Jon Steele, a former news cameraman, combines the real life turmoil of our world with the fantastical in his Angelus trilogy; the story of a high-end call girl and a British tough guy who find themselves in a war between angels and demons. Mr. Steele will be at BookPeople on June 12th with author Taylor Stevens (The Doll) to discuss writing the modern thriller. We caught up with him on the road to answer a few early questions.
MP: While The Watchers had something of a slow burn build up, since you had to establish the world and its characters, Angel City hits the ground running and never stops, starting with an epic battle in Paris. Do you prefer to dive right in as an author?
JS: The Watchers took its time getting started because of two things: first, I wanted the reader to be transposed to the cathedral town of Lausanne, an almost idyllic town on the shore of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Let them settle in, feel comfortable in what appears to be a very charming place. Second, and more importantly, I wanted the reader to establish an emotional relationship with Harper, Katherine and, especially, Marc Rochat…a brain injured young man who lives in the belfry of Lausanne Cathedral where he calls the hour through the night and imagines his cathedral to be a hiding place for lost angels. As the characters are introduced in the story, they have no real awareness of each other. Slowly, as the story unfolds, the reader comes to know that Harper, Katherine and Rochat are trapped in a predestined and murderous fate. And as the unseen walls of that fate begin to close in on them, and the action begins to build, the reader feels a sense of panic…then, in the end, heartbreak.
Setting out on the trail to Angel City, I open with a prologue that suggests AC is to be another story with a slow build to an action-packed climax, then a calming resolution to the story. Instead, from the first sentence of chapter one, the reader (through Jay Harper) is dropped headfirst into the middle of a bloody terrorist attack in Paris. And yes, the action never stops…all the way to the most brutal and unimaginable of cliffhangers, where the reader is left with a sense of, “No! God, no!” TW, AC and The Way of Sorrows is one, continuous tale. The arc of the story and pacing of action is deliberate and follows the path I envisioned before I wrote the first word of the first book.
MP: It was great to see Katherine was still her brassy self even after giving birth. Do you think motherhood has changed her in any way?
JS: I heard from some readers that they thought Katherine somewhat shallow in the The Watchers. And whenever I heard it, I was pleased. It’s exactly the impression I wished to suggest. Katherine, more than any character, is like the rest of us…someone trying to make it through the world as best she can. And as the story continues over three books, and there needs to be room for her to learn about herself and grow as a human being. I gave a huge clue as to how Kat’s personality would develop in TW in one scene I loved writing. As the shadows of evil close in on Lausanne Cathedral, Katherine holds a battered Marc Rochat in her arms to comfort him. When I wrote the scene, I had Michelangelo’s Pieta in mind; in fact, Katherine holds Marc Rochat in the same manner that Mary held Jesus. It is a glimpse not only into Katherine’s fate, but her truest self. She is loving and caring, supremely protective of the helpless bit of life in her arms. In Angel City, motherhood hasn’t so much changed Katherine as it has brought her closer to an awareness of who she is as a person…and more, her place in the mysterious revelations of The Angelus Trilogy.
MP: As somebody who has a journalism background, what drew you to writing a trilogy that borders on the fantastic?
JS: My twenty-five years as a television news cameraman and writing a story that borders on the fantastic are not exclusive of each other Trust me, finding yourself in a ditch with bullets flying overhead, or trapped in a truck surrounded by jacked-up Hutu tribesman with machetes who want to cut off your head, is fantastically surreal and murderously real at the same time. I worked through wars, revolutions, famine and other bringers of mass death. Each time, each place, it was as if I was working on the frontline of a Good and Evil. There, I witnessed the slaughter of the innocent and the images haunt me still. And it was in those places of suffering and death that The Angelus Trilogy was born.
MP: Do you have any influences as a writer?
JS: Top of the pack would be Raymond Chandler. He wrote literature disguised as detective fiction. Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, (considered by some to be one of his lesser works, but the book I consider to be his masterpiece) is the well from which I drew the character of Jay Harper in The Angelus Triology. Next would be the complete works of Robertson Davies, especially The Deptford Trilogy, which I recommend to anyone who wishes to write. Davies’ mastery of the English language and his ability it to take the reader to another place is beyond compare. I rate Jack London very much above Hemingway, but I reread both their works often to study their method of description. And I reread Sam Shepard’s plays and PG Wodehouse’s very funny novels often, to remind myself what good dialogue looks like on a page. Finally, Phillip K Dick’s Ubik and Neil Gaiman’s American Gods never cease to amaze me. And though I have only read translations, I often return to Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversations in the Cathedral and Mikhial Bulgakov’s Mater and Margarita because I love their writing so. I think I’d better stop, because I could go on till the cows come home.
MP: What makes Harper and Katherine great characters to write?
JS: My writing method is never to write the first sentence of a book till I know the last, then I fill in the middle bit. Thus, my characters are condemned to a preordained fate from which there is no way of escape. The characters, however, are free to do and say as they please within the boundaries of their individual fates. In my mind, writing dialogue is the best part of penning a book because the words seem to spring from the personality of characters, not me. Sometimes I’m gobsmacked with the words that spill from their mouths. I’ll stop, reread lines of dialogue and wonder, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ In truth, all through The Angelus Trilogy, I’m not sure I write about Harper and Katherine (or Marc Rochat, or anyone in the books) at all. It’s more a process of the characters revealing themselves (and the story) to me through their dialogue. I’m nothing but the scribe in the shadows, writing down their words as spoken.
MP: Can you say anything about the final installment of the trilogy?
JS: The title is The Way of Sorrows. The story begins and ends in Jerusalem. I could tell you more, but then I’d have to shoot you.