Tag Team Interview: November 2005
Lisa Samson and Brad Whittington
Appearing in the FirstNovelJourney blog.
Christy Award winners Lisa Samson and Brad Whittington take a break from their absurd schedules to interrogate each other about writing and publishing. Through the beauty of the Internet, they chat across 13 time zones, Lisa in her Lexington, KY home and Brad in a hotel room in Singapore.
LisaS: Brad, you won the Christy for best first novel. The book: Welcome to Fred, which I loved by the way. Overall, was this a positive happening both personally and professionally, or negative or, nyeh?
BradW: Well now, give me a break! How could winning an award the first time out not be positive? I was amped up for days. However, that was pretty much the extent of the value of the thing, the ego boost. And the nice wooden plaque.
LisaS: And the photo op with Ted Dekker.
BradW: Oh yeah, I forgot that part.
BradW: The funny thing was, I was so freaked out that I completely ignored him that night. I didn't expect to win so it took me by surprise. The next day I ran into him on the show floor and apologized for ignoring him. He looked at me funny and said, "No problem." I don't think he knew who I was. So, you see how far that award thing carried me. Ha! Otherwise, regarding sales or increased marketing, there was no effect. So, since you bring it up, you won a Christy the same night. What has your experience been in regard to it?
LisaS: About the same, only I didn't diss Ted Dekker like you did.
BradW: Ha! Some of us have more nerve than others. Or less of a clue.
LisaS: Actually, it was a nice little piece of affirmation for me. I'd been writing 11 years at the time and never saw one award. I needed that little pick-me-up to be sure. And Warner put out a mass-market version of the book, which was really cool. I don't think it's made me any more popular though. But I'm still glad they're doing it.
BradW: Well deserved, I might add. Although I still say The Living End should have been the winner.
LisaS: Oh I agree! The Living End is my favorite of the books I've written.
BradW: We agree on that one! I had to wear sunglasses on the bus when reading it so the tough guys wouldn't see me crying.
LisaS: LOL, I love it! I loved Welcome to Fred. I've loved all the books in your Fred, Texas series. How much of the book is autobiographical? I've always wanted to ask that, but keep forgetting.
BradW: Fred is what I call "almost true." The timeline and geography echo my life, as does the family structure and many of the attitudes.
LisaS: It really rings "true" like a novel should.
BradW: However, the characters and events themselves are largely invented. I didn't rescue any homeless ladies or confront any whacked out Vietnam vets in a tunnel.
LisaS: Good thing! But I'm sure the thoughts of being a preacher's kid were spot on, right?
BradW: I think the PK thoughts pretty much nail it. Also, it was while writing Welcome to Fred that I got the best advice I've ever had on writing. A Texas buddy I call "The Outlaw" (who is not a writer) read the first draft and complained that the confrontation between Mark and his dad at the end wasn't challenging enough. He thought Mark should really tear into his dad about the hypocrisy of the "Elder" incident. I said, "That's not in Mark's character to do that." He answered, "No, it's not in *Brad's* character to do it, but it might be in Mark's." That's when I realized I was restricting my character, making him too much like me and not letting him take the story where it should go, not only for the character himself but also for the reader.
A great lesson for any writer: Let go of the control of the characters and let them develop, even if where they go makes you uncomfortable. I rewrote the scene and it ended up twice as long and four times as good because of his advice.
LisaS: I know! It's hard not to put our own limitations on our characters isn't it? Another thing is, our characters don’t have to be role models.
BradW: True, true.
LisaS: I really pride myself on not being petty, and I absolutely can't make a character petty. Now, evil I can do! In Tiger Lillie, I was so shocked at how easily Rawlins, the scumbag brother-in-law, came to light.
BradW: Rawlins was one nasty dude.
LisaS: What a creep!
BradW: The thing about Rawlins is that you just love to hate him.
LisaS: Which, to be honest, is an easy thing to achieve. I wanted to make him more complex, but he was a metaphor for legalism and bondage, and there's nothing good about that.
BradW: Exactly! That was exactly my struggle with Deacon Fry in Living with Fred. Fry is also eaten up with legalism. But I didn't want to turn him into a caricature.
LisaS: It's tough when you're dealing with extreme behavior, isn't it?
