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Interview: Kathryn Mackel

Kathryn Mackel is the author of several books in a "new" genre known as Christian chillers: The Surrogate, The Departed, The Hidden, and the soon-to-be-released The Vanishing (October 2007), but she's garnered most focus from Christian SFF readers for her YA series, The Birthrighters, comprised of Outriders and Trackers (all published by WestBow). She has also published a handful of SF stories for children and several screenplays, including Frank Peretti's Hangman's Curse. She took part in the list during January 2007. Diane Joy Baker, Shannon McNear, and Greg Slade asked the questions, and here is an edited version of the question and answer sequence. You can learn more about Kathryn and her work from her web page at kathrynmackel.com.

SM: Tell us about your background, birthplace, where and when you grew up, what your childhood was like, etc.?

I grew up in Connecticut (in Yankee territory), went to college near Boston so I could be near the Red Sox. My early childhood was typical for way-back-then in the fifties and sixtiesÖmaybe a time that's gone forever. Boys and girls played all sorts of sports in our yards, on the playground, in the street. We played baseball with taped-up bats and 5-cent rubber balls. We built forts in the woods and rode our bikes to the local swimming hole. We went to the movies every Saturday. I read all the time. The teenage years were tough. Home life was a little rocky with my parents working through alcoholism. I was the smart kid in school but always felt like I wasn't quite in the right place. I didn't know why until I started writing.

SM: Educational background? What did you take, and why?

It will not surprise my Science Fiction pals to know that I majored in English Literature and minored in Biochemistry. I wanted to major in science but I was a total klutz in the lab. Just not careful. And while somehow I understood the logic of Physics, I couldn't get deep into math.

SM: What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

I will have been married for 31 years come next Valentine's Day [2007]. Seems like just yesterday. My husband does materials research for a lighting company. He's the grounded, meticulous one, I'm the flighty intuitive one. I have a 29-year-old son who is married. He and his wife have blessed us with a grandson who just turned 3. There is nothing like grandparenting. Talk about turning to a pile of mush. My daughter is 27 and lives and works a high-powered job in Boston. She and her boyfriend (a Yankees fan from NY) spend their vacations traveling around the country to watch the Red Sox play. Lest you think we're some sort of fanatics – this is life in New England. We're all like this.

SM: How did you get started writing?

I always told stories. When I was a kid, I made up the neighborhood play, which often centered around either cowboys or Disney movies. When I was a teen, I told ghost stories at the YMCA camp I worked at. But I never felt I was a writer because I didn't write. Two things got me writing. The first was the advent of the home computer, something that freed me to express myself quickly. (I'm left-handed and hate writing by hand.) The second was taking my first creative writing course when I was 41. It was like a dam breaking.

SM: What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

As Kathryn Mackel (writing for adults) I've had three supernatural thrillers and two fantasies. As Kathy Mackel (writing for kids), I've had two girls' sports books and four SciFi. I've also written big-budget SciFi films, family films, even worked briefly in animation. My screenwriting credits include Can of Worms for Disney Channel and Hangman's Curse.

Interestingly, I find short stories very difficult to write. I consider myself more a storyteller than a pure writer so I guess I need the room to get my story out.

SM: Of your works, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

My latest in print, Trackers. It's my favorite because the elements of fantasy gave me such tools for expressing the love of Christ in so many ways. When I think about the book, it's not in terms of the experience I provided for readers but the profound experience I had in writing it.

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

Madeleine L'Engle. I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was in 3rd grade (and many times since), and from the first reading, loved the fantasy but also somehow comprehended that this story brought me far beyond myself and connected me to God

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

When I was young, kids weren't allowed to have an "adult" card until they were in high school. I was such a voracious reader that I went through the classics and then all the sports books by the time I was finishing fifth grade. We were heading off for vacation and I needed books to take with me. There was only one set of books left that I hadn't read in the children's section – the Lucky Starr books, written by Paul French – a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov. I got hooked. And by the way, I was granted an "adult" library card two years early.

SM: What is your personal all-time favorite SF/F work, and why?

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. I guess because it involves great SciFi, kids, the loss of innocence, the cost of heroism.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I am a Christian, and so long (and strive) to live every day to God's glory, in Christ's mercy, by the power of the Spirit. My secular books and movies are far more important to me than my Christian books because they reflect my Christian worldview. My kids' SciFi books are filled with images and themes that point to Christ, even though I never use His name. I urge Christian writers to consider writing for mainstream audiences, especially in fantasy and horror.

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Obviously, Scripture.I am continually amazed at the very life of the word, and how absolutely relevant to today the Bible is. In terms of my writing, I've studied Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker in terms of storytelling and style. I'll read any book by Angela Hunt. My favorite book of this past year was Tristan's Gap by Nancy Rue. And – it's not SFF but I read To Dance in the Desert by first time author Kathleen Popa for endorsement. The book won't be out until next summer [was released summer 2007] but Kathleen did such an amazing job that she moved me to tears. Usually only Francine Rivers can do that. And I want to give a shout-out to Eric Wilson who blew me away with The Best of Evil. We're seeing Christian fiction really come of age, with edgier authors like Eric, Brandilyn Collins, Melanie Wells, T.L. Hines, Chris Scott, Bob Liparulo, Tim Downs, Creston Mapes. I could go on and on.

