Saturday, May 21, 2011

The DMZ by Jeanette Windle

Today I'm focusing on a re-release of Jeanette Windle's book, The DMZ. I received my copy through LitFuse Publicity who has done a lot of the publicity on this book. At the Colorado Christian Writers Conference last week, I asked Jeanette if she would do an interview for us, and she graciously agreed. The DMZ is an intriguing read for those who like political thrillers.

1. How did you get started writing, and where has that journey taken you that you may not have expected starting out?

I have written much of my life, whether thesis papers, journals, or communication to family and ministry constituency. During my growing up years at a missionary kids boarding school, we had a heavy emphasis on writing and literature; we were doing full papers with footnotes in middle school and thought that was normal. But as for publication, I had one story published in college, then became a missionary and pastor’s wife and never really thought again about writing for publication until I was stuck down in a small town in southern Bolivia with three preschoolers, no transport, phone, radio, or TV, and my husband gone for two weeks at a time to the Bolivian jungle and mountain churches. By the time I’d read my few English books until I had them memorized, I was so bored I wrote my first book in the evenings once my babies were asleep. That became Kathy and the Redhead, a children’s novel based on my growing-up years at an American missionary kid boarding school in the Andes mountains of Venezuela. 
From there I began writing Spanish-language material for women and children at risk as well as writing as a journalist for a variety of international and Christian ministry publications. I branched out to fiction in part because I was sitting in the middle of stories too big—and sometimes too sensitive—to tell in any non-fiction format open to me. A YA mystery-suspense series, The Parker Twins Adventures, set in a multi-cultural background, led to my first adultfiction release, CrossFire, a 630-page political/suspense novel set in the counter-narcotics war in Bolivia where we were living at the time. Since then have come five more political-suspense novels, most recently Veiled Freedom, a 2010 Christian Book Award and 2010 Christy Award finalist, and its sequel Freedom's Stand, set in Afghanistan.
What I love about writing fiction is the tapestry it offers to weave together countless scattered threads—historical, political, social, spiritual—and the very real people involved,  to create a single impact, a single focused spiritual theme. While the books I write are fiction, the peoples and places and issues they bring to life are only all too true. As to where this journey has taken me that I didn't expect, when I wrote those first articles, stories, and even children's book, I definitely never dreamed I'd ever write full-length political-suspense or that I even had that capacity in me. All to say, learn your craft well now, use your gifts faithfully as God opens the doors, and who knows where God's life path for you may lead!

How do you balance family life with writing?

One task at a time! The reality is that we each have only 24 hours a day. We all have a little bit more to do than we would like to fit into that period. Yet with God's help, we all manage to get through one more day. I will say that my writing life has changed greatly since my children were small. Then I wrote much smaller projects, largely in missions journalism and ministry material. As my children grew, and I had more hours with an empty house, I began writing full-length books.
Now I am basically an empty-nester with three adult sons and a 19-year-old daughter rarely home, so solitude for uninterrupted writing isn't so hard to come by. But my husband is president of an international missions organization, and both of us are involved in ministry that involves extensive travel, so balancing our ministry schedules with quality writing time is the biggest challenge at this stage. Basically, when I'm off the road, I am at my computer writing by 7 AM every day but Sunday.

How does your walk with the Lord affect your writing? And how do you balance time with the Lord with your writing schedule?

The most vital way in which my walk with the Lord affects my writing is that it is always the spiritual struggles, lessons, hope and redemption through which God has brought me that come alive in the pages of my books. If I am madly scribbling away with tears pouring down my cheeks as my characters wrestle through issues birthed out of my own spiritual journey, I've learned by experience those are the very scenes readers will write me about later, sharing how that message impacted their own lives--and how tears streamed down their own faces as they read. As to time with the Lord, I spend time in personal devotions and prayer every morning before diving into my writing, a spiritual discipline I was taught well as a child and still maintain as a non-negotiable in my life.

Since my blog is geared to writers who want to improve their self-editing, could you briefly take us through your process of writing a novel—from conception to revision?

Hmm, that could be an entire book in itself. To describe my process in one word: messy! I'm not one of the 'plan to the last conversation' writers. I begin with research. Before I tackle a book set in a new country or political environment, whether Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Afghanistan, or most currently, the Democratic Republic of Congo, I saturate myself in that place. Histories, biographies, political commentary, regional literature, travelogues, video documentary--I will have easily read 20,000 pages material before I ever pick up a pen or computer keyboard. 
From there I do use internet, video documentary, country maps on my wall, tourist guides giving details of every town and even streets (Google Satellite Maps are incredible for detail). For every place I write about, I also keep a Google Alert set for daily news digests. I follow blogs and travelogues of 'boots on the ground' whose lives and professions mirror the characters I am writing about. And of course on-site travel and extensive input from contacts on the ground who are real-life counterparts of my characters, whether Special Ops, DEA, humanitarian aid, jungle pilots, locals on the ground, etc. Every part of my manuscript will be read by these same sources before going to print to make sure I have no mistakes.
Once I've researched the setting, I have a detailed idea of characters and the first part of the story, a basic outline, what political and spiritual theme I want to weave through. AND I know the ending ( an essential because if you don't know the ending, I can testify by experience that you can end up painting yourself into a corner or wasting months of dead-end writing you have to cut). But my middle outline tends to be rather broad, the details filling in as I get to that part of the story.
In rough draft, I will take a week or two brainstorming all kinds of speeches, personal feelings and spiritual thoughts, descriptions of places I've been or researched, thoughts, interviews with DEA, Special Forces, etc. that give me authenticity to those characters, ideas I plan to work into the book, even if I don't know the order they will come into the story. Then as I actually write the story, I will go back and pull those nuggets from my files. I also keep a notebook through each book so that if I think of anything, even if it is for a future part of the book, a conversation, thought, etc., I jot it down so I have it when I get to that part of the story.
As you can see, my books tend to grow rather like an out-of-control tree rather than a nice, neat building. Which is why if there is one piece of advice I'd give writers, it is to give yourself permission to write badly. Too many new novelists I work with get bogged down in their first chapters because they are trying to write them perfectly. Instead, be willing to write badly, but just get the story down. By the time I’m done my rough draft, I will have a great story with terribly messy prose. Then it is time to prune that overgrown foliage. My brain switches over into edit mode once the story is birthed. Starting back at the beginning, I focus on rewriting, rearranging, filling in plot holes, etc. Then comes one last polish for actual prose and grammar. Since I am as excellent an editor as I am a messy writer, at this point, I am always surprised and excited at how well it has all come together.

What kinds of things do you have to revise once the editor at a publishing house gets done with your manuscript?

In my case, it is ALWAYS basic word count. I am a very 'full', detailed writer, my books running closer to a Tom Clancy or Fredrick Forsythe in length than an Agatha Christie or Mary Higgins Clark. No matter how much I trim myself, the project editor can always find more to trim and tighten. Because I research well and have experts reading the manuscript before it is turned in, I rarely have technical mistakes or plot holes that need addressed. But often the project editor will have good ideas on how to combine or shift around scenes to tighten up the book and action (it always helps to have that fresh eye, because after writing a book for months, you get to the place where you can't see your own faults).

Would you tell us a little about your future projects?

Along with Kregel release The DMZ, set in the guerrilla zones of Colombia where I grew up, my Tyndale House release, Freedom's Stand, sequel to Veiled Freedom, set in Afghanistan, hits bookstores this month. Because of the strong human rights, freedom of faith, and persecuted church themes of Freedom's Stand, I am just beginning a radio/TV interview tour addressing those urgent issues. And of course I am always writing that next fiction title, currently Congo Dawn, set as the name suggests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, specifically in the conflict zones of its northeast Ituri rainforest.

Finally, would you discuss The DMZ? The research, the idea, and the scope of the project?

The idea originated simply because I'd written my first suspense novel, CrossFire, set in the counternarcotics war in Bolivia where I'd spent 16 years, and my publishers wanted another. I'd grown up in what are now the guerrilla zones of Colombia, so it was an obvious setting. But as I began to research, I was stunned to uncover the completely unpublicized involvement of Islamic militant groups in Colombia's guerrilla conflict. Then I came across a Colombian news item that never made our media of Iran trying to push through a “humanitarian aid project” to build a meat-packing plant, complete with airport, in a small jungle town smack in the middle of the guerrilla demilitarized zone, or DMZ--and incidentally 300 kilometers from the closest cattle ranching area. That set me to questioning just what Iran was doing there, which birthed The DMZ.  
In real life, the U.S. embassy managed to derail that Iranian project, which permitted me to use it for my fiction plot. But I'd always wondered what Iran's Plan B was. Interestingly, that Plan B has actually materialized very closely to my plot line within the last year on the Venezuelan side of that same jungle zone in an alliance between Iran and Hugo Chavez, another startling example of seeing my fiction in the headlines.
The theme of The DMZ is best summed up by a statement made by one of the characters in the book: "Those who are not willing to bleed and die for what they hold dear will always be held captive by those who are." A brief synopsis of the story:
When the US loses three major military assets in Colombia within weeks, attention turns to the demilitarized zone, a Switzerland-sized piece of territory handed over to the guerrillas in the vain hope it would make them start talking peace. The death of three American environmentalist activists in the same area bring a UN inspection/ media team to the scene, including environmental journalist Julie Baker. For Julie it is at once a career opportunity of a lifetime and a revisiting of old hurts and terrors as she returns to the place of her birth—and her parents’ deaths at the guerrilla hands.
As Julie’s probing unleashes a terrorist plot that spans from the rainforests of Colombia to the Middle East and the very heartland of America, she must confront resurging issues from her own past. Does God have a right to demand our total sacrifice? Does He have the right to demand our sacrifice of those we love? "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds . . . If anyone comes to me and does not hate (count as of lesser importance) his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters¾yes, even his own life¾he cannot be my disciple (John 12:24; Luke 14:26). Are these just words or a philosophy of life God seriously expects us to apply beyond our comfortable suburban neighborhoods?
When Julie’s own abduction sets off a time bomb that has been ticking under the figurative feet of the United States for more than a decade, her answer to these questions becomes the catalyst that will determine the future course of at least two countries, if not the entire world.

Thank you so much, Jeanette! We appreciate your time and the opportunity to spotlight your work.

1 comment:

the silver of His fining said...

What a great interview! Makes me want to get busy writing to publish.