Michael Nicholas Richard is the author of the Ignatius Press novel Tobit’s Dog. He has also written another novel, Bogfoke, and a few published short stories, one of which can be found in the anthology Heroic Visions II. Michael also enjoys writing for his blog. Michael lives near New Bern, NC with his wife and two dogs. Ignatius Press Novels interviewed him via email.
From where did the inspiration for Tobit’s Dog originate?
Richard: I have always been a dog person. When my mother was pregnant with me, my parents had a dog, Sam, of which they were very fond. He was a peculiar dog and my paternal grandmother thought they treated him too much like a human being. She warned, “You’re going to mark that baby.” Her suspicions were evidently confirmed when as a toddler I developed the habit of hiding raw carrots and then later bringing them out, shriveled, to chew on.
So my credentials as a dog person go back to the beginning of my personhood. Sometime in 2012 the notion that became Tobit’s Dog was stirred by the very presence of a dog in the Book of Tobit. The presence of a dog was one of the factors that led to canonicity of the Book of Tobit being challenged, since dogs were seen as “unclean” in Semitic cultures. It is only mentioned twice, once when Tobias leaves, and when he returns home. That unexpected element of the story got this dog person to pondering.
The pondering grew, until I realized I had to write it out. Originally I intended to set the story in Persia and to keep it closer to the Biblical story, but it occurred to me that there were some parallels between the plight of exiled Jews in the Biblical story, and the plight of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. From there it just took off. I set aside the novel I was working on (it was about ready for a cool down period anyway) and started working on Tobit’s Dog. Making Tobit and his family African-American Catholics in the Jim Crow era added another layer of prejudice and isolation as well as offering a platform for Catholic themes.
I sent the manuscript for Tobit’s Dog to Ignatius Press the Monday before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. The following Sunday one of our deacons, Rick Fisher, himself an African-American, gave a brief talk and reading concerning Dr. King before Mass. It was not lost on me, of course, that having mailed off the manuscript earlier that week, here I was listening to an African-American Catholic speaking on the plight of African-Americans during the Civil Rights era.
It became down right “spooky” for me as in the six months that followed the Book of Tobit became featured in the readings at Mass. I attend Mass on a near daily basis and it was a reading from the Book of Tobit or of the Canticle of Tobit nearly every day until the time I received an email from Ignatius Press expressing a desire to publish Tobit’s Dog.
I often read of strange “coincidences” in the lives of converts and reverts and people in spiritual struggle, and have thought, “Well, yeah, it’s easy to believe if God gives you all those signs!” Well, there it was for me. Not that the Father of Lies doesn’t still try to whisper into the back of my mind so that I might squirm out of that revelation—because, as Ace Redbone says to Lenny Morris in Tobit’s Dog, “To whom much is given, much is expected”—but it’s like Deacon Fisher said to me only a few days ago, “There are no coincidences with God.”
Is this your first novel?
Richard: Tobit’s Dog is my first professionally published novel. I did self-publish a fantasy novel, Bogfoke, through Amazon’s Create Space and Kindle Direct services. A portion of the first chapter of Bogfoke had been published in the magazine Fantasy Macabre way back in the late eighties, but the novel itself just did not sit well with me, especially the ending. It was only after returning to the Church many years later that I realized that the problem with the novel was that in my agnosticism I had a nearly nihilistic denouement in a novel that otherwise was threaded through and through with subtle Catholic themes. I corrected that, and was ready to attempt publication.
What I found was that the publication world had changed greatly between the mid-eighties and 2011, in the end, I decided to self-publish, which was almost certainly a disservice to Bogfoke, but in the process I learned much that probably served to make publication of Tobit’s Dog possible.
Who are your favorite authors or novelists?
Richard: I tend to not have favorite authors so much as favorite individual books. I would say that J.R.R. Tolkien is my favorite author. I greatly enjoy the Odd Thomas series by Dean Koontz, a master of pacing. I enjoyed the historical fiction of Bernard Cornwell until the point where they seemed to have a repetitive plot template. I should become possessed of a disordered pride if I could be a modern day G.K. Chesterton. Paradox fascinates me. I have also greatly enjoyed and learned much from the novels of Michael D. O’Brien. Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor, of course, have served as influences.
In non-fiction, the Hinges of History series by Thomas Cahill is a favorite. As a huge history nerd, my brain just works that way. I have also read much of the work of Peter Kreeft, which of course made his wonderful review of Tobit’s Dog all the more rewarding for me.
Are your published short stories also based in the South?
Richard: Most of my writing up to Bogfoke was set in imaginary world fantasies and/or science fiction. The South always haunts the imagination of a writer from the South, but none were based in the South. Bogfoke was set, much like Tobit’s Dog, in a re-imagined North Carolina, specifically around the New Bern, NC area. New Bern is just one of those places where there is just some kind of geo-psychic, organic charm that is difficult to explain. In Bogfoke I expressed it as the “City of Dreams” guided by a kind of angelic spirit that collects and projects the dreams of humankind.