I only wish we saw more Christian Science Fiction. I would love to hear all your favorites so I could broaden my reading.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

When I was in my twenties, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged blew me away. Unfortunately, the book also knocked me further from God. Even as I realized the empty center of this amazing book, I continue to understand that literature can move hearts and minds. One of my favorite books is Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Not only was it wonderfully written, it combined all the things I love dearly: kids, the Boston Red Sox, the woods of New England.

SM: What sorts of things stir the pot of creativity for you? Music, artwork, certain films, etc. ...

I listen to music in the earphones as I work. Generally, it can be vocals but not anything I could sing along with and potentially, distract me. In terms of stirring creativity – two things work for me. The first is a long walk in the woods or hard physical exertion. I spent two summers ago clearing out a mass of thorn bushes that had choked our stream. It took two months but I did some of my best day-dreaming as I battled the bugs and the thicket.

The second is a pseudo-nap. Disengaging the mind and letting it wander, letting my imagination find its own place to daydream without me setting parameters.

SM: Do you have a favorite place for writing?

Anyplace outside in nature. Unfortunately, I live on the NH line so that's only five months out of the year. I still hike deep into the woods often and do either research or outline.

SM: Do you try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or daily word count goal?

I don't do daily word count...until the deadline is breathing down my neck. I do try to set a goal for the day, in terms of getting through a section of a chapter while editing a previous one. But I'm afraid I've become a spurt writer, which I wasn't when I started.

SM: Do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

I work from a general outline. I get specific a few chapters at a time. Characters always have the right to assert themselves but I don't like wandering in the wilderness.

GS: What SF films have you got credit for?

I have credit for my own Can of Worms (kids' SciFi) and Hangman's Curse, an adaptation of Frank Peretti's book. I was credited as a story consultant for Left Behind. But I've had paying gigs that haven't made it to the big screen. My first sale was for Mother Ship, a big budget science fiction that Fox studio bought. I'm working on another big-budget that I hope will sell. I did Rock-a-Byte Baby for Showtime, which has a science fiction component to it. And I've written a few unsold science fiction screenplays (that I still have hope for.)

GS: When you're writing, have you ever stumbled across a theological "puzzle", and found that you can't continue on with the story until you have solved the puzzle to your own satisfaction?

It depends on the nature of the "puzzle." My novels aren't meant as scriptural exposition but human illumination under divine inspiration. It's vital that my work doesn't contradict or corrupt the tenets of the faith. But on peripheral issues, I prefer readers understand the major impetus of the story and not get drawn into the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. For example, one very gracious reader has recently taken issue with a small aspect of The Hidden in which a demon is apparently reading Susan's mind. She felt that wasn't scriptural. Maybe it is but maybe it isn't. I won't bother taking on that one. To me it's a puzzle I don't need to solve because The Hidden is about forgiveness and not about the boundaries between heaven, hell, and us.

So Greg, I guess my answer is 'no.' I don't worry about puzzles. The Christian heart of my story must be clear to be before I start writing or I can't write. God's greatness and graciousness must be respected and revealed in the story but in the end, it is a story.

DJB: In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis talks about how reading George MacDonald's book Phantastes started him on the road back to God. You talked about how Atlas Shrugged pushed you farther from God. Is there a work ("fannish" or not) which has worked in the opposite direction for you?

No. Some have inspired me. I loved a simple family story that came out last year – Tristan's Gap by Nancy Rue. I just read a ms. by a new author (the book won't be out until June) named Kathleen Popa. Any story that moves my heart and challenges me becomes a blessing.

DJB: Do you set out to "teach" specific Christian truths in your stories, or do you just tell the story, and let your Christian beliefs come out however they may?

I don't want to teach truths. Some authors are good at that. (Angela Hunt, in her parables that are great novels, comes to mind.) I want to tell stories about imperfect people who come to grace.

SM: What three bits of advice would you give new writers?

Don't set all your hopes on one book or screenplay. Start writing something new even while you market what you've just finished.

Learn from failure. Rejection and writer's block are an opportunity to see redemption in a real way. Not that God will magically give you exactly what you want, but if you show up to rewrite or restructure or just move on, then you will see life take shape in your work.

Know whose critiques to trust. This is extremely difficult without experience. This morning at my writers' group, both I and another writer said, "When I used this word, I could just hear Bev's voice telling me not to." I'm involved in a group that's been around for almost 20 years. The input and trust is amazing but it's not easy to find a group like this.

My screenwriting partner and I just finished the first draft of a screenplay and had five friends each read it. The "notes" were all over the place but we took into account the notes that seemed to resonate among most of our readers (the main character was unlikeable at first) and some that seemed only to resonate with perhaps one reader but really spoke to us.

Taking critiques – and giving them – is an art form and an exercise in patience and grace. It's cruel to cut someone down but it's also cruel to let bad stuff go. Grace, wisdom, patience...walking out our critiques with fear and trembling!