BradW: Yes, it was very difficult. I worked hard to make his logic internally consistent, so that from his perspective what he did made sense. I wanted a legalistic person to follow his motivations and say, "Makes sense to me!"
LisaS: We don't want to write caricatures, but some people really ARE that way. Or at least that's all they consistently portray. Writing from 1st person makes it hard to see that inner part of the other characters. That's my challenge.
BradW: Which brings us to my next question. I've read your last 6 novels. They're all in 1st person. Why is that? Do you think that will change? Why or why not?
LisaS: I don't think that will change. And here's why. I'm trying to get my reader as "close in" as possible. It isn't enough for me that they relate; I want them to actually be inside that character, having the experiences, almost thinking the same thoughts. I don't think I could ever even attempt to achieve that with third person.
BradW: You are right. It's not as easy to be intimate in 3rd person.
LisaS: Not even close. And you always have to do things like "He thought" etc. for clarification. I can just throw thoughts and stuff out there without having to explain it. Takes out what I call that "middle layer."
BradW: Eliminate the middleman!
LisaS: So, are you glad you got your start in the CBA?
BradW: To be honest, my getting published was a complete fluke. Some people I know would call it a "God thing." Me, I see it like winning the lottery. Only without buying a ticket. I wasn't trying to get published at the time. I had tried 10 years earlier and gave up. Then Robin Hardy, who evidently never gives up on a lost cause, surfaced a decade later telling me she found somebody interested in my manuscript. That somebody was Gary Terashita at Broadman & Holman and 5 months later I had a contract.
LisaS: I'm with you. There are times the strictures seem not worth it. But other times I realize there's a lot of work to be done for the arts in Evangelicalism, and somebody's got to be there to lend a hand.
BradW: I suppose so.
LisaS: And now you have three books out. That's got to feel pretty good, eh?
BradW: Yes, it does. It feels great, now that you mention it. The good thing about it is, I probably would never have been published if it were not for CBA. The bad thing is I don't think I fit in here. I'm not on a mission and I don't have a "calling." I'm just a storyteller. In CBA circles that's not enough for many people. If your only ambition is simply to tell a good story, you're seen as letting down the team. Or not being spiritual enough. Or whatever.
LisaS: I agree. I feel called to be the best novelist I can be, not win souls per se. For some, that's almost heresy. But isn't excellence the best witness? I see it that way. But then, I'm not exactly "overt."
BradW: I'm further out on the fringe. I don't feel called. Claiming writing as a calling is not how I would characterize my motivations. This is why I feel I'm out of place in CBA. I do it because I'm an incurable storyteller. The thing is, stories of redemption are the most powerful stories of all. So that's what I tell.
LisaS: Amen to that, brother Brad!
BradW: Yessum. So, you wrote 10 novels, then changed directions. Since that change, you have released 6 novels. How big is the difference in what you do and how you do it between the Old Lisa and the New Lisa?
LisaS: Oh gosh! Let's see. The new stuff is just the way I am. The voice, the humor, the irreverent thoughts. Basically, the biggest difference is that now I write the way "it naturally comes out." Before I told stories, but there wasn't a whole lot of "me" there. I also like the way I can be more contemporary with my imagery. After awhile, comparing everything to nature things gets a little old.
LisaS: I know, right? Tell that to a poet and they'd kill you!
BradW: I can buy that about the new stuff. Sounds like you, all right. So, how does this difference play out in how you actually work?
LisaS: Oh, it's still like pulling teeth. They're just my own teeth now.
BradW: Ha! Dang, that was funny. The folks in the other room are going to start banging on the wall any second if I don't stop laughing so loud.
LisaS: Glad to be of service! The difference is that really is a little more costly emotionally.
LisaS: Oh wait, it's my turn to ask a question. What's your next project? And when will it release?
BradW: The last Fred book will release in January 2005, followed by the first Matt Cooper novel in May 2005.
LisaS: Busy spring for you. Do they do any signings or traveling plans for you? (I've always gotten zippo in that department!)
