by C.J. Darlington
Lee Strobel Interview
"[Writing is] always a struggle. I have to say, it’s fun and it’s exciting, but it’s always a struggle for me. I think what keeps me going is a sense of purpose." -- Lee Strobel
Lee Strobel is an award-winning legal editor of The Chicago Tribune and a New York Times bestselling author. After years of nonfiction bestsellers, he is publishing his debut fiction novel, a legal thriller. Lee is a Yale Law School graduate, accomplished journalist, and world-renowned speaker.
Did you think about becoming a writer as a boy and young man?
Absolutely. It was
a lifelong dream. I remember my dad used to come home on the commuter
train to suburban
Chicago where we lived and bring along
the Chicago Daily News every day, which is really a writers newspaper.
So I used to read that as a little kid and dream about being a journalist.
When I was in kindergarten and first grade I actually wrote these little
books, a friend of mine illustrated them, and they were little stories
I created. We sold those for ten cents around the neighborhood. I remember
in fourth grade reading a book about how a book is put together, how it
progresses from an idea all the way through the publishing stage and how
it’s printed. It just thrilled me. Years later when I wrote my first
book I remembered that book from back in fourth grade and how it talked
about that key moment when the author gets their first box of books.
My first book was called Reckless Homicide, and I wrote it when I was a journalist at the Chicago Tribune. I remember when the box of books came to my office at the Tribune Tower, and I was emotionally unable to open it because it was such a fulfillment of a lifelong dream that I just let it sit there. Finally the religion editor who sat next to me said, “What’s that box?” I said, “That’s my first book.” He said, “Why don’t you open it?” I said, “I can’t! I’m frozen”. He said, “Well, I’ll do it!” And he ripped it open (laughs). It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream to become a writer.
I hope you still have some of those little books you made.
My mom really saved them, and she passed away a few years ago. They’re floating around someplace, and I’ve really got to get them together so I can give them to my grandchildren.
But your first writing was for newspapers, right?
I started working on newspapers when I was young. When I was sixteen I got my first job away from home during the summer. I worked for the newspaper in Woodstock, Illinois. And then when I went to the University of Missouri, and I worked for two years at the newspaper in town. So I had about five years of experience by the time I graduated from college.
Awhile back I talked with your daughter Alison about her writing, and I asked her about the best advice you'd ever given her about writing. She said that by your example of persistence you taught her to keep at it and never give up. What was it that kept you writing your books and pursuing it during the down times when it was perhaps a struggle not knowing how many people were even reading you?
It’s always a struggle. I have to say, it’s fun and it’s exciting, but it’s always a struggle for me. I think what keeps me going is a sense of purpose. My books really have a purpose behind them which I think comes from a strong faith in God and a sense that I’m fulfilling what He wants me to do. So I feel almost commissioned by God. There are certain books that are in me because God’s implanted them there. It’s a duty and responsibility as well as a privilege and an honor to work that out even when it is hard. You sense that God is giving you strength in the midst of the difficulty.
It’s exciting that you’re releasing your first novel after so many successful nonfiction books. Why fiction and why now?
I’ve either written or contributed to over 40 nonfiction books, so I obviously have a long track record there and that’s really congruent with my past as a journalist, but I’ve always been intrigued by fiction. I wrote fiction in college for a literary magazine. I hadn’t written it for many years. My daughter Alison is a published novelist and watching her go through those experiences was encouraging to me and made me think there might be some ways I can communicate the truth through fiction. I may be able to reach people through fiction that I cannot reach with a nonfiction book with an in your face title like The Case for Christ (laughs). There are some people who won’t read something that’s so overtly Christian. So I thought I’d give it a try. Zondervan has been after me for years to give it a try, and it was really my daughter’s encouragement. She said, “Dad, I think you can do this.” She gave me a lot of advice which unfortunately I ignored. She knows what she’s doing, and I don’t. So I made every mistake in the book along the way, but I’m thrilled with the way it turned out. I’m proud of it, but it was a more difficult process because I didn’t really follow my daughter’s advice very well!
