Please Welcome…Robert Liparulo
(*Originally posted January 2009)
What a joy to have Christian speculative novelist Robert Liparulo as our interview guest this month at WhereTheMapEnds.com.
Bob is an author of Christian thrillers with a decidedly speculative edge. His first novel, Comes a Horseman, starts off as a serial killer police procedural and quickly morphs into a global chase for a man who thinks he’s the antichrist. In Germ, a biologist creates a designer virus that becomes lethal only when it’s found the exact DNA of the person it’s looking for.
Several of his novels are in development with Hollywood producers. The film rights to Comes a Horseman were purchased by the producer of Tom Clancy’s movies. Bob is currently penning the screenplays for Germ, Deadfall, and Dreamhouse Kings for three top producers. He is also working with the director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Holes) on a political thriller.
I have had the pleasure of meeting Bob on a number of occasions in a number of states around the country. He’s a hard worker, a gifted writer, and his books always seem to create buzz with the Hollywood crowd. How cool is that?
So without further ado, here’s the interview.
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?
Robert Liparulo: I just returned from a long tour of schools, where I talked about the Dreamhouse Kings series and being a writer. I visited mostly middle schools (plus some high schools) all over the country.
I’m exhausted but also exhilarated from talking to all those young people. They love stories. Just stories—not the “business” of writing. And the love of stories is why I wanted to become a writer in the first place, so it was refreshing.
I’ve also been working on several scripts, one original and three based on my books.
The third book in the Dreamhouse series, Gatekeepers, released in December. Deadlock, the follow-up to Deadfall, comes out in March. Then the fourth Dreamhouse book, Timescape, will release in June.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
Robert Liparulo: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. I read it when I was twelve. I knew I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know what type of things I wanted to write. I loved that he turned it all around at the end.
And there’s one part that really grabbed me. Through about half the book, the protagonist (Robert Neville) is trying to coax a stray dog into his house. It’s the only other creature he’s seen that’s not infected by the vampire-making virus that’s infected the world. Finally, he does. He loves on the animal: petting it, feeding it, feeling a connection. Then the last line of the chapter is: “In the morning, the dog was dead.” I cried. Then I thought, “Man, if words—words—can make a pretty tough 12-year-old cry, I want to do that. I want to write novels.”
I’ve subsequently read all of his novels, and he has a lot of them (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Hell House, Somewhere in Time, What Dreams May Come, A Stir of Echoes, Duel, Hunted Past Reason, Earthbound… )!
WhereTheMapEnds: What a cool story. I was similarly moved by the power of story as a twelve-year-old. I watched the original Star Wars wwhen I was that age, and suddenly understood what storytelling could do. Then in college I discovered The Lord of the Rings and was similarly blown away. Those two things together made me want to become a novelist. So, Bob, was that the main thing that made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?
Robert Liparulo: Yes, I Am Legend and Stephen King’s The Stand, which showed me how big and wonderful novels could be. Then there was the desire to put my own worldview and no-holds-barred imagination into stories. I love that in speculative fiction you can have all sorts of events—time travel, horror, etc.—act as a metaphor for heart issues that are otherwise difficult to explore.
WhereTheMapEnds: Great insight. I’ve always said that speculative fiction—fantasy especially—is the perfect stage for telling Christian stories. So how was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?
Robert Liparulo: My first three novels really only hinted at speculative elements. The first truly speculative fiction I proposed was Dreamhouse Kings. Everyone from my wife to my publisher to my editor to my agent expressed nothing but enthusiasm for it. No one ever doubted its marketability.
It became a best-seller on several YA lists, including one for the Christian market, and both Wal-Mart and Scholastic published their own special editions of it, so I guess readers have embraced it as well.
My next adult thriller absolutely throws me into the speculative fiction category, and again, the idea has been received with more enthusiasm than I expected. From my own experience I’d say the Christian book world—publishers, retailers, readers—are ready, even hungry, for speculative fiction.
WhereTheMapEnds: Music to my ears, baby. What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.
