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Monday, March 23, 2009

FROM THE ARCHIVES...Author Interview ~ Charles Martin

Charles Martin earned his B.A. in English from Florida State University, and his M.A. in Journalism and Ph.D. in Communication from Regent University. He served one year at Hampton University as an adjunct professor in the English department and as a doctoral fellow at Regent. In 1999, he left a career in business to pursue his writing. He and his wife, Christy, live a stone's throw from the St. John's River in Jacksonville, Florida, with their three boys: Charlie, John T., and Rives. When he's not writing, Charles fishes with his boys, works in the yard with Christy, coaches T-ball, and kneels by his boys' beds at night. Right now, the boys are praying for two things: a boat with space for a cooler, three or four people, and five or six rods because they're not catching any fish off the neighbor's dock, and Daddy's book.

Interview via telephone April 2006

Gina Holmes: I’ve seen your name come up several times in interviews. Robert Whitlow named you as an author whose craft he respects. Frank Peretti mentioned you in his recent Crosswalk interview.

Charles Martin: Yeah, that blew me away. What makes it really cool is when I was in high-school in the mid-eighties. The only two books I’d read cover to cover in one sitting were the darkness books. I saw spiritual warfare in a new light. He just put pictures and faces to it.

I met him for the first time about a year ago. We spent about thirty minutes talking. He wanted to talk about me, not about him which was really humbling. I got to thank him for his stories. He’s just a neat guy.

What an honor.

Gina: Had you known that Robert Whitlow had also mentioned you in an interview?

Charles: No, I didn’t know that. Robert has become a good friend. We’re published by the same house. He and I talk often. He’s a huge encouragement to me. I hope that I’m the same encouragement to him. He is truly a remarkable person.

Gina: I loved interviewing him. He was very entertaining.

Charles: I love to hear him laugh.

Gina: Yeah. You can’t get better publicity than to be named by other great authors as being someone who has great talent.

Tell me about When Crickets Cry. What inspired that story?

Charles: My stories, and I didn’t really understand this for a long time until I read C.S. Lewis talk about how he first saw the picture of a fawn dancing through a snowy meadow. He saw his stories in pictures that would flash in front of his eyes and he would sort of back into his stories from those pictures. That happened with me with The Dead Don’t Dance and Wrapped in Rain. And with Crickets, I was just daydreaming and I saw a picture of a little girl around nine or ten who looked younger due to some physical ailments wearing a yellow dress.

I paint this picture in the front of Crickets. She’s standing on the street corner in N.E. Georgia, screaming at the top of her lungs, “lemonade!” I knew she was trying to raise money for something. The more I picked away at it I got the feeling this girl needs to have a heart transplant.

The thing about the story that intrigued me was not so much her physical transplant but sort of the emotional transplant that needed to occur in someone else.

Somewhere along the same time, I stumbled upon the proverb where Solomon says, “Above all else, guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.” I started putting those two things together and then I started tinkering with the story.

I became amazed at this little fist-sized organ that we take advantage of and don’t treat very well and yet it does everything it can to keep us alive.

All of that together got me started on this story.

Gina: Have you personally been effected by heart disease?

Charles: No, but I was working on this book in about 2003. I was about half way through this manuscript when my publisher called me and said ‘we wonder if you’d be willing to write a non-fiction story about the new senate majority leader, Bill Frist. He was a heart transplant surgeon.

So, I literally put down Crickets for seventy three days or so and took this rapid fire project which was like a biography of Bill Frist. I interviewed thirty/thirty five of his closest friends. I never met him. They kept me at arms length, for political reasons I think.

In that process, I met some phenomenal doctors and they led me to research that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. And to patients that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. So, I got to interview some of the first heart transplant patients from the eighties. These guys that had received new hearts and then ridden across the country on bicycles.
And kids, it was a fun process to complete my education.

Gina: Wow. It’s interesting that you’re writing a novel about that and then you’re stopped to write a non-fiction story that will cause you to do further research in that area.

Charles: I don’t chalk that up to chance either.

Gina: No, definitely not. That’s just amazing. How would you describe your books?

