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Reaching the World Through Christian Fiction

with Tim Downs | June 9, 2008

On the broadcast today, Dennis Rainey talks with Christian author Tim Downs about his latest novel, First the Dead. This is Downs' third thriller to feature forensic entomologist Nick “Bug Man” Polchak, a quirky hero who suspects that someone is using the Hurricane Katrina disaster to conceal murder in New Orleans.

On the broadcast today, Dennis Rainey talks with Christian author Tim Downs about his latest novel, First the Dead. This is Downs' third thriller to feature forensic entomologist Nick “Bug Man” Polchak, a quirky hero who suspects that someone is using the Hurricane Katrina disaster to conceal murder in New Orleans.

Reaching the World Through Christian Fiction

With Tim Downs
|
June 09, 2008
| Download Transcript PDF

Tim: If we're going to reach people, we have to realize 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.

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.  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 happened.

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, June 9th.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  Tim Downs joins us today to talk about touching hearts and minds by telling stories.  Stay tuned.

And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us.  I think it has been in our lifetime that the word "read" became not just a verb but a noun.  You know, I don't think that 50 years ago you heard people talking about a great read.  But today it's kind of become – and nobody talks about a lousy read – it's always a great read, you know, have you noticed that?

Dennis: You always amaze me at how you get into these broadcasts.  You start the broadcast today with a vocabulary and a grammar lesson.

Bob: I was just thinking about …

Dennis: To introduce a guest who has written …

Bob: A couple of great reads.

Dennis: A couple of great novels.

[laughter]

Tim downs joins us on FamilyLife Today.  Tim, welcome back.

Tim: Glad to be here.

Dennis: How about that as a way to introduce your latest book?

Tim: I just wondered what we were talking about here.

Bob: You know when that happened – when "read" became a noun?

Tim: Bob, I couldn't care less.

Bob: I think Larry King – I think he's responsible for it, so we'll just …

Dennis: Some listener will know, some listener will know.

Bob: Tell us who invented "read" as a noun.

Dennis: Well, Tim Downs, as many of our listeners know, speaks at our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference along with his wife, Joy.  They have three children; live in North Carolina; and for the past few years, he has been exploring his gifts, and they are many, by the way.  He has been exploring his gifts as a novelist and has written a number of books about a Bug Man.

No, he doesn't work for Terminix or Orkin.  He is a guy who solves mysteries through what flies and fly larvae – did I say that correct?

Tim: Good enough for me.

Dennis: Is it lar-vay or lar-vah?

Tim: Lar-vah.

Bob: I've kind of explained your books as "CSI Meets the Nature Channel."  That's kind of how it is, don't you think?

[laughter]

Tim: I think you're right.

Dennis: Well, this latest book is "First the Dead," and I had a pre-release copy of this, Tim, and I had no idea where you were headed with this, but you immediately took us into the heart of Katrina.  And this book begins in the midst of a hurricane.

Tim:  It does, it does.

Dennis: Why did you start there?

Tim: I think Hurricane Katrina was a unique event in our nation's history – the worst natural disaster we've ever had, and it was – watching the event, it was like watching a landing on the moon – a whole city under water.  There's just been nothing like it, and I just thought it would make a fascinating setting for a murