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Friday, January 25, 2008

Debut Author Matthew Raley ~ Interviewed

Matthew Raley is senior pastor of a small church in northern California. He has helped launch a Christian school and an assisted living residence for the elderly. He plays violin in the regional symphony and in chamber music festivals. His writing has appeared in Christian News Northwest and Discipleship Journal, and his first novel, Fallen, is published by Kregel. He lives in Orland with his wife Bridget and his two small but dangerous boys, Dylan and Malcolm.

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

I’m working on a novel about identity theft. I asked myself what would happen if three families in the same church discovered that their kids’ identities had been stolen. What if these discoveries took place over the space of three weeks? How quickly would hysteria take over? How would a pastor deal with that problem?

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.

I’ve been writing ever since I was a kid, and I’ve been pursuing publication since college. In my senior year, I started sending articles to my favorite periodical, National Review (the magazine started by Bill Buckley). I sent an article every other week on all kinds of subjects—politics, literature, music, culture. And every other week I got a rejection letter. Over time, the rejections became witty, which was thrilling for me. I felt that any emotional connection was a positive step.

A few years ago, I wrote my third novel. (The first two rest in peace in a drawer). I called it The Work Of Our Hands, and sent it to the Christian Writers Guild novel contest. The novel was awful—flat characters adrift in narrative summary. At the end, you could hear sitcom music. A couple years after not winning the contest, I improved the manuscript so that it was merely poor.

I took the novel in this condition to a Writing For the Soul conference and showed it to Jeff Gerke of Navpress, who itemized how poor it was. He refused to look at it until I memorized and used the techniques in Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I thought this was good news, because an editor who will tell you why your manuscript doesn’t work is giving you pure gold.

Jeff Gerke’s advice is a major reason why this manuscript became my first published novel, Fallen. Improving my craft in dialogue, characterization, and creating scenes made all the difference.

A year or so later, when I saw an e-mail with “your book project” on the subject-line, I was afraid it might be spam. But it turned out to be Kregel’s acceptance for publication. It was such a gratifying moment, and working with Steve Barclift and his team has been a joy.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.

I used to get an inspiration and start writing, but inevitably this led to hours of watching the cursor flash. Now, when I begin a chapter, I try to form a clear idea of what a scene is about and what it needs to accomplish in the plot. I try to leave a scene unfinished, so that the next day I don’t have to start from zero. Anything that sets a direction keeps me writing.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wasted a lot of time writing for myself and assuming that others would be interested. I wish I had listened sooner to all the instruction about the audience’s importance.

I’m still concerned that I don’t understand my audience. Because I’m a writer, I don’t think like other people. I care about things that leave them indifferent—words, themes, forms, allusions, etc. Ultimately, a writer’s job is to craft words to edify people who may not care about words. It’ll be an ongoing problem for me.
But once I began to think carefully about audience, I began to see editors as friends, and I made faster progress toward publication. Editors know audiences.

What’s the best or worst advice (or both) you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Worst: You have to know someone in order to get published.

What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?

My own secret conflicts. A story doesn’t have brutal honesty if it doesn’t evolve from my nightmares.

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

In my senior year of college, I applied to Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism. I didn’t get in. I had wanted writing to be my career, but in reevaluating my priorities after that setback, I decided that writing needed to take the passenger seat. Preaching is my primary calling, and writing is a secondary part of that life.

Once the Lord brought me to this decision, it was not a disappointment, but a refined sense of direction. And now I am beginning to see a new role for writing.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

Edmund Burke’s Reflections On the Revolution In France is one I reread every few years both for its philosophy and its style. I love William Manchester’s two volumes on Winston Churchill. Among the books I read this year, I especially enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls.

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

It’s a good question. I just don’t have an answer. If I admire a passage, I often delete it. The test of whether a passage is any good, for me, is whether I get so caught up in the things while I read that I forget the writing. If I like the writing too much, I get suspicious that I’ve reverted to writing for myself.

Dean Koontz recently shared his take on the concept on “the writer’s sacred duty.” What comes to your mind at the mention of “the writer’s sacred duty?”

For me, the Christian writer’s sacred duty is to capture a specific experience of Christ’s redemptive grace. To be specific enough, the experience has to be rooted in the normal, not the “religious.”

