Melissa: Hi Mike. Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with us. It’s always great talking with you. Your new book Centralia released June 5th. Great book and one I certainly recommend (my review). Readers can find more information on Centralia from Tyndale or Amazon, where it has received terrific reviews.
When reading Centralia, I felt like this book had to be extremely difficult to write. For the plot to work, there is a need to keep some things hidden from the reader, but not so much that the reader becomes frustrated searching for the missing pieces. However, reading this book feels like the words just poured onto the page with little effort. In terms of difficulty, where does this one rank for you?
Mike: This was by far the most difficult book for me to write. The plot is very complicated with lots of twists and turns and that doesn’t play nice with my style of writing. I tend to shy away from outlining. In fact, I tend to run away from outlining. Okay, I detest outlining, I shun every aspect of it, I declare it unsanitary, unethical, immoral, and do everything I can to keep as far away as I can from an outline. My style is to plot as I go. I was still able to do that with Centralia but it did present some difficulties. In part, those difficulties came because I’m also very low tech. My idea of plotting software is a stack of three-by-five cards, a notepad, and the noodle in my cranial cavity. At times I nearly went crazy trying to keep all the plotlines straight. I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to pull it off and even when I finished the manuscript I worried that this was going to be an utter disaster. So I’m glad to hear that it came together and reads as if the process was effortless. Because it wasn’t. Not even a little bit. It was a fun book to write but a challenge from start to finish.
Melissa: I started reviewing in 2006 when the speculative market was growing. There were several authors who started their careers writing speculative and many established authors tried their hand at the genre. But 9 years later, the market has declined to the point where I struggle to find speculative (not fantasy or sci-fi) thrillers or mysteries. With one exception, all your books have a speculative aspect, but I felt like Centralia had less speculative content than prior books. Couple of questions, first in what ways does the changing market affect how you write your books? Secondly, what are your feelings about the health of the speculative market?
Mike: First, I’d like to say the market doesn’t dictate how I write but the fact of the matter is that it does. Centralia is my first full-length novel with Tyndale and they just weren’t interested in anything supernatural. I saw this coming because I saw the same thing you saw in the market: speculative thrillers/mystery were dying a slow death.
So why? I’ve thought a lot about this. I love writing supernatural suspense. I feel it’s what comes most naturally to me as a writer. But the Christian market just isn’t interested in it. Though my books all received stellar reviews I saw my sales declining. And as you mentioned, others saw the same thing. When I began writing in 2008 there were several of us doing the same thing, following in the footsteps of Frank Peretti. But over the years I’ve seen all those authors fade away. Either they failed to get a new contract or they tossed in the towel, frustrated by low sales and disinterest from the market and publishers. This frustrates me because there are—or were—a lot of talented authors writing supernatural fiction. Good stuff, really. It deserves a bigger audience than it gets. I’m dumbfounded how the supernatural genre can be so popular in the general market and so ignored in the Christian market.
Also, I firmly believe that Christians are the most qualified to write about the supernatural. After all, we are supernatural beings serving a supernatural God who speaks His Word through a supernatural book. Shouldn’t we embrace the supernatural? And by the way, I think the same thing about horror and romance. Who should know about love more than a Christian? Who should know more about real darkness, where it comes from and how it can be defeated, than a Christian?
Melissa: Like a lot of authors, you a have full-time, pay the bills job in addition to your writing career. On Facebook, you’ve shared some pretty funny and wacky stories about your adventures/misadventures as an in-home health care provider. So, without violating HIPPA rules, what has been the funniest, most emotional and/or rewarding, and just plan weirdest moments of your day job?
Mike: Oh boy, I really can’t narrow it down to just one or even a dozen. While I would love to write and teach full-time I’m fortunate to have my day job. I’ll sum it up for you like this . . . I’ve seen grown men cry like three-year-olds; I’ve seen women so angry they can’t speak, sons and daughters literally beside themselves because they don’t know what to do with an ailing mom or dad; I’ve seen husbands give up everything to take care of a suffering wife; I’ve talked to people staring death in the face and full of regrets. I’ve been bitten by dogs, chased by drunks, scared into a near-panic by snakes. I’ve laughed with patients and cried with them. I’ve seen the real side of people, the side they don’t show anyone else, the side where all pretense and toughness is stripped away and it’s just them, raw, frightened, vulnerable. That’s a view of humanity that is both refreshing and disturbing.
But here’s a funny story. I was seeing this elderly lady for about a month, twice a week. She has some mild dementia but you wouldn’t really notice if you didn’t know. She’s what we call “pleasantly confused.” Well, one day I saw her and was getting ready to leave when she said, “You know, I never knew you were a therapist.”
