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 But then I went unpublished until 2009 (except for some short stories and poems) when my mystery BLEEDER finally came out.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!

An interview with Carl Brookins

If you haven’t yet been introduced to Carl Brookins and his work, you’re really in for a treat! I’ve had the pleasure of working with him for several years now and he’s an incredibly unique and gifted individual. His writing is entertaining but it also makes you think. His personality is the same way. Read on…

How long have you been writing?

Essentially I’ve been writing my entire life. In school I discovered that choosing to answer test questions in “long form” that is, essay as opposed to multiple choice questions, got me better grades. I think teachers looked at the pages and thought, “Well, the right answer must be in there somewhere.” Seriously, except when I worked in the experimental fields at the University of Minnesota (we were creating new strains of corn) my job choices have all involved a heavy component of writing. Fiction writing became a major piece of my life later, when I approached retirement. I started seriously writing fiction about twenty years ago.

 

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

I haven’t reached that point where I consider myself successful as a fiction writer. I’m still learning, still improving (I hope) but I’m not sure how to define success as a writer. The high volume of work I produced for the Minnesota Highway Department’s Safety division, back in a previous century, was success involving writing.

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

I’m married to a publisher. I pretty much knew what to expect except for the advances in technology which have produced major changes in the landscape.

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

I didn’t have “expectations.” I hoped my writing would produce sufficient income to allow us to take some research trips. That hasn’t happened. I know  a lot of authors, many fairly intimately, so I can say with some confidence that most authors, at least of genre fiction, are continuing to maintain and rely on their day jobs.

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

Not much. I knew going in that this is a business and that I’d have to devote time and energy to that aspect of the thing. I am still trying to write books with plots and characters and settings that I would like to read if written by someone else and, that are as well-written as I can make them. Because I came rather late in life to the fiction writing game, I chose to go directly to small independent publishers without engaging an agent. That was in order to get a few novels published before my death. As things have worked out, I enjoy the independence of running my own writing business. I don’t make as much money as a good agent might have negotiated for me, but I have a fine publicist, I have more than  a dozen stories in print and I’m getting enough feedback from readers that I am persuaded I made the right choices. Not having to rely on my fiction writing to pay the mortgage helps.

 

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

About nine months from the time my critique group was satisfied the manuscript was ready. By that time, the story was a year old. That was the advantage of going with a small independent press.

 

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

Yes, this is such fun, I would have started much earlier if I had realized the great satisfaction and pleasure I derive from the writing and the association with this marvelous community of crime fiction writers.

 

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?

Since I also read and review crime fiction , time management is a real problem and I have no answers. Fact is, I’m behind on lots of projects, although the fact that I don’t have multiple-book contracts and thus pressing deadlines, makes things considerably easier. My deadlines are my own.

 

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

Selling my first book (Inner Passages) which was confirmation that there was a market for my stories.

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

Not selling my book to the movies for a million  dollars.

 

 

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

The Minnesota Crime Wave – Carl Brookins, Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger

Hooking up with two fine writers (Ellen Hart and William Kent Krueger)  and forming the Minnesota Crime Wave was one of the best things.

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

Characters, humor and plot.

 

 

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

Understand that this is a business and to be successful you have to take a realistic business-like and somewhat organized approach. You will become a marketer and salesperson and you still have to write the best books you possibly can.

 

What do you feel is your most effective tool for promoting your published work?

I’m pretty good at personal contacts, but practically, I try to use social and other media as much as possible. I think you have to use as many tools as you can. But in the end, it’s the writing. The books have to bring new readers into the fold, whatever the format or platform you choose.

 

 

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

Setting up events or appearances. Making cold calls. Can’t do it.

 

Once Upon a Crime, Minneapolis MN

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

Oh, yes, one of the finest bookstores in the land, owned and operated by a succession of knowledgeable, dedicated and hard-working individuals. I refer of course, to Steve Stillwell, Pat Frovarp and Gary Shulze, owners at various times of Once Upon A Crime, in Minneapolis.

 

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

 

SHORT STORIES:

“Night Sail.” Fiction. The Pinehurst Journal, summer 1992.

“A Winter’s Tale.” Fiction. Silence of The Loons, fall, 2005.

