Thursday, December 1, 2011

Author Interview: Another P&R author asked for interview--probing questions

With Sinclair Ferguson in Geneva, 2009
Brock Eastman, another P&R author contacted me a while ago and asked if he could interview me for his blog. He asked a number of good questions that got me thinking and then reflecting on how I began to write, why I keep writing, as well as questions about what I eat or drink when writing and if I listen to music when writing. Fun stuff. Here were his questions and my answers.

 Q: Everyone seems to have a "how I got published" story. What is yours?
It was back in the days before 9/11 when more publishers were accepting unsolicited manuscript submissions. I sent sample chapters and a synopsis of my Mr Pipes and the British Hymn Makers to seven publishers. Eight days later I had a phone call from one of them enthusiastic about the project. A couple of months later I had another publisher call and we chatted for a long time about future book ideas simmering in my imagination. Eleven years later, and somehow, unaccountably, without any childhood burning passion to be an author—I have managed to write a few books (signing my 20th book contract today, in fact).

 Q: When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
I always tried to get out of writing when I was in high school. So in journalism class I was the photographer, shooting pictures and working in the darkroom. I tried to make myself indispensible as a photographer in large part so I wouldn’t have to write articles. It just seemed like too much work. Then in college something started to change. I got so I was secretly looking forward to writing those history essays. And then I submitted an article to the college newspaper and started writing more of those. But it would be years later when I was working on my master’s thesis that I began to realize I wanted to do more writing. Then I wrote a few more articles, this time ones that I was getting paid for writing. But there’s a big difference between a 1,500 word article and a 70,000 word book.

My older kids, to whom I regularly read aloud in the evening, began asking me to TELL a story, not just read one. I hemmed and hawed. Then started in on a story of frontier days (not very good, I’m sure, and made up on the fly); it lasted for a month or more. They wanted another, and another. I felt cornered, but there was to be no escaping.
Then one sleepless night in 1999, ideas started cascading about using contemporary fiction as a frame tale in which to explore the lives and poetry of the church’s hymn writers. I sat up in bed, furiously scribbling the ideas on notepaper. And off I went.

 Q: Tell me a little about your books.
I have written primarily fiction for young adult readers, most of which is historical fiction published with P & R Publishing. But I have also managed to write several non-fiction books, biographies with Reformation Trust and Evangelical Press. I call these my big-people books.

 Q: What are some of the strongest influences on your writing (and several other questions combined from the list below, if that’s okay)?
I would need to go back to my childhood to answer this one. My father was a mathematician and engineer, but more importantly, an earnest, godly Christian man, a man who, because of his dyslexia, had a difficult time reading aloud. Nevertheless, he daily read Scripture aloud with us at our family devotions, slow, methodical, one-word-at-a-time slogging it sometimes was. But I came to appreciate deeply his reading because I think it represented just how much attention he was determined to give to every word of that great Book, every jot, every tittle.

Meanwhile, my mother, a college English professor, loved great literature and read aloud to us from Shakespeare and many other classic authors, including Chaucer in Middle English! We loved it. My mom would take us to children’s theater and even adult plays. I’ll never forget, “A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”

In college I began reading serious theological books, works of the Reformers and Puritans. Honestly looking back on it, I was too often motivated to do this because I thought it made me a big shot, a heady, erudite dude. But, as is God’s kind way with me, he was mercifully feeding me, often in spite of my flawed motives, with important foundational understanding of the nature of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. These truths are the most important influences on my writing, and if they ever cease to be so, may I give my energies to crocheting pot holders. They are also the most important truths that I want my writing to adorn and that I want to make attractive to my readers.

I have been influenced by many great authors, mostly dead ones, but not all dead. Writers of imaginative literature like Lewis, Rosemary Sutcliff, Chesterton, Arthur Ransome, and poets like Donne, Cowper, Rossetti. But always I come back to the great theologian preachers like Spurgeon. If I can borrow from two of my all time favorites (Augustine quoted by Calvin), “I count myself among those who learn as they write and write as they learn.” I regularly read and listen to the best of the not-dead proclaimers of the good news today: Sproul, Ferguson, Piper, Begg, Horton, Tullian T., Driscoll, and others.   

