Interview by my publisher, Lion Hudson

Deb Richardson-Moore is the author of the addictive Branigan Powers Mystery series. Titles in the series include: The Cantaloupe ThiefThe Cover Story, and Death of a Jester.

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 Mercymy 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.

Novel in progress

I finished a novel this winter — a stand-alone, darker and more brooding than the Branigan Powers series. It’s called “Murder, Forgotten.”

Now I’m looking for an agent. The only thing keeping me sane is those stories of writers who were turned down 40, 50, 60 times before an agent took a chance.

I cannot wait to write that blog!

 

Meeting Malachi

As many of you know, a homeless encampment plays a big part in my Branigan Powers mystery series. Malachi Ezekiel Martin is a homeless veteran who often sees and hears things that others don’t because homeless people “are looked right through.”

What you may not know is I based Malachi on a man I know who spent 35 years on the streets. I met Sippio in 2005 when I became pastor of Triune Mercy Center, a church that ministers to homeless people in Greenville, SC.  He was always the last in line to eat, and the first to jump up to carry out trash or mop the dining room floor. He was also kind, exceedingly kind.

Those were attributes I used when I began to create the character Malachi. He meets the reporter, Branigan, in The Cantaloupe Thief  when the pair attempt to solve a 10-year-old murder in Grambling, Georgia. They reunite in The Cover Story to solve the deaths of two college students. In Death of a Jester, available now on Amazon, I decided it was time to explore why such a smart man was living on the street. And so in this third book, the reader will learn what happened to Malachi in the Gulf War that led to his drinking — and eventually to his life in Grambling’s homeless encampment.

Sippio, of course, didn’t serve in the military nor does he drink or solve murder mysteries. But he continues to worship at Triune, has obtained housing and bought a car.  And now he has a book dedicated to him. Here’s what the dedication page of Jester says: To Sippio, who taught me what kindness looks like on the street. 

 

Launch Party!!

Please join us on July 13, 2017, at a drop-in to launch The Cover Story at Fiction Addiction, 1175 Woods Crossing Road, in Greenville, SC.

The store is in a shopping strip adjacent to the Haywood Mall parking lot on the Belk’s side, so there’s plenty of parking. We’ll have wine and beer, soft drinks and food. Come and meet your friends between 5:30 and 8 PM, chat with me, and get your signed copy of Branigan and Malachi’s latest adventure. It seems that someone in Grambling, Georgia, is trying awfully hard to cover up a murder, so the unlikely pair is back together.

It won’t be a party without you!

And more

It’s fun to go onto my Author Central page on Amazon.com. Every week there are new reviews from readers who have just discovered Branigan and Malachi and what they’re up to in Grambling, Georgia.

Here are a few I just read:

The Cantaloupe Thief is part cozy mystery, part southern fiction, and part eye-opener. The cozy mystery and southern fiction aspects are fairly obvious – amateur sleuth, loyal pet, small town in Georgia. But Deb Richardson-Moore takes us deeper than either of those genres usually dare to go by giving us a glimpse into the lives of those who so often remain invisible – the homeless and the addicted.

This was a top notch mystery! Hard as I would try, I couldn’t guess what was coming next or who the murderer was!

This is a well-written, perfectly paced mystery that grows in both intensity and depth with every turn of the page! I have been captured from the first page to the last by the smooth prose and the fully-formed and richly layered characters of this story.

Thanks to all the readers who take the time to read and comment.

Why I wrote The Weight of Mercy

Weight of Mercy Book

My seminary dean once told me that divinity school is a lot like the counseling profession. Troubled people become therapists, he said. Folks hurt by religion enroll in seminary.

“So what we do,” he said, “is graduate a lot of educated, broken people.”

I’m not sure a memoirist is much different: We explore difficult or hurtful areas of our lives in search of … something.  Meaning, maybe. Clarity. Direction.

In my case, I wrote The Weight of Mercy because the memories of the most traumatic three years of my life were fading.  I was glad to see them go, but I wanted those memories to teach me something. And so I wrote.

The book is about my landing, fresh out of seminary, as pastor of a mission church to the homeless. As a longtime writer for The Greenville News and an occasional contributor to the Greenville Journal, I thought I knew Greenville. I thought I knew its issues. I thought I knew its poverty. I was mistaken.

The Triune Mercy Center flattened me. I was like one of those bop-a-clowns with sand in the bottom. Punch it and it bounces back upright. That was me – until I got to Triune.

My experiences among the homeless and drug addicted and alcoholic and mentally ill and mentally challenged staggered me. This was a population I scarcely knew existed, hidden under bridges and in abandoned buildings and in the woods. The surreal combination of everyday niceties and casual violence, of generosity and endless begging, of surprising compassion and shocking abuse upended my balance. As I explored my horror and distaste, my nightmares punctuated by lightning bolts of grace, I bargained with God: One year, I prayed. You can’t ask more of me than one year.

Well, actually he could. And did. Along the way, I met some of his more intriguing children. One child-like man began burping so loudly during a morning service that I had to halt the sermon and ask him to stop. “But Pastor,” he called from the front pew, “I swallowed some wind.”

Another man traveled the country, hopping trains from soup kitchen to soup kitchen. Smelling of cheap whiskey, he came into Triune one rainy Saturday, passed out, woke up and spied me. Leaping to his feet, he sent a metal chair clattering into a wall, and shrieked, “You BITCH! Don’t you know you’re not even supposed to BE here? Paul said women aren’t supposed to preach!”

And that was before the sermon.

When people find out what I do, they inevitably say, “That must be so rewarding,” or “You must love your work.” Dispensing mercy at a place with mercy in its title – what could be better?

But mercy can have an underside, a heaviness, a weight.  “I would rather smoke crack than live in a house,” one man told me. I pass him sometimes on my way to work, panhandling in the median of six-lane Pleasantburg Drive. Sometimes I roll down my window and remind him we’re still there, still feeding, still worshiping, still offering access to drug treatment. I never give him money. He knows better than to ask.

I struggle constantly with the line between empowering and enabling, helping and hurting. This book is the story of that struggle.

It is also the story of a dying church’s struggle to redefine itself in the face of a changing neighborhood. Police call our section of Greenville “the homeless triangle,” and every city has one. The question for a church in such a place is pretty basic: Do we become a forum or a fortress?

In choosing “forum” at Triune, we’ve done some counterintuitive things to bring housed and homeless people together. So in addition to things you might expect – hot meals, clothes, groceries, laundry services – we offer some things you might not – gardening, art, volunteerism, opera.

I hope this book will show people in other cities what can happen when a church opens its doors to the homeless, when it allows ministry to flourish not to them but alongside them. I hope it launches conversations about the complexity of life among the homeless.

I hope it encourages others to take on the weight of mercy.