An Interview with Best-Selling, Christy-Award Winning & Wordserve Author, Marcus Brotherton

Marcus-Brotherton-Feast-For-ThievesAs interviewed by James Shupp, Author of “Who Killed My Church?”

What prepared you to be a writer?

My father was a minister and my mother was a journalist. So I grew up in a world filled with “thoughts about God,” writing, and books. I always loved putting my thoughts on paper and expressing myself through the written word. Then in college and graduate school, I studied theology and journalism. After graduation, I spent eight years as a youth minister and then made a fairly sharp career switch to work for a newspaper. It wasn’t very glamorous work. I was a general assignment reporter and wrote about everything from school bus strikes to murders to the new pastor in town—a smattering of community life. As a journalist, you learn how to parachute into the middle of a situation, ask the right questions, and write fearlessly. I had to write and edit a thousand words a day. In that situation, you can’t sit around waiting for inspiration or allow yourself to suffer through writer’s block. You just have to do it. It was a great training ground.

You began writing non-fiction. What was it like to enter the world of fiction?

I found the process of writing a novel to be much more difficult. It took longer. You have to write well and string sentences together in a way that helps the story flow. You also have to create the story world and answer these questions: Who are these people? Where do they live? Why are they there? Who are they interacting with? What do they talk like? What do they do with their free time? In a novel, you have to create the structure of a book. You need to know how to build action sequences and bring them to a sense of resolution and relief. I finally got smart along the way and began reading “How To” books. For three years, I read everything I could on the subject. After throwing away my first three novels, I wrote Feast for Thieves. From start to finish, it was a ten-year process.

How does a storyline present itself?412130

First comes the idea, then it’s a combination of mathematical outlining and imaginary mind play. I had always begun with an outline for my non-fiction books. But with fiction, I just wanted to sit down and be free to enter a state of right brain immersion. In Feast for Thieves, I finally resorted to outlining, which proved to be really great. It gave me a sense of where the story was going and provided the big picture. So if I wanted or needed to change something, I didn’t have to rewrite the whole story. It can be disheartening to throw away large chunks of your story, but with outlining that doesn’t happen much. Therefore, you save a lot of emotional energy working this way.

How do you connect emotions with your characters?

It begins with the process of immersing yourself in the characters. I ask myself the questions: If I was this person, what would he say? How would she respond? What emotion is he feeling? Can I picture a time in my own life when I felt that same emotion? How did I respond? So at the end of any day, it’s a real rollercoaster. You’re feeling happy, scared, sad, apprehensive, even rage—all the strong emotions that you connected with while writing.

How do you power through frustration as a writer?

Frustration can derail you. I think it’s okay to be in that state for a time. Sometimes you come to the end of a project, and it doesn’t work out for you. Then you sit for a while, not knowing what’s next. Some people have five- and ten-year plans. That’s never worked for me. I believe what gets you through the frustration as a Christian writer is finding the answer to the question, “What is the Lord telling you to do?” It’s being content in the angst or the not knowing or in the question. The question is part of the journey.

What is the role of self-esteem in writing?

Here’s a tweetable: “Writing is a performing art with all the insecurities that go along with that.” Once you publish a book and get it out there, that’s your permanent record and it follows you around for the rest of your life. In these days of instant Amazon critiques, everyone’s a critic. People can be every combination of very gracious to very ruthless, particularly if they disagree with you, which does happen. When a critic nails you, you always have to ask yourself the hard questions: “Is any part of this criticism valid?” “Can I learn anything of value from this critique?”

Hemingway talked about handling negative reviews. He compared it to sitting in a winter cabin next to a crackling fire in the woods. In the distance, you hear the howling of wolves. The satisfaction is in knowing that you’re safe. You have published, and that’s something that the wolves don’t have.

What fears or insecurities do writers deal with?

I think every writer wonders, “Do I really belong here?” This is not a profession where people hold the door open for you and say, “Welcome.” This is a profession where all the doors are closed and you have to knock quite loudly and long just to enter. When you finally walk through the door—into that party—it’s hard to believe you’ve made it. A sense of humility with your readers about this is a good thing. Sometimes people classify me as a military historian, simply because I’ve written so many books about the soldiers of WWII. But I’m always quick to point out that I’m not a historian. I didn’t train to be one, and I have a high degree of respect for those who did. I’m a journalist and a storyteller. That’s the party I want to be invited to.