I recently read Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair. It’s about a woman who experiences the grace of God as a seduction away from an adulterous life. The story is told from the point of view of the lover she jilts for God. What Greene captured there was an experience that many British converts to Catholicism had.

I worry that much of evangelical writing—and preaching—about redemption describes a fantasy that no one actually experiences. Walk the aisle, presto-chango, you’re new. We drain none of the power from Christ’s name by admitting that coming to him is a process. Christian writers could praise him more potently if we captured the way that process is lived.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

Evangelical communicators are letting their audience off far too easy. Speaking to people where they are does not mean leaving them where they are. The body of Christ faces stark challenges in America now—a rapidly changing culture, a deteriorating church life, an abandonment of biblical knowledge and memory, a loss of connectedness to one another. Christians need literature that goes deeper than making good points.

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

My desire, both in preaching and in writing, is to bring people deep spiritual truths through popular means. I wrote Fallen, for instance, to be a page-turner. I will always aspire to write books that read fast. But I wanted the characters in Fallen to challenge the reader’s most basic assumptions about the way Christians live today.

Fallen is okay. But I feel like I’m learning rudimentary steps in this larger process. I feel like I did when I’d learned how to play the violin a little. I feel clumsy.

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

My favorite part is editing, problem-solving, expanding, refining. My least favorite part is the delay before getting a response from a reader.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

The sentence was the most difficult part for me to grasp. I want fluidity. But I also want something in the movement from sentence to sentence that is delightful.

The most helpful thing in learning sentences was to realize that writing is visual. I wasted a lot of time striving to make a certain “sound” on the page. Pages can’t make sounds. Readers make sounds in their heads based on what they see with their eyes. If what they see is strong, the voices they imagine will be clear. This is why paragraphs should be short, and why, as Sol Stein famously says, 1 + 1 = ½. One word is more powerful than two.

Actually—this is the sober truth—I do better designing sentences like drawings than composing them like scripts.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

I wait. I want to see whether the characters I imagine will turn out to be boring.

Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?

I have a couple of tables at the Upper Crust in Chico, CA. They don’t even ask what I want anymore. But I can write in other places. If I must.

Plot, seat of pants or combination?

Combination. I get the logic of the plot mapped, the basic qualities of the main characters sketched, and then go to work and see what happens.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

Hemingway had a word for first drafts. The word is accurate but not appropriate.
I have found that writing too much on a first draft is a mistake. For me, better to sketch, and then fill, expand, and deepen.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

In college, I once wrote an opinion piece for the student newspaper. I don’t even remember what it was about, but a classmate’s response was very moving. She was a Japanese exchange student. She stopped me in class after the article appeared, unzipped her backpack, removed her small wallet, and opened it to reveal my article folded up inside. She unfolded it and read a couple paragraphs that she’d underlined, smiled, and put the clipping back in her wallet.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

Marketing is something I don’t understand. I’m trying. I have surrendered to blogging, and it’s fun. But I’m taking advice right now rather than giving it.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?

I philosophize too much. You’ve been so kind to put up with it. Thanks for your interest.


  1. Thanks, Matt.

    I really appreciate your honesty and the hard work you've put into learning the craft. It was great chatting with you.

    Readers. Pop over to Novel Reviews to read my review of Fallen.

  2. Oh, man, do I agree with your idea that we often sugarcoat the redemption experience. Unfortunately, much of the Christian publishing industry worries about pleasing the saved instead of reaching the unsaved. But, hey, that's just my rant.

  3. Rant on Eric. That's good preaching, bro.

    Good interview with Matt. Thanks for the link to his blog.

  4. Thanks for the interview, Matt! I will reply to your email in the next day or so on Aussie politics.

    Spot on, Eric (sadly!)

    Matt's blog makes for fascinating and challenging reader - definitely worth a look.

  5. <...My own secret conflicts. A story doesn’t have brutal honesty if it doesn’t evolve from my nightmares.>

    Thanks for the honest interview and a number of reminders to me about why I write, including the quote above. It's not about showing off how pretty we can make words, but how they're meant to be used, sometimes to open eyes to what's ugly beneath the whitewashed pretty. (one of the calls of a pastor...)


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