James’s Blog: Origin Story.

James’s Blog:  Origin Story.

It’s nearly a year ago that Lioness Publishing first agreed to take on The Listening Book, but it’s been in the pipeline for a lot longer, obviously. The oldest story in the collection (Death) was written over fifteen years ago, while even the most recent stories only exist because those past fifteen years gave me something worth writing about.

A couple of posts ago I shared a watershed moment, the one where I was challenged to actually do something with the gift that God had given me. This was way back in 2007, and I responded by resuming an Interactive Fiction project that I had shelved. A Fine Day for Reaping went on to win the XYZZY Award for Best Story in 2007. That sentence will make no sense to most of you.

Around the same time, however, I also began playing with parables. I was working for ‘The Mat Exchange’, which was a small business that Cornerstone ran. We rented door mats to shops, and my job was to drive around, exchange the dirty mats for clean ones and then go and wash them. There was a reasonable amount of time to think in this job and, one day, I was reflecting on the idea of faith, and how often I met people with an ‘inherited’ creed, beliefs that they’d just copied from others, without thinking through the consequences or really owning them themselves. I had previously read about the idea of how photocopying a photocopy decreased the quality of the image, and that had stuck with me over the years. As I drove along the mean streets of Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia, The Soul Painting was born, and by the time I had finished my shift that day I was able to sit down and write the story. Over the next few months I wrote a couple more, including Knock and the Door Shall be Opened, and By the Riverbank but I didn’t really do anything with them.

Fast forward to 2013. Now I was dean of the Cornerstone campus at Canowindra. No more mat washing for me!  Instead I got to do farm and vineyard work.  There can be some thinking time there too, at least when you’re not being shouted at.  One day, while picking watermelons, I thought that it would do me good to set myself a challenge. The challenge would be to start a blog, and post a short story every week. At first this worked fine, as I was finally able to use the stories that I had accumulated over the years. The real goal, however, was to force myself to come up with new material, and that’s what I did. Watermelon time was occasionally fruitful (pun intended). I remember concocting The Boy who Held God during one beautiful sunny day while picking watermelons (to be fair, it was almost always a beautiful sunny day during watermelon season). I soon found that one a week was an unrealistic pace, so I knocked it back to one every two weeks and just got on with it. When you write under pressure like that what you produce could charitably be called ‘a mixed bag’. Some of the stuff that I put up was fairly horrible, but all of the material that ended up in The Listening Book first appeared on my blog: ‘Storycatcher’ (“Don’t look for it; it’s not there anymore” Marty DiBergi).

The feedback was encouraging, so in the months before we returned to the UK, I put together the first draft of The Listening Book and sent it off to a publisher, who promptly rejected it. Well, not promptly.  It took him ages.  And then that was that, until we returned home and a random conversation between Elsa the Publisher and my wife started the ball rolling.  I like to think of it as a large, heavy glittery ball – something nice to look at, but with some weight to it.  Perhaps a disco ball that’s been made out of concrete?

And the rest is, as they say, history.

James’s Blog: God Bless Restrictions.

James’s Blog:  God Bless Restrictions.

One piece of advice that artistic people often give is that restrictions and constraints are good for creativity. I’ve heard this from artists, writers, film makers and computer game programmers, so it must be true.

Actually, it is.

If you give an artist a blank piece of canvas then what is he supposed to do with it? If you tell him that you want a picture of a tree, well, it doesn’t require much in the way of creative thinking but at least it’s something. If you tell him that you want a picture of a tree, and that it can only be in black and white, and that if you turn it upside down it must then look like a picture of a little girl – well, now you’re talking. That’s when the creative muscles get a workout.

I’ve dabbled in Microfiction (aka Flash Fiction), which for those of you who don’t know, is a discipline where you subject yourself to an arbitrary word count (usually well under a thousand words) and set yourself the task of writing a complete, coherent story. I’ve found it a highly useful exercise, especially as my stumbling attempts to transfer my fleeting philosophical musings from the centre of my thought processes onto a sheet of blank paper have a disarming habit of running to the verbose. You know what I mean.

