Charles, welcome back to Novel Rocket. It’s been some years since we last talked to you and a lot has happened in your career since then. Let’s start with your latest. You have a new book that’s in the process of releasing. Thunder & Rain. Tell us a little about this novel.
Tyler Steele is a retired Texas Ranger who rescues a woman and her daughter at truck stop when a bad man tries to hurt them. Because they’re homeless and penniless and at the end of themselves, he takes them back to his ranch in west Texas where his son is expecting dad to bring home mom. On the surface, the story plays out the intersection of their lives. Broken people rebuilding broken lives. Beneath the surface, it’s about a man who’s trained his whole life to be proficient in his line of work. Stopping bad men before they do bad things. And he’s good at it. Problem is, in doing that, he’s only lived out of one half of his heart and shut down the other half -– the half he loves with. Now when he tries to open up, he finds that half is dead and he can’t hit the broad side of the barn with it. The story questions what it means to live out of your whole heart. It’s a story I’ve wanted to write for about a decade.
What sparked the idea for this book?
I’ve always had a thing for cowboys and lawmen. But I didn't just want to write another story about a guy in a white hat who catches the bad guy and saves the girl. I was interested in the ‘why,’ and the ‘why not.’ I’ve just been waiting for the right theme to bubble up. When it did, all the pieces started falling into place and the story came together.
Some years ago, The Dead Don’t Dance was optioned with Hallmark Hall of Fame I believe. What ever happened with that?
Absolutely nothing. But, the process gave me credibility with my publisher – and my father-in-law. Both of which I needed. So, while they never made the movie, the possibility of it helped me where I needed it. FYI…that seems like another lifetime. An interesting question would be what ups and downs have I experienced in my career. The Hallmark thing was a huge ‘up’ when I really needed it and the cancellation and expiration of the option was an exponentially larger ‘down’ at just the wrong time. But both pale in comparison to the ups and downs I’ve had since.
I heard that your novel, The Mountain Between Us, was optioned for a movie and may actually be getting made. Tell us about how Fox came to discover your book, how you found out it was being optioned and what is happening now with this project.
Long story short – my literary agent found a movie agent who agreed to rep Mountain. She shared it with the studios, three returned with interest, and we experienced a pseudo-auction which sounds glamorous but in reality it was just a finding out who was really interested. Peter Churnin’s group at 20th Century Fox ended up with it (for which I am grateful) and they’ve now attached several famous producers, a really good Director and cast the first actor in Michael Fassbender as Ben Payne. Btw, I don’t know and have never met any of these people. I’m only name-dropping because you asked. I find out about this entire process the same way you do – when some writer in Hollywood or New York writes an article and posts it on the internet. We are hopeful it will happen and that they’ll make a great movie.
When I last interviewed you, you said one of your dreams was to be a NYT bestseller and if you were going to dream, you might as well “dream big”. Well, apparently that big dreaming paid off because you are indeed a NYT bestseller. How did you find out you made the list and what went through your head?
You might say I was a bit naïve. I expected when that happened that the heavens would part, a huge trumpet would blow and everybody would stop in their tracks and acknowledge for a mandatory five minutes that, yes, Charles hit the list. Couldn't’ be further from the truth. I found out when somebody sent me an email showing me the list. That’s it. That’s all it was. No fanfare. No ceremony. No champagne. No Oprah. And, in truth, my name was dead last but it was still on the list so, yes, it was cool then, and, if you press me, it’s still cool now. What went through my head? “We’ve made it! (Fist pump) Our ship just came in. (Double fist pump) The rocket-arc of my career is about to take off. (Both hands raised in triumph followed by a Superman mimic) Honey, get packing!
We’re moving to Easy Street. Let the royalty checks roll in. (Feet propped up. Smoking cigar. Shaking Martini.)” Again, naïve. While that was the biggest ‘up’ in my career to date, it was quickly followed by the biggest ‘down,’ which occurred a few months later when my editor rejected my next manuscript and my publisher cancelled my contract. In my experience, being a writer is one of the more humbling jobs on the planet. If you don’t think so, try it. Humility is right around the corner.
Writers fantasize about hitting The Times’ list and think it’s the way to easy street. Did your hitting the list change your life in anyway?
Not that I know of. Hitting it is one thing, staying there is another. I don’t think notoriety and an address on Easy Street occur until you’ve been there – a while – and witnessed some sort of velocity of sales, but that’s conjecture. Others can answer this better than I. One minor difference is that my books now say it on the cover. “New York Times Bestseller.” Maybe that gets it off the shelf and into a tire-kickers’ hands, but it takes a lot more than that phrase on the front to get it read. From The Canterbury Tales to The Hunger Games there is one thing that sells a book – word-of-mouth.
You said in our last interview that PR was your weakness. Has promoting your work gotten easier? Have you discovered anything new that has been helpful in getting the word out about you and your books?
