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Monday, January 05, 2009

Walter Wangerin Jr. Interview, Part II

Walter Wangerin, Jr. has worked as a university professor, a radio announcer, and a book reviewer; he has traveled with migrant farm workers, participated in a Lakota Indian sun dance, and has been pastor of an inner-city church. Finally, he has written more than thirty books that have become favorites of people in all walks of life and of all ages.

His first novel, THE BOOK OF THE DUN COW, won both the National Book Award (Am.B.A., 1980) and The New York Times Best Children's Book of the Year.
Currently, Wangerin holds the Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, where he teaches literature and creative writing, and is writer-in-residence.

Interview via telephone, April 2006. Continued...

Gina Holmes: Looking back over your writing career, what advice would you give to an up and coming novelist—what worked for you or what would you have changed?

Walter Wangerin Jr.: I teach creative writing and I teach the highest level of seminary here since 1991. You can imagine how many things I would be telling such a person.

The things that are obvious: deciduousness. Continue writing. That you remember the people you knew in college who praised you, not just your professors but those whom you trusted among you. That you would not leave without a community to take with you.

When you’re in college, writers seek one another out. They talk to each other. They like each other. It takes awhile to realize that people in that group are going to get into positions where they can help one another. They often think that editors are editors and publishers are publishers--they’ve been there forever and they’ll never leave. You know as well as I do the turn over that takes place both in publishing houses and magazines and so forth. So I get them as best as I can to look around the room and identify the people that they really like and like to share literature with and to make some kind of a covenant with that group as the years go on. So, they don’t roam, but they have people who respond to what they do even as they respond to what the others do and support one another.

I always encourage them to start with the smaller pieces and to start sending them out boldly. I teach them how to write the letter that goes with it, and how to handle it on computer since so much these days takes place that way.

Once they graduate, I tell them there’s going to be a loss of writing because the energies they were drawing upon for writing will be used for making the transition in their life.

They’ll sit down to write and nothing will come and they’ll think I’m not a writer. I tell them, no you are, you just spent all that creativity telling your parents not to worry I’m going to get a job or whatever.

Once they find the pattern again, they shouldn’t wait long before they send material out. I talk to them about writing to authors whose work they appreciate. I talk about how to approach them and what kind of letters to write. Not to be surprised when they get answers because many authors feel it’s their responsibility to support new coming writers and will respond.

I did that myself and have established good friendships with Wendell Berry, Madeline L’Engel, Maya Angelou and playwrights I keep correspondence with. So, there’s a whole host of things I would tell them.


Here, in vivid language and rich historical detail, is the
most important story of the Christian faith---the life of Jesus, presented in
the form of a literary novel.
This man: Consider this man who, by his power,
his peace, his simple presence, and his fierce purity, quietly turned the whole
world upside down. None other could evoke such joy at his astonishing deeds,
such anger at his strange aloofness, such fear when he began to draw the
attention of powerful enemies . . . and such heartbreak when the inevitable came
to pass.Surrounded by a circle of close relationships--his mother and her
extended family, men and women drawn irresistibly by the light of his
personality, the authority of his words, the power of his deeds, and above all,
by the depth of his love--this carpenter from Nazareth moved toward a singular
destiny. A destiny he would both fear and embrace. A destiny that would mark
forever the lives of those who followed him.

Gina: How have you found balance between life, your family and being an author?

Walter: I think it comes, a curse and a gift, being driven. I can’t sit down and not do something without feeling I better get up and do something. Now our kids are all grown and gone so we have a little more space.

Gina: What are you working on now?

Walter: Well, this cancer is a very uncertain measure of my time and so I brought forward a book that I’ve had in the back of my mind for years and have begun to work on it, but it’s not something I can talk about. I will though.

I just finished writing a really good children’s book, called I Am My Grandpa’s Enkelin. It’s a good children’s book that will be published by Paraclete probably a year from now.

Gina: Who do you like to read?

Walter: [laughs] Everyone. That’s so hard.

Gina: I know it’s kind of an unfair question.

Walter: Right now, Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt. Do you know it?

Gina: I don’t.

Walter: You should. It’s a Booker Prize winner. It’s an extraordinary literary work. I’ll read P.D. James, John Irving. I’ll always go back to the seventeenth century poets and I find all kinds of joy. Also Gerard Manely Hopkins and Hart Crane which not too many people read today.

That question is impossible to answer—a whole library.

Gina: You write from poetry to children’s books, theology to novels. What is your favorite thing to sit down and write? What gets you the most excited?

Walter: I can’t answer that either. Each of these genres delights different parts of who I am. You don’t write poetry the same way you write short stories or a novel. It has more lyric tendencies and spontaneity of language. A short story needs at least some shaping; you can’t simply wander in a short story, although you will make discoveries. The novel for me when it works, I call-- 'I like the pleasure of your company' because I have to live with these characters a long time and I want to give them direction, so that I follow as much as I control them. I like to engage my heart as much, if not more, as my mind.

Children’s books have the advantage of being done in a relatively short period of time. None the less they require all the skill.

Gina: Advice for those reading this interview?

Walter: This is my life. Write well. Write well. Write well.

Don’t assume that because you’re writing good, (truth and
God’s message), that you are writing well. If you put poor clothing on a good
truth, the truth will fail. Honor the truth with all the skill and craft that
secular writers honor their writing or you will sell your books only to the

That’s my greatest peeve. And writing well means that you make it your profession. That you learn that craft. It means that to you as a writer, that craft is absolutely as important as any physician’s skills. You just can’t assume that because the Holy Spirit told you to say something that it’s going to have any value to anyone who would find it a new and surprising insight.

I am much troubled that these books sell so well that are not written well or the craft is neglected.

Gina: What do you think is our obligation as Christians storytellers, do you think that every book should point to a Biblical truth—

Walter: I knew you were going to go there. That is not our obligation. It is our obligation to embrace truth and to allow it to be the experience of the reader. But whenever a writer tells a story with a ‘and what do we learn from this?’ the power of the story is completely vitiated, it’s lost. The power of a story is that we experience it. The power of the story is that it embraces us. As soon as someone says and what did we learn from this, everything is twisted and we’re forced to figure it out. It becomes no longer a story but an illustration and this bugs me about protestant writing.

Everything has to have a message or a moral. You can’t reduce a whole beautiful story down to one sentence that tells us we must love our neighbor or whatever.

Gina: I think most of us agree that we can just tell a good story and the reader will leave with a truth.

Walter: It will. It will shape them. I know that when you preach sermons you put a story in there, at least in my culture.

You have these Germans who think you didn’t do your job if there aren’t three points they can write down or take away. Sometimes I have to ambush them. Give them three points at the beginning and then start a story as though it’s an illustration and then when it turns into the story it accesses their senses, imagination, suspense and then they forget that I’m doing something different because I’ve already satisfied their notion of three points. Sometimes we let our audience destroy the power of what Jesus did with parables and the power of what the whole passion narrative is. The passion narrative is first and foremost a story in which we can meet Jesus face to face.

When preachers break it down into texts and teach it to your brain, we don’t meet Jesus face to face, we meet our church’s doctrine and here is the most horrible part of that: we will look at someone or something and if we are not given to meet Jesus in the story, we end up worshipping doctrines about Jesus and then we’ll break off because your doctrine isn’t exactly the same as mine. So we don’t have the same God. We do have the same God but we have humans who are making different interpretations of God.


  1. Mr. Wangerin, thanks again for sharing with us. I love the quote.
    (Oh, and I bought Possession: A Romance.) Blessings to you.

  2. Gosh, thanks so much Walter... and Gina. Such great stuff here. Having finished my first novel, I'm now in the difficult place of conjuring the very things Mr. Wanegrin eschews: You can’t reduce a whole beautiful story down to one sentence that tells us we must love our neighbor or whatever. It's somewhat disheartening that nowadays the market demands reducing our stories to sound bites and sales pitches... the three point outline that satisfies the choir. Alas,
    maybe the exhortation for writers to "seek one another out" and "support one another" is the most timely advice for me. Thanks Gina, for hosting a place for that to happen. And bless you, Walter, for your insights and encouragement. The charge to write well and concentrate, above all, on craft is one I need to hear. Bless you!

  3. This second part of the interview with Mr. W....Gina, the absolute BEST thing I've read on your blog. Every novice/fledgling/struggling/new/not-new writer, who is also a Christian, should read this. And learn.


  4. I second Mir's comments. And third them, if I may. Hear hear!

    I, uh, saw the movie: Possession. I did read A.S. Byatt's intro to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in a certain edition.

    Thanks again, Mr. Wangerin and Gina. If only the most well-written books were the biggest sellers. What a world this would be!

    Write well. Write well.

  5. Wow! This is a fantastic interview. Even I--the German raised on the three-point sermon, the one who thinks doctrine is really important--was moved by WW's charge to write well.

    Thank you both for your time.

  6. Wow. Thank you for the excellent dose of wisdom and encouragement.

  7. Two wonderful take-aways for me. Embrace the truth, then tell the story, allowing the message to speak for itself; and tell the story the best you can.


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