After reviewing Jane Bradley’s novel You Believers, I had the privilege of sitting down with her over cappuccino at a local coffee shop. She was warm and open as we talked about her work (she teaches creative writing at the University of Toledo), the inspiration behind her novel (more about that below), and the disciplines of the writing life (observing “holy writing days”). After nearly three hours of chatting like we’d known each other forever, she agreed to respond by email to some questions we thought Discarded Image readers would ask if they could. Once you’ve read her answers, you’ll see how easy she is to talk to—and why I was so fascinated by her book.
You Believers has been called a crime novel. Is that what you intended to write? What has surprised you the most about the way the book has been received?
When I saw the blurb that it was “a splendid crime novel,” for a moment I was bit confused. Although yes, the entire novel hinges on a psychopath bent on committing brutal and casual crimes, my main concern as a writer was to address the ripple effects of the crime. How do loved ones endure the not knowing what happened and then how do they survive and continue to live with any kind of faith in this world, or God, or even themselves? As a part of my research on the book, I met Monica Caison, the founder of CUE, an organization that searches for missing persons and comforts the loved ones left behind me. I spent quite a bit of time with her. Her strength and spirit astonished and inspired me.
I write anything I write because I want answers to questions. I wrote this book to figure out how and why a man can be so calculatingly brutal—and do it with a sense of humor. I wanted to know why a young woman would take such a risk with him. I wanted to know how we survive the absolutely most awful things that can happen to us and how we keep going on. That was my aim: to solve some human mysteries. Then in the final revising I realized that I had indeed written quite a suspense tale where some pretty awful and scary things happen. Such is the stuff of crime novels. But my aim was to enlighten and to entertain, enchant with words. I’d say it’s a literary crime novel. I’m happy with that.
Naïve young woman, grieving mother, cold-blooded killer: your characters’ voices are so authentic. How did you get into their various psyches?
That’s a tough question and the answer can get a bit mystical and weird. I’ve been that naïve young woman. I’ve had those “what the hell” moments where I do something I know is risky. I’ve taken some serious chances. Oh, understanding the victim was easy. She felt invincible as so many young women do. She just met up with a man with a capacity for evil that she’d never dreamed of.
Grief? While writing that book I lost two sisters and my dad and learned my daughter had a fatal illness. I knew and deeply feared we would lose her. I was almost defeated by grief. What sustained me was thinking about the real mother of the real victim who inspired my book. Her faith and strength are astonishing. I kept thinking if she could get through the hell of losing her daughter in such a horrible way, I could get through my pain. I also thought deeply about Monica Caison who, by choice and offering help, walks into others’ nightmares, daily. I could relate to the strong women, but I didn’t really know these women, and I wanted to protect their privacy. So I had to make their characters up.
I also had heard the killer on tape, laughing and being really cocky about what he’d done. I’d seen everything on the case in the district attorney’s office. The real killer scared me deeply, and I was afraid of where my mind would go when I started fictionalizing someone so powerfully, well, evil.
Something happens in creative process while constructing characters. At first you start building them. Then if you’re lucky, they really do start to take on a life of their own. They start saying things, doing things, thinking their own thoughts and you, as a writer, are just watching and listening. That’s when it feels like magic: a world of people deep inside you coming alive. They start doing things that often surprise you. And they are often somehow even wiser and sometimes more calculating than you are. Of course, it’s all the writer’s doing, but often you really are tapping into something bigger than yourself. That’s the part of writing that is addictive and a joy.
Which character is the most like you?
Without a doubt, that would be Shelby. I was really struggling with the book because for quite some time I didn’t have a handle on Shelby. I knew the real woman, Monica Caison, in terms of what she did. But she’s a very private person. She also is married with five kids. Yes, we have some things in common, but there are lots of differences. When I realized that Shelby was me—yes, I discovered that and didn’t choose it—I knew I’d make her the narrative thread that holds all the separate points of view of the book together. Yes, she is/was quite a bit like the writer. Shelby’s wise moments, her struggles with faith, her determination, her intuition, and her lone wolf nature, well that would be Jane Bradley there. When any of my friends or family read that book, they quickly say, “Jane, you’re Shelby.” Hmm as if I didn’t notice.
One of the things I found most intriguing about the book was the way you portrayed Jesse. His actions are unforgivable; but his background seems to imply at least some reasons why he makes the choices he does. Does your novel suggest that we should take a person’s background (abuse, medical conditions, etc.) into account when deciding culpability?
