An Interview with Randy Alcorn About Writing and His Novel Courageous
Q&As with Randy Alcorn from an interview with author C.J. Darlington for TitleTrakk.com, posted fall 2011 after the release of the movie Courageous.
When you were a boy, was it always your dream to be a writer, or did God place that in your heart later?
When I was a child, I was a reader, but I didn't realize that was preparing me to be a writer. I just loved books, and read a lot of science fiction and comic books. Like most kids, I dreamed about what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I wanted to be an astronomer (or an astronaut would've been great, too).
I was raised in a non-Christian home, but I've always been grateful that my mom encouraged me to read. It wasn't so much that what I was reading was so great; it was that I developed a love for the written word. That tied into my faith in Christ when I was exposed to the Gospel at age 15. After hearing the Good News for the first time, I went and read the Bible and Christian books, and tried to explore if this were really true. That won me over. And because of my love for things written, it fueled my desire to write. In my classes, while others often hated the term papers, I actually enjoyed them.
I’m often amazed to talk to people who are trying to seriously be writers, but say, “I don't have time to read anything. I'm just working on becoming a writer.” The problem is, if you're not a reader, you don't have the love for reading that every writer should have. You're going to be out of touch with readers if you aren't a reader yourself, plus your imagination will be stunted. What do you have to offer someone else if you're not taking in the words of other people?
You wrote your first novel as an experiment. How did you journey from non-fiction to someone who now has several novels under your belt?
I wrote a number of non-fiction books before I attempted my first novel. I emphasize the word attempted because it really was an experiment. I remember talking to my publisher, and they were very uncomfortable with me not committing myself in a contract and receiving money from them in the form of an advance so that they could count on this novel.
I said, “Here's my concern. If I sign a contract and you pay me, I'm going to turn something in and you're going to publish it. And if I don't really like it, I don't want it published. I may discover I'm not a fiction writer.” I've read fiction by non-fiction writers that I didn't like, and I didn't want my novel to be one of those books. I especially didn't want to give an account to the Lord for putting out a book just for the sake of putting out a book.
When I look at my bookshelf, I see about 100 books on fiction writing that I’ve collected, and most of them I’ve read through to help me write my novels. I also read fiction books and analyze them by asking myself, “Why does this work for me?” And when I don't like a particular book, I say, “Why does this not work for me?” We need the input of others, so by listening to fiction writers and taking what I admire and even learning from the things I didn't admire, I went into my first novel Deadline with a sense of what I needed to do.
I made more mistakes on Deadline than any other fiction book I’ve written. And yet, God has really used that novel, and it continues to sell well all these years later. I get emails and tweets and notes on Facebook all the time telling me, “Hey, I just read Deadline and I loved it!” I just shake my head and go, “Well, it's not my favorite writing that I've done.” I think because the plot was sound and a lot of imagination went into it, people are choosing to still read it. But I always say, “Have you read my later novels, Safely Home and Deception?" because I feel that more writing skill went into those.
What would you say your favorite writing how-to book is?
That is a good question, because I've benefited from so many of them. There is a great book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I LOVE that book. I’ve also appreciated Sol Stein’s How to Grow a Novel. James Scott Bell, who is also a believer, has a book called Plot & Structure, and it is outstanding.
You've said writing isn't an end for you, but it's a means to your primary calling: pointing people towards Jesus. How does that happen in your novels? How do you tell a story that points people to Christ without coming across as preachy?
Preachy-ness in Christian novel writing is certainly a problem, and it needs to be consciously avoided. However, I've also noticed an overreaction to this. Some writers can be so self-conscious about being too preachy that readers don't walk away with any redemptive message after reading their books. (Now, by using the term redemptive message, I don't mean that it has to be the explicit Gospel.)
When you look at the reviews of New York Times bestsellers, you’ll notice that one of the reviewers’ favorite words to use is redemptive. These are unbelievers who are using the term! But what's happening with many believers is that they're so worried the critics will say they're preachy, that they back off from any allusions to Christ.
I was listening to an audio book the other day, one of Wendell Barry's Hannah Coulter books. They are just fabulously well written. Barry is certainly not a conservative, evangelical Christian, and sometimes Christians come out looking sort of bad in his stories. But he has a marvelous passage in one of his books in which an old woman says some things about faith and awaiting the resurrection in Christ, and I thought, “A number of my Christian friends and even reviewers and critics would cringe if an evangelical Christian wrote those words.” But this is a person who no one thinks is preachy, and his words are doing just that—preaching! He does it periodically, and while it’s strong, it’s not over the top.
Every novel has a message and a worldview. I have read many books written by non-Christians which are very clear about their worldview, but they're not criticized because it's just who they are. Certainly my first novel Deadline was more preachy than some of my later novels, but I've seen God use that novel amazingly in the lives of unbelievers.
