues but also kept a reader guessing. This is the part that scares a writer, because you might forget to change something that must be changed to be consistent with the ‘new’ story.
Q: Tell us about Jacinta, the so-called visionary. Is this little girl mentally ill? Spiritually precocious? Is the awe of the people (even the drug lords) at her locutions and visions pure superstition, or are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our 21st century philosophy?
Part of the research concerned Marian apparitions. As your readers may know, there are MANY alleged apparitions of The Blessed Mother but the Catholic Church does not recognize all of them. Most are dismissed as invalid and the imagining of an enthusiastic or ill seer. Others are found, after rigorous investigation, to be genuine ‘private’ revelations that are both meaningful to the visionary, and worthy of belief by the faithful. The Church never requires belief in any private revelation, even those 'approved' apparitions in which thousands profess a deep faith. Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe, among others (I forget how many, forgive me, but it’s not many), fall into this category. The ‘excitement’ surrounding Jacinta is under diocesan investigation.
Nearly all of these ‘approved’ events involve young girls like Jacinta – pre-teen, uneducated, and not particularly devout. So she is the ‘typical’ visionary. It was necessary for her to be Mexican so that the mysterious “Blue Lady” who appears to her (and only to her; no one else can see her – also typical) could possibly be Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico, or something more sinister – the Aztec goddess of death. Among Mexicans, there is still some acknowledgment of the ancient deities, and there is a growing superstitious devotion to a figure called “Saint Death,” a female grim reaper of sorts. This figure is especially important in the drug trade. There are shrines to “Saint Death” outside Catholic churches and cathedrals in Mexico. It isn’t unusual for a parishioner to go inside for confession, and on the way out place an offering of flowers and cigarettes at the shrine – just to hedge one’s bets.
The original visionary who encountered Our Lady of Guadalupe was not a girl but a middle-aged peasant man, Juan Diego. His cape (‘tilma’) that is impressed with the image of Our Lady dressed as a pregnant Aztec princess framed by sun-rays is on display in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. It may be a miracle in itself that the cactus-based cloth hasn’t deteriorated in over 500 years and the striking image is still plain to see.
Q: Some writers say they practically emerged from the womb writing, and some came to it slowly in life. How old you were when you wrote your first piece of fiction or poetry? Did you show it to anyone? Do you still have it?
A: I wrote a short story in 3rd grade about my dog. The teacher mimeographed it – my first publication. I wrote spy stories in junior high and was on the staff of my high school newspaper and literary magazine, publishing material for both. I must have copies of “The Red and Gray” around somewhere.
Q: You began writing Bleeder as a devout Presbyterian, and entered into full communion with the Catholic Church shortly after the book's completion. Have you noticed any differences between writing as a Catholic and writing as a Presbyterian?
A: I’m much freer. There is a majesty, a mercy, and a mystery in the Catholic tradition that somehow informs my view of the world which has greatly expanded. It is a ‘sacramental’ view wherein one actively looks for the unseen in the seen, for the universal in the particular – for God at work in the small things. And while Protestants agree with the Biblical anthropology that humans are both dignified yet fallen, and that redemption is possible, the Catholic tradition puts more emphasis on human choices for good or ill, cooperating with the grace of God or not. This is what makes a “Catholic” work like “Lord of the Rings” so powerful – that at the end, even Gollum, so ruined and disfigured by his grasping for illusory power in the ring, has a final chance to be restored – and rejects it.
Q: You gave an excellent talk on poetry at the Summer, 2010 Catholic Writers Guild conference. Are you currently writing any poetry?
A: I do this in spurts when I teach the poetry writing class at my college. I’m focused on fiction for now.
Q: What's next for you? Are you actively working on the new adventure for Selena that you announced awhile back? Will we see Reed Stubblefield again?
A: Yes, there is a third novel in progress with both Selena De La Cruz and Reed Stubblefield (a romance is afoot). The plot involves insurance fraud. That’s all I should probably say. Writers are wary about ‘talking out’ their novel before it is written. And so much can change.
Q: One last question. The Virgin of Guadalupe, or The Blue Lady, or Lady Death -- who would take whom in a fight?
A: Your readers will have to read VIPER to find out. There IS a confrontation at the end ;-)
Okay, folks, there you have it. You have to read the book to get to the final confrontation! And while you are waiting for Viper to come out, get a copy of Bleeder – now on Kindle! – while you Investigate Higher Mysteries at http://www.johndesjarlais.com/
*As you may know, Sophia Institute Press, publisher of both Bleeder and Viper, announced recently that Holy Spirit College in Atlanta, GA and the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, NH have formed a collaborative partnership to preserve and oversee the continuing operations of Sophia Institute Press. This delayed the publication of Viper a bit but June, 2011 has finally been settled on as the publishing month.