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Monday, June 26, 2006

Author Interview ~ Jonathan Rogers

Jonathan Rogers grew up in Georgia, where he spent many happy hours in the swamps and riverbottoms on which the wild places of The Wilderking are based. He received his undergraduate degree from Furman University in South Carolina and holds a Ph.D. in seventeenth-century English literature from Vanderbilt University, where he taught English for five years. Rogers makes his home in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and six children, where he makes a living as a freelance writer.

Interview by Kelly Klepfer

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

The Way of the Wilderking concludes my Wilderking Trilogy, which also includes The Bark of the Bog Owl and The Secret of the Swamp King.

The trilogy tells the story of Aidan Errolson, a shepherd boy who finds out that it is his destiny to be the Wilderking, the long-prophesied wild man who will come from the forests and swamps to set things right in the island kingdom of Corenwald. Along the way he falls in with the feechiefolk, a tribe of semi-civilized swamp people who fight too much, cry too easily, laugh at jokes they’ve heard a hundred times, and smell terrible. I like to call the Wilderking Trilogy a “fantasy-adventure story told in an American accent.”

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.

Shortly after I quit my cubicle job, I wrote the first chapter of The Bark of the Bog Owl and showed it to agent John Eames, who was a friend of a friend. I told John, “My wife is pregnant with our fifth child. I’m in no position to do art for art’s sake. Does this look like the sort of thing you could sell?” John said he thought he could sell it if I could write a whole book that lived up to the promise of that chapter.

I think that meeting was late May 2002. I wrote The Bark of the Bog Owl throughout the rest of 2002… I finished it between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Starting in January of 2003, John Eames pitched it to about a dozen publishers as the first book of a trilogy. A couple of publishers made offers in the spring, and we settled on Broadman and Holman.

What made me go with Broadman and Holman was the fact that Gary Terashita, the acquisitions editor, asked if I’d be willing to beef up the story—make it longer, and make it appeal to a little bit older target group. Ever since I started writing the book, I was afraid I’d end up with a publisher who would ask me to dumb it down. Not all publishers show young readers the respect they deserve. To my mind, I was writing serious books, and I didn’t want them to go out into the world wearing footie pajamas. In retrospect, I don’t think that was as big a danger as I had supposed, but Gary’s challenge was very energizing—and it resulted in a much better series.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

I don’t often doubt whether what I’ve written is good enough. I usually succeed in writing the sort of thing I like to read; and since that’s the best way I know of judging whether a piece of writing is “good enough,” I rarely experience doubts at that level.

What I do doubt—every day—is whether or not I’m faithfully pursuing my calling. What is an appropriate use of my talents? Should I spend next three hours writing the prose I can write, or should I devote that time to self-promotion? I can rationalize either choice. If I apply my talents toward writing bank brochures (something I frequently do), does that count as pursuing my calling? After all, feeding those babies is part of my calling too.

I’ve got a couple of novels I want to write—I would even say I feel called to write them—but I don’t have any reason to believe they would help me provide for my family. What constitutes faithfulness in that situation? And what does a string of rejections mean? Is it a fiery trial for the purpose of hardening my resolve, or is it a signal that it’s time to go back to the cubicle?

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

I don’t know if this is the best advice I’ve ever heard, but at least it’s something your readers may not have heard before: if you want some serious training as a writer, get a job writing advertising copy. I know it sounds pedestrian. But every day you’re forced to try out several different voices, speak to several different audiences about several different subjects, some of which are so dull you can’t imagine saying anything interesting.

But you need to get paid, so—lo and behold—you find you’re able to come up with something after all. And deadlines…sometimes you have 2 or 3 in a single day. Obviously, being a copywriter isn’t going to teach you everything you need to know about writing. But I’ve learned things about my own capabilities that I could have never learned from a writing class or seminar. Yoking my creative tendencies to the matter-of-fact, professional approach required of a copywriter has done me a world of good.

Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. They get up in the morning and do their jobs. Are you a writer? Then get up in the morning and write.

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

I once had a well-meaning person from a marketing department advise me to turn the character Dobro Turtlebane into a girl. Your readers who are familiar with the Wilderking books will know how funny that is. For your readers who don’t know the Wilderking books, Dobro is a smelly, rude, belligerent swamp-dweller. The Bark of the Bog Owl had no girl characters, and my friend from marketing knew that girls read a lot more than boys…and girls understandably like girl characters. I ignored the advice, of course. To base any narrative decision on marketing concerns would have utterly contradicted the earthy, swampy ethos of the Wilderking books.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I recently read something from Chip MacGregor (associate publisher at Warner Faith) that I wish I had known 3 or 4 years ago. It’s a formula for determining whether or not you’re a full-time writer: if you have 24 months of work contracted paying what you consider to be a normal salary AND you have at least 4 books paying royalties—i.e., having already earned out the advance—your writing is a real job.

