Athol Dickson's university-level training in painting, sculpture, and architecture was followed by a long career as an architect then his decision several years ago to devote full time to writing. RIVER RISING, named one of the top novels of 2006 by Booklist magazine, received a Christy Award and his novel THEY SHALL SEE GOD was a Christy Award finalist. He and his wife, Sue, live in Southern California.
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Athol Dickson is one of Christian fiction’s most original suspense writers, and his latest, THE CURE, has as many twists and turns as a bagful of pretzels. As homeless pastor Riley Keep battles alcoholism and carries a suitcase full of good intentions that always seem to go awry, the author develops deeper themes about redemption, miracles, suffering and faith. In this interview, Dickson shares with FaithfulReader.com’s Cindy Crosby his own experiences with meth addiction and homelessness, why he believes Maine is “one strange place,” his views on suffering and worry, and the best advice he ever heard for writing suspense novels.
FaithfulReader.com: This is one spooky novel. What gave you the idea to write THE CURE?
Athol Dickson: Mostly ideas for novels come to me in bits and pieces, or I guess you might say there’s rarely a single idea; it’s more of a long series of ideas. I never know where it’s going to start. Sometimes it’s the setting, sometimes a character, sometimes a single event. My imagination gets captured by something and I think, “Now, THAT’S interesting,” and I keep it in the back of my mind as other things come along. I look for ways to connect them up, and connections often mean I have to add this or that to bridge the gaps, and before you know it I have enough interesting little tidbits pulled together to start the story. It’s like setting up the pieces for a chess game. You can’t start playing until they’re all there on the board, and you have to put them there one by one, but when you have them all lined up, you just know it’s time to start. What you don’t always know is how the game will go, exactly, or where each piece will end up.
FR: THE CURE is set in Maine, and there are some colorful colloquialisms that it seems like only a Mainer would know. How did a Californian like you immerse yourself in all things Maine to write so colorfully about this location?
AD: Oh, I’m not a Californian. I spent almost all of my life so far in Texas, and will always think of myself as a Texan. But that doesn’t answer your question, does it? I guess it might even make things more confusing! The thing is, I think it’s easier in a way to write about unfamiliar people and places. If I had to set a story in Dallas, Texas, it would be very hard for me to choose the most interesting parts of that place or the interesting mannerisms of those people, because for me everything is so NORMAL, you know?
But Maine…now THAT is one strange place. Where else would such wildly liberal people elect so many Republicans? And they have their own language, which sounds a lot like English at first, but then if you get a few of them together and they forget you’re standing there, sure enough you find you can hardly follow what they’re saying. Do you know what a “beetah” is? How about a “puff” or what it means to “kife” something? (An old pickup truck, a blanket or comforter, and “to steal.”) I went up there several times to research the novel and came away with pages and pages of notes. Every little thing is interesting. The way the waitress pronounced a certain word, the way they tie tall cane poles to fire hydrants so the snow plows won’t knock them over, the way they measure lobsters to see if they are legal (they have to throw them back if they’re too small, or if they’re too large…go figure). So basically the short answer is I just went up there and listened and looked around and wrote down everything. It’s such a fascinating place, I decided to set WINTER HAVEN there as well. (That’s my next novel.)
FR: The fictional idea that there is a “magic bullet” to halt alcoholism is one of the backbone themes of THE CURE. What are the ethical and moral dilemmas of modern “cures” and their costs (such as the AIDS vaccines), and did this play into your thinking as you wrote your novel?
AD: AIDS medications never crossed my mind. But I did think a lot about other less clear-cut situations, like liposuction or stomach stapling, or psychotropic drugs, or a bad marriage, or a problem child, and so forth. We have to be very careful here. To say, as some Christians do, that problems like obesity or depression are rooted in a spiritual failing is to ignore the very real causes that have nothing to do with human choice.
