Tim Downs: "For me, creating a story is like building something with Legos. When you have only one Lego, you have nothing but an interesting piece; but the moment you get a second Lego you automatically try to fit them together."
Tim Downs is easily one of the best writers in fiction, period. His knack for description and quirky characters really draws the reader into the worlds he has created. Add to that, the fact that the characters in his novels cross paths and meet one another, one gets the sence that he his building a fully orbed world worth entering.
His Bug Man Series have been very popular and we have reviewed the last two titles in the series, First The Dead and Less Than Dead, both of which we adored.
Recently we caught up with the author to ask him some candid questions about his writing style, the tightrope of being a Christian author and writing what’s “real,” and what’s over the horizon for him in terms of his most popular character, forensic entomologist Nick Polchak.
This interview has been reprinted on NRT with permission from The Christian Manifesto. Click here to visit TheChristianManifesto.com today!
First, we’d like to thank you for taking the time to interview with us.
Glad to be here. I just passed another birthday, so I’m glad to be anywhere right now!
For those who might not be familiar with you, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get your start in writing?
My first job coming out of college was writing and drawing a syndicated comic strip I created called Downstown. I drew it professionally for six years and five years before that for college newspapers—that was about 2500 comic strips all in all. That experience gave me a lot of practice developing characters, formulating plotlines, and writing dialogue. I retired the strip in 1986 and for years I’ve worked as a professional speaker, which is really just another form of storytelling. I finally decided to combine all my experience and try my hand at a novel.
Alright. Let’s just dive right into questions. Nick Polchak is one of the quirkiest characters in all of Christian fiction. How did you come up with the character, especially his physical features?
Years ago I read an article in a science magazine about the emerging science of forensic entomology. I found it fascinating and repulsive at the same time, and that’s when I knew I had the makings of a great character. When it comes to crime fiction it’s all been done before—hard-nosed cops, street-wise detectives, tough-guy private eyes—but a forensic entomologist is a complete outsider to crime scenes. He’s just a scientist—a guy who got a PhD in insects, for crying out loud. That kind of “fish out of water” status suggested a fresh and unusual character—Nick Polchak. I gave Nick his enormous spectacles to reinforce that “outsider” status. Nick is always looking at the world through a microscope. He never quite belongs, and that allows him to look at the world in unexpected ways.
You’ve written four books that feature Nick as a main character and he has a brief cameo in Plaguemaker. As the character has developed for you, are you always aware of what his actions will be or does the character you’re writing ever surprise you?
Nick often surprises me. Once you do the hard work of creating a character in detail, he begins to take on a life of his own. You’re no longer just putting words in his mouth; he comes up with his own words. I “know” Nick, in a sense, and I can “predict” what he’ll say in different situations. I just decide on settings to put him in and characters for him to interact with, then I watch and see what he comes up with. It’s a lot of fun.
One thing that is noticeable about the character—besides his huge eyes—is his lack of Christian faith. Why have you chosen not to make your character a Christian and, after four long books, chosen to leave him this way?
Your question touches on a much larger one: What makes fiction Christian? Personally, I think there’s a wide range of answers to that question—or there should be. To some Christians, a book is not Christian unless it portrays Christians doing Christian things—or at the very least non-Christians in the process of conversion. But I believe a story can be much more subtle and still be very Christian. For example: a story that expresses a Christian worldview; a story that recommends a Biblical value; or a story that simply captures the fallenness of the world and the depravity of human nature. Some Christians want the Christian elements of a story to always be obvious and up-front, but I believe a Christian story can be subtle, symbolic, or metaphorical. Some Christians think a story is only “effective” if the message is clearly spelled out; it’s interesting to note that Jesus often didn’t teach that way. He relied heavily on stories, and His stories were not always obvious; they required work on the part of His listeners. I believe that in using that approach the Lord was teaching us something about the human heart and mind and the power of subtle communication to engage the imagination. You’ve asked a very important question here, and I believe it’s one that Christians need to give serious thought to.
Have you experienced any backlash for your decision?
One of my goals in writing is to challenge Christians to rethink their definition of Christian fiction. I think we need a much broader approach to fiction that will have the ability to reach a much wider audience. It seems like a shame if all we do as Christian writers is to write stories about Christians doing Christian things that only Christians will want to read. Not everyone agrees with my philosophy, but it’s central to what I do.
Less Than Dead is the most recent story that features Nick. Tell us a little about the writing process for this title. Walk us from formative stages to finished product.
