Monday, June 2, 2014

Author Interview: Felix Whelan author of CHILDREN OF THE GOOD

The guest today on Authors' Curtilage Book Dialogue is Felix Whelan. Felix is the co-author, alongside his beautiful wife Carol Ann, of the I Can’t Believe It’s Vegan! cookbook series. Felix and Carol Ann Whelan live in rural Missouri with their daughter, Kathryn (Kate), their son, Conner, and, at last count, twenty dogs, cats, chickens, sheep and goats overgrowing their one acre hobby farm. They are vegetarians surrounded by cattle farmers, Catholics surrounded by Protestants, and ex-city slickers transplanted to a town that will never completely trust anyone whose great grandparents weren’t born there… The first book in Felix’s Children of the Good series was released on Holy Thursday, 2014, by NuEvan Press.

  D.O: Howdy. Thank you for joining us today, on Authors' Curtilage Book Dialogue.

WH: Thank you for inviting me.

  D.O: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

I've actually made that decision three times over the course of my life. I knew the first time when I was ten years old. I grew up half a block from the public library, and spent most of every summer there as a kid, the library being the only air conditioned place in town that didn't yell at kids for hanging out. Spending large chunks of time in a library, I learned to love reading, and decided when I was ten that I wanted to take the next step and be a writer. My mom bought me an old manual typewriter at a yard sale and off I went! But I got distracted in my teen years, and didn't get back to writing until I was in my twenties and went to college. There I caught the bug again, and ended up majoring in creative writing. But I had to make a living after college, so I took whatever jobs I could get, and wound up managing retail stores for ten years or so, then becoming an office manager, which I've been doing for the last twenty years. When I turned fifty, I had something of an identity crisis about it all, thinking, "Okay, Felix, your fifty years old, you’re smart, educated, a darned fine writer, and what do you have to show for it?" If I'd died that day, and at the Pearly Gates God said "Ah, Felix the writer. What've you done with all that talent I loaned you?" I would have been in deep trouble. So I resolved, for the third time in my life, to put my nose to the grindstone and take writing seriously. Over the years I'd had a few short stories published, and had self published some cookbooks with my wife. Not good enough... I resolved to write a novel or die trying! Children of the Good is the result!

D.O: Hmm, that’s a very touching story. I’m very pleased I’m hosting you today on Authors Curtilage. The picture here with your son is beautiful. [smiles] can't wait to have one like him.

 WH: Okay then, God will bless you with one. As much as you want. [Smiles]

D.O: Thank you Felix. What are the various craft you've studied before you came into the entertainment industry or do you just possess some natural tendencies to write stories?

WH: I was born with some raw natural talent with words, and a love of stories and storytelling. But I really learned how to write, and write well, in college. I went to Webster University in St. Louis, one of the last great Liberal Arts colleges in the Midwest. The English Department was staffed by a host of accomplished, published writers, every one of whom really knew their stuff. I feel very lucky to have benefited from their mentoring. As long as I can remember, I've also been fascinated by religion. I'm a devout Catholic, but I have studied just about every religion on earth, both on my own through reading, and in school. My minor at Webster was in religious studies, which in that Liberal Arts context included classes on Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American religions, New Religious Movements, just all manner of human religious expression. One of the field trips offered by Webster's religious studies program, though I could never afford to go myself, was spending a summer in Haiti observing real Voodoo in action. That just shows how broad the program was. So while I am very strong in my Catholic faith, it's definitely not for lack of knowledge of other traditions! When it came time to write a novel set in a near future where the Antichrist is in charge, all that study of religions served me well in imagining how, in the real world, such a character might come into being, how he might seize power, how he might enchant the hearts and minds of all the people of the world, how a society that shares the values of the Antichrist might function...

D.O: Impressive. What are the steps you took to develop your book from a rough draft into a published novel?

WH: I wrote what would become chapter eleven, The Seed of Light, first, just writing by the seat of my pants, thinking it was going to be the novel's opening chapter. I got through chapter five writing intuitively like that, then once I could see clearly where the story was going, I recognized I had to "flash back" and show the Antichrist's origins and rise to power. So Part II, The Evil, Rising, came into being. Once I had imagined a plausible back story for the Antichrist, and connected his agenda back to the family we met in the first five chapters, I knew I really had something on my hands. I had a great first half of a novel. Not wanting to blow it, I then took a step back, and actually outlined the rest of the book, chapter by chapter. I placed the "big events" I knew had to happen at the right spots in the story to maintain proper narrative structure, and to keep the pace of the novel moving. Chapter one became chapter eleven because it made more sense at that stage of the story. I needed a new Chapter one, and tossed off a quick prologue. My wife is always my first, and usually harshest reader, which I appreciate, so when I handed her the finished first draft of the novel on Valentine's Day, she immediately axed the prologue and sent me back to the keyboard. Chapter one, The Story, which replaced the prologue, is a far better beginning, but it is actually the last piece of the book I wrote. I finished at the beginning.

