One of the perennial themes of my fiction is the supernatural, and a continuing search for what my characters, and what I, really believe in.
The main character of the Michael's books is John Jordan, a prison chaplain, who also struggles with his beliefs even as he investigates crimes, so I was keen to talk to the author about how we both walk the line of faith and reality.
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Michael Lister is the award-winning and bestselling author of the John Jordan suspense thrillers, with a supernatural edge, as well as historical hard-boiled thrillers. He also writes non-fiction, screenplays, and short stories.
- How Michael's writing journey started and progressed
- How Michael was himself a prison chaplain and how his own work has impacted his writing
- What the job of prison chaplain involved
- The character of John Jordan and his struggles with faith
- Balancing belief with story and walking the fine line of religion
- How the exorcism can be read as possession, but it can be read as psychological. I come down on the side of the demonic and we talk about our own interpretations
- Why are people so interested in exorcism?
- Talking about our influences – including my own experience of Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness at aged 15
- Michael's non-fiction books about the meaning of life in film, based on a series of reviews he wrote for a paper
- The themes in Michael's work that he keeps returning to
- Sense of place and why Michael is passionate about his area of Florida
Transcription of interview with Michael Lister
Joanna: Hi, everyone, I’m thriller author J.F. Penn, and today I’m here with Michael Lister. Hi, Michael.
Michael: Hi, how are you?
Joanna: I’m good. So, just as a little introduction, Michael is the award-winning and bestselling author of the John Jordan suspense thrillers, with a supernatural edge, as well as historical hard-boiled thrillers. He also writes non-fiction, screenplays, and short stories. You’re a busy, busy man!
So, just tell us a bit more about you and your writing journey.
Michael: Well, I wanted to write from a child, but it took a while for it actually to happen. I started in an oral storytelling tradition, as a teacher, as someone who was very impacted by story, particularly philosophical stories, religious stories, things like that, and as a teacher, used story a lot, was always interested in film and literature. But throughout high school, I read mostly non-fiction, and it wasn’t really until I got to college—which, interesting enough, was a theological college—the literary professor there just turned me on to literature, and that’s when I started reading fiction.
I had read crime fiction as a child; I’d read the Hardy Boys and Sherlock Holmes, and Encyclopedia Brown, all those, and so that was always an interest, but in high school, I started watching this television show called Spencer For Hire, and I went from that TV series to the books it was based on, by Robert B. Parker, the Spencer novels, and just found that I absolutely love hard-boiled fiction, and just got more and more interested in it and, as Saul Bellow said, I am a reader moved to emulation.
Joanna: And great artists steal, as well, right? That’s another quote.
Joanna: But it’s funny you mentioned the Hardy Boys there, because that just made me remember that I read all the Hardy Boys as well, and the Nancy Drew, because the Hardy Boys were boys. But I always liked what the boys got up to often a lot more! But coming back on your life and how it’s impacted your writing, you were a chaplain in the Florida Department of Corrections, and your character, John Jordan, that’s where he started.
Tell us a bit about that job, and how that’s arrived in your work.
Michael: Well, one of the things I always wanted to do was combine the world of the hard-boiled detective fiction with the clerical detective, clerical sleuth. The clerical sleuth tradition goes back to1911, to Father Brown; G.K. Chesterton was spending the night with a childhood friend, went down to the library and looked around for something to read, couldn’t find anything, and said, “Well, I’ll just write my own, I’ll write something I would want to read,” and Father Brown was born that night.
And I’ve always liked the clerical sleuth, particularly Father Brown, many of those stories are as good as anything Conan Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes. But I’ve never really cared for the cozy all that much, and had really no interest in writing those type of novels, so I wanted to combine hard-boiled detective with the ecclesiastical sleuth, and I thought, prison chaplaincy is the perfect place to do that. And I was formulating those ideas, right around the time when, I mean, truly out of nowhere, I was asked to be a prison chaplain. I mean, I had never thought about it, never considered it, and someone said, “You should do this.” Actually another chaplain said, “You should be doing this,” and within a couple of weeks, I was.
And so I spent nearly ten years with the Department of Corrections. When my first novel came out in 97, which was “Power in the Blood,” that was the very first John Jordan mystery, I was still a full-time chaplain. In fact, the publisher at the time wanted to put a picture of me on the cover, and I was like, “You can’t do that, because a) this is fiction, b) I’m an actual chaplain, and I’m still part of the Department of Corrections. It’s a first-person novel: people are going to think it’s me, anyway! So there’s no way,” anyway, I talked him out of that. But for the first novel, I was still a full-time chaplain.
