HALLIE EPHRON: Writing her new Joe Gale mystery novel, TRUTH BEAT, Brenda Buchanan made her own journey examining her own faith and biases. The book has the kind of raw energy that only a personally meaningful story can generate. I asked Brenda to talk about how she came to write the book, and how writing it changed her.
BRENDA BUCHANAN: There’s a scene in the Academy Award-nominated film Spotlight when Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer—played on screen by Rachel McAdams—sits by while her grandmother reads the blockbuster story about the Catholic Church’s cover-up of decades of sexual abuse committed by parish priests. Pfeiffer was a tough-minded member of the Globe’s Spotlight Team, which won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing decades of denial and deceit. Her quiet presence at the kitchen table is powerful testament of her love for her devout grandmother, who was devastated to learn the church she loved had closed its institutional eyes and ears to the sexual abuse of children.
The scene is more than a poignant touch in a film that successfully demonstrates why good journalism matters. It shows a seldom-visible side of the news business—a reporter’s empathy for someone stunned by a difficult, disturbing story.
When I was a college student working at the Boston Globe it was my job to write about missing teenagers, car crash victims and young families driven from their homes by midnight fires. The old hands in the newsroom taught me to be human in my interaction with survivors, explaining that professional detachment could be misunderstood as insensitivity.
I relearned this lesson when writing Truth Beat, my third Joe Gale Mystery, which was released February 1.
Truth Beat is about the death of a Catholic priest more than a decade after the clergy abuse scandal exploded. I began constructing the plot when I heard about the closing of parishes in my Central Massachusetts hometown and in Southern Maine, where I now live. As the crime and courts reporter at the fictional Portland Daily Chronicle, I thought, my protagonist Joe Gale would have written about the allegations of abuse in the Portland diocese. When empty pews led shrinking parishes to be shuttered, he would have covered that, too. The plot outline wrote itself.
Father Patrick Doherty—who insisted people ignore his title and call him Patrick—is found dead in the rectory’s garden. The police soon conclude he was murdered. Patrick had gained local fame when he publicly criticized his church’s defensive approach to the priest abuse scandal. A decade later, the bishop took him down a peg by putting him in charge of consolidating failing churches. Overnight, adulation turned into enmity.
It had all the ingredients—good characters, strong conflict and a topic about which I had plenty of knowledge, having been raised Catholic and educated by nuns. I jumped right into the writing, but after a few chapters ran headfirst into a bias that demanded examination.
I left the church decades ago for a variety of personal reasons. After the abuse scandal broke, I was surprised that some of my friends and family members continued to go to Mass. I had conversations with a few, steered clear of the subject with others. Because I’d made my decision long ago, I didn’t work particularly hard to understand their perspective.
The process of writing Truth Beat forced me to do exactly that.
The still-faithful Catholics who were an essential part of the story were coming across as either haughty and sanctimonious or depressed and pessimistic. I struggled and fought with those passages until I took my newsroom mentors’ long-ago advice and looked for a connection with those characters. It took some soul-searching, if you’ll pardon the expression, but the result was Peggy McGillicuddy, one of the book’s crusaders against parish consolidation. During an interview, Joe asks a grieving Peggy about her dedication to the cause:
“Why have you stayed with the Church, Peggy? Why do you put so much time and energy into an institution that infuriates you?”Peggy McGillicuddy started out as a minor character in TRUTH BEAT, but she soon took on a central role in the story. Her voice is familiar from my Catholic girlhood, a person of faith who isn’t blind to human failure, but accepting of it. Through writing Truth Beat I gained a new level of respect for all the Peggys who have stuck with the Church, and a deeper understanding of their struggle.
She fingered the silver cross around her neck while considering her response.
“Because my Catholicism is central to who I am. I’m not mad at God. I haven’t lost my faith. My anger is directed where it should be, at the abusers and those who turned a blind eye to it. I’m not willing to cede my church—my beloved refuge—to them. They stole the innocence of children. They stole the consolation of the Church from the faithful. Now they’re trying to steal the holy places themselves, the walls that witnessed so many happy times—weddings, baptisms, confirmations—selling them off to pay for their sins, though those are literal payments for literal sins, not the kind of sins they’ll answer for some day.”
I’d heard Peggy say similar things at public forums over the years, but never at close range. Had her Church been willing to ordain women, she’d have been a natural in the pulpit.
I didn’t expect writing a book about a murdered priest would leave me with a changed perspective. It is a bit of grace for which I am thankful.
Have any of you experienced a similar epiphany through writing or reading fiction? Has a character changed you? What novels have given you new insight?
Brenda can be found on the web at www.brendabuchananwrites.com, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda TRUTH BEAT is available in digital format wherever fine ebooks are sold.