Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Talking With John Herrick About His Latest Novel, Between These Walls...

Please feel free to add your thoughts and comments to this discussion. Responses will be added later!

Note that the music included are samples of the songs that helped inspired John as he wrote

Between These Walls

John, Welcome to Book Readers Heaven! I believe your book has fulfilled what I've been looking for...covering two important issues with which I've been interested and intrigued for all of my adult life. Christianity and Sexuality. Not only have you written that book, but you've done it with such sensitivity, depth, and power, that I've already declared it a must-read in my review!
I think I know, but for the benefit of our readers, why did you decide to tackle two such controversial topics in one book and did you have any specific reason to do so?

Thank you for your words. I just hope when people read my novels, they find honest friends in the protagonists.
To answer your first question, my best story concepts arise when a character emerges in my soul. With Between These Walls, a Christian middle-school student character arose within me, and I imagined his struggle, not only with the truth of how he felt inside, but how he felt he couldn't talk about it. When a character grabs my heart that way, he doesn't let go until I tell his story.
To reach a wider audience, I opted against a YA novel, instead choosing to place Hunter Carlisle, my protagonist, in his 20s. The original YA concept appears when Hunter reflects on his coming-of-age years. I posted the whole story-behind-the-story at my website here:

Although you don't really have what might be called a conclusion to the primary issue of homosexuality, I'm going to assume you've spent some time in reading and researching the Christian viewpoint. Would it be possible for you to merge the various opinions, sort of like the positive and negative sides of those opinions?

I researched enough to construct the novel, but can’t pretend to be an expert. That said, within the Christian arena, you’ll find the same range of nature vs. nurture opinions as in the mainstream arena. My goal in writing Between These Walls was to set those opinions aside and focus on how we see Jesus operate in the Bible: He walked with love and mercy. My goal was to challenge us all to consider the nuances in how we treat people, and how our words and actions can have unspoken consequences.
You’re right, the book doesn't offer a conclusion to the issue, which was by design. Life is a process, a journey. In the end, Hunter doesn't have all the answers to his questions, but he lives his life the best he can, and I tried to leave room for the reader to interpret how the story ends. By the end of the story, we see an anonymous human character who symbolizes Hunter’s relationship with God. Ultimately, Between These Walls is a story not about an issue, but about one man’s journey. It offers a glimpse into subtle changes that occur in Hunter’s heart as it churns through moments of private honesty.

Now, I'll be upfront with you on my own opinion held for many years. Homosexuality is not a choice and therefore when an individual begins to recognize his or her own situation, then there should be an automatic source of support and guidance to help that individual choose what is best for their future. Hopefully, that place would be the church if they want spiritual guidance. My opinion of the church, however, is that it has failed--badly--in the entire spectrum of sexuality in today's world... Whew! 'Nuf said. Now it's your turn, LOL

The Bible refers to the church as a family. It refers to us as brothers and sisters,
treating each other as members of the same family. Churches should be a place of refuge, just as families provide refuge. Unfortunately, finding refuge in some churches can be difficult, or perhaps it exists but isn't “advertised,” so people live without knowing it’s available. I believe many churches don’t know how to address the topic, so they leave it unspoken. That doesn't rock the boat—but it also leaves struggling souls feeling alone. That’s not intended as a criticism on my part, because I have my own slew of faults. I just want to offer a perspective some might not have considered.

Well, John, my thoughts are the same except mine are more critical of the church. Nobody can not see the changes sexual issues has brought to today's world. If the church is to be responsive, then it too must talk to the woman, or man, at the well, just as Jesus did... But I realize that I've had many more years to have seen the differences in church and all elements of society... 

 John, I want to again commend you on the characters you've created. Although the two main characters are, of course, Hunter Carlisle and Gabe Hellman, I thought that the two pastors were a realistic presentation of the what I referred to above as the positive and negative sides, the latter quite well! I was a little disappointed, however, with Hunter's pastor, from this standpoint. Everywhere we look--in the media, television, motion pictures, printed materials--sex surrounds us. Personally, I believe the church must take an active role, not as passive counseling/listening, in helping Christians with their sexuality issues. Otherwise, we are, truly, as your title states, Between These Walls, and I define that as being alone. Am I expecting too much that Hunter's pastor should have offered to spend time with him, should have offered a basis that could lead to guidance and decision-making choices?