I’m currently working on editing a batch of stories for the sequel to The Listening Book, and a couple of those were born from constraints. When I was describing The Listening Book to a friend he asked me if one of the stories was called ‘The Parable of the Boy who Ran with Scissors’. Trust me, this is fairly typical of the type of question that he asks. I replied that there was not, but the very next day I sat down and set myself the task of writing a story with that exact title. I’m quite pleased with it.

Perhaps that’s the way I should go. I could get other people to suggest titles, and then I have to write a story to attach to them. So, if you have any imaginative titles lying around feel free to throw them in my direction, and if I’m looking for a challenge one day I could try writing a short story for it. Maybe I’ll post it here, maybe I won’t. It depends on whether or not it’ll make me look creative.

James’s Blog: As Yet Untitled.

James’s Blog:  As Yet Untitled.

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A Liberal, Western-educated, postmodern, hipster, beardy social justice warrior.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A middle-aged Conservative white American male, angry at gays, Muslims, the unemployed and Russia.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A bland, cringing, spineless academic who just wants everyone to be happy and is trying desperately to avoid giving offence.”

I read a book.
The author’s search
for the Jesus of our church.
“It turns out, as you can see,
that Jesus was just like me:
A black, bisexual, left-handed Wiccan who cares deeply about animals, making wicker baskets and bathing in her own urine.”

But where am I to begin
if I just want to be like him?

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 4 of 4

Charles Williams.

Poor old Charles Williams. An amazingly talented scholar, poet and writer, and he gets no love just because he happened to be a lesser-known member of the Inklings and an Oxford contemporary of glory hogs C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

I certainly hadn’t heard of him myself, not until I moved to Australia and he was mentioned by a chap called Les Follent. Les talked about a series of, what he called, ‘Christian Horror’ novels that Williams had written. Well, my ears pricked up because the closest I had come to that genre was the Left Behind series, which I found horrific for all the wrong reasons. A few years later, when looking for a book to read, I got hold of the first of the six novels that he had written, War in Heaven.

Williams himself described the books as ‘Spiritual Shockers’, and they would probably be classified today as ‘Supernatural Thrillers’, though because they were written in the 1930s and 40s by an Oxford lecturer today’s modern, desensitized natures may be tempted to turn their collective noses up at his work.

To be honest, his stories are best described as ‘a mixed bag’, but when he’s good then he’s very good. There are some brilliant high-concept plot ideas here. War in Heaven is about a rural parish priest who discovers that an old communion chalice that has been gathering dust in a cupboard in his church is actually the Holy Grail, and that a secretive practitioner of black magic is on its trail. That’s an idea that’s just waiting to be ruined by Hollywood. The Greater Trumps is about what happens when a selfish, manipulative Romany fortune-teller gets his hands on the original Tarot deck. The Place of the Lion is about what happens when a cult summons Platonic Forms into existence that begin draining reality from our world. That last one might sound a bit confusing, but if you have a basic grounding in philosophy then you might be thinking, “That sounds like the plot for the best film EVAR!!!”.

Despite the sinister subject matter, each one is grounded in the assumption that God, and the cross, are the ultimate reality. Indeed, there’s so much wisdom in the message of each book that you know that you are in the presence of a master. Williams avoids the gore and perversity-for-perversity’s-sake that characterizes much of the genre these days, and injects subtle horror into his work. I remember reading a Stephen King comment about how the most terrifying horror is when the writer manages to twist the everyday aspects of life into something else; to turn the mundane into the malevolent. Williams manages this by capturing how our eternal character depends on those tiny daily decisions that we make; how tiny seeds of hate can eventually kill us; how little strands of lust or jealousy can grind down our souls until we cease to be human. Beware those mundane, everyday things! Indeed, Descent into Hell contains the finest temptation scene I have ever encountered, and demonstrates perfectly how our essence can hinge on the smallest of nails. This is the kind of truth that should chill and unsettle our modern, desensitized natures.

Williams has influenced me by showing that it can be possible to write intelligent Christian literature in all genres, and that it can be done in such a way that it can cross over into the mainstream. The truth speaks to everyone.  If I ever attempt anything that approaches a ‘Supernatural Thriller’ then I guarantee you that it will be done with Charles Williams in mind.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 3 of 4

Fred Craddock.

I’m cheating a little bit here. Fred Craddock has influenced me not so much by what he has written, but rather by the way that he has said what he has said.

