Hey, everyone. Johne, here. Mike Duran is fast becoming one of the leading voices in what Frank Creed refers to as the Lost Genre, that gap between speculative fiction fans and belief / religion. Mike's pedigree is as colorful as he is. Mike writes a thought-provoking and controversial blog called deCOMPOSE, where he asks seemingly innocent questions that provoke spirited debate from all corners. He's a human touchstone who seems incapable of straying far from where all the lightning is striking. Mike's been running a series of articles about editors of indie presses, and subjected me to a long interview in two parts on his blog. In retaliation, I asked him to answer some questions for our readers here at AuthorCulture, and, in a fit of moxy, he rose to the challenge. Without further ado, I present Mike Duran.
AuthorCulture (AC): Hi, Mike. We meet again. Thanks for talking to our readers! Mike, what are literary missionaries, and are you one?
MIKE: The first thing I envision when you use the term “missionary” is a guy boiling in a pot of stew surrounded by salivating natives. If that’s what you mean Johne then, definitely, I am one. Seriously, I have never considered myself a “literary missionary,” although I know what you’re getting at. I’m not sure if that term has been officially coined, but I use it to describe “crossover” Christian writers, those believers who do not write exclusively for the Christian market. They are missionaries in the sense that they use their talent to get them into new, often “hostile” terrain. While I hope that my books will get into the hands of seekers and non-believers, I don’t consider myself exclusively aimed there.
AC: Who are your inspirations? Who made you want to read, and to write?
MIKE: Reading was a means of survival for me. I was the outcast, the awkward loser kid who couldn’t seem to be at ease among the crowd. Raised in a dysfunctional home, I often withdrew into an artistic cocoon. Drawing, painting, reading, and writing—this is where I found solace. It’s here that I immersed myself in the fantastical: Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Marvel Comics, and Weird Tales. In a way, I still derive inspiration from writers of speculative fiction. Dean Koontz, Tosca Lee, Neal Gaiman, and Robert McCammon are some of my recent faves.
AC: How did you find your way into your writer's wilderness? (By that, I mean, when did you decide to seriously start writing, and how long was it before you realized you were in over your head?)
MIKE: It’s been such a long process. I hear a lot of authors say they knew they wanted to be a writer from childhood. Well, I’m not one of those people. I had no idea what I wanted to be, and in a way, my writing career is still a bit of a journey into the unknown. Perhaps the biggest “nudge” came when I was once on staff at a church that was assembling some discipleship curricula. I assumed the lead over the project, wrote, researched, and designed the material. And I had a blast! It really rekindled some of my creative spark. From there, I purchased some books on the craft of writing, began some short stories, and became familiar with the publishing industry. It was a very slow process of personal discovery, risk, and hard work. Even now, as I’m looking forward to the publication of my second novel, I still feel like I’m on the front end of a huge learning curve.
Being under contract for that second book was probably when everything hit the fan. Creativity is not something that can be rushed and genuine inspiration is usually not scripted. Brilliance has a timetable all its own. Nevertheless, the contracted writer doesn’t have the luxury to sit around and wait for lightning to strike. All that to say, I knew I was in over my head as the deadline for my second novel barreled down on me. Fear, inadequacy, failure, incompetence—all of these emotions battered me. I was absolutely convinced I would be a one-hit wonder.
AC: Once there, how did you find your way out of your writer's wilderness again?
MIKE: I wouldn’t say I am out of my writer’s wilderness, but that I have kept hacking, found a path, and am starting to see daylight through the tangle of trees. In a way, it’s been a simple issue of perseverance. Even when I didn’t feel inspired, I wrote. Even when my schedule seemed impassable, I made time for writing. Even when the demon of perfectionism said the book would stink, I spit in his eye.
One thing I constantly reminded myself was that I had done this before, I had written a novel. (Note: This is one of the reasons why aspiring authors need to FINISH their book—it will be a spike in the mountain that they can always tether to.) I drew inspiration from the fact that I’d done it once and could do it again. Another help was my writers group. Rachel Marks, Becky Miller, and Merrie Destefano, were a huge encouragement through the emotional morass. Which is why I’m convinced writers need to have other writers in their lives. And finally, I submitted to the realization that it’s okay to suck. Even if my second novel is universally panned and I am banished from the writing community forever, I have been blessed. My wife, my kids, my own faith journey—I am a lucky man. This admission really helped me to fight through the malaise and keep writing.
AC: You recently wrote a post called Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction and received a huge response, 153 comments as of this post. Can you give us a thumbnail of your thoughts and some of the most compelling rebuttals?
