by C.J. Darlington
Francine Rivers Interview
"It’s a quest. And I say, 'Okay, God, what do I do about this?' He teaches me through the story. I think that is what’s made writing really exciting for me." -- Francine Rivers
Francine Rivers has been writing for 30 years. From 1976 to 1985 she had a successful writing career in the general market, where she won numerous awards. Francine wrote Redeeming Love (Multnomah) as her statement of faith after becoming a Christian in 1986.
She is the author of the best-selling Mark of the Lion Trilogy, And the Shofar Blew, The Sons of Encouragement series, The Lineage of Grace series, The Atonement Child, and more.
Francine Rivers uses her writing to “draw closer to the Lord, that through her work she might worship and praise Jesus for all he has done and continues to do in her life.” She lives in northern California with her husband, Rick, where they enjoy spending time with their three grown children and extended family.
C.J: Let’s start out with a question from our writer/reviewer April Gardner. She asks, “How did your book The Last Sin Eater become a movie?"
Francine: It was interesting. I believe it was Michael Landon’s agent who called, and she had read the book. Michael’s father-in-law had recommended it to him also. So they called and asked if I was interested and could we talk. I said, “Sure, that’d be fine.” So they came up and talked about what they wanted to do. I knew from meeting them and hearing what they believed that they would really keep the Gospel as the center of the movie, which was my main thing. They really kept the heart of the story there. So I’ve been very pleased with what they’ve done. It happened so fast! I mean, I have other books that have been optioned, but this one went “Whoosh!”, and it was done. It took about a year, and then it was finished. It’s a miracle.
How much input did you have in the screenplay and other aspects of the film?
I was to have final approval. If I approved of the movie before anybody else saw it, then it was a go. But if I didn’t like what it was, the quality of the story, then I would have been able to remove my name and the reference to the book from the movie. So, they really accommodated me in a number of ways in the contract to be sure that I was pleased with what they were doing.
How do you feel about the few changes they did make during the transition?
I think they were fine. Brian Bird and I talked about different things that needed to be done, because of course a movie is very different from a novel. A lot of this particular novel takes place in the minds of the people, and there are other backstory details that you just can’t get onto the screen. The book goes into detail about the sin eater and why he agreed to become the sin eater. That all comes out later, and he plays a heavier role in the end of the book than he does in the movie. The movie focuses on Cadi, as it should. Otherwise, it wouldn’t really make a lot of sense to the viewer.
What was it like actually seeing your characters come to life like that?
It was bizarre. We were able to be at the set in Utah for several scenes, including when the kids are down by the creek. It was very interesting to watch how complex it is to make a movie, how many times they have to shoot the same scene from different angles. That was quite an experience for us.
What surprised you most about the whole process?
I have great respect for actors. They can do the same scene over and over again, and they can still cry and generate emotion. And then it’s turned off when the scene is over. Liana, who portrays Cadi, would be playing with her friends and they’d be talking, and then someone says, “Okay, it’s time to start again,” and bam the actors can be right in the middle of their scene and generate that emotion again. That was really impressive to me. I think Michael Landon, Jr. deals very well with the children. The way he draws things out of them, the way he directs them, the rapport between them---he knew what he was going for, and he was able to accomplish it.
Going back to when you first wrote the novel, what was the hardest part about writing the story?
I didn’t know anything about it. It was the first novel I’ve written where I had no clue what was going on. I didn’t know what Cadi had done, I didn’t know any of the story about what had happened to all these different people in the valley. It was the first story where I sort of let it play out while I was writing it. It was a lot of fun, but very different.
