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Quirky Characters in a Riveting Story

with Tim Downs | June 10, 2008

Today on the broadcast, Tim Downs, author of the book First the Dead, tells Dennis Rainey how God uses creative means, like novels, to reach others for Christ.

Today on the broadcast, Tim Downs, author of the book First the Dead, tells Dennis Rainey how God uses creative means, like novels, to reach others for Christ.

Quirky Characters in a Riveting Story

With Tim Downs
|
June 10, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Tim: This may shock you to hear this, but the Bible is an R-rated book.  The Bible is dealing with a real, fallen world in all of its depravity.  The Bible is not naïve or simplistic, and I don't think we can be, either, in the non-Christian world, and I think that’s what you have to do in writing.

I don't want to violate my own standards but, at the same time, I need to write realistic characters in real settings, and I want to talk about the real world.  I think the Bible gives us the freedom to do that.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, June 10th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll hear today from novelist Tim Downs about how he seeks to be "as shrewd as a serpent and as harmless as a dove" in his writing.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  Can you think back, remember, maybe, the first novel or the first work of fiction you ever read that you went, "There's something spiritual going on here?"  Anything come to mind or anything – can you think of something you found in a Christian bookstore or even before that?

Dennis: That's a good question, Bob.  You know, I think back to a book I read as a teenager, "The Grapes of Wrath," and the trauma and the travail of people during the depression and just the human suffering.  That may be as close to the first book I read that I can remember having some thought of "Where is God in the midst of all this?"  What's happening spiritually here?

Bob: I remember, as a high school student, reading "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," and being very aware of the whole idea of substitutionary atonement.  I wouldn't have known to call it that, but when Edmond's life is trade for Aslan, I kind of closed up the book and went, "Okay, I get it."  I mean, it was like the theme that I'd heard taught before I now understood in a way that I hadn't understood it when I'd heard it taught before.  There is something about story – it takes us to new experiences that maybe we haven't thought of before.

Dennis: I've always like a good story and love to attempt to tell a good story, and we have with us a guest, Tim Downs, who, I would have to say, is one of the best storytellers I've ever heard.  In fact, before I tell them about the story that you're telling currently in your new novel, Tim, there is a story that you told, and I've only heard you tell this story a couple of times, but you told this back when we launched the FamilyLife Parenting Conference, and do you know what story I'm going to go to?

Tim: I'm waiting to hear.

Dennis: Well, it's the story when you went down in the basement when you were a kid, and you kind of explored and experimented with cement, is that right?

Tim: Well, it was plaster. It's when "Mission Impossible" was on TV, and read this article in a magazine that said, "Hey, you can make a rubber mask of yourself like on 'Mission Impossible.'  You just have to cast your face in plaster," which I thought was a cool idea.

Dennis: And you were how old?

Tim: I was in junior high at the time.

Dennis: Okay, so parents, you've got to kind of picture this.  This is going to give a lot of parents great relief that there are actually some kids that are a little further off the wall than your son or daughter, all right?  Keep going, Tim.

Tim: Kids, I was a moron, don't try this at home.  I went down in the basement with my weightlifting bench and a 25-pound sack of plaster, and I followed the directions.  You cut a hole in the bottom of a box, place it over your face, put a couple of straws in your nose, put some Vaseline on your eyebrows and eyelashes, and then you mix up some plaster and pour it on your face; lay down on the bench and wait for it to dry.  The problem …

Dennis: No, no, no, now, hold it – the Vaseline on the eyebrows is so the plaster doesn't pull …

Tim: Any hair you want to have left, you put some Vaseline on.

Dennis: Okay, and the straws …

Tim: Are you let you breathe, that's an important step.

Dennis: So you don't suffocate …

Tim: … suffocate …

Dennis: … in the midst of pouring the mask.

Tim: Exactly.

Dennis: Okay, we've got the picture here.

Tim: There you go – so …

Dennis: You're by yourself, right?

Tim: I am by myself, and I'm laying on this bench, I'm laying under this plaster waiting for it to harden.  The article doesn't tell me how to mix plaster.  If you do it the right way, it takes three minutes to set.  Because I did it the wrong way – 20 minutes.

So I'm laying there on this bench with 20 pounds of plaster in a box on my face, and I wait until it hardens.  Then I go to remove it, but the problem is it's bonded to my skin.

Dennis: It bonded to your face.