What was the number one piece of advice she gave you that you didn’t use? :)
Well, she is very meticulous about plotting her books out very carefully beforehand. By the time she gets to the writing part she’s done 85% of the work. Her last book I think she was able to write in thirty days, and she’s a stay at home mom with two kids. Now that’s not because she’s not a super fast writer, it’s because she’s done all the hard stuff before. I found personally that that took the excitement out of it for me if I tried to do too much work up front. It kind of drains some of the anticipation and surprises. So I had a general contour in my mind of where I wanted the book to go, but I surprised myself all along the way. There are plot twists I never saw coming, that shocked me when a character was going in a direction that I hadn’t anticipated. That’s probably the biggest difference between my daughter and I. She’s more of a professional novelist who really plans very carefully where I’m someone who has an idea and runs with it and lets the chips fall where they may.
The events in this story are based on real life, and yet I imagine you can’t take it straight from life. Where did the idea come from and how did you know it was time to write it as I imagine it was brewing in your mind for quite some time.
The actual idea for the book goes back to 2002. It’s a book that weaves together several characters and plot twists that I encountered when I was a journalist at the Chicago Tribune. There were real life cases I covered, one of which was Harry Oliman, who was a hit man for the Crime Syndicate, who’s cases I covered and who personally threatened me once, or at least confronted me, which was a scary circumstance. There were some real life bits of that case you see reflected in the book.
Where did that experience happen when Harry threatened you?
It’s funny because we’re doing something unusual for The Ambition. For the eBook edition for people who get it on has hyperlinks of videos along the way. So as you’re reading along you can click it and I’ll come on with a short video of some background and real life cases I’m referencing and stuff like that. One of them involves Harry Oliman who murdered a couple dozen people in Chicago. He was a notorious hit man, and I was covering his trial once, and was chasing him down the back stairs of the court house to try and get a comment after a court hearing. And he turned all of the sudden and pointed his finger at me, and said, “You! Why are you writing those things about me?!?” And just snarled at me and shook his finger and disappeared down the stairs. Well, in Chicago it was said that just looking into Harry Oliman’s eyes was enough to enforce the will of the Crime Syndicate in Chicago. He was a scary, cold-blooded killer. Having stared into his eyes in that moment I can believe that’s true because it really scared me. I didn’t consider it a direct threat or I would’ve reported it to the authorities but it was enough to shake me. He was one scary dude. He ended up being convicted of murder and died in prison about a year ago.
There are so many things here . . . putting it all together, deciding how you’re going to weave them all, did you find it difficult?
Initially it started easy (laughs heartily), but it got harder as I went. When I was a little kid reading novels by Arthur Hailey, he wrote novels like Airport and Hotel, he used this technique of taking disparate characters and weaving them together into this plot. I sort of took a cue from his approach and started these various plot strands. I knew generally what was going to happen, but some of the most fun parts were coming to the realization of, oh my goodness, I hadn’t anticipated this happening! It’s taking the plot in a different direction, and oh well, I’m going to go with it because it’s the direction the characters are pushing the book. Pretty soon the characters take over, and you’re just sort of hanging onto your coattails as they’re pulling you into the story.
Was it ever challenging writing about some of these things that were so
close to you?
There’s a scene in the book where the cynical reporter prays a prayer even though he’s an atheist because of dire circumstances he encounters. And when it seems that maybe God has really come through and answers that prayer he blows it off as being coincidence. That’s exactly what happened to me. When I was an atheist and a journalist, my daughter Alison was born. She was very ill. We thought she was going to die. Being an atheist at the time and not having faith in that kind of dire circumstance is a frightening thing. Discouraging and scary. And so I prayed, even though I was an atheist, and asked God to help my daughter. Sure enough, she was healed. She came through it and the doctors sort of scratched their head one day and say hey she’s fine, and we took her home. My response was, “Wow, isn’t modern medicine wonderful? Isn’t it great? We’ve got great doctors and great medications, and they took care of her.” And I sort of ignored the possibility that God had answered that prayer. So that’s a true experience from my own life that I sort of mirror in the book. It’s never fun to conjure up those times, but I try to be real honest in the book about faith and about seeking and how people investigate faith and consider spiritual matters. I didn’t want it to be phony or Polyanna. I knew my life was true in terms of what happened, so I drew from that.
