Angel Harp Interview—January 2011
You have an extensive body of work in fiction and non-fiction. Which titles are you most proud of?
Most of my books and series are unique in some way. They all remain special in my thoughts for that uniqueness. One of the reasons for this, I suppose, is that I always try to set myself a new creative challenge for every new series—something that I have never done before as an author, elements of story or plot or characterization I have not used previously in any of my books. It keeps me from getting stale and doing the same thing over and over. It keeps me fresh and invigorated so that I am truly excited about every new project.
For example, what could be a greater creative challenge than trying to put myself inside a young woman’s thoughts and write in the first person…as if I were a woman! That’s what I did in the series The Journals of Corrie Belle Hollister and it has turned out to be one of my best-selling series of all. So I tried it again in Shenandoah Sisters, adding the creative challenge of trying to place myself inside the thoughts and feelings of a young black woman first person narrator.
Those are just two examples of what I mean by setting myself “creative challenges” to make every book and series new and fresh and unique. The result is that over the years I have written in many different styles and voices, about different times and eras and historical settings. It’s what makes writing books fun—always exploring something new. I hope it makes it fun for readers as well.
Among all the novels I’ve done, however, I would have to say that The Secret of the Rose series, Shenandoah Sisters, American Dreams and Rift in Time would rank as my favorites. At least today. It might be different if you ask me tomorrow!
Could you tell me a little more about those you mentioned.
The Secret of the Rose is a four book series set in World War II and Cold War Germany. It is probably the series of mine that has generated the most reader response over the years of anything I have written. One dear lady in England wrote to us several times to tell how the series had impacted her life. She had read the entire series seven times. Now that is remarkable! The first book of the series is entitled The Eleventh Hour.
Shenandoah Sisters and American Dreams are two recent series that both take place during the civil war. The first two titles in the series are Angels Watching Over Me and Dream of Freedom. I really love both those books! Sounds a little funny for me to say that since I wrote them! But I do. Rift in Time is a contemporary thriller in which the hero (besides falling in love, of course—that has to happen in every book!) discovers the location of the Garden of Eden.
What about non-fiction?
I would have to say that my two most significant non-fiction titles are two. The first is Make Me Like Jesus, a devotional book on the prayers of Jesus and how they personally have impacted my own prayer life. The second is entitled, Is Jesus Coming Back As Soon As We Think?, an alternate look at the end times. Neither are for the spiritually faint of heart. In my non-fiction, I do not play around with trivialities. I try to go straight to the heart of what it means to be a Christian…perhaps I should say, what my own Christian faith means to me.
Tell us a little bit about Angel Harp?
To tell you about Angel Harp I have to tell you about my own angel harpist, my wife Judy. She has been playing the harp for some forty years. We home schooled our three sons, and after they were grown Judy began teaching harp lessons. She has a harp studio in our home and she has now been teaching harp lessons for fifteen years. She is really a gifted teacher. During that time she has probably taught the harp to more than a hundred young people. Some of them have gone on to become very accomplished musicians. Judy’s harp studio has added such a wonderful dimension to our home through the years. Can you imagine what it’s like to be writing…or going to bed (I’m the proverbial morning person and usually drift off at night hours before Judy) with harp music in the background. It’s pretty great.
We have a small home in Scotland where we spend the summer. I write and Judy works on her harp program and studies and curriculum. She does some playing there in the local 12th century church, and a little teaching, but most of her teaching takes place back home in the States.
A few years ago our schedules were such that I went to Scotland about a month before Judy. I had planned to do massive amounts of writing and expected the creative juices to flow like a tidal wave. But I got to Scotland and hit a brick wall. My brain was empty. It was one of the worst cases of writer’s block I had ever experienced. I walked around the village, moped about the house, and got more and more depressed. I had time on my hands and was in the perfect environment to write…but creatively I was all dried up. I began to wonder if it was over…if I would ever write again.
What it boiled down to was probably no more complicated than that I missed Judy! I don’t know that I would say that I was love sick…that’s a little melodramatic. But I was definitely longing for my other half! I went out for a long bike ride one day. On the way home I stopped and sat for a while on a bench overlooking the North Sea. As I sat there, from out of nowhere a sentence came into my brain: It is a terrible thing when dreams die. I hadn’t a clue what it meant. But it was a mysterious enough sentence and it grabbed my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
By the next day another thought came into my mind along with that mysterious sentence—what if someone were to come to Scotland as a tourist…even right to the very part of Scotland where I was at the time…and had an adventure? What if he or she did so in order to keep a dream in their life from dying? Maybe that’s what the sentence is supposed to mean. Hmm, I thought to myself. What if that unknown someone was a harpist…even a harp teacher?
Hey, this sounds good, I thought! I wrote down the mysterious sentence, continued to ponder what it meant, and waited to see what would come next. I didn’t consciously begin to write a book about Judy. But the fact that she was on my mind so much began to prompt more and more ideas. Before long I had a fictional harpist and that one sentence had become a page…and before I knew it the story was taking shape before my eyes. I never knew what was going to take place next until it started to happen. I came to the manuscript every day wondering myself what was going to happen! By the time Judy arrived, I was well on my way.
She always says I’m a romantic. I don’t know if that’s true or not—do men ever know those kinds of things! But Angel Harp was a romance that was really fun to watch develop…even if I didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. The harpist of the story has an adventure, gets involved in a complicated love triangle, and…What am I doing! I can’t give it away! Anyway, that’s how Angel Harp came into being.
You have written many books that take place in Scotland. What is your special connection to that country?
The answer is a simple one and only takes two words: George MacDonald. Many of my readers know all about MacDonald. In fact many of my readers discover my books because they have first been reading George MacDonald. Anyone who is interested in learning more about MacDonald and his books can find out everything on our website. Briefly, for those unfamiliar with the name…George MacDonald was a 19th century Scottish Victorian writer. It was MacDonald’s books that began C.S. Lewis’s spiritual pilgrimage out of atheism and into Christianity. All his life, Lewis considered MacDonald his spiritual mentor, and even went so far as to call MacDonald his “master.”
However, in the 20th century MacDonald’s books went out of print and became more and more difficult to find. After Judy and I discovered the writings of George MacDonald in the 1970s, it became my passion to do what I could to bring his books back into print, and to inform the public about the spiritual connections between C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald.
To accomplish this, I edited a number of MacDonald’s longer novels that had originally been written in heavy Scottish dialect. These were published in the 1980s and 1990s by Bethany House Publishers. We also published full length originals of MacDonald’s works through our own publishing company, Sunrise Books. And I wrote a biography of MacDonald called George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller.
That is in brief our connection with George MacDonald. It was because of him, and inspired by his writings, that I began writing novels of my own. My first books were all set in Scotland because, through MacDonald, that was a setting and kind of writing I was familiar with and loved. When we closed our Christian bookstore several years ago after 35 years, we decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and purchase a small home in Scotland, in the heart of George MacDonald country. It is about twenty miles from MacDonald’s birthplace, and in the same village where MacDonald wrote and set what is my favorite of all his novels, Malcolm. When I am there, I feel the ambiance of MacDonald’s influence, and I feel very creatively stimulated. Except, of course, when I get writer’s block!
You have had a very successful writing career. Did you always dream of writing? Do you have any advice to young or budding writers?
I am very grateful to God for what has happened with my books. I continue to be astonished by it every day. No, I never dreamed of writing when I was young. My worst subjects in high school were English and anything to do with literature. I was a math and science guy. In college my major was Physics, my minor Math. When I was a senior in college I decided to take a course on “Creative Writing.” On my first paper for that class I received the only “F” I ever got in my life.
So that’s how I started! I am testimony to the fact that any dunce can learn to write, can teach himself or herself to write, and can learn to write decently well. It takes extraordinarily hard work. Many think that publishable writing sort of just “happens,” that you either have the gift or you do not.
Wrong! You have to teach and train yourself in the craft, and that may take years. You have to study and practice. The training I put myself through in what I would call my years of apprenticeship was every bit the equivalent of my years in college studying physics. In my experience, however, most beginning writers have no idea how long and hard they have to train. It’s like training for a marathon. A lot of that time is spent writing on projects that no one will ever read. I have probably three dozen unpublished books that no one has ever seen—some complete, some three quarters complete, some half done. But that’s the training ground.
You’ve not only got to learn the craft, you have to be persistent. I still get rejections from publishers for manuscripts that I think are great. You asked earlier about my favorite books and series. Two of the books I would have mentioned aren’t even published because no publisher is interested in them. I have written a murder mystery set in a Scottish castle. I love the book! But it remains unpublished. I have also written a series of introductions to the books of the Bible called The Eyewitness Bible. In my opinion, it ranks at the very top of all the work I have done. I would definitely have included it when you asked about my favorites earlier. Yet no publisher wants it.
So that’s all part of the writing process too. You have to be thick skinned to handle the rejections. I’m not very good at it! Authors get typecast just like actors. Publishers get so they want you only to write the same kind of book as you have written before. They don’t seem to like people branching out. It makes those “creative challenges” I spoke of earlier difficult to pull off. The minute you try something different, you are told, “Hey, this is different.”
If anyone is interested, I will be starting a feature on our website in the next few months entitled “On the craft of writing.” It will be located in the page, “Behind the Wardrobe,” which will contain articles and many of my previously unpublished non-fiction writings on the nature and character of God and what are his purposes in our lives.
