"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


My Book Launch Talk—from book process to writer’s country

February 13th, 2018 by

(What follows are the remarks I meant to give at my book launch in January, remarks I decided not to give when fellow author Sarah Adams simply read from her book.)

This is, in brief, the story of my novel. And right up front, I can give the thesis for the story by echoing the late great J.R.R. Tolkien: that is, this, my novel, is a tale that grew in the retelling.

There were four retellings, to be exact. And I should add that as my tale grew, so did my sense of being a writer.

Over six years or so, the novel grew out of collaboration, first in writing groups, and then from contradictory writing advice from different editors and agents who were rejecting it. Obviously, I don’t mean that I engaged in some sort of dialogue with those “Dear Writer, your work does not fit our needs at the present time” letters. With these, I decided to just go back again and again to the drawing board with it, and the story grew through advice from writing groups, who were able to tell me where my main character was too weak, that there was too much thinking going on and not enough action.

Early on, after a second draft, roughly in the spring of 2012, I showed my work at a writing conference where editors with Christian publishers said that they didn’t believe the main character’s motivation—why would an English professor go on a reality show? I listened to these editors, took my story home, and worked on that motivation, brought in Walter’s older sister who watches reality TV and wants to go on one of the shows.

And then came the contradictions: during the following spring, in 2013, some of these same editors said that they believed the character motivation, but they didn’t think that anyone would want to read about a reality show. The summer after getting those responses, I took my novel to a Writers Conference near Lake Tahoe, and the secular editors there said that everyone would want to read about this reality show business. I should turn the volume up on it.

So I took the secular advice and kept on going. At this time, in 2013, I no longer thought to write a Christian novel. But I also didn’t want to write what could be construed as heretical. I was afraid that I had.

I pushed forward anyway.

Entering New Terrain
Writing more revisions, amping it up, I still hoped that I was writing a novel with religious implications that would be okay on the secular market.

After more rejections followed, including one that took over a year and it was clear that the editor only read the first few pages, I gave up on the novel, until one of my students, Mitch Kopitch, asked to read it. I let him, and he suggested that I take my favorite scenes and rethink it.

That summer, I deleted 150 pages from my novel and then rewrote it again. And then I decided to put it away. I began working on something else, a memoir of my sister’s life and death. I proposed to write about grief.

I let the novel lie there, off life support, off everything. I decided that nothing was going to come of it.

I worked on the memoir for a year, and on hitting a dead end with it, I went to Serra Retreat center in June with notes I’d begun taking on my novel. I decided that I was bringing together the last stitches of it into a somewhat coherent narrative. I decided that all the rejection and rewriting was what I had for my schooling as a novelist. So I reread and reworked it. Then, in the fall, I sent it out five beta readers, and they liked it. So I began to send it out again, this time to independent publishers.

After several months of working on other things, I heard from a small publisher named eLectio, a Christian publisher.

The strange thing is that at the same time that I sent my book to eLectio, I had also sent it to four or five secular publishers. I thought I was not a Christian writer, but now my book would be published as a Christian novel.

A Christian Novel After All?
And here is how I now think about how I should write Christian fiction.

I don’t think of it as an omniscient author commenting on how faith is supported by what happens. I don’t think of it as writing Amish tales. I don’t think of it as a story where scripture is often quoted, chapter and verse. And I also don’t think of Christian fiction as being like many works today that are about escape, about some post-apocalyptic scenario, an allegorical fantasy novel, or a book based on eschatology that is largely about escape.

I think that I wanted to write about what was current. I wanted to show myself that my faith was current. So, for me to write a Christian book, Christianity has to enter into the picture through character, just as Buddhism does, just as atheism does, just as alcoholism does. It doesn’t begin with a scripture quoted as an epigraph or an allusion to King Saul in the title. In my epigraph, I’ve quoted not scripture but Jean Baudrillard, a French cultural critic obsessed with what TV has done to the reproduction of the image.

