Cover Story

This present (and future) Peretti

In an exclusive interview with WORLD, Frank Peretti talks about the Christian publishing industry, his novels, and the surprising new direction he is taking in his fiction

Issue: "Peretti on publishing," Oct. 25, 1997

In the early 1980s, when Frank Peretti first shopped This Present Darkness to half a dozen Christian publishers, there were no takers. "We don't do fiction," they told him, or if they did, it was only versions of Bible stories, biographical novels, and the occasional prairie romance. Mr. Peretti's tale of demonic warfare and New Age conspiracy was a thriller, a horror story, the sort of thing that just did not fit in with the "gentle reads" that dominated evangelical publishing. Mr. Peretti-a former studio musician, film-school student, and pastor in Washington state-had the idea for This Present Darkness when Star Wars and Superman hit the screens in the 1970s. Why couldn't there be a similar super-action spectacle based on angels and demons flying around, dealing with genuine spiritual conflict? In the meantime, as the pastor of a small community church, he was reading up on the New Age movement, then just coming into vogue, and studying the issue of spiritual warfare. He started the novel, which took him five years to write. In the meantime, like many young pastors, he had to lead some youth camps for his church. In an effort to keep the attention of his junior-high charges, he had the idea of telling them stories. In the mornings, he would catch their attention with a tale filled with action and suspense-not the moralistic fables they expected-which would end with a cliff-hanger. Campers could hardly wait until the afternoon session to find out what happened next. That night, he would wrap up with a traditional Bible exposition drawing out the point he was trying to make in the stories. Mr. Peretti typed up what he told the junior-high campers and submitted the manuscripts to Crossway, which accepted them for publication. The result was the Cooper Family Adventures, a series of children's books about an Indiana-Jones-type dad whose kids get in on the action. When this series struck a chord with the public, Crossway asked to see that other manuscript it had once turned down, and This Present Darkness was published in 1986. By that time, Mr. Peretti had burned out of the ministry and taken a job in a ski factory. He and his wife were living in a 24-foot travel trailer with a shack built around it, complete with a self-composting outhouse. Here he was, he told WORLD, 33 years old, dirt poor, struggling with his failures in the ministry, and wondering what to do with his life. When his novel finally came out, sales were dismal. But after sitting on bookstore shelves for a year and a half, This Present Darkness suddenly started to take off. Like the junior-high campers, Christian readers-many of whom were unused to reading fiction-found the saga of angelic warriors sword-fighting with gibbering demons thrilling. That the spiritual battleground was a typical small town of struggling churches, liberal school boards, and local politics provided a shock of recognition. Word of mouth for the book grew and grew. People gave copies to their friends. Contemporary Christian musicians, particularly Amy Grant, started plugging it at their concerts. In 1987, the novel shot up to the top of the Christian bestseller list. It has been one of the top five books for 10 years, selling some two million copies. Suddenly, a huge market for Christian fiction opened up, and evangelical publishers rushed to fill it. According to Publisher's Weekly, Tyndale House, once devoted nearly exclusively to putting out The Living Bible, now devotes a quarter of its list to fiction, which provides up to 35 percent of the company's sales. At Bethany House, perhaps the first evangelical press to make a strong commitment to fiction as early as 1979, 35 percent of the titles are novels. Only about one of 10 books put out by mega-publishers Zondervan and Word is fiction, but these make up some of their strongest sellers. But the boom in Christian fiction has not meant that evangelical publishers are turning out profound novels of faith. They are publishing mostly formula fiction, secular genres that follow predictable conventions, inoculated with some Christian content. Romance novels, mysteries, futuristic dystopias, and Tom Clancy techno-thrillers all now have their Christian counterparts. The rise of Christian fiction has paralleled the embrace of pop culture by evangelicaldom. And Frank Peretti, whose supernatural thrillers have given him the dubious title of the Christian Stephen King, is uncomfortable with the Christian literary scene for which he himself was the catalyst. After This Present Darkness started drawing attention, he was approached by Amy Grant's management company, which offered to represent him. That company negotiated a deal with Crossway for a sequel. In what then seemed like a princely sum, though today it seems like small change, Crossway offered Mr. Peretti an advance of $10,000, payable in $1,000 installments over 10 months. This enabled him to quit his job at the ski factory to write full time. Mr. Peretti's second book, Piercing the Darkness, published in 1989, continued the device of tangible demons duking it out with angelic warriors, who depend on the "prayer support" of beleaguered Christians for their effectiveness. But the scariest parts of the book were the realistic sections: the New Age self-esteem curriculum's being introduced into the public school; the Christian school's getting into trouble for practicing corporal punishment; Christians' violating contemporary morés and getting framed for child abuse