by C.J. Darlington
Randy Singer Interview
"People would be surprised to know that, like everyone, I have my moments of serious self doubt." -- Randy Singer
Randy Singer is a critically acclaimed author and veteran trial attorney. He has penned six legal thrillers, including the award-winning debut novel Directed Verdict. In addition to his law practice and writing, Randy serves as a teaching pastor for Trinity Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He calls it his “Jekyll and Hyde thing”—part lawyer, part pastor. He also teaches law at Regent University and serves on the board of legal advisors for the American Center for Law and Justice. He and his wife, Rhonda, live in Virginia Beach. They have two grown children.
C.J: Could you share with us the story of why and how you became a lawyer?
Randy: That’s a great question. I always thought I was going to be a lawyer. If you grew up in the Singer family, you grew up arguing. When my wife first came home to spend time with my family she was kind of blown away. We love to debate various issues, and I was always stubborn. I think my parents just assumed I’d be a lawyer. The thing that drew me to it was the chance to represent someone who is probably at the biggest crisis of their life and needs an advocate to help them find justice in the system. It appealed to me. I’m a competitive person by nature, and it allowed me to channel those competitive instincts into doing good for my client. When I graduated from college I was accepted at Cornell Law School. I was on my way there, and I felt like God was calling me to teach in a small Christian school before I went to law school. So I did that for five years and then eventually I went on to William and Mary Law School and became a lawyer.
So you knew the Lord early in life?
Yes, I did, but I really didn’t get serious about walking with the Lord until a little later. I was like a lot of teenagers who go through a pretty rebellious time. I was in high school, and we had an evangelist in church. I realized that I needed Christ in my life and that the other stuff I was doing wasn’t cutting it. I gave my life to Christ then. It took awhile for it to sink in that I’m supposed to be living in the Spirit, not the flesh. So unlike some people who come to Christ and are changed instantaneously, it took awhile for me. Some of us are a little thicker in the head and take some time to get with it.
In another interview you did recently you said the best advice anyone ever gave you was “to find your passion in life, what God created you to do, then figure out a way to get paid for it.” How have you applied that to your own life, and who gave you that advice?
It’s actually Scriptural. It’s phrased a little differently, but I would credit the apostle Paul with that advice. He says in Ephesians Chapter 2:10 that we are Christ’s workmanship. I’ve been told that Greek word literally means ‘masterpiece’, created for good works, which God has ordained beforehand for us to walk in. When I saw that verse in the context of the whole book of Ephesians I realized that God created me for a purpose and that once I discover what my passion is and what my gifts are I’ll be happiest laboring in that field. I think life is too short to go through it doing something you don’t love doing. I’m 52 now, and I wake up every day, not every day is a great day, I don’t want it to sound too Polyanna, but I’m doing what I love doing. I’m trying cases, I’m writing books, I’m a teaching pastor at my church. Those are all great experiences. I’ve tried to follow that Scripture, and it’s worked in my life.
I hear you participated in the longest bench trial in Virginia history. What was that trial about, what role did you play, and why did it run so long?
It probably has something to do with my long windedness. (Laughs.) I was actually only a few years out of law school. fresh out of law school. A client of ours, named Larry Sancilio, had property zoned for commercial development, and the city of Virginia Beach just took away his property rights overnight and said, “You can only use your land for agricultural purposes.” They call it down zoning. We put on a case that lasted a long time, months. We proved that the city had not only taken his property rights, but had engaged in fraud in the process.
The amazing thing about that is that I wasn’t supposed to be trying that case, because that was a big multi-million dollar case. One of my partners who had a lot of experience was supposed to be trying the case. But he got so caught up in a federal court trial that the case just fell to me. God was directing my path so that I got all this incredible experience fresh out of law school. The client was a wonderful man who became a friend. When I came back to this area just a couple years ago, twenty years later, to pastor the church, there he was in the pew. So he became one of my church members.
It’s neat how God is a very efficient God. He’ll use one thing for a number of different purposes. I helped Larry in a time of need in his life, and he’s been a big encouragement to me in times of need in mine. I’ve had the blessing to have my clients become my friends. It’s more than just a professional relationship; it’s a friendship.
