Robin: Tell me about your background, and how you got started as a writer.
Brad: I've always had a talent for writing, but I was too lazy to actually write anything. Writing by typewriter or by hand is just too cumbersome. But in 1981, I got a computer with a word processor program, and started writing fiction. So I've been writing for close to twenty-five years now.
But I've only been writing for my own enjoyment. I did try once in the early '90s to get published. I was working a day job and writing at night. I'd written a children's story about a kid who wants to be Sherlock Holmes. I thought it was pretty decent. I tried to get it published, and I went through the whole drill, all the stuff you have to do -- get a copy of the Writer's Market, find the publishers that will publish the kind of stuff you do, mail off for catalogs and writer's guidelines, weed that down, send out query letters... It's a huge amount of work!
It really is.
I got about four or five rejection notices, and I realized that I was spending all of my time doing clerical work, and I wasn't writing, because I didn't have time to do my day job and have a family and write and try to get published. So I decided that I hated doing the clerical work, but I loved writing; I was never going to get published anyway, so I figured I'd just do what I loved. I wasn't going to worry about getting published.
So I threw that project aside and just continued to write. That's what I did for several years. I'd written a collection of short stories that were about my experiences in high school and college -- mainly character sketches. And I'd print them out and give them to my family and friends, and that was the extent of my publishing aspirations.
My sister gave a copy to a friend of hers in her Sunday School class, by the name of Robin Hardy, who is a published Christian romance novelist. I was kind of surprised to discover, at the time, that such a thing existed as "Christian romance" novels. But there she was. Of course, anybody who's published, everybody with a manuscript starts coming to them and going, "Could you show this to your editor?" And the reaction is usually, "Ehhh..."
So Robin was not exactly thrilled to get this thing thrust into her hands, and my sister didn't realize the faux pas she was committing. But she didn't want to hurt my sister's feelings, so she agreed at least to read it. She sat down to read it and realized that she really liked it. This was like, 1991 or something like that.
She said, "Next time your brother is in Dallas, bring him by. I want to talk to him." So a few months later, I was up there and we visited. She said, "If you will put this in a publishable format, I'll pitch it to my editor." At the time, it was more like first or second draft quality. There was no unifying theme, it was just random stories. So I spent three or four months coming up with some kind of unifying theme, throwing out most of the material, writing some new material, and I ended up with five inter-related short stories. Which got pitched, and which went nowhere.
After about a year and a half, I finally decided that wasn't going to happen, so I just ignored it and went on. Ten years later, I'd moved to Hawaii, and Robin tracks me down. And she says, "I've changed publishers, I showed your stuff to my new editor, and he loves it and wants to talk to you. Do you mind if I give him your phone number?"
I went, "Ahhhh, let me think..."
(Laughs.) "Well, okay. Just this once." (Laughs.) That was Gary Terashita, who was an editor with Broadman & Holman at the time. He called me up, and about five or six months after that, I had a contract for a novel. I had to re-write it once again, into a novel. But that's the long saga of how it ended up in print.
Just out of curiosity, what kind of computer was that first one you bought back in '81?
Oh man, it was a K-Pro. It was one of the luggables, you know, that looked like a portable sewing machine?
The most popular one at the time was the Osborne. And this was actually a little higher-quality than the Osborne, but not as well known. Weighted about thirty pounds.
(Laughs.) Yeah! Ran CPM in a 64k of memory. It was a beautiful thing.
I wrote some real junk on that thing.
When you're writing, when you're creating these stories with these colorful characters, where does that come from? What inspires you?
Well, the Fred stories are loosely based on my own experiences. The events in the stories are not events that I experienced. I didn't know any whacked-out Vietnam vets or any cultural World War II veterans or anything like that. But I lived in those places during those years. So the flavor of the area bubbles up.
When I first started writing, I wrote a lot of complete junk -- just really bad stuff. Fortunately, I had someone willing to read my stuff, even as bad as it was. Her name was Jody Wheatley. And she kept telling me, "You're writing crap." And I'm going, "No, no! This is good!" Finally, I started listening to her instead of arguing with her, and realized that I was writing crap. That was the first step towards me being able to actually write something decent.
So I changed what I was writing, and eventually I started writing stuff out of my own background. And as I wrote this stuff, I realized that it resonated a lot more. It's a truism: "write what you know." It took me about ten or fifteen years to figure out that that was good advice.
As far as the plots in the stories... I don't know. I just kind of stare off into space, and things start popping up. I'm not really sure how that works.
Is there a real Fred, Texas somewhere?
Oh yes. It's the very real Fred, Texas, where I grew up. It's right where it says it is in the book. Not far from Beaumont.
Ohhhh. I thought you had made it up, but maybe there was a real town that it was based on, with a different name.
No, it's an actual place. Although people are always surprised to learn that. I mean, who would name a town "Fred," for crying out loud?