How can readers contact you and get more information on your books?
Through the website macdonaldphillips.com. Everything that I have done, including my work with George MacDonald and his books, is there. My wife and I love to hear from readers, and they may contact us through that website.
CBD interview for Angel Harp—January 2011
How did you get started as a CBA writer?
Several things contributed to it. The writings of C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald were so foundationally pivotal in the development of my own faith that I found within myself a desire to follow their example. By that I mean the desire to communicate God’s principles, and especially the truth about who God is and what are his purposes in our lives, through the written word. All my first books with Bethany House in the 1970s and early 1980s were non-fiction, something a lot of people don’t realize. I didn’t become a “novelist” until some time later.
How did you come up with the concept for Angel Harp?
By accident! To tell you about Angel Harp and its sequel Heather Song I have to tell you about my own angel harpist, my wife Judy. She has been playing the harp for forty years. She operates a harp studio in our home and is really a gifted teacher. During that time she has probably taught the harp to more than a hundred young people.
We have a small home in Scotland where we spend the summer and where I do a lot of my writing. The ultimate writer’s retreat, I suppose! A few years ago our schedules were such that I went to Scotland a month before Judy. I planned to write volumes, anticipating the creative juices to flow like a tidal wave!
But I got to Scotland and hit a brick wall. My brain was empty. It was the worst writer’s block I had ever experienced. I walked around the village, moped about the house, and got more and more depressed. I began to wonder if I would ever write again. What it boiled down to was probably no more complicated than that I missed Judy! Love-sick is a little melodramatic. But I was definitely longing for my other half!
I went out for a long bike ride one day. On my way home, I stopped sat down on a bench high on a bluff overlooking the North Sea. It was a spectacular day, breezy but pleasant, the ocean a deep blue. As I sat there, a seagull flew past in front of me. Slowly, as it glided by, wings outstretched, the gull’s head turned briefly toward me. It was one of those magic moments between man and the animal kingdom that brings a joy to the heart. Obviously the gull wasn’t thinking about me, but I imagined him saying, “There is a story waiting to be told about that bench you are sitting on, about this coastline, and about the village just there along the path.”
Just as quickly he was gone. I was left to ponder the moment. As I did, gradually a creative what-if began to form in my brain:—
What if a visitor came to this part of Scotland as a tourist, actually came to this very spot and walked this path along this bluff and sat upon this very bench? What if such a person came here knowing nothing, expecting nothing…and slowly found himself or herself drawn into the life of the community?
That was it. A village in Scotland…a path along a bluff…a bench overlooking the sea…and the momentary glance of a seagull. As I continued on my ride toward our home, a sentence came to me. I don’t know why, or where it came from. I had no idea what it meant. The sentence was:—It is a terrible thing when dreams die. With nothing more than that, I began to write, hoping that from that single sentence a second might follow.
As I mentioned, Judy was not yet with me in Scotland, but would be joining me in a few weeks. I was obviously thinking of her. I thought, “I will make the unknown visitor to this village, a woman, a harpist, like my Judy…maybe who has always dreamed of playing Celtic music on her harp in Scotland…perhaps on a high windswept mountain or a cliff overlooking the sea. Gradually one idea followed another until I had enough to fill a page…then two pages.
I didn’t consciously begin to write a book about Judy. But the fact that she was on my mind prompted more and more ideas. Before long I had a fictional harpist on her way to Scotland…and the story began to take shape before my eyes. I never knew what was going to take place next until I found my fingers writing about it. I came to the manuscript every day wondering myself what was going to happen! It was kind of exciting, actually.
Judy always says I’m a romantic. I don’t know if that’s true or not—do men ever know those kinds of things! But Angel Harp was a romance that was really fun to watch develop…even if I didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. The harpist of the story has an adventure, gets involved in a complicated love triangle, and…But I can’t give it away! Anyway, that’s how Angel Harp came into being, and Heather Song completed the tale.
What is the symbolism for the title Angel Harp?
I don’t about the “symbolism” as such. I simply interwove a number of themes that tied angels and harps together in the story. And I liked the phrase “Angel Harp” from the hymn Angel Voices.
How much research did Angel Harp take?
Research, so-called, is one of those funny commodities that is hard to define. You don’t go to the library to “research” how to develop relationships between people or how to interweave a plot with spiritual themes. In this case, as I was writing Angel Harp and Heather Song I picked Judy’s brain quite a bit about harps and harp playing. I know a fair bit about it from observing and listening to her through the years, but I wanted to make sure I got the details right. There is also a good bit of Scottish history in the book, so I had to brush up on that. Getting advice from many of our Scottish friends about the local dialect was not only important, it was more difficult than you might imagine Dialect in Scotland can change from village to village—where the two are only three miles apart!
The hardest research actually turned out to be coming up with the songs to accompany each of the chapter titles. We wanted to have a song for every chapter that in some way related to what was happening in the story at that point. But finding songs with suitable words, with all the copyright issues involved, turned out to be a daunting task! Judy actually did most of the work of song selection, which I appreciated enormously. The songs in Angel Harp and Heather Song may seem like a tiny detail, but music is such a part of Scotland that we couldn’t write a book about harping in Scotland without trying to have music on nearly every page.
What is the most interesting fact you learned while researching and writing Angel Harp?
That it is so difficult to obtain permission to use selections of copyrighted music! You simply do not receive responses from publishers to your requests. I’m not sure why that is. In the end we mostly used traditional Scottish songs that are in the public domain.
In the actual writing of Angel Harp and Heather Song, I found researching the local dialect, while having friends in Scotland read the manuscript, so fascinating I came away wanting to write a book completely in dialectble! Of course, if I did, no one would read it. But the Scots are proud of their dialects and accents and do not want them to die out. It’s a whole world of linguistic history and culture that we in the U.S. are not familiar with. Judy and I love being around it, even though we still understand very little of it when listening to two native northern Scots conversing between themselves. I tried to capture just a little of that in Angel Harp and Heather Song.
What are some of the challenges you face as an author?
The diplomatic answer would be such things as writer’s block, and getting characters and plots to work effectively, and meeting deadlines, and all those sorts of things. Sure, those are challenges. But in all honesty the greatest challenge I face is the same challenge beginning writers face—getting published! Finding an editor excited about your ideas. It is daunting. I still get as many rejections as I did when I was starting out. I’ve got a half dozen completed books right now that I cannot get published. I have written a murder mystery set in a Scottish castle. I love that book! But it remains unpublished.
Goodness, I’m not complaining. I have been so fortunate. I am grateful to the Lord and to all the editors and publishers who have published my books. I am the luckiest man in the world, to quote Lou Gehrig. But the challenge of selling people on new ideas remains. I hope that fact may give hope to budding writers out there—we’re all in it together.
One of the interesting aspects of all this is that, as a writer, you never really know whether something you are doing will “connect” with someone. In writing Angel Harp, I got all the way to the end and still wondered to myself, will anyone like this? Luckily, Judy did. She’s always my most important audience of all! Especially for a book about harps! So I immediately started in on the second book.
What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?
Finishing the last sentence of a book! A close second is writing a really great first sentence. But between the two lies the huge chasm—months, years, decades!—called one word at a time. That’s the excruciating part.
You get the idea…the light bulb goes off, the flash of inspirational genius, the excitement, the thrill! Then you have to actually write the thing! Then come the dreary days, the blank pieces of paper or computer screen, the doldrums, the bad writing, the plots that don’t work, the stupid characters, the lame descriptions…you know you will never get to the end. Even if you do get to the end, you know that the whole thing is lousy.
Yet somehow…eventually you do eventually get to that last sentence. I’m sure dying and waking up in the Lord’s presence is going to be wonderful. But seeing those final words of a book on the paper in front of you has got to be right up there!
What clubs or organizations are you involved with in helping your writing?
None. I know a lot of people are helped in that way, but for me writing is a solitary pursuit. That is not to say that I am not continually trying to learn and improve my craft. I have a number of writing “mentors,” as I call them. But they are authors, not members of a writing group. I have a huge library of books on the craft of writing. These I devour and underline and reread. I would not be the writer I am without the influence of these men and women. But there is really no social aspect to my writer’s life beyond the constant back and forth and discussion and brainstorming that takes place with Judy.
What do you do to keep your writing fresh and improve on it each time you write a book?
I try to set myself what I call “creative challenges.” By that I mean that in every new project I try something in the writing or the style or the setting or the spiritual themes that I have never done before. It’s my way of continuing to learn and grow and expand as a writer.
People who are familiar with my books and who have read a number of them will know what I mean when I say no two series are the same. That is by intent. When I embark on a new project, I intentionally try to devise aspects of the story or characterization or plot that will challenge and stretch me into new areas. Or I might try to write in a different style or tone or voice. With some books I try to adopt a more old-fashioned Victorian flavor, with others I try to make the style crisp, fast-paced, and contemporary. I write in both the third person and the first person…again, because both styles and genres present unique limitations and offer unique opportunities to “get inside the head” of your characters. There are all sorts of things like that I do so that I am constantly expanding my horizons in new ways.
