by Miriam Parker, et al
Ted Dekker Interview
"People say my novels are quite dark. Well, that’s because I’ve been through very dark periods in my life." -- Ted Dekker
Ted Dekker (born October 24, 1962) is a New York Times best-selling author of more than twenty novels. He is best known for stories which could be broadly described as suspense thrillers with major twists and unforgettable characters, though he has also made a name for himself among fantasy fans.
Early in his career he wrote a number of spiritual thrillers and his novels were lumped in with ‘Christian Fiction’ a surprisingly large category. His later novels are a mix of mainstream novels such as Adam, Thr3e, Skin, Obsessed and BoneMan’s Daughters, and Fantasy thrillers that metaphorically explore faith. Best known among these is his Circle Series: Green, Black, Red, White and The Paradise Books: Showdown, Saint, and Sinner.
Now, eight years from the publication of his first novel, Dekker’s novels had sold over 3.4 million copies worldwide. Two of his novels, Thr3e and House, have been made into movies with more in production. Dekker resides in Austin, Texas with his wife Lee Ann and two of their daughters.
Miriam Parker: Can you start off telling us about the story of Boneman’s Daughters and also the origin of the book.
Ted: Boneman’s Daughters is a very passionate story. It’s about a serial killer called Boneman who is obsessed with finding the perfect daughter. He takes young women, kidnaps them, and when they fail to meet his expectations of what a perfect daughter should be, he kills them. And he does so in a rather gruesome manner, by breaking their bones without breaking their skin. He breaks all of their bones and leaves them to die.
The whole story is centered around this one girl who’s taken. Her name’s Bethany; she’s a bit of a rebel—a very strong-willed person—and her father, who she’s estranged from. When he learns she’s been taken, he just goes ballistic. He goes after Boneman himself. The FBI suspect that he himself might be Boneman, so they go after him. They have this very interesting chase. The whole novel really goes back and forth across the whole state of Texas. But at the heart of this novel is a father’s desperation to recover his daughter.
The story itself was born out of my personal experience. When my daughter was eighteen she was taken, in my view, by a similar kind of character. Now, it wasn’t a serial killer, obviously. It was this guy she’d fallen in love with. In my view though he was like a Boneman. He was an abusive person. She couldn’t see it, but he was dangerous. Because she was eighteen I couldn’t stop her. I could just hope and pray. During that time I began to ask myself about this amazing love I had for my daughter and the emotions that went through me. I would have done anything to protect her, anything to save her. It was then that the roots of this story began to form in my own mind. So in Boneman’s Daughters we explore that. The extremes of a father, and how far would you go to rescue your daughter? Would you kill another man to save your daughter’s life? These are the themes we explore.
When that happened with your daughter, did it take you awhile to process how you were going to write it as a novel?
Yeah, a couple years. And by the way, my daughter did come back safely. Within two months she called us up weeping, and it turned out this guy was a monster. He had abused her. And you know, I’m furious to this day, but she is now happily engaged to another man. She’s going to be married actually in June. So it has a happy ending there.
But most of my stories are based on concepts like this, so they come from some form of personal experience, and I let them gestate for a couple years usually before they find their way into a story. I’m exploring the emotions that I’ve experienced, or the questions I’ve had, through storytelling. I think that’s why most of my stories come across as rather authentic, because they come from those kind of experiences. It also makes them emotional reads. People say my novels are quite dark. Well, that’s because I’ve been through very dark periods in my life. I think we all have. I explore that darkness and the rescue from that darkness. Because we’re all looking for rescue, the light, the happy ending which doesn’t always come, but our lives really are about finding that happy ending.
You have to hope for the happy ending or else there’s really no reason to go on in a difficult circumstance.
Hope. That’s a great word, hope. I think my novels are full of hope. And hope is best understand in the context of great hopelessness. Hope means nothing if there is no need to hope for something more than you have. There’s no need for light unless there’s darkness. You don’t need a lamp in a light room. You don’t need hope necessarily if you’re not in hopelessness. I think that’s why my novels tend to start fairly dark.