One other case that sticks with me the most is when my kids were in elementary school, in the early 90's. My wife taught at Atlantic Shores Christian School in Virginia Beach. A young man who was going to school there, who was fifteen years old at the time, went to a gun store and illegally purchased a gun. The gun store owners realized that they were selling the gun illegally, at least that’s how I view the facts, and they sold him an assault weapon. He went into the school where my wife was teaching and shot the principal, the assistant principal, and shot and killed one of our friends who was a math teacher. Then he went into the Bible classroom which was in a trailer. He had the entire Bible class backed into the corner. He was ready to unload on the Bible class with this assault weapon, and the gun jammed. The class was praying, and the gun jammed. The Bible teacher tackled him and prevented him from killing many other students. That was before Columbine.
As we investigated the gun store, we found out that they had been involved in illegal gun sales that helped populate gun trafficking all up and down the east coast. So, on behalf of the math teacher, we sued the gun store and put them out of business. A guy named Eric Larson who wrote the book about the world’s fair, The Devil in the White City, wrote a book called Fatal Passage about that assault weapon gun and the journey of that gun. The trial ended up on Court TV and CBS news.
How did you make the transition from trial lawyer to writer?
I was a trial lawyer and also at the time I was serving as general counsel for the Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. I thought, “I’m a storyteller in the courtroom. I’m trained as a trial lawyer. I ought to write a book on apologetics.” I started writing a book on Christian apologetics, and I realized that everything I was writing had already been written by people smarter than me. And their books were better than mine. (Laughs.) I put that aside.
Later, I was sitting on a airplane next to someone . . . now sometimes they don’t want to talk, so they stick their head in a novel. And I thought to myself, “Man, that’s a story they’re going to absorb. They’re going to spend like twenty hours absorbing that story, right straight to their heart, with all their intellectual defenses down.” And that’s where God showed me the idea. In the courtroom when I’m trying to make a case, I don’t necessarily hammer the facts home, I tell the story of what happened. A good trial lawyer is a good storyteller. So on that airplane ride is where God showed me that the best way to reach the hearts of people who don’t know Christ is to tell them a good story. That’s what Jesus did. I said, “Well, God, if You want me to do that, You’ve got to give me a story to write.”
I don’t want to over spiritualize it, but I believe He gave me the story for Directed Verdict. I just started writing it. If I had known then what I know now about how hard it is to get published, and how few people actually get published, I don’t know if I would have ever started writing. But I didn’t know any of that. I was a total, complete, absolute, 100 percent novice. (Laughs.) I just started getting up at 5:30 in the morning, and I LOVED it. I would write for an hour, hour and a half, before I would go to work every day. And I just cranked out this story. Obviously, it needed a lot of work as it moved forward, but that’s how it started.
I sent it to four or five different publishers where I had some contacts. I didn’t even know anybody at Waterbrook, but it ended up on the President’s desk. The President gave it to Erin Healy who was an editor there at the time. Erin loved the storyline, and here’s the great part of this story – Erin, who is such a great editor by the way, she read the book and then she sent me a fourteen page, single spaced memo. (Laughs.) The first half paragraph was what a wonderful book it was, and then the rest was thirteen and a half pages of all the things that could make it better.
Being a first time writer and also a lawyer, my first reaction was to argue with her. (Laughs.) Like for example, point of view. Point of view is such a fundamental concept for fiction writers. I was clueless, literally clueless. I’m just a storyteller. I had been jumping around all over the place with points of view. She pointed that out and said, “It really helps if you are consistent with your point of view. It helps to draw all the readers into the story.” So instead of saying, “Yes, Ma’am, here’s how I can change that.” I went back and got out one of Grisham’s books and counted how many times he jumped around. I said, “Erin, look, Grisham jumps around this many times.” And Erin said, “When you get to be Grisham, you can do that too.” (Laughs.) Once I realized this lady is really smart, I better just shut up and listen, I rewrote the entire book, start to finish. ‘Cause I couldn’t really fix what I had. I had to just go to school and rewrite the whole thing.
