Today it is my great pleasure to interview one of my favorite newly discovered authors, Judith Rock, author of the Charles du Luc mysteries, set in 17th-century Paris.
For many years a modern dancer and choreographer, Judith Rock founded Body and Soul Dance Company in Berkeley, California, toured extensively with the company and as a solo concert dancer, and studied baroque dance. Research for her Ph.D. in art and theology took her to Paris, where she researched the 17th- and 18th-century ballets produced at the Paris Jesuit College of Louis le Grand.
In a startling leap, Rock then spent several years as a police officer before taking that experience back to the stage as a playwright and actress. Rock has written on dance, art, and theology for many journals and taught and lectured at colleges, seminaries, and conferences across the United States and abroad. The Rhetoric of Death, her first Charles du Luc book, was a 2011 Barry Awards nominee. After several years in New York, Judith now lives in Sarasota, Fl., and when not writing takes care of injured birds at Save Our Seabirds.
SAT: Your bio includes a wide variety of careers and interests, ranging from modern dance to theology to work as a police officer. All of these interests come together marvelously in the Charles du Luc series, but I’m curious to know what drew you to police work after a career in the arts.
JR: There’s lots to say about that, but I’ll try to keep it short. I was living in NYC, had had some dance injuries, and could see the end of my performing career coming. I started noticing female NYPD officers on the street and wondering what doing that job was like for a woman. I knew that when I stopped performing, I didn’t want to do something tame—dancing is very untame. Physically and in other ways, the dancer steps off the edge into the unknown every time she goes onstage. As does the choreographer every time she makes a new dance.
So I followed my curiosity about those NYPD women and over the course of seven years was a volunteer officer and then sergeant in the NYPD Auxiliary Unit, doing street patrol; a reserve officer and later the first female part-time officer (state certified, sworn and armed) in the Northfield, Minnesota police department—while teaching full-time in a college dance department there. (I worked a lot of midnight shifts!) Then I decided to try for a full-time police job and went through a police academy in Florida, where I’m from. Before the end of the training, I knew that full-time police work wasn’t my future—I was forty-nine, my knees had had enough, and there were too many ways I didn’t fit in that world. But I finished the academy, one of only two women who made it through to graduation. We had to run every day, and on the last run, I was, as usual, near the end of the line. As my young fellow recruits passed on their return loop, they high-fived me, chanting, “Judith, dancer, doesn’t quit, doesn’t quit…”
After all that, I took what I’d learned back to the stage in a commissioned one-woman show called Response Time. I was invited to do the show at a statewide meeting of the Minnesota Association of Women Police. It was the scariest performance I’ve ever done–me, with my small experience, doing a show about being a cop for several hundred career police officers? There’s a part of the show about getting to the scene of a chaotic police call: “I get out of the car, and pieces of life script are blowing around my feet. As though some library had decayed and collapsed, and forgotten languages lie there in the street, along with the candy wrappers and ATM receipts and broken umbrellas…” I didn’t know what my audience would make of that kind of allusive language. During the questions afterwards, a soft-spoken sheriff’s deputy from rural northern Minnesota raised her hand. She said, “You know that part where you get to a call, and you feel like everything’s collapsed and pieces of life-script are blowing around your feet? I thought I was the only cop in the world who felt like that.” I burst into tears. I felt like my life as an artist had been justified.
The end of the story is that, after a performance in NYC, a wonderful woman came backstage and said, “I love the writing in your play. I’m a literary agent. What else are you working on?” And that’s how I started writing fiction.
Jesuit ballet character Fire (from The Sopron Collection via Judith’s website)
SAT: Tell us a bit about your view of the connections between dance and theology, something that appears central to your life’s work as well as to your character Charles.
JR: I think that the deepest human need is the need to make meaning out of being alive, and that making meaning is our deepest human ability. As I understand art and theology, both are human attempts to do that. The choreographer might find a vulnerable turn of the dancer’s neck in a moment of stillness that makes an audience see its own vulnerability and catch its breath in recognition. The theologian might articulate a systematic theology in which thought and feeling almost embrace in the effort to communicate God. The common thing is making meaning. I don’t mean that art or dance needs a religious intent. I do mean that an artist worth his salt is digging deep into what it is to be human.
I’m also interested in how artists and theologians have gone about all this in different times and places. The 17th century ballets produced in Jesuit schools are part of the Charles du Luc books because the ballets were an effort to communicate and teach Christian humanism through a cultural art form.
One thing I love about dance is that intense physicality brings us face to face with physical reality—its glory and its unchangeable limits. That’s a useful antidote to the cultural silliness about “overcoming” everything we don’t like—from weak abs to death. St. Francis called his body “Brother Ass,” and no one knows the truth of that better than dancers!
SAT: What is the writing process like for you?
JR: I write because I love language and have a good ear and memory for it. I can’t remember from one time to the next how to change a printer cartridge, but I can probably tell you what you said two years ago about popcorn or hurricanes or pot belly pigs… I love reading the Oxford English Dictionary, because it gives a word’s background and development and what it used to mean. I wrote art and theology articles and a couple of books while I was dancing and after, but didn’t think seriously of writing fiction until I did the one-woman show mentioned above.
I’ve found that the way I hear language helps enormously in writing characters. Speech rhythm (along with how different people move) helps me differentiate and define my characters. When I’m working on a book, I have to read it out loud—usually to my long suffering husband, or even just to myself. I don’t know if the words are right until I feel them in my mouth and hear them.
SAT: Once the first Charles du Luc novel was written, how did you go about finding a road to publication?