I knew I wanted to focus on a sin eater, and I was using the Scripture from Leviticus about the scapegoat and how in the Old Testament they used the lottery to decide who did what. I kind of incorporated those ideas. There was very little information on sin eaters other than some of the things they would say at the grave site. They were most often tricked into becoming sin eaters. Some wealthy person would invite them in, serve them a meal and say, “By the way, you just ate the sins of our dead relative in the next room.” Then they were sort of locked into that life as an outcast. That’s the way they’d get a couple coins and some food and that’s how they lived. People of course didn’t interview them because they were outcasts and considered people who had sin and were eating sin. It was a very odd custom. It struck me how many ways mankind has tried to take away their own sin and atone for their sin, and it just doesn’t work. I didn’t have a lot of information, so I made up the details. There actually was a custom, and there were sin eaters, but other than the fact that they were tricked into doing it, or the child of a sin eater would carry on the tradition, this is just the way I chose to tell the story.
What message do you hope people will come away with when they watch the Sin Eater movie or read the book?
I hope that if they’re trapped by any kind of guilt for anything they’ve done in the past, they would see they should run to Jesus. He’s the one who took their sins already upon Himself on the cross. They’ll experience forgiveness through Him, and they’ll have new life. That’s what Cadi experiences in that story after she’s confessed. She understand He’s the one who saved her, and she has this joy. Of course, they’re learning as they go along too. In the book Fagan leaves the valley and goes down and gets an education, and he comes back and marries Cadi and they start a church. Then it’s their child who marries the child of the sin eater and Bletsung. There is a lot in the book that can’t be in the movie, but I think they did such a good job encapsulating the story. I was very, very pleased.
Vickie McDonough asks, “When you write, are you more of a plotter or a seat-of-the-pants writer?”
I tend to start with people, and then the people tell their stories. In The Last Sin Eater I had one little girl, and I wasn’t sure what she’d done, other than she’d done something horrendous. And I had the sin eater, but that’s about all. Usually I start with a question. In the Mark of the Lion series, the first book I wrote started with, “How do I share my faith in Jesus Christ with friends and family members who don’t believe, don’t want to read the Bible, and don’t want to hear you preaching about it?”
What I learned in the process of writing that book was it’s not what you say, it’s how you live. Eventually the questions will be asked after people have watched you. I took different characters and each character plays out a different point of view. That’s generally how I do a novel. It’s just a question, and then the characters speak to all the different ways of looking at that question.
My quest is to ask myself, “What’s God’s perspective? What does He have to say about that situation? What’s the answer?” I’m reading Scripture every day with that question in mind, and God speaks to us through Scripture. So I’m learning throughout the year what I believe God is trying to teach me.
Rel Mollet asks, “Do you often have an issue in mind as well as characters?”
Sometimes, as in the case of the Atonement Child. I was dealing with a lot of old business for me, ‘cause I’d had an abortion. So I was dealing with those guilt issues. I thought the whole idea would be forgiveness. I thought that’s what I was going for in that novel. What I learned at the end is that it really had to do with sanctification, which is a big word for saying come out and be separated from the way the world thinks. Think the way God wants you to think. The Atonement Child was written before The Last Sin Eater, which had to do with the same kinds of issues. I wanted to find out the difference between guilt and conviction. Guilt traps people. You’re imprisoned, like those people were imprisoned in that valley. Cadi is imprisoned by her guilt over what’s happened. Conviction is what sends you to God and you confess and He washes you clean and forgives you and restores you, and you’re free. That’s what the exploration was in The Last Sin Eater.
Of all your books, which is your favorite and why?
Redeeming Love! It was the first book I wrote as a born again Christian. The impact of the book Hosea is what cracked me wide open. I’d been raised in the church, and I had a lot of head knowledge about the Gospel, but it didn’t hit my heart. When it finally did, I was learning and learning, and we were doing a Bible study. And when it came to Hosea, I thought I’d been so much like Gomer, turning to all kinds of other things to find fulfillment and happiness. God kept taking me back, and I thought about how we’re all so much like that. We always look in every other place but the Lord. And when we finally do look to Him, that’s what we’ve been looking for all our lives.
I bet you never even imagined what a classic that book would become.
No, I didn’t. It was quite an experience. I had been a writer in the general market for a number of years writing steamy historical romances. After becoming a Christian, I couldn’t write for about three years. I thought, “Why? What’s going on here? My life is supposed to be getting better, and it’s getting worse.” But I wasn’t looking to God.
