Athol Dickson’s novels have been favorably compared to the work of Octavia Butler, Daphne du Maurier , and Flannery O’Connor. His They Shall See God was a Christy Award finalist. River Rising was selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006 and was a Christianity Today’s Best Novel of 2006 finalist. Both River Rising and The Cure won Christy Awards for best suspense novel. His latest novel, Winter Haven is currently a finalist for the 2009 Christy Award in the suspense category, making four novels in a row to receive that honor. His seventh novel, Lost Mission, will be published in September, 2009.
Tim George: Let’s start on lighthearted note. Mike Dellosso, another fine writer of Christian suspense was asked this question: You’re standing in Barnes & Noble and a customer beside you has no idea what to purchase. What book, CD and movie do you recommend? His answer: Anything TobyMac or Superchick, anything Athol Dickson or Dean Koontz, anything Will Smith. How does it feel to be mentioned in that lineup?
Athol Dickson: I’m guessing TobyMac and Superchick are not new items on a fast food menu, right? I don’t have cable or a dish, and I hardly ever listen to the radio, so it’s hard to keep up with the latest hip and groovy thing. I thought Will Smith did a powerful job in The Pursuit of Happyness, and Dean Koontz tells a great story. I think most authors would be honored to be included in a list of favorites alongside both of those guys.
TG: It always interests me what movies and books an author gravitates to. Sticking with the relatively current; name two favorite movies and novels. What set them apart?
AD: Let’s see…my favorite movie is probably Master and Commander, because I love swashbucklers and boats and the ocean and history and Patrick O’Brian’s writing. My favorite novel…well, it’s impossible to say. A couple of good ones that come to mind are a brilliant new one by River Jordon called Saints in Limbo, and an old one by Thornton Wilder called The Eighth Day. Wilder won a National Book Award for that one, but you hardly ever meet anyone who’s read it. I don’t know why it isn’t famous. It’s just wonderful.
TG: On a much more serious note, your writing has been likened to that of some rather notable figures in the world of fiction: Ocatavia Butler, Flannery O’Conner, Harper Lee, and even C.S. Lewis. That’s quite a diverse group. Who are you heroes as novelists?
AD: By “heroes” I guess you mean something more than just, who do I like to read, right? To me, literary heroes are authors who break the rules and got away with it. Flannery O’Connor freed me to write about very strange, almost comic book type characters, so she’s a hero of sorts, plus I admire her as a person. She was very strong in weakness.
Thornton Wilder helped me to see sometimes it’s okay to write narrative with hints of authorial intrusion, in spite of what the current herd of literary experts might believe.
Nobody beats Elmore Leonard for dialogue. From him I learned to avoid attributions as much as possible, and to think of dialogue as action, rather than just people making speeches at each other.
I don’t write like any of these people, but I do admire and appreciate them.
TG: I read on someone’s blog (really can’t remember who) that you begin with a theme in building your novels as opposed to a plot. Would you explain that?
AD: Well, it’s true. I usually start off by asking myself what the novel should be about, thematically. I think about things like the tension between justice and mercy, for example, and then I ask myself what might function well as a symbol for that tension. I make a list of those things, and only then do I begin to think about plot and character. So, plot and character serve the symbols, and the symbols serve the theme. I know that’s backwards from the way they teach you to do it in college, but it’s what works for me.
For example, in Winter Haven I knew I wanted to explore the nature of doubt and faith. What might symbolize doubt? One of the things I came up with was fog. There are several other symbols for faith and doubt in the novel, but let’s just stick with fog. So the story starts with the lead character literally in a fog. . She’s afloat in the ocean, seasick, and she can’t see fifty feet. There are no landmarks, no way to know which way she’s going. She’s completely at the mercy of the captain of the boat, so she just sits back and lets the captain steer the boat. And sure enough, when they get where they’re going and she steps off of the boat, although she’s a little bit unsteady, there’s a guy on the dock to help her get her footing. So right there, in the first scene is a subtle little statement about the importance of having faith in something or someone when you’re in the midst of doubt. The idea of fog comes up a couple of other times in the novel, always in the context of a challenge involving the unknown. Each time she has to press on through it, and each time she learns something valuable by doing so. So the fog is there to serve thematic purpose beyond the basic action taking place. I don’t know if I could come up with something like that if I started with the plot or the characters, the way most people do. I’m not saying it cannot be done of course. Lots of writers somehow get to theme after starting with plot or character. I’m just saying I don’t know how to do it that way.
