J. Mark Bertrand

Bio

  • J. Mark Bertrand is the author of Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and the forthcoming Nothing to Hide, crime novels featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and lived in the city for fifteen years. After one hurricane too many, he and his wife moved to South Dakota. Mark has been arrested for a crime he didn't commit, was the foreman of a hung jury in Houston, and after relocating served on the jury that acquitted Vinnie Jones of assault. In 1972, he won an honorable mention in a child modeling contest, but pursued writing instead.

Books by Bertrand

Historical Note

  • Write About Now is the successor to my original fiction blog called Notes on Craft. The archive there is still online and dates from March 2004 to September 2007. Feel free to explore it at your leisure.

« Scare Tactics | Main | A Dialogue with Becky Miller, Part 2 »

October 08, 2007

Comments

Linda Gilmore

Thanks, both of you, for sharing this dialogue. I can't wait to read the rest of it!

Nicole

Excellent dialogue. If I could be so bold, one of the difficulties in answering the tough questions is no one wants to point the finger at a book (author in CBA) they feel is inferior because no one wants to be unkind and everyone realizes the subjectivity of such assessments. That tends to make for a clever and necessary dance around the particulars and specifics in my opinion.

Good job, you two. Am looking forward to the next segment.

mike duran

Unless we actually interject theological discourse into our stories or describe God's specific actions, I don't think we can accomplish “a vibrant and truthful portrayal of who God is” without showing the nature and/or behavior of people. (This is an argument for "warts and all" portrayals of people; grace is only amazing in light of "a wretch like me.") And unless there is a thematic summary within the narrative, our stories will still be left up to interpretation. Thus, my story that "truthfully portrays" God could end up being endorsed by a humanist, wiccan, or worse, a Yankee fan. Becky, I'm wondering if the goal of truthful portrayals of God in fiction is asking too much of the medium. Aren't we veering into the world of theology and leaving the world of storytelling?

By the way, I'm looking forward to the part where Becky rakes Mark over the coals. Will this be in part two?

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Hahah--Mike, I was wondering when I raked him over the coals, too. Now over at FIF we both did quite a bit of raking, I think. I'm the better for it, I know.

As to whether or not we're asking too much of fiction to say we can portray God within the pages, I don't think so. I also don't think such a story needs to read like theology, but again, I have the advantage of writing fantasy. Lewis portrayed God certainly, and he didn't lose his story in favor of a theological treatise.

I think I'll hold off on the other questions just now, for fear of saying something that will appear in part 2.

Nicole, it would have been much easier, no doubt, to give a positive example. I almost did a couple times.

Becky

Jason

Becky said:
"The reasoning goes something like this: I am a Christian, therefore, my worldview will come out in my writing."

Now I think this should happen anyway. A knowledgeable Christian who is letting the Spirit inform his life should naturally produce material that speaks of his worldview. It may not work as a blanket statement because you can definitely have a Christian with some strong non-Biblical influences to produce art contrary to this. Notice my qualifiers above.

It depends what the intention of the writer, doesn't it? So for this argument, a Christian who writes without trying to be specifically portraying God should, over time, have a body of material that reflects a Biblical worldview. It may not produce a particularly deep view of God, but it still may do so. I don't agree that it necessarily leads to shallow thinking.

Now a Christian who's aim is to richly and deeply deal with issues of faith and life should have a goal of producing the type of art you're arguing for. I want to see that as well.

Good thoughtful post! I'm looking forward to tomorrow!

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Jason, you said, it depends what the intention of the writer [is]. My point exactly.

The example I may have used before is my writing for the newspaper. When I cover a high school football game, nothing in my article shows I have a Christian worldview. Sure, my editor might know if I'm reliable, if I make deadline, if I'm accurate in my reporting, but even those things that I might specifically work toward don't necessarily speak to a Christian worldview. Someone trying to earn a permanent job with the paper might do the exact same things.

So with fiction. Writing a good story, even an artistic story, in and of itself does not mean our fiction will reflect a Biblical framework. I've written a short story for a secular contest that was devoid of anything Biblical. It just doesn't automatically happen.

