Ray Blackston of Greenville, South Carolina, worked as a buyer and a broker for eleven years before cashing in his modest 401k and leaving his corporate cubicle to write full time. He serves on the missions committee of his church, has traveled to rural Ecuador on a summer missions program, and coaches his seven-year-old nephew, Action Jackson, in T-Ball.
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November 10, 2003
Ray Blackston talks with FaithfulReader.com reviewer Bethanne Kelly Patrick about his debut novel FLABBERGASTED, touching upon its various themes and characters. He also discusses his travels to Ecuador while on a summer missions program, what he believes the role of the modern missionary is, and his decision to become a fiction writer after spending 11 years as a buyer and a broker.
FR: Obviously there are parallels between your own life and the story in FLABBERGASTED. Tell us about some of them.
RB: The only concrete parallel between Ray and Jay is a letter. All of the rest, well, it's bits and pieces, sometimes a whole bunch of bits and pieces put together to make a certain character, or event, or whatever. For example, I spent a number of years as part of a big church singles group, and for five years I helped plan and organize our yearly beach trip.
FR: With the tone of your writing and the book's cool-looking cover, people are referring to your book as "lad lit," the guy version of "chick lit." What's your response to that?
RB: What's that you called it? That's a new term, to me --- funny! If you look at the content, yes, there's a lot of relationship stuff. But there are also serious issues in there --- faith and salvation, struggles with life choices, tension between the young and the old, the missionary and the yuppie. It's okay, because the truth woven in through the story can sneak up on you --- at least that's what I've heard through a lot of reader feedback. I've only had two negative messages out of something between 500-600 emails. The cover I just love; I mean, it just says fun and adventure! That's Allie in the car, by the way.
FR: You've spent time in Ecuador. Tell us about your experiences in South America.
RB: I got out of a van at this orphanage, and two kids ran up to me, both around six years old. I had one Lifesaver left in a roll, and I gave it to them. They took it, and they shared it --- passed it back and forth until it was gone. It flabbergasted me --- literally --- to see them care so much about each other over such a small thing. They each had one change of clothes and an old soccer ball, that was about it, and they were 90% happier than people with ninety times more stuff. I'll also never forget making a helicopter landing in the jungle --- when the pilot told me we were landing on the tiniest grass strip I'd ever seen in the midst of all that vegetation, I knew I wasn't in Kansas any more.
FR: There's a real contrast between the easygoing beach trip that opens FLABBERGASTED and the mission village in Ecuador. Yet both are places where Jay's faith is tested and grows. Talk about that, and the different ways each place works on him.
RB: In my book, when it's time, the Gospel is clearly presented. The scene in which Jay accepts Christ is not conflicted. Up until then, you don't know who the author is cheering for, and I think that's part of the novel's appeal. These characters are breaking down some stereotypes, and having that contrast there helped to highlight that.
FR: You've said that missionaries are underappreciated, and that Allie is the real heroine of your novel. What do you believe is the role of the modern missionary?
RB: I was befriended by several missionaries, both at home and when I went to Ecuador on a summer mission. The modern missionary is less preacher and more oriented towards relating to people. Church planning and relationship-building are the kinds of things that make a difference --- being culturally engaged and connected to the people you're serving. I know two missionaries who I met at the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at UNC Asheville, Rachel and Doug. Their Bible study is for everyone, especially nonbelievers, and there's no judgment, just talk. After building relationships, these brave and hardworking people earn the right to be heard --- and spread the Gospel.
FR: You organized beach trips for your church's young adults' group for five years. What life lessons did you learn, besides remembering to buy lots of cookies?
RB: I now belong to a nondenominational Bible church of about 800 people, and we don't split off into age groups; instead we have small shepherding groups that meet every week. The beach trips were a blast, but I think it's better to have groups of people at lots of different ages and stages, with different life experiences. Those at different points in their lives can help you fight the battles you're about to face in your own. I think help and encouragement of that sort are much more important than sorting people by age --- that's not so different from sorting by hair color or shoe size when you get down to spiritual matters.
FR: There's quite a cast of characters in FLABBERGASTED, and one of them is based on a relative of yours. Tell us about that.
RB: The character of Asbury is based on my grandfather, who was a pastor --- but he didn't become one until he was 57. Before that he sold insurance to the Gullah people. He was a great man; he and Maurice, I can tell you this, are going to be "co-conspirators" in my second book. And that really was his nickname! My mom didn't know until she'd read the book that I knew that.
FR: Do you think young people are turning to the church more these days, or less? From your travels do you see church life in the South as different from everywhere else?
