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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Author Interview ~ Jack Cavanaugh, Part I

Acclaimed by critics and readers alike as a master storyteller, Jack Cavanaugh has been entertaining and inspiring his readers with a mixture of drama, humor, and biblical insight for over ten years. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Marni.

Interview with Jack Cavanaugh Feb. 2006 (via telephone)

Gina Holmes: Your third novel in the Great Awakening Series, Storm, is coming out in March. Whose idea was it for you and the late Bill Bright to get together and do this series?

Jack Cavanaugh: Actually it was a round about process. I had gotten word through the ChiLibris Christian novelist group that Bill Bright was looking for someone to coauthor suspense fiction with. I was given a contact number and I contacted the man at that number. We hit it off real well. He said, “Bill pays me to know his mind and I think you’d be perfect. In fact, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t come about.” A little later he called back and said Dr. Bright already selected someone for that position. And that was Ted Dekker. He wrote Blessed Child and another book with Bill Bright.

When Bill Bright wanted to do some historical fiction, immediately my friend interceded for me and said I have just the writer for you. So, I flew out to Orlando and met with Dr. Bright. We had a meeting of the minds and this series came about.

Gina: What was Bill Bright’s purpose in wanting to do this series?

Jack: He has a heart for revival. He has had a strong desire to pray for and promote a national revival. The whole purpose behind this is to show Americans who are unaware of what has happened spiritually in our nation, of some great times of revival in hopes of giving them some specifics to pray for and knowing that God has blessed our country in a tremendous spiritual way several times before.

Gina: How much time do you spend researching before you actually sit down to write?

Jack: That varies from project to project. I have a degree in history and I’ve taught history on a college level. So if it’s something in American history, I at least have some background or if I’ve written on that period before I have some background. Anything that’s on a new subject and new area takes longer for me. For example I did a series on South Africa. It was the publisher’s idea. I declined it at first, but my editor said, “Look into it and see what you think.”

I took a couple of days to do some initial research. I loved it. It was fantastic with amazing possibilities. But it took longer to do the research because I knew nothing about South Africa or South African history. I knew those books would be translated and sold in South Africa. The last thing I wanted them to say was, “You can tell an American wrote this.”

For example I learned things such as; they don’t have the same concept of a hero as we do. They don’t have a John Wayne figure or a strong individualism bent like we do here in America. And so I couldn’t have my hero have that individualistic bent because they wouldn’t relate to him. It’s those types of things that you have to learn in order to do a good enough job.

I’ve done several in World War II, so I have files and files on World War II history and what was playing on the radio and that kind of thing. So that’s easier.

Gina: What’s the longest period of time you’ve ever spent in research?

Jack: A year. That was complicated by physical problems which put off getting the book done, which was a real problem because your deadlines start to domino after that.

The good part was it allowed me to think about the project for a year. That was Beyond the Sacred Page, Zondervan. I really liked that book because I was able to spend more thinking time on it and more research time on it. It wasn’t the research that took so long, it was my physical problems. I could read while I was recovering but I couldn’t actually produce pages.

Gina: For someone who is sitting down to write their first historical and they know nothing about the time period, where do you suggest they begin?

Jack: I would question their wanting to write historical fiction; normally those who want to write historical fiction read a lot of historical fiction. They already have a background or at least a fascination and a love for a particular time period. My advice would be to write about a time period that you would just love to immerse yourself in, because you’re going to be there awhile. If you’re just targeting a time period just because you think it’s going to do well on the market, you’re going to get really bored and frustrated.

A good example personally, the market loves civil war novels. I don’t particularly like writing in that period. Now, when I did the American Portrait series, I knew I was going to have to write a book during that time period, and I approached it with fear and trepidation. While it came out alright, I didn’t have the best of times writing during that time period. My interest wasn’t there. Write what you’re interested in.

Gina: Okay, once they’ve read plenty of historicals set in the period they want to write, where would you send them to research from there?

Jack: The best source would be to go to a university library. Go to a college in your area in the history section. They have row after row of books.
What I encourage people to do is not to read history books about that time period because that’s an interpretive history. That’s someone who’s studied it and come to some conclusions. A good researcher needs to get into original documents written by people who lived during that time.

So for example; you read Thomas Jefferson’s works and Benjamin Franklin’s works, people who lived during that time period.

There’s a lot of original work for most time periods, unless you’re writing cave man days, which makes it a little bit harder.

So, read original works and form your own conclusions.

Gina: Great advice. You mentioned the market liking civil war novels. Does the market like historicals in general right now? I’m hearing over and over that historicals are a tough sell. Maybe you don’t see that because you’re Jack Cavanaugh.