That's not to say it may not accidentally happen, but again, I don't see how that will turn into a story that plunges readers into contemplating God in a new, fresh way. I mean, it's almost the argument of the evolutionists. Let's just let things evolve and out will come this incredibly complex life form.

Becky

Wayne Thomas Batson

If there's a problem with Christian Fiction, I don't think it's being too preachy (overhanded themes) or being too shallow (no deep, take home value). Sure there are books out there in both camps. But there are also a number of great titles that don't pull any spiritual punches and yet succeed because the story is that well-written.

IMHO the problem with Christian Fiction is that Christian consumers don't go to Christian Bookstores to buy fiction. Sure, many go to CBD, but I'd bet most would hit Amazon first. Statistically, people still buy lots more books in brick and mortar stores than they do online. I think the ratio is something like 3:1.

But when customers go to the local Lifeway or Family Christian Bookshop to buy books, they buy nonfiction--devotionals, apologetics, etc. Your mainstream Christian customer doesn't know that there's good Christian fiction out there, so they go elsewhere, i.e. Borders and Barnes & Noble.

A vicious cycle began quite a while ago and continues today:

Originally, much of the fiction published in the CBA was poorly written or too formulaic--->which led to Christians buying fiction elsewhere--->which led to Christian bookstores stocking so much other stuff (greetings cards, relics, knick-knacks that it's almost ironic to call them bookstores--->SO, CBA Publishers put much more effort into nonfiction---> leading to less fiction product--->leads to few people expecting it, and so on...

But something happened when Frank Peretti came along. Something happened with the Left Behind books. There was a huge hiccup in the cycle, and everything changed for a little while. And particularly in my genre (Fantasy), Bryan Davis, Karen Hancock, and Donita K. Paul came along, and publishers started to realize that people want to read a variety of genres--not just frontier romance. In the last 10 years, just look at the number of SpecFaith titles coming out, including my own, thankfully, or I probably wouldn't be responding on this blog.;-)

So where does that leave us: Oh, yeah, here and now. I think Christian Publishers, Christian Writers, and Christian Consumers have a great big chance here. Christian Publishers need to continue to take risks, publishing in new genres and some favorite niche genres. Christian Writers need to perfect their craft and write HIGH quality stuff. Push the envelope, so long as you have a God-inspired impulse to do it. And Christian consumers need to get out and buy FICTION at their local Christian bookstore. It it's not in there, request that they order it and continue to stock similar authors and books.

Amen?

I step aside now for the usual flogging.

-W

Nicole

Because I'm a fiction writer, I go to the local Christian bookstores to buy Christian fiction but mostly when the novels I want are on sale. I worked at one of them for one Christmas season and have an ongoing friendship with its manager, discussing marketing or the lack thereof. However, I don't blame anyone for purchasing online because of the expense of buying books. When you can buy a novel online including shipping for cheaper than you can get it at the bookstore, it's a lot to ask of a person to pay more at the store.

Jason

I think what I'm trying to say is not the same as "a worldview will accidentally evolve over time". Also, the example of journalism doesn't really fit what we're discussing.

I think an example could be the band Switchfoot. They started out in the Christian music arena, singing songs that were more "blatantly" Christian. Over time they have changed their approach, and their recent work speaks more to life, heart attitudes, and the American condition - from a Biblical worldview - without directly speaking of God. I think they are producing great art from a Biblical worldview. They are not like Casting Crowns or other bands.

You step back and look at their body of work, and it speaks thoroughly of who they are and where they come from, even if individual projects don't fully show it. It may be evolution of an artist, but not an unintentional one.

I've also written a short story that has a Biblical worldview informing it, but it wouldn't be apparent from THAT story that I'm a Christian. That's not what I intend for most of my writing, but it was a scene I wanted to explore and I think stretched me.

Great art doesn't come cheaply, and great art glorifying God will be less so, I think. It definitely will be a wrestling with both the divine and the craft.

Merrie

Okay, I’m going out on a tremulous limb and expect many stones tossed my way . . .

