W. Dale Cramer Answers The Faithful Fifteen
In this interview W. Dale Cramer --- husband, father, electrician, and author of the acclaimed novels SUTTER'S CROSS and BAD GROUND as well as several published works of short fiction --- talks about his latest work, LEVI'S WILL. He also shares his views on the importance of fiction as a means of self-exploration and explains how one of his novels gave a woman who was dying of cancer an opportunity to laugh and reflect.
FaithfulReader.com: What kind of testimony to your faith are you demonstrating in this book? If you are writing fiction, do you write fiction that is based upon your faith or that has a message for the reader? Is your goal to demonstrate your faith in your writing?
W. Dale Cramer: LEVI'S WILL is a story that I just tried to tell, without worrying too much about how the message would come through. Sometimes, when you know the story itself will leave an impression of something important, you just have to trust it. If I tried to demonstrate my faith in my writing I would probably end up preaching, so I guess I'd have to say my goal as a writer is to get out of the way and let God's truth shine through the story itself.
FR: When did you come to a saving knowledge of Jesus? Where are you today in your walk? Is your faith an important part of what you do?
WDC: After years of mental grappling with various theological, philosophical and intellectual arguments about what is true I finally came to a point where I gave up, about fourteen years ago now. I asked God, "What is it that I can finally know?" The answer was a children's song, "Jesus Loves Me." That's what Romans 8: 38-39 says: Jesus loves me, this I know. That's when everything clicked into place and I finally arrived at grace and freedom. My faith is integral to what I do today. It's what drives me and leads me, one day at a time.
FR: Tell us about your church experiences, how you grew up (or maybe didn't grow up) in the church, where you attend now, your involvement in your local assembly, etc.
WDC: I grew up in Baptist churches in various places because my father was in the Army. For the last several years we've been members of McDonough Christian Church, which is without a doubt the best place in the world for me. I love the people. They come from all sorts of backgrounds --- Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Jehovah's Witness, Muslim. One of the things I like best about the church is they allow and encourage people to serve in whatever way they feel led. I have the best jobs in the church --- I help with communion, I do volunteer electrical work (which keeps me surprisingly busy), and I mop the floor so the kitchen crew can go home after serving Wednesday night dinners.
FR: Tell us about your current church family/fellowship. How does it influence your work?
WDC: They keep me real. They keep me grounded. They appreciate my gifts, but no more than I appreciate theirs. They give me a place of sanctuary, where I know I am among friends, and they hold me accountable. Everything I write goes to the church staff before it goes to the publisher.
FR: Who are your spiritual mentors? Your professional mentors?
WDC: My spiritual mentors are people whose names you would not know. I truly believe we are the arms of God, and that a life lived in genuine mercy and justice, walking humbly with God, will have a long-term influence as great as any preacher. Maybe greater. Professionally, my mentors are my agent and a few of the editors at Bethany House. Wise people, all.
FR: Discuss your calling/mission --- as a writer and as a Christian.
WDC: It's pretty simple, really. I'm called to get up every morning and do what I'm led to do. That day. One day at a time. Learning to recognize and follow the urging of the Spirit has taken me from construction worker to novelist. Where it's going to take me as a novelist, I guess we'll have to wait and see.
FR: What are your Scripture reading habits?
WDC: I have to confess to being kind of sporadic. I try to get in a morning read every day, but sometimes I get busy and don't make it. On the other hand, I'm constantly aware of, and very often referring to, Scripture as I'm writing. I have to hide it in my heart so that it forms boundaries and guidelines for my thinking. The themes for my books are spiritually solid themes.
FR: What books have most influenced your work?
WDC: My style has been influenced more by John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry than anyone else, although I read widely and pay attention to all sorts of styles. My thinking has been influenced mostly by the Bible, but also a wide range of Christian thinkers --- too wide to begin naming names. There is a distillation of Christian thought that I found in a quote from J.I. Packer, who said, "Our doctrine is grace, our ethics gratitude." I love it when I find a universe of truth in one sentence.
