If I had to choose two ills at the heart of our present American moment, lack of regard for both Mystery and humor would be high on the list. National dialogue suffers from a high degree of cheerlessness. To make a joke is to risk being canceled. And mainstream discourse is insufferably materialistic, concerned only with human capacity to perfect the world. Perhaps the absence of mystery, wonder, and transcendence is causally related to the dearth of laughter?
In light of the preceding, it was with utter delight that I came across novelist Daniel Taylor recently and his Jon Mote mystery series, published by Slant. For not only does Taylor take Mystery and Big Questions seriously, but he is laugh-out-loud funny. The three books in the series thus far (Death Comes for the Deconstructionist, Do We Not Bleed?, and Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees) follow narrator Jon Mote as he, sometimes unwillingly and unwittingly, investigates and helps solve a series of murders that pop up in his life. While these books are real page-turners that tell compelling stories, don’t be fooled by their classification as “murder mysteries”: the books defy genre. Equal part bildungsroman, psychological thriller, existential exploratory, family drama, and Homeric quest for the meaning of life, Taylor’s series is all parts humorous.
And so it was with deep gratitude that I found these books this summer as my beloved Twin Cities went up in smoke after George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing riots. I soon turned to Jon Mote to help make sense of it all. I followed him as he traveled from Saint Paul to Minneapolis to the far Minnesota North country, seeking the same answers that Jon sought: why do terrible things happen to good people? Where does this human capacity for great violence and evil come from? Can unity, joy, and peace ever be experienced on earth? Why do we feel so alone, so unable to experience human connection, relationship, and community? What is truth? If Christ is King, why does Satan seem to sit on earth’s throne? And while Jon hasn’t yet provided me all the answers, I am deeply grateful for his company this past challenging summer, for taking some of the weight off my back, and for making me laugh.
Because I couldn’t get enough of Jon Mote, I recently reached out to Daniel Taylor to ask when I could expect more! In his characteristic wit and wisdom, Taylor generously answered this question, and the many others, I asked about faith, fiction, humor, and our need for stories. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.
– Jeffrey Wald
JAW: Who is Daniel Taylor? What, if anything, should a reader know about you before diving into your fiction?
DWT: I was educated as an English major in the last days of the New Criticism hegemony, many years ago. The New Critics said you don’t need to know anything about the writer when reading the work. In fact such knowledge might get in the way of understanding. Nevertheless, here are a few random biographical details: old, white, male, raised in California with five formative years as a boy in Texas, raised Protestant fundamentalist and not sorry about it (though they would no longer find me a kindred spirit), believe in the centrality of the virtues (both classic and Judeo-Christian), also believe in the continued reality and relevance of the good, the true, and the beautiful, a Dodger fan (a competing religion in my childhood), usefully and contentedly married (four adult children, eleven grandchildren—ten of them girls), and on and on. Lean toward a somewhat satiric but not jaundiced take on life, rescued from cynicism by God’s work in human history.
JAW: We love the idea of the precocious novelist. Your fellow Minnesotan F. Scott Fitzgerald was 24 when he wrote This Side of Paradise. Mary Shelley was under 20 when she completed Frankenstein. You, however, did not begin publishing fiction until later in life, the first of your Jon Mote mysteries coming out in 2014, after publishing nearly a dozen nonfiction books dealing with faith, doubt, and the importance of stories. Have you only recently begun writing fiction? Or have you always been a fiction writer and only recently begun publishing? What propelled you into fiction writing?
DWT: After quitting a job I didn’t like in my twenties, I spent some time writing short stories. Published two or three later but knew them not to be all that good. Put fiction writing on the shelf for around twenty years and took it up again in the early 1990’s. Worked on a novel on and off (mostly off) for twenty years, give or take, but hadn’t touched it for maybe four years when I got a call from an editor, Greg Wolfe, who knew I had a novel in some form and asked to see it. That eventually became the first in the Jon Mote series, Death Comes for the Deconstructionist. I guess I was “propelled” into writing longer fiction by a few decades of teaching great novels and deciding to try my hand. And I was propelled into actually publishing fiction by a phone call.
JAW: I recently read a fantastic little book called Avenues of Faith. I loved the premise of the book: an interviewer asked Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor to name and discuss the five books that have most impacted his faith. So, taking a cue from that playbook, what are the three fiction books that have most impacted/influenced you as a novelist?