So those three years I studied the Bible and soon it didn’t matter to me if I ever wrote again. Then we came to Hosea and I could just hear God saying, “This is the love story I want you to write.” That whole year I felt like He was sitting right with me saying, “Do you see how much I love you?” It was an amazing experience. Redeeming Love was published first in the general market by Bantam. There were some things I really couldn’t have in there, like the baptism scene. When the book went out of print I got the rights back, and then I was able to have Angel actually become a Christian and go forward. I did also cut down some of the more explicit stuff that I knew would be a real stumbling block for people who are a lot more innocent in what they read than I had been. Taking those things out didn’t take anything away from the story anyway. It just made it more easily read by more people.
Who influenced you most to become a Christian, and how did they do it?
I had to fall flat on my face and have no place to go except to Him. It was a little eight-year-old boy from next door. When we were first moving in, he came over and he said, “Have I got a church for you!” We had gone to churches in southern California where we’d been living. It was chaos. The ones I attended weren’t really preaching the Gospel. I was desperate enough at that point to try anything. So I went to this church. The pastor was teaching straight from the Word. He would teach historically what the Scriptures actually mean, and how it pertains to my life. That made all the difference in the world. That little boy . . . And a child shall lead them.
On the other side of our house we had another couple. The lady was passing apple pie over the fence and saying, “Come to church.” It was the same church. So I think God put us right there between two families who were willing to say, “Neighbor, we have something that we think you need.”
What motivates you to get out of bed and head to your keyboard every day?
Questions. Questions for which I don’t have answers. It’s a quest. And I say, “Okay, God, what do I do about this?” He teaches me through the story. I think that is what’s made writing really exciting for me.
I’ve just come out of writing 5 novellas about men in the Old Testament who were sort of in the background of great leaders. That idea came out of And The Shofar Blew, which had to do with the church and what I’ve seen happening in the church across the country. I felt it’s the men and women behind the scenes that are so important. The men and women of strong faith who uphold the leaders and keep them accountable. They don’t get a lot of attention. What is so important about these Old Testament men that they’re mentioned in the Bible? What did they do to help the person who was ahead of them? How did God use them for the benefit of others?
And now I’m struggling with how difficult it is to be a Christian today in a country like America where we’re so free. I think a lot of it has to do with the church absorbing worldly ways of doing things. This book will be a mix of contemporary and historical, because I’m going to dealing with four generations of women in the same family and how each generation has viewed their faith and how God has worked with them. But that’s about all I know right now! I don’t know where it’s going at all! (Laughs)
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
When I first started writing steamy historical romances, I wish I had known the Lord. He has a tendency to use everything though, so God has used the training I got writing for the general market.
I’m still reading books about writing all the time. Every novel I read I’m reading it with an eye of analyzing it, what I like and what I don’t like, how it’s put together, the vocabulary. I just got through reading again Sol Stein’s books Stein On Writing and How to Grow A Novel.
Every time I start a novel, I’m going, “What makes me think I can write a novel?” I start in terror, actually. It seems so overwhelming. I have to look at it like, “Okay, I have the question, I have the characters. Let’s just start on page one and see where it goes.” I just take it one page at a time, one day at a time with that central idea. And I study and trust that God will take me through it.
Darcie Gudger asks, “How do you make your characters so real and yet keep their unique voices throughout such long volumes of prose?”
One of the hardest things to do as writer is to get out of your own way, to get out of your preconceived notions. I have to just put myself in that character’s shoes and try to think the way they would think. That goes for the bad characters as well as the good ones, like the Julias vs. the Hadassahs from The Mark of the Lion series.
I tend to be a person who writes from page 1 to the end. So I’ll write 4 pages a day, and then I go back and I rewrite those 4 pages. Then I move a few pages ahead and go back again. Ahead and back. That’s the way I do it all the way through. When it’s all done, I print it out. I go through it, and that’s when I really do the heavy editing, the chopping and the cutting.
