James Watkins is an award-winning author of over 20 books and 2,000 articles. He is a writer, speaker, and editor with more than twenty years of experience in the publishing world. He is also a really nice guy and a lot of fun to talk with. (I met him at the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference a few years ago.)
You can read more about Jim and his books on his website. He even gives out writing advice! In order not to repeat what’s already on his site, my questions will focus on his latest book The Psalms of Asaph which deals with the tough questions of unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises, and unpunished evil.
Jim, what’s one thing you learned (or re-learned) about writing from Psalms of Asaph?
God is good and I’m not. Next question, please. Well, maybe I should elaborate just a bit. Let me quote a bit of my book as the answer:
My daughter, Faith, cleverly scheduled a doctor’s appointment for my one- and four-year-old granddaughters’ vaccines on a day she was working.
“Dad, can you take the girls for their shots?”
I love hanging out with my grands, so I immediately said, “Sure. I’d love to.”
Then—after I hung up—I realized the implications. That realization burst full force as I held the one-year-old kicking and screaming—with sheer terror, looking me right in the eyes—as the nurse stuck her with two shots. Her older sister made a run for the door, knowing she was next to endure this humiliating torture. “No, Papaw!”
I scooped her up in my free hand and held her tight as both girls screaming bloody murder—obviously at the hands of their once-loving, protective papaw.
All the time, I was thinking, Well played, Faith. Well played.
Despite my attempts to explain to the girls that measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis are a thousand times worse than a pin prick, for the rest of the day I was grandpa non grata. And all the ice cream at Culver’s could not convince them that Papaw really did love them, despite terrorizing and torturing them.
If you’re a parent, you know that sickening feeling as you forcefully hold down your beloved child for shots, stitches, and other painful medical procedures. You feel like a terrible parent—and your child screams that you are, indeed, terrible. But you also know that your love for your child forces you to do things that now are painful, but will ensure a healthy future.
God loves me to death—literally on Calvary—but in my limited, human perspective, I can’t see how the painful pokes of life can possibly for my good. My granddaughters are now 10 and 12—and my daughter still sends them to the doctor and dentist with me, but over the years, they’ve learned that Papaw loves them more than life itself and only wants what’s ultimately best for them. I’m slowly learning that with my heavenly Father.
What’s one thing you learned (or re-learned) about God from writing Psalms of Asaph?
Oops! I think I already answered that, but it’s really the same lesson.
Psalms of Asaph had some delays during publication due to flooding in Texas and wildfires in California. How do you handle the unpredictability of publishing?
Not very well. It took five years of sending out the book proposal to editors and having it come back rejected to finally secure a publisher. It’s like being pregnant for 60 months!
And, this was probably the hardest of my 20-plus books to write. First, because I knew the questions were so important and the answers needed to be theologically sound and not simplistic clichés. Second, it meant being totally honest about my own struggles. I took encouragement from Asaph, King David and other Bible characters to confess that sometimes I drive past cemeteries and think Lucky stiffs! The publisher wanted to delete that line, but I convinced them that was nothing compared to the Bible’s honest characters screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
I think I’ve finally learned that God is never late . . . but he sure is slow. He doesn’t own a watch. I’m not even sure he has a “Year At a Glance” calendar. He seems to work in increments of 40 (forty days and nights of rain; the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years), 70 (seventy years of Babylonian captivity), and then 400 years of the silent treatment between the Old and New Testaments. Nope, he’s not in a hurry!
I’m glad for godly delays because I couldn’t have written this book 40 years ago in college at my first job as a writer and editor at a Christian publisher. I had to go through cancer, clinical depression, broken and betrayed relationships, months of unemployment, a daughter’s divorce to a serial adulterer, and four surgeries in three hospitals in two months to get to the point of writing with compassion and comfort to my fellow bruised, beaten and bloodied readers (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
So, I’m learning that God is always right on time. It just doesn’t fit my human deadlines. In fact, he loves to ignore human deadlines. I think it’s during that time—often a long time—between our deadline and his deliverance that our faith grows.
Many writers are advised to “write what you love” but “write what sells” also holds strong appeal for those wanting to make a living writing (or just earn extra cash to buy more books). Is there a balance between the two? Is one more important than the other in your experience?
Wow, I thought questions about unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises and unpunished evil were tough. This one’s a head-scratcher!
Yes, write what you love!
But here’s the problem with writing “what sells” today. It won’t be selling tomorrow. So I advise writers to ignore fads and write on timeless themes. I wrote six books about sexuality. Sex sells anytime! I’ve written a humor book on suffering. Everyone loves to laugh and everyone goes through a time of suffering. I wrote a modern edition of The Imitation of Christ, which is second only to the Bible in sales. It was written nearly 600 years ago, but it deals with a core Christian commandment—to “imitate Christ” (Ephesians 5:1). And now this book on three issues that believers have struggled with since the book of Job—which was probably written before Genesis.
So write what you love and write on timeless subjects that will be relevant until Jesus returns on his white horse.
Thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure!