An interview with John Desjarlais

I’ve had the pleasure of working with John Desjarlais off and on for several years now. I’m sorry he’s not yet a household name. His writing is rich and he’s a storyteller of the finest kind. Listen:

PJ: How long have you been writing?

John: I’ve been writing since the 3rd Grade when a story about my dog was mimeographed by the teacher. I wrote spy novels in junior high (never published them) and I wrote for my high school newspaper and literary magazine. My first job out of college was as a scriptwriter for a media company. I began publishing short fiction around 1987 and my first novel, “The Throne of Tara,” came out in 1990.

PJ: At what point did you reach a place where you felt successful as a writer?

John: I think it was really only last year when reviewers began to comment appreciatively about my style. The writing itself matters to me, not just being published (and it certainly isn’t the money). So to have literary people begin to notice my expression felt rewarding.

PJ: Is the writing life what you expected when you started out? If not, how is it different?

John: It is much harder work, both in writing and in promotion. I think most young writers have something of a romanticized view of this business, and I sure did. There’s more blood, sweat, tears and spit involved than I knew.

PJ: The general public seems to think authors are relatively wealthy. Without prying too much, has your writing income lived up to expectations?

John: My accountant says I have a great tax shelter because I lose money on the enterprise. After my second book “Relics” was published in 1993 and I received a modest 4-figure advance that was twice what I received for the first book, I thought I was on the way. But then I went unpublished until 2009 (except for some short stories and poems) when my mystery BLEEDER finally came out. The advance – from a small house – was rather small. Sales have been – well, I earned out the small advance, let’s put it that way. A handful of celebrity writers make big money and some energetic entrepreneurs seem to be making a killing by self-publishing through Amazon. For the rest of us, the old saying applies: “Don’t quit your day job.”

PJ: Early on, so much focus is given to getting published. Now that you’re published, how has your focus changed?

John: My focus has always been on telling the best story I can in the best language. That’s the only way to be (traditionally) published. And being published doesn’t mean you’ll get published again. In fact, it may be harder, since you now have a sales track record. If the record is less than stellar, publishers are less likely to take a risk with you. I think your question means something different today since anyone can ‘get published’ through the self-publishing venues across the Internet, such as Amazon’s Kindle Select, Smashwords and others. Whether I publish through a legacy house or do-it-myself through these new services is something I’m pondering. My focus will still be on the craft.

PJ: How long did it take you to get published the first time?

John: Surprisingly, not long at all. A few weeks. I wrote “The Throne of Tara” in 1988 and attended a writer’s conference that year in order to pitch to editors and agents. They all said ‘no thanks’, but one referred me to a friend who had started a new agency in California and who was seeking clients. I sent him a query letter – no email in those days – and after two weeks he requested the manuscript. Six weeks later he phoned and offered representation. The book sold almost immediately to Crossway Books and came out in Spring 1990.

PJ: Would you do anything differently if you had it to do over again?

John: I’d be much more involved in promotion. Back in 1990, 1993, I knew little about this. I left it up to the publisher. I know better now, and I did an awful lot of promotion on my own at my expense for my mysteries BLEEDER and VIPER (published in 2009 and 2011).

PJ: Writing new material, rewriting, submitting new work, waiting, promoting published work…the list is large. How do you manage to divvy up your time to give adequate attention to all needed areas?

John: It isn’t easy. I’m not sure I do this well. I make lists and keep a detailed calendar. I’m a college professor and have summers off and a winter break. I do a lot of writing then. During the semester, I try to budget time on weekends, and if I’m in a writing spurt, I get up early and set a timer.

PJ: What is the single most exciting thing that’s happened to you as a writer?

John: I think it was when the editor of my latest novel VIPER emailed me early one morning to say she had finally gotten to my manuscript the day before and it kept her up all night reading.

PJ: What is the single most disappointing thing that happened to you as a writer?

John: A novel that I thought had great promise sat in a literary agency for months before the owner sent me a letter saying she’d fired the agent who acquired it and they no longer had an interest in it. The book is still sitting in a drawer after many, many subsequent rejections.

PJ: What’s the most memorable thing (good or bad) that’s happened to you while promoting your work?

John: I’m not sure I can point to one thing, but I should mention that I’ve attended many mystery writers’ conferences and I’ve met the sweetest, most intelligent people in these gatherings. You’d never know such nice people killed for a living.

PJ: With more books being released each  month now than ever before, what do you believe sets your work apart from the others?

John: My work has a spiritual coloring that is thoughtful, highly textured and multi-layered, featuring complex and conflicted characters and a narrative style that is unusual. Well, that’s what the reviewers say.

PJ: What would you like to share with writers who haven’t reached the point of publication yet?

John: Never give up. Learn the craft and learn the business.

PJ: Wise words! What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?

John: My web site, www.johndesjarlais.com. All other promo efforts point to it: media kits, radio and TV interviews, conference appearances, signings, social spaces, mailings, email blasts, ListServes, library and book fair talks, all that.  I think reviews are still important, including the ‘reviews’ posted by customers at retail sites like Amazon.

PJ: What area of book promotion is the most challenging to you?

John: The social spaces – Facebook, Twitter, Shoutlife, LinkedIn and so on – because they can take so much time without a measurable return.

PJ: Do you have a local independent bookseller you’d like to mention?

Centuries and Sleuths

John:Centuries and Sleuths” in Forest Park, IL, run by Augie Aleksy, is a great little

Booked for Murder

shop that has been a great friend to Chicago/Northern-Illinois area mystery writers. “Booked for Murder” in Madison, WI, owned by Sarah Barnes, is also a dreamy place.

PJ: Give us a list of your published titles in chronological or series order:

The Throne of Tara (historical stand-alone; Crossway 1990; rereleased 2000)

Relics (historical stand-alone; Thomas Nelson 1993; rereleased 2009)

BLEEDER (first in mystery series; Sophia Institute Press 2009)

VIPER (sequel to Bleeder; Sophia Institute Press 2011)

Share with us an elevator pitch (no more than 30 seconds) of your latest title:

VIPER: Haunted by the loss of her brother to drugs and a botched raid that ended her career with the DEA, insurance agent Selena De La Cruz hoped to start afresh in rural Illinois. But her gung-ho former boss needs her back to hunt “The Snake,” a dealer she helped arrest who is out of prison and systematically killing anyone who ever crossed him. His ‘hit list’, appended to a Catholic Church’s All Souls Day ‘Book of the Deceased,’ shows Selena’s name last. Working against time, small town prejudice and the suspicions of her own Latino community, Selena races to find The Snake before he reaches her name on the list.

Where can we buy it?

As they say, “in bookstores everywhere” (at least by ordering a copy from there) as well as online venues such as Amazon.com or BN.com. It is not yet available as an ebook.

What last thing would you like to share with us that nobody knows about you and your work?

John: As you know, my protagonist is Selena De La Cruz. My desk has a lamp with a lampshade decorated by images of the late Tejana pop star Selena.

Thank you, John, for taking time to talk with us today. Readers – you’ll want to try out one of John’s books! And we look forward to seeing what you bring us next!

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One thought on “An interview with John Desjarlais

  1. Pat Reid says:

    “Bleeder” sounds like a great book. – I know I need to read that one and will put it on my list to purchase.

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