What could be a greater creative challenge for a man than to write in the first-person pretending to be a woman! I’ve done that several times and find it a wonderfully challenging exercise. If I am trying to think like a woman thinks, I can’t get lazy or readers will spot me as a fraud before they get to page two! All these creative challenges keep me on my toes. I hope they have made me a better writer.
There were a number of such challenges I set myself in Angel Harp and Heather Song. Again I employed the first person format, though I had never before done so in a contemporary setting. I had never written so vividly about a real place that people would actually recognize when they read about it. The paths and streets and benches and fields and hills in Angel Harp are really there. You can go to a particular place in Scotland and sit on the same bench where Marie plays her harp.
That’s a little frightening for an author. In the very reality you are trying to create, you also open yourself up to the potential criticism that you got it wrong. But that’s also the opportunity of “creative challenges.” You have to work hard to make sure you get it right.
What books did you read as a child?
I hate to confess that I wasn’t a great literary giant. I think I am what’s called a “late bloomer.” Honestly, I really used to love Donald Duck comics. Sorry to you highbrows out there!
It didn’t get much better when I was in high school. We had to read many of the classics in English class—Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, Silas Marner, The Scarlet Letter…I didn’t have a clue. I was a literary dunce. But my encounter with George MacDonald changed all that. He and C.S. Lewis turned me into a voracious reader.
Are there any new projects on the horizon?
Most importantly, of course, is the second book in the Angel Harp doublet, Heather Song. It will be released later this year. And currently I am working on a two-book historical set which will take place in Wales. Its first book will be released sometime about a year from now.
Who/what has been the most significant influence on your writing career?
Without a doubt, the Victorian Scotsman George MacDonald. He is also the reason so many of the books I have done are set in Scotland, including Angel Harp and Heather Song. Many of my readers know all about MacDonald. Those who don’t, and are interested in learning more can find out everything on our website.
Briefly…George MacDonald was a 19th century Scottish Victorian writer. It was MacDonald’s books that began C.S. Lewis’s spiritual pilgrimage out of atheism and into Christianity. All his life, Lewis considered MacDonald his spiritual mentor, and even went so far as to call MacDonald his “master.” However, in the 20th century MacDonald’s books went out of print and became more and more difficult to find. After Judy and I discovered the writings of George MacDonald in the 1970s, it became my passion to do what I could to bring his books back into print, and to inform the public about the spiritual connections between C.S. Lewis and George MacDonald. To accomplish this, I edited a number of MacDonald’s longer novels that had originally been written in heavy Scottish dialect. These were published in the 1980s and 1990s by Bethany House Publishers.
That is how my own fiction writing began. Because of MacDonald, and inspired by his writings, I began writing novels of my own. My first books were all set in Scotland because, through MacDonald, that was a setting and style of writing I was familiar with and loved. Honestly, I had no idea whether I would ever be able to write a novel. MacDonald was the master but I was just a novice. I kept at it, studied and learned and taught myself the craft, imitated MacDonald…and gradually figured out how to put together a novel.
When we closed our Christian bookstore several years ago after 35 years, we decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and purchase a small home in Scotland, in the heart of George MacDonald country. It is about twenty miles from MacDonald’s birthplace, and in the same village where MacDonald wrote and set what is my favorite of all his novels, Malcolm. When I am there, I feel the ambiance of MacDonald’s influence, and I feel very creatively stimulated.
That same village is where Angel Harp and Heather Song are set. You probably wondered if this digression into Scotland and George MacDonald has anything to do with Angel Harp! But it’s all connected. After all these years, I had never actually set a book in the very locale that had inspired me to become a novelist in the first place. That’s what Angel Harp and Heather Song are. Sort of a return to my MacDonald roots.
What message would you like your readers to take from reading Angel Harp?
I didn’t write it for a message, so to speak. I began simply by telling a story. But as you write, a lot of what is inside can’t help but come out. Two things, in particular, strike me about Marie’s experience in Angel Harp that are universal to us all. One, that first sentence really did remain as a thematic foundation for all that followed—we shouldn’t let our dreams die. God made us to be dreaming, hopeful, accomplishing, doing, excited people. We all have dreams, things we would like to do, maybe, like Marie, places we would like to go, things we would like to learn to do. I really hope that those who read Angel Harp will take the encouragement to follow some of their dreams—write a book, take a trip, learn to dance, paint a painting, refinish a table, learn to do something they have never done before…have an adventure!
And secondly, which is a constant theme in all my books and undergirds the commission I believe God gave me at the beginning when I began to write, I hope people take away the deep and very personal assurance that God is a good, loving, and forgiving Father.
What is your greatest achievement?
My work in bringing back into print the books of George MacDonald and reviving his reputation so that people are reading his books in a widespread way. C.S. Lewis tried to revive MacDonald’s reputation but despite his fame, it was not as successful an effort as Lewis hoped. I am thankful that I have been able to continue the tradition that Lewis began by providing new editions of MacDonald’s books that are more in keeping with our times.
What do you do to get away from it all?
I get outside and move and work and sweat. I was an avid (see: “Nuts, crazy, wacko.”) runner for 40 years. Now I have transferred that passion for physical exercise to cycling. I love to exercise, and exercise hard. I have to get out every afternoon, to feel the wind and sun and heat and cold on my face, or I don’t feel right about the day. For years it was running. My best brainstorming sessions took place when I was running. I carried pencil and paper in a little tube like a relay baton. Now I cycle, and still carry the pencil and paper…just in case. People wonder what I’m about sitting beside the road, my bike next to me, scrawling on a sweaty piece of paper! Some of the scenes in Angel Harp were written that way, even on “Marie’s bench.”
Actually, to answer your question, I never really get away from it. The brain keeps going!
What is your favorite scripture?
I don’t know that I would isolate one favorite scripture. But there are several that are especially meaningful to me as focusing what I feel to be God’s highest purposes in our lives.
I love certain categories of scripture—all the Proverbs, and the commands of Jesus foremost among them. The Proverbs and Jesus’ commands tell us how to live. Among these, Proverbs 2:1-11 and Proverbs 3:5-6, have provided the guiding principles in my life to heed the command underlying the entire book of Proverbs, the command of Proverbs 4:5: Get wisdom, get understanding!
To me, the foundation of the New Testament message is incorporated in Matthew 5-7, the sermon on the mount and John 13-17, the upper room discourse. In these two sections of scripture Jesus outlines as simply as possible how we are to live, behave, think, and conduct ourselves. This is the Christian life.
Every one who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man. (Matthew 7:24)
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another…By this all men will know that you are my disciples.(13:34-5) Abide in me, and I in you. (15:4) If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. (15:10) That they may all be one…so that the world may believe. (17:21)
If one had to sum up this call to obedient Christlikeness in a single passage, none in my view so succinctly identifies the godly live we are called to example to the world better than Micah 6:8: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God, or in the more familiar words of the KJV, to do justly, and to love mercy.
Is there any higher calling than that? I cannot imagine it. What more worthy inscription might one imagine to be placed on his or her tombstone than what was said of Noah: And he walked with God. Micah 6:8 sums up such a life.
How can readers contact you and get more information on your books?
Through the website www.fatheroftheinklings.com. Everything that I have done, including my work with George MacDonald and his books, is there. My wife and I love to hear from readers, and they may contact us through that website.
A Cozy Reader’s Corner Blog Interview—February, 2011
Please tell me a little about yourself. When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
Certainly not in my early years, or during high school English classes studying “great literature.” Even all the way through college, majoring in Physics and Math, I had no idea that writing was in my future. The only “F” I ever received in my life was on my first paper for a “Creative Writing” class during my senior year of college. That should give you some idea of my innate “talent.” I didn’t have much!
But the Lord was taking serious hold of my life during those years. One of the results became a passion to communicate his truths. I didn’t necessarily think of doing that through writing at first. But as I began to read more and as Christian books became part of my reading diet, and as C.S. Lewis’s influence in my life deepened, I began to see the power of the written word, both through fiction and non-fiction. That’s when I began to think seriously about writing books. I also began to lament having majored in Physics rather than something that would have prepared me more adequately for a career in writing. So I basically had to learn the craft from the ground up.
Please tell me a little about Angel Harp.
To tell you about Angel Harp and its sequel Heather Song I have to tell you about my own angel harpist, my wife Judy. She has been playing the harp for forty years. She operates a harp studio in our home and is really a gifted teacher. During that time she has probably taught the harp to more than a hundred young people.
We have a small home in Scotland where we spend the summer and where I do a lot of my writing. The ultimate writer’s retreat, I suppose! A few years ago our schedules were such that I went to Scotland a month before Judy, who was caregiving for her mother at the time. I planned to write volumes, anticipating the creative juices to flow like a tidal wave!
