Time for a MAN ON THE FLOOR! edition of Writing Without A Wife, in which I manage to be a fly on the wall (mostly) while historical fiction author Peter Leavell and Amish fiction author Patrick E. Craig discuss, among other things, what it’s like to be the only male writer in the room. Join me…
Lisa: You’re both working in female-dominated genres. Do you ever sense any gender bias?
Patrick: Some. I don’t write typical Amish fiction. Most Amish fiction these days is light-hearted romance, dressed up in Amish clothing—romances that come out just perfect only because the protagonist is Amish. I have Amish friends and have obviously done a huge amount of research on the Amish faith, and they’re like anyone else. They have desperate situations and can be very desperate people. So, I try to write about that stuff.
Peter: I actually think that women are interested in a male perspective, so it’s easier for me to get a woman’s ear in the industry than it might be for another woman. If anything, that gives me an unfair advantage. At the same time, women aren’t generally going to gush over my Westerns online like they will for a straight romance. So that can make it harder for me to find female readers, and for them to find me. I was asked to add more romance into my westerns and historical fiction novels for that very reason. I didn’t mind, though, because it didn’t take away from the history, it was just something added in.
Patrick: There is a lot of my love of westerns that gets into my Amish novels—adventure, mystery, suspense… My editor calls it Amish Plus.
Peter: Let me ask you something… Don’t get me wrong, I like a good romance. Those stories where two people really love each other, yet they’re being pulled apart through no fault of their own. What I don’t like, and what you see in a lot of Christian fiction, is a woman who cannot decide if he’s the one or not. He’s forever, please, please, please, and he never gives up, but yet, she can’t decide. It drives me crazy.
Patrick: You want to shake her! I guess, in the Amish Heiress, there is some of that. I have the character who hates her father and wants to get away. She has a man who loves her, and she loves him. But she forsakes that, she’s willing to give him up for what she wants.
Peter: That’s more intriguing, though, than just this woman deciding if she wants this guy or not… I read these books, and I think, really? That’s the only plot?
"They open it and they’re saying, 'Okay, tell me what you know, what you think is true about life.' And what an enormous responsibility that is."
Lisa: What Patrick mentioned, having to make that choice, may be what most of those romances are trying to get at, Peter. There is often a choice women make, and especially historically. Am I willing to give up what I want for this man? That can be an agonizing decision, but most romances aren’t ready to go that deep. And do readers really want them to?
Peter: It would be cool to see authors dig deeper into that struggle. I’m finding, too, that people are eager to find truth, instead of just a nice little story. They want some nugget that they can take with them through their day, and we often don’t give them that. Things like, revenge is not justice. It takes living to know what those nuggets are—and discernment and care in the writing to communicate them.
Patrick: Care, yes. When someone opens your book, they give you permission to speak into their lives. They open it and they’re saying, okay, tell me what you know, what you think is true about life. And what an enormous responsibility that is.
Lisa: Are there female authors who you enjoy reading? Anything you’ve learned from women writers?
Patrick: Francine Rivers. She is one of the few Christian authors who will push the envelope out of standard Christianese and write situations you will find in secular novels. There’s very specific violence, sexuality…
Peter: Yeah, so how can she get away with that and nobody else can?
Patrick: Because she’s a dang good writer! At this point, people will pick up her books just because of her name. People know what to expect, and know they won’t be disappointed. She’s found a way to organically write about real life, but at the same time, bring it under the covering of her faith. So, her novels have a lot of flavor.
Peter: I’ve learned a lot from women authors. I grew up with two brothers. I had no clue about women. First of all, women’s inner monologue is rich, incredible. When I write a guy and he’s about to do something, there’s no inner monologue. He just goes and does it, which reflects real life really well. But you can’t get away with that when you’re writing for women.
Peter: There has to be a thought process, and it has to be logical, reflecting emotions.
Patrick: Yeah, that’s a great insight.
