Sometimes you find a series that you can't put down, and for me, The Righteous books by Michael Wallace fall into this category!
I love books that weave thriller stories into a fascinating religious background, and Wallace's polygamist cult of Blister Creek is a brilliant setting for the violent adventures of Jacob and Eliza Christianson.
In this interview I talk to Michael about the series. You can watch below, or here on YouTube.
In the interview, we discuss:
- How Michael got started writing, and how his Mum put an early dinosaur book on the shelf at the local library. An early inspiration to be a writer! He's had unusual ‘day jobs', worked as a programmer for simulators on nuclear submarines as well as owning an inn in Vermont.
- The Righteous series is set in a polygamist cult in the deserts of southern Utah. Michael grew up in a small town in Utah, raised in a mainstream Mormon family, so he has a lot of background in that history. It's roughly based on some groups that do exist, but is a fictionalized world. There are doubters in the community, as well as many sympathetic characters, plus some brilliant bad guys!
- Michael talks about his own feelings about spirituality and how they are mirrored a little in Jacob's doubts. Personally, I find the books respectful of people with faith, but also raises questions about belief, which makes the books even more interesting to read.
- The family situations are very complicated in the books, weaving two major families with many inter-relations. The main protagonists are Jacob and Eliza, siblings, which is unusual in thrillers. Michael comes from a very large extended family so that is his own background, but the relationships of a small community also bring complications, which adds conflict to the books. The two characters also span the worlds of the male side and the female side of the patriarchal system, with a rising feminism in the books.
- Thriller readers won't be disappointed in the conflicts between the families, which spills over into a lot of violence, murder and mayhem! This isn't just happy Mormon families in the desert 🙂 Michael talks about Miriam, who infiltrated the community as an FBI agent, but soon became enmeshed into Blister Creek and becomes a pivotal character, always ready to use a gun.
- The apocalypse and a hint of what's in store for the next book, coming in 2014.
- Michael talks about his other books – he has techno-thrillers, historical novels and he also mentions The Devil's Deep series, which involves crimes related to Locked In Syndrome. [Fascinating!]
You can find all Michael's books on Amazon and other online bookstores – check out The Righteous here.
You can find more about Michael at his website: MichaelWallaceAuthor.com. You can also get a free novella if you sign up for Michael's list to try out.
Full Transcription of Michael Wallace Interview
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author J.F. Penn, and today I’m really excited, because I’m here with Michael Wallace, who is a best-selling thriller author. Welcome, Michael.
Michael: Thank you, Joanna, it’s nice to be on your program.
Joanna: Oh, no, it’s fantastic. And I am obviously obsessed with your Righteous series, as religion is one of those areas that I’m really into.
But before we get into that, tell us a bit about you and how you got into writing.
Michael: Well, I’ve really thought of myself as a writer pretty much all of my life. I don’t think I started consciously thinking about what it would take to get published, and to tell stories professionally, to do it as a career, until I was about 17 or 18, but even younger, I would write up stories. My mother worked as a volunteer librarian in the small town where I lived as a boy, and I remember I’d made a book filled with pictures of dinosaurs, and I was kind of nervous, I was just learning how to read and write, so I was nervous about spelling all the names of the dinosaurs right, but she stapled the copies of the pictures together and put it up on the shelf every time that I would come over, so I could go look at my book. And then I remember playing Dungeons and Dragons a lot, about the time I was 10 or 12 years old, maybe, and I was always the Dungeon Master, so the telling the story part was the interesting part for me, the rolling of the dice, whatever: I would just kind of make up the rules to whatever fit my storyline. But none of my friends seemed to mind. So I think I was always a storyteller.
Joanna: And then,
did you have like a normal day job before you got into writing thrillers?
