The Randy Alcorn File:
by C.J. Darlington
Randy Alcorn Interview
"Preachy-ness in Christian novel writing is certainly a problem. It needs to be consciously avoided. However, I've also noticed an overreaction to this. The overreaction has been that some writers are so self conscious about being too preachy that the reader doesn’t walk away with any redemptive message after reading their books." -- Randy Alcorn
Randy Alcorn is the founder of Eternal Perspective Ministries (EPM). Prior
to starting EPM, he served as a pastor for fourteen years. He has spoken
around the world and taught on the adjunct faculties of Multnomah University
and Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.
Randy is the best-selling author of over 40 books. His seven fiction books include the Gold Medallion winner Safely Home. His nonfiction works include The Treasure Principle; Heaven; and If God is Good. Randy has written for many magazines and has been a guest on hundreds of radio and television programs.
The father of two married daughters, Randy lives in Oregon, with his wife and best friend, Nanci. They are the proud grandparents of five. Randy enjoys hanging out with his family, biking, tennis, research and reading.
C.J.: When you were a boy, was it always your dream to be a writer, or did God place that in your heart later?
Randy: When I was a child I was a reader. I didn't realize that was preparing me to be a writer. I just loved to read, and like most kids, you might dream about what you want to be when you grow up. You might dream you want to be an astronaut. I wanted to be an astronomer. An astronaut would've been great, too. I read a lot of science fiction; I read comic books. I grew up in a non-Christian home. I've always been grateful that my mom encouraged me to read. It wasn't so much what I was reading that was so great; it was that I developed this love for reading that was so great. That tied into my faith in Christ when I was exposed to the Gospel at the age of 15. Hearing the Gospel for the first time, I went and read the Bible, Christian books, and I tried to explore if this were really true. That won me over. In turn then, because of my love for things written, it fed into the notion of writing myself. In my classes, when others often hated the term papers, I actually enjoyed them. That fed into my interest and desire to write.
I am often amazed to talk to people who are trying to seriously be writers, but they say, “I don't have time to read anything, I'm just working on becoming a writer.” I kind of wonder, if you're not a reader, you don't have the love for reading that every writer should have, because a writer is writing for readers. You're going to be out of touch with readers if you aren't a reader yourself, plus your imagination will be stunted. What do you have to offer someone else if you're not taking in the words of other people?
You wrote your first novel as an experiment. How did you journey from non-fiction to someone who now has several novels under your belt?
Yes, I wrote a number of non-fiction books before I attempted my first novel. I emphasize “attempted”, because that really was an experiment. I remember talking to my publisher, and the publisher was very uncomfortable with me not committing myself in a contract, receiving money from them in the form of an advance so that they could count on this novel. I said, “Here's my concern. If I go the contract route and you pay me, I'm going to turn something in and you're going to publish it. And if I don't really like it, I don't want it published. I may discover I'm not a fiction writer.” Because I've read fiction by non-fiction writers that I didn't like I didn't want mine to be one of those. I didn't want to give account to the Lord for putting out a book just to put out a book. I'm looking up at my bookshelf right now and I see about 100 books on fiction writing that I’ve collected. Most of them I read through to help me write fiction. I'd read fiction and say, “Why does this work for me?” And when I didn't like it, I'd say “Why does this not work for me?” I would analyze fiction. We need the input of others, so by listening to fiction writers and taking what I admired and even learning from the things I didn't admire, I went into my first novel Deadline with a sense of what I needed to do.
The first one you do of anything is when you make the most mistakes. I made more mistakes on my first novel Deadline than any other. And yet, God has really used that novel, and it continues to sell well all these many years later. I get emails all the time and notes on Facebook and tweets from people telling me, “Hey, I just read Deadline and I loved it!” And I just shake my head and go, “Well, it's not my favorite writing that I've done.” But I think because the plot was sound and a lot of imagination went into it, people are choosing to still read that novel. But I always say “Have you read my later novels, Safely Home and Deception?" because more writing skill went into those.
What would you say your favorite writing how-to book is?
That is a great question, because I've benefited from so many of them. There is a great book called Self Editing for Fiction Writers. I LOVE that book. The books by Sol Stein How to Grow a Novel and James Scott Bell, who is also a believer, has a great book called Plot & Structure, and it is outstanding. [He's also written The Art of War for Writers and Revision and Self-Editing.]