Charles: You know I’m looking for a good description for my books. I just don’t honestly know. I wish I did. I know I’ve been compared to Leif Enger but he’s just awesome. I’ve been compared to Nicholas Sparks, to Faulkner (which I don’t quite understand, ‘because my sentences are too short and choppy.)

I’ve been dubbed Southern fiction, Christian fiction, Inspirational fiction. I don’t really know how to answer you.

Gina: Would you agree that your work is literary?

Charles: I’ve been told by people who know this business to answer that question with a yes is a death knell for your book.[laughing]

Yes, I think parts of my books are more literary than pop culture but in all seriousness I’m wrestling with where my books fit.
I’m working on my fifth book and I’m struggling with where I fit. I really have to not listen to that because putting myself in certain niche might paint my stories the wrong way. I need to just tell my stories and let them be what they are.

Gina: I started When Crickets Cry and I was just taken back by your prose. One of the paragraphs looks like it took you weeks to write. Like you spent so much time painstakingly choosing each word. It’s just beautiful. How long does it take you to write a book writing that way?

Charles: Well it took me eighteen months to write Crickets but I took three months off to write that other book. And Crickets was a little different because I did a lot of research. I saw open heart surgery, interviewed a lot of doctors. Wrapped in Rain took me nine months and The Dead Don’t Dance took about seven or eight months.

If you’re talking about the prologue in When Crickets Cry, I did spend a couple of days working on those couple of pages. They were important to me. I wanted to make sure I pulled out the clutter. I wanted it to be tight and paint a picture. I know I’ve got about sixty seconds to get your attention and keep it before you put my book down.

A lot of folks have asked a similar question about a couple of pages from the book, The Dead Don’t Dance. Page 102 or something where I talk about the river. On most days, I’m like every other writer. I give myself a quota that I try to meet. I usually get pretty close to it. But with those pages, it took me four and a half days to write that. It was something that was essential to the story.

Same thing with the prologue to Crickets. I was wrestling with the setup. I was wrestling with—what’s this guy’s problem? What’s his anguish? Who is he? What’s he struggling with?

I took the same kind of time with the first few pages of chapter one. It’s a pretty quick picture of Annie and her ailment and that Reese is not what he seems.

Gina: How did you learn to write fiction?

Charles: I have a Masters in journalism and a PHD in communications but none of that taught me how to write a story. It taught me how to think, how to process and how to work critically on something and how to work hard on something.

I started wrestling with voice and what is voice in a series of letters my uncle wrote me in college. I started putting short stories together when I was fifteen. I’m an introvert and about the age of fifteen I was struggling with sports. Am I going to be good enough to play in college? Girls and that whole question. Grades. A lot of life gets thrown at you at one time in puberty. I was trying to figure out how to wrestle with it and I wrestled with it in the form of story.

Now the stories I wrote had nothing to do with what I was wrestling but it helped me get out the emotion I was struggling with. That happened in college through the letters I wrote my uncle. If you really boil it down, it still happens today in the stories I write. I think you can see that in Dance and Rain and Crickets.

Gina: You don’t read how to books on the craft of writing?

Charles: About half a dozen, the best being Stephen King’s On Writing.
He’s very different than I am. But he’s one of the finest living writers that I’ve read. His ability to craft is really great.

Another neat thing that happened to me was in 2000 I was hired to write another non-fiction story which never got printed but they teamed me up with a Reader’s Digest editor. He lived in England. He’s written a hundred and eighty articles for Reader’s Digest. He’s authored twenty something books. He’s the finest writer I know. His name is John Dyson. He is the finest craftsman in writing that I’ve ever met and that includes everybody. He’s the best I know. He’s better with words than anyone I’ve ever met.

He was brutal to me for eighteen months when I worked on that story. He would say Charles you’re good and this is not as good as you are. I rewrote that first chapter of this book eighteen times. I was ready to give up and go do something else.

Some how or another he encouraged me and said don’t take it that way. This is writing. It’s just work. You just keep doing it until it’s right.

You talked about the first paragraph of Crickets being well written, I think that’s where you see his influence on me. The cleaner writing. Same thing with those few pages in Danced and a couple of places in Wrapped in Rain where I get at the heart of something.

Gina: Are you still in contact with him?

Charles: Oh yeah. We send family photos and email back and forth.

