Andrew Klavan, 54, is a terrific writer of adult thrillers ("Too nice for vice," Feb. 10, 2007) who publicly declared his Christian beliefs several years ago. His latest novel, and his first aimed at "young adults" (grades 8–11) is The Last Thing I Remember (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Here are excerpts from our discussion.
You grew up Jewish, with a Bar Mitzvah at 13? I was given Jewish training but at the same time was very explicitly and implicitly instructed not to take any of it seriously. My mother was and is to this day a complete atheist, and my father hedged his bets a little bit but didn't know what he thought. I was being inculcated in something that I was told was essentially nonsense. The result was that I felt completely inauthentic.
Inauthentic—and then you headed off to University of California, Berkeley, 3,000 miles away. If the country had continued another 3,000 miles, I would be there. If I could have spoken Japanese I would be there. Yes, I was trying very hard to get away from home and get away from that life that I had grown up in.
What was your experience in college? I wasted my college years. I drank as much as I possibly could and chased as many women as I could get close to (which wasn't very many). Because I could write well I was able to fake my way through classes. I barely read any of the books. In fact I once wrote an essay on William Blake, his "Visions of the Daughters of Albion" which is one of my favorite poems, but at the time I didn't know whether it was a poem or an engraving. I got an A- on it. But all the while, for reasons I didn't know at the time, I bought the books. When I got out of school and it came to me that I had thrown away this precious thing, my education, I read every one of them and gave myself an education.
You met your wife there. At one point I was walking back to my car and I saw a beautiful hitchhiker. I went running to get my car. I had to go around a one-way grid and almost killed an old woman while cutting up the sidewalk trying to get to this hitchhiker. She was so beautiful I figured someone was going to pick her up right away. Then I pulled up and casually said, "Are you going my way?" I abducted her and haven't let her go for 30 years.
Then you became a newspaper reporter. Yes. I loved being a reporter. The office leaked when it rained. We all smoked cigarettes and typed on these IBM Selectrics.
Then a script reader? That was an act of desperation. While I was a reporter I published my first novel and I thought, I'm in. I've done it. So I quit my job as a reporter. The novel disappeared without a trace and I couldn't get into print again for five years. We were eating spaghetti every night. We had cardboard boxes because we couldn't afford shelves. It was just awful.
What kept you going? I tell people who want to be writers, "Don't do it unless you have to." I love my work. I wake up Monday morning and I am thrilled to get back to work. I am compelled. It seems to be my calling. If it weren't, it would be so much easier.
Did you develop a writing discipline? I wrote my first novel when I was 14. I was a big fan of Raymond Chandler, Hemingway, all those guys. I had read a wonderful book of Chandler's letters. In it he said something like you should spend four hours every day doing nothing else but writing. I took that very seriously. That became my discipline.
I'll ask one of the dumb questions that people ask writers: Where do you get your ideas? I was a crime reporter so I saw a lot of interesting criminal stories. I still use them as inspiration. I've seen a lot of things since then and I use that, too. I once walked out of my apartment in college and sat on a Greyhound bus and went to Mardi Gras. I wanted broad experience. Over time thought has become a lot more important to me.
Did a particular character or plot idea start you off on your early novels? All my skill and all my desire was always in crime and mystery. My daughter was still little and I would check on her. I remember walking across the room and thinking, What if I looked in there and she was gone? That was the kind of idea that I could work with forever. And I always reached a point with all my stories where I felt, What does this mean?
You were an atheist and still asking questions about meaning? As I would come to the problems of my life, and we all have problems in our life, I would find different methods to solve them—and they all worked. When I had psychological problems I went to a psychiatrist and he cured me. I am the only person I know who was cured by a psychiatrist (Headline: "Psychiatrist Cures Patient"). I took up Zen meditation. It was wonderful. My marriage has been remarkable. My wife and I are very conscious about how blessed we are to have found each other.
So you weren't broken, desperate. In keeping with the way my life has worked, I was reading a novel by the guy I think is probably the best English novelist in the last part of the 20th century, Patrick O'Brien, who writes sea adventures. I was reading in bed and got to the scene where one of the main characters, Maturin, said a little prayer before going to sleep. That's the one thing I'd never tried. So I said a very brief prayer of thanks and it went off in me like a bomb. There are really no words to describe it. I have always thought it was a tribute to the generosity of God that even such a prideful, arrogant little prayer in some sense would be answered.
This was seven or eight years ago? Right. During this period I was in a peak in my career. But there did come a trough in my career. I was making a transition and lost my way.
The transition being a spiritual transition? At some point, I no longer knew what I needed. But I still prayed and my prayers were getting longer and longer. I realized that I had suddenly become the person that I had wanted to be since I was a little kid and had connected with some part of myself that I had not connected with . . . I had accepted Christ. The belief system that I had come to was a Christian belief system. That created massive difficulties for me. My father had once said to me, "If you convert, I will disown you."
You had started learning about Christ when you were young? When I was a teenager I had come to the conclusion that anybody who wanted to be educated had to read Shakespeare and the King James Bible. I set about doing this in my little determined teenage way. One day my father walked into my room without knocking and caught me reading the Gospel according to Luke. He was furious. I was reading it for purely literary reasons. This always makes me crack up when you think about what a boy could be reading.
And three decades or so later . . . I'm not a young man anymore. I realized I would do whatever I had to do. At that point my father had a brain tumor. It developed into multiple myeloma that just rampaged. He died on Maundy Thursday. I remember that Easter was weirdly real golden light. Not to be corny about it, but it was the experience of both losing and gaining a father. When I went back to his memorial I virtually left his memorial service and walked over to be baptized.
How did this affect your writing? I had wrestled with issues—not wanting to seem that I had turned my back on Jews, or that I had been trying to be accepted by anybody—but the biggest fear I had was that I would lose my sense of reality, that I would start writing books about children who had lost their puppies and Jesus brought them back. I was afraid that I would become moralistic and wouldn't get my characters to say the thing they would naturally say.
What's happened? The fascinating thing is that it has turned me into a far, far better observer of the human condition. Now that I have gotten rid of the Freudianism I think I understand people, and it shows in my writing. It has been a very positive thing. I don't write explicitly Christian works, but there is now a much more openly Christian element to them. That's part of people's lives.
You've also become active politically. I'm in this fight that I felt called to when Hollywood started making movies attacking our troops while they were in the field. I have no problem with people being against the Iraq War, but it seemed a large leap from being against the war to "America is an evil country." Not one movie said that we are under attack . . . that freedom is good, Islamic fascism is not such a good idea, guys who fight this dangerous thing are heroes. Not one movie said that. I felt that as long as people were out there getting shot to protect me, I owed it to them.