Please Welcome…Tom Pawlik
(*Originally posted April 2010)
This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Tom Pawlik.
Tom is a highly imaginative Christy-Award-winning author of two novels but has great hopes of writing countless others. His first novel, Vanish won the Operation First Novel Contest sponsored by the Christian Writers Guild and Tyndale House Publishers. Released in June 2008, Vanish went on to win a Christy Award in the Visionary category. His follow up sequel, Valley of the Shadow was released in June of 2009
Tom’s fascination with the weird, the creepy, and the unknown began at a very early age when his parents (both of German descent) introduced him to a bizarre 19th century German story book called Der Struwwelpeter. The book was a collection of nightmarish morality tales by a German physician who obviously had too much time on his hands and no children of his own. The macabre nursery rhymes—sort of a Mother Goose meets Stephen King—included the frightful “Daumenlutscher” (Thumbsucker), a disturbing yarn about a young boy who was warned that if he continued to suck his thumbs, the local tailor would come in and chop them off with his sewing shears. You can guess the story’s gruesome ending has scared many a child out of surreptitiously savoring their opposable digits over the years. Other tales warned against playing with matches and being overly messy. Needless to say Tom never played with matches, always kept his room clean, and to this day retains the use of both his thumbs..
But the psychological damage was already done, and Tom’s warped imagination turned him to writing his own creepy stories at a rather young age. Alas, no publishers were brave enough to bring his stories to print, so Tom would not realize his life-long dream of becoming a published author until the ripe old age of 42, by which time he’d already had five children of his own…who, oddly enough, never sucked their thumbs.
So without further ado, here’s the interview.
WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been up to lately?
Tom Pawlik: I’m currently working on my third novel for Tyndale. The working title is The Soul Eater and is scheduled for release April 2011.
In other great news, Tyndale has recently signed a contract for the movie rights to Vanish with an independent film company. All the funding is in place and they’re currently working on the screenplay. I don’t have any production timelines yet.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?
Tom Pawlik: That’s easy: Vanish—oh wait…did you mean from another author? Hmmm…well that’s a bit more difficult. There are so many of them. I would have to say The Hobbit. I love how the opening chapters portend the quest and the feeling I get of being on the threshold of a grand adventure. My fourth grade teacher read the book to us, and from that first chapter I knew I wanted to write my own stories like that.
WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?
Tom Pawlik: I’m a Christian and I love sci-fi and fantasy so it was kind of inevitable. Becoming an author has been a long, long, long time dream of mine. See the answer to the previous question.
WhereTheMapEnds: How was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?
Tom Pawlik: Well, I loved Vanish and so did my wife. But my agent shopped it around for more than a year with no interest from publishers. Even though it went on to win a Christy, I’m convinced that had it not been for the Christian Writers Guild contest, it would still be unpublished today.
WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.
Tom Pawlik: I love both sci-fi and fantasy to read and write. I’m currently focusing on sci-fi/horror because right now that seems to be a bit more marketable at Tyndale for me. But I’ve had the makings of a great fantasy novel in my head for a while now. However, I think I need to get better established first as an author before venturing into fantasyland.
WhereTheMapEnds: You’re finding science fiction and horror marketable at Tyndale? Wow. I hope that continues for you. My perception of the main readership for Christian fiction (see Tips 15-17 on this page) is that they don’t like speculative fiction at all, but if they will take any of it, it is fantasy only. I would put SF down as a distant second and horror as a 32nd. I’m very impressed and hope you go huge with your SF/horror novels.
So, Tom, how would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Tom Pawlik: It seems that in the last several years there has been a lot of new activity in the “specu-fi” genres. I think publishers have started to understand that there IS an audience for this genre out there, but I’m not sure they’re fully embracing it just yet. They still seem a bit hesitant to commit bigger marketing budgets to them.
WhereTheMapEnds: I do hope you’re right. I read a article in Publishers Weekly this month that says Christian fiction publishers are scaling way back, publishing only those books in the center of the bull’s-eye. Which means Amish and romance. Even normally accepted subgenres like thrillers, cozy mysteries, and chick-lits are no longer deemed safe. If that’s so, what are the chances of someone writing speculative fiction? (Specu-fi, eh? Hmm. As if we don’t have to already define “speculative fiction” every time we say it! LOL) have you seen anything that encourages you about Christian speculative writing and/or publishing?
Tom Pawlik: My 3rd publishing contract! Tyndale doesn’t typically publish a lot of spec-fi titles. So you can imagine how thrilled I am to be in their stable.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, it’s terrific! Congratulations. What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Tom Pawlik: I don’t know about other spec-fi authors, but I have a real desire to get my books into the hands of the general market as well as Christian readers. However, our books are usually relegated to the “Christian Fiction” (Chri-fi) sections at B&N, Borders or Walden. I hate that! Put us where we belong, in the “Thriller” or “Sci-fi” or “Fantasy” sections!
WhereTheMapEnds: As I understand it, that’s more a function of the various departments in a secular bookstore and their department buyers. When buyers find out a sales rep is from a Christian publisher, he is sent to the Religion buyer for the store. Books purchased by that person go on that person’s shelves.