But I got to Scotland and hit a brick wall. My brain was empty. It was the worst writer’s block I had ever experienced. I walked around the village, moped about the house, and got more and more depressed. I began to wonder if I would ever write again. What it boiled down to was probably no more complicated than that I missed Judy! Love-sick is a little melodramatic. But I was definitely longing for my other half! I went out for a long bike ride one day. On my way home, I stopped and sat down on a bench high on a bluff overlooking the North Sea. It was a spectacular day, breezy but pleasant, the ocean a deep blue. As I sat there, a seagull flew past in front of me. Slowly, as it glided by, wings outstretched, the gull’s head turned briefly toward me. It was one of those magic moments between man and the animal kingdom that brings a joy to the heart. Obviously the gull wasn’t thinking about me, but I imagined him saying, “There is a story waiting to be told about that bench you are sitting on, about this coastline, and about the village just there along the path.” Just as quickly he was gone. I was left to ponder the moment. As I did, gradually a creative what-if began to form in my brain:—
What if a visitor came to this part of Scotland as a tourist, actually came to this very spot and walked this path along this bluff and sat upon this very bench? What if such a person came here knowing nothing, expecting nothing…and slowly found himself or herself drawn into the life of the community? That was it. A village in Scotland…a path along a bluff…a bench overlooking the sea…and the momentary glance of a seagull. As I continued on my ride toward our home, a sentence came to me. I don’t know why, or where it came from. I had no idea what it meant. The sentence was:—It is a terrible thing when dreams die. With nothing more than that, I began to write, hoping that from that single sentence a second might follow.
As I mentioned, Judy was not yet with me in Scotland, but would be joining me in a few weeks. I was obviously thinking of her. I thought, “I will make the unknown visitor to this village, a woman, a harpist, like my Judy…maybe who has always dreamed of playing Celtic music on her harp in Scotland…perhaps on a high windswept mountain or a cliff overlooking the sea. Gradually one idea followed another until I had enough to fill a page…then two pages. I didn’t consciously begin to write a book about Judy. But the fact that she was on my mind prompted more and more ideas. Before long I had a fictional harpist on her way to Scotland…and the story began to take shape before my eyes. I never knew what was going to take place next until I found my fingers writing about it. I came to the manuscript every day wondering myself what was going to happen! It was kind of exciting, actually.
Judy always says I’m a romantic. I don’t know if that’s true or not—do men ever know those kinds of things! But Angel Harp was a romance that was really fun to watch develop…even if I didn’t know what was going to happen in the end. The harpist of the story has an adventure, gets involved in a complicated love triangle, and…But I can’t give it away! Anyway, that’s how Angel Harp came into being, and Heather Song completed the tale.
How did you become published?
My first books were all non-fiction. I never imagined that I would be capable of writing a novel. The process of fiction writing was an absolute mystery to me! The first book I wrote was a brief apologetic for the Christian faith called Does Christianity Make Sense? I wrote it to share my faith with four friends. And I wrote a number of similar books on practical Christian living—the family, business, time management, that sort of thing.
As to your question of first becoming published, it took a while. I wrote for eight years before seeing my name in print, and I have the rejection letters to prove it! But I suppose my perseverance paid off, as did continuing to work very hard to learn the craft and techniques of writing.
What was the publishing process like?
That is such a complicated question I wouldn’t know how to begin. The short answer is that it is a lot of work! It’s probably harder than many who haven’t experienced it realize. Handing in a manuscript is only the beginning. I sometimes tell people that the editorial process is as difficult as writing the book in the first place.
Part of that is because of the way I approach my writing. All authors aren’t like this, but for me a book is a complete package. I want to be involved in all aspects of how a book is produced. I am a very hands on author. I drive editors and publishers crazy, I suppose. But all the parts of the process are so important to me—believe it or not, down to such a detail as how a book smells. When I am writing, I am envisioning not a mere story but an entire finished book. Obviously, the cover is of great concern to me, along with all the editorial details, how the text looks on a page…everything. So all this makes the writing of a book only Phase 1. Then the process of turning it into a finished book that I will be proud of becomes Phase 2. For me, everything comes down to what I will think and feel when I see the book on my own bookshelf—will I be proud of it. Believe it or not, there are some of my books whose finished “packages” are so poorly conceived (in my opinion) that, though I am proud of the content, I am not proud enough of them as complete books that I enjoy giving them away. The content that I produce only represents one element. But the whole book is a whole book.
What is something you wish you had known about the publishing business?
It would really have helped me to know more about how the process works. For some reason, publishers don’t really tell you very much. Maybe other authors don’t care. They just turn in a manuscript and that is that. Then one day they open a box and there are the books. But for someone like me who wants to be involved in the process so that the final book will be one I will be proud of on my shelf as a complete entity, it is frustrating not knowing what is going on, what is expected of you, what is protocol, what are the no-no’s, and whether your input on that “whole book” package is going to be treated with respect. I wish I had known more back in the 1970s when I was just beginning…I still wish I knew more!
I’ve done over a hundred books. Believe it or not, I still don’t know the difference between a line editor and a copy editor. Actually…I think there may be five distinct editorial levels. I’m not really sure. An author just isn’t told very much. The unfortunate realization I have come to many times is that you don’t have a seat at the table, so to speak, as your book is being produced. You hand in the manuscript and the impression is that you are expected to pretty much bow out at that point. Your input and ideas and priorities are no longer required. In many cases, I’ve had no contact whatever with the editors working on my books. I don’t even know who they are. One publisher told me that this separation between author and editor is intentional—so that the author won’t interfere. I came away from that discussion more perplexed than ever, wondering whose book it was.
Perhaps all this is normal. I would just like to have been kept better informed about that aspect of the author-publisher partnership. I would have gone into the process aware of that expectation. I think it would be incredibly helpful if publishers gave their authors a written “Author Procedures” booklet or something. It’s very frustrating to be kept in the dark. So you ask questions, then discover you’ve offended someone or committed a breach of etiquette. I am still struggling to figure things out.
In the production of Angel Harp I caused a minor brouhaha for asking a question about the publication process that I didn’t know was out of bounds. We worked through it, of course, and the book turned out great and I love what FaithWords has done with it—just a first class job. But it would have been nice not to have crossed a line that I didn’t know was there.
And every publisher is different. Some are great about author involvement at every stage of the process. They want an author’s input, knowing that he knows the book more intimately than anyone in the publishing house. With others, that involvement is minimal and they really don’t want that input. I have worked with some of the best editors and publishers in this business and in many cases the process is an absolute joy. Anyway…I am still learning! It’s a complex business.
What has been your best author experience so far?
I don’t think anything will ever top my wife reading the letter from Carol Johnson at Bethany House to me over the phone. (Judy was at home, I was at our Christian bookstore.) The first sentence of that letter from Carol ended with the words, “…we would like to publish your book.”
Down inside I’m still just a guy hoping to get a book published some day. I will never get over the thrill from that day of realizing, “Wow, my book is actually going to be published.”
What is the least thrilling/attractive part of being an author for you?
I would probably say the editorial and production process, but not only because of the difficulties I mentioned earlier. It is the most difficult creatively. The editorial process comes long after you’ve finished a book. The emotional and creative energy has all been used up. By then you’re on to something else.
It is very hard to go back and summon the energy to make a lot of corrections that perhaps a publisher wants you to make. And it’s hard also to incorporate such changes into what is already a finished and cohesive entity. It becomes very much a cut and paste affair at that point. You seriously worry whether you’re not just making a hodge-podge of a given scene or section more than really improving it. They may be great ideas, but it’s difficult to recapture that enthusiasm from six months or a year before when you were riding the wave of creativity that carried you through the writing of the book in the first place.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I used to teach writing workshops and obviously my advice was the tried and true advice you always hear—hard work, 90% perspiration 10% inspiration, and all that. It’s still true today.
The mistake many aspiring writers make is to think that the writing itself is the hard work, the time they put in, getting up early, staying up late, nose to the grindstone, etc. No, that’s not the hard work it takes. It’s the hard work to learn and practice the craft of good writing. That’s a different kind of hard work. Someone might write twenty hours a day, but if that effort isn’t pointed in the right directions, they may never get where they want to go.
People think that having good ideas, or having a good story qualifies them as a writer, or qualifies those ideas or that story as ones people will want to read. You can ‘t imagine how many times authors are told, “I have a really great story, I just need someone to write it.”
Everyone has a great story in his or her head. Everyone has good ideas. If books were a matter of just setting down good ideas and good stories on paper, anyone could write a book. Just tape record someone telling their ideas or their story. But it’s not just about ideas and stories, it is about the ability to communicate them so that they are easily absorbed into a reader’s brain by the use of publishable craft and linguistic precision and economy of construction and focused concise crisp syntax.
That takes hard work and skill and practice. The ideas and stories are the easy part. Anyone can think up a clever story. You think you’ve got a dynamite story idea? Join the club. So does everyone. I mean good story ideas. Good story ideas are easy. They won’t set you apart. The craft is what turns aspiring writers into published authors. It’s not the story—it’s the craft to tell the story with precision.
These are learned skills, not gifts. People write praising my “gift” of writing and storytelling. I just laugh when I hear that. Whatever gift I have is the gift of hard work. I have learned to turn average writing into publishable writing. I don’t consider what I do a gift. I have a few good ideas and occasionally I come up with a good story line. But the secret is learning the craft to communicate them effectively.
Another huge blunder aspiring writers make is being proud of what they have written. That is a huge mistake. The secret of good writing is being able to read what you have done and recognize it for what it is—rubbish. Someone who is prematurely proud of what they have done (maybe because of the good ideas and clever story), unless they do have an innate “gift” that I don’t have, will probably never be published.
That’s where the process of learning the craft, the linguistic precision, the crisp syntax, the economy of construction begins. It begins by being able to see how horrible your own writing really is on the first pass as you get your ideas and story onto paper. You’ve got to recognize the rubbish writing for what it is.
