Thanks to the wonderful people at SPCK and Wipf and Stock publishers, I had the opportunity to pick the brain of Daniel Taylor, author of multiple books, including non-fiction like The Myth of Certainty and fiction, like the Jon Mote Mysteries. I was introduced to Daniel’s work when I was able to review his first work of fiction, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, and I have just been able to read the second in that Jon Mote Mysteries series: Do We Not Bleed? I have loved both books, so it was a real pleasure for me to learn some more about Daniel as a person and an author. I hope you enjoy reading his answers as much as I did.
Before we get started on your writing, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
I describe myself as a Christian humanist with a fondness for salty snacks. I grew up among the fundamentalists and still respect them from a distance, but can’t live with them! For many years I taught literature (with a fondness for the modernists—Eliot, Joyce, Pound, Woolf) and writing (especially nonfiction and memoir). I first thought of myself as a teacher, then as a teacher who writes, then as a writer who teaches, and now as a writer.
How did you become an author?
The only way one can–by writing. One of my favorite writing observations is this: most who say they want to write do not actually want to write; they want to have written (which is a very different thing). I wrote shorter pieces in my twenties, but decided in my mid-thirties that I had to write at least one book, which led to another and so on. Twelve books (more or less) later, I find my writing ranges as far as does my mind—from a book on premature babies to informal apologetics to Celtic Christianity to memoir and now to novels. I am an expert in nothing, but interested in many things, which I find is enough to spur reflection and more writing. Writing actually gives me pleasure. I do it without much regard for success or sales or even publication. Basically, just ruminating on life using words and reflection. And feel it a great blessing to have the opportunity.
What made you decide to start writing fiction and how did the Jon Mote Mysteries come about?
I found I couldn’t teach novels (and plays) over the years without trying to write one myself. I wrote short stories here and there and published a few, but in my forties I decided to try a sustained work of fiction that might aspire to being a novel. I wrote five drafts very sporadically over twenty-five years, creating a wooly, unpublishable monster. Just too much of everything. An editor convinced me to put it on a severe diet and Death Comes for the Deconstructionist was the result. Since there was a dead body in the novel, the editor decided it was a mystery. And since the ending implied a sequel, he said I was now a mystery writer and the sequel was now to be part of a series. I am very compliant with editors who agree to publish my work, so I am now officially a mystery writer (though I am largely ignorant of the genre) creating, it seems, a series.
I personally found that Do We Not Bleed? felt quite different from Death Comes – with perhaps less of a focus on the plot and more on Mote’s life and reflections. Did you try to do anything different in style when you wrote Bleed, or is it just a natural development from book to book?
Yes, Bleed feels distinctly different to me as well. It’s lighter, perhaps funnier, and easier to follow. Death is darker and requires more of the reader—I don’t necessarily recommend it to people who inquire about it, including friends. The narrator is deeply troubled—on the edge of insanity actually (or something worse)—and his struggles can tire a reader out. There are also a ton of allusions from lit and intellectual history and dated pop culture that might totally bypass or irritate the average reader. I think the second novel is somewhat lighter because the narrator, Jon Mote, is somewhat healthier. He gets set on a direction toward healing at the end of the first novel, which continues in the second, making him more at peace with himself and the world, though still sufficiently screwed up to be interesting. This continues in the third novel—now a work in progress.
Are there any specific authors that you would say have inspired your writing, particularly your fiction? More broadly, what do you like to read in your own time?
I have said that if I were drunk, I would claim that Jon Mote is the love child of Dostoevski and Flannery O’Connor: a tortured soul on a spiritual quest with a touch of humor. So there’s that. I love the Russians because they explore the biggest questions on a big screen (the latter being something of which I am not capable). I love O’Connor because of her wedding of wisdom, brutal honesty, and a keen sense of human absurdity.
As to reading outside of literature, I am drawn to the following: life-embedded theology (Augustine, Pascal, Helmut Thielecke, Frederick Buechner, Patricia Hampl, Eugene Peterson, Rod Dreher); science writing—especially theoretical physics and neurology/brain science (without retaining much of either); and history of ideas stuff (Charles Taylor). Anything deeply reflective with some care for using language skillfully. Also church history—especially of individuals or small groups showing courage, wisdom, and resolve (think Bonhoeffer).
How does your faith impact your writing, if at all?
If faith doesn’t have some say in most every part of one’s life, then it’s merely decoration or something like membership at a health club. A paraphrase of my favorite C.S. Lewis observation: if faith is not true, it is of no importance; if it is true, it is of ultimate importance (and affects everything); the only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
I hope that just as a foundation holds up a building without anyone thinking about it, my faith seeps out in everything I am and do. Even when I am not thinking about it at all. I can’t anymore write without my core faith understandings and commitments being in there somewhere—even if deeply undercover—than a tree can live without sap. (There’s got to be a better analogy than that but it’s Saturday morning.)
But what good writing must not be—from a believer or otherwise–is propaganda or cliché or formula—all of which are enemies of the good and true (which is what I take my faith ultimately to be about).
You can find out more about Daniel’s work by visiting his personal site, or by reading one of his books for yourself! I certainly plan to read some of his non-fiction in the near future.