“Hard Cheese,”

“A Winter’s Tale”

“A Fish Story,” Resort to Murder, 2007

“The Horse He Rode In On,” Minnesota Crime Wave Presents, Fall 2012

“Daddy’s Little Girl, 2011

“The Day I Lost My Innocence,” 2011

NOVELS:

Sailing mystery series

INNER PASSAGES

Mystery: July, 2000, Top Publications

A SUPERIOR MYSTERY

Mystery: September, 2002, Top Publications

OLD SILVER

Mystery: March, 2005, Top Publications

DEVILS ISLAND

Mystery: January, 2010 Echelon Publications

RED SKY

Mystery: May 2011, Brookins Books

Detective series (Sean NMI Sean )

THE CASE OF THE GREEDY LAWYERS

P.I. Mystery: Nodin Press, 2009

THE CASE OF THE DECEIVING DON

Five Star Mysteries Press, 2008

THE CASE OF THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY

P.I. mystery, Brookins Books, 2011

THE CASE OF THE MISSING CASE

P.I. mystery, Brookins Books, 2012

Academic series

BLOODY HALLS

Mystery: January, 2008, Echelon Press

REUNION

Mystery: June, 2011, Echelon Press

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

The Great Train Robbery of the title was a real event in 1935. A Federal rail car was robbed. The money and the perpetrators were never found. In 2010 a man digging for his garage foundation, discovers disintegrating money and an ancient revolver. Could the money and revolver be tied to the train heist? Somebody thinks so because mayhem and murder ensue and Sean Sean is called in to identify the corruption and those still alive who are linked to the old crime. It becomes a race against murder to find the perpetrators.

Where can we buy it?

The Case of The Great Train Robbery is available in a Trade Paper edition from Once Upon a Crime and from the author. As an e-book it’s widely available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, Kobo and Smashwords.

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

I’ve just posted/published my 1,000+ crime fiction book review.

Thanks, Carl, for taking the time to talk with us here. I urge every one of you to check out Carl’s work and pick something that you’ve not yet read. I know there are lots and lots of authors to choose from, but he’s one you really don’t want to miss!

Who knows your name?

Name recognition. That’s what it’s really all about when you get right down to it. But when you ask a lot of authors what book promotion is about, many will answer “selling books.” Ok. That’s a fair answer, but not exactly accurate. Selling books is certainly the desired outcome, but the promotion itself should focus on gaining name recognition for the author. The more name recognition the author has, the more books that author will sell.

One of the most frequent recommendations is to hire a branding company, but not many authors are inclined to do that. But there are plenty of things you can do for yourself.

Here are a few tips for increasing name recognition:

  1. Think long-term when selecting a brand image and stick with your name or your company, not a particular title or series. There’ll be time enough for that later, but ideally it’s the author’s name that should be etched in readers’ memories so that any title or series associated with the author will be desirable.
  2. Develop all collateral and image materials (website, stationary, logo, taglines, business cards, postcards, newsletters, etc.) to coincide with your brand.
  3. Develop a memorable tagline that reflects who you are and what you write. Do not make it specific to one title or series.
  4. Make lists of different groups you’d like to reach in the coming year, then develop a timetable and calendar to systematically get your information to them.
  5. Regularly (quarterly is good) write and issue press releases to the media and to your website. Of course, you need to do something worth writing about and it should be something associated with your brand. For authors, it might be speaking to local writing group, hosting a contest to read and critique short stories, participating in local Citizen’s Police Academy events – anything related to writing and the brand the author is trying to establish.
  6. Regularly write articles for publication, including your brand information in your bio.
  7. Regularly write and pitch feature story ideas to media. Sometimes the best way to get your own foot in the door is by pitching others.
  8. Participate (attend, speak, host) in at least two national and local industry conferences a year.
  9. Create and issue an online or direct mail newsletter.
  10. Participate in and sponsor local charitable efforts. The local Chamber of Commerce is a good place to start for a variety of opportunities. Post your calendar of appearances on your website – not just book signing events.
  11. Make sure your website includes informational materials formatted for strong results from search engines; and make sure there is in-depth material demonstrating your expertise, whatever it is, so that website browsers can easily find and read it.
  12. Update your website with informational content at least 2 – 4 times per month.

Building name recognition for an author is a slow and steady process, not something that can be done once every few months. Nor will a 2 week media blitz result in lasting recognition. To develop a career as an author takes consistent effort, but persistence, as in getting published, pays.