Michael: I don’t know if you’d call it normal, but I’ve definitely had a lot of different jobs. I started submitting, really before I finished high school, but of course, that was 20 plus years ago, so it took really forever. I worked a variety of different jobs; in additional to the usual college things, I worked as a software engineer, programming simulators for nuclear submarines, and then later, about 10 years ago, I bought an inn here in Vermont, I still own the inn, although I don’t live on site, I have an innkeeper, as the writing and everything just keeps me plenty busy. So I definitely had a way to support myself along the way, some kind of unorthodox ways, and, you know, I did the typical struggles of the rejections, and getting agents but then having the books fail to sell, etc., etc., before I finally had some success about two and a half years ago.
Joanna: Well the books are fantastic, and I know you have techno-thrillers as well, which fits with your submarine experience. But let’s talk about the Righteous series, because that’s the one –I’ve read some of your other books, but I really love these ones.
So maybe you could just give a broad overview for people who might not be familiar with the series.
Michael: The Righteous is a series of thrillers that’s set in a polygamous cult in the deserts of Southern Utah. I think when I came up with this idea, I was kind of pitching around for something that was a little bit different, and I had grown up in a small town in Utah from a Mormon family. I’m not Mormon myself anymore, but I was raised in that environment, and my family is still Mormon. They’re mainstream Mormon, but I do have polygamous ancestors, and I’ve known some polygamists, and had done really a lot of reading: it was an area that was settled by polygamists, so, I had a lot of background. So, whether people like the books or some people get angry at them for one reason or another, it’s definitely bringing some reality to the situation.
So I immediately started getting more interest for those than I had anything else, and had really found an agent, a few different agents, who were interested, and the first book was shopped out, had some near misses, but I got a lot of comments about it like, “I really couldn’t stop reading this, but who is the audience for a series of religious thrillers,” and, “Are they religious books, are they anti-religious books?” Of course I tend to think that if you write something that personally interests you, and you write it with a lot of love and passion and not cynically, you write it treating those people like real characters, there are people who really like to immerse themselves in a very, very different world. And really this series is set right in the heart of Western culture in the middle of the United States, and yet it’s really a foreign, alien society that’s been living out there on their own for better than 120 years now, kind of doing their own thing. And I think people find that really intriguing.
Joanna: And so, there really are groups like that existing these days?
Michael: There are, yes. It’s roughly based on the FLDS group, which is the group that was in the news quite a bit, especially a couple of years ago, for marrying under-age girls. I didn’t want to follow an exact group, so it’s kind of a fictionalized group of people, and I’m writing inside, so I need some people to be sympathetic, so I probably have more doubters in the community than a typical community would have, and there are some characters that are definitely sympathetic, others who are pretty much pure evil, and the conflict between believers and unbelievers, and the people who are trying to use their belief to gain power and control over other people, and those who are more sincere. But yeah, it’s estimated that there are, depending on who you talk to, maybe 50,000 polygamists living in the deserts south-west, probably half of them are associated with some church or religion, and a lot of the others are kind of independent, on their own. But quite a few, and it’s a growing population.
Joanna: It’s so fascinating to me. And I mean, I write ARKANE thrillers, and I have a similar kind of walking a line on religion: you mentioned that you’re no longer a Mormon, and I’m no longer a Christian, and yet we both write about religious things. Now, how do you walk that line, and yet, like you say, you have characters who express doubts, but Jacob, your protagonist, who becomes a leader, has doubts.
Do you put your own feelings into Jacob, or how does that come about?
Michael: Yes, actually, I think in the first book, Jacob is really kind of a proxy for my own feelings and doubts. I think I was working through a lot of the thoughts that I had had. So he’s been sent off as a medical student, to go to college and then come back and service the town’s doctor, but while he’s away-he’s always been a little bit of a doubter–while he’s been away, immersed in the real world, then he has a really hard time coming back. And when he comes back in, they bring him back in to help solve a murder in his community, to figure out exactly what’s happened; they think it was maybe outsiders, maybe someone inside the community, but they really don’t want to bring in law enforcement, because they’re a closed community.