Caller #1, Deborah K: Normally your books are aimed to a Christian audience, and this was your first general audience book. One of the biggest disclaimers I’ve noticed in a lot of blogger reviews is that there were a few minor swear words in the book. What made you decide to put those in? Was it just to appeal to the general audience? It didn’t offend me at all, but that’s something I’ve been curious about.
I think the bloggers
read an early edition, an advance readers copy, which had language that
wasn’t in the final book. I used offensive language,
but not “swear words” because part of my audience is religious
and I respect them. You don’t need swear words at all to express
darkness, horror, and all the other things that I deal with. Sometimes
in early drafts
of my books I do include language that isn’t offensive to me, but
ultimately it comes out, and some of those readers got a hold of copies
that had that language in it.
A ll of my book plumb the same themes. This book explores similar themes that have cropped up in some of my earlier writings. I would say I haven’t written any of my books for the Christian market. I write books simply to explore truth. My earlier books were marketed primarily to the Christian market through Christian bookstores, etc., early on, so they got lumped in there. Hachette is a wonderful relationship because it allows me to go out to a broader audience without necessarily being tagged in a way that never really was my intention anyway. So either way, I write what I write. The rest of it has to do with distribution and marketing.
Deborah K: Does this book have any ties to the Circle series?
None at all. It’s a total standalone.
Caller #2, Jennifer: How did Boneman’s obsession and fetish with Noxema come about?
Boneman is really quite an intelligent fellow, but he is really obsessed with perfection. Having perfect skin for him—this is one reason he refuses to break the skin of any of his victims, or allow them to bleed in any way. The skin is where his own fetishes work their way out. He grew up in an environment where perfection was very very important, and he never measured up, which is a typical profile for a serial killer. The way he expresses it is through cleanliness. He shaves all the hair on his body from the neck down. He’s obsessed with cleanliness. His mother used to use Noxema. Actually, my mom used to use it. It stuck out in my mind because growing up everyone used it. Much more so than today. I like the smell of it. It’s actually a very creamy, satiny type of lotion. I haven’t used it for many, many years, but I remember as a child my mom always using it. And so it just popped into my head. It’s not a very well known lotion amongst younger people, but I’m spreading the word! It’s a beautiful lotion, and this guy is obsessed with beauty and it works for him. It’ll work for us all! (Laughs) I should get an endorsement out of this.
I don’t know... I’ll never look at Noxema the same way again.
(Laughs) And it’s white, and it’s creamy and it’s just scrumptious. That’s really important, to take certain things that people relate to in everyday life and attribute them to a character. They’re connect points. It certainly makes people more real, and villains much more, well, in this case, creepy. Creepy because you can almost touch, smell and taste them. They become very real characters.
Miriam: There’s something about using smell in novels... not a lot of writers do, but whenever there’s a smell I notice it.
That’s an interesting point. I love smells, and I use smells a lot because it’s often a sense that’s glossed over by a lot of writers. It really adds to the person’s ability to immerse themselves in a scene.
Caller #3, Janna: I’ve read quite a few of your books, the Lost Books series, and Kiss was wonderful, but you have written some books that kinda give me the heeby jeebies, and I just wonder how do you get into describing those scenes and ideas, things that border on insanity, without losing your own?
I think we all have
that in us, and when you read it it makes you squirm. You are actually
shown a part of yourself, you just don’t realize
it. My books are like mirrors. You see something you connect with. When
I activate your own fears, you squirm. You’re really looking at yourself.
If you had no context whatsoever for it, it would just bore you. You wouldn’t
feel that way.