Peter: Took some trial and error… The other thing I learned was about relationships. I had no clue what a relationship was, until just a few years ago, when I started writing. And I’ve been married eighteen years. When I got married, it was like, I had a job opening for a wife. I let people know I was accepting applications. I got Tonya’s, and she got the job. (Laughter)
"You can’t just have a plot without attachments, in life or writing."
Peter: It sounds funnier than it was, and the thing is, I realized just a few years ago, I’d done the same thing with God. I needed God in my life and Jesus applied and got the job…
Patrick: You climbed in the car and said, “Jesus, you sit here in the passenger seat and I’ll take the wheel?”
Peter: Exactly! God took care of that attitude really fast when my health vanished, in a matter of days. He taught me who I was, who He was, and that it all relies on Him. Life’s about relationships. So, back to writing for women, at the beginning of the book, you find out about her, who she’s attached to, and that interweaves with the action and comes back around at the end. You can’t just have a plot without attachments, in life or writing.
Patrick: I’ve had to work on…for lack of a better word, delicacy. Women authors have a delicacy that most men don’t have, and women readers respond to that. So, we can’t just go all Lonesome Dove. Figuring out how to have that delicacy, and yet still have strong male and female protagonists—that can be a challenge for a male author. For example, I’ve found that a lot of women don’t like swear words in novels, whereas, if it fits, guys don’t care.
Lisa: That might depend on the woman. There was a blog post Jocelyn Green wrote a while back [read it here] about receiving advice at this last ACFW conference that she should add more sexuality to her books to make them more marketable. Her response? She’s a mother trying to raise her children to be modest, respectful, pure, and she cares about those same values for her readers…
Peter: I read that post, too. So, her relationships are guiding what she writes, presumably what she would read…?
Patrick: I have two imperatives when it comes to what I write. One, I want to present the gospel of Jesus Christ as clearly as I can, without turning someone off. Two, preserve the wonderful language we have. I love words, I love big words, and I like to challenge people with them. I’d love my books to be like the King James Bible, where people would read a word and go, “I need to grab my dictionary and grow.”
Peter: I don’t think of myself as a “Christian” writer. My imperatives are historical accuracy and truth—which is simply Christ, with a capital “T”, and then a small “t” as in, authentically representing the human condition.
Lisa: Are there things, as you read women authors, that you think point to a perspective that women have that’s different from your own? Is there anything that surprises you?
Peter: I don’t like the way men are portrayed a lot of the time. It doesn’t seem realistic, but then, I don’t know that readers want reality. You know, speaking of the ACFW conference, the couple years that I went, it was about forty men to six hundred women. I was in a class with Karen Ball…
Patrick: She’s terrific!
Peter: She was amazing. And she kept asking me, “What does my token male think?” because I was the only guy in the room, and my perspective was different than everyone else. After the class, I had all these people, women, come up to me and say, “I need a perspective on how a guy would handle this situation.” So I listened and then I told them what I thought. They kind of looked at me for a minute and went, “No, that’ll never work. I’ll have to do something different.”
Patrick: So women don’t really want to read about real guys?
Peter: (laughs) It seems not. At least that’s been my experience. For example, your average male doesn’t usually think, first, in terms of relationship. A normal man will not keep coming back for more punishment for no particular reason. Here’s this female protagonist, she’s not attractive or she’s seriously damaged, and he falls in love with her for no reason and keeps coming back for more punishment. That’s not realistic.
"I think most women never completely let go, especially of first love."
Patrick: Men will go to a certain point with that, then they’ll just cut a woman off. And normally, in real life, at that point there’s no going back. When men turn off, they turn off completely. When a man abandons love, he abandons it completely. It seems like a lot of women never do.
Peter: I think that’s usually true. But I see all these women who are friends with their ex-boyfriends on FB… except my ex-girlfriends. They never want to talk to me again. I think they might be avoiding FB just so they won’t run into me. (laughter) Is that just me?
Patrick: I think most women never completely let go, especially of first love. A woman will always carry that first love, even if she doesn’t marry that guy, she will carry that first love forever. So that’s a difference, I think. Male writers need to understand that reality about women and write that way, and women writers need to also understand about men, when they say they’re done, they’re done.
