For 27 years, Deb worked as a journalist in the Deep South. Then she retrained as a Baptist pastor and became a pastor at the Triune Mercy Center in downtown Greenville, South Carolina. Her memoir, The Weight of Mercy, tells the moving story of that career and life change.
Here Deb chats with us about her new book, what inspired her to start the Branigan Powers Mystery series and her amazing work at the Triune Mercy Center.
What started you on the path to writing the Branigan Powers Mystery series?
My first editor at Lion Hudson asked if I was interested in writing a sequel to The Weight of Mercy, my memoir about pastoring a church to the homeless. I told him no, but I’d always wanted to write a murder mystery! Lion Fiction took me on and asked me to set up the mystery as a series.
I combined two of my “lives,” so to speak, in the series. Branigan is a newspaper reporter, as I was for 27 years, and she lives and works in northeast Georgia. That’s a part of the country where my grandparents had a farm and I spent many summers. And Malachi is homeless, which allows me to bring in the community in which I now work.
How did you come up with the idea of using ‘creepy clown’ sightings in Death of a Jester?
This actually happened several years ago in many areas of the United States, maybe abroad, too. Greenville, SC, where I live, had a large number of reported sightings. Nothing ever came of them, but that’s where I jumped off and thought, “What if….?”
If you had to solve a mystery, what character from Death of a Jesterwould you choose to help you and why?
Definitely Malachi because he would bring an outlook unlike mine. As I say a lot in the series, he sees things that aren’t there rather than things that are.
Homelessness is a theme you touch upon in all of your Branigan Powers Mystery books. Can you tell us a little about your work as pastor of Triune Mercy Center?
Triune is a non-denominational church in a fast-growing Southern city. We serve some hot meals, and offer a food pantry and laundry services, but mostly we concentrate on radical welcome and giving people the tools to move forward. So we have social workers, drug rehab placement, attorneys, medical resources, outreach to the jails, programs for sexually traumatized women, art, music, drama and Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. We recently helped to launch a safe house for sexually traumatized women. We invite the people we serve to turn around and serve each other by volunteering at the church.
My first Branigan Powers book, The Cantaloupe Thief, literally grew out of a comment made to me by a homeless man. He said, “Pastor, do you know the worst thing about being homeless? It’s not being cold or wet or hungry. The worst thing about being homeless is being looked right through.” That started my thinking about what “being looked right through” might mean in regards to a murder mystery. What might these invisible people see? What might they know? I felt it was a population that is not dealt with in many books because few writers know about it.
If your novel were being made into a movie, whom would you pick to play Branigan Powers and Malachi?
This is a funny question because a Hollywood producer once contacted me about making The Weight of Mercy into a movie or TV series. All my friends who are mentioned in the book went into great detail about who they wanted to play them. Of course, it never transpired.
But for Branigan and Malachi, I’d need to go younger! Maybe Claire Danes or Sandra Bullock for Branigan, and Jamie Foxx or Michael B. Jordan for Malachi. Michael’s a little young, but maybe they could scruff him up to look older.
What does your writing space look like?
My writing space is a very cheerful sunroom, with five uncovered windows that look onto my back yard. Above my desk are framed family photos, caricatures of my younger daughter and me given to us by friends, a painting from Key West, and two bulletin boards with beach scenes. I find that I need the room to be a place where I want to go.
What have been your most rewarding experiences as an author?
I would say the opportunities to meet readers. I’ve spoken at Harvard University, churches from the Carolinas to New York, and book clubs. I never knew there were so many book clubs, and the idea that they are choosing one of my books, reading it together, and often having me visit never ceases to amaze and thrill me.