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Interview with Robert Tate Miller

Robert Tate Miller began his writing career with homespun essays of small town life that were published by Reader's Digest, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul book series. He moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s and wrote successful family-oriented telefilms for NBC, ABC Family, and the Hallmark Channel.

Rob, I believe it is quite fitting for you to be our ACFW Interview guest for the week of Thanksgiving. For your works – on page and screen – tend to embody the themes of hope, faith, forgiveness, thankfulness and love that completely surround this week’s holiday and the upcoming Christmas season. Keeping these themes in mind, what in your life are you most thankful for? And how do these things naturally flow into your writing?
Thank you so much, Morgan, for allowing me to be an ACFW Interview guest. I’m a proud member of ACFW and so appreciate all the organization stands for and does to help and support Christian authors.

I love your question because I truly feel that gratitude is the key to a happy and fulfilling life. As a matter of fact, I think gratitude is a power in and of itself.

As I go about my day and week, I try to remember to give thanks for all the blessings (large and small) in my life. Most importantly, I’m thankful that I was brought up in a home and family that kept God at the very center of our lives. I was raised to believe in a living, loving God with whom “all things are possible.” The 23rd Psalm has always been among my favorite scriptures: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” I’m grateful to know that God takes care of all our wants and our needs. I think what we, as writers, value most in our hearts will naturally flow into our writing. It’s inevitable. At its core, Forever Christmas is all about gratitude.

Where did the idea for “Forever Christmas” stem from? Was there a certain holiday memory or event that inspired it?
I have always loved stories of redemption. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life was my favorite movie growing up, and it is certainly one inspiration for the book. However, I think my life has been an inspiration, as well. Almost all of us have lost loved ones and thought, if only I could have spent just a little more time with that person. What I wouldn’t give for a few more days.

As we go about our daily routine, it’s easy to take the ones we love for granted. But what if we knew that loved one only had a few days to live? How differently would we treat them? I imagine most folks would drop everything to be at their side. This book gives a man that chance. He knows the exact moment he will lose his wife, and he gets three days to try and make things right in his marriage, to show her how much he truly loves her – before it’s too late.

Having written several stories involving Christmas, do the ideas just come easily to you? Or do you have specific writing or brainstorming techniques to help you come up with fresh plot ideas?
I really believe that ideas come when our thought is open and listening to God’s direction. If you’re a plumber struggling with a tricky plumbing problem, you can listen for guidance and figure it out. If you’re a mathematician trying to solve a difficult equation, you can stop and listen for an answer. If you’re driving across country and get lost on some back road, you can turn to God for direction and find your way. I believe the same is true with writing.

We writers have to get our ego out of the way to be inspired. I try to drop my own preconceived idea of how things ought to go and just listen! Now, it doesn’t mean every idea I’ve had for a movie or story has come to fruition. Some ideas sound great at first but don’t have any real roots. They quickly get moved to the back shelf (or the trash bin). The ones that seem to work best are simple and relatable. I think most people can see themselves in the characters in Forever Christmas. They can imagine and feel what they’re going through.

With several film credits to your name as well as novels, would you say your writer’s mind tends to explore a storyline in a more visual way (like film scenes in your head) or with words on paper first?
Yes, I’m a visual guy. I see the story play out like a movie in my head. And my stories read that way. All the movies I’ve written have really prepared me for writing novels. When you’re writing a movie for television, you’re always aware of commercial breaks (there are lots of them, I know!)

Each scene leading up to the break should have a little “cliffhanger,” so that John Q. Viewer won’t go channel-surfing while he’s hearing about breakfast cereal or pain medication. The same goes with chapters in a book. Each chapter ends with that little literary cliffhanger to ensure the reader stays with you. You have to learn how to pace in such a way that your reader will simply have a hard time putting your book down.

How did the journey of writing fiction begin for you? Was there a specific inspiration to do it?
I was born and raised in the South, and we southerners are storytellers by nature. I grew up with relatives that truly loved to tell those old family tales around the dinner table. As a boy, I would sometimes sit there long after my plate was empty and just listen. I think hearing my family members sharing those old stories was my inspiration to later spin a few yarns of my own.

When I was eleven years old, I had a crush on a teenage waitress who worked at my family’s hotel. After she broke my heart, I sat down and tried to write a novel based on my summer love. I got a couple paragraphs in and couldn’t figure out what came next. But the literary seeds were planted! Years later, I ended up writing a screenplay about that summer.

For your screenplays and with your novels as well, what is your approach to balancing the storyline with your faith?
First of all, I try to write books that I’d like to read and movies I’d like to see. My faith in God is at the center of my life, so it’s only natural that I’d write works where moral lessons are at the core of the story.

My movie, Hidden Places (Hallmark), is about having faith in the midst of The Great Depression. Secret Santa (NBC) tells the story of a man who lives a Godly life and gives away his fortune to help those in need. Farewell Mr. Kringle (Hallmark) is about overcoming a fear of loss. You’ve heard the cliché you are what you eat? Well, maybe we are what we write – or vice versa. I don’t think I could separate my faith from my writing if I tried.

If you could go back before publication, what advice would you give to yourself?
Trust that God is in complete control, and He will take you all the way. The whole publication process truly was so harmonious that it had to be blessed. There wasn’t one step that seemed difficult. It all just unfolded so perfectly and at the right time. It was as if I was just a passenger along for the ride. Of course, I went through periods of anxiety and some hand-wringing, but - looking back - it was wasted worry.

Reflecting back, what do you see as the most significant milestone along your publication journey? Debut published? An award?
A number of years ago, I was approached by the Chicken Soup for the Soul authors to write an essay for a compilation called Chicken Soup for the College Soul. Thinking about what to write, I remembered a young college classmate of mine named Kim. When I was a shy underclassman, she went out of her way to include me and made me feel special. I appreciated her kindness, and we became friends. I was heartbroken when she was killed in a car accident shortly after graduation. I wrote about her kindheartedness for Chicken Soup.

Shortly after the book came out, I received a letter from Kim’s mother in Georgia – whom I’d never met. Apparently, a family friend had been in a dentist’s office waiting area, had picked up the book and turned right to the story about my college friend - this sweet woman’s daughter. Kim’s mom was so grateful and touched that her daughter was honored that way in print, she wanted to meet me in person. I ended up becoming close friends, not only with Kim’s mom and dad – but with her siblings, nieces and nephews, as well. I think this tribute essay (in some small way) helped this wonderful family. To me, discovering that writing could be a force for healing was a major milestone. I’ve won some awards for my movies, but they don’t compare to this discovery. Also, going to the ACFW conference in St. Louis this past September was another awesome milestone!

Since your featured book has “Christmas” in its title, I thought readers would be interested to know some of your seasonal favorites. Finish this sentence: Some of my favorite Christmas items are (sweets) ___________, (drink) _______, (movie) _____________ and (tradition) _____________.
Sweets: Cookies! Lots of cookies! Doesn’t matter what shape – as long as there’s sugar in the recipe.
Drink: hot apple cider on a cold winter’s night.
Movie: It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife.
Tradition: The tree - the smell of it, the feel of it, and what it represents. I’ve had a small town tree lighting in every Christmas story I’ve ever written.

Any parting words?
I’m certainly grateful to be part of the ACFW family! I think of my fellow Christian fiction writers as leaven. Your words are helping to raise thought and inspire the world. Keep it up! Oh, and Merry Christmas!

Thank you for being our guest, Robert.
My pleasure, Morgan. Thank you.

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