Robert Liparulo is a journalist whose work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Consumer’s Digest, and New Man. His first published novel, a supernatural thriller called Comes a Horseman , was released last fall by WestBow Press. Stan Guthrie sat down with him. This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.
Why did you write a novel after all the non-fiction writing?
I’ve always had fiction in my blood one way or another. I probably started writing my first novel when I was 13. Started writing another one at 19. At that age, going to school and everything, I never finished it. It got endorsed by Stephen King, up to the point that it was.
I got into some screenwriting, did some scripts, wrote short stories. The short story market at the time dried up and that’s what got me into non-fiction writing. I was an English major, not a journalism major. Started out as a motion picture production major at Southern Cal. But for various reasons, I ended up at Weber State University in Utah as an English major. So it was kind of a letdown but I ended up liking English better than I liked movies at the time.
So finally, I just decided it was time. Time to go back to my first love.
What’s the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction?
It’s kind of the difference between building a house and making art. However, my non-fiction writing really prepared me for my fiction writing in a lot of different ways. A lot of it had to do with research. I research everything. Verisimilitude is very important to me, and especially since I write thrillers. I think thriller readers expect to learn something about the world, about certain aspects of perhaps the FBI or police procedure. If you’re working in spy novels, they want to know something that’s real, something that you haven’t just totally made up out of whole cloth.
The non-fiction work really prepared me to do all that research I needed to do for the fiction. It also made me comfortable with calling experts and in interview technique.
As a non-fiction writer I don’t necessarily like the journalistic style of non-fiction articles, the here are the facts, the who/what/where/why formula. I like metaphor; I like analogy; I like examples. And the kind of non-fiction articles I wrote had a lot of that in them. A lot of the elements that were part of my fiction writing or what makes me a fiction writer came into my non-fiction.
Why did you move into fiction?
Again, it was just time. It was that feeling that it was time to do it. It was really my love. Part of what kept me from it was that I was not settled in my heart that something that I loved so much—writing in an entertaining way—was what God wanted me to do. I wasn’t sure. I felt that’s what he wanted me to do, but I always had that conflict: “Is this really what he wants me to do or should I be building huts in a jungle somewhere? Shouldn’t I go and have the sweat and the hard work and feed the orphans?”
Every time I prayed, “God what is your will for my life, what is your will for my career?” I kept getting that pull toward fiction writing. But I just couldn’t believe it. And finally I started to say, “I think there is something to it.” And I had always believed that there was more to fiction than just entertainment, that even when you write in such a way that God is not overt in the pages, I believe if you’re writing and you’re trying to please him in your writing, he is there—which is what happened with Comes a Horseman. There’s no conversion scene. It’s one of those things where at the end you would be hard-pressed to say what makes it a Christian novel. What makes it a Christian novel more than anything else is that I’m a Christian and I wrote it. There’s a lot of hope in it. It’s kind of the [J.R.R.] Tolkien-style of evangelizing.
Kind of that. It’s nudging. It’s the nudging maybe toward something else. Showing characters, having people in your novel whose character is reflective of God’s character somehow. I think that’s how Tolkien wrote. I think what resonates in Lord of the Rings is that we see a truth in the way they stood up to evil, in the way they stood up for what they had to do and the responsibilities in the hope they had in the face of despair. That’s what I was trying to do in Comes a Horseman.
Perhaps you’re trying to nudge people a little farther along in their spiritual awareness, but not necessarily trying to convert them all at once.
I think that’s what it is. I struggled with that. “Can I write the stuff that I really want to write and still be true to the way God designed me and where he wants me to be?” And through prayer and really good friends, I came to an understanding, it was almost an epiphany, that this is what I was designed to do, to write fiction. And it’s okay—even the kind of fiction that isn’t the typical Christian fiction with conversions or has the Bible, or the one old lady who’s a prayer warrior, even without that. The Bible says God’s everywhere. We can witness him in nature. And you can see a mountain and know that he’s there.
When I set out to write Comes a Horseman, I prayed in the morning about it, about my writing day. And while keeping him with me I kind of kept him off the page. And I trusted that because he was in me that day, he’s coming out in my words. Even in Chapter 1—there’s nothing Christian about Chapter 1—but I think he’s there. I think it’s maybe a new way for Christian writers to be relevant. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the typical Christian work that has all the things I said, the prayer warrior and all that. But I think God wants us to be broader.
Who’s this book for?
It’s broad. Primarily it’s for guys, I think, even though I’ve had a lot of women readers who really enjoyed it, and there’s this very strong female protagonist in it. When I’m writing, I’m thinking of guys who like action, adventure, thrillers, who like maybe David Morell or Lee Child. And yet at the same time they can’t find it in the Christian bookstore. But you pick up almost anybody, even Lee Child, who is also not gratuitous in any way, he still has his characters going to bed with women who aren’t their wives, some foul language, things that are offensive. I didn’t like the idea that I had to tolerate that just to get the action and thriller. I don’t mind seeing evil, as long as evil is not depicted as good. That’s my main emphasis.
Maybe the guy who’s doing evil thinks its good but ultimately when we take a step back and look at the whole story we realize evil is not depicted as good. And so I don’t want to have likeable characters who I hold up as being likeable doing these things and then never addressing them as bad somehow.
Maybe they’re doing bad things and they recognize they want to do something different, and they’ve been struggling with it. That’s okay. [John] Grisham, who is Baptist, has unmarried characters living together. That’s what I don’t want. He’s very good at creating characters that we empathize with, and so they’re almost mentors or models for the reader—and here they’re doing bad things. I don’t like that. I don’t even like reading that. I like the action, but I don’t like that. I wanted to write something that had all the action, all the thrills, all the good, the bad, and everything in between, without that one element, which is the bad depicted as good.
It’s been read by a lot of non-Christians, and nobody has even suggested that there’s anything Christian in it. I think that’s a good sign. I’m exposing them to positive elements of God’s nature without them saying, “Oh, wait a minute. This is Christian.”
I was worried about the language. They wouldn’t run into bad language and that would trigger [a negative reaction]. But we just sold the movie rights to Mace Neufeld, who does all the Tom Clancy movies. There was no question in his mind that he wanted to do this.
Are you going to have the same kind of control over that kind of stuff in the movie?
No. I don’t know what’s going to happen. Holding out on something like that probably would have killed the deal. And I really think that God wants me to move in this direction. I’m a screen writer as well, but I don’t have time right now to work on it. If I did have the time, that would give me partial control. But in Hollywood your scripts are rewritten 50 times anyway.
I think I need to be in the wider world, even though I’m with a Christian publishing house. It’s a publishing house that understands my vision and agrees with it … doing that nudging.
Next week: Liparulo discusses secret societies and other matters.