I hadn’t heard of the diminutive American pastor until my preaching classes at Spurgeon’s college, where we were exposed to one of his uniquely crafted sermons. For me, it was love at first sight…well, at first hearing anyway. He was, beyond doubt, one of the greatest preachers of the twentieth century, and many of you have probably never even heard of him.

There’s a collection of his sermons (The Cherry Log Sermons), the style of which I slavishly attempted to emulate for my long-suffering congregation during my later years at Hayward’s Heath, but it’s the volume Craddock Stories that has shaped my own writing. The book is a collection of stories that Fred used in some of his sermons over the years, and they’re fantastic. Not just the stories, but the way that they are told and the truth that is drawn from them. Fantastic. He tells countless anecdotes from his rich life, but if he ever lacked a suitable story he would just make one up. I don’t mean “Did I ever tell you about the time I had dinner with the Archbishop of Canterbury…” made-up, I mean a skilfully constructed parable of the imagination made-up . Let me give you an example:

I remember one night, sitting in a little rural church on a Sunday night. It was a summer meeting, so it was hot, and the window was open beside my pew. The minister was preaching on his favourite text, “Be not the first by whom the new is tried, because a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and it’s better to be safe than sorry, because fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

I was listening to him drone away when a man came by the church building and stopped by the window and said, “Psst, psst.”

I said, “What is it? I’m listening to the sermon.”
He said, “Come with me.”
I said, “Where are you going?”
He said, “I know where there is a pearl of great price that’s more valuable than all the other pearls in the world.”
I said, “There’s no such thing.”
He said, “In fact, where I’m going, there is treasure buried in a field.”
I said, “You’re kidding!”
He said, “Where I’m going, bums are invited to sit down at the king’s table.”
I said, “That’s ridiculous.”
He said, “In fact, they give great big parties for prodigals who come home.”
I said, “That’s stupid.”

Well, I listened to the rest of the sermon and after it was over, I told the preacher about how I was disturbed and that I hoped it didn’t upset him during the sermon.

He said, “Who was that?”
I said, “I don’t know. Telling me all this fancy stuff.”
He said, “Well, was he getting anybody?”
And I said, “Well, none of our crowd went, but I noticed he had about twelve with him.”

I had never heard anything like this before, at least not in a sermon, and therein lies Craddock’s influence on me. Stories make good sermons all by themselves but imaginative stories make powerful sermons. Let us try harder than to just pull out the same tired old illustrations that have been doing the preaching rounds since year one. Let us let our imaginations run rampant. Why should the devil have all the good flights of fancy?

Of the four writers that I am mentioning in this blog series, Craddock has had the most blatant impact on The Listening Book. There would probably be no book if it weren’t for him. It contains more than one tale where I am self-consciously trying to ape his style of storytelling. Hopefully you won’t be able to spot them! I’m finding my own voice now, but I don’t want to ever forget the influence that Fred Craddock had on me.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 2 of 4

Richard Wurmbrand.

In the early days of my faith I read Tortured for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian pastor who was imprisoned during the rule of Communism. The book left an impression on me, and in those early days, if I wasn’t in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Adrian Plass books then I would have been in a Christian bookshop browsing through the Richard Wurmbrand books. His biographical account, In God’s Underground, is absolutely fantastic. As Brian Clough might have said, “I wouldn’t say that it’s my favourite Christian autobiography, but it’s in the top one.”

One book that I read was Alone with God, which is a collection of his sermons. What makes them unusual is that they are sermons that Wurmbrand preached while he was in solitary confinement. As part of a routine to keep his sanity, he would preach a sermon in his cell every day, despite the fact that no-one was there to hear it. He says that he reduced their main points to rhyming couplets, and by doing so he was able to memorise the bulk of them. When he was released, one of the things that he did was write them down, and he claimed that he managed to recall 348 of the 350 that he had preached.

I find that feat of memory amazing enough, but when you consider that many of the sermons include extensive quotes from the Bible, Shakespeare and other sources, it becomes truly incredible. I can’t help but think that the published articles were a lot more polished than the original sermons. Regardless, Alone with God was a very significant book for me when I was a younger Christian.