Some people are obese because of the way their body processes food, and God gave them that body. I know a woman who would be considered overweight by almost any standard, yet she eats reasonably and exercises regularly. She even ran a marathon last year. And many faithful people become clinically depressed due to physiological changes brought on by diseases such as hepatitis or mononucleosis, or by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy. There are many other reasons for depression, some of which remain unexplained medically.
So we should not go around saying these people should just pray harder or apply some willpower, any more than we could say that about someone dying of AIDS. In fact, the danger is the same, because what if someone takes that advice and ends up committing suicide, or dying of obesity-related diabetes, or gets beaten to death by her husband? I certainly don’t want that on my conscience. I figure when it comes to whether something like that is spiritual or physiological, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
But I do think a lot of Christians in the U.S. tend to view afflictions the wrong way. The apostle Paul asked for his “thorn” to be removed three times, and God did not respond, “Have it surgically removed” or “Take a painkiller.” God had a use for that thorn, right where it was, and Paul was fine with that. In fact, Jesus promised everyone who follows him a thorn --- or worse, a cross. Yet so many of us seem to focus so much time and energy figuring out a way to pluck that thorn or lay down that cross.
FR: How did this play out in the novel?
AD: In THE CURE, I wanted to take a hard look at that. I asked the question, “When is a curse a blessing?” and the answer that I found was, “Whenever God uses it for good.” Remember Joseph’s response to his brother’s apology? Joseph was a man who understood that we serve a mighty God, who can use even evil to create blessing. My father had a serious mental problem the last few years of his life, which caused him to be very emotionally abusive to my mother. I asked her once why she remained. She said, “Two reasons. God hates divorce, and I love your father.” That has been an inspiration to me ever since.
I often think about the fact that God chose the cross to save the world. He could have done it with a snap of His fingers, so to speak, but He chose to hang there while we tortured Him to death. To me, that says a lot about God’s thinking on suffering. He considers it necessary sometimes, and who am I to argue otherwise? But He also wants us to know that we never, ever have to go through it alone. That’s one reason why He chose the cross: to prove He knows exactly what it costs to make the sacrifice He’s asking for.
So it seems to me the first thing to do when suffering comes is not to search for a way to stop it (although that might well come later), but rather to offer it in service to the Lord. If God then decides to leave that thorn right where it is, we can be sure He has made that choice because, in the long run, it is the perfect thing to do.
FR: You made the character of Riley Keep seem real. Have you spent time volunteering in shelters or working with the homeless? If not, how did you create such a believable world?
AD: I spent some time many years ago on the verge of homelessness, sleeping on other people’s couches and floors because I had no place else to go. And I have firsthand experience with addiction. In the 1970s I had a problem with methamphetamine. Those were very dark days, which I try not to think about, but they served me well when writing THE CURE. I also know a guy --- I have known him very well for a long time --- who has been an alcoholic all his life and has fallen into homelessness. So I’ve seen it through his eyes and, to some extent, through my own.
FR: Riley Keep had so many good intentions that went awry. Tell us about how you used his decisions to develop his character.
AD: I wanted people to understand that Riley could be any one of us. I knew going in it would be hard to get readers to understand that, because so few people who can afford to buy a book can really identify with a homeless person. I also knew most readers would have had a bad experience with an alcoholic, so that was another hurdle. But at its heart THE CURE is not really a novel about homelessness or alcoholism, as you probably noticed. So I wanted to make Riley a character who transcended all the stereotypes.
Here we have a guy who is literally living in the gutter, yet he moves heaven and earth to save a friend. He knows he has caused more damage to his loved ones than anyone could forgive (without Jesus) yet he tries to make it up to them anyway, and he does that expecting no forgiveness in return. I love this guy. He makes a terrible mess of things because he doesn’t understand a basic fact of life, but I still wish I had a heart just half as big as his, even while he’s lying in the gutter. I hope readers feel the same by the time they’re done with THE CURE.