I think the true definition here may be the difference between Great Books and Just Plain Published Books. I think the types of books that Rebecca’s talking about (and I agree, without specific titles it is hard to discuss this topic) would be called classics.

I venture that we would all agree that many of the books that fall into the category of Great Books were written before CBA came into existence.

Maybe the problem has been trying so hard to put God into a story, rather than letting the story revolve around God.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I happen to be one of those people who believe worldview will produce theme. [Ouch. Was that a rock instead of a stone?]

Perhaps the difference between what I am saying and what Rebecca is saying however, depends on the attitude of the heart. (Not hers and mine, the heart of the writer of the story we are analyzing although we haven’t really decided what story that is yet . . . Are you confused yet? Good.) A person, who lives, breathes and dies to communicate God’s presence, should, in all likelihood, produce a story with a theme where God is not a friendly grandpa.

The next question then becomes: What is our current relationship with God?

Is that what is being reflected in our books?


J. Mark Bertrand

You've got a point, Merrie. As strange as it may sound, we're often guilty of holding books up to too high a standard. My frustration a few years back, when I first stuck my nose in conversations like this, was that evangelicals weren't producing another generation of Flannery O'Connors, Graham Greenes, Tolkeins, Lewises, and so on, but instead seemed intent on coining kinder, gentler Stephen Kings. In other words, we were producing commercial books, not great ones. The problem is, if you measure everything that's published in a sub-genre against the best examples of all genres, you'll always get a skewed result. I'm an idealist, so I can't let go of that great books focus, but I hope I've learned to temper my remarks with a does of realism. There's nothing wrong with a well-made novel that seeks to do nothing more than entertain -- in fact, it's a good thing, and given how hard it is to get published at all, you've got to admire anyone who manages it. And a writer who can continue to improve craft after being put on a six- or twelve-month production schedule deserves a lot of credit indeed.

Phil at Brandywine Books quoted an interview Athol Dickson did over the summer, to the effect that Christian fiction today was no better and no worse than any other genre. I think he's right. If you compare apples to apples, things have improved a lot in recent days. (A fact everyone seems to admit now, though you couldn't have said it a couple of years ago without being strung up, since it implied there was need for improvement.) Here's the link for full context:

http://brandywinebooks.net/?post_id=1099

But it seems to me that, paradoxically, Becky's got a point about there not being as much theological richness is a body of fiction whose defining characteristic is supposed to be freedom to explore such things.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

"The next question then becomes: What is our current relationship with God?

Is that what is being reflected in our books?"

Merrie, I think you've nailed it. (And see why I'm not about to name any titles?) How can someone who believes God (or some messenger who claims to speak for God) has declared we're in "a season of deliverance, a season of healing, a season of abundance"--how can that person write about God as anything but a kind grandpa, one we need to hold to his promises?

I don't personally know any fiction writers who hold such views, but the chances are, some of the fiction that has a depiction of God that only touches on the milkish aspects of theology (as opposed to the meatish ones ;-) has been written by a writer with such beliefs.

As to the "Christian worldview will out," I won't hurl any stones, but I have to admit, I'm surprised you hold to that view. Surely in your non-fiction you don't "show" your Christian worldview, do you? Now as an editor, making decisions on what stories to accept in your magazine, you may, but as a writer?

And Jason, I think newspaper or any other non-fiction proves the point. Those pieces are purposeful. I can write from my worldview if I want, but I doubt if I'd have a job for long. Rather than exploring a coach's treatment of his kids, his belief about what winning and losing can teach, how sport is a microcosm of life, I'm there to report on a game. So I choose not to leak my worldview.

In fiction, I choose just the opposite. That does not mean I, of necessity, make my worldview overt or "preachy." I wish we could put that one to rest. Writing to a theme does not mean a story is preachy.

I happen to agree with Wayne that there are the number of books dealing with deeper spiritual matters is on the increase. His books are on my list. I was stunned by his ending of the Door Within trilogy, especially for a youth series. It told the truth beautifully. The whole truth. The grim and the glorious. It was an amazing blend.

Anyway, thanks all for your comments. May the discussion continue!

