CWR Interview with T. M. Doran, author of Terrapin: A Mystery

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 Report about Terrapin, 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.

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About Carl E. Olson 1207 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.