And at the same time, his favorite younger sister, who’s only 17, is about to be married off to one of a couple of different older guys, and he feels really protective of her, but quickly finds himself back involved in the inter-politics of the community. But as he’s working through all of these doubts, especially in the first book, a lot of that was kind of representative of things that went through my mind. Over time, as the series goes on, and he really becomes more and more of an integral part of the community, in Book Two especially, he has tried to pull himself out, and his wife, and really, Eliza, as well, his sister, get out of the community-it’s really not so easy. He’s so closely connected to all of these people and all of the things going on in the community, brothers, sisters, his father, who becomes the main leader of the community.
Joanna: I do find the extended family situation in these communities is so complicated, and of course you’ve got these two feuding families going on: it’s almost like a saga from generations. But, one of the sort of interesting relationships, your main characters in the end are Jacob and Eliza, who actually are brother and sister. Which I think is unusual in thrillers, because there’s normally more of a sexual tension between protagonists.
So how did these characters emerge, and why did you make the main characters siblings?
Michael: Well, as I was going through some initial plotting, I think I wrote about three or four chapters of an abortive first start of the first book, where this wasn’t really the case, but I kept thinking about, for one thing, I come from a really large, extended family myself. We used to go to a family reunion under my great-grandfather, and there were second cousins that I would see once a year and people, literally cousins and second cousins I didn’t really know, because there were just so many of them. And thinking about how different people would be related, especially in a small community, where people are related sometimes in multiple different ways to each other, cousins here, and then second cousins over there. And, I thought, the more closely related that I can have any two characters, if I can have them cousins, or they have some past history together, it just led to some really interesting dynamics.
The first few books of the, of the series kind of worked out accidentally: I didn’t necessarily know what it was all about. It took me a little while to figure everything out. So, some of that was lucky, and some of it was accidental, but, I found it was really interesting and useful to me as a writer to have one character who was involved in the male power structure and one who was involved with the females. I didn’t want to write a series where all the women were just brainwashed fools or completely oppressed; that just seemed like it would be too depressing and uninteresting. It’s really useful to have Eliza, who can work and move among the women, many of whom have very complex motives and backgrounds themselves, and I think it’s really interesting to me to explore almost, within this very patriarchal system, there’s this kind of emerging and long-running feminist – if you will – sort of movement within the community. With women who both feel like they need to obey and honor men in their priesthood, but at the same time, have some resentment, because they’re the ones who run this community; there are a lot more women than there are men. Every man has several different wives, and they have their own power structures and struggles within them. So it’s really useful to have Eliza in there, and in some ways she’s kind of a mirror of Jacob, but not entirely.
Joanna: I love that you’ve done that, too, because it could so easily have turned into a sort of women as the downtrodden story. But most of the women characters, including Jacob’s wife who, who has been married previously to the bad guys and stuff, you manage to keep all these people, relationships going.
And I wondered, because many of them have been intermarried, do you have a series bible that you have to keep updating with all these relationships?
Michael: I probably should. By the time that I realized I needed one, it was really, really complex. So one thing that I do need to keep mentioning over and over in every book, because otherwise people are going to forget, is that in a very strange way, Jacob and his wife are kind of siblings. Fernie and Eliza are siblings, so Fernie and Eliza share the same mother, who was divorced and then remarried, and Jacob and Eliza share the same father, but Jacob and Fernie are not blood related in any sort of a way, even though they have this relationship, so it’s really kind of weird. And every time, it kind of needs to be explained, because otherwise Eliza talks about her sister and Jacob talks about her sister, and readers say, “Wait a minute, aren’t they brother and sister?” Yeah, so, so many people have half-siblings and things.
Joanna: Which makes it like a crucible, because just my family, at Christmas, there’s only five siblings and it’s crazy, and violent, so I can sort of see how your, your stories go off. And we should mention, because of course there’s all this family stuff going on, and there’s the religion side, but you blow a lot of stuff up, as well: these are not just happy family books, set out in the nice desert, are they?
Tell us about some of the more violent stuff that thriller readers love to read.
Michael: In the first book, and this comes across later, the conflict is really between two families within this community: the Christiansons, to which Jacob and Eliza belong, and their really fairly patriarchal, but sometimes sympathetic father, and then the Kimballs, who are also closely related, and they’ve been struggling really since the founding of the community, back in the 19th century. And the Kimballs, they deal with some things. One is, is they’re really power-hungry and ruthless, but there’s also some mental illness in the family, they really do believe that they are seeing angels and they’re being told by God to kill people and struggle to take over the community.