You've said writing isn't an end for you, but it's a means to your primary calling, pointing people towards Jesus. How does that happen in your novels? How do you tell a story that points people to Jesus without coming across as preachy?
Preachy-ness in Christian novel writing is certainly a problem. It needs to be consciously avoided. However, I've also noticed an overreaction to this. The overreaction has been that some writers can be so self conscious about being too preachy that readers don't walk away with any redemptive message after reading their books. By redemptive message, I don't mean that it has to be the Gospel. You look at New York Times bestsellers and the reviews, and one of the favorite words they'll use is “redemptive” or “this is a great redemptive story.” These are unbelievers who are using the term “redemptive”. What's happening with many believers is that they're so worried the critics will say they're preachy, that they back off from any allusions to Christ.
I was listening to an audio book the other day, one of Wendell Barry's Hannah Coulter books. They are just fabulously well written. He is certainly not a conservative, evangelical Christian. Sometimes Christians come out looking sort of bad in the books. But he has a marvelous passage where this old woman says some things about faith and Christ and awaiting the resurrection in Christ, and I thought, “A number of my Christian friends and even reviewers and critics would cringe if an evangelical Christian wrote those words.” But this is a person who no one thinks is preachy, and they're doing that! He does it periodically; not over the top, but when it's there, it's strong. Every novel has a message, a world view. I have read many books written by non-Christians which are preachy about their world view, but they're not criticized because it's just who they are. Certainly my first novel Deadline was more preachy than some of my later novels, but I've seen God use that novel amazingly in the lives of unbelievers. I may be less preachy than I was then, but for whatever reason, God is still using them. What we need to do is focus on telling a good story. And the better your story is—the more conflict, character development, and plot development (in the sense of continuity of really going somewhere), the more surprises, the unexpected (not predictable), all that earns the right for you to seed it throughout with a redemptive message that can lead the unbelieving reader toward faith in Christ and the believing reader toward a deeper faith in Christ.
It's not that I think those things shouldn't be there so you won't be preachy. It's that when those things are there they should be of a literary nature where you earn the right to have them there by virtue of how committed you are to the craft of telling a good story.
There are awards that are given for Christian fiction writing, and one time I was reading what one of the groups looks for. There was one guideline that really took me back. It was against the idea of anything explicitly Christian. It sent the message “You will not be considered for this award if there is a clear Gospel message.” In fact, you can have a character who comes to faith in Christ, and characters who don’t come to faith in Christ, but either way at least the reader sees the gospel truth. If you'll be marked down for that, I'd say I'm not doing this to win that award! I'm doing this for the Lord. The craft is very important to me, and I do strive for excellence, but I think we don't want to just please the watchful dragons, the critics. We want to do what we believe to be best.
The mission of Eternal Perspective Ministries ties well with Sherwood Pictures' movies and of course Courageous. How did you end up connecting with the Kendricks?
I met Stephen Kendrick and his agent at the ICRS convention last summer, a year ago. I was speaking, and we were in the green room together because Stephen was there to talk about the movies. We were chatting, and the two of them asked if I would consider writing a novel based on a forthcoming movie called Courageous; I said I'd take a look at that as a possibility. They went with Tyndale House, my publisher, and they said, “We'd love for you to do this.” I went and spent four days with them in Albany, GA where they live. I spent those four days not only talking to them about the novel, but they lined me up with a bunch of different people and actors. I had a captain in charge of investigations in the city of Albany drive me all around showing me “Here's where we do the drug busts” and introducing me to that world. I filmed and took lots of pictures, so that when I came back to write the Courageous novel I'd have those visuals as well.
The process of turning a screenplay into a novel is fascinating to me. How did you approach this? How much did you get to put in that wasn't in the screenplay?
I wasn't given many guidelines of where I could and could not go related to the novel, but in the end, Alex looked it over and there were some things he wanted to be different, and that was fine. I was given a screenplay that was actually a little less than 20,000 words. I knew that if it was standard novel length it would probably be between 80 and 100,000 words. Novels don't get a lot shorter than that, though there are some 60 and 70,000 word novels. I ended up with an 85,000 word novel. What that means is there is going to be four times more stuff that I'm writing on my own than is actually in the movie. If you include every single word and every single scene, which I did (I think I only took out one scene, which didn’t quite work in the novel), then nearly 100% of the movie is there; 100% of the dialogue is there. But there has to be much more.
