Miracle in a Dry Season    Dangerous Passage


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Brandilyn Collins Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"Whatever our art, we should turn it over to God fully and completely. He’s the author of that talent. He knows best what we should do with it." -- Brandilyn Collins

If Brandilyn Collins isn’t a household name yet in Christian fiction, she will be soon. To the tune of two novels a year, Brandilyn continues to please her rabid fans with Seatbelt Suspense thrillers.

C.J.: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

BRANDILYN: I was born into a family of writers, so it was a natural aura of my upbringing. I remember writing my first story as an assignment in second grade. Opening line: “Once there was a stallion named Betsy.” I read the story to my mom and one older sister, and couldn’t understand why they laughed at that sentence. The last laugh was mine, however, when I won the prestigious Best Class Story Award. I’ve been trying to write with equal eloquence ever since.

Your background is in acting, right? Why did you ultimately choose to write fiction, and how has the acting helped you as a novelist?

I studied acting in high school. Completed a drama major in college. (Then switched to a journalism major, which cost me an extra semester or two.) I’ve always loved drama—the creation of character on stage. With the writing sense already in me, the creation of character simply moved from stage to page. Drama was then mine to create from scratch, rather than interpreting someone else’s design. This background in acting, and in particular Stanislavsky’s Method Acting, gave me a wonderful foundation for fiction. My book on writing fiction, Getting Into Character (John Wiley & Sons), is based on this transition in my life, taking seven techniques from Method Acting and adapting them for the novelist’s use.

These techniques were natural to me, but as I spoke with other novelists, I realized most had no idea of the richness of these concepts and how they could be used. Personalizing character, subtexting of dialogue, inner rhythm, the use of emotion memory to write what we think we could never write—these are a few of those techniques. I continue to use them in my work.

I know your story to publication in fiction is a long one, aptly dubbed your “Never Ending Saga” over at the Forensics and Faith blog. Could you recap the story for TitleTrakk.com readers?

Okay, but the condensed version’s no fun. Ya gotta read 67 posts full of writer angst and kicking cabinets and ending with suspense hooks to get the full gestalt of the thing. (By the way, it’s titled “How I Got Here” on the blog.) I began learning to write fiction in 1990. My first book, a true crime titled A Question of Innocence, was published by Avon in 1995. Q of A was about a nationally covered murder trial that was local to me. I went as research for my first novel (eventually published as Eyes of Elisha), and ended up with the exclusive story of the defendant and her family. After that year’s detour into nonfiction, it was back to writing secular fiction.

Eyes of Elisha by Brandilyn CollinsShort version: I wrote, I studied, I wrote, I studied, I wrote. I liked agents. They didn’t like me. I wrote and studied some more. Finally armed with an agent, then another one, I liked publishing houses. They didn’t like me. I studied and wrote some more. Landed a third, higher-level agent. Funny thing. After eight years of intense study in the craft, my writing was publishable, but doors continued to close. Something was missing.

Finally I did what I should have done as a Christian all along. Turned my writing completely, totally over to God. He took it, all right. And made a startling demand: “I want you writing Christian fiction.” I did some research, and a lot of reading—and obeyed. (What a “coincidence” that my general-market agent also knew the Christian market because she also represented some novelist by the name of Francine Rivers.) I rewrote my three secular novels, interweaving Christian values into the stories. To my surprise, the stories strengthened. They had a raison d’etre deep within the story structure and characterization as never before. And whatdaya know, the books started to sell.

Once God opened the door, it all happened quickly and has never stopped. My first novel hit shelves five years ago. I’m now writing my fourteenth book (twelfth novel).

You haven’t always written suspense. In fact, that first published novel was women’s fiction. Why did you choose to switch exclusively to suspense?

The reality of the business. Writing in two very different genres meant spreading my readership widely. It was hard to build either readership base, bouncing back and forth. In the end, if I really wanted to expand my readership, I needed to focus. The women’s fiction was good for me, though. It taught me characterization, and through it I developed the metaphorical side of my voice. I infuse my suspense with these two aspects, and I think it’s better for it.Brink of Death by Brandilyn Collins

The Hidden Faces series features a forensic artist. What kind of research did you conduct to create the character Annie Kingston?

I started on the Internet. Then bought a big $100 textbook from a nationally known forensic artist, Karen Taylor. (She and her book are recognized in the acknowledgments.) Exchanged some e-mails with Karen. In each of the four books, Annie has a different challenge, so I could focus on learning one aspect of the huge forensic art field at a time.