BradW: Zippo for me, too. My next project is a sequel to the Matt Cooper novel. Right now all I have is a very high-level treatment done by my co-author, Phil Little. Other than that, I'm doing tons of research on terrorism, Palestinians, fourth generation warfare, suicide bombers, cryptography, and other fun subjects. Right now I'm reading a fascinating book on Al-Qaeda by Jason Burke. And the newspapers are full of stuff that qualifies as research for a Matt Cooper novel.
LisaS: That's true. I've been reading it, and even a pacifist like me finds it fascinating!
BradW: And the papers in Asia have lots of stuff not in the US papers.
LisaS: That doesn't surprise me.
BradW: I've been reading Taiwan and Singapore newspapers for the past 2 weeks. Huge feature articles on Islamic extremist experts and fringe Al-Qaeda cells in Malaysia.
LisaS: Do all your travels help you as a novelist?
BradW: Now that I'm writing the Cooper stories, just about everything is fodder! On the subject of motivation and perseverance, do you know of any author who is not plagued by self-doubt?
LisaS: No. I really don't.
BradW: Me, too, neither.
LisaS: We need that angst to keep going, I think.
BradW: So, all aspiring writers should take note accordingly. Get over it. It's part of the landscape. Deal with it.
LisaS: Which stinks. But there you have it.
BradW: Yep. Exactly. Life's a beach. And then the tide goes out.
LisaS: What do you do to face your demons of doubt? (Thought I'd slip into Ted Dekker language since he's become a theme of our interview.)
BradW: You be too funny.
LisaS: Me know. I find that in the end, you just have to write through it.
BradW: Yes, I agree. The best way to kill the demons of doubt is to sit down and start writing.
LisaS: Absolutely. You've got a deadline, and that's just it. There are no other options. In that way, it's so much easier being under contract. You have to let go sooner or later.
BradW: After 4 novels, I haven't yet hit a spot of doubt that writing won't cure. But I'm not as far along in the game as you are. You may have a different perspective.
LisaS: I'm still with you. Probably because I have to be. I'm walking the fine line of being an artist and a professional. At some point you have to relinquish the perfectionism. And at some point I have to say in part that I'm doing it for the money. I do have a husband in seminary now. That's put an entirely different spin on things. I'm trying not to sell out while still maintaining a career attitude. I honestly don't know if it's possible. But for a few years, I'm willing to try.
BradW: Oh, I totally do it for the money. However, it's something I love to do, and I'd be writing even if I had no contract, just different stuff. I'd be blogging.
LisaS: I love to blog!
BradW: I should say so. You have how many blogs now? 387?
LisaS: Oh, I have 3.
BradW: Sure, sure. Deny it!
LisaS: I know. It's a sickness.
BradW: I've always written. I can't stop myself. So I may as well get paid for it.
LisaS: I agree. If you could write any book you wanted, on any topic, what would it be about?
BradW: Any topic?
LisaS: Yep. Sky's the limit.
BradW: See, it's not the topic; it's the style, tone, voice. If I could write any novel, it would be a Robertson Davies novel. Topic wouldn't matter. But I'm not that good.
LisaS: Gee thanks for highlighting my ignorance, Bradford. Tell me about him.
BradW: Well, I'm into obscure things. I discovered Davies in a bargain rack, not as a result of being a member of some austere literary cognoscenti. You must not shop the same bargain racks I do. You know Graham Greene?
LisaS: Yes. Loved his play, "Travels with my Aunt."
BradW: Robertson Davies is a Canadian author who is as good as Greene, only not so depressing. Brilliant, articulate, clever, well read, accessible.
LisaS: I need to check him out. I'm not in a "depressing" reading mode right now. Accessible. See that is key for me, as a reader and a writer. I think you can be excellent AND accessible.
BradW: You should start with the Salterton Trilogy.
LisaS: Is he still living?
BradW: Davies died in 95 at age 82. He was a newspaper editor for some time. Lived in Toronto and loved the city. Into art, literature, music.
LisaS: I'll definitely check that out.
BradW: You have published 16 novels so far. Yet you recently announced you're considering an MFA. Many people would think that you have arrived at this point in your career. What prompted this thought and what do you hope to see come of it?
LisaS: I see myself as stagnating. I know there are authors who find their "schtick" and can go for years on it. I think of greats like Mary Higgins Clark, Agatha Christie. But I just can't sit still. I need to really push myself and want to grow.
