How do your novels express your personal faith and religious views?
I hope it comes through that I believe God is endlessly interesting, surprising and mysterious, I believe we are the arms of God, and I believe the forgiven have an obligation to forgive.
Who were the most inspirational people in your life?
Years ago, when I was injured and in the hospital, there was a rape in the parking lot. From then on, every evening until I was released, a couple from the church would show up right before the end of visiting hours. Every day it was a different couple, and they rarely came to my room. They drove thirty miles into the city just to escort my wife across the parking lot to her car and follow her home. Others showed up and fed me when I couldn’t use my hands. Others paid my bills, cut my grass. The people who inspire me are the ones who do little things for other people, every day, for no reason, even when nobody’s looking.
What authors have had the greatest impact on your work?
There are many, but the writer whose work I’ve studied the most is John Steinbeck. His style, his voice, has always connected instantly with me, and I’m still amazed at his economy. The only other author whose books I’ll open at random and start reading in the middle of a page for the pure pleasure of it is Wendell Berry.
I’ve heard that Levi’s Will is based on your father’s life. Is Will McGruder essentially a fictionalized rendering of your dad?
Yes, it is based on the life of my father, but the character Will McGruder is not my father, he is completely fictional. While I did use the major turning points of my father’s life as a framework, I found that I could not invade his thoughts nor exploit his life to the degree necessary to fill a book. Will McGruder and his son (and for that matter, all the characters in the book) are purely my own inventions. I never use real people in my stories, though I often use real events and places—rearranged, repopulated, and exaggerated. This is the way I write. The easiest thing to describe is that which I have seen, and the easiest thing to teach is that which I myself have learned. My greatest concerns in the telling of this story were to honor God, to honor Truth, and to make it beautiful. I hope I have succeeded, at least in some small measure.
Why did you write Bad Ground?
This is a story I’ve been wanting to write for years because it illustrates a principle that runs throughout the Bible, and one that I’ve experienced firsthand: God gives us the greatest of gifts through the worst of circumstances. Both the theme and the title were spelled out in one of Jake Mahaffey’s journal entries in Sutter’s Cross. I was pretty sure even then that this was where I wanted to go next.
Is Bad Ground autobiographical in any way?
No, Bad Ground is not autobiographical, although the technical details and the anecdotal bits do owe something to my experiences as a construction electrician. The truth is, I waited years to attempt the story precisely because I didn’t want it to be autobiographical. I needed some distance. The characters are complete fabrications but the industrial setting, including the tunnel, is based on a real water treatment plant on the south side of Atlanta where I worked for a couple of years. One of the main characters, who has been badly burned in an explosion, gains a unique measure of authenticity from an accident I had while working there. (I wasn’t burned as badly as Snake, though—some people say I actually look better as a result.) Ultimately, what I would probably consider my darkest days produced some striking insights and taught me what it means to be a Christian.
A mining operation in a water treatment plant is an unusual setting for a work of Christian fiction. Is there some symbolism here the reader should be looking for?
Jonah—”out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” There is a natural tendency when writing for the Christian market to paint nice, clean, pretty settings, but even in the Bible the best and strongest stories come from the belly of hell.
Are you trying to take the Christian Fiction genre in a new direction?
My intention is always to write the best book I can write. I believe (I certainly hope) that the direction of Christian fiction is being decided at a much higher level. Like most Christian writers, I believe I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as far as I’m capable of discerning what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. Having said that, there seems to be a consensus that Christian fiction is growing in new and surprising ways, and it would be immensely gratifying, humbling, and more than a little frightening, to have a hand in that growth. I also have to admit that if my writing deviates from “normal” Christian fiction it is probably due to my own lamentable ignorance of the field. I was halfway through the writing of Sutter’s Cross before I ever even heard of the Christian Booksellers Association.