Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Anne Emery

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Anne Emery

Anne Emery created a winning team in Father Brennan Burke and lawyer Monty Collins, the protagonists of her popular crime series that started with Sign of the Cross. The irascible priest and witty lawyer return now in the seventh book in the series, Blood on a Saint (ECW Press). The Globe and Mail called Blood on a Saint "one of the best [in the series] yet", selecting the book as one of ten crime novels to read this season.

Today we speak with Anne about how Burke and Collins have evolved through the series, how character comes before plot and a "Tim Hortons Jesus" that served as inspiration.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Blood on a Saint.

Anne Emery:

The story opens with a claimed apparition of the Virgin Mary, and a media circus, at Father Brennan Burke’s church. An abrasive talk show host arrives and immediately gets into conflict with Burke. A girl is murdered and the TV host is charged. Monty Collins defends him. Monty and Burke end up following parallel lines of investigation. They cannot share their findings because of solicitor-client confidentiality and the seal of the confessional, and so are often at cross-purposes with one another.


As a writer, you've spent a lot of time with Monty Collins and Father Brennan Burke. Do you feel these characters have changed through the series at all? How would you characterize their relationship?


They have changed considerably. In Sign of the Cross, they were lawyer and client. And the stress Burke experienced during his murder trial brought out the most “brusque” aspects of his personality. So there was conflict between them, and some man-to-man competitiveness as well. Both are macho types who try not to reveal their vulnerable side, let alone — God forbid — talk about their feelings! So much is left unsaid, and can just be shown by a gesture or a glance.

They have become close friends, but they still come into conflict at times. In Blood on a Saint, they end up with Monty cross-examining Burke, and Burke dishing it right back, as always.


The Collins-Burke series has been a hit from the beginning. What do you think readers connect to in these books?


I like to think readers find these characters real and well fleshed-out. And I think the strong reactions to them bear that out. Readers have said, e.g.: “That is so Burkean; that’s exactly what Burke would do.” And: “I can imagine what Monty would say about that.” The flip side is people who don’t approve of something I’ve had a character do. “Monty should not have done that.” Or, “He would never have acted like that.” My response is, “Every man I know, in that predicament, would have done exactly the same thing.”

I’ve had very strong reactions to those two characters, ranging from love to loathing. One woman asked me which church Father Burke is at: “I’m a single woman and I’d love to meet him.” Others have taken him to task for his salty language and occasional breaking of his vows: “He shouldn’t be a priest.” Or: “He is not fit to do anything but get down on his knees and scrub the floor of that church.” But to me, the fact that Brennan Burke faces these temptations, and yet maintains his vocation, shows how devout and dedicated a priest he really is.

One reader said to me about Monty Collins, “I would never go to a lawyer like that.” I felt like saying, “You would, if you wanted to win.” And if you wanted a little blues harp the night after your trial.

I connected with these two right away myself. When I sat down to attempt my first book, like anyone starting out, I was afraid my efforts would come to naught. But as soon as I got Burke and Collins on the same page together, I knew I could write it.


Writing both a lawyer and priest seems research-intensive. In addition to your own law background, how do you approach gathering the information to flesh out both characters' expertise?


I do legal research in my day job, and I have sat in on a number of murder trials in a previous incarnation as a journalist. But I do not practise criminal law. I know a number of lawyers and judges who do, so I call upon them to make sure my courtroom scenes are true to life.

As for theology and liturgy, I do lot of reading in this field, as a matter of interest. I am intimately familiar with the traditional music of the church. And it helps that I have my parents’ old Latin prayer books and Roman missals in my top drawer.


Do you work with a strict outline in order to create the twists and turns of the mystery? Or do you find your plots evolving as you write?


I don’t use an outline, but I begin knowing the motive for the murder and who committed it. Or, I may know who is going to be charged, and I have to figure out who really did it. But the main thing for me is the characters. The plot exists for them, rather than the other way around. In other words, what are my characters up to this time? What situation will I throw them into now?

Plotting is sometimes difficult. There is a great deal of mental energy required at times. The simplest thing, e.g., saying how one character was able to learn something while others remain in ignorance, can be devilishly hard to work out. “If he found this out at such and such a time in a certain manner, how can I justify another character not knowing till later?” It sounds simple but sometimes it isn’t. And I have to go all through the draft to make sure I have not left any inconsistencies. In the end, one seemingly unimportant line in the book may have taken days to work out!


Blood on a Saint centres around an apparent apparition by the Virgin Mary. Were you inspired by any particular real-life apparition incidents while writing? And why do you think people respond so strongly to apparition claims?


There was a “Tim Hortons Jesus” incident a few years ago in Nova Scotia; that may have set me off! I suppose it’s natural for people to long for a sign that there is a world beyond this one.


What are you working on now?


A novel titled Ruined Abbey, which relates old grievances in Ireland with the country’s modern history. The Burke family plays a starring role.

Anne Emery is a graduate of Dalhousie Law School. She has worked as a lawyer, legal affairs reporter and researcher. She lives in Halifax, NS, with her husband and daughter. The other books in the Collins-Burke mystery series are Sign of the Cross, winner of the 2007 Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel; Obit (2007); Barrington Street Blues (2008); Cecilian Vespers (2009); and Children in the Morning (2010).

For more information about Blood on a Saint please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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