Ray Blackston lives and writes in the upstate of South Carolina. A former financial analyst and stockbroker, he left the corporate world in 2000 to write full time. Besides writing, he loves the Carolina coast, playing golf with friends and family, hiking Blue Ridge mountains, and serving on the drama team at his church. His first novel, Flabbergasted, was chosen as one of three finalists for the Christy Award for best first novel, and in 2003 was selected Inspirational Novel of the Year by the Dallas Morning News.
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
My new novel is a comic look at legalism, and is titled A Pagan’s Nightmare. It released October 25, 2006, from Warner Faith (now called FaithWords). The plot centers around the last two pagan’s on Earth, who are running from legalistic zealots who are trying to capture and “convert” them. Besides the humor, the novelty of this book is its structure—it is a book within a book, sort of like what William Goldman did with The Princess Bride.
Receiving the brunt of the satire is commercialized religion, which knows no bounds when the zealots get hold of it. The scenery is also fun: a multi-chapter chase ensues through Florida and the Bahamas.
One of the two guys running from the zealots is a radio personality who calls himself DJ Ned Neutral. DJ Ned’s battle to “protect” secular song lyrics from the legalists is one of the comic highlights, at least according to my sister. This book will offend some people, no doubt. It would not surprise me if it ends up a kind of “love it or hate it” book. As one of the characters states early on, “I’m not sure the evangelical world is ready to laugh at themselves.”
Okay, what about that cover art on A Pagan’s Nightmare? Aren’t you afraid that it will be seen as too controversial?
I too was a bit stunned when I saw that the cover design team had placed the Jaws-like fish swimming upwards at the unwary pagan. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to fit—since the story is a kind of spoof, then the cover art should follow suit. But yeah, I expect to get a few emails about that cover.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head.
I had been working on Flabbergasted for two and a half years (rewriting the thing again and again), when Baker/Revell contacted me. An editor there had plucked the manuscript from their slush pile and thought it original and funny. She first contacted me via letter, which was some five months after I had submitted the thing. When I saw the letter in the mailbox, I figured it was a rejection. But once again, the prophet Isaiah was proved correct: God’s thoughts are higher than my thoughts.
Do you still experience self-doubts about your work?
Yep. Most times it rolls over me in a slow cycle of “I’m awful” / “I’m competent” / “No, I really am awful.” But I try to remind myself that I’ve had doubts about all previous books during the writing and editing stages, and that these feelings just come with the territory. I’ve learned to locate the weakest part of a chapter, fix that, then move to the next weakest. When I’m done with the chapters, I do the same thing with the weakest paragraphs, and when I’m done with the paragraphs, I search for the weakest sentences. Like “Google Earth” I move in from the big picture to the tiny details.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing / publication?
Right now, my favorite advice is something I wrote to myself in the form of an equation and taped to my writing room wall. Oh, so you want me to reveal the equation? Okay, here it is: Imagination + Prayer + Perseverance – Slothfulness + Revision + Editorial Input + More Revision + Pursuit of Excellence = Publishable Novel.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
Go to a writers a conference and thrust fifty pages into an editor’s or agent’s face and say, “This’ll be the next big thing!”
Seriously, the idea of “writing towards a trend” is probably the worst. By the time you finish your manuscript, the trend will likely have shifted. Plus there are already many copy-catish books spilling off the presses. We serve an original God, who can surely give us original books to write if we will just take our time, consider carefully, and consult Him frequently.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I had had a greater appreciation for the demands on an editor’s time—I had far too many basic questions and objections, and I think I drove the folks at Revell crazy during my first year in the business. They were graceful about it though, and we were all glad that, after the hectic process and the long conversations, Flabbergasted sold well.
Do you have a scripture or quote that has been speaking to you lately?
In every area of my life—particularly the two big ones, the “relational” and the “vocational”—God has proven over and over that his ways are higher than my ways, and his thoughts higher than my thoughts. These words of course come from Isaiah 55.
Is there a particularly difficult setback that you’ve gone through in your writing career that you are willing to share?
A reviewer whom I’ll call Mr. Anonymous tried to set me back . . . and it worked for all of thirty seconds.
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)
The Water is Wide – by Pat Conroy
Angela’s Ashes – by Frank McCourt
Gilead – by Marilyn Robinson
The Single Truth – by Lori Smith
Ephesians and Philippians – by some guy who used to persecute the faithful.
