Matt Litton believes in the power of story to change lives. His new book could very well change yours.
The Mockingbird Parables (Tyndale House, August 2010) examines characters from the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird through a Christian worldview, and in doing so presents compelling questions—and powerful challenges—to its readers.
What in your life prepared you to write this book? Who/what most influenced the book?
In the Acknowledgements at the end of The Mockingbird Parables I point to several people who really played a role in the formation of this book, but I left so many folks out. I love the “divine detour” theme because when I look back at my life in the last fifteen years it certainly is a fitting description of all of these interests and journeys that have come together to equip me to write. I have a passion for theology and have been influenced by some amazing teachers; the same could be said for my experience in the classroom and my love for literature. The Mockingbird Parables is dedicated to my little sister, Rachel, who passed away after her battle with cardiomyopathy. No one would ever call her religious but she lived her life with a spiritual depth and optimism that was contagious. In many ways that loss made me sit back and realize that I might live eighty years and not capture one day of her passion for people, her tenacity for life, and her sense of hope and faith in God. It was her encouragement that changed my story and sent me on the path that led to this first book.
If anyone who writes is honest, they will tell you that writing is simply a product of our experiences, how our family, friends, and faith community have shaped us…I have been lucky enough to come across some really amazing people on my journey and I think that more than anything else enabled me to write The Mockingbird Parables. As far as influences, I am very grateful for too many people to name.
Has The Mockingbird Parables been a work-in-progress for a while, a “book of your heart,” so to speak?
I think today we desperately need the courage of Atticus Finch, the honesty of Scout, the wisdom of Miss Maudie, the work ethic and freedom from debt that the people of Maycomb learned through the Great Depression, the commitment to care for each other that the good Reverend Sykes demanded of his congregation when he closed his church doors and told his people (an oppressed people with very little to give) that they were going to financially take care of Helen Robinson while her husband was in jail, and we MUST rediscover compassion as an integral part of life and faith so that we stop seeing people in our own communities as “others.” These are important aspects of the Gospel that are played out before us in America’s most familiar and beloved novel.
After teaching it for several years it struck me how foreign many of these qualities were becoming in 21st century America. It hit home that the theme of learning to truly love our neighbors was still relevant and pressing today. The theme of the novel is articulated by Atticus who says, “You never really know a person until you climb into their skin and walk around in it”—and at some point those words connected with me reminding me of Eugene Peterson who speaks of our God in Jesus who climbed into human skin and “moved into the neighborhood.” I think no matter how you view it the Gospel is a movement of God’s compassion. God felt it was necessary to show us He could experience humanity in the midst of that process—which is what makes the sacrifice of the Cross so significant. I really believe that practicing compassion—truly caring for, understanding, and connecting with our neighbor is something we aren’t doing well these days—I wish I was better at it.
The other movement in the novel that stood out to me was found in Miss Maudie’s quote, “There are just some kind of men who are so worried about the next world that they have never learned to live in this one and you can look down the street and see the results.” I think when we look at all of the brokenness in our culture, even the things that we rely on our governments to fix, we might need to point the finger back at ourselves—people of faith. I wonder if we were (if I was) really living out the Gospel and caring for our own neighborhoods instead of concerning ourselves with how clearly our messages or our perspectives or our political agendas are heard—I think every congregation in America might find people crowding into their pews.
You end The Mockingbird Parables with a call for Christians to practice a kind of communication that builds community. Can you expound on that?
