By Virna DePaul
In CODE NAME: CALEB, a teenage Union soldier is brought back by the National Detective Service as an undercover operative. Johnny is sent to New York to infiltrate a criminal enterprise counterfeiting US currency, then travels to Canada where a murderous Confederate spy ring is plotting an armed uprising to take over New York City and hold it hostage.
Johnny’s dream is to return to childhood sweetheart, Deidre, who kept him alive as a destitute youth, but there is more than the daily risk of sudden death keeping him from her as he enters the very heart of the conspiracy. Suspected by some plotters, he is seduced by Letitia, a beautiful woman – herself a key member of the gang – whose orders are to expose him.
Will the war-toughened, but still romantically naïve, Johnny see through sexy Letitia’s love ploy to complete and survive his vital mission and be re-united with Deidre, or can the conspirators lower his guard with Letitia’s wily help, make their bold, history-changing plan succeed … and see Johnny dead?
Recently, I interviewed author John Bray. Here’s what Mr. Bray had to say about his writing journey and his upcoming release.
In your novel THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY MADIGAN, you wrote about an innocent, unworldly sixteen-year-old boy surviving the rigors of boot camp in the Civil war Union Army. Your upcoming novel, CODE NAME: CALEB, continues Johnny’s story with an assignment involving a murderous Confederate spy ring, as well as his romantic dream to return to a childhood sweetheart. Can you tell us a bit about your protagonist and his growth from the first book to the second?
Johnny was a penniless sixteen-year-old orphan from Manhattan’s Lower East Side working in a stable for meager wages. Watching Irish immigrants being enlisted into the Union Army, on an impulse he steps forward, lies about his age and joins. After some rudimentary training he is assigned to a unit known as the Irish Brigade, composed mainly of Irish immigrants. He is wounded at Fredericksburg and while convalescing is detailed to provost duty in Washington, DC. He disrupts an assassination attempt on a cabinet member and because he can recognize the assailant is co-opted into the National Detective Service to go undercover and find the attacker. Working as a serving boy in the tavern where the Confederate ring meets, he finds the men responsible and helps round up the gang. Johnny passes through the crucible of combat in the army with the battle-hardened veterans of many bloody encounters and together with his experience as an undercover operative, taught by his mentors in the Detective Service matures beyond his years but manages to maintain his moral integrity and his instinctive kindness.
As a man who served 17 years in the NYPD and then practiced criminal defense, you obviously have more world experience than your young protagonist. How easy or difficult has it been for you to write from a young man’s more naïve and inexperienced view point?
Johnny sprang from my imagination as the kind of person I would like to have been as a boy facing danger with calm and introspection. A visit to the battle-site at Fredericksburg, VA inspired me to begin writing about that era during assignments while taking on-line writing courses. From there the scenes grew into a full-length novel. Somehow it was easier to use an innocent boy than a more mature young man. It wasn’t unusual for under age boys to volunteer for the army then and readers seemed to relate to a youngster going through all that and growing beyond it. Through both stories he tries to maintain contact with and focus on his neighborhood sweetheart, Deirdre. In “Code Name” he becomes distracted by Letitia, a woman slightly older than he, who forms an attachment to Johnny even though she is connected to the gang and warned about becoming emotionally or romantically involved. Conflicted and unstable she places them both at peril.
Is there a message in your novel/s you want readers to grasp?
Now that I think about it I wanted to show there is more depth to all of us than we realize and often never reach until we are severely tested. Johnny faces adversity in many different situations and emerges from them stronger in character.
What are you reading now?
I just started Michael Connolly’s latest book, THE DROP, having read all of his previous detective and attorney novels. I recently finished C.S. Lewis’s SCREWTAPE LETTERS for a course I’m taking at the Christopher Wren program for Life Long Learning (senior citizens) at William and Mary. In fact I am giving a course there now entitled “Espionage and Counter-Espionage during the Civil War,” based on the research I did for my novels.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
CODE NAME: CALEB, which is the sequel to THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY MADIGAN, posed more of a challenge than my first two books. I have to be careful not to write the same novel twice. My second book, THE CONFIDENTIAL, is a completely different genre. It is a police thriller written while I waited to find a publisher for JOHNNY MADIGAN. It is set in the 1970’s and based on my experiences in the NYPD. The publisher asked for a sequel to the first one and wants a series based on the protagonist in the second. I love to write dialogue and create characters. Devising plots that aren’t tired old clichés is more difficult.
How has your writing process changed as your career has developed?
I write by the seat-of-the-pants method. When I try to outline it just bogs me down. I subscribe to the theory that the characters will tell you what comes next.
The first two books were easier, based either on research or fevered memory. Now it has become harder to plot.
What are your thoughts on marketing and the e-book revolution?
Marketing is by far the hardest part of the whole process. Actually my publisher, BeWrite Books, has moved to a new paradigm. At first they did print and digital releases together. Now they offer authors e-book first with an incentive of higher royalties. If one chooses to have a print version with digital the former royalty scheme applies. I have yielded to their strong advice and opted for e-book first. They have long been proponents of the e-book and do releases in kindle, nook, i-Pad and directly to laptop or PC.
Can you tell us a little about the next writing project you’re working on?
My fourth novel, which I am working on right now, is a sequel to THE CONFIDENTIAL. Keeping in mind all the requirements of plotting to keep the reader enthralled, this project is inching painfully forward. The publisher would like a third “Johnny” story and a series with Dante of THE CONFIDENTIAL. A DEA agent who falls victim to an internal integrity sting, Dante never plumbed the depths of his own susceptibility to dishonesty brought about by disillusionment with his job and life. In the sequel he attempts a return from career exile.
John Bray served 17 years in the NYPD and took early retirement as a lieutenant and prosecutor in the internal disciplinary system. He left to practice criminal defense law in New York. Retired, he lives in Williamsburg, VA. While in the department he earned a BS in Police administration from John Jay College and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School. He is the author of THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY MADIGAN and THE CONFIDENTIAL, full length novels published by BeWrite books, as well as several published short stories.
For more information, go to www.virnadepaul.com