It is the rare reader of fiction who does not at some time or other consider becoming a writer. It comes and goes over the years for many, and some carry it about forever as an unredeemed promissory note to themselves. In their heart of hearts, they regard themselves as writers. When my first novel appeared, I got a note from a senior colleague to the effect that it was sly of me not only to think of writing a novel but actually to do it. The capacity, apparently, like depravity for Calvin, was taken to be universal.
In my early teens I saw myself as a writer. I became fascinated with biographies of authors, and I idolized the upperclassmen who produced the poems and stories and articles for the school magazine. Throughout my nonhazardous hitch in the Marine Corps I thought of myself as prepping for the commencement of my writing career. My return to the seminary did not really alter this. In my seminary years I wrote a verse play and even began a novel. With my veteran's allowance I bought a box full of past numbers of the Partisan Review, and in poring over them I came upon J.F. Powers' story “St. Paul Home of the Saints.”
Powers was a layman, but he was a legend among the priests I had known in Minnesota. His Prince of Darkness and Other Stories showed such an uncanny knowledge of the trivia of local clerical life that it was presumed he had some priestly informant who fed him gossip for his stories. His portrait of Archbishop John Gregory Murray in the title story of that collection seemed drawn from life. What the significance was for me that this layman wrote about priests I could not then guess, but it was as if some barrier had been removed.
When I left the seminary for the second time, certain now that the priesthood was not my vocation, I was not the same man who entered. I began graduate studies in philosophy. Philosophical prose is for the most part as distant from the imaginative use of language as one can get. Dullness is all. Dullness and clarity, that is. At the age of twenty-two, any literary ambitions of mine were going to have to be compatible with my academic involvement. Among the books I bought in the summer before graduate school were W.H. Auden's Collected Poetry and his more recent Nones. They are still on my shelves. Writing in the fullest sense meant poetry, and everything else declined from that like cases of a noun. And so, working nights in the bottle house of the Grain Belt beer company, I would wake in the attic bedroom of my grandmother's house in Minnesota and try to write poetry. When graduate school began and I spent a couple of months working nights on a punch press, I found myself surrounded by people who considered themselves artists. One of them confided to me that his ambition was to write pornographic novels. He mentioned an author whose descriptions of mating were so metaphorically sedate that they would have sailed over innocent heads. So he had a mission. If you're going to write a dirty book, make it dirty. I have often thought of that fellow.
At the University of Minnesota and at Laval, at first single and then married, I continued to write. I sent a Christmas poem to fellow students and to some of the faculty, and Charles De Koninck was impressed all out of proportion to the value of the poems I showed him. (Later I would discover that he had attempted to write a novel.) During the months that I was writing my dissertation I was also at work on a novel. It is penitential for me to even page through those early efforts. There was another novel written in Omaha, and yet another when we moved to South Bend in August 1955. I sat at the dining room table in my bathing trunks because of the ungodly heat and wrote. Over the years I would occasionally write a short story and mail it in, my preferred target being the New Yorker. It would come back (in Thurber's phrase) like a serve in tennis. What I remember about those years was how episodic my efforts were. After I sent off a story, I would wait as if for news of the Nobel Prize. Rejection was cushioned by no work in progress. I was not serious.
On January 16, 1964, I decided to get serious. We had moved into the house on Portage Avenue and were overextended. Getting through the month was depressingly reminiscent of days we thought we had left behind forever. I took on teaching a couple courses at the branch of Indiana University in South Bend, adding those to my daily chores at Notre Dame, but this was peanuts. I remembered the copy of Writer's Digest I had bought in the Los Angeles train station in 1946. I decided that I would write for commercial markets, not just sporadically, but determinedly, every day, and keep at it for a year, after which if I had not sold anything I would admit to myself that I was not really a writer.
And so it began. In the basement was a workbench, unlikely to serve its original purpose for me. It became my desk. It was L shaped. I plunked my typewriter on the short leg of the L and, standing, began. Every night, after we had put the kids to bed, I would go downstairs and write from ten until about two in the morning. The markets I was chiefly interested in were Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Their initial price for a story was a thousand dollars. I sent stories out, but I was always ready with others when they came back. There was never a time when I wasn't awaiting editorial word on one or more stories. This gave room for hope. In April I began to get messages on the rejection slips and then a letter from an editor at Redbook, Sandra Earl, telling me “close but no cigar,” and urging me to keep trying.
Those early times at my converted workbench were, I came to see, my apprenticeship. For someone who aspired to write fiction I was almost totally ignorant of how a story is made. The slick magazines operated on the Edgar Alan Poe principle that a story aims at a single effect. No sideshows, nothing that does not contribute to the point of the story. I would sometimes be asked what paragraph three on page seven was meant to do, would read it, find it lovely writing but effectively idle in the story. Out it went. I was learning that one writes for a reader. Writing is too often described as self-expression. But writing is the art of making a story that will engage and hold and satisfy the interest of the reader. I typed a slogan and pinned it over my typewriter: Nobody Owes You A Reading.
What I thought were stories piled up on the workbench. With time I began to see why they were rejected: They weren't stories. A story needs an attractive or at least intriguing character facing a crucial choice. The story is the account of his making it, solving his problem, resolving a dilemma. His efforts worsen rather than ease his situation. Eventually he arrives at the dark moment when all seems lost. Then, by his own efforts, plausibly but surprisingly, he succeeds. The end. A variation on this is the villain whose pursuit of his evil goal triumphs over one obstacle after another until, just as ultimate success seems assured, surprisingly but plausibly, he goes down in flames.
Is this formula fiction? Well, you can find this account of imaginative portrayals of human agents in Aristotle's Poetics. The structure I have just sketched is of course the plot, what gives a narrative a beginning, a middle, and an end, in Aristotle's pithy phrase. Or, in Peter De Vries' version: a beginning, a muddle, and an end. Plot is not everything, but it is the soul of the story.
The themes of the stories I wrote for the magazines were domestic—the kids going to camp, recitals, trouble at school. All I had to do was look around my house and see the germs of stories. Before the year was out, I sold my first story, “The First Farewell,” to Redbook. It was based on my daughters' going to school in Louvain.
I began publishing under a pseudonym, Ernan Mackey, an anagram on my family name, to keep my fiction separate from my academic career. At the beginning I felt more divided than I did later between two non-overlapping kinds of writing. I went to New York and met the editors with whom I had been corresponding. Sandy Earl took me around the Redbook offices and showed me the reports the fiction department prepared and explained the politicking involved in getting a story accepted. She, I now realized, was my champion there. I watched the receptionist, who served as the first reader of unsolicited manuscripts, draw pages from a manila envelope, read a few lines, let the pages drop back, and set it aside for rejection. As often as not, that woman did not have to read more than a few lines to tell whether it was a story or not, and if it was, whether it would be of interest to Redbook's readers.
Every published writer is the beneficiary of luck. Among my good fortune was the fact that editors began to treat me as if they were my aunts. They were all women, of course. There were no men in the fiction departments. On one of my visits to New York, three or four editors from different magazines sat me down in the Algonquin, plied me with manhattans, and discussed my career. It was now three years since my big resolution. I was selling stories regularly. One year I sold more stories to Redbook than anyone else ever had, using several pen names. It was the consensus of the group that I was ready for more. I needed an agent. They supplied me with a short list of agents they had agreed on, and I went around to their offices and in effect interviewed them.
It was Henry Volkening who became my first agent. Henry's office was in the French Building on Park Avenue. He had the diffidence of a drinker, and indeed when he took me to the Century Club for lunch, we largely drank it, or at least Henry did, ringing the bell on the table for another martini and unnecessarily telling me not to try to keep up with him. Listening to him sum up his own career made me realize that he was my connection with the mythical past. He had begun at Scribner's, where no less an editor than Maxwell Perkins had told him that there was more need for good agents than for another editor. So with Diarmid Russell, the son of the Irish writer who signed himself “AE,” he founded an agency. Eudora Welty has written a book about her long association with the agency, and in it there are photographs of the partners in their youth. The Henry I came to know had a valedictory air. From the outset, he let me know he didn't like my use of a pseudonym: “It's hard enough to make one name famous, let alone two.” He said things like that. He was not thinking of my magazine stories. Something had happened.
It was the spring of 1965. I had written a piece for America magazine called “Thomism in an Age of Renewal.” Jack Bernard, an editor at Doubleday, saw it and wrote to ask if I would like to develop it into a book. I did. Later, at lunch in New York with Jack, I listened to him say nice things about the manuscript I had turned in. He liked the way I wrote. I told him that I also wrote fiction. “Really? Have you ever thought of writing a novel?” If I hadn't, I would have thought of it then and there. There was a story I had written under the influence of J. P. Donleavy called “Jolly Rogerson.” I had sent it to the Paris Review and there it sat, unrejected but untaken. That story came into my mind and suddenly seemed part of something larger. “Yes,” I said. “I am thinking of writing a novel.”
When I set out to write Jolly Rogerson I was in a very different situation than I had been when I wrote those dubious novels of yore. Writing short stories had forced me to learn the basics of technique, things that were applicable to longer as well as shorter efforts. One effect of short-story writing was that I conceived and wrote the novel in segments which were about the length of a magazine story (then more or less 3,500 words). The only guide I had as I set out, apart from the short story that went almost unchanged into the second part of the novel, was a list of three words: Failure, Success, Beyond.
I was to write two more novels featuring Matthew Rogerson: Rogerson at Bay and The Search Committee. I am now distant enough from them that I can read them, and in the privacy of my own mind, I tell myself that I was pretty good in those days. Rogerson is forty four, which seemed an advanced age to me as I wrote the first novel. He is a flop in every department of his life—in his marriage, as a father, as a teacher. The first part ends with Rogerson vowing to accept his fate and to elevate his failure to epic proportions. And of course in the second part these efforts to fail are shown to fail, and Rogerson is suddenly covered with all the emblems of success. The third part takes him to the point of rejecting both the concepts of success and those of failure. Those were good hours spent standing at my typewriter, from time to time looking up at Nobody Owes You A Reading. The basement windows are open, it is summer, I can hear my children playing in the yard. Connie is out there too, gardening. It was the best of times.
It was because I was so conscious of the chanciness of what I was doing that I did not burden Connie with a lot of details. What had she thought when I said I would make extra money by writing fiction? She knew that I had been writing fiction since we met. She knew of the novels, not least of them If Salt Lose Its Savor (a book as bad as its title) which I had written the first summer in South Bend, and The Middle of Next Week, the mystery novel I had written on Rexford Drive. These, like the stories that had gone off over the years, had led to nothing. Why should it be any different now? Well, I was serious now. And Connie would have seen that seriousness because of the schedule I had devised. But we never sat around and discussed my future as a writer. Jolly Rogerson got good reviews, and everyone seemed pleased, not that it sold a lot of copies. Among the things it meant was that my writing could now rejoin its original aspiration.
Second novels are notoriously fateful. Can one repeat a successful performance? I started to write A Narrow Time in an A-frame cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan, where we were vacationing with the kids. I was out to dazzle and amaze. The novel would be experimental; there would be parts that would be written as scenes in a play (shades of This Side of Paradise), and it would be impressive. In short, I was showing off, drawing attention to myself. Anne Freedgood had succeeded Jack Bernard as my editor at Doubleday. She gently steered me away from all the razzle dazzle. All it took was an oblique question or two about what I showed her; I looked at it again and saw how sophomoric it was. I started over, remembered what I had learned, and wrote the novel. It deals with the effect on a young couple of losing a child. It was risky for me to take on such a theme, and perhaps that was why I had tried to obscure it with fireworks. It is a sad and funny story, better, I think, than Jolly Rogerson.
In the fall of 1969, in Rome, I drafted what would become The Priest, some thirteen hundred pages of manuscript. I had yet to meet the agent I had hooked up with after Henry Volkening died. I was her client for a little more than a year. She nearly put me out of business. I had been selling stories regularly, and she could not sell one. Worse, I sent her what I was working on, and she treated it as a finished product and showed it to Anne Freedgood. In the course of one year, my name was mud at the magazines and at Doubleday. I had left the country with a publisher; I returned a writer whose third novel seemed to have bombed.
This was a tough time. Taking a family to Europe, having six kids in private schools, travel, all the rest, costs a lot. I was happy: We had depleted our savings to make the year memorable, and it had been. Home again, however, I realized how dependent we had become on my earnings as a writer. My predicament was worse than I had let on to Connie. I could very well have been finished. But I got back on my old schedule, and I tried to revive the novel.
It was set in 1968, and the central character was a young priest, Frank Ascue, just returned from Rome to begin teaching moral theology at the Fort Elbow, Ohio, seminary. The question I had put myself was: What is it like to be a young priest today when the Church seems to be reeling in postconciliar factionalism? I had envisaged a short, focused book, but the more I thought of it the more various and complicated the background seemed. I expanded my cast and multiplied subplots. Then I got a phone call from the agent Theron Raines. This was 1971. Theron was enthusiastic about what I had sent him. He spoke matter-of-factly of its being a major novel. After the doldrums I had been in, this was more than welcome news. We became agent and client, and with Theron's encouragement—his ability to convey enthusiasm in a voice that suggested he was dropping off to sleep—I rewrote my novel and we called it The Priest.
The Priest is the only bestseller I have had. In hardback, bookclub editions, and paperback, it sold more than a million copies. Having written of a young priest, I began to ask what Church looks like to an old priest. And so I next wrote Gate of Heaven, which is set in a retirement home for priests who see everything they gave their lives to crumbling around them. The new novel was not only churchy, it was clerical, and there was scarcely a character in it less that seventy years old. It was published in 1975. It was not a bestseller. I detected a note of disappointment. I have sometimes wondered how things would have gone if, instead of writing Gate of Heaven next, I had written the sequel to Jolly Rogerson that followed it, Rogerson at Bay.
Some writers write a lot, others write little, and this has nothing to do with whether they write well or badly. One man's haste is another's jogging, and vice versa. Over the years I have collected literary biography, a practice that began more or less accidentally when I bought a remaindered copy of Mark Schorer's life of Sinclair Lewis, which should have put me off the genre. Seldom has a biographer taken a more condescending attitude toward his subject or measured him by standards wholly irrelevant to what he set out to do. That Lewis did not write for the New Masses is taken to be evidence that he was not serious. For all that, Lewis triumphed over his biographer. In reading lives of writers, I was particularly on the qui vive for information about the nuts and bolts of the writing life—its infrastructure, so to speak. How long did it take Lewis to write one of his novels, how much did he write each day? Where? When? With what? Trivia, perhaps, but it is what makes another writer vivid to me.
All this is to make the point that I write a lot. The way I started writing seriously, the urgency of succeeding, doggedly and daily sticking with it, led to a pile of manuscripts. I wrote something like sixty stories the first year, and, as I have said, most of them eventually found their way into print. The transition to novels suggested slowing down. To publish a novel a year would be to court the condescension long shown toward, say, the prolific Joyce Carol Oates. It seemed axiomatic to many reviewers that no one who wrote that much could do it well. And even when they found no signs of haste or sloppiness it was de rigueur to mention how much she published. So I suggested to Theron that it might be fun to add a pseudonym and write more. Perhaps these ruminations lay behind a suggestion he made in the summer of 1976.
He telephoned, and there was what passed for excitement in his voice. “I have a great idea.” He had been reading Harry Kemelman's mystery series, which featured a rabbi. I had written two novels featuring priests. Why didn't I start a series using a priest detective? My reaction was mixed. The suggestion seemed a regression. Mysteries? I had tried one, back in my dilettante days, but that didn't count. I had graduated from the slick magazines, I was now a serious novelist.
Two things decided me to respond to Theron's suggestion. I had made a study of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, reading them now as a writer, and seen that Stout did not have to know at the outset who did it. He could let that work itself out as he wrote. Many more ideas come in the course of writing than could ever come beforehand. Meanwhile, I had discovered that multiple viewpoint was my natural way of presenting a story. Could a mystery be told in this way? Agatha Christie, I discovered, had done it. By this time, I was very curious to see if I could bring it off.
In the summer of 1976, I gave some preliminary thought to the characters who would recur if a series developed. I began to have a notion of what Father Dowling was like. As a priest, he might seem to be observing everything from a lofty point of view, so I made him a recovered alcoholic, chastened by what he had been through and a better man and priest because of it. Another character would be Phil Keegan, a widower who had washed out of the seminary because he couldn't master Latin, who would be a police detective in Fox River, my imaginary Illinois town in the orbit of Chicago. And I thought of Marie Murkin, the housekeeper, inspired by one in a J.F. Powers story. I then drafted two novels with these characters, to see if I could do it, and to see if Theron thought I could. I sent them to him. He placed them with Vanguard. I was a mystery writer.
Beginning with Her Death of Cold, I have now published twenty-four Father Dowling mysteries. I have also published a great many other mysteries until now I am regarded, if regarded at all, as a mystery writer. From time to time I write a novel in the ordinary sense, but no one seems to await them with baited breath. I have not quite taken another lesson from Rex Stout. Before he published his first Nero Wolfe mystery, he published several turgid psychological novels no one now remembers. Once Nero Wolfe made a hit, Stout never looked back. He had found his niche and did not repine. To a great degree I have accepted my metamorphosis into a mystery writer. Theron's suggestion was the best he ever gave me. The thing about mysteries is that no one is going to think you write too many of them. If they are good, that is all that matters. If it is noticed that you write a lot, well, most mystery writers do, and they don't think it a bit unusual.
