I've had the honor of meeting John at a writer's conference here in Indianapolis a little over two years ago, and also through us being a part of the Indiana Chapter of the ACFW. I've had the honor of being an influencer for Friend Me, which has just hit the shelves. And it's a privilege to give away a copy -- see details on the bottom.
Janet went to be with the Lord in the end of 1989, the result of an unexpected brain aneurysm. We had three daughters then, and I was devastated. I knew God had a purpose in my life, but I was so lonely without her. God graciously gave me a second wife, a loving and godly woman, with whom I returned to China in 1991, and we began a ministry in Beijing.
Beth and I had two more children together, a boy and a girl. I found I had another young family on my hands. So after nearly 30 years of missionary work, I returned to the United States with my family in 1999. That’s when I took the job I have now, working as a software designer for a large corporation.
And for anyone else reading this, and wondering, yes I still enjoy speaking Chinese.
JR: Your debut novel, Friend Me, has just been released -- definitely one of the best suspense stories I've ever read. Would you like to tell us about it?
JF: Sure I would. The storyline itself came out of a software design meeting that I was in back in 2010. I was sitting around with a bunch of other software designers, and one of the guys said that all the great ideas already been done. I guess that set me to thinking about what someone in my position could do — I mean in terms of software — that would really be new, and could actually generate a little income.
I came up with the idea of a website that would offer a virtual friend experience. Like in the book, the service would provide the user an opportunity to build a virtual friend… Not a real person, but someone who would be just as good as real. I guess what sparked the idea was the great number of people that are on Facebook and other social media sites, always looking for friends. Of course the great fear that people who use these social media platforms have, is that they’ll reveal too much about themselves. Everyone knows that the Internet has a long memory. Once you put something online, it’s out there forever. That scares a lot of people, and it should.
So my idea was to let the user build him or herself a virtual friend, one who would be entirely unique to himself, and completely private. No one else would ever know what you discussed. You could share your dreams, your hopes, even your weaknesses. That virtual friend would always understand, always be encouraging, always be supportive.
When I got home that night, I brought the idea to my wife. I was pretty excited about it because I knew that all the technology to accomplish this already existed. The only thing was, no one had brought it all together yet. It would be an ambitious project, but who knew? It might be the next Facebook.
Her reaction both surprised, and disappointed me a little bit. She started by telling me all the things that could go wrong with a website like that. People resurrecting lost children, husbands, fathers, mothers… There would be no end to it. Plus, she said, women would start creating boyfriends, men would start creating girlfriends, and there was no telling how far that would go. As we talked, I realized she was right.
She said, “You’ve always wanted to write a book, so why don’t you write about that? Don’t do the software. Write it as a story.”
So that’s what I did.
JR: The villain is one of the most memorable characters I've ever read. I know it's not unlike asking a magician for the secrets of his trick, but how did you do it?
JF: As I began to write the Melissa character in Friend Me, I’ve wanted her to be someone with whom the readers would feel sympathetic, and at the same time revulsed. A character so evil that she cared only about herself. But at the same time, a character so needy, that the reader would wish for her success. I wanted the reader to be constantly conflicted — being on the one hand wanting her to succeed, and on the other hand fervently hoping she would not.
This will sound ridiculous, but there’s one scene in Friend Me that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it. I won’t tell you which one it is, but I’ll say that it’s one in which Melissa and Scott are the only players. I guess that’s an example of getting into your characters. Friend Me has three main characters, Scott, Rachel, and Melissa. Which one do you think the strongest?
JR: Actually, I'll answer your question "Yes," though in different ways. But let me get to a question I used to ask regularly and gave it a little bit of a breather, but you don't get that break. Do you consider yourself more of an outliner, or more of a blank pager?
JF: I’m a blank pager. I tried really hard to work with a structured outline, and I found that all it did to me was constrain me and leave me wondering if I was doing things right.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t believe in a structure at all. I do. I know how I want my story to begin, and I know how I want it to end. Well, sort of how I want it to end. I do leave the details until the last minute, because I like to be surprised myself. The problem is the middle. A common complaint from editors is that the story will have a sagging middle. Of course lots of us have sagging middles, but that’s another story.
