Today we have an interview with Warren Cole Smith, co-author (with Marvin Olasky) of Prodigal Press: Confronting the Anti-Christian Bias of the American News Media, Revised and Updated, vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program: Listening In.
- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
“I’ve been married for 30 years and have four children, aged 27 to 13. I’m blessed in that what I do for WORLD News Group is fun and I would do it as a hobby if I didn’t get to do it for a living. For hobbies, I enjoy to write, travel, and speak. My outside interests include music. I play a half-dozen instruments – all poorly – but I love playing by myself or with others. Playing music with my kids – all of whom are also musicians – is about as close as I get to heaven on this planet.”
- When did you first want to write a book?
“I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was about 14 years old. I was an avid reader as a kid, and I often had the experience of getting to the end of a great book and having a fulfilled, satisfied feeling. It occurred to me that what the writer had done that caused me to have that feeling was both a difficult thing and a worthwhile thing. It was a skill, a craft, I wanted to learn. About that time, too, my relationship with Christ deepened. So reading, writing, and growing in Christ have – in my experience – always been inseparable.”
- Which writers inspire you?
“So many it’s hard to account for them all. When I was young, I went through a science fiction phase and was influenced by Robert Heinlein. I think I learned about narrative form from him, and that what a great story is really about is people. All the science fiction trappings are just settings. The real story is the story of the human heart. I read a lot of outdoor and adventure books in high school and college. For a while I thought I wanted to be an adventure writer. I published stories in Alaska Magazine and Sports Afield and other outdoor oriented publications before I turned to Christian journalism. So Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Colin Fletcher, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Maclean, David Roberts, and Jon Krakauer have been helpful to me.
I was raised in the South, so I grew up knowing William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor – and love them all. My favorite novel, one I keep coming back to, is Robert Penn Warren’s, All The King’s Men. I’ve also learned a lot from Russell Kirk, T.S. Eliot, Richard Weaver, and others who were in the “first wave” of the early- to mid-20th conservative intellectuals. Christian writers who were important influences were Tolkien and Lewis, John Stott and J.I. Packer. Among folk writing today, I’m not as fluent. I tend to believe that you won’t know if a book is truly great or not until it’s been around for 30 or 40 years.”
- Did you always enjoy writing?
“Well, yes and no. I always found writing satisfying, something that when I was doing it I never worried about whether I should be doing something else. In the movie Chariots of Fire, Eric Liddell says, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure.” I feel that way when I write. That said, I find writing well to be (for me) mostly really hard work. Occasionally it comes easy, but (again, for me) not often.”
- What inspired you to co-author the revised and updated version of Prodigal Press?
“When I read Prodigal Press in the mid-1990s, I had just started a local Christian newspaper and was looking for guidance. This book expanded my vision for what Christian journalism could accomplish. When Marvin Olasky asked me to collaborate on this 25th anniversary edition of Prodigal Press, I said “yes” immediately.”
- Do you have a specific spot that you enjoy writing most?
“I have an office in the corner of my basement where I do most of my writing. It’s not very large or fancy, but it is separate from the rest of my house and fairly quiet – except when my son’s band comes over for rehearsals. Our basement is also his band’s rehearsal space. But that doesn’t happen often. (In fact, I love music, and his band is very good. I welcome that kind of interruption.)”
- What book are you reading now?
“I just finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It’s a remarkable novel. Nearly 800 pages and it never felt long. I’m now reading former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ memoir, Duty.”
- Other than the Bible, do you have a favorite book?
“Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men is a novel I continually return to. I also love Flannery O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being.”
- Do you have a favorite movie? What is it and why?
“I have a lot of favorite movies. The American Film Institute publishes a list of the 100 greatest movies of all time, and my life goal is to watch them all. I lack only a few of the oldest ones. I tend not to watch bad movies. I read reviews and generally watch only those that get good reviews. The exception to that rule would be those movies I have to watch because I’m going to review it or interview an actor or director.
As for favorites: Apocalypse Now had a huge impact on me when I saw it in the movie theatre, when it first came out in the 1970s. I have the Redux version (director’s cut plus a lot of special features) on DVD and watch it about once a year. Blade Runner is another favorite. What I like about both of these movies is that they both wrestle with the question of what it means to be fully human, they both wrestle with what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” Neither of the movies arrives at very satisfactory answers to the questions they raise (from a Christian perspective) but the fact that they take on big questions is what I like about them.
I don’t much care for most Christian-themed movies. If I had to name a few “Christian movies” that I like, I would include Chariots of Fire and Tender Mercies.”
- Do you have a favorite quote?
“Too many to pick a favorite, but if I had to, I think it would be “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.””
