Author Interview: J.M. Windle

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

Betrayed, my newest international intrigue title, scheduled for release by Tyndale House Publishers, March, 2008, is set in the context of U. S. involvement in Central America over the last half-century and the implications of that involvement on the current war on terror. Motivation for this story came through my own international involvement and research as I’ve seen repeatedly the consequences of powerful individuals making decisions for motives of fear or greed rather than right and wrong. We like to blame a universal ‘they’—the government, the system, Western civilization, or on the flip side, the Communists or Islamic jihadists, etc. But in reality it comes down again and again to very specific individuals making very specific decisions for right or wrong. And sometimes those decisions can impact an entire nation or change the course of human history. The United States is, unfortunately, reaping the harvest of some of those decisions. While a fictional story set in one Central American country, Betrayed is a realistic microcosm of patterns repeated around the globe. But Betrayed is far from just a tale of human chaos; rather, of faith and beauty and hope, along with a powerful challenge to individual responsibility.

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 have always written, whether thesis papers, journals, or communication to family and constituency. In fact, I broke into the editorial world during my college years when I graded theses for professors. But I wrote my first book literally out of boredom. My husband and I were the only Americans at the time in the southern Bolivia city where we lived, working with a Christian ministry organization. While my husband was gone traveling through the Andes mountains for two weeks at a time, I was stuck at home with three preschoolers, no car, TV, radio. Once my children were in bed, I had only the handful of English-language books I’d read dozens of times. I finally decided if I had nothing to read, I’d write a book instead. That became Kathy and the Redhead, a children’s novel based on my growing-up years at an American missionary kid boarding school in the Andes mountains of Venezuela.
From there I began writing Spanish-language material for women and children at risk as well as writing as a journalist for a variety of international and Christian ministry publications. That was followed by seven more children’s books, including the six books of the Parker Twins Adventure Series, a young adult mystery/suspense series set in a multi-cultural background. My first adult fiction release, CrossFire, a 630-page political/suspense novel set in the counter-narcotics war in Bolivia, was released in July, 2000. Then came a teen novel, Jana’s Journal, and a second adult political/suspense novel, The DMZ, set in the guerrilla warfare in Colombia, followed by FireStorm, a sequel to CrossFire that explores the Islamic terror ties in Latin America, then Betrayed, my newest release. I am currently writing a novel set in Afghanistan.
My first seven book titles were written in Bolivia and sent off to American publishers from there. It often took months to hear back, sometimes with encouraging comments, but always a rejection. I had finished the first three children’s books of the Parker Twins Series while still waiting and was in the US for a twelve-week tour when an editor actually tracked me down at a conference to ask if my children’s series was still available. The answer was, of course, an ecstatic yes. That editor worked with me on my next ten titles with two different publishing houses.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?

Always! Every rough draft I am writing looks like junk to me. I’ve learned to push myself through that and just get the story down on paper, because when I’m done and start in on the edit stage, I myself am always amazed at the quality of book that emerges. Then the self-doubts begin again as I’m waiting for the editors to decide if they like the book.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

Blithely mailing manuscript proposals from Bolivia to top-ten lists in the current Writers Market Guide. That I was ever published demonstrates that miracles still do happen.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Don’t wait for inspiration; set your behind in that chair and just do it!

What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

Nothing comes to mind; to be honest, writing my first few books in Bolivia without any input or writing advice from anyone was a difficult part of my own writing curve.

What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

Read contract fine-print carefully, and don’t ever assume, because you are dealing with nice people at the publishing house, that a contract will automatically be fair to you as an author; the editors aren’t the ones writing contracts!

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?

Yes, see the above. Because of some contract and editorial shenanigans as I was writing books 4-6 of my first children’s series, the rug was yanked out under myself and several other children’s authors, leaving all of our recently-launched series stranded with no marketing or future. But that frustration ended up giving me the time gap and encouragement to write my first adult novel, CrossFire, set in the counter-narcotics war in Bolivia where I was then living. I might still be churning out children’s series were it not for that life interruption.

What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)

I am an eclectic reader and will read anything of any genre as long as it is superbly written. Much depends what I’m currently writing. A few months ago my nightstand was filled with books related to Guatemala, where my latest title, Betrayed, is placed. Now for the same reason, it is filled with non-fiction and fiction related to Afghanistan. I read several books a week and enjoy all the most recent best-sellers as well as re-reading or discovering classics. Because I read so quickly and am constantly out of reading material, I LOVE having other readers inform me of a book they have loved and which I’ve yet to read—so feel free to send me recommendations.
When it comes to inspirational reading, Max Lucado is by far my favorite with beautiful prose and deep spiritual content.
In other areas a few favorites are:
1) historical fiction: M. M. Kaye, Kenneth Roberts, Leon Uris;
2) political/suspense: Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Alistair McClain, Robin Cook;
3) Science fiction: J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, C.S. Lewis;
4) Mystery: Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Mary Stewart, Madelaine Brent, Georgette Heyer;
5) Romance–I must say I’m still a sucker for a good Georgette Heyer, though all mine were tattered years ago;
6) Westerns: Louis L’Amour is the only one I read, but he is good enough to convert even a non-Western fan;
7) General fiction: Chaim Potok’s The Promise and The Chosen; When The Legends Die–there too many to even begin to start.
And, of course, the entire range of classics. I still love to read Winnie The Pooh to my kids and chuckle with my teenagers over Eeyore’s classic speeches.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

My last book, whichever that currently is. My goal is to write each book better than the one before, and I think my readers would agree they’ve come a long way since my first children’s novel. In truth, I never look back or even read books I’ve already written. I am always in the process of having finished my last book while writing the next. Due to that self-doubt mentioned above, I’m always astounded at how well the last one has turned out even while I’m pulling my hair out and sure I’ll never do as well on the current project. Different readers have different favorites. What thrills me is when readers write to say that one of my books, whichever one it might be, has impacted their lives and hearts.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

I’m sure a pet peeve I share with most writers is having to get out there and aggressively market instead of cozying up with my next manuscript. On the other hand, it is in new places and people I find inspiration, and I do enjoy meeting readers, so it is just as well the process is there to force me out of my solitude.

