Tuesday, June 2, 2015

JZ Howard Talks About Why He Writes Edgy Christian Fiction

Managing our relationships is one of life's hardest challenges, especially when it comes to our most intimate relationships. JZ Howard's latest novel All of Me Wants All of You deals with some of the complexities of marriage, and life. No one starts a deeper relationship with the intention of failing, so it's a life skill we need to master, or at least work at improving. Howard takes aim at addressing, with frankness, one of the central issues that upend our good intentions.

EN: What’s your take on contemporary Christian fiction?
JZ Howard: Mostly, today’s Christian novels are tame and safe and sanitized, at least they are for non-Christian readers who represent fully half of the readers I’m aiming to reach. Overall, Christian novels reflect a “rose-colored-glasses” view of life. They do not, I believe, reflect real life as most people know it. That’s probably true for a large number of evangelical Christian readers as well. My take? Christian novels are basically G or PG rated, and for many Christians that’s exactly what they’re paying for — no drugs, no violence, no profanity, no sex; certainly very little that’s R-rated and never X-rated. For another kind of reader, R-rated is more like it.

EN: Ok, then describe your alternative. On your website you say, “If you go looking for my books in a Christian bookstore, you won’t find them there.” So what alternative are you offering readers?
JZH: Well, basically a story that’s more realistic and adventurous, but that doesn’t pander to vile behavior and evil themes. That’s a heck of a fine line, to be sure. All of Me Wants All of You is a contemporary love story about a 20-year marriage that’s gone stale sexually. The Christian couple’s libidos are miles apart and each spouse is feeling hopeless. The husband is tempted to plunge into an affair with an attractive younger woman. So right off the bat there are sexual attitudes and behaviors, including descriptions of sex, in the plot. Hardly subject matter that traditional Christian novels venture to explore.

EN: I suppose there's a plot twist.
JZH: Right. Conscience-stricken, the guy voluntarily honors his marriage vow and ends the flirtation before it ever gets off the ground. His doing that early in the story makes a strong statement about his faith in God, and he manages (despite his pent-up physical desires) to stay faithful to his wife and committed to a healthy sex life (in the face of their mutually neglected emotional needs). Meanwhile, she struggles to rekindle her own desires and embarks on a roller-coaster path to change and transformation. I describe the intimate scenes of this process realistically based on a biblical vision of sexual pleasure and unity. Sensual Intimacy, Sacred Sex is the book’s tagline.

EN: The term you use to describe your work is “edgy Christian fiction”. Can you elaborate on this?
JZH: The minute I heard that phrase, I knew it described my work. During the five years I spent writing the book, I never once heard it; I wrote purely on instinct. Since the novel was published last summer, I came across the term and have discovered around a dozen other Christian novelists who are writing their versions of edgier storylines as mysteries, thrillers and science fiction.

EN: But wouldn’t you say that there have always been Christians writing for the secular market? Graham Greene comes to mind here. Is there a classical author you would say who was an example of this? I mean, the whole Christian bookstore subculture is a relatively new phenomenon.
JZH: Well, let’s see, there’s Victor Hugo for one. His Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables were edgy and dark for his day. I’ve always admired Charles Dickens, too. He wrote gritty, even shocking stories about characters who find redemption and love. He was quoted saying: “Depictions of cruelty and viciousness must be allowed. Though darkness must be part of a story, the darkness shall not overwhelm. But if the dark is not truthfully dark, the light cannot be truthfully light.” If anything nails what edgy means, that says it for me. We simply cannot have it one way, and our way only — the sinless way we’d all like it to be.

