How did your relationship with the Lord begin?
I am an unfortunate example of what can happen when you use the gifts God has given you for your own good, instead of for his glory, and at the same time, I am also a living and breathing example of his incredible grace and forgiveness. So with that said, I guess I have to say that God must be in prison because that’s where so many people seem to meet him. The first time I heard that phrase was well over ten years ago, and as funny as it seemed at the time, it’s amazing how much the meaning of that line has changed for me over the last few years, because my journey to Christ pretty much began sitting in a federal courtroom back in 2007.
At the time, I was one of those guys that was one person on Sunday and somebody entirely different Monday through Saturday. I only talked to God when I needed something, and believe me, when you are looking at 46-57 months and are about to be sentenced by a federal judge for charges of wire fraud and money laundering, it’s a good time to start talking to God. I can clearly remember closing my eyes and saying, “God, I’ll do whatever it takes … please keep me out of prison … put it in this judge’s heart just this one time to give me probation … triple my fine … triple my restitution … please just keep me out of prison and give me the chance to fix the mess I created.” So I opened my eyes … and the beautiful thing about it was … in his incredible wisdom and grace, it took God only around ten seconds to answer my prayer.
His answer was no.
So on December 4, 2007, I was off to The U.S. Penitentiary-Hazelton in the beautiful and snowy mountains of West Virginia to begin my 52-month sentence. To this day, it was the single best thing that ever happened to me because just like a little kid being put in timeout … God wanted me there because something was missing and he knew I had some things to learn.
It’s unfortunate, that by many people’s standards, I was the guy that had everything. I had an incredible family, the big job, the big house, and the big car. But what most people didn’t understand was that I was missing the single most valuable thing any of us could ever have, and even though an incredible price was paid for it, it also happens to be absolutely free, and that’s a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
What experiences or persons played a role as your inspiration for your characters and plots?
I recently had an interesting conversation with an author friend of mine that seemingly represented all authors by saying that there really is no such thing as a fictional character. I think we authors have a tendency to draw from personal experience and sprinkle things we have seen or done amongst our characters. In terms of my inspiration for The Reason, I was inspired to write this story back in early 2004, which on the surface was a pretty difficult time in my life. I had just gone through a divorce and was in the middle of some activities that were hurting a lot of good people, and those were the activities that would ultimately lead me to federal prison. I remember walking down a hallway at a hospital up in Detroit to visit my oldest daughter who had just been diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, and I was pretty much drowning in my own pity party when I came across a young couple, probably in their late twenties, pulling their son in a little red wagon. I’m guessing the little boy was around three years old, he had lost his hair, was very thin and frail, and he had that gray and ashen look that suggested … the end was near. For me, it was one of those rare moments in life where you realize that your problems aren’t as bad as you think, and while I was trying to fathom the amount of stress this young family was going through, this little boy looks up and smiles at his parents and they smiled back. To me it was one of the most beautiful exchanges I had ever seen, and something inside of me wanted a way to make those smiles last, because in so many cases, particularly cases like that, they don’t. So over the next couple of years as I continued to head down the wrong road in life and continued to hurt everyone around me, I somehow, in the middle of that destruction, I had managed to scribble around a thousand pages about a magical character who shows up at a hospital in a small Michigan town that makes smiles last.
Prison is one of those experiences I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but at the same time, there are few things that I would trade the experience for, because from a spiritual standpoint, it gave me the opportunity to slow down and realize what’s important. As my faith grew, I was becoming anxious to share some of the things I learned in terms of patience, grace, forgiveness, and serving instead of being served, and I wasn’t sure the best way to do it, so I finally decided to go back into that little story I wrote and make it a lot less “magical,” and a lot more “spiritual.”
In terms of the plot for The Sinners’ Garden, I grew up next to a gentleman that was mentally disabled and he always walked around with a broken ruler in his hand, talking into it and calling it his “walky-talky.” I always wondered what it would be like if it talked back to him, giving me the idea for Andy Kemp to be hearing the voice of God through his broken iPod and answering the question of, “Where is it written that God was going to quit performing miracles two thousand years ago?”
The answer to that question is that it isn’t written anywhere. Maybe we just need to look a little more at the things that are going on around us every day.
Can you share with readers a time when everything looked impossibly overwhelming, but you could see God in the situation? How did the situation turn out?
I’m starting to see God in so many situations, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but one I really enjoy sharing is how my first book was picked up by Harper Collins-Thomas Nelson. Whenever I think about this, I shake my head, because God has been too good to me.
When I returned from prison and rewrote what would ultimately become The Reason, I was fortunate to have missed the need to hunt for an agent or ever submit my manuscript to a traditional publisher, yet still ended up working with the largest Christian publisher in the world.
