Why do you write?
I try to make sense of the world in all of my writing. In sermons for my congregation, I hold up current events, technological innovations, and cultural trends, and then try to interpret them with the wisdom of the Bible. This, I believe, is the preaching style of Jesus, who usually taught by telling parables that were based in real-world situations.
In my essays and articles for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post, I have tried to write about religion and culture from the perspective of a Christian who takes the Bible seriously but not literally. In debates so often dominated by the voices of people holding extreme positions—on the right or the left—I think society needs to hear a Christian position that comes not from intellectuals or activists, but from a pastor doing day-to-day ministry in an actual congregation.
What inspired you to write City of Peace?
I am deeply troubled by the polarization of life in America today, with politicians and citizens of Red States and Blue States spewing vitriol at each other and showing little interest in finding common ground. At the same time, we Americans are embroiled in immigration debates, struggling with life among diverse cultures and faiths, and facing the threat of global terrorism. If there is any hope for building bridges across the divides of politics, culture and religion, I believe it will come through a new vision of our life together—the kind of vision that is better found in a story than a debate.
Why is the novel set in Occoquan, Virginia?
Founded in 1734, Occoquan was an industrial town on the Occoquan River through most of its history. In 1860, as Virginia was preparing to secede from the Union, many people in Occoquan took a countercultural stand by showing strong support for Abraham Lincoln. Today, the town is a mixture of old buildings and new development, with wine bars and gift shops replacing old boat yards and mills. Although it remains small, with only about one thousand residents, it is close to Washington, DC, and is becoming an increasingly multicultural community, with whites, blacks, Latinos and immigrants from the Middle East filling the streets each day. Because of Occoquan’s mixture of cultures and its proximity to the Nation’s Capital, I felt that it was a perfect setting for City of Peace.
What contemporary issues does the novel explore?
The threat of international terrorism appears at the very beginning of the book, as pastor Harley Camden suffers the loss of his wife and daughter in a European attack. As he moves to Occoquan, full of grief and anger, he is faced with the mysterious murder of the daughter of the local baker, an Iraqi immigrant, which rachets up his suspicion of Muslims. But then, when the threat of an attack by Islamic extremists emerges, Harley is challenged to overcome his anger enough to build bridges to his neighbors, including Muslims and Coptic Christians, and to find a path to security and peace in his interfaith community. Along the way, he digs into the history of the ancient Galilean city of Sepphoris to find the secret to survival in a fractured and violent world.
City of Peace isa murder mystery. Why did you choose write in this genre?
A murder in a small town sends shock waves through the entire community, raising everyone’s anxiety and deepening the divisions that already exist between people of different races, faiths and nationalities. The death of Norah Bayati, the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, becomes an engine to drive this story of how Harley and his neighbors handle issues of immigration, terrorism, and interfaith relations in a highly polarized society. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that solving the mystery of her death is a key to overcoming fear, anxiety, and suspicion in Occoquan, as well as being a building block in the efforts of the community to save itself from an emerging terrorist threat.
What was your writing process for City of Peace?
The writing of this novel has been a true labor of love, and the Town of Occoquan has been my muse throughout the process. The writing was done on days off from my work as pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church, and my favorite place to write was a turret in a corner of my Victorian home, overlooking the ever-changing colors of the Occoquan River. When I needed a break, I left the house and walked the streets of the town, looking around and thinking about what the characters in the book would see and say and do. There is always something going on in this small town, with people eating and drinking in restaurants, shopping in art galleries, and kayaking on the river. I never fail to be inspired by what I see and hear, and my walks around town always gave me new ideas about how to advance the story of Harley and his neighbors.
What research was required for the writing of City of Peace?
Information about the Galilean city of Sepphoris came from my Duke professors Eric and Carol Meyers, who did extensive archaeological digs on the site. The Mill Street Museum in the Town of Occoquan has excellent descriptions of the history of the town, and I am grateful for the resources they provided me. In addition, newspapers such as The Washington Post have done articles on Occoquan over the years, and there is a wealth of material about the town to be found online. Books such as Birds of Virginia, a field guide by Stan Tekiela, have been helpful in spotting and describing the many birds that fly around the river and town, and appear throughout the novel. My college roommate Jay Tharp, a former federal prosecutor, reviewed the book to point out places where I might have misunderstood criminal law. Of course, since this is a work of fiction, I have not felt constrained by the actual history of Occoquan and the region around it. For example, there is no stockpile of biological weapons at Fort Belvoir on the Potomac River, at least none that has ever been reported to the public.
Your main character, Harley Camden, is a Methodist pastor. You are a Presbyterian minister. How are you two alike, and different?
Harley and I are both white men in our fifties who participated in Duke archaeological digs in the Galilee region of Israel in the 1980s. We are also pastors in mainline Christian denominations who try to find a middle ground between the extreme right and the radical left, both politically and theologically. In addition, we are both residents of Occoquan, and enjoy taking our boats out for cruises on the Occoquan and Potomac Rivers. But in several important ways, we are different. I did not grow up as a military dependent, being moved around the world by the Department of Defense. Thankfully, I have not lost loved ones to terrorist attacks, so I have never fallen into Harley’s abyss of grief and anger. And as a Presbyterian, I am not given parish assignments by a Methodist bishop, so I could never be moved against my will to a small parish in a town such as Occoquan.
What have you learned about yourself by writing City of Peace?
After decades of writing non-fiction sermons, articles, essays and books, I have discovered that I love the process of writing fiction. I enjoy letting my imagination take me to places that I would never go in my work as a parish pastor. Yes, I have always tried to be a good story-teller in my preaching and teaching, but the construction of such narratives has always been in service to a larger point. With the writing of City of Peace, I had the opportunity to let the story unfold according to its own internal logic, and to allow the interaction of the characters to drive the plot. While there are certainly some important religious issues being explored in the novel, they emerge from the narrative itself. After so many years of working hard to make my points as a preacher and teacher, I am now letting my creativity move in a different direction, one which allows the story to speak for itself.
What is next for you? Will you do a sequel to City of Peace?
Yes, I am already at work on a sequel, another Mill Street Mystery called Windows of the Heavens. Harley Camden will return, as will many of the other characters from City of Peace. The story begins with a devastating flood that does terrible damage to Occoquan, including the destruction of a small building containing a candle shop and an apartment. In the wreckage of the building is found the disfigured body of a young Latino with numerous tattoos and a crude and bloody carving of Satan’s claws. Harley runs into a coven of witches and experiences a series of health crises as he tries to uncover the forces behind the young man’s violent death and the town’s terrible flood.