TG: Winter Haven and The Cure are set in Maine while River Rising and an earlier work of yours, Every Hidden Thing are set in Louisiana. First a comment and then a question. My father pastored in Venice, Louisiana and I have been to New Orleans many times throughout my life. You had the area and the culture nailed. How important is the setting to your stories?
AD: It depends on the story. In some cases, I think of the setting almost as a character; it’s that important. Setting can be a powerful tool to establish the story’s emotional tone. In others, it’s just a framework for the action. Either way however, I always do my best to make it interesting, and I usually try to include some word pictures of the beauty in nature, because regardless of the setting, that beauty is always there if you open your eyes to it. Sometimes it serves to underscore a sense of mystery, sometimes it helps establish a gentle, loving tone, and sometimes it’s a fascinating contrast to the evil that men do.
TG: One thing I have noticed is you seem to take your time putting out new titles. And, you don’t write sequels or series. Why to both?
AD: There’s no mystery about it. I’m just slow. It takes me at least a year to write a novel, if by “write” one includes all the time I spend pacing around and staring out of windows and mumbling to myself while I try to come up with a story worth telling. I can’t explain why it takes so long other than to say I try to write stories with unique plots, and it’s not easy. People have this misconception that novelists just get a flash of inspiration and suddenly the whole story is in their mind, ready to be typed like a secretary taking dictation. Maybe that has happened to some people. I think I read that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road that way. But for m
e it’s just hard, hard work to come up with a story worth telling. My early novels were a bit more formulaic than my later ones have been, so they were easier. Sometimes nowadays when I’m in the throes of working through a plot I seriously consider giving up and just dashing off a couple of pulp fiction novels every year. I’d probably make more money, but the work wouldn’t be as interesting, at least not to me.
As for why I don’t write sequels, I guess the main reason is I don’t want to get stuck with one character and setting that readers expect in every book. I think that would probably be boring. As a writer, half the fun is exploring new people and places.
TG: When asked, every author says his or her favorite novel is the one they are working on now. Without giving me that answer, of your last three (River Rising, The Cure, Winter Haven) which is dearest to your heart and why?
AD: I think The Cure is the most important novel I’ve written do far, assuming that any of them are important at all. It certainly comes the closest to expressing what I know about the most important thing in the human experience, which is God’s unlimited love. It’s a book I hope people will read slowly and thoughtfully.
TG: I’ve had more than one visitor to this site comment how much The Cure meant to them on a personal level. Perhaps there is some of Riley Keep in all of us.
That’s a wonderful thing to hear. Entertainment is a worthy goal in and of itself, and I’d never write a novel without doing my best to make it interesting on that level, but I do hope the stories I tell will speak to readers on a deeper level, too. And yes, I definitely think there’s a lot of Riley Keep in all of us. It would be a big mistake to think The Cure is just about alcoholism. Everyone is powerless before something, so everyone needs God to pull them through.
TG: There’s a lot of noise these days about “Edgy Christian Fiction.” What do you think is generally meant by that term?
AD: I think you’re dead-on to call it “noise.” I hardly ever hear a published Christian author talk about being “edgy.” Mostly—and with apologies to a few unpublished writers in the blogosphere who love to armchair quarterback—I think “edgy Christian fiction” is a cop-out used by those who need to blame someone for the fact they can’t get published. They throw in blood and guts or the F-bomb or a juicy sex scene and then become indignant when agents and editors say it won’t sell to the Christian market. Would a milkman complain because he gets no takers in a bar? Ridiculous.
