He doesn’t know it, but crime novelist Andrew Klavan is a mentor of mine.
Klavan grew up as a secular Jew on Long Island. After his bar mitzvah, he threw away hundreds of dollars of expensive gifts because he realized that neither he nor his parents believed the Hebrew Scriptures that he had just professed. He proceeded to do some time as a journalist and to write a bunch of hard-boiled crime novels. He liked noir because it takes an unflinching look at life in all its grittiness … a perspective that he thought was the opposite of that taken by religion.
Becoming a Christian always solves some problems but causes others. As he realized that he was about to become a Christian, one of Klavan’s fears was that he would no longer be able to write hard-boiled fiction. He remembers pleading, “Please, God, don’t let me become a ‘Christian novelist’!”
Of course, by ‘Christian novelist’ he did not mean the likes of G.K. Chesterton, George McDonald, T.S. Eliot, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, or Flannery O’Connor. He meant someone who writes novels (or movies) in which nothing seriously bad ever happens.
Klavan does a great job of articulating a philosophy of fiction that has also become my own. No, the sex and violence in my novels isn’t as explicit as in his. (We all have to find our own ‘ew’ threshold.) But I do believe that, if you are going to have real characters, they should be flawed. And if you are going to have a real plot, then – you can’t get away from it – at some point ‘the worst’ has to happen.
Klavan explains how a Christian can even dream of writing about sex, violence, and cussing in the five-minute video below.
Do you feel uncomfortable with Romans at your back? Are you thinking this is not exactly what you’d planned? Are you thinking, This looks bad, but someday soon He’ll see I was right to use my knowledge of Gethsemane.
Possible you don’t recall what, months ago, He said: that the Christ must first be killed and then rise from the dead. In the sacred city He’d be turned in to the priests, then to the Gentiles to be killed – do you not feel unease?
Just hours ago He broke the news that He would be betrayed. You’re certain He did not mean you … but why are you afraid? If you would only think it through! But you’re set on your track, although you look uncomfortable with Romans at your back.
Don’t think about it, Judas. You’ve begun – now see it through. There’ll be time for thinking later when you’re swinging from a noose.
Again He took the twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to Him. “We are going up to Jerusalem,” He said, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.” Mark 10:32-34
As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. John 13:30
Orual is a princess, but she’s anything but spoiled. She is strikingly ugly, and her father treats his daughters with the same thoughtless cruelty with which he rules his pagan kingdom. Orual eventually learns to stand up to her father, but she’s terrified of the royal priest, who wears a bird’s head on his chest, and of the deity he serves, a spooky, faceless mother-goddess.
Orual’s younger half-sister Psyche
is kind and beautiful, and Orual adores her.
As Psyche grows older, the two girls prove to be best friends. But everything changes when Psyche is offered
as a sacrifice to the son of the mother-goddess, who lives on the haunted
mountain … and she actually seems happy about it.
We Have Faces is a re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, seen from
the point of view of Psyche’s supposedly jealous and evil older sisters. Like me, you will probably pick it up because
when you see the words “an ugly princess and a beautiful princess,” you
immediately go into the book expecting to identify with the ugly one. And you do.
But see whether, by the end, you don’t identify with Psyche as well.
This book is a perfect addition to
the genre of novels that write ancient pagans sympathetically, but look at
their beliefs with a critical eye.
That’s what I try to do in my books.
Mine were inspired in part by ‘Till
We Have Faces, but they will never rise to its level.
Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1878)
If you read the back of the book,
you will be told that it is the story of Anna, a beautiful upper-class Russian
woman (pre-Revolution) who has an extramarital affair and is eventually
destroyed by society’s judgment on her sexual freedom. Well, not quite. For one thing, Anna is destroyed by the
affair itself more than by the social condemnation. For another thing, Anna is
only half of the novel.
The other half is about Levin, a
wealthy young farmer who has a spiritual crisis and loses, then regains, the
girl he loves. His long, slow upward
trajectory is the flip side of Anna’s long, slow downward one.
The writing in this novel is
amazing (assuming that you get a good translation). The psychology is beautiful. It’s also an example of a successful
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (1678)
This book was first published in
1678. The language, therefore, is more
modern than Shakespeare, slightly less modern than Jane Austen, but just as
elegant and succinct as either one.
It is an allegory of one man’s
spiritual journey. It is anything but
Take the incident where Giant
Despair throws Christian and Hopeful into the dungeon in Doubting Castle. He beats them, he starves them, he tells them
they will never get out. It is
Christian’s fault they are there (he led them on a shortcut across the giant’s
lands), and he immediately begins to blame himself and apologize to
Hopeful. The giant encourages the two
men to kill themselves and even provides them with a variety of means to do
so. He also shows them the skulls of
past prisoners to emphasize that their fate is sealed.
All in all, if you have ever been
through depression (your own or a loved one’s), you will recognize this as a
precise description of the effects it has upon mind and body. This giant and his wife literally sit up at
night thinking of ways to make the prisoners’ lives miserable.
When the two prisoners finally make their escape, the giant begins to chase them. But when he comes out into the sunlight, he falls into an epileptic type of fit.
The Miss Marple books by Agatha Christie (1930s through 1960s)
Hercule Poirot is the more famous
of Christie’s sleuths, but my favorite is Miss Marple. All the other characters, being British,
consistently underestimate Poirot because he a foreigner. All the younger and more worldly characters
underestimate Miss Marple because she is an old maid who has lived in a village
all her life. They think she is likely
to be naïve and narrow in her views and experience. In fact, Miss Marple has seen quite a lot of
human nature in her 60+ years of life. As
she points out, her village may look as stagnant and sleepy as a pond, but like
a pond, is it actually alive with all kinds of vicious microscopic creatures.
Miss Marple’s method of crime
detection is to rely on her knowledge of human nature. People she meets remind her of other people
that she has once known. She can
recognize the essence of their character and even make guesses about what they
will do based on these past people’s behavior.
She never makes a point directly; her method is usually to tell a little
story about someone she once knew and then surprisingly tie it to the present
situation. Her method of thinking about
crimes is a bit more intuitive than Poirot’s.
Rather than crunching data, she recognizes stories. You could say that Poirot is a plotter and
Marple a pantser. But they both get
their man in the end.
Miss Marple is also aided by her
fantastic British manners. She is an
amazingly good listener. She is
excellent at drawing people out. People
cannot lie all the time; if you let them talk long enough, eventually they will
tell you the truth.
Miss Marple might be a little old
lady, but she is dangerous to criminals.
In one book, she wraps a pink scarf around her head before she goes out
and then introduces herself to the murderer as “Nemesis.”
No, authors don’t kill off your favorite character just for kicks. It’s usually because the story demands it. But why? Why should any story demand such a thing? Unfortunately, it has to do with the spiritual structure of reality.
Jessica McAdams explains why in this recent article at Tor.com. “The defining feature of fantasy is the reality of the supernatural within the narrative …” If, like me, you think that’s a super compelling first line, then follow the link and read the rest.