Thursday, September 24, 2009

Author Interview ~ Dan Walsh

Dan Walsh’s debut novel, The Unfinished Gift, has just come out this month, published by Revell. It's already been selected by Crossings and Doubleday book clubs as a featured book for their members. RT Book Reviews magazine gave it 4.5 Stars and a Top Pick rating in the Inspirational category. His writing style has been compared to Richard Paul Evans, best-selling author of The Christmas Box. Dan has already finished the sequel, The Homecoming, scheduled for release in June. He has served as a pastor at the same church since 1985. He and his wife Cindi have been married 33 years and live in the Daytona Beach area, where he spends his spare time researching and writing his third novel.

Hi, Dan. Welcome to Novel Journey. This is your debut novel. Can you tell us about it?

The Unfinished Gift begins a week before Christmas in 1943. It's about a little boy, Patrick Collins, whose mother has just died in a car accident. He's being driven to stay with a grandfather he has never met (even though he lives only thirty minutes away) while the Army tries to locate his father, a bomber pilot in England. Patrick’s father and grandfather haven't spoken since before he was born. The story shows how God uses this remarkable little boy, a shoebox full of love letters, and a dusty old wooden soldier, to bring about a dramatic change in the old man's heart.

How did you come up with this story? Was there a specific 'what if' moment?

The creative process is a mysterious thing. For this book, there really was a big “what if” moment. Every Christmas I love watching those classic stories on TV, the ones that grab at your heart and really affect you. I don’t mean the stories that just stir up the “holiday spirit,” but the ones that really tug at your heart. I wanted to write a story like that, one that at least had the potential to affect others the way these stories affect me.

The story actually came to me back in 1998. That Christmas, I started praying and thinking, almost “listening” for one. The whole thing came to me over two or three days. I actually saw the ending of the book first, just like a scene from a movie playing in my thoughts. Over the next two days, different parts of the story kept dropping into my head. I kept stopping and writing them down. In a few days, the whole story was there, from beginning to end. Like a detailed synopsis. From there I sat down and started writing the book.

Tell us a little about your main character and how you developed him/her:

His name is Patrick Collins; he is only seven years old. He’s thrust into an almost impossible situation, armed only with the memories of lessons his mother taught him about life and faith before she died. But the thing is…he believes them and acts on them, including praying for help when it all gets too much. Patrick, as a character, still really affects me.

His character emerged more fully as I thought about his mom, who dies just before the book begins. I wanted to honor the labor of a young mother, who simply did her best to demonstrate a credible faith to her son, and teach him everything she could in language he could understand. But she did reach him and really prepared him surprisingly well to face this incredible ordeal.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book? Least?

Top to bottom, I enjoyed everything about writing this book. The only downside were the times the story was flowing so well but real life forced me to “climb back through the wardrobe” (for CS Lewis fans), and leave my story world behind. Because I write in my spare time, I could only write in one or two hour spurts.

What's the most difficult part of writing for you (or was when you first started on your novel journey)?

Time. Finding time to write. Getting great thoughts and ideas at the wrong time. It’s actually much better now than it was at the beginning.

In 1998, when I began writing The Unfinished Gift, I got about halfway through and had to set it aside. It’s a long story but, essentially, the Lord made it clear to me that my kids needed my spare time more than I needed a creative outlet. I didn’t write a thing for ten years. They’re grown now, and two years ago my wife urged me to start writing again (she loved this story).

I picked it back up, wondered if it would all come back to me. As I read through to where I stopped, it sucked me right back in, and I kept writing it until I finished. I actually cried in two or three spots (I am such a sap).

What does your writing space look like?

Since we live in central Florida, I like to write outside in my backyard. Since the sun moves, I have 3 writing spaces. I’ve sent you a picture of the nicest looking one, our courtyard. We live in the same house we bought back in 1985. It was developed back when people believed in big yards, so it’s nice and private.

What would you do with your free time if you weren’t writing?

I’d spend more time with family and friends. And occasionally I’d spend time in this mindless activity I enjoy, playing an online WW2 game called Call of Duty. It’s like being a kid again, playing army in the neighborhood with my friends (only with way better graphics).

Do you put yourself into your books/characters?

I’m sure I do to some extent. But sometimes, after I get to know them better, it feels more like I’m “getting into character,” so I can reflect what they’d do and think about the situations I’m putting them through.

What message do you hope readers gain from your novel?

Unforgiveness and bitterness will eat you up inside and over time make you a mean, uncaring, isolated person. And you won’t even know you’re the problem. But God, in His mercy, will reach out to you with the gospel of His Son, in a number of creative and remarkable ways.

And I hope The Unfinished Gift grabs people’s heart, and they will want to see it made into a movie, and the movie is made by really good actors with a decent budget, and I get to watch it at Christmastime someday with my grandkids (when I have them), and it makes us cry and laugh, and talk about it long after the movie is over (I can dream, can’t I?).

Briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision.

Since I’m writing books set in time, I read non-fiction history books about the time I want to write about. When I read, I imagine what it would have been like to face these things myself, because I could have (no one has control over the circumstances of their birth). I get to where it almost feels like time travel for me. I can really see it, feel it, etc. When I get there, then I write.

I’ll usually write the story out first; not in an outline, more like telling it by a fireplace. Then I go back and start making my way through. Along the way, things happen I never saw at the beginning. In fact, some of the best things.

Each time I write, I’ll go back and read what I’d written last, which helps me reconnect and see it like a reader might. I revise a good bit then. When I get to where I left off, I start writing some more. Months and months later, I’m done. Then I’ll read it all straight through, maybe a few times, catching things I missed, cutting out wordiness, refining. The last step is to have a handful of avid fiction readers I trust read the whole thing and alert me to any spot that wasn’t clear or tempted them to want to skip.

How much marketing do you do? What have you found that particularly works well for you?

Since this is my debut novel and the book just came out, time will tell if anything has worked well. I’m still a fulltime pastor, so it’s more a question of what I’m capable of doing with the time I have, which isn’t much. I mostly pray and respond to the marketing situations that present themselves. There have been quite a few. So far, most are related to the internet. It really is an amazing way to reach a lot of people. But I am doing some more traditional things locally and have dedicated most of my 2009 vacation time for this fall, in case any other doors open up.

Tell us what we have to look forward to in the future. What new projects are you working on?

The sequel to The Unfinished Gift will be out this summer, which I’m very excited about. It’s called, The Homecoming. When I finished the first book, I didn’t plan on writing a sequel. But a second story did emerge (I guess I wasn’t ready to leave these people). I received a lot of feedback from my test readers, almost all asking the same thing: “Now later on, this is going to happen, right?” And they were suggesting the same second story I was thinking of. So I began to write it. Halfway through, I pitched it to my agent and editor, and they loved the idea.

Right now I’m working on my third novel. It’s a similar genre, but a different storyline and characters. Set in 1857, it involves a newlywed couple and a shipwreck. I get to travel back to the beginning of San Francisco, old New York, and experience life out on the open sea.

Do you have any parting words of advice?

Maybe a few thoughts to writers still on the way, who’ve yet to see their first book published. Writing is a craft with many facets. They all matter and they all take time to develop and mature. Most who finally get published know well they haven’t “arrived.” They’ve just reached an important place. But they must keep growing and honing this craft. Write as often as you can; when it flows and when it won’t. Read good books on writing well. Read well-written books. Get sucked in, then go back and read them again as a learner. Connect with at least a handful of people who love reading and despise flattery. They could be writers, but I’ve heard some of the best editors have never written a book. Listen to what they say, not what you think.

And for me, praying helps. Helps a lot actually.

To read a review of The Unfinished Gift, click here.