Joanna: Wow, and I don’t know what a prison chaplain does. I mean, do you just go and talk to people? Or what?
Michael: It’s mostly crisis counseling, which is what I love. I love counseling, and I’ve always been as interested in psychology and philosophy as I am in religion. So I’ve always combined those elements in my writing and, and life. But most of the time, any crisis that happens, inside the prison or out, the chaplain deals with. So, for instance, if someone dies in an inmate’s family, the chaplain is contacted, the chaplain has to break the news to the inmate, work with him, deal with him, go through the crisis counseling process.
You also do a lot of support groups. I did AA and NA and all kind of support groups; Life Skills group, teaching a lot, working with the staff. One of the I liked most was being in the trenches, and every day working with correction officers and probation officers and file clerks, and secretaries, and just about everybody who I really saw as my parish, that was the fun thing about the job.
And then you also work with other religious leaders to provide services. In the States, even when someone’s convicted of a felony, one of the things they don’t lose as one of their rights is that of religious freedom. So you still try to accommodate, as long as it is within keeping with the security of the institution, you can provide religious services for them. You don't actually do them yourself, as the chaplain, but you work, so I worked with Native American medicine men, I worked with Imams and Rabbis and it was just a really cool job, and I loved it.
Joanna: Wow. That sounds awesome.
And you left that to become a full-time author?
Michael: Yes. I always did both, and so it was always a question of what amount, what percentage, would I be creative writing and pursuing my art, versus counseling and things like that, and 2000 is when I had the opportunity, it would finally work for me to go full time. And I took it, continuing to volunteer in the prison system, but my first novel came out in 1997, and by 2000, mostly at that time because I was able to write screenplays as well, I was able to make the leap into full-time writing.
Joanna: It’s so interesting, I’m really, I’m grateful you told me about that, because I did a degree in psychology, my second degree—my first is in theology, like yourself—and I almost took a job in the Department of Corrections in New Zealand, but I didn’t, and I feel like that’s like a parallel life, so it’s really cool, you mentioning that.
But tell us a bit more about the character of John Jordan, and how your real life comes through into the books.
Michael: Absolutely. John Jordan is an ex-cop, that grew up in the Panhandle of Florida, the North part of Florida that most people are not familiar with, moved to Atlanta after high school, was involved in the Atlanta Child Murders investigation, went to seminary there, had a life there for a while, working cases and doing different things, and things happened, and he returned home. And returning home with a law enforcement background, his dad is the Sheriff of this small Panhandle county where he lives, he was offered this job as a prison chaplain. And as he’s trying to put his life back together, he becomes this chaplain, and begins to reach out to others and, and really try to help others, while helping himself. But he finds that he still gets pulled into investigations. He just can’t help himself.
And so, really, the tension with the character is these two very seemingly disparate callings, one of prison chaplaincy, which he really does feel like is something he’s supposed to do. Now, like myself, John Jordan has never really been very involved with organized religion. His spiritual life is far more one of exploration and investigation than beliefs, there’s nothing rigid or fundamentalist about John in any way, and so being in a religious setting, even in prison, is uncomfortable for him. So there’s that tension, and then there’s the tension of he’s constantly being pulled into these investigations.
He’s this man who really wants to minister mercy. He believes in compassion more than anything else. And yet he really thirsts for justice, and tries to do both.
Joanna: He’s a really interesting character. I’ve recently read “Blood Sacrifice,” which features demonic possession and exorcism, and it’s an interesting book, and like you said, Jordan does have this kind of doubt as to whether the demonic possession is real, but it does seem to me that it is, throughout the book.
So, how do you balance your own beliefs with writing a novel with this kind of character who doesn’t really potentially know what he believes?
Michael: Well, I guess because we share that. I am someone who is constantly investigating, trying to be open and to take in life; take in that which is beyond—whatever that means. And I think the more you define that, the more you limit it and get into trouble very quickly. So, that’s where John’s coming from. And you mentioned that “Blood Sacrifice” has demonic possession; I think that’s very much open, and a lot of other readers don’t come to that conclusion. You know, there’s definitely exorcism, but first of all, is there such a thing as demonic possession? If there is, is that actually what’s going on, or is it psychological?