No, you’re not expecting too much. I tried to imply that to the reader when Hunter visits his pastor on multiple occasions. Perhaps if I introduced more specific dialogue, I would have felt obligated to delve into more chapters of pastoral discussion. My primary goal was to focus on Hunter’s heart and inner journey, and the impact other individuals make upon his heart. Because the book is a mainstream novel, I introduced his church life as one aspect of his journey, but felt an overemphasis might have drawn readers away from the crux of Hunter’s story. On a similar note, a tragic event occurs toward the end of the novel (avoiding a spoiler here!). Originally, I had planned to delve much deeper into the aftermath of that event, but realized it would have pulled the novel’s focus away from Hunter’s journey and refocused it there. So it all boiled down to keeping a balance with events and allowing Hunter to maintain ownership of his story.

Ahhh, understood. And I understand that my own concerns about the church is not the primary theme of your book... This helps me and others clarify the basic theme of your story nicely.

When Hunter is dating Kara, they have mutually decided on a no-sex before marriage relationship. Two parts to this question...
   Was Hunter really using that excuse because he had no interest in having sex with Kara?

Deep down, he had no interest in having sex with Kara. However, Hunter wasn't at a point in his life’s journey where he could admit that to himself. And he does believe in saving himself for his one and only, though he doesn't have a perfect track record there, either. Like all of us, Hunter tries to make sense of where he is.

 The other part is more general. As I mentioned above, the world uses sex in practically every communication media these days and is becoming even more blatant daily, in my opinion. Can Christians really be asked to willingly follow this direction? And, if so, how do we deal with the "secrets" that are created when those individuals
begin to have sex anyway? Can we really expect young people to listen from someone preaching from a pulpit and continually saying "don't" without some other type of answer to what their peers are saying and doing?

Ultimately, the Christian life is based on an individual relationship: the
relationship between the individual and Christ. It’s a living, breathing relationship. The church has its role, but if a Christian found himself stranded as a castaway on an island, a church congregation wouldn't exist in his vicinity, yet his relationship with Christ would still exist. Each Christian is at a different point in his/her journey with Christ, and he/she makes decisions across a variety of subjects. The rub comes when Christians—regular people—come together, who are at different points in their journeys, and try to dictate how another individual should live out his/her relationship. The truth is, we don’t know where anyone else is along their journey. And that’s what I wanted to illustrate with Hunter: Some would look at him as an evil person because he’s attracted to other men. Yet Hunter has a fervent, heartfelt love for God—but his acquaintances can’t see his intimate moments with God. (Readers are invited into those moments.) Just because Hunter’s acquaintances don’t see those moments doesn't mean the moments and love don’t occur. We only know the small aspects we happen to see.

Excellent responsive answer...Even if we still have no definitive answer. That, to me, is exactly why we cannot ever make judgments against somebody else...

Let me expand the coverage of your book by spotlighting that I found that your book has value well beyond the homosexual issue explored. The way it is written, it is quite easy for any individual to substitute their own sexuality issues, male or female, straight or gay. Ellen was a good example of showing that problems are encountered and fear builds up in just about any type of intimate relationship. Which all leads to my question. How, if, and why should the church be involved in helping sort out sexuality issues for individuals in an intimate relationship? Or should the church be involved at all?

Again, the Christian walk boils down to the relationship between Christ and the individual. I believe the church is relevant and should be accessible for the full span of issues in life. The question I tried to pose was this: Do individuals know the church is accessible for “their” issue, whatever that issue might be? The church is an institution, but more than that, it is a body of individuals. Can we go to those individuals and find love and mercy? Will we find people who will keep our confidence? In other words, have Christians—and the other people in our lives, as well—matured to that point? 

In your book, you provide resource material, including a study guide. I mentioned I wanted to throw some of these questions back to you to answer yourself in order to give readers a chance to learn more about what is covered...Here's the first one: 

Hunter has kept his sexual attractions a secret for 14 years. Was there a time in your life when you found it easier to build walls around yourself than to face the truth?

Definitely! I’m an introvert who internalizes almost everything! In that way, my protagonists and I are alike. Like Hunter (and everybody else), I’m on a
journey. In some areas of my life, I’m in that walled stage. In other areas, I’ve opened up. Two years ago, I released a nonfiction book, 8 Reasons Your Life Matters, where I open up about some of those walled areas. For those who read e-books, you can download it for free at most retail sites. (That’s not a plug! It’s just an attempt to offer more transparency than a quick answer here.)

I'm glad you mentioned that. I downloaded it months ago, but haven't read it yet, but understand it's been a hit across the now look forward to reading it even more!