Then you rework your paragraph or scene or chapter another time. Still rubbish. Then a third time…hmm—it’s still terrible. Seeing your writing as unpublishable is the beginning of the long road toward excellence.
So you read a writing book or two. You read something from your favorite author and try to see what is different between what you have read from your mentor and what you have written yourself. Maybe one or two things jump out at you. Then you have another go at your troublesome scene or paragraph or page or chapter. This time you try to incorporate something you saw from your mentor’s good writing into your writing. Maybe that improves it a little.
Whose writing are you trying to emulate? Then study it and emulate it. Don’t be enamored with your own writing. Follow the same principles that are evident in the writing you want to emulate. You sniff around in a few more writing books. You read Strunk and White for the seventh time. You pick up another tidbit or two and you go back to your piece and incorporate those elements into your work.
Okay, it’s starting to sound a little better. But you know its still not there. Now you go back to your favorite author again. Now the hard work begins. You’ve got to tear apart your mentor’s words and sentences and paragraphs…and figure out how and why it sounds good. You’ve got to try to put those same elements of craft into your writing. Copy your mentor. Try to make your writing sound like his.
By now you’ve been through your piece maybe eight times. Maybe you’re ready to admit that it has improved beyond the rubbish stage. But do you still have eyes to see that it’s not as good as you thought it was at first? If so, you’re on your way. The writer on his way to becoming an author has no use for clever, ornate, syrupy expressions. He sees them on his page and cringes with dismay.
Rubbish! he cries. All this flowery over-writing is juvenile. I must work harder. I must learn from the masters who taught me to love books and writing in the first place! Back to the texts and writing books…now you are like a detective looking for the remaining rubbish elements in your writing that you can improve, even if it’s just a few letters of a change, a word here and there, the strengthening of a verb, getting rid of bland words like is and was.
You are searching like a bloodhound to remove pallid words, passive tenses, unnecessary qualifiers, overstatement, repeated words, flowery expressions, convoluted sentences, florid adjectives, cutesy constructions, ly-adverbs, dangling phrases, excess verbage. All these must go.
It’s all in the writing books. The principles are there for the taking. That’s what it takes—studying and researching to ferret out the principles of craft and technique that makes someone else’s writing sparkle. Then do those same things yourself.
I sometimes wonder if I had an advantage in not being trained as a writer. I knew my writing was rubbish. I knew I had to learn how to write from the beginning. I had been through the English classes. I had diagramed sentences and tried to figure out the symbolism and themes of Jane Eyre and Moby Dick. But now I had to teach myself how to infuse my writing with gutsy nouns and verbs with punch and movement.
This process of self-teaching is so overlooked. Many aspiring writers have probably never read a book on writing style and craft. I have a library of probably thirty or more such books. I study them and pore over them. They are underlined. I re-read them. I have to be reminded of what to do and not to do. I am constantly studying writing technique. I have been at this 35 years and I still look at my stuff and cry Rubbish! and despair that I will ever be a decent writer.
Good writing doesn’t just “happen.” You have to teach and train yourself in the craft, and that may take years. You have to study and practice. The training I put myself through in what I would call my years of apprenticeship was every bit the equivalent of my years in college studying Physics. In my experience, however, most beginning writers have no idea how long and hard they have to train. It’s like training for a marathon. A lot of that time is spent on projects that no one will ever read. I have probably three dozen unpublished books that no one has ever seen—some complete, some three quarters complete, some half done. That’s the training ground. Everything doesn’t get published. But you are learning.
You’ve not only got to learn the craft, you have to be persistent. I still get rejections from publishers for manuscripts I think are great. Two books I have done recently that I like a lot are not published because no publisher is interested in them. I have written a murder mystery set in a Scottish castle. I love the book! But it remains unpublished. I have written a series of introductions to the books of the Bible called The Eyewitness Bible. In my opinion, it ranks at the top of all the work I have done. Yet no publisher wants it.
That’s part of the writing process too. You have to be thick skinned to handle the rejections. I’m not very good at it! I still get them all the time!
Thinking back, what was it like to see your debut novel in print? How many novels do you have published?
This may be difficult to believe, and actually I’m surprised myself by it. But I don’t have a vivid memory of it. If you had asked about my first book, then of course I was excited and elated and all that. But I had been writing for almost ten years before my first novel was published, and I had been editing the novels of George MacDonald for several years as well.
Every new book is exciting to see. Seeing the finished Angel Harp a few weeks ago was honestly as big a thrill as ever. You’ve put so much into a book that there really is a sense of fulfillment in seeing it all finally come together.
Keeping a count of my work is difficult. People ask how many books I’ve done and I say, in all honesty, I don’t know how many books I have published…it depends on what you mean.
I have co-written 14 novels with Judith Pella. I have written something like 40 novels of my own. Then there are the novels of George MacDonald which I edited, 18 of them. And my non-fiction work is in another category altogether. It is a little amazing to say all that. As I said before, I still think of myself as just a guy with a dream—to get a book published some day!
How did you decide to write a novel in this genre? Have you written in any other genres?
I very much like writing in first person. It is more “fun,” if I can put it in that way. It imposes a lot of limitations on you creatively. At the same time, you can develop the internal thoughts and growth of a character in more interesting ways than when looking in from the outside. But I had never written a contemporary novel in the first person, only historicals. So this is a first for me with Angel Harp. It was something I wanted to try.
I have written in just about all the genres—historical, contemporary, first person, third person, young adult, thriller, fantasy. I’ve even done a murder mystery, but haven’t found a publisher for it yet!
Do you have a novel in the works?
Of course there is the sequel to Angel Harp, which is called Heather Song and will be released later this year. What I am actually working on now is another two-book set which will take place in 19th century Wales. The first book is called From Across the Ancient Waters and is scheduled for 2012.
What is your favorite book?
There are two. I couldn’t pick just one. C.S, Lewis’s Mere Christianity, and George MacDonald’s Malcolm.
What is the last book you read?
One of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster stories. I don’t actually remember which one. I read them all continuously. I just finished one yesterday and started another immediately. The titles all blur together. The Jeeves and Wooster and Blandings stories by Wodehouse are pure farce, without any redeeming qualities whatever. But Wodehouse, in my opinion, is the greatest word technician in the English language. Maybe it’s because he also strikes my funny bone that I revere him so highly. I may have read a line five or six times—I think I’ve read all the books at least that many times—yet I will LOL again every time I come to it. It’s not just the humor itself. The plots are inane and most of the books have basically the same plot. My wife Judy thinks I’m a little nuts. She considers the books nonsense. I’m not sure I would disagree—they pretty much are. But it is Wodehouse’s word usage, his method of recounting funny situations that makes all the difference. It’s the writing of it that is such genius. That’s why I read his books continuously—they are such a study in unbelievably shrewd word usage and clever writing, in adroit turn of phrase, in wonderful repartee and banter between characters. I am learning constantly from Wodehouse. When I turn away from Wodehouse to my own writing, that’s really when I exclaim, “Rubbish!”
What are you currently reading?
Along with my ongoing dose of Wodehouse, I am reading again George MacDonald’s longest novel, Donal Grant…786 pages. I am reading it in the original, not my edited edition.
Some years ago, our family was shattered by an encounter with some people in England who set out to destroy our family. Curiously enough, it all began as a result of a very warm fan letter we received from them because they really liked my books. Unfortunately, I did not have my spiritual antennae up. Before I realized what was happening, we were blindsided and shattered and traumatized and Judy and I did not see two of our sons for years. We’ve still not totally recovered. The destructive influences will probably be with Judy and me for the rest of our lives. There has still been no thorough resolution. In any event, I am still struggling to understand the whole thing better. In consequence, I am also reading Scott Peck’s People of the Lie. More than you wanted to know. Sorry.
Do you have a pet?
No. I loved my dog as a boy, but I grew up in the country. We live in town and it’s just not practical. My wife loves guinea pigs. We raised several from infancy to death. But not at the moment
Do you have children? If so, how do you balance writing and parenting?
Judy and I have three grown sons and three grandchildren. The days of having to find that balance are long past for me, though I was writing during all our parenting years. The balance was intensified in that we home-schooled all the way through, so our house was a beehive of activity. I did a great deal of my writing very early in the morning when the rest of the household was asleep.
Name three things you couldn’t live without.
That is a really fantastic question. I think it’s the most thought provoking question yet. I suppose one could live without anything. But there are definitely some things I would not want to live without.
The first is solitude. Honestly, I don’t think I could live without the recreating silences of being alone. People are unique in what energizes them and “charges their internal batteries,” as it were. There are those who are energized by being with people. I am just the opposite. I need alone time every day. It’s not necessarily a spiritual thing, time “alone with God” sort of thing. I have to be alone with myself…surrounded by quiet and calm…when the pace of activity slows. When I’m driving, for example, I normally do not listen to music. I prefer the company of my own thoughts, my own inner life, to listening to the outside stimulation of music. I need the quiet to think, to reflect, yes to pray as well. But for me, inner thought and prayer are all bound up together. One of our dear friends said to us recently, “I have asked God to make all my thoughts prayers.” That’s nice, isn’t it—lovely beyond words.