JR: Your book is being published by an established company, Howard Books (a division of Simon and Schuster), but I know enough to know that the author is still a part of the marketing team. What are you doing to market your book?
JF: Another good question. There are all kinds of advantages to going with an established company. I will say confidently that the Lord has really blessed me in putting me together with Howard Books, particularly as a newbie author. Having your book published by a big house means that without lifting a finger, there are multitudes of marketing and sales people with established relationships in hundreds of retail outlets promoting your book for you. Friend Me is already being carried by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, Apple iBooks, Christian Books, Sam’s Club Online, and so many places that I could never reached by myself. I’m so thankful for that.
On the other hand, I’m also doing all I can do on my own to publicize the book. I hired a publicity company to do about 70 blog tours on my behalf. I’ve got a Facebook party coming up. I send multiple tweets and updates every day. I comment on reviews. I’m on Goodreads. I hear these are things that authors have to do, and until I know differently, I’m going to do my best with them.
Yes, doing all that costs money. Here’s how I look at that. Before anybody had looked at Friend Me, I hired an editor to help me with it. Even though it was expensive, I treated that expense is an investment in myself. The result was a better book. Now, from the publisher’s advance, I’m able to reinvest some of that in publicity. I think we have to take a far look, a long view, at this sort of expense. That is, plan with a long-term goal in mind. The Chinese call that a yuan guang.
JR: What writers do you enjoy reading?
JF: My favorite suspense novel of all time was the one that influenced me most, when I was just twelve years old. It is The Power, by Frank M. Robinson. The Power is not even close to being a Christian book, but it so intrigued me that I can say confidently that God used it to set me on the road of seeking to know Him.
In the current thriller genre, I like Lee Child and a few others. The problem with most secular fiction is that it is so replete with profanity and graphic sex. It can be repelling to the point where you simply have to walk away from it. Along with others, I want to be a person that offers an alternative to that, while still providing quality, enjoyable fiction.
JR: When looking at the world, what concerns do you have, and what is your part in being a solution?
JF: I have a friend, not a Christian, reading Friend Me right now. He has a small poster in his cubicle that says, “Jesus is coming. Hide your porn.” He, along with others I know, are strongly anti-God.
So here we are, texting back and forth, and he’s reading Friend Me. He says that he was skeptical about reading anything Christian. I told him one of my big goals was to provide a story that would be a crossover novel, one that could be enjoyed by both Christians and non-believers. One without profanity or graphic sex. He said that generally he liked the graphic novels, but went on to say how surprised he was to be enjoying mine.
That’s the kind of engagement with the world that I want. Novels that introduce the unbeliever to a Christian world view on the one hand, and let the believer feel at home on the other. So, we write first to please Almighty God, and then the reader.
JR: What's next on your writing agenda? And are you considering writing a non-fiction book about your missions or software experiences?
JF: I’m working on two novels, about one-third to one-half done with each.
One is about a family of serial killers that spans a hundred years, begun by a failed missionary to the Pawnee Indians. The have a cultic church that they use as a vehicle for their human sacrifice (emulating the old Pawnee sacrifice). Scott Douglas (from Friend Me) is sent to try and locate a missing girl, the daughter of one of the employees at Know-You AI. And yes, that’s the same company where Melissa worked.
The second (tentatively titled, Follow Me) is about a pastor who is told by a departing evil spirit that if he is forced to leave, he will destroy the man’s wife and daughters. Shortly after, the young pastor dies, leaving his wife wondering, “Who will protect us now?” Of course, there is a strong antagonist who seeks her out. A “Son of Sam” type. Ultimately, only a miracle of God can save her and the girls.
JR: Thank you for your time, John. How can we learn more about you and your writing?
JF: Finally an easy question! http://www.christiansuspense.com .
Thanks a lot for inviting me, Jeff.
Jeff Reynolds to the reader: If you'd like to win a copy of Friend Me, there are three steps:
1. Leave a comment.
2. Include your e-mail address (you can spell out "at" and "dot", such as AuntDotKahm(at)Ant(dot)com.
3. Tell us what you think the scariest thing about modern techonology is.