Jack: That’s exactly true. That’s one of the reasons I was able to get started publishing because historicals were the main stay of Christian fiction at that time—late eighties-early nineties. It helped reintroduce Christian fiction to the market.

When I started writing, I’d go to writer’s conferences, I wanted to write fiction but publishers wouldn’t talk to me. They said Christian fiction wouldn’t sell. So, the market had to change for the doors to open for me to get in. When they did people were looking for historical fiction. Now, the market is changing away from historical fiction and so am I.

I’ve written my first contemporary which came out last year—a suspense. And as I finish up Fury which is the final book in this series, I have contemporary suspense contracts coming up with no historicals lined up.

Gina: Wow. It’s interesting to me that someone who would love to write historicals would also want to write contemporary suspense. They’re so different. Is it the market driving you to write this type of story?

Jack: No, it’s both. I have wanted to do contemporary and in fact what got me my first contract. I was at Mount Hermon (writer’s conference) speaking to Linda Holland who had just moved to Victor books to start a fiction line and I pitched to her a contemporary suspense novel. She said, “Jack, I think I could get you a contract on this.”
The conversation that followed was that they were looking for someone to write historical fiction series and I had wanted to do that too. I’d asked her what they were looking for and I put together a proposal and they gave me a four book contract, and I’d never written a novel before in my life, but based on my proposal I’d gotten the contract.

Then we extended it to eight in that series. They’ve been in print for over ten years now and just got reprinted and re-released.

I sort of came in through the back door and the contemporary novel I had pitched to her still hasn’t been written. It’s probably the one I wanted to do the most and have always wanted to do and it’s sort of gotten pushed aside for all this historical fiction.

Gina: When you went to your publishers and said, “Hey, I’ve got some ideas and I want to start writing contemporary suspense,” did you get raised eyebrows?

Jack: Actually Zondervan was enthusiastic because they had changed focus. When they contracted for the Book of Book series, which is Lessons of Truth and Beyond the Sacred Page, they contracted for me and that’s what I wrote. Then what they did was decide they weren’t going to go the historical route, they wanted contemporary. My contract no longer fit with them. After the first two books we renegotiated and the result was Death Watch.

Gina: How has the response and sales been on that book?

Jack: I’ve been disappointed with the sales. I was hoping for greater, but that may be true for any book. But it has gotten a tremendous response from those who’ve read it, from readers and reviewers. It’s gotten great reviews. So those who have read it have enjoyed it but it hasn’t picked up the momentum I’d hoped it would but it hasn’t been out quite a year yet. We’ll see how things go.

Gina: Do you suppose that might be a branding issue? People have gotten used to you as a historical author and then you come out with a book so completely different?

Jack: I don’t know about that. I think people are just looking for a good story. If they find something they like, they tell others about it. I’m not real high on branding.

A brand for me, and this is where I part ways with my publisher, your brand is your name, particularly when it comes to novels.

People who like Stephen King, read Stephen King, whether the story is set in Maine or Colorado, that kind of thing. They just like his writing and they follow him. For me a person’s name is their brand.

There are some of course who like historicals and don’t want to read contemporaries and they may not transfer over with you, but just because your name is on it they’ll give it a good look.

Gina: Before you sat down to write Death Watch, did you sit down with a stack of Ted Decker’s, Stephen King’s and those types of books in the genre?

Jack: Of course and I still am. One of the things I do as an author is to immerse myself into reading in the particular genre I’m writing in. I’ve been reading the Dean Koontz’s, Stephen King’s, and that kind of suspense fiction for years and years, so I am familiar with the genre.

I like to see how other artists do their craft, looking for different techniques they use and that kind of thing. At the same time some of the things I’ve learned as a historical fiction author can serve me very well coming over into contemporary suspense. Because in all of my historicals the goal has been to transport the reader to a different time and place so they could see what it’s like to touch and feel and live in another time and place. The same skills can be used in contemporary.

One of the studies I’ve been doing recently is on Alfred Hitchcock films. Particularly the story element he uses in his films is to have an inhibiting incident that could happen to anybody and would lead into suspense. It was his way of saying you never know what could happen on any given day and this could happen to you.

He had everyman launched into a suspenseful or horrific situation. That kind of technique works whether it’s a historical or contemporary.

Gina: Before you sit down to write, do you work with an outline?

Jack: My outlines stretch into the forty, fifty page range and that’s my first draft where I flesh out the story and where I design the construction of the story. Then when I sit down to write, I feel confident that I have a good story, so I put on my storyteller’s hat and now I tell the story as best I can.