That book ended up winning a Christy award that year. It was so shocking. I was a finalist in the suspense category, and this was my first book. I didn’t expect to win; I was just happy to be there. When they announced that the book won, I was so excited. I had been talking to the President of my publishing company and the award before mine was won by Dee Henderson who was with Multnomah. For some reason, I have no idea why, Multnomah stuck in my mind, and I went up there and thanked the wonderful people at my publisher Multnomah.. The wrong publisher! When I came back to my seat, my wife Rhonda had her head in her hands, and I said, “Honey, what’s wrong”’ and she said, “Ask him.” And I asked Steve, and he said, “That was a great speech, but you thanked the wrong publisher.”
Waterbrook was so gracious about it. They gave me a special souvenir Copy of Directed Verdict with a insignia from Multnomah on the spine and a quote from their president saying, “This is such a good book. I don’t remember putting it down; in fact, I don’t even remember publishing it.” (Laughs.) God has a way of keeping us humble.
Let’s talk about your latest novel, By Reason of Insanity. Where did the idea for that book come from?
It was mostly my imagination. I asked myself a question, “In our society there are a lot of people who don’t believe in anything supernatural. If they can’t touch it, taste it, or experience it, they don’t think it’s real. What could convince someone that there is another dimension that we don’t see?’ I wasn’t really trying to take someone all the way from being a total skeptic to a total believer in Christ. I’m just trying to get people to realize that there is a lot more to this universe than what we can experience through scientific method. I took a very skeptical, Las Vegas lawyer named Quinn Newburg, and I put him in a situation where through courtrooms, evidence, and things that are very concrete he would be confronted with a supernatural realm that would be very hard to deny.
The spiritual springboard for this story is the story of the Apostle Paul when he’s on trial in front of Agrippa. Festus objects to what Paul is saying to Agrippa, and he says to Paul, “Much learning is driving you mad.” And Paul says, “I’m not insane, but I’m speaking words of reason and truth.” It dawned on me when I read that, that Christians have been accused of being insane for thousands of years. For those of us who are believers, it’s important for us to show the world that we’re not insane, that we’re relying on things that are reasonable and things that are true. I was trying to find a twenty first century equivalent to what Paul was doing in front of Agrippa.
The characters came first. Quinn Newburg, who’s this high rolling Las Vegas attorney who specializes in the insanity plea, he was with me for probably a month or two before I got the plot down. I knew Quinn was going to be in this novel, and his counterpart, Catherine O’Rourke, the skeptical newspaper reporter from Virginia Beach. Those two characters were probably as real and poignant and tenacious as any characters have ever been. I couldn’t get them to go away. They were going to dominate the story, there was no doubt about that. You have to live with these characters while you’re writing this book for six months to a year. You’ve got to really be drawn in by them. There’s got to be something unique and compelling about them. I would ask myself lots of questions about them, to try to really get to know these characters.
How much research did you have to conduct for this story?
There is one case I had that gave me a lot of forensic experience with the insanity defense and psychiatric issues. I was able to draw on that experience. And I did a lot of research on the insanity defense. If I’m going to write about a scene, I try to go to that scene to experience it first. That’s why it probably takes me longer to write books than others. I’m very compulsive about the amount of research I’ll do. Once I had a character undergoing Chinese water torture, and I actually rigged something up where I laid on the kitchen floor and had this little spigot dripping stuff on my forehead. I laid there for a half hour to an hour to figure out what that would feel like psychologically. I’ll go to great lengths to experience what my characters are experiencing. Now when they get shot, that’s where I draw the line. (Laughs.)
I had a case, C.J., where a gentleman who had severe psychiatric problems was released prematurely by the military. He had been in their psychiatric hospital. He was in four point restraint. He was homicidal. When he was released he went to the streets of Philadelphia and saw three gentlemen who he thought were aliens, and he shot them. Killed one, and wounded the other two. That lawsuit came down to the issue of was he such a danger to himself and others that the military should not have released him? That case and other cases where I’m dealing with issues of brain injury and psychological issues gave me the background for this case, even though I’m not a criminal defense attorney. It does still come up in other cases.
