Friday, December 11, 2009

Novelist, True Crime Author James Pence ~ Interviewed

James H. Pence is a full-time professional writer and editor living near Dallas, Texas. James is a multi-talented writer who has been published in both fiction and nonfiction. His publishers include Tyndale House, Kregel, and Osborne/McGraw-Hill. James holds a master’s degree in Biblical Studies with an emphasis in creative writing and journalism from Dallas Theological Seminary. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in theology from Dallas Bible College.

James is also a vocalist and gospel chalk artist, and he regularly uses his talents to share the gospel in prisons. James is the author of Blind Sight, a gripping novel about mind-control cults and coauthor (along with Terry Caffey) of the new book: Terror by Night: The True Story of the Brutal Texas Murder that Destroyed a Family, Restored One Man’s Faith, and Shocked a Nation.

Share with us the basic details that tie your novel, Blind Sight, to the Caffey tragedy.

The main character in Blind Sight is Thomas Kent, a man who has lost his wife and two children in an auto accident and is now struggling to understand how a good God could allow something like that to happen. Early in the novel, two young children who are being pursued by a religious cult are dumped in his lap, and Thomas must rescue them. By the end of the book, Thomas comes to grips with God's sovereignty in his own loss and realizes that God kept him alive to help those children.

The connection to the Caffey tragedy is amazing, if not borderline-miraculous. Two of their three children were in the homeschool karate class that I teach, and I was in the habit of giving copies of my novel away to people who I knew would read it. I gave Mrs. Caffey a copy of Blind Sight back in 2005 but never heard any more about it.

Six weeks after his family was murdered and his house burned to the ground, Terry Caffey went back to his property and stood on the ashes where his house had been. He was crying out to God and saying, "Why did you take my family? Why didn't you take me, too? I need an answer, God."

At that moment, Terry noticed a scorched piece of paper leaning up against the trunk of a nearby tree. He went over and picked it up because he had gotten into the habit of collecting objects that had survived the fire as mementos of his family.

The page he found was from Blind Sight. But it wasn't just any page. It was the page where my character comes to grips with God's sovereignty in his loss. The first lines that Terry saw on that scorched page were: "I couldn't understand why you would take my family and leave me to struggle along without them, and I guess I still don't understand that part of it. But I do believe You're sovereign. You're in control."

The words on that page were like a direct message from God to Terry, and they turned his life around.

What steps did you take to detail such a fresh tragedy with the man who lived it?

For starters, I wanted to have a good feel for the overall flow of the story. Because the Caffeys had been friends of ours, and the story had been heavily covered by local and national news outlets, it was fairly easy to lay out the general details. Then Terry and I met together and fleshed it out. I also sat down with Terry at one point, and we charted all the key events and dates on a one-year calendar so that I could step back and get the big picture.

After that, Terry and I met every Wednesday afternoon for several hours. During that time I would interview him and record the answers on a digital voice recorder. I'd also make some written notes, but for the most part I recorded his story. Then I used some audio editing software and cut the story up into two to five minute sound bites and titled the files according to topic. After that, I put all of the files on my iPod and listened to them whenever I had a spare moment.

I wanted to write the story from Terry's POV and with his voice. So, I literally immersed myself in his story and his words, and tried to write "in character", much as I would if I were writing a novel.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in the handling of the Caffey story?

I would have liked a little more time to write it. Tyndale wanted to fast track the book for an October '09 release. We signed the contract on March 15th and the manuscript was due by June 15th, so that gave me only twelve weeks in which to plan, research, write, and polish the manuscript. I'm still very pleased with the final result, but it would have been nice to have a little more time to work with.

Any advice to any authors considering writing about a tragedy?

Yes. Be sure to give the readers opportunity for relief. Terror by Night is a very sad story (although it has a positive, albeit bittersweet, ending). I knew going in that I would have to find a way to give readers a break from the sadness or many might find the book too depressing to finish. My solution came when Terry mentioned that he wanted readers to get to know his family when they read the book.

I read a number of similar books when I was writing the proposal for Terror by Night. I noticed that most of them began with the tragedy, then "flashed back" to chapters and chapters of
backstory. In my opinion most of this material tended to slow down the books, and I often found myself skimming over large portions.

Because it was very important to Terry that people get to know Penny, Bubba, and Tyler (his wife and two sons who were murdered), I knew that there would be a considerable amount of background material. However, I decided to spread the backstory throughout the book rather than concentrating it in several chapters. My initial reason was so that readers wouldn't be tempted to skip over these portions. But as I wrote, I discovered that these family stories (many of them funny) provided a much-needed relief in the midst of a very sad story.

Any advice on gathering survivor narrative or fact-finding you'd like to share?

Be patient with the survivors and remember what they've been through. The interview process was difficult for both Terry and me, but especially for him. I had to make him dig up memories that he'd just as soon have left buried. In fact, he told me that during the interview process he began remembering details about the murders that he had completely forgotten. He struggled with some depression during that time, and I had to be careful not to push too hard. I also had to switch topics periodically during our sessions so that we didn't spend all the time discussing the hard things. That's when I'd probe for some of the happy or funny family stories that found their way into the book. It gave us both some comic relief.

Also, if it's possible, read police reports and interviews. Scott Farwell, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News who did a three-day feature on the Caffey murders, gave me several CDs full of law enforcement documents, interviews, photos, etc. These were very helpful in painting as accurate a picture as possible.


Kelly Klepfer said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, James. What a story.