Tuesday, November 18, 2008

UNPRETTY: The Truth of Evil

Recently I read Unpretty, a newly released suspense novel by Sharon Carter Rogers. I found the book interesting because of the reasons Sharon wrote it (see below). My own latest release, Dark Pursuit, was written because of a phrase and scene from John Milton's classic book, Paradise Lost, that had stuck in my head for 30 years. Sharon's Unpretty rose from her viewing a classic painting. In her guest post today, Sharon gives us the background on her novel:

Sometimes I wonder why I write suspense/thriller fiction.

It’s not like I set out to dream up scary stories for someone else’s entertainment. In fact, I just wanted to write stories…I didn’t think much about whether or not they’d be frightening, or even suspenseful. And my life is remarkably mundane for someone who dreams up macabre things to print. Somewhere in the back of my mind, though, when I started writing novels I must have been thinking about a quote attributed to Stephen King, “I just write about things that scare me.” I do that too, I think. And because I am Christian, things that scare me sometimes have to do with eternity.

Enter Michelangelo Buonarroti.

A few years ago I visited a bargain bookstore (yes! I’m cheap!) and saw a beautiful coffee-table book on the life and work of Michelangelo. I was instantly transfixed, so much so that I bought the book on a whim, brought it home, and immediately began churning through its pages. It was here that I first discovered Michelangelo’s scary/beautiful masterpiece, the Last Judgment – his depiction of the literal end of the world at Christ’s return.

This violent, graphic, huge painting actually adorns the altar wall of the world famous Sistine Chapel in Italy. If this painting were a movie, it would be rated NC-17 on the basis of nudity and violence alone. Yet it also breathtakingly depicts an artist’s interpretation of literal events described in the pages of Scripture itself.

The Last Judgment achieves an impression on the viewer that is both repugnant and holy. Terrifying and fascinating. Thrilling and peaceful.

This apparent juxtaposition of values was fascinating for me—and it sparked within me an exploration of the concept of God’s presence in darkness, in suffering, in art, in beauty and ugliness, in life, and in eternity. The result, as you can guess, was my latest suspense novel Unpretty. (Hey, I’m a novelist! What else did you expect?)

As I was writing Unpretty, I drew the most frightening literary scenes directly from the artistic scenes that Michelangelo included in his painting of the Last Judgment. And occasionally, while studying particular areas of the master’s artwork, I found myself asking questions like, “Wow, is it really appropriate to graphically display a nude man having his privates poisoned by a large snake on the altar wall of arguably the most famous Christian church in the world?” I can’t imagine the thousands of people who attend Saddleback Church or Willow Creek Community Church putting up with having to stare at THAT artistic vision while their pastors spoke each Sunday morning!

But I also realized that there was an honesty to Michelangelo’s depiction of evil. Judgment for sin is a messy, revolting thing. So much so that for me (and you) to be spared, it required the torture, humiliation, and naked execution of the Son of God himself.

So, I wrote Unpretty under the instruction of Michelangelo’s tutelage. Evil is real. Evil is ugly. Evil carries an element of truth, and when depicting evil you must tell the truth about it. It’s not the writer’s (or the artist’s) responsibility to glorify evil or to demonize evil. It’s the writer’s responsibility to tell the truth about evil – and its consequences – and then let that truth speak for itself. And to remind that, in the midst of that evil, the beauty of God’s redeeming presence still exists for those who will see it.

I’ve discovered that in the Christian publishing industry this can be a difficult approach to take. It seems we feel obligated to make sure the reader knows what’s “good” and “bad” in a story. We assume that if we aren’t startlingly clear on those topics, the Christian reader is too ignorant and easily offended to figure it out on her own. But I’ve found that most Christian readers are much more intelligent than we give them credit for being. (And, interestingly enough, several publishers turned down Unpretty because they were personally offended by the scenes drawn from the Michelangelo painting, saying those scenes were “too dark” and “not appropriate for Christians.” I was amused that my recreating scenes from this classic painting could be thought of as “not appropriate” for Christians when, for centuries, this huge image has been displayed prominently behind the pulpit of one of Christendom’s most revered churches!)

Which brings me back to the question I asked at the beginning. Why, I wonder, do I find it so necessary to write about scary things (like the Last Judgment) in the suspense/thriller genre of fiction? If my agent is correct, I could certainly make more money writing romance, or “women’s” fiction instead. And I would save myself the pain of getting hate mail telling me that my writing is “sadistic” and has “no redeeming value” for Christians!

But there is a certain truth in fear that I can’t avoid. And truth matters. It’s only through truth that I am able to enter an intimate relationship with the Spirit of Truth in Christ Jesus. This life is not always filled with sunshine and puppies; but it is always filled with the presence of God – even in darkness, even in pain, even in the moments of suspense that make the heartbeat drum in the ear and bring the faint smell of blood into the nostrils.

So, for now at least, I will write of the unpretty things. And I will hope that through those thriller/suspense stories, some reader somewhere will also get a glimpse of that which is eternal – and the One who makes all things beautiful.

Thanks so much for reading!