So, in the first book, without giving away too much, is where you introduce this conflict. The second book, and to a certain extent the third book, are a little bit more outside, as they get involved with some kind of outside communities. Books Four and Five are really playing out this final struggle between these two families that ends in some really horrific, violent events. So I would definitely say, if people are looking for a gossipy soap opera story that just has who’s sleeping with who and who’s marrying who, there are people who die, and sometimes in horrific ways, and in a couple of cases, people who people care about.
And there are also some characters, a couple of the characters are quite willing to use violence, too, on the side of the protagonist: Abraham Christianson, Jacob and Eliza’s father is definitely of the can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs sort of a person, and then there’s Miriam, who’s actually converted into their community, and she comes from an FBI background. She came in at Book Two, and I didn't think she was going to stick around, but I found her so useful, someone who’s a true believer, and she came in, the FBI sent her to infiltrate the community, and she went in so deeply that she became almost brainwashed, you could say. And some of that comes about, I don’t know if you heard about the Elizabeth Smart story, if you heard about that. So, there was a young Mormon girl who was kidnaped from the Salt Lake area, it’s been seven or eight years ago, now. About 13, I think she was, and she was kidnaped by a, a polygamist guy and essentially, taken into his strange little homeless cult that he was trying to form. And she had multiple chances to escape, and didn’t, as she for whatever reason, believed the fact, that at the point where the police finally took her, were interviewing her and saying, “I think you’re Elizabeth Smart, aren't you?” she was initially denying who she was, she was so far into it. And I think living in a really strict religious community, it’s quite possible for people, even who are horrifically oppressed, to come to believe that this is, what God wants, I don’t know if it’s Stockholm Syndrome, or people’s just desire to believe that they’re in possession of secret knowledge or whatever it is. So that was how I initially started off with Miriam, but she became such a useful character, she’s always pushing the main characters into taking more violent action. She’s perfectly happy to put a bullet in someone’s head rather than talk it out with them.
Joanna: Which is another strong woman character, which is great. Now, I didn’t read the books in series, so if people watching, are like, “Wow, there’s all these books,” I didn’t find you had to read them in order, I think I jumped in at Number Three and then went back and read One and Two. And now, of course, “Destroying Angel,” which was the last one, you wound up a pretty big storyline: we don’t want to give anything away, but you opened the possibilities for another, dare I mention the word “apocalypse”? You know, it really did sort of sound that way.
Can you give us a bit of a hint of what’s in store for Jacob and Eliza?
Michael: Sure, as I was working on Book Five and I was kind of planning to wrap things up, the books were doing pretty well at the time, and my publisher, Thomas & Mercer, talked about, “Well, have you thought about writing some more books in this series? We’d be interested in signing you on for two, three, whatever you want to write.”
And it was kind of interesting to me, but at the same time, I didn’t want to write the same story over and over again, and it seemed like there were two possibilities. I could go into a cult of the day sort of a thing, or have Jacob start working with the FBI to infiltrate various cults and religious groups, and use his medical background to solve crimes. Some of the agents I had talked to early on in the process had thought that would be the case: he would move on outside the community. But I definitely wanted to wrap up this conflict with the Kimballs and the Christiansons. Readers had been going on, it didn’t seem fair to keep dragging it out. So I didn't want to write the same thing. At the same time, it’s nice to have books and things that are wanted, and I thought if I could make it interesting for myself, that would be, a good idea, that would be something I’d be interested in tackling.