That’s something that’s come to me speaking. I learned in speaking that the first time you use a sermon or speech you’re feeling your way through it. By the time you’ve used that speech twenty or thirty times, you know where to anticipate the laughs. You know where to pause and use the storytelling techniques. For me that’s translated into writing as well. Once I’ve crafted the story and I know it’s solid, when I’m coming up to the suspenseful parts, I can lay the ground work. Now I can focus on telling the story as best I can because I know what’s coming next.

I hasten to say that’s what works for me. I couldn’t do it the other way. I have god friends who couldn’t do it my way. Every writer needs to find out what works for them.

Gina: What makes for a good thriller?

Jack: Interesting question because our American attention span keeps getting shorter and shorter. When ER came out it had quick cuts and short scenes. It was funny, a couple of years ago, they got caught up in there own quick scenes and several stories overlapping each other format and things were moving so fast, they couldn’t move fast enough and they moved to a split screen.

I’ve toyed with that. A split screen on a page—I haven’t come up with that but the idea intrigues me. Then we have the television show,"24". I started watching it this season and within the first twenty minutes there was a presidential assassination, a bomb, this and that all going on all at once.

Our readers are expecting that kind of thing anymore. James Patterson is attempting to do that with short chapters. It seems like he can’t have a chapter any longer than a page and a half in some of his novels. He’ll stop right in the middle of dialogue just to start a new chapter. It’s overkill in my opinion but it gives the impression of a fast read.

Some publishers are bumping up the font size and margins so you’re turning pages faster. It’s a shorter story to give that sense of breathlessness. There are techniques to use: I learned one from Dean Koontz early on. I used it in my very first book. It was a page and a half sentence. It was a run on but when it’s done well, it gives the feeling of breathlessness.

Normally when the tension picks up you start writing in short sentences. Sometimes it gets choppy. This run-on technique gives you an out of breath kind of feeling. So there are a lot of different techniques on writing suspense, but it all comes down to basic storytelling. Have an interesting character, someone you’re pulling for and put them in situations that capture our attention.

Gina: You write about four books a year, is that right?

To be continued tomorrow...


  1. I loved this interview. You're right, Gina. Jack really opened up with some good teaching. What I especially loved was what he said about a run-on sentence giving the feeling of breathlessness. Now maybe our critique partners will understand. That is, if we do them well. ;o)

  2. Great interview. Can't wait to read the rest. I always enjoy listening to Jack Cavanaugh talk about writing. There's some great stuff in there.

  3. Great interview Gina and Jack! I'm looking forward to the rest.

  4. Man o man! What a superb interview. Thank you Gina for introducing one of my favorite authors to ACFWers.

  5. You could charge for this information!

    Thanks a bunch - Jack and Gina.

  6. Great interview! I've linked to it over at my blog.

  7. Thanks for the link Katie! Thanks for the comments all.

  8. Good stuff. Looking forward to tomorrow. It makes me kind of sad how all our attention spans are shortening... umm, what were we talking about?

  9. I've already learned a lot and look forward to the rest of the interview. Thanks, Jack and Gina.

    The only Cavanaugh book I've read to date is Death Watch. I was surprised by the direction it took. I expected it to go one way based on the backcover copy and then the actual storyline went a very different direction halfway in. An interesting concept though.

  10. Nice interview. I loved Storm. Mr. Cavanaugh is a very versatile writer. Amazing gift.


  11. That is a fantastic interview! Cavanaugh is one of my favorite authors -- I loved his Songs in the Night series especially.

  12. Jack Cavanaugh says—

    Thank you all for the nice comments. I’m glad you’re finding something useful in the interview.

    Thank you Gina, for a wonderful interview. As most of you already know, Gina is a sweetheart. While we’ve never met, she made me feel like I was chatting about fiction with a friend.

    Kelly—I can charge for this information??? Thanks for the advice. All of you will be getting a bills in the mail. :)

    Actually, your comment gives me a chance to pass along an appreciation to all who teach at Christian Writers Conferences. I’m a product of these conferences. I have a good anecdote to tell you about them, but I don’t dare, because I can’t remember if I told it to Gina or not during the interview. It’s about a comment given me at a secular writers awards banquet. If it doesn’t show up in the other installments, I’ll relate it to you then.

    I’ve said a prayer for each of you, that God will bless your writing efforts.

  13. Sniff. Sniff. That's so sweet. A great teacher, an amazing writer and now praying for us too? Wow. I'm going to Lifeway and buying out all of your books right now!

  14. Not unless you can beat me to it, Gina. I've read some of Jack's books. Now I've got to get the rest! Look out credit cards, here I come!!!

  15. Gina,
    Great info in here. Jack's research advice is terrific and I'm printing it out. There is such a wealth of information in these interviews. Ever think of making a book out of it? It would be great!


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