Welcome and thanks for stopping by for day 2 of our riveting, no-holds-barred, take-out, pull-down cage match with the notorious, miraculous diva of “Seatbelt Suspense,” Brandilyn Collins. For those of you coming in from Chi Libris, ACFW, and other Christian writers sites, the primary goal here (among others) is encouraging writers of Christian fiction. We’ve got room for you even if you don’t find it your particular call, though I hope you’ll bear in mind that whether you write or simply read, Christian fiction is a challenging thing. Brandilyn and I have some differing views, but both of us are committed to supporting the big hearts and amazing talent of writers in this industry, and to sharpening our understanding and discernment of the issues facing us as contributors. It’s in this spirit of deeper communication that we share this conversation. As Steve Laube pointed out earlier, this is a big topic demanding mutual respect and understanding of the issues facing writers of CBA, particularly in this time of change. I hope you’ll consider your purpose in reading or writing Christian stories. What is it God would have you add to this compelling mix of people and ideas? Scroll through some of the links at the left and strive to keep an open mind.
And if you happen to see Brandilyn, give her a great big hug and thank her for me.
(Don’t miss the first half of the interview.)
Mick: Thanks again for being here, Brandilyn. It’s interesting to me how some Christian novelists seem intentionally to take on controversial issues, taking readers into questionable waters that challenge accepted CBA standards. What’s your feeling on creating controversy?
Brandilyn: I’m not quite sure what you mean by these “questionable waters.” That’s kind of a conceptual statement. I can only answer in specific terms. If you’re talking about the more peripheral morality issues such as, say, a protagonist drinking alcohol—I think this kind of issue is loosening up in the market. And I don’t mind it myself. But remember, publishers are driven by consumers. If a publisher thinks some issue will likely bring complaints and—oh, forbid!—result in pulling the novel off Christian bookstore shelves, then the editor’s likely to nix it. In the end, this is small stuff, really. We shouldn’t get too hung up on things that don’t make or break the story. Yeah, some of the conventions of Christian fiction may annoy us from time to time, but there are conventions in the secular market, too.
Other difficult topics are bigger in nature, e.g., dealing with a homosexual child, interracial relationships, divorce, etc. We could name dozens of them. These are worth writing about, because they’re reality. I don’t think many subjects are taboo in CBA anymore—it’s just how they’re handled.
Bottom line, I can’t judge other authors for what they choose to write just because my calling is different. I personally don’t consider it my job to set out to create controversy. It’s my job to tell a good story. This isn’t to say some of my novels haven’t ended up being controversial. Like the visions in Eyes of Elisha, or the violence in my current Hidden Faces series. But even when I think I’m pushing the envelope these days, it’s amazing how very few complaints I end up receiving. I think many CBA readers want to be faced with difficult and potentially controversial issues. However, my gentle caution for all of us writers is to examine our motives and make sure we’re tackling controversial issues to teach truth and for the furtherance of God’s kingdom, and not just to cause waves in a market we view as unsatisfactory. Otherwise we can end up wallowing in bitterness and anger.
Mick: Too true. I’d second that caution, and offer that if God is asking me to challenge the body in love and I back down, I’d be equally out of line. I just want us to seek balance here, as with everything, and make sure we’re listening to the Source, first and foremost.
Okay. Some novelists find it difficult writing for a Christian audience because it encourages ignoring the larger culture. Do you find that balance difficult?
Brandilyn: No. I think my novels engage the “larger culture” just fine. Anyone who likes intense suspense can read my current Hidden Faces series, for example. Yes, there is Christian content, but there’s also (I hope!) an engaging, swift-moving suspense story that will satisfy many. Now, if readers have to read four-letter words, if they have to read sexual scenes, then my books aren’t for them. But no one—not the best writer in the world—is going to please everybody.
Frankly, I don’t even set out to write for a Christian audience. I set out to write the best suspense I can, interwoven with God’s truth. I have readers who aren’t Christians. Others—I have no idea if they are [Christians] or not. I’ll give my books away, and people will get hooked on the series. Sometimes I’m just dying to ask, “But what about the Christianity? Do you like that aspect or do you read the books in spite of it?” I never know. Whichever it may be, I’m just glad they’re along for that rollercoaster ride.
