CE: Has writing this series affected your relationship with your Amish relatives? How have they reacted to these stories?
DC: They were reticent at first. The Amish are a very private people, and there were things in Levi’s Will that they’d rather I hadn’t said. But in the end the reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and now the whole clan turns out for the booksignings in Berlin. My Aunt Mary, a staunch Old Order Amish woman to this day, has been heard to say several times over the last year that she couldn’t wait for The Captive Heart to come out so she could find out what happens to Miriam and Domingo.
DC: Oddly enough, I think it’s that their churches meet in homes and barns; they don’t own property or support a paid staff. This means nearly all their tithes go toward taking care of people’s needs. The elderly don’t have to fret over a retirement plan, and the Amish take seriously the biblical mandate to care for widows and orphans. A budget meeting in an Amish church usually goes something like, “We have a big surplus of money just sitting there. Does anyone know of a family in our community who really needs help?” Don’t get me wrong—they have their problems—but the deeper I look at the Amish the more I find myself marveling at the things they get right.
CE: How did you create the characters in this series, particularly the daughters? Writers and readers would like to know: Did you get female input in writing your female protagonists?
DC: Absolutely. Because I spent most of my life doing construction work, I know everything there is to know about men, and virtually nothing about women. The CBA is a woman’s world, so when I started the series I thought it was important for the Bender family to have lots of girls and lots of female viewpoints. I knew I was in trouble right away, so I solicited my wife’s help. For the first time in my writing career I printed out each chapter as soon as the last word was typed, and handed it to Pam. She’d sit there with that little smirk, her eyes at half mast (whenever they weren’t rolling), shaking her head, muttering, “no… no… no…”. Then we’d talk, and I’d rewrite it. When the entire draft was done I showed it to my cousin Katie, whereupon I learned that an Amish girl has yet another perspective on it. It was sort of a committee effort, but in the end I think we got it right. Trust your instincts, but don’t be afraid to take good advice wherever you can find it. The magic is in the rewriting.
On Writing & Publishing:
CE: Many of your novels include elements taken from personal experience. Tell us a little about how an experience goes from a spark or seed to a full length novel.
DC: Every writer is different, but I guess my second novel is the best example of how that happens, at least with me. First of all, the idea for Bad Ground tumbled around in my head for years before I wrote a word. I once worked on a mining project where I learned about the whole subculture of miners first-hand. We were a mile and a half underground one night when I was burned nearly to death in an electrical explosion, and the aftermath turned out to be the best and most enlightening period of my life. It changed absolutely everything, opening up a world of spirituality that made perfect sense. I learned from experience that it’s a good idea to pay close attention during the worst times of your life because that’s where God puts the good stuff. I knew before I started that this would be the theme of Bad Ground, so I knew what I wanted the story to say, and I knew the backdrop would be the mining project. The characters and their stories sort of coalesced out of fragments of miners and construction workers I’ve known, and the lies we’ve swapped all these years. Once I had a handle on Snake and Germy all I had to do was follow them around and write down what they did. The characters, if you’ll trust them, will help you get where you want to go.
CE: Excellent advice. You’ve said in past interviews that you’re a SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) writer. Has your aversion to plotting and outlines changed at all since you’ve worked on a three-book series?
(for the answer to this and more of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 3)