John Robinson has one of the most interesting “first sale” stories in the business. Yet he somehow manages to trump it with the stories he writes. No doubt his unique plots and off-center characters have sprung from his own distinctive sense of humor—he calls himself an anomaly in the CBA.
A popular speaker and teacher, John also serves as acquisitions editor for Narrow Road Press, the “edgier” division of Sheaf House Publishers.
Writing is your second career. Was it always your first love?
I’d always liked to write, even from my early teen years, and when I was in college I was student affairs editor for the school paper. Years passed though, and that love seemed to fade.
But a decade ago it came roaring back, and in an unexpected way. It was New Years Day, 1999, and I was watching one of the bowl games on TV when suddenly I started seeing something different on the screen. Don’t laugh, but it was almost like watching a movie. During that I was unaware of the passing of time.
When I roused myself I found only a few minutes had passed, but amazingly I had the entire plot of Heading Home completely lined up in my head; it was then just a matter of writing it down and editing it. That process took about a year. Finding a house that would take such a controversial novel proved to be a challenge, though, and it wasn’t until 2008 that it was sold to Sheaf House Publishers. During those intervening years I wrote and sold the Joe Box novels, and began the Mac Ryan series, as well as The Radiance, all of which we’ll speak more of in a minute.
You credit a number of friends in the publishing business—Karen Ball, Alton Gansky, Brandilyn Collins, and James Scott Bells—as mentors. How did you get your first break as a writer?
Okay, you’re gonna love this, because it sounds almost unbelievable. Starting in late 2001 my then-agent began shopping my Joe Box novel Until the Last Dog Dies tirelessly, but kept coming to me back to me with stuff like “they love your writing, John, but the character of Joe scares them to death; they’re afraid women won’t buy it.” To which I would respond, “but my wife’s a woman, and she loves it!”
More unfruitful months ground by, and at last my agent said they’d done all they could but couldn’t place it with anybody. That was in December of 2002.
Flash forward to July of 2003.
The CBA trade show was in Orlando that year, and my agent was attending. As the story was told to me, one night at the show the head buyer of one of the largest Christian bookstore chains was speaking with one of the marketing directors for Cook Communications, which owns RiverOak Publishing. They were talking about this and that when the buyer said in an off-hand way, “Say, I heard you’ve bought a novel featuring a Christian private investigator; that sounds intriguing.”
The Cook guy frowned and said no, he’d heard wrong, they took a pass on it. To which the buyer said, “that’s too bad; we could probably move a lot of units of that.” Not needing a board upside his head—as we Southern crackers say—the Cook guy took that info to his people, and they told him, “okay, see if it’s still available.” The Cook guy found my agent and asked if Until the Last Dog Dies was still on the table. Stunned, my agent said yes, and they proceeded to verbally cut the deal on the floor of the CBA.
True story, and I understand that had never happened before!
How does your faith play into your writing?
I’m a bit of an anomaly in the CBA: there’s not a bonnet to be found in my works, or on the covers. That decision has made my journey in a distaff-ruled industry rather hard, and without knowing God had His hand firmly on the tiller, I would have given up long ago. Maybe that’s why the stories I write—tales featuring regular people taking on nearly hopeless tasks—seemed to almost demand they be told. For some reason those stories picked me.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
Yes. In 2001 I acquired my first agent, a man I’d met at the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference, which at the time was held just outside Santa Fe. He really liked my work and seemed eager to represent it, but unfortunately a couple of months after signing me he had to retire unexpectedly due to family issues. I was devastated, but his departure led to my locating my next agent, who did in fact sell that novel, Until the Last Dog Dies, and the other two in the series.
Let’s talk about your latest book, Heading Home (Sheaf House, August 2010). Please tell us about it.
One reviewer calls it “Left Behind on steroids,” and that’s about as good a take on it as I can imagine (oddly enough, its original title was Gravity Fades, a handle which I still prefer). I guess the easiest way for people to understand the story is simply to quote the back cover copy:
The Bible makes it clear no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return. But it doesn’t say we won’t know the month.
Or the week.
When every Christian simultaneously receives a message that Christ will return sometime in the coming week, the world is thrown into stark panic. Two old friends, hardened combat veterans from the closing days of the Vietnam War, set out on a suspenseful quest to redeem that time.
What they don’t know is they and their entire church have been targeted for satanic annihilation.
Where did you get the idea for the book?
