Richard Dooling is a lawyer who lives in Omaha and commutes online to Bryan Cave, LLP, in St. Louis, where he specializes in developing web-based legal products. He is also the author of five books: Blue Streak (on swearing, speech codes, and other such matters) and four novels, the most recent of which is Bet Your Life (HarperCollins), an homage to noir classics such as Double Indemnity. Dooling is currently collaborating with Stephen King on a forthcoming television series, Kingdom Hospital. This interview was conducted via e-mail.
Let's start out by boldly going where most reviewers didn't. Bet Your Life is a detective story, but it's also more than that. It looks at death and damnation and the problem of belief in the modern world. Is this your most Catholic novel to date?
I begin every novel with the vow that I will not write about technology, Catholicism, or hell. As you know, I end up writing about all three. They just happen to be personal obsessions of mine. However, the next novel will not deal with any of them.
The most interesting character to me is someone who is stuck in the no man's land between Belief and Unbelief, Faith and Faithlessness. I'm capitalizing like a German, but it doesn't matter whether it's faith in a person or in God, or belief in science or whatever, it's the desperate in-between state that makes for interesting dramatic tension.
As for most Catholic novel to date? Mmm. Chapter 12 in White Man's Grave, where one of the protagonists goes to morning mass and confession for the first time in 40 years, is definitely my most Catholic chapter, but perhaps I might agree that in terms of direct references to Catholicism (as opposed to belief in the soul or Christianity), Bet Your Life has the most, simply because the main characters are all Catholics or fallen-away types.
What's you religious background?
Catholic. I wasn't educated by the Jesuits as much as I was raised by them. If they discover a Jesuit DNA someday, they will be able to just draw my blood and marvel at the 11 years of indoctrination I had and wonder if I can still hum a tune without considering man's place in the universe.
The interesting legal issue that this novel turns on is the sale of viaticals—where a third party buys the life insurance policy of a still-living but not-long-for-this-world individual at a fraction of the policy's value, and then collects when the original policy holder expires. Stepping outside your story for a minute, are viaticals a good idea?
Theoretically they are a good idea. The sensible solution to the problems inherent in what's called the "secondary market" for life insurance policies is for the companies themselves to offer what's called an Accelerated Benefits option. That way the issuer of the policy maintains control of the policy and the transactions associated with it. Otherwise, buying and selling what amounts to options on a person's life is, as one of the characters in Bet Your Life observes, "an engraved invitation to start a fraud farm."
Viaticals are legal and when closely regulated, probably a good idea, but Accelerated Benefits is a much better idea. Some companies offer this option already, and I believe the impetus came from the widespread viatical fraud that ambushed the companies in the 90s.
How long did Bet Your Life take to produce?
About six to nine months of writing and rewriting. I wanted to take a crack at a "pure story" and a noirish mystery, so I intentionally kept research to a minimum, as opposed to, say, a book like Brain Storm, which required months of research into neuroscience and the First Amendment, among other topics.
One should be careful about attributing the thoughts of fictional characters to their creators, but I get the feeling that the narrators or main characters of your novels are stand-ins for yourself.
All characters are the author, it goes without saying. I try to make my main characters or narrators as nondescript and everyman-ish as possible so that the reader has someone they can comfortably inhabit, while the extreme minor characters come on- and offstage and try to convince the protagonist (and the reader) to accept their extreme ideologies.
Of the characters you've breathed life into, which one is your favorite?
That's tough. Probably Randall Killigan (White Man's Grave) or Judge Stang (Brain Storm).
On politics, you regularly describe the increasingly suffocating role that the law is playing in society. You have also staked out some fairly hard- line stands against affirmative action and hate-crime laws. I've heard you described as a libertarian.
I'm a libertarian. The only thing more offensive than a Trent Lott Republican is a Bill Clinton Democrat.
Where did your obsession with swearing come from?
It's an obsession with words, not swearing. Swearing is just an especially bracing and dangerous vocabulary varietal. Let me recommend a site to you and your readers: Paul McFedries' Logophilia.com. It's the best thing going on the Internet for new and interesting words and expressions.
How did Stephen King learn of your work?
Stephen King quoted two passages from Brain Storm in his book On Writing, which is really the writing autobiography of the world's best-selling writer (with just the right amount of how-to thrown in). But I think before that he had also read Critical Care and White Man's Grave. I don't know how he found the first one. Except he reads more than anyone else I know, sees more movies, and listens to more music. I don't think he sleeps. Not to my knowledge.
Tell me a little bit about the forthcoming Dooling/King collaboration.
I would call it a King/Dooling/King collaboration (I just write the middle episodes). Kingdom Hospital is a series tentatively scheduled for the fall of 2003 on ABC. It is an adaptation of the Lars van Trier Danish TV series of the same name. One critic has described it as Twin Peaks meets ER, which is fair. It's funny and scary. Who could ask for more?
Jeremy Lott is the production director for The Report, a Canadian Magazine of news and opinion.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Books of the Year | The top ten. (OK—make that twelve.) (Dec. 30, 2002)
Entertain Us | Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and the rapture of distress. (Dec. 16, 2002)
Boys Will Be Boys | A new book by a leading Christian feminist scholar inadvertently reveals the flawed assumptions underlying much talk about "flexibility" in gender roles. (Dec. 9, 2002)
Street Cred | Dave Eggers: The portrait of an artist as a … what? (Dec.2, 2002)
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
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