Please Welcome…Jan Dennis
(*Originally posted February 2007)
What a joy and honor to have editor and agent Jan Dennis as our interview guest at WhereTheMapEnds.com.
You may not know Jan’s name, but you know his work. Ever heard of Frank Peretti? Ted Dekker? Stephen Lawhead? These are all authors Jan “discovered” and published.
Back in the day when Crossway Books was putting Christian fiction (of any genre) on the map, it was largely because of Jan Dennis.
Jan has a lifelong love for speculative fiction, as you will be able to see below. Currently Jan works as an agent representing several Christian speculative novelists.
And now the interview.
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with what’s going on in your life.
Jan Dennis: First of all, let me introduce myself to the readers who aren’t familiar with me.
I’ve been involved with Christian publishing in one capacity or another for more than three decades now. I’m probably most well known for having discovered Frank Peretti, whom I first published at Crossway Books in the 80s after he had been rejected by 15 other Christian publishers.
I also first published Stephen R. Lawhead, author of many high fantasies, with one of his latest being a retelling of Robin Hood.
WhereTheMapEnds: Amazing. All of your authors are mentioned prominently on the Booklist. You’re definitely in the right place. So, tell us, what is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
Jan Dennis: Hands down, The Lord of the Rings.
First of all, it has the most powerful sub-created world of any fantasy written.
Secondly, Tolkien ranks as the greatest Christian myth-maker of all time, in my view, even greater than Dante, Milton, and Bunyon.
Thirdly, his idea of “Euchatastrophy” resonates with the Bible’s view of Man and his redemption in a very profound way, and provides the key to accessing and understanding the Jewish/Christian Scriptures.
Fourthly, it can be read over and over again with pleasure.
Other favorites include The Anubis Gates and Declare by Tim Powers, All the Bells on Earth and The Last Coin by James Blaylock, and the later works of Dean Koontz including and after Fear Nothing, where he has become increasingly explicit in his Christian worldview.
WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to become involved with Christian speculative fiction?
Jan Dennis: Ever since I read The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Space Trilogy in college—which both had a huge influence in helping me understand the way Christian mythmaking could impact lives for good—I had a desire to find and publish great Christian speculative novelists for the contemporary reader.
WhereTheMapEnds: And I’m so glad you did! How was your attempt at publishing a Christian speculative novel received?
Jan Dennis: Actually, the first speculative fiction novel I published was not This Present Darkness, but a book almost no one has ever heard of called The Wheels of Heaven.
It was about how a guy discovers that God is involved in the world at the sub-atomic level through tiny sentient creatures who “pilot” sub-atomic particles. It was a really cool book, probably ahead of its time in 1981, but it just never went anywhere.
To answer your question as to how my early attempts at publishing were received, the next speculative fiction book I published, Alpha Centauri, by Robert Siegel, won lots of awards and reprinted several times, and was later published in a mass-market edition by Avon Books, a general market publisher.
It was the first time a speculative fiction book by a Christian publisher had ever been picked up for reprint by a general market publisher. Later, books I published by Stephen Lawhead and Paul Willis were also published in mass market editions.
WhereTheMapEnds: Very cool. Jan, what is your favorite speculative genre to read?
Jan Dennis: I think if it’s done right, my favorite genre is contemporary fantasy, the kind of thing Tim Powers and James Blaylock—and to a lesser extent—Dean Koontz do.
The whole drive of the contemporary fantasy genre, especially with the readers I’m interested in, is the supernatural world somehow impinges on or comes into the life of an ordinary person, often through an object or an event, and that ordinary person is then thrust into extraordinary circumstances that eventually require him to make life-changing and even world-affecting decisions.
WhereTheMapEnds: How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Jan Dennis: I think some Christian publishers are intrigued by the possibilities. I mean, who wouldn’t be with the success of Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker (and Left Behind, if that counts)? But there are many obstacles to be overcome.
Obstacles like a lack of commitment in some places. That is, I think there’s a lot of dabbling by publishers, but unfortunately not a lot of money and long-term planning going into many fiction programs.
