by C.J. Darlington
Erin Healy Interview
anything can kill Christian fiction it might be the temptation to
be everything to everybody: that is, to “cross over” and
to grab a piece of the best-seller lists without alienating people."
-- Erin Healy
Erin Healy is an award-winning editor who worked with Ted Dekker on more than a dozen of his stories before their collaboration on Kiss. She owns WordWright Editorial Services, a consulting firm specializing in fiction book development. She and her husband have two children.
How did you become involved in the publishing industry and what originally inspired you to become an editor?
When I was a college senior, a friend sent me to a writers’ conference, where I had one of those fifteen-minute appointments with David Kopp, who was then editor of Christian Parenting Today magazine. Due to a miraculous intervention, Dave didn’t have time to read my submission in advance (or else he never would have spoken to me again). Instead of talking about writing (i.e., how bad mine was), we ended up talking about editorial careers, which was of interest to me. We stayed in touch through my senior year, and the week before I graduated, he called to tell me he had an entry-level position open and was I interested? I packed my bags.
What was it like transitioning from editor to novelist? Did you find it challenging in any way? Why or why not?
Editors stand on the outside of a story and look in. For me (but not for all editors), this is an analytical, left-brain exercise. Writers stand on the inside of a story and look out, which requires more intuitive, right-brain thinking. As complementary as the two skills are, in my case they didn’t overlap. It took me awhile to loosen up, to learn how to “feel” a story and its emotional impact from the inside.
As someone who’s edited so many best-selling novelists, what has been the most memorable editing experience you’ve had thus far?
Memorable has so many connotations! But I have an acquisitions story I like to tell: An author once sent me his unsolicited, 700-page fantasy novel without a proposal. I tossed it without reading it. When he managed to get hold of me by phone to check its status, I explained he needed to send me a summary at least (“It’s kind of hard to summarize,” he said) and only the first three chapters. Instead, he shipped the whole manuscript again, no summary. I was annoyed by this time but decided to read the first three chapters so I could be polite and specific about rejecting him. The story completely and totally hooked me! I read the whole thing, and we published Shane Johnson’s The Last Guardian soon after, pretty successfully for a debut novel.
You’ve been one of Ted Dekker’s editors for several years now. How did you and he come to co-write?
Ted developed a plan with Thomas Nelson to expand his brand via co-authoring, then called me one day to tell me about it. I flipped through my mental Rolodex while he talked, thinking of writers I could recommend to him. So when he concluded by saying, “I was wondering if co-authoring with me might be something you’d want to do?” I was caught off-guard. It took me about three days to say what I should have said in seconds: “Of course.”
We’d love to know how the process works for you. Do you trade off chapters? One of you outlines while the other writes?
We do most of our “writing” over the phone. I had to buy new batteries for my cordless because I exhausted the ones I had. We hammer out a dozen ideas, decide on one, then I lay down the first draft. Then we talk that to death, one or both of us revises it, and we go on.
What’s something you learned about Ted Dekker during your writing that we might not know?
Ted likes to act out his scenes while he’s conceiving them. The man doesn’t just need a computer and a phone—he needs a stage!
What was the hardest part about writing Kiss?
The first one hundred pages. We had a protagonist who didn’t know she was in danger, who wouldn’t actually be in danger until she made a few important decisions. How to get her to that place of peril quickly was a real trick. I think we wrote 300 pages’ worth before we were satisfied with the hundred that were printed.
You recently said about Kiss, “It’s not Ted reduced or Ted cut in half…” Could you elaborate on that thought?
Some readers view co-authorship as little more than a popular author lending his or her name to an unknown. But Ted’s involvement in Kiss was whole-hearted, one hundred percent. Kiss is not a “sort-of” Ted Dekker book that he handed off to me. It’s not a watered-down version of Dekker-style storytelling that his readers have come to love. It’s a true Ted Dekker story, in one of many styles that he likes to write. I hope my contributions only add to it, rather than diluting it. So I like to think of Kiss as “Ted Plus.”
Kiss has such a unique concept … someone losing their memory but able to “steal” the memories of others. Where did this idea come from and what sort of research was required?
I came up with a concept for a story about a woman who can relieve people of their most painful memories, a mercy “angel” whose good intentions go all wrong. It was rooted in questions I’d been asking myself about how far a compassionate person could—or should—go in trying to relieve someone’s suffering. Maybe this story will find its footing one day in a sequel about Shauna. Who knows? Ted loved the idea of memory stealing and transplanted that device into a story concept that had bigger political and relational stakes, and Kiss grew from there.
