Donn Taylor led an Infantry rifle platoon in the Korean War, served with Army aviation in Vietnam, and worked with air reconnaissance in Europe and Asia. Afterwards, he completed a PhD degree and taught English literature at two liberal arts colleges. He has published four novels and a book of poetry, and is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences. He lives near Houston, TX, where he writes fiction, poetry, and essays on current topics.
Congratulations on your latest novel, Lightning on a Quiet Night! Please tell us a bit about it.
Lightning is a historical novel that partakes of several genres—suspense, romance, comedy—without remaining within any one of these. The northeast Mississippi town of Beneficent, "A Town As Good As Its Name," had never known a murder until January 9, 1948. Nor, in the memory of its 479 citizens, had the town known a single felony. It is a town too proud of its virtues. So how will it reconcile that self-image with the reality of its first murder? Could the murderer be one of its own?
The young WW II veteran Jack Davis wholeheartedly accepts the town's mythology of virtue. He tries to explain it to Lisa Kemper, newly arrived from Indiana, but she abhors everything about the town. The novel traces their contentious courtship and the sheriff's attempts to find the murderer. But through those narratives and multiple viewpoints, there's a broad view of the town's population, and the town's conflict of self-image vs. reality is always in question.
Despite the idyllic setting, something unknown threatens Jack and Lisa. Then they stumble onto shocking discoveries about the true nature of the town. But where will these discoveries lead? To repentance? Or to denial and continuation in vanity?
What are one or two things readers would want to know about your main characters?
The male and female leads are coequal. For the male, I wanted a character who represented the kind of ordinary, everyday men from northeast Mississippi who keep doing constructive things without talking about them, and who somehow manage to come through in the clutch. I gave this character the ordinary name of Jack Davis. It's his very ordinariness that makes him exceptional.
The female was my outsider from Indiana. I had her bring in some preconceived ideas that had to be adjusted. But I also gave her a capacity for quick empathy, plus the deep faith and the kind of feminine strength in softness that my wife had.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
My parents moved to Northeast Mississippi when I was seventeen, and I quickly came to appreciate the region's forested hills and its small, fertile valleys. I also appreciated the people—the small-town storekeepers, bankers, and farmers who never got a fair shake in naturalistic fiction. I began with the idea of bringing in an outsider who has to learn what makes the local people tick. A romance seemed the natural way to develop that kind of dialogue. I'd like to say the Lord took over then, but that would be presumptions. What I'm sure of is that, as I wrote, the story deepened and broadened to become closer to something universal that I hadn't imagined when I began. Readers will probably find their greatest interest in the actions and experiences of the characters. But there is also the ambience of the landscape setting and the feel of American life in the late 1940s, as well as the permanent realities of mankind's life in this fallen world.
You also write mystery, suspense, and poetry! What do you enjoy most about writing in so many different genres?
Most people, I think, have more than one side to their personalities. The different genres provide opportunities to express different aspects of my own personality and experience. My lighthearted mysteries give opportunities for humorous satire of campus life and the fetishes of political correctness. The suspense novels let me address serious problems—in Deadly Additive, the international black market in weapons; in The Lazarus File, the old Soviet Union's collaboration with Colombian guerrillas and drug cartels as part of its attempted encirclement of the United States. Poetry (at its best) gives me a chance to explore the deepest thoughts of which I'm capable and, ideally, express them in the greatest compression of language.
On the flip side, what kinds of challenges come with writing in multiple genres?
It's very easy to let an uncompleted project get lost. I've let that happen too often. It's also hard to switch from the mood of one genre to that of another. Sometimes I don’t make it.
How did you get started with your writing?
Visitors, come back tomorrow for Donn’s answer to this and other questions – including some of the most interesting things he’s done while researching his novels.
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