Tim: It was stuck on my skin.  So I get up off this bench with a 20-pound block of plaster glued to my head, and I've got to go upstairs now and find my parents.  I look like a birthday cake for a two-year-old.  I've got these two straws sticking out the front of this 20-pound white block. 

I go walking into the kitchen, wave to my mom and dad.

Bob: Hi, Mom.

Tim: My dad just looks up, there's this pause, my dad goes, "Darn fool."

[laughter]

I hear a dish break.  My mom comes running over, I can hear her footsteps.  She grabs the block of plaster and starts pulling …

Bob: Oh …

Tim: Like maybe I hadn't thought of pulling yet, you know?  In the process, she bumps one of my straws and plugs it up.

Bob: Oooh …

Tim: Now I've got one straw left.  I'm one straw from eternity.

Bob: I've got a title for your next novel – "One Straw From Eternity," by Tim Downs.

Tim: That's good.

Dennis: I think our listeners are getting the point.  Tim knows how to tell a story.  The question is, how did you get that thing off your face?

Tim: I never did.  I've had people come up to me after I tell that story and say "Did you ever get it off?"

[laughter]

Dennis: Well, I promise you, folks, this book that Tim has written, it's called a Bug Man novel, "First the Dead," is a book not about a straw man, but it's about – well, a forensic Bug Man who does research who went to the site of the Hurricane Katrina, and that's how you begin this novel with him beginning to solve a murder mystery.

Now, you mentioned it earlier – why is this book set around the issue of a murder, Tim?  You say we have a fascination with that?

Tim: There is an organization called the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team.  The acronym is DMORT.  They are actually part of FEMA.  Before Hurricane Katrina, all the regions in the U.S. were activated, and there were there waiting.  Their job is to recover the victims of major disasters.  They were there for 9/11 to identify human remains.  It's a nasty kind of business, but it's an important thing to do.

In my story, Nick Polchak, my Bug Man, is there volunteering with DMORT.  I thought the flooded city of New Orleans which, by the way, has the record for the highest murder rate any city has ever had, it would be kind of a test place, Katrina, to see just how thin the veneer of civilization is, because certainly some foul play would happen, and some terrible things happened around Katrina.  It just seemed like a natural place to set a murder mystery, and I think people are fascinated by these kinds of stories, because they are stories of good and evil.

Bob: There are characters in this novel who decide to try to hide some of their nefarious activities by simply dumping bodies that they presume will be considered flood victims, and they'll get by with their crime.  But leave it to Dr. Polchak; he figures out quickly these are not flood victims, and that's where the murder mystery takes place, right?

Tim: That's exactly right.  Forensic entomologists can tell you exactly when a person died because they've learned how long exactly it takes for different species of insect to go through their stages of development, and they can count backwards and say that's when this guy died.

So my protagonist, Nick Polchak, is able to look at a body that he's recovered from the City of New Orleans and say, "Hey, you know what?  This guy died before the hurricane ever happened."

Dennis: Because he studied the insects?

Tim: Exactly.

Dennis: That are hatching on the body.

Tim: Exactly.  It's as though God has left us, in nature, a way of telling all these things.  All we've had to do is learn to understand what He put into nature.

Bob: I know you're hoping that books like this will show up in Borders and Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart and all of those places, but they're also being sold in Christian bookstores.

Tim: They are.

Bob: Have you had anybody come up and go, "Where's the Christian in this book?"

Tim: Sometimes that does happen, and I think it's because in the last 30 years since Christian fiction has really emerged, Christians have been sort of struggling to decide what Christian fiction really is.  Sometimes Christians want the message right up front – say it plainly, say it clearly.  But what writers realize is stories have rules, and I can't have a character just turn to the reader and give a speech.  That's violating the art form.

I've got to work with the same rules all writers do and find subtle ways to get my message across.

Bob: All right, trace this for me.  You've been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ since when?

Tim:  Almost – well, since '79.

Bob: The goal of Campus Crusade for Christ is the fulfilling of the Great Commission, right?

Tim: Exactly.

Bob: Okay, trace the line, for me, from "First the Dead" by Tim Downs to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

Tim: If we're going to reach people, we have to realize people are fallen as human beings, it's not just our minds, it's our hearts, it's our imaginations, it's our wills.  We're trying to reach fallen human beings.  So that means our job is not just to inform the uninformed, it's to woo the wayward lover back, and I think it's one of the reasons that Jesus told so many stories even though His career on earth was only three years long.  I mean, wouldn't He write a legal text?  Could He really afford to take a chance that He'd be misunderstood or that He wasn't clear?