In adding more, I would sometimes add more to the scenes you see in the movie. So you might read it and say, “The scene was in the movie, but those words weren't in the movie.” That's right; I'm expanding it. Then I wrote a lot of things that were not in the movie at all. I created brand new scenes and brand new characters. The reason those are necessary is because if a novel were a movie it would be a ten hour movie. 20,000 words would be like a long short story, not a novel. That's just not enough. So I figured usually screenplays are based on novels, and everyone who sees the movie says, “Oh, I hate that they left out some of my favorite scenes and even my favorite character!” They have to remove a lot of things from the novel to make it a movie or it would be way, way too long. So I kind of reverse engineered a novel out of a screenplay by looking at it and asking what it would have looked like if it had been taken from a novel.
I created the new characters in order to allow the main characters in the movie more latitude, more conflict, and more opportunities for their own character to be develop. I wanted to have a broader range of characters than was even possible in the movie. I added a character named Bronson, who's a hard- core macho cop, but he's also very funny and sarcastic. He brings out more things from Adam, the main character who's played by Alex Kendrick, and provides a contrast by how he reacted to this character Bronson. Without the new characters and new situations, I couldn't bring out more things in Adam and the other characters.
Did you get a chance to see the movie before you wrote?
I did. I first saw the movie in a very early edit when it was 25% longer than the final edit. I saw it before I began work on the project, last October. It has been close to the form people will see in theaters for nearly a year, which is a long time. But it gave them time to get the word out and get pastors and leaders involved.
You agreed to write this back in October. That's not very much time to write a novel.
I had four months, and only four months to write that novel. Karen Kingsbury once wrote a novel in a weekend. Three days! And that novel got the Novel of the Year award. She's a friend, and I've just unceasingly harassed her about that. Most of us are not built to do that. I am a researcher. I want it to be just right. I do a ton of research; I do draft after draft after draft. I'm a perfectionist. To write a novel in four months, I mean to tell you I was clearing everything off my schedule and doing it 60, sometimes 70 hours a week. It was one of those things you would not want to sustain over the long haul. My wife made sacrifices related to it, but we agreed it would be followed by some time off. It's been a lightened schedule lately to compensate for this.
I was once asked to write a novel based on a movie, and I knew who the screenplay writer was, they had a great reputation. I was very interested in it. And they said that I'd have thirty days to do it. They were totally serious. So I recommended one of my friends who can write quickly. I couldn't have lived with myself to write a novel in thirty days. Not that it's wrong for other people to do that; I just couldn't. That was the only thing that allowed me to think that four months was possible, because I was thinking that's actually 4 times longer than the offer before. (Laughs.)
You mentioned that you were able to tag along with a captain from the Sheriff's dept. What was that like?
It was very interesting traveling around with Craig Dodd. He's actually credited and plays a very small role on camera in the movie. He's one of the officers who leads this guy Javier over to the car. Sometimes I would record him when I was traveling with him, and I could not let the world listen to these recordings because of the things he would say as a seasoned cop. But it was not just him showing gang life in Albany, or here's where this shootout was. I was able to get from him many of the kinds of things I then used for this character Bronson. Craig is much more physically fit, but in terms of personality and sarcasm, he really helped me create Bronson.
What was is like writing about fatherhood coming from your background of not having a father around much?
I grew up in a non-Christian home, having a father who really wasn't there. My dad was a tavern owner and an alcoholic. Most of his life happened outside of the home. He didn't come to my ball games; he wasn't actively involved or interested in my life. Yes, there is a hole that was created there. And certainly that affects my attitude about the importance of fatherhood. I remember as a young father thinking “I'm going to be there for my kids.” We now have four grandsons and our fifth grandchild on the way. Let's bring the people who had strong role models in a father, and they can speak to things by having had that in their home. And those of us who didn't have it, we can speak to things through not having it. I think we need both of those on the table. My desire and passion to be a good dad was cultivated by the fact that my dad wasn't there for me. Now, to my dad's credit, he did provide for us. He was a good example in terms of working hard. But he wasn't an example of how to be a dad in a lot of tangible ways. I did have the joy of seeing my father come to Christ after many years of praying for him at age 85. He lived another 4 years and grew in his faith. My best times in life with my dad that I ever had were the last 4 years of his life. I wish I would have had those sooner, but because we're both believers in Christ we're going to spend eternity together. I never played catch with my dad on this earth, but maybe I'll play catch with him on the new one.