 Q: How do you write? What’s a normal writing day like for you?
I write my fiction after a bike ride or a good walk to a quiet location where I’m not likely to be interrupted. Sometimes that is a dark corner in the library of the university not far from my home. Other times I write in the loafery, a room downstairs that used to be the bedroom of my oldest son. With caution, I also write in the summer in my classroom, especially when writing non-fiction biographies where I need to be near piles of books that don’t pack around real well on my bike. But this can be a problem, because well-meaning colleagues poke their head in for a chat. I’m a social sort of guy so I always like the interaction, however totally it derails my train of thought and sets me back sometimes hours.

 Q: What was your favorite book as a teen?
Maybe Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates and Great Expectations.

 Q: Describe your feelings when you opened the box and saw the first published copies of your very first book?
It was really thrilling to open the box and pull out my first book, that shiny new book called Mr Pipes and the British Hymn Makers—and then to see my name on the cover, but it also carried with it considerable anxiety: will this book only be the proof that I am an utter failure as an author, the badge of my literary ineptitude? We authors, many of us, are miserably insecure, but that’s when I am looking to myself and my skills (real, perceived, or longed-for) and efforts. It is so liberating to refocus my energy and purpose in writing. Stunk and White in the final chapter urge writers to write for an audience of one—themselves. But the Christian author wants to write for an audience of One, Jesus Christ, plus nobody. The best writing results when I disappear—I must decrease; Christ must increase; only then I’m starting to get things right.

 Q: What can you tell us about any future releases you have planned?
There are a few new books of mine scheduled to release in 2012. In May by new biography with Evangelical Press, AUGUSTUS TOPLADY, Debtor to Mercy Alone will be available. In June THE THUNDER, my adult novel on John Knox releases along with my 8th-century Anglo-Saxon tale, HAND OF VENGEANCE. And in September my biography with Ligonier’s Reformation Trust, THE DOXOLOGICAL GENIUS OF ISAAC WATTS will be available. Just signing a contract for a biography on Girolamo Savonarola, an amazingly passionate, fearless forerunner of the Reformation in decadent Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance.   
I have several other things in the cooker, both fiction and non-fiction, including a childrens picture book in verse that explores themes from the book of Job

  Q: Coke or Pepsi?
Neither, thank you very much. They upset my stomach, as does—unforgivable as it is to admit this living as close to Seattle as I do—coffee, yuck!

 Q: Soft shell or Hard Shell tacos?

 Q: Favorite place to vacation?
We love sailing in the San Juan Islands north of us in Washington State. My wife’s favorite city on the planet is Strasbourg, France, and I think I agree with her on this one. Marvelous city with charming old-world sites and lots of church history connections—and good food and drink!

 Q: Favorite season?

 Q: Do you have a particular drink or food you consume when you write? Like coco, raspberry tea, animal crackers?
I sometimes munch on trail mix and often drink tea. My all-time favorite tea drink is a London Fog Latte, made with Earl Grey tea. For herb tea I love Licorice spice—yummy and fuels the imagination.

 Q: Do you have a favorite Bible verse?
Too many to narrow it down really, though Psalm 93 and 16 are two of favorite Psalms.

 Q: Favorite pasta dish?
Smoked salmon fettuccine

 Q: Do you listen to music while you write? If so what are some examples?
I am a lover of great music! Just recently listened through Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, following the libretto with my 8-year-old son. Though that may seem like a stretch to some (and like child abuse to others), he loved it and asked to listen some more after we’d finished it (we played chess some of the time while listening too). But I generally only listen to music in the editing and revision stages of writing and then I’m pretty selective. Then it would be Bach or Handel or maybe even Alison Kraus and some bluegrass to mix things up a bit.

I do, however, intentionally listen to music that is part of the story, as when my protagonist was in Paris with John Paul Jones in Guns of Providence and they heard Haydn’s latest symphony, or when writing about the Anglo-Saxon harp being played with Beowulf in the mead hall in Hand of Vengeance, or when writing about Toplady or Watts and their hymns, or bagpipe music when writing the Crown & Covenant Trilogy (which could be played live by either of my two eldest sons) that sort of thing.


  1. This is a really fun interview, Doug! And my thanks to Brock for pulling it together...

    BTW ... I've never heard of a loafery! Hmmmm...

  2. Wow...four years sitting under your Dad's teaching, then more with him as my boss...and I never knew he was dyslexic.

  3. What a fascinating interview... a wonderful read :)

  4. ...oh, and your sons play the bagpipes?? I *am* impressed!