EN: Your book does touch upon some issues usually addressed less graphically, but in some ways it feels the same as the lighter traditional stuff. Your hero actually curbs his affections for the young woman before he “crosses the line” so to speak.
JZH: Yes, because of his faith. He experiences an internal shift spiritually when he opens himself, while tempted, to the Holy Spirit, and then makes a choice to honor God and his wife rather than his passions. The wife is the heroine of this story, and she does something similar. She’s been shut down for years in certain emotional areas until she risks opening her heart to the Spirit’s leading, which triggers a roller coaster ride of transformative change. Also, a genuine friendship between her and the young woman develops which revolutionizes both their lives. God’s vision for healthy sex becomes the goal for both spouses, and finally their reality. As one book reviewer wrote, “God designed us for love and beauty, and that includes beautiful sex.”*

EN: Issues of love and sex have been addressed for ages. I’ve been re-reading The Scarlet Letter, for example. First time since high school, actually. There’s no description of the sex that took place but it’s a central piece of the story. What’s new in this current wave of contemporary Christian writers?
JZH: Edgy authors are reflecting the age we live in. Our culture exposes us to profanity, addiction, violence, and crimes like sex abuse and terrorism. Sensational news fills our TV screens 24 hours a day. Children witness bizarre behavior at the movies and hear songs with twisted lyrics from their early years on. We are saturated with it. If today’s secular readers open the pages of a sanitized version of life based on moral standards and images of 50 years ago, they get turned off. And rightly so in my book. How then are they going to hear the gospel of Christ and God’s eternal promises if they shun the medium we messengers use?

EN: You mentioned that there are other contemporary Christian writers exploring these waters. Would you say then you’re one of a group now?
JZH: Yes, and it feels great. There are edgy author groups on Facebook and Goodreads, and edgy reader groups, too. A couple of great sites are edgychristianfiction.com and a Google+ community. ECF is today’s equivalent of the Young Adult (YA) category that emerged in the 1980s for teen readers, which filled the gap between Children’s and Adult fiction. Something like it also occurred around 2000 when New Adult (NA) emerged, which defines its audience as 18 to 25. In the case of YA, pioneer authors like Judy Blume wrote savvy, contemporary coming-of-age stories for junior high and high school readers — an underserved market at the time. That’s how I see what I’m doing.

EN: So does this mean you’re going to do a sequel?
JZH: Yes, absolutely. I’ve started drafting the next novel in what I hope will become a series, and I’m thankful there’s a growing number of readers who want such stories. Before last summer, I was writing purely on speculation and gambling that I’d somehow find readers. I was trusting my instincts and leaving the rest to God. And I believe He came through! Now I have faith that there’s an identifiable home for my work that embraces this edgy philosophy.

EN: Say more about that philosophy. Can you define it a bit more?
JZH: Sure. My fiction does not shy away from issues of sexuality and pleasure, spiritual confusion and fear. Human relationships are complex, nuanced, and full of emotional and ethical gray areas. My characters struggle to connect with the Sacred to find the faith and strength to make good choices. As both an author and human being I want to engage with the world rather than to separate from it, to associate with a wide variety of people — whether secular or of other faiths or fellow Christians — rather than excluding them. Jesus was inclusive. In fact, He was edgy!

EN: Then essentially you’re writing as a secular author with a Christian worldview?
JZH: Actually, I’d turn that around and say that I’m a Christian author writing from a secular worldview. Sounds a bit funny, but when I was a new convert to Christianity in the Hollywood TV industry thirty years ago, I wrote my new purpose on a napkin: “My main goal is to present the Gospel in dramatic and far-reaching ways to secular readers.” Basically, that means I identify with all kinds of decent people who live in this fallen world. I want my stories to shine Christ’s light on humanity’s redemptive struggle, so it follows that I write what reflects their reality. Within the boundaries of good taste, my consistent goal is to spin an entertaining tale that carries substance and meaning.

EN: Have you ever had doubts or thoughts of doing something else?
JZH: Doubts, yes. Something else, no. Although, like many debut authors, I’ve worked at other careers to make a living.

EN: So the bottom line is …?
JZH: Millions of people today need the saving grace Jesus Christ and assurance of eternal life, and I see my role as being a servant to that mission and to the message of reconciliation Jesus came to earth to deliver.

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The book is available here at Amazon.com.

1 comment:

Ellen Zebrun said...

Thank you for this great interview with JZ Howard - a very interesting read indeed! What truly struck home for me was his comment that since we are very much part of today's world, we must communicate in a way so that our message can be heard. Otherwise, we set ourselves up to fail. Whether our message is sacred or secular, if it is not written for today's readers, why write it at all? One cannot write in a vacuum - we are all of this world.