BG: Tell us about your new release, Vanished.
KM: My husband and I were hooked right from the first very minute of the television show Lost. The idea of an isolated community intrigues us. Apocalyptic novels or sociological masterpieces like Lord of the Flies fascinate us because they allow us to view society in a microcosm.
Vanished is an action/thriller about an inner-city neighborhood that is isolated after a terrorist’s bomb combines with a rogue experiment to create a horrific magnetic blast. There is no power, no water, no communication of any kind. A strange mist surrounds the area of the blast, effectively cutting off the affected area from the rest of the world. The highest ranking official is a cop on the beat and, with no access to medical facilities, a nurse-practitioner has to depend on her wits and skill to care for the injured.
Also affected are the business block and a gated community of expensive homes. As the survivors realize their displacement from the world is dire, the struggle for limited resources threatens to become survival of the fittest—and the most heavily armed.
And then there’s the question of what’s in the mist…and beyond the mist.
BG: What was the inspiration for this?
KM: I’m going to be totally honest about this. My fellow Speculative Fiction writers know how near impossible it is to place Christian fantasy and science fiction. My Birthright books, which are my favorite, were well-reviewed and received but had poor sales. I asked my agent to pray with me about taking my career in a more conventional path in CBA, or even turning to ABA (where I write kids’ fiction). He prayed for a week, came back to me and said that the only thing he could discern was that I should be writing fantasy.
I was furious—not with my agent, because he’s a faithful man. I was so angry at God because I saw Outriders die on the vine and now this was the guidance I was getting? To make matters worse, my dear friend finally got around to reading Outriders and called me the day after my agent told me this. You were born to write this, she said.
I became more furious, indulged in the spiritual equivalent stomping the floor and shaking my fists. I went to bed that night, in the recliner because I needed my hip replacement (it’s great, btw) and raged at the ceiling most of the night. Finally I said,
“Okay God, if you want me writing imaginative stuff, you’ve got to give me an idea that people will get.”
About an hour later, I sat upright in the recliner with the idea for Vanished almost fully formed. How good and merciful the Lord has been to me in this! I deserved a kick in the butt and got a boon for my imagination!
My husband, who isn’t into “weird” stuff except Lost and the 4400, warmed to the idea immediately. His support and interest really encouraged me in this difficult time.
BG: What is the message you hope to get across in Vanished?
KM: This isn’t a “message” book like The Departed (about a television medium) was. It’s more an imaginative exploration of life themes that we all face. Taking things for granted. Thinking we control our loves. Esteeming ourselves too much or too little. Obedience. Service. Fear. Family. And the most difficult, universal challenge of finding God when you’ve lost everything else.
BG: Is there anything you can share about Realms Fiction as a publishing house? Many speculative fiction writers are hoping they will succeed!
KM: Amen! I’m thrilled that they’ve continued to publish imaginative fiction and have told them many of us are rooting for their success. They’ve got quite a non-fiction presence as well as nine magazines. Their marketing model is different from what I’ve been used to and I welcome that. I’ve given them the best book I can, and I trust them to do their best with it.
BG: I’ve heard it said that Christians shouldn’t be writing in genres such as horror or even science fiction or fantasy. Or that a redemptive message, or the story of good versus evil, light versus dark, is inherent, and doesn’t require a Christian to tell it. Any thoughts on this? (seems like this was once your soap box? LOL)
KM: You know me well! This is definitely my soap box. And it’s a crowded one, because many talented writers are up here with me.
Without giving my full hour lecture on Speculative Fiction, let me just say that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus in the gospels engaged the imagination to teach and preach. People are inspired through different senses. Some are moved by music, others visually.
The challenge for any Christian writer—whether in romance or contemporary or hard science fiction—is to not blaspheme or mislead, but to understand the heart of the story they’re writing in the context of what the Lord puts in their own heart. My exhortation to readers is to understand a story is not a theological treatise but a picture of the human heart and, when we do our jobs faithfully, a touch of the divine heart.
Onto the second part of your question as to whether a writer needs to be a Christian to write a redemptive book. I might lose some readers with what I’m about to say. But promised to be honest and so I will.
