HogPro Interview with T. M. Doran, Author of ‘Terrapin’

I confess that last week I needed a little ‘mental floss’ after reading and re-visiting J. K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, the promotion and the substance of which turned on the author’s self-importance and reflection more than most fictions, perhaps inevitably. How many authors do we know as well, for better or worse, than we know Jo Rowling?

By a happy providence, I received a reader’s copy of T. M. Doran‘s latest book, Terrapin, at just the moment I really needed a good read. I enjoyed and was challenged meaningfully by Vacancy, as I’ve written at some length. I wanted, nonetheless, to have a good bath after being immersed in Ms. Rowling’s Equus moment and many interviews for as long as I had been.

Terrapin was just what I needed.

Curiously, it has a seven part/day structure, not unlike Casual Vacancy, and, as with Ms. Rowling after her Harry Potter fantasy debut and success, so T. M. Doran’s latest book represents a chasm leaping departure from his first novel, Toward the Gleam (read the HogPro interview with Prof Doran about that book here). The book’s plot is described this way at www.terrapinmystery.com and at T.M. Doran’s  Author Page at http://www.facebook.com/AuthorTMDoran:

Dennis Cole and his three best buddies from childhood gather for a weekend reunion. On the first night, one of the men is murdered—or is he?

A professor of engineering by day and a writer of detective fiction by night, Cole and the other survivors try to piece together the mysterious fate of their friend. The suspenseful story moves back and forth between the unfolding reunion gone bad and childhood events that involved these friends who grew up on the same street.

Looming largest in the memory of Dennis is the striking character of his widowed father, T.A. —Marine veteran of the Korean War and blue-collar philosopher. In his interactions with T.A, Dennis tries to make sense out of life; but instead of simple answers, puzzling questions of evil, human freedom, and the possibility of transformation are all T.A. seems to provide. These questions follow Dennis through young adulthood and beyond; they finally catch up to him in the surprising and thrilling climax of this novel.

A murder mystery and a coming of age story, both with many twists and turns, Terrapin is about man’s potential for doing either good or evil, his tendency to do the latter, and his response to the consequences of his actions.

The book delivers on all that, trust me. The best part of the book for a serious reader recovering from Casual Vacancy shock? I found myself thinking about the major and minor players of Terrapin for days afterward, waking up and going to sleep, and recommending it to friends. It was three dimensional, realistic, and archetypal, engaging, challenging, and edifying. Read an excerpt or two here for a feel of what I’m talking about. No, it isn’t Tolstoy or Flannery O’Connor; it is a great read.

It was an effort not to bubble over in the ten questions I sent Prof Doran and I probably hit the rude line at points to compensate for my enthusiasm. I think you’ll be as impressed as I was by his candor and courtesy in response to my over-reaching. Without further ado, them, the Hogwarts Professor Ten Questions Interview with Terrapin author, T. M. Doran:

1. In our 10 Questions interview about your debut novel, Toward the Gleam, you said two things that prepare your reader for Terrapin: first, that you love “the puzzle-plot mystery stories of the 1920s-40s” and, second, this description of the novel-in-the-works:

The story I’m currently composing is different than Toward the Gleam in that the premise isn’t so fantastic, and it is more of a contemporary story. It is similar in that it is an intense mystery-suspense novel that explores the themes of faithfulness, virtue, choices, and the possibility of transformation.

Readers of Terrapin — and I urge everyone to buy and read this book soon, it’s that good — will certainly ‘get’ the “puzzle-plot mystery story” element of your inspiration. If not, the Appendix to the book, a postmodern day echo of SS Van Dyne (can you say “Philo Vance”? I was) will raise a smile after a very sobering finish to the main event.

There were mystery story elements and even mystery writers in Toward the Gleam — I think of Agatha Christie and the Locked Door attempted murder with spiders — but this is a ‘wow’ departure in story type from Gleam’s borderline epic narrative. Please share with us the story behind this story. Are we to assume, like the boy-narrator in the book, you grew up in a house with shelves of detective fiction to pick up and read?

Actually, I came to detective fiction, intricately crafted mystery stories, in early adulthood, then I made up for lost time. My mother was a big fan of mystery stories and once I got interested in the genre, I delved into her library. Later, I went exploring and discovered lesser-knowns like S.S. Van Dine, Stuart Palmer, E.C. Bentley, Austin Freeman, Margery Allingham, and Clayton Rawson. Did you know that A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame wrote a pretty good mystery novel? My father, a melter in an iron foundry, had a shelf of meaty philosophy and theology books and was a deep thinker, though he never finished college. I grew up on a street like Lincoln Street in a town like Terrapin Township. When I was young, I caught frogs and played kick-the-can like Dennis did.

