Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, Jon Steele's debut novel is a haunting and suspenseful thriller about an American call girl, a British private eye and Marc Rochat, the bell ringer at the city's cathedral. The characters' lives intersect after a series of murders in Lausanne . . . and it turns out the villain may not be of this earth. The novel is the first in a trilogy.

Steele, who is also the author of War Junkie, a memoir about working as a cameraman in combat zones, answered questions about his journalism background and the fun of writing minor characters.

Your autobiography, War Junkie, is about your experiences as a cameraman in war zones. What is more challenging for you: Writing fiction or memoir? What is more rewarding?
Someone asked me, why did you write War Junkie? I said, “It was either that or jump off a bridge.” I wasn’t kidding. WJ was about redemption. Watching people suffer and die in a lens and not doing a damn thing to help is a terrible sin. It was also my job. There was a price. I am not normal. I live with ghosts. I’m just this side of sane and alive.

“Tough to categorize’’ is an expression I hear a lot. I take it as a compliment. I love thinking a reader can open The Watchers and set out on a journey of imagination without a roadmap.

I don’t think about what’s more challenging. I won’t do memoirs again. I confessed once.

But the search for redemption, the thing that drove me to write WJ, drives me still. The Watchers is about ghosts, good angels, bad angels, the innocent and the dead. It’s about me looking at the world, with my “once a Catholic, always a Catholic” eyes.

The only reward is me inventing a world that helps me keep the ghosts in the closet. Evil is real, and it stalks the world in the forms of men. 

How have your experiences observing combat informed your fiction?
You know, you’re the first person to ask me this question, so I never thought about it. And these days I try not to think about things I’ve seen from the backend of a camera. Once in awhile I get asked to talk about it. The last time was for a documentary called Under Fire: Journalist in Combat. I was a wreck for almost a year after. The film was shortlisted for the 2011 Academy Awards. I still haven’t seen it.

But here’s the deal. I did my job and risked my life, time and again, because I believed in the nobility of journalism. I had a camera, I was one of the good guys. How that informs my fiction is as plain as the title. In the Hebrew Bible, angels—the creatures from another place sent to protect the creation—are called Watchers.

Cameraman . . . Watchers. Bingo.

It was easy to take the mind-bending conflict of a cameraman watching innocent people die, for the greater good of getting the truth onscreen and into the world, and injecting it into angels . . . letting innocent people die for the greater good of saving all that’s left of paradise.

Me and the angels were the same. We both wanted to save the world.

The distinction is that I did it because I chose to believe it was the right thing to do. Angels, as extensions of another’s will, do it because they have no choice. Blurring that distinction is the spiritual core of The Watchers.

Your novel is tough to categorize. There are elements of fantasy, thriller, noir. Did you set out to write in any particular genre? What do you personally like to read?
“Tough to categorize’’ is an expression I hear a lot. I take it as a compliment. I love thinking a reader can open The Watchers and set out on a journey of imagination without a roadmap.

Did I start out with a genre in mind? Not really. I knew I’d play to the obvious connection between a man who calls the hour in Lausanne (for real, in the 21st century) and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame (once upon a time, in a far away land)—meaning I wanted to mine Hugo’s classic for all it was worth. That meant incorporating similar elements of adventure, violence, romance religion, mysticism . . . come to think of it, Hunchback of Notre Dame is hard to categorize. So it’s all Hugo’s fault.

What do I read? I assume that means books I go back to over and over again. Raymond Chandler, Grahame Greene, Jack London, George Orwell, Shakespeare, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Hans Fallada, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tolstoy, Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austin. I read poetry a lot, old stuff. As you can see, I live in a different time.

Which of your three main characters (Marc Rochat, the bell ringer; Katherine Taylor, the call girl; or Jay Harper, the private eye) was the most fun to write?
Impossible to answer. I don’t know how to answer it without spilling the beans about the story. The three main characters are reflections of my own personality, as much as they are their own beings. I defined limits within which the characters could “live.” They were free to do and say as they wished. There was only one rule: They could not escape their fate. Sometimes, one of three would try to pull the wool over my eyes, and I’d have to herd them back into the plot.  

I remember my wife reading the manuscript. She came to the end and threw it at me, all 547 pages of it. She cried and yelled, “No! You can’t do this! Change it, please!” I knew I had it right, because in truth, my wife knew what was coming . . . but when it happened, it was still a shock.

To be honest, I had the most fun with the minor characters. The oddballs, junkies and ghosts who appeared now and then to guide the three main characters along their journey. There’s one in particular. He’s called Saxophoneman. Marc Rochat crosses his path in the halls of the Lausanne train station. Saxophoneman delivers one of my favorite lines in The Watchers: “Ain’t nothing sadder than an angel in nowtimes, little dude.” I liked him so much I’ve brought him back in the next book of the trilogy.

Your novel is described as “Hunchback of Notre Dame meets The Silence of the Lambs, as told by Justin Cronin.” That’s quite a promise! What kind of reader do you think will enjoy your book?
Like I said, anyone who wants to take a journey without a roadmap.

The Watchers is the first book in a trilogy. What comes next?
Angel City is next, then The Way of Sorrows. It’s taking longer than I thought it would, but that’s what happens when you set out without a roadmap. I already know the last line of the third book. It’s just a matter of getting there. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

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