Robert Liparulo: I like horror, psychological horror, alternative histories, and time travel stories. Dreamhouse Kings is about a haunted house—it’s haunted not by ghosts, but by Time. It’s sort of a cross-genre story. Up until Dreamhouse and the thriller that will come out after Deadlock, I wrote what were primarily classified as high-tech and police procedural thrillers. I enjoy the kind of story you’d expect Bruce Willis to be in if it were a movie.
I think there’s a lot of horror to be found in human evil, so I’ve explored that in four novels. Comes a Horseman had a hint of the supernatural in it. Germ was speculative in that it took an element of biological science and stretched it into the fantastical. Even though I believe we have the ability to do what I postulate in the novel—create a virus that attacks only people with specific, defined DNA (an individual)—it’s not something we hear about.
I read a lot of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Neil Gaiman, Tim Powers, Emberto Eco, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and James Blaylock.
WhereTheMapEnds: I don’t guess Mr. Willis is reading any of your scripts at the moment…? He’s one intimidating old guy. So, Bob, how would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Robert Liparulo: Booming. There are now lots of people writing it—Eric Wilson, Theodore Beale, Bryan Davis, Peretti, Dekker. And Christian publishers are become less wary of it. They’re learning how to market it. Readers are coming around to the idea of entertaining, thought-provoking speculative fiction coming out of Christian publishers and being carried by Christian stores.
Jan Dennis, who used to be an editor and is now an agent, has always championed the genre. I think people are listening to him more now than ever.
WhereTheMapEnds: I certainly hope you’re right. As I’ve mentioned before, I get two kinds of answers to this question. Everyone answers either that Christian speculative fiction is doing great or that it’s almost nonexistent. I find myself in the latter camp, which is why I launched Marcher Lord Press.
But either answer is good for me. If lots of Christian publishers start doing more speculative fiction, demand may go up for this kind of book and the market for MLP novels will increase. And if Christian publishers move away from speculative fiction, the demand for MLP novels will likewise rise, because people won’t be able to find that kind of fiction anywhere else.
That’s all very encouraging, but have you seen anything that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Robert Liparulo: There’s not enough of it. Publishers are still trying to figure it out, how to reach readers, how to market and distribute it. It’s a learning process, and fortunately, they’re willing to learn.
WhereTheMapEnds: What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Robert Liparulo: What needed to happen is already happening. Writers, publishers, and retailers had to get over the idea that speculative fiction is only escapism. They had to start seeing it as a way of communicating important ideas, of imparting themes that affect readers to the point of changing their lives.
At the same time, they had to realize this could be accomplished subtly, through metaphor and the real-life, everyday behavior and thoughts of characters—not through overt preaching. It’s okay to thoroughly entertain readers through great stories, while only implying the importance of moral standards and that Jesus is our Lord.
Some people still disagree with that. They believe the gospel should be spelled out explicitly in every story Christians tell. I believe there is room for both styles of Christian storytelling—the overt and the covert—but making the overt a requirement of getting a story published severely limited the reach these stories had. That’s changing.
WhereTheMapEnds: What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
Robert Liparulo: I think we’ll slowly see a lot more of everything. That is, the taboos against things like ghosts, monsters, and hardware-oriented science fiction are going to go away. Not that “anything goes,” but I think Christian writers are going to find new ways to introduce them into their stories, while maintaining biblical principles, and publishers and readers will be more willing to accept them.
Over the next decade, the line between “Christian fiction” and “mainstream fiction” will blur: fiction sections in Christian bookstores will look an awful lot like those in mainstream bookstores, and vice versa. Christian stores will start to carry authors who write from a Christian worldview but who are published by mainstream houses. Likewise, Christian fiction sections in stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble will scatter into the rest of the store, under the general categories in which they belong: horror, mystery, thriller, science fiction.
Readers will have to be more educated about who’s writing what, in terms of finding authors who share their values, because of that blurring. Identifying authors as Christian will be more the responsibility of the consumers rather than the stores or the publishers. That’s a good thing because it allows us the whole palette of colors to paint our stories. I think stories will become richer, more sophisticated, and more profound.
WhereTheMapEnds: Wow. What you’re describing is nothing less than a revolution. It’s the holy grail, the thing that those who have advocated for Christian speculative fiction over the years have been hoping for. I think you’re a lot more optimistic about it happening than I am, though. Still, as the old gatekeepers retire and the industry evolves to survive, perhaps what you describe will truly come to pass. May it be!