-- Sharon Carter Rogers

Sharon has donated two copies of Unpretty as giveaways to F&F readers. If you'd like a chance to win a copy, please leave a comment stating why you'd like to read it. I'll announce the winner's names tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I already have the book, so you don't have to enter me in the contest. But I like this post. I just got the boook the other day...haven't started reading it yet, but will soon, here. IT sounds so intriguing.

Thanks for the post.

Richard Mabry said...

Thanks for this glimpse inside the author's head. I'd love to read the book for the same reason--to see what another author's approach is, especially to something that might be considered "edgy" in the Christian fiction market.

Deborah said...

i would love for the chance to read this book! i've heard such great things about it and i love edgy Christian fiction

Anonymous said...

I would really like the chance to read Unpretty. I have been looking for a new author to try. I love christian suspense.

Anonymous said...

What an amazingly fascinating post. Thanks for sharing it Brandilyn! It's really thought provoking...one of the many reasons I love your blog and your books -- I can enjoy them -- but it's not mindless entertainment. Sounds like Sharon's work is the same. I'd love a chance to read her book. About 11 years ago, I went with a college group to Rome and the Sistine Chapel. I was lucky enough to be with another member of the group who'd done his Masters' work on the paintings in the Chapel -- and so he spent the time telling me about the nuances and meanings in the artwork -- at least how he'd had interpreted them. Reading Sharon's post, I was immediately transported back to standing in the chapel -- fascinated and also sort of repulsed by the images represented by the Last Judgement. It was the sort of experience where you can act a little juvenile -- laughing at pictures involving private parts etc...but that is really just a reaction to blunt the terrifying reality of what that last judgement will be like for those who are not believers. I may have giggled at the time -- but I have never forgotten the images. I'm really excited to read Unpretty and hear Sharon's perspective on images and what that holds.


Jenn M said...

I read Sharon's book "Sinner" and am thrilled to hear the new book is out. She is a fantastic writer and I know this book will be a challenging read. For those of us who formerly read secular "thrillers" it is so exciting to have authors who are gifted at telling stories that force us to examine our faith and share it with those around us. Ted Dekker once said that a lot of people criticize him for being too graphic or violent but that he tries to follow Jesus' example of telling parables in a language the reader will find interesting and relateable. Thank you for sharing another author who shares a similar goal. I can't wait to read it!

CherryBlossomMJ said...

That was fascinating to read. Is it not interesting how our minds work and they can trigger things that we never would have seen coming? I keep seeing Unpretty around and have gone back and forth on whether to read it, but I'm now decided that I really would like to read this one and see a little bit more into your imagination.

Oh, and Bradilyn, I got Dark Pursuit in the mail yesterday and cannot wait to read it!

cherryblossommj (at) gmail [dot] com

CherryBlossomMJ said...

sry, second post to get follow up comments.

Pam Halter said...

Sharon's comments are very interesting. My writing partner and I often discuss CBA and how it's okay to write about certain dark things but ignore other dark things. Who decides what is darker?

I'm a children's author, but I'd like to read Unpretty because there's a dark part of my brain that needs to get out of kid's books. HA!

Lauren said...

Thanks for posting that very interesting commentary. It's always interesting to read about what sparks a story and this was certainly no exception!

Anonymous said...

It's refreshing to glimpse Sharon's commitment to Christ and to her own writing journey. We are responsible to Him, not to whoever decides we aren't fit to write Christian fiction. Those who criticize without learning the perspective of the author deny themselves the amazing large-ness of a God who is a consuming fire contrasted to the understanding of a devil who oozes the depths of evil.
Please enter me in the drawing, BC.

Jason said...

I was stuck by the cover and copy of Unpretty in the CBD catalog. I've been intrigued by it since, now even more so based off the wonderful post that she wrote. That was a fascinating look at the process behind the book (and some of the struggles CBA fiction still has!)

So please enter me for a chance to read it. Also, I have to see where the name "Hummingbird" comes from...

Cara Putman said...

Oh, I love the reason she states for writing about unpretty things. It's in the ugliness of life that we often find God's beauty more fully revealed. Just received Dark Pursuits. Can't wait to read it!

Anonymous said...

Okay, just reading the prelude to this book gives me the creepy crawlies. I'd love a chance to win just to get the heebie-jeebies and raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Thank you for entering my name.

Dineen A. Miller said...

Darn Feedlitz showed up today so I'm too late. But this book sounds promising. I grew up reading dark books without God so I was never told God could prevail over the darkness. I learned that later on, and had to unlearn that false belief. We need books that show the truth of evil and God overcoming it. That's my hope for this book, that the author shows that God is stronger. Ted Dekker failed to do that in Adam, and though it was a great story, that aspect really disappointed me.

Janet Kerr said...

Unpretty is a catchy title. I would like to read this book because it resonated deep within me and I imagine in others too!
Please enter me in the draw.
Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

ive been trying to read this book for two nights, but it's going sooo slow. Please tell me it's worth my effort because tonight is it's last chance.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Anonymous, I can't tell you it's worth your effort. Because I don't know you or your reading tastes. Some will love this book; others won't. Same thing is true with my books--ya just can't please everybody. If this book isn't for you, I'd say move on, and that's perfectly okay.


~ Brandilyn

Robert Parrish said...

Sharon's comments made me think again about the direction of my writing. Very insightful