By Jeff Reynolds
Today, I have the privilege of interviewing my favorite author. Randy Singer has ten novels out, and his eleventh, Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, is due out this May. Also in his portfolio are the novella The Judge Who Stole Christmas and a couple of non-fiction works he'll describe in the interview. Does an accomplished author like this have a day job? No. He has two, which are also mentioned below.
I've read his first nine novels as well as his novella. My favorite is The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney (recently re-issued under the title The Judge). One of the best Christian novels I've read is Self-Incrimination. Not only is the story great, but he takes the challenge of telling it in the first-person from a female perspective and having the protagonist of an earlier novel play the role of antogonist.
Jeff Reynolds: Randy, first it's an honor to interview you. If memory serves me correctly, you were a lawyer for the North American Mission Board (Southern Baptist). That sounds like an interesting position. What was it like, and how did that experience prepare you both for your literary career and your current day jobs of litigation lawyer and teaching pastor?
Randy Singer: For several years I had the privilege of serving as the lawyer for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and as an Executive Vice President. NAMB’s mission was to help Southern Baptist Churches start new churches and share the gospel in North America. I worked with some of the most dedicated Christians I have ever known, both at the National and State levels. When you are part of something that big, there’s never a dull moment!
One of the greatest things about that job was seeing God work in diverse ways. From cowboy churches to hip urban churches and everything in between, it was great to see the different ways churches were adapting to their culture in order to share the gospel message with credibility.
Being around some of the best evangelists and apologists anywhere helped me understand a few things about our culture as well. For one thing, God showed me the power of story. At first, I wanted to write an apologetics book. As a lawyer working at a mission board, I thought I could come up with a unique perspective. But as I started writing that book, I discovered that everything I was saying had already been said by people smarter and more eloquent than me. Then God showed me how reasoning and logic will often fail to penetrate the defense mechanisms that people have built up. But stories go straight to the heart. One day, as I was flying in an airplane and the person next to me had his nose stuck in a novel (probably to avoid talking to me) I realized that he would spend twenty or thirty hours absorbing the worldview and philosophy conveyed by the author of that novel. That’s when God called me to be a storyteller and to share the deeper truths in life through novels.
My work at NAMB also helped prepare me for my dual jobs as a litigation attorney and a teaching pastor at Trinity Church. The heroes of the Southern Baptist Convention are the many bi-vocational pastors who do what Paul did–work in a secular pursuit and at the same time pastor a church. Among other things, this allows those of us who are bi-vocational to stay in touch with people who never darken the door of a church and reach them in ways that we could never do if we were only pastors. I also had a lot of experience with church starting at NAMB and this helped prepare me for my job as the first teaching pastor at Trinity Church, a place where I have been serving for the past six years.
JR: A subject that's discussed in writer circles is the preferred method of writing: Plotting/Outlining versus Seat of the Pants/Blank Page. Which approach do you use? Or does it vary from story to story?
RS: I am a very committed plotter/outliner. Before I begin drafting my books, I will typically have a twenty-page outline and a very clear vision for the twists and turns in the story, including the ending.
However, now that I’ve concluded eleven novels, I realize that the final version of the book seldom looks much like that twenty-page outline I put together at the beginning. Does that mean I’m going to start writing by the seat of the pants? Not on your life! If nothing else, the outline gives me a security blanket and allows me to write with a direction in mind. You might find this shocking, but as a lawyer and pastor I tend to be somewhat verbose. If I didn’t have a detailed outline with an ending in sight, I think my books would be 800 pages. They are already on the long side so I’d better stick to the plotting approach.
I’ve found that many times I will write the book from the original outline until I get about two-thirds of the way through and then I’ll throw in a plot twist which changes everything. This makes it harder for the readers to predict the plot twist because I didn’t even know it was coming myself when I wrote the first two-thirds of the book. My perfect ending is a twist that catches the reader by surprise but still seems “fair.” The worst ending is something that catches the reader totally by surprise but feels like an ambush because it came out of left field and there were no clues or foreshadowing along the way.
JR: One thing I enjoy about your novels is the development of your antagonists, like "Ichabod" in Directed Verdict, Irreparable Harm, and The Judge Who Stole Christmas and Mitch Taylor in Self-Incrimination. How do you create such interesting characters?
