“IT ALL BEGAN with a faulty fuel line, you see. Why didn’t I just keep riding past? You be the judge. Pull up a chair and help me figure it out. Because as God is my witness, I still don’t understand all of it.” That’s how Christian Moerk‘s third novel — his first published in America — begins. From there, the action of Darling Jim, an exciting modern folk tale that’s set in small-town Ireland, quickly unfolds. Two sisters (and quite possibly a third) have been imprisoned and then killed by a crazy reclusive aunt. So what drove her to do it? A diary left behind by the eldest sister, Fiona, points to Jim Quick, the charming, secretly sadistic man who they were all in love with.
Flavorpill: Where did you get the idea for Darling Jim?
Christian Moerk: I really began with the opening scene — with the idea that something happened in this house. I had come across an article in an Irish newspaper years ago about three elderly women and much older aunt who had died in a house. They were shut-ins, reclusive, and it turned out they had starved themselves to death. It was sort of a quasi-religious thing.
I thought that wasn’t really the story that I wanted to tell, but what if it were different? What if something else had happened in the house? What if you had this revenge situation? What would that look like? And what would the reasoning be? Well, you would have to seek that reason in these people’s collective past. What ended in murder began many years earlier. With a love story. And that’s where my story began. So I was telling it in reverse.
FP: The story is quite layered and complicated. How did you get started?
CM: Every time I write a novel, I write a very detailed and lengthy treatment. I can always change some of it, but then I have my own emotional faith too, that I can finish it, and that I know what I’m doing. I believe if you write novels more than once, that is, for a living, and you want others to enjoy them, you have to have a treatment, some kind of skeleton that you’re writing from. I don’t care what you call it, or how long it is, but something where you know here’s the beginning, here’s the middle, here’s the end. I maybe overdo it a bit because I write a novel every year right now. So I have it pretty straightened out, so that at least if there are surprises, I can deal with them as they come.
FP: There are so many genres at play. Is that something you meant to do?
CM: I think it’s totally by accident. I didn’t want to write a crime novel. I just wanted to tell a story. I don’t usually read crime because they’re predicated on one thing — namely, that I should be interested in who the killer is. And I’m usually not so much. It becomes a police procedural, and there are clues, and “whoops, they’re wrong, it’s not the killer.” I’m more interested in who the victims are. That’s why the story is like this.
You sort of know pretty quickly what’s going on. You know pretty quickly who the bad guy is. But that’s not the story here. Rather it is this: if you know who the bad guy is, how can you like him so much? That’s why there are so many genres, because I start, in a way, backwards. I start by telling you who the storyteller within my narrative is — namely Jim. By putting those folk tales into this modern story, you’re naturally going to have lots of different genres at work here: modern folk tale, love story, murder mystery, contemporary social study. I had to do it that way.
FP: Were you a fan of folklore going in?
CM: Being from Denmark, you’re steeped in it. It’s like being Irish. You know it’s there. You can reach out and touch it, but you’re not really aware of it all of the time.
FP: Why set the story in Ireland instead of Denmark?
CM: You can’t really set the story in Denmark, Germany, or France. The society, the way it’s structured in Ireland still, is very parochial and conservative in many ways. The Church still has, according to the size of country, a disproportionate importance in people’s lives that it doesn’t have in all of the other Western democracies. Which is why legend, and family, and punishment, and redemption and loyalty and all these themes become very different in a society WHICH, until not that many years ago, put “unruly” young women to work for the Church like slave labor. They just put them away to work in something called the laundries. You’d have unmarried women with children or women who were “promiscuous,” and you’d put them away where nuns would work them to the bone for years. They’d be scrubbing other people’s shirts until their fingers bled. It is a very different kind of society — that I happen to love very much — but in many ways, it’s not that long ago, some of these things. That’s why I thought, I’m going to tell the story of three women, and not three men. Three women who in this society react by fighting back. That was very attractive to me.
FP: Can you talk a little about how you came up with the Walsh sisters?
CM: I went to Ireland about two and a half years ago and walked around the countryside in the town where it takes place. I do that all the time; I’m privileged enough where I go to the actual countries and places where my stories take place. I walk the routes that my characters walk, and as I do that I meet real people. I meet real people who live in those towns. That’s how these three women appeared to me — they literally appeared in the street. Three girls walking down the street, bullshitting with each other. Yelling and screaming and having fun, and I just thought, OK, I got ’em.
Once I started writing the first sister — who had to be the sensible one — then when I came to the first dinner scene at their aunt’s house, the other two just came to me. The punky goth smaller sister and her twin. Once I had just written that, they came to me.
FP: You’re in Ireland writing about dark subject matter. Did it start to affect you?
CM: I was very excited to be in Ireland. I knew as I start to write it and I sat in Ireland that it would take on a life of its own, because I was in the place where it was happening. I never got scared myself, because I never jump on the other side of the glass window. I know that I’m the one doing the show; I’m not the audience. I’m the performer.
But what it did for me is I could really put myself in the position of three 21-year-old women without feeling like a total idiot, being a 41-year-old man at the time. I can imagine what this is because I could walk out everyday and hear them talk to each other. I know how they really sound and I can imagine what they might feel. I showed it to my Irish women friends in Western Ireland, Belfast, and Dublin, and they all said this seems like it could have been written by an Irish person. And I said thank you, that’s all I wanted. It had to seem like it was real.
FP: Jim Quick, the “Darling Jim” of the title. How did you come up with him?
CM: I think he’s inspired by the fact that you have male murderers in prison who keep getting marriage proposals. All the time. I always thought, Ted Bundy, marriage proposal?! There are women who say, “but I can change him,” “you don’t know him like I know him,” or “there’s a hidden part to the guy that’s charming and sweet.” I’m sure that’s true also. I don’t think these people are necessarily deluded. I just think if you’re in love with someone, especially these dangerous men, they will always find someone who they can convince that they’re actually good people, when they’re actually savage murderers.
So I thought, let’s take it all the way here and have him charm an entire countryside, and have a few women sort of have the veil ripped from their eyes and say, “Wait a minute. This isn’t true. This man is a savage person inside. No one can see it and we have to convince them.” Once I made that choice, it was an answer to all of those stories where you read in the papers every day. Savage killers, rapists, crazy violent types who are just adored by some women. I wondered what the psychology was with that. What I came to, is that it’s not ignorance, it’s belief. It’s hope against hope. You believe that everyone deserves a second chance, and that’s Jim Quick’s stock in trade. He knows that people are generally inherently good, and so he takes that and he uses that. It’s the sociopath’s ultimate gift: charm.