So the exploration of these issues is what interests me. And that’s what drew me to a murder investigation where this young woman who is murdered—or killed—while undergoing exorcism, I thought, “That’s a great premise right there, there’s a lot to work with there.” And the priest involved, who’s a suspect, claims that it was the demons inside her, that it’s something got out of hand, out of his control, while John’s, much more apt to look for a natural solution and a human instrument of destruction. But, he continues to remind himself as he’s investigating, if he’s completely closed to something that is beyond explanation, then he’s not a good detective; he’s not starting from the right place.
Joanna: No, you’re probably right there, and it’s funny, because I was a Christian in my teenage years, and, and I’m not a Christian now, but I have this spiritual belief. Like you, I’m a searcher. And it’s funny, my books all have the same line, which can be sort of negotiated, depending on whether you think maybe someone’s affected by drugs, or whether it’s really a demon! So it’s a totally similar thing, but it’s funny that I actually read the book as having the possession, then. So, you wrote it that you could come down either side.
Michael: I really think so. I do think there’s things that are not easily explained. But just because something is not easily explained doesn’t mean it’s necessarily something spiritual; it might be, but it there’s so much that’s just beyond our understanding, beyond our explanation, that could be a number of different things, and that, again, is an investigation, and that exploration and looking at those things, is what interests me.
Joanna: Me, too. And, it’s interesting, because right now, all around London, and in New York while I was there, this film, Deliver Us From Evil, with Eric Bana, is out.
Why do you think people are so interested in exorcism? Has there been a sort of upwelling of interest in this?
Michael: Well, you know, what I deal with in the book, and what really sparked this initial idea, was that this resurgence of exorcism and people believing in demons and demon possession and that kind of thing has to do not with religion, but with art. It has to do with the novel, “The Exorcist,” and then the film, especially the film, that was based on it. And especially in the United States, but I think worldwide, now, following that film, the reports of demon possession, the number of exorcisms, grew exponentially.
And so it really shows the power of fiction, shows the power of art, to have influence on a culture, and that is what led to this, not religion, not something, whether there’s any validity to it or not, it did come from “The Exorcist,” that’s where it started.
Joanna: Which is fascinating. I think it’s a topic we keep coming back to. And I wondered about the influences of your writing. I recently re-read Frank Peretti’s “This Present Darkness,” which I first read, I think, when I was about 15, and that gave me a lot of ideas as a teenager, around angels and demons and things.
So what about you: what are the things that you read around that spiritual line that influence you?
Michael: Well, there’s a number of books that Ihave read but re-read as I was preparing for “Blood Sacrifice.” Probably one of the most influential, because it combines both psychology and religion, is one that Scott Peck wrote. You know, Scott Peck was sort of the father of the self-help revolution. He wrote “The Road Less Traveled.” And he was a religious, spiritual man; came to it much later in life, and combined psychology and religion, and throughout the course of his practice of counseling, practicing psychology, he’s an MD, he became convinced there was such a thing as demon possession.
So it’s a very interesting book. But there’s many others. Some involve the influence of “The Exorcist” on culture and those kind of things. But the third movie in The Exorcist—I don’t know how many they’ve made now—that was the first one I ever saw, and I thought it was far superior to the first, the same author wrote the book, I think the novel was called “Legion,” the movie was called The Exorcist III, the, the film company actually forced him to use that title. But it was a lot deeper, and delved into a lot of interesting, again, asking these questions. And so that was a big influence.
I’ve always been as influenced by film as I am literature, and, and that’s been a theme throughout everything I’ve done. So another film, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, again, it takes a similar situation, where someone dies while undergoing exorcism, and it’s actually in the form of a court case, and exploring, investigating. That was highly influential, too.
Joanna: And you’ve actually written some non-fiction books, haven’t you, “The Meaning in Film,” and some other things. Tell us about those, please.
Michael: Well, I’ve done the Gulf Coast Writers’ Conference, this actually is our fifteenth year of having this writers’ conference each year, and I bring in people from all over, especially the country, would like to extend internationally and bring maybe you over at some point, would love to do that. Anyway, at some point, probably about the half-way mark, I brought in this really cool guy named Jim Pascoe from the West Coast. He started Ugly Town Publishing, I guess in the late 90s, maybe in the 2000s, I’m not sure, but wrote very dark crime novels.
Anyway, he was here and we were talking, I was, “Man, you know, I’m doing all I can do”—the Internet had just started, there was no such thing as ebooks, and I said, “What more can I do?” and he said, “You should write short stories, that’s a way to get known. You should write reviews.” And so, the next week, I called the newspaper in Panama City, Florida, and I said, “Hey, I’m interested in writing some book and film reviews,” and they were like, “We would love to have a working novelist exploring these things and writing about this.”
So I began to write this column. It became very popular, and it really is far more reflections on life, meditations on meaning and life, in relationship to film and literature—mostly film, because I can see so many more films in a week and review those than books. Over the years, I did that, and then a collection of those has been put together, called “The Meaning of Life in Movies.” But it really is, again, the same exploration of searching for meaning: Viktor Frankl, man’s search for meaning—in art, in culture, in life, in religion, in philosophy, in psychology, and how it all comes together, sometimes very powerfully, in film and literature.
Joanna: Wow, I want to read that now! That sounds really cool. And what’s interesting just on that, authors doing things to market their books, it’s interesting, it’s so funny that what he told you back then is still pretty much true, and it’s really the start of guest blogging or writing articles for big blogs, that’s exactly the same thing, just with the Internet.
And I guess that makes me ask, because you’re obviously a man who thinks about a lot of deep and meaningful questions.
What are the big themes that keep coming up in your work? What comes up over and over again in what you write?
Michael: Well, of course, if you’re writing crime fiction, the issue of humanity, and how humans can do the things they do, whether or not we can actually achieve any sense of justice, any at all, I love exploring those. Again, as we mentioned, the difference between, someone’s psychological makeup versus the other facets of them, the influence of culture, the influence of religion, those kind of things. But I guess more than anything else, what I always come back to is love, is compassion.
You talked about beliefs earlier. The only thing I can say with 100% certainty that I believe in is love. That’s the only thing. Everything else, I’ll explore, I’m open to, and I, of course I have other beliefs, but they are really secondary to love. I really believe in compassion, extending yourself on the behalf of someone else; on actually achieving some sense of altruism. I mentioned Scott Peck earlier. Scott Peck says there’s no such thing as unselfishness. He said, there’s good selfishness and bad selfishness, but everybody’s selfish. I don’t really believe that. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, I really do, but I do think, through compassion, through love, we can get to the place where we really do things for others that do not benefit us in any way.
And going back to what Jesus taught, if you do something for someone who can’t repay you, who can’t do back for you—all the great wisdom traditions teach that—do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but also do unto those who cannot do for you, who cannot repay you. That is the idea of paying it forward. To me, that’s what’s pure.
And so, I come back to that, time and time again: how can John, as someone who is similar to that, believes in love, believes in compassion, how can he minister compassion to people who’ve murdered, to people who do such much damage? And, and he’s constantly challenged: “How can I be loving in this situation? What’s the best, most loving thing I can do?” That is something I come back to over and over and over again. And the real world challenge of that, in our day-to-day life.
Joanna: That’s interesting. And I guess, coming down to sort of a sense of place, you feature this area of Florida, like you mentioned, that most people don’t know. I mean, I haven’t been to Florida, and obviously the idea in my head is the Miami beachfront, or, I guess, the Everglades, those are the two things that spring to mind.
So, tell me about that, the area of Florida you’re talking about, and why that means so much to you.
Michael: Well, it’s home. You know, this is where I was born, this is where I will die: I have no interest in living anywhere else. Growing up, as a teenager, as a young man, I thought I did want to live in a large city and move away, and did: I left here, went to Atlanta, similar to John, but found my way back here, and have no desire to live anywhere else.
This area of Florida is largely undeveloped. There’s really no large cities. You have Panama City, that gets a lot of tourists to the beach and to things, you have Tallahassee, the State Capital, Pensacola. Over further East, you have Jacksonville. But, but this area is mostly woods; it’s mostly swamps, You can be standing in the middle of the woods and feel like you are as landlocked as anybody in the middle of the continent, and yet you’re 20 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, in my opinion.
And where I actually live, there’s two different rivers, there’s several lakes, and there’s a body of water called the Dead Lakes, which to me is just an extraordinarily beautiful place. And the reason it’s called the Dead Lakes is it has, if you look out, just millions—it seems like, it’s probably thousands and thousands—of dead-head cypress trees coming out of the water. And really it’s the bases or the roots, and so it’s just gorgeous.
Anyway, I love this area; I love that I’m one of the few people who write about it, and feel the responsibility of that. A lot of people make fun of this area, and they call it Lower Alabama, LA, that we are Georgia with a Florida zip code, and it is very Deep South. It has all the issues of racism I get to explore, and sexism and homophobia and all the backward things you would expect, and yet there’s suddenly this act of compassion or light that someone does that just blows you away. It’s an incredible place, and I absolutely love it. And I’m so happy to be writing about it.