Still my weakness. As evidenced by the number of people reading this interview who’ve just Googled the phrase, “Who the heck is Charles Martin?” I don’t think promotion, I don’t think PR, I don’t think sales. I think story. I, like most writers, am in grave need of somebody to sell my stories. It’s the tension inherent in the job and I’m not sure I’ve ever met any writer really good at both.
You also mentioned you’d written a CS Lewis type fairy tale. What, if anything, has come of that story?
Nothing. Still sitting in the hard drive in this computer but if word-of-mouth spreads I’ll dust it off.
You’ve written several non-fiction books if I recall. Are you still doing some non-fiction on the side?
Written one non-fiction. I can do it, and if the story was right might do it again, but it’s not what gets me out of bed in the morning. If I’m honest, I'm hoping my novels sell so I don’t have to write more non-fiction. Sorry. I know how that sounds, but you asked. Plus, there are a lot of other people out there who do that a lot better than I.
Your work has been dubbed everything from literary to southern, but you said back in 2007 that you were “wrestling” to find where your work fit in. Are you still wrestling with that or have you found your comfort zone?
Still haven’t found my pigeon hole. Not sure my publisher has either but that’s okay. Being outside of genre can be a good thing. It used to ding me that people said I wrote ‘love stories.’ Now, not so much. If that’s the worst thing you can say about me, then I’m doing okay. Besides, I kinda like a good love story. I’ve watched Notting Hill a dozen times. The Notebook probably the same. Sweet Home Alabama, Sense and Sensibility…there are others. I realize that admitting all of this will require a mandatory stamping of my man-card followed by a 90-day probation and possible revocation, but truth be known, I listen to Taylor Swift and Adelle and even know some of the words.
All your novels have been third person, which is where you write most comfortably. Any plans of giving third person a try in upcoming titles?
Charles has no plans to try third person. It’s just not the way he thinks. At least, not now. Course, he might change his mind. Writers like him can be fickle. ;-)
You used to write for the Christian market with Thomas Nelson but changed houses for the ABA. What brought about that change? How is writing for the ABA different than writing for the CBA? Are there advantages or drawbacks in either market?
As strange as it may sound, I’ve never written for a market. Still don’t. Still writing the stories that bubble up – as they bubble up. It just so happens that different publishers have gravitated toward my work at different times. For which I am grateful. From the signing of my first contract, I’d hoped to publish with one of the big five in New York. I felt like it said something about my stories and gave me access to distribution channels that I didn't have elsewhere – which turned out to be true. My stories are now in about a dozen languages and over twenty countries. (To my left sits one of my books translated into Mandarin Chinese. How cool is that?) Advantages/drawbacks? I’m blessed to do what I do. I’m really thankful – and I mean that -- to be where we are and have come from where we came from. I’m also ever-hopeful about where we’ll end up. I don’t look at myself as having arrived. I’m still a work in progress. Still in editing. Michener said the same thing until his late 80’s which means I’m in good company.
I was always curious what the deal was with your book Down Where My Heart Lives, which I had assumed on buying was an original novel, but turned out to be two of your other books repackaged. Was that a case of ‘I have one more book to fulfill in this contract’?
That’s one of the ‘downs’ in my career and, for the record, I had nothing to do with it. I was approached about it and I asked that it not be published. Three times. Did I say I asked three times? It was published anyway and I’ve been receiving angry email ever since. My publisher made a choice and I paid the consequences. Life’s not fair. Welcome to earth. Yes, it’s a cruel trick. It dupes the reader. I feel your pain and don’t like it anymore than you do. Probably less. If I had a magic wand, I’d ‘poof’ them all out of existence. But, I have no such wand.
You’re one of the best novelists, in my opinion, of our time. You said last time we talked that you weren’t a big fiction reader. Has that changed? How do you improve as a writer?
No, hasn’t changed much. I mean, I read, but I know people who read A LOT more than I. How do I improve? Hmmm…Stay in touch with my heart which is easier said than done. And don’t poison it, which is also easier said than done. Given the darts and dings of life, it’s a battle. Sometimes, daily. Also, I don’t try to be everyone else. Don’t emulate other bestsellers. Least I don’t think so. There’s only one me on the planet and God gave me my voice for a reason. So, I’m doing my best to use it. If I look at my work, say Thunder and Rain, and compare it to the other seven, I think, yes, I’ve improved. T and R may be my best work to date. But, there’s also much room for improvement. After eight books, I have yet to arrive. Allow an analogy -- as a runner, it feels like I’ve just gotten out of the blocks with a whole lot of track ahead of me and I’m not quite up to speed – but I’m close.
If you could go back to the young, green, Charles Martin who had just earned his first book contract, what advice would you have for him?
Do it again! The same way. All out. Spend yourself entirely. Every time. Regardless of outcome. Regardless of what the critics say. Leave it all on the mat. Work at staying humble. Don’t get arrogant. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Listen to your wife. Your agent. Editor(s). Choose your battles. Stand when you need to. And, at the end of the day, remember why you write and for whom you write – and that your career is not about you.
Love wins. Hope never dies.
Thanks for being with us, Charles. Can’t wait to sink my teeth into Thunder and Rain!