Terrapin: A Mystery
(Ignatius Press, 2012; also in electronic book format
) is the new, and second, novel by T. M. Doran, who is a
writer, consultant, and adjunct professor of civil engineering at Lawrence
Technological University. His first novel was Toward the Gleam
(electronic book format
and audio book download
published last year by Ignatius Press. He spoke recently with Catholic World
, literary and intellectual influences, and the craft
and process of writing fiction.
CWR: Your background
is in civil engineering and education. Was writing fiction something you worked
at from an early age, or did you come to it later? And how?
Doran: I have been writing
fiction since I was a young boy. A friend and I traded sci-fi short stories
that we composed ourselves when we were about ten years old. I've always loved
to read, and writing came naturally to me, though I work harder at it now. I
can hardly remember a time when I wasn't working on a story. Cole Porter
Palmer, who is a character in the stories composed by Dennis Cole in Terrapin,
was conceived over a decade ago.
CWR: Who are some of the authors and
thinkers who have influenced you the most?
Doran: As to literature, Evelyn
Waugh, Flannery O'Connor, J.R.R. Tolkien, and T.S. Eliot, writers and poets who
wrote from a Catholic perspective rather than writing explicitly Catholic
novels. I read a variety of writers: Jane Austen, Dostoevsky, Patrick O'Brian,
Thornton Wilder, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, Richard Adams, and I have learned
something about the craft of writing from every one of them. I enjoy mystery
stories, especially the golden age puzzle-plot stories from the 1920s through
the 1940s. Some of my favorite mystery authors are G.K. Chesterton, Agatha
Christie, J.D. Carr (the locked room master), Rex Stout, and the early Ellery
Queen mysteries that featured pure "ratiocination". I enjoy P.D.
James, who is still writing.
I have been an avid reader of history and biography for decades, which helped
immensely when I was composing Toward the Gleam
Thinkers who have influenced me include Blessed John Paul II (especially
"Faith and Reason" and "The Splendor of the Truth"), Edith
Stein (her journey from phenomenology to the convent), Kurt Goedel (his ideas
about time and space), G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Frank Sheed (their
accessible apologetics), Blaise Pascal (reason in the light of faith), William
F. Buckley (conservatism based on first principles and natural law), and
Augustine and Aquinas (a little at a time). I have a four-volume Encyclopedia
of Philosophy on my bookshelf, to which I
refer quite often. I've always had a fascination with competing ideas.
CWR: Both of your novels can be described, at least generally, as
works of “mystery”. What are some of the difference between Toward the Gleam and your new novel, Terrapin?
Doran: Toward the Gleam
was a big sweeping story, while Terrapin is more compact and personal. Most readers consider John Hill in Toward
the Gleam to be an attractive character.
Dennis Cole, the main character in Terrapin is no John Hill! Both stories are intended to be
more than just a head-scratchers. My desire was to explore transcendent themes
in a way that respects the freedom of the reader, and in the context of
suspenseful, mysterious, and challenging stories.
CWR: How much of writing a novel is “inspiration” and how much is
hard work and craft? Do you have a particular method for writing a novel
Doran: My writing
process encompasses both craft and creativity. The craft part involves keeping
a journal of ideas, dialogue, character traits, vignettes, that can (or might)
be plugged into the story, along with a cluster diagram for each chapter; that
is, what will be included in that chapter. With the journal and chapter cluster
in front of me, I am "liberated" to compose the chapter, using these roadmaps
as guides but not being enslaved to them.
CWR: Your novels
have many philosophical themes, as you note. To what degree are your stories
driven by themes, or characters, or plot?
Doran: I begin a
story with ideas for themes, characters, and plots, but then the story starts
to tell itself. Usually, there is a sudden inspiration, but then the hard work
begins. There are always underlying themes that are driven by transcendent
truths, but I strive to keep my authorial voice from dictating these truths to
readers. Human freedom including the prodigal son's freedom to rebel is a
theme that I often explore. Will the prodigal son return, or won't he? The
possibility of transformation, but not the inevitability.
CWR: The main character in Terrapin
is a professor of engineering. Are there autobiographical elements in the
character and story? How would you describe the book in just a few sentences?
Doran: In Terrapin, one
of the challenges was to integrate some experiences from my early life with
wholly fictional events, and to do this as seamlessly as possible. I discovered
that Harper Lee did something of this sort in To Kill A Mockingbird. When I learned this while working on Terrapin, the story took a different trajectory.
Though I have done some university teaching in my past, Terrapin was completed before I became an adjunct professor
at Lawrence Technological University. However, I have been a practicing
engineer in the area of water/wastewater treatment for over 35 years, so Dennis
Cole's interests and expertise are similar to mine in that respect.
Terrapin is a dark, gritty
mystery, with many twists and turns, about human freedom, choices and
consequences, and the possibility (but not inevitability) of transformation.
When Dennis Cole and his friends convene for a reunion in Ann Arbor, terrible
things begin to happen, and no one knows why. There are two timelines in Terrapin: seven consecutive days in the present interspersed
with events from the main characters' pasts. These two timelines intersect at
the end of the story with a series of big surprises.
CWR: Are you
currently working on another novel? If so, what can you tell us about it?
Doran: I am actively working on another story,
very different from both Toward the Gleam and Terrapin, while still exploring the question of human
freedom. It's a story about a post-World War II Soviet detention facility near
Berlin, where prisoners from different cultures and radically different
philosophical perspectives are being held for mysterious reasons. The story's
timeline is two months in late 1945. Both literature and historical resources,
including The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and On the Edge of the Cold War informed me as I composed the story.
Visit the Terrapin book site to view a trailer, read excerpts, download a free short story, and learn more about Doran and his writing.