We had originally planned on self-publishing the book, and a few months before the self-published version was going to be released, we were pretty comfortable with the story and decided to print 100 advance copies to create a little pre-release buzz. I then contacted some of the biggest churches in the country and asked if they had any avid readers who would be interested in reading an advance copy of the book and then maybe provide me with feedback. Once I had permission, I included a letter with each copy sent. In the letter, I introduced myself and provided my phone number and email address, and also mentioned I would greatly appreciate it if the reader would let me know what they thought.
I didn’t hear anything for a month or so, and I was expecting, at tops, maybe a half a dozen responses. Beyond getting any general feedback, I also wanted to identify recurring themes or concerns readers had so that I could make revisions before the final version of the book was released.
Then I received my first email from a woman out west that said she enjoyed the book and couldn’t wait for it to come out. It was an awesome feeling. And then I received a phone call from a woman that ran a church bookstore, wanting to know how they could buy it. Before I knew it, we had around 250 responses from men, women, teenagers, and ministers, sharing how the book affected them in ways that I couldn’t believe, and these responses were so heartwarming that they literally changed the reason I want to continue to write.
Fortunately, one of those advance copies we made ended up on the desk of a receptionist at Thomas Nelson, and it was her response to the book that resulted in it being passed on to their fiction team. Just before we were to release the self-published version of The Reason, Thomas Nelson picked up the title along with a request for me to write two additional titles. Once again, God has been quite good to me, and I couldn’t be more thankful.
Is your wife involved in your writing at all? If so, what does she do? If not, why not?
I’m currently single but willing to learn not to be. J
Are you currently working on your third book? Will it be another fictional offering?
I’m currently out in California working on book 3, which will be another fictional story. I’m having a lot of fun writing it and am anxious to get it into the hands of readers.
Have you ever had difficulty/writer’s block during the writing of your stories? If so, how did you overcome that?
Patience is a problem for me when I write. I frequently catch myself getting so anxious to get to certain scenes that I have to turn my computer off and go do something else. In terms of writer’s block, I usually write the ending of my stories first, that way I have a target to hit. So instead of forcing the story, if I ever get into trouble, the characters already know what’s going to happen to them so, in many cases, they end up telling me what to do instead of the other way around.
I know from some of your personal history that you have experienced hardship. Can you tell readers how you were able to deal with that and maybe give some guidance on how they might be helped as well?
One of the biggest lessons I needed to learn was that everything doesn’t revolve around William Sirls. Too many of us fail to put God at the center of everything we do. When we finally do that, it’s amazing how the missing pieces of our lives not only come into view, but how they also come together to complete us.
I would also encourage people to understand that it’s okay to make mistakes. What isn’t okay is to let yesterday’s shortcomings ruin today. Deaths, failed relationships, that thing you said to your boss, that time you didn’t spend with your kids … we all screw up because that’s what we do. How about letting past and future disappointments (yes, there will be more) be opportunities to demonstrate your strength and faith in God and let that demonstration draw more people toward God’s kingdom?
I think God has given you an incredible gift to be able to write such poignant books that truly can bless readers if they take the time to examine themselves. How have you seen him bless you in other areas of your life?
I love this question and I like how you mention the word “if” before “take the time.”
Beyond taking the time to examine ourselves, God will bless all of us beyond anything we ever imagined if we take just a little more time and spend it with him.
Even though I always had the time (a word I now respect more than ever), the beautiful thing about my prison time was that it gave me a little more of it to realize what’s important. I think it’s unfortunate how many of us get so wrapped up in our daily routines that we forget about Somebody. We wake up … take a shower … eat breakfast … kiss the kids goodbye … go to work … come home …eat dinner … kiss the kids goodnight and then do it all over again the next day without making any God time.
“If” we make God time, we will see that God manifests himself in front of each and every one of us every single day. And before long, just watch the relationship with him strengthens and how we can really develop and strengthen our faith, which to me is that absolute sense of certainty that God is who he says he is, that he is going to do what he says he is going to do, and that we all have access to that through his son, who died for all of us, even scumbag felons like me.
When not writing and all that entail or traveling to promote your novels, what do you like to do?
I usually read around three books per week and also enjoy taking lots of walks with my iPod. (Who knows? Maybe I’ll hear God through it like Andy does in The Sinners’ Garden)
Do you a favorite hobby, sports team, movies or games you enjoy doing?
I’m a die-hard Detroit fan and enjoy playing most sports as well, but my favorite is playing one-on-one basketball against my brother which we normally do a few times a week.
What does a usual day look like to someone who might follow you around for a couple hours or so?
I’m a big goal setter and normally have my day mapped out in writing before it begins. When I wake up, I do my BPGR (Bible-Pray-Read-Goals), then I join a group of friends for coffee at 6 am, then I head back home to do blog interviews or radio, and then I take as much time as necessary to write at least 2,000 words. Sometimes it only takes a few hours, but it normally takes me into the early afternoon before I turn the computer off to unwind.