The novel also deals with the subject of visions. How important was it for you to approach that subject in a Biblical manner?
Very important, and an excellent question. One of the things I’ve been intrigued by is the way God is using visions to draw people to Himself. If you read reports, especially in Muslim countries, this is happening. It’s important to realize that God has revealed Himself through Scripture, and He doesn’t use visions to replace His Word. His Bible is His complete revelation to mankind. The visions in this book, By Reason of Insanity, are not like what John the Apostle had in Revelation. This is not the equivalent of Scripture, but this is a particular vision for one of my characters to help her in a particular circumstance and help her see that there really is a God Who wants to have a relationship with her. I try to count my visions in the way I think God uses visions today, not as a substitute for His Word, but as a way to get our attention and draw us toward a relationship with Him.
Did you plan to use visions in the book, or did that come about as you wrote?
I thought I would use visions in it, because there is this thin and wavering line between sanity and insanity. When someone in our society says “I heard from God.” The first thing most people assume is “Oh, they’re crazy.” If someone says “I heard from God, but just a still, small voice,” they’ve used the magic words, so we say, “Okay, they’re sane.” But if somebody says, “God, really specifically told me this thing right here.” We go, “Oh, they’re crazy.” I thought I would explore that line.
Does the Holy Spirit move some people to do things that the rest of us think are too radical and risky to be sane and safe? I think a lot of times what’s happened to Christianity in America is that we’ve put it in a box, and we’ve made it so safe and sane that it’s not like New Testament Christianity. The Christians in Acts were doing stuff that was turning the world upside down, so they were accused of being crazy. I’m trying to explore where that edge is.
The book has many twists and turns. Did you know most of them before you started?
Twists and turns will happen while I’m writing, then during the first edit, then in the second edit, then during the third edit, so this road gets more windy and twisty all the time. The rules that I play by when I’m writing books is that I’m really trying to surprise my readers, but I don’t want to surprise them by grabbing something from left field that is so off the wall that the reader says, “Of course I was surprised, who could have seen that coming? That’s not fair.” You can always surprise a reader by playing unfair. I hope to surprise a reader and then have them say, “Oh! I should have seen that coming!” That’s the best ending.
What was the hardest part of writing By Reason of Insanity?
The hardest part of By Reason of Insanity was the right touch on the relationship between the two main characters. My strengths and gifts are twists and turns in the plot, character development. I’m not as strong on the relationship side of the writing. I don’t write romance novels, and for good reason. (Laughs.)
Whenever you have a book where your main characters are in any kind of relationship it’s very difficult for me to have just the right deft touch, so it doesn’t seem too cheesy or too cold. That was one of the hardest things. The second hardest thing was keeping everything straight from a plotting standpoint so that it made sense, no matter whose point of view you were looking at it from. There were enough characters and angles that I actually went through from the beginning of the book, and in each section said “Is everything that happens consistent with what we know about this character?” It’s almost like I went back and rewrote in each character’s perspective to make sure the interrelationship of those characters was right. That took a lot of time.
Who’s your favorite character in this story?
I think it is Quinn. When you’re a lawyer and you’re writing legal thrillers, sometimes you get to have the lawyers in those legal thrillers do things you always wanted to do, but never had the guts to do. (Laughs.) Quinn does some of that.
What message do you hope readers will come away with after reading this book?
I hope readers will come away with two messages. One is a subtle message – we can break the generational chains in our families. One of the things Quinn and his sister Annie were up against was the Biblical principle that the consequences of the sins of the parents will be visited onto the third and fourth generation. Our kids aren’t accountable or judged for our sins, but the consequences of our sins are passed onto our children and our grandchildren. Especially in families where there is abuse or neglect. Somebody at some point in time in the generational chain has to step up and say “It’s going to stop with me.” I hope readers will take away that if you’re in that cycle in your family, you can be the one, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to stop that.
The second message is that there are spiritual forces at work. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers. What we see is only a small part of the battle between good and evil. A big part is going on in these spiritual realms.
Would you call yourself a Christian fiction writer, or a fiction writer who happens to be a Christian?
I would call myself a fiction writer who happens to be a Christian. I don’t really run away from that, but I’m also a lawyer who happens to be a Christian. And I’m also a pastor who happens to be a Christian. A Christian is who I am, but what I want to do in a trade, like when I’m a novelist, is I want to be the best novelist I can be. And I want to make sure my Christian world view permeates that novel. But I don’t want to necessarily be confined to what others might expect to be the conventions of “Christian fiction”. I would be very happy if a Christian were to say to me, “I gave this to my friend who is not a believer and they loved the book. The book spoke truth to them because they could identify with the characters.” Some authors write Christian fiction to help edify the church. I hope to be more on the evangelistic side, where someone in the church could actually give that book to somebody else and open up a dialogue about religious matters.
I read that you were involved in street preaching a few years ago. Is that something you’re still doing?
I’m actually not doing it now because I’m teaching pastor at a church. That ministry is really taking every spare second of my time. What happened is I was in a restaurant and the waiter and I were talking about spiritual things. I gave him a tract, and I shared my testimony with him. It turned out that he was not only a Christian, but he was a street preacher. I asked him how it was going, and he goes, “Well, not so good. We had such a big crowd in downtown Atlanta that the police shut us down.” As a lawyer, I’m like, “They can’t do that. You’ve got First Amendment rights.” He asked me to come out and negotiate with the police for him. I said I would.
The next time he went out, he called me and I went down there. He sets up a little boom box and microphone right in front of the bus stop. He’s got a huge crowd. I was sitting there minding my own business, and the police were nowhere around. The guy, Charles Arnold is his name and I made him a character in one of my books, says to the crowd, “We’re privileged to have Randy Singer tonight to bring the message.” (Laughs.) I had no choice but to get up and become a street preacher that first night. It was really a miraculous night, and God did some neat things in the lives of people. I would go out there with Charles twice a week and preach on the streets. We did resolve matters with the police to the point that later on that fall when Charles got married, he got married right there on the streets of Atlanta where we did our street preaching. The police came in and cleared the whole area out just for us that day. The day before the city workers had pressure washed the sidewalk for us. It really worked out great. It was a great experience that I’ll never forget. A few years later when I wrote Dying Declaration, Charles Arnold was such an interesting character, I said, “Charles, I’m going to give you a law degree and put you in my book.” That character is based on my street preaching friend.
What would you love to write some day but you haven’t yet?
I am going to continue in the legal thriller vein because it’s what I think I do best. I know it’s what I love. Somebody once said you ought to find what you love doing and figure out a way to get paid doing it. But there are two little books I’d love to write someday in addition to that. One is the trial of Christ. The second is the trial of the Apostle Paul. We tend to forget this because we’re familiar enough with Scripture that it doesn’t really hit us this way anymore, but the book of Acts has a cliff hanger ending. Paul is sent to Rome to be tried in front of Nero, and we don’t know what happens! The whole second half of the book of Acts is one trial after another with Paul working his way up the court system, and now he’s going to the big cajuna who is Caesar himself, and it’s like, what happens? We have legend, and what we think happened, but I would love someday to write down what is my best attempt at fictionalizing the trial of the Apostle Paul in front of Nero. By then Nero was Caesar, and he’s the madman who ended up persecuting Christians and blaming them for the fires in Rome. Paul would get to make his case to Nero.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing?
Everything! (Laughs.) The one thing I know now that would’ve been a great help to me then is how willing other authors are to help somebody get started and what a great tool writers’ conferences are to learn the trade. I was probably writing books for a couple years before I ever went to a writers’ conference and tapped into the minds of others. It’s just been amazing to me, especially in the Christian fiction market, how willing others are to say “Hey, here’s something that helped me; maybe it’ll help you.” Brandilyn Collins has been an enormous help to me.
What’s the coolest prayer god’s ever answered for you?
That He saved me. Once God answers that prayer and we’re secure in Christ, the rest of it is going to take care of itself. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. That’s the most important one.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
People would be surprised to know that, like everyone, I have my moments of serious self doubt.
I’ve got the world’s worst sense of direction. And I mean absolutely the worst. I can get lost in my own law office! It’s ridiculously bad.