Exactly, that's why I thought it was made up.
Well, in Texas, they've got towns named "Alice," and "Cut and Shoot."
(Laughs.) Have you been back to Fred since these books have been published?
Once. (Laughs.) That was an interesting moment. I wasn't sure how the people of Fred would take it. There's not that many people in Fred, so it's not like there would be a revolution or anything. But I drove through on a book signing tour in 2003. I was coming from Texarkana down to Beaumont, and I stopped at Fred.
I went to Fred Grocery, which is the general store. I haven't had any relatives there or any real connections to the town for many years. So I walked in, and there's this teenage girl standing there. I dropped a copy of my book on the counter, and I said, "You don't know me, but I wrote a book about this town." And she said, "(Gasp) You're Brad Whittington!"
And I thought to myself, "That's probably the only time in my life that's ever going to happen." (Laughs.)
She goes, "Oh my gosh, my mother read your book! She loves it! I've got to call her, just a second... Mom, you'll never guess who's standing right here!"
It was a rare moment. I don't expect to experience it again. But it was kind of fun for it to happen, I got a tickle out of it.
The thing that fascinates me most about your writing is this hilarious way you have with words, turning a really clever phrase. It doesn't feel like you have to work really hard at that. It feels like it comes from you naturally. I wonder sometimes if that's an innate ability some people just have. I would love to be able to do that, but anytime I come up with something clever, it's usually by accident. But there are a lot of writers out there, like yourself, who write crisp prose or original, fresh dialogue, and don't seem to have to try that hard at it.
Well, it is an effort. I'm sure there are some people that it just drops out of like a gumball machine. But I do have to work at it. The way my brain works, I tend to see the relationships between things, and connect them together in ways that wouldn't necessarily be obvious to other people. I'll hear a song that will remind me of something else, or somebody will say a phrase that will remind me of something.
So I think one of the things that makes that work for me is the rather unconventional pairings of things, that are startling at first, but once you think about them, you realize it does work. Some of that is due to the nature of my sense of humor, which tends to be random and rather disjointed. I like to hang around small kids and talk, because you can say random things and see how they react. You can pair something together like, "I'm going to eat lunch, let's go eat a pillow," and see what they do. Some will laugh, others will look at you and say, "You can't eat a pillow."
So it's like a barometer test for humor?
Yeah, I don't know... It's dangerous to have me around small kids.
(Laughs.) Oh, good, at least there's a lesson to be learned from this.
When you're writing, do you outline? Do you pre-plot?
Yes I do. I do a chapter-by-chapter outline. I know a lot of people through-compose, they just start writing and see where it takes them. It helps me to have a framework to build on. Otherwise, I just head off in random directions. I do that anyway, and I have to reign myself in. And things sometimes go in unexpected directions, and I have to change the outline based on that stuff that popped out. I'll look at it and go, "This is better than my outline, so I'm sticking with it."
There are different parts of the writing process -- brainstorming, researching, outlining, writing, revising... Which part of the process is your favorite?
The writing itself, when you get on a roll, there's nothing like it. It's kind of like performing. I also play the guitar, and I'm the frontman in a small band that does '70s stuff. That's a lot of fun to be up on stage, playing songs, and on the rare occasion when people actually listen instead of watching the football game, it's a lot of fun. And when you really hit the zone when you're writing, you're there. Whatever you do, just seems to flow. When you hit that, there's really nothing to compare it to.
I think the hardest part for me is the initial outlining -- the plotting and deciding what's going to happen. A lot of people have noticed that the Fred books don't have much of a plot, they just tend to ramble around. They're not completely devoid of plot, but it's not a real strong plot like a mystery or an action thriller or something. I do tend to ramble around, so the hardest part is deciding the structure itself. After that, I can get sucked up in research and waste hours doing that, because that's a lot of fun. A lot of people hate revising, but I enjoy revising.
I agree -- I've found that some of the very best stuff often comes out of revising.
Oh yeah. I like to read through and go, "I can get rid of that entire paragraph." That's what makes it flow a lot better, when you're willing to chop those things up.
I've never heard anybody compare writing to performing. That's interesting.
Well, there you go, it's one of my bizarre connections. Writing is such a solitary thing, and performing is such a public thing, so there doesn't seem to be a connection. But in reality, the sense of elation and that whole euphoria comes in both. Sometimes it'll be so good that I want to jump up and run downstairs and tell my wife, "Oh, you've got to see this!"
We talk a lot here about the power of storytelling -- its power to influence you and change you and open your mind. Do you think about those kinds of things when you're writing?
Well, I agree about the power of storytelling. I know that a lot of the more "elite" writers kind of look down on storytelling as a second-class citizens of writing. As if the craft itself is most important. I don't think there's anything more important than storytelling, when it comes to writing. And if you do it right, you can incorporate things that the literati think should be in there.