I said, “What did you think I was?”
“I thought you were the guy at the grocery store who stocks the apples and oranges.”
I said, “Why would a produce clerk come to your home to give you physical therapy?”
She raised her eyebrows and responded, “Well that’s what I was always wondering!”
Melissa: I’ve read all but one of your books, though I plan to correct that issue this summer. I have Fearless on my Kindle and it is on my just for fun summer reading list. Of all your books though, my favorite is still Darkness Follows. I love that book. From the Gettysburg history to Eva’s love for her dad, that book worked for me from start to finish. What are a couple of books that you’ve read, where you’ve felt the same way? The book works for you and you can’t imagine anyone not loving it just as much as you do?
Mike: As a kid I loved anything by Jack London but especially Call of the Wild and White Fang. Both of those books did something to me, sparked a fire inside me and got me interested in fiction. More recently, Frank Peretti’s The Oath moved me in some powerful ways. Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books are marvelous. But I think the one book that impacted me in ways no other book has is Athol Dickson’s River Rising. There is one line in that book that literally blew me away. I’ve recommended the book to many people, both for the great story and the deftness of Athol’s craft. Athol is one of those authors who is just tremendous but never got the attention or sales he deserved. The market is funny that way, and curious, and crazy.
Melissa: As a reviewer, I am free to express my opinion about an author’s work. However, authors do not always enjoy the same freedom. From my understanding it can be a little tricky for authors to express a dissenting opinion on a review. This question may fall under, “Careful what you ask”, but I’m going to anyway. Here’s a chance for you to critique us reviewers. What do you find most helpful in a review and what just drives you absolutely crazy?
Mike: It’s helpful for me when a reviewer points out specifics that worked or didn’t work for her in a book. Like you just did in your question regarding Darkness Follows. Specifics. If you don’t like a book I’ve written, that’s fine. I can appreciate that. But let me know why. I may agree or I may disagree but at least I know there was some thought put into it. We spend a ton of time writing these books and it’s nice for someone to take the time to let us know specifically what they enjoyed or didn’t enjoy.
What drives me crazy? The fact that reviews are subjective. Writing is an art and any art form is subjective. The creation of it is and the criticism of it is. One reviewer may love a book, another may hate it. What gives? Take this new book of mine, Centralia. One reviewer may love that it has so many twists and turns and leaves the reader confused about what’s what up until the very end. Another reviewer may dislike the book for that very same reason: too confusing, too many twists, too hard to follow the plot. Reviews are based largely on opinion and preference and yet are given so much weight.
Melissa: While I love your books, they’ve always baffled me a bit. You tend to have more Christian content than most authors I read, but I’ve always been surprised that your books haven’t felt like a sermon. The Christian material is so integral to the overarching story, that if you remove the spiritual elements, the story would collapse. From my experience with Christian fiction, this is fairly unique. Most CBA books could have the spiritual content edited out and the story not suffer. How do you write your stories so that the book requires the Christian material, but it doesn’t become tiresome and a 350 page sermon?
Mike: Writing fiction is a lot like how we live our lives. If faith is an integral part of my life, if it is so meshed with every other part of my life that to remove it would collapse my whole purpose for being, than to an outsider or nonbeliever it appears natural, just part of who I am. But if I live the life of a hypocrite, if I live for myself, make selfish choices, give in to desires, and then try to tell you about Jesus or my faith . . . what are you going to think? I’m a phony, right? A fraud? My faith will feel forced, even unbelievable.
Now, I believe the supernatural genre is a perfect fit for sharing a faith message through fiction. And I wish others would see this as well. Think about it, we want to share a supernatural message about a supernatural God. What better way than through a supernatural story? The story is the message. The message isn’t something that’s tagged on or inserted or taped into place. It baffles me why the Christian fiction market doesn’t see this and embrace it. Instead, writers of supernatural fiction get criticized because the content of their stories isn’t believable or doesn’t sit well with someone’s theological framework. Humbug. Fact is, I’d go so far to say that if we’re going to have any chance of reaching a lost world through our fiction the supernatural genre has the best chance to do so because the message can be so seamlessly interwoven with the story. It is the story.
Can this be done outside the supernatural genre? Of course, but it has to be done through the authenticity of the characters. In a story, characters are everything. The reader wants to connect with the characters, wants to form a bond with them. And if the author does his job well and creates that bond, the message can come through the characters without feeling forced or preachy.
