Friday, February 12, 2016

Brenda Buchanan changes her perspective writing TRUTH BEAT

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?”

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.
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.

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, on Facebook at and on Twitter at @buchananbrenda TRUTH BEAT is available in digital format wherever fine ebooks are sold.


  1. Congratulations on the new book, Brenda . . .
    I enjoy reading stories where characters like your Peggy McGillicuddy offer wise perspectives on difficult things and end up being guardians of truth.

  2. Brenda, that is a beautiful description of insight and reflection related to spiritual development as I've ever read—a generous gift of sharing a piece of your personal inner construction. I read a lot of divinity school reflection papers. I tried hard to get the students to do what you did here. You describe having to examine yourself and face an idea. You had to follow through to discovery, so you could continue with your task. If I were still supervising theology and ministry students at their field education site, I would have them read what you wrote here today about your process—so they could do similarly.

  3. That's lovely, Brenda. And it reminds me in my own WIP to make sure I look closely at all facets of my characters so they don't come across as flat, single-sided.

  4. Reine, yet another dimension to you. Your comment is so thoughtful. What Brenda is talking about is so much more than about writing believable character. It really translate into understanding where your fellow citizens are coming from rather than writing them off as "jerks."

  5. Terrific blog Brenda--thanks for sharing. What leaped to my mind was writing about the Key West drag queens in TOPPED CHEF. I never had understood this and found the concept a little scary, to be honest. But then I had lunch with one of them (out of costume) and saw so clearly that he was simply another person who happened to also be a fabulous entertainer. and that forced me to look at my biases.

    This helped so much in writing the character I was circling.

  6. Honesty and truth: two spotlights we often direct at other people--because it can be way too uncomfortable to direct them at ourselves. Bravo, Brenda and Roberta! As for books that have forced me to examine myself--I'd say this happens most often, for me, with poetry. Truths that resonate so deeply, the sound of the bell cleaves apart my defenses and lays bare the lies I hide behind.

    Truth Beat is heading to the top of my stack.

  7. Brenda, congratulations on the new book. Absolutely fantastic post. And Reine, what a thoughtful comment. As a graduate of a Catholic high school who's in touch with church-going friends, I really understand this dilemma and fight to reach an understanding. Brava. And Reine, terrific comment.

  8. Thank you, Joan. I like that phrase, "guardians of truth." Peggy certainly is a wise character I think readers will like.

    Reine, that is such a generous compliment. Thank you. I am truly grateful for what writing this book taught me.

    Edith and Roberta, it can be such a struggle to break through and make characters fully human. It was a big step for me to learn that sometimes we have to do some of our own work in order for it to happen.

  9. Thank you for joining the conversation, FChurch and Susan. I felt a combination of excitement and worry when I conceived this book, and wasn't sure where the worry came from until I hit that wall. My unconscious knew this one would be a challenge. I think it's good I didn't examine that until I was elbow deep. Otherwise, I might have run away.

    All of that said, I don't want to give the impression Truth Beat is a heavy book. It explores weighty issues, but the plot is full of action and there's a sweet subplot about Joe's evolving personal life. There's also a star turn for another of my favorite characters, Joe's buddy Rufe Smathers, plumber by day, musical theater star by night.

  10. Brenda, Peggy sounds like such a real person. My three kids went to parochial school, and although we didn't attend a Catholic church, we did live through the closing of two of the four Portland schools. I spoke with many other parents who had been deeply wounded by the priest abuse scandal, and who now felt betrayed because the diocese was selling off their schools and churches to fund its legal fees (and pay for the judgments against them.)

    One mom told me, "The priests aren't the church. The bishop isn't the church. WE are the church. Nothing they can do changes that."

  11. FChurch is quite right. It's so much easier to shine that spotlight on others instead of yourself.

    As a practicing Catholic with two kids in Catholic schools, I'm always leery of stories about the sex abuse scandal. So many of them take the easy way out by laying the blame at the feet of the Church, instead of at the feet of the people who betrayed the Church.

    And Julia, what a completely bang-on sentiment.

  12. Good morning, Julia and Mary. I'm so glad to hear from you on this topic, given that your children have attended parochial school during this era.

    This is one of the themes in the book - the pain experienced by so many people of faith as a result of the hierarchy's decision to cover up abuse rather than confront it. The loss is acute and it exists on so many levels. This latest stage of the scandal--the consolidation of churches and closing of schools--is the other shoe dropping. It is excruciating for many people.

  13. Your books look irresistable, Brenda. I'm seeking them out soonest.

    Ah, there's nothing like a daily visit to Jungle Reds to extend my TBR list to unbelievable lengths.

  14. Wonderful, thoughtful post. Isn't it a blessing (usually, though it can also be a curse!) to be able to learn something new about ourselves and others when we write? The process forces us to look deeper into some subjects and into our own psyches and hearts. Congratulations again on the release of Truth Beat!