How did you come up with the title, Feast for Thieves?

At one point, we had about two hundred options on the table. I chose this one as a layered title. This first layer comes from the Book of Isaiah where the prophet talks about how salvation is a feast—a wonderful bounty. “Come and dine” is the message of Chapter 55. The second layer of my title originates from the crucifixion. When Jesus was crucified on the cross, He hung between two thieves. I love how He offered this same feast to both—a feast of mercy, grace, peace, love, and joy. One accepted the Lord’s offer, and this is what I call, “The first feast for thieves.” The good news is that this feast is still available for us today. It’s a lavish banquet. The table is spread with great food, and the feast is still free.

Did the characters in Feast for Thieves become real to you?

I felt in the process of writing “Feast” that my imaginary characters became friends of mine. It’s like when you read a really good book and come to the end, you’re kind of sad. Because you know that the story doesn’t continue for these people. In my book, I wanted to have more adventures with my characters, but I knew this particular story was finished.

When you won the Christy Award, what went through your mind?

It was great. I didn’t come here expecting to win. I’m just honored to be at the party. One thought, however, really sums up this whole experience for me. In the writing industry, you hear so many “nos.” In fact, you get used to hearing the word, No! This happens over and over again, and you have to learn how to power through. You have to keep going and remain optimistic. Last night I heard a “yes.” It’s a strange and unusual word to hear in the writing industry, and yet, what a great sound to hear. Finally, at last, “Yes!” But you don’t want to get too used to it, because the next day you have to go back to the canvas and start painting all over again.

Who was the first person you texted, tweeted, or emailed after you won?

I texted a picture to my wife and kids. They were all happy. Also, we have some great friends that I texted. One is our prayer warrior support who had been praying for this moment. My dad and other family members who live in Canada were following online. They let out a cheer and sent me an email. This morning I had breakfast with my college journalism professor from twenty-five years ago. I didn’t know he was here, but it was great to reconnect and reminisce about the journey.

As a journalist, if you interviewed yourself, what would be the angle of the story?

I think it’s interesting that a guy who used to be in the ministry is now a writer. Frederick Buechner talked about how he was a preacher/writer. He wanted to communicate “thoughts of God” to a receptive audience through the vehicle of writing. I want to communicate the ministry of Jesus Christ through the art of writing. That’s my calling.

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Concludes, Part 4

(see Parts ONE, TWO & THREE)

CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?

DC:  All my books so far have been published by Bethany House, who has always put a lot of editorial work into their books. I like it. Most of my books have undergone major changes due directly to the input of editors, and I have no problem with that. To me, it’s just more sets of eyes—professional book people’s eyes, looking for ways to improve the manuscript. The writer has to get his ego out of the way and learn to see his work objectively, like a lump of clay, sparing no amount of effort to shape it into a work of art. 

Editors are book people. Not only their professional reputation, but their sense of self worth hangs from the quality of books they produce. They want the same thing you do—a good book—and they know what they’re doing. I’ve worked with the same editor on all my books, and it’s been a pleasure. Luke Hinrichs is intelligent, perceptive, articulate, and good-looking (not to mention that he sometimes reads these blogs, if you get my drift.)

CE: What is one critical thing you’ve learned not to do on the publishing journey? (Some of us admit without shame that we prefer to learn from others’ mistakes.

DC: I prefer learning from my own mistakes, but then I don’t mind the scars. What have I learned not to do? Complain. If you absolutely must complain, complain to your agent privately. That’s what she’s there for. You will have complaints, but don’t complain to the publisher, and never, ever complain on the internet. Nothing good will come of it, and you’ll look like a whiner.

CE: Great advice. You’ve just completed a three book series. This is probably the last thing you want to think about right now, but what’s next?

DC:  I have no clue. Isn’t that great? Right now I’m taking time off, doing a lot of electrical work, and enjoying it.

CE: Any last words of advice for the serious, yet-to-be-published writer?

DC:  You have to learn to take the work seriously without taking yourself too seriously. Construction work taught me that it takes a lot of different skills to build a solid house. Take pride in your work, not in yourself, and when it’s done, move on to the next one.

CE: Thank you so much for taking to time to share your thoughts with us this week, Dale. Blessings on all your writing & publishing endeavors!

About Dale: Dale Cramer is the author of six novels including the bestselling and critically acclaimed Levi’s Will, based on the story of Dale’s father, a runaway Amishman. Dale’s latest series, THE DAUGHTERS OF CALEB BENDER is based on an Amish colony in the mountains of Mexico where three generations of his family lived in the 1920s. He currently lives in Georgia with his wife of 36 years, two sons and a Bernese Mountain Dog named Rupert. Visit him on his Web site at http://www.dalecramer.com/

About The Captive Heart (The Daughters of Caleb Bender #2)

Ravaged by disease, preyed upon by ruthless bandits, the Bender family’s second year in Mexico has taken a grievous turn. Faced with impossible choices, the expatriate Amish discover, more than ever before, what it means to live by faith and not by sight

But it’s Miriam who must make the hardest choice as her heart takes her on a new and dangerous course. Domingo. “He is gentle,” his sister said, “until someone he loves is threatened.” Is Miriam that someone?

“Cualnezqui,” he often calls her–the Nahuatl word for Beautiful one. The chiseled native has proven himself a man of principle, grace and power, yet is he the pearl of great price for whom Miriam would sacrifice everything, or is he merely a friend? Tormented by conflicting emotions, she’s haunted by vivid dreams: Dressed in the coarse cotton pants and shirt of a peasant, she stands on the precipice of a sun-washed ridge searching desperately for Domingo. Domingo the fierce. Domingo the protector.

Domingo the forbidden.

Camille’s review of The Captive Heart, is available HERE

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 3

(see Part ONE & TWO)

CE: 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?

DC:  It’s not so much an aversion as an inability. I can’t outline. Most of the time I have a sort of vague sense of the overall character arc, a general idea of where I want to arrive in the end, and some of the anecdotal material I’d like to use if and when it fits, but the motivations that get characters from one chapter to the next come from the characters themselves. I can usually find things for them to do that sort of steer them in the direction I’d like them to go, but the characters simply won’t do it if the motivation isn’t there.

I’ve heard it said that writing a book is like driving at night; you can only see so far, but you can make the whole trip that way. Some people are only comfortable when the whole trip is mapped out in detail, and to be honest I’m sure they make fewer wrong turns than I do. Sometimes I get stuck and have to turn around, which costs me time, but I’m also aware that the really breathtaking moments in stories are the unexpected turns. For instance, a writer has to be willing to make room for a walk-on. In every book I’ve written I’ve had at least one character walk onto the stage completely unforeseen. Those invariably turn out to be the most interesting characters, like Domingo in Paradise Valley. He showed up on his own, constantly surprising me with the things he did and said. If a character surprises the writer you can be fairly sure he’ll surprise the reader.

CE: In writing this series, how did you approach weaving the daughters’ shorter storylines in each book in with the father’s overarching series storyline? (Please don’t say it just fell together. Lie if you must.)

DC:  I was concerned about that very thing, so I asked advice from a little guy on the stool next to me in a bar in Darjeeling (long story), four years ago. Turned out he was the great nephew of Tenzing Norgay, and he took me to a wizened old guru in a sacred cave high in the Himalayas. After seven hours of kneeling and chanting I was finally allowed to put my question to the guru, and he answered in a frail, high-pitched voice, “You must have faith, my son. Wing it, and it will fall together.”

 CE: Um, I’m going out on a limb and guessing you went with the lie. Thank you for sharing and for confirming my suspicions.

Back to Summer of Light: There’s a scene that made me drop the book and laugh out loud—Mick with the chainsaw on Aubrey’s front lawn. You built that moment up beautifully. You’re a master of wry humor. How do you incorporate it in a novel? Would you say it begins with being an SOTPer?

DC:  No, I think it begins with being Southern. I really hate to admit this, but here’s the truth: almost all of the really funny stuff actually happened. I got the chainsaw story from a lunatic cousin; I could never have made that up. Or the pretend cigars, for that matter. Or the goat in the house. Or the dog in the tree house. Listen, if you don’t howl with laughter at least once a day, either you’re wound too tight or you’re not paying attention. Absurdities swarm around us like gnats. For a writer, the real trick is in knowing when and how to use one of those stories.

CE: What has been your biggest challenge or roadblock in writing, and how did you overcome it?

