I'm delighted to welcome my friend Randy Singer. You've heard me rave about By Reason of Insanity, and I'm sitting with bated breath waiting for his next novel. But today, he's stopped by with a great interview filled with great insights into his books and how he balances a crazy life of attorney, author, and pastor.
Now here's the interview...
By Reason of Insanity was a legal thriller that my husband and I both loved. The pages couldn't turn fast enough. How did you get the germ of the idea?
Like many of my stories, the storyline for By Reason of Insanity was not triggered by a single idea but by the intersection of several ideas that together created something I wanted to explore. Looking back, I think there were four little streams that trickled together to form the small river that became By Reason. The first stream was the increase of a strident form of atheism in our culture. These new “atheism evangelists” won’t be satisfied until everyone else shares their lack of faith. They deny anything spiritual. There is no dimension except for the one we can see, touch and smell. The second stream was another cultural trend, somewhat contrary to the first, i.e. the fascination with the paranormal. Shows like Medium demonstrate that even in investigative work, police sometimes seek aid from those who claim an ability to communicate with another dimension. A third stream consisted of reports from the mission field, particularly in Muslim countries, of unbelievers experiencing visions and dreams that pointed them to Christ. Does God still work that way? Just on the mission field or here in America too? And finally, a single Bible verse helped trigger my thinking as well. As Paul is defending himself in front of Agrippa, making some very convincing arguments, Festus blurts out: “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” Acts 26:24
Now you’re starting to see where the insanity came from.
See this is why I'm still struggling to hit upon that great idea publishers will fight over. It's the streams that come together to make a runaway river of a book! This book is filled with so many twists I almost felt like a pretzel at the end...and then it twisted again. What made you kept tweaking the plot?
A “twisted” sense of fun. Sorry, bad pun. My goal is to try and surprise readers two or three times at the end of each book. But I have in mind a certain kind of surprise. Any writer can surprise readers with something out of left field but that will just leave readers with a sense that the writer didn’t play fair. The best kind of surprise is something the reader never sees coming, like a silent train whispering down the tracks, but once the train hits, readers can dust themselves off and say, “I should have seen it coming.”
I so agree. I feel cheated if the device and answer is from left field, but when the author has out thought me I love it. And come back for more, and more, and more...Quinn Newberg takes on the hard cases -- even when he doesn't necessarily believe in his client's innocence. Have you had cases like that in your practice?
Yes and no. Quinn specializes in criminal cases. I primarily handle civil cases. We both practice at relatively large firms. We can both be somewhat choosy about the cases we accept (unlike lawyers who work at a public defenders’ office who must accept anyone who qualifies). I generally represent the plaintiff in civil cases, meaning I’m the one filing suit, so I will simply refuse the case if I don’t think it’s got merit.
There are times, however, when I represent a defendant who I’m pretty sure is “guilty” (we call that “liable” in the civil context). When that happens, I will counsel the client to make a fair offer and we try to settle the case.
I love the complexity of civil litigation, but you're right...there's often a certain amount of "guilt" on each side. Which leads to the next question: If the case doesn’t settle, how can you defend someone that you think is liable?
For the answer to that, I turn to the story in John 8 where Jesus defended the woman caught in adultery (on procedural grounds) even though he knew she was guilty. God is a God of justice. But God is also a God of mercy. Sometimes, as lawyers, our job is to advocate for mercy and let the system be responsible for deciding what constitutes justice. As Christians, we should all be grateful for the fact that Christ became our advocate while we were still guilty and gave his life so that we might have mercy and grace rather than justice and punishment.
You write legal thrillers. Why do you think people are so fascinated with all things legal? And what keeps you writing them?
The courtroom is our modern intellectual version of the Roman Coliseum. It’s where all the big life issues are contested and resolved: When does life begin? How do you define marriage? Should the United States waterboard terrorism suspects at Guantanamo? Etc. Another reason people love the courtroom is because one lawyer, committed to his or her cause, can make a tremendous difference not just for his/her client but for all of society. The courtroom tends to level the playing field between David and Goliath, between Joe Plumber and IBM.
That's frankly why I became a lawyer...watching HSLDA attorneys in action in the political arena. I wanted to do that! If you could write any book you wanted and know it would land on the bestsellers list, what would you write?
The books I’m writing now. When I write, I try to put aside thoughts about who might ultimate read the book, or how I can make it sell better, or what a particular market might demand or expect. I try to write the stories that God has placed on my heart and let all this other stuff take care of itself. Since these are the stories I’m most passionate about, I wouldn’t write a different kind of story if I knew it would make the NYT list.
Great perspective. And timely as I'm evaluating next steps. As an attorney, I know I sometimes find myself analyzing legal thrillers for accuracy. What's your pet peeve legal mistake in novels?
Wow. Great question. There’s not one particular mistake, but I can tell when a legal thriller has been written by someone who is not a lawyer or when a thriller involving a trial has been written by a lawyer who is not a trial lawyer. There are so many nuances in the way cases actually get tried in the real world—attempting to write about it without being there is like trying to write about brain surgery if you’ve never been to medical school. A lay person might enjoy the story but a real brain surgeon will put the book down after the second chapter. Having said that, my “pet peeve” is when fictional attorneys do no pre-trial discovery and are still operating under the old “ambush” system of litigation that disappeared decades ago in this country.
I agree! Makes me think they haven't seen the inside of a courtroom in a LOOONNNGGG time. How do you balance your many hats of author, practicing attorney, and pastor? It makes me tired just typing that!
Probably not as well as I should :-) A few keys that work for me:
1. Have great people on your team and rely on them. It’s especially important to have people whose skill sets complement yours rather than duplicate yours. For example, we have a wonderful administrative pastor at church who takes a big burden off me for the administrative tasks.
2. Put systems in place and stick to the systems. I work collaboratively on my books, cases and sermons. The systems I have in place help me tap into the creativity and thinking of many others so I can merge that thinking into a (hopefully) cohesive product.
3. Protect some alone time with the tenacity of a mama bear. I need time alone during productive parts of the day to write, craft sermons, and work on critical parts of my case. This means I’ve got to have a sanctuary where I can get away from life and people—turn the cell phone off and really concentrate.
4. Manage expectations as tenaciously as you manage time. One of the things that makes my three hats possible is that everybody knows I’m trying to juggle lots of different things. I try to keep expectations low and then exceed them. A related issue is making sure expectations are clear and, in the best case, written.
5. Remember that “no” can be a spiritual word. I try to major on the big items and ruthlessly evaluate every request for a piece of my time by asking whether this is the best use of my time or just a good use of my time.
By the way, I obviously concluded that this blog interview was the best use of my time. Love what you’re doing here. Cara, good luck on the writing and running! One of the things I’ve discovered is that my best plot twists frequently come to me while I’m running. Has that been your experience? (Lawyers have to ask questions—it’s in our blood—not just answer them).
Thanks so much for making the time. I truly am a huge fan...and on the running -- I tend to read or catch up on movies. But it's also a great time to pray and meditate...when I can slow my mind down enough. Thanks, Randy!