by Rel Mollet
Jeanette "J.M." Windle Interview
"I don’t understand how Christians can write a book that does not ‘leak’ their faith and outlook on this universe." -- Jeanette Windle
Jeanette Windle is a fabulous author, devoted mum and passionate about destitute children, particularly in South America where she grew up and later returned to as a missionary with her husband. Her latest novel, Betrayed, is now available from Tyndale.
Rel: Why Christian fiction?
Jeanette (J.M.) Windle: I began as a journalist, but branched out to fiction in part because I was sitting in the middle of stories too big—and sometimes too sensitive—to tell in any non-fiction format open to me. What I love about writing fiction is the tapestry it offers to weave together countless scattered threads—historical, political, social, spiritual—and the very real people involved, to create a single impact, a single focused spiritual theme. While the books I write are fiction, the peoples and places and issues they bring to life are only all too true.
Why specifically ‘Christian’ fiction? Because I am a Christian, and I cannot write without that world view permeating every thought, plot line, character. I do not even understand how Christians can write a book that does not ‘leak’ their faith and outlook on this universe. For me personally, writing has always been a call to share my faith in such a creative and interesting fashion that readers who would not necessarily even set foot in church would be drawn in to the world I have created and the God who is there.
The scenarios in my books are not just ‘Christian’, but only too real. If a life spent in some of the planet’s more difficult corners has taught me more than I wish I knew about the depravity of which a godless mankind is capable, it has taught me far more of God’s overriding sovereignty and love. If I did not have the absolute assurance that the course of human history and current events as well as my own life lie in the hands of a loving heavenly Father, I would not have the nerve to research, much less write, the stories that I do. My ultimate goal in every book I write, however much a "thriller," is to share with the reader my own heartfelt conviction that, for all the turmoil and conflict and pain in our world, this universe does make sense and has both a purpose and a loving Creator.
Writing is obviously in your blood - was there a particular person who encouraged you to nurture your gift?
Writing has always been such a part of my life, I can’t remember ever consciously wanting to write. The missionary children’s school I attended in the Venezuelan Andes put great emphasis on proper composition (we were doing term papers with footnotes in junior high), and we spent far too much time writing to ever daydream about it. I was newspaper editor and yearbook copy editor in high school. But my personal daydreams as a child were to become, alternatively, a concert pianist (at least a possibility as I was studying the instrument hard) or a world-famous ice-skater (more difficult as we had never seen ice in our tropical environment).
My greatest writing mentors were the two English teachers I had at our MK school over my junior high and high school years, both university level professors who have up U.S.-side careers to teach missionary kids. They not only instilled in us a great love of reading and good literature, but taught us to write well. Only when I began writing professionally and mentoring other writers did I recognize just what a privilege it was to have our own captive writing coaches who gave enormous personal attention to improving our writing.
What writing project are you working on now?
I am just finishing a novel set in Afghanistan, due at Tyndale House Publishers in just seven weeks. I am excited about the spiritual and political message of the book even as I’ve been stretching mind and heart beyond their natural capacity to birth this story. So keep an eye out in a few months for its release.
Your first three adult titles Crossfire, The DMZ and Firestorm were in excess of 500 pages each! Tell us a little of the process behind writing such lengthy and engrossing novels.
That would be an entire book in itself. In brief, the process is supremely individual to each writer. There are best-selling authors who write as though constructing a building with every scene, character, conversation, plot twist set out on three-by-fives before writing the book. Others write as though cultivating a tree, letting the story gradually grow. I tend toward the latter. By the time I've researched my next setting (currently Afghanistan), I have a solid idea of the first part of the story, what political and spiritual theme I want to weave through, and I know the ending (an essential because if you don't know the ending, you end up painting yourself into a corner or wasting months of dead-end writing you have to cut). But the middle is rather broad, opening up in detail as I get to that part of the story.
In rough draft, I will take a week or two brainstorming all kinds of speeches, personal feelings and spiritual thoughts, descriptions of places I've been or researched, thoughts, interviews with DEA, Special Forces, etc. that give me authenticity to those characters, ideas I plan to work into the book, even if I don't know the order they will come into the story. Then as I actually write the story, I can go back and pull those nuggets from my files. I also keep a notebook through each book so that if I think of anything, even if it is for a future part of the book, a conversation, thought, etc., I jot it down so I have it when I get to that part of the story.
As you can see, I do tend to grow a book like a tree. By the time I’m done, I have a great story with terribly messy prose. But I’m an excellent editor, so I start back at the beginning, rewriting, rearranging, filling in plot holes, etc. Then comes one last polish for actual prose and grammar. At this point, I am always surprised and excited at how well it has all come together.
All your adult titles are set in South America but I hear your next book will be placed on another continent altogether ~ a sneak peek, please.
Again, the next book is set in Afghanistan, but as I’m madly tearing my brain out over its convolutions right now, more when I get it finished!
Tell us the inspiration behind your latest novel Betrayed.
