Novel's goal is no mystery

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 1, 2011 - 6:05 PM

Besides trying to solve the plot, a St. Paul author hopes readers will ponder serious social issues.

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Paul Mohrbacher

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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Unlike most of his fellow mystery writers, Paul Mohrbacher doesn't want people to get so caught up in his book that they stay up into the wee hours racing through it.

"I don't want this to be a page-turner that once they start, they can't put down," the St. Paul man said. "I want them to stop and think about it. If they can't connect what's in the book to what's happening today, I will be deeply disappointed."

The book, "The Magic Fault," touches on serious issues, including people's growing mistrust of religions other than their own. Mohrbacher, who spent 16 years as a Roman Catholic priest before resigning in 1976 to get married, is concerned about what he sees as a growing distrust between Christianity and Islam, a situation often exacerbated by politicians.

"In the book, I use the term 'the other' to refer to people we are afraid of because we don't know anything about them, people who are not a member of our group," he said. "Whenever we get into an election cycle, politicians are going to use that fear to get power."

He didn't want to write a nonfiction book, because he figured it would be pigeonholed as a tome for theological insiders. He wanted to reach a broader audience.

To do that, "people have to see this as entertaining," he said. "It can pick up the themes, but it has to be fiction."

The plot involves Christian extremists who steal the Shroud of Turin in the belief that if they take it to Jerusalem, it will force the second coming of Jesus Christ and stop Islamists from taking over the world.

The story is set in 2004. That was when Mohrbacher was in Italy and saw the Shroud of Turin.

"I'm big on numbers," he explained. "The shroud was stolen from Constantinople [during the Crusades] in 1204, and I liked the idea of it being stolen again 800 years later."

There's a third reason for the 2004 setting: That's when he started working on the book, which was finally published this past March. One reason it took so long is that he was busy with his five children and six grandchildren, not to mention working at the Science Museum of Minnesota, which, at 76, he still does.

He's known in Twin Cities public relations circles for his promotion of the museum's 1986 dinosaur display, when he arranged for dinosaur skeletons to be floated down the Mississippi River on barges and then picked up by a helicopter and swooped over downtown St. Paul.

"That's my lone claim to fame," he said with a laugh.

Well, not exactly. Although this is his first book, he has written several plays, including one that won the prestigious Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition in 1991. Called "The Chancellor's Tale," it also drew on his theological background as a drama about a priest wrestling with a moral conundrum.

"I was heavily involved with the Playwrights' Center all through the '90s," Mohrbacher said. "I decided I wanted to try my hand at fiction."

The book's first draft was 500 pages, which he knew he'd have to cut by a third. He hired an editor to help.

"I didn't realize that editors charge by the page," he said. "My advice to first-time writers: Cut before you hire an editor."

He also has a more standard piece of advice: Don't give up. When he tried to find an agent to shop the book to publishers, he was rejected 120 times.

"Fortunately, a lot of it was by e-mail, so it didn't take long," he said.

He expected to go through the same thing with publishers, but the agent found one, Second Wind Publishing, relatively quickly. Amazon.com picked up the book right away to sell, he said. It's also available at Common Good Books and Micawber's Books in St. Paul.

It comes in a paperback and e-book version, although having dealt with the ephemeral nature of theater, he prefers the physical book.

"Seeing your play come to life onstage is thrilling," he said. "But the day the first copy of the book landed on my desk was just as thrilling. There's something about being able to pick it up, to feel the cover, to turn the pages. It's real, and it's yours."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392

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