When J.R. Mackenzie was a fifth-grader in Catholic school in Bel Air, Md., she grew so curious about the lives of the priests that she started clambering around their garage, trying to peek into the rectory.

She fell and skinned her knee. Of course, people heard the commotion, and she was caught.

“I didn’t go out for recess for quite some time after that,” Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie, who has lived in Maine since 1989, has always been curious about religious life. The Cape Elizabeth resident decided to put that curiosity to good use by starting a series of novels about the private lives of priests.

The first, “A Temptation Tale: A Father Tom Novel” (Inkwater Press, $15.95), follows the lives of two priests at the Temptation of Christ parish in Pennshaven, Pa., a community Mackenzie modeled on Portland. (Just picture Maine Medical Center in your head and replace it with a Catholic church, and you’ll get the idea.)

The Father Tom of the title is no priest, however. He’s the parish’s church cat, and he already has his own blog (churchcattom.blogspot.com) and a Twitter account (Twitter handle: TomtheChurchCat) with more than 100 followers.

Never underestimate the passion of cat lovers.

Mackenzie, a freelance writer and former television news reporter, anchor and talk-show host, took some time away from working on her second novel in the series to talk about her book and life in her fictional parish.

Q: This is your first novel. You’ve had experience as a news writer, but was tackling a long-form fictional story easier or harder than you expected it to be?

A: I didn’t know what to expect. I came up with this idea about 10 years ago, and it sat. More recently — let’s say five or six years ago — I thought I’d better get working on it. I know in the past, I’ve always been restricted by time or length as far as any kind of news stories were concerned. With this, it was a great sense of freedom to just write and let the characters take over when they wanted to, which they did twice in the book. It was fun, and then the real hard work came in the editing and the slashing, because I tended to just go on and on and on. I ended up with 77,000 words, and I had to cut back.

Meanwhile, the same time I’m writing, I’m also reading, because I had never written a novel before. Then I discovered that whoever you’re reading while you’re writing, something influences your writing and your pacing and your tempo.

That’s when I discovered Lee Child, when I was writing this. I thought, it can’t hurt to read suspense, because he certainly keeps his books moving, and that contributed greatly to my pacing — cutting out stuff that wasn’t needed, wasn’t necessary. At that point too, I thought, why not make it a series?

Q: How long did it take?

A: It took about three years to finalize it. Then, about two years ago, I started to go to writers’ conferences so that I could prepare the novel for its eventual debut. One of the things that is emphasized is social networking. When I got home, I got on Twitter. I tried to find a web designer, which I did. She’s wonderful. She’s an author also, so she’s very patient. Got the website going, got Twitter going. Didn’t do Facebook so much early on.

By this time, the manuscript was done, the characters were there. The parish cat, Father Tom — why didn’t I have a blog for him, and then we can start establishing interest in his life and what he’s doing with other cat lovers? I only post once a week. We now have over 100 followers for his blog — cat lovers and Catholics.

Q: Can you summarize the plot for our readers in a few sentences?

A: The main plot is about love and adjustment and deep affection between the rectory family and the parishioners. They love the elder priest. He’s thinking about retiring, and to their horror, this means a possible departure from their loose way of soul saving.

Temptation of Christ Parish lives up to its name. It’s called Temptation for short, and it’s a very fun parish. It’s the kind of parish I think we all wish we belonged to, where soul saving is more down to earth and they love their priest.

He’s thinking of retiring, and he’s contacted the diocese for a new priest. Father Will Tyler, a former TV network correspondent, shows up. Drop-dead gorgeous, black hair, tall, but fussy, according to the housekeeper, and too into the straight and narrow. He doesn’t believe that he is in this place suffering from genuflectile dysfunction, and he’s going to try to make a go of it? You’ve got to be kidding. So how he adjusts, and how he’s able to see his way in a parish so different from what he expected, is the gist of the book.

Q: Did you base Father Jack and Father Will on any priests you have known?

A: Oh, yes. Father Jack, not so much. But Father Will, yes, I have to admit he was patterned after a priest in my parish when I was growing up, a priest who eventually left the priesthood when he fell in love with one of the nuns. You’re talking back in the ’60s when this happened, and they eventually married.

Q: Are you worried at all about how Catholics will receive the book, or do you think they’ll embrace it? That first chapter is a little steamy.

A: Well, it’s a dream. I got away with that, I think. I don’t think there’s a priest out there who hasn’t encountered that sort of attention. He’s having a nightmare because Father Will is very shy. He’s really shy around women. And in this book, the subplot is the fact that he begins a relationship — not anything substantial — but he does find himself attracted to someone, but that will never see fruition. It’s just his adjustment to the idea of celibacy.

Q: Tell me about the cat Father Tom is based upon. Is he still around?

A: No, I lost him last year. His last days, I had a conversation with him and said that as long as there’s a Father Tom, I’m going to have you around. He had to be put down. He had cancer. He was a big old bulky coon. Maine coon cats are just the biggest, fluffiest, in your face, irreverent cats. He was perfect for that role as a parish cat. He gets away with saying stuff that nobody else says.

Q: Is there a long tradition of church cats in various religions, or is this a Catholic thing?

A: There is a great website, Purr ‘n Fur (purr-n-fur.org.uk). Patrick Roberts is the man who runs the site, and that’s where I first found out about church cats, along with Richard Surman and his photography of church cats in Great Britain. I knew nothing about any church cats here, and I wouldn’t have had a church cat if I had not been exposed to their church cats — for instance, Faith the church cat in the London Blitz, who was in the rubble in the church with her kittens.

I’m hoping people will be interested in having a church cat by reading this book.

Q: Are you already working on the next book?

A: Yes. The next book is about halfway (finished), and I hope to come out with it in the spring.

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MeredithGoad

 


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