Hunter has solid faith, yet he harbored a secret. Do you consider his actions hypocritical?

Not at all. Hunter holds a genuine heart for God. His motive isn't to deceive. In fact, he craves the opportunity to open up but doesn't know who he can trust with his deepest secret, someone who will still love and accept him where he is, regardless of how that looks. If he knew who that person was, he would open up in a heartbeat. And the fact that he questions whether his actions are hypocritical shows his sincerity. We’re not hypocrites for being in a growth pattern. I’d view hypocrisy as pointing fingers at others while denying we have our own issues. (Did I mention I have my own issues?! Just being real here!)

Well, I'll definitely admit I've had issues all my life--not the same ones, but, still, places where I've felt lost...

Did you find any aspects of this novel a particular challenge?

If Hunter feels vulnerable in a chapter, or if the reader feels vulnerable reading a chapter, then it's safe to say I felt vulnerable writing that chapter.  Several chapters invade Hunter's privacy, where Hunter is alone or we explore his sensitive thoughts to which we wouldn't otherwise have access. Those chapters proved challenging for me due to the vulnerability of allowing readers into the most sensitive realms of the male psyche. Hunter would never talk about what went through his mind in those chapters, but I needed to delve into them to tell his story.

Why did you incorporate a faith element into Between These Walls?

When I began writing novels, I had no interest in writing faith-related fiction. I felt it meant a load of rules and red tape for what I couldn't write or explore. But a difference exists between the Christian fiction genre and weaving faith into a mainstream novel, as John Grisham demonstrated in The Testament. When I constructed From the Dead, a prior novel, I had intended to write a mainstream novel with no faith element whatsoever. Its main character, Jesse Barlow—who reemerges in Between These Walls—was a preacher's son filled with regret. As I considered that novel's chain of events and who Jesse was, I realized I couldn't give an accurate depiction of him without delving into his faith background. Once I discovered I could weave a faith element into a mainstream novel in a realistic manner, I fell in love with it. I wanted to accomplish it again: to chronicle a character's struggle in a way readers wouldn't find among the Christian fiction genre. And as a mainstream novel, I don’t need to censor my characters. They are free to behave and speak the way they truly would, as if we overheard them in a restaurant. The one requirement I place upon myself is that my novels are genuine and plausible—which can’t happen if I whitewash the characters or their language.

As I've already mentioned, the merge of these two issues was the main reason I've named your novel as, for me, something new: Best Novel Read in Last 5 Years (or more). For me, your willingness to be open as you've said, gave me new insight on the homosexual male. I've been honored to work with three books in the past on homosexual males, all who were writing about HIV, and did not really get far into the personal internal life. Also, homosexual characters in other books I've read were merely characters within the book and readers were not given the opportunity to really meet them. Your book does just that!
Hunter's internal life, and to some extent, Gabe's, provided readers with all the feelings of fear, humiliation and anxiety of the homosexual, but also gave us immediate feedback on how we, as Christians, are sometimes totally insensitive in normal conversation: snide remarks that can jab a knife into somebody else's heart! I was especially happy to have you include the remarks made in the Bible study group. To me, it is quite different to have a certain belief based upon your religion, than to take a step further and ridicule or laugh at an issue that could actually be faced by a member of that group discussion...

John, could you tell us more about your self-defined role as a "Broken Christian"?

That’s my best catch-all attempt at honesty. Like everyone else, I've made my mistakes in life and had my regrets, and although I’m a Christian, I don’t feel I’m the best representative of Christ out there. From another angle, I've heard it said that writers are wounded people, which I consider true. Writing is great therapy. It’s difficult to dig into the depths of human despair (and joy) without having experienced the deepest degrees of those emotional realms. I dealt with a lot of years of depression growing up—the 24/7, six-weeks-at-a-time kind. And because, from a young age through adulthood, my interests and internal wiring never seemed to match up with those of the people around me, I've never felt like I fit in with anyone else, including in the church environment, like something’s amiss inside or I never learned something that everyone else did. More than anything, I think that’s the part that makes me feel broken. But that broken feeling comes coupled with a blessing: a unique perspective on life, which becomes a unique voice as a writer and provides a unique degree of emotional “street credibility.” I wouldn't trade it for anything.

While I earlier thought and said this phrase also fit my life, now I know it...

And tell us more about your songwriting? Any songs you can share with us??!!! 

