by Rel Mollet
W. Dale Cramer Interview
of the time I make an effort to restrain my sense of humor in my writing
because it can interfere with the real story. But life is funny."
-- Dale Cramer
W. Dale Cramer's writing is of the highest caliber ~ evocative, authentic and inspiring. Sutter's Cross, Bad Ground, Levi's Will and Summer of Light are all exceptional reads. I was delighted Dale was willing to give up valuable writing time to share his thoughts with me.
Rel: Please share some of your writing/publishing journey with us.
Dale: I started writing in ’95 after an argument with a friend turned into an article in a magazine. In the process, my friend taught me how to edit myself and convinced me that I was actually capable of writing publishable material. After I started staying home with my kids (at the time, 4 and 6 years old) I got in contact with a Compuserve writers forum and began writing one or two short stories a month for an online critique group. The group kept telling me my stuff was marketable, so I bought a Writers Market and started submitting pieces to literary magazines.
Who encouraged you or what made you decide to write a novel and seek its publication?
I sent stories to literary magazines for a couple years, but litmags pay in copies (no money, usually) so it’s not exactly cost-effective. One day I flipped over to the Book section of Writers Market and discovered that publishers actually pay money for novels. All I needed was a book, so I spent the next three years learning how to write a novel. Short story training helps, but there’s a whole different set of problems with a novel; I rewrote the manuscript five or six times before I was finished with it.
Seeking publication, in my opinion, is what any writer will do after spending three years of his life on a project. When I got near the end of it I wanted to believe it wasn’t a complete waste of time, so I send it off for a professional opinion. Still, I didn’t want to delude myself and spend years collecting rejection slips, so I set limits. I decided I would get exactly one person in the publishing industry to actually read the entire manuscript. If that one person said it stunk, then I would shelve it and move on—no sense making a fool of myself over a first effort. I sent out seven queries to agents. Two never answered, four sent form rejections, and exactly one asked to see the manuscript. She accepted me as a client, and to this day I have not had to send out another query.
Why Christian fiction?
When I was ready to start on a novel I had three very different ideas, all springing from short stories I had written. Two of them were very good and somewhat commercial; I felt sure either one would make me rich and famous. Neither of them was identifiably Christian, although I don’t believe they would have offended anybody. The third idea was this odd thing about a broken down old biker, and how when God wants to accomplish something he uses the last person you’d expect. I didn’t want to do that one because I knew it would be a Christian story and I had no knowledge of the market, but whenever I thought about choosing one of the three ideas and getting started somebody would always come up to me, or call, or email, and ask when I was going to write the book about the biker. So, just in case, I asked God for a clear sign. And got one. The biker story eventually became Sutter’s Cross, my first novel.
What project or book are you working on now?
I have a couple projects brewing, but neither of them is far enough along for me to feel comfortable talking about it at this point.
What does a regular writing day look like for you?
I get up around 6:30, put the coffee on, start the oatmeal, wake up the family. After everybody’s off to school and work and the house is quiet, I pour a second cup of coffee and answer email for a while, then start writing around eight o’clock. I’ll work, with a couple breaks for eating and walking and washing laundry, until around two in the afternoon.
Which comes first – characters or plot?
I nearly always see particular characters in a particular situation first—a scene. The story grows out of the scene. With Sutter’s Cross, for instance, I envisioned a tall, thin, long-haired, scruffy character standing with his back to me at a buffet table at a church picnic. I didn’t know him, but there was an ink stain that I recognized on the back pocket of his jeans, so I wrote the words, “The first time I ever saw Harley he was wearing my pants.” The next 400 pages grew out of that scene.
You write mainly about characters from a working class background – the ordinary man – and with great dignity and realism – please tell us why?
It’s who I am. Those are the people I know. People who know me only as an author think of me as a writer who once did some construction work, but it would be far more accurate to think of me as a construction worker who has written some books. I guess it’s also what I love most about Steinbeck and Wendell Berry: both of them write, with great care and love, about common men.
On Summer of Light...
Having read all your books (and loved each one!), Summer of Light seems more intimate a tale, a story from your heart to ours – would that be accurate?
Well, I’d like to think that every book I’ve written is from the heart, but for some reason this one does seem to be connecting with people on a more intimate level. I think it may just be because it centers on a young couple trying to raise children, pay the bills, and figure out what life is all about. A lot of people identify with it and recognize themselves in it.
What prompted you to write this book?
I think in a lot of ways it reflects my own story. I never wanted to write an autobiography, but I will concede that everything an author writes is, in one way or another, autobiographical. Finding God, for me at least, was never a matter of memorizing scripture and parroting sermons. I wanted to paint a picture of a real man discovering a real God in real ways, not just through some contrived Sunday School epiphany. I also believe it isn’t possible to “see” God through anything other than the eyes of a child. So, you put a skeptic together with children, and off you go.
What is your favourite part of this story?