But I think He knew, these are wayward lovers here, so I'm going to tell them some stories.  I'm going to engage their hearts, their imaginations, and they will begin to follow Me, and that's exactly what happens.

Bob: But how does somebody get from "First the Dead" to Jesus?  That's the question.

Tim: Well, they won't in one step, and they won't only from my book.  What I would like to see is a ton of Christian writers who are all contributing to this great cultural conversation – just pushing people, one step at a time, closer to Christ.  If I can get somebody to think about something that they haven't thought about before, that's my contribution.  Now, I'm going to leave it to another Christian chose crosses path with this guy to take him the next step down the way.

Dennis: Coach a listener who – maybe they've read one of your books, and they may want to pass it on to a neighbor, a co-worker, and they're wanting to engage, like you're talking about, with the non-Christian around story.  Coach them in how they can move from something as simple as a book like this to maybe telling a story or sharing a story that can move that person toward Christ specifically.

Tim: You know, movies, books, all kinds of things around us contain spiritual themes if we're just aware of them.  As we were talking earlier, I think that there are secular films that are very biblical in nature if you are just aware of the themes, and you can very naturally interact with people about things like that, because these are the things that they've seen, too.

A book like mine, you can give to anyone.  There's just no fear of embarrassment awkwardness.  Anybody could just enjoy the story, but if you're aware of the themes that are in it, you can say, "Well, what did you think about this?" or "How did you like that?" and you're on your way to engaging on a deeper level.

Bob: So if you were having a conversation – let's say you're sitting next to a guy on an airplane, and he's reading "First the Dead," and you strike up a conversation, and you go, by the way, I wrote that book."  "You wrote – I love it.  I've read all your Bug Man books."  If you wanted to probe, ask a question, say, "What did you think of this," with the idea that maybe that conversation would head in a spiritual direction, where would you take it?

Tim: I'd start asking, "What did you like about the book?  What stood out to you?  If I asked you what the theme of the book is, what would you say?  Were there any major characters that you especially connected with?  What do you think the conflict of the book was about?"  I'd test him a little bit and see what they picked up from the story.

Dennis: And then to move it to more of a spiritual discussion?

Tim: Sure could, from that point I could.  Take a book like "Plaguemaker," for example.  I've got a very strong theme in there of forgiveness, and I set it up so that there is a point where there is an old man.  You think he's going to kill somebody when, really, he's wanting to forgive somebody.  I tried to write this so that you wanted him to kill the guy, and that's because I wanted the reader to confront his own inner motives.  What would he have done in a situation like that?  And I can ask a reader that.  What would you have done?  If you were him, what do you think you would have done?  We're on to a spiritual topic, then.

Bob: I have to tell you, because I know you and because you speak at Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences, the part of your latest book that – well, I marked up some of these parts, and it's conversations between the hero and his girlfriend.  You've got a girlfriend for Dr. Polchak in this book, right?

Tim: I do.

Bob: I sent you an e-mail afterwards, and I said, "I really liked the interaction."  You wrote me back and said, "Yes, imagine having a psychiatrist for your girlfriend.  That's every man's worst nightmare."

[laughter]

One who is always saying, "So how do you feel about that?"

Tim: That's right.

Bob: But I – let me just – can I read?

Dennis: Sure.

Bob: Here is – her name is Beth, right?

Tim: That's right.

Bob: Here is Beth, the psychiatrist, and she just is sitting down with Nick and says, "Well, hello, are you just getting in?"  Nick says, "Yeah, I need the overtime.  I'm saving up for a bigger boat.  She glances at her watch and Nick pours a cup of coffee and says, "I know what time it is, Mother, I told you not to wait up."  She says, "Can you sit down for a minute?"  "Is that an official request?"  "It's a friendly request.  Why can't you take it that way?"  "Because it doesn't sound friendly."  He hesitates and pulls up a chair, and she says, "How are you doing, Nick?"  "Look, if it's a friendly request, then let's have a friendly conversation – no psychiatric questions, okay?  No compassionate looks, no understanding nods."  "Somebody's in a good mood."  "I haven't had my coffee yet."  He takes a sip and says, "There, I love you."  "It's 3:00" – and it goes on and on. 

It's the snappy banter, but I fell right into the middle of this because this relational tension that you've got in here, we've all been there.  We've all had those kinds of conversations where somebody's trying to talk, and we don't want to talk and, throughout the book, by the way, it's the man who doesn't want to talk and the woman who does.  Are you gender stereotyping here?