The high point of those early stories probably came with my story,” The Lion of Elirhom’s Anger”, being selected as the cover story for the paperback anthology, Heroic Visions II. Jessica Amanda Salmonson was the editor of the anthology and later published more of my work. She was a tough but fair editor, and I learned much from her.
Most of my stories are in some sense unlike one another. I was working on Tobit’s Dog, however, when I realized that the denouement of two of my most successful efforts, “Lion of Elirhom’s Anger” and Bogfoke involved a confrontation with a demon. Of course, what is the denouement of the Book of Tobit? The confrontation with a demon. Nothing else I had ever written was like that, and I didn’t want it to be seen as some sort of repetitive theme or plot device in my work. So it created a challenge for me to create a bit of distance from that concept. I hope I have successfully met the challenge in Tobit’s Dog.
You have lived most of your life in the South, so did you witness the kind of racial prejudice described in Tobit’s Dog?
Richard: Born in 1955, I was a child of the sixties and lived through the late Civil Rights era. The prejudice existed in a more muted form by then, but exist it did. I was a child when the “Negro” parish of Saint Joseph in New Bern was merged with the “White” Saint Paul parish and Father Thomas P. Hadden became the first African-American pastor of a predominately White parish in North Carolina.
The character of Tobit, and his mule, Joe-boy, have their origin in my memory of an old black man who used to drive his mule and cart past my grandparent’s farm (which, in fact, served as the model for Tobit’s farm).
There was also a lot of anti-Catholic bias in North Carolina in those days, and still is really, and yet the New Bern area wasn’t as bad as much of the rest of North Carolina, and especially not as bad as the deeper South.
Each of the characters in your novel seems to struggle with the stark contrast between the beauties and blessings of life and the evils often thrust suddenly upon us. Is this a reflection of your own struggles with faith? What lesson are you trying to teach your readers?
Richard: I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the concept of me teaching a lesson, so much as offering an observation and a way of considering such things. I have, and always will, struggle with the problems of suffering and sorrow, but to paraphrase Ace, once again, not understanding a thing doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As a man, I like to add to that observation, “Otherwise, there would be no women.” I have been married for over 35 year and have two now grown daughters. I don’t understand women to this day, and yet there they are.
My faith is rather like courage. It is said that courage is to act in the face of fear. For me, faith is to act in the face of doubt. I think it irrational to not have doubt, no matter if you are an atheist doubting your atheism, or a theist doubting your theism, but when the two “isms” are pared down to their essence, only one offers any real hope. I choose hope, and I work to “be not afraid”.
I love this Walker Percy quote:
This life is too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then to be asked what you make of it and have to answer “Scientific humanism.” That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love is a delight. Therefore I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight, i.e., God. In fact I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed aholt of God and would not let go until God identified himself and blessed him.
Do you have any advice for Catholic authors?
Richard: Don’t preach. Nobody likes being lectured. Be bravely Catholic, but paraphrase the essence of the quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach always the Gospel, if necessary use words.” Try to make your story a good story, because the Catholicism of your story is wasted otherwise. Work on your characters, plagiarize God by giving your characters as much Free Will as your imagination can manage. We are, after all, sub-creators.
Criticism is not much fun, but if an editor takes the time to even bother to critique your work, it means they see some possibility in it. They are rarely critical just to be mean, and if something is worthless in their estimation, a simple form reply is a whole lot easier for them.
When I decided to once again begin tackling writing for publication, I dusted off my large stack of rejection letters, and my much smaller stack of acceptance letters. Going through them it struck the older, and presumably wiser, me that I had been much, much closer to a complete “breakthrough” than I had ever realized. I had let uncertainty and a blossoming business career undermine my becoming, as my wife Sherri says, who I was meant to be. So I would say, be not afraid, work at it, work at it. Besides, if you are meant to be a writer, there is really no way you’re going to completely stop. It’s quite simply a part of who you are so you may as well try to do it well.
What do you think the role of the Catholic novelist is today?
Richard: Language and our perception of reality are ever evolving and changing things. Even great truths can become stale in expression. We should always be seeking ways to express these truths in new ways. Again, as sub-creators we are charged, in a sense, with a Christ-like mission of making all things new again. We are evangelizers of the imagination.
I should very much love for Tobit’s Dog to be a huge success, but at the very least, if it plants seeds that spring to life in the minds of only a very few, I will be gratified and thankful to the Creator who is the essence of all that ever was and ever will be.
Are you currently working on anything? Can we expect more novels from you?
Richard: I have returned to working on the novel that Tobit and company interrupted. It is titled, The Scent of a Widening World. The title is a reference to how the main protagonist associates the scent of books in a library with introducing him to a greater knowledge, the scent of incense in a church to a great spiritual understanding, and the scent of a woman’s hair to a greater unfolding of love, all increasing his understanding of reality, of widening his world.
The quote from Walker Percy I used earlier will serve as a kind of preface for the novel.
As to expecting more novels from me, I have another already waiting impatiently behind The Scent of a Widening World. So, if I’m up to the challenge and editors are willing, yes more can be expected. Until the ending of my days there will probably be stories and characters trying to coalesce in my mind.