But there’s another part in this whole thing. When it comes to storytelling in general, let’s take the example of giving someone a glass of water. Well, water can either be something you spit out because you have no need for it, or it can be something you’re desperate for, and that first gulp of water is so precious. Then, there’s nothing that tastes better than a fresh glass, that first gulp of water after being in the desert for a day without it. But the only way to enjoy the pleasure of that one gulp of cool, spring water is to live in the desert for a day without any. See, I need to do that in my books so that the reward the reader experiences ultimately is really satisfying. So unless you first take them through that desert, that valley of darkness, that experience. Unless they squirm at some level, they’ll never breathe that huge sigh of relief or enjoy the pleasure and hope that comes at the end.
So, in terms of how I keep from going insane writing these, actually, writing is a very safe way for us to all explore certain scenes through characters. Much worse it would be if we were actually in those situations ourselves. So we can take certain liberties as authors and as readers to explore themes in a very safe and a very healthy way. It’s like this. You can talk to your child about not touching the stove, and explain how a blister looks, and show them pictures of it . . . so that they don’t! Isn’t that much better than taking their finger and putting it on a flame? What we’re doing is talking about it and imagining it . . . so that we don’t! So that we appreciate the hope. It’s a very healthy experience for me, and for you.
Do you ever get squeamish yourself when writing a scene?
Oh, yeah. That sickness in the pit of your stomach. Absolutely. When I’m writing, I’m writing first of all for myself. To explore. If I’m not squeamish at points, or weeping at points, or pumping my fist at points, then will the reader be? No. So you’re just taking the journey along with me. That journey is first of all for me. I write because many things bore me. I’m writing to explore myself. I’m taking the journey with the character myself. I need to be entertained, too.
For me it takes six months to write a novel, at least. Much longer than that if you count all the thinking that goes into it. You read it in six or seven hours. You have to be entertained and take the journey without being bored for six hours. I’ve gotta take the journey for six months or several years without feeling bored. It’s gotta absolutely be pure escapism. I characterize my writing as pure escapism with inescapable truth.
Caller #4, Kathy: How do you manage to get the “voice” of so many different characters in one book?
Defining and delineating characters one from another is actually pretty hard to do for a writer because we tend to want to put our own voice on every single character. So to distinguish between them it’s really, really important to have a very thorough character sketch up front. For me, I work with things that I’m somewhat familiar with. Now, there’s a disclaimer. I’m not familiar with serial killers because I don’t have any friends who are serial killers. A serial killer is a loose representation of all that is evil, and I manifest it through this wicked character. I have been confronted, like all of us, with some very dark things and you can personify those dark experiences in one character. Then you have Bethany . . . well, I have daughters. I write from their perspective the best I can. Same thing with Ryan. Same thing with Celine. It’s important to write what you know. It’s important to develop and attach these characters to people that are fully fleshed in our own lives on some level.
Did you ask your daughter for input?
Not so much input, but I definitely had them read it. There’s an editing process that every novel goes through, and making those characters believable and distinguishing them is something editors . . . I’m always interested in other people’s opinions. That’s really crucial. Especially for me. I have a lot of readers who are younger, college aged, and it’s very important that the books resonate with them. So a lot of people who read this, like daughters or sons, they’ll be reading this from Bethany’s point of view. Whereas, people like myself and you, we’ll be reading it more from Ryan’s. Like I said before, my novel’s are like mirrors. What you take away from them will depend on who you are. The characterizations depend as much on the reader as they do the author.
Caller #5, Kevin: What’s coming next from your world?
I just finished my second novel with Hachette, which is untitled right now. It’s the most fascinating novel I’ve ever read. Obviously I like my novels or I wouldn’t write them, but this has got to be the most fascinating because the characters . . . it’s about another killer and an unsolved series of crimes. It’s very edgy, like Boneman’s Daughters, but at the center of this story is this institution called The Center for Wellness and Intelligence, which is for extremely intelligent residents who are mentally ill. You might think of the John Nash’s of the world, unable to cope outside of assisted care. We’ve fallen in love with these people, they’re very quirky, they’re very humorous, and there’s one girl named Paradise. She’s 24 years old. She doesn’t fit into the world as we know it very well, but she’s extremely intelligent, and very endearing. Really, this is her story, and I just love that girl. I just finished that novel, which will be coming out a year from now [April 2010?].