Gina: Is he your mentor?

Charles: He’s one of them. I wrote in the acknowledgments of The Dead Don’t Dance, there are two guys who’ve really influenced me as a writer, the first is John Dyson and the second is Davis Bunn. Davis is a true statesman. He took an interest in me when no one else would. He’s the reason I got my agent and my first book contract.

I had submitted The Dead Don’t Dance to over a hundred publishers. I had 86 rejection letters which I still have. And through a really neat series of events which was really God ordained, we met. He read the first forty pages of my first novel. Called me and I went and had lunch with him. He was feeling me out. Wanted to know if I was a one book wonder or did I have the stuff to be a writer. I guess he answered his own question ‘cause as I was leaving he called to query houses on the West coast. He helped me learn the anatomy of the business side of this. Where Dyson had an influence with me on my craft, Davis has had a great influence on the business side of things.

I said in Dance that St. Bernard of Clairvaux said in the doctrine of Christian Humility basically said that we’re all just dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. And if that’s the case with me, I’ve got one foot on John Dyson’s shoulder and the other on Davis Bunn’s.

Gina: Was The Dead Don’t Dance the first novel you’d written. None shelved at home?

Charles: While I finished my academic stuff, I put writing on hold. It was just too hard to do both. Some time in 96, scenes from The Dead Don’t Dance started bubbling up and I began putting scenes together. In 97/98. I put it in a drawer while I was trying to make a living. Then in 99 I finished my dissertation and pulled my novel out and said, ‘I really want to finish this.’

I finished the first draft and gave it to my wife Christy. She’s both my biggest cheerleader and harshest critic, which is a really great combination. I need to know the truth before I give it to someone else. She’s able to give that to me. And so she read it in early 99 and really believed in it which was really key.

About eight months later, I was really wrestling with being in the insurance business and being unhappy and I got a really great job offer from a big insurance company to be their vice-president. I would get to travel all over, have a staff, a big salary, and bonuses. It was an awesome honor and opportunity. It was like The Firm.

Gina: Except it wasn’t the mob?

Charles: No, not the mob. But it was awesome. But I was at a point in my life where I had to either decide to climb the corporate ladder and make a go of that, or see if I could figure out how to be a writer. I talk about this in the acknowledgements of Dance and Maggie, (which is the sequel to Dead Don’t Dance coming out this summer.)

Christy gave me the freedom to say I’m going to be a writer. She walked in and said, “We’re going to do this one time and we’re going to do it all out. I don’t want you to look back and wish you had done it. I don’t want to take that from you.” That still echoes in me.

So I turned down that job and left the company I was working for and we started trying to figure out how to get my story published. I built decks. I had my own pressure washing business. My family thought I was nuts. Really thought I was off my rocker.

We sent off over a hundred queries. Then over six months the letters started coming. I eventually stopped going to the mailbox because the letters were all so kind and nice and completely rejecting. I couldn’t stand to read another one.

After about the 86th one, I was interviewing in the manufacturing business. My pipe dream was over. The best in the business told me my story wasn’t any good. I was finished. I told myself I’ll write at night. I’ll write for myself. I’m not going to be published.

It wasn’t but a couple of weeks after that I met Davis Bunn and he made a couple of phone calls.

Gina: Where did you meet him, a writer’s conference?

Charles: I’ve never been to one of those. My grandparents were at the National Prayer breakfast in Washington D.C. and there’s a dinner the night before and my grandfather was about 84 then and was disappointed in me for not taking the insurance job but he’d read my novel and then he changed colors and then he became my cheerleader. That was great because I wanted to make him proud. He put me through grad school. It was hard for me not to have his encouragement.

But he read my novel, liked it and began talking to people. He met Davis at that party and asked him to read his grandson’s novel. Davis doesn’t do that. He has a thousand people ask him the same question. He said, “No, tell him to write a second novel and I’ll read that one.”

My grandfather walked off and got my grandmother. He brought her back and said this is Charles’ grandmother and she wants to know if you’ll read his novel.

Something about that got to Davis and he told them to have me email him the first forty pages, which I did. Weeks went by and he called me and I went and had lunch with him.

Gina: You owe a lot to your grandparents.