Yes, Jesse is evil, unforgivable. And no, he wasn’t born that way. The true killer was severely abused as a young child. He was adopted by a good loving family at the age of four. He was trouble from the moment he knew how to be trouble. At a young age he told his adoptive parents that he was the devil, and he claimed to be that until the end. I think severely abused children have spirits that get quite broken, and then sometimes, well, something else slips in, something cold, something cruel, something that takes pleasure in power and making others feel pain, as if inflicting pain on others might distract them from their own pain. Culpable? Yes, in spite of their broken souls, they are guilty for their crimes. I do not believe we should go lightly on those who are made into some kind of monsters because of suffering early on. Jesse is not insane. He knows full well what he’s doing. Killers like him are calculating, smart, and quite sane. In deciding culpability, you have to look at the act, you have to consider the man’s attitude about the suffering he’s caused.
Now I could climb into my higher more spiritual self and say that in the eyes of God, Jesse was a broken damaged child that God could forgive. But I do believe there’s that issue that we are supposed to ask for forgiveness. Many real killers, like Jesse, don’t. I’d like to be kindly spiritual on this, but I don’t think God could quite be forgiving of a man like Jesse, damaged childhood or not.
Putting the issues of God aside for a moment I can say one thing about the sorrows and the pain that leads to the making of monsters. Years ago a friend of mine and a girlfriend of hers were hunted, stalked and then shot by a man on the Appalachian Trail. My friend Rebecca died; her friend walked two miles with five gunshot wounds to find help, and she survived. We were all broken by the death of Rebecca. When they captured the killer the next day, I learned that he’d been abandoned by his family—or maybe he’d abandoned them—yes, he had been abused and so neglected as a child. As a man, he literally lived in hole in the ground in the woods. He did odd jobs for people in the area, but lived alone in that hole. When I saw his stunned and crazed face on the news, my thought was that behind every horror story is another horror story. I do believe that killer was a bit mad, but still he calculated and followed the girls for two days before he shot them. He knew exactly what he was doing and why. He had spotted two lesbians and decided they should die. More than child abuse and neglect fed into his plan, and his actions.
How much of the plot is a true story?
All the basic plot points are true. A young woman was carjacked in Wilmington. A mother stayed in that city where her daughter disappeared until she could bring her daughter home. A woman who devotes her life to searching for the missing and to comforting the loved ones left behind helped the woman stay strong, find a place to live in Wilmington, and do what she could to help in the search for her daughter. Another young woman was later attacked and survived, a miraculous event that led to quite a development in the plot. And that’s all of the plot I’ll give away here. Hey, I want some new readers for the book. But the characters are all fiction and some of the characters are completely made up to flesh out the story line and to contribute to themes I wanted to address. For example, there was no wise janitor to help Billy with his grief. I made up that janitor and I really like that guy.
A theme of the book is belief and the human capacity to believe. One character’s “positive thinking” proves useless in saving her from harm. Another character finds a kind of active, social religion at the end though he does not consider himself a religious person. Yet another character returns to her religion “like religion was a tree you could climb into to keep you safe from a flood”–but it doesn’t keep her safe or even happy.
Do you think the substance of our beliefs is as important as belief itself? What do your characters tell us about why we persist in believing things that we can’t prove?
This is a very hard question to answer. But a good one. I think the substance of our beliefs can be a wonderful gift and yet also a danger. In history and in current events, beliefs have led to massive murders; consider the religious wars around the world. Then again, consider the faith and beliefs of Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King. Yes, beliefs are important and I would like to think that all faith rested on believing that we—and God for those who are believers—are here to make the world, the human experience, a better thing. I would like to believe that with faith we can evolve into calmer, more enlightened, and forgiving beings. I do think self-reflection and knowing what you believe is important, and I think being open to new views of the world is very important.
You Believers was my own spiritual wrestling match. Unlike Jacob, I wrestled a devil (Jesse) along with angels. With each character, as you’ve noted, I’ve wrestled through various ways of thinking and how those ways of thinking shape our souls, our minds, our actions.
Yes, I do tend to think positive, and yes I do have very cynical cold, cold days. I walk a line between hope and despair quite often. It’s this conflict that is at the heart of my book. Early in the novel when Jesse sneers, “You believers…” and goes on to taunt his victim about her stupid positive thinking, her chosen openness and vulnerability to the world as being the cause of her demise, I knew that line was the title. Yes, that was a part of me sneering in Jesse at that moment. And then I spent the rest of the book working to prove his stance to be small-minded, wrong.
Being open to the world is a very good thing. Giving a ride to and following the instructions of a carjacker is not. My characters, their actions, and the plot all prove Jesse Hollowfield wrong. Faith, hope, belief and that business of “putting feet on your prayers” are concepts I live by. And I’m a happier, calmer woman for that.
Thanks again, Jane, for your thoughtful responses to these questions inspired by your novel. We’re eagerly anticipating the next book!