That would have to be the first five chapters—the accident, the chainsaw story, the brakes, right up to when Mick starts to think of himself as Jonah. Mark Twain said the way to write a story was to think up a good character, then run him up a tree and throw rocks at him. That’s what I did to Mick.
Do you “study” people you know in order to come up with such believable personalities?
Not consciously, but I suppose I’ve watched people all my life. I never take whole characters from real life; they are all my own inventions, but once I have a character I try to make him consistent in his thinking and actions. The one question I’ve learned to ask about each character is, “What does he want?” I think that’s ultimately the key to authenticity. If a character is true to the thing that he wants most, he’ll be real.
There is plenty of humour in Summer of Light – is this a facet of your writing we can expect to see more?
Absolutely. Most of the time I make an effort to restrain my sense of humor in my writing because it can interfere with the real story. But life is funny. People are funny. Even in the midst of tragedy, if your eyes are open, you’ll find absurdity.
The tree felling incident and Dylan's misadventure into the mud ~ personal experience or your imagination?
The tree story really happened to my cousin. The mud was complete fiction—well, actually the pond exists, but the child never got stuck in it. I took that idea from an incident in my own childhood when I got mired waist deep in a cat-tail swamp. I was maybe ten years old, all alone, and a couple miles from the house. Took me an hour to work my way out, and I lost a shoe.
If Summer of Light was made into a movie, who would you cast?
Mick needs to be a guy who can carry a bit of an attitude and I figure Billy Bob Thornton could do that. But he's way too old, isn't he. How about Ryan Gosling or Lucas Black? Gosling was the young heart-throb in The Notebook, and Black was Slingblade's young sidekick (with the thick but genuine southern accent) who is all grown up now and can play a southern man with the best of them. He was in Friday Night Lights.
Hap needs to be somebody like John Goodman. The MWNH could be an affable older black actor. I can picture this one guy but I don't know his name. He's white-haired and always smiling, shorter than Morgan Freeman.
Rel: I am going to put my twenty cents worth in here. These are my picks:
Mick - a beefed up Michael Vartan (Alias)
Layne - Jennifer Connolly (A Beautiful Mind)
Hap - John Goodman (going with you on that one, Dale!)
Aubrey - Joshua Malina (West Wing)
MWNH - Charles Dutton (but thinner to be homeless!)
On Matters Personal...
Do you read Christian fiction yourself? If so, some favourite authors or books both Christian and/or secular?
I read widely, and the majority of it is secular, but I do read some Christian fiction. I’ve read most of Charles Martin and Athol Dickson’s stuff. I’ve also read at least one book from dozens of different Christian authors because I like to keep up with what’s out there. My favorite authors, though, are undoubtedly John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry.
What are you reading at the moment?
Right now I’m in the middle of a Brennan Manning book and a collection of Andre Dubus essays. In the last month I’ve read Andy Catlett by Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter, also by Berry, The Kite Runner, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, and an advance reader’s copy of Charles Martin’s Chasing Fireflies.
Where is your favourite place to read a book?
I have a chair, though it’s worn out and will soon go to the dump. Someday I’d like to have my own room for reading and writing, but I don’t have it yet.
Who inspires you?
The people who inspire me are people you would not know. They are people who have the faith to ignore the world’s idea of success and follow their heart, no matter the cost. They’ll generally spend a lot of time doing things the world will not understand, and they’re just as likely to be doing something that benefits somebody other than themselves. The only thing remarkable about them is that they are at peace.
Please share some of your faith journey.
My faith journey could probably fill a book by itself… which may not be a bad idea. Like most of my generation I grew up going to church, but I managed to do it without understanding much about God. When I was in my early thirties I was nearly burned to death in an electrical explosion on a tunnel excavation project (fodder for Bad Ground). Such a thing has a way of changing a man’s thinking, and his priorities. I was given a great many things during that time, but it took about seven years (I’m a slow learner) to process the information and arrive at a place where I began to really understand what it meant to be a Christian. When I was forty I began to feel a sense of calling, as if God were quietly asking, Will you do it? For the longest time my answer was, What is it? Nearly a year passed in that way, until one night I finally got a glimpse of the breadth and depth of God’s love and realized he was actually taking a personal interest in me. In the middle of that moment the question came to me again—Will you do it?— only this time I knew the answer. The only right answer is Yes. Whatever it is, yes, I’m in. I think that was the moment when I became a Christian, though it was several more years before I figured out that I had been programmed to write books. Like I said, I’m a slow learner. My first novel was published within a few weeks of my fiftieth birthday.
Any last words?
It ain’t about where you are. It’s about which way you’re facing.
Thanks Dale for your time and insight ~ it's been a lot of fun :)
Rel Mollet is a lawyer, wife and mother of three young daughters and lives in Melbourne, Australia. Reading has been her passion since childhood. She is a Book Club Co-ordinator and has her own website ~ relzreviewz ~ dedicated to reviews and author interviews with the sole aim to support authors writing from a Christian worldview. She believes Sir Francis Bacon's (1561 - 1626) creed, "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body".