Take us through your process of writing a novel briefly—from conception to revision.

That would be an entire book in itself. In brief, the process is supremely individual to each writer. There are best-selling authors who write as though constructing a building with every scene, character, conversation, plot twist set out on three-by-fives before writing the book. Others write as though cultivating a tree, letting the story gradually grow. I tend toward the latter. By the time I’ve researched my next setting (currently Afghanistan), I have a solid idea of the first part of the story, what political and spiritual theme I want to weave through, and I know the ending (an essential because if you don’t know the ending, you end up painting yourself into a corner or wasting months of dead-end writing you have to cut). But the middle is rather broad, opening up in detail as I get to that part of the story.

In rough draft, I will take a week or two brainstorming all kinds of speeches, personal feelings and spiritual thoughts, descriptions of places I’ve been or researched, thoughts, interviews with DEA, Special Forces, etc. that give me authenticity to those characters, ideas I plan to work into the book, even if I don’t know the order they will come into the story. Then as I actually write the story, I can go back and pull those nuggets from my files. I also keep a notebook through each book so that if I think of anything, even if it is for a future part of the book, a conversation, thought, etc., I jot it down so I have it when I get to that part of the story.
As you can see, I do tend to grow a book like a tree. By the time I’m done, I have a great story with terribly messy prose. But I’m an excellent editor, so I start back at the beginning, rewriting, rearranging, filling in plot holes, etc. Then comes one last polish for actual prose and grammar. At this point, I am always surprised and excited at how well it has all come together.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

As I’ve studied literature and history, I’ve always been intrigued at how books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin dealing with slavery or Charles Dickens’s books that raised the consciousness of the British middle and upper classes to the injustice and oppression all around them, wordy, meandering, unedited tomes that would probably never pass a publisher’s committee today, had such an impact, literally bringing about social, political, and spiritual change in their society and changing the course of history. My dream is to someday write a story that hold up such a light and effect such change in the world in which I live.

Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?

Every time I start a new book, looking ahead at the daunting amount of work involved. But I no longer take it seriously because I know once I get too far into the book, I’ll be hooked and won’t be able to quit. I did think of quitting during those early years of rejection letters and even with the ups and downs of those first books, mainly because I was investing so much time that could be invested elsewhere in our international ministry. I prayed often that God would definitively close the door if this wasn’t what I was called to do so that I would not waste more time. Instead at each point when I was most discouraged, a door would open, I would get a call from an editor or a grateful letter from a reader. Now I know beyond doubt that I am called to write and could never be happy doing anything else.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

My favorite part of being a writer is holding a finished book in my hand. My least favorite is the mind-stretching, heart-gripping, excruciating labor of writing that rough draft. Birthing the story is definitely the hardest work I do in my life and makes everything else seem easy by comparison.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

I am a typical writer in that I’d rather stay holed up in my attic (figuratively) writing my next book than mess with marketing and publicity. That publishers want their authors out there in the public arena is the constant juggling act between publishers and authors. My current publisher has put together an excellent marketing and publicity team with a publicist who has taken much of the angst out of the marketing process. Best advice: follow the advice of your editor/agent/publicist/marketing team. They really do know what they are talking about.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response?

I received a phone call at home from a reader (my first alert of just how easy I was to find on the Internet). He was a pastor’s son with military/law enforcement background, and he told me how he’d lost his faith, turned his back on God and his family, and was considering suicide when someone gave him The DMZ, an inspirational novel set in the guerrilla zones of Colombia where I grew up and the Islamic militant involvement there. He was intrigued by a quote from the book that became its theme: “Those who are not willing to bleed and die for what they hold dear will always be held captive by those who are.” He shared how as he walked the journey to faith with the book’s protagonist, he found himself on his face crying out to God and that he had come back to faith and to his family. I could tell such stories with every book; this is why I write!

Parting words?

Perhaps just a few of the themes that have spilled over into my writing from the people and places and heart lessons of my life:

The DMZ: “Those who are not willing to bleed and die for what they hold dear will always be held hostage by those who are.”

CrossFire: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine . . . yet I will rejoice in God my Savior.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19)
FireStorm: We are not called to safety, but to stand strong in the storm.
Betrayed: ‘Do what is right and do not give way to fear’ (1 Pt. 3:6)

If those themes sound more troubling than joyous or peaceful, let me assure you that they are not because our safety, and the safety of our families and our country, are not, and never will be, in the absence of the storm, but in the presence of a Creator God who rides on the wings of the wind, whose laughter crashes through the thunder and lightning, and who in the midst of any storm cradles His children safely and tenderly in the palm of His Almighty hand. If I did not have that absolute assurance, I would not have the nerve to research, much less write, the stories that I do.