DWT: “Most” is asking too much on short notice, but three that come to mind are Moby Dick, Wise Blood, and The Lord of the Rings (maybe). I could say a lot of about each one, and I’m less sure about Tolkien than the other two, but a long explanation of the choices would include things like narrative voice, moral seriousness, use of metaphor, the mix of humor and profundity, questing, and openness to transcendence.
JAW: You have previously written about the power and influence of stories, including writing a book called Tell Me a Story: The Life-Shaping Power of Our Stories. Could you discuss the role that stories have in our lives, and in your own life? In what way might stories open up the possibility for faith that, perhaps, straight philosophy or theology might not?
DWT: This requires a book-length answer, which is why I wrote a book to try to answer it. In fact, it requires a library. Very briefly, we are story-shaped creatures. We are born into stories, live in them, and die in them. They tell us who we are, what is true, what we are to do, and what happens to us when we die. Stories are central, in part, because the brain insists on it. It is constantly trying to find a story line in all the data—from the senses, from consciousness, from intuition and imagination—that constantly bombards it. Without a story of what’s going on, the brain (and we) cannot survive. All human achievement—starting with survival—is dependent on story telling of one kind or another.
JAW: I love that the Jon Mote series is set in my adopted state, Minnesota, predominantly in the Twin Cities. In fact, pre-pandemic, I biked across Wabasha Bridge into work, crossing over Jon’s fictional houseboat between Raspberry and Harriet Islands near downtown Saint Paul. Talk about the sense of place in this series. How important is Minnesota in your overall vision for these stories?
DWT: Minnesota, per se, is not that important, but place is. Like you, I’m not a native Minnesotan, though I have now lived here much longer than anywhere else. If I had been living somewhere else, I would draw on those local places. (In fact, I put Santa Barbara, the closest thing I have to a hometown, in the third novel, just as a tip of the hat to my roots.) I fix these novels in real places—with names and descriptions—because novels, like we human beings, are creatures of the physical. We assign significance to specific physical places because they are tied up in the details of our lives, not just as ‘where something happened,” but as influences on—as part of—what happened. I used to tell my lit students, “a setting is simply another character in a story.”
The second reason I try to locate action in identifiable places is because I started taking groups of students abroad forty years ago to study literature (in Europe mostly, but all over the world). Both they and I delighted in standing on T.S. Eliot’s London Bridge at the morning rush hour, reading a description of the same from The Waste Land. Likewise with visiting Joyce’s Tower in Dublin, Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in the English Lakes District, Hemingway’s finca outside Havana, and on and on. I thought it would be cool to make the same possible with the settings in these novels.
JAW: Jon Mote, the protagonist of your crime fiction series, is deeply flawed. You describe him as a “hapless, haunted, faux detective.” Grad school dropout. Failed husband. Hearer of demonic voices real or imagined. He certainly does not fit the typical detective/private eye trope (ruggedly handsome man, good with the ladies, tough as nails, etc.). Many times, he seems to “solve” the murder mysteries as if by chance or accident (or grace?) I’m curious why you chose to write within the crime fiction genre, and then subvert it both with a protagonist who doesn’t fit the stereotype, and then with a narrative style that is much more concerned with Big Questions than the typical crime novel?
DWT: I will confess to being delighted with this question. The truth is I didn’t see the first novel (or any of them) as genre novels—crime or otherwise. My editor—who has to worry about the bottom line—did and does. I knew there was a body in the first novel, of course, and that any body suggests a mystery until it is known why it is there and answers the question “what happened?” But I was surprised to see on the cover of the second novel the words, “A Jon Mote Mystery.” I have tried telling my editor that I am much more interested in Mystery than in mystery. He nods and rhetorically pats me on the head, saying, “But you have responsibilities to meet the expectations of the reader.” In short, if you include a body then you have created a mystery and readers expect certain things in mysteries. And not satisfying those expectations leaves dissatisfied readers, which is not good for either the author or the publisher.
So I have put in extra bodies and manipulated plot devices to help the editor sleep better and to better satisfy readers. I can see from my Amazon reviews that readers are seldom fooled by these efforts. They can see that the white whale I’m chasing embodies the Big Questions, not Who Dunnit?
As to Jon Mote being screwed up, that is partly because we’re all screwed up—he in his way, me in mine, you in yours—and partly to protect myself. I’ve laid the groundwork for that occasion when, after I receive my Nobel Prize, I am criticized for being insensitive, retro, privileged, fragile, or otherwise obtuse. I can answer, “Yes, that Jon Mote is certainly messed up. I’m glad you and I aren’t.” It’s one of the advantages of having a first person narrator—deniability.
