As you've learned by now, this year Novel matters is asking the question "Why does the novel matter?" We're asking this of ourselves, and of you our readers. We've also asked a few special authors to tell us about the novels they write, how they go about writing them, and why the novel matters in their opinion.
We are privileged to present Athol Dickson, author of The Opposite of Art, the Christy-Award winning River Rising and The Cure, as well as his non-fiction The Gospel According to Moses.
Novel Matters: Your latest novel, The Opposite of Art, includes an indepth knowledge of the world of art, and of painting in particular. What is your art background?
Athol Dickson: My mother was a good artist, and saw artistic potential in me when I was young, so she enrolled me in private art classes. I also took all the art classes available in the public schools, and then went to college to study fine arts for two years before transferring to architecture. My wife and I collect art, mainly oils and pastels. I used to paint a lot in my spare time, but that stopped when I started writing.
NM: When you did paint, what were your subjects, and what medium did you prefer?
AD: I worked in acrylics. I painted landscapes, still life, and portraits. I'm a much better writer than painter, which is why I focus on novels now. But I'm still passionate about paintings. Nothing inspires me to write more than a visit to a museum where there are paintings by great masters.
NM: This is the first of your novels that draws on your talent for painting. What was the seed of your story idea for this novel?
AD: I don't remember where this idea came from, but one day I suddenly started thinking about what it would be like if the greatest painter on earth saw God's face in a near-death experience and came back to life determined to paint what he had seen. It seemed obvious to me that no painter who ever lived has been that good, so I wondered how his failed attempts to paint it would change him and what he would paint in the end.
NM: What did you gain from writing The Opposite of Art?
AD: It's something of an epic story, spanning 25 years in a man's life as he travels across four continents. It was good to find out that I can write that kind of scale. It was also lots of fun.
NM: What do you want readers to take away from reading this novel as well as your other books?
AD: My first goal in every novel is to entertain.
NM: Sorry to interrupt, but all too often that's not an answer you hear. Authors, particularly Christian authors, tend to speak about a "higher purpose" or a particular message they want to get across, and we understand that. But if a novel doesn't first entertain, those other things won't be accomplished.
AD: I agree. I first want readers to have a great time. After that, if my novels bring new ideas to mind, if they make you think about things in new ways or open up a part of life you haven't considered before, then that's all the better. In this case, I think The Opposite of Art offers some valuable insights on the fact that we were created by our Creator to be creators.
NM: If this were an audio interview, that would be a great soundbite.
AD: That's a huge part of what it means to be made in the image of God, and it carries huge responsibilities, which many of us fail to understand. What is creativity about? What does it mean that it comes over us sometimes as a kind of urge, like our desire for food or sleep or sex? Why do so many of us resist that urge, or pretend it isn't there? Is there a proper way to respond to it, and is there a wrong way? These are just a few of the questions that The Opposite of Art explores.
NM: Having read the novel twice, I feel the depth with which you explore these issues through the storyline makes this a very thought-provoking novel. The affect it has on your protagonist -- which both kills and gives life -- is profound. Which novels have informed you as a writer over the years? In what ways have they influenced you?
AD: Thornton Wilder's work taught me not to worry so much about what "they" say, because he very often broke the rules, yet his novels are just wonderful. Gabriel Garcia Marquez just blew my mind with his One Hundred Years of Solitude. It's the finest novel ever written in my opinion, and he opened my mind to the fact that the novel is uniquely qualified to weave the spiritual and physical realities of life together. I also owe a lot to Flannery O'Connor, who showed me it's okay to make characters larger than life, and to Walker Percy who showed me readers will follow along with you if you think deeply.
NM: If you could sit down with any writer in history or living today, who would it be and why?
AD: Someone else asked me this same question earlier today. I'll answer the same way. I'd like to spend time with Ernest Hemingway, to talk him out of suicide.
NM: That's really a great answer. There are so many unanswered questions that surround the lives of any number of artistic masters whose work we've had the privilege to enjoy.
AD: Whenever I read Hemingway's novels, that fact is always a shadow of sadness in the background.
NM: Getting down to the specifics of your own writing style, do you outline your novels before you write, or are you a feel-your-way-through kind of writer?
AD: Mostly I outline, although it's really more of a list of scenes.
