[Tim Capps, Esq. is not your usual first-time novelist. After a varied career ranging from the armed forces, to news reporting, to a criminal defense practice that helped abolish the death penalty in Illinois, Mr. Capps now lives on a small farm with his wife where they raise goats and pray the Divine Office as Benedictine oblates. In his spare time he engages with the blogging world and writes novels, the first of which, Judging Angels, was recently published by Hope & Life Press. Capps brings much of his past experience to the novel, and he was gracious enough to agree to an interview about his writing process and his thoughts on the making of Catholic fiction.]
I have to admit that when I first started reading Judging Angels, I was expecting a standard suspense-thriller with a few supernatural fantasy elements. I was pleased to find a fully fleshed-out urban fantasy world based on Catholic theology (both dogmatic and speculative), that also explored serious moral dilemmas that don’t always end well for the moral agents involved. There are many Catholic novels that explore some aspect of the ancient Faith in the modern world, but few that hypercharge the consequences of the Catholic worldview in the way yours does. Did you feel that this was the sort of novel needed for our times?
If anything please me more than entertaining a reader, it is finding a reader who understands the novel.
To answer your specific question, however, the novel I felt was needed was a merciless and shocking counterattack against any and all who are attacking the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Marriage is the Church and Cosmos writ small, and is essential to every good thing. The first recorded attack was against God’s order and intimacy between man and woman. It could not have been more brilliant or devastating. The Devil means to finish the fight in your lifetime. Marriage is the last battle, the lines are cleanly drawn, and the vastly outnumbered defenders have nearly lost before they have woken up and put their boots on.
But I do not come at the problem in the expected way of portraying the ideal marriage. My characters have a divorce pending, are already involved with other people, and the ignored older kid is a mess. Our protagonist is literate, conventionally decent, and a “Church-haunted” ex-Catholic, to borrow Flannery O’Connor’s phrase about the “Christ-haunted South,” who is in his own way more Catholic than many occupants of pews. He has devoted his career to a calling, doing what he half-jokingly refers to as “the Lord’s Work” of death penalty defense. (Let me hasten to add that the death penalty is not a injected as a controversy, but is played for the effect George’s remarkable success has had on his soul. This novel has enough going against it without people thinking it is a stealth death penalty argument.)
There is a lot to like about George Able. But he is decent, not good; clever, not wise; knowledgeable, without being Catholic; and talks a better talk than he walks. Still, he is a Job character, whose every role in life is ripped to tatters nearly as abruptly. Whatever George used to be, the reader only really gets glimpses of. We meet him after he has been destroyed.
My biggest challenge as a novelist was to make George sympathetic, even likeable, but not to blind readers to his flaws, which are emblematic of Western Man’s today.
He intuits his salvation lies in reunion—however unlikely—with his wife. There is conventional romantic tension as the couple is never on the same emotional wavelength at the same time. Some of my inspiration comes from the old Hayes Code “comedies of remarriage,” like His Girl Friday, and That Uncertain Feeling. In the 30s and 40s, adultery in movies was forbidden, so clever screenwriters got around that by having divorcing couples doing a matrimonial Reconquista from the other husbands-to-be. Even though Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are the technically married couple, Grant must steal her out from under the nose of the likeable Ralph Bellamy. It sounds convoluted, and it is, but is a neat trick, and works.
So I start with a shipwrecked marriage. George is going under for the third time, while Alice, his wife, seems to have washed ashore to be hailed as Island Queen.
So marriage itself, and the related theme of temptation—especially to adultery—are the twin frames upon which the DNA of Judging Angels is formed. Its bones are Christian, its DNA Catholic, and its plot is exactly like you said: a standard suspense thriller with a few supernatural elements thrown in. In fact, probably the most difficult marketing problems we have is that, first, it does not fit into any particular genre, and, second, there is little reason for the intended audience to suspect it is a Catholic novel, beginning with the rather lurid cover.
I can’t remember the last “Catholic novel” I read. The very phrase overwhelms me with a treacly boredom. Part of the problem is deliberate counter-marketing on my part to convince people that this might actually be an entertaining read that isn’t preachy or unrealistic.
