I was asked to do another blog interview with a reader. Here are his questions and my answers:
NA: What drew you to write Christian historical fiction?
DB: My children began asking me not to just read them a book but to tell them a story that I made up out of my own imagination. I protested at first. “There’s plenty of perfectly good books and stories,” I attempted to argue. “Why do I need to make more of them up?” My protestations were vetoed and I started making up stories. Historical fiction came naturally to me because I love history, majored in it in college, and I have a high view of the value of Church history for keeping the Church from thinking too highly of itself today and reining in its tendency to be enamored with the latest thing.
NA: What is unique in The Betrayal compared to other Christian historical fiction?
DB: I was sort of forced to write it by my publisher; my idea for a Calvin book was very different. They vetoed my idea and asked me to write a novel instead. I was terrified. Calvin is such a giant and I was afraid that I would make a disaster of his life if I didn’t get both the history right and the story telling right. I knew I couldn’t attempt to tell the story from inside Calvin’s head; I was sure that I could never do him justice with this point of view. So the story is unique in that I tell it from the point of view of a critic and rival who grew up with Calvin in Noyon, resented his intellect and privileges, and grew more determined to destroy him while in Paris. The story takes off from there.
NA: Were there any books that you read that became inspiration or interest
in the genre?
DB: I was inspired by reading some historical fiction books that I didn’t feel like worked very well, that failed to create authentic characters with real problems in a real world. There seemed to be plenty of books like that, so I wanted to write books that went deep with complex characters attempting to figure out the perplexities of life in a deeply flawed and broken world. I found inspiration in just about everything I have read from C. S. Lewis (though he didn’t write historical fiction), Robert Louis Stevenson, Rosemary Sutcliff, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others.
NA: Where did the interest in John Calvin come from?
DB: Of course the release of The Betrayal was timed with Calvin’s 500th birthday (1509-2009), but my interest in him goes much deeper than simply a timely publication strategy. I became more interested in Calvin and his influence in the Reformation and beyond while I was in college studying history. The more I have read Calvin and those who were influenced by him, the more I became convinced that he was one of the most important theologians and Christians since the closing of the biblical canon. There is a renewed interest in Calvin and his theology that is much-needed and bodes well for getting us out of the emotive rut the church has settled into in its theology, worship, and living. The Betrayal is my best-selling book and has been translated into Dutch (Het Varraad) and now into Turkish. I hope into many more languages to be read by many more Christians and unbelievers around the world.
NA: What is your favorite thing about being a teacher?
DB: I get to hang out every day with great kids like Noah A. who have inquisitive minds, are supported by loving parents who want them to be nurtured in a gospel-of-grace centered school, where truth is understood to be first and foremost a person, Jesus Christ, not an elastic thing moderns play games with. I often think of what we are doing in the big picture: God graciously using flawed vessels to equip another generation for the work of the ministry, for living out the gospel in a troubled world that needs joyful Christians unafraid to sit down and listen and answer questions by pointing the way to free grace found in Christ alone.
NA: Which person was the hardest to write about?
DB: In the Betrayal? I’d say Calvin himself. I created his voice from his writings, but especially from his letters where he is most accessible.
NA: Which person was the easiest to write about?
DB: The villain. Always the villains. I guess they’re easiest to write about in part because they’re most like we are, like I am. Goodness is much more difficult to portray well in fiction. It so easily devolves into unrealistic sentimentalism (Elsie Dinsmore-ism). The Bible’s heroes always have flaws, always experience failure—except One!
NA: If you could be any person in your books, who would it be?
DB: Good question. I get asked if I am Mr. Pipes or Sandy M’Kethe. No way. I wish I could be more like these men. Mr. Pipes is without question my closest to “perfect” character, but even he has weaknesses (failing health, creeping old age, occasional fears and longings). He is not who that series is about. It’s about deeply flawed kids who need to get the gospel right, need to meet the Savior. Mr. Pipes functions as my means to lead them to Christ through fictional episodes that intersect with the lives and stories of Christian hymnody and worship.
NA: If The Betrayal were made into a movie, would you have any preferred
actor, director, composer, etc?
DB: John Williams writes amazing modern musical soundtracks for films. Jean-Louis ought to be someone pretty dastardly. Calvin would be a tough one. Who do you think? Help me here.
NA: Can you tell us three things about yourself we readers may not know?
DB: I prefer duck eggs in my omelets. Usually when I begin a book, I’m very insecure, feel like I can’t ever write like I wrote in… whatever book, and wonder what on earth I’m doing trying to write another book.
NA: Do you have any other book plans or ideas?
DB: I am under contract for two more books right now (18th and 19th contracts), one I’m writing (with the aforesaid emotional turmoil in rolling boil) that will be a companion to The Betrayal on John Knox, and another set in 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. I have recently completed two non-fiction biographies, one on Knox (to release with Reformation Trust, April, 2011) and another on Isaac Watts.
NA: Do you have any advice to those writing or planning to write historical fiction?
DB: Read, read, read. Get thoroughly immersed in the historical context. But observe real people around you today and make the story relevant to the universal human problem that transcends a particular time and place. Historical fiction, well-crafted, ought to draw readers into unconsciously saying things to themselves as they read like this: “Jean-Louis is so much like my envious neighbor.” Hmm, read on. “Jean-Louis is so much like I am. Why am I like this? Why do I want what others have been given, and why am I so ungrateful for what I have been given. Why am I so discontent with the role I have been given to play? Why do I tear down others to build myself up? Why do I think I’m so much more worthy of honor than Joe-blow or Suzy-que? What is my problem! Why am I so powerless to solve it? Moral improvement didn’t work for Jean-Louis, and it’s not working very well for me either. Where can I go for answers to my real problem? I must find the answers.”
NA: Thank you! It was great to have you! May God bless your (Noah Arsenault)