What we need to do is focus on telling a good story. And the better your story is—the more conflict, character development, plot development there is, the more surprises and unexpected (not predictable) twists there are —the more you earn the right to weave a redemptive message throughout the book. By God’s grace, that message can lead the unbelieving reader toward faith in Christ and the believing reader toward a deeper faith in Him.
It's not that I think a redemptive message shouldn't be prominent in a book so it won't be considered preachy. It's that when that message is present, it should be of a quality literary nature. That way, you as a writer earn the right to have your readers drawn to the message by virtue of how committed you are to the craft of telling a good story.
There are awards given for Christian fiction writing, and one time I was reading what one of the groups giving out an award was looking for. One guideline really shocked me because they discouraged having anything explicitly Christian in a novel. It sent the message, “You will not be considered for this award if there is a clear Gospel message.”
But the truth is, a gifted novelist can have a character who comes to faith in Christ, and characters who don’t come to faith in Christ, but either way at least the reader sees the gospel truth. If you'll be marked down for incorporating the good news into your story, I'd say I'm not writing to win that award! I'm doing this for the Lord. The craft is very important to me, and I do strive for excellence, but I think we don't want to just please the critics. Our ultimate goal is to bring honor and glory to the Audience of One.
How did you end up connecting with the Kendrick brothers and writing the Courageous novel?
I met Stephen Kendrick and his agent at the 2010 ICRS convention where I was speaking. We were in the green room together because Stephen was there to talk about the Sherwood movies, and began chatting. The two of them asked if I would consider writing a novel based on their forthcoming movie called Courageous. I said I'd consider it. They went to Tyndale House, my publisher, and said, “We'd love for Randy to do this.”
After I accepted the project, I spent four days with Alex and Stephen in Albany, Georgia where they live. I devoted those days to not only talking to them about the novel, but also meeting many different people and actors. The captain in charge of Albany’s investigations drove me all around the town showing me, “Here's where we do the drug busts” and introducing me to that world. I filmed what I saw and took lots of pictures, so that when I came back to write the Courageous novel I'd have those visuals to go off of.
The process of turning a screenplay into a novel is fascinating to me. How did you approach writing the Courageous novel? How much did you get to put in the book that wasn't in the screenplay?
I wasn't given many guidelines of where I could and could not go related to the novel, but in the end, Alex Kendrick looked it over and said there were some things he wanted to be different, and that was fine.
I was given a screenplay to base the book off of that was actually a little less than 20,000 words. I knew that if it was to be standard novel length, it would probably be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Novels aren’t a lot shorter than that, though there are some that are between 60,000 and 70,000 words. I ended up with an 85,000 word novel. What that means is there is four times more material that I wrote on my own than is actually in the movie. If you include every single word and every single scene, which I did (I only took out one scene, which didn’t quite work in the novel), then nearly 100% of the movie action and dialogue is there. But there has to be much more.
I would sometimes add more to the scenes that are in the movie. Someone reading the novel might say, “That scene was in the movie, but those words weren't.” That’s because I expanded it. I also created lots of brand new scenes and even added characters. Those additions are necessary because a 20,000 word screenplay in book form would be more like a “long” short story than a novel. That’s just not enough. But if a full-length novel were made into a movie, it would be ten hours long.
I figured that usually screenplays are based on novels, and everyone who sees the movie says, “Oh, I hate that they left out some of my favorite scenes and even my favorite character!” Moviemakers have to remove a lot of things from the novel or the movie would be way too long. So I kind of “reverse engineered” the Courageous novel by looking at the screenplay and asking myself what it would have looked like if it had been based on a novel.
I created the new characters in order to allow the main characters in the movie more latitude, more conflict, and more opportunities to be developed. I wanted to have a broader range of characters than was even possible in the movie. One of my additions is Bronson, a hardcore macho cop who’s also funny and sarcastic. He provides a contrast with Adam, the main character who's played by Alex Kendrick. Without the new characters and situations, I couldn't bring out more things in Adam and the other characters.
Did you get a chance to see the Courageous movie before you wrote?
Yes, I did. I first saw the Courageous movie in a very early form when it was 25% longer than the final edit. This was in October 2010, before I began working on the novel project. By the time the movie was released, it had been close to the form people saw in theaters for nearly a year, which is a long time. But it gave them time to get the word out and get pastors and leaders involved.
You agreed to write the Courageous novel in October 2010, and it released in August 2011. That's not very much time to write a novel.
I had only four months to write the novel. Karen Kingsbury once wrote a novel in a weekend—three days—and it received the Novel of the Year award. She's a friend, and I've unceasingly harassed her about that. Most of us are not built to write a quality book that quickly!
I am a researcher and a perfectionist because I want my books to be just right. I do a ton of research; and when I write, I do draft after draft after draft. To write a novel in four months, I was clearing everything off my schedule and working 60, and sometimes 70, hours a week. It was one of those things you would not want to sustain over the long haul. My wife certainly made sacrifices related to this project, but we agreed it would be followed by some time off. I had a lightened schedule for a few months after the book was done to compensate for those four intense months of writing.
