I’d like to thank Brandilyn for turning over the floor to me; I trust she won’t regret it. With her kind indulgence I’m going to talk a little bit about what it’s like being a hairy-legged man-type male person writing testosterone-filled novels with a Christian slant, someone with a mouth much smarter than he is, someone with a deeply bent sense of the absurd while he recklessly explores themes that—I think—no one else is.
But first some quick bona fides: I’ve been married for thirty-seven years to my lovely and longsuffering wife Barb. We have two grown sons (one of them married, a missionary with a family of his own), and a little daughter waiting for us in heaven, and probably driving Saint Peter to distraction. For the conspiracy theorists among us (and you know who you are), I’m director of business development for a large company that does medical contracting work for the military and the federal government.
My favorite movie is Open Range, my favorite musical is The Phantom of the Opera, my favorite band is Yes, my favorite color is blue, and my favorite meal is country ham, greens beans with fatback, cathead biscuits with clover honey, spoonbread, chocolate pie, and good, but not great, coffee. Due to a brain injury when I was nine I’m dyslexic, and can only type with my thumbs and index fingers. I also have syndactyly, giving me webbed toes.
Now, aren’t you glad you’ve read this far? I know I am.
As a boy I was reared in a denominational church, but it never really took. By the time I’d entered high school I’d become a secret, hardcore atheist—the secret part being Southern boys from nice Christian homes outwardly have to show at least the letter of piety, if not the law—wink, wink, nudge, nudge. I had no idea as a high school geek my dark mindset would change in just a few years, and in a big way.
In the spring of 1975, and through a set of bizarre circumstances I won’t bore you with, I became a born again, spirit filled Christian. Boom. Done. In this I was following my dear wife, who’d made the same decision a few months earlier. Not surprisingly, in short order we lost all our friends and drinking buddies, and set about making new ones … friends that is, not drinking buddies. From there things settled into a routine, although I’ve found to my consternation nothing is routine to God; He delights in the “gotcha!” moments. I was to discover He had quite the rabbit up his sleeve, but wouldn’t reveal it until over two decades later.
The time was New Years Day 1999, and as is my wont, I was watching one of the bowl games on TV when suddenly an odd thing occurred: I started seeing something different on the screen. Don’t laugh, but it was almost like I was watching a really good movie with drama, laughs, thrills, and explosions, just the way I like ‘em. I was unaware of the passing of time.
When at last I roused myself I found only a few minutes had passed, but during that time I had the entire plot of an unusual, apocalypse-with-a-twist thriller completely lined up in my head. I called it Heading Home. Please understand, this waking dream business was new territory for me; my childhood church looks askance at any “weirdo stuff” from God (“ya know, boy, we don’t hold much with that heebie-jeebie junk.”)
Even stranger, I’d always liked to write, from my early teen years on, and when I was in college I was student affairs editor for the school paper. But the years passed, and with a wife and three children and working out my salvation with fear and trembling, that love seemed to fade. And now here it was, back once more, chuckling with unfeigned merriment and sporting an “ah, my friend, we meet again!” insolent grin. After getting over the shock, writing down the bones of Heading Home took about a year, and then another year was spent in painstaking editing, learning as I went.
Finally it was ready, and I began sending out query letters, waiting for the “good gravy, son, stop the presses, we gotta publish this masterpiece!” phone call which I knew was coming any day now … hah, and hah again. It wasn’t until 2008 it was sold to Sheaf House Publishers, and it’s now out and doing very well, thank you. During those intervening years I wrote and sold the Joe Box novels, and began the Mac Ryan series.
As an aside, for those who’re interested in the plot of Heading Home, the easiest way to describe it is to just quote the back cover copy:
The Bible makes it clear no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return. But it doesn't say we won’t know the month.
Or the week.
When every Christian simultaneously receives a message that Christ will return sometime in the coming week, the world is thrown into stark panic. Two old friends, hardened combat veterans from the closing days of the Vietnam War, set out on a suspenseful quest to redeem that time.
What they don’t know is they and their entire church have been targeted for satanic annihilation.
So far the reviews have been good, and no one’s called me a heretic (yet).
My three Joe Box novels—Until the Last Dog Dies, When Skylarks Fall, and To Skin a Cat—are a little more down to earth, featuring a protagonist who’s a Vietnam vet and former Cincinnati cop, now working as a down-at-the-heels private investigator.