But that’s just me. I know CBA novelists whose target audiences are Christians. These novelists write stories to entertain brothers and sisters in Christ, and exhort them in their spiritual walks. Their novels should be judged on the basis of that intended audience, not because they fail to “engage the larger culture.” Calling them inferior because they don’t reach an audience they’re not targeted to reach is as wrong-headed as calling my suspense novels inferior because they don’t meet the needs of romance readers. We have all kinds of novelists in CBA, and together we cover the gamut of audiences, Christian and nonChristian. We need to understand and support each other, not judge someone because his/her target audience is different from ours. I have been extremely dismayed to see those novelists who write primarily for Christians denigrated and criticized for merely “preaching to the choir,” as if that is the lowest of intentions. Exhorting our brothers and sisters in Christ is a sound biblical principle, yet somehow when it comes to our fiction this principle has been twisted into a sneering symbol for the most flimsy and shallow writing. That is just plain wrong. The secular world looks at these authors and fails to understand. We Christians have no excuse.
Mick: It may come as a surprise to some, but I’m actually in complete agreement. Requiring all writers to write how we write is, as you say, wrong-headed. I’ve come to realize that there is no point in criticizing authors for preaching to the choir, or for blaming authors for writing the kind of fiction people buy. If you’re a Christian writer, you’re going to be preaching to the choir even if you don’t mean to.
Now, of course, my hope and prayer is that were not actually trying to “preach” with fiction but to write meaningful stories. We “preach” through portrayals of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. I think that’s our mission. You might even call it a “Great Com-mission.” And the more we challenge (in love) the comfortable assumptions of what constitutes Christian fiction, the better we’ll be.
Sorry. Didn’t mean to go off.
Brandilyn: Aw, sheesh, Mick, now we’re agreeing–what fun is that? Still, I have to say I’m with you about striving for the story rather than overtly preaching. Here’s what I tell readers on the “Why Christian Suspense” page on my Web site: “My #1 job as a Christian novelist is not to preach. It’s to write the best rollickin’ story I possibly can. I want to grab you–from the very first line. I want to take you on a rollercoaster ride, make you need to sleep with a nightlight on. I want to make you forget to
b r e a t h e.
Yet along the way, you won’t be so inundated with evil that you’re left feeling hopeless. Quite the opposite. My books present hope. You can accept the message, or reject it and simply come along for the ride. Either way, I’m mighty happy to have you along.”
Mick: Okay, I may point out my ignorance again here—but I do try to provide good entertainment value. I was watching “fishies” (Finding Nemo) with my two-year-old daughter for the 57th time this morning while I was typing up these questions, and the idea popped up that as novelists, we’re really trying to get to a similar place as actors with their memorized lines—where you aren’t acting anymore, but simply responding naturally to the scripted events. I teach something like this in a class on finding your writing voice: that balance between discipline and spontaneity. Is this something you talk about in your book, Getting Into Character?
Brandilyn: Getting Into Character takes seven concepts from Method acting and adapts them for the novelist’s use. You’re right, we novelists are closely related to our acting cousins. We both strive to create character. Actors do that on the stage; we do it on the page. But we both want to create truth in our portrayal of the human condition. GIC is very different from other how-to-write-fiction books. Frankly, if you could only afford one such book, I wouldn’t recommend mine. It’s not really aimed at beginners (although beginners can learn much from it), and second, it doesn’t talk about the basic issues such as handling POV, etc. I wanted to present new concepts and entirely different ways of thinking for novelists, most of whom don’t know about Method acting techniques. GIC shows how to create characters who are three-dimensional and who drive the story. There’s also some stuff about story structure, a chapter on “Inner Rhythm” (which can be very different from the outer rhythm a character is conveying), a chapter on how novelists can dig deeply into their well of “Emotion Memory” to create characters who may be far different from themselves, and other strange and wonderful things. You can read an excerpt from the book on my Web site, if you’re so inclined.
Mick: Brandilyn, thank you. Your points are well-made and very appreciated. Last question: What do you like best about being a world-famous writer?
Brandilyn: Yeah, right. I’ll let you know when I get there.
Actually, Brandilyn is (if not yet a household name in Peru) an example of the high standards we hold as Christian writers. Representing the Master through craft, through deep discussion, and real relationship, just write to the best of your ability—and let God use it for His purpose.
Rock on, Brandilyn. You’ve got a new fan.