Monday, January 22, 2007

Interview with Author Lynn Austin!

Good morning! Today I am privileged to interview author Lynn Austin! (If you leave a comment today or tomorrow, you'll be entered in a drawing to win one of Lynn's Biblical novels Gods & Kings.) This is a great story you won't want to miss! Now on to our interview.

Lynn is a former teacher who now writes and speaks full time. She has won three Christy Awards for her historical novels Candle in the Darkness (which was very good!), Fire by Night, and Hidden Places. She and her husband have three children and make their home near Chicago, Illinois.

Jill: Why did you choose to write Biblical fiction in addition to all of your other genres?

Lynn: My Biblical fiction series, "Chronicles of the Kings," were the first books that I ever wrote. When I began writing them in 1982 there wasn’t nearly as much variety in Christian fiction as there is today. I didn’t give the genre a great deal of thought when I chose it—it just so happened that the story of King Hezekiah gripped me and I wanted to bring him to life. I taught myself how to write by re-working that book, over and over.

(Jill's side note) - Lynn's entrance into writing sounds much like mine. I learned to write by rewriting my first book about King David's life about a zillion times!

Lynn: After I completed the first book in the series and began researching the mechanics of getting published, I discovered that Biblical fiction was very much out of vogue in Christian publishing, and that very few—if any—publishers would print it. I ignored everyone’s advice and kept writing the series. Some twelve years—and many submissions later—my first publisher, Beacon Hill, decided to take a chance on printing it in 1995. I think they chose it not so much because of the genre but because they liked my writing. The series eventually went out of print when Beacon Hill discontinued their fiction line.

Recently my current publisher, Bethany House, secured the copyrights to the series and the books have been re-edited and re-issued with new titles and covers. But Bethany has cautioned me that the readership for Biblical fiction is still quite limited compared to other genres of Christian fiction.

Jill: That saddens me. I love Biblical fiction, to read it and to write it, and I wish readers would reconnect with it the way they did in the 1980s. There are some great Biblical novels out there right now, yours among them! People are missing out on a wonderful trip to this era of the past.

What Bible characters have you written about so far, and if you care to tell us, which ones do you hope/plan to write about in the future?

Lynn: The five books in my “Chronicles” series tell the stories of the Old Testament King Ahaz, his son King Hezekiah, and his son King Manasseh. The prophets Isaiah and Micah also have roles in the novels since they were contemporaries of these kings.

As for the future, I would love to write “The Restoration Chronicles,” telling the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah and the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. But at this point, it’s just a wish. I have too many other projects to complete, first.

Jill: I would love to read "The Restoration Chronicles!" Sounds intriguing! But back to the "Chronicles" series - what drew you to write about this/these characters?

Lynn: Believe it or not, I got excited about King Hezekiah’s story a LONG time ago when I was still in high school. I was taking a year long confirmation class at my church and we had weekly assigned readings in the Bible throughout that year. When I came to the story of Hezekiah, I couldn’t put it down! The Assyrians had surrounded Jerusalem and were demanding Hezekiah’s surrender. When he refused, choosing to trust in God, I couldn’t stop reading! And, of course God honored his faith and saved the city by sending the Angel of Death to destroy 185,000 Assyrians during the night.

What also impressed me, besides his astounding faith, was the fact that his father had been such an evil king, even sacrificing his sons to Molech. Yet scripture says that Hezekiah began his religious reforms in the first month of the first year of his reign. How did such an ungodly father produce such a godly son? Where did Hezekiah’s faith come from? I started writing his story to try to answer that question.

At first, I didn’t want to write about Hezekiah’s son Manasseh at all. After all of the reforms Hezekiah made and all the good he had done, along came his evil son and led the nation right back into idolatry. It was too heartbreaking to even consider, even though scripture said that Manasseh repented in later years and returned to God.

Then, in the course of my research on Hezekiah, I came across a Jewish Midrash about Manasseh. (A Midrash is a non-Biblical oral tradition that has been handed down through the centuries.) The story said that Manasseh had been so thoroughly evil, that when he began to pray for forgiveness, the heavenly host closed all the windows and doors of heaven so his prayer wouldn’t reach God. But God opened a hole beneath His throne of grace to receive Manasseh’s prayer so that people throughout all time would know that no one is beyond the reach of His love and mercy. After reading that story, I knew that I had to write about Manasseh, too.

When I read the Old Testament (which I love to do) it comes to life for me in 3-D. I see it almost like a film, inside my head, and my imagination begins filling in all the “holes” in the story. For years, I thought everyone read Scripture this way. Then I found out that many people find the Old Testament boring, and can barely struggle through it. That’s when I decided that I wanted to write some of these stories the way I “see” them and bring the Bible to life for others the way it comes to life for me.

Jill: Oh, me too! I LOVE the Old Testament, and as I read it I feel like I'm there and I "see" the landscape and the people and sometimes I can hear them talking and smell the food cooking. There are SO many amazing stories there.

When you set out to write a Biblical novel, what steps do you take to research the story?

Lynn: When I started to write this series, the very first thing I did was read and re-read the Biblical accounts endlessly until I had them memorized. There are quite a few scriptures that refer to these kings and the times of their reign including information from the prophets. From these passages, I outlined the entire story and let that serve as my book outline.

Next, I read every commentary I could find on those books of the Bible and the passages of scripture that I had already found. I wanted to know what every commentator had to say about these Biblical passages. As I read, I found that the story and characters were already coming to life in my imagination and I was imagining various scenes. I added these scene descriptions to my outline.