RS: Thanks for the encouragement. I work hard at developing three-dimensional antagonists. For each story, I will actually construct an entire biography for my antagonist. What made him/her that way? What motivates him/her? What redeeming qualities does he/she have? Etc. I’ve found that hardly anybody starts out in life just trying to be evil. In his/her own warped view, the antagonist usually believes that his/her actions are justified.
Most of that biography will never make it into the book but it helps keep the character consistent and realistic.
I also work hard to make my antagonist at least equal in terms of cunning, force of will, discipline, etc. to my protagonist. Even better if my antagonists have superior traits so that my protagonists can be the underdogs.
Next, I’ll have my antagonist do something that is admirable or noble. As a lawyer, I’ve learned that even the most despicable people have moments of honor.
Finally, I will go through the entire book once I have the first draft written and read it (and rewrite it, if necessary) from the POV of the antagonist. What would he/she be thinking here? What would he/she know here? How would he/she react?
JR: At this moment, you have eleven published novels. Which one was the most enjoyable to write? The most frustrating? The most rewarding?
RS: This is a really tough question. It feels like: “Which of your children is your favorite?”
But since the Fifth Amendment doesn’t apply to author interviews, I’ll try to answer.
The book that was probably the most enjoyable (i.e. easy) to write was False Witness. It was my fifth novel and the first time I took the pressure off and quit trying to evangelize readers and just allowed myself to tell the story. The main character was based on a former friend of mine who had been in the witness protection program and had led a very colorful life. Writing that character was easy. There were also law students and a crusty old law school professor and a cool black lab—all of which are familiar parts of my life (I’m the crusty old law professor). The settings were Atlanta and Las Vegas, two interesting cities. That story came easy to me and to this day most people say it is the hardest one of my books to put down.
The most frustrating is probably a two-way tie. The Cross Examination of Oliver Finney and my most recent book, Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, both stumped me. For both, I thought I had the plot all figured out at the beginning but really struggled to bring it all together in the end. I can distinctly remember during The Cross-Examination of Oliver Finney having such severe writer’s block that I had to get away from my normal patterns of life and go to the city that was the setting for the book, stay in a hotel away for about a week, and go for long walks and runs until I could work through everything in my mind. I isolated myself from everyone until I figured it out.
About halfway through my most recent book, Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, I called my publisher and said that the book just couldn’t possibly work. It was time to move on to the next book instead. Karen Watson, my editor, talked me down from the ledge and told me to keep working on it. I'm very grateful because I think it’s turned out to be one of the strongest books I’ve ever written. It eventually came together and I look back on it now and find it hard to believe that I was ready to quit on this book.
The most rewarding book is always your first book, isn’t it? For me, Directed Verdict is when I learned that I really could write a novel and that people might actually read it and enjoy it.
But that book is now being surpassed by the one I’m currently working on. The Advocate will be released in time for Easter, 2014. That story is proving to be the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve had as a writer. I tell people that I was born to write this book.
JR: There are additionally some non-fiction works in your portfolio. Could you tell us about them? How did your fiction experience influence your non-fiction writing and vice versa?
RS: One thing I’ve learned is that both fiction and non-fiction are ultimately about storytelling. There is a reason that Christ taught in parables. Our brain is hardwired to respond to stories and our hearts are drawn to them. A good non-fiction book captures truth through real-world stories.
One of the non-fiction books I co-authored with my friend, Bob Reccord, is the book Made to Count. As leaders at a mission board, we were advocates for the biblical principle that laymen and laywomen are just as “called” as those who surrender their lives to full-time ministry. Made to Count is the story of men and women who share the Gospel in all kinds of ways (through their occupations, in their neighborhoods, etc.) outside the walls of the church. In church life we sometimes inadvertently treat those called into full-time ministry as the true spiritual giants and others as second-rate. Bob and I wanted to tell about the heroes that minister beyond the bounds of traditional ministry. For example, the book starts with a man who cleans port-a-johns for a living and includes those serving Christ in a number of secular professions including, believe it or not, lawyers!
I also wrote the The Cross Examination of Jesus Christ because I was intrigued by Christ’s confrontation with the lawyers of his day and what those confrontations teach us. The book contains a number of my personal experiences that I use as examples for how Christ can work in the most unlikely among us.
