Think there are no "hard-boiled PI" novels in CBA? Let me introduce you to John Robinson ...
I met John about a year and a half ago at Glorieta Writers Conference. Basic scoop: He's fifty-four years old, and proclaims he’s married to the finest woman on the planet, his wife Barb. The father of two grown sons and grandfather of two, in 2003 John retired after thirty years as owner of a successful financial planning firm. He’s author of the acclaimed Joe Box suspense series, and says he has made some good friends in the Christian publishing world. These include Karen Kingsbury, Al Gansky, Wanda Dyson, James Scott Bell, and somebody by the name of Brandilyn Collins. John says, "All of these fine folks have selflessly used their talents to help me hone my craft." His works include Until the Last Dog Dies, When Skylarks Fall, and To Skin a Cat, all published through RiverOak.
John, thanks for coming on my site to chat. So what's up with you?
Brandilyn, thank you for inviting me here to publicly pry open my brainpan. Let’s see what oozes out! My latest book, To Skin a Cat, is the third in the Joe Box series. This one features our intrepid PI going up against a porn king, who’s taking his twisted view of sexuality to a new—and dangerous—low. It was released on September 1, and so far, like the others, the reviews have been good. Thank God.
How long had you been writing before you had a publishing contract? How did that come about, and what went through your head when you got the news?
Oddly, I believe I received the writing call on my life in early childhood. I loved spinning stories; sometimes I’d get in trouble for it! But I didn’t get serious with the craft until I was nearly forty-seven, in 1999. That’s when I got the idea of an end-times novel with a twist. Without going into too much detail, the thing turned out to be a trunk novel in the truest sense of the word … so far. But I feel my obedience to the Lord in sitting down and pounding out the recalcitrant beast was rewarded in His giving me the Joe Box character.
How I got the contracting call was interesting, to say the least. My former agent had been shopping Until the Last Dog Dies around, including to Cook Communications, and getting some positive feedback. But no contract. In mid-July of 2003 she was at the CBA (now ICRS) trade show in Orlando. It would take more space than you have here to tell it, but through a miraculous set of circumstances one of the head honchos at Cook (which owns RiverOak) sought her out. He said that after speaking to a senior buyer at one of the major book chains, Cook had reconsidered their position. Long story short (see? self-editing!), they ended up cutting the verbal deal for the book right there on the floor of CBA. My agent called me that same night, and coyly asked if I was sitting down. Then she sprang the news. I started screaming. I told my wife; she started screaming. We began jumping around like a couple of The Price is Right winners while our cat gazed up at us with that bemused and superior expression cats do so well … it was a wild evening.
What's your process for writing draft copy and editing?
There are at least two schools of thought about that. The first says to get the entire work down, and then go back through and edit. The second, and the one that seems to work for me, is to edit as I go. Sometimes that’s at the end of a chapter, sometimes a bit longer. What I absolutely must do every day before a session begins is to check out what I’d written before. Many times (too many!) what looked like tight, compelling and red hot and ready to rock prose at 11 p.m. seems likes so much cold gray gruel at first light. After that initial rush of “Robinson, you eediot!” (Ren and Stimpy voice) despair, I set about fixing the problems before moving on.
Speaking of despair, have any such difficult moments in writing now?
Absolutely. Any writer that says they don’t have those seasons of doubt is living a fantasy. I just need to keep reminding myself exactly Who it is that’s guiding the task. As the Word plainly says, He who’s begun a good work in me is faithful to finish it (my own paraphrase).
On your journey did you hit any major bumps? Speed traps?
Oh geez, yes. My very first Joe Box novel, the one before Dog, was shopped around without an agent (these days for fiction especially I feel that’s a bad move). Every house that saw it took a pass, saying it was “too dark…too edgy…too…everything.” That’s when I made the mistake of going with a certain secular outfit which trumpets itself as a “traditional publisher” (their own meaningless phrase; bear in mind, this was in early 2000, when there was very little on the 'Net concerning them). “Kid, we’re gonna make you a star!” That’s almost verbatim what they told me. Needless to say, that didn’t happen.