2. The book opens with an epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s East Coker (Part IV, verse 3) and reference to the “ruined millionaire” who endowed the “hospital” of the world in which we live:

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The opening verse of that Part of East Coker with its “wounded surgeon” as well as the stand alone verse itself suggests the “millionaire” is Christ (cf, Philipians 2:6-11). The agent of “absolute paternal care” in the story, though, Dennis’ father ‘TA,’ cites the passage after his surviving son’s High School graduation with the meaning, I think, that “millionaire” is Satan: “There is a ruined millionaire at large on the earth. He promises a lot, but he can’t deliver” (p. 255). Or is the “deliver” here meant as “you have to claim Christ’s promises; he won’t bring them to you”?

Dennis is stumped at the time — and so was I it seems! Eliot fans will enjoy the East Coker echoes in Terrapin, I’m guessing, from the Odyssey notes to the reflective finish of ‘end’ and ‘beginning.’

TA’s interpretation of the T.S. Eliot verse evokes Tolkien’s distinction between applicability and allegory. Notwithstanding Eliot’s intended meaning, TA chose to apply it to Lucifer, a “ruined millionaire” who resented his dependency and rebelled. Tolkien portrays this rebellion in a fascinating way in The Silmarillion.

In his own words, here is how Tolkien describes the difference: “Other arrangements (here Tolkien is referring to connections to the real world that many were reading into The Lord of the Rings) could be devised according to the tastes or views of those who like allegory or topical reference. But I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

3. The book that I thought of most, though, while turning the pages of Terrapin — and I was up all night, loving it — was not Four Quartets, but, oddly enough, To Kill a Mockingbird. TA is an Atticus tribute, albeit crossed with Etienne Gilson, Dennis is a mix of Scout Finch, especially in the earlier memories, with Holden Caulfield later on (alas), and we even get the misunderstood Radley family living next door with Terrapin’s Macklin clan.

We live a week in the life of Dennis as an older man who is trying to understand the bizarre events and murders consequent to his re-union with three childhood friends. But we visit these four friends and girl side-kicks in memories from the old neighborhood and college that are the Mockingbird story that is the greater part of the book. I described the whole event to my wife as “To Kill a Mockingbird told inside an Ellery Queen novel.” Is that fair?

To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite novels and I’m a fan of Ellery Queen, especially his early stories that featured mental acuity. You might have added Brideshead Revisited to the mix. If TA is a type of Atticus Finch, he is a fragile version.

One of the challenges in composing Terrapin was attempting to seamlessly integrate different genres. I desired to craft a head scratching Ellery Queen-esque mystery but did not want the puzzle to overwhelm the story of these five friends, and the themes connected to their friendship: human freedom, choices and consequences, hope.

4. I have to admit I thought TA’s “won’t deliver” policy with respect to choosing not to interfere in the life of others, even his own children, if not asked or pursued, was puzzling to say the least. An icon of the vita contempliva, I get, yes, but Dennis is left to figure out larger issues on his own except when he talks to dad and receives kernels of wisdom on essentials like “inner freedom” and the differences between “hope” and “promise,” “justice” and “injustice.” Dennis only learns what his father thinks of him from an overheard conversation and TA does not confront him about Dennis’ participation in a crime the dad knows the son committed.

As in imitatio Christi allegory, I suppose it works, but I was left scratching my head about how a real-world dad this brilliant, insightful, and good neglects his only son. What was I missing here?

TA, as you say, is “brilliant, insightful, and good”, but he is flawed like every man. It could be said that TA is too respectful of his son’s “freedom”, too indulgent with Jonas and Greg, too excusing of Jenny Holm’s antics, not as sensitive to his son’s need for active formation as he ought to be. Though TA does not expound on it, he experienced severe trauma in the war, the death of his wife and son, and the loneliness that ensued. In the conversation with Delia that Dennis overhears, TA admits that the pain of the Iowa accident has never gone away. When she tells TA that he is “good at concealing it”, he answers “I have to be. I have work to do. I have a son to raise.” This conversation is a window into the mixture of light and darkness within TA. Lori explores this in her portrait of TA, and when she asks Dennis if he thinks TA is happy.