JR: One subject I find interesting both in regards to writing and to life in general is mentoring. Who would you consider your writing mentors? Also, you undoubtedly have had opportunities to mentor as an author, a lawyer, and a pastor. Any advice for us in either mentoring others or being mentored?
RS: I've had wonderful mentors in all areas of my life, including ministry, my law practice, and writing. Four Christian authors who welcomed me to Christian fiction and have been very helpful along the way are: James Scott Bell, Angie Hunt, Brandilyn Collins and Robert Whitlow.
Mentoring others is one of the highlights of my life. I presently have a group of about 15 young men that I mentor on Sunday evenings. I’ve also had the awesome experience of mentoring high school boys who don’t have fathers in their lives. These young men become like sons to me and seeing them succeed in life and grow closer to the Lord is its own reward. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to see my latest surrogate son play football at the college level which has been a fun experience for a guy like me who was too small and too slow to have that kind of career.
JR: A common denominator/thorn-in-the-flesh your three responsibilities have in common is research. Does your research in one field ever light a spark in one of the other two?
RS: Great question. Many of my novels are sparked by real-life cases. God has given me a very interesting, diverse and challenging case load at my firm. Many lawyers end up doing the same kind of mundane cases week after week and year after year. However, I’ve had the privilege (I guess you could call it a privilege) of being involved in in some of the most unbelievable cases you could possibly imagine.
And usually, somewhere in the middle of a case, I’ll say to myself, “This would be a great novel but nobody would believe it!”
When a lawyer prepares a case for trial, there’s an enormous amount of research that goes into that subject matter. As novelists, we are taught that we write best those things we know the most about. For me, it’s a natural thing to let my real-life cases bleed over into my fictional ones.
For example, a little over two years ago I represented the daughters of Hamilton Somerville in a high-profile case where we sued their step-mother for poisoning their father. I learned more about evidence for modern-day poisoning cases in the context of that litigation than I could have learned as a writer doing months of research. Another example is a case I tried arising out of a school shooting. That case formed the basis of my book The Justice Game.
Readers often respond to authenticity in the stories that we tell. Nothing makes a story more authentic than basing parts of it on real-life events that we’ve lived through—actually experiencing many of the emotions and traumas of our main characters.
JR: My guess is that your pastor's heart carries over into your legal and literary duties. What are your greatest burdens/concerns, and how do they motivate your preaching, writing, and litigating?
RS: My overriding concern is for those who have never experienced salvation through Christ. Each of my messages on Sunday, and each of the books I write, are designed to help people take another step on their spiritual journey. Many of my books are designed to raise important spiritual questions and allow the readers to sort out the answers on their own. I’ve learned not to “preach” in my books. If people want to hear me preach, they can come to my church. My books should just tell a story that will entertain and, hopefully, point subtly toward some spiritual truth.
I’ve built a law firm on the principle that we should minister to our clients both by seeking justice for them and by being open to their spiritual needs. When people come in my door, they are frequently going through the biggest crisis in their lives. They need someone who will be a loyal advocate and not judge them. And yes, they need someone who will fight hard for justice. But they also need someone who will level with them and tell them the truth about the reality of what they are facing, both legally and sometimes spiritually. I hope that I can provide all the above.
JR: I am grateful that you took the time for this interview considering how full a plate you have. What should we look forward to on the publishing end? And if we visit your church, what will you be preaching on?
RS: As I mentioned in response to a previous question, I think that my next book may be the most important book I’ll ever write. It’s called The Advocate and it’s a first-person account of the two most important trials in the history of the world–the Trial of Christ and the Trial of Paul in front of Nero. Of course, many brilliant scholars have studied, dissected and reconstructed the trial of Christ in the past two thousand years. But we know very little about the trial of Paul in front of Nero. The Advocate is being written from the perspective of Theophilus, the court-appointed advocate for the Apostle Paul and a man who was an advisor to Pilate during Christ’s trial. My hope is to bring these two epic events alive in the context of this story.
At church from now until Easter I’m preaching on the final seven days of the life of Christ. Easter is my favorite day of the year and I’ve seen God do some incredible things during this season of Lent.
JR: Thank you for your time and may the Lord Jesus Christ bless you.
RS: Jeff, thanks for asking me to do this interview and for your very thoughtful and insightful questions. I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of interviews but your questions were unique and very insightful. Bless you!
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You can learn more about Randy Singer at his web-site, http://www.randysinger.net