Interview with Mike Duran

Please Welcome…Mike Duran

Mike Duran

This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Mike Duran!

Mike is a freelance writer whose short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Relevant Online, Novel Journey, Rue Morgue magazine, and other print and digital outlets.

His debut novel, a supernatural thriller entitled The Resurrection (February 2011 from Realms), is about a miraculous event that polarizes a small coastal town, and unlocks a centuries-old curse.

I (Jeff) actually tried to nab this novel for Marcher Lord Press. I even sent Mike a contract. But he wanted to first see if he could get a traditional Christian publisher interested, and so he did! Congratulations to Mike.

Mike is an ordained minister who actively pastored for 11 years. He now works construction and lives in Southern California with his wife of 30 years and four grown children.

He also blogs regularly at his website and writes a monthly column for Novel Journey.

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been doing lately?

Mike Duran: Well, last spring I signed a two-book contract with Strang Communications, and suddenly my life became more florid and bustling than a troll market.

The Resurrection releases February 1st, and my second book (not a sequel) is due to the publisher March 1st.

So, between promotion and marketing, blogging, working full-time in construction, networking with writer friends, maintaining my family life (wife, four kids, three grandkids), finishing my next book, and trying to stay sane, things are buzzing.

WhereTheMapEnds: I’ll bet. What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

Mike Duran: When I was a kid, I cut my teeth on Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man, the entire Bradbury canon.

From there it was on to Marvel Comics and Weird Tales. In my teens, I graduated to Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Watership Down, and I Am Legend.

After I became a believer (in my early 20’s), I really enjoyed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, and G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.

All that to say, I’m not sure I have an all-time favorite, but speculative fiction has always been my genre of choice.

WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

Mike Duran: I didn’t set out to write Christian speculative fiction, and frankly, I kind of hedge at the term. It’s not because I’m embarrassed about my faith or don’t think there’s great stories on the Christian market.

For one, I think the “Christian fiction” label has become polarizing. Sure, we may pique the interest of believers, but is that the only audience we need to be aiming at? I think the term scares away potential readers.

Secondly, the label is too squishy. By “Christian fiction,” are we talking about fiction with an overt gospel message and redemptive themes, or fiction that is “clean” (no drinking, cussing, sex, etc.)? Everyone seems to have a different concept of what Christian fiction is or should be, which is why I try to avoid the term.

This is not to suggest my stories don’t contain faith-driven elements, because they do! All writers bring a worldview with them into their stories, even non-religious authors.

I like speculative fiction of all kinds. So when I started writing, that’s what I naturally wanted to write. Does my worldview come out in my stories? Absolutely. Am I just preaching to the choir? Absolutely not.

WhereTheMapEnds: How would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Mike Duran: On the one hand are those who say that the Christian market is vibrant, healthy, and gaining more and more mainstream acceptance. On the other hand, are those who say it’s a narrow niche that is out of touch and has plateaued. (Last year I attended a Christian conference where the keynote speaker flatly said, “Christian bookstores are dying”).

So who do you believe?

All I know is that when I walk into a Christian bookstore and see 80% of the fiction titles are women’s fiction, it makes me a little sick.

Now, before I get pied at the next ACFW conference, let me say I have nothing against women’s fiction. But I don’t know many men who read women’s fiction. So either A) Men aren’t reading, or B) Christian publishers aren’t offering enough “male” titles.

The same could be said for the absence of speculative titles. Frankly, if you’re a hardcore reader of speculative fiction, the Christian fiction aisle is not where you want to be.

WhereTheMapEnds: Which is why I created Marcher Lord Press. The next step beyond writing the book you want to read that no one else has written is publishing the book you want to read that no one else has published.

As for whether Christian publishers are not offering enough male titles, I think that may be the wrong question. Christian publishers have in the past produced lots of “male” novels and lots of speculative titles. (Our Booklist boasts more than 500 Christian speculative titles.) But for the most part, those books did not sell well.

Now, if you ran a business and you produced 500 products that virtually no one purchased, wouldn’t you eventually get the message?

I actually think mainstream Christian publishers would be foolish to publish more Christian speculative novels. Those books wouldn’t “earn out,” and publishers know it. So they (rightly) concentrate on making more of the books that do turn a profit.

It hasn’t been until now, the age of the micro-publisher, that it’s been possible to produce an array of titles that don’t need to hit a home run in order to keep the company profitable. With publishers like Marcher Lord Press around, many more “niche” books can and will be made available.

Mike Duran: Indeed, the fact that “male” titles don’t sell well in the CBA is an issue. No doubt, women are the primary readership in both markets (ABA and CBA). Nevertheless, one need only to cruise the aisles of your local Barnes and Nobles to see plenty of books aimed at men: Espionage, Crime, Horror, Sci-fi, Graphic Novels, etc. (and, of course, this is not to insinuate that women don’t read any of those genres). So the issue of gender seems even more at play among Christian titles than the general market. Why? Is this a question we should even ask? Or is it simply a matter of business savvy to shut up and go with the flow?

Secondly, I would contend that there are Christian speculative novels that have been hugely successful. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and Lewis’ Space Trilogy are eminently “Christian” and still on the shelves. Why? (In fact, Tolkien himself called his Trilogy “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”) Peretti’s This Present Darkness remains one of the top selling Christian fiction books of all time. And then you have Ted Dekker nudging his way into NY Times best-sellerdom. (I would personally even throw Dean Koontz in there as a Christian writing speculative fiction that sells.)

While the problem may be the configuration of the Christian market, as you suggest, my contention is that our problem is more inherent to how we define Christian fiction, what spec fans have come to anticipate, and the nature of speculation as it relates to Christian theology. As much as I really appreciate Marcher Lord Press, it’s hard for me to concede that the only recourse for the Christian spec fan is to look to micro-publishers and expect minimal sales.

WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, I’m not sure why Peretti, Dekker, and Jenkins get a pass by this audience and others who write like them don’t.

And summoning the names of Tolkien and Lewis and Chesterton doesn’t carry any sway in modern publishing meetings. Believe me, I’ve tried! The response is always, ‘Well, those are classics, so they’re exceptions.”

Maybe there are other options besides small houses like Marcher Lord Press, but until the industry changes, I’m just grateful there finally are outlets for these stories.

So, Mike, what have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Mike Duran: Strang’s interest in my story has really changed some of my thinking. After shopping The Resurrection to Christian publishers for almost five years, I was told by several people that the story may be too edgy and not end tidily enough for the Christian market.

In fact, during that time, I received an email from an acquisitions editor who specifically told me he loved the story, but it was just “darker” than what they normally publish and a bit unconventional for Christian audiences.

Needless to say, I was somewhat shocked when Strang accepted the story. I was even more shocked when they let me tell it the way it was written. It has really made me rethink some of my earlier impressions about the industry and wonder whether or not there are some positive changes in the works.

WhereTheMapEnds: What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Mike Duran: Mixed messages about the need for speculative-fiction among Christian readers. I privately queried one industry insider regarding the dearth of spec-fic in Christian bookstores and they wrote back with this answer:

…it’s not just a CBA thing. Across all of publishing, sales of Spec fiction lag behind many other kinds of fiction. The spec/fantasy crowd (both writers and readers) are an extremely vocal minority. They are always out there screaming that there’s not enough spec fiction to suit them, but publishers have not seen profit in it. Believe me, if they did, everyone would be publishing a lot more spec.

I’ll be honest: I have a hard time believing this. I mean, when Borders and Barnes and Noble contain aisles—not just a couple shelves—but aisles of horror, science fiction, graphic novels, and fantasy, it is really difficult to believe that “publishers have not seen profit in it.”

On top of that is the prominence of spec-fic in popular culture. For instance, of the 50 highest-grossing movies of all-time, more than half contain speculative themes (The Dark Knight, The Sixth Sense, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Spider Man, etc.). In literature, there’s Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight epic and Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which have sold gazillions of copies.

Nevertheless, spec titles comprise a relatively minuscule portion of the religious fiction market.

So what gives? Is this industry insider (and their professional peers) deluded? Are they part of some grand CBA conspiracy to suppress the growth of speculative fiction? Is the spec/fantasy crowd simply “an extremely vocal minority”? Or are Christian readers really not that interested in speculative fiction? Color me confused.

WhereTheMapEnds: Yeah, I would question what that person said, as well. In secular fiction, fantasy has long been second in popularity only to romance.

If you want to know why Christians don’t gobble up more Christian speculative fiction, read my Tips 16-18

What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Mike Duran: The change I am pining after has to do with the Christian publishing industry as a whole. In fact, I’d suggest that the issues Christian spec-fic face are simply a by-product of a larger issue faced by the industry as a whole.

In my opinion, we need some Christian crossover imprints, titles that are aimed at seekers rather than believers. Titles that push the envelope more, contain some [foul] language, are more speculative, more unconventional, and free to not wear an agenda on their sleeve.

In my opinion, this seeker v. believer aim is a fundamental philosophical flaw in Christian publishing. If Christians are about spreading the Good News then we are shooting ourselves in the foot by just aiming at existing believers. The Church needs two wings: a discipling wing and an evangelism wing. I think the same is true of the Christian publishing industry. Where are our literary missionaries?

WhereTheMapEnds: Christian publishing in the modern era grew out of the bookstore-publisher dyad. Christian bookstores needed Christian books, so there arose a need for Christian publishers.

This explains why the books and products you see in a Christian bookstore are exactly what would appeal to…well…the ladies who frequent Christian bookstores. The bookstore has a need to give its regular customers what they want, and so the publishers provide it.

Could Christian publishers research and develop new markets besides those ladies? Absolutely. But why would they, if things are working as they are now? For a generation, this is how things have been.

Now, though, the Christian bookstore is dying. Consequently, they’re ordering fewer books from publishers. Consequently, Christian publishers are dying.

So that explains why things are as they are in Christian bookstores and publishing right now.

It also explains why Christian publishers aren’t being “missionaries.” I’ve talked to many aspiring Christian authors who say, “I want my Christian book to reach the lost.” But they’re trying to get published by Christian publishers.

The sad truth is that Christian publishers reach Christian readers. End of story. Yes, Christian books are purchased in Wal-Mart and Sam’s, but usually by Christians looking for a good deal. Oh, with the Left Behind books and Purpose-Driven Life, some non-Christians picked them up. But for the most part (like probably 96%), those books were purchased by Christians.

If that’s the case, then you’ll see why Christian novels don’t contain the content you’re talking about. For one thing, the books won’t reach the intended (secular) audience. And for another, the audience they will reach will be offended and complain to the bookstore. So those books won’t be done, at least not in publishers working under that publishing model.

In our culture at large there appears to be a double standard regarding the acceptance of Christianity. You might see a TV show mocking Christians, but you’ll never see them mocking Muslims or Buddhists or Jews. You might see a Buddhist novel on the “regular” shelves of a bookstore, but you’re unlikely to see a Christian novel on those same shelves.

I personally believe that people react most strongly to Christianity because it is true, but that’s a matter for another day.

So, Mike, what writing project(s) are you working on now?

Mike Duran: My next novel is about a disfigured modern-day prophet who must overcome his own despair in time to seal one of nine mythical gates of hell. It will explore concepts of destiny and identity, the power of words and choices, as well as the tethers between science and superstition.

That’s All for This Time

Another great interview! Thanks again to Mike Duran for spending time with us. Be sure to visit him online.

 

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