DC:  My biggest roadblock is the same as everyone else’s—myself. It’s hard to convince yourself you can write well, that you can write a book, that you can find an agent, that you can actually get a contract with a publisher, that you won’t be humiliated by critics or shunned by readers. Leaps of faith, all of them, with conflicting advice shouted from the sidelines the whole way, and self-doubt nipping at your heels. Ignore them all and leap anyway. Never mind the scars.

CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?

(for the answer to this and the rest of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 4)

Interview with W. Dale Cramer Continues, Part 2

(see Part 1 HERE)

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.

CE: What do you value most about the Amish people and their way of life?

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)

Interview with W. Dale Cramer, Author (Part 1)

by Camille Eide

This week, (Jan 4 – 7), the Water Cooler will feature a special discussion with critically acclaimed author Dale Cramer in four parts, so be sure to come back each day for the rest of this interview.

W. Dale Cramer is one of my favorite authors, in both Christian and general markets. His books include Sutter’s Cross, Bad Ground (2005 Christy winner), Levi’s Will (2006 Christy winner), Summer of Light, Paradise Valley (1st in the Daughters of Caleb Bender series) and the newly released The Captive Heart (2nd in the series).

I’ve read each of these books and loved them all. If this tells you anything, my copy of Summer of Light is soft and crumbling along the binding. I recommend the book to others but often buy people their own copy because I refuse to loan out mine. I’ve dissected this story from cover to cover hunting for clues on how to write with such authentic, lyrical, resonant yet humorous style. I sometimes fear these qualities can’t be learned, but I am not giving up and will continue my feverish studies. In the meantime, Dale has graciously agreed to let me pester him with questions.

On Amish Fiction:

CE: Amish fiction is clearly here to stay. To what do you attribute its long-standing popularity?

DC:  They’re hobbits. The Amish clip-clop along in their unhurried pace, more or less oblivious to the rush and crush of the world around them, and they seem to be at peace in their own insular world. The contrast is striking, and I think it gives us an inescapable nagging sense that maybe they know something we don’t, that maybe we’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere in our heedless dash toward high-tech opulence. The Amish have managed to preserve some endangered values, when you think about it. They put family and community above material gain and creature comforts; they teach cooperation instead of competition; they work hard, save their money, spend with thrift, rely on common sense, never depend on the government, and their minds are not shaped by television. 

CE: What do you hope readers will take away from this series?

DC:  I’ve tried to paint a picture of a people who refused to put a price on their principles. I think that’s the most important question The Daughters of Caleb Bender asks— How far would you go? What would you be willing to give up to preserve a way of life based on your beliefs? The story also brings up some very pertinent questions about the roles of church and state in our lives.

CE: You have a family connection with the Amish community and have based this series on actual historical events in your family, which makes the stories that much more intriguing to read. How much assistance with research did your Amish relatives provide?

DC:  Not as much as you’d think. My father was born in Paradise Valley, and he just turned 86. It was the generation before him who remembered much of what happened in Mexico, and they’re all gone now. A few stories have been handed down, but not that many. I wish I had known when my grandfather was alive that I would someday write the story because he could have given me a wealth of information. I’m told he dug bullets out of the wall of his barn after a bandit raid and kept them in a jar in the cupboard for the rest of his life. I never even saw them. 

CE: Outside of research, do you enjoy regular interaction with your Amish relatives?

 DC:  I do, yes. It’s an incredible story, really. I’ve lived in Georgia most of my life, and there was a twenty year period when I didn’t get up to Ohio very often—my father was banned, and there was a pretty deep rift in the family because of it. But about ten years ago, thanks to my cousin Henry, things started to change. Henry decided to have a Miller family reunion (my father’s real name) at his place that year. It was the only reunion I ever recall them having, and when we drove up we saw that Henry had put a sign out at the end of the lane saying, “Miller/Cramer Reunion.” I think it was that one simple gesture, the inclusion of my father’s name on the sign, that started to turn things around. That was the reunion where my father publicly acknowledged his daughter. A few years later I told the story in Levi’s Will, and the restoration of the family since the writing of that book has been the most remarkable turn of events in my life. Now I do book tours in Ohio and spend a lot of time with family while I’m there. I’m even starting to learn the language.

CE: Has writing this series affected your relationship with them? How have they reacted to these stories?

(For the answer to this and more, come back tomorrow for Part 2)