Rene Gutteridge is the author of 16 novels, including the Storm series (Tyndale House Publishers) and NEVER THE BRIDGE, the Boo series, and the Occupational Hazards series from WaterBrook Press. Rene is also known for her Christian comedy sketches. She studied screenwriting while earning a mass communications degree, graduating magna cum laude from Oklahoma City University and earning the Excellence in Mass Communication Award. She served as the full-time director of drama for First United Methodist Church for five years before leaving to stay home and write. She enjoys instructing at writers conferences and in college classrooms. She lives with her husband, Sean, a musician, and their children in Oklahoma City. Visit her Web site at www.renegutteridge.com.
Rene Gutteridge is the author of such novels as GHOST WRITER, MY LIFE AS A DOORMAT and the titles in the Boo series. In this interview with FaithfulReader.com's Cindy Crosby, Gutteridge describes how her initial idea for a series about undercover police officers eventually grew to what is now the Occupational Hazards series --- which includes her latest release, SKID --- and shares her thoughts on the difficulties of being categorized under specific literary genres. She also explains how she is able to naturally incorporate her spiritual beliefs into her writing, discusses details about future projects, and reveals how the 1980 comedy Airplane! impacted her writing career.
FaithfulReader.com: I love the Occupational Hazards books! How did you dream this series up?
Rene Gutteridge: Thank you! It started with an idea to do a series about undercover officers. I then decided I couldn't take my idea and stretch it out to a series. I have always been interested in other people's occupations, just because I'm curious, so I thought, why not explore other occupations?
I don't remember exactly how the Hazard family popped into my head, but I do remember wanting to have them be really innocent and naive and pure as they ventured into the world. Even more than that, I wanted to see how the world viewed them, and I think that's what then made this series what it has become.
FR: The third installment, SKID, is hilarious. How was it different from writing the first two, SCOOP and SNITCH? How was it the same?
RG: It was different in that it required an enormous amount of research on a topic I knew nothing about. I felt like I was taking a crash course in the airline industry. Sometimes, I was so overwhelmed by the information that it threatened to suck away my creativity. I had a host of tech advisors, all of whom were extremely patient with me. The other novels in the series were researched too, but not to the extent SKID was. I knew some things about the other two occupations, so it wasn't like starting from scratch.
It was the same in that I knew the tone, pace and style, so that came easily for me. I also felt like I knew Hank better than the other Hazards upon starting the novel.
FR: What do you do to ensure that each book works as a stand-alone, but also works for readers who are reading the entire series?
RG: I really treat each book as its own, meaning I don't rely on former books in the series. I think the Boo series probably reads the most like a series, but I think anyone can pick up one of the books and still enjoy it. I was definitely more intentional in the Hazards series to make them stand-alones.
For those reading it as a series, I have quite a few inside jokes that will pass by a new reader but that a series reader will totally get.
FR: You seem to be having so much fun with the stories, just as you seemed to be in the Boo series. Are you? Or is writing just hard work?
RG: Well, I can't lie, these books are a blast to write. But comedy --- for me, anyway --- is very difficult. I think a lot of people think that a "light read" means a "light write," but that isn't true. It's challenging to find things that are universally funny. For instance, in a suspense book, everyone can relate to the scariness of a stranger being in his or her home at night. But what is funny to one person is not necessarily funny to another.
And then there's the challenge of being funny when your own life isn't full of cheer. Sometimes it can be a good escape, but sometimes it's hard to dig in and find the humor.
But when things are rolling in a comedy, it's immensely satisfying and wonderful and fun.
FR: The Occupational Hazards series is a pretty big change from the Storm suspense series. Do you prefer any particular genre?
RG: What I love is a good story, and I don't necessarily care into what genre it falls. For some writers a genre feels like a cage. But as a professional writer, you must understand how the business works and that branding is a useful marketing tool. You can't just rebel against the system and expect everyone to follow along. You have to have a strategy and an expectation of what it means to depart from the norm.
FR: I must ask: Did you see the movies Snakes on a Plane, Airplane! or Airport when you were getting ready to write SKID? In places it felt like you were spoofing them all.
RG: I have not seen Airport or Snakes on a Plane. I could never watch Snakes on a Plane because I am so terrified of snakes. The previews gave me the chills. When I was researching BOO HISS, I couldn't do any research at night because I was so freaked out! Airplane!, however, had one of the most profound effects on the course I took as a writer. I remember watching that movie and laughing so hard and then, upon seeing it again and again, catching the more subtle jokes. I was thrilled at all the layers of it. So, I would say this book is sort of a homage to Airplane! I even make a remark about Leslie Nielsen in the book. The challenge, I knew, was how to work with spoof in a novel rather than in a movie.
FR: I love how you integrate the faith of the characters so naturally and yet so visibly throughout the storyline. Faith feels forced in many Christian novels, but not in your series. How difficult is this to do?
RG: It depends on the book. Sometimes the faith message is naturally occurring and doesn't need as much guidance from me. But in SKID, I knew it would be more challenging, because so much of what takes place on an airplane is dialogue. I had to show Hank's faith in action before he talked about it. I also left a lot for the reader to fill in. Sometimes I like to provoke thoughts about faith and let the reader imagine the rest.