So I started to think, well, essentially we’ve got a Milliennialist type cult that ever since the founding of Mormonism back in the mid-19th century, it has been founded upon the principle that the world is coming to an end. Things are getting really wicked, there are going to be more wars, natural disasters, eventually the earth is going to be swept with bloodshed and fire and Jesus is going to come down and cleanse everything, and only the elect will be saved at the end of the day. So, I thought, wouldn’t it be really interesting if it started to look like the world in fact was coming to an end. So, Book Six is written, it’s been through edits, I’m working on the first draft of Book Seven right now/ Book Six won’t be released until early next year, the schedule’s full, they’re releasing them on a six-month schedule and now they’ve pushed this one back, so it will be a full year between Five and Six, but after that, I think Book Seven is going to be October, and then it’ll be wrapped up the next year, so, you’ll get three books within the course of the year.
Anyway, so in Book Six, it looks like things, civilization – I’m starting with the premise that it really just kind of takes one serious shock to the system, of which you could speculate five or six things: people have been worried about nuclear war, or peak oil, whatever, I don’t want to give away what method I’m using, but it’s a pretty hard shock to the system, and combined with a few other things.
So this small community in the desert, which has been preparing for the end of the world, which Jacob has pooh-poohed: everyone’s always saying the world’s going to end, they’ve been saying so, about five minutes after Jesus was killed the first time: Paul in the New Testament was expecting him to come back, so a couple thousand years, at least, people have been expecting the world to end. People always say that. Well, what does he do if it looks like the world actually is coming to an end in this small community which is self-sufficient, they have farming stuff and they have weapons, and an isolated valley: could they hold off? So, that’s kind of where I’m looking at: in Book Seven, things are worse, and I’m not quite sure where I’m going to go in Book Eight, if, if, if the world’s going to be just rubble, or if I’m going to pull back from the brink: I, I don’t know.
Joanna: You could move into post-apocalyptic, maybe!
Michael: Yeah, and in some ways it is kind of like that, so, people who, who like that sort of story, the thought of – and there are a lot of different ideas of small communities or a group of travelers, like “The Stand,” Stephen King, or something like that, Ed Robertson who we know, and “The Breakers,” he has a disease wipe out most of civilization too, as kind of interesting. People want to know, would I survive, I don’t know if it’s a longing for a simpler time when you had to survive by your wits and whatnot, or if it’s fear, a lot of people are interested in that. So that’s kind of the story arc of the last three books. And I’m hoping, of course, that people will be interested enough that they will keep reading, but I didn’t want to keep stringing people alone, either. Eight books is a good time commitment for any reader.
Joanna: Definitely. Well, I’m in. I’m in for the rest!
Joanna: But I also wanted to ask you, because of course, I was reading on your bio, you trekked across the Sahara on a camel, and had all these adventures:
Are you as exciting as the characters in your books?
Michael: Well, I have not solved any murder mysteries, no. I’ve not been kidnaped by any strange cults. I have received a few death threats from people in strange cults, but I think anyone’s life sounds really interesting if you distill out the interesting bits. I could easily make it sound like I could live the most boring life ever, I’m sure. But, you know, I have done some exciting things, and I like to occasionally try some different things. I think it’s really useful, as a writer, to go ahead and put yourself in lots of different situations. And you never know when they’re going to come up.
The most recent book I have, which is releasing here in about three days, called, “The Devil’s Cauldron,” involves a caving accident out in the desert of Nevada, kind of a horrific crime, and I have done some rappelling down into a desert cave that really only one other group had ever been down, and it had only been partially explored, so, at the time I did it, I just was trying something new and unusual. For similar reasons, I took up skiing and did some Scuba diving. Most recently, I participated in a Dengue Fever vaccine study, because I’ve wanted a little bit more experience with the medical field, and, I think I learned everything I needed to know about that about four vials of blood into it: once they’d taken out half the blood in my body, I think I was well beyond what I could usefully learn! So I think as a writer, and maybe even as a human being, it’s just really interesting to try new things out, if there’s something you wanted to try, especially if it’s not overly expensive or time-consuming. Usually it’s the risks that we don’t take that we regret at the end of the day.
Joanna: Oh, definitely.
Michael: Up until the point where the bungee cord breaks and you splat on the concrete: then maybe you do have a few regrets, but beyond that, I think putting yourself out there and trying a few new things makes more a more interesting life and more interesting background.
