About three months after my book Penguins, Pain and the Whole Shebang, came out, Writer’s Digest magazine contacted me for an interview. By way of planning for a special “Spirituality” issue of the magazine, they had asked their readers to recommend a book on the topic. A lot of people apparently named Penguins, and that’s why they contacted me.
They interviewed me via email. The interview was never published, because at the last minute Writer’s Digest decided to kill its special “Spirituality” issue. But here’s that interview as it almost appeared in WD:
Q: Your first book, Comma Sense, was a guide to punctuation. How did you make the leap from punctuation to spiritual writing?
A: Well, the key to a successful writing career is to build your own niche audience, right? And one day it came to me: Pastors who punctuate! Who’s writing for the comma-loving clergy? So at first I wrote a single book, all about God and punctuation—but somewhere in there (between the chapters “Paul: Could He Use Any More Commas?” and “The Apostrophe Apostasy”) I realized that what I had on my hands wasn’t so much a single book as it was a single, deeply stupid book. So I trashed that effort, started again, and ended up with two books so unlike each other that very often, if they’re in the same room, one of the two of them will spontaneously combust.
Q: You’re kidding, right?
A: Yes. Sorry. In actuality, my leap went the other way; I finished Penguins about three months before starting Comma Sense. It’s just that Comma Sense was released first; it came out in August of 2005, and Penguins came waddling along about two months later—which, in the glacial timeframe of book publishing, is, like, four seconds apart. Book-wise, they’re fraternal twins. Which is why they always fight. But, that’s just books. Whaddaya gonna do?
Q. How is Penguins different than other spiritual books out there?
A: Well, it’s humongously funny, for one. (Um … is there any way to make something seem less funny than to say it’s funny? Is there any word in the English language more boring than “humorist”?) And the book’s also really quite dramatically short. And (save for the afterword) all of its text, from the cover flap copy to the dedication and on, is written in the voice of God. And it very directly and very succinctly addresses the eight or nine reasons non-Christians typically give for why they’d rather have a thistle jammed up their nose than even consider becoming Christian. So: short; funny; voice of God; rationally and completely answers the huge, primary objections to Christianity. That’s the book.
Q: Sound interesting!
A: Well, I was definitely confident that no publisher would say they’d seen a book like it before.
Q. What did you learn about the publishing world/spiritual writing market in the process of having the book published?
A: Um … everything, I think. Penguins had a long, weirdly intense path to publication, so just through that process I learned a lot. It was first represented to the CBA (Christian Bookseller’s Association) market by a Christian-market literary agent. He showed it to all the Christian publishers, who all responded to it in the exact same way: “Fantastic book! It’s got everything! It’s hilarious! We love it! It’s too secular.” So then I sent the book to Super Mainstream Market Agent, Deborah Schneider, who, miraculously enough, almost immediately agreed to represent it. (“I have to,” she said. “My 15-year-old son Charlie loves it.”) She showed it to her friends who run every publishing company in New York—and they all responded to it in the exact same way: “Fantastic book! It’s got everything! It’s hilarious! We love it! It’s too Christian.” So the first big thing I learned is that publishers of any sort are really disinclined to react favorably to any book that’s unlike all the other books they publish. They want something they can absolutely depend upon to sell—which means they’re pretty exclusively interested in things as close as possible to something else they have that’s ever sold. It’s kind of a crazy business like that. Publishers are truly stuck between “We crave creative, new stuff!” and “Creative, new stuff freaks us out because we don’t know how to market it!” Editors kept loving “Penguins”; their marketing people kept balking at it. What I learned is that the book business is all about marketing. And I also, of course, learned that Christian and “mainstream” publishing are entirely separate businesses. There’s almost zero relationship between them. Different people, different market, different process.
Q. What are your writing habits, and where do your ideas come from?
A. Sadly, the only “habit” I have is avoiding work. Unless I really have work—like, say, a deadline. Then I work like a mule team. Basically, my day goes about like this: Wake up around 4 a.m. Swear to stop drinking coffee so I can get more sleep. Turn on computer. Make coffee. Be grateful wife is such a sound sleeper, since I’m crashing around in kitchen like Frankenstein on Vicodin. Sit at computer. Be bummed that I have no e-mails. Sip coffee. Check to see how Penguins is doing on Amazon. Feel either elated or suicidal. Poke around online version of New York Times online. Feel “Can Write Now” part of brain kick in. Open whatever document I’m currently working on. Write until wife wakes up at six. Be loving, happy couple until she leaves for work. Slump into loneliness. Try to work some more. Fail. Take nap. As to where my ideas come from—where do anyone’s ideas come from? You go through life; you process and collect; you sense gaps; something suddenly defines and fills one of those gaps—and bang, there’s your idea. Then you’ve got something new on your hands. If you’re a writer, then the question is whether or not that idea is new generally, or just to you? If you see it’s a new idea, period, then you just had yourself one good day.