- What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
“I tell aspiring writers to write. Write every day, if possible. If you can, get a job that requires you to write. But even if you can’t, write every day, or as close to every day as you can, and show other people what you write. Get feedback.
Secondly: read. I would particularly recommend reading books that have stood the test of time. Read the Bible, read Shakespeare, read the classics of Western literature. They’ve lasted hundreds or thousands of years, and continue to move people, for a reason.
Engineers will often tell you they became engineers because when they were kids they tore things apart to find out how they worked. When I was a kid I tore apart books to see how they worked. When I finished a book that produced an emotional reaction in me, I would often ask, “How did he (or she) do that?” Aspiring writers should read great books and ask themselves: “How did the writer do that? What makes this great story great?””
- Do you have an interesting writing quirk?
“I don’t know if it’s a quirk, or if it’s interesting, but when I’m involved in a writing project, I set daily word-count goals for myself. If I have a book contract that requires me to produce a 60,000 word manuscript in six months, I treat that as a math problem. That’s 10,000 words a month. There are 30 days in a month, so that’s about 350 words a day. If I can write 350 words a day, I can write a book in six months. I write in Microsoft Word, which tells you your word count at the bottom of the screen. On my Day-timer, I write down what the word count should be for me to stay on track, and what the word count actually is. If I start falling behind, I know it immediately, and not a week before the deadline.
Another quirk I have is that I tend to outline non-fiction books, but I don’t outline the fiction that I write (in my fiction I know where the story is going). I usually (not always, but usually) know what the final scene will be in the fiction that I write.
When I write articles for WORLD, I tend to write them more like fiction. I don’t outline, but I have in my mind the opening scene, what the lede of the story should be, and often a closing scene or closing quote that ties the story together.”
- Do you have a favorite book that you have written?
“I Wanna Go Back: Stories of the Philmont Rangers. It’s a history of the Philmont Rangers. Rangers are backpacking guides that work at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. I was a Ranger in the 1970s and it was a lot of fun writing that book. It’s also the book that has developed the strongest following.”
- At what time of day do you write most?
“I write best in the morning.”
- How do you deal with writer’s block?
“I rarely get writer’s block anymore, though sometimes I put off doing a particular project in favor of another project that is easier or more interesting to me. When I get a true writer’s block, the source of it is usually insecurity or fear that my skills are not up to the story I want to tell. I get over that by telling myself that the first draft doesn’t have to be deathless prose. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare. In fact, you can count on this: it won’t be. Just get the story down on paper and then start revising it. Write something, even if it’s wrong. You can always go back and fix it.”
- What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
“When I was in graduate school I wrote a short story that was perhaps 6 or 8 pages long. When my professor and mentor (and later friend) Marion Montgomery gave me back the story, it was so covered with his comments that I could barely read the original typescript. Then, at the end, he had stapled another 4 or 5 pages of comments. The comments were generous, not harsh. What was tough to face was how seriously he had taken the ideas in my story and how much work the story needed to realize the potential of those ideas. He had highlighted my lack of diligence and seriousness not by telling me I lacked seriousness or that I was lazy, but by showing me what rigorous engagement looked like.”
- Favorite sport to watch? Why?
“I’m a baseball fan. We would be here all day if I itemized what I loved about baseball. I love that there’s no clock. I love that – unlike football and basketball – it is played by ordinary-sized guys. It is a sport for Everyman. I love that it’s a team sport that has at its heart the man-to-man struggle of pitcher and batter. I love that it’s a game that teaches us how to be gracious in defeat: a World Series champion will likely lose at least 60 games, a Hall of Fame hitter will get on base only a third of the time. I could go on…”
- Favorite food?
“I’m helpless before potato chips and vanilla ice cream.”
- Favorite animal?
“Cow. Medium rare.”
- Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia? Why?
“Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure why, except to say that I found Tolkein’s fiction more immersive, more convincing as a real world, than Lewis’s.”
- What famous person (living or dead) would you like to meet and why?
“This could be a very long list. But I think at or near the top would be Flannery O’Connor. I would love to sit with her on the front porch of her home in Milledgeville (A Bird Sanctuary) and watch the sun go down and the fireflies come out.”
- If you have a favorite book of the Bible, what is it and why?
“The Gospel of Mark has long been a favorite. It’s the earliest gospel, and it has a more journalistic tone than the other gospels. If John is “poet’s gospel,” Mark is the “reporter’s gospel.””
______________________________________________________________________________Want to learn more about Warren Cole Smith?
Visit Warren Cole Smith’s writer page on World Magazine’s website: http://www.worldmag.com/writer/warren_cole_smith/
You can also follow him on Twitter: @WarrenColeSmith