So, Bob, what advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?
Robert Liparulo: Neil Gaiman said it best: “Finish things.” That encompasses a lot of disciplines. Don’t chase a market or a trend; just write what you want to read and don’t worry about the market (understanding the market comes into play when it’s time to write a proposal and decide which publishers to show it to). Don’t over-edit, at least not to the point that it becomes perpetual. Don’t doubt yourself; simply write the best story you can at the moment and blast it out into the public eye.
WhereTheMapEnds: Good words. What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?
Robert Liparulo: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Inspired by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, it’s the best exploration of story structure I’ve read.
It analyzes why we continually see certain story beats occurring at closely the same spot in almost every successful story throughout history. It helps writers understand the character archetypes that move the story along—the mentor, the threshold guardian, the hero, etc. (But it’s not an excuse to write formulaic fiction; it’s only a guideline to help writers get their original and creative concepts in order.)
This book and Stunk and White’s Elements of Style are the only books a novelist needs.
WhereTheMapEnds: What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?
Robert Liparulo: Being able to explore the human condition in a variety of circumstances. I believe our true character comes out in extreme, life-threatening situations: are we cowards at heart, or heroes?
Writing stories introduces me to different types of people, average Joes, good guys, and then put them in places of hardship, pitted against villains and difficult situations. How do they overcome (if they do)? From where do they draw their strength?
The Christian worldview is a natural one for storytellers because most dynamic stories explore the nature of good versus evil. And, as you said before, speculative fiction is perfect for writers because it takes all restraints off the question “What if…?,” which is where all good stories begin.
WhereTheMapEnds: What writing project(s) are you working on now?
Robert Liparulo: I’m writing the movie script for Deadfall with a producer I greatly admire (he made one of my favorite films, Enemy at the Gates). I’m writing the fifth book in the Dreamhouse Kings YA series, called Whirlwind. And I’m starting my next thriller for adults. It’s a bit of a departure from my previous thrillers in that I’m introducing a bit of the supernatural into my usual genre of high-tech action-adventures. It’s a lot of fun.
WhereTheMapEnds: Those sound terrific. And you’re a busy guy! What cool speculative idea have you had lately?
Robert Liparulo: Mostly just the continuation of the Dreamhouse story. It’s been a blast seeing where the King family goes in history and the craziness they find there. We have a contest in which young readers can suggest “worlds” to explore. I’ve truly enjoyed reading their ideas. There’s a lot of creativity in those young minds. They remind me of the two the most important parts of being a speculative fiction writer: imagination and passion.
WhereTheMapEnds: What would you say is the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?
Robert Liparulo: I really enjoyed Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. He has his dad’s (Stephen King) blue collar voice down pat, and his sense of what scares people.
I also recently re-read two of Tim Powers’ books, Declare and The Anubis Gates. Man, talk about an imagination! And coupled with great writing. I love the way he takes readers by the hand and leads them into wild adventures involving time travel and alternative histories. Reading Tim Powers is like getting a shot of creativity juice.
WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?
Robert Liparulo: Whether they’re writers or readers, I’d encourage them to promote their favorite books and authors as much as possible. That means writing positive reviews on blogs, Amazon.com, CBD.com, Barnes and Noble’s website; talking to booksellers about carrying more speculative fiction titles (it really matters—they listen); lobbying book groups to read them; and talking them up to friends.
Somewhere on the horizon there’s a tipping point where suddenly Christian speculative fiction will become more accepted, where publishers will not only accept it but seek it out; where readers will clamber for it so much that retailers will stock it and promote it more; where authors don’t have to convince their publishers that it’s a viable genre, only that they’re good storytellers. But it won’t happen unless there’s a movement to make it happen.
I think people underestimate the influence they have. If enough people buy it and ask for it and talk about it, the people whose job it is to protect their company’s bottom line will take notice. If the economics for Christian speculative fiction improve, then the doors will fly open for readers and writers of this genre.
That’s All for This Time
What a wonderful interview, huh? Thanks again to Robert Liparulo. Be sure to visit Robert online.