It is a Catholic novel, but not a novel written for Catholics. It could be enjoyed by anyone as crime / thriller / police procedural / urban fantasy / mordantly humorous novel with a very few overtly Catholic elements that could be skimmed over. But any intelligent Catholic is going to get it, and the more intelligent (if I may flatter myself) the more they are going to get. St. Thomas Aquinas gets a couple of very brief mentions that I think are true to character and organic to the flow.
You have previously mentioned Raymond Chandler and C.S. Lewis among your literary influences, but I also noticed some similarities to the stories of Charles Williams, albeit as filtered through Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Williams was a Christian esotericist with dubious orthodoxy, even for an Anglican. You have also talked about the influence of It’s a Wonderful Life. Would you care to expand on the role of these influences on the writing of Judging Angels?
“C.S. Lewis meets Raymond Chandler” is the best description I’ve come up with. I’ll answer your question about It’s a Wonderful Life and then talk a bit about a few other influences, if you don’t mind.
Hate me if you will, but I am not a fan of It’s a Wonderful Life. Some of the most hilarious and well-done YouTube satires are on that movie. And it’s not just because of its Communist message. All right, I’m joking, but the FBI wasn’t!
To me, an overplayed movie that turns suicide into a comic premise for a botched angelology ending in a nasty man’s giddy romp through Bedford Falls is overripe hanging fruit for my Alice’s purple softball bat. (Alice is George’s estranged wife, whose softball bat plays an unexpected role toward the end.)
“George Able” deliberately recalls “George Bailey,” and at one time I jokingly thought about a subtitle: “It’s a Horrible Life.” In fact, George is at one point half-convinced he is caught in that very movie, much to his embarrassment as he sobers up. If David Lynch directed It’s a Wonderful Life instead of Frank Capra, it might look something like this, at least at the beginning.
So, I did deliberately turn the beloved Christmas Miracle trope on its head, along with every other trope I could think of. Every time the smart reader rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, there’s the ‘Manic Pixie Girlfriend’ trope,” or something, I am secretly laughing because only I know what’s actually coming. I really wanted the reader to need a cervical collar by the end from all the whiplash!
But the point is that this is about life on hard mode. It is a grim novel with imperfect characters backing themselves and each other into the darkest of moral corners for the very best of reasons. The relief comes not from a Golden Age moral sheen, or Felinniesque last-scene of sentimental redemption, but the frequent rim shots of mordant humor that readers of my blog, St. Corbinian’s Bear will be familiar with. It is by no means a novelized version of that ephemeris, but the similarities in style are undeniable.
We don’t live in an age when It’s a Wonderful Life really has much to realistically teach us.
It is hard to talk about the urban fantasy elements without giving away spoilers. They do not dominate, and when they are brought into the center ring, they are both played for humor and used as original world-building while always keeping one eye on the Catholic Church’s traditional teachings on the supernatural. My supernatural elements are never arbitrary, and, given dramatic license, are true to Catholic teaching.
I avoided horror. Some of my writing influences are known for that, but they are stylistic influences. Dean Koontz for the way the ordinary world is invaded by mysteries and his subtle spiritual insights. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett for original world-building, and fearlessly making the most ridiculous concepts work through many a sly wink at the reader. I owe more to to C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy than his other works, and admire his ability to be unabashedly didactic without being unentertaining or preachy.
You asked about Charles Williams. I am not a fan of his. Even when we share a plot element, like the tarot, there is little to compare. I have some fun with the tarot in many different ways, although let me say that it is not so much fun in real life, and it is used in Judging Angels by the bad guys. If I ever understood anything Charles Williams wrote, I might have an answer for your question. Although I have read The Greater Trumps, I don’t think he knows very much about the tarot.
And of course the tarot and fortune-telling do play a rather pronounced role in your novel. You use them to foreshadow upcoming events, even though they do not always come about in the expected manner.
At one point, a character gets a tarot reading. The cards and his reaction to them are revelatory of some elements of the plot. A couple of numbers reappear, and they are related to the tarot, and provide a sort of cosmic context. However, it is not necessary to understand them to really get anything important, and I would not encourage any independent research!