Most people who read your books don’t realize how much actually goes into writing a novel, and by the time a book actually hits the shelves, for you it’s at least a year old.
Like this untitled novel. I’ve finished it. There’s a lot that goes into the process. There’s so much that the publisher does, not just in regards to marketing, but some of the other elements in preparing a novel for distribution. Cover design, cover concepts, titling, editing, and other elements as well. It’s a very enormous task, especially when you have a broad release like these books have. They appear everywhere at once. It’s a big undertaking.
Caller #4, Kathy: Will Boneman’s Daughters be a movie?
Well, you never know, but right now there’s no plan for it. One of the challenges with my books is frankly, if you take what I write and put it onscreen . . . these are pretty gruesome on certain levels. The movie ultimately has to be quite different from the book. It would certainly be R rated, and R rated movies are very tough for Hollywood to make. Period. Because you don’t have this huge teen audience that they depend on. Really, a lot of it comes down to economics. I think it would be cool, but you never know. I’m a big movie buff myself, so when I write I write very visually. I imagine every scene on a screen as I write it, and I describe it as I see it. A lot of authors don’t do that, which is surprising. It’s just my process. One thing that really bothers me is authors who describe action that actually isn’t consistent with how it physically works. That drives me absolutely nuts because I’m seeing it in my mind. I’m seeing the block, the blow, the step, the crunch, exactly the way it appears in my mind, on the screen. A lot of authors don’t write that way. They think of it differently. It’s just a different method. One’s not necessarily better than the other.
Miriam: I wonder if what people recognize about your books that’s appealing to them is that when they’re reading them they are able to see this world in a very distinct way.
Characterization is always a big deal. I draw characters very differently from a lot of writers. I do so very intentionally. A lot of writers will give you a lot of backstory and stuff that would never ever make it in a movie. You just couldn’t put it into a movie. You’re not really visualizing it because they’re giving you all this information about what kind of toast they like, all important things, and there’s a whole school of writing that really goes deep into character that way, but for me, it’s really important that I do not lean on those cheats to draw a character, but rather the plot itself. What is happening to the person. They’re reaction to what’s happening ultimately defines them, so story becomes character.
People respond to my stories in one of two ways. They either go, “Oh, my goodness, these characters are so deep, I can identify with them, I’m in their heads, I just love these characters.” And I go, “Yeah, yeah, that’s me. That’s the way I wrote it.” Usually that tends to be slightly a new generation type of reader who reads the story that way. People who are used to having a lot of characterization, a lot of fluff in their novels, will say, “These are paper thin characters.” I’m going, “What? Are you kidding me?” But that’s just the way they’re used to reading certain books. They won’t use the words paper thin, but they’ll say things like, “I could’ve used a deeper character.” My characters tend to be very deep, it’s just expressed through the choices they make and what they do in the context of the story itself.
When I teach creative writing I say “show don’t tell” and people don’t always know what that means. But that’s exactly what you’re doing. You’re showing them living in the world, not telling us what kind of magazines they read.
That’s right. And that’s a rule that’s very important, a very important lesson every writer should learn. But even within show don’t tell there are different ways to show. You show in the current, you show by describing what the character does outside of the context of the plot. There needs to be a balance, but I focus very much on plot. Take 24. Jack Bauer. You learn the most about Jack Bauer through the choices he makes, and what he does in the context of the show. That’s the way it is with almost all television. That’s the way it is with almost all movies. That’s the way I write.
This generation right now of younger readers, meaning high school, college, young adult . . . they’re engaging their books that way. And so it’s important to speak their language. They tend to get very bored with big, long descriptions. Let’s say a Tom Clancy book. I loved Tom Clancy growing up, but younger readers today might have challenges with the incredible amount of descriptions that go in there. They’re more interested in the plot. Tom Clancy’s books are fantastic, but it’s just a different way of writing. There are fewer books like his on the shelves today.
