Tombstones and Banana Trees
'We want to smell Africa.' As briefs go, this was perfect. Medad's life story is outrageous - outrageous suffering and outrageous God-breathed transformation - so the task was relatively simple: excavate the story and retell it with all the passion and power that it deserved.
Yet the process was challenging. There were geographical and cultural distances to bridge, a five-day window in which to establish a rapport, build trust and capture the story, and an authentic yet accessible narrative voice to discover. Threaded throughout every decision was the challenge of remaining true to Medad himself, of not distorting the story for the sake of impact and keeping focussed on the core message of the book.
I drew deep on my experiences gained from writing for development charities. I know how to hold my cultural baggage lightly and am open to new expressions of faith and new perspectives on life. I was mindful of all those times over the years when I had to bash out 500 words that told a story quickly and well. And I was grateful for those days spent sitting around the kitchen table as a teenager, watching as my mother served and fed the local homeless men sat beside me. Those were the days when I realized that there was nothing else in life quite as fascinating as someone with a powerful story to tell.
I like Martin. I've known him for a long time and he always struck me as being nicely enigmatic. Something about those eyes of his - so dark and hard to fathom. Anyway, despite this - and despite the fact that I had been employed by his band or record label at various points in various capacities over the years, there were some questions within me when this book got the green light. The truth is that I had an agenda. I'd seen the Delirious journey from start to finish - maybe not as close to the action as some, but close enough. I had my own take on what had gone on, particularly with the middle period of albums like Glo and Audiolessonover. But while having an opinion works well enough when you're sat around the dinner table, it's a pretty rubbish way to go about a book like this. So, I had to let it go. But, I'll tell you a secret... I reckon I got my way after all.
It started out life as 'the toilet book'.
Chris: Why don't you write something that helps people understand the history of Christianity a little better?
Me: Because there are plenty of other big books that do that better than I could.
Chris: Yes, but big books are no good on the toilet. You should do a paperback.
Then there was the lunch - vegetarian Indian, I think - with the editor, where one of us suggested that it would need a good hook, and so wouldn't it be great if it was written from the future? A year later and I was doing things I never dreamed of: unleashing nuclear weapons on Israel, predicting the rise of faith movements and the failure of religion. Weird, but fun. And none of it will be correct, but that was never the point. It was only ever as toilet book.
A week of writing and out came this: a collection of a ten years' worth of thinking about issues of social justice. When it comes to the core of this book - thinking about how to connect with small groups as well as thinking about how to do better at being less of a self-serving citizen - I can only ever borrow from good people. So, like a magpie, I stole what I could from the people I wouldn't have to hide from.
It turned out that there was more fun to be had in thinking about this stuff than I had first suspected. It turned out that exploring what it means to be less of an over-consuming idiot or self-serving faith introspect is a journey that is far better traveled with friends.
The Art of Compassion
It reads like the start of a bad joke: how do you get twelve songwriters to produce a book within eight weeks while they are recording a ground-breaking new album?
I had to work fast - at every stage, building trust with the publisher as well as the artists: Matt Redman, Andy Park, Michael W Smith, Chris Tomlin, Graham Kendrick, Paul Baloche, Tim Hughes, Stu G, Darlene Zschech, Steven Curtis Chapman, Martin Smith and Israel Houghton. I had to fit around studio takes, to know when to speak up and when to hold back, to get straight to the point but not to force it. I needed both a plan of attack and the flexibility in the moment to throw it all out.
And then there was the hardest task of all: how to make a collection of twelve different chapters by twelve different authors work together as a collective whole? The voice of each author needed to be distinct, authentic and true, but the content needed to flow and narrative arc progress, albeit in the background.
I needed tact, great communication skills, sensitivity to the story and the ability to draw out - and develop - a narrator's voice based on a single half-hour interview. I loved every minute of it.
I always feel the need to apologise for this one. Not because it's bad, but because it's not as good as it could be.
So, sorry about that.
'I just cried at the end.' That's what the editor emailed when she'd finished. It's my most treasured compliment.
The same friend who told me to write the toilet book about the church - Chris, the vicar - also told me about Seymour. 'He was the son of ex-slaves, blind in one eye and he was the man who shepherded the entire Pentecostal movement into existence.'
You can't really say no to a pitch like that, can you?
So began my journey with Seymour. It lasted three years, involved multiple rejections from publishers, a great research trip to Louisiana and California and a promotional binge that turned out to be a bit of a burst balloon.
Oh, and then someone threatened to sue me.
The Naked Christian
It was going to be a great book. I'd lacerate my way through the failings of the entire evangelical church community, leaving them chastened and choking on tears of repentance.
Thankfully this dumb-as-a-chicken plan evaporated somewhere around the time I started writing the actual thing. It became clear that the real problem with my faith was in my own head and heart, not the mistakes made by others.
Incidentally it only took me one week to write the book - a week when my wife was out of town and I lived solely in my dressing gown and ate only roast chicken sandwiches. There really is no finer way to create.
Live The Life
Mike had been asked to write a book. He didn't have the time or the whatever to get it done, so he asked me to help. I was working as a Press Officer at the time - and was rubbish at it. So I said yes, took two weeks off work and got on with it. I was 25 at the time, and can still remember the conversation with the editor as I hand-delivered the manuscript on floppy disk.
'Would you like to do another one?'
And that's how it all began.