A: To cut out the middleman. There are a zillion books out there by people talking about God; I just couldn’t write another one. For a period of nearly five hundred years that ended only recently, Christians universally considered Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ to be the great companion to the Bible: No Christian was without it. The last two-thirds of that book consist of words put into the mouth of Jesus by Mr. Kempis. So I figured, what the heck: time for an update. Also, it was not a little unsettling, after the freakish conversion experience I talk about in the afterword of Penguins, to be stuck being the very kind of person—a Christian—that before then I’d always held in such disdain. And I very much, then, needed some way to show the non-Christians in my own life that, in converting, not only had I not lost my mind, but that Christianity is, if nothing else (surprise!) supremely rational. And I figured, why not let them hear it right from the source? Basically, I wrote the book that I wish someone had given me during all the years before God finally zinged me in a supply closet at my job.
Q: As a humorist, did you worry that readers might be offended by the irreverence in the book?
A: Worry? No. I mean, I didn’t want to offend people, of course—but the only way not to offend anyone is to never do or say anything at all. It’s a given that if you do anything even slightly new—much less anything having to do with religion, of all things—you will offend someone. It’s just the cost of doing business. But the bottom line is that if you’re a Christian, and the Holy Spirit is telling you what to write, it’s not like you’re going to start typing out handy-dandy tips for sacrificing cats, or anything like that. You just start writing. I know just about nothing about anything, but I’m positive God’s okay with Penguins.
Q: How do you make humor come across in writing?
A: Well, I’ve found that the best way is to actually be funny. Har. No, but you know what I mean: obviously, you’ve first got to have a joke, or a funny way of saying something. After that, it’s all about the timing. You miss one beat—you draw out or clip a phrase by one heartbeat too long or short either way—and you just dropped that ball. Humor is timing—just like all of writing is timing. Life is timing.
Q: How has Penguins been received thus far?
A: To tell you the truth, I’m almost freaked out by how well it’s been received. It’s just been … phenomenal. And unless you live near an Episcopal bookstore that happened to order the book in, you can’t even buy the book except through online stores like Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There’s no question but that word-of-mouth is the primary means by which anyone has heard about the book at all. And apparently people are talking about it, because, little by little, it continues to sell. Which is great, of course. Mostly, though, what I care about, and what about all this has most effected me, are the stories that reach me of people’s lives being genuinely changed by the Penguins. It’s such an impossible thing to even say. Every day, I can’t believe it. I very recently heard from a guy who read the book, and the following Sunday went to church and took his first communion ever. I got a note from a woman who told me that after bitterly turning her back on the faith for seven years, the book moved her to turn around, and again embrace it. A woman who works with my wife cried and told her that even though she’d been a Christian for forty-two years, Penguins gave her the first clear understanding she’d ever had of the Holy Spirit. I’ve actually, now, lost track of all those sorts of stories: impossibly enough, there’s that many of them. It’s beyond fathoming. I just this morning got a letter from a woman saying that a friend had given her a copy of the book; after reading it, she wanted to order ten copies to give to each of her grandchildren for Christmas. It’s just astounding, and not a little humbling, to realize the effect that printed words can still have on people.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. Ah. Well, oddly enough, I’m afraid it’s all quite hush-hush, just now. (It’s so weird, not being able to just say what you’re working on. And fun, imagining that your upcoming book really is just that hot.) [This was when everything was happening around the proposal I’d written for the book that eventually turned into Midlife Manual for Men, with Steve Arterburn.] But, as I say, I’ve got two books due this year, and I’ll write the proposal for a third. So in about two years, I’m going to either be wildly famous, or wildly wondering whether or not you guys might need a freelance proofreader. I’m also thinking about starting a blog.
Q. Any tips for spiritual writers who are just starting out?
A. Sure: be honest—and I mean, ugly honest—about who you really are, and what you’re really doing. Because the moment you in any way position yourself as a “spiritual writer” is the moment that arrogance becomes the worst, craftiest, most charming enemy you ever had. Beware the horrible onus of believing that you’re wise. You’re not. I’m not. None of us is: Essentially we’re all just children out here, trying to make sense of a system that only works if it remains profoundly and eternally mysterious. Continuously sacrifice who you want to be—and especially whom you want others to think you are—for who you actually are, warts, insecurities and all. Always think of your reader as your friend, not your student. And good luck.
You can read about how I recently reacquired all the rights and remaining copies of Penguins in my recent post, “Penguins,” My “Blasphemous” Christian Book, Finally Returns Home.