I sometimes wonder if these people make all this noise so they can pretend the problem is about being “real” rather than about being skillful and original. Limits have always been a part of art, and the best artists have always found ways to create within them. For example, I’ve heard people insist an author must use profanity in order to be realistic when writing about characters who would normally curse. Tell it to Dickens. Tell it to Twain. That kind of slavish devotion to the surface of things betrays a shocking lack of understanding of the difference between the purpose of good fiction and the function of a tape recorder. Good novels show us things much deeper and more important than what’s superficially “real”.
If a writer learns to do that, then he’s able to push the envelope a little, because he has a clue what he’s really doing, and why. So I’m not saying the rules of fiction or the social mores of the church must be obeyed slavishly. If a Christian novelist has good reason to break a rule or push the envelope, then fine; go for it. But one must do it strategically and skillfully, or else one is just writing easy, exploitive junk. True, it takes most people a long time and a lot of hard work to learn how to write an entire novel strategically and skillfully, but until one can do that, “edgy” is just a crutch or a shortcut to avoid doing the hard work it takes to develop those basic skills.
Did you know Picasso was an excellent representational painter before he started experimenting in cubism? He didn’t start out painting crazy images and then demand that everybody buy them and respect him. He paid his dues. He learned the fundamentals. In his youth he could paint life-like portraits as skillfully as most of the Renaissance masters. So later on, when he decided to be “edgy,” he did it for solid, artistic reasons, not simply to shock or to stand out from the crowd.
TG: One sure trademark of an Athol Dickson novel is memorable characters. Who would you pick as your most memorable character and why?
AD: I wouldn’t be doing a very good job if I could pick just one. In the last three novels alone I’ve written about a preacher who becomes a slave, a drunkard missionary, and a boy who speaks only by quoting Bible verses. In Lost Mission, which is coming out in September, there’s a woman who enters America illegally to preach the gospel, a pastor who steals from the rich to give to the poor, and a billionaire who thinks he can build a world without sinners. Right now I’m writing about a boy who was raised to believe he is invisible and inaudible. Hopefully readers will remember all of these people.
TG: Another thing I have noticed about the heroes of your novels is they tend to be flawed and often conflicted people. Riley Keep (The Cure) comes to mind. Is that intentional?
AD: Yes. So far I’ve only written lead characters like that. It’s hard to imagine a character who isn’t flawed and conflicted. Everybody I know does bad things. We all fall short. But it’s funny you should mention this, because in addition to the invisible and inaudible boy, the novel I’m writing now also has a lead character who is morally perfect. Since I’ve never met anyone like him, he’s been a real challenge to write.
TG: This may be putting you on the spot but can you think of a memorable line from one of your novels? I have two in mind, one from River Rising, and another from an earlier work. You first.
AD: There’s that line in River Rising about Jesus that everybody mentions, the one Hale Poser shouts down from the top of the levee near the end, but most people wouldn’t understand it out of context. In fact, outside of the framework of the novel it might make some folks mad unnecessarily, so I won’t quote it here. But given the limitation of mere words, I do think it comes very close to expressing the cost of the sacrifice Jesus made for us.
In The Cure, there’s another line I like a lot: “…the temptation to put faith in discipline was strong.” That pretty well sums up the main struggle I’ve faced in life.
TG: It’s too bad we have to be so cautious when I know what line you are speaking of and also know how very profound, emotionally and theologically, it is. I guess everyone will have to get River Rising and find it for themselves. My wife and I both read Whom Shall I Fear. My favorite line came from Earnest B. Martin. Anytime we hear something profound or amazing we look at each other and say, “Makes you wonder, don’t it.”
Any last words you would like to share with my readers?
AD: Thanks for reading, readers. Keep it up! And I want to thank you for this interview, Tim. It’s great to be able to talk about these things with a fellow author.
This entry was posted on Thursday, June 25th, 2009 at 12:31 pm and is filed under Interviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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