When was the last time you picked up a debut novel, and upon reading the book, discovered that you had stumbled upon a fresh new voice destined to leave its mark on the landscape of fiction literature? In this case, the voice belongs to Brad Whittington, and his first novel, Welcome to Fred (0-8054-2555-1, $12,99, Broadman & Holman), is a delightful "coming of age and finding faith in small-town America" story, rich with memorable characters and thought-provoking scenes. We recently caught up with Mr. Whittington, who was happy to discuss his first published work with Christian Advance.
Christian Advance: Welcome to Fred is a wonderful story about a young man who is trying to be understood and accepted in a new town, where he doesn't exactly "fit in" (or, as he states in the book, "I fit in like a Vegas cocktail waitress at an Amish house-raising"). As we discover through the course of the book, he comes to realize that the understanding and acceptance that means the most to him comes from an unexpected source. Have you explored similar "coming of age" themes in your previous work?
Brad Whittington: Like many of the characters in Fred, most of my "previous work" has never ventured more than 30 miles from where it was born -- on my computer. This particular novel went through three incarnations over a decade, shedding its skin and growing a new one each time. The "coming of age" theme was one of the few elements that survived to the finished work.
CA: Who, or what was the inspiration for Mark, the main character in your book, Welcome to Fred? Are there elements of Mark that are autobiographical? You seem to have a great perspective on the culture shock of moving from big city to small town!
BW: It only took two questions to get to the biggie. That's what I call cutting to the chase! You are to be admired for your efficiency.
It would be a little silly of me to deny that the inspiration for Mark is based in my own experiences. After all, Mark and I have so much in common, such as geographical and chronological proximity, not to mention family structure. Now that we got that out of the way, I must hasten to emphasize that this novel is NOT an autobiography in that the book doesn't chronicle actual events and people. There is no M, no Creature, no Darnell, Jolene, Becky, Parker, Sonia or Mac. It is not the story of Brad; it is the story of Mark. I happen to like Mark quite a bit, but he is not Brad. Actually, Mark takes more chances than Brad, interestingly enough.
However, I did draw on my own experiences to craft Mark's attitudes and reflections. So the culture shock is genuine, if perhaps a bit exaggerated for effect. Fiction, after all, must be a bit bigger than life, just like gestures on stage. Or larger than my life, at any rate. I know some people who would have no need to resort to embellishment to write a fascinating autobiography. But for us average folk, the odd tweak here and there is helpful.
CA: It was delightful to learn in the book that Mark loves to read, and he makes literary references ranging from the Hardy Boys and Tom Sawyer, to Bradbury and Asimov, even borrowing a bit from Francis Thompson's amazing poem, The Hound of Heaven - "with deliberate speed, majestic instancy!" This aspect of his character supported the fact that he was an intelligent, curious, "thought-filled" person. Do you think young people today are, in general, less likely to be voracious readers, and if so, to what would you attribute this tendency?
BW: First, I must commend you on acknowledging the "Hound of Heaven" reference. I almost cut that in the fear that it might be too obscure. Which leads to your question. The danger here is I could probably go on for pages about reading and modern culture. So stop me if I begin to rant.
On one hand, all around me I hear people talking about the latest TV shows. (Television is always assumed to be the culprit in any discussion of the decline of reading.) Evidently the "reality TV" craze is on. Although, from what I hear described, "reality TV" is about as far removed from reality as you can get. Everyone from soccer moms to astute doctrinal scholars seems to be analyzing Joe Millionaire's choice of mate or the picks for American Idol. It sometimes seems as if no one reads fiction anymore. That's a depressing thought for those of us who are interested, not to say obsessed, with good fiction.
On the other hand, large brick-and-mortar bookstores are staying in business. So evidently my anecdotal impressions of the prevalence of reading are not reflective of actual practice. There must be a lot of closet bibliophiles out there!
But are kids reading? It seems since JKR was discovered, the answer is "yes." I see the Harry Potter phenomenon as the Wizard of Oz event of this generation. Never in my life have I seen a kid who will pick up a 300+ page book with the same anticipation as opening a box of pizza. Well, at least never outside of a mirror.
CA: Your book makes small town life very palpable for the reader, in an endearing sort of way. What would you identify as the charms of small town living?
BW: One charm of small town living is that you know your place. There is no need to "find yourself." You are already defined. This can be stifling or liberating, depending on your perspective. If the accepted definition is in conflict with your own desires or self-image, it can be very painful. On the other hand, if you can live within your niche, a lot of mental and emotion anguish can be completely avoided.
We didn't have to worry about locking doors or having escorts to dark parking lots. We received a lot of fresh produce. There's nothing quite like sweet corn right off the stalk. And you don't need Guy Clark to tell you of the virtues of homegrown tomatoes if you live in a small town. Those things you get in the grocery store just don't compare.
CA: Pauline, who we read about early in the book, and who reappears dramatically near the end, plays an important role in Mark's quest. How might she have answered his question regarding the truth of the Bible? Speak to us about the grace of her statement, "There was nothing to forgive." (By the way, do you know of anyone who's read Pauline's letter without crying?)
BW: As amazing as it may seem, yes, there are people who have read The Letter, as I call it, without crying. I am not one of them. The first time, anyway. The Letter was a sticking point in the book. As I was finishing the manuscript, it became apparent to me that I was going to have to open the envelope. This was something for which I had not planned. I just stuck the envelope in Pauline's Bible as an indicator of her past. But as I began reviewing the final chapters, it became apparent that The Letter was a critical key to the entire theme of the book.
At that point, I was stuck. I had no idea what was in that envelope. It took me three weeks to find out. I even asked my home group from church to pray that I find out what was in the envelope. It became something of a mantra for us. "What's in the envelope?" What a relief when I finally found out what Pauline had written in there.
Regarding how Pauline might have answered Mark's questions about the truth of the Bible, I hesitate to conjecture. As strange as it may sound, I am cautious about speaking for Pauline or even speculating what she might say. I have experienced something of the transition Mark made as he learned of her history and she became a person with a name and not just a curious anomaly. Plus, I'm not sure she was lucid enough to actually articulate an answer to a question about the truth of the Bible. However, I'm sure her answer would be intriguing, and perhaps even amusing.
I see Pauline's statement of "There was nothing to forgive" as another articulation of the concept in Nixon Waterman's poem "To Know All Is To Forgive All." When Pauline pondered in her heart the love she had for Enoch, she began to have an inkling of how that love might cause her to do things for his benefit that he might not understand. This revelation helped her apply that concept back a generation, to her own father. There was no need to forgive what was done out of love, however it might have hurt at the time.
I believe Pauline was mistaken in her estimation of her father's motivations. I think he was a proud and bitter man who didn't act out of love for her. But for her to extend this charitable interpretation of his actions to him is indeed grace, which can be defined as unmerited favor. And it understandably bewildered him. More than that, I think it blindsided him. I think this is what Mark Heard refers to as "the unbelievable truth" in "The Orphans of God." Grace is, quite simply, incomprehensible.
CA: What's on the literary horizon for Brad Whittington?
BW: I have begun work on Book 2, which continues where Welcome to Fred leaves off. Most of it is a blank slate. I can't tell you much about it mainly because I don't know much about it myself, yet. But I can tell you Mark is coming home to a lot of interesting things. If you think about the state of affairs in Fred just before Mark leaves on vacation, including his friends and the whole Mac/Parker/Sonia thing, there are a lot of unanswered questions. As I think about answering those questions, I get flashbacks about The Letter. I'm still asking, "What's in the envelope?"