Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A (virtual) visit by Chris Well

The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is now at a blog near you. Our first victim … er, uh … guest is Chris Well, author of Forgiving Solomon Long, which was published this spring by Harvest House. Chris has been involved in Christian magazines for a number of years and is now editor of Homecoming Magazine and a contributor to CCM magazine. He's also a lover of comic books, a passion which plays a small supporting role in the novel.

I enjoyed FSL very much so I was glad for the chance to interview Chris and find out more about how the story came to be.

Linda: As I've told you, I really enjoyed Forgiving Solomon Long. The characters were engaging and the story moved along. I always like it when I find a story that takes place in a city I'm at least somewhat familiar with. I've been to Kansas City a time or two, plus I feel a little claim to it since I'm not that far away. So that prompts my first question: Did you ever live in Kansas City or spend a lot of time there?

Chris: Here is one of my deep, dark secrets: I have never been to Kansas City in my life. (I did, however, grow up in Illinois in the shadow of St. Louis. For anyone who might consider that salient.)

How I came to choose Kansas City, Mo., was that I wanted a city that had some character -- but that is not so familiar to readers that it's become cliché.

For example, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Chicago are all great places to have a crime story -- but you read about (or see on television and in film) those same four cities again and again and again. On that count, Kansas City is a city many have heard of, but does not feel overused.

Also, Kansas City is certainly a city that exudes character. Its colorful history reaches in all sorts of directions, from music to literature to animation to, of course, organized crime.

For research, I leaned on a variety of resources, including friends who had lived there, information sent by the KC Chamber of Commerce, and, of course, the Yahoo site.

Of course, it is easy to get overwhelmed by too much research; there was a point where I had to set the folder aside and wing it. I held fast to the principle that a little bit goes a long way -- just drop some references here and there, and let the reader fill in the gaps himself or herself.

Linda: I enjoyed your style of writing, too, and I'm wondering what prepared you to write this book. I guess I'm talking a little about influences, but I'm also talking about writing experiences. I know you've been an editor and I've read some of your stories at Infuze (definitely warped, but interesting), and I know you're a comic book fan – but what about longer forms of fiction? Any early novels lurking in desk drawers?

Chris: I have been writing since the First Grade. Somewhere around junior high, I
started writing short stories and submitting them to magazines (and collecting rejection slips) and pitching story ideas to Marvel Comics and DC Comics (and collecting still more rejection slips).

In high school, I started writing plays and even wrote my first "novel." (Looking back on it now, I see that it was actually just a really, really long short story.)

Most of these, of course, were terrible.

But that is all part of the process: You learn by doing. Every failure is another step toward success. Ray Bradbury said something to the effect of that you write and you write to get all the terrible writing out of your system. (And he has published some 600 stories -- so far -- so he should know what he is talking about.)

In college, I also started writing scripts for radio dramas and motion pictures. (I like to think these were less terrible than the earlier stuff.)

I also in the past couple of years worked on a comic book/ audio drama project called Mammoth City Messengers, which was nigh brilliant. But the project became a victim of record label shuffling and sort of fell through the cracks.

My day job these past 10 years or so has been in the magazine business as an editor, learning the craft from another direction. Honing a sense of timing, of drama, of the rhythm of language. Learning how to delete all the unnecessary words, and leave in all the necessary ones.

It's not so much that I have "arrived" at where I want to be as a writer, but I feel like my time in magazines gave me a head start.

For any aspiring writers, I would say that NO writing is ever a waste. It's all about learning how to control the language to tell your story.

Linda: I think somewhere you talked about how you came to publish the first
book with Harvest House, but I don't remember where. Could you briefly tell me how the relationship with this publisher developed? Did you already know an editor there or have some other contact?

Chris: This sort of story is different for every author. In my particular case, I got to know some of the good people of Harvest House years earlier, through my job as editor of a magazine that covered Christian books. During one particular conversation, the acquisitions editor said, "I think you should write a book."

For several years, I was too busy to follow his suggestion, but in the back of my mind I was always thinking of possible story ideas.

Then, in 2002, when my employer went out of business -- I suddenly had some time on my hands. I sent him three different one-sentence plot ideas. He picked the one he thought was most interesting -- "A hit man is haunted by a preacher's dying words: 'I forgive you.'" -- and I developed it into a full synopsis and some sample chapters.

It took maybe another year and some stern rewriting before he was confident that the presentation was ready to show the publishing board. They liked what they saw, and signed me up for two books.

That first book (what we now call Forgiving Solomon Long) was due in June 2004 (about eight months from the time we signed the contract, about two years from the time I started writing it), and was in bookstores January 2005.

The second book is now due in a few weeks, with a targeted release date of March 2006.

Linda: I've read about you signing the five (I think that's right) book deal with Harvest House and that's great. But do you feel some pressure with that? Are there tentative publications dates you're working toward?

Chris: Based on the early response to Forgiving Solomon Long, Harvest House and I started talking about extending the relationship to five novels. One is due each year through 2009.

It is a somewhat daunting place to be -- I plan to work through some different narrative structures for the next three books, to try and keep the experience fresh. Since it takes a year or so to write a regular novel, trying out something new inside that same timeframe is a little frightening. But my theory is that if you don't keep stretching beyond your grasp, at least a little, you stop growing.

Of course, I reserve the right to change my answer in a year ...

Linda: I know you're working on the second book (which I understand is not strictly a sequel, but does have some of the same characters) – what about the other books you'll need to write? Do you have a plan or a story arc?

Chris: At the moment, we plan for all five of them to fit together into a set. I am hesitant to call them "sequels," because they will all be stand-alones, but with a few recurring characters.

But since we are talking about 2007, 2008 and 2009 -- that is a long time from now -- the plan could change.

Linda: Thanks, Chris, for indulging my curiosity. I appreciate the time you took to answer my questions. Now everybody else, go read Forgiving Solomon Long.

You can find the book here: Forgiving Solomon Long

And you can find links to press releases, interviews and a sample chapter at Chris's web site.

You can find his blog at any of these fine places:

(I meant to use Chris's picture but forgot, so I added it today -- 7.21.05)


Katy said...

What a great interview, Linda!

lindaruth said...

You did a pretty good job yourself.:)