Even when I’m with my closest friends, I have to find opportunities to carve out solitude. It is often difficult because our society is a socially intense society. Solitude is not considered one of the prized and valued commodities in life. But I simply cannot function for very long in the presence of people, even my close friends whose company I enjoy (and I’m talking about hours, not days and weeks) without getting away to center down for a while. It’s literally as important to my well being as food and drink. Indeed, if I was with a group of people all day in a fairly intense interactive environment, and they were planning to spend the evening at an expensive restaurant, and I had the choice to forego the dinner for the chance to be alone, I would choose the solitude over the meal any day. Going without dinner would be a small price to pay for the recreating solitude that would energize me internally and get me ready for the next day.
Secondly, I would not want to live without hard physical activity. I don’t mean merely exercise, though that is a key component of it. The simplest way to describe it is that I need to either get dirty every day or sweat every day. Preferably both. I was a very active and competitive runner for 40 years. I ran track in high school and college. I continued to run all the years since. I’ve competed in everything from the 100 meters to several marathons. I’ve run the equivalent around the world at the equator twice—approximately 50,000 miles. Now my knees have begun to tire from all that, so I’m doing my third stretch around the equator on a bike. My active running days are over, but I am cycling with equal passion. I hope to ride a century (100 miles) later this year, though so far I’ve only worked my way up to about 65 miles. Cycling is still relatively new to me but I am enjoying it tremendously.
Because my work is sedentary (writing) and is something you basically do sitting down, by noon or 1:00, if I’ve begun my writing at five or six that morning, I am brain-weary. I need to balance the writing with hard physical activity. That’s when I usually go out for a long bike ride, weather permitting. I ride hard, just like I used to run hard. There are few things I enjoy more than pushing myself to my absolute physical limits, to the point of exhaustion. I know it is a little crazy. Judy thinks I’m crazy sometimes! But I just love to exhaust myself on a bike like I used to do when I ran. I’m over 60, but I get out there and I find myself competing with every thin fast 30 year old that rides up behind me. Not because I want to ride faster than them, but because I want to push myself.
Intense physical activity of this kind accomplishes much the same thing for my internal psyche as does solitude. It is re-creative. I think and pray during my rides. You cannot imagine how much of the content of my books over the years has come to me during long runs or bike rides. When I’m riding hard, my brain is also going at full speed. That’s why I carry paper and pencil with me when I’m riding.
If the weather doesn’t permit a ride, I get out in the afternoon and do some kind of physical work—yard work, wood work in my shop, home repairs, etc. It’s not quite the same as hard exercise, but it is still physical and that’s the key. My day is not complete unless I have sweat or gotten my hands dirty. I tell Judy that I have to “earn” my daily shower. Then I usually cool down and take a shower sometime between four and five in the afternoon and sit down again to my writing. I feel calm, weary but mentally invigorated, fulfilled, that it’s been a complete day. Then I have another stint at whatever book I am working on to try to get things set up and ready for the next day’s morning session.
My third “can’t live without” is my wife Judy. She would obviously be the first in priority of the three, but I mention her third because it would be difficult to explain the kind of re-creating relationship we have without first having spoken about solitude. Judy is even more an “internal” person that I am. She occasionally needs solitude even from me! But for the most part, the “solitude” we both need isn’t from one another. We share in that re-creative, internally energizing time. As we do, we recognize the need for silence, but we participate in the silence together. We spend our early mornings and our evenings together. We don’t go out. We are not social. We don’t go to evening meetings. That time together twice a day is imperative…we have to have it to keep our internal emotional and spiritual and psychological “selves” working and in tune.
Back during the years when we were raising our family and operating our Christian bookstore and involved with people in continuous and intense relationship all day long, protecting our mornings and evenings was even more essential to our sanity. Even though our days are not quite so intense as they used to be, we find that the need for shared solitude is still at the top of every day’s priority list. We both are “do-ers.” We get a lot done. We believe that one of the secrets to it is focus and mental energy that solitude gives us.
If you were given the opportunity to invite any five people to dinner, who would you invite?
Our three sons, and three grandchildren. I didn’t think you’d mind my making it six under the circumstances. Hmm…what about the wives—that might be a problem!
Name three things on your bucket list?
Wow, another really good question! And very thought-provoking.
I used to maintain a list of questions I asked myself about every potential writing project. I was so full of ideas that I had to find some way to screen them to make sure I focused on the truly important ones. One of the questions I asked myself about potential projects concerned its “deathbed significance.” Would such-and-such a project or book be one I wish I hadn’t devoted so much time to…or would it be one I would be disappointed not to have done. Those kinds of questions really keep you focused on what is eternally important. So I’ve been thinking about these kinds of things for a long time. In a sense, I’ve been preparing for death for years precisely because I don’t want to have regrets.
Part of this may have stemmed from the fact that my father was not particularly healthy. By the time I reached adulthood, I was aware that he might not live a long life. So I mentally prepared for his passing very early. I made sure there was no unfinished business with him. I tried to enjoy his being alive. And mostly I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable time that he would no longer be there. Those years of preparation, I think, helped give me a don’t-wait-until-it-is-too-late perspective about many things. I’ve tried to take care of things so that I don’t even need a bucket list when I am too old to do anything about it.
As it turned out, my dad lived much longer than I expected. He died at 79, and I consider those “extra” years a great blessing. Yet being prepared for it sooner was good for me and gave me a perspective that I think is healthy.
All this is really a prologue to my answer to your question: I don’t really have a bucket list. I am at peace with life. If I were to find out that I would die tomorrow, I wouldn’t have a long list of regrets. There are no places I’m eager to travel to, no adventures I dream of, no worlds to conquer. Sure, there are dozens of books I still want to write. There are relationships that I hope the years will improve. I want to ride that century! But most of the things that I would like to see happen in my life are out of my control.
When I think of the future, what I want more than anything (besides the spiritual clichés) is to spend every minute possible with my wife and best friend. You’d think that after 40 years together we’d be tired of each other! But even if we both live to be 100, it won’t have been long enough.
This was a very good question. Honestly, I’m a little surprised by my answer. But after careful thought, I realize that I don’t have a bucket list.
Are you a night owl or early bird?
Early bird. Sometimes a very early bird. I am usually beginning to turn into a pumpkin by 8:00 every evening.
Who is your favorite author?
What is your preferred writing atmosphere?
Early morning. I can write pretty much anywhere. My “writing center” in our home has changed a dozen times through the years. I’ve had, let me see, I think five really wonderful writing offices outside the home. We now have a place in Scotland we go every year. But none of that gets a book written. Writer’s block can come in the most idyllic setting, and many of my great ideas come in the shower or when I’m driving—obviously both times when writing is impossible. It’s not the setting, it’s the solitude and silence.
What do you do with your time when you’re not writing?
Cycle, work around the house, work in my shop, yard work, repairs, read, take naps. How’s that for brutal honesty? I confess, too, that I am a TV watcher. I love TV—news, the NFL, movies, drama. I find it very stimulating to my writer’s brain. I do need to add this for the record, because I would not want the above to give a wrong impression about my values—I would not under any circumstances watch any sit-com or reality show being produced today. I would not go so far as to call them evil, but I would go so far as to call them morally and spiritually bankrupt. Judy and I have literally not watched a single episode of a single sit-com produced in the last 30 years, though we do enjoy re-runs of some of our favorites of the old classics from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. We have never seen a single episode of any reality show—ever. Christians are far to lax about what they allow themselves to watch. There, I’ve said it—that’s my one and only foray into social comment!
Do you have a favorite reading/writing snack?
I drink tea when I’m writing in the morning, with oatcakes. I’m not a big coffee drinker. For years it was English Breakfast. At present I am enjoying Yerba Mate tea with my oatcakes. Evenings—popcorn.
Which question in this interview was your favorite?
Three things I couldn’t live without, and the bucket list. Two very astute and thought provoking questions. Books could be written on the basis of those two questions.
An interview with Michael Phillips, 1999
Who is the primary audience for your books? Phrased another way, whom mainly do you write for?
You don’t write to reach the non-Christian world?
Not really. That’s being taken care of by many others, and, to speak frankly, is not what God gave me to do when I began writing.
What did he give you to do?
Speak to Christians, to encourage them to think, to challenge them out of their doctrinal ruts, to challenge them to think about who God really is rather than content themselves with stale precepts they have been taught from a list of proof texts.
I’m not really a “natural” writer or a “gifted” writer. What has happened through my writing is so obviously God’s doing that I feel perhaps a stronger impulsion than some authors might to be faithful to the original commission. There would be no books with my name on them at all if he hadn’t taken a wanna-be scientist and teacher and amateur historian and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got something else in mind for you,’ and then set me on a path that would have been the last one I could possibly have imagined. His commission was to speak within his body, to speak to Christians.
I mean, anyone is welcome to read my books, of course. I hope non-Christians find them and do read them and are helped and perhaps give their hearts to the Lord as a result of something I’ve written. But they are not my chief audience.
You mentioned unity—why do you think unity so important?
Because it is the primary sign by which the world will come to know Christ. So those who think that my writing priorities are not especially evangelistic, in my opinion, do not fully grasp what is to be the foundational element in New Testament evangelism. According to Jesus, that is the way the world will know that he came from the Father. The primary way. Spoken, broadcast, declarative, so-called “witnessing” evangelism will never win the world to Christ. Only unity—an uncommon unity, a supernatural unity, a stand-up-and-take-notice unity—will achieve that. We are certainly standing in God’s way by the many means by which we prevent such unity becoming operative in his Church. We are all guilty.