But the foundation of the novel is that the supernatural is quite real. Where it is ignored or suppressed—as it is in the West—it will squeeze through the dark nooks and crannies of the world. Madam Margo is a low-rent “Madame Sosostris”—T.S. Eliot’s dubious tarotista from “The Waste Land” (who makes quite the prediction of her own at the beginning of the novel).
One of the disadvantages the good guys face is that they are fighting a supernatural battle blind and with no possibility of earthly help. At least the other side has a surprisingly talented tarotista to provide “intel.”
George’s boss, Andy Akimwe is the son of African immigrants whose grandmother was an iyanifa—a priestess of Ifa, the religion of the Yoruba people of Western Africa. He is the most Catholic of our characters, but even he finds himself wishing for someone who has a belief and some experience with the supernatural. For Andy, the pull of what he was taught on his grandmother’s knee is a temptation he feels because he is the only character who actually enters the story with a belief in devils.
This is another theme. If we really are involved in unseen warfare, how much real education and support can we expect from the Church these days? When the supernatural is brought up—the tarot, Andy’s pagan ancestors, and so on—it is as a contrast to the rationalism of the Church. This is specifically addressed in a scene that will provide another thoughtful surprise for readers, I think.
Could you explain the meaning behind the series title, The Rubricatae Chronicles?
The Rubricatae Chronicles is difficult to say much about with spoiling things. First, it advertises that this is the beginning of a series. “Rubricatae” is a Latin-based word, but I really can’t go further.
One thing missing in modern fiction is the admission that man is a fully functional moral agent, both for good and for ill. It is rare to find novelized characters choosing actively towards Heaven or Hell, and the latter choice is arguably missing entirely in Catholic fiction. Was it especially important for you to dramatize the conception, formation, and birth of mortal sin?
One of my goals going in was to avoid cheap grace. I allowed characters to determine destiny. One of the reasons for so many drafts was that it was difficult to resist allowing characters to escape the consequences of their decisions.
It is hard for a novelist to doom characters he has come to care for, and risk reader displeasure. But if we’re going to be real, there is not always a happy ending. Not, at least, in the way the Church used to understand things. I wanted to show the reader a set of lives where the stakes could not be higher. Not everybody is a winner, sadly. We either believe that, or we don’t.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the novel’s moral issues. The great moral controversies of our time revolve around sexual morality and the traditions of marriage. Your characters are confronted with divorce, adultery, errant child-rearing, and the problem of keeping temptation at arm’s length (albeit no further), but refuse to engage them properly. Do you think anyone in Judging Angels knows what is the right thing to do?
It would take a very dim reader to think this was all about rescuing a kidnapped little girl. More than one character emphasizes that the real story is on the inside. And it is. The most important chapter—or at least the one where the theme of choices and consequences is most clearly illustrated—is “Drawing Lines.” George and his estranged wife, Alice, argue about how far they will go to rescue their little daughter, Sandy. Alice is absolute: she will do anything. George is doubting the wisdom of that. He comes to a very important decision that would be the turning point in any other novel.
Here, temptation is relentless, and the reader is probably going to wonder what poor George has to do to escape? Will he? For much of the novel, temptation, in the form of “Red Morgan,” is too useful to the cause to kick to the roadside. George imagines he can hold temptation at arm’s length.
But nobody’s arm is that long. How do you deal with a near occasion of sin? Here the novel is very clear about how we are too often self-defeated from the beginning.
After finishing Judging Angels, I got to thinking that it would make for better reading than what one will get in most diocesan marriage prep programs. I am recently married, and my wife and I were lucky enough to receive some pretty solid preparation from our parish priest, but many approach their wedding day without sufficient readiness for the sacrament. Could the reading of good literature assist in the moral formation of our engaged couples?
I have already said that marriage is, in my opinion, the last battle. Between George and Alice, George knows right from wrong. Much is made of Alice’s dry, lapis eyes. She cannot cry, and does not feel. She sees marriage in practical, even materialistic terms. So they do have a different level of moral awareness. We’re only given hints of Alice’s backstory, but it should be clear that George has been less than the ideal husband and father.
