Thursday, March 11, 2010
It’s unavoidable that there must be a little of me in almost every character I write, because of course they begin in my imagination. They’re formed from the collected memories of every experience I’ve ever had. But I’ve never written a character with the idea that they are in any way a surrogate for me, or anybody else. They’re all unique and independent.
What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
My wife and I once sold or gave away most of our possessions and moved onto a 50 foot power yacht to live aboard it full time and cruise the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coasts of the USA. We bought it in Ft. Lauderdale, cruised from there through the Florida Keys around Florida and then along the coast to Galveston. There we did a lot of work on the boat, then we cruised it back to Florida, and up to the Chesapeake Bay, then back to Florida, then back up the Atlantic coast again, then back down to Florida again, and then back to Galveston, where we sold the boat and moved back ashore. Altogether that took about two years. It was a blast, but I suppose most people would consider it a strange thing to do.
Sounds like quite an adventure. When did you first discover that you were a writer?
When I was 13 or 14 years old, in a creative writing class in school. The teacher took me aside and said I had real talent. It was good to hear, since I enjoyed writing so much. The teacher’s name was Miss Brown. She was sort of a hippie type, I think. She drove a VW microbus with flowers painted on the sides. I thought that was very cool at the time, so I took her seriously.
Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
I read almost everything. Mystery and suspense, for sure, and general literary fiction and Christian fiction of course, but also I enjoy the classic romance writers, everyone from Jane Austin to Daphne du Maurier. I’m reading Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair right now, which is wonderful so far. Before that I read Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, and before that I read Dickens’ Dombey and Son.
What other books have you written, whether published or not?
Whom Shall I Fear?, Every Hidden Thing, They Shall See God, The Gospel according to Moses, River Rising, The Cure and Winter Haven are my published titles. Like most authors I’ve written other things will probably never be published, and probably should not be published. Some writing should be thought of as a learning experience and left at that. I once wrote a novel during a very bad period in life. I had just lost my mother to cancer and I had been swindled by some people whom I trusted. My head was in a bad place, and it showed in my work. That novel is just awful.
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
I never watch television. That helps a lot. Also, I’m fortunate to be able to focus all of my professional attention on writing, rather than having to squeeze it in around another job. I do some volunteer work at a homeless shelter, which helps me to count my blessings and remember it’s not all about me, and I try to get out on the water in my boat as often as possible. There’s no more peaceful place to be than out on the ocean or on a lake or river.
How do you choose your characters’ names?
The minor characters’ names just come to me. I don’t put much thought into them, except to try to avoid using names that sound too much alike. But I pick the major characters’ names very carefully. I think about their personalities, or the lessons they learn, or what they symbolize, and then I go looking for names with meanings that somehow connect with that.
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
My wife and I have been married more than a quarter century now, and we’re still crazy about each other. I don’t think it’s quite accurate to say I’m proud of that, because that would imply that I deserve the credit, but I do think it’s amazing and wonderful.
It is wonderful. So is being married for almost 46 years as James and I are. If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
A porpoise, I think. They have great lives. They have families and friendships; they play a lot; they have no trouble finding food; they get to live in the ocean and they have very few enemies. Plus they just seem so happy.
What is your favorite food?
Sushi. No, wait. Tex-Mex. No, wait. Indian. No, wait. Thai. No, wait...I guess it’s pretty much whatever is in front of me at the moment, as my waistline so amply proves. Sigh.
What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
The kinds of stories I write are very difficult to classify. Are they “suspense”? Are they “literary”? Are they “speculative fiction”? They’re not really any of those things, but they include a bit of all of those things. My novels are not like anybody else’s really, especially the last four titles. Most readers who give one of them a try end up reading everything I’ve written; the reviews are great, and they’ve won quite a few awards, so I know there are a lot more people out there who would love my stories if they just gave them a try. But because they’re so difficult to describe, it’s been hard to find a way to explain them to potential readers. So that’s my greatest roadblock—finding a compelling way to explain my work to potential readers—and I haven’t overcome it yet. If anyone has any ideas, I’m all ears!
Well, we'll try to help you with that with this intervieww. What advice would you give to an author just starting out?