FR: I was impressed with the level of suspense you laced throughout THE CURE, just as you did in some of your earlier novels such as THEY SHALL SEE GOD and RIVER RISING, and the stunning developments at the end.
AD: Thanks for the compliment! I definitely learned by reading suspense and mystery novels. I have a few hundred of them on my shelves, by all the bestselling authors any suspense reader would recognize. The best advice I ever heard about writing a good suspense novel is to get your guy into a lot of trouble right from the start, and then get him into more trouble, and just keep doing that until the end.
FR: There are several point-of-view changes among very different types of characters. As a writer, how do you get inside people’s skin to write from their perspective?
AD: This is hard to explain. I do spend a lot of time preparing to write a novel by thinking about who the people in it are, where they came from, why they act the way they do, and so forth. By the time I start writing, it’s almost like they’re friends or neighbors in terms of how well I know them. But most people couldn’t really write a scene from a friend or neighbor’s point of view, so that’s not the whole explanation. I think it has to do with an ability to lose myself in the moment as I write; to imagine that I am that person. You hear actors talking about this sometimes, and it’s much the same for many authors.
FR: I loved the line that Willa speaks, “It’s not the thing you’re worried about that will kill you so much as it is the worrying.”
AD: Oh, worry is a devil. I asked my grandmother once, when she was about 80, what one bit of advice she would offer if she had to boil her life’s lessons down to one. She didn’t pause a second before saying, “Never worry.” I hate worry. It’s one of my most frequent requests of God to eliminate it entirely. Worry is an act of faith in something other than the Lord. It’s a way of saying, “I don’t really trust my Maker with tomorrow.” You can’t have worry and faith simultaneously. And I do believe it will shorten your life. I believe that literally, because it adds so much stress, and I believe it in the sense of enjoying life. Think of all the todays we did not really get to live because we spent so much time worrying about tomorrow!
FR: Some readers might question the decision Riley makes in the closing pages of the novel. If you can (without spoiling the plot), explain why Riley made the choice he did.
AD: Well, as you say, I don’t want to give the ending away. But I will say there’s no easy answer at the end of THE CURE. There is a “happily every after” ending, but that’s not always the same thing, is it? Remember the thorn. Remember the crosses Jesus promised. And remember: “Judge not.” It might be that some readers will not agree with Riley’s choice, but no one can say he made it for the wrong reasons, because it’s pretty clear he does it for love of God, as a sacrifice, a way of picking up his cross, and who are we to say how God responds to other people’s crosses?
FR: What’s on your nightstand, reading-wise?
AD: Right now I’m reading an advance copy of NOBODY by Creston Mapes. It’s very good. A real page-turner, with a fascinating premise. Before that it was an old Elmore Leonard novel, and before that I reread three in a row by Ross MacDonald.
FR: How does your university training in painting, sculpture and architecture help you in your fiction writing --- or does it?
AD: It absolutely helps. Art is art, when it comes to process. You begin by identifying the creative problem (this is often the most difficult part), then you break it down into its constituent parts, then you solve them one by one, and finally you put them back together. Voila! A work of art. There’s a sense of mystery to it also, of course, an instinct that cannot be taught, but that basic process works no matter what medium you’re working in.
FR: When you’re not writing, what do you most enjoy doing?
AD: I love road trips and boat trips. I love moving around, seeing new things, meeting new people, and learning as I watch the world go by. It feeds my work and keeps me growing as a person.
FR: What’s next for you, writing-wise?
AD: My next novel is WINTER HAVEN, due out next spring. As I mentioned before, it’s also set in Maine. I’ve very excited about this one. It’s pretty wild. It has fog that never lifts, frigid air for no apparent reason, a lost Puritan colony, Vikings, accountants, romance (yes, accountants and romance!), prophetic visions, polar bears, and on and on and on. Sometimes I start laughing as I work on it, knowing that the curiosity is going to drive some readers crazy. But it would be a big mistake to skip to the end, because it’s the getting there that’s the most fun.
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