Faithful Observations: Frank Peretti, ‘father of Christian fiction’

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It was an absolute joy and privilege to interview Frank Peretti, arguably one of our area’s most recognized names, author of 19 novels and two nonfiction works and a sought-after speaker.

His books have sold more than 15 million copies and he is considered the “father of Christian fiction” in the modern era. Our one-hour interview turned into nearly two and a half hours and we could’ve continued longer.

Frank, prior to your first novel being published in 1985, the selection of Christian fiction was pretty thin. I can remember seeing classics like “Pilgrim’s Progress” or “In His Steps” but there wasn’t much else. What led you to write Christian novels?

I was a storyteller and a writer from the time I was a kid. It just took me until my mid-30s to realize it was God’s calling for me. It was an uphill struggle, though, because Christian fiction didn’t sell much and publishers didn’t want to bother with it. The fiction shelves in the Christian bookstores were small, stocked with prairie romances and Biblical biography, maybe a little fantasy or fable for kids, but that was about it. I heard plenty of folks say, almost boast, that they never read fiction. As a fiction writer I felt a little bit like a leper.

But, that was God’s calling, so that’s where I went, and I can see now that God knew a lot more about the fiction market than I or the publishers did.

But it took you a while to get there. You spent some years as a struggling musician, a printer, a carpenter, a factory worker. You had a stint at UCLA studying screen writing and film. You even helped your father pastor a church for five years. After all that, how did you finally get around to answering that call to be a writer? The Lord didn’t give up on me. He kept the call right in front of me all that time. I just had to push through all the weeds and dead ends to see it clearly. Right about the time I ended my five years pastoring — it took five years of pastoring to figure out I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor — I was burned out, at a loss, and wondering what in the world I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. Barb and I were living in a 25-foot travel trailer with a shack built around it. I was out of a job again. I’d tried so many things and still I was floundering. But I remember the moment: Barb and I were taking a short getaway at Deception Pass on Puget Sound, and I remember sitting on the high bluffs above the surging currents and asking the Lord, “What now?”

I guess it was because the Lord had allowed me to exhaust all the other paths that I finally saw there was only one path left before me — the right one. I knew, I just knew in that moment that God wanted me to be a writer. Clear as a bell.

I’d been piecing together a novel in between everything else I was doing. I had every scene outlined on an index card and a whole tin box of index cards. I don’t know how long those cards were sitting there untouched, but I finally came back to them, read through them, and discovered, Hey, I really do have something here.

I wrote “This Present Darkness” on the back of old form letters from the UCLA research library — I still have that draft today — and went through the long process of finding a publisher. Yes, I got rejected, about 14 times. Crossway Books rejected it because it was so different and they weren’t sure what to do with it, but I sent them the first of my Cooper Kids books and they liked that so much they asked to take another look at “This Present Darkness.”

Well, TPD was published in 1986, sat on the shelves for about a year until word of mouth got the sales rolling, the book took off like a rocket, and I finally got out of the factory and became a full-time writer at the age of 35. “This Present Darkness” was on the Christian Bookseller Association’s top 10 best-sellers list for over 150 consecutive weeks and by now it’s sold over 2 million copies.

And guess what? Good fiction writers have finally been welcomed into an awakened market because my novels made such a splash back in the ’80s and ’90s. Guess I’ve gotten some credit for that, but it was the Lord’s sovereign hand.

Frank, let’s back up and talk about events in your childhood. You wrote a memoir about it in 2000 entitled “The Wounded Spirit.” Tell us the basics of that story.

I was born with cystic hygroma, a malformation of the lymphatic system in my neck that spread into my tongue so that my tongue became enlarged, tumorous, black and bleeding. The doctors trimmed it back as much as they could but it still protruded from my mouth and I learned to talk that way. Well, when I started school, that deformation, my small size, and my timid personality at the time, all combined to put a big target on my chest: Pick on this one.

I got the speech problem corrected in junior high, but by then that target was like a tattoo; it followed me clear into high school. If you ever have any doubts about the depravity of man, try being a little, deformed kid in PE class.

What changed it for me — and this was as late as my junior year in high school! — was a gym teacher who really cared enough to ask me, “Hey, how’re you doing? You OK?” That gave me the chance to tell somebody, and that brought the changes that saved me. Ever since, I always tell the kids, TELL someone, and I tell the teachers, LISTEN and DO something about it.

And guys, try this on: Manliness is not demonstrated in brutality, but by virtue. A real man, a true hero, will use his strength to protect the weak.

“The Wounded Spirit” started out as a talk I gave at a youth conference. I put it in writing and we published it with two follow-ups, “No More Victims” and “No More Bullies.”

I know this story will resonate with many readers, and what is so encouraging is that you came through it all to become who you are today. Not only are you an accomplished writer and speaker, you’re also quite the musician.

Sure. The running gag is always, “He writes books to support his banjo habit.” My band Northern Cross had a really great nine-year run, touring up and down the West Coast. We played one song on the Grand Ole Opry — at 11:30 at night! Got a nice little trio going now, T and Company. We’re doing a lot of retirement communities, charities, and hey, we’re going to play at the North Idaho State Fair in August!

Having said all of that, what has made you who you are today?

I love the Lord Jesus. I love my dear wife Barbara. I try to spread as much kindness around me as I can, because we can always use more of that. I like humor. I like to laugh. But at the core of it all is faith, just following God’s lead and trusting Him.

Frank, this is going to be too much of an interesting subject for one column. For the second part we want to focus on the novels. Two of them, “The Oath” and “The Visitation,” were on the bestseller list just from pre-orders!

If people want more information in the meantime, they can go to compass.org to check out DVDs of Frank and to The Sower bookstore or Amazon for any of his books.

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Bob Shillingstad’s religion columns appear Saturdays in The Press. Email Bob: bjshill@mac.com

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