The problem is, while George knows the truth, he is willing to seize on the Church’s current ambiguity on divorce and remarriage in a self-interested way. At one point, Red sweetly asks him if it were true he was getting divorced, and he answers yes. When she objects that Mrs. Goodman says divorce is wrong, he answers that it used to be, but he read somewhere that they’re pretty much rethinking all that. He goes on to think to himself that it was hard to keep up with the changes, but on that topic, if the Church even hinted he could remarry Red after Alice divorces him, “Who was he to be more Catholic than the pope?”
This is one of three or four pointed critiques of the Church from the point of view of ordinary Catholics. I think waffling on divorce and remarriage is simply inviting people in George’s position to see the mouse hole just at the right moment and dive in.
Probably a lot of Catholics will write me off if I bring up the Protestant classic Pilgrim’s Progress. It may be the most popular book in the English language after the King James Bible. Now, while it is fiction, it is an allegory, which Judging Angels is not. And yet, as fiction, it has educated millions of people. One might say mis-educated, but my only point is that fiction is a proven teacher. Similarly, everyone knows C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, which is not a novel, but is a good teacher.
Yes, I believe there is precious little good Catholic fiction out there. Catholics don’t seem to read much, or if they do, it is non-fiction, or dubious pop stuff like The Shack. I remember at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois, across from St. Louis, they used to have a huge bookstore. Today they sell only a handful of books, mostly tried-and-true works like The Imitation of Christ.
I am probably too close to Judging Angels to comment on its value to marriage prep. It looks like a novel, and is a novel, but it is also a very sophisticated missile carrying a powerful payload to detonate in the bowels of the current deliberate confusion about marriage.
My wife and I spent a good part of our first Lent together reading through the Old Testament wisdom literature. It’s amazing how practical the ancient Hebrews were about marriage and how to avoid the variety of temptations that can tear the marriage bond apart.
One thing about our George is that he is not panting with lust after Red. Even his wife has to admit she is not picking up “that wavelength.” He is a romantic. He is in love with her. Temptation comes in many forms, and nowadays one may fall deeply in love with words typed on a screen. I don’t think you can seriously train someone for marriage without a good old Proverbs warning about The Adulteress (and, of course her male counterpart).
At one point, a character observes that Hell prefers the chaste lovers or the lovers whose affairs are so beautiful as to be practically noble! Tristan und Isolde. Paolo and Francesca. Oh, the wonderful irony to land the fish at the end without it ever having tasted the bait!
I do think—and I think I can say this without self-interest—that it would be a wonderful book for book clubs, especially Catholic ones. And if the elements of mortal sin happen to have been glossed over in your catechism, well, the author has cunningly worked in quite a bit of catechism in a way that is organic to the novel. You know, in between all the gunfire and panting.
Other moral problems raised in the novel include the ambiguity of opposing the death penalty in a tangible way, the dangers of syncretistically compromising with paganism, the ethics of going to war even against a clear evil, and making life-altering decisions based on bad or limited information. There is something almost tragic about the way these characters fumble around trying to figure out the right thing to do. How do you juggle their moral responsibility with the paucity of their moral formation?
The overarching tragedy of Judging Angels is that we have characters who are having to make up so much as they go along. Moreover, since the Church itself seems to have adopted an ad hoc approach to everything, even the best characters do the same. In a different book, they would find the wise old priest who could provide the answers and weapons.
But, nowadays, that wouldn’t be very realistic, would it? I would not want to mislead my readers into believing that they can just sit back and wait for the Church to fix their devil problems for them. My characters seldom get the morals right, although they are usually able to articulate plausible arguments. (An advantage to having trial lawyers as characters, I’ll admit.) The problem is, they do not allow morality to form their actions, but have all sorts of arguments that allow them to do what they want to do anyway. Perhaps casuistry is a professional risk of criminal defense!
When writing on matters of temptation and its immediate causes, many novelists find it difficult to avoid vulgarity if not outright obscenity. How did that play into your writing process?
I joked about gunfire and panting. It is a novel for grownups, but not vulgar, not explicit. It has a few bad words, and not even the worst of those. There is violence, and some of it is shocking in more ways than one. Being involved in the criminal justice system and having lost count of murder cases, I don’t think I can treat violence truthfully by always looking at it from across the street, or having everything occur off screen.
