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Interview with Zachary Bartels

Zachary Bartels is a pastor and Bible teacher as well as an author.

What or who inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve always loved telling stories and, as a teenager, began writing short stories. In college, I realized that I was near-constantly making movies in my mind and decided to start writing them down—first as screenplays and then in novel form.

What genre do your books fit into?
Suspense is the most fitting category, I guess. I bristle when people call them “mysteries,” even though they are. I like the term “supernatural suspense” in that it’s broad enough to encompass my modernized Bible-action stuff.

Where did you get the idea for The Last Con?
In the early Aughties, I was a youth pastor and was asked to do some jail ministry. After going through a semi-rigorous application process, I was placed on a list of clergy, which gave me a fast-pass directly into the jail visitation bay—no metal detector, no pat-down, nothing. And I met with the inmates in a private room with no cameras. It occurred to me, “If I had no morals, I could smuggle anything in to any of these guys fairly easily.” That was the kernel of what became The Last Con—just add mafia, knights, the Inquisition, a youth group mission trip, kidnapping, and heists.

Has your writing required any research? What type?
Oh, yeah . . . I try to do a little of everything, but I like to start with obscure sources in order to get a unique angle/trajectory on my research from the outset. Old out-of-print books via interlibrary loan are great, but so are the kind of newish documentaries that you have to wait two months to get your hands on because Netflix only has one copy of the DVD on hand. From there, I follow up with any cited sources that caught my interest (Google books is a godsend). When I’ve exhausted all that stuff , I do a basic overview through more standard channels. I file everything in OneNote.

What type of books do you read for pleasure?
In theory, I read very broadly, so as to remain well-rounded. In actuality, I read in tiny little pockets of interest: Puritan prayers, systematic theology, crime novels (Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins etc.), Christian living and church life books that lean slightly toward academic and Reformed (Michael Horton, Michael Wittmer, etc.), short stories (I loved B.J. Novack’s collection last year), and edgy Christian fiction.

What type of theme or message do you hope readers will take from this book?
That if we are in Christ, our true identity is not our sins, our failures, or the fake persona we try to create. Rather, we find our identity in Christ. Was it Kierkegaard or Lecrae who wrote, “Our identity is found in the God we trust; any other identity will self-destruct?”

How do your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
I suppose that the spiritual issues I struggle with often become the themes in the stories I write. Not that I’m a demon-possessed serial killer, or am tempted to become one, but that, as a pastor, I often struggle with the tension between faithful ministry that holds up the Gospel, boldly, clearly, and unrevised, and the desire to please people by saying what they want to hear, in order to fill the pews and the collection plate. As a novelist, I get to say, What would that tension look like if it was no longer internal, but turned loose to wreak havoc in a really sensational way?

Reflecting back, what do you see as most significant to your publication journey?
My wife, who is incredibly encouraging, full of wisdom and knowledge of the industry, and a great writer, not letting me give up and spurring me along. Also, my buddy (and award-winning author) Ted Kluck connecting me with my agent, Annie B.

Do you have your own writing space or does your pastoral office double as your writing space? Describe where you write. I write on this old-school portable word processor called an Alphasmart Dana, which I carry with me wherever I go. While I have a few favorite places, I’ve been known to write anywhere and everywhere. There’s a bookstore/coffee shop called Schuler’s right near my house, where I’ve written many, many chapters. And there’s a particular bench downtown, overlooking the State Capitol and the city skyline, where I’ve enjoyed many a cigar while writing away. I try not to write in my study, in order to keep myself on-task, ministry-wise.

Being the wife of a pastor, I understand the time involved. How do you make time for your writing? How do you fit everything in?
My wife is also a writer and we hold each other accountable with our writing goals. We’ve also taken a number of “writing vacations” (sans our seven-year-old) up to a friend’s lake house in the dead of winter, where we get in the zone, feed a roaring fire for days on end, and just write write write.

As a pastor’s wife and a published author myself, I have had differing reactions from our congregation to my writing. How has your congregation reacted to your writing?
My congregation has been AMAZING. They’ve piled into cars and driven long distances to attend signings. They’ve purchased multiple copies of my books to give away as gifts. They’re really supportive. Even though there’s blood dripping down the cover of Playing Saint, older members of the women’s circle proudly bought copies of their pastor’s book. I’m really blessed!

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
1. Focus on writing, not building your online following, despite what the latest (already-obsolete) expert advice may say. So you use sneaky tricks to get 5,000 Twitter followers. You know who they are? 15% are robots. You don’t need that. Robots are everywhere and they eat old people’s medicine for fuel. The other 85% are authors who want you to buy their book. Are they buying your books? Of course not! They’re too busy shilling their own stuff. You’re a potential customer to them, not an author. You can make valuable connections through Twitter, etc., but that’s the exception, not the rule.
I’ve learned that writing first (including blogging) and writing what you want to write will build a far more valuable online followership, even if it’s much smaller than the inflated number you could create. And maybe my experience is atypical, but I had already signed a contract with an agent and one with a publisher before anyone wanted to have a discussion about the number of “followers” I had and how I could leverage that.

2. Don’t slavishly follow a formula. Don’t buy the kit. Don’t make sure you’ve got this or that element of the story at exactly this or that percent the way through your book. And for the love of Pete (whoever Pete is), if you need a how-to book to help you scare up a plot to your story, just wait until you’ve already got a story you can’t not write in the chamber before you start outlining or writing. It’s a sacred thing, writing; don’t rush it. Keep feeding your muse and teasing ideas until you’re really ready.

I’ve attended some helpful workshops (at ACFW and elsewhere) and read some helpful books that have aided me in punching up a manuscript or improving an idea (we can all benefit from the wisdom, experience, and talent of others), but if your readers are going to be pulled into your story, it has to come from within you. It’s like, you might read a book about how to express your feelings to that special someone in a particularly romantic way, but you can’t read a book that makes you feel those feelings to begin with.

What other parting words do you have to share?
If you follow me on Facebook and Twitter, you’ll have good dreams for a month. I mean, maybe you will. I make no guarantees, but what do you stand to lose?

Thanks for sharing with us, Zachary Bartels!
Thanks for asking!

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