Two sources, really. The first is from an evangelist I’d heard on the radio many years ago (it might have been Bill Bright, but don’t hold me to that). Anyway, he quoted the familiar scripture about no one knowing the day or the hour of the rapture. But then he went on to say something that really grabbed me, stating the verse doesn’t say we wouldn’t know the year, or the month, or the week. He challenged his listeners to consider what we would do if we knew—without a doubt—Jesus was returning for His people sometime in the next one hundred and sixty-eight hours. How would we redeem that time? How far would we go to reach the lost? What risks would we take? How bold would we be?
That man’s words planted the original seed, and then many years later when I read Davis Bunn’s novel The Warning, a tale where a nondescript banker is given a prophetic word from God, I finally put them both together. The result was Heading Home. So far the reviews have been nothing short of incredible, given the controversial nature of its plot; frankly I’m amazed at that.
Three of your books in the Joe Box Series were recently released on Kindle (Until the Last Dog Dies, When Skylarks Fall, and To Skin a Cat). Please tell us a bit about the series.
Private eye novels have always been a guilty pleasure of mine, and a few years ago I started noodling around with an idea: what if I took a rough-around-the-edges PI with a lot of personal baggage, and somehow got him saved? How would he reconcile his sometimes dark vocation with his new, untested walk of faith? What new challenges would this put in his path? I got cranked up about the idea, and thus Joe Box was born.
Short and sweet, Joe’s a Vietnam vet, a former street cop, and for the past thirty years a Cincinnati resident. Having lost his wife and unborn child in a horrific accident many years earlier, he’s an unwillingly transplanted Southerner with a strong code of honor, a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly and who possesses an almost pathological need to right wrongs. Given his life issues Joe also battles a volcanic temper, which isn’t helped by a sarcastic mouth.
In the first work, Until the Last Dog Dies, Joe’s just recently come to the Lord, and the story features him trying to locate—and stop—a serial killer who’s murdering each of the surviving members of Joe’s old combat platoon from Vietnam. The catch is the killer is using as a murder weapon whatever scared each man the most: drowning, crushing, falling, what have you. To help him navigate these uncharted waters Joe calls upon his old mentor from his cop days, a solid but gruff Christian named Tim Mulrooney, and a lady friend, Angela Swain, a woman Joe met at his church. Angela has taken on Joe as a project, trying to help him find his way as a new believer, but reluctantly finds herself drawn to him romantically.
In When Skylarks Fall, Joe is asked to investigate the stalking of country music star Kitty Clark—one of the richest women in America. Although Joe wonders why this famous music legend would have her personal manager ask him to take the case, he accepts it for two reasons—one, he feels sorry for her and, two, he needs the money. The investigation leads Joe to discover not only the shocking identity of the stalker, but a heartbreaking revelation about himself…and Kitty Clark.
Finally, in To Skin a Cat, Joe attempts to settle a personal score, and ends up battling pornography mogul Cyrus Alan “Cat” Tate. Joe sides with the family-values groups that have been trying to shut down Tate’s cankerous world of video and printed porn, but Tate has other ideas when he offers Joe a lucrative position as head of corporate security. The stakes grow even higher with the introduction of “virtual porn,” a type of pornography with more allure than anything Joe ever imagined—and the onslaught of a personal attack he thought he’d never have to face.
To my knowledge Joe’s an anomaly in the CBA, and was a real kick to write!
What’s next for you?
First up is Relentless, the beginning of my Mac Ryan Series. With Mac I’ve taken a man who’ s a little like Joe, but then I’ve given him a darker past and sent him in different direction. The backstory is Mac’s a former Army Ranger whose entire command is wiped out in the early days of the Iraq War due to a disastrous intel error. Later he finds out just how bad that error was. As he’s laid out flat on his back in a Walter Reed Army hospital bed, his fire-scorched back bandaged like Lon Chaney and tranked to the gills, he’s visited by a small, well-dressed, soft-spoken, balding man with hard black eyes. The guy is a G-5 government spook, and bluntly tells Mac the communications lieutenant who’d passed on that bad info is connected. Highly connected. As in United States senator’s son connected.
Mac is given a choice: go public and find his life ruined, or take a medical retirement with a generous—very generous, as in the high five figures—monthly stipend. Not being an idiot, he accepts the deal.
But then he double-crosses the government. Rather than spending the rest of his days getting fat while slurping mai tais with brown-skinned women on a Costa Rican beach, he assuages his guilt by unofficially taking on hopeless tasks that just skirt the edge of the law.
As Relentless begins Mac is asked to find industrialist Jacob Cohen’s missing teenage daughter Sarah and bring her home. But as usual, nothing ever goes quite as planned. In searching for the girl he uncovers an unimaginable corruption hiding beneath a corporate façade…and comes face to face with a ruthless killer known to his victims only by a macabre appellation: Boneless Chuck.
