f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 4 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A Part 2

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Day 4 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A Part 2

How familiar are you with the CBA industry?

Very. I’ve written several nonfiction books for a CBA publisher and had ongoing talks with several publishers about the particular challenges of publishing literary fiction and nonfiction for a CBA audience.

What do you think of the unwritten CBA prohibitions (language, graphic sex, unrepented sins) from both a writer's need to be honest in portraying real life and a Christian's need to honor God?

With all respect to those who don’t want to expose themselves to the big bad world by being exposed to bad language, sexuality, or practices of which they disappove, I think it makes for bad storytelling and bad theology. John Milton, the great Puritan writer, wrote a famous essay opposing censorship because he feared what he called “cloistered virtue,” an unrealistic and sometimes immature view of one’s own holiness based on the fact that one hid oneself away from even “virtual” temptation.

At Baylor, when I teach Magnolia—which is a profoundly religious film that literally changes the lives of students every time I show it—I’m always approached later by at least one morally outraged young lady who says that she can’t see why she had to watch such a movie, since in real life she would never choose to be around “such people”—that is, people who are hurting, and swearing, and medicating themselves with alcohol or drugs or sex—and certainly she herself would never do such things. And what I try to say, as gently as I can, is that we’re called to be in the world among such people, and that no one can say for sure what we’re capable of if we’re hurting enough.

I myself have done things of which I’m ashamed, and I cannot honestly tell my story without talking of those things. So simply on that note, it seems tragic to me that most CBA presses wouldn’t have published Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner’s autobiographical books that contain those elements, when clearly these books speak so persuasively to the “unchurched.” I’d venture that more people have been brought to God through those secular publications than through Christian publishers, which too often seem to be publishing only for other Christians.

I know it’s a tough thing, that the CBA bookstores have serious problems with books that might drive away their customers. But my sense is that with the hunger for faith and spirituality, a new day may be dawning. CBA publishers are talking more about fiction from a Christian worldview than about Christian fiction. My last CBA book sold half its copies in Barnes & Noble stores, and my editor told me the other day they’re already talking with the secular chains about my spiritual autobiography coming out next year, which I’m proud to say is being published by a CBA publisher, warts and all. Although I probably will have to be wary of, you know. The big bad words.

And naked people.


But here’s my bottom line as an artist and as a theologian: You can’t tell the parable of the Good Samaritan without somebody getting beaten bloody, and you can’t have the parable of the Prodigal Son without the riotous living. Fall, forgiveness, redemption. That’s the way story works, and it’s the way our Christian story works. I don’t think you have to be gratuitous and strive to offend, but I think there are worse things in the world than being offended—like forgetting there’s a world out there hurting and needing our help.

That said, could you ever write, intentionally or not, a "CBA" novel?

Maybe. Not intentionally. Since I’m a literary writer, I’m not writing novels for any audience. I’m only trying to be true to myself and my vision of the story, and then marketing the book comes after. If I wrote genre fiction, it’d be a different thing.

My first three novels, although all have a strong Christian element, also all have narrators who can’t be constrained from dropping the big bad words. That’s the way they talk, it’s who they are, and although a CBA publisher asked me about “cleaning up” Free Bird, it can’t be done. But the next two novels could easily be published by a CBA house, and I’ve been, to be honest, so much happier with my experience at NavPress and in talks with other Christian publishers than I’ve been with New York publishing, I’d think seriously about it, as long as the books would be at least as accessible to ABA readers as to those who buy exclusively in CBA stores.

How crucial do you think short stories are to developing as a novelist? You've written both. I'm sure your students write stories. Do you consider that form a necessary apprenticeship or a completely different form?

I don’t think short stories are crucial to learning the novelist’s craft. I think you could also say, “I’m going to sit down and start writing a novel. And if it’s not any good, I’ll write another, and another, until I learn the craft.” But short stories let you fail more quickly and on a smaller scale, so that you may be able to learn basic elements of story more quickly. They also offer the possibility of early publication that can help bring recognition and help build up a creditable portfolio. The downside, of course, is that very few people read short stories and few houses publish them as books, so for most folks they’re a step that doesn’t have much permanence. I still haven’t published a collection of stories, although I’ve written my share of really good ones. Unless there’s a marketing hook—youth, exotic good looks, a distinct cultural take—few publishers are even interested these days.

I do think that short stories are worth writing for themselves. A good short story can rock your world even more intensely than a good novel because it happens to you all at once, like a movie. And although I’m happy to have turned to novels, I don’t rule out writing short stories again. It’s certainly not something I feel I’ve outgrown.

Current projects?

This summer I’m working on my spiritual autobiography, which I’m calling Crooked Lines, and which chronicles the four years in my life, 2000-2004, when I decided I was going to live and God was revealed to me anew. It’s due out next August from Piñon Press. I’m also working on The Voice, a contemporary language Bible for Thos. Nelson/World, with Chris Seay, Lauren Winner, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller, among others. I’m doing work there that plays to my strengths in storytelling, and getting a chance to work on the formative stories of my life and my art. What a blessing. The gospels will be out next spring, and the rest of the Bible in bits and pieces for the next three years.

My agent sent out Sanctuary to two interested editors last month, and I have two more novels drafted, just waiting to enter the line. And I’ve been journaling and thinking for the past two years about the next novel, which will be a retelling of the Jacob and Esau story with two sons competing for the love and approval of their father against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

I want to continue to write nonfiction about spirituality and popular culture, so I just finished up proposals on South Park and on video games. If one or both of those attracts a publisher, that will be my writing work for next year. Then I’ll probably turn to the Esau/Jacob novel in the summer of 2007, when, God willing, I’ll have graduated from the seminary and be able to write something just for the story of it.

My thanks to Greg for taking time out of his schedule to chat with us.
Tomorrow: the intern speaks.