Another obstacle for aspiring authors and agents is what you’ll find in most fields when new people are brought into the mix: that is, a lack of editorial knowledge and expertise. There are several editors who would like to publish in this area, but haven’t extensively read speculative fiction and/or don’t really know how it works (again, with a few exceptions).
I’d also say that there are pretty extensive marketing and distribution difficulties to be overcome.
It’s not an entirely bleak picture, though, and I think a lot of publishers have a strong and healthy desire to impact the Christian and hopefully secular markets with fiction works that glorify God while telling a good story. That’s where I come in.
WhereTheMapEnds: Have you seen anything lately that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Jan Dennis: I’ve seen a number of [Christian] publishers make a concerted effort to acquire and successfully publish speculative fiction. These haven’t always worked, but at least an effort is being made. I’d be encouraged by publishers and editors expanding their horizons on what they’re willing to publish, instead of sticking to a specific genre, or only feeling safe with a certain type of fiction.
WhereTheMapEnds: What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Jan Dennis: I think we need to see more professionalism throughout the whole process, and I don’t mean to critique anyone at all. Christian fiction needs to really step up to impact people’s lives, whether the reader is a Christian or not.
The truth is, we’re all in this together—writers, editors, publishers, sales personnel, and agents—and this is our ministry to Christ.
There are numerous talented writers and publishing houses in the secular market that are selling speculative novels that are brazenly anti-Christian, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I believe it’s an integral part of our ministry to create and publish works that speak for Christianity, and answer these themes, especially in the secular market.
WhereTheMapEnds: Excellent points. I completely agree. What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
Jan Dennis: We’ll either see it establish a significant presence in Christian publishing and begin to cross over into the general market, or its presence will diminish in the market.
WhereTheMapEnds: I’m afraid you’re right. I personally think Christian speculative novelists will find a third way that bypasses the CBA industry entirely. Something akin to what I’m thinking of with Marcher Lord Press, perhaps. All right, what advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?
Jan Dennis: Know whatever genre it is you want to write in. Be committed to writing as a vocation.
There’s a term jazz musicians have for extensively practicing their chops: “woodshedding.” It simply means that a jazz musician must spend a huge amount of time practicing scales, perfecting technique, learning standards, playing in all keys, and learning all about harmony and rhythm.
Writers need to do the same thing. To be successful, a writer must have control of his materials. That means mastering the art of storytelling. Even for those naturally gifted with novelistic skills, this means lots of practice writing and rewriting.
The greatest basketball player in the history of the game, Michael Jordan, became who he was through unparalleled practice. That’s the kind of work ethic required to write great speculative fiction.
WhereTheMapEnds: That’s terrific advice, Jan. For you, what’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?
Jan Dennis: Seeing it touch and change the lives of readers.
WhereTheMapEnds: Awesome. What project(s) are you working on now?
Jan Dennis: I’m working with some very talented writers whom I hope to place with publishers soon.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?
Jan Dennis: Well, I’ve got some great ideas going around with my authors, but I wouldn’t want to preemptively tell them, now would I? You’ll have to ask my son, Cory. He’s always been able to come up with a killer story.
WhereTheMapEnds: You’re making us wait? Oh, the horror, the horror. [sob] What’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?
Jan Dennis: I like Waking Lazarus [by T.L. Hines] a lot. I’ve also got some unpublished works right now in the Agency: thrillers, mysteries, and supernatural fiction that really could stir the waters.
WhereTheMapEnds: Excellent. I hope we can read them soon. What last thing would you like to say to readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?
Jan Dennis: I’m always on the lookout for new authors who are committed to writing powerful speculative fiction. As I’ve said before, this is my ministry, and it is my first priority to find writers who can change people’s lives.
This is my commitment as an agent: to recognize, develop, and represent the best fiction to both Christian and secular publishers.
For those interested in submissions, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Best wishes, and keep writing!
That’s All for This Time
What a wonderful interview! Thanks again to Jan Dennis. Without him, there might not be any Christian speculative fiction to read.