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Interview with Don Bemis

Don Bemis works in engineering, plays in music and woodworking, and preaches on occasion in the county jail. He has published four novels; the latest one, Dead Aggies Don’t Drive Trains, debuted in November 2011. His most current OakTara release, Mary in Transit, is a fictional look at Zechariah as he found out his wife was expecting their first child.

What prompted you to write this fictional account of Zechariah? What type of research did you do to stay accurate with the Biblical account?

I didn’t really start with Zechariah, but with Mary. I presented a Christmas message called “Ordinary Miracles,” discussing Christ’s extraordinary birth in the midst of a world that had no idea anything special was happening. Could I develop it into a story?

The Bible is the only fully factual source, not to be contradicted. Where it is silent, I could take a little liberty. The Bible really is several references, not just one. Matthew and Mark highlighted themes and events. John emphasized the meaning of the message. Luke was a historian in the modern sense. He carried his narrative from beginning to end in linear fashion, relating apparent impossibilities as matter-of-factly as everything else.

I started with Luke and tried to reconcile the birth account with Matthew. Two true reports must be consistent, even if they seem not to be. It was not as difficult as I expected, especially when I started digging into secular and Jewish history. The Jewish Encyclopedia was a great help. The Internet has oodles of information but takes some mining, because there is no arbiter of accuracy. Satellite mapping sites are a great way to get the lay of the land, which is important if your characters travel.

Then there was personal experience. I grew up in the New Mexico desert at about the same latitude as the Holy Land. Because of this, I could feel the sun, look out for the snakes, and trek up and down rocky roads where nothing ever seems to get any nearer.

Now back to your first question. Before we meet Mary, we meet Zechariah. His story is too good to pass up. Mary spent a few months with Zechariah and Elizabeth and probably left them around the time John the Baptist was born. What better way to start a story about Mary?

Your website and blog are extremely humorous. How does this humor translate into your novels?
That’s how I am. I have sort of an off-kilter outlook, and I’m a storyteller. It would be hard to separate the two.

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
My wife. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and Lois encouraged me to do something with it. She reviews every manuscript before submittal. She has a good eye for detail and tells me if something doesn’t make sense. I don’t always appreciate it until I remember that if she can’t figure it out, neither will the next reader.

Several years ago, I participated in a Jesuit retreat outside Chicago (I’m Protestant, but we got along fine.) They assigned each of us to set a goal as a Christian, write it down, and self-address an envelope with a note about the goal. That was when I first identified writing as more than a wish. A year later, they mailed us the notes. I had not followed through, but that envelope nagged at me.

The turning point was the 2006 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I was selected for a new authors’ workshop on the basis of a chapter from my first manuscript. I submitted it later to The Writer’s Edge, they liked it well enough to list it, and it caught OakTara’s attention.

What’s your biggest challenge in balancing writing time with your other responsibilities?
Eating regularly. If I didn’t have to make a living, there would be a lot more time to write. So far, writing is easier than living by writing.

Problem number two is zoning out. It’s easy to fall into one’s own book. I’m not much of a conversationalist when a story is churning.

What do you consider the greatest moment of your writing/publishing career?
Back in Aught Seven, it was, when a publisher accepted my first book.

Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?
I like to tell stories. Some are true; some aren’t. The true ones come when I want people to feel a story they’ve heard a thousand times, like small-town Mary away from home virtually every time we meet her, or terrified disciples soaked with spray on a wild night while Jesus naps in the boat. The last one is only an essay, not a book.

Heavens to Louie originated as a dream. I was dressed as an angel in an outdoor Christmas play, swinging from a rope, and got wrapped around a tree. I wrote a short story and read it to Lois. She said, “Now you have to turn it into a book,” so I did. After I thought it was finished, I decided to see if anything could be done with a few discarded ideas that hadn’t really gone anywhere. They became the climactic chapter. Credit God, not me.

Count Otto’s Dragon began as a deliberately wretched opening sentence for the Bulwer-Lytton competition. I never entered it, but I did read it to Lois. She said, “Now turn it into a book.” My next experiment was to describe a dismal scene as cheerily as possible.

Mary in Transit came to mind during a sermon. I don’t remember what the sermon was about.

Dead Aggies Don’t Drive Trains also came from a dream after a 3,500 mile rail vacation. I decided to see if I could write a mystery. This is a secular novel, but it depicts Christians in a positive light.

What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
Most of my stories don’t fit cleanly into niches in Christian bookstores, so they must be unique. Let’s think about this:

Some folks are more comfortable with humor than others. If you don’t enjoy humor, you won’t like my books.

I play with language and paint with words. Dialect, simile, and irony lend themselves to illustration.

The subject matter isn’t Top 40. The books aren’t romances (although there is some) or suspense novels (ditto). I steer clear of political themes, and there aren’t any vampires.

My stories are stories, not sermons. Good sermons are great things, but I don’t write overtly evangelistic novels. Maybe that’s because I didn’t come to know my Savior until college, after my reading tastes were fairly well established. Where I have a salvation message, it may come from an unexpected quarter.

Lois just says I’m weird.

Don, thank you for sharing with us!

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