In the first story Joe’s just recently come to the Lord, but given his violent past he’s not really sure how, or if, it’s going to work out for him. He’s a Cincinnati resident, an unwillingly transplanted Southerner with a strong code of honor and an almost pathological need to right wrongs, but he also has a dark side and a sarcastic mouth. To my knowledge Joe’s an anomaly in the CBA, and was a real kick to write. Out of print for a few years, the Joe Box novels will be on Kindle soon.
As I said, in addition to those books I have another series started, featuring a modern day soldier-of-fortune named Mac Ryan. Mac’s a spiritually and physically wounded Army Ranger captain who’s trying to atone for a disastrous mistake that wiped out his entire command in Iraq by performing extraordinary deeds for hopeless people, gratis (the burgeoning Christian elements will be explored bit by bit in each deed).
With Mac I wanted to take a man who was a little like Joe Box, but give him a darker past and take him in different direction. The result is the Christian spirituality is still there, but much more subtle; think the movie Signs, or Dean Koontz’s later works. I knew this approach wouldn’t fly within the CBA parameters, so Narrow Road Press, which specializes in crossover novels, will also be doing those.
Relentless, the first of the series, will be out August 2012. The sequel, Burning River, has a good start but it’s not nearly done yet.
Finally I have a stand-alone crossover speculative fiction work, The Radiance, due out next fall, also from Narrow Road. I had a lot of pure-D fun writing that one too.
Now bear in mind, when I set out to write these tales I was trying to come up with something new and different for Christian men to read. Because let’s face the truth: the CBA is chock-a-block with romances and relationship treatises and bonnet books, but not a lot of grim, hard-edged action novels, especially ones penned by men. I think I was as shocked as anyone when the distaff side seemed to like them as much as the males. For some reason they struck (and strike) a chord with the ladies, but I’m not complaining.
Because of its rough theme and unconventional main character, Until the Last Dog Dies was, like its brother Heading Home, a booger to get published. For months my agent shopped it tirelessly, but kept coming to me back with stuff like “they love your writing, John, but the character of Joe Box scares them to death; they’re afraid women won’t buy it.” To which I would respond, “jeeze Louise, it’s not written for women!”
More months passed, and at last my agent said they’d done all they could, but couldn’t place it with anybody. That was in December of 2002.
Flash forward to July of 2003.
The CBA trade show was in Orlando that that year, and my agent was attending, hoping for a miracle. And it happened. As the story was told to me, one night the head buyer of one of the largest Christian bookstore chains was speaking with one of the marketing directors for Cook Communications, which owns RiverOak Publishing. They were talking about this and that, and the buyer said in an off-hand way, “Say, I heard you’ve bought a novel featuring a Christian private investigator; that sounds intriguing.” The Cook guy frowned and said no, he’d heard wrong, they took a pass on it. To which the buyer said, “That’s too bad; we could probably move a lot of units of that.” Not needing a board upside his head—as we crackers say—the Cook guy took that info to his people, and they told him, “Okay, see if it’s still available.” The Cook guy found my agent and asked if Until the Last Dog Dies was still on the table. Stunned, my agent said yes, and they proceeded to verbally cut the deal on the floor of the CBA. True story!
In closing I’d like to tell a story I once heard about former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The time was either the late fifties or early sixties, and by then Churchill was quite elderly when he was asked by the provost to give the commencement address at a large university. He agreed.
The day came, and the auditorium was packed with students and alumni wanting to hear strong words of wisdom from the man who’d basically saved Britain during the darkest days the country had ever known. Slowly Churchill took the platform. Standing behind the podium, he peered out at the sea of faces with rheumy eyes.
Then setting his famous bulldog jaw, he ground out these words: “Never give up. Never, never, never, never give up.” He fixed them with a gaze of iron. “Never.”
And then he sat down.
A beat passed, and then the place erupted in praise. Yowza.
That’s what I try to tell people: in today’s times of peril and crazed uncertainty, “Never give up.” Just that. And great is the joy therein.
For anyone who’d like to read my blog or the first chapters of any of my novels, they can do it for free on my website.
Thanks again for having me, Brandilyn. It’s been a pleasure!
Buy Heading Home in paperback on Amazon ($10.07)
On the Kindle ($2.99)
At Christianbook.com ($10.49)
In paperback at Barnes and Noble ($10.07)