I talk about this extensively in my final chapter titled The Parable of the Last Word. One aspect of the heroes in To Kill a Mockingbird that makes them so profoundly unique is the way they choose to communicate. In today’s culture where it is more important to be right than to be righteous, where the loudest word (the one that gets the lead story) is more significant than the quiet and steady truth, and where we are losing what it means to communicate (to actually listen) to other human beings face to face—I think Atticus’ ethic of communication is profound. Atticus’s neighbors in the novel (even the good church going folks) have some extremely despicable views about the world, and yet Atticus tells his daughter that no matter how ugly things get through the trial of Tom Robinson to always keep in mind that the townspeople are still their neighbors. It goes beyond the “hate the sin, love the sinner” mantra—he acts as though he has put their skin on and walked around in it. Atticus believes that the views of his neighbors are reprehensible, but he doesn’t allow that to affect his connection to them. He is not shy about telling the truth, but understands the power of that truth. I think Atticus teaches us how to change people’s hearts—not through arguments and propaganda, but through relationship and your connection to them.
You make the point that children—and adults who hold onto a childlike idealism—are key to making the world a better place. Please explain.
In the Parable of Boo Radley and in the Parable of Tom Robinson I look at the children’s view of the world. At one point in To Kill a Mockingbird the character Dill is disgusted by the way the white prosecutor is talking to Tom Robinson simply because he is black. Outside of the courtroom he expresses his disgust (and his confusion) with how the adults are acting. He comments that he might have to just join the circus when he grows up and laugh at all of them. The children clearly see the injustice happening in the adult world and they don’t want to accept it.
I think when Jesus said we needed to become like little children to enter the Kingdom, he might have been referring to that sense of fairness—that idealism that is natural in children. In the novel, many of the adults in Maycomb have grown to accept the injustice of town as the norm—children see it for what it is. I think as we grow older we kind of just accept the wrongs, the injustice, and the sin in our world as a fact of life. I wonder if Jesus doesn’t want us to wake up to the idea that we can change things. I think our faith loses its vibrancy every time we see a wrong and don’t take action. We follow the world’s greatest idealist—can we really walk around speaking the name of Jesus—the guy who conquered death—and just accept the hurting people in the world as normal, acceptable, as just the way things are?
How does your faith play into your writing?
I think everyone has faith in something—whether they see it as faith or not is up to them. I believe the story of the Gospel is so powerful that it glimmers here and there through the cloudiest and darkest of narratives. We are all on a journey and all looking for redemption in some measure—even those of us who reject the Gospel are searching for some vindication or at least trying to make sense out of life. I am struck with the faith of Atticus in the novel; he tells his daughter Scout, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man (the innocent Tom Robinson).” For me To Kill a Mockingbird provided fresh words—new language for Gospel truths that I had become deaf too. I think those of us who grew up in evangelical culture have listened to the same language for so long that it can wake us a bit to notice the Gospel written so clearly in other familiar stories.
Has God ever provided an unexpected “detour” in your life that turned out to be positive?
Sometimes I think that the detours are actually the times I am able to slow down and appreciate the beauty of everyday life. There is nothing like getting lost on a country road when you have nothing to do and nowhere in particular to be. I think God has thrown plenty of detours my way and they always turn out to be pretty grand adventures.
It’s difficult to break into book publishing, but The Mockingbird Parables has already ‘beaten the odds’ by being contracted by two publishers, first Thomas Nelson and ultimately with Tyndale. Please tell us about that. Besides perseverance, what did you learn from this experience?
I certainly feel fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to be published. I believe that my agent Kyle Olund and I came to a place where we really had to decide that this project was in God’s hands—not that we weren’t going to work hard to get it done—but that we needed to surrender to God’s will and just be ok with the results—and let me tell you that is a process. People tell us that we have a really amazing story with this book.
From a publishing standpoint I think you learn very quickly as a first time author that writing and getting your book out there takes an enormous amount of work. I know it was a roller coaster for us at times. I have been amazed at the ups and downs of the process. I have felt really fortunate to meet some really amazing people at Nelson and at Tyndale.
What advice would you give young writers who are looking for their first break in publishing? Do you view writing as a ministry?
