What is Christian fiction?
I’m tempted to chafe at the term, “Christian Fiction,” because I’m not all that comfortable with the sense that we Christians have our own books that are just like other books, only safer. It makes me worry that we have given up on making a meaningful contribution to the great conversation going on out there, and have instead retreated to a little anteroom to talk among ourselves. Not only does this seem the wrong way to represent Jesus , but it also makes for bad art, if we go at it with the first thought of being safe. I’ll talk more about this in a later question, but I almost want to say there is no such thing as Christian fiction; there is only fiction and some of it is written by Christians.
But then I consider how often, in my writing, the fundamental way I view things has come through in ways I never planned. I’m convinced that’s true for other writers as well. So despite myself, I’ve concluded that a novel penned by a deeply Christian author would likely have a thematic undertone, like a soundtrack, a quiet little song that, in the brightest and darkest moments of the story, hints that there is something terrible and beautiful behind it all, that there is an immense, inscrutable God of overwhelming ferocity and unfathomable love.
Conflict is central to fiction, but how do you create a work of fiction that is tense, difficult, and sometimes even frightening, yet make it a place readers want to go to, spend time in, and get to know well?
I once heard someone pose an answer to critics who say we shouldn’t put monsters in children’s stories, because they might frighten the little readers. The response was that children are already afraid. They already know there are monsters in the world. That’s why they love stories about them, because in the stories they can get those monsters out of their heads and onto the page, and confront them from the safety of their reading nook.
We grownups are just children with layers added, only at our age, they put the monsters on the evening news, and now we are the adults, we are the ones who are supposed to keep things under control. Tense? Difficult? Even frightening? Oh yeah.
That’s why we so love to battle Sauron's armies until Gandalf comes charging in on his white horse. It’s why we love to enter Maycomb, Alabama, and peek out from the soul of little Scout Finch, who calls each man in the mob to his better self, and makes a friend of Boo Radley, the monster across the street.
Just be sure to keep that soundtrack playing.
Tell us about the relationship between your writing and your spiritual life.
Back to the idea of “safe” fiction: I think playing it safe makes for bad art and bad prayer. We need to dive into the deep waters of our subconscious*, and trust that God will not let us drown.
Too often, we keep to the surface. When things threaten to get painful, we pull out a Sudoku puzzle or surf the internet. (Don't ask how I know.) As writers we create stock characters doing predictable things. The issue is control. We have to know exactly what is going to happen. We definitely need to know what our story is about before we write it. Otherwise it could mess with the way we see ourselves and each other and even - ack! - the way we see God. Predictability is safe, at least.
It’s also boring. It’s like offering God a gloved hand, and commenting on the weather, when all along, he knows that our insides are screaming. The reader is no less bored, having come to the page hoping to battle with monsters and win.
Remember the psalmist, soaring with joy one moment and wretched with terror the next? Remember Jacob, wrestling with his angel? I think, of all people, the novelist is commanded to wrestle with angels.
Think of a novel you have not written - yet - but would like to one day. The best thing you will ever write before you die. Don't tell us what it will be about, but instead, tell us how it will make the reader feel.
William Blake was once asked, “When the sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire something like a guinea?” Blake answered, “Oh no, I see an immeasurable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
When my readers come away like William Blake, I will have written my best novel, and I will lay down my pen. (Maybe.)
*A wonderful book on writing from the subconscious is From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler.