When I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, my dream was not to be a great newspaper reporter or editor. What I wanted to be was a writer – a novelist, to be specific. In my early 20s, I started working on a novel manuscript entitled “Sisters.” A friend at work was working on a non-fiction book, and we often talked and compared notes and read each other’s stuff.
The dream didn’t die. But it wasn’t exactly alive, either. Perhaps it went comatose for 25 years.
What I became was a shadow artist, as defined by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. A shadow artist sits on the fringe of his or her art, prevented by time or circumstances or discouragement or whatever from engaging the art they might actually want to be part of.
That’s where I was.
I continued to read novels, a lot of novels, in fact. I read across genres – literary and popular, mystery and science fiction. I read a lot of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. I did something I did not do in college – I read the entire works of William Faulkner. And Flannery O’Connor. I read a large number of Southern writers, and subscribed to a few literary magazines, like Southern Review and the Oxford American.
I had largely forgotten about that dream from my 20s, until a decade ago. I met a young pastor in Germany, and I heard a song on an airplane. And that meeting and that song eventually became Dancing Priest.
Perhaps still not serious about the dream, I kept the story in my head for three years, until Hurricane Katrina. That was a major event in the life of my family in Louisiana, and was transformative for me as well. And one thing that happened was that I started writing down what was in my head.
In 2008, I went to a writer’s conference with my pitch and my summary and my 10-minute meeting with an agent and my 15-minute consultation with an editor. Some encouraging things happened, and some discouraging things happened. I kept writing. I sent queries out to all the recognized agents (Christian fiction agents) and got turn-downs from every one of them. I kept writing.
I’ve told the story before. The publisher found me and finally persuaded me to let him publish it. I didn’t expect to tear up the New York Times bestsellers list, and I didn’t. And while it would have been wonderful for the book to receive major attention, the fact is that it didn’t.
But it did do something else. Everyone who read it, even a few who were mildly critical, were moved by it. A few put their finger on something that became more than obvious in hindsight: it is not a work of Christian fiction, as defined by the Christian publishing industry. And it is not a work of general fiction, as defined by the general publishing industry. It is something else again, perhaps a hybrid of the two.
I learned something else. People read it with great care. They paid attention to it. They called it a “big story,” which isn’t exactly the current fashion in Christian or general publishing circles (I should have thrown in a vampire or werewolf, or called it Dancing Vampire). But the people who read it closely made some interesting observations.
One of the most telling was this: that the book read like the author was wrestling with becoming a minister.
I’ve read it twice all the way through since it was published, and I believe I can say it is a work by a shadow artist who’s leaving the shadow behind him.