Yes, This book has an unusual story behind it. In 1995 Thomas Nelson published my first novel, a fantasy novel called Song of Fire. It was well-reviewed, but right as it came out, Nelson changed publishing strategies and moved away from fantasy for that period. The novel faded from view and went out of print. Now, on the 20th anniversary of its original publication, it will be republished by Enclave Publishing, with a new title, new cover, and with a new ending (the one I had originally wanted the book to have). It will also have some bonus material on my website.
Why so many changes to the original novel?
The book has gone through so many changes since its inception that it’s hard to know what the “original” book really is. Song of Fire took me 10 years to write. I worked on it off and on through graduate school and as I started on my teaching career. The first draft was 1,200 pages long. It was clearly unpublishable at that point, so I started again, using those 1,200 pages as raw material for the next draft. I finally got it down to about 600 pages before I started sending it out to publishers. Jan Dennis at Thomas Nelson championed the book and pushed for its publication, but the editors and reviewers wanted it cut to about 450 pages, and they wanted changes in the ending and other revisions. I did the cuts and reluctantly altered the ending, but I was never completely satisfied with it. Now I get to try something a little closer to what I originally envisioned. Most of the material I cut will still be left out of this version, but some of it will be on my website as bonus material.
What started you on your writing journey?
I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t want to write. Even in grade school I enjoyed writing stories. As I grew up and started reading novels, I thought nothing could be more rewarding than to have one of my stories come to life in the minds of readers. I set out to make that a reality. It was much harder than I expected it to be, both because of the difficulty of the writing process itself and also the various publishing obstacles, but eventually, thank God, it happened.
What distracts you from writing the easiest?
Email! Facebook! Blogs! News websites! Just about anything on the Internet can knock me off stride as a writer. I sometimes have trouble remembering what the distractions were before the Internet came along, but I know I had difficulty even then. At various times in my writing journey I have set rules for myself that I do not access the Internet until a certain time of day. I find that if I can do my writing early in the day, before my thoughts are scattered in a million directions by all the online voices, I accomplish much more. But there is something almost irresistible to me about email, especially now that my emails also appear on my cell phone. Most of them could wait, of course, but I often find myself breaking away from a concentrated time of writing to check my inbox. Distraction is the biggest obstacle I face now as a writer. I constantly struggle for focus.
What kind of books do you enjoy reading?
I am a professor of American literature, so I have the opportunity to spend lots of time reading and teaching the classics of American literature. I am a fan and scholar of the novelist Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, You Can’t Go Home Again, and other books. I also occasionally teach a course in William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, and I love both of those writers. A current writer I also get to teach is Joan Didion, who is best known for her non-fiction but who is also an excellent novelist. Right now I am teaching a course in three American dramatists—Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller. It has been a joy to teach their plays.
When I’m reading for fun, I love spy novels. Give me any book by writers like John Le Carre, Robert Littell, or Olen Steinhauer, and I’m happy. I also write one book review a month for CBA Retailers + Resources magazine, which covers the Christian book market, so I get the chance to read many Christian novels that I enjoy.
The original version of Dreams of Caladria was my first novel, and I worked on it for a long time, so I really began to identify with the main character, Jeremy, during those years. This is a fantasy novel, so none of my actual life experience was included in it, but as I read the book now I realize that many of the incidents are related to actual events but are so heavily disguised in the fantasy events that no one but myself would be able to recognize them. As I faced conflicts, challenges and joys in my own life, I found ways of putting Jeremy through many of those experiences in the guise of more outward, action-oriented elements of the plot.
Are there spiritual themes you like to write about?
All of my books have strong spiritual themes. In Dreams of Caladria, the power of God’s presence is an important spiritual theme throughout the book. God’s Spirit inhabits music in that world, in a way that is so powerful that music becomes not only sound but also multi-colored strands of light. Music is multi-dimensional, and it is such a threat to those who oppose God’s followers that they have outlawed it. Jeremy, a musician, arrives in this world and is cynically manipulated by those who fear music, but he ultimately finds that God’s presence in the music—and his own connection to it—cannot be suppressed.
For me, music has always been a powerful source of God’s voice and an important part of worship. Our music on Earth is not as overtly filled with God’s power as it is in the world of the novel, but I do think his presence is all around us in ways that our world tries to suppress. I hope my writing can make people more aware of him and more open to him. Years after I wrote this novel, I treated a similar theme in my non-fiction book, Pieces of Heaven: Recognizing the Presence of God.
Where do you escape for some quiet time to reflect, pray, read, etc?
Like most writers, I need as much quiet time as I can get. In an increasingly noisy world, it is getting harder to focus my mind for writing or almost anything else. One of the best times I have found for prayer, reflection and generating ideas is my morning run. Several days a week I run four and a half miles early in the morning. I don’t take along any electronic devices to distract me. I run a path along the foothills near our home, and it’s one of my favorite times of day. I often come home and have to scribble down ideas right away before I lose them.
As for reading, I love to relax on my recliner late in the evening and read a good book. Unfortunately, I often fall asleep doing it. But reading improves my dreams.
When is your next book due out and can you tell us about it?
In addition to Dreams of Caladria, I also have another book scheduled for release later in 2015. It is a non-fiction book called Nothing is Wasted, and it is to be published by Beacon Hill Press. The central idea of the book is that redemption is built into the structure of the universe. From nature to storytelling to suffering, good springs from difficulty and catastrophe in ways too numerous to ignore.
As I researched this book, I wanted to know, when people have faced some of the worst things life has to offer—the loss of a child, a debilitating illness or injury, the shattering of lifelong dreams—what sense do they make of it years later? Does only the pain remain, or do they find that God has also grown redemption from the suffering? As I interviewed people and learned their stories, I repeatedly found that the pain, while it may be so deep that it lasts a lifetime, is rarely the final word. I also trace redemption’s role in other surprising areas of life. Dirt, for example. Fairytales. Whale carcasses. Death. God wastes nothing, no matter how ugly, smelly or difficult.
Thanks for sharing!
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