When I first started sniffing around for artists in our particular network of churches in 2012, it was pretty tricky to find artists in any discipline who were making work that would be viewed as credible outside the church. When it came to fiction writers, this scarcity was most pronounced. A few children’s authors slowly crept out of the shadows, but for about 3 years I failed to find one published novelist in any of our churches who was writing for an adult audience outside the church. Now, I in no way want to undervalue children’s authors- writing well for kids is at least as hard as writing for adults. However, this imbalance is worth reflecting upon.
A culture is shaped by its stories and its storytellers. If my experience is indicative of the wider Christian scene, our vacancy from this area should be a cause for considerable concern. To put it slightly differently, what does it say about us, as Christians, if we can only write stories that engage with children? Is it true that modern evangelical Christianity cannot engage over 18s who don’t follow Jesus in imaginative conversation?
I’d been perplexing myself with such concerns for some time when, with some relief, I met Mike French last year. Mike was the owner and senior editor of the prestigious literary magazine, The View From Here, and is the author of the novels, The Ascent of Isaac Steward, Blue Friday, Convergence and An Android Awakes (all published by Elsewhen). He is also amazingly a real life follower of Jesus and was part of a Catalyst church!
Being of such a rare breed, I’d recommend any of us who have an interest in making art that engages with a universal audience to consider what Mike has to say very carefully. I’ll be honest with you, some of you guys will struggle with his style and content (we’ll get on to what I mean by this shortly) but it’s a struggle I think it would be well worth undertaking. The choice is reasonably stark in this area: we can either continue to play it safe and remove ourselves completely from the main plot line of our culture’s evolution or we can, like Mike, seek to navigate the treacherous path of honestly and authentically sharing our stories in a way that people will hear.
With all that said and done then, Mike, over to you…
How does writing fit into your life?
I work normally between nine in the morning to about three in the afternoon. Outside those hours I keep busy in home dad mode running the house and looking after my three kids. Although of course secretly my subconscious is at work 24/7 on my latest writing project. It normally wakes me up at 3AM and downloads all the stuff it’s been working on. It’s basically highly annoying.
Since reading Android, I’ve also read ‘Isaac Steward’ and hugely enjoyed them both. They seem similar in structure in that there are quite defined alternate stories going on in both books that actually tie in to a larger narrative. What comes first- the alternate stories or the narrative that pulls them together and how do they work together as you write? Are there particular influences that you draw upon in this specific style of writing?
Normally the larger narrative is the starting place. With An Android Awakes this was definitely the case, although after I started I realised that I had made a lot of work for myself: Each story contained within the overall story is very short and so I frequently had to come up with a whole new concept and story to go with it.
I’m not aware of any influences in this format other than concept albums from bands like Pink Floyd, which have had a big influence on me. The Dark Side of the Moon for example has very distinct musical elements within it but they become more than the sum of their parts by feeding into a larger conceptual landscape.
The thing that makes you different to any other Christian writer I’ve read is the amount of sex in your novels! This is something that most other Christian writers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, and many Christian readers would find really unsettling. How would you respond to a Christian critic who thought that your novels were too graphic in this regard (or even in terms of violence or swearing)?
Well I wouldn’t call myself a Christian writer, rather a Christian that writes novels. I think there is a difference, certainly to me. When I first started writing I got professional help from a literary consultancy and they liked my style but pointed out that I used very flowery Christian language whenever I covered adult themes. I studied other writers like Julian Barnes and Iain M. Banks and after a lot of soul searching decided that if I wanted to be good at my craft then I should use clear language when describing sex or violence. Always making the right word choice is something I try and do as a writer and if you can’t do that because you are afraid of what people might think of you, then you are probably in the wrong job.
As to going there in the first place…
I think as a writer you are trying to emotionally connect with people and deal with human struggles and challenges and a major part of being a human is your sexual identity and desires. If as a writer that is off limits, then that severely restricts a writer’s ability to cover the whole spectrum of what it is to be a human on this planet.
I also think as Christians we should really be in this arena, rather than being afraid of it. Part of the problem is we often confuse the cultural sensitivities of the society we live in with Christian ethics. Often they have nothing to do with each other. It was culturally acceptable for example for the Minoan woman in Crete thousands of years ago to wear clothes that left their breasts exposed. If we were to time jump them forward to today then people would find that highly offensive. At the time it wasn’t.
Your 4 novels have all been published by Elsewhen. What advice would you give writers looking to be published or looking to self-publish?
Prepare for rejection, pain and heartache. Visualise a wall before you and then run repeatedly into it until you become unconscious.
If you can survive that then good, you are made of the right stuff and the following might be of interest.
- Don’t scatter gun all the agents and publishers with your novel. Approach it like a job application. Do some research on who might like your kind of work and then contact two or three of them.
- Look for junior agents that have just started their own lists of clients.
- Email specific agents and publishers and ask if they would like to see your work. (Make this very short and do not attach your work.) If they don’t advertise their email then take a leaf out of Sherlock’s book and do some detective work. Many editors are always looking for new work even if their company says they do not take unsolicited work.
- Make sure you have a decent one page synopsis.
- If you are considering self-publishing then do not believe any of the hype you might read. Unless you already have an established fan base the chances of you selling loads of copies is very small.
You are presently working on the sequel to Android. How’s it going and can you give us any teasers?
I’ve finished the first draft and I’m very excited about it! It’s called Fictional Alignment and will be out early next year. I’ve really enjoyed writing it and it deals (amongst a lot of other things) with the importance of stories in shaping and forming our society. In the novel, androids have decided that fiction is evil and they want to eradicate it. What follows from this really pits fiction against fact. They are two very different world views and so I throw them at each other – what happens isn’t pretty!
Thank you Mike. To get hold of any of his work, there is a South American River that can help you. If that doesn’t ring any bells, just click here.