Novel Matters: We’re excited to have you join us today, Tosca. Your latest novel, Iscariot, just released Feb 4th. That name sends shivers of anticipation down reader’s spines. Tell us about the story.
Tosca Lee: Iscariot is the first person story of Judas, from his childhood in Roman-occupied Israel to his emergence as the man known to the world as the infamous betrayer of Jesus. But even more, it is a view into the life of Jesus. One that caused me to really see, for the first time, this man I call “Messiah” in the context of history, as his contemporaries might have seen him. As I might have seen him.
NM: Love the idea of slipping into first century skin.
TL: The further I got in the novel, the more I realized I wasn’t just writing the story of Judas—I was writing my story.
NM: Goose bumps here, Tosca. This couldn’t have been an easy novel to write. The story of Judas is dominated by its ending. Why did you decide to take him on as the subject of a novel?
TL: I have to admit, when editor friend Jeff Gerke first suggested the idea, I ran the other way—I knew how much research and time it would take and I was completely cowed.
NM: Jeff has written for Novel Matters before (here, here, and here), so we know he is full of innovative, reach-for-it ideas. So, Jeff suggested the idea and you ran away, quite sanely. What changed your mind?
TL: It followed me around. It haunted me. Finally, months later, I was sitting in this restaurant in New York City, and started scribbling a scene between Judas and his mom on the paper tablecloth.
NM: Uh oh.
TL: I knew I was a goner.
NM: I’ve heard New York City restaurants will do that to you. I’m guessing you went home with that tablecloth.
TL: I tore the scene off, stuffed it in my purse, and called my agent a few days later. I was actually kind of hoping he would talk me out of it. He didn’t.
NM: Clearly, everyone you know enjoys torturing you.
TL: All my friends failed in this regard, including dear friend Robert Liparulo, who said, “You know, I really think you’re supposed to do this.” I cried and kicked a whined a few months more before finally getting down to work.
NM: You’ve got to appreciate the process here. It’s only those ideas that you can’t shake, even after vigorous efforts that you know are novel-worthy. Part of the reason we want to run away is because we know the story will be difficult.
TL: And it was difficult; the research took a year and a half, and the book took another year and a half to write and months to edit because I over-wrote my first draft by 130,000 words. Oops.
NM: You’ve tackled this difficult subject of Judas Iscariot, and you wrestled with a number of limitation—that’s the nature of storytelling. In this process, were there any writing taboos that you respected in the past that you no longer consider taboo? If so, which ones, and why? Which would you never break?
TL: I try not to consciously think about things like parameters when I'm writing. I go back and censor word choices that won’t fly in the market, kill clichés, de-grossify when I'm editing if need be.
NM: You manage to kill the censor while you’re writing?
TL: I like writing to be experimental and open while it's in process.
NM: You talked about how long it took to complete Iscariot. The years of investment. Some authors write a book a year and others write a handful over a lifetime. In the beginning, did you consciously choose one of these paths over the other, and are you happy with that choice today?
TL: You know, I've never made a conscious choice about this. In the beginning, I think we're just glad as authors to have a contract, so we write and sell those books when we can. For me that meant Demon: A Memoir came out in 2007, and Havah: The Story of Eve in 2008... and then there was this quiet spell of three years while I switched publishers (which is time-consuming), worked on Iscariot, and started the Books of Mortals series—the first of which (Forbidden) came out in 2011. So in my case, it's really just been about tackling the next project as it comes.
NM: Forbidden, your first novel with Ted Dekker debuted on the NYTimes bestsellers list. That must of have felt amazing. Writing careers ebb and flow—one day you’re an Amazon 5-star, the next you’re on your way to the bargain table. Always, every day, however, you’re an artist. The story must be written. How do you—do you?—separate yourself from opinions to give your creative self for another day of writing?
TL: You know, I remember my first one-star review. My heart started thudding. I felt anxious, defensive, and mortified. But my anxiety has ebbed with time. A few months ago I saw a one-star review that said Demon was "written with the deftness and wit of an inebriated three year old." And I remember thinking, "Who would give alcohol to a three year-old??"
NM: (there is a long pause while Bonnie tries to stop laughing and then composes herself) Drunken toddlers aside, you seem to be saying that in order to survive the deep cuts that come with putting your work out there, you have to learn the combination of time and experience. Where does the cup of courage come from?
TL: I think just realizing that readers’ responses are a reflection of where they’re at. It’s not about you. It’s about what resonates—or doesn’t—with them right now. For me, I know that any time I choose to get offended, I’m the one who suffers.
NM: Good advice. Learn the art of shaking it off and knowing it’s not really about you. Personally. Okay, advice. All writers are looking for it. What advice do you have for writers just starting out?
TL: Make sure you've got strategic people on your team who love your stories. Choose stories that you're obsessed with. And then sit your butt in the chair and write.
NM: If tomorrow were the first day of your career, what advice would you give yourself? What did you wish you knew when you started?
TL: Start writing the next one before you sell the first one. And invest in a better desk chair. Try not to pick your nose in interviews.
NM: Really grateful for that last one, Tosca. Let’s talk about the writing process a bit. You’ve mentioned massive research, overwriting the first draft of Iscariot, and how you like to take the breaks off when you’re writing. So, the question is, outline or no outline? Do you use a detailed outline when writing, or is it total go with the gut?
TL: There's no substitute for the process itself—some things cannot be planned. That said, I've been learning the value of well thought-out outlines more and more after grossly over-writing my last two solo novels.
NM: What's the one thing (be it a technology, a notebook, a wristwatch, or pen) that you can't be without as a writer?
TL: My iPhone. I don't know how many times I've grabbed it off my nightstand at 2am to type myself a note. Barring that, I have to have notebooks and pens. And Cheetos.
NM: Cheetos. That’s code for chocolate, right? Okay, when Cheetos fail, who do you turn to for advice when things are rocky on your writing journey? Who is your human Cheeto?
TL: My co-author, Ted Dekker—after 30-some books, he's definitely gone through any issue I might be having. And having written together, he knows my writing habits and the demons that plague me.
NM: The theme this year on Novel Matters is Carpe Annum: Seize the Year! Tell us about a turning-point time in your journey as a writer when you took hold of your career. What did that look like? How did that moment change you as a writer?
TL: In 2010 I had two books out and was working on my third in the midst of a hectic career as a globetrotting management consultant. And then out of the blue I was offered a contract on a new series with Dekker. There was no way I could travel every week, finish Iscariot, and co-author three books in the next two years. I had a choice: hold on to the security of my 401K and continue writing books when I could... or throw it into gear and go. I vacillated a few weeks in the name of thinking things through, knowing the whole time what I would choose. Stories are my passion. I went.
Since then it's been busy and it's still sometimes scary. But there isn't a single day that I don't wake up grateful and eager to begin.
NM: Thanks so much, Tosca, for coming in and sharing your journey with us. We’re excited to read Iscariot, and the stories you have for us in future. Thanks for helping us Carpe Annum!