Joanna: Ah, that’s so lovely to hear. I feel very passionate about London, and you couldn’t get further away from what you’re talking about!
Michael: Right! But you can explore the same themes, the same issues, whether it’s in an undeveloped area or small town, versus, a city, a different culture.
Joanna: It’s like my worst nightmare would be to live somewhere where everybody knew my name! I just couldn’t cope with that! And that sounds like where you live!
Michael: It’s exactly. Let me tell you a story. When I had moved away to Atlanta for college, that’s about six hours away from where I live here in Florida, I came back, brought a girlfriend home for the weekend to visit, and was showing her a small town, a very small town. And, as I always did growing up, on Second Street, I sort of rolled through a four-way stop. And there was a new Highway Patrol in town, who pulled me over, and I didn’t get a ticket, but he said, “Hey, it’s a period not a comma, you know, you need to stop.” I left from there and drove literally 40 seconds home, and my parents already knew that I had been pulled over. That’s the kind of town it is.
Joanna: But like you say, it’s great that we can write the same themes, the same things happen to humans, doesn’t matter where they live, and we have the same struggles about God and religion wherever we are, and that’s fantastic.
It, it did strike me, when you were talking, though, about this area, that there are a lot of places to hide bodies.
Michael: Absolutely! Yes, there are. And if you think about a prison chaplain, he’s got 2,000 suspects on every case. Every single time something happens, all he’s surrounded by are criminals. And it is really interesting. The, the prison here, now, actually, where I live, there’s more people in the prison than there are in the town. A lot more, actually.
Joanna: Really? Oh, my goodness! That’s crazy! So, what is next for you?
What are the books you’re working on next?
Michael: This marks the 20th anniversary of my being a novelist.
Joanna: Oh, congratulations!
Michael: Thank you. Thank you. So I actually had three books come out this year: one was a John Jordan mystery thriller called “Rivers to Blood,” and it’s the sixth in that series, following the one you read, “Blood Sacrifice.” And “Rivers to Blood” takes place more outside, it takes place inside and outside of the prison, a lot of it takes place on the Apalachicola River, this amazing river in Florida, and bodies being discovered there as well as in the prison, and them having similarities, the crimes and all, and so how’s that happening, that kind of thing, “Rivers to Blood.”
And then, I also write a second series that is set in the 1940s, very film noir inspired, it’s the Jimmy “Soldier” Riley mysteries, everybody calls Jimmy “Soldier” because he’s missing an arm, and in 1943, they think he lost it in the war, but he never got to serve, because as a cop, it got blown off. He’s a private detective; he’s actually a woman-haunted, obsessed private detective, and the third one in that series came out, it’s called “The Big Hello.”
And then, this Fall, I have a third series about a former reporter, and for the first time, in part of this 20-year celebration, I have set a novel in my small town, for the very first time ever! In Wewahitchka, that’s where I live: Wewahitchka, Florida. “A Certain Retribution” is actually set here in Wewahitchka.
Joanna: Oh wow. Will you get into trouble for that?
Michael: We’ll see!
Joanna: The locals are going to be like, “What’s going on?”
Michael: It’s so funny: when you write fiction, people who know you think they know who you’re writing about. I mean, a lot of people, especially non-readers, or non-writers, they don’t really believe in fiction. They think you’re disguising reality. But I, I write fiction; that’s what’s fun, is making things up. And the greatest compliment you can get is when someone believes it’s a real person, because you’ve created them so dynamically and they are really inside the book. So, that’s happened the whole time since 97, when “Power in the Blood” came out, I’ve always had people think they could identify themselves and others in the books.
Joanna: I always find it funny, especially with the books we write, because, you know, we’re not killing people here, so clearly we’re making this stuff up!
Michael: Right, exactly.
Joanna: But, anyway, it’s been lovely to talk to you.
So, where can people find you and your books online?
Michael: Well, MichaelLister.com is the best place, a lot of information about me, the different series. I think I have 15 or 16 books out now. Like, I said, I’ve been doing it since 97, they’re all available and information about them there. And if people sign up for my newsletter at the website, they get a free book: I’ll send them one they can sample. And then of course Amazon.com carries all the books, ebooks, paperback and hardcovers. Oh, and audio, I should say.
Joanna: Yes. Brilliant. Well, thanks for your time, Michael.
Michael: Thank you. My pleasure.