Focus on your writing, not on getting published. Once your work is good enough, getting published will take care of itself.
Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just quote what I wrote recently for a press release if that’s okay:
“Lost Mission, is an epic suspense story spanning two centuries and brimming with magical realism. Lupe de la Garza, a simple shopkeeper in a mountain village in Mexico, believes God wants her to go to America to preach the gospel. She is guided on her quest by her people’s greatest treasure: an altarpiece painted by the eighteenth century Franciscan friar who founded her village after fleeing the mysterious destruction of his California mission outpost. When Lupe is distracted by desire for a young minister who rescues her from certain death in the Arizona desert, and when her preaching in a southern California beach town inspires only apathy and laughter, she begins to lose faith in her quest. Then the slumbering evil that destroyed the friar’s Franciscan mission rises up again after two hundred years, and Lupe once more looks to the altarpiece for guidance, only to find the true purpose of her quest in the midst of her single greatest fear.”
Sounds intriguing. Please give us the first page of the book.
I don’t have a copy with me right now, so I’m not sure exactly where the first page break is, but I can quote the first few paragraphs. The story sounds like pure historical fiction at first, but keep in mind Lost Mission is set in two times: the eighteenth century, which is where the action opens here, and our modern time, the story of Lupe de la Garza, which I described before. So with that in mind, here’s how it begins:
Let us begin the story of La Misión de Santa Delores on the holy day of the three kings, in Italy, in Assisi. To commemorate his twentieth year among the Franciscan brothers, Fray Alejandro Tapia Valdez made a pilgrimage to his beloved San Francisco’s humble chapel, the Porziuncola. For more than a week the friar prayed before the chapel’s frescos, rarely ceasing for food or sleep, But despite his lengthy praises and petitions, despite his passionate devotion to Almighty God, Fray Alejandro was a pragmatic man. He did not believe the rumor, common in his day, that the frescos’ perfection was beyond the reach of human hands. As we shall see, in time the friar would reconsider.
The Franciscan stood five feet four inches tall, an average Spaniard’s height in the eighteenth century. He was broad and unattractive. Heavy whiskers lurked beneath the surface of his jaw, darkly threatening to burst forth. Fray Alejandro’s brow was large and loomed above the recess of his eyes as if it was a cliff eroded by the pounding of the sea and ready to crash down at any moment. The black fullness of his hair had been shaved at the crown, leaving only a circular fringe around the edges of his head. His nose, once aquiline and proud, had become a perpetual reminder of the violence that had flattened it at some time in the past.
For all its ugliness, Fray Alejandro’s visage could not mask the gentleness within. His crooked smile shed warmth upon his fellow man. His hands were ever ready with a touch to reassure or steady, or to simply grant the gift of human presence. When someone spoke, be they wise or not, he inclined his head and listened with his entire being, as if the speaker’s words had all the weight of holy writ. In his eyes was love.
Love does not defend against the sorrows of this world, of course. On the contrary, each day as Fray Alejandro knelt in prayer at the Porziuncola he became more deeply troubled. His imagination had recently been captured by strange stories of the heathen natives of the new world, isolated wretches with no knowledge of their Savior. This tragedy grew in Alejandro’s mind until he groaned aloud in sympathy for their unhappy souls. Other brothers kneeling on his left and right cast covert glances at him. Many thought his noisy prayers an uncouth intrusion, but caught up as he was in sacred agony, Alejandro did not notice.
Then came that holy day of the three kings, when in the midst of his entreaties for the pagans of New Spain, Fray Alejandro suddenly felt a painful heat as if his body was ablaze. In this, the first of his three burnings, Alejandro became faint. He heard a whisper saying, “Go and save my children.” The bells of Saint Mary of the Angels begin to peal, although it was later said the ropes had not been touched. As startled pigeons burst forth from the bell tower, Alejandro rose.
How can readers find you on the Internet?
My website is:
I’d love it if people would visit that site and send me an email.
Also, to read the complete first chapter of Lost Mission you can go to my blog, at:
I don’t blog often, but when I do I put a lot of thought into it.
Thank you, Athol, for giving us this interesting glimpse into your life and your book.
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