His books had been in our house for years. But it was only a couple of months ago when I really took a closer look at them. After reading What’s So Amazing About Grace?, I was thoroughly convicted, challenged, and more determined to live a grace-filled life. And was also thoroughly captivated with Philip Yancey’s work.
I had to read more. But first I wanted to tell him thank you. After contacting him through his website I wrote him a note in the comments section and then had the marvelous idea to get an interview with him!
After gracious months of emailing back and forth here is the wonderful result of the interview!
There is much wisdom to be gained from this seasoned, non-fiction author as his answers are chock full of writing advice!
Kingdom Pen: What is your personal testimony?
Philip Yancey: I’m in the process of writing a memoir, so you’ll get the full story one of these days (or years). Unlike many testimonies, mine tells of a conversion from the church—from an angry, uptight, racist, legalistic church in the South. As a Christian and as a writer, I’ve spent my life and career picking over the words and concepts I learned from that church, understanding them anew in the light of grace, and discovering the hidden treasures that were layered over. I’ve found, sadly, that the church is as likely to turn someone away from God as toward God. It’s amazing that God would turn over the mission of spreading the Good News to ordinary people like us, as we so often get it wrong.
KP: In your book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, you mentioned several times that you received more hate mail and criticism, mostly from Christians. How do you personally deal with harsh attacks, especially from those who are supposed to be on the same side as you?
PY: I spent my first eight years as a magazine editor, working for a Christian youth magazine called Campus Life. If you read the letters sections of magazines, you realize many of them come from angry readers, and I learned the pattern early on. Nowadays with email, I’m even more likely to get spontaneous “flame messages.” I’ve had my share over the years, and have developed thick skin. I answer them all and find that the writers often feel a bit sheepish about their volatile responses. I get more encouraging letters from people my writings have touched, and they surely balance out the negatives.
KP: Though your books are geared towards Christians, do you garner interest from non-believers and if so, how?
PY: Because I often write universal experiences, such as pain and suffering, people of various faiths—or no faith—may see my book in a bookstore and pick it up because they’re going through a difficult time. Also, books make great gifts and perhaps a friend or relative will give a book to someone in need. In my own experience, Christian books got past my resistance to the faith. Books aren’t as threatening as a personal conversation, because the reader is always in control: if you don’t like my book, you can slam it shut. So a curious reader feels safer testing out faith ideas in a book, compared to, say, going to church. I’ve slanted a few of my books, such as Soul Survivor, The Gift of Pain, and The Skeptic’s Guide to Faith toward what I call “borderlanders,” people on the borderlands of faith.
KP: What do you find enjoyable and difficult about writing non-fiction?
PY: Enjoyable? I get to spend months investigating questions I want to know the answer to! We all have questions. How can I know that God exists? Does prayer really make a difference? Why do bad things happen to good people? As a writer, I can investigate those questions full time, not just at nights and on weekends. It’s a great gift, as I can research and ask people who know much more than I do.
Difficult? I’m not sure the writing process for non-fiction is any more or less arduous than for fiction. Writing is plain hard work. You face a wall of resistance, and have to find ways to get around that wall. I recently read an entire book about how hard it is, called The War of Art.
KP: In a genre that’s commonly known as boring and dry, how do you make non-fiction interesting and engaging while still being informative and pithy?
PY: I began my career as a journalist, and I’m so grateful. I learned that stories are more engaging and memorable than ideas, so if I want to communicate ideas, I’d better include lots of stories. (The Bible shows the same pattern, by the way, with about 90 percent of it in the form of story, poetry, history, parable, and only a sliver of the New Testament emphasizing logic and ideas.) In journalism you learn to start with the most interesting or sensational part of the story first; you have to hook the reader. In my case, I wrote for teenagers, who are demanding readers. You dare not make your writing sound like a homework assignment. It has to be honest, real, and engaging. And the stories can’t be simply filler; they have to work hand-in-glove with the ideas for effective communication.
KP: With as many books as you have written, what is your schedule like as a writer?
PY: I learned an office schedule at the magazine, and now I’m at the desk from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. I divide the writing process into three parts: getting ready to write, composing, and cleaning up what I’ve written. I like the getting-ready part, the research and interviewing. I like the cleaning-up, because I started as an editor and learned you can always improve writing. The composing part is awful! I go away to the mountains, and work until 9 p.m. every day, trying to get some words down so I can progress to the calming process of editing.
KP: Do you outline your books beforehand? Why or why not?
PY: Yes I do, and my outlines are often longer than my chapters. Outlining uses the left side of my brain, the rational, logical part. I organize the material in an orderly fashion—I think… Then, when I start writing, the right brain takes over and often the outline goes out the window (or off the computer screen). Instincts kick in as I start following the outline: this is boring, this isn’t working, the chapter’s way too long. Yet I’m unable to sit down and start writing without first spending the time to develop that logical outline. I need both steps.
KP: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned through your many years of writing?
PY: The reader is in control! Seriously. I’ve seen some wonderfully talented writers go to universities and graduate schools where they’re taught that writing is all about self-expression. That may be true for a truly great poet, but if you want to make a living at writing, you’d better find a way to give the reader a satisfying, meaningful experience. And why attempt the hard work of writing unless you want to connect with readers? To do so you must understand them and care about them.
KP: What made you decide to write non-fiction above fiction? Do you prefer to read one or the other, why or why not?
PY: I read a lot of both. When I write idea books, of course, I immerse myself in books about the topic I’m investigating. I tried a bit of fiction, and the result sounded like an essay, which makes for bad fiction, so I quickly went back to what I knew. Currently I’m working on a memoir, which uses the techniques of fiction. It’s a new genre for me, and I’ve read every memoir I can find, some 300 in all, to learn how the craft works.
KP: What’s a piece of advice you wish you knew as a young writer?
PY: Writing, or almost any form of creativity, is inefficient. You usually don’t create a masterpiece after a burst of inspiration. You break it down into small, constituent parts, and often they don’t fit together. In most of my books, I throw away 100 pages from the first draft. If only I could figure out in advance that those sections don’t work, I’d save so much time! Art doesn’t work that way. It involves detours that look like dead-ends. Keep at it though, and you may find that you have made it from one side of the maze to the other, and behind you are many grateful readers. You have shown them the way.
A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Philip Yancey earned graduate degrees in Communications and English from Wheaton College and the University of Chicago. He joined the staff of Campus Life Magazine in 1971, and worked there for ten years as Editor and then Publisher.
Then Philip became a full-time writer, initially working as a journalist for such varied publications as Reader’s Digest, National Wildlife, Christian Century and The Reformed Journal. For many years he wrote a monthly column for Christianity Today magazine, which he still serves as Editor at Large.
He has written over twenty-five books, including Where Is God When It Hurts, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? and Disappointment with God. The books have won thirteen Gold Medallion Awards from the Christian Publishers Association and have sold more than fifteen million copies in English, as well as being translated into forty languages. Christian bookstore managers selected The Jesus I Never Knew as the 1996 Book of the Year, and What’s So Amazing About Grace? received the same award in 1998. Among his most recent books are The Question That Never Goes Away and Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News?.
The Yanceys lived in downtown Chicago before moving to a very different environment in Colorado. They enjoy mountain climbing, skiing, wildlife, and all the other delights of the Rocky Mountains.