Sometimes a writer gets a good advance and thinks he’s suddenly got a real job as a novelist. If I had known Chip’s formula from the start, it would have saved me a lot of heartache and struggle. A good advance does not a writing career make.

Do you have a scripture or quote that has been speaking to you lately?

Our “family verse” is Philippians 1:9-10: “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve the things that are excellent...” I love that phrase, “approve the things that are excellent.” Sometimes we’re called upon to disprove the things that are wrong, but on a day-to-day basis, I believe it’s more important that we approve the things that are excellent. It’s always my prayer for my family that we might demonstrate an excellent way of living. It’s the same with my writing; I hope it’s excellent, and I hope that through it I’m approving of the things that are excellent.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

I’m really the wrong person to ask. Between writing ad copy, work-for-hire devotional books, and “my” books, it seems that every day is very different. It all depends on where I am in the deadline cycle on what project. I write out of my house. With six kids in and out, that’s pretty tricky. Earplugs have changed my life.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

The central idea that keeps me writing is “divine comedy”—the idea that the vast drama of human history turns out to be a comedy, not a tragedy. Your fondest hopes only faint shadows of the truth, and your wildest dreams aren’t wild enough. Omnipotence turns out to be the same thing as infinite love. It’s my hope to devote a whole writing career to that astonishing truth—through essays, literary criticism, children’s fiction, grown-up fiction, and maybe a few other genres.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Sometimes I hear from a person I haven’t seen or talked to in ten or fifteen years, and they say, “When I read your book, I knew it was you. I could hear your voice in it.” I love knowing that when I’m dead and gone, my grandchildren and great-grandchildren can read my books and hear me talking about the things that are most important to me. They can read The World According to Narnia and have a pretty good idea of my theology. They can read the Wilderking books and have a pretty good idea of what I think is funny or interesting.

My least favorite part, I suppose, is the sneaking suspicion that I’m being self-indulgent. My family has to make lots of sacrifices for me to be a full-time writer—from financial insecurity to having to put up with my meanness when deadlines come around.

What particular part of King David’s story inspired you the most?

The David story is so rich, first to last. Eugene Peterson’s book, Leap Over a Wall does an incredible job of teasing out the narrative possibilities in the life of David. But there were two aspects of the story that really jumped out at me. The first is the gap between the Now and the Not Yet. Many long years pass between the day David learns he’s going to be king and the day he actually becomes king. A whole lot happens in that gap. Over and over again David is called to act decisively, confidently. And yet, wouldn’t there always have been the slightest doubt? Did the prophet get it right? Am I really destined to be king? And if I am destined to be king, what are we waiting for? What does loyalty look like in such a situation?

But over against that doubt, we have the certainty of a boy who hasn’t yet learned how to be a hypocrite. It was the grown-ups who taught David that the Living God would deliver them from the Philistines. But when David showed up at the battlefield, it was the grown-ups who were paralyzed with fear. It took a certain naïveté not to be intimidated by Goliath.

There is the ongoing debate in Christian fiction on the overtness of the gospel in novels. You’ve used allegory and hints, but no outright salvation plan on the back page. What are you hoping to accomplish through your stories?

A lot of times when people use the phrase “the gospel” they’re talking about evangelism. Of course that’s an extremely important part of the gospel, but it’s not the whole gospel. Once you’re converted, you’ve still got the rest of your life stretching out before you. And the fact of God’s grace in your life ought to impact every decision you make. It ought to shape every interaction. It ought to define your attitude toward work and family and community. That’s the gospel too. It’s true that there are no conversions in the Wilderking (actually, there’s an implied conversion in Book 3)—but I hope the gospel is pretty overt.

A PhD in 17th century literature is intimidating. How did your educational background prepare you for the Wilderking books?

I read a mountain of books in graduate school, and that definitely influenced my writing. But in many ways the novelistic impulse is the opposite of the academic impulse. Modern-day academics is typically about narrowing into ever more tightly defined areas of expertise. Good fiction, I believe, requires broadening, opening up to the world. Sometimes I think the best thing graduate school did for me was to make me appreciate the freedom and breadth of the non-academic life.

I love reading what I feel like reading and writing what I feel like writing. I don’t take that for granted any more. I’ve always loved seventeenth-century literature, but I enjoy it a lot more now that I don’t have to read it unless I want to.

Parenting – did it prepare you for the trilogy?