DJB: I have several questions. Are there any books on writing that you'd recommend? I just finished reading Jerry Jenkins' Writing for the Soul and was intrigued to learn a few things about the writing of the Left Behind series and his recommendations on books about the craft. I wondered if you had a couple of titles on the writing craft that you'd consider indispensable.

The only writing book that I've really dug deeply into is Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. Stephen King's book on writing is very good, as well.

DJB: I'm equally intrigued about your interest in Ayn Rand---I have some interest in her work (though with many quibbles---the most severe being her atheism, of course). I still dip into Atlas Shrugged on occasion, but mostly I read favorite bits and the emotional intensity I felt in my teen years when I first read her certainly has abated. (And I don't find John Galt a very creditable character; he's cardboard.) I wondered if you still take a look at her writings on occasion, or did you entirely lose interest when you became a Christian? Or was there another kind of reaction you had?

That's a great question. I haven't read any of Rand for at least 15 years. I should check out Atlas Shrugged now, see how I would react to it.

DJB: List three books (fiction or nonfiction) that you have read this past year, 2006.

The Best of Evil, by Eric Wilson. Loved it...masterfully written.

And on the recommendation of Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly: The Ruins by Scott Smith. Oh, what an amazing (depressing) book.

Dispatch by Bently Little.

The last two were fascinating, compelling stories. Great studies in how to tell a story, and two completely different styles. But without little hope, I'm afraid.

I'm currently reading an advance copy of Sharon Hinck's novel, The Restorer. Wow...I'm enjoying it so much!

DJB: Which three authors do you buy, no matter what they write? [Mine are Gene Wolfe, Dan Simmons and Connie Willis in SF and F; in CBA, it's Karen Hancock.]

It used to be David Brin but he's gotten too...stuffy for me. Anything by Jonathan Kellerman. Oh, and Angie Hunt. You can see, my taste is all over the place. The only thing I don't read (apologies to those who do and/or write them) are romances.

DJB: When do you write best: night, morning or otherwise? Do you set a page goal?

Morning and right after supper. I don't do a page goal but I do try to work through a chapter (mine are short.)

DJB: Are you an "outline" writer or an "explorer?" (Let's see where the story takes us....)

Definitely outline writer. That's the screenwriter/former tech writer in me.

DJB: How do you balance telling the story with conveying a message?

The story is the most important thing. The message is the life of the story. If not, it comes off as teaching/preaching. This is the hardest thing to explain, I'm afraid. And for each author, the approach is different. For me, I start with a premise that...because I'm a believer...must involve a spiritual dilemma. In The Surrogate, it's what happens when you want something good (a baby) so badly, that you get out in front of God? You as the reader can plug in anything in place of the baby...the baby is the story but the message is the struggle to work out your own longing with God's desire for you. And the redemption is always the focal point of the story and the message. Because that's our life, isn't it?

DJB: Do you entirely quit reading other fiction while working on a story, or do you allow yourself a break from your own work and read others?

I never quit reading fiction. Only a very special non-fiction book can turn me from novels. However, I never read anything that might even whisper of the story that I'm writing. I don't want to unintentionally cross-pollinate.

DJB: I wanted to say that I really enjoyed Outriders, and look forward to reading the sequel. It's just the kind of thing we're looking for! I hope WestBow publishes that third volume. Thanks so much for your time and answers.

Many blessings to all you readers and writers!

Kathy


[Home][Creativity][Genres][Resources][Links][About Us]

[Audio][Biographies][Books][Events][Film][Interviews][Mailing List][Publications][Store]

[David R. Beaucage][Kathy Tyers][James BeauSeigneur][Jefferson Scott][Walker Chandler][Alton Gansky][Ray Hansen]

[Emily Snyder][Randall Ingermanson][Theodore Beale][Steve Laube][Laura Lond][Frank Wu][Donita K. Paul][Brenda W. Clough][Bryan Davis][John Granger]

[Karen Hancock][Miles Owens][Robert Liparulo][Bryan Davis, part 2][Chris Walley][Kathryn Mackel][Gene Wolfe][Sharon Hinck][Wayne Thomas Batson][Lars Walker][Christopher Hopper][Jeffrey Overstreet]

[Home] [Creativity] [Genres] [Resources] [Links] [About Us]

[Audio] [Biographies] [Books] [Events] [Film] [Interviews] [Mailing List] [Publications] [Store]

[David R. Beaucage] [Kathy Tyers] [James BeauSeigneur] [Jefferson Scott] [Walker Chandler] [Alton Gansky] [Ray Hansen] [Emily Snyder] [Randall Ingermanson] [Theodore Beale] [Steve Laube] [Laura Lond] [Frank Wu] [Donita K. Paul] [Brenda W. Clough] [Bryan Davis] [John Granger] [Karen Hancock] [Miles Owens] [Robert Liparulo] [Bryan Davis, part 2] [Chris Walley] [Kathryn Mackel] [Gene Wolfe] [Sharon Hinck] [Wayne Thomas Batson] [Lars Walker] [Christopher Hopper] [Jeffrey Overstreet]