Gold, Gore, and the Catholic Novelist: A Chat with Denise Mallett

December 13, 2021

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Matt Nelson caught up with Catholic writer Denise Mallett to discuss the inspirations behind her work, her writing process, and her new book The Blood. With the print edition just released, The Blood is a sequel to her highly acclaimed first book, The Tree, published in 2021. She is continuing work on a third book in the trilogy.

Denise Mallett (Pierlot) was born and raised in western Canada, the second daughter of Catholic evangelist Mark Mallett. At age thirteen, she began working on her first novel and completed The Tree at age nineteen. In 2015, she found herself on Prince Edward Island, where she met and married native islander Nicholas Pierlot. They are now raising their family in western Canada. 

Matt Nelson: When did you discover you had a gift for writing? Did you grow into your love of writing, or was it there from the very beginning? 

Denise Mallett: I remember thinking in grade three that I wanted to be a writer—around the time I spun out a twelve-page story about a squirrel. I loved words, and I loved the details of stories. Language Arts was always a favorite subject in school—but art even more so. Sketching was my main artistic focus in my younger years; the margins of my math workbooks were crammed with doodles (can’t remember basic algebra for the life of me). But when I was thirteen, my sisters, a cousin, and I entered into a writing craze, which reawakened my old love. Also about this time, I had a dream about a mysterious tree in a mountain village. This launched the first draft of The Tree.

Over the next few years, I stopped and started many times, but something about it kept me coming back until at age seventeen I had this strange feeling that God was calling me to finish the story—and maybe even publish it. Eventually I did. I would say I only realized I had been blessed with a gift once others began sharing how The Tree had impacted them. Also, I don’t really get writer’s block. That doesn’t mean I don’t work myself into confounding corners or fall into gaping holes—but God is always there, pointing me in a new direction, tossing me a rope. It’s truly remarkable—it’s grace.

Who are your chief influences? Which books have most impacted your life?

I devoured Michael O’Brien’s books as a teenager. Like I said, I’ve always loved the details of stories, and Michael is a master at capturing you with the loveliest, haunting details. Several of his books I’ve reread multiple times. Strangers and Sojourners and Island of the World really found their way into my soul. Karen Hancock’s epic series The Guardian King was my first taste of Christian fantasy; my sisters and I read them over and over, until the covers began disintegrating.

In more recent years, I have picked up Flannery O’Connor. At first, I had no idea what to think and didn’t understand what I was reading. But as I kept reading, I began to see the gold hidden beneath the gore. Flannery has helped me to realize that Christian fiction doesn’t need to be sanitized—because life is not sanitized. I believe the Christian writer fails if their story doesn’t meet people where they’re at, doesn’t speak into real pain, into the real wrestlings with God. Reality can be terribly horrifying, but, as Christians, we know we can trust his will even when we don’t understand it.

Just so, I believe a story should have the freedom to include truly horrible events (without succumbing to the gratuitous), because we need only look to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection to show us that even the worst of the worst can be redeemed. His is the greatest story of all time that we can refer to in everything we write. We don’t need to be scared to descend into darkness, as Christ himself descended. Only remember to take his light with you.

Tell us about your first novel, The Tree. What kind of story is it?

Considering I began writing The Tree at age thirteen, it needed many, many rewrites (and could endlessly be revised, in my opinion—but such is the artist’s plight). In fact, when I decided to take it seriously, I scrapped everything but the name and a few characters and began again. I was nineteen when it was published. The Tree is set in a fictional world much like our own, in an era where modern advances are just being explored. It follows two men in their journey across rugged countryside to find a supposed legend; they encounter colorful characters and uncover treachery along the way. It’s a story for the young and old alike, and I hope for the believer and unbeliever alike. It’s also for anyone who has struggled with spiritual dryness, doubt, loss—and for anyone who likes unexpected twists, shocking revelations, and ultimately, the clash of light with darkness.

The Blood is the second book of what you intend to be a trilogy. Did you always plan on writing a sequel to The Tree, or was it something that came to you later on?

Even before The Tree was in print, ideas were brewing for a sequel. I hadn’t originally planned on it, but the wellspring was still flowing (and continues to flow, year after year). I can’t say it’s been a smooth journey—more like whitewater rafting through uncharted wilderness. And I admit, I wanted to ditch the whole thing altogether many times, even close to the end, but several voices along the way encouraged me not to let discouragement or doubt destroy something good. My sister Tianna was an indispensable fellow rider on the river. I feel so blessed to have been gifted with an insightful editor within my own family. My husband Nick has also been an unrelenting support—indeed, I met and married him and birthed two children in the time since I began writing The Blood.

It took a lot of chiseling (one might even say blood, sweat, and tears) to discover the story that God wanted, but I believe I found it (complete with its imperfections, of course). I can only hope that in the years since The Tree was published, I have grown as a writer. The Blood is more political than The Tree, dipping into the difficult subject of ecumenism; it’s also grittier, darker, more nuanced, I think, and doesn’t follow a traditional story arc. I hope it will speak to many in these strange, turbulent times. The reader will find that a third book is now inescapable. I am perhaps most excited about the finale to the trilogy; the scope will be the most ambitious yet. Thankfully, if I’ve learned one thing since taking up writing as a vocation, it’s the importance of crafting a tight outline before actually beginning. Let’s hope the third book doesn’t take so long.

What advice would you give to budding writers who would like to serve the kingdom of God in a creative, imaginative capacity?

If you truly believe you have a gift and a call to write, I would say several things: ask God what/why/how he wants you to write; push through the dry seasons (write when you’re not feeling inspired because it works the muscle); welcome critics to tear apart your work (that’s right, hand your baby over); and invest time in well-written novels, as well as in guides on improving your writing (such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King).

Ernest Hemingway said: “You shouldn’t write if you can’t write.” I do believe it takes more than a good story to write a good book; the language itself is what holds much of the power to imprint a person for the rest of their life. Hearing the words “you are beautiful” can mean everything or nothing depending on how it is spoken. Therefore, I believe the Christian writer has the duty to hone their trade so that they may better reveal God’s truth, goodness, and beauty. I don’t think Jesus just made chairs; he must have made beautiful chairs. Accept and embrace that it’s a process to find your voice and learn the difference between satisfactory and stellar. It can be painful. An artist will always look back and see flaws in their earlier work. But take heart—it means you’ve grown.

You can find out more about Denise Mallett and her work at DeniseMallett.com