Sheryl Root wants to know, “Have you ever considered writing a sequel to The Last Sin Eater?”
No. The only series I’ve ever done is the Mark of the Lion Trilogy. I think my editor wanted me to do a couple more, and I said, “Nope; it’s done. I’m finished.” I’m not the kind of writer who can carry on a series like that and keep the drama where it should be. In the Christian market there are a lot of series. It was a test of faith for Tyndale to say, “Okay, you can write stand alone books.” I need to write stand alone novels. I think you have to have a special gift to be able to write a really good series.
Have you always wanted to write?
I have always wanted to write from the time I was a little girl. I had no idea what I was going to write, but that’s what I wanted to do. When I went to college I majored in English with an emphasis in literary writing and a minor in journalism. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll be a newspaper reporter.” And that lasted for one summer. I realized I didn’t have what it took to be a newspaper reporter. I couldn’t ask the hard questions. I ended up doing the obituaries for the Pleasanton Times. (Laughs) I also did some of the human interest stories. The editor was a really kind man who gave me an opportunity to try different things. It wasn’t until my mother-in-law started giving me novels to read . . . I wasn’t much of a reader, either, oddly enough. When I was a kid I didn’t read very much at all. I was hiking, biking, and swimming. But when she gave me novels I thought, “That’s what I want to write! This is fun reading. It would be exciting to write something like that.” So that’s how I got into it. I started writing what I called a western gothic romance, because I liked westerns, I liked gothics, and I liked romance. I tried to combine the three. It worked. My first manuscript was bought and published. They’re all out of print now, and I don’t recommend them. (Laughs) I have the rights to them back now. I had to go through a lot to get them though. I had thought I had all the rights to what I call my B.C. books. But apparently, I did not. The publisher sold the rights to another company. I had written a non-Christian book back in the early 80's and they were publishing it with a 2006 date. It was certainly not a Christian book. I had to contact my agent, and we had to get an attorney. Now we have our reversion of rights back. So that can’t happen again.
Were there any books from your childhood that influenced you?
Not really. I read so little back then. I remember I enjoyed reading Black Beauty. But I just wasn’t a reader. My parents were non-fiction readers. Of course, they were working so hard (my dad was a police officer and my mom a nurse) they didn’t read all that much either, until later when they retired. We had a library. We had the Childcraft books. I used to look through those and read some of the short stories. But I just was not a reader.
Story is powerful. Why do you think Jesus used storytelling to teach people?
Because I think people connect with stories a lot more than they do preaching. Having somebody tell you, “This is the way it is, and this is what you should do” doesn’t impact you as much as a story showing what all that means. He spoke in terms of the times that people would understand. It tells us in Scripture that he taught in parables so that they wouldn’t understand. I always thought that was a real paradox. But He always explained to those who stayed after and asked what he meant. So, it’s a story, and if you want to take it as a story, you walk away with just a story. But if you want more, come to the Lord and He explains what He’s talking about. That’s when you get into the deeper things.
Some Christian writers nowadays don’t believe there should be a distinction between Christian fiction and general market fiction. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think a really good story will be a really good story to anybody. I have a lot of people who have read Redeeming Love, and they love the story, but they don’t understand it’s an allegory about God. I think the goal of a Christian writer should be to write a really powerful story and interweave your world view into it. I have a world view, and it permeates everything I write. The hope is that people would have a hunger and thirst to check it out and investigate for themselves.
What’s you advice for aspiring writers?
Commit your work to the Lord. Stay in Scripture every day so you’re being formed by it. That formation will come through in your writing in a natural way. The redemption story is the greatest story to tell. That’s what I think everyone hungers for, whether they know it or not. I believe God puts something in us to crave a relationship with Him. People tend to look in every possible place for the answer, and they’re not going to find it until they meet Jesus. The way I felt when I became a Christian was, “Finally I found what I’m looking for! I feel at home here. This is what I’ve been seeking my whole life.”
