After growing up in Washington state and living for four years on the island of Guam, Evan Drake Howard moved to Massachusetts to study at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Boston University School of Theology. An American Baptist pastor since 1981, he published the nonfiction books Rekindling the Hope of the Manger; From Sacrifice to Celebration; Centered in God; and Suffering Loss, Seeking Healing. Since 1997 he has been focusing on writing fiction, and Guideposts Books will publish his debut novel, The Galilean Secret, in May 2010. He and his wife Carol have been married since 1978 and have two teenage sons.
Plug time. What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
Guideposts Books is publishing my first novel in May—THE GALILEAN SECRET. The story is set in both the present and in the time of Jesus. The main character in the contemporary plot is a Palestinian Muslim man who must decide whether he can love an Israeli Jewish woman. He makes a dramatic discovery that links his story with that of a first century Jewish woman trapped in a love triangle with two brothers. As the two stories progress, the main characters in the contemporary plot make a second discovery that empowers their quest for love and has crucial implications for the search for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
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 published four nonfiction books for medium-size Christian publishers before I felt called to write fiction. My first attempt at writing a novel took me seven years, but although I eventually found an agent and had a nibble from one publisher, the book was never published. I began working on The Galilean Secret in December 2003; now it’s being published six-and-a-half years later. Based on my earlier frustration with finding an agent and publisher, I only half-heartedly searched again when the new book was finished. I was spiritually and emotionally exhausted from the process and decided to self-publish The Galilean Secret, which was then called The Lost Epistle of Jesus. When the self-published version came out, it was met with mostly disinterest and indifference, so I didn’t do much with it for a year. Then, to my surprise, the religion writer of The Providence Journal, in Rhode Island, where I live, published a substantial and very positive review of the book. Based on the interest that that article generated, I got busy organizing an online marketing campaign and three months later began to query agents again. This time several responded, and I received the call from a major New York literary agent on September 8, 2008. That call filled me with an indescribable feeling of elation that still sends chills up my spine when I think of it. A few weeks later, my new agent sold the book in Brazil, and then a couple months after that, to Guideposts. To this day I sometimes have a hard time believing that this dream has really come true. It has been a thirteen-and-a-half-year journey of inspiration, struggle, heartbreak, and, in the end, amazing grace.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work?
Yes, every time I sit down to write, but one of the reasons I feel at home as a writer is that the self-doubts don’t discourage me. They motivate me to keep working at it so that I improve.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve made while seeking publication?
Sending out my first manuscript before it was really ready. Doing this only increases the frustration associated with seeking publication. If you don’t get published, you feel devastated, but even if you attract the interest of an agent, it will probably be the wrong agent making a deal with the wrong publisher.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Read the books, take the classes, and attend the conferences that teach you the craft of writing fiction, and then surround yourself with solid, reliable critique partners that will help you make the manuscript truly publishable before you send it out.
What’s the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
That it’s really important for novelists to have a platform and spend a lot of time on marketing. If you produce compelling work, the novels will break through and find an audience in an organic way. Although some marketing work is impossible to avoid, I think it distracts novelists from their most important task—honing their storytelling skills.
What’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
Early on, I didn’t know enough about the elements of good storytelling and how to identify the presence or absence of these elements in a manuscript. If I had spent more time on learning to tell a good story and less on trying to get published, I would have saved myself lots of time and frustration.
Do you have a scripture or quote that has been speaking to you lately?
I think often of a quote by the French novelist Andre Maurois, who said that the need to express oneself in writing springs from an unresolved inner conflict. Writing is a quest to find answers for my questions, doubts, and fears; it’s a process of struggling with the darkness and finding some light in it and sharing it. The quest is therapeutic for me and hopefully for my readers too.
Is there a particularly difficult set back that you’ve gone through in your writing career you are willing to share?
When I had produced an unpublished manuscript and a self-published novel that was met with indifference, I really wanted to quit. I went through an excruciating period in which I earnestly tried to give up writing fiction but I couldn’t do it. My wife found it especially hard to accept that I wanted to keep trying. This struggle led to a dark night of the soul that was very scary and painful.
What are a few of your favorite books? (Not written by you.)
April Morning by Howard Fast; A Separate Peace by John Knowles; Moby Dick by Melville; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; The Chosen by Chaim Potok; The Man From St. Petersburg and Jackdaws by Ken Follett; The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni.
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
At this point there is no “typical” day because I balance my writing with a full time job as a pastor and with my family responsibilities. I grab time when I can amid other activities, but when I’m able to free up days of time, I write from morning until late afternoon, break for dinner, and write for a couple more hours in the evening.
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
I love the descriptive abilities of classic writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dostoevsky. I have a long way to go in developing the skill of description and how to work it into the story in a natural, unobtrusive way.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I dream of developing as a novelist with each book, of having my writing bring insight, hope, and encouragement to my readers, and of seeing my audience steadily grow. Ultimately my dream is to help the Lord change the world for the better, at least in some small way, through my writing.
Was there ever a time in your writing career you thought of quitting?
See my answer above about an especially hard time.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
I love all aspects of the research and writing process, but I have a strong aversion to the self-promotion that authors are expected to do.
How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?
I am doing all of the expected things—a Web site, Facebook page, Twitter presence, etc. But I really believe that the best marketing a novelist can do is tell a great story. That’s where I plan to focus.
What do you think about the argument that CBA writing is substandard compared to ABA books?
I don’t tend to buy into blanket comparisons of this sort. I think that books should be evaluated one by one, not lumped together in a generalized way. I have read outstanding stories in both markets, and I have also encountered trite, poorly written stories in both. In the end, reading is a highly subjective undertaking.
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to share these thoughts, and for all that Novel Journey does to promote good books and authors. If you love to write and feel that God has called you to this work, persevere through the hard times and they will make your success all the sweeter when it comes. All of the struggles and hard work are definitely worth it in the end.