Not only this, but unity is also the primary indicator of readiness for the Lord’s second coming. Christians who think that the Left Behind scenarios, with its “signs” from Revelation, contains any accurate second coming spiritual value, miss the most important second coming factor of all—unity in Christ’s body, sadly and grievously lacking at present. All you have to do is read John 17 to realize how hugely Left Behind misses the point altogether. By speaking to unity, though very few people are listening, I hope to address that imbalance.
You also said that you consider your call one to challenge Christians to think for themselves, and to think about who God is. What exactly do you mean?
There is a phrase that I think sums it up pretty well—“bold thinking Christianity.” I do not mean just bold Christianity—going out and witnessing obnoxiously to people who don’t care, or carrying placards and handing out tracts. I mean bold thinking Christianity—the willingness to discover the character of God and know the heart of God for oneself, by thinking boldly and exploring Scripture boldly, rather than formulating one’s belief system founded on learned clichés and shallow jargonistic explanations of various proof texts. This is a far more widespread, pervasive, and lethal problem than most realize within Christendom, undermining our witness, and, in my opinion, slowing and impeding the return of Christ.
I believe that much damage is being done to the cause of Christ and to the public perception of Christianity by shallow thinking evangelicals wedded to their cliché-doctrines. For the God and Father of Jesus Christ to be treated as if his infinite attributes can be stuffed into a jargon box hardly intellectually rigorous enough for an eight year old…it makes me angry that Christians have contented themselves with such shallowness that the world in general scoffs at. Jesus came to earth, and lived and died, to bring something better to mankind than we have presented to them.
What is the most frustrating thing about being a writer?
You still get rejections?
Absolutely. Especially for my non-fiction, which is my first love and I feel the most important area where I can make a contribution to Christian thought. But publishers are so into the thing called “platform,” which I do not have—a ministry to be head of, a big church to pastor of, a radio or television program, etc.—that they are reluctant to publish my work. This is an era of mega-stars and personality driven Christian entertainment. Someone like myself doesn’t get much of a public hearing. I am not a star nor a dynamic speaker. I have little entertainment value.
In my non-fiction, I also tend to write more challenging content than the feel-good, Guideposts, Max Lucado sort of thing—short little stories and anecdotes to warm the heart but not much else. I’m concerned about bigger things spiritually than Chicken-soup-for-the-soul Christianity.
What impact are you looking for as a writer?
Of course, primarily it’s writing books that touch people, help them, inspire them, deepen them, nourish them, teach them, and draw them in a multitude of ways closer to the Lord in their personal lives. That’s the ultimate impact, and my ultimate goal as a writer. The many, many very personal letters I get attesting to that going on–from all over the world, from prisons, from college presidents, from little children, from searching university professors, from church elders, from housewives, typed on stationery with names on top you’d recognize, and hand written on pages torn out of notebooks, letters full of questions, sometimes hurts, letters of thanks, letters of agonizing searching. . . all those letters from those many people–that is how I judge that my writing is accomplishing something. The burden of my heart is for people, for Christians who are struggling to put things together.
When I was in college I toyed with the idea for a time of going to seminary and training for the pastorate. My wife and I attended Urbana in 1970, and fully expected to spend our lives on the mission field. At that time I was planning to “minister” via the more traditional format either of pastoring a church or getting involved somewhere in missions. The Lord had other plans for us, as it turned out. But though the specifics of “career”, so to speak, were different, the deep heart’s desire to be involved in ministry to individuals never left me for a moment. As a writer, as George MacDonald once remarked about the same sort of career twist in his own life, I feel I’ve been given a “wider pulpit” by the Lord, from which I can preach, speak, share, minister–whatever you want to call it–to a thousandfold more individuals that I ever could have otherwise.
Do you truly consider writing to be a “ministry” in the same way as preaching?
The letters I receive get very personal. There are many people who receive their spiritual nourishment and sustenance from printed material–like books–perhaps even more than from any so-called face to face or church setting. I happen to be one of them.
Had it not been for the ministry–the very personal, heart-to-heart, intimate ministry of George MacDonald through his books, I would surely have dried up as a floundering Christian and withered and been blown off the face of the earth. In my church life I was in complete despair. Yet George MacDonald reached out across more than one hundred years of time, and said to me, “Mike, the Lord hasn’t forgotten you. Hang in there. He will accomplish his purpose in you. You can trust him, for He is your loving Father.” This MacDonald said to me through his books, his characters, his stories. Over and over the Lord touched my aching heart through some word of MacDonald’s. Yes…books, in my opinion, can provide for greater ministry than preaching.
And over the following years the Lord did indeed nourish and strengthen that remnant of feeble faith down inside me, until it began again to grow and blossom on its own. Whenever I sit down at my typewriter, I’m envisioning someone who’s going to someday read what is coming out on the paper, and I’m thinking, “What are they going through . . . what kinds of questions are they asking . . . are they facing similar dilemmas to what I faced . . . do they have mistaken notions about God . . . do I need to explore an aspect of some relationship between my characters that will help them in their relational struggles? . . . how can I possibly help their growth along by focusing on such-and-such a theme? . . .”
Sometimes I stop in mid-sentence and pray for the people who will be reading what I write. I pray that God’s work will be done in them, and that in some way their reading of one of my books unlocks some door in their brains or in their hearts toward a deeper understanding, and a deeper acceptance of what God has for them. To me, that’s impact . . . that’s ministry . . . that is why I write.
Do sales numbers matter to you?
It’s a question of stewardship. If God has led me to say or do something, then it deserves wide impact. If George MacDonald’s books hadn’t sold millions of copies, they wouldn’t have stood the test of the past century and I might never have discovered him and might, therefore, never have been nourished as a struggling young man. God was able to nourish me through him because there were enough of his books in circulation that, a century later, I discovered his writings. The quantities of his books that were produced enabled widespread ministry to happen.
Let me give you another example. Twenty-five years ago I was in Germany and began praying for that country’s spiritual revival. Today ten or twelve of my books have been translated into German. That would never have happened if those books hadn’t sold decently well here. In other words, the numbers open doors for ministry. Sales figures in and of themselves aren’t the issue, but they open doors.
Similarly, one of my MacDonald editions is now in Chinese. What an unbelievable thing! And so now, when we have Chinese students in our home, which we do once or twice a year, many of them non-Christians, we have something we can give them, something very personal, in their own language. It adds such a tremendous dimension to the ministry of opening our home and our lives to them.
More than being known as a so-called “best selling author”, which I’ll probably never be called, what pleases me is being known as a diverse, multi-dimensional writer who can write in a wide variety of styles, genres, who can produce books of many distinct kinds and in different formats. Because you’re reaching many different kinds of people. Different age groups, people with different reading interests, different levels of spiritual growth and maturity.
I want my writing and my efforts to have impact among all these groups–the eleven year old and the eighty-five year old, the college graduate and the semi-literate, the seminary professor and the prison inmate, boys, girls, men, women–the entire spectrum. I want to have something to say to the spiritual hungers of all those people, something to offer them when they come to that point in their life when they say, “I need more . . . I want to grow . . . I want to understand God better . . . I want to understand my life better.”
Obviously you can’t accomplish that–ministry to such a diverse range of people with such a broad spectrum of interests and needs–if you only write or produce one kind of book. That’s why I say, it’s being multi-dimensional that pleases me about my work because it throws the doors wide open for multi-fold penetration into people’s lives at just all kinds of levels.
Listening to you talk, it sounds pretty evangelistic.
In a way every Christian is an evangelist whether he knows it or not. The kingdom is being spread through us, in one way or another, and that’s what evangelism is–spreading the kingdom. If you describe “evangelism” as the process of writing in order to widen, deepen, strengthen, and expand the borders of the kingdom by helping to make kingdom principles and kingdom living more understandable in the lives of real, down-to-earth men and women, then that kind of evangelism is exactly what drives me as a writer. Whether it be evangelism to Christians or non-Christians, I’m not particular–as long as the truths of daily living in God’s kingdom as his child are penetrating into peoples lives and hearts as a result of what I’m trying to do.
Do you pray for the people who read your books?
Yes. Sometimes those prayers are so deep they compel me to write hard things.
Does your own growth often emerge out of your writing in this way?
Of course. Often I write on a certain subject as a way of working and praying through something I am personally trying to come more deeply to grips with. Discovering God’s Fatherhood has been a long process for me too. I was raised in the evangelical church and suffered from the same fears and misconceptions as do many evangelicals. George MacDonald more than any other opened my eyes to begin viewing my relationship with God the Father differently. For the last twenty years I have been on the same “ pathway of discovery” I write about in the books, still trying to deepen that intimacy myself.
We’ve been talking a lot about the “ministry’ in your writing. But listening to you talk, I get the idea that in addition to all that, you just plain enjoy it .