Was there anything that really surprised you during the research for this book you didn’t expect to discover?
Some of the legal intricacies of the book. There’s a fun series of events that happen because of a certain law in Illinois involving wire tapping and illegal eavesdropping that are based on true stories that I covered when I was a journalist and provided a lot of fodder for the book. It was surprising the restrictive laws Illinois has concerning electronic eavesdropping and how that plays out in court cases. It’s sort of a John Grisham novel in the sense that there are these legal intricacies that impact the case. One of those is the law in Illinois concerning the right to overhear someone electronically. As I got into that it sort of surprised me. It seems that the politicians in Illinois did that to protect themselves from people eavesdropping on them. I think that was their main motivation. (Laughs)
What do you feel you’re able to bring to the table as a nonfiction writer and former reporter that maybe other novelists don’t have?
I think the experience of being a journalist in the back alleys of Chicago and seeing how the court system really works, through my coverage of the Crime Syndicate and what really goes on in The Outfit, which is the way the mob in Chicago is referred to. And having been on the inside later of megachurches it kind of gives me insight into those worlds which I hope illuminate them and make them come alive for people. The experiences in Chicago as a journalist gave me some texture in terms of the kind of cases I covered, the people I encountered and so forth. Having been a journalist kind of exposes you to real life and the grittiness of corruption and greed and ambition in a way that someone who’s just imagining it may not fully appreciate.
Did you think about how far you wanted to go in how far you wanted to portray the grittiness of things?
Yeah, I did. Certainly with language and things, language that is really raw in real life I didn’t want to reflect that in a book that I wanted to be accessible to all people. As a writer you can evoke that atmosphere without quoting things specifically. It probably hurts the story to some degree to be too graphic. And some of the things I covered... like there’s a scene where there’s an explosion that actually is based on a real case I covered involving the Ford Pinto. I was able to describe very accurately I believe what this explosion would’ve been like because I covered a case very similar to that when was in Chicago. I try to ratchet back things because being graphic does more harm sometimes than good in the sense that it will turn off readers who then won’t consider the rest of the book.
What did you feel like when you finished The Ambition, your first novel?
I’ll tell you, the funny things is, after I put the period on the last sentence I walked out of my office at home and my wife Leslie was there, and I’d only finished maybe five minutes earlier and I said to her, “I already miss those characters.” I felt like I hung around them for so long I got to know them, and I liked them. So I actually have signed to do a sequel because I miss those characters. I never intended to write a sequel. I just wanted to do one, but Zondervan loved the book and thought the characters still had energy. I did too and really wanted to carry on with them. This gives me an opportunity to go the next step, and I’m currently working on that.
So I guess you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen yet in the story! :)
(Laughs) I don’t! I wish I did. I know generally, I know the contours. It’s a very different story, but I’m looking forward to finding out what takes place.
Is it going to be based again on things you experienced or will it be based more on research?
It’s going to be both. It’s going to be based on real life cases I covered, and then it’s going to take flights of fantasy into areas that will be new to me and require some research, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve done enough plotting that I’m ready to begin writing, so I can’t wait to sit down and re-engage with these guys.
And you’re very familiar with research.