I have decided that Christian fiction can begin when we begin reading about a character in all of his contradictions, all of her struggles, and doubts and desires for what cannot possibly come to pass. From there, the issues come up with a realism that most people can recognize.

As this was what I had to write about, I was encouraged when a small, independent publisher helped me to accept that the country, or field, I have to write about is not going to lead to Amish tales, to post-apocalyptic scenarios, or romances, or fantasy. And the truth is that I had to find my little field by sending my main character across the country on a stupid TV show that claims to be about religious ideas of the end of the world, but is more completely and truly all about ratings and money.

That is the America we are in now. We have many traditional symbols representing different versions of the past and monuments that evoke different meanings for different groups. But we also have layers and layers of hypocrisy over and under many of these symbols. Instead of discussions around these differences, we have clickbait, hashtags, ratings wars, Facebook fake news, back and forth media focus, books sold, fame for being famous, looking confident. And my main character, Walter, just represents all those people unhappy in this kind of world and who are smarter than it.

This is an America once settled by guns, gospel, and slavery, contradictions that once seemed harmonized in Manifest Destiny but today are rightly exposed though often muted and silenced in the suburbs where the news is ignored in favor of the world we each carve out in our jobs and with our families. Some version of self-help Bible reading gets many people by, many people who think that all they need do is make adjustments. We surround ourselves on Twitter with optimistic sayings that encourage people in as much as they are willing to feel things that are affirmed in support groups. There are other forces. There is the larger secular progress taking place, the medical advances no one can afford, and the “other” party that is just as evangelistic as the old guard, seemingly just as intolerant, just as driven by sound bite and background music.

Christianity has to come out, if it is going to come out at all in this place, in the very specific terms of acts of grace on character. It has to come from some kind of desire, and since Walter’s desires were long ago drained, they have to emerge in his doubts and responses.

In writing this novel, I have discovered that I have a second one to write. If I have my way, Apocalypse TV will be followed up by a novel called Radio Eden, this time dealing with some of our concerns with Genesis. The new idea concerns American religious ideas of origins and beginnings–even as my first novel, Apocalypse TV, obviously engages with ideas about the end of things. The main character is a pastor who has a radio show once a week and who can’t quite believe that some members of his congregation would take his words literally, go off in search of the real Eden, and in doing so become hostages to a new Islamic terrorist group.

Tensions find us everywhere. Job threats, threats to marriage, and as we grow older, threats to the life we’ve known. This main character moves from a career in ministry to ministry. And I hope that it is in an America we can all recognize, where there are monuments and parks to the past, while the present moves through a series of denials.

In the midst of changing times, at least we still have reading.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Replies:

Comment by Tim Riter on February 13, 2018 at 8:31 pm

Tom, I love your analysis of Christian fiction, and if Christian fiction were more like this, then I would read more Christian fiction. Until then, I’ll continue with Robert Parker, David Balducci, and others like them who weave spiritual issues into their work.

Comment by Tom on February 13, 2018 at 8:39 pm

Thank you, Tim. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t also suggest looking into this new book, Apocalypse TV. 🙂

Comment by Joseph Bentz on February 13, 2018 at 8:54 pm

Great story, Tom! I am so glad you stuck with this novel until it was published! Your perseverance is inspiring, and I love the novel.

Comment by Tom on February 13, 2018 at 9:44 pm

Thank you, Joe, and thank you for your feedback with it.

Comment by Rhonda Roberts on February 15, 2018 at 7:29 pm

Tom,
Thank you for sharing your story. Such a realistic portrayal of birthing a novel and an approach to being a “Christian Writer” that shows a depth of understanding of the need to communicate faith through a character’s wrestling rather than quoting scripture verses and painting rosy pictures. I”m passing this along to the young writers in my sphere.

Comment by Tom on February 15, 2018 at 7:32 pm

Thank you, Rhonda! I am honored to be held up as an example to the young writers you encourage.

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