For me, that love of storytelling comes from growing up in Texas and sitting around at family gatherings and holidays, listening to everybody spin yarns for hours and hours. As kids, you usually went out and caught lightning bugs, or you sat around and listened to the old folks tell stories. I spent years listening to various people tell stories, learning what worked and what didn't, and learning about timing and everything else. That's the way that I express stuff.
I've seen a lot of conversations about having an agenda or a message when you're writing, and I really resist the idea of having to build a message in to your story, and that the important thing is making your point. To me, the important thing is telling a story that reflects that message. If you tell the story right, the message is already there, and you don't have to artificially shoe-horn it in.
I think it's possible to tell an agenda-driven story, but it takes a light touch, and most writers are so concerned with clarity... But I agree, the best stories are the ones where the message is portrayed through the story itself. I like stories that everyone is welcome to interpret in their own way, and everyone will get something different out of.
It's not to say that I don't have themes or messages in my books. I started out Welcome to Fred with a specific theme. I very consciously wrote toward that theme. But that was not the most important thing. The most important thing was telling a compelling and captivating story. And if I did it right, which I think I did, then the theme emerges.
Postmodern culture seems very open to seeing life as a story, and I see a growing trend in this direction. Do you look at life as a story?
Yeah. (Laughs.) Unfortunately my friends and family realize that I do look at life as a story.
Why's that unfortunate?
Because I don't seem to stop telling it.
Lastly, tell us about what's next for you. There's a third Fred book coming, right?
When I first met Gary, he said, "I think this should be a trilogy." And I'm going, "Gee whiz, I barely got one book out of it, I don't know how you think I could get three." But it was his vision that gave it the depth and scope that it has. I think Book 2 is better than Book 1, and I just finished Book 3 in January, and I think it's dramatically better than the other two.
I'm really excited about the third book. In the first two, Mark Cloud, the protagonist, doesn't necessarily experience everything directly. He engages some of these spiritual issues, via the adults that are around him that are dealing with them. But in Book 3, he goes to college because now he's an adult. So now he takes things on head-on, so things happen to him, not to those around him. It changes the tone. It's much more intense than the first two.
I'm currently working on another project, co-writing with a guy named Phil Little, who's an anti-terrorism consultant. He's had some very unusual experiences, working in the Middle East, so he has these ideas for some novels. It's an action/thriller, Clancy kind of thing. We're in the middle of working on one of those. I think I just this weekend broke the 70,000 word mark. I've got about another fifteen chapters to write; it's a first draft.
This is very different from the Fred books. It's stretched me, in that the Fred books were all written in first person, from one person's perspective, and it's a person whose perspective is very similar to my own. This book is being written third person, with multiple points of view. I'm having to get inside the heads of people who are radically different from myself, like the head of a terrorist organization or a thirteen year old girl.
That's been a real challenge. It's a lot harder to write. But some of the stuff I've written, I've just been extremely pleased with and very excited about.
When will this book be out?
In 2006. Fred 3 should be out in January '06. And if I can get this other book finished in time, then I'll submit it sometime this summer, and it should be out by summer '06.
It's always exciting to see an artist stretching himself, trying something new and different and challenging.
This is a genre kind of thing, an action/adventure thing. And those books don't necessarily tend to be very deep -- they tend to be plot-driven and action-driven. I think one of the interesting things is what I bring to it, and that's the same sense of character development and style that I brought to the Fred books. So it's kind of an interesting mix of the two. We'll see if they go together or not.
Sounds great to me.
Like I said, I can't wait to see how it turns out. I'm about three-fifths of the way through the first draft. There are some chapters that I go back and read, just for the thrill of reading it, 'cause I'm going, "Man, I can't believe I nailed that." That sounds a little arrogant, but it's just exciting to read it. It's like, "Wow, I didn't think I could do that, and I did!"
My biggest challenge is the thirteen year old girl in this story. She's the daughter of the hero. She has a lot of emotional problems, because of her background. Her mother died in a car crash and she feels responsible. So she's struggling with all this pain, and she begins to experiment with self-mutilation. And I'm thinking, "How in the world am I going to write from inside the head of a thirteen year old girl who's cutting herself? What do I know about that? Absolutely nothing."
I approached that chapter wondering how I would ever write this. I sat down and thought about it -- it doesn't look like you're working, but you are. You're staring into space for about thirty minutes, just trying to get into the perspective. What would this person be thinking? How would they feel? How would that reflect what I write? It changed some technical things, like the length of my sentences, my word choices. So I have to get into that spot so that I start writing in that way.
I think that's probably the biggest challenge that writers ever face.
Yes. That's right.
Will this book be the start of a new series?
There are more planned, but we'll see whether that happens or not.
It sounds very exciting.
I know! I'm getting excited about writing it just talking about it!