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Friday, September 28, 2012

An Interview with David J. Walker

Note: This year again, I'll be interviewing featured authors who'll be attending the upcoming Love Is Murder Conference, February 1-3, 2013 in Chicago. My first author is David J.Walker, the author of twelve mystery/suspense novels, and the creator of the Wild Onion Mystery Series, as well as a new series starring Father Paul Clark. The first book in it is called Company Orders.

David is a past president of the Midwest Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and he lives with his wife Ellen, just north of Chicago. He has been a parish priest, an investigator for the Chicago Police Department, and a lawyer. Now he mostly sits around and tries to think positive thoughts about the future of the planet. Oh... and he writes nearly every day. 

Special Note: I have an Advance Reader's Copy of David's newest book Company Orders to give away. Be the first to comment on this post and it's yours--just remember to email me your postal address at

1.      I have this theory that those of us who grew up listening to the portions of the King James Version of the Bible have a certain poetry in our souls. Do you agree? Do you feel that the time spent as a priest reciting and hearing these works informs your writing? Do you miss the “old” version of the service that was more poetic?

I’ve had twelve novels published over the last sixteen years or so, and I’m sure that my time spent as a priest informs my writing in many ways—some obvious and some I can’t even imagine. I’m not aware that my proclaiming and hearing Scripture was one of them, but that’s an interesting idea. I should also mention that, although the King James Version is beautifully poetic, in Catholic Church rituals we never used that translation.

As for the “old” version of the Roman Catholic liturgy, do I miss it? Not in the least. These days many are pushing to return to the old liturgy, and I think that’s a step in the wrong direction.

2.      When did you decide to become a writer? You’ve said that you always loved writing. What does that mean? What did you write before you became a writer? And when did you realize that you could be one, too?

I decided to become “a writer” in April, 1991. I remember the exact day. (In fact, it was dark and stormy, as I recall.)

But first…I always loved reading. I was very young when I realized I could be taken out of my world and live in a place and time that was fun and exciting—even dangerous—and where people like me faced incredible challenges…then stepped up and beat the odds.

I believe that’s why in high school I discovered I could write well enough to catch the attention of some of my teachers. And when we get praised for our work, don’t we love it? At least I did…and still do.
While a parish priest I happened upon a “free-lance” job, writing articles for religious publications. It was fun, and I got paid. I liked that, too. I continued to read a lot. Spiritual stuff, of course, but also plenty of fiction (mostly mystery/crime novels).

When I left the priesthood I went to law school pretty much on a whim. It was certainly not an informed choice. I soon discovered lawyering wasn’t for me, and I went to a career counselor (meeting her first on that dark and stormy day I mentioned earlier). “What I’d really like to do,” I told her, surprising even myself a little, “is write mystery novels.” “Really,” she said. “So…why don’t you?” Voila! The trick was learning to rearrange my life so that I could survive while writing.

3.      From a priest to a cop to a lawyer. Sounds like a tour de force of the best and worst in humanity. How do these professions still shape your work? What did you see/learn/feel that has shaped your world view as a writer? When did the stories start to form in your head? And are there stories you’ll never tell?

Actually, I was never a cop. During my four years in law school, I worked for the Chicago Police Department as an investigator in a unit called the Office of Professional Standards. We investigated police misconduct, mostly allegations of the use of “excessive force.” I spent forty hours a week taking statements from police officers, arrestees, and other witnesses; gathering police reports, medical records, photographs, and other evidence; and writing (yes, a major part of the job) findings and recommendations as to whether formal proceedings should be initiated against the accused officers. I should have paid the department for the experience and the inside view of cops and police work.

Roles for police officers and lawyers are common in crime novels, and I often say that priests keep showing up in my books, too, whether I was expecting them or not. I have used lots of bits and pieces of real events and conversations from my various “careers,” but no real stories from real life.

4.      You seem to have a theme of people breaking the rules and feeling they are justified to do so. For example, Kristen knows she shouldn’t break and enter, but she does. Dugan knows he shouldn’t pay cops to steer cases his way, but he does. Paul Clark knows he shouldn’t steal a friend’s computer, but he does. Comment? Do you think rules are meant to be broken? Is there a higher moral authority we should all subscribe to? Explain.