If your authorial self was a character from The Wizard of Oz, which one would you be and why?
Toto the dog, eating my awful first drafts so that no one will ever see them. “Hey, Tin Man, how about a little Alpo to go with this computer paper! Woof woof!”
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’ve never been one to toot my own horn, but since you asked I’ll give you a couple of small pieces that I feel aren’t bad. I think the “mosquito and the spray paint” scene in Flabbergasted is pretty good for humor. In Lost in Rooville, the four-wheel drive journey into the Australian Outback has some nice descriptive language. For my new release, A Pagan’s Nightmare, I think what stands out to me is the structure, the “book within a book” technique that I thought might not work but turned out to be just what the story needed. (Thanks, Chip).
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Uh oh, you just asked the question that gets me in trouble. I need to pace around the room for a minute, take some deep breaths. (Five minutes later). Okay, I’m back. In my opinion, there is a growing tendency among CBA authors to write books too fast, to the point where it is quite possible that capitalism is driving the art instead of God driving the art.
I realize that some write faster than others, but we all need to admit that moolah is soooo powerful as a motivator. So powerful that the enemy can tempt us to turn Christian art into a colossal money-grab. I’ll be first in line to confess that I struggle with this issue.
Now, if I can change course here and be bold and opinionated, I’ll share a thought that’s been running through my noggin—I’m not sure that very many of us should pen more books than the Apostle Paul. And if we do, we should surely take more than a year to write them all. My prayer on this matter has remained the same since my first novel released: “Lord, if you have called me to be a one-book author, do not let me write four. And if you’ve called me to be a four-book author, do not let me pen nine. And if you’ve called me to be a nine-book author, let me take my time, do them all to the absolute best of my ability, and please don’t let me write twenty-two more just because someone will pay me to do it.”
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
First I reply to all the email from authors who’ve read my comments above and asked me to kindly keep my opinions to myself. Then I carve out a six-hour block of time in which to write, think, edit, and write some more. This is always in the morning. By 7:00 a.m. I’m at my writing table, laptop on, cell phone off, coffee hot, Quaker Honey Bunches ‘o Oats cereal swimming in low-fat milk. By the time the sugar from the cereal gets into my system and receives a boost from the coffee, creativity is alive and well in the Blackston household. I think if I switched to something blander, like corn flakes and decaf, no one would ever read (or publish) my novels. So, if anyone likes the humor in my books, know that I give credit to God, Quaker Honey Bunches o’ Oats, and Folgers Breakfast Blend, in that order.
If you could have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
The awesome combination of resonance and restraint that Lisa Samson achieves in her under-appreciated prose. She is the best we have. And unfortunately too few people know about her. Another under-appreciated author is Brad Whittington, a wordsmith for sure.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
To turn Flabbergasted, and A Pagan’s Nightmare, into screenplays. That would be so much fun, such a challenge.
Was there ever a time in your writing career when you thought of quitting?
Yes, during those thirty seconds when Mr. Anonymous tried to set me back.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
The favorite has to be the feeling (it comes all too seldom) that I’m really in touch with the infinite creative mind (God) and thus something original and entertaining just might pass from Him to me to my fingertips and into my laptop and onto the pages of a book and, eventually, into a reader’s head. That is just an incredible (run-on) thought, to be a part in that process.
Least favorite is the lack of a social network that comes with working alone in your own home. I have to work hard to stay involved and “in community.” Fortunately God has sent some strong encouragers and great friends into my life, including one that lives 11,000 miles away, in Australia. Yes, she is female. No, I cannot comment further at this time.
How much marketing do you do?
Any advice in this area? I accept nearly all interview requests, and try to be as available and upbeat as possible. Also, I highly recommend having a website through which readers can email you. I’ve kept all of the emails I’ve received since day one (www.rayblackston.com), and will inform these readers of a new release. I do not bug people, however. Not my style. I also try to keep a stock of books around and offer to sell a signed one for a discount should a reader like to give one as a gift. Overall, I do what I can, but I try to remember that my number one priority in this business is to pen an original and entertaining story. Word of mouth is so very helpful in marketing.
I am honored to play a tiny role in God’s ministry of words. Though my words may tend to me a bit more zany than most, I love the Lord, love the way he guided me toward writing novels, and am amazed at the quality people I’ve met along the journey.