D.O: I also employ the two writing paradigms, seat of the pant and outlining. They are good writing styles to write organically.  What sensitive materials does your book deal with?

WH: It doesn't get much more sensitive than religion. But the only actual religion you see practiced in the novel is the Antichrist's cult of self worship, a sort of New Age institutionalized narcissism. Under the Antichrist's spell, the world has forgotten Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, you name it. All of that has been nefariously erased from global memory. People embrace the Antichrist's Gospel of Self in part because they don't know any better. It's the State Religion, kind of like Nazism was in Germany. It's the only context anybody is allowed for understanding themselves and their culture. They really believe that by elevating selfishness to the highest virtue, they are being "good people." That's all they've known all their lives. We think of "Cradle Catholics." Well, these are "Cradle Sociopaths," and nobody thinks there's anything wrong with that. So that's the world Children of the Good is set in. Now, we readers remember God, we remember the church, we are outside the world in which the story is taking place. So when a luminous woman starts appearing to children with a message that her good son is coming to rescue the world from the evil that has overtaken it, we recognize the Blessed Virgin. We know who her son is. We've heard about Marian apparitions like Our Lady of Lourdes, or Our Lady of Fatima, and we immediately recognize what's going on. The characters in the story, though, don't have that historical insight. For them it's all new. They're discovering God and goodness and this magical Blessed Mother for the first time. It's a neat trick. And it's plenty "sensitive," plenty controversial. It's making two "in your face" statements at the same time about reality, our present day reality as much as about any potential future. First, it will be obvious to most readers that the "futuristic" culture of self-involved narcissism at the heart of Children of the Good describes our present day American culture to a tee. And if the culture of the Antichrist looks so much like our country today, is it possible he's already in charge, in real life, and like the people in the novel, we just don't recognize it? Second, it's saying Catholic reality is real. It's saying the Catholic supernatural view of the world is not just a story, not just a "belief system." It's real. Concrete. Capable of acting on us, even if we don't want it to. If the whole world stopped believing in God, God would still exist. He would still have a plan and work in our lives. God is real. The Blessed Virgin is real. Heaven is real. The Saints are real. And so, confronted by those two clashing truths, readers, just like the characters in the story, have a choice to make. Which side are you on? Now that's sensitive material!

D.O: Hmm. Surely, readers are not going to be able to put this book aside once they start reading. What is the underlying theme, the explored truth or moral in your book?

WH: First, that God exists, whether we like it or not, whether we believe in him or not. And he cares enough about people to act in history on our behalf, to reach down for us, over and over again, no matter how hard we slap his hand away. The second major theme explored in Children of the Good, which I haven't mentioned so far, is The Problem of Evil. Basically, why do bad things happen to good people? If God is both all good and all powerful, how can evil exist? Either God allows evil, in which case he can hardly be said to be all good, or he is all good, but he can't stop bad things from happening, in which case he must not be all powerful... It's a conundrum that has shattered the faith of many a believer in just about every religion on earth, not just Christianity. There are a lot of cultural Jews who consider themselves religiously atheist because of the Holocaust. No good God would allow the extermination of eight million people, so God must not exist. I don't know that I have fully answered the question behind The Problem of Evil in my novel, but I do think I have taken the conversation in a new direction, shed a much more complex light on the issue. It's not a simple question, so there is no easy answer. It's something that has to be wrestled with.

D.O: What town or city does your book portray and what is the feeling we have in this dwelling place?

WH: The town is Arkady, a very typical Midwest, USA small town, based largely on the town where I live in real life. It's a great place to set the story because it provides a chance to examine how this global cult of self worship, this worldwide control the Antichrist has established, and his dark agenda for Humanity plays out in the fine details of the very ordinary lives of small town people. It’s a microcosm that helps bring these very big ideas down to a very personal level.

D.O: Having a unique point of view in telling a story provides your story with intention. From how many characters' viewpoint is your entire book seen from?