In your book Heaven you talk about your belief that writing, reading, and the arts will continue to flourish on the New Earth. Can you explain?
I really do believe the central components of life on earth will continue in a redeemed form on the New Earth. I develop this at length in my big book on heaven, but we need to understand that God has intended us to live on a planet. He made this planet for us to live on. He looked at the planet He made and the people living on it and the animals, and the culture of the two people He made, and He said it was very good. He gave his approval. God never designed for us to live in the disembodied state in the angelic realm. He created us as physical beings to rule the earth and to have dominion and to do His work. All the passages of Scripture about reigning with Christ come back to the fact that we will do what He intended us to do from the beginning, which is to rule the earth to the glory of God.
The last two chapters of Revelation is a mirror image of the first two chapters of Genesis. Even down to the tree of life and the New Jerusalem. You've got natural wonders, the river that's flowing, the fruit that's produced, the kings of the nations. So what do nations do? What are they bringing into the New Jerusalem? I think it's the cultural treasures. It says that they will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem. This is on the New Earth, in eternity, on a redeemed earth. And they're bringing treasures. I think those will be the cultural treasures of those kingdoms, perhaps the clothing and the art forms and the pottery. Will there be sports there? Well, why would there not be? Did Satan create sports? These are things I fully expect us to be doing for eternity.
God is a fun loving God. I developed this concept from Luke 6 where Jesus says rejoice and be glad if you are being persecuted and mourning now, for then you will laugh. When is the 'then'? He's not talking about this life; though that's certainly true, we will laugh. But it's a promise for heaven. It's specifically talking about heaven. It's talking about a day when there will be all comfort and everything will be right, and the peacemakers will rule the earth. This is a promise that in heaven we will laugh. We're promised that we'll sit and feast. What do you do when you feast? One of the central components is laughter. God is a God of laughter. He's put into us the capacity to laugh and a love of laughter. That didn't come from Satan.
I had the chance to interview Stephen Kendrick. He sounds like a guy who can be serious one minute and then have a great sense of humor the next. Do you have any stories you can share about your time at Sherwood?
Stephen and I spent a lot of time together and laughed a lot. There was a lot of fun, even though they were working hard editing the movie. But even when they were editing they had fun. I'd watch them at it, and the way they'd cut something because even though it was good, it didn't fit with what their goal was for the movie. I hope they do an extended version sometime, because there were some great scenes that had to be cut.
Yes, there were games they'd do. They would just spontaneously say, “Okay, this is a guessing game.” Like a couple of brothers who were still kids. They'd say, “I'll say this, and you say this.” And we'd go back and forth. And I loved the fact that they were serious when it came to the stuff that needed to be serious, but they were having fun when it comes to fun. I've found that over the years nothing relieves stress as much or brings you back more ready to work on something serious than having just had fun and having laughed. That's why I put a lot of humor into the Courageous novel. The novel has to have four times the scenes, four times the character development, four times the humor, because it's four times longer. It just has to.
The novel is the extended version of the movie! :) Is there anything you'd like to say to TitleTrakk.com readers?
I would say that the Courageous novel fulfills a role that no other component in this orbit of products fulfills. There's the Courageous movie, which is the central component. There is The Resolution for Men book that is connected with it. There is a Resolution for Women book. And there is the Courageous novel. The novel is the one component of all this that is fiction. It's in written form the closest to the movie. It has a point about fatherhood and all that. But the novel can immerse people further into the world of the story. Sermons will be preached from all of the non-fiction products that will come out of the movie. But the novel Courageous is distinct in that it too is story, and it's a story that will take you further, it will take you deeper, it will open up additional doors while being faithful to the movie. It extends the movie further.
What I'm hoping is that a number of people who are non-believers, who've
seen the movie but would not read a non-fiction book that quotes Scripture,
would read a novel. I believe a number of those people can come to faith
in Christ. I also believe nominal Christians that like fiction will read
the novel and maybe not the non-fiction books. The point is that the novel
is distinct, and I believe God is going to us the novel in His own unique
and distinct way. That's the power of fiction.
C.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.