NM: Which comes first for you: plot, characters, themes, or something else?
AD: I've started with all three of those things. But wherever I start I soon switch over to thinking about one of the others. For me, they're so interwoven it's impossible to think of stories without bringing them all along at once.
NM: What is the one non-writing thing you do that helps you be a better writer?
AD: Road trips help a lot. They get me out of my rut and help me remember how big the world is. Also, going to art museums, which always inspires.
NM: How are you navigating the changing tides of publishing?
AD: I've decided to jump in with both feet. I've created my own imprint, Author Author. I have an excellent cover designer; a developmental, line and copy editor; an interior designer (what used to be called a type setter); and an outstanding publicist who is working nearly full time for me. Author Author is publishing the re-release of four previously published novels, in electronic and print editions, which I'm calling "The Christy Series" because two were finalists for that award and two of them won it. They each have new covers and new forewords or afterwords, and I've done major rewrites on all four of them. All the characters and plots are the same, but what I've learned has guided thousands of subtle changes I made to these four books. In some cases, I've also made larger revisions, such as combining scenes or changing the order of them. They are much improved versions of the original award-winning editions.
NM: Week before last, Latayne's and Debbie's posts on Novel Matters dealt with the changes that have taken place in their writing because of what they've learned along the way. I doubt there's an author alive who wouldn't rewrite every book they ever published, given the chance. You're making your own opportunity, and we applaud you. What is the worst piece of writing advice ever offered to you and why?
AD: They say the theme "must" arise organically out of the characters and plot. I think that's one way to write a novel, but definitely not the only way. Sometimes characters and plot can arise from theme. All that matters is how the novel reads in the end. It can't be preachy, which is why they give that advice. But it also can't be superficially driven by too much attention to action without underlying purpose, or dreadfully boring because of droning on and on about a character back story. There are many ways to write an awful novel.
NM: (laughing). Can't we all attest to that?
AD: The preachy-ness of an overbearing theme is only one of them. And if we say we "must" write in a certain way to avoid preachy-ness, we open ourselves up to the same mistakes in other areas. There's no such thing as a great novel without a theme, therefore it's silly to insist that one must not think about theme when planning a novel.
NM: What is the best piece of writing advice you have to offer aspiring authors?
AD: Keep writing.
NM: Okay, and on that note, what keeps you writing despite setbacks?
AD: I was given a gift for this. It would be a sin not to use it.
NM: That's an honest answer, and that's much appreciated at Novel Matters. Our final question to every author we've interviewed this year is this: Why does the novel matter? How does Athol Dickson answer that?
AD: Art is one of the objective proofs that human beings have a soul or spirit, and novels, of course, are art, so novels matter for that reason, the same reason all art matters: novels prove we're made in the spiritual image and likeness of a Creator.
But I think novels have an added importance because of the unique way they communicate to us. Artists using other art forms either speak directly to us in a kind of conversation, or else they focus our attention on something external to ourselves and ask us to observe that external thing. Only the novel (or other forms of literature) allows the artist to insert us into the art itself by using the first person point of view. Only in a novel can we become a kind of proxy for the work of art itself. What I'm saying is that music, film, stage, dance and other fine arts may seem to draw us in, but in reality we always remain outside, observing. Only the first person novel can literally draw our minds into the art itself by allowing us to "see" with a character's eyes and "hear" with her ears, and "act" with our own hands. No other art form offers the same virtual reality of living as another human being, thus no other art form can instill the same intense empathy for others. Of course, not all novels are written in first person. But I think even a third-person novel has an advantage over most other art forms, because of the amount of active participation required of the reader.
NM: You've given a lot of thought to the importance of literature.
AD: I really have. Film makes very few demands on our imaginations -- almost every detail in them is actually seen or heard; whereas the vast majority of details in a story must be provided by the reader's mind. Music is essentially the opposite. It stimulates emotional responses based on indirect contact with memories or subliminal associations. So visual arts like film leave little to the imagination, while music provides little space for rational ideas. Third-person novels occupy a middle ground between the visual and audible arts, in which the writer can communicate specific truths on a rational level while also communicating subliminally with a reader's emotions.
NM: Athol, we so appreciate the depth you put into your answers for this interview. We wish you all the best as you move forward with Author Author.