Tim: Well, the tension in the story is Nick has a romantic interest with a woman who is also serving as the official psychiatrist for DMORT, and in all the DMORT installments, there is always a mental health professional there.  So is she interested in him as a man?  Is she interested in him as a psychiatrist?  Does she want to change him a woman wants to change a man or does she want to cure him as a doctor wants to cure a patient?  That's kind of the tension, and I think people feel that in relationships.

Bob: Are they going to get together in a later book?

Tim: I'm not telling.

Bob: Oh, come on.

Dennis: There is a love story, though, and I told Tim when I ran into him, I said, "I really thought that this relationship was going to develop just a little bit further."  I mean, I thought Tim as actually going to produce a little bit more of a, like, a chick flick, you know?  A little bit more of a love story novel here.

Tim: That might be beyond me, Dennis.

Dennis: There you go.

Bob: Here is a part where Beth says to Nick, "Are you okay?" and he doesn't answer.  "Nick?"  He says, "What?"  "I was talking to you."  "Oh, did I miss anything?"  You know, he's always got this kind of smart aleck answer going on.  Later he's telling her that people respond to authority, and she says, "You don't."  He says, "I have authority issues.  My psychiatrist told me so."  And they just – there's this back and forth between the two of them that, as I was reading it, it just made me think about my own communication with Mary Ann and times when she wants to talk, and I don't, and times when we need to talk and neither of us wants to.  And I also thought about you and Joy and thought there's probably been a little of that there.

Dennis: I wondered how many of your arguments showed up in this book.

Tim: I'm not allowed to say that.  You know what's funny is the best stories are always about people.  I don't care what they're doing in the story.  It's always about people and relationships between them because that's what we're interested in.  So that's what I'm doing even here.  It's not just a story about bugs or about a flood or about murder.  Really, it's about how my character is doing, what stress he's under, what relationships he has.  That's what people really want to read about.

Dennis: Tim, you've written other Bug Man novels.

Tim: I have.

Dennis: Just quickly run through them and tell our listeners what each one is about – "Shoo-Fly Pie." 

Tim: "Shoo-Fly Pie" was my first Bug Man novel.  Nick Polchak is a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University.  He does not like to teach.  He loves to do forensic entomology, so he's out in a rural area of North Carolina and there he's helping a woman solve the mystery of what happened to her husband during the first Persian Gulf War.

"Chop Shop" is my second one.  It's set in …

Bob: That's in Pittsburgh, right?

Tim: Pittsburgh, exactly, which is actually Nick Polchak's hometown.  He is home there and there it's a plot that revolves around kind of a black market in human organs.  Nick is called on by a coroner at the Allegheny County Coroner's office to help solve a mystery there.

Bob: So this is "Robin Cook Meets Tim Downs," kind of coming together, right?

Tim: Exactly, right.

Dennis: "Head Game?"

Tim: "Head Game" is my story that has to do with psychological warfare.  That's the story about three men involved together as a psy-ops team during the first Persian Gulf War.  They decimate an enemy unit.  There is an Iraqi colonel who is humiliated by his defeat.  He realizes what's been done to him and decides to learn psychological operations; come to the U.S.; find the three men who did this to him and do it to them.

Dennis: Okay.  What about "Plaguemaker?"  That, by the way, is my favorite.

Tim: Thank you.  It's a complicated story.  It's a story about two old men – an old Japanese man and an old Chinese man, and it goes back all the way to World War II.  A little-known fact of history – at the end of World War II the Japanese had developed a bubonic plague bomb and had scheduled to use it on the city of San Diego in September of 1945.  But if you remember your history, the war came to an end in August when we dropped our own weapon of mass destruction.

My story is about an old Japanese man who was a very young researcher in World War II who never lost his bitterness and always wanted to carry out his plot to use his plague weapon against the U.S., and he's been trying every since.

He comes to New York, and he's got a plot to carry it out.  He is being pursued by an 80-year-old Chinese man and an FBI counterterrorism agent.

Dennis: And then the next one is the one we've talked about here, "First the Dead?"

Tim: That's right.

Bob: And we should say something about "First the Dead," because there is a character in "First the Dead" who – well, you decided that you would name this character after a friend of ours.

Tim: I did.  There's a 10-year-old African-American boy that Nick Polchak finds on a rooftop in the Lower 9th Ward, and his name is J.T. Walker.  And I named him after a friend named J.T. Walker.  You both know he was a speaker for several years at our Weekend to Remember conferences – a wonderful man who passed away a couple of years because of adult onset leukemia.  I wanted to honor him, and I did it by naming this character after him.  He is one of the major characters of the book.

Bob: And you sent the manuscript to J.T.'s widow?

Tim: Yes.

Bob: What did you hear back from her?

Tim: Well, she's a dear friend and has some really fantastic kids and, yeah, I sent her the manuscript, and it was very touching.  It was just an honor to be able to do that.  I have a serial killer I'm naming after you in the next book, though.

[laughter]

Dennis: And I don't even want to go there for the …

Bob: You've got another Bug Man novel coming out?

Tim: I do, I do.

Bob: And that's in the fall, right?

Tim: That's right, in September just before the election I've got a book called "Less Than Dead," that's coming out.

Bob: And then you've got …

Tim: That could be about Bob, too.

Bob: Then you've got another novel that you're working on now that won't be out until next year, but it's not a Bug Man story.

Tim: It is not.  I'm trying to keep my brand as broad as I can.  You know, my brand really is creative stories, humor, quirky characters, and I just want as much creative room as I can within there.  So I like to write the unexpected.

Dennis: Well, you've got to tell us– I mean, what's the quirky character in this one going to be about?

Tim: I have a story that I'm setting in Los Angeles.  This one involves an aging movie star and a couple of nurses who work at UCLA Medical Center.

Bob: You could pattern the movie star after me, couldn't you?

Tim: I was thinking the aging starlet.

[laughter]

Dennis: That really works for me.  That will make a real entertaining read, all right.  Well, I really appreciate you, Tim.  You're speaking at our Weekend to Remember conferences; both you and Joy have been faithful over the years.  I know a number of our listeners have heard you speak, and I know they are also going to want to get a copy of this latest novel you've written.  I just appreciate you and appreciate you being on the broadcast.  Thanks for joining us.

Tim: Thanks, it's my pleasure.

Bob: You know, I'm thinking they may want to get multiple copies, and this is the kind of book that you could pass out to a friend and say, "Hey, I read this great book and thought you might enjoy it as well, and it could open the door, as we've talked about for some additional spiritual conversation."

We've got Tim Downs' book, "First the Dead" in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  You can go online at FamilyLife.com for more information about how to get a copy of this book or how to get multiple copies of it sent to you.  Again, the website, FamilyLife.com, and if you want information about Tim's book, go to the right side of the screen on the home page, see where it says "Today's Broadcast."  Click there, and that will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about a variety of resources that are available from us here at FamilyLife, including Tim's book, "First the Dead."

You can also call us at FamilyLife to request a copy of Tim's book.  The toll-free number is 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY – 1-800-358-6329.  And when you call, someone on our team will let you know how you can have a copy of the book, "First the Dead" sent to you.

When you do get in touch with us, someone may ask you if you'd like to help make a donation to the ministry of FamilyLife Today, and the reason they ask you that is because we're listener-supported.  If it weren't for listeners like you helping with donations, FamilyLife Today could not continue on this station or on other stations we're heard on all across the country.  So your financial support does help keep us on the air, and we appreciate that.

This month when you make a donation of any amount, we want to invite you to request a CD from our friend, Stu Weber.  Stu is a pastor and a Green Beret.  He is the author of the book, "Tender Warrior," and the message that have available on CD is a great message from Stu all about what it means to be a man, and to keep your manhood in balance.

We'll be happy to send you a copy of this CD as our way of saying thank you for your financial support of the ministry of FamilyLife Today when you make a donation of any amount this month, you can donate online at FamilyLife.com, and if you do that, when you're filling out the donation form, you'll come to a keycode box, just type the word "Stu" in that box, s-t-u, and we'll send you the CD from Stu Weber, or call 1-800-FLTODAY, make a donation over the phone and request the CD that you heard us talking about on the radio.  They'll know what you're talking about, and we'll be happy to send it to you.  Again, we appreciate your partnership with us an your financial support of this ministry.

Well, tomorrow we're going to talk about real manhood, and the president of Promise Keepers, Tom Fortson, is going to be here to help us do that.  We'll find out what PK is up to this year and hear about a new book that Tom has written that's all about manhood.  I hope you can be with us for that.

I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas – help for today; hope for tomorrow.

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