  15. This is why I love fiction. Because by creating and taking us inside the heads of humans we will never be (and sometimes never know), it broadens us and creates empathy. Like Brenda, I know people who have maintained their Catholic faith even while furious at the hierarchy, even their local church hierarchy. For someone like me, it's hard to understand, because in my perspective faith is "voluntary." But there is, no doubt, another perspective held by good people.

  16. Wow! Some heavy stuff here, Brenda. I'm not Catholic and never have been, but I've always been fascinated with the devotion and loyalty to it that some people I know exhibit, especially with the scandalous behavior of so many priests that broke the trust of innocents who were in their charge. I'm willing to bet that your thoughts mirror so many others' in search of answers to why the continued devotion. Your character of Peggy McGillicuddy sounds like the perfect vehicle to helping us understand the deep-seated Catholic faith in spite of the disappointments. I think this book will be a great eye-opener and an important read for me and others, Catholic and non-Catholic.

    I think the character(s) that have changed me about as much as any I've read in my wide and varied fiction reading are the conjoined twins, Rose and Ruby, in Lori Lansen's novel The Girls. First off, when I looked at the description, I thought it doubtful that I would find much of interest from these characters for me, that it would be rather too outside my range of relevance. I'm happy to say that I was so wrong. I learned so much from these characters, perhaps one of the most important lessons of my life was driven home--that there can be the extraordinary in the ordinary and the ordinary in the extraordinary. I read this book many years ago, and its beauty remains a part of my best reading experiences.

  17. Brenda, I'm intrigued by the premise of the book, and now must read it. Congratulations on publication!

    Recently I've been writing to explore my own past, partly to explain choices I've made in my life to my kids. What I keep discovering is long-buried stuff, like why I stopped going to (Catholic) church in the early 70's, for instance. The writing is forcing me to confront some truths about myself, head-on. Some of it is tough to take, but mostly I've been astonished to see where some of the strongest parts of me came from.

    Reading fiction often does the same thing, and the book I'm reading now is making me think very hard about prejudice. It's Sacrifice, by Joyce Carole Oates, who goes pretty deep. She insists that you really look at someone else's reality, and forget your own ideas about it. However, I've had equally life-changing revelations from many novels. How else could we all experience so much of life, without our shared perceptions? A broad reading life makes us richer and more aware individuals.

  18. Wow, Brenda, that's really powerful. I come from a Catholic background, and when I think of my devout aunties, I've always wondered "WHY?!?" But your Peggy, just in that little snippet you provided, gives me some perspective. Thanks for that.

    In my WIP (County Clare untitled #3), I'm wrestling with letting go of loved ones. One of my characters might have to face a pull-the-plug-or-not-pull-the-plug decision. I've been thinking a lot about my mom, who has dementia, and letting go of her. Last fall I was made executor of her Living Trust, I have power of attorney over her finances and medical care. I hate it. I hate that I (with my sisters) might have to make a decision. Anyhow, so yes, I totally get how the writing can lead to soul-searching, or sometimes the reverse: that the soul-searching we're already doing leaks into the stories. Either way.

  19. Hi Brenda! Congratulations on the publication of Truth Beat, and thanks for such a thought provoking essay. And I love the excerpt--such a powerful piece of writing. I can't wait to read the book.

    I've done a lot of "what if this happened to me?" and "What would I do if--" in the process of writing the novels over the years. And then you have really think about it, which can be pretty scary.

    But Karen in Ohio made the best point--reading fictions broadens our understanding of the world and of other people's hearts and minds in a way that nothing else can.

  20. Susan, Amy and Kathy, thank you for your supportive words. I'm glad this post struck a chord with you.

    Well said, Barb Ross: Because by creating and taking us inside the heads of humans we will never be (and sometimes never know), it broadens us and creates empathy.

  21. Kathy, thank you for mentioning The Girls. It sounds like a book I should put on my list. That it has stayed with you for years speaks well of its author.

    And Karen, you are right, and Deb is right to echo you, that a broad reading life makes us richer and more aware individuals. It is exactly the kind of questions you mention, Deb, "what would I do if . . ." that leads to provocative writing.

    Lisa, I wish you strength and courage in your role as your mother's primary person as her health declines. I am dealing with a similar situation, though my sister is taking the lead role in my family, both because of proximity to Mom and her incredibly giving nature. Be sure to let us know when that WIP finds publication, okay?

  22. Thanks, Brenda. (For the WIP -- I'll be loud-mouthing it all over the place, I'm sure ... Won't be able to miss it. :-))

  23. Running in running in..suddenly my phone won't let me post.

    Such a thought-provoking essay, Brenda. Thank you!

    The process of putting yourself into a fictional character's head is one of the magic things of writing..if you are lucky--and you are!--there's a moment when you are no longer you, but THEM--and then whole new worlds open up. Such fun to read your experience of that..

  24. Thanks, Hank! What you say is so true.

  25. It's Brenda's day, but had to stop by and say thank you for the positive comments. Everything I've done, everything I do, as it must be for you, is connected. I had the great good fortune to be born to crazy, state-hospital certifiable, parents. I highly recommend it as a freeing experience.

  26. Reine, you are a wonderful part of this blog, day-in and day-out. Thank you.