Rules, laws, ethics, morality, authority, behavior…that’s what it’s all about, right? In literature, and in life. Along with honesty, compassion, courage, wisdom, common sense, and the opposites of all those things. And there are so often competing values. Kirsten’s aware that picking a lock is against the law, but she does it, knowing it’s the right thing to do. Dugan’s aware that paying cops is against the rules, but he does it, knowing it’s the wrong thing to do. Paul Clark’s aware that taking his murdered friend’s computer is theft, but he does it, unsure as to whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do.

Is there a higher moral authority we should subscribe to? Yep. Can I explain? Uh…well… Maybe a few “rules of thumb for the private eye” would be a start:
When in doubt, lean toward the little, the weak, the outsider, the accused.
When “everybody knows” something is true, maybe it’s not.
Getting paid is good; righting a wrong is better; doing both is best.

5.      You have been open about thanking your writing critique partners, and about saying they’ve leveled some pretty tough criticisms your way. What have you learned from them that you use in your work? Were there any bad habits you needed to break? What skills do you have now that you owe to them?

The group I meet with has been a big help, particularly in matters of style and clarity. We have found it’s best to be honest but gentle in our critiques. A few examples of how the group helps? I like to put lots of humor in my books, especially with Kirsten and Dugan in my Wild Onion books, and the group tries to keep me from being too cutesy.  Or I’ll write a scene that’s perfectly clear in my head, and I think it’s clear on the page, but the group says: “Huh? We don’t get it.” I might write some incident I actually saw, and they’ll say: “So what if you saw it happen? It ain’t plausible.” Lastly, and this may be the most painful (read: “most useful”) criticism for me, is when I pour out my heart and someone says: “The writing is great, but this scene…what’s the point?”

(By the way, the group makes suggestions, the author accepts them or not.)

6.      What adjectives would you use to describe your character Paul Clark? What sort of character arc do you see for him?

Paul Clark is the protagonist in my latest novel, Company Orders. He’s a Chicago priest. He’s a good man, true to his obligations and to his calling. But he’s also ambitious. He wants to rise up through the ranks and be a bishop, be in charge of a diocese. He’s right on track, too, until he runs into a problem from far left field. Someone’s life is at stake, and Paul makes a deal with the devil…or with someone equally dangerous, a CIA agent. Paul’s always been good at preaching about love’s sacrifices, now he’ll find out what it’s like to live them.

7.      What is your process? Your books switch back and forth with point of view in a very complicated way. How do you plan your work? How do you decide who gets to tell his/her side of the story?

If a book needs multiple points of view, I generally change POV only when I start a new chapter. In the Wild Onion books I split the POV chapters between Kirsten and Dugan, but try to keep in mind that Kirsten’s the star. Dugan’s fun to write, but he’s basically a sidekick. I keep a chapter-by-chapter running outline as I write, and one thing I note is whose POV that chapter utilizes. If I look back and see it’s been too long since I’ve done a chapter from a certain character’s POV, I try to figure a way to get that person back in the spotlight.

8.      What parallels do you see between the sex abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State? From your unique vantage point as a former priest and a writer, what would you say about motivations and the preservation of the brand in each situation?

There are obvious similarities, notably that both situations involve institutions led by people who’ve been handed too much power, and are too anxious to hold on to it. People are oh-so-willing to give allegiance, almost worship, to heroes (or “important people”), and then are oh-so-disheartened and outraged when those heroes turn out to be just broken human beings who sometimes do terrible things, and/or cover them up. And aren’t we all broken…more or less?

9.      You do a masterful job with dialogue. Any secrets you’d care to share with the rest of us?

There’s an awful lot that could be said, but I’ll stick to these three rules: one, read everything Elmore Leonard ever wrote; two, take all of the dialogue you write and read it out loud (to yourself or, better, to your critique group) and then rewrite it and punctuate it the way it ought to sound; and three, forget the way people talk in real life, which is usually dull and boring and wordy, and write the way people talk in Elmore Leonard books, which is always cool and exciting and brief. 


Be sure to visit David at