You say that music helps transport you to the places you write about, and I wonder what music you were listening to when writing Boneman’s:
Well, I grew up in the eighties, so I like rock of all kinds. I also like country. Country’s been growing on me more recently because it’s storytelling through music, which is kinda cool. I look for music that moves me emotionally. Music videos, too. I’ll sit and watch a music video ten times, twenty times, thirty times, and I imagine this character and the way they move, so many things about them. I would say bands like Evanescence, Flyleaf, some of the older bands like U2. Coldplay has become a huge favorite of mine. In my last novel I played X&Y probably like a thousand times over the last six months. That one album is my novel. Not in meaning. In feeling. I’m a huge lover of music. It’s playing all day long when I write. Loudly.
When you listen to those albums you listened to writing past novels, does it bring the novel back to you?
Yeah, definitely. Just like you probably, there are certain songs you hear that bring aspects of your adolescence back to you. It’s funny how the mind is triggered by these little associations.
I know Dean Koontz is a huge inspiration to you. Tell us some other authors you love or area reading now.
I like Dean Koontz especially for his prose. I’m actually reading some of his earlier stuff again. It’s pretty cool. In the past I’ve obviously been influenced by Stephen King. My first experience with a really good novel was when I was in eighth grade reading The Stand. It was then I thought, “Oh, my goodness, if I could just write a story like this.” Then some other historical writers like Wilbur Smith who writes big adventure stories. And all the books that a lot of younger people grew up on. Like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I lost myself in them. I really did. Edgar Rice Burroughs was to younger readers many years ago, at least in some parts of the world, what Harry Potter or J.K. Rowling is today to many readers.
Ultimately, it comes down to what can transport you and give you an escape from this world. I’ve read a lot of fantasy. Things that catch my imagination and really transport me into another reality. And it’s in that other reality ultimately where I can discover truth. When you’re in your own little day to day life you miss so much about what’s happening around you. But when you’re pulled out of it you can see the forest, the entire landscape, and suddenly meaning starts clicking in your mind. It’s a beautiful thing. That’s the advantage to reading rather than watching movies. When you watch movies you’re watching someone else’s visions, what someone else has created. Your imagination isn’t engaged hardly at all. You’re enjoying someone else’s imagination. Only that. Whereas reading is much, much more intense. It’s actually a cooperative process. The writers give you certain clues and certain words and you fill in the story. So a reader is as much the storyteller as the storyteller. What I do as a storyteller is quicken people’s imaginations and let them live it.
The books people read in their youth are so important to the rest of their lives. Since many young people read your books, do you feel a responsibility to them in some way?
I don’t really think of that a lot, but I guess that’s one of the reasons I don’t use language that’s offensive to them. I want to respect them. But I also want to take them places they’ve never been. That’s not only what they want, it’s what they need. That’s what I want, that’s what I need. In order to really understand truth and engage it, I need to escape. It’s the weirdest thing. Fiction is actually one of the most powerful ways to communicate truth. It’s not something you just dismiss and say, “Oh, it’s just fiction.” No, no, no. It’s fiction. It’s storytelling. It’s what can make real the lessons of life that we ourselves have not necessarily learned because we haven’t actually been through that exact experience. But we can learn those lessons through fiction. Because we actually take the journey with the character and don’t just hear about it. It’s not some didactic presentation of truth from a podium at the front of a classroom. It’s actually walking with the characters and experiencing it as if you were that character.
You were raised by missionary parents, and I wonder how that experience has influenced your work as a whole and if you think this is the reason you are such a good storyteller.
