This week, it is my pleasure to have the wonderful author, Athol Dickson, as a guest here at Lilly's Book Club, to talk about the exciting release of his "Christy Collection" on September 1, which will include four separate novels that have either won, or been nominated for the Christy Award. The titles are: THEY SHALL SEE GOD, RIVER RISING, THE CURE, and WINTER HAVEN, and I will be telling a bit about each one throughout the coming week.
Meanwhile, there's a lot to discover about this author and his writing, not the least of which are some of the first things we wonder about (I do, anyway), such as: Is being a writer something you've always wanted to do, Athol, or something you got into more recently?
Well, Lilly, growing up, I was groomed to be a painter or a sculptor. My mother was a talented amateur artist who worked in pastels, and she saw potential in me at an early age and put me into private art classes. I also took every art class available in public school, and went on to study art at the college level for a couple of years. Then I realized I didn’t want to be poor, so I switched to architecture. I did that for nearly 20 years before I switched again to writing novels. I didn’t set out originally to be a novelist, but looking back it’s clear I was always moving in that direction. I may keep moving from here to something else. Who knows? As long as I’m doing some kind of art, I’m happy. For me, it’s all just different approaches to the same thing. The process is the same, no matter what the media, because it happens mostly in the mind anyway.
Hmm… that's a very interesting perspective, and one I've never heard before. What one experience do you feel contributed most to your writing life?
Studying architecture had a huge impact. I write the same way I learned to design buildings: identify the problem by unpacking it into a collection of smaller problems, solve each of those smaller problems, and then assemble the solutions. And I suppose reading The Hardy Boys series when I was very young, because that’s where my passion for reading got started.
Mysterious methods for mysterious stories. Do you usually think up characters to fit into your plots, or do you think up plots to fit your characters?
Usually the two come along together. When I think of plots, I’m thinking of things that are happening to people, or of things people are doing, so it’s necessary to simultaneously be thinking of what kinds of people they should be in order to make sense of what they’re doing, or how they react.
Which isn't always easy, I'm sure. While I haven't had the opportunity to read any of these books, yet (but I'm very much looking forward to it) they each seem to involve quite a bit of detailed research. Could you describe some satisfying research you did for them, or an interesting experience you had?
When I wrote Winter Haven and The Cure I traveled to Maine several times to absorb the local atmosphere and get a feel for the people there. I fell in love with Maine. It’s a beautiful place, and the people remind me a lot of the way Texans were back when I was growing up. They’re very self-sufficient and strong. I suppose the North Atlantic and the bitter winters drive out everybody else.
An amazing place, I've often wanted to see more of it, myself. Did you have a certain theme in mind when you began, or did it come to you as the stories unfolded?
Almost always I know what the theme is going to be before I start the first draft. Theme plays as strong a role in the early brainstorming as the plot and character. I know that’s supposed to be a bad idea, because it can lead to didacticism. Lots of writing coaches tell young writers not to think about their theme, to just let it come “organically,” but I think that’s an overreaction to the risk.
I think about theme a lot and I’ve been able to avoid preachiness. At least that’s what my fans all say. The secret is in not allowing any one aspect of the novel to overwhelm the others. You can have a novel that’s heavy handed in characterization just as easily as one that’s preachy. In fact, I’ve tried to read a lot of novels that were flawed by too much attention paid to characters, without a satisfying plot. As in almost every kind of art, there’s a balance that you have to maintain, and I think one essential skill of a good novelist is the ability to sense that balance.
So true. I believe life, itself, gets better with balance, too, and a truly good novel leaves us with more of a desire to seek after that. Tomorrow, I'd like to talk about some of the themes you've explored, along with more of the things that are unique to your particular style. But in the meantime, let's give a bit of a glimpse into WINTER HAVEN, the book I am looking forward to reading first in this collection…
Thirteen years after Vera Gamble’s little brother ran away from their Texas home, his body washes ashore on the remote island of Winter Haven, Maine. Vera goes to claim the corpse and discovers the impossible: her brother hasn’t aged a day since last she saw him. Determined to uncover what happened, she is confronted by unearthly fog, distrusting locals, and stories of lost colonies and a vengeful witch. Beyond a forest where no creature dares to live, her only hope is the mysterious owner of a dilapidated mansion on a rocky cliff. But will this solitary man assist her, or is Vera Gamble doomed to disappear forever into yet another Winter Haven legend?