RB: I became a Christian when I was 13 when my family was living in Texas, but in college and as a young adult I wasn't very interested in church. I wasn't a wild man but I wasn't in a church community, either. I spent a lot of time playing sports, like softball and golf. When, as an adult, I made a recommitment to Christ, I had to try a few different churches. So when I began to write I thought it would be good to have a protagonist who would see things through unchurched eyes, offering a fresh perspective and a little bit of irreverence. Jay Jarvis makes observations that may contain humor, but they also don't contain any bias. He just misinterprets things a lot, and that's where the humor of my book is.
I think we're heading in a direction where more and more young people will turn back to spiritual choices. When you see what passes for entertainment these days, the sexual and violent content has just gone off the map. The bias against Christians, too, is over the top. I think people are longing to take a stand, and in my own church community we see youth flocking in now. In my book some of the people are church hopping --- but that's certainly a better alternative than bar hopping! God is big enough, once again, to use our motivations even when they're off base.
FR: Some critics have said that your plot seems to narrow life's choices to Empty (Investment Banker) or Virtuous (Missionary). Was that a conscious decision? Or do you reject that description?
RB: I like to think it's not about a choice between Empty and Virtuous lifestyles but instead a depiction of a test. How far would any of us go for love? To Ecuador? The contrast between Wall Street and the mission field is as huge as the contrast between a lazy South Carolina beach holiday and an Ecuadorian rain forest. In writing fiction you have to set up these extremes. I hope the message comes across that you do not have to go to Ecuador; any workplace is a mission field if your heart is in the right place. Jay may not go to Ecuador for the deepest spiritual reasons at first --- he's in love --- but I ask you, is God not big enough to use our misplaced motivations for His purposes?
FR: Was it your own faith journey that caused you to stop your "day job" and become a writer? If not, what did?
RB: The one thing I was really good at in my previous career and life was at saving money. I'd been told when I was very young, by one of my teachers, that I had a knack for words --- but it was 30 years before I managed to use it! When I decided that my brokerage job was not feeding my inward spirit, I cashed out my 401(k) plan and took my savings and was able to live on it. I guess I had to live through all of this raw material before I could get it down as a novel.
FR: As a corollary --- do you believe God has called you to write fiction?
RB: My plan is God's plan. When I received the contract to write two more novels, I took it as a positive sign, that God was speaking to me and telling me to continue. God has given me a gift, and I want to use it. If writing doesn't work out, that's fine, too. I was so unfulfilled for so many years, so caught up with doing things my way, that doing things God's way seems easier, even if that means never writing again.
I firmly believe that God told me to stop working as a broker six months before I stopped. My journal of those days showed great frustration. Right before I sold my stock, I went to a writer's convention in Asheville and submitted my badly formatted, rough first 30 pages to a contest --- and won. With all that I'd saved, it was as if God said "This is the manna --- now trust me for the results." I took my bucket of nouns and verbs and shook it up until I got a complete draft. I prayed that nobody would notice it again until I was finished.
FR: FLABBERGASTED has been a huge hit in both the Christian market and in mainstream bookstores. Did this surprise you?
RB: Well, I'd be arrogant to say "No;" the level of the success has been a welcome surprise! However, I think the book has been a hit in both kinds of bookstores because, as I said, Jay Jarvis examines the church through unchurched eyes. It's fresh, not predictable. You're not sure what the characters will do next. I loved working with these characters and love working with them still.
FR: What have you heard from people when you are on the road promoting FLABBERGASTED?
RB: The most common feedback has been from readers saying, "There are people in my church just like this!" Each book in this "set" is going to be like a road trip. That's part of the plan --- to get to all kinds of places. With all due respect to Jan Karon, I'm trying to get out of Mitford and show readers that folks in other churches really are like them --- we all have more in common, whether it's with small children in Ecuador or with a Low Country preacher, than we think. Believe me, there's going to be more of that as I write.
FR: You've said that God must have wanted you to remain single in order to get this book written. Now that it's written, can you see a change coming in your personal life?
RB: I'm dating some. You know, if I'd had a wife and kids, I never would have written this book. And writing this book helped me clarify what I was looking for in a relationship. The message for me that came out of my novel was "would you do this for someone?" The answer for me? YES! I've never told anyone this, but I think my subconscious was sending a message to my future wife. If I were going to date a missionary, I'd want her to be an Allie.
FR: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
RB: My next book will come out in May 2004, one year after FLABBERGASTED. It will be a trade paperback, and FLABBERGASTED will come out in trade paperback along with it. I had a lot shorter time to write this one, with a contract in February and a manuscript due in September. For the first one, I had two years! Of course, at that time I had a low level of knowledge about what it would take to write a novel.
I'll tell you a funny story: in the spring of 2002 I called the University of South Carolina about taking some graduate-level writing courses, and the professor I spoke to explained to me that these weren't things you could just audit. I was kind of disappointed. This spring I called him back and said "Hey, I'm about to publish my first novel; would you be interested in hearing me speak? And they were!"
Right now this feels like a trilogy. I can tell you that there will be a new male character introduced, and other characters will be fleshed out.
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