By G. Robert Frazier
When readers last saw Mouse, the hero of Nashville author Dana Chamblee Carpenter‘s debut novel Bohemian Gospel, she was locked up in a cell writing what would become known in some circles as the eighth wonder of the world, the Codex Gigas. Better known as THE DEVIL’S BIBLE, the real-life book also happens to be the name of Carpenter’s sequel (due out March 7 from Pegasus Books).
No one really knows who wrote the real codex or where it was written, though legend says it was written in a single night with the assistance of the devil. The book even contains an infamous rendering of the devil, which serves as the cover of Carpenter’s new novel.
Carpenter says she enjoyed a blissful month after turning in all her revisions and edits, until she got her box of copies of the new book. “That’s when the anxiety kicks in and you start wondering, are people going to like it? So I’m kind of mixed right now on trying to stay focused on the project I’m working on and being anxious to seeing how readers are going to take to this second book. The early reviews have been good, so I’m happy with that.”
Actually, they’ve been better than good. Some have even compared her to Dan Brown, the author of the bestselling The Da Vinci Code. Fine company indeed.
I recently talked with Carpenter about the new book, her heroine, reader expectations, and much more.
How would you describe this book to someone new to Mouse and to you as an author?
In some ways it’s a little more conventionally a thriller than Bohemian Gospel was. There was a lot of historical fiction in Bohemian Gospel because it was starting with Mouse’s story and set in the 13th century. We’ve now moved forward so that we’re in contemporary times in Nashville, and that’s where the book starts. We have flashbacks to the historical period when Mouse is writing The Devil’s Bible and interacting with her father, so there are still historical elements, but I think readers will find this one more conventionally a thriller. There’s kind of a quest, a journey where Mouse goes looking for something and has to fight off some big bads, and that kind of stuff.
Did you intentionally set out to bring Mouse into the present or is that something the publisher pushed on you to try and make this book a little more accessible?
It’s actually where the story took me. Knowing the industry, it’s certainly not beyond thinking that a publisher would want you to write something that was a little more marketable and nichey. They know what to do with those books, but they don’t know what to do with books that cross genres like Bohemian Gospel did. But I’ve not had any pressure. In fact, I’ve only had the greatest support from my editor at Pegasus. This is where I knew the story was going all along. I knew I wanted to sort of jump time… A lot of that, too, is not wanting to get pegged as just a historical fiction writer or just as a thriller writer. As a reader, I like to dabble in all the different genres and I want to write in them as well. I try not to think about the market and what people are wanting, besides being generally informed, which any successful writer kind of needs to know. You don’t want to go off and write some sort of daisies and aliens thing that nobody’s going to want to read. For me, at least, I have to let the story go where it needs to go.
Do you think bringing Mouse into the present could alienate some of your existing fan base who might be expecting more of the historical fiction?
There’s a little worry in that. But I think the publishing industry underestimates their readership a lot of times in assuming they only want what they’ve had before, that historical fiction readers only want straight-up historical fiction and they don’t want an element of the thriller, or in my case the paranormal or fantastic. What I’ve found in my readership is they love those elements.
The comics industry is very particular about their geekdom—if you get Batman’s origin wrong, the universe explodes. Historical fiction readers are like that too. I call them my New England Knitters who didn’t like the darker aspects of Bohemian Gospel, and I kind of expected that. And that’s fine, it’s not for everybody. But what I was really pleased with is the people who picked up Bohemian Gospel because they thought it was historical fiction and were pleasantly surprised as to how much they enjoyed the fantastic elements and thriller elements.
I’ve had a growing readership of fantasy readers who think they don’t like historical but love the historical aspects as much as the fantasy elements. Because of the readership already getting blended with Bohemian Gospel, I hope they’ll be happy with the blend I have in The Devil’s Bible.
Talk about the title for an instant—The Devil’s Bible. Do you have any concerns that the title might deter people from picking up the book?