and portrayed as monsters in their community. What many of his readers took from the book, however, was not just that the culture wars have a spiritual significance. They took the Darkness books as combat manuals for fighting devils. In prayer groups across the country, people were binding demons named after specific sins (Envy, Despair, Lust) and calling on angels to beat down devils in charge of particular cities and nations. "That really alarmed me," Mr. Peretti told WORLD. People were taking his fiction literally, as if it were fact. Conversely, other Christians were taking theological issue with episodes in his book, as if his attempts to dramatize the importance of prayer meant that God is actually dependent on "prayer warriors." Though he went on the speaking circuit to discuss spiritual warfare, he stressed that his books were symbolic, and that theological conclusions need to come out of the Bible rather than a work of fiction. Part of the problem may have been that evangelicals simply are not used to fiction. As a result, some confuse fiction with reality. This problem is compounded today, Mr. Peretti points out, by Christian novels-such as the rash of Apocalyptic end-of-the-world novels with their Anti-Christ conspiracy theories-that do purport to be factual. Mr. Peretti resolved not to write any more demons vs. angels books. His next novel, Prophet, published in 1992, featured on its title page a disclaimer: "This novel is a creative work of fiction imparting spiritual truth in a symbolic manner, and not an emphatic statement of religious doctrine." Prophet is still a supernatural thriller, but the spiritual conflict takes place inside the main character's heart. It is about a TV newscaster who is trying to shake the legacy of his backwoods-prophet father, who has the embarrassing habit of showing up at political rallies to preach against abortion. As the newscaster starts to uncover a scandal involving an abortion clinic and a gubernatorial campaign, he begins to have unnerving visions and to hear what is later identified as the crying of lost souls. Against his will and his secularist ambitions, he begins to assume his father's prophetic mantle. The theme of the reluctant prophet is as old as Jonah and as new as Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. The concept of Prophet, along with its graphic anti-abortion message, showed Mr. Peretti trying to deal with serious themes, even while crafting another popular page-turner. But the author today says he is dissatisfied with that book. Though the issue of abortion took over the novel, he had intended it to be about "the brokerage of truth," how the media determine what people know by the way they choose to cover stories and spin the truth. Two such big themes-not to mention the supernatural issues-were hard to control in a genre designed for entertainment and light reading. Mr. Peretti, with the disarming habit rare in writers of tending to agree with his critics, cites an article about his books in Harper's by Vince Passaro, who observed that today's Christian novels tend to be issue-derived and issue-driven. They take something that Christians find alarming--some moral or culture-war issue--and use that as an excuse for a novel. Indignation, which puts off readers not of the evangelical subculture, becomes a substitute for literary expression. Mr. Peretti notes that problem and adds that when Christian novelists, himself included, try to explore such an issue, it is almost always detached from the story's actual plot. A novel on the state of the public schools may begin with a murder. In the course of solving the murder mystery, the author pauses to score points against the educational establishment, but the story is kept going and the reader's attention is assured by extraneous plot drivers such as chase scenes, love interests, and genre conventions. Really good fiction, Mr. Peretti observes, is more cohesive. In a great religious novel such as Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the plots, the characters, and the Christian themes grow out of each other in a seamless way. Though he is quick to call himself a writer of "pop fiction," not "high-grade literature," he says that he wants to get better at this, to grow as a writer, and at least see how close he can get to writing real literature. After Prophet, Mr. Peretti left Crossway, the publishing house that started his career. He signed a contract with Word that committed him to write three adult novels and eight children's books for an advance of $4 million. Mr. Peretti took issue with WORLD's characterization of the deal (July 11/18, 1997) as illustrating the impact of big money in the Christian publishing industry. Though not disputing the facts of the story, he said that Word, as a much bigger company than Crossway, simply had more resources to get his work to a larger audience. Mr. Peretti said he would always be grateful to his editors at Crossway, but he alluded to a number of reasons--not only money--for making the switch. Word's plan was to help him cross over into the secular market. He had already thought of writing a book that would not, from its first pages, identify itself as a blatantly Christian novel, one that would draw even non-Christian readers into its story, whereupon they would encounter the gospel. Besides, though by this time Mr. Peretti had sold nearly 6 million books, he never made the secular bestseller lists, despite outselling most of those who did. The New York Times Bestseller List is not based on a total count of books sold, only on surveys of certain key bookstores. No Christian bookstores are consulted. For all of his success, his books could seldom be found in secular bookstores. Mr. Peretti