The idea’s so far-fetched that there wasn’t a lot of research required. The pharmaceutical angle, however, is rooted in what we learned about drugs that are being developed to help victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as war veterans, cope with the emotional effects of their most troubling memories. Some of these drugs are already in trial stages. In other studies, researchers claim to have erased memories from rats—I don’t believe any human guinea pigs have entered that arena yet.
I hear another co-written novel, Burn, is in the works. Care to give us a sneak peek on what to expect?
I’m really excited about Burn, which is already off our desks and in the capable hands of our editors. Burn ups the ante. It’s an intense, brain-bending story about a woman forced into making a critical, life-changing decision … and what might have happened if she’d made a different decision. It’s a novel about the dramatic stakes involved in dying to self, and what life on the other side of that action looks like, for better and worse.
Christian fiction has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years. What are your thoughts on the future of Christian fiction?
If the majority of Christian writers are like the authors I’ve had the privilege of working with—committed to their readers and markets, passionate about the craft—the future is blindingly brilliant. If anything can kill Christian fiction it might be the temptation to be everything to everybody: that is, to “cross over” and to grab a piece of the best-seller lists without alienating people. It’s been done, but in my opinion, it shouldn’t be the goal. The market is fragmenting—each of us writers can hold our own special piece of it. Ask God what piece he wants you to serve. Then get to know your reader, love your reader, serve your reader. Create your own Fathead picture of your reader and post it on the wall where you write. If each of us does this, Christian fiction will never die (and it might spontaneously generate even more best sellers).
How important is it to you to include a faith element in your stories?
Ultra. There is so much being published today that I don’t see the point of adding to the volume if what I choose to write is merely entertaining.
I hear you’re a big fan of the suspense genre. What are some of your favorite suspense novels (CBA and ABA) and why are they on your list?
In the Christian market, Ted’s novel Thr3e is still one of my all-time favorites, because its spiritual significance is inseparable from the exciting plot. Nothing in that novel is “tacked on.” I admire Colleen Coble’s Without a Trace for the same reason. In the general market, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas is at the top of a long list: as an editor, I couldn’t help but admire its technical perfection; as a reader, I couldn’t put it down. I still think about it occasionally, even though it’s been a few years since I read it.
Erin, tell us about your solo novel Ill Will. We’re all ears!
Ill Will is still in the early first-draft stages, so I can’t say too much yet (otherwise the idea may crumble before my eyes). It’s the story of a hard-working, loving single mom who is haunted—and hunted—by an offense that she can’t forgive. Readers can expect my stories to be page-turning thrillers with sharp spiritual edges. Like Ted’s, but different. They’ll focus on emotional issues that preoccupy women. They’ll have more romance than Kiss or Burn. And they’ll probably have more than one word in the titles.
What authors or books have had the most influence on you as a writer?
So many! But, if I’m limited to “most,” I’ll name the one who has made the most lasting impression on me: Chaim Potok. Potok was the first storyteller I encountered who asked daring questions about the resilience of faith: What does it mean when everything you’ve been taught to believe butts heads with the experiences of your life? How do you reconcile the conflict? What must adjust: the person or the faith? Though he wrote of the Jewish experience, I identified with nearly all his characters’ struggles, especially those of My Name Is Asher Lev and The Chosen. He was honest about faith in a way I hadn’t encountered before I read him. I hope my stories can have the same integrity.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
(1) I … uh … ahem … haveneverreadtheleftbehindseries. (Please accept my profuse apologies, Tim and Jerry.) (2) I married a man and gave birth to a daughter who do not like to read. They are audio-book people. Sigh. I have such high hopes for my son …
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
A peanut butter–banana smoothie.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Natural peanut butter, eggs, and a bottomless bottle of Thai Sweet Chili Sauce that I just can’t seem to use up or throw away.
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
Decaf grande soy latte, extra hot, with a toffee-almond bar. Oh yeah. When it comes to SB, I have, as Ted says, “drunk the Kool-Aid.”
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
I haven’t given up on getting my black belt in taekwondo, though events of this year (new books, new baby) have derailed me.
When was the last time you cried?
Yesterday, watching this inspirational man tell his story on a YouTube video: http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=MslbhDZoniY
Three words that best describe you:
Loved, saved, hopeful
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
John Mayer, Chris Tomlin,
Madeleine Peyroux, The Newsboys, India Arie, George Winston, Phil Keaggy …
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.