As 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?
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.