For anyone who hasn’t read your books, what would you recommend as being the first book they read?
Redeeming Love. It was the first one I wrote as a born again Christian, and it’s all about Jesus and the kind of love he has for us. Everything grew out of that. The other books came after that with questions.
Where do you draw the line in how much you’re going to share in a story?
It depends on the story. So far in my work with Tyndale, I’ve never had to be thinking along those lines. I just tell the story. With Unveiled I wrote it in a certain way because I knew that Dr. Taylor was very uncomfortable with certain kinds of books. That book had a lot to do with sexual issues, or so it seemed from Bible commentaries. Don’t read commentaries. (Laughs) Read Scripture. I’d written Unveiled sort of as a he-said-she-said defense type of thing, going back and forth. Tyndale said, “It’s good, but it’s not your normal style.” I explained why. I thought it wasn’t going to be approved if I wrote it the way I really wanted to write it. They said, “How would you like to write it?” I said, “If you wouldn’t mind, just throw away that manuscript and let me start over again, and I’ll show you.” So I rewrote the entire manuscript again. I think the reason that happened was because God was telling me, “You still didn’t get it right. You didn’t get the story. You missed the whole thing.”
The chapter about Tamar in the Bible is really a celebration of her life, not a condemnation. I think God used her to completely turn Judah around. His personality before Tamar is completely different afterwards. He was the one who said, “Let’s sell Joseph and send him off to Egypt, and maybe we can make a little money off the deal. Let’s lie to my father.” He took off to Canaan and married a Canaanite. Then he brings this Canaanite girl in, and because she’s honorable and does things the right way to protect the family, he realizes she’s more righteous than he is. Then later you see him willing to sacrifice his life for Benjamin when they go to Egypt to get grain. He becomes a completely different man through knowing her. That’s the way I wrote it the second time around. It was a relief. I had done it the way I thought it would please somebody. When you write to please somebody it doesn’t work. You have to write to please God.
You’re in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
A grande caramel latte.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
That I’m a grandmother. I have four grandchildren. And I love to watch birds. I have a feeder outside the dining room window, and I keep that feeder full because I love to watch birds. We get all kinds of birds. Little yellow finches and chickadees, and periodically we get a hungry hawk who’ll come down and grab one of our birds.
We see doves and quail—they’re fun to watch. Quail come in a covey. There’ll be a whole bunch of them. They’ll fly up to the deck, and they’ll be in a long line and troop around. Sometimes there’ll be six or eight of them in the bottom part of the feeder. They stick together. I think the way they act has spiritual significance. The father will be up high somewhere, and he’ll be overseeing everything. You’ll hear this high pitched peep to warn the mother and the chicks, and the mother will spread her wings and the chicks run underneath her wings and blend into the ground. Then the father will go into fight mode. We saw a mother once with baby chicks around her, and there was a cat! My husband was ready to throw something at the cat to save the chicks. You could hear this high pitched peep, and the mother just spread her wings and the chicks went under, and here comes the father. He went after that cat! Then when everything was all clear, he went back to his post up high on a building on the top of the roof. The mother lifted her wings, and the chicks went on feeding again. That’s the way God is. He watches over us, and He protects us under his wings.
What’s left unchecked on your “goals for life” list?
I want to do a devotional on nature—what I see in nature and how it reveals God’s character and attributes. Everything in His creation speaks about Him. But we are often too busy to look. I could talk about redwoods and how the roots of the redwood trees bind together. They’re these huge trees, yet they’re very shallow rooted. But when they bind together they can stand against winds and floods. I think that’s what the Body of Christ is supposed to be. We pull together to give ourselves strength.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Milk, eggs, and home made jelly. My Aunt Margaret is considered the jelly lady of Merced. She makes pomegranate jellies---just the best jelly. They’re always in our refrigerator.
Anything else you’d like to share with Titletrakk.com readers?
There are so many good
things out there to read now in the Christian market. There are things
genre. It’s the Golden Age of Christian
publishing, so I hope they will check it all out.
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.