Everything that happens in a Storyteller's life informs both their stories and the way that they write stories. I grew up in a distant, dark world with cannibals. I was never actually in danger myself, but the environment I grew up in had a lot of animistic beliefs, a lot of spiritualism. I have to wonder, why did my parents take me from the relatively safe environment of the United States and cross the ocean, back then it was by boat, and plop me down in this very dark environment? Really, it was to bring hope to those people. The infant mortality rate among the people I grew up with was 50% when my parents got there. Within a few years, through the introduction of hygiene and penicillin, it dramatically changed. The whole society changed as a result in a very positive way. No western cultural influences. My parents didn’t bring any cultural influence with them. They were the kind of missionaries who really didn’t want to change the people at all except to help them in certain ways.
That experience of watching this dark environment full of death and brutality change and embrace hope has informed the way I write. My stories start dark often, you know. That's kind of understandable. And ultimately they’re very redeeming. They have very strong redemptive elements. They don’t end hopeless at all. I like happy endings. Why read a story for a sad ending?
One thing I hate about Hollywood is that sometimes they try to be too literary in the way they tell stories, or too intelligent or too wise. They want to come across as looking very important so they write these stories that have very convoluted endings. At the end you’re like, what the heck was that? I wasn’t taken anywhere. I started in hell, and I ended in hell, metaphorically speaking. You walk out depressed. I don’t like those kinds of stories. I watch them, and I learn from them, but I don’t like telling those kind of stories. I don’t think that’s what life is about. Life is about hope and finding hope. And being rescued from that pit of darkness. It’s about finding a beautiful wife if you’re a man, or about a wonderful husband, and raising children who love you and who you love. These are all good things! That’s what we strive for. My stories mimic life that way and as such I think are very authentic.
Does your family still live in Indonesia?
No, we all live in the United States now. But many friends still live there. I don’t really keep in touch because they still don’t have internet or telephones. We’re talking no roads, no cars, hardly any clothes. Really. Jungle. It’s one of the last great undiscovered regions of the world.
Their view of what life is must be so different from ours.
It is. It’s very different except for that it’s exactly the same. In so many ways. When it comes to love and anger and emotion, all the emotions. Purpose in life. It’s all the same, but all the surfaces are different. It’s like an alien race. They look different. They smell different. Everything’s different about them except for what’s beneath the skin, and then they’re identical.
They just don’t have to check their email!
Deborah K: Have you ever thought about writing a book that is completely not in the suspense, thriller genre just for fun? Maybe not romance, but some genre you’re not known for?
My books cross genres. I know that Boneman’s Daughters is certainly a thriller. I have a lot of romance in my books, but to write a piece of genre fiction like a romance or science fiction . . . A couple of the novels that I will be writing over the next few years are quite different from anything I’ve written. Because as a writer I’m always looking for new territory to explore. I tell you what. Romance is the one thing, not a romance novel as such, but love stories, even somewhat sappy ones like the stuff that maybe Nicholas Sparks might write. Writing about love, about a man falling in love with a woman, or vice versa, is almost irresistible. It is the funnest writing. A lot of my books have it. Boneman’s Daughters doesn’t. My next book with Hachette does. It’s about falling in love with this mentally ill patient, which is just an endearing story. What better thing to write about than love in the midst of heartache? To come out of this very disturbing situation with pure love is irresistible to me. I don’t think I’ll write another genre as such. Adventure stories . . . but not specifically a straight up romance. As a writer I really enjoy writing about romance. I’ve been highly reviewed and actually won an award from Romance Writers of America for books that weren’t romance books at all but had strong romantic themes and strong love stories. It’s interesting to find myself in that company.
Miriam: Do you have a favorite book that you’ve written?
The answer always is, and is the answer today---the one I just wrote. It’s untitled, which is unfortunate, but it will be coming out with Center Street in a year. I’ve just lived with this girl named Paradise for so many months now as a character. I’m absolutely in love with this book. It really is, I think, my best writing. I wish we had a title for it. If you see a book called “Untitled”, that’s the one (Laughs.)