Welcome to John Desjarlais, author of Viper. John has written an interesting book that defies the old saw, Write what you know. John is a man, writing as a woman. A former producer with Wisconsin Public Radio, John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. His first novel, The Throne of Tara (Crossway 1990, re-released 2000), was a Christianity TodayReaders Choice Award nominee, and his medieval thriller, Relics (Thomas Nelson 1993, re-released 2009) was a Doubleday Book Club Selection. Bleeder and Viper (Sophia Institute Press, 2009 and 2011 respectively) are the first two entries in a contemporary mystery series. Welcome, John!
Around All Souls’ Day, nine names are entered in a parish church’s ‘Book of the Dead,’ a Catholic practice of remembering and respecting those who have passed away in he previous year. But these people are alive – until they get murdered one at a time in the order their names appear in the list. Working against time, prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz races to find out who is doing this – her name is last on the list. A secondary issue explored in the book is Selena’s struggle to come to terms with her bicultural identity, living in two worlds at once, negotiating Old World expectations with New World realities.
Q: Many mysteries and thrillers feature a classic good v. evil theme. How is that reflected in VIPER?
VIPER is told against a rich backdrop of Mexican Catholicism and Aztec mythology, making it a multi-layered story that is at once highly physical and deeply spiritual. Police suspect that a drug dealer named ‘The Snake’ is the one behind the ‘Book of the Dead’ hit list and the killings (the victims are all drug dealers, hardly sympathetic, except Selena, who used to work undercover with the DEA), and along the way we meet the antagonist who is a snake-keeper (with a good-sized collection stored in a greenhouse) devoted to Aztec deities – many of whom were associated with snakes, such as Coatlicue, the ‘mother of gods’ who wore a skirt of rattlers. A local visionary girl claims that a “Blue Lady” announces to her the next killing, and many in the Mexican-American community believe it is Our Lady of Guadalupe while others say it is the Aztec goddess of death. “Guadalupe” in the native Mexican language means ‘she who crushes the snake.’ So on one level the story is a contest between the Mother of God and the ‘mother of gods’, played out in a violent series of murders pitting Selena against a cruel killer.
Q: You’re a man and you’ve written from a woman’s point of view. How did you research or prepare for that?
This was the most challenging writing I’ve ever done. I’ve done some scenes from a woman’s POV before in my historical novels, but sustaining this for a whole book? I was frightened. And not only a woman, but a Mexican-American woman, a Latina. So I had to get all the cultural stuff right, too. There are several books aimed atLatinas that are all about negotiating a bicultural identity and I took good notes from those. I searched Latinas’websites and blogs to listen to their conversations and become familiar with their issues, the way they talk and so on. I subscribed to Latina Magazine to tune into lifestyle issues: fashion (shoes are VERY important) relationships, music, food, families, all that. I read memoirs by Latinas. I did Internet searches for Mexican customs, holidays, proverbs, all kinds of things. I conducted interviews with Latinas. I had stacks of index cards that I reviewed obsessively to recall bits that I might use and adapt. I asked Latinas to read my work-in-progress to let me know if I was getting things right. One woman in particular was super helpful and assisted with Spanish translations, too. At one point she told me “I am SO into Selena!” and I knew I was getting it right.
Q: What was your hardest task in researching VIPER?
Developing a credible and compelling Mexican-American woman as the protagonist – and her family. When Selena walked on the stage as a minor character in the first mystery, BLEEDER, I knew she had a story of her own and I knew what a daunting task it would be to make her come fully alive. There was plenty of other research: Aztec myths and practices, snake handling, DEA operations, firearms (I took a firearms course to learn how to shoot), muscle cars (Selena drives a 69 Dodge charger), police interrogations, and so on. But ‘becoming’ a Mexican-American woman for a couple of years – that was something else.
Q: VIPER is the second book in the series. Can a reader start here?
Yes, it can operate as a stand-alone. In fact, I think I’d rather have readers start with VIPER. It’s a better book than BLEEDER. I’m researching the third book and I don’t know how I can possibly top VIPER.