By this point, I knew that I had to research other historical books and reference materials to fill in the blanks on the culture of the times. I had access to a seminary library at the time, which helped a great deal. In 1989 I had the opportunity to travel to Israel and take a course in Biblical Backgrounds and Archaeology, and I spent a month there, volunteering on an archaeological dig. I also walked through Hezekiah’s tunnel, still intact beneath Jerusalem. On the way home from Israel, I spent time in London at the British Museum which has one of the finest Assyrian collections in the world.

But no matter how much I learned, I always made sure that my primary source was the story that is presented in Scripture.

Jill: An archaeological dig sounds amazing! The closest thing I've gotten to one is Biblical Archaeological Review magazine. But minus the trip to Israel, we research much the same way.

Some Biblical stories say very little about the characters and even the plot leaves many holes, giving the Biblical novelist much room to fill in the blanks. But others give us much detail, and we know how the story ends. How do you weave the tale so that it doesn’t come across predictable?

Lynn: I found that very few people actually knew the story of King Hezekiah. Even fewer knew about King Ahaz and King Manasseh, so the suspense was relatively easy to maintain. One of the reasons why I chose Hezekiah was because I felt that he wasn’t given “credit” for the astounding faith that he exhibited. Most people, if they are familiar with him at all, remember him for his downfall of pride. But the story as presented in Scripture, is told out of sequence. His prideful “downfall” occurred before the Assyrian invasion—and probably contributed to it. He obviously grew in faith from that experience and was able to trust God completely when the Assyrians attacked.

When I outlined the story as told in scripture, the plot was quite complete, and enough detail was given to provide a complete story. I filled in the blanks with sub-plots involving secondary characters.

As for predictability, I was told by one publisher that the reason people don’t read Biblical fiction is because they already know how the story will end. I didn’t let that deter me. In each novel, I’ve also created minor characters and sub-plots that aren’t from Scripture so that an element of suspense remains. Readers might know how the big story ends, but they will keep reading to see how all of the other stories are resolved.

Jill: In the general market there are a number of Biblical novels written from what I call a “revisionist” point of view. These writers use the Scriptures as a backbone for their story but have no problem revising the traditional Biblical view of the characters. As a Biblical novelist, what is your opinion of revisionist Biblical writing? From a critic’s point of view, isn’t one opinion as good as another in how these characters are seen?

Lynn: I probably wouldn’t read Biblical fiction from a “revisionist” point of view. Many revisionists have an agenda or a point of view about Scripture that they want to promote, and they revise the traditional interpretation of these stories to fit that agenda. In terms of literary criticism, I agree that each author is entitled to his own opinion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I agree with that opinion—or that I want to read an entire novel based on it.

Every novelist—Christian or secular—writes from his own worldview. We can’t help it. My Biblical novels are based on my view of Scripture—and I happen to believe the traditional view. In fact, when I was researching my novels, I discovered that other historical reference books, as well as the archaeological evidence I unearthed, support the traditional interpretation of Scripture. For instance, the great miracle in Hezekiah’s time when the Assyrian army was destroyed during the night is collaborated by the Greek historian Herodotus—and by the curious silence about further conquests in the Assyrians’ own historical records. The reason the view is “traditional” is because the historical evidence supports it.

Jill: On the other hand, Christian Biblical fiction most often portrays the Biblical story in what I consider an “apologist” fashion, staying true to the Scripture where the Scripture speaks and only offering what might have been where the Bible is silent. In your opinion, how hard is it to keep to the text, yet weave in enough conflict to keep the story interesting?

Lynn: Again, this is where the use of fictitious secondary characters and sub-plots come in handy. Woven into the Scriptural story, they can provide on-going conflict and keep the story interesting. I also use sub-plots to explain historical details that aren’t provided in Scripture but that enhance our understanding of it. For instance, the Bible doesn’t tell us how horrifically brutal the Assyrians were. I used a sub-plot in my second book in which the Assyrians took a woman captive, to demonstrate how violent and cruel these warriors were. By the time they surround Jerusalem in the third book, readers should be trembling with fear along with King Hezekiah and everyone else. (By the way, I would have run the other way, too, if I had been Jonah and God had told me to preach to the Assyrians!)

The other way I try to stay true to Scripture yet weave in conflict is by delving into my characters’ motivations. For example, Scripture says that King Ahaz ordered his high priest, Uriah, to shove God’s altar aside and build an Assyrian altar in its place. And Uriah obeyed. I wondered why he would do such a thing. I decided to weave in a fictitious background story about Uriah’s life that provided a possible motivation for his actions. But I first studied real-life people who were once in positions of trust, to learn why they had compromised their beliefs. It so happened that at the time that I was doing my research, a prominent denomination was wrestling over the issue of staying with tradition versus adapting to the changing times, and I was able to use all of their arguments—pro and con—in Uriah’s story.

Thank you Lynn! Join us tomorrow for part two of our interview! And don't forget to leave a comment to win a copy of Lynn's first book Gods & Kings about King Hezekiah. I read this book when it was published by Lynn's first publisher - even read it to my kids as part of our historical reading for homeschooling. I promise you, it is some of the best Biblical fiction you will ever read!

Until tomorrow...


Becky said...

Thanks for the interview. I'm enjoying reading it and looking forward to tomorrow!

Lena Nelson Dooley said...

I'd love to win a copy of the book

Jill Eileen Smith said...

Thanks Becky and Lena for posting and for stopping by. It's great to see you here! :) Good luck on the drawing!


Cherie said...

Great interview! I love Biblical Fiction!

Cherie Japp