Oh, I do! Of course. There are so many levels on which you can talk about these things. Every question you’ve asked I could answer from two or three different angles. But yes, I love writing, just for writing’s sake. I don’t think it detracts from what I say about desiring to impact people’s lives to also say that the craft of writing challenges me too. I love dreaming up stories and plots and intrigues and romantic involvements. I love to get inside the skin of my characters and find out what makes them tick, and then watching them grow and develop as people that are real to me. I love the fight scenes, the chase, dropping clues throughout a book which only the very observant reader picks up. There is no greater compliment than to hear someone say, “I couldn’t put it down!” It is very hard work to get all the pieces of a novel to click and to fit together like they need to. But once you’ve got a finished story in your hands, there is a great satisfaction that is, in a sense, its own reward. Notwithstanding what I said a while ago about stewardship, on the creative level, the doing of it is certainly in good measure its own reward.
Is writing something you always wanted to do? Are you a natural?
No on both counts. I didn’t’ start to think of writing until I was out of college and the Lord really got hold of my life. That’s when I began wanting to communicate what was on my heart. I got an F on my first Creative Writing paper in college, which should be enough to tell you how much natural ability I possess! I’ve read dozens of books on writing, gone to seminars, and practiced for years. I do not consider myself a natural in most of the ways in which people would define those words. I’m living proof that anyone can learn the process and craft of writing. I’ve worked very hard to learn various writing principles and techniques, I’ve studied things I’ve read, and I’ve tried to put what I’ve seen other writers do into practice.
And of course, the greatest learning experience of all has been the editing of George MacDonald’s novels. It has definitely ingrained into my consciousness many, many positive habit patterns. He was, after all, one of the true masters of what I would call the “Christian novel.” It’s a genre he more or less defined in a whole new way, and no one to my knowledge has ever done with it to a scant fraction of the high level MacDonald did.
The point is, I feel like I’ve been trained for ten years by the master novelist himself. At this point I can hardly separate my own writing persona from what I’ve become as a result of my emersion into the writings of MacDonald. I suppose I have my own “style” and I have priorities of my own as a writer that are quite different from anything MacDonald ever did. But the foundational influence will always be there.
I’ve noticed in a number of your books that some of the characters seem almost TOO good.
Every character, just like every man or woman, has flaws and weaknesses. It’s just that I like to have a character or two in all my books who is at a point in life where they have substantially risen above them. I’m a strong believer in “role models.” That is something I feel I can do for my readers—provide them with good, strong, solid people they can look up to. Not perfect people, but individuals who are winning the battle against self in their own lives. Baron von Dortmann in the Rose series is sort of the archetypical character in this regard.
But I think you’ll also notice that I have plenty of “bad guys” in my books, as well as “in between” guys—people who are growing and learning and struggling. I try in every book to represent as much of the human spectrum as possible, with a variety of individuals moving in both directions—some growing better, and some who are growing worse. That’s how life is.
It is clear that you believe strongly in the power of the written word?
Absolutely. The written word has always been a primary tool in the hand of the Lord for communicating truth to his people. He “wrote down” his first commandments to Israel. He instructed his servants and prophets to “write these things down”—from the Law to history to poetry to prophecy…even to the writing down of his commands on the doorposts and gates of their houses. And his servants have been writing ever since, from Moses to Jeremiah to Paul to John Bunyan to C.S. Lewis. Their purpose has always been to draw God’s people together (unity) and spread his word (evangelism.)
Thirty-five years ago, when Judy and I began what would become the One Way Book Shop, two visions burned in our youthful, enthusiastic hearts: unity and evangelism. In a sense, I suppose these two concepts, or truths, lie at the root of my writing. But the evangelism the Lord has had me focus on is unity-evangelism, as I tried to explain earlier. When Judy and I were married, we asked our pastor to preach an evangelistic sermon at our wedding.
As is often his way, the Lord had plans for the fulfillment of those visions which we couldn’t have possibly anticipated! The mission field he had in mind for us wasn’t in Africa or China or South America…but right in Humboldt County. And it was a ministry, not primarily to non-Christians, but within the local body of Christ. We went to the Urbana Missionary Convention in Illinois, fully expecting some kind of “leading” from the Lord concerning missions. Instead, I spent most of my time at the convention bookstore, talking to its coordinator, and becoming excited about the ministry of books. When we returned to Humboldt County, it was with the vision of expanding the bookstore and ministering to Christians rather than non-Christians. It was completely unexpected!
Paul speaks to Timothy about the people of God being “thoroughly equipped” for the works he gives them to do. The writer of Hebrews uses the same phrase. This is something like how we’ve seen our role through the years—as the suppliers to God’s people of the “equipment” for the carrying out of Jesus’ commands to his Church. It has been exciting. We have seen the unique and powerful ministry that the written word can have in people’s lives. We have seen books helping Christians grow. We have seen books playing a key role in the spreading of the gospel into the world.
You are occasionally criticized for exploring theological and doctrinal questions and issues beyond the boundaries most evangelicals accept?
I hold my hand to the charge. Those boundaries, in most cases, are far narrower than Scripture supports and are learned by the narrow teachings of men who do not want people asking God big questions. So when I push theologic boundaries, it is in order to discover God as he really is, and to think about him as he wants us to think about him, not how small-minded men tell us we should think about him.
I don’t believe in “doctrinal correctness.” This side of heaven, there is no such thing. God never intended there to be. Keeping us in the dark about the final and authoritative answers of theology was one of God’s ingenious methods to accomplish two things: To keep our focus on His being and nature rather than theology, and to make sure we would obey Him first and try to understand him second. Unfortunately, man has managed to foil God from His objective at both these points.
How would you describe your doctrinal position, then?
I am a latitudinarian.
Labels are unattractive to me and usually a hindrance to relationship. I use the word merely to convey a personal orientation. The word I define as follows: Not limited to one single rigid doctrinal persuasion, discovering truth wherever it exists in Scripture, being willing to explore scriptural truth beyond the narrow confines to learned proof-text dogma, seeking God himself rather than the traditions of men.
I find the customary practice of many Christian of identifying themselves with words such as conservative, liberal, evangelical, fundamental, etc. to be an unscriptural practice that hinders the work of unity. My so-called latitudinarianism will be evident in nearly every book I write, which is why the dogma-bound tend to squirm a bit. In all exploration of truth, I believe there is “room to maneuver,” so to speak. A great flexibility exists within Christian doctrine, in my opinion. This implies no fence-sitting wishy-washiness, but an orientation which regards obedience as a significantly higher practical truth than doctrinal correctness.
Take the trinity as an example. Do I believe in the trinity? Yes. Did Abraham? No. He’d never heard of the trinity. Neither had Moses. Neither had Jesus. The word never appears in the Bible. The doctrine of the trinity was extrapolated later, during the third and fourth centuries, as a way to explain Jesus’ simultaneous Godhood and manhood and to make sense of some of Paul’s writings on the subject. Frankly, it’s unimportant to me whether someone believes in the trinity, or in how they explain what the trinity means. Who can understand it? God never intended to clarify it all to us, or He would have. It’s supposed to be a mystery. Therefore, it seems to me that a latitudinarian approach to the trinity is the only sound one. The more a theologian tries to pin every aspect of it down with certainty, the more he is sure to be in error. I would even go so far as to say that the more he tries to pin it down with certainty, the more he is actually going against God’s intent. For God Himself never pinned it down with certainty.
To me, that reveals the beauty, even the necessity, of maintaining a latitudinarian outlook.
Who are your favorite characters, either of your own or MacDonald’s?
My favorite literary characters are men and women who challenge me toward Christlikeness. George MacDonald’s Gibbie and Malcolm and Donal Grant and Mary Marston have been real friends to me through the years of my growth as a Christian, giving me goals of character and virtue to reach for as a person.
I’m sorry if it goes against the modern norm, but I like good characters, individuals who stand for truth, who do the right thing, and who make decisions of selfless motive. They give me courage and motivation to do the same. Those are not the kind of characters whose portrayals win Oscars these days. Instead murderers and self-centered egotists and homosexuals and adulterers all capture the critical limelight. We want to see “real” people, you know. The key to good characterization, we writers are constantly reminded, is the “fatal flaw.” Don’t let your characters be too perfect or nobody will “identify” with them. Since when is imperfection required to make someone a compelling figure? Goodness ought to be compelling, not badness.
The characters in my books have real emotions and struggle with universal problems. I construct books where a whole range of characters interact with one another. But when you’re building a role-model, you’re looking for someone who can win the Oscar for virtue not just for being “human.” I want such characters in my books to behave in ways that bring me, as well as my readers, up a few notches in our personal growth.
Do you suppose that Matthew or Mark tried to discover Jesus’ “fatal flaw” so as to make their accounts of him more interesting and compelling? Of course not. It was because the Lord’s humanity was so far above our own that we are challenged by him to a higher life. He is the ultimate literary “character” just because he is the ultimate role model, the perfect man. That is why we can ask, “What would Jesus do?”
Who are your mentors?
I have several kinds of mentors. My most influential spiritual author-mentors: George MacDonald, Henry Drummond, Thomas Kelly, C.S. Lewis, William Barclay, Francis Schaeffer. The men who have been most influential in my personal life are: Denver Phillips (my father), Bill Ellis (my neighbor and youth leader), and Sam Kleinsasser (my boyhood pastor and lifelong friend). My most most influential literary mentors in helping me learn how to write effectively are: George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, P.G. Wodehouse, James Michener, Robert Newton Peck, Rudolph Flesch, and Lawrence Block.