Becky

J. Mark Bertrand

Becky, not to ask more questions or anything, but don't you think that having "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" plays a part. You're stunned by the truth-telling in the Door Within trilogy, but would every reader see the same significance that you do? I'm stunned by the truth-telling in Flannery O'Connor, but people tell me all the time it isn't there. (For that matter, they read Lewis and don't get it, either.)

Merrie

Becky,
I know everybody else has moved on to Part Two of this interview, but I just have a little more blather (on my part, I'm the one blathering here) about theme:

There's always the other side of the literary coin: who knows if I am doing a good job? I may think my process is working and will only find out later that no one was able to read between the lines of my convoluted symbology.

Okay, I confess, I am heavy into symbols and metaphors. But not so much themes. Maybe my brain is too small to look at a picture that big.

:)

While I don't set out with a "theme," I do constantly work with what I would call "types," or reflections of characters we recognize. Whether Christ or Adam or Satan or Esther, these well-known characters add nuance to the broad picture.

And I personally love the spiritual symbology behind everyday things like darkness and shadows and light and children. To me, certain things embody or typify a spiritual essence. For instance:children=innocence, therefore harming a child=the loss of our collective innocence. Whether that equals theme, I have no idea. I'm just a person who likes to play with words. (Yuk yuk) I'm far from a scholar. I'll leave all that up to whoever gets stuck reviewing my book if it ever gets published.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Mark, I agree that a big part of what I'd like to see in Christian fiction depends on having the eyes to see and ears to hear. I guess I figure that's up to God. I mean, I have a responsibility to tell the truth about God in an engaging way. Some people may well think I didn't write about God at all. Others may think it isn't engaging at all. Still others will see things I never intended, and when I read it over, I see what they see (that's happened to me with a crit partner). I suppose I will go with percentages to know if what I'm trying works or not. If more people see God in a new fresh way than simply find an entertaining story, then I think I'm on the right track. So far, all I've got to go on is my crit group, so this answer may change one day.

Merrie, I'm big on types and symbolism too. That's how I craft theme, by and large. Well, that and character development. I do understand theme would be hard for a seat-of-the-pants writer. I mean, theme is embedded into the story--not something easy to go back and stitch in, though I understand some writers do just that. I don't know what my writing would be like if I didn't big-picture plot first. That gives me direction, because it gives me something to say. I can't imagine writing a story without first having something I want to say while telling it. Maybe it's the way my brain is wired.

Becky

Merrie

Becky,
Ha! You've discovered my deep, dark secret. I am a seat-of-the-pants writer. I do plot. But it always falls apart and my brain starts to melt and I actually get into a panic about the whole thing. Okay, enough self-analysis here! Love the discussion!

Kim

Good job, Beckey!! I'm loving this. And you are SOOO right. Too many times, us Christian writers water God down. God forbid if we offend someone. So we make God the kindly Grandpa instead of the powerful and loving God that He is. So we keep it simple, don't get into areas where folks suffer and question God and their faith. And for pity sake, don't ever have God 'talking' to them! LOL!!! They'll think you're crazy. Make God more like the fog in the morning, a mystical creature who peeks in on us once a day. Keep Him at a distance. (This is why I stopped reading Christian literature a long time ago and only read a few select Christian writers.) Please give me a break.

I think we make Christian writing way too hard. We create this safe cocoon and cram God into it, hoping it will work. Water it down a bit so we don't offend anyone, enter our neat little forumula, water that down a bit more and hope for the best. Blah!! I've learned to take my experiences with God and my relationship with Him and pour it into my characters. Make God real.

I've learned the hard, hard, hard way, you can't please everyone, so you got to please God and Him only. Write what you know. Pour your experiences into the characters. Let them experience what you've experienced through your walk with God. If you had a loved one who died horribly and you questioned God for a year and almost threw away your faith, then God came through for you and comforted you, why not pour that into your character? Don't be scared of God, He won't hurt you. Show the ups, the downs, the highs, the lows, the devine interventions. That's what's interesting, not grandpa sitting in his chair. If folks don't like it, they don't have to read it.


kim

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