I really am. I have a friend who’s father was in the Crime Syndicate and who has become a Christian and gone straight. I remember calling him during the writing process as I was doing research for The Ambition, and asking, “Is this realistic?” There was a certain path I had a judge following in Chicago, and my friend actually sent me pictures of Crime Syndicate hang outs and said this is a better place to have him go. He was helpful in terms of research to give me the inside scoop on what was going on. In fact he invited me to come to a poker game run by the Crime Syndicate, which I turned down. (Laughs) I thought that was going a little far. I knew enough about that from covering court cases. What are they going to say, “This guy's here to write a book?” That would make me real popular. (Laughs)
You’ve shared your testimony and the case for Christ in depth through all your books, but in a nutshell, what would you say to someone who maybe is a believer but who’s struggling with their faith?
I think it’s important to come to some clarity in terms of what the spiritual sticking point is for you. What is it that is really causing you to doubt? Sometimes we can have amorphous feelings of doubt, and we’re not sure their origin. It’s good to really think about it and reflect on what is the sticking point that’s holding me up in my spiritual journey. Once you do that, then there are incredible resources out there that can help you resolve that issue. We’re fortunate being Christians that we have an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas. We have the truth on our side. There are good answers to the tough questions in life. Not that they’re going to satisfy us totally sometimes emotionally, but I think they make sense and will get us past the sticking points. So the first thing is to get clarity, then go to trusted resources that can illuminate that issue in a responsible, accurate and fair way. That’s what I’ve tried to do through my books and through my website www.leestrobel.com which has hundreds of free videos people can use for research.
What do you feel is the most important thing Christians need to remember when they are sharing their faith with other people?
One of the keys is to listen. I think it’s a lost art. It’s important to not try to jump in and pose answers to questions that aren’t being asked, which we often do. We have to listen and empathize and authenticate where the other person is at spiritually, respect them as a person, and actively listen to what they’re saying and what they’re asking. Try to discern how can I best help them in their spiritual journey.
Listening to your testimony, it was interesting that your wife’s life was an example to you even more than her words.
Very much so. I mean, she tried to reach out to me in ways that were awkward because she was a new Christian, like she’d try to leave open Christian books on the coffee table with post it notes and things like that. All of that didn’t help that much. Really it was the changes in her character and values that really encouraged me to begin my spiritual investigation. In fact we wrote a book called Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage. When you’re married to someone who’s not a believer or who’s not growing at the same rate you are, what do you do? We lived for a couple years where she was a Christian and I was an atheist. That was a rocky time.
You mentioned you like to read, and I’m wondering what some of your favorite novels are in both the Christian and secular markets?
I like Randy Alcorn’s stuff. He wrote a book called Deadline that because it had a journalist involved I thought was really good. In the non Christian realm there’s a terrific thriller writer called Christopher Reich. He’s written a series of novels that I just think are terrific. He’s such a sparkling writer in a terse but original and evocative way. He’s just terrific. I don’t always agree with his perspective spiritually, but his books are I think extremely well written for adventure novels and thrillers which is kind of the genre I’ve enjoyed. Of course I like John Grisham. I like his book The Testament which I think is his most overt Christian themed book. That’s the one I think that kind of gives spiritual themes more than his other ones.
Any plans for movie options of The Ambition?
I just got a call yesterday from a movie producer who’s done a number of films in Hollywood. He asked for the book and told me not to do anything with the film rights before he gets a chance to make an offer. We’ll see what happens. Those things are so iffy. I remember when I wrote my first book back when I was at the Tribune in 1980 called Reckless Homicide, which was a real book about the Ford Pinto case. I got called by Warner Brothers, and they bought the film option for the book, so I kind of went through that process and realized that very, very, very few movies ever get made, and mine certainly was never made. I was kind of surprised that I think it was Publisher’s Weekly that said I wrote like a screenwriter or something. That took me aback, I took it as a compliment. I was thrilled that they said that. I did actually while I was writing the book insert some scenes because I thought they would look good on the screen, and also they furthered the story, but they added some action. We’ll see what happens. I have no illusions about the likelihood but I would like to think it’s possible.
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.