JAW: In terms of literary precursors, I see Jon Mote as a bit of a mash up between Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling, Herman Melville’s Ishmael, and Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Did you have any literary exemplars that you drew from in creating Jon; if so, who are Jon’s literary ancestors?
DWT: You are a perceptive reader. In answering a similar question for my publisher’s marketer questionnaire, I said that if I were very drunk, I would say my novels are a combination of Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor. I had in mind, as you suggest, the Underground Man and characters like Haze Motes (from whom Jon derives his last name). They are both Big Questions writers (as are all the Russians) and both have a sense of humor. So Jon’s ancestors include Ishmael, Haze, various characters in Saul Bellow, some of Faulkner’s hapless folks, maybe some Gogol, a touch of Singer and Kafka, and so on. I do not mean to insult any of them or their fans by claiming so.
JAW: Clearly, the series is deeply concerned with religious faith, particularly the
possibility/impossibility of Christian faith in the contemporary world. And while there are genuinely faith-filled characters in the books (Jon’s sister Judy, and Catholic nun Sister Brigit are obvious examples), Jon himself is deeply flawed, and no Prince Myshkin. What are you trying to accomplish or grapple with by making the hero so flawed, that perhaps you wouldn’t be able to do with a more put-together protagonist?
DWT: I know it may sound like an evasion, but I don’t see my writing (in fiction, as opposed to non-fiction) as “trying to accomplish” anything—other than telling an engaging story. (Okay, maybe one that illuminates a bit of the human experience.) Faulkner once claimed that all he does is run behind his characters trying to write down what they are saying as fast as he can. When I first read that, long ago, I dismissed it as coyness. But I have found it to be true in my own experience. Jon just started as Jon (well he started as my great childhood friend who died young, but only briefly) and became more Jon the longer I was with him. Same with Judy, Sister Brigit, and the others. (In Judy’s case, she is closely modeled on an actual person.)
I do invent ‘situations,’ in order to construct a plot, but once I have characters in a situation, I more or less just watch what they do and listen to them speak (or, more often in Jon’s case, think).
There is, of course, an effect of Jon being so troubled, even if I don’t contrive it. In the first novel especially, it creates a certain tension by putting him at risk, and readers like the tension of uncertainty (to a point). He is losing it. Will the voices prevail or will Judy (who, as you say in your next question, is the moral center of the novel) as she tries to save him? I hope it also creates sympathy for him—and for the human condition generally. We all want to know whether there is a meaning to the universe and to our own lives or not. Jon’s struggles to find out are just amplified versions of our own, or at least my own. (But no, I am not Jon.)
And sometimes his plight is simply funny, as is commonly the case with the human condition.
JAW: America is enflamed with “identity politics” and victim-making. But notably, in these discussions, there is very little mention of the mentally and physically disabled. I get the sense sometimes that we would just as soon see our disabled brethren put away somewhere where we don’t have to be confronted by them. In the creation of Jon’s mentally disabled sister, Judy, you put the spotlight on the disabled. In many ways, Judy is the heart and soul of the entire series. And the second book in the series, Do We Not Bleed, a murder mystery set at New Directions, once a home for the mentally challenged run by a group of nuns, now a corporate group home for the “developmentally disabled,” is my favorite in the series. The various “Specials” who inhabit the group home are beautifully rendered. Talk about Judy and the “Specials.” Where did they come from in your moral imagination? What might they reveal to the cynical Jon Mote, and to your readers, about the good life?
DWT: Confession: none of the Specials is imagined. Judy is as close to a real Judy as I could make her. As are the others (though Jimmy is a composite). My wife, Jayne, and I ran a group home for adults who we awkwardly call “mentally challenged” (how to refer to such folks is one of the issues in the novel) for three years in the 1970’s (her full-time, me a support person while I taught). We were supposed to be caring for them, but discovered that in many ways they were our teachers, just as Jon learns. We came to love them and this second novel is my homage to them. (And it is my favorite too.)
As regards what they reveal to Jon, let me say that I do not think Jon is cynical. He is simply confused. He’s trying hard. He’s something of a Bob character in our family’s favorite film, What About Bob? He’s baby-stepping. (Which actually makes it into one of the novels, can’t remember which.)
Jon learns from his charges something about how to live with adversity, and with simplicity, honesty, humility, and within community. They know they need help to make it and they both give it and take it from each other. Things like that.