Another approach I take is to view the Christian faith through an unbeliever's eyes. I like to hear what they're thinking. I show the believer, warts and all. Then the light shines on God and how He even works through fools.
FR: How did you do your research for SKID, especially about the airline industry?
RG: I met a pilot at a writer's conference. In exchange for helping him with his manuscript, he helped me with the research for this book. I traveled to Atlanta where he set up a meeting with flight attendants, a lesson in a flight simulator, and a tour of Delta. The people at Delta were unbelievably kind and generous. I will never forget my experience there. I had about 10 technical advisors on this project, by far the most of any book I've written.
FR: There are seven Hazard children. Does this mean seven novels in the series? If so, does it seem daunting to tie up your writing so far ahead? Or does it feel like security?
RG: There is the possibility of seven, but we always planned on three. It is nice to know you have work as a writer, but it's also very possible to burn out in the middle of a series, especially a long one. Each writer is different. Some could write about one character indefinitely. Others are driven by stand-alones.
FR: What motivates you to write? What do you love the most? What is most difficult for you?
RG: What motivates me to write is the love of story, and the understanding of the power of the words that make up a story. It's a delight to tackle a story. The writing of it is where the difficulty comes in. I think where beginning writers misunderstand the process is believing that difficulty means you're doing something wrong. Every novelist struggles with difficulty in a book. What separates the professional from the amateur is that the professional finds a way through it. The amateur gives up. Out of difficulty often comes some of the greatest parts of a novel. But it's not fun to go through. For me it creates so much doubt in my abilities. Without exception, I always question why I'm doing this and what makes me think I can.
FR: You studied screenwriting in college, and have written more than 500 short sketches and been a drama director. How does your playwriting and drama work influence your novel writing? Or does it?
RG: More than anything, my screenwriting training influenced my novels in pacing and dialogue. I always suggest novelists read screenplays to learn tight dialogue techniques and how to move a story along.
My years of writing comedy sketches and directing drama helped me understand comedy timing. For five years, all I did was write my comedy and watch it performed. I didn't realize how much I learned from that until I began writing comedic novels. It was invaluable to see what worked and what didn't in front of a live audience. There's nothing like bombing in front of a few hundred people to make you reconsider your process!
FR: What do you think would surprise your readers to learn about you?
RG: Well, I'm not very funny away from the written page. I'm the person who makes up the great comeback line 20 minutes later. I tend to be the quiet one in the room and enjoy conversation more when it's one-on-one. I'm the opposite of my eccentric, quirky characters...rather boring, actually!
FR: What sort of jobs have you worked other than writing?
RG: I worked at The Gap and as a secretary for an architectural company.
FR: If you could be anything other than a writer, what would you choose to be?
RG: Definitely something in law enforcement. I seriously considered going in to the FBI when my parents were so worried that life in the arts was not going to bring in a steady paycheck. Turns out they were right! Yet I still get to chase the bad guys.
FR: Your husband, Sean, is a musician. What are the joys and challenges of having two creative personalities under one roof?
RG: Early on in our marriage, we were a mess. We couldn't ever talk about anything creative. I'd comment on one of his songs and he'd be devastated. He'd read one of my pages and not laugh in the right spot and I'd stomp out, totally hurt. Luckily, over the years, we've learned to manage our creative sensitivities. As we've gotten older, we've learned to trust each other's criticisms. But those first few years, we just agreed to stay out of each other's work.
Luckily, we're out of that phase, but we also don't talk much about what we're working on. Occasionally we will, but mostly we don't talk about work. By the end of the day, we're creatively drained and want to talk about anything but that.
When we're both feeling like we're struggling with our art, we watch Miracle. Don't ask me why a Disney sports movie about beating the Russians helps motivate us. We watch it several times a year. I guess that scene where the coach makes his team run suicides over and over and over is a good visual picture of what it's like to be an artist.
FR: What’s a typical day like at the Gutteridge house?
RG: We get the kids up for school, get them ready and Sean takes them. I exercise first, then start writing. I can't write unless I'm drinking or eating something. Drinks of choice are Dr. Pepper, water or caramel machiato. Snacks are Fiber One, Sun Chips or pistachios. I write until the kids get home from school. They get to watch cartoons and I watch "Oprah." On the nights Sean isn't practicing or playing an event or church service, we have family dinners. Then on Fridays, it's everybody's favorite night --- it's movie night. We rent a movie we can all watch and I cook a gourmet meal. Next year, both kids will be in school all day. I will have a full work day every day! It's hard for me to imagine!
FR: What do you enjoy doing when you aren’t writing?
RG: Watching TV and movies, exercising, hanging with the kids, going out with girlfriends, reading People.
FR: You mention in your bio that you enjoy helping new writers and speaking and teaching at writers’ conferences. What is your best tip for aspiring novelists?
RG: Finish the book. I see so many writers give up on their projects when it gets hard. Difficulty does not mean the project isn't good! A talented writer can make it work. That's why there are rewrites!
FR: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
RG: I'm in the middle of a really exciting project. I'm teaming up again with Cheryl McKay, screenwriter of The Ultimate Gift. We really hit it off and wanted to work together again, so I'm adapting another one of her screenplays into a full-length novel. It's a romantic comedy called NEVER THE BRIDE. It will be out sometime next year. Then I start a new suspense project I've waited years to begin.
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