Several years ago I was asked to write another novel based on a movie. I knew who the screenplay writer was, and he had a great reputation. I was very interested in the project. But they said that I'd have thirty days to do it—and they were totally serious—so I recommended one of my friends who can write quickly. I couldn't have lived with myself if I had written a novel in thirty days. Not that it's wrong for other people to do that, but I just couldn't. That was the only thing that allowed me to think that writing the Courageous novel in four months was possible, because I was thinking, “That's actually four times longer than the offer before!”
You mentioned that when you researched the Courageous novel, you were able to tag along with a captain from the Sheriff's department in Albany. What was that like?
It was very interesting traveling around with Craig Dodd. He actually plays a small role in the movie as one of the officers who leads the character Javier over to the car. Sometimes I would record him when I was traveling with him, but I can’t let the world listen to these recordings because of the things he would say as a seasoned cop.
Captain Dodd taught me about gang life in Albany, and showed me “Here's where this shootout was.” But I gained much more than that from spending time with him; I was able to get from him many of the kinds of things I then used for Bronson, a character I added to the novel storyline. Craig is much more physically fit than Bronson is, but in terms of personality and sarcasm, he really helped me create his character.
What was it like writing about fatherhood in Courageous coming from your background of not having a father who was around much?
I grew up in a non-Christian home, having a father who really wasn't there. My dad was a tavern owner and an alcoholic, and most of his life happened outside of the home. He didn't come to my ball games; he wasn't actively involved or interested in my life.
Yes, there is a hole that was created there, and certainly that affected my attitude about the importance of fatherhood. In part, my desire and passion to be a good dad was motivated by the fact that my dad wasn't involved in my life. I remember as a young father thinking, “I'm going to be there for my kids.” (Nanci and I have two daughters, and now we have five grandsons.)
I think we need to hear from people who grew up having fathers who were strong role models in the home, and they can share wisdom and advice about what that looks like. But those of us who didn't grow up with good fathers can also share things we’ve learned by not having that positive role model. We need both of those on the table.
Now, to my dad's credit, he did provide for our family and was a good example of working hard. But he wasn't an example of how to be a dad in a lot of tangible ways. I did have the joy of seeing my father come to Christ at age 85 after many years of praying for him, and he lived another four years and grew in his faith. My best times in life that I ever had with my dad were during those last four years of his life. I wish I would have had those times sooner, but because we're both believers in Christ, we're going to spend eternity together. I never played catch with my dad on this earth, but maybe I'll play catch with him on the new one.
Do you have any stories you can share about your time you spent with Stephen and Alex Kendrick while researching the Courageous novel?
Stephen and I spent a lot of time together and laughed a lot. There was a lot of fun, even though he and Alex were working hard editing the movie. As I watched them at it, I was impressed with the way they'd cut something because even though it was good, it didn't fit with their goal for the movie. (I hope they do an extended version sometime, because there were some great scenes that had to be cut.)
There were games they'd do as they worked together, like a couple of brothers who were still kids. I loved the fact that they were serious when it came to the stuff that needed to be serious, but they were also able to have fun. Over the years, I've found that nothing relieves stress as much (or brings you back more ready to work on something serious) than having laughed and had fun. That's why I put a lot of humor into the Courageous novel. The novel has four times the scenes and four times the character development, but it also has four times the humor. It just has to.
One of the things I develop in my Heaven book is that God is a fun-loving God, a God of laughter. It’s God (not Satan) who put into us the capacity to laugh and a love of laughter. It’s therapeutic. One day, the new universe will ring with laughter.
I developed this concept from Luke 6:20-23 where Jesus says rejoice and be glad if you are being persecuted and mourning now, for then you will laugh. When is the “then”? He's not talking about this life; though it’s certainly true we will have times of laughter. But it's specifically a promise for Heaven. It's talking about a day when there will be comfort, everything will be made right, and the peacemakers will rule the earth.
We're promised that one day we'll sit and feast on the New Earth. Feasting involves celebration and fun, and it is profoundly relational. Great conversation, storytelling, relationship-building, and laughter often happen during mealtimes.
What makes the Courageous novel distinct from all the other related books and products?
I would say that the Courageous novel fulfills a role that no other product in the Courageous lineup does. The movie is the central component, and there’s the nonfiction books The Resolution for Men and The Resolution for Women. Sermons will be preached from all of the nonfiction products, but the Courageous novel is distinct because as a fiction book, it is a story that extends the film. Because it takes the reader further and deeper, my prayer is that it will open up additional doors while being faithful to the movie.
What I'm hoping is that a number of non-believers, who have seen the movie but would not ordinarily read a non-fiction book that quotes Scripture, would read the novel. I believe a number of those people can come to faith in Christ. I also believe it’s possible that nominal Christians who like fiction will read the novel and not the nonfiction books. The point is that the novel is distinct, and I believe God is going to us it in His own unique and distinct way. That's the power of fiction.