JAW: In his recent book “The Decline of the Novel,” Joseph Bottum argues that the novel is primarily a Protestant art form that focuses on “the salvation and sanctification of the individual soul.” Certainly your books are concerned with the theme of individual salvation, especially the possibility of Jon’s own salvation. But of course faith is much more than individual salvation. Paul, for instance, seems more concerned with the Kingdom of God than individual salvation. Your books seem to me to engage the notion of the Kingdom of God, not just individual salvation. I think this is most clearly seen in the rag-tag community of the “Specials,” but it is also portrayed in the relationship between Jon and Judy, and the slow reconciliation between Jon and his estranged wife, Zillah. Do you agree with Bottum that novels are mainly concerned with individual salvation? Or is the portrayal of community and the Kingdom of God also at the heart of Christian fiction, in particular your own fiction?
DWT: I’m glad people like Bottum write books like his because they point out interesting things. At the same time, any sweeping generalization such as his makes me immediately want to identify exceptions, so many in this case that I think we have to take his assertion with a substantial grain of salt. My all-time favorite, Moby Dick, for example, is all about the “community” of very diverse characters on the Pequod—literally a motley crew—who are going to live or die together. The Scarlet Letter is equally an exploration of community. Same with Faulkner’s entire
Yoknapatawpha county (and its multiple generations)—and on and on.
I think you’re right that my novels are both an example of Bottum’s thesis about individual salvation and a counter-example. Certainly Jon is on a path that he hopes will be a kind of rescue (if not outright salvation), but it is unclear to him and to the reader (and to the author) whether he will succeed or not. If he does succeed, it will only be because of others—Judy, Sister Brigit, perhaps a church (see fourth novel in the works). And perhaps the Holy Spirit and the Cloud of Witnesses. We’ll just have to see.
JAW: You hold no punches for the political right or left. Postmodern literary theorists; unbelieving Bible scholars; unmerciful fundamentalist Christians; corporate do-gooders who ignore the dignity of the people they are “helping”; these and many others are skewered during narrator Jon Mote’s many monologues. Jon has a certain lack of reverence toward these folks who take themselves so seriously. Ultimately Jon’s ironic and satiric musings are very funny. But after the false and phony have been thrown down, what is left in Jon’s life to give him meaning and purpose? What do you see as Jon’s avenue for redemption?
DWT: Well, you are asking exactly the question Jon is asking throughout. He finds it easy enough to spot the holes in the reigning orthodoxies of our day. But he finds it very difficult to articulate something better that is for him believable, attainable, and sustainable. He is haunted, almost literally, by his religious upbringing—fundamentalist with a take-no-prisoners edge. He’s long left it behind but found nothing to replace it, and, in strange ways, the claims of faith keep calling his name. He’s not altogether happy about that, but he doesn’t know if he can run fast enough to escape it.
My take on his ‘avenue for redemption’? Read the novels.
JAW: To bring up Charles Taylor again, we live in a disenchanted world. And we see that certainly in contemporary fiction, where realism reigns supreme, and in particular in crime fiction, where even though there are fantastic scenarios (private eyes who solve a new murder mystery every week), there is nothing from outside of the material world that invades our world. I think the Christian fiction writer has a challenge. On the one hand, to authentically portray the material world. But to also account for the supernatural. In all three of the Jon Mote books, there are moments of apparent invasion by the supernatural. The unexplainable happens. I don’t want to give away these moments, but could you discuss how, as a Christian writer, you authentically grapple with both the natural and the supernatural?
DWT: Another very good but very large question. Let me start by quibbling with your assertion that “realism reigns supreme” in contemporary fiction. It certainly is not “realism” as understood in the 19th c novel, which was comfortable with the spiritual. Coming after modernism, meta-fiction, post-modernism and the like, it couldn’t be the same kind of “realism.” More importantly, no person of faith should grant “realism” as an accurate description of an approach to literature (and thought) that ignores so much of reality. Any expression or treatment of life that ignores the transcendent is too stunted to deserve the label “realism.”
I think it more accurate to say “materialism reigns supreme”—in the arts, human thought, and daily life. For instance, the spiritual in each sphere is reduced (a great reduction) to the merely psychological.
Though we may well agree on this, I also quibble with how you phrase the observation that in contemporary fiction there is “nothing from outside of the material world that invades our world.” “Invasion” from “outside” are, I think, the wrong concept. In my view there is no bright line between a “material world” and a transcendent one. There is only a single reality. What we call the transcendent or the supernatural inhabits and infuses the natural or material. God dwells both within and beyond his creation. He is not co-terminus with it (I am not a pantheist), but spiritual reality is not a separate thing “above” (super to) physical reality. It is reality, often expressing itself materially.