Go with your gut. Never let an agent tell you that your book won’t be published. I was rejected by a handful of agents before I found a great one. The truth is some of the people you work with at the publisher will never actually read your book—as horrifying as that sounds it is completely true—they are simply way too busy. You have to make sure your concept is appealing to them. I was able to stay positive because during my time working in publishing it was abundantly clear to me that most publishers can only guess at what books will be successful—it’s definitely not a science. I think it is very important to find someone who believes in you, and believes in your book.
I definitely see writing, like many other ventures, as an expression of faith!
Writing is hard work. How do you discipline yourself to write every day? Do you have a writing routine?
To stay consistent with your theme of “divine detours”—as I look back on the last twenty years—writing has always been a form of rest and relaxation for me. My friend Mike and I began to write in high school and from then on I kept a notebook of poems, short stories, and essays. I was cleaning the basement last spring and found a couple crates of notebooks and was a little taken back at how long I have been writing consistently, because with all the busyness of life I never really paid attention to it as something so constant! I would love to have a great story about how I wake everyday at five in the morning, but I have a full time teaching job and my brain isn’t working that early anyway. Writing is hard work and sacrifice and the writing is only half the battle. In many ways I found the actual writing to be like fishing—you just have to be faithful and show up—it doesn’t mean you’re going to catch anything. I committed three to four hours a night when I was writing The Mockingbird Parables, but the actual writing came to me in increments—only one or two nights a week. I don’t think there is one way to do it though—everyone is different. The truth is as a dad of four kids, the discipline of writing just happens for me when it can.
What’s next for you?
I have another non-fiction project that I have been working diligently on and I can’t wait to find a home for it! I also have a novel that I have worked through for years that I am anxious to get published.
A few fun questions…
When kicking back with a good book, what genre do you prefer to read?
I love to read so my list is always changing but just off the top of my head here are a couple I have enjoyed:
A Few Fiction: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, The Testament by Elie Weisel, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien, The Stand and Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, On the Road by Jack Kerouac…
A Few Non Fiction: My Losing Season by Pat Conroy, On Writing by Stephen King, Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson, The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Williard, Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning, Compassion by Henri Nouwen, Jesus Wants to Save Christians by Rob Bell and Don Golden, Epic by John Eldredge, Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, and Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, Let the Trumpet Sound by Stephen Oates, Wide Awake by Erwin McManus, and Weight of Glory by CS Lewis…
I realize that my reading selections seem pretty random—but I really do enjoy a wide variety of writing styles and authors.
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
My wife makes this dish called chicken poppy seed casserole that is amazing. I also really love pizza.
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?
Music is a huge part of our lives. My wife and I celebrate everything with music and it is always on in our home. We go out to see live music as much as we possibly can. I play the guitar a little bit, but not very well—no one would ever dream of calling it talent!
What kind of music do you listen to when you’re relaxing with the radio or an mp3 player? Does music help you write?
Everything from Otis Redding to Johnny Cash to Miles Davis to U2 to Ryan Adams to Arcade Fire—I could go on and on. Three come to mind that I would highly recommend to your readers: We have followed an amazing band named Over the Rhine for years and never miss a show close to home. I think Bill Mallonee might be one of the most gifted songwriters of the last twenty years. We are also big fans of a very talented Nashville singer/songwriter named Gabriel Kelley.
As far as music and writing go—I usually have something playing in the background while I write.
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
Right now I would be My Back Pages by Bob Dylan. I have been captivated by that song for the last couple of weeks and what it has to say about the way we choose to view the world.
Are you a major or a minor chord?
This is a truly funny question! I love a good progression of minor chords, as long as it is in the key of G, the people’s key (so everyone can sing along). It’s good to be melancholy on occasion but I like to have a lot of people around!
Thanks, Matt! It’s great to have you here at DivineDetour!
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For more information about Matt, visit his website at www.mattlitton.com.
For more information, visit The Mockingbird Parables on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Mockingbird-Parables/122566139519.
Follow this link to purchase The Mockingbird Parables at online outlets: http://mattlitton.com/purchase-the-mockingbird-parables/.