My kids are always reminding me what it was like to be a kid. That’s a big help when you’re writing children’s fiction. But the main way parenting prepared me to write the Wilderking was simply that it gave me an audience to write to. I love having somebody specific to write to. I know what my boys like…and I know there’s a good chance other kids will like the same thing. Also, once I got well into the Bark of the Bog Owl, the boys were demanding more chapters. Not knowing if the book would ever find a publisher, it was good to have somebody who was demanding that I finish the thing. They held me accountable—pretty loudly at times. The elder of my two daughters is starting to read now, so I’ll soon have an audience for a more girl-centric book.

You obviously believe children are intelligent and creative beings – do you prefer to write for children/teens or adults? Why?

C.S. Lewis remarked that any children’s book that’s not worth reading as an adult isn’t worth reading as a child either. I agree whole-heartedly. When I wrote the Wilderking, I was writing what I thought was funny and interesting, not what I thought kids would find funny and interesting. I do the same thing when writing for adults. I write what I find interesting on the assumption that somebody else will find it interesting too.

What was the turning point for making the decision to pursue full-time writing?

After I got out of academics I took a job at a technology company for four or five years. It was a great place to work in most ways, but as the years went by the total disconnect between my talents and abilities on the one hand and my work on the other was just taking it out of me. It was extremely draining to spend 45-50 hours a week doing work that I had no particular talent for, while the talents I did have sat idle. I felt like I was becoming another person—or, more to the point, I felt like I was becoming nobody in particular.

I reached a turning point in January of 2002. In one week, my boss gave me a terrible review at work, and my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma—a development that put my work troubles in perspective and also gave me occasion for much soul-searching. I decided life was too short to live the way I had been living. Friday of that week I drove straight from the hospital in Atlanta to my office in Nashville for the face-to-face portion of my annual review, where I resigned my position.

One way or another I was going to make a living as a writer. I figured that would mean writing mostly advertising copy and technical manuals, but I hoped I could figure out a way to include some books in the mix.

The last of my vacation days I spent in Orlando with my best friends from college. It did me a world of good to sort things out with people who still thought of me as the person I had been ten years earlier. And just being in swampy Florida seemed to stir up some creativity that had lain dormant. After a canoe trip down an alligator-infested river, I went to a bagel shop and outlined the story that became The Wilderking Trilogy.

What’s next?

At the moment I’m in the middle of a few work-for-hire projects, but I don’t currently have a contract for a “book of my own.” I’ve embarked on a grown-up novel that I’m very excited about, but I don’t know when that’s going to be ready for prime time. I’d also love to extend the Wilderking series one of these days. We’ll just have to see what happens.

To read Kelly's review of The Wilderking Trilogy Click here.


  1. Excellent interview, Kelly and Jonathan. You're a brave man writing full-time and canoeing on an alligator infested river. Yikes. I don't know what would make me more nervous.

    Looking forward to that adult novel!

  2. This is a terrific interview! It contains one of the best writers' quotes I've heard this year: "Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. Lawyers don’t get lawyer’s block. They get up in the morning and do their jobs. Are you a writer? Then get up in the morning and write." Thanks Jonathan! Put this one in the NJ Best Of file, Gina.

    P.S. Kelly, you've obviously taken lessons from Barbara Walters.

  3. If you like what Jonathan had to say in the interview I think you'll love his trilogy.

    Yeah Mike, I didn't want to drop names before, but Babs and I are tight. I think we're related through Noah somehow. (Of the ark fame not Lukeman)

  4. Dobro Turtlebane as a girl? That is funny. He's one of the best characters I've come across in fantasy literature--although your books are grounded in some very real stuff.

    Thanks for the great interview.

  5. Thanks, Kelly and Jonathan. I've enjoyed the Wilderking books immensely. They bring out the inner feechie even in a soft civilizer like me. (On an aside, Dr. Rogers and his wife know how to serve up a great Southern meal of salmon, grits, and asparagus.)

  6. This is, as Mike says, a best of NJ interviews. I can't wait to read the adult novel, and BTW, Jonathan and I share the same wonderful agent.

  7. Thanks for this great interview. I'm glad Dobro Turtlebane the feechie stayed in the male race! The female characters in the third Wilderking, Ma Pearl and Sadie, add an interesting touch for girl readers. Some of the most hilarious scenes I've ever read are in that book -- when Sadie first meets Dobro.

  8. I read books before I let the children in my mission read them as some books lead them astray and teach them ungodly things. I have only gotten through most of the first book, and I realized right away that this was a type of rewrite of the story of David. I was so excited, I went straight to the website to find out who the author is. I hope, Mr. Rogers, that you see this, because I would love to let you know that I hope you write some more books like this. I will be having some of my middle schoolers reading this to see if they catch it as we teach the Bible and tutor academically in my mission right here in Georgia. I would love to hear from you, Mr. Rogers, and I pray you write more.


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