MIKE: There are many compelling rebuttals. Despite what some might think, I am not resolved as to the state of Christian fiction. Several years ago, Ted Dekker posted about what he considered overly-strict guidelines from a publisher of Christian romance. I recall watching with interest as this huge flame war began, which ended rather benignly with the differing parties cordially agreeing to call a truce. And apparently conceding to refrain from discussing the issue publicly ever again. I wondered to myself if Christians would ever be able to openly air their disagreements about the Christian fiction industry ever again, as if this is our own sacred cow.
In the post you mentioned, I proffered an opinion about why there is so much disagreement among Christians about Christian art. As I see it, there are two paradigms that believers view the arts through. One sees art as a means to engage the world, the other sees art as a means to disengage from the world. One believes in separatism, the other believes immersion. These differing views have created a polarity among Christian authors and readers. Of course, some will object to me asserting there are different camps and that by doing so, I am creating dissension. This is absolutely NOT my intention. In fact, I think we should be more concerned by our hesitancy to discuss the issue, than the potential difficulty we face in bringing up the subject.
AC: As a fellow speculative fiction fan, you know as well as any how marginal speculative fiction has been for those who have a Christian worldview. Have you observed any thawing in the markets for spec fic fans?
MIKE: Thawing? Yeah. But do you realize how long it takes an iceberg to thaw? I’m probably more pessimistic than some regarding Christian spec-fic. Some of my writer friends believe I actually may be hurting our cause by not acknowledging the real advances the industry has made. They might be right. Nevertheless, to answer your question, I doubt whether spec-fic will ever thrive in the current Christian market.
Perhaps it’s more of a generational thing. The first generation of Christian fiction was Little House on the Prairie type stuff and Romance. I have nothing against either. It is also not insignificant that the largest organization of Christian writers (the ACFW, American Christian Fiction Writers) was founded in 2000 as the American Christian Romance Writers (ACRW). Their name was changed in 2004 to better reflect their members’ scope of writing. Either way, it’s been less than ten years since the main body of Christian fiction writers has actively included genres other than romance. And in all honesty, speculative fiction is probably way down their list. So it’s a lot like turning the Titanic. It requires a slow, wide arc. All that to say, maybe there is a thaw. But if it doesn’t hurry up, that iceberg will definitely do some damage.
AC: How did the deal with Strang Communications / Realms come about? (I can't help grinning here as they publish "supernatural thrillers and prairie romances". That strikes me like the sort of joke God would enjoy.)
MIKE: Once again, quite a long story. My first agent had shopped my book through the Christian market with moderate interest. Of those who liked it but passed, some said it was too edgy and weird. We decided to begin looking to the general market and, almost immediately, a large New York house took interest. As you can imagine, we were elated. It was the beginning of our current recession and the process just seemed to drag on. The acquisitions editor loved the story, but couldn’t seem to get her team on board. After about 3-4 months, they finally passed on the project. We sunk. Shortly thereafter, my agent and I cordially agreed to part ways. It was a very difficult time.
After a brief bout of depression, I vowed to continue pursuing my writing career. I started some other writing projects and began gathering agent recommendations again. Meanwhile, I’d had an eye on Realms. They published the type of stuff I wrote, my agent had never pitched to them, and I knew they accepted un-agented manuscripts. Mike Dellosso was (and remains) their premier spec author, so I emailed him. He was extremely gracious and put me in touch with Debbie Marrie, Strang’s fiction acquisition editor. So I submitted the story, fully prepared to receive another rejection, and continued shopping for agents. Within about four months, I had signed a two-book contract and was being represented by Rachelle Gardner, one of the best agents in the business. In summation, the process has been long, winding, taxing, exhilarating, and utterly confounding.
AC: If you could go back and give your younger self any one piece of writing advice, what would you tell yourself to give yourself the best bang-for-the-buck advice to kick-start your writing career? What advice would you give a young black sheep Christian writer wannabe with a healthy interest in genre literature?
MIKE: Probably, “Avoid anyone who says they can give you one piece of definitive writing advice.” Seriously, the writer’s life is so solitary and so very personal; our words are displayed for others, our characters are trotted across numerous literary runways and scrutinized, our plots are splayed on digital gurneys and dissected before gawking wannabes. We are public figures with tender psyches and complex emotional make-ups. Writing is such a unique career. So my advice to aspiring authors would be: Find your own center. You will be assailed, critiqued, hailed, and then panned. Some will love your writing. Some will lie to you, and say they love it. Others will flat-out tell you it reeks. It’s quite a balance of learning when to (1) Listen to critics and (2) Ignore the critics. That’s why I say, Find your own center. Find peace and consolation in something other than critics, royalty statements, and five-star Amazon reviews. You must find validation apart from publication. You must find your own inner bearing, your own fount of inspiration, and your own reason to keep on writing. You must find a creative center that no one else can touch.
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