Ever had any unusual moments while performing research?

Well, I could tell you about the time I scared a poor young man to death while he was fixing our hot tub. I was fascinated with the strength of the jets. Wondered aloud whether, if you put a dead person’s open mouth up to a jet, would it force bubbles into her lungs? ’Cause then maybe it would look like she drowned in the hot tub, when she was really killed elsewhere . . .

After that, the company always sent a different guy to fix our hot tub.

That’s not really research though; that’s just . . . being me. While researching for Eyes of Elisha, I finagled a tour of the local county forensics lab with its director. We passed a small-boned, pretty young woman hunched over the largest pair of men’s briefs I have ever seen. Dirty, too. With barely contained excitement, she was scraping the fabric with a knife blade. The sight was so incongruous. Gal looked like she should be on some magazine cover, and there she was, so jazzed about working on those yucky gargantuan briefs.

“What are you doing?” the director asked.

She looked up, eyes sparkling. “Rape case. I’m getting the best semen stains!”

I used that scene in the novel.

Violet Dawn by Brandilyn CollinsLet’s talk about your Kanner Lake series. How many books are projected? I also hear you have an innovative marketing plan, including a role-playing blog.

Three books are currently contracted for the suspense series, beginning with Violet Dawn, releasing in August 2006. The series injects the Seatbelt Suspense™ elements of my Hidden Faces series into the small, normally quiet town of Kanner Lake, Idaho, rocking the world of its eclectic denizens. My publisher, Zondervan, is strongly marketing this series. My own marketing ideas include the “Scenes and Beans” blog, written by characters in the series. I will not write this blog; readers will (with editing by me). Scenes and Beans is brought to you by Java Joint, the coffee shop in Kanner Lake, where everyone hangs out. The blogging characters are colorful and eccentric, and lend themselves well to creative posts. The blog is being written in real time, according to events that happen in the books. (Without giving away plot points.)

Fifty ARCs (advanced readers copies) were sent out to auditioners for 10 characters. Most of these auditioners are aspiring novelists who frequent my blog. These folks read the story, then chose who they wanted to try out for. Those who land roles commit to writing that character’s posts for six months. After that, any reader of the series and Scenes and Beans blog can submit posts for possible use. There are various perks for the bloggers, including a Java Joint coffee mug, free signed books, and recognition for their posts on the Kanner Lake Web site (with links to their own Web site/blog, if applicable).

The Kanner Lake site explains the blog and the book series. The blog itself will look completely real, but have a link to the Web site. Bottom line, it’s a way to involve readers in the books. It’s an everybody-wins proposition. The more entertaining the blogger’s posts, the more readers will frequent the blog—and the more recognition the bloggers will receive for their creativity. And, of course, the whole thing raises awareness for the Kanner Lake series.

Christian fiction has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. What are your thoughts on the future of Christian fiction?

That it will continue to grow in numbers of books written and also to expand its parameters. For example, I have seen amazing changes in the genre of suspense since Eyes of Elisha was published in late 2001. At the time, many Christian publishing houses said no to that book because of the content (visions). Zondervan took a chance on it—and on me, a new kid on the block—and it went straight to the bestseller list. Firm confirmation that readers really were ready for that kind of story, even when written by an unknown.

Today it’s exhilarating to see what the houses who rejected Eyes of Elisha are publishing in suspense. They wouldn’t even blink at such a storyline now. You’ve thrust your characters into some pretty harrowing experiences.Brandilyn Collins

Where do you draw the line in portraying violence in your novels?

I’ve never felt hampered by what I can and can’t portray. I do what I need to do to tell the story. At the same time, I can convey some pretty awful things without going into graphic detail. Dead of Night (third in the Hidden Faces series) begins with the ranting delight of a serial killer over the latest victim—and the cutting off of part of that victim’s ear. I think it’s a chilling and effective scene—without actually describing the blade slicing through skin. The reader understands clearly enough what’s happening without that. What makes it work is the unusual voice of the killer, and the tone created through rhythm and word choice.

These are elements that make good Story—not graphic details.

How do you infuse the Christian faith element in your stories?