Melissa: Several of your books, including Centralia, have characters with strong family bonds. In some cases, there is a tragic event and a spouse or child has died, but that love for them is still there. I’m curious, why does this theme keep popping up in your books?
Mike: Plain and simple? I love my family. I am who I am today because of my family. There is no stronger bond on earth than that of a family. It’s such a great relationship to put into fiction, so full of tension and loyalty and love and conflict. All the great emotions that make for a really captivating story.
I try to write from a place that I know and understand. It makes the story all that more authentic for the reader. And I know the bond between a husband and wife or a father and child. A father would do anything for his wife and kids. And that “anything” can lead him down some pretty tumultuous paths, can’t it? Only the imagination knows.
Melissa: I think most Christians can testify to having learned some difficult life lessons through experience. I’m not sure we can really understand some spiritual truths until we’ve walked the path that takes us through them. Learning to trust that God is right even when I totally disagree with His actions or inactions is one of my lessons. To be able to praise Him and even thank God for the tough journeys is another one. You’ve talked openly about some of the challenges and difficulties you’ve faced. Would you share with us a few of the truths you’ve come to understand and accept, that maybe you wouldn’t have, had you not been forced to go through certain challenges?
Mike: Well, Melissa, you said exactly what I was thinking: learning to trust God is right even when we totally disagree with His actions or inactions. I love it. And yes, I’ve learned that and am continuously learning it over and over again. A lot has happened in my life that I have questioned. I’ve wondered why God didn’t intervene sooner, why He allowed me to grow up stuttering, why he allowed me to get colon cancer, why he allowed my brother-in-law and sister to go through an awful trial. And I’ve wondered why the wicked prosper, why some people get away with so much and others suffer so terribly. But I’ve learned not to try to figure God out. Just trust Him. His ways are not our ways. Not even close.
I’ve learned that trials allow us to see a side of God that most folks never get to see. We draw close to Him and experience Him as our Daddy. We feel His arms around us. We hear His voice in our ears. We don’t get that apart from trials. I think that’s a special side of God that He reserves for those who are hurting and need to experience Him in a very intimate way.
I’ve learned that trusting Him isn’t easy. I wish it was and for some I guess it is. But not for me. I’m an independent guy and I want to take the reins and do things my way. It’s very difficult for me to let go and give control to Him. I say, “Okay God, it’s yours, but you might want to . . .” Yes, I’m still a work in progress.
Melissa: A few days ago you posted a link to this video on your FB page. I agree with what he is saying—that it’s okay to not be okay. I also agree that people should be able to open up to others about the difficulties their facing. However, I think the problem is more than just pride. I don’t think the church is trustworthy (and in some cases wise) enough for people to have the freedom to express the challenges their facing and often times those listening aren’t comfortable with what they’re hearing. In your comments, you mentioned being part of the solution, so where do we start? How do we start to earn the trust of those hurting within the church and those outside as well? How do share our struggles without making others feel totally uncomfortable?
Mike: It’s like writing Christian themes into fiction. It has to be lived by the characters (you and me) and it has to be authentic. I think people are starved for authenticity. They want honesty, transparency. They long to be themselves, to take off the mask and show the world the real them. But they’re afraid of rejection, of being judged, of being ostracized. I think it starts with you and me. It’s a cliché but it applies: be the change you want to see happen. We need to start being honest, real, authentic. We need to not be afraid to say that we’re struggling, that we’re depressed, that we’re hurting or confused or questioning God’s presence. Will we be judged? By some. Will we be looked down on? Maybe by a few. But there will be so many more who will breathe a sigh of relief and want what we have.
Look, the world around us thinks Christians are a bunch of phonies. Why? Because maybe we are. Maybe we spend too much time trying to be someone we’re not and not enough time just being who we are. If we shed the façade and just be real it will attract people to us. I know it seems counterintuitive but it’s not. Believe me, people will accept flaws in us if we’re real with them. If we pretend we’re perfect they’ll expect perfection but they’ll know we’re lying. Nobody’s perfect. Even a lost world knows that. Authenticity makes us approachable and believable. And if they believe us they’ll believe our message.
Melissa: There is another Peter Ryan book in the works (Yay!). What is the estimated publication date for Kill Devil and what’s next after that?
Mike: Yes, Kill Devil picks up where Centralia left off. Jed and Karen and Lilly are enjoying their solitude in the mountains of Idaho when an event occurs that changes their life . . . again. And Jed is asked to do the unthinkable. It’s due to release June of 2016.
To Find out more about Mike Dellosso and his books, follow his FaceBook page (where he his very active) or visit his website.