The beginning writer consciously and unconsciously mimics what he has read and liked—art imitates art—but a moment must come when his own voice emerges, his distinctive way of seeing things. For me, after many efforts, I first found my peculiar way of seeing things in “The First Farewell.” I wouldn't try to define it abstractly. Others have tried, and I get a little superstitious about such descriptions. Who you are, or at least who you want to be, comes through with the stories you tell. If your assumptions are banal, received opinion, with the outlook of the advertisements that flank your story, then you will continue to be an imitation of an imitation. One need not be a revolutionary to have a distinctive way of seeing things that goes deeper than, if not against, the common grain.
As a Catholic my outlook may seem to be provided me. The believer has catechetical answers to the great questions. “What does it all mean?” becomes “Why did God make me?”—and the answer: “To know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life and be happy with Him forever in the next.” Christians are supposed to imitate Christ. If that meant that their lives must be uniform and indistinguishable from one another, the question would arise as to why God created so many humans. The answer may be a variation on Tolstoy's comparison of happy and unhappy families. The calendar of the saints tells us that the more fervently and perfectly men and women imitate Christ, the more differentiated they become. It is we mediocrities or worse who seem to blend into one another, as predictable as our bad habits.
Well, the influence of one's religious belief on one's imagination is like that. All the great artists of western civilization were influenced one way or another by Christian revelation, but who would confuse Dante and Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson? All this may seem to be a presumptuous way for a minor writer like myself to view what he does. But one need not delude oneself in order to take seriously the task of writing. It is not the goal of writing to express oneself. The goal is the well-made story, something with a beginning, middle, and end, a portrayal of human agents.
To entertain a reader for a hour or two with a short story is no small thing. At first, of course, I had to learn the techniques required to catch and hold and satisfy the reader's interest, but from the outset there was, however faint, my own way of regarding human action. A given story is about particular actions, but one is implicitly saying something more; one's notion of what it all means, the point of deciding and choosing, of being this way rather than that, provides the backdrop for the particular story. If one made it a rule that this should always be left implicit, counterexamples would come flooding in. Imagine War and Peace without Tolstoy's ruminations on history and providence. More ephemeral fiction probably reinforces received opinion, and the story fits neatly into the expected. The great authors, those to whom we go back again and again throughout our lives, Shakespeare and Dante, for example, are inexhaustible. It is not necessary that we, in an egalitarian or ideological swoon, equate Fitzgerald, Dickens, Trollope, Twain, or Cather with the very greatest, nor are most of us interested in any sort of exact calibration enabling us to place precisely on the spectrum this work or that. The appraisal of fiction is not arbitrary or subjective, although there is of course the subjective, personal element when we, in the privacy of our own homes, draw up a list of our one hundred great books.
So it was all right to take up the mystery genre. Even if mysteries function as fictional Kleenex—one use and they're gone—the same could be said for fiction generally. Only a writer can know the depression of seeing tables of remaindered novels, the bright jackets meant to allure, the lying testimonials, the hope and effort that went into the writing. And there they are, piled high, discounted in several senses, unwanted. That is the destiny of most books, certainly of most novels, mystery or not.
The first seven Father Dowling mysteries were published by Vanguard Press. Miriam and Evelyn Schrift at Vanguard were sisters-in-law; Miriam had married Evelyn's brother. Vanguard was a family affair, having been founded in the 1930s, and including among its authors James T. Farrell, Rex Stout, Saul Bellow, and Joyce Carol Oates. Miriam was my editor, and a more scrupulous one I have never had since. She pored over the text of my mysteries as if they were high on the list of the hundred great books. The two women were quite elderly when I became one of their authors. They could have been described as Manhattan Provincial. They had been outside their native city but once or twice; for that matter, they were unacquainted with most of the island on which they lived. But oh, such wonderful women they were. I must have appeared exotic to them, and when I brought my family to their offices on Madison Avenue, we had a regular picnic in the library, surrounded by the books the firm had published.
Anyone seeing Evelyn on the street, in any season but summer, would have been forgiven for thinking her a bag lady. She had a funny little helmet of a hat, with ear flaps, and she carried her work around in shopping bags. She lived in an apartment overlooking Central Park, near the Dakota. The apartment was as it had been when Evelyn's father was alive, and its shelves featured the books that he had designed. There was help, and a man I thought of as Igor who waited on the table. This was a huge piece of furniture, and there Evelyn and I would be at one end, with Igor scowling through his task.