This summer I taught a college course on Writing the Supernatural/Suspense Thriller. I assigned two books for the students to read—Dean Koontz’s The Taking and Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. I’ve been told Koontz is a Christian but King is often regarded as a ghoulish figure. I can’t guess at the state of his soul and it would be wrong to do so but Tom Gordon was a marvelous exploration of child-like faith in the face of cynical secularism. I was so moved that I picked up the uncut version of The Stand. It again was an uplifting (though scary and very long) book with a redemptive heart. And I was amazed at Stephen King’s grasp of scripture. So who’s to say whom God will work through?
Our ambition should be to go after Koontz and King readers with the truth and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.
BG: On your new website, and I love it by the way, you show new covers for Outriders and Trackers. Tell us about that.
KM: I’ve already mentioned my heartbreak at the lack of sales for the Birthright books. WestBow shared my pain but also recognized that teen readers love these kind of fantasies. It was their decision to re-release them for YA (13 and up) and provide new covers. What an unexpected blessing!
BG: What new projects are you working? Any new scripts or novels in the works?
KM: I finished a rewrite of The Hidden screenplay and turned it in to my producers. I’m working through the edits on Boost, my YA for Dial Books about girls and steroids. And I’m working on book 2 of Vanished (working title—Darkening). Interestingly. After writing Vanished, my 14-year-old protagonist in Boost sounded like a cop. I’m becoming more aware of cross-contamination.
BG: What do you believe is the most important thing an author can do to catch an editor’s eye?
KM: The obvious thing would be to write spectacularly. But the truth is, you need to persuade an editor to pick up your pages first. So here’s what I’d say:
Be absolutely professional in your initial contact. (And every contact after that!)
Understand the market you’re writing for and why your book is a good match for the market and the publisher. An editor needs to spark to a great pitch before they’ll be induced to read your first chapter. My favorite thing to do at writers’ conferences is my early-bird workshop on “Practice Your Pitch.” A polished presentation goes a long, long way persuading an editor that it would be safe to do business with you.
BG: What would you say was the toughest part of the writing craft for you to learn? Any tips for others who struggle with this same element?
KM: Like all writers, I am very good at some things and I’m weak at others. I’ve learned to key on my strengths and disguise my weaknesses. The hardest part of learning the craft may be honestly understanding what one’s weaknesses are. Consistent and trusted critique by trusted writers is a good gauge for where a writer needs to be hyper-vigilant. When you hear the same “type” of comment, this tells you that you’ve got a weak spot and need to either strengthen that or accommodate it.
For example, one of the things I still have a tendency to indulge in melodrama. Usually I don’t see those over-the-top moments until my second draft. It’s embarrassing when one gets through to my editor. My melodramatic moments usually are not action scenes nor relational but in interior reflection/monologue. This tells me that I’m turning my characters into the writer, rather than the living, breathing human being.
It’s tough to give writers this kind of advice because I don’t want someone learning the craft to become hyper-critical. Wisdom takes time and can be painfully acquired. I taught a college class this summer and watched students taking what I pray was gentle critique. They squinted and struggled and sighed for six or so classes. Suddenly, the light bulbs went on and they made great improvement. I know it was painful to get there, but a pain that had to be endured.
BG: Any marketing tips?
KM: I wish. Many of us are still trying to figure out how to promote our books effectively. I’ve tried so many things, from spending thousands on a publicity campaign, to running radio ads (more thousands), to doing internet promotion. I haven’t seen any specific return on anything I’ve done.
To me, the most effective tool is word-of-mouth. If a reader enjoys a book, please—please—tell someone about the book. Those of us below the best-selling ranks depend on our readers more than any other marketing we or our publishers can devise. And we are so grateful to hear from readers who have enjoyed our books.
Writing sometimes seems to happen in a vacuum. That my book has blessed someone is a true privilege and honor. And those emails keep me going on the days when I’m stomping and raging, or cowering and whining.
Great interview, Kathy! Thanks for joining us. You can visit Kathy’s website at www.kathrynmackel.com