FR: Do you read secular fiction at all? If so, who are your favorite authors and why?
WDC: I read everything, but apart from the aforementioned I don't really have a standout favorite. I read a wide and eclectic mix of Christian and secular writers. Recently read: THE DEAD DON'T DANCE, LIFE OF PI, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THEY SHALL SEE GOD, THE ALCHEMIST, a couple of Larry McMurtry titles, some Dubus short stories, and nonfiction from Donald Miller, Elaine Pagels, and Vinita Hampton Wright. Everybody has some sort of truth to tell, something to show you. Sometimes it's a negative example, but that's all right too. God sorts it all out.
FR: What are your other media habits --- television, movies, music, etc.?
WDC: Not a lot of television. I watch a movie now and then, usually with the family, and I'll watch a Braves game when I get a chance. I've always been a baseball fan. I like the Braves, but I'm okay if they don't win the World Series. I loved what Boston did last year.
FR: Do you and your family have any special faith-based traditions?
WDC: Not really. My wife and I are both Army brats, nomads at heart. We've just never latched onto traditions of any kind, apart from stuff they do at church. I love the Christmas candlelight services and that kind of thing.
FR: Tell us about your prayer life and habits.
WDC: I do have daily, pointed, specific prayers, but ninety percent of my communication is in brief notes, memos, and questions tossed off on the fly. I'm also a big believer in spending quiet time in the morning listening, thinking, meditating. It takes a certain amount of silence to find clarity.
FR: Describe what you believe the role of writing in religion is.
WDC: I think the role of nonfiction is to define and clarify and deepen and reinforce. But fiction needs to explore. It should push the edge of the envelope and ask hard questions. It should give us new perspectives, new insights, new ways of looking at ourselves and each other. Sometimes fiction can shine light on truth in ways that nonfiction cannot. No matter what you read in nonfiction it comes across as subjective, as another man's opinion. But when fiction functions on the level of a parable, it makes you work to figure out what you believe, and why you believe it.
FR: Tell us about one or more of your favorite encounters with readers.
WDC: Last year in Kentucky my wife and I met a children's book author at breakfast in the common room before a book fair. She was a really nice lady, and she wanted to know all about my book because she was interested in Christian fiction. During the day my wife attended a talk by David Baldacci, who told about a reader who once came to him with a strange autograph request. Being a nice man, Baldacci wrote what she wanted: "We'll always have Paris." Then he signed it.
My wife and I laughed about it all afternoon. Later, as we were finishing up, the children's book author came by my table and asked me to sign a book for her.
"What would you like me to write in it?" I asked.
"Oh, just whatever pops into your head," she answered.
So I did.
Fortunately, she had a great sense of humor. (So does my wife, by the way.)
FR: Would you share a story about someone you've brought to Christ or share how your writing has helped someone?
WDC: Earlier this year I got a letter from a woman we'll call Mary, whose best friend had recently died of cancer. Theirs was an old friendship, tested through twenty-five years of sharing triumphs and failures, and a love of books and scripture. As her friend was dying Mary would go often and sit with her, just reading books and being there for each other.
When the day came that her friend no longer had the strength to read, Mary tried reading to her, but nothing held her attention. As the disease progressed, there came a time when they could no longer talk to each other at the depth to which they had become accustomed, and Mary began losing her friend before she was gone.
One evening near the end, as Mary sat reading BAD GROUND to herself, she began to chuckle. When she couldn't stop laughing her friend wanted to know what was so funny, so she started reading out loud. Her friend was immediately hooked, and they were able to spend hours and hours together one last time, immersed in the pages of a book. Mary said they laughed and cried together, and nodded in agreement over insights they found there.
She described all this to me and then said, "For that long, rich evening, I had my friend back. BAD GROUND was the vehicle God used, so I thank you."
Writing a book is a bit like building a toy sailboat and setting it loose on a pond: You never know where the wind will take it. You only know that God controls the wind, and He is an awesome God.
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