So, what would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?
Tom Pawlik: I would like to see Christian publishers become a little more deliberate about expanding their spec-fi portfolios and make a greater effort to reach a broader audience.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, that would be wonderful. In these lean times, however, I wonder if that will happen. I’m afraid it’s probably more likely that they will become more conservative, not more aggressive, and will concentrate on those books perceived to be guaranteed to produce solid income. So…big-name authors, continuations of popular series, and more and more of the kind of fiction the target readership has repeatedly said it wants: a bonnet, a buggy, and a bouquet of roses.
“Expanding their speculative fiction portfolio” essentially means finding and developing an entirely new audience, since the same readers who want Amish don’t want vampire mutants. At the best of times, most businesses are undermotivated to seek out new audience demographics. Certainly that’s true when times are not as good.
Now, I’ve been accused of harping on one theme in these interviews. The tongue-in-cheek accusation goes like this: “Jeff, all you ever say is, ‘the publishing industry is broke…prairie romances suck…and the Dallas Cowboys rule.'”
Ack. Do I really sound like that? Let me clarify, then. The Christian fiction publishing industry is not broken. It works extremely well in meeting the needs of its demographic. And God uses these books to accomplish His purposes.
Mainstream Christian publishers are actually correct not to publish speculative fiction, in my opinion. Here’s why: if you open a store catering to scuba divers and you do well attracting scuba divers inside, and then you start converting a large portion of your store to, I dunno, lawnmower sales and service, you’d be a little crazy. Certainly your business would suffer.
Christian publishers know their demographic. To continue to push on that readership a kind of fiction it has repeatedly said it doesn’t want is a little nutso, I think. Like trying to sell replacement lawn mower blades to people looking for breathing regulators and flippers. So the Christian fiction publishing industry is actually being very smart when it sticks to what its core audience wants.
Second, prairie romances don’t suck. Well, I’m sure some of them do. But as a genre, it’s completely legitimate. And to the core CBA fiction demographic, they’re wonderful. We have some amazing novelists writing this kind of fiction, and God is using it to change lives. I don’t personally prefer prairie fiction, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s bad or shouldn’t be allowed to exist.
As for the Dallas Cowboys ruling…well, on that I won’t make a correction. They may not rule statistically every year, but they do rule—in my heart, at least.
Sorry to go off on you like that, Tom! I too hope Christian speculative fiction gains ground. Indeed, that’s kind of what I’m all about. I guess my difference is that I’m not looking for that to happen within the mainstream Christian publishing industry. I’m looking for new pathways.
What do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?
Tom Pawlik: I’m not great at prognostication, but as long as you promise not to stone me if my prophecies don’t come to pass…I think we’re moving in the right direction, so I’m cautiously optimistic. I believe we’ll continue to see more publishers putting out titles in this genre over the next several years. Our culture seems fascinated by these types of stories and Christians should be on the leading edge, not playing catch up.
WhereTheMapEnds: What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction?
Tom Pawlik: Don’t give up. Be original. Work hard. Don’t give up. Get professional critiques of your writing. Don’t give up. Check out the Christian Writers Guild. And most importantly, don’t give up.
WhereTheMapEnds: LOL. Exactly. What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?
Tom Pawlik: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King. I don’t know if it’s the best. To be honest, it’s the only one I’ve actually read. But I liked it.
WhereTheMapEnds: Awesome. Well, I would say it’s the only one most novelist need to read. What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?
Tom Pawlik: The joy of letting your imagination run completely wild and getting to share those stories with others. I’ve gotten emails from readers in Australia and South Africa, and it’s an awesome thing to think that God can take something I clacked out on my laptop in my living room, and get it into the hands of people on the other side of the world.
WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, truly awesome. What writing project(s) are you working on now?
Tom Pawlik: My latest novel The Soul Eater is a creepy, sci-fi thriller. Due out April 2011.
WhereTheMapEnds: Excellent! What’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?
Tom Pawlik: Well, I do have an idea that frankly I believe will change the face of not only Christian Speculative Fiction but the entire publishing industry as we know it. But…are you kidding? I’m way too competitive to share it with anyone yet.
WhereTheMapEnds: Okay, so, what’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?
Tom Pawlik: A dandy little work in progress called Swordmaker’s Charm. I have to say, I loved what I’ve read so far. I’m just waiting for the author to finish the darn thing!
WhereTheMapEnds: LOL. Don’t hold your breath! But Tiercel is always on my mind, you know? What else would you like to say to the readers of WhereTheMapEnds.com?
Tom Pawlik: Well, since I’m not above a little shameless self-promotion, I’ll say, please check out my novel Vanish if you haven’t done so already. I think you’ll enjoy it. And if you do, you may also wish to read the sequel, Valley of the Shadow.
Other than that, I always like to plug the Christian Writers Guild whenever I get the chance. They are a great resource for aspiring Christian writers. They don’t pay me to say this but they really gave me my start as an author and they are a first class ministry.
That’s All for This Time
What a great interview, huh? Thanks again to Tom. Be sure to visit Tom Pawlik online.