For me, creating a story is like building something with Legos. When you have only one Lego, you have nothing but an interesting piece; but the moment you get a second Lego you automatically try to fit them together. When you have a number of Legos, a complex structure begins to emerge. That’s how a story comes together for me. The “first Lego” for Less than Dead was an article I read about cadaver dogs. The “second Lego” was the fact that a presidential election would be occurring just a couple of months after the book would release. Then I remembered a facility I had once seen at a distance in northern Virginia—the Canine Enforcement Training Center. Once I have these very vague and very basic building blocks, I begin to do research and reading. That leads to even more pieces and then the story begins to develop. I put together a plot summary—a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of what happens next—and then I begin writing the book itself.
Do you have any plans of revisiting Nick’s character in the future?
Nick is a great character, and I’m not finished with him yet. In each of my Bug Man stories I try to put Nick in a different setting and focus on some unique facet of forensics or entomology. Readers often ask me why I won’t let Nick settle down and be happy; one of the reasons I leave his character largely unchanged is that I want to use him again!
Your first two stories featuring Nick were published through the Simon & Shuster imprint, Howard Publishing. You have since signed a contract with Thomas Nelson Publishers. How has that relationship been? How are things different? How are they the same?
I loved the folks at Howard and I’ve loved working with Thomas Nelson. I made the switch simply because Nelson is so much larger and can bring greater resources to the marketing of my books. Writers often fear that they’ll get lost at a larger publishing house, but that hasn’t been my experience at Nelson. Both houses are similar in that they’re made up of very caring, compassionate, and dedicated Christians.
What’s next on the docket for you in terms of writing?
I have a third Bug Man book coming out in early July of ’09 called Bug the Dead; it’s the third and final installment of my three-part Dead trilogy (First the Dead, Less than Dead, and Bug the Dead). After that I have a very unusual story coming out—a real change of pace for me. That one’s called Angels Unaware. At least, that’s the working title; a writer never knows until the publisher commits.
Let’s switch gears for a minute. Let’s say someone is aspiring to be an author. What is some advice you would give them in terms of the craft? In terms of their own personal character?
I would tell them, “Try not to write like everybody else is writing—it’s already been done. We need some fresh voices out there.” I tell aspiring writers to write about the things they find fascinating; you don’t want to spend six months writing something just because you think it will sell. In terms of character: Someone once asked me what quality separates writers from non-writers. I answered, “The ability to make yourself sit down at a computer and not get up until you’ve typed four hundred pages.” Ultimately, that’s the character quality you need most: discipline. Writing is not just about writing; it’s also about rewriting, rewriting again, and then sometimes throwing it all away and starting over.
How has your faith in Jesus Christ informed your writing?
My faith has given me a reason to write; I have things I want to say. I went to college to be a sculptor and a painter. In my freshman year I became a Christian and soon my attitude began to change toward a career in the fine arts. The problem was that sculpting and painting were intensely personal, almost like therapy, and I had things I wanted to communicate. That led me to graphic design, then comic strips, then speaking, and now writing.
Let’s reverse that question. How has your writing informed your faith?
It’s given me a greater understanding of Jesus’ strategy as a storyteller. We often assume that the basic problem with human beings is mental—they lack information, and if someone would just tell them what they need to know they’ll do what they’re supposed to. But the Bible describes human beings as stubborn mules, whining children, and adulterous lovers. We aren’t just fallen in our minds, but in our hearts and wills as well. That’s why information alone isn’t enough. God wants to engage us as entire human beings—to “woo back the wayward lover” if you will. That’s what stories do—they appeal to us at levels far deeper than the intellectual—and I believe that’s why Jesus used them as often as He did. My own writing has helped me understand this much better.
One final question. If you wanted Jesus to say one thing of you, what would it be?
“He used the gifts I gave him to honor Me, and he was confident enough in my love and grace to take a few chances.”
Posted October 20, 2008 | In addition to reviewing Christian materials, The Christian Manifesto is dedicated to bringing our readers interviews with dynamic voices within the church who are being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world in various ways.
Chat with Young Chozen Tuesday, May 14, 2013 NRT's Mark Ryan has a late-night chat with Young Chozen about the new record, marrying Southern Hemisphere girls and important theology.
Becoming Isaac Deitz, Part 2 Tuesday, May 14, 2013 The Christian filmmaker tells us about how he made the leap into music videos, doing projects with tobyMac, House of Heroes and Family Force 5.
Christian Music Tweets #105 Tuesday, May 14, 2013 Mary Burklin uncovers her Top 10 favorite tweets and photo uploads of the past seven days in this weekly column.
Behind the Song Devotionals Tuesday, May 14, 2013 Mr. Barnard from Shane & Shane tells us the theology behind "That's How You Forgive," and Amy Grant says, "Don't Try So Hard."