BradW: I like that idea. What do you think an MFA has to offer you?
LisaS: A wider picture. I've never learned the possibilities of writing. What I've got I've learned on my own by trial and error. I need to look outside myself in the writing world.
BradW: How many books on writing have you read so far?
LisaS: Two. I think. I can only think of one, but I'm giving myself the benefit of the doubt! It's called "Making Shapely Fiction," by Jerome Stern. Is that pathetic or is that pathetic?
BradW: Oh wow! Two? I wish I had achieved my level of writing by sheer talent like you seem to have. I'm at the other extreme. I've read dozens of books on writing. In the last 6 months I've probably read 4 or 5. You didn't read "Bird by Bird?"
LisaS: Nope. I did read "Traveling Mercies," though. Does that count?
BradW: I won't tell anybody you said that. You'll be stoned.
LisaS: Oh tell them. It cracks me up the way Anne Lamott. She is so revered. She's pro-Democrat, pro-choice, pro-homosexuality, and the Evangelicals lap her up. It's pretty amazing. And yet I can hardly get away with the word "crap."
BradW: Hell no you can't! I read "Bird by Bird" this year, finally. Heard so much about it, I had to find out what the hype was about.
LisaS: What did you think of the book, by the way?
BradW: “Bird by Bird” is a good book, but it wasn't for me. I'm not as neurotic as she is. But it has good advice for neurotic, conflicted writers.
LisaS: Yeah. I've always thought myself pretty neurotic, but she sometimes makes me scratch my head. But I am glad she's been accepted by the Evangelical community. It's a good thing.
BradW: On the book signing tour for Welcome to Fred, my editor and Rick Lewis, the Logos Bookstore owner in Dallas, were talking about Anne and I had no clue who she was. They just stared at me. So, finally 3 years later, I read the book. I'm a busy guy. It takes me awhile to get around to things.
LisaS: Me too. Only I'm a gal.
BradW: So I hear. Speaking of which, I have a pet peeve to share.
LisaS: Oh cool.
BradW: I keep hearing wannabe writers talking about "putting butt in chair" and "putting in the time at the keyboard" like it's some chore. What's up with that?
LisaS: Oh, it's a major chore for me! Sometimes I hate writing with a passion! I think, "Fotomat's got to be better than this!" (Are there Fotomats any more?)
BradW: Ha! Not my perspective at all. When I read those things, I think, "If you don't like writing, then don't do it! There are plenty of us who like to put our fat butts in that chair and write away. If it's such a chore, then why bother?"
LisaS: It's like Flannery O'Connor said. "Because I'm good at it." (Not that I'm a Flannery, by golly!)
LisaS: You're lucky. What's it like to be a writer that loves to write?
BradW: It is wonderful to be a writer who loves to write! It would be even better if this bothersome day job didn't keep me from doing it more!
LisaS: And it really does beat the 9-5 at an office.
BradW: Well, I have both.
LisaS: Lucky you, eh?
BradW: Actually, I don't, because my day job is waaay more than 9 to 5.
LisaS: I know. For the reading audience's benefit: you're in Singapore right now, right?
BradW: Yep. I have a 7am flight tomorrow. Which means a 4am cab ride.
LisaS: Oh good grief. What time will you get home?
BradW: Tomorrow I'm flying to Tokyo. I'll be there 2 days, and then I'll fly back to Honolulu. Let me tell you my travel schedule the last 9 weeks.
LisaS: Please do!
BradW: 1. Portland, OR. 2. Boston, MA. 3. Honolulu, HI (home). 4. Madrid, Spain. 5. Paris, France / Munich, Germany. 6. Geneva, Switzerland. 7. Honolulu, HI. 8. Taipei, Taiwan. 9. Singapore / Tokyo, Japan. Then I get to go home for a week or two.
BradW: Very little writing done in the last 2 months.
LisaS: I'll bet.
BradW: But lots of research.
LisaS: And that sure counts!
BradW: How much do you have to work at time management when you're on a deadline?
LisaS: Nowadays, I just have to carve out the time and stick to it. And I get this real pushy feeling in my stomach that just has to finish because I'm so sick of the project. I think, "Get this thing offa my plate, I can't stand looking at it anymore!"