Too often, novels involving murder are as serious as a game of Clue. Mr. Boddy (whoever he was) has been killed, and the only question is whether it was with the lead pipe or the knife. As a writer, the details are part of the police procedural thread. But I respect death, and am unwilling to soft-focus murder. It is the consequence of sin, and should be taken seriously. That said, I did remove some more gruesome descriptions along the way for reasons of taste, and it is a better novel for that. Even so, readers should expect a bit of blood.
As for the sexual elements, no one should have problems with those. There are scenes of passion that stop well short of getting an R-rating, and if anything were to happen, I can promise it would be off screen in the better Hollywood tradition where the scene either ends or begins with nothing but the unambiguous implication.
Your decades of experience working in the legal system provide a level of realism for those aspects of the novel. What was your favorite part of dramatizing the human justice system when supernatural justice rears its head?
The kernel of Judging Angels was this: how would the familiar parts of the criminal justice system deal with evidence that cannot be fit into the materialistic world view? In Judging Angels, investigators and prosecutors are faced with people who seem to have the same fingerprints. Even two such people would blow the doors off the criminal justice system. Multiple examples would threaten to eliminate one of the most useful tools of crime solving. How would the system really deal with a threat like that? As always, I tried to come up with not just the most entertaining solution, but the most realistic one.
A funny moment is when an unlikely character lectures George—the expert, after all—on esoteric details of forensic DNA analysis. There follows some unexpected background and a lecture on how George’s system is limited by its reductionist materialistic paradigm. That would be personified by our poor fingerprint analyst, with whom I have a lot of fun.
I have respect for law enforcement, but it is an adversary system, and I also have too much experience to be starry eyed about everyone’s honesty in the face of temptations of a different kind. Although poor Meckler, our scientist, is innocent, other characters are walking examples of the way I have personally seen investigators turn cases in the wrong direction. It happens. I know why and how it happens. There is no great mystery here. Many problems can be addressed, and, in my state, when it came to murder investigations, were. I just combine a number of systemic problems into one particular pair of investigators.
One of the things I appreciated most was the development even of minor characters. Tom Ward, for instance, is a man without a lot of “screen time” in the novel, but we still understand him quite thoroughly, and because of that we appreciate the few major choices he makes. It feels like you were intent on beating into the reader that every man is also the “Everyman” of medieval drama, that we are all serious moral agents with the capacity for great heights and depths.
As a novelist, I needed the reader to care about Tom Ward, so he had to have a sympathetic backstory. (Yet one that is not without its faults.) He also played a bigger role in one of the more fun parts of the story that—like so many others—sadly needed to go. But everyone is where they are because of the choices they have made. At one point, Andy remarks that certain people could not have chosen one side thinking they were joining up with the good guys.
And, yet, as a death penalty attorney, I recognize that as much as people want to see murderers as inhuman beings who suddenly emerge from the shadows, everybody is playing the cards they are dealt. I am glad I did not form a character based on the cards many of my clients were dealt. Yet, of course, there are overcomers, too. It is a question of either mitigating or eliminating guilt, not ignoring it. The first is a duty of the criminal justice system. The latter only God can do.
There are many shocks in this novel. Perhaps the greatest shock is when then the most famous lifesaver is confronted with the viper of doom his choices have hatched in his own nest.
Without giving too much away, could you give us a taste of what is to come in future installments of The Rubricatae Chronicles?
Book 2 of The Rubricatae Chronicles is well underway, and promises to be another good, thick read like the previous 500-pager. The end of Judging Angels leaves some questions, although I took care that every character had reached his or her natural destiny. It is complete on its own in that the plot is resolved, and the characters have all reached a—if not the—natural “point of rest.” Yet, clearly, questions are left. Those questions are mostly resolved early on.
The narrative proper begins three weeks after the last page of Judging Angels. Settings and characters that were minor in the first book become major in the second as the focus is pulled back from the cozy drama of the Able family to encompass conflicting schemes of which humanity is blissfully ignorant.
In the classic language of the Hollywood screenwriter discussion: “Like Godfather II, but not that.”
It would not make a lot of sense to just cover old ground, so new temptations and themes will be introduced, although it seems there is just no escaping some old ones….