Inspiration for Betrayed, which is set in the context of U. S. involvement in Central America over the last half-century and the implications of that involvement on the current war on terror, came through my own international involvement and research as I’ve seen repeatedly the consequences of powerful individuals making decisions from motives of fear or greed rather than right and wrong. We like to blame a universal ‘they’—the government, the system, Western civilization, or on the flip side, the Communists or Islamic jihadists, etc. But in reality it comes down again and again to very specific individuals making very specific decisions for right or wrong. And sometimes those decisions can impact an entire nation or change the course of human history. The United States is, unfortunately, reaping the harvest of some of those decisions. While a fictional story set in one Central American country, Betrayed is a realistic microcosm of patterns repeated around the globe. But Betrayed is far from just a tale of human chaos; rather, of faith and beauty and hope, along with a powerful challenge to individual responsibility.
Both sisters in this story are fighting against injustice and greed ~ Vicki champions the poorest children in the world and Holly, endangered species and the environment. You are obviously passionate about these issues ~ please share.
I’ve spent much of the last decades involved with children at risk, of which there are 40 million on the streets of Latin America alone. If I am more impassioned about those children than the environment, it is because they are eternal, their souls more precious than a planet of trees.
At the same time, I do believe I have seen so much of our heavenly Father’s most beautiful creation around this planet, it is sad to see how much has been destroyed just in my lifetime. I’ll never forget being in a beautiful, unpopulated highland valley in the Andes around Lake Titicaca and seeing a glitter in the distance I thought was ice, only to see as we came close that it was countless plastic bags that some regular air current had been drifting up there from the garbage dumps of the capital city, La Paz. We have a responsibility to care for God’s creation, but not at the sacrifice of His children.
What was your favourite scene to write in Betrayed?
I really couldn’t say; perhaps the prologue and other ‘cloud forest’ scenes, it was so much fun to go back to my childhood and see, smell, touch, and taste again the green tangle and vast beauty of the Andes mountains.
How do you go about choosing names for your characters?
With difficulty. I can never think of enough ‘gringo’ names, so end up going to the phone book to make sure I get some variety.
Were any of Vicki and Holly‘s experiences/feelings your own having grown up as an MK (missionary kid) yourself?
Yes, definitely. ‘Auntie Evelyn’ was right out of my childhood, the cloudforests still real to close my eyes and be standing on a cliff edge with the mists swirling around my legs, the cold, rich, wet smell in my nostrils, the monkey and birds chattering overhead . . . okay, now you know where I got the images in Betrayed. And much more.
Any ideas who you might cast in a movie of this series?
No idea, which shows how little I know of the current reigning Hollywood crowd.
What impact do you hope this book has upon the reader?
What has happened and is happening in Latin America, and especially why, is a microcosm of similar patterns of history and politics around the world and of our involvement as Western governments in those patterns. Understanding a single and fictionalized situation in Guatemala, portrayed in the pages of Betrayed, gives understanding to what is happening around our world right now on many fronts and the only too real consequences of decisions made by powerful individuals from motives of fear or greed rather than right and wrong.
On a personal level, my prayer is that this book will motivate every reader to take up the challenge highlighted in Betrayed. What is our call, how can we know what to do, when our world falls apart? The answer is as simple as it is profound. At every step and with each crossroads that opens up in front of us, simply ‘do what is right, and do not give way to fear’(1 Peter 3:6). That is all we are called to do, not to manipulate, try to figure out the future, or weasel our way out by any means possible. If we follow that simple challenge, then the Almighty God who wrote every moment of our lives before we were born and holds us in the palm of His loving hand will take care of the outcome, whatever He chooses that to be.
Do you read much yourself? If so, some favourites please?
I have so many it’s hard to narrow them down. As with all my tastes, I am an eclectic reader and will read anything of any genre as long as it is superbly written. Much depends what I’m currently writing. A few months ago my nightstand was filled with books related to Guatemala, where my latest title, Betrayed, is placed. Now for the same reason, it is filled with non-fiction and fiction related to Afghanistan. I read several books a week and enjoy all the most recent best-sellers as well as re-reading or discovering classics. Because I read so quickly and am constantly out of reading material, I LOVE having other readers inform me of a book they have loved and which I’ve yet to read—so feel free to send me recommendations.
When it comes to inspirational reading, Max Lucado is by far my favorite with beautiful prose and deep spiritual content. In other areas a few favorites are: 1) historical fiction: M. M. Kaye, Kenneth Roberts, Leon Uris; 2) political/suspense: Frederick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Alistair McClain, Robin Cook; 3) Science fiction: J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, C.S. Lewis; 4) Mystery: Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Mary Stewart, Madelaine Brent, Georgette Heyer; 5) Romance--I must say I'm still a sucker for a good Georgette Heyer, though all mine were tattered years ago; 6) Westerns: Louis L'Amour is the only one I read, but he is good enough to convert even a non-Western fan; 7) General fiction: Chaim Potok's The Promise and The Chosen; When The Legends Die--there too many to even begin to start. And, of course, the entire range of classics. I still love to read Winnie The Pooh to my kids and chuckle with my teenagers over Eeyore's classic speeches.