Many years later, while I was in Australia, I read a copy of the first collection of sermons that he wrote, the functionally-titled Sermons in Solitary Confinement. I’d found Alone with God to be insightful, powerful and influential. Sermons in Solitary Confinement. Blew. My. Mind. The sermons in this collection were raw and uncompromising in a way I’d never encountered before – these were the ones that read like sermons conceived in a oppressive hole deep in the Romanian earth. There is something incredibly unnerving about having a man bleed all over you, but you can’t doubt for a second the strength and meaningfulness of his convictions. These sermons came from a dark place, but they blazed in a way that deeply challenged and comforted me, despite the distance of both years and geography.

One thing that had a large influence on both my writing and my personal walk was the book’s introduction. Wurmbrand was obviously aware of the potential controversy of some of what he was writing so he warns the reader that he will find some disturbing and uncertain things within. This is not a place to find solid, consistent theology and doctrine, he warns, rather these are the outpourings of a soul in agony. But then he writes the following about those days: “I did not live on dogma then. Nobody can. The soul feeds on Christ, not on teachings about him.” Wurmbrand survived his ordeal not because he knew a lot of theology, but because he knew Christ. Do you understand the difference? In that one line he put into words the yearning of my soul since the first day that I had bowed my head before my new master.

If there is one goal in my writings, it is this. I do not want people to learn about Christ through what I write. I want them to encounter Christ. There is a crucial and important difference, and I am thankful to Richard Wurmbrand for his writings over the years, in which he demonstrated that distinction. It has helped to make my faith real, rather than hypothetical.

James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 1 of 4

Adrian Plass.

I hadn’t been a Christian long before I fell in with bad company. And by that I mean that I started reading a lot of Adrian Plass. I read pretty much anything of his that I could get my hands on. I was a Plass junkie. I still consider The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass Aged 37 & ¾ to be one of the finest and most meaningful pieces of Christian humour ever written, while I still have fond memories of making my way through books like Cabbages for the King, View From a Bouncy Castle, Clearing Away the Rubbish and so on. When I was newly minted, starting to find my way and trying to avoid traps for young players, Plass’s insights were invaluable. He is quite excellent at coming alongside his readers and offering meaningful encouragement to those who are struggling.

However, as I aged, the path that God had led me on meant that I often found myself up to my elbows in Other People’s Problems, and – as some of you will know – that often has the amusing side-effect of bringing to the surface All Your Own Problems. I wanted to grow; to change. I didn’t want to struggle through my faith the rest of my life thinking, “Is this really as good as it gets?” I needed solutions rather than sympathy, and as a result I seemed to find myself no longer in the audience that Adrian Plass was writing for.

Despite this, his impact on me in my needy youth was such that I am always interested when I hear that he has written a new book, and will probably automatically buy anything that has the The Sacred Diary name attached to it. Furthermore, there is a very specific piece of his that still influences my attempts at writing today.

As a teenager, I once got the opportunity to hear The Great Man Himself speak. I knew that he was available to sign books, so I bought what was probably the only Adrian Plass volume that I hadn’t read at that time – a collection of short stories titled The Final Boundary. The actual encounter with The Great Man Himself was embarrassing, due to me briefly forgetting my own name, but I still have the faded paperback with ‘To James, God Bless, Adrian Plass’ written in the front.

What I like about The Final Boundary is that most of the stories avoid the thinly-veiled morality tale approach of a lot of Christian fiction. Plass is just happy to just dump a story in your lap and leave you to get on with it. I imagine that Why it Was All Right to Kill Uncle Reginald would have upset a few people in its time. Marl Pit still moves me. The Second Pint is perhaps the closest in style to one of Jesus’s own parables, and by that I mean that it should leave the reader with chills running down his spine. Maybe it was this book of stories that first planted the seed that would one day blossom into The Listening Book, but even if it wasn’t, I know that within is a tale that first opened my eyes to the possibilities of storytelling. It’s a story called Bethel, about a snail who is being hunted by a sparrow, a fat child and a French chef. Without giving anything away, I will tell you that it’s surreal, bordering on the absurd at times, and makes few concessions to the reader. After twenty years, I still can’t say for certainty what message Plass was trying to communicate, and that excites me. Something different reveals itself each time I read, though from the very first time I knew that I was reading something special. It is this story that first allowed me to see that obscurity has value; that you can write something and trust God with its message. In that way, Bethel has influenced me; it taught me to write without fear.

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