What begins as a simple disappearance morphs into something far more insidious as Mac finds himself plunged into a horrifying world of illegal organ harvesting, at the core of which throbs a devastating nightmare of kidnapping, torture, and madness.
Every dark trick Mac learned in his former trade of dealing death to the deserving will be brought to bear as he tries to keep his promise of bringing Sarah Cohen back home; alive, preferably. In doing so not only will his skills and his fragile new faith be tested to the breaking point, but his very sanity as he battles a grasping evil that stretches across the globe.
But darkness has met its match. The right man is on the job. Because sometimes it takes a fellow who’s spent quality time in the realms of the damned…to send someone else there.
With that one done, I’m putting the finishing touches on my first science fiction novel, The Radiance. Here’s the skinny: Former Special Forces combat officer and now disillusioned pastor Travis Walker discovers hope for his shattered life coming from an unexpected source. A force of mysterious origin, dubbed the Radiance, is causing worldwide intelligence, both human and animal, to advance at a horrifying rate. Worse, no one knows when the effect will stop…or if it can be stopped. The Radiant Project, a crack team of scientists, clerics and military leaders—and headed by Travis’s wealthy industrialist brother Cale—is hastily assembled to combat the phenomenon. Against his better judgment Travis is drafted into this group to give his “everyman” take on things. There he finds himself running on an inside track, battling not only worldwide hopelessness, terrorism and greed, but his own dark and cynical passions as well. And it’s here, in this strange new battlefield at the brink of Armageddon, the wounded warrior finds his hard-won skills being called upon one last time.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Dark chocolate…in any form. I ain’t proud. Failing that, a plate full of country ham, green beans with fatback and new potatoes, and spoonbread.
And as long as we’re at it—and in the interests of full disclosure—I’ve been married for thirty-seven years to my lovely and longsuffering wife Barb. We have two grown sons (one of them married, a missionary in India with a family of his own), and a little daughter waiting for us in heaven—and in the meantime probably driving Saint Peter to distraction. For the conspiracy theorists among us (and you know who you are), I’m director of business development for a large company that does medical contracting work for the military and the federal government.
My favorite movie is Open Range, my favorite musical is The Phantom of the Opera, and my favorite color is blue. Due to a brain injury when I was nine I’m dyslexic, and can only type with my thumbs and index fingers. I also have syndactyly, giving me webbed toes.
Now, aren’t you glad you’ve read this far? I know I am.
This website features writers as well as musicians, so I like to mix it up a bit. Do you have musical, as well as literary, talent?
Yes, I play trumpet (badly). I’m also a baritone, and sing in our church choir…far in the back, so as not to offend those who appreciate good music.
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re relaxing with the radio or an mp3 player? Does music help you write?
For relaxing I like listening to old 70’s progressive rock (ex-hippie, don’t you know) by bands like Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and others. I also like listening to country bluegrass, with my favorite groups being the Oak Ridge Boys and the Isaacs.
Oddly, when I write I have to have silence; I don’t really know why that is.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
A ballad, without question. By their nature ballads tell stories, and those stories speak to me. The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Big Bad John, even Charlie Daniels’ Uneasy Rider…I love ‘em all.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
Major, trending toward minor; given my lineage I have to fight the “dour Scot” syndrome nearly every day. Thankfully I have a warped sense of humor which helps keep that mindset under control
In the story that is your life, are you the tall, dark stranger; the romantic lead; the mythical warrior; the mad scientist; or the child in an adult’s body?
The latter, without a doubt. Even at my age I find water balloons, joy buzzers, and the like the height of humor. I enjoy simple pleasures: the crunch of fall leaves under my feet, a good book, the handclasp of a friend. I strive to have a childlike wonder underpinning all my writing, and while that means my stories will never be high classics to the literary intelligentsia, I hope regular people like them.
I’m a dog lover. Please tell us about your pets.
We love cats, and we’ve owned (or vice-versa) over fifty cats through the past thirty-five years. Our favorite was Middy, a big black brute whose mother was a blue-point Siamese and father a traveling man. With his Siamese heritage Middy had a distinctive meow, and when it was suppertime he’d rub around our feet with a plaintive “naow?” To which we’d answer, “in a minute, we have to open the can first.” Our cats have always given us pleasure, especially when they were little and we watched them do their version of WWE wrestling (I wanted to name one of the white ones Ric Flair, but my wife, with her cooler head, said no).
Thank you, John. It’s a pleasure to have you at DivineDetour.
It’s been my pleasure, Kathy!
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For more information about John and his books, visit his website at http://www.johnrobinsonbooks.com/index.htm
To purchase Heading Home follow these links:
To purchase John’s Joe Box series on Kindle: