Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bond Interview with John Horn for Ballantyne The Brave, Vision Forum 1/7/11

Douglas Bond is an excellent Christian author who has written many boys' historical fiction novels, some of my favorites being Hostage Lands and the Crown and Covenant Trilogy. Mr. Bond graciously allowed me to interview him on the subject of writing, and I think his answers will be both interesting and instructive to BTB readers. Enjoy!

Mr. Bond, thanks so much for participating in this interview! I've enjoyed your books for many years, and I have heard the same from many readers of Ballantyne The Brave. Now, let's get to the meat of the matter!
1. This question is rather broad, and probably hard to answer, but I’ll ask it anyway: In what way does your Christian faith affect your writing?

Every author views the world through an interpretive lens, that is to say, every writer has a philosophy of life, a world view that informs how they understand the nature of things in the world and, specifically, human nature. I am no different. The question every reader and interpreter of literature must ask is whether or not the author’s interpretation is accurate; does it fit with the nature of reality, is it consistent with the way things really are? As a Christian, God helping me and by his grace alone, I want to always be portraying things the way they are, how life in a deeply troubled, broken world actually is. That does not mean that I decide to portray all of life as total depravity, ugliness, full of gratuitous violence, hate, war—like the Coen Brothers produce movies. My goal is ultimately to write for an audience of One, Jesus Christ. I don’t write to try and give readers what they want, or what I think they need, but I attempt to write out of my what I need, my challenges, troubles, failings, and occasional triumphs, but all Soli Deo Gloria, to the glory of God in Christ alone. I hope that faith in Christ affects everything about my writing. When it doesn’t, I hope I will have the sense to take up knitting or fly fishing. 

2. Who are some of the authors that have inspired you to write fiction?  And, I think our readers would love to know, did you ever read Henty or Ballantyne, either as a boy or later in life?

I have read the Henty books, several times and aloud with my own children as an adult. And as an adult, I have collected older editions of many of his books, which I cherish. Henty along with Ballantyne (sadly, I’ve only read Hudson Bay), however, were much less available when I was in my growing up years; the recent interest in these Victorian era fiction writers for boys and young men has produced wonderful new editions—including enthusiastic followers and supporters (and websites!), which I wholeheartedly applaud.

I was profoundly shaped by Shakespeare and would consider myself to continue to be so to this day. It’s hard to explain: Shakespeare was best known as a playwright, and I primarily write historical fiction. But he awakened my imagination when first my mother began reading him out loud to me as a boy and taking me to see live theatre productions of plays. His plays and poetry continue to challenge and inspire me in many dimensions. I have also found great inspiration in the historical fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff, the works of Charles Dickens, and GK Chesterton’s fiction, among many others.

More at the foundational level of my writing, I have been inspired in my understanding of the gospel of grace—the most important ingredient for a writer, as I see things—by CH Spurgeon, whom I read almost daily, and by many other theologians and preachers, dead and alive, perhaps most notably, John Calvin, who wrote, "I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn and learn as they write." He borrowed this from Augustine—another great author—and I wholeheartedly concur with this outlook on my life as a writer. 

3. What do you think about the modern trend towards videogames and movies, to the exclusion of profitable books?  (I specify profitable books because there is still a large market for distinctly unprofitable books.  This article has some interesting information on the topic.)
I see the voracious appetite of this generation for often violent video games, instantly accessible movies of all kinds, and shock fiction, vampire fiction, and sorcery fiction largely as symptoms of the same problem. We are an age that is Amusing Ourselves to Death, as the late Neil Postman put it in a classic book of cultural analysis of the same name. Classic literature and new books inspired by the classics require more from the reader, and they also give incalculably more back to the reader.

4. Do you think that there is a large enough market to support a new generation of aspiring Christian writers?

I don’t believe that producing books is a zero sum game. The more a generation desires to create literature, the more it is reading literature. The production of more quality books, inspired by and shaped by the values of the classics, the more readers that generation will produce. We could use hundreds of thoughtful, skillful, well-informed, and profoundly gospel-centered writers, but I don’t think we should worry about whether the market will bear their efforts. Flood the market with lots of mediocre books, and the very fine ones will shine more brightly. The more writers there are, the more they prod each other on, and the finer the best of the collective literature produced by that generation will be. I’m for no-holds-barred writing, but publishers need to be the gateway to publish only the best of what is written.

5. From my observations, I’ve noticed a very large percentage of female authors in the area of Christian fiction.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with women writing books, but men also need to step up to the plate.)  Have you noticed this?  If so, do you have any ideas about the reason for this imbalance?

I certainly have noticed this. I am a big fan of a number of female authors, Jane Austen, Sutcliff, Flannery O’Conner, but I think that today there is something of a problem with this discrepancy. It’s one of the observations, in fact, that prompted me to begin writing. We’re not alone in observing this. Colleen Mondor, a reviewer for Booklist wrote recently: "There are literally hundreds of Young Adult books published every year for helping teenage girls navigate the twisty landscape of growing up. The problem is that there are hardly any comparable books out there for [TEENAGE] boys to read... Why girls read more than guys? To any sane children’s book reviewer (or librarian) the answer is obvious -- writers aren’t writing as much for boys, and so boys aren’t reading."