BradW: Not because of the deadline, but because you get weary of the project?
LisaS: Well, funny thing. Usually the two coincide. Must be a deep psychological response!
LisaS: How about you?
BradW: I like writing and I like editing, so I don't really get sick of it. But once I feel like I'm done, then I'm done. At that point I want to put the bow on it, call it finished and move on.
LisaS: Amen. I love starting a new project.
BradW: Speaking of new projects, I see you have a full plate ahead of you. What's up with that over commitment thing?
LisaS: It's called "Being the main breadwinner." It's actually a doable scenario if I view what I do as a real job. Normally I'd write about 1-2 hours average a day. Now I have to pick up my pace and work a good 4-6. And I'm doing things differently this time. I'm outlining up front and working all the kinks out ahead of time so I don't have to throw out 50-60 pages worth of text like I did the last go round.
BradW: If you can do it, outlining makes writing MUCH more efficient. But sometimes folks just can't make that work for them. It's worked for me the last 4 books, and it's the only way I can do a Matt Cooper novel. But I have some other projects on the back burner that I have no idea where they're going. I'm wondering if I will have to change my way of working for those projects.
LisaS: Like you say, each to his own. I never thought I was an outliner, but when forced to do it, I'm seeing the advantages. At least for me at this time of my life.
BradW: But 1-2 hours a day is coasting! When I'm on a project I write 4 hours on Tue/Thu and all day Sat/Sun. About 20-30 hours a week. For 5 or 6 months. Then I'm done. [This is the part where Lisa beats me up.]
LisaS: Yeah, for sure. Never thought of myself as a fast writer, but maybe I really am.
BradW: Yep, you were just wearing the wrong shoes.
LisaS: Yeah, maybe I was wearing Ted Dekker's shoes!
BradW: Ha! Were they red?
LisaS: No, black. Obsidian. Darker than the abyss. Darker than hell itself.
BradW: Like a gaping maw, spewing forth an absence of light, the shoes seemed to suck in all the light in the room, a veritable black hole of haute couture. Oswald rubbed his eyes, and they fell out and rolled into the abyss of . . .THE SHOES!
LisaS: True that!
BradW: Well, looks like I have to get up 4 hours from now to catch a plane. Any parting words for our aspiring self-abusers otherwise known as writers?
LisaS: "It beats working at McDonalds."
BradW: That's it? The famous parting words? I don't know if I can top that.
LisaS: Really, for me, it all sort of comes down to that in my most Ted Dekker of moments.
BradW: How about, "Many people think they have one good book in them. They are horribly wrong."
LisaS: Oh, yeah. That'll play in Padukah! Okay, that's spelled very wrongly. Paduca? Paducah?
BradW: I believe Puhdewkuh is the official spelling.
LisaS: LOL. Okay what is your real advice?
BradW: "Every morning, first thing, eat a worm. They're filled with protein."
LisaS: That sort of puts everything else into perspective, I guess.
BradW: "Don't quit the day job?"
LisaS: That should be an encouragement to anyone!
BradW: "If I could talk you out of being a writer, I would. Because if you can be talked out of it, then you don't want it bad enough."
LisaS: Love that. It's really true. For all my talk, I can't imagine not doing it. Not really.
LisaS: Get some sleep.
BradW: Will do. Check you on the flip side.
LisaS: Over and out!
Simply put, I'm the 40-year-old wife of Will and mother of three kids, 14, 9 and 7. I am a Baltimore native which is why so many of my novels are set, or partially set, in Maryland. I do love my town!I began writing about ten years ago and now, 16 books later, I feel like I'm just beginning to learn what it really means to be a true novelist. Just. Not that I have arrived, but here's hoping, right?
Brad Whittington was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on James Taylor's eighth birthday and Jack Kerouac's thirty-fourth birthday and is old enough to know better. He lives in Austin, Texas with The Woman. Previously he has been known to inhabit Hawaii, Ohio, South Carolina, Arizona, and Colorado, annoying people as a janitor, math teacher, field hand, computer programmer, brickyard worker, editor, resident Gentile in a Conservative synagogue, IT director, weed-cutter, and in a number of influential positions in other less notable professions.