After the Dowling series had been established, Theron Raines kiddingly said, “Now you'll have to do one about nuns.” For these I used an obvious pen name, Monica Quill. They have never had the success of Father Dowling, but they have their devotees. With the advent of Sister Mary Teresa Dempsey it was established that I would publish two mysteries a year. I was also writing other things for Atheneum and then for Scribner's, but my mysteries were in the process of eclipsing those other efforts.
I was in Argentina on another Fulbright grant when I received a call from Ellen Levine, who became my agent after Theron and I amicably parted. There was movie interest in Father Dowling, and it was clear that Ellen longed to move me from Vanguard. Eventually I did move, and a blush comes to my face even now as I write that. It has been the fate of Vanguard to bring writers along and then, when they emerged from obscurity, to lose them to other publishers. The most recent case was Joyce Carol Oates. Miriam and I often talked of this. It seemed unimaginable to me that someone would leave this house. Vanguard fulfilled most of my fantasies about what a publisher should be like; its family atmosphere was an enormous plus. However I did succumb to Ellen's arguments, and they were cogent, that it would be a smart move for me to take my fiction to St. Martin's.
Leaving Vanguard and leaving Theron Raines are the two deeds I most regret in my writing career. Theron had éclat. His offices overlooked the New York Public Library, his partner was his wife, Joan, he had the dreamy look of a man who had known many women, and he had a dog that looked like an evolutionary throwback and would drool on one's knee during discussions.
Theron had been a Rhodes scholar and was in his way learned, but there came a time when his laid-back manner seemed comatose. Like most writers, I quickly became used to my good luck, thinking of it as merely part of the natural order, and hankered after more. Theron seemed undriven. And he was a fatalist. I think he genuinely believed that nothing we do can possibly influence or alter the future course of events. It was difficult to break from him. This was the man who had pulled my career out of its nadir. This was the man whose suggestion had turned me into a mystery writer. We had lunch at the Algonquin and I told him my discontents. He understood. But he wanted me to stay with him. He was almost urgent about it. I concluded that if I did, this luncheon conversation would stir him to new highs. Unfortunately, it didn't. I had agreed to stay with him another year. I did, and then I most reluctantly left him. My new agent was Ellen Levine.
Father Dowling was developed into a prime time television series by the same people who had been so successful with Murder, She Wrote. Donald Eastlake wrote the first script, and Tom Bosley played Father Dowling. It was Bosley who, more than anyone, ensured that the series had a three-year run. After the first year, the original network dropped it, but Bosley lobbied so strongly for the series that it was taken up by and enjoyed two more years in prime time on another network.
I had nothing to do with the series. The contract I had signed gave the rights for my characters to be developed for film and television. For the writer, television or studio film work inevitably is teamwork, and the writer is a relatively insignificant member of the team. One of the attractions of writing for me is that one can just sit down and do it, anywhere, anytime. It is a very solitary occupation. Even if my academic tasks had permitted joining the film team, and presuming I would have been wanted, I was perfectly content to be merely the inspirer of the series. This had the advantage of my being able to say to critics that I did not write the scripts or, to those who liked the series, to say thank you and blush modestly.
The Father Dowling and Sister Mary Teresa series were now established. From time to time, in order to get out of church, so to speak, I would write a self-standing mystery—Frigor Mortis, Infra Dig—but I also started a third series, the Andrew Broom mysteries, the protagonists of which were an uncle and his nephew, both lawyers in a smallish Indiana town. These mysteries did fairly well. In them I was out to exploit the switcheroo to a fare-thee-well. A “switch eroo” is the sudden reversal of the story so that what seems to have been happening is actually something quite different. At the outset my thought was to end each chapter with a switcheroo. Well, that would have been too much, and the series settled down into a nice comfortable niche.
Perhaps it was the economic spur that turned me into a professional writer and drove my nightly, dogged efforts in the basement of our house on Portage Avenue, learning to write publishable stories, but after I had gained my immediate objective and had us out of debt, I continued to write at what might seem a frantic pace. If I asked myself how many novels I have published, I could not answer—and I do not really want to know. Herman Melville's career, after knowing highs, went into decline, and he was all but forgotten when he wrote his late novella Billy Budd. In his portable writing desk there was found a motto: “Be true to the dreams of your youth.” I like to think it sustained him as he wrote on in undeserved obscurity. Finally, that is what any writer does, return again and again to the original aspiration that came to him when young. It is the writing, producing a well-made story, that counts. All the rest is gravy.
Ralph M. McInerny is professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming autobiography, I Alone Have Esacped To Tell You (University of Notre Dame Press).