In my novel The Landing, protagonist is a singer-songwriter. As bonus content on my website, I posted a handful of my song lyrics under the guise of his song journal. You can find them here:

I was hoping you might have recorded them, but I wanted to share this one since it obviously has relevance to Hunter's thoughts, don't you think?

I felt alone
I felt I had no one
You and I
Were burned by the sun
It took some time
It took some confusion
It took two hearts
Singed by delusion
And there I stood with open arms
Subject to emotional harm
I wanted to be used
I wanted to be used by you
I never thought twice to play the fool
I saw you as a jewel
Ready and willing to be used
I wanted you to use me
I wanted to be used by you
You opened up
I thought you let me in
Naive was I
From where I'd been
I misunderstood
I missed my call
Each time you asked me to jump
I took the fall
Copyright 2012 John Herrick

I haven’t written a song in over 10 years, but it was my hobby throughout my teens and early 20s. At the time, I hadn't found a way to complete a novel or other long-term creative projects, so songwriting provided bite-size projects. I never pursued it as a profession, but it laid a foundation for my voice as a novelist: dialogue, emotion, word choices. Songs are short stories, snapshots that freeze a moment in time.

In high school, I wrote a song called “Between These Walls.” I wasn't thrilled with the song, so it went in the file cabinet, but the title burned in me for the next 20 years. As I searched for titles for Hunter’s story, something to capture his emotional state, “Between These Walls” proved a perfect match.

Hunter obviously has a personal relationship with God. And we are given assurances we are never alone. Still Hunter, and most of us, still crave the touch--a hug, holding someone's hand... At a church I once attended, I was caught in a emotional situation, started crying and went outside. The pastor followed and chose  to hug me even though he added "we're not supposed to do this" and kept looking around... Needless to say, that hug gave me no encouragement! We have become so isolated and so in fear that we are no longer able to seek touch except through what we are, in effect, not to participate in without marriage...Sex! I think your book allows readers to think of Hunter's feelings, even we females, but this is fiction... What is the answer for real life?

Recognizing and respecting proper boundaries goes without saying. But beyond that, I believe our relationships and interactions would look much different if we allowed ourselves to be genuine more often. Really, we’re all screwed up in some way or another. Why pretend we’re not? Admitting it gives us more credibility to reach out to others. 

You close one chapter with a question "If they couldn't find hope in their church, not even with their pastor, to whom could they turn?" What would you want your readers to discover as a result of your book?

We impact others more than we realize. I’d want readers—and me too—to ask ourselves, “Do we hurt other people for the sake of our pride?” And if so, how much is it worth to hurt another soul? 

Randy, in a flashback by Hunter, responds to the question of whether he knew anybody gay, with "Don't make me puke, Can you imagine how disgusting that would be? They should round 'em up and keep 'em together in a colony or something, like they used to do with the fucking lepers." Yet, later in adult life Randy came and told him he supported Hunter. What do you want the readers to see in that dramatic change of heart?

We all grow. We all deal with regrets about how we've treated people, and I wanted to illustrate that in Randy. Randy made that original remark as a teenager. During those coming-of-age years, amid the insecurities inherent in them, we enter self-preservation mode. For most young males, the mere suspicion that he might be gay is among his worst nightmares. Oftentimes, they overcompensate as a defense mechanism, saying whatever they need to say to either hide the fact those feelings exist or to prove its non-existence. That early remark shows Randy in overcompensation mode. Randy didn't intend to hurt anyone; the poor kid was just scared.

One of the results of Hunter being "outed" was the response of "Christians." One pastor and others immediately took the offense, quoting scripture... Yet another pastor, used many parts of the Bible to explain what really might be the intent of scripture. Bottom line, John, from your study and research for the Book, what does God say about homosexuality?

People can come up with arguments on both sides of the issue, citing words and language translations and historical contexts. Personally, I’d rather look at how God says to treat others: with love and mercy. Love never fails. Love believes the best about others. More than anything, we need to know we’re loved. If love exists, the rest is covered. We can agree, or we can agree to disagree, but we love nonetheless.

And based upon that answer, what do you personally believe about those who identify themselves as homosexual?

Frankly, I don’t consider sexuality a factor that defines a person. We can be homosexual, heterosexual, male, female, black, white, high income, low income, highly educated, little educated, or any degree in between. Those are all surface-level characteristics, but who we truly are—that exists entirely in the heart. It’s the aspect of us that cannot be physically seen, yet it manifests itself in how we treat others.

Thank you John for this wonderful time of discussion! God Bless your continued writing!

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