Note from Rel: I love Chaim Potok's books also ever since reading them in high school!
Favourite movie and favourite line from a movie?
Absolutely no idea. I was an adult before I ever saw one (no TVs in the jungle or MK school) and can honestly say this question has never crossed my mind. Bottom line, I don’t have favorites, whether books, food, colors, places, or movies. Perhaps a major influence of my foot-wandering upbringing is that I like constant variety and am easily bored by sameness.
Who inspires you?
The body of Christ. I am privileged in working with Christians literally around the world to see its unsurpassable beauty. The courage and sacrifice of brothers and sisters in Christ in some of the most difficult corners of the planet where they face persecution and the possibility of death as a matter of course. The persistence and faithfulness of others in the midst of countries that are wealthy and powerful, but that have turned their backs so completely on God that holding up the light of an open witness for God can be as challenging as open persecution. The eagerness and energy of a mushrooming church in places like Latin America where out of their own poverty they are taking seriously the Great Commission to take God’s Word and love to the nations. There is nothing more beautiful and inspirational than seeing the body of Christ in action.
Please tell us a little about your family.
I have four children: three grown sons and a teenage daughter still at home. As missionary kids themselves with a dad who is a mission president, they’ve had more share than they like of on-the-platform publicity, so I’ll be kind and say no more about them. Check out our family website (www.windlemission.org) if curiosity still rages.
Best and worst experiences as an MK:
Good experiences: drifting along jungle rivers in a dug-out canoe. Swinging a vine off a cliff into a mountain pool below (just like Swiss Family Robinson). Innertubing down mountain cascades, bruises and all. Hiking Andes trails too steep for muleback and jungle paths with monkeys and parrots chattering overhead. Waking up on a Colombian mountain coffee farm with the air as clear as crystal and the coffee bushes tumbling away from the very edge of the verandah to the valley thousands of feet below. Standing at the cliff edge of an Andes pass and watching the clouds drift by a thousand feet below, not above. Stars so clear and bright they do not look real. Carribean beaches with water as warm as a bathtub. And above all, the people.
Bad experiences: constantly saying goodbye, the loss of one’s entire world at the closing of a plane door, separation from family (I didn’t see my parents after going off to college until my wedding three years later).
Please share some of your faith journey...
I do not remember a time when the existence, love, and fear of God was not part of my life and thoughts. And yet there were several times in my early elementary years when I was overwhelmed with the consciousness of my own sin and prayed to Jesus to forgive me and come into my heart (just in case the prior time didn’t ‘take’!). I would describe my spiritual journey as more inward than outward; I never openly rebelled, graduated with honors, went to Bible college, married and became a pastor and missionary wife. But I have always had an inquisitive mind and been a seeker after truth, and my own struggles with the who and why of God and this universe and especially the suffering, pain, and human cruelty I witnessed are definitely themes that have spilled over into the pages of my books. I have come to expect that every major spiritual struggle and questioning I pass through will eventually become a new novel, Betrayed an example in point.
I will say that the greatest spiritual impact on me outside of God’s Word itself was all those old-time jungle missionaries I grew up around, including my own parents. They had steel in their backbone. They weren’t perfect human beings, of course—no one is, and missionaries would never claim to be. But if there was anything that impacted me long-term, it was the uncomplaining daily service to others and God year after year in what was often extremely primitive circumstances without ever giving up, very different from the current missions trend of short-term ‘adventure stints’. The best-selling secular novelist Barbara Kingsolver in her book, The Poisonwood Bible, for the most part a very twisted view of missionary life, referred once to the African missionaries she met as having a ‘tough goodness’. That was a characteristic I saw a lot of growing up in missions, and certainly in my parents, and I think you will see it reflected in some of the characters of my books.
Some essential Aussie questions:
When you think of Australia, what comes to mind?
The bush with eucalyptus trees, kangaroos, long, straight roads, and cowboys as romantic and probably unreal as Montana, where my husband’s family resides. Sandy beaches and the 1000-mile reef. Sydney’s Opera House. I teethed my teen romance era on Lucy Walker, have read so many Aussie books, and made enough Aussie friends wandering around the planet, I definitely have Australia high on my to-visit list.
Would you eat any of the following authentic Australian meats:~
I’ve already eaten caiman, so imagine crocodile would be similar, and Bolivia had a similar ostrich-type bird that is quite tasty, though nasty with its beak if you wander too close. I’ll trade you antelope, deer, moose, and elk for kangaroo, all good if a little lacking in fat, but must admit my favorite exotic meat is a good armadillo nicely roasted in its shell—tastes rather like a really rich lobster. Or a good tapir or iguana steak. You eat mine, I’ll eat yours!
Rel: I'm up for it!
Most well known Australian to you:
The Crocodile Hunter, who else!
Thanks so much, Jeanette, for your time. You have been a blessing :) Can't wait to see more of your books hit the shelves.
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".