also noted that the secular market differs from that of the Christian Booksellers Association. "We Christian novelists have a strange advantage in the Christian market," he told WORLD. "We don't have to be good writers necessarily as long as our message is firm and clear. Those outside the Christian market who don't care much for our message have no trouble grousing about our writing ability as well." So Word hired an editor from the secular publishing scene to work with Mr. Peretti on his new novel. The intention was to help him write a book not so blatantly Christian that it would turn off other readers. The editor's main contribution, though, as the author tells it, was simply to help him write a better story. She gave him ideas for how to get inside the characters more and how to keep up the suspense. She made some suggestions that Mr. Peretti would not accept: "Why do you talk about 'Jesus'?" she would ask. "Why not just say 'God'?" Because, Mr. Peretti said, generic religion is no substitute for the Christian faith. "Why not have the hero and the heroine just get together and live happily ever after?" Because the whole point of this new novel is going to be that sin will kill you. The Oath, published in 1995, is certainly Mr. Peretti's best-written novel. It has a vigorous, serviceable style. No off-putting culture-war elements get in the way. It begins as a straightforward monster story, combined with the old motif of the sinister small town. The hero and heroine even have an undescribed sexual affair. But once the reader is drawn in, toward the end of the book, heaven and hell break loose. The monster turns out to be not only a dragon but the embodiment of sin. Their little affair marks their doom. The startling finale portrays both judgment and redemption in terms of a bloodbath. The Oath is still very much a formula novel. As Mr. Peretti points out, the pattern is the same one used in monster stories from The Creature of the Black Lagoon to Jaws: A monster appears; an expert shows up; the townspeople are against him; he finds an ally (usually an attractive young woman); there is a chase and a final confrontation. Has this novel crossed over? Mr. Peretti cannot really say. While it can be found in Barnes & Noble and other secular bookstores, Christians shop there too. It has sold half a million copies-impressive figures for anyone else, though less than the other Peretti books. Now, Mr. Peretti says he is tired of writing according to formulas. "I guess I could just keep grinding out thrillers like a string of sausages," he told WORLD, "but after a while you just want to do more than the usual 'Christians minding their own business, then something bad happens, there's an investigation, then a turning point followed by a chase which builds to a climax-and right about here, somebody gets saved-and then the story resolves with some kind of moral and the whole cycle begins again in the next book' pattern. It's not a bad pattern; it works. But I don't want things to get too easy and repetitive." His ambitions now are to deal not so much with externalized bad guys, but with the inner spiritual life. He says that the Lord has been leading him to "the quiet pastures of reflection." He wants to write about his own spiritual struggles and spiritual growth. The novel he is working on now is about a burned-out pastor, much as he was when he left the ministry. The character is trying to come to terms with his failures, his doubts, and his confusion about his relationship to God and the purpose of his life. The new young pastor who takes his place is driven, confident, and sure that he can build a mega-church that will "take this town for Christ"-just as Mr. Peretti was when he started his ministry, before problems beat him down. At the pastor's lowest point, he encounters someone who looks like Jesus, who can even heal like Jesus, who claims to be a better Jesus than the first one. "Too bad Jesus didn't heal your wife of cancer," he tells the vulnerable ex-pastor. "I would have." As the false Christ challenges his faith, he also forces the issue, and the ex-pastor must prove him wrong and rediscover what faith in Jesus Christ really means in the depths of his heart. The novel is still going to be a supernatural thriller-the mystery and intrigue and horror of this pseudo-Christ will still have the Peretti tang. But it will also be an honest exploration of the Christian faith and, Mr. Peretti hopes, something closer to a genuine work of art. "Christian fiction still has a lot of growing up to do," Mr. Peretti told WORLD. "I feel the challenge in this direction and I'm praying I can keep growing myself." He hopes Christian readers will likewise grow in their tastes. Some publishing insiders see this happening. Henry Carrigan in Publisher's Weekly sees an improvement in Christian fiction and a demand for higher quality writing: "This new emphasis on good writing for sophisticated and discriminating readers should result in books that offer well-written stories with believable characters, strong plots and an effective message, novels in which the quality of the writing is not sacrificed for the sake of delivering a well-intended sermon." As evangelicals read more and more fiction, they may well increase their understanding and discernment. In the meantime, Mr. Peretti is remarkably humble about the Christian fiction market that he created, lived through, and now hopes to transcend. "I don't know if I'll ever become that great of a writer that I could actually write what could be called 'literature,'" he told WORLD. "But I'd like to see how close I could get."

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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