Later, after acceptance, I found out to my horror they were not only a print-on-demand outfit (the kiss of death in fiction), they literally take on everything that comes to them. Again, long story short, it took time, prayer, and the aid of a certain toothy lawyer, but I finally got the rights to that book back in February 2006. The whole experience was a hardcore, drippy-fanged, full-tilt-boogie nightmare. I’ve since heard stories of their dealings with other writers literally killing those writers’ desires to ever write again. That’s plain evil.
That book has since been rewritten, with a different main character, and my new agent has been shopping it.
Was there ever a time you thought of throwing in the towel?
Sure. What time is it? (laughs) Seriously, I have to battle that bugaboo constantly. It’s like there’s a nasty little man living deep inside my skull who constantly whispers stuff like, “Just who do you think you are, fake-boy? Breathing the same air as your ‘favorite writers’…you’re pathetic. Why don’t you just hang it up and forget it?” Keeping his pie-hole shut isn’t an easy task. Has to be done, though.
Any good advice you've heard that you'd like to pass on to others who are trying to get published?
Two things. One, always keep plugging away; writing really is as much a test of endurance as anything else. And two, remember that the publishing industry is a very small fraternity (yes, even the CBA), so never burn your bridges.
What’s something about publishing you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you time or grief?
I really wish the critique group I’d been a member of early in my writing career had boasted more fiction writers. Some serious feedback would have helped.
What kinds of books/authors do you like to read?
ABA non-fiction, I’d say anything penned by P.J. O’Rourke or Tom Wolfe. CBA non-fiction, T.D. Jakes and Cec Murphey (everyone please pray for him, by the way; he’s just gone through a tragedy, losing his son-in-law and house in a horrific fire). For ABA fiction, I love Dean Koontz and Robert A. Heinlein. For CBA fiction, I have several favorites. Brandilyn, Al Gansky, Jim Bell, oh man, a bunch...
What piece of writing are you particularly proud of? And why?
I’d say the first Joe Box novel that was commercially published, Until the Last Dog Dies. As I said earlier, I suppose that’s because it was such an absolute God-thing that it was ever picked up at all. Why in 2003 and not earlier? I dunno. Maybe the CBA market had changed enough they were ready for a guy like Joe.
Yeah, I think that's probably true. So. Now that you're on the published side, what drives you crazy about the business?
Everything about it is so…freaking…slow-w-w-w…! Lord, sometimes I feel the shifting of the tectonic plates beneath our feet is the Indy 500 compared to the process of getting a book out...
If you could possess one singular strength of another writer, what would that strength be?
That's easy. I'd take the productivity of either Dean Koontz or SF writer Harry Turtledove. How those guys can hammer out so much incredibly-good writing in the same 365-day year I occupy drives me bats. But I’m glad they do; more good stuff for me to read!
What’s your favorite part of writing?
My favorite part is probably the re-writing of a piece. In other words, I now have the skeleton down; it’s time to flesh the dude out.
Oh, I'm the same way. The blank page is definitely the hardest. What's your least favorite?
Beginning a new novel. Like you say, that blank white screen staring back at me can look as desolate as the blind side of the moon.
Any insider stuff you’re willing to lift the lid on?
Yeah, I have a new PI series started. The first one, Consumed, is done, coming in at about 90,000 words. I’ve also begun work on the sequels, Engulfed and Devoured (cool titles, what? I’m a sucker for grabber titles). My agent is shopping them, and has gotten some nice words back from several solid houses. Plus I’m writing a stand-alone piece of speculative fiction called A Certain Slant of Light. That one not only is a mind-bender, it’s also a lot of fun. Happily, he has a house interested in it as well.
Okay, on the marketing side. How much would you say you do?
I have a website and a blog; does that count? Plus when asked I’ve made myself available for radio interviews and book signings. In addition, I post a lot on writers’ online groups, making sure I include my website in my sig line. Also this year will be my third time teaching at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference. That, I love.
Yup, gettin' out and about with colleagues is always fun. So John--your last word for all us BGs?
Keep on keeping on. God isn’t a respecter of persons; if He did it for me, He can do it for anyone.
I say amen to that. Thanks, John.
Thanks again to you, Brandilyn. This has been rather cool!