WH: All of them, actually. Children of the Good is written in the third person omniscient perspective. Hardly anybody writes that way anymore, and it was a conscious choice on my part to approach the story from that view. The "viewpoint character" of the book is really the unnamed narrator who reveals the story from a "God's eye view," showing us what every character is not only experiencing, but what they're thinking and feeling, as well. The narrator comments throughout to make sure various threads of the story are being properly interwoven. My goal in choosing the third person omniscient perspective was twofold. First, I wanted readers to experience the bad guys in the story with as close to the same sense of identification as they have for the good characters. This is not a "black hat VS white hat" story. The bad people think they're doing the right thing just as much as the good people do. Even the Antichrist thinks he's doing the world a favor. Children of the Good is morally complicated just the way real life is morally complicated. Only by taking a "universal view" of all the characters could I approach that sense of impartiality. Second, on a far more practical front, I wanted the experience of reading Children of the Good to be as much like watching a movie as I could make it. On the big screen, you may identify more with one character or another, but what you see is the story as it unfolds. The camera is not inside any one character's head. It may be clear whose story is being told, but you are actually viewing all of the characters, all of the action that makes the story what it is, from the outside. It's happening in front of you, like you're watching it through a window. I very much wanted to deliver that kind of cinematic experience to readers. I also wanted to make the novel easy to adapt into a screenplay, should the opportunity to make a Children of the Good movie arise. I think these characters, and this story, would be fantastic on the big screen!

D.O: Weldon Felix. What does the lead character of your book want most in the world?

WH: From that third person omniscient perspective it's hard to point to one character and say, "okay, this story is all about him..." Or her, or whatever. But one thing the three primary "lead characters," John, Ann and Nelly Harper, all have in common is that what they all want most is to do the right thing. For John, the right thing is a moving target. He's emotionally volatile, and with every major event in the story, his understanding of "right" changes, and he veers off in a new direction. But always in pursuit of what he thinks is "right," in that moment. His wife, Ann, and their daughter, Nelly, who is just a little kid, are a lot more constant, more centered. Their definition of "right" is quieter and tends to move in more of a straight line. So, I guess in the sense of a traditional "character arc," Children of the Good is more John's story, in that he's the one who undergoes the greatest change.

D.O: What are the core truths for your lead character?

WH: I think John’s "core truth" is that he is essentially a good person, in the way most of us sort of grope unconsciously toward the good in our everyday lives, but he lacks self awareness. When he really needs to trust his instincts, he gives in to self doubt. When he's got himself most twisted up in the wrong direction, he fails to question his own motives at all, and bounds forward. Like most of us, he wants to do the right thing, but he has a heck of a time figuring out what that is...

D.O: How do you think your book will influence readers growth positively?

WH: You'll note that the publisher is NuEvan Press. "NuEvan" is a contraction of "New Evangelization," a term I most associate with Pope – now Saint – John Paul II, though I think it is older than that. But JPII was the most vocal advocate of a new Catholic evangelization in my lifetime. He called for all of us lay Catholics in the pews to take our faith, actively, out into the world. And not just to those few places on earth that have not heard the Gospel, but to the streets of America and Europe, to countries that once upon a time were pillars of Christianity, centers of Catholicism, but which have fallen so far away from the faith that they have become the new "mission fields." Western society, as dominated by the United States and Europe, has become a secular, atheistic, and largely amoral culture. "The virtue of "religious tolerance" has devolved into the vice of religious indifference. Religion no longer matters, is no longer welcome in the public square. "You do your thing, I'll do mine, and let's agree never to talk about it..." Basically, everyone is entitled to hold religious views so long as they hold them the way one holds a preference for, say, pasta over steak. Beer over wine. Believe what you want, just don't act like it matters... My absolute number one wish for Children of the Good is that reading it might remind people on some deep level that religion matters, God matters. When we forget about God, our culture drifts more and more into narcissism and nihilism. If we do not know ourselves in a religious context, we really can't know ourselves rightly at all. We mistake ourselves for God, then watch out! Trouble ahead!

I would be especially pleased if Children of the Good piqued readers' interest in Catholicism specifically, over just religion in general. If fallen away Catholics, and readers who've never considered the Catholic Faith before, find something in my novel that leads them to read more, ask questions, take a class, or anything that sparks their journey into, or back into, the arms of the Church. That would be amazing!

D.O: I pray the readers of this book be enlightened  as you intended. Any hint about your next book?

WH: The working title of Book Two in the Children of the Good series, at this red hot moment, and this could change, of course, is Fruitless Works of Darkness – a reference to Ephesians, of course. Expect the Antichrist's efforts to seduce Nelly Harper into his service, big trouble for the Remnant, but also an awesome new character, several actually, that raise the narrative to a whole new level, and that bring in a deeper view of  God, our own humanity, and the “real reality” of the Catholic Faith…

That’s pretty vague, I suppose, but I’m just outlining now. There’s a million miles between the outline and the finished novel, so expect the story to grow and change and evolve…

D.O: [Smiles] Okay then, thank you once again for joining us on Authors Curtilage Book Dialogue. May your days in the field be filled with fame, fortune, honor, story ideas, character development, and more, and all that is well.

WH: Thank you, Lola, for this opportunity! It's been great!

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