The Devil’s Bible is a slang term for a real book called the Codex Gigas. It was considered the eighth wonder of the world at the time it was written because it was so huge. It contained all the world’s knowledge as they knew it at the time. It had a Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, several medical texts, several historical chronicles, as well as a chronicle of Bohemia, and, of course, it was written under mysterious circumstances. It was both written and drawn by the same individual, which was just unheard of. I know there are some people who are squeamish about devil stuff, but I’m not worried that there are too many of those people out there. Readers are pretty adventurous folks, so I don’t think the title is going to be a deterrent for them.
Is the codex what sparked the whole Bohemian Gospel story?
Mouse came to me first. I had her in my head and it took a good long time to get to know her. I knew she had secrets and she was holding them pretty close to her chest and wasn’t letting me know what they were. I spent six months to a year playing with this character, knowing that she was historical, knowing that she was unusual and knowing that she had secrets. Then I saw about 10 minutes of a documentary on TLC all about the Codex Gigas and the mystery surrounding it, and it was an “aha” moment that led me to the 13th century and Bohemia.
How long did it take to write the first book?
To actually write it, it came out in a flurry. About six weeks. As a writer, you know that’s just one part of the story. It took me probably another year’s worth of research and revision to get it to where my agent and I were ready to put it out on submission.
So you didn’t make any deals with the devil?
Was it easier to write the sequel or more difficult and challenging?
In some ways it was a little more challenging because I was weaving a contemporary story with alternating historical elements. Figuring out how to do that in terms of just the structure of the narrative was difficult. For the first book it was researching everything about Bohemia and the 13th century—what soldiers wore, what dresses the women wore, layouts of Prague Castle… With this one, I had to really dig deep into the process by which scribes would have put together a medieval manuscript like the codex. I studied all the details of the Codex Gigas… I had access to a lot of the research—it’s held in the national library in Sweden. So there was a lot of time going through and learning how to make a book like that, the contents of the book, then you have to figure out, how do I use that in a way that pushes the narrative forward opposed to it coming across like a history lecture. It had its own challenges, but I think it was probably a little easier to write than the first one.
Are you worried that if you get something wrong somebody’s going to call you on it?
Eudora Welty wrote a short story that talked about an offhand reference of the moon on a particular evening and where it was in the night sky. She had done her research on it, thought she had it down accurately, and then she got this very angry letter from this old gentleman that corrected her and suggested that the moon would never be in that particular part of the sky and she was humiliated because she had gotten that wrong. None of it was vital to the story itself and she learned how to let that go. You’re always going to get something wrong or somebody’s going to think you got something wrong. It’s never going to be perfect. Most readers, I’ve found, are gracious enough to recognize that you’re writing a novel, it’s not a historical text or an encyclopedia. They care more about the story than those things. But that said, I work my hiney off to try to make sure that all of the details and anything grounded in reality are as accurate as I can humanly make them. But the human part there is key; we all make mistakes.
Do you feel comfortable taking creative liberties within the time period?
It’s easy when you’re talking about it in the 13th century because none of those folks or families are around to call you up and say, “Hey, my dad wasn’t like that.” I think it would be a lot harder for somebody writing historical fiction set in the sixties. Even with that, I did feel ethically compelled to make sure I was as accurate in presenting real historical figures as truthfully as I could. The historical aspects in The Devil’s Bible are less about the people and more about the book, so there’s a little less pressure. The characters I have are totally mine and I don’t have to feel as responsible for that as much, but I did have to make sure that everything I was saying about the codex was accurate.
The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.
Do you see some of yourself in Mouse? How much and what surprises you about her?
There are probably little bits and pieces of us writers in all of our characters. There are certainly other people I think of as inspirations for her. It’s not one single individual but kind of an amalgamation of people. My daughter, for example, has a very fiercely independent will that I am in awe of, because I certainly didn’t have it when I was her age, and Mouse has that too. Even though she’s struggling to fit in, she has this incredible confidence in herself and go-get-it attitude. She does surprise me. In The Devil’s Bible, we start off with her in kind of a wounded and damaged place. She’s not quite herself. That was the hardest part of the book to write because it didn’t fit with the Mouse I got to know in writing Bohemian Gospel who sees a struggle or challenge and is ready to climb it and fight it. The Mouse that we meet here is a Mouse who is on the run. So it was difficult to write that, but her strength always surprises me. The crappiest things happen to this woman and she finds some way to pull something positive and good out of it. Her capacity for sacrificing in order for what she knows is right and good is also amazing to me. I kind of like her, in case you couldn’t tell.