If I chose my own clothes for everyday of my life they would never match. I’m not color blind, but it’s worse than color blind. I see the colors, but I still don’t understand that they don’t go together.
Here’s another one I just thought of – I have a pretty serious heart condition. I look like I’m in shape and I do a lot of exercise, but I’ve got a heart condition that I have to carefully monitor and manage.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
I actually like to run to relax. Going out and running clears my head and gives me time to think. The second thing I like to do is canoe. Here in the Virginia Beach area there are a lot of waterways around. I do a lot of that. Just getting outside, exercising a little bit, it kinda gets the blood circulating and clears my head. My doctor says I really have to run, I have to keep the exercise going. But that’s okay. If you’re going to have a medical condition, I’d rather have one where you’re required to exercise than one where you can’t exercise.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
Oranges that have not been eaten and are rotting, because we always intend to eat more fruit, and we never do. Yogurt is always in the refrigerator. Not always, but as much as humanly possible is pumpkin pie. It’s only good around Thanksgiving, but we buy it all year long. And we’re like, “Oh, this isn’t very good.” But we keep trying!
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?(Lots of laughter.) I am ordering a regular coffee. And then they always say, “You mean Grande?” And I always say, “Yes.” I’m so clueless about Starbucks. My kids take me there all the time, and I still don’t know what to order. It’s all a great mystery to me.
What’s left unchecked on your ‘goals for life’ list?
Seeing my kids get married and have kids. We’ve been praying since our kids were in Rhonda’s womb for their mate. Family is so important to us.
The second thing is my kids and I want to climb Kilimanjaro. We’re going to try to do it when my son graduates from college, which is two years out. We’re going to work up to it. We’re going to do a half marathon and then a marathon first. We’ve got a big plan.
What’s your most embarrassing courtroom moment?
I don’t think I can share my MOST embarrassing courtroom moment . . . (Laughs.)
I was a brand new lawyer on my first day at a big firm. My mentor, who was a senior partner said that he was in the closing argument stage of a trial, and his client, an insurance company, couldn’t be there that day. He asked me to come to court and sit in the chair next to me and act like the client. I figured I could do that. I went over to the court ten minutes early and nobody was in the courtroom. I waited ten minutes, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. Then I figured they must have settled the case and not told me. I went down the hallway to call the secretary, and before I came back to the office she said, “No, they’re still trying that case.” I went back to the courtroom. It was like a nightmare. They were all in there, he was giving his closing argument, the jury was in the box, and it was the same courtroom I had just been in. I went slinking down to the counsel table and sat down in the client’s chair. At the end of the argument I leaned over and said, “Sorry I’m late.” And he said, “So am I.” That was my first day at work!
What had happened was that the lawyers were back in the judge’s chamber trying to work out a settlement, which they didn’t. The jury was in the jury room, and the bailiff was out of the courtroom, so there was nobody in there. Or maybe it was my lousy sense of direction. (Laughs.)
Your favorite lawyer joke?
A guy is defending a criminal, and he has no defense. He’s trying to prove that the Commonwealth didn’t prove that the victim was dead at the time they started the autopsy. He has the doctor on the stage and says, “Did you check for vital signs?” And the doctor says, “No, of course not.” So the lawyer says, “Then how do you know the victim was dead?” And the doctor says, “Because his brain was on my desk in a jar.” To which the lawyer says, “Well, couldn’t he have been alive nevertheless?” And the doctor says, “I guess he could have been alive and practicing law someplace.” That’s from a real case!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I want to share with your readers how much I appreciate them.
Thanks for putting so much thought into this interview. I know a lot of times with fiction books it’s hard to know what to ask, and you all have done a wonderful job getting inside the mind of the writer, which is a scary place to be. (Laughs.) I love writing, so this is all fun to me. What could be more fun than putting together a story from nothing and seeing it come together and then knowing that it entertains people? It’s really a blast. The reader mail is absolutely the best part. Especially when you work in a profession where it is all conflict all the time. Everytime you talk some other guy is getting paid $200 an hour to say why you’re wrong. Writing is a nice break from that. It’s a lot more positive.
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.