JR: My literary agent is the wonderful woman who came backstage after a performance of Response Time. Without her, what I wrote wouldn’t have gone anywhere. I wrote two novels which didn’t get bought, and kept waiting for her to say, okay, we tried, that’s it, goodbye. But she didn’t. She said, ‘Take what you learned and write another one.” Ten years after we met, she sold The Rhetoric of Death, the first Charles book, to Berkley/Penguin. There aren’t enough words in the OED to thank her.
SAT: How did you go about researching Jesuit life in the time of Louis XIV?
JR: I did my doctoral research in Paris in the mid-80’s, and that became (years later and to my great surprise!) the basis for the Charles books. My dissertation focused on the Jesuits’ use of baroque dance in their boys’ school in Paris, called Louis le Grand, and Louis le Grand became the main setting for the books. Part of Charles’s job as a rhetoric teacher is—as it really would have been—helping to produce the baroque ballets, because they were considered physical rhetoric. (Rhetoric meant, as it still does, communication, without any negative spin.)
As I’ve written the four Charles books and the novella, I’ve gone on doing research, on Paris as it was then, who lived there, how they lived, what they believed, what they wore, what they ate, what songs they sang, what they drank, how they saw the political and religious issues of their time, and on and on. I kept a large period map of Paris laid out on a table in my study all the time I was writing. When Charles went outside Louis le Grand, I went to the map.
As I see it, if the period world in a historical novel isn’t right, the characters won’t work, and the story probably won’t, either. I’ve tried to make the people in my books real people of their time, not mine. (One of the hardest things to do was to let Charles have a few fleas and fewer baths!) My characters can’t be democratic liberals, feminists, religiously tolerant, champions of gay rights, or many other things the twenty-first century author may be or value. They can think and argue about some of those things, but only on their own terms and within the truth of their time. They really weren’t just us in costumes!
I made a research trip back to Paris when I was working on the fourth Charles book. Otherwise, I’ve worked with the mass of primary and secondary material I already had, and have also gathered a small library on the social and material history of the 17th century. I also gathered experts for the books: specialists who would answer occasional questions about baroque dance technique, 17th century French cultural history, and Jesuit life and history, when I either couldn’t figure something out or didn’t have time to track it down. The whole process of putting together Charles’s world has been a deep delight!
SAT: I love the way you portray religious tensions between Catholic and Huguenot in the first Charles du Luc book. What inspired you to give Charles Huguenot relations? And what inspired you to place his origins in southern France rather than Paris?
JR: The Louis le Grand Jesuits produced several ballets about the violent Catholic-Protestant conflict of their time—from, of course, the Catholic side of the struggle. At the same time, many Protestant families sent their sons to Jesuit schools because the education offered was so good. So the religious division was present inside the schools, as well as outside. Protestants were especially numerous and strong in the south of France—Nîmes, the town nearest Charles’s family land, was a major Protestant center. Many families in that region would have included people of both religions, and as a Catholic, Charles would have had the experience of being in the minority there. From my husband’s career in inter-religious relations, I knew something about the feelings and fears of religiously mixed families. I wanted Charles to know that family conflict and those feelings and fears, to help him to see and love and take risks beyond his own religious commitments.
SAT: Charles is such an engaging character. How did you go about developing his personality?
JR: First, thank you for that compliment to Charles! Where characters come from is very odd. For me, they show up in so many ways. They’re visions, wishes, fears, memories, psychological projections, exorcisms, nakedly practical solutions to some need or problem in the book being written, descendents of characters in other books read and loved…
At the most superficial level, Charles is a lovely vision of a handsome man! Not being myself a man, I borrowed his “maleness” from men I’ve known—friends, my husband, students, fellow dancers, Jesuits—and also from a rag bag of things I happen to love about men. And no, I’m not elaborating on those!
I made him intelligent because I like intelligent people—and also so that he would hold my interest through several books. And, of course, he had to be intelligent to be a Jesuit—that’s one of the many things I’ve enjoyed and respected in Jesuits I’ve known. I gave Charles a strong sense of humor because I’m always suspicious if humor is absent, especially humor about self and religion—where humor is absent, humility probably is, too.
He struggles repeatedly with obedience, but without rejecting it, and that’s perhaps the most “countercultural” thing about the novels. Obedience is a very negative word in twenty-first century American culture. But Charles is a thinking and independent man who has chosen to be a Jesuit, chosen to be formed by a spirituality that demands very serious obedience. So he wrestles, sometimes refuses to obey, and grows, and I think that helps make him attractive to contemporary readers. Because I have as much trouble with obedience as most of us do, I had to find a personal way into writing Charles’s struggle with obedience. I used my own lifelong struggle to obey my vocation as an artist to do that.
There are many other things about who Charles is, but I’ll finish with just one. Madame du Luc, his always offstage mother, is demanding, generous, and funny, and has certainly shaped who her son is. She simply showed up while I was writing the first book, and I’m not sure where she came from. But I think she may be an ancestor of Peter Wimsey’s mother in Dorothy Sayers’ novels.
SAT: What’s next for Charles? I hope there is a fifth novel in the works!
JR: Sadly, The Whispering of Bones was the last Charles book. I had hoped to write one more, but the publisher felt that Charles wasn’t bringing them enough profit. The books will continue to be available, and I hope readers will go on discovering Charles and his world.
I’m about to send off the ms. of a contemporary mystery, set in an imagined town in south central Florida, whose heroine is a female police officer. And I’m working on two other books: a contemporary literary novel, and a 12th century historical novel, which begins in the pilgrimage town of Conques, ends in Paris, and draws together French and English characters—both real and imagined.
SAT: I’m sorry to say good-bye to Charles, but look forward to reading your next books. Thank you so much for visiting here on the blog!
Visit Judith’s website at http://www.judithrock.com for a complete list of the Charles du Luc novels, plus fascinating details about Jesuit ballet and other fun facts about life in 17th-century Paris.