So I would say that the key scenes in the novels in which there is an “apparent invasion by the supernatural” is better understood as moments of the eruption of the divine that is always there–in such a way that we are more conscious of it than we normally are.
(I’m aware that all this is a theological-philosophical minefield that I am not competent to navigate. I’m just giving you “how I think” about these things. Somewhat Celtic perhaps, though I think their dominant view is simply orthodoxy. If I’ve expressed it clumsily, I plead for grace.)
I try consciously to testify to my understanding of these things in the novels. I have at least one church service in each novel, because millions—even billions–of people worship together regularly, and contemporary art and thought acts like it never happens. Having a church service is simple realism. I also have, as you indicate, these key scenes scattered here and there in which Jon Mote becomes aware of being “led,” you might say, by something beyond himself, though he doesn’t necessarily know what to make of it. They tend to be moments of grace. Again, simple realism in my view.
The challenge in all this for me as a Christian writer of fiction is witnessing to the reality of such things without becoming so didactic or heavy handed as to undercut their believability and power. It helps to have a skeptical narrator.
JAW: It seems that our society suffers at present from a certain humorlessness. Perhaps what I love most about these books is how funny they are. Many times I’d be reading in bed and laugh out loud, and then my wife would give me the raised-eyebrow look. In this way, these books participate in a long line of Christian comedy from Rabelais and Cervantes, to Shakespeare, Chesterton, and Percy. What do you think the role of humor is in fiction generally, and in your fiction in particular? Some horrible things have happened to Jon and Judy; does humor have the capacity to break through the immense suffering in the world and provide some healing and redemption?
DWT: I think the role of humor in fiction, in my own novels, and in life in general is to keep us realistic about ourselves as human beings. We make ourselves comic when we pretend we are things we aren’t (especially if we think we are fooling others)—as in passing ourselves off as overly smart or overly virtuous or overly pious. Humor always deflates pretension, which is why it is so valuable and enjoyable–and also why it is so dangerous in certain contexts (especially authoritarian ones).
In that sense, the role of humor (which is not an exact synonym for funny) is the same as with every other fictional strategy: to testify accurately to the human experience. One cannot fully portray the human condition without including humor, because human beings are, by one definition, the creature who laughs (related to homo ludens, the creature who plays). This is why we need many writers. Some have a great sense of the tragic but not of the comic. Others have the reverse. The greatest writers—including the ones you list–have both.
I am not one of the greatest writers, but I do have a keen sense of both. The biblical concept of shalom tells us how things ought to be. Human fallenness ensures that they are not that way. The gap between the two is often tragic but it is also, at times, a place for realistic laughter.
Humor is a chameleon, taking many forms, from simple incongruity or physical comedy to hyperbole and satire. And within satire, we have the more gentle Horatian satire that gently pokes fun and accepts human failures and foibles and also the more predatory Juvenalian satire that eviscerates and condemns. My own leanings are toward the Horatian with an occasional Juvenalian thrust.
Regarding humor and suffering, I think of humor as a consequence of and response to suffering, not as an escape from it. Life pricks us—sometimes flattens us—and one human response is to sadly laugh, not flippantly but profoundly, shaking our heads at that gap between how things ought to be and how they are, humbly acknowledging that we so often bring the suffering upon ourselves. And, yes, the act of laughing can make the suffering more bearable.
JAW: When might readers expect the release of the fourth and final Jon Mote book? Any fiction plans after that?
DWT: I completed a reader’s draft of the last novel in the series a couple of months ago (September 2020), but am letting it marinate for a while before sending it off to my editor. It generally takes him six months to get around to reading it. Then there is a month of the editor-author dance, followed by a month or two for me to acknowledge that he is probably right and hence a time of revision, followed by a 12-18 month period for the physical production of the book. So two years minimum from the time I send it in. I hope I live to see it in print (and no reason I shouldn’t), and then the trip to Stockholm.
After that, God only knows. I have toyed with a novel that focuses on the life of Judy, who is easily the most interesting character in the series (as she was in life). I’ve written the opening sentence, but I worry that the novel would be repetitious, so may well not attempt it.
In the meantime, I’m writing short stories, including about a homeless man from Africa who spends twenty years sleeping on a London night bus. Likelihood of any of these stories seeing the light of day is slim. But it keeps me out of the pubs.
Jeffrey Wald is an attorney, husband, and father of three boys. His short fiction, poetry, and reviews have previously appeared in a variety of print and online periodicals including Touchstone, Stinkwaves Magazine, Summit Ave Review, Whistling Shade, Philosophy Now, Light, and Plainsongs.