Charles: I do. I know that. When I met with Davis we sat down and he said, “Charles, I’ve read a lot of first novels, I’ve never thought any should be published. Yours is the first. In fact I think it’s the best first novel I’ve ever read. So, tell me about you.”

This was great because at this point, everyone in the country has told me my stories are no good. Finally here’s someone with credibility, millions of books in print, saying maybe this ought to be on a shelf. I really needed that.

Gina: when you wrote The Dead Don’t Dance, you talk about a hundred rejections, which means you weren’t just aiming at CBA publishers. There aren’t that many.

Click here to read part II.

Visit Charles web-site:


  1. Wonderful stuff, Charles. Your reference to C.S. Lewis "backing into" his stories, reminded me of the quote from Stephen King's book that "Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world." Looking forward to getting your books and seeing what you've excavated. Thanks!

    Memo to Gina: Avoid asking any more authors if they're in the mob. I'd hate to find out Charles paid his way through college by moonlighting as a hit man.

  2. Thanks Mike, I'll try to remember that. First Ane tells me I can't mention "pee" in my interviews, now this. Good grief, what else is there going to be to talk about?

    Charles, what really stood out to me in your interview was God's fingerprints all over your career. From the non-fiction book project that gave you endless research on heart disease that you were able to utilize in Crickets to the "chance" meeting of your grandparents and Mr. Bunn at the moment you had reached the end of your rope.

    Wow. And I'm LOVING When Crickets Cry. I'm dog-earing pages left and right. I particulary am inspired by Charlie's Helen Keller quote.

    Your writing is fantastic and lovely. Glad God intervened so we are able to enjoy your great work.

  3. Awesome Interview, can't wait until tomorrow. And Gina's right, you can see God's work all over this.

  4. Great interview. It's fun to see how the Lord has brought you to new places in your writing. And to be compared to Enger--wow. He's my hero!

  5. Your perseverence paid off, and that's encouraging. I can't wait to read Crickets. Thanks for opening your life to us, Charles.

  6. After reading this interview I stopped at the bookstore and read the first chapter. It's outstanding. When Crickets Cry is at the top of my 'to be bought and devoured' list.

    Thanks to both Gina and Charles.

  7. What an excellent journey. Thank you for sharing.

    From God's fingerprints all over your life, to the picture of your wife and grandparents' hearts - inspiring.

    And Mike - Gina asked if The Firm that offered him the position was mob-related. I think that's allowed under By-Law 19. But Gina, I do think you should refrain from asking author's if they have good mob standing.

  8. You know, all this mob talk is making Gina nervous. And when Gina gets nervous she starts talking about herself in third person ...and then the medication.

    Yo, not for nothin but as a Jersey girl who put herself through school waiting tables at a goodfellas type restaurant, good mob standing is a useful bit of information : )

  9. I guess I missed this interview the first time. Great interview. I really enjoyed reading about Charles' writing journey. Blessings.

  10. I discovered Martin one weekend a few years ago (The Dead Don't Dance) and fell in love with his writing style. I just finished reading When Crickets Cry and it is obvious much time was spent on the prologue. It is amazing. He is an incredible writer and one to be studied.

  11. I agree that he's amazing. I can think of just a few books that I'll read over and over to study the craft of them, but I do that with his.

  12. Love Charles' work - I have every one with his latest, Where the River Ends, in my TBR. When Crickets Cry is a great book to do for book clubs - we did it a couple of years ago and Charles graciously chatted to us in Australia (getting up early while on holidays due to the time difference!) for an hour. We still talk about that interview - he is not only a skilled writer but a true gentleman!

    But now you've mentioned the mob....??!!

  13. In fact, we were so chuffed with our chat with Charles, I transcribed the entire discussion and it can be found on my blog!!

  14. Hey Rel. I remember Charles saying, in his interview, that he did those book club chats. I thought it was a wonderful idea and I'm going to steal the idea when Crossing Oceans comes out and do a few myself (if anyone wants me that is :) I'll have to check out your chat with him. I think he's a literary genius, so anytime I can sit at his feet, I try to. Is it easy to find that chat?

  15. Yep, just look for Charles' name in my sidebar under Author Interviews and voila! Enjoy and sorry about all the other chatter - hehehe!


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