Please Welcome…Jack Cavanaugh
This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Jack Cavanaugh.
In his own words, Jack is a speculative novelist masquerading as a historical fiction novelist. His first love has always been science fiction and fantasy. In fact, in elementary school he cut his reading teeth on Tom Swift books. One memorable summer in junior high was spent reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian series. In high school it was Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.
When Jack first started writing, no one was publishing Christian fiction (yes, he’s that old). Publishers told him that Christian fiction just wouldn’t sell. Times changed. (Thank you Janette Oke, Brock and Bodie Thoene, and Frank Peretti.)
All of a sudden publishers wanted historical fiction, which happens to be Jack’s second love. (He has a B.A. degree in History.) Doors started to open. Now, twenty-some historical novels later, he’s been able to talk a couple of publishers into letting him try his hand at speculative fiction. He loves it!
So without further ado, here’s the interview.
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?
Jack Cavanaugh: Starving. There is no coasting for mid-list authors and a combination of a changing Christian market and the downturn economy has hit hard. But hope burns eternal. In addition to marketing proposals (both historical and speculative) I’ve been honing my fiction skills, everything from story structure to sentence structure. I’ve also tried my hand at screenplays. Love the format; so much so, I’ve taken to crafting story outlines using screenplay software.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
Jack Cavanaugh: When it comes to stories, I’m a fickle fan. My favorite is whatever good story I’ve read last. However, I can tell you who is the most inspirational speculative fiction author for me: J. R. R. Tolkien. Can’t help but love a man who crafts a secondary world with such detail and takes fourteen years to write his tale (while spending his free time reading Old Norse myths aloud with friends in the original language). The man was a wordsmith; he loved words and stories. Some of his poetry is exceptional.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, the life of the party, ol’ J.R.R. What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?
Jack Cavanaugh: There is no better vehicle to explore spiritual truth.
WhereTheMapEnds: Amen! How was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?
Jack Cavanaugh: Actually, my first fiction publishing credit was a speculative short story, When Heaven Was Helpless. The piece portrayed the frustration of the angelic realm as they were forbidden from intervening in Jesus’ crucifixion. These are beings who had seen Christ in His glory. How heart-wrenching it must have been for them to stand by helplessly as a sin-riddled creation killed Him. I was encouraged by the story’s reception. It appeared in the Easter issue of an international publication. My first fan mail came from the Philippines. I was also invited to read it aloud at an Easter sunrise service.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.
Jack Cavanaugh: Again with the “favorite.” Do you not realize you’re talking to a polymath? I love it all—science fiction, fantasy, medieval knights, fairytales, etc. Writing, however, is a different story. I don’t feel qualified to write science fiction. My background is Bible and history. So I write biblical supernatural suspense and stories that involve multiple historical settings. That said, I would love to write a fantasy novel someday.
WhereTheMapEnds: Why don’t you? Maybe pick an obscure culture or period from history and turn it into a fantasy world? That would give it realistic underpinnings (something most fantasies outside of Tolkien don’t have) but would allow you to do whatever fantasy story you wanted. So, Jack, how would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Jack Cavanaugh: It’s a genre in search of a savior. Established publishers are attracted to it, but afraid of it. Consequently, they lack commitment to it. At the same time, there are within the industry and without, a faithful few, die-hard devotees who dream of the day when Christian speculative fiction establishes a lasting foothold in the industry.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, but I personally believe that won’t happen. The genre has had its saviors over the years, both in terms of champions inside the industry (like Steve Laube) and bestselling authors (like Frank Peretti, Jerry B. Jenkins, and Ted Dekker). And there has still been no change.
As I’ve said before (see Tips 15-17 on this page), I think this has more to do with the ladies who buy Christian fiction than it does with the genre lacking a savior. I certainly don’t begrudge those ladies their bonnet and buggy fiction, their cozy mysteries, or their chick-lits. But it’s just not a group that will ever be largely accepting of stories about alien fungi that turn humans into zombies and breed from their decaying corpses. [grin] Hence the need for Marcher Lord Press and others like it.
Okay, soapbox moment over. Jack, have you seen anything that encourages you about Christian speculative writing and/or publishing?
Jack Cavanaugh: The lightning-strike successes. Peretti’s This Present Darkness, for example. Crossway Publishers was as surprised as anyone with the book’s success. It’s impossible for publishers to ignore phenomenal sales and a fanatical readership. I pray for a thunderstorm of similar successes.
WhereTheMapEnds: What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Jack Cavanaugh: A lack of commitment to quality writing by some writers of speculative fiction. Unfortunately, many focus on the speculative nature of the work (the fun part) and not enough on the techniques of fiction (the hard part). But let’s face it, the bar for speculative fiction has been set high by writers such as—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, etc.—so that readers (and publishers) expect superior writing in the genre. Tolkien said that fantasy (kin to fantastic) stories require much more thought and logic than contemporary stories. I agree. And if we’re going to win over the Christian publishing world, we’re going to do it with superior craftsmanship.
WhereTheMapEnds: You’ve written mostly historical fiction. What speculative novels have you written?
Jack Cavanaugh: Death Watch (Zondervan) — this is a contemporary thriller. My co-author (Jerry Kuiper) came to me with this story idea. Normally, I’m quick to tell other writers this is their story, they need to write it. But Jerry’s idea was so captivating, I wanted to be part of it. The concept: People start receiving notices that they will die in 48-hours. They do. Every one of them. On the stroke of the forty-eighth hour. All from different causes. A news team sets out to discover who is behind the mystery deaths and finds supernatural forces at work.
Kingdom War series; A Hideous Beauty and Tartarus (Howard Publishers)—these are my angel stories. The concept is that angels are here, they are active, and some of them are evil. The first book establishes the world of angels in our midst with the assassination of the President of the United States; the second book is about the greatest hoax of all time, a fake second coming of Jesus.
WhereTheMapEnds: I read Death Watch and fully enjoyed it. Haven’t read the other ones yet but I’ll bet they’re great. What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
Jack Cavanaugh: A squadron of young buck writers streaking across the publishing skies to the cheers of legions of adoring readers.
WhereTheMapEnds: Ah, what a vision. May it be. What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?
Jack Cavanaugh: It’s a time honored adage for which (in my opinion) there is no substitute: Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?
Jack Cavanaugh: It’s out of print now. Dean Koontz’s How to Write Bestselling Fiction. My copy is falling apart. Among the techniques I learned from Mr. Koontz is when and how to write a page and a half long sentence. A powerful tool…
WhereTheMapEnds: LOL, as an editor I would probably cut it to shreds! What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?
Jack Cavanaugh: You’re kidding, right? It’s fun. To quote myself, when it comes to storytelling, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.”
WhereTheMapEnds: That’s so true. Fiction is incredibly fun. But speculative fiction—and especially Christian speculative fiction—is the most fun of all. What writing project(s) are you working on now?
Jack Cavanaugh: I’ve just completed a proposal and sent it to my agent. The story in a sentence is: Repeatedly thrown from his body by violent seizures, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn the ways of life in the spirit in order to defeat an ancient evil.
It’s an end-times novel in which my character pops through history (Medieval France; 19th Century Massachusetts; First Century Ephesus) in search of the seventh candlestick of Revelation, and ends up in the valley of Megiddo in a showdown with Lucifer’s standard-bearer. Actually, the concept is a playful swipe at science fiction: Contrary to what you see in the movies, mankind’s final battle will not be won by scientists or technology or Bruce Willis. The reason is simple: the battle is spiritual
WhereTheMapEnds: Not [sniff] Bruce? He’s kidding. Folks, I think he’s kidding. You’re kidding, right, Jack? [gathers composure] Okay, so, what’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?
Jack Cavanaugh: Certainly one of the funniest short stories I’ve read recently is, “They’re Made Out of Meat,” by Terry Bisson.
WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?
Jack Cavanaugh: One year for Christmas, my brother stood in line to get an autographed copy of Dean Koontz’s Intensity as a gift to me. He told Mr. Koontz I was a writer, so the inscription was personalized, writer to writer: “Perseverance counts.”
From writer to writer to writer, I pass along his advice to you.
That’s All for This Time
What a great interview, huh? Thanks again to Jack. Be sure to visit Jack Cavanaugh online.