Is there going to be more with Mouse?
There’s a lot of Mouse’s story that’s left. I’ve had so many readers asking me for stories about Father Lucas’s journeys to collect the different types of mysterious books that he brings back as he learns more about Mouse’s nature, so there could be a lot more of Lucas’s chronicles as well. There’s a lot of Mouse’s story too to tell. Between Bohemian Gospel and The Devil’s Bible, we have 700 years of not really knowing exactly where she’s been or what she’s been up to that I could play with. I don’t think I’m done with Mouse yet.
I read that you were something of a pantser with the first book. Did that hold true with this one or did you have to provide an outline for the publisher?
I still got to do it seat of the pants. I honestly don’t know if I’m capable of writing from an outline. I can do an outline, but five minutes into the writing I’m going to be breaking away from it. I was fortunate enough that I didn’t wait, so I already had the majority of the manuscript ready to send to publisher not long after Bohemian Gospel came out.
As a teacher, do you find yourself editing as you go? Because I know as a former newspaper editor, I tend to edit as I write instead of just letting the words out, which all the writing experts say is a no-no.
I’m glad you confessed first. I do tell my students to turn your editor off and just let the words flow. I have trained myself to not be editing while I write. I’m writing every morning four to five hours… I usually leave in the middle of a chapter so when I pick it up the next day I kind of know where I’m going, so I’ll go back in the next morning and reread and edit as I go to get me back into the scene or voice, then I try to spend the rest of the time just writing. But I confess sometimes if I feel the flow not coming I’ll stop and go back and edit. For me it kind of unblocks things, for the most part. But you’re right, it’s supposed to be a no-no.
Are you a fan of Anne Rice?
I’ve read some of Anne Rice and liked Interview With the Vampire. But I think Stephen King and Neil Gaiman are probably bigger influences on me in how I want to tell stories in an organic sort of way. One of the things I like about Stephen King is his ability to be very normal and then throw the jarring, creepy supernatural into the normal. Charles de Lint does urban fantasy that way. I like it when a writer really grounds me in reality as I understand it, then weaves in either horror elements or the supernatural.
You entered Bohemian Gospel into Killer Nashville’s writers contest, which seeks thriller novels, and won. Were you worried that the Claymore Award contest was not the proper venue for that?
I was totally flabbergasted when I won. I was at a point where I was very discouraged. My agent had sent it out and we weren’t getting any traction. There were people who were loving aspects of it, but I was a no-name author and it’s so hard to get anybody to take a chance on a new author these days. I had the exact same argument with my husband. I said it’s not a conventional mystery thriller, but he said they take all genres, send it in. I was totally shocked when it was short-listed and absolutely floored when it won.
So it pays off to take risks and put your stuff out there…
It really does. (Killer Nashville founder) Clay (Stafford) is very clear about that. He’s not interested in trying to follow some set parameters or somebody else’s expectations. The Claymore is open to anything that fits inside the broader genre of a thriller. Bohemian Gospel is certainly a thriller. It’s very historical, but it has mystery at its heart, trying to uncover who tried to kill Ottaker and trying to uncover the mystery of who Mouse is, is what drives the story. For any new writers out there, don’t limit yourself on what you think somebody else’s expectations are. Go for it.
_ _ _
Dana Chamblee Carpenter will hold a book launch party and signing for THE DEVIL’S BIBLE at Parnassus Books in Nashville on March 9. She hopes to hit some of the same places she visited with Bohemian Gospel, such as Square Books in Oxford, MS, and Star Line Books in Chattanooga. You can also catch her at the Southern Kentucky Book Fest in April and Killer Nashville in August. She also hopes to return to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in October.