Joanna: Definitely, and I’m a real keen Scuba diver, and I keep meeting thriller writers who love Scuba diving, so I want to put on a thriller writers’ Scuba trip sometime.
Michael: That’s right.
Joanna: That would be awesome! But that’s fantastic. So maybe just give us a quick overview of the other books.
You mentioned that one there, “The Devil’s Cauldron,” what else can people expect from your writing?
Michael: Well, I like to write a variety of different things. I think it’s kind of boring to simply write the same thing over and over, which is what I was saying, even within the Righteous series. So, I’ve just finished the third book in the Devil’s Deep series, which deals with crimes involving Locked-in Syndrome, which is people who have a really high brainstem injury to where they’re fully conscious within their own head, but have no way of communicating with the outside world. And there are thousands of these people out there with undiagnosed Locked-in Syndrome: people think they’re in a coma or brain-dead and really they’re fully conscious, which I find one of the most horrific things imaginable. So there’s this group of people who are trying to track down these people who have Locked-in Syndrome, and every once in a while they come across someone who has been the victim of a crime and someone’s trying to hide it or cover up the crime.
I’ve also written some historical thrillers, “The Red Rooster,” which is set in Occupied France; it’s one of my favorite books that I’ve written. And I have another book called “Wolf Hook,” which is also set in Occupied Europe, and it’s about an English-language theater troupe, traveling through Occupied Europe, and it’s kind of a front for recruiting Anglophile German officers to be spies and things. And that was really fun to write. Of course, as a writer, you’ve got to, to look at what people are interested in buying, if you’re hoping to make a living at it, so I do sometimes write according to what I think is going to be more marketable, but that’s not my only consideration.
So I will choose from among various ideas that interest me, and, and, like all writers, I have more ideas than I can use, so, I go through, and I sometimes think, “Well, I need to do something a little different,” writing a historical novel is really a big departure, so sometimes after working in Blister Creek, in the Righteous Series, I will do something completely different. And that’s interesting. So I hope to do more historical writing, some more stand-alone contemporary thrillers, I’ve even got a couple of fantasy novels, one that my agent is currently shopping: eventually people will see it in one way or another. It’s called “The Wolves of Paris,” and that involves a real historical incident. In the winter of 1450, a pack of wolves infiltrated the city walls of Paris and killed a couple of dozen people before they were finally tracked down by an angry mob and killed on the steps of Notre Dame, so, I’ve got a novel that I’ve written set around that. That I really loved: I think it’s going to do really well once it’s eventually released, but kind of in marketing limbo at the moment.
Joanna: Oh, wow, there’s so much people can start reading.
So, where can people find you and your books online?
Michael: The Righteous series is pretty much available anywhere that you can order paper books; it’s not available as an e-book on Barnes & Noble, because of this kind of dispute between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Thomas & Mercer being an imprint owned by Amazon, of course. But, other than that, the other books can also be found as Nook books or about half of them are paper as well, on Barnes & Noble, they’re on Kobo, some of them are starting to come on, on iTunes, the Devil’s Deep series will be out on iTunes. If my voice doesn’t drive you too crazy, there are a couple of Podio books up as well – a techno-thriller called “Implant” that I wrote with neurologist Jeff Anderson, and the first book in the Devil’s Deep series are both available for free on podiobooks.com. You can listen to those. That’s me reading, so I don't know, the Righteous series is all available by a professional voice person, that might be more to people’s liking!
Joanna: And your website?
Michael: My website is michaelwallaceauthor.com.
Michael: So you can go take a look at that and see about when new books are coming up. People who sign up on my website for my mailing list, I will send them a free copy of “Trial by Fury,” which is a stand-alone novella set in the Righteous series, and I’ll send a version that, for Nook, Kobo or the Kindle, and that’s a free book if people are interested in dipping their toe in the violent waters of Blister Creek.
Joanna: Well, thanks ever so much for your time, Michael, that was brilliant.
Michael: Well, thank you, it was nice talking to you, and I’m sure we’ll chat again sometime.