Fiction: discoveries and dilemmas

Messaih's libraryAt this year’s dinner for the Friends of Murray Library, I was invited to talk about my forays into fiction. It was a fine evening centered around the college’s library (the true center of any campus); the food and conversation were also terrific. I was glad to be part of the festivities, and to share a bit of my experience…

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My first books—parts of which were researched and written at Messiah’s Murray Library—were serious: efforts at devotional exegesis that built on formal training and practical experience. My interest was in connecting Scripture with life in the kingdom, to talk about what it means for followers of Jesus to navigate in the home, marketplace, neighborhood. These books—on Matthew, the Minor Prophets, and Paul’s teaching about communion—allowed me to mull over topics and texts that captivated me. They took years to produce and bring to print, a trend that continues with my current serious book on glory, which has been an active part of my thinking and writing for more than a decade.

More recently, though, I got blind-sided by fiction.

Friends who knew I liked to write asked if I would try fiction, but my stock answer was No—I can’t. This was not false modesty: I had been trained against fiction. An ironic reply, in that I’ve always enjoyed reading fiction. But writing it was, in my estimation, off-limit so I stayed far away from any thought of it. Grad school for theology and Biblical studies had developed in me a passion for truth; fiction was, by definition, lies.

Besides, who wanted to bother with telling stories when the important work was in expositing Scripture?

I know: this sort of either/or thinking is more common to a first year college student than a middle-aged man—but there you have it. My mind was made up, which was odd in another way, because my life has been well-designed for fiction.

I come from a colorful family, one that boasts among its ranks champion duck-callers and inventors, world travelers and homesteaders, soldiers and swindlers, professional athletes and musicians, successful entrepreneurs and a few who flamed out.

I grew up in a foreign country, on an island renowned for links to pirates. I lived in Africa, too, where I was attacked by a monkey. I collected stamps, set fires, and outran a waterspout. And if all that weren’t enough, I’ve spent the bulk of my career in full-time Christian ministry, which offers a nearly inexhaustible supply of material for telling stories.

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I think it was Spanish that softened me up for fiction. We moved to Chile in the late 90s, and then spent 3 years in Costa Rica pastoring churches for expats and starting a new church in a beach community. Prior to living in Latin America, I had studied Greek and Hebrew, and had a smattering of French and German—languages (some of them dead languages) intended for scholarly pursuits. Spanish? Not something I needed—until we moved to a place where most people spoke it. Grudgingly, I took some classes, only to discover I liked it. And then I began looking for opportunities to use it.

Spanish charmed me into changing a prejudice, and in some ways softened me up for fiction, but I was still reluctant to throw my hat over that fence. Stephen King says first novels are autobiographical—but my sense is that most novels trade on the life experiences of their writers, and I wasn’t sure about committing to that sort of exposure. For that’s another of fiction’s dilemmas: it tends to come out of who you are, and if you’re a private person, you’re not always eager to be so forthcoming. Of course, while writers tend to be introverts, they also have this yearning to be noticed—so writing can occasionally be a rather torturous endeavor. As Barbara Hurd put it when talking about her book Entering the Stone, I long to be invisible, but hate to be ignored.

The tipping point for me was my wife’s birthday. Sue invited a batch of friends, and asked each to come with something they’d written. I decided to risk putting down on paper an episode that had been kicking around in my brain. At the party, I read what I’d written, and got an enthusiastic response. That was enough to encourage me to write a bit more, and a bit more after that. Suddenly, writing about a pastor in Central America who’d been recruited by an oddball collection of expats to start a church in a beach town was something I really wanted to do—I couldn’t wait to get back to the keyboard, couldn’t wait to see how the thing ended. When I looked up a month or two later, there was flesh on the bones of a novel that became Playa Perdida. The Spanish title was, I think, significant.

With this novel, I crossed over to what I thought was the dark side of writing—only to discover a wide country that was an absolute delight to explore.

And then came NaNoWriMo… The first time I heard about National Novel Writing Month, I thought it a loopy idea. By the following November, though, I had an idea for a crime novel. I had always enjoyed caper stories; I wondered if I could write one. So I spent many hours that month hunched over a keyboard. A story fell out, about an insurance investigator chasing international thieves with the help of his nephew, a college dropout.

Another of fiction’s dilemmas comes with trying to figure out how much you make up, and how much to rely on hard fact. In my serious books, I needed to check and recheck, verify, attribute; I needed to get it right, all the time. Was there the same expectation for fiction? I’m still not sure, but for now, my working premise is that what matters is inventing a world that is plausible.

And so Prime Target suggested that there were paintings, sculpture, jewelry and the like moving from collector to collector, but not always through legal channels. Owners of such pieces still wanted protection of their valuables, but couldn’t rely on conventional companies. Consequently, they hired a private insurance firm which specialized in keeping stuff where it was, or making sure it got back in the event someone else took it.

What happens if, say, there’s an unhinged mastermind who feels the urge to gather a great many of these trinkets for nefarious purposes? Why then you call in someone like Stuyvesant Bedford who will thwart those plans. Except you’re also likely to have thieves who are very good at what they do, and who would not make his job particularly easy.

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What do I like about fiction? There’s the way it allows me to play with words—which is true for whatever one writes. But fiction also expects me to create a world, and I find great delight in that, too.

The world I’m building for my third novel involves a Christian liberal arts college in the deep south. University of Days has been limping along for nearly a century, and now stands on the brink: will the school manage to make the turn and stay relevant?  In part that depends on the faculty, staff, and students assembled there—people I’ve met, worked with, heard about, or just fabricated out of thin air.

For this is another of fiction’s delights: it allows one to tell stories, but also to retell them, to take familiar bits and weave them together in completely new ways that astonish, amuse, and occasionally, illuminate.

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I’m writing at a time when the publishing industry is in flux—which highlights yet another dilemma: namely, how one gets a book into print. But with the advent of independent publishing, suddenly there are options that hadn’t previously existed. This has in turn led to a time of great productivity and creativity, as many with novels in their desks drawers now have ways of sending their books into the wild blue.

I’m glad for the tools now available which make independent publishing a viable option. Indeed, this is the route I’ve chosen to put my stories in front of readers, and I expect to keep learning more about this new approach. What hasn’t changed, though, is the way stories connect, resonate.

I avoided fiction because I thought it would take me away from truth, that it would distract from the serious—and therefore, meaningful—work of devotional exegesis. What I’ve discovered is that fiction fits quite nicely with what I’ve wanted to do all along—which is to write about what life is like, and what it might become.

2 thoughts on “Fiction: discoveries and dilemmas

  1. How ’bout audio versions?
    I am among that great unwashed who is in a season that does not permit much real reading….. but lately I’ve been “reading” more with my ears while driving..

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