Interview with T.L. Hines

Please Welcome…T.L. Hines

(*Originally posted April 2008)

What a joy to have Christian novelist T.L. Hines as our interview guest at

Tony L. Hines writes what he calls “noir bizarre fiction,” which to you and me looks a lot like supernatural thrillers. He mixes elements of the crime/mystery and supernatural/ fantasy genres. He says we should blame it on an unhealthy fascination with The Night Stalker and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery as a child.

Okay, that gets us into the ballpark, doesn’t it? I still remember this Night Gallery in which a guy is sleeping on a bottom bunk and the top one (with nails pointing down) slowly slides down to skewer him. And the other one about the earwig in the guy’s ear that ate his brain. And the other one about the spider that, every time someone tried to wash it down the drain, came up again, larger than before.

Aaaaagh! I want my mommy! (I mean, I wanted my mommy. Then. Of course. Not now. Un-uh. I’m all g-grown up now.)

Tony would like you to know that he likes pudding. And that he’s an award-winning air guitarist, specializing in ZZ Top riffs. Finally, you should know that before finding success as a novelist he tried a number of odd jobs, including trimming Christmas trees, sorting seed potatoes, selling strawberries, and cleaning cadaver storage rooms. Ew.

Tony’s published novels are Waking Lazarus, The Dead Whisper On, and The Unseen. He lives in Montana with his wife and daughter.

And now, without further ado, here is the interview.

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with what’s going on in your life.

T.L. Hines: I’d have to say that 2007 was a Charles Dickens year for me: the best of times, the worst of times. I signed a new four-book contract with Thomas Nelson and then, shortly after that, was diagnosed with Follicular Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma while working on my first book for them.

Following treatment, I’ve been officially declared in remission and cancer-free, so that’s a wonderful praise. And in an odd way, I’m thankful for so many positive things the horrible cancer experience has done for me. But that’s another story.

As a result, I think the book I wrote in the midst of all this (The Unseen) is always going to hold a special place on my shelf. I’m excited to see it in the marketplace, because I think it’s my creepiest book yet, on a human level. In an odd way, it’s the most unsettling one I’ve written so far, even though the true supernatural elements in it are probably lighter than anything else I’ve done.

WhereTheMapEnds: I’m so glad you’re doing better. What a terrifying time for you and your family. Tell us, Tony, what is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

T.L. Hines: Oh, I hate these questions, because I’m the obsessive compulsive guy who can’t narrow anything down to just one.

I do keep track of my “all-time favorite” books at LibraryThing (a great site, if you haven’t been there). That list includes a lot of Stephen King, who was probably more responsible for making me want to be a writer than anyone. King fanatics seem to gravitate toward The Stand, but I’m more drawn to It. I also really liked Desperation, which isn’t one of his better-loved ones among fans. But then, I pretty much go for anything he’s written.

I like a lot of crime fiction, as well. But you asked about spec, so, in that vein, I might have to go with Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber books (the first six, anyway), Peretti’s This Present Darkness, and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel.

See? I told you I can’t narrow anything down to one.

WhereTheMapEnds: I didn’t realize Hjortsberg had written any novels. He wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite fantasy movies, Legend. Awesome. I’ll have to look up his books. So, Tony, what made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

T.L. Hines: I don’t think I ever made a conscious decision to write a specific genre, really. I knew what I liked to read, and I knew what I wanted to write, and that’s what I wrote.
After I finished my first manuscript, I realized I was a bit of an anomaly. Was I a guy who produced dark, supernatural fiction with faith elements to make most “mainstream” ABA publishers nervous, or a guy who produced faith-based fiction with dark, supernatural elements to make most CBA publishers nervous?

It just so happened that Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Bill Myers, Randy Alcorn, Brandilyn Collins, and others had been paving the way for voices like mine to be heard in the CBA. I’m grateful to everyone who blazed the path, and made it possible for me to find a publishing home and an audience. Without authors such as these, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’d still be writing the same stuff, mind you, but my wife would probably the only one reading it.

WhereTheMapEnds: Thank the Lord for supportive spouses! Speaking of wives and such, how was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?

T.L. Hines: Most people don’t get their first novels published. It’s more like their fourth or fifth. I’m an oddball in that my first novel, Waking Lazarus, was also my first one published. (It ended up not being published until after I’d gone on and written two other novels, but once again, that’s another story.)

I have to say, when I finished the book, I was scared of it before I ever showed it to anyone else. Not because I was in danger of breaking my arm by patting myself on the back—”Good job, TL, you cranked that one outta the park”—but because of the subject matter. It is, after all, about a kidnapper/killer who abducts children. Really, who wants to read about that?

Even worse, who wants to write about it? I certainly didn’t, but that’s what came out as I sat down to write a book about a man coming to terms with who—and what—he is. His antagonist became this abductor, because in an odd way, the main character (Jude Allman) needs to face his own fractured childhood to grow as a person.

Anyway, my wife was chomping at the bit to read it, but I felt odd handing it to her. I felt odd letting other people read it, as well.

I knew I’d have a hard time finding a home for the book, and that was largely proven true when I received more than 80 rejections from literary agents—first ABA, and then CBA—before Dave Long at Bethany House downloaded a sample chapter off my blog and asked to see more. (For this simple gesture, I’ve nominated Dave for sainthood, even though neither one of us is Catholic.)

I’ve had a few reviews from people who just couldn’t stomach the subject matter, and that’s okay. In truth, it still makes me uncomfortable, in some ways. Whenever a conversation or email starts with “I just read Waking Lazarus…” I still have to hold my breath a little bit. I keep expecting people to say, “Why on earth did you write about that?”

WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.

T.L. Hines: I’ve gotta read what I write, and vice versa. I love anything that mixes elements of the supernatural and the dark underbelly of crime.

I’m huge into Charlie Huston now, whose “Joe Pitt” books are about gangs of vampires in New York. They’re harsh and profane and brutal, but at the same time they’re funny and oddly hopeful. Joe Pitt, the character at the center of the novels, is a heroic anti-hero. I also love the “Repairman Jack” novels by F. Paul Wilson, and need to catch up on the last few in that series.

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

T.L. Hines: I’d have to give the politician’s answer: it depends. There’s a lot of stuff happening in YA Fantasy that’s done quite well. Donita K. Paul, Bryan Davis, Wayne Thomas Batson, and G.P. Taylor come to mind.

And supernatural thrillers, for want of a better term, sell well in general, thanks in part to recognizable names such as Peretti and Ted Dekker, who, it must be said, come from the heritage of C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and the Inklings. (Without The Screwtape Letters, I’m willing to bet there would be no This Present Darkness.

On the other hand, pure fantasy written for the adult Christian market, as well as pure SciFi, don’t seem to have matured yet. I don’t think we’ve seen a giant, breakaway success in these genres, in terms of sales.

I do think, however, it’s just a matter of time before it happens.

WhereTheMapEnds: May it be according to the words of your mouth. I’m certainly hoping Marcher Lord Press will be the place where that breakout speculative novel for the adult Christian market springs forth. Tony, have you seen anything lately that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

T.L. Hines: Growth. Success. I think there’s a tendency to bemoan the state of Christian fiction in general, and speculative Christian fiction in specific. But Christian Fiction is getting more daring—and that bodes well for Christian spec fic. I mean, I’m the guy who wrote a book featuring a child abductor—something more than a few ABA agents told me was too much—and it found a home in the CBA.

Eric Wilson, Kathryn Mackel, and Melanie Wells all play in the same general sandbox as I do, and I think we’ve all been finding audiences. In the past few years, we’ve seen old tropes in the supernatural arena get some fresh new twists with books such as Tracy Groot’s Madman and Tosca Lee‘s Demon: A Memoir, among others.

In the suspense genre, we’re seeing some people really push the envelope; guys such as Tim Downs and Robert Liparulo. Crime fiction is growing, too, and even starting to get some innovative, humor-laced voices. I’m thinking specifically of stuff by Chris Well, as well as My Name is Russell Fink, the debut by Michael Snyder. Even Claudia Mair Burney’s forthcoming Exorsistah books (which, I believe, are actually being sold under an ABA imprint).

I mean, come on, who would have published those 10 years ago? So I think we’re seeing the whole industry growing and stretching—and that’s in stark contrast to ABA fiction, by and large.

WhereTheMapEnds: That’s a very encouraging survey, Tony. Thank you. As an aside, I acquired Tosca Lee’s fiction for NavPress, and worked hard to get Russell Fink and Mair’s Exorsistah books. I’m just glad to see them getting published. So what advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?

T.L. Hines: Write what you’re supposed to write—what you feel compelled to write. Don’t worry how marketable or how sellable it is. I want to pull my hair out every time I wander into online discussions about Christian fiction, and I see questions like, “Can I have two characters hug each other, as long as they’re fully clothed, have taken a vow of chastity, and close their eyes?” I think writers often imagine more roadblocks than there really are.

Never, never ask “Can I do this?” while you’re writing. That will only choke your story, and it will be the death of anything good or innovative.

WhereTheMapEnds: Excellent advice. The internal editor can become the internal censor, which then becomes the internal paralyzer. Just write it down first. Figure it out later. Tony, what’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?

T.L. Hines: I already mentioned Stephen King, so I suppose it comes as no surprise when I say you could do worse than to read his book On Writing. It’s interesting because it’s part memoir (and because he has a style I’ve always loved). It’s helpful because it’s general enough to apply to pretty much everybody, and it’s specific enough to be helpful.

That said, I’m really not a fan of how-to books on writing. I dislike it when people start off conversations about books with “Well, Dwight Swain says, for a hero’s journey…” or “According to McKee…” or anything along those lines.

I think 90% of the writing books out there are just people telling you how they do it—which is fine—but too many aspiring writers take it to mean how everyone should do it.

You gotta find your own way and your own style. It’s like playing a guitar: you can keep playing “Louie, Louie” for only so long before you have to vault into new territory and perform your own stuff. If you don’t, you’re forever stuck in a creative rut as a musician who plays covers.

WhereTheMapEnds: Spoken like a true air guitarist! [grin] Well, I agree for the most part. I don’t read many books on writing, for exactly the reason you mention. However, when I’m stuck on a certain aspect of writing, I actually want to read about how someone else does it.

That’s the impulse behind my own character system: Character Creation for the Plot-First Novelist. It’s how I—a non-character guy—create characters. Hopefully, it will help other writers find their way to a system that works for them, too.

So what would you say is the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?

T.L. Hines: So many things, really, but most of all, the general feeling that All is Right With the World. I’ve wanted to be a writer—specifically, a novelist—since I was 12 years old, and now, I’m living the dream. I get to do it full-time, too, and there aren’t many people who are in that position, so I’m thankful each and every day.

As part of that, it’s wonderful to have a voice that gets heard, and to hear from people who have read my books and taken the time to let me know. It’s a definite encouragement when I check email, and get one of those “I loved your book” messages.

WhereTheMapEnds: Wow, full-time writing? It’s the Holy Grail. Congratulations. What’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?

T.L. Hines: I mentioned Charlie Huston’s “Charlie Pitt” series earlier (the first is called Already Dead), and I quite love those. Definitely not CBA-friendly, though, so if bad language and violence are deal-breakers for you, step away.

I’m currently reading Whitechapel Gods, a debut Steampunk novel by S.M. Peters. I’m not a huge fan of the Steampunk genre in general, but I was drawn to this book’s mix of Orwellian mind control in the era of Jack the Ripper.

[Editor’s note: Steampunk is the term for a subgenre of speculative fiction that involves SF or fantasy in the age of steam (19th century), usually in Victorian England.]

I’d also like to put in a plug for some faith-based writers who work in the ABA, but who don’t seem to have much of a following among CBA readers.

Specifically, a pair I see as a modern-day Tolkien and Lewis: Tim Powers and James Blaylock. Most of Powers’ stuff is alternate history, whereas much of Blaylock’s stuff falls solidly into the Just Plain Weird category.

WhereTheMapEnds: Ah, Just Plain Weird. Gotta love it. I think the Booklist may need a new category! Plus when can we get some Christian Steampunk to put on there? Thanks for your time, Tony!

That’s All for This Time

What a wonderful interview, huh? Thanks again to T.L. Hines. Be sure to visit T.L. online.

But that’s not all the T.L. Hines goodness we’ve got. Tony has graciously offered us the first scene from an unpublished dark fantasy novel called (S)leaper. Check it out here!


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