Let me hasten to say, however, that I don’t think this should discourage this generation of thoroughly Christ-centered, literarily gifted female aspiring writers. There will always be a place for the finest writers, in my opinion, male or female.   

6. Here’s a slightly different topic.  What do you think about the emergence of ebooks, and have you ever considered publishing any of your novels in ebook format?

Some of my books are available in electronic format, though when I have had to read a book this way as I am fairly regularly asked to do for writing reviews and endorsements of other authors’ books, I don’t really think of it as reading a book. Last night I was reading a new book by Tim Keller in my favorite chair before a crackling fire, family members sitting or lying about the living room reading books—real ones with covers, pages made from tree pulp, dust jackets—you know, BOOKS! I do appreciate that it is a changing world, a world in which I write my books on a laptop computer (though I wish I could do it with ink and goose quill, or better yet, hammer and chisel).

7. Now it’s time for the age-old question that every author must answer a zillion times in his life, and that readers never tire of asking: Which of your novels is your favorite?  I’d also love to know which character you most enjoyed creating.

It’s a close call, but I have a decided preference for HOSTAGE LANDS, by 3rd century Roman Britain tale. It was heaps of fun to research and create. Incidentally, I am under contract, but have not yet begun, for a companion volume to HL, this one set in 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. It’s simmering away in my creative juices, and I’m eager to get going on it. Summer of 2011 is the writing.

One of my favorite minor characters to create was Dr. Dudley in my MR PIPES series. So much of the fun and humor came from playing his odd manner off of Mr. Pipes’, heaps of fun. I also thoroughly enjoyed creating Gavin in GUNS OF PROVIDENCE, my book released last June, completing the FAITH & FREEDOM TRILOGY.

8. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?  What startling piece of intelligence did you lack when you first began writing, only to gain later on?  Or was "practice makes perfect" the key? 

Read, read, read. Get thoroughly immersed in the historical context, if you’re writing historical fiction. 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, things like this: “Jean-Louis (from THE BETRAYAL) 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.”  

Good writers don’t moralize, nor do they preach, but they do create longing for the true and the beautiful, and that is why you must write with Christ at the center of your reason for writing. That does not mean that every book must be a retelling of Luke’s gospel, however, every worthy book written by a Christian will direct readers away from self, and sin, and put them on a quest for God and his gospel. Create longing for these things.

On my website www.bondbooks.net I offer several key guidelines and postures that have shaped and continue to shape me as I write. A few of those would be, Show don’t tell, use concrete nouns and active verbs, go inside the head of your characters and make them real, observe life and people around you, cultivate genuine curiosity about other human beings and what makes them tick, deep down. And then practice, practice, practice. I feel very much like I am still learning, and just when I think I’m getting somewhere, I am humbled by my deficiencies and my need for grace and the enabling power of the Spirit of God to turn me from myself and to use me for the glory of Christ in what I am doing—writing or otherwise.

9. I have an opinion on this subject, but I’m very interested in hearing yours.  Do you think that if the “classic” authors were writing here and now in 2011, that their books would sell?  (I mean fellows such as Dickens, Stevenson, Verne, or perhaps even Ballantyne and Henty.)

Good question. By today’s publishing standards, and given their criteria for even reading a manuscript submission, no, I don’t think many of them would ever be discovered by publishers today. Here’s one example. Publishers know that readers have been coddled by the 3-second sound byte and so have very short attention spans. Hence, longer paragraphs are out. I’m told that some publishers actually thumb the left margin of an unbound manuscript submission and if they don’t see lots of indentation, they chuck the thing. Ballatyne, Henty, Dickens, and many more would go in the trash bin today. That’s sad. On the other hand, there is progress in writing skill that has come out of some of the new standards. Though I highly respect men like Henty, and Dickens, and many others like them, I do not try to write like they did, nor would I suggest to aspiring writers that they try writing like these men did.

10.  Thank you so much for your time answering these questions, Mr. Bond!  I’ve certainly enjoyed the experience, and I’m sure that that the readers have done so as well.  One more question before you go: Do you have any exciting projects in the near or distant future that you can’t wait to release?

I am always writing. But let me say in closing, that 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.

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.


  1. Mr. Dudley is my favorite of all your characters (in the nine books I've read, anyway). As I said in a review of Mr. Pipes Comes to America, "Dr. Dudley valiantly keeps the book from getting dry by being very humourous and there are enough mentions of food to please anyone with C.S. Lewis' taste in that matter."

    I've added the second paragraph of your answer to Question 8 to my favorite writing quotes list.

    If I may ask a question, did you resolve Gavin's storyline in Guns of Providence? If I remember correctly, Guns of the Lion left him going to be hung any day.

    From my experience with your books, I think Duncan's War and King's Arrow are my favorites, The Betrayal is the best written and most intense, Mr. Pipes and the British Hymnmakers is the most envy provoking, Hostage Lands has the most writing errors that jumped out at me--but it's my second favorite anyway, and Guns of the Lion was the most...exasperating? (: I need to read it again.

    What makes me love your books is that they do portray Christ so well, and the believer's walk with Him. Hostage Lands, for example, probably has the least overt Christianity because the main character is not himself a believer until the end, but throughout the book we can see the hand of God working and see Him shining out of Calum. I love that.

    Thanks for posting this interview!

  2. I shared some of what you said here with friends and family, who are now sharing it with other friends.