Peter: But, I think a lot of men never completely get over that first break-up with someone they really loved. There’s a lot of baggage from those break-ups for a lot of guys… baggage that carries over into other relationships, trust issues. I wish there were more stories about unrequited love—Great Expectations-style—you never see that in Christian fiction.
Patrick: When I got married, I definitely had issues from previous relationships I had to learn to let go of.
Peter: So men deal with that past, too, just from a different perspective…
Patrick: I think men should write about that scar tissue in their hearts. It affects you your whole life. When you get tied up with people in a way that you, perhaps, shouldn’t have, you leave a part of your heart with them, and it leaves a scar-tissue shaped hole in your own heart, which numbs you to feeling stuff that you should be feeling with your spouse. I think men need to write about that. It’s something they need to say to their sons.
Peter: Definitely. Women are intriguing in other ways, too. Compassion—the compassion of women, and their empathy. I don’t feel compassion for a lot of people. I just don’t.
Patrick: It’s like, I’ll say, “That guy was a real jerk.” And my wife will respond, “You know, he could be a very nice man, he might just be having a bad day. He has a mother.”
Peter: I’ve learned the value of it, but I have to tell myself to be compassionate. “Christ was compassionate. He loves this person, so I need to. Maybe they just need a smile.”
Lisa: See? You have an inner monologue.
Patrick: But enough about feelings. Peter, I want to talk to you about a collaboration. I have this idea for a Western called Across the Great Divide…
Peter: I’ll write the bad guy and you can write the good guy… There’s Tonya [Peter’s wife].
Lisa: Before she comes in, if you learned about relationships when you started writing, did that enhance your relationship with Tonya? Did it help?
Peter: Very much. No doubt!
Lisa: Writing Saved My Marriage?
Peter: That’s kind of true. On the other hand, when I won that award for Gideon’s Call, there were suddenly lots of women interested in me and my work—that was new for both of us. And then I had all these new writing activities and people in my life, all this attention, that was taking my attention off of her and the kids, and that can be hard for a spouse. Speaking of Writing Without A Wife.
Lisa: So how do you deal with that?
Patrick: Since I'm not raising a family like Peter, the demands on my personal time are not as great as his. So I can get up early and write without disturbing my wife who is enjoying being retired. Mornings are best for me and I like to let her sleep in on the days when she doesn't have to go out. We always have a couple of days that we work on the "honeydo" list together.
Peter: I can tell you my perspective, but I know women writers who have the same experience in reverse… The grand question for many a wife seems to be, “What is more important to my husband, me or his work?" Let's face it, writers love writing. Their emotions whirl and sink and rise simply because of a good writing session or a dismal edit session. Many spouses want to be that for their lover. If he loved me, then I would be the one to make him happy. But writing makes him happy, so he must not love me. Jealousy sets in. Writing becomes the bad guy, especially when there is no tangible result. So here's what ten years of working it out has done for me—I listen to her. Really listening to what she says is vital. That’s how I say thank you to her for allowing me to write. I dig into what she's saying and learn more about who she is… and I do the dishes. It seems to be the simple things…
Lisa: Last thing, I like to end these interviews with “take-aways” from the authors. What is it you’d really like readers of this interview to remember…?
Peter: Buy our books. (laughter) To get where an author is coming from, you really need to read their entire body of work.
Patrick: Pete and I are on the same page here. Buy our books, lots of them.
Best-selling author, Patrick E. Craig, is a lifelong writer and musician who left a successful songwriting and performance career in the music industry to follow Christ in 1984. He spent the next twenty-six years as a worship leader, seminar speaker and pastor in churches, and at retreats, seminars and conferences all across the Western United States. After ministering for a number of years in music and worship to a circuit of small churches in Northern California, he is now concentrating on writing and publishing both fiction and non-fiction books. In November, 2011, Patrick signed a three book deal with Harvest House Publishers to publish his "Apple Creek Dreams" series. His Latest work, &q