5. One image I love in Terrapin, though, is TA’s 1000 gallon basement aquarium in which he keeps sea horses or, as they are called throughout the book, hippocampi, ‘horse-sea monsters.’ The sea horse is a symbol of the nurturing dad because they are perhaps the only animal that carry their young through gestation; that they are images of patience and contentment, too, because of their literal attachment to stable bases. It’s a great fit with what TA does offer his son who wrestles with his anger about and memories of the driver who killed his mother and younger brother in a hit and run accident.

The hippocampus of the human brain, appropriately enough, is the home of human memory — and TA seems to be calling his son, not only away from the “vomit” of his friends’ poor choices, but to memory of the principles he’ll need for a greater life.

Is that an over-reach? I confess to envying Dennis’ time with dad at the aquarium and while reading detective stories because of what he was gaining by example and osmosis, however negligent the surface TA seems to have been.

The sea-horses were an expression of a side of TA we don’t see elsewhere in the story (less analytical and more creative), and a vehicle for father-son intimacy that TA and Dennis otherwise struggle to achieve. These scenes were intended to convey this nurturing image. In my own childhood basement, my father kept caimans in a converted sandbox, not very endearing creatures, but memorable…and reptiles, which suited me just fine.

Another nurturing influence in the story is Lori, who feels “called” to support, and sometimes challenge, her friends and family, but is sometimes overwhelmed by this responsibility. Her art is her creative outlet.

6. Forgive me for feeling obliged to “go there” with the Personal Heresy question, but, c’mon, you’re an Engineering professor in Michigan who writes mystery novels and the hero of the book is all those things in the end. Is this book more autobiographical in characters and content than you expected it to be? Most first time authors use that work to act out, if you will, their psycho-biographical issues via wish fulfillment and the like. Gleam was no vehicle for that, certainly; is Dennis’ full-professor appointment at Michigan’s premiere University and secret writing career that gets him a home in the best Ann Arbor neighborhood, complete with Mercedes sedan, your dream come true?

I began writing Terrapin years before I began teaching engineering courses at LTU. I’ve had a lifelong fascination with water (and amphibians and reptiles), and became an environmental engineer specializing in water treatment, so this aspect of Dennis originated with my own experience.  Dennis’ pursuit of prestige and the best things in life did not bring him happiness, though he is a “success” in the eyes of the world. Rather than a psycho-biographical instrument, I think of Terrapin as an exploration of what-ifs.

7. There are four boy characters that are on center stage in both the contemporary re-union mystery chapters as well as the vignettes from childhood in Lincoln Center. I have a bit of a tick, excuse me, for assuming if there are four children we have a Four Element snapshot a la the Pevensies and Little Women and if three is the number then it is a soul triptych as with Harry, Ron, and Hermione and their echoes in Hunger Games and Twilight. Our hero, Dennis, is meant to be the spiritual guy or conscience, which would be ‘water,’ hence his pre-occupation with frogs (even identification with the crucified frog). Ben is the rational mind and ‘air,’ consequently; Troy the builder and ‘down to earth’ guy is ‘earth;’ and Greg the wild man and agent of chaos is consuming ‘fire.’ The girl Wonder Woman whom TA tags as ‘Wendy,’ caretaker of these Lost Boys, is the quintessence whose death is the central, invisible tragedy of the book.

Whether intentional or not, the interchanges between and relationships of the Not so Fab Four when read through this allegorical lens makes for some fun ideas. To what degree, though, were you thinking of them as psychological or elemental archetypes?

I conceived Dennis, Tony, Ben, Greg, and Lori as archetypes only in the sense of the qualities each brings to the group relationship. They are not based on real people in terms of one-to-one correspondence, but they embody characteristics and personality traits of people I have known. As such, they are not supposed to be caricatures or representatives of a certain “type” and they sometimes behave out of “character”. Thus, the cerebral Ben’s mystical story about the turtle and his serendipitous trip in the Metropolitan, down-to-earth Tony’s fascination with frogs and sea-horses, self-indulgent Greg’s disinterested offer to help the bartender. Lori, one of two linchpin characters in the story, is the irrepressible agent of transformation within the group, and her departure from the scene leaves a vacuum into which serious disorder rushes.

8. I lost track of the number of car crashes, especially hit and run accidents with blue pick-up trucks, that spot the book, but there are at least four that make the plot turn round and round. Here’s the weird thing; I can’t remember one book in which a single car crash played such a role (I know, I need to read more contemporary fiction…). Why the heavy car crash theme in Terrapin? Is it the arbitrariness and finality of such events or is it the way the crashes connect characters with previous and coming crashes? Or something else?

The number of crashes and accidents in the story point to the fragility of life and contribute to the sense of menace, almost as if events were being directed by Menace, as they was during the 7 days in the present.  People drive past serious accidents every day but they are mostly invisible. Some of the accidents in Terrapin, such as the pedestrian accident in the first chapter, would have been “invisible” if the characters themselves hadn’t connected it to something else.  Similarly, the blue Iowa truck is obsessively extrapolated by Dennis, and maybe Ben too by virtue of knowing Dennis’ accident story so well. Ben tells Dennis that the truck that ran him off the road was dark blue or gray, but when Dennis informs TA, the vehicle is unequivocally blue. Thus, the pivotal events of the story and the main characters’ obsessions escalate the significance of the accidents/vehicles.

9. Terrapin has 31 chapters and the turtle image is discussed/mentioned in three spots — the story opening in explanation for the name of the township, the dead center of the book, Chapter 16, in which Ben explains his life decisions through the metaphor of his meeting an upside-down turtle on a beach, and the last chapter of the book in which Dennis becomes that turtle. Serious readers of Harry Potter are forever on the look out for traditional ring compositions; to risk speaking too plainly, is Terrapin one? The theme of end reflecting beginning, Dennis’ inability to come to terms with what he perceives as the defining injustice of his young life becoming in mirror image nearly the cause of his own death because he becomes the man he despises, seems to point to this structure-in-support-of-meaning. Chiasmus!

In a manner of speaking, Dennis comes to see the man for whom he bore such animosity in the mirror, and therefore looks out of that man’s eyes (or walks in his shoes, as Atticus Finch suggests).  Dennis, Greg, Ben, and Tony, through a disordered use of human freedom, harm other people. They became embittered by the “injustices” they experienced, unlike Lori who experienced severe hardships of her own but always sought to transcend them. TA was trying to prevent Dennis from succumbing to this embitterment when he tells his son that he didn’t pursue the man in the truck because it was dangerous. When Dennis asked “Dangerous to who?”, TA replied “To me.” He could have added, “To you.”

10. I’m curious, again, about the implicit but remarkably understated Catholicism of the book. TA is devout and a church goer (Dennis assumes that his father sometimes adores the sacrament rather than dating women on his free nights) but he neither asks or demands that his son join him at services. The books the dad reads and his wisdom reflect his faith and the story finish points obliquely to the son’s reconciling with the church of his family. But, again, these are anything but ‘in your face’ sales points about the Catholic Church. You have a Catholic publisher so I’m all but certain that you’re not shading the lamp bulb to appease them? Why so subtle with the religious and spiritual underpinnings of the story?
The reason that faith is addressed obliquely in Terrapin and Toward the Gleam has to do with readers retaining the freedom to apply the story to their own experiences and situations, rather than being made pawns of the author, as Tolkien describes the difference between applicability and allegory; the possibility of the return of the prodigal son, but not the inevitability.  When talking about what constitutes a “Catholic novel”, Flannery O’Connor suggested that the story is “one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by’, a proposal rather than an authorial imposition, a literary path blazed by Tolkien, O’Connor, Waugh, and Eliot.

Thank you for your time today, Prof Doran, for your kind responses to my pointed questions, and, most of all, for the good fun and great challenges in Terrapin. I’m looking forward now to your third book  and don’t even want to guess what genre we’ll wind up in then, confident as I am after Gleam and Terrapin that it will be another ‘wow.’

John, thank you for the kind words about Terrapin.

I was tempted to go further with some of the answers to your questions before reminding myself that Terrapin is a mystery, and that some may not have read the story yet. My next story is quite different than Toward the Gleam and Terrapin. A group of cryptic characters, very different in experiences, loyalties, and perspectives, is thrust into the cauldron of a post-WWII Soviet detention facility near Berlin. Who are these people? Why have they been rounded up? Can any meaning be discovered in that bleak post-war world and in the wretched cages where they are compelled to live? This story is a mystery about who these people are, why they are being detained (and executed, in the case of some), and an exploration of faith and trust.

Thank you for thinking of potential readers — a thoughtfulness I neglect, forgive me. And I’m looking forward to your next book! I have met more than a few survivors of the ‘Displaced Persons’ camps in Germany after the war — Russians, Ukranians, even a family from Odessa. It’s not a historical episode that reflects well on the Americans involved or the Catholic Church, with notable, heroic, but individual exceptions, so I’ll be interested to see how an American Catholic — and one of your insight and sensitivity! — tackles the topic.

Readers, you don’t need to wait for that; Terrapin is available now. Get thee to a bookstore and order this book!


  1. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    Ok, that’s another copy sold! I’m looking forward to reading this – and thank you for flagging it up with such a perceptive interview.

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