I don’t think about it initially. I just sit down to write a compelling and twist-driven suspense. My worldview eventually shows through, mostly in the spiritual arc of the protagonist. Because the characters drive the spiritual element, my novels vary as to amount of Christian content. This content has to be absolutely natural, arising from the characters’ background and events in the story. After all, readers don’t pick up a novel to learn about God. They pick up a novel for entertainment. I must first meet that expectation. If I do, they’re likely to be more open to the underlying message. If I don’t, they won’t even finish the book, much less hear the message.

So you’ve featured spiders in Web of Lies and now snakes in Violet Dawn. What draws you to write about creepy critters?

I don’t know. My mother thinks I’m warped. A word of defense about Violet Dawn, however. It’s not a real snake. Just because the Bad Guy fancies himself a black mamba . . .

It was fun writing his scenes. I incorporated a subtle hiss into his voice through using “s” words here and there. Also used a lot of snake-y verbs.

Web of Lies by Brandilyn CollinsWere books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?

Yes, they were. My next older sister taught me to read before I entered kindergarten at the age of four. I remember reading my first "novel"--a Bobbsey Twins book--when I was seven or eight. I was so proud of myself! I continued to read the Bobbsey Twins, then graduated to the Hardy Boys and then on to other stand-alone titles for kids.

My Mom and Dad were both writing at that time. Mom's books were nonfiction but told in story form about her life in India. I read and re-read those. I remember her receiving the galleys to proof for one when I was about 10. The whole family proofed the thing. I thought I was the bee's knees when I found a mistake in the first chapter that no one else caught. "Cobra" was spelled "cobar." At the time I was focused on my indubitable intellect and proofing skills. Now, I think, sheesh, I don't care whether you spell it "cobra" or "cobar" or "robac," knowing a huge one's hiding somewhere in the rubble at your feet after half the ceiling caved in would not be okay with me.

Hey. Maybe that's where my creepy critters in writing come from. My warped childhood. It's all my mother's fault. Can't wait to tell her.

I believe I read that your parents were missionaries. Were you ever on the mission field with them?

My parents were in India for 20 years. I was born in India, the last of four daughters. We came back on furlough when I was nearly three, and ended up having to stay in the States because one of my sisters contracted a long-term illness (from which she eventually recovered).

Who are some authors you enjoy reading now, and why do you enjoy them?

My favorite is Koontz, for numerous reasons. I love his characterization. His use of language. His sentence rhythm. I also enjoy the way he’s stretched the boundaries of the suspense genre. Some of his books are more on the scary side. Some are injected with humor. Some are fantastical in nature. I want to achieve the same kind of stretching in my own career.Brandilyn Collins

I hear you’re a huge music fan. Could you talk about some of the bands and songs that have impacted your life?

Hey, ya can’t take the rocker outta the girl. I was a teenager during the classic rock of the 70s—Journey, Foreigner, Kansas, Chicago, Styx, Boston, Allman Brothers, etc. Bon Jovi came along in the 80s and remains one of my favorites. I still listen to all these bands. Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”—I’m known to blast such stuff in my car today. Embarrasses the heck out of my high-school daughter. Forty-nine-year-old moms aren’t supposed to act this way. All the same, she and I have had fun going to concerts together. I did the boy band era thing with her. We screamed our heads off.

Best rock song ever—“The Wall” by Kansas. That band was very original in their sound and lyrics right from the start. “The Wall” was written by Kerry Livgren. (“I’m woven in a fantasy. I can’t believe the things I see. The path that I have chosen now has led me to a wall. And with each passing day, I feel a little more like something dear was lost. It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between all I am, and all that I was ever meant to be. It’s just a travesty, marking out the boundaries my spirit would erase . . .”)

An obvious, poetically written spiritual-seeking song. Then in 1979, Livgren became a Christian. How cool is that. Eventually he left Kansas to go out on his own, with faith-driven songs.

What’s one thing people might be surprised to know about you?

Even though I’m known for my Seatbelt Suspense™, and even though the most common metaphor readers use to describe my novels is a roller coaster—I’m scared to death of the things. I wouldn’t get on a real roller coaster for a billion dollars. But don’t tell anybody.

Parting thoughts?

Simply this: whatever our art, we should turn it over to God fully and completely. He’s the author of that talent. He knows best what we should do with it. In Him, we can work hard on our craft and turn out our best. Then we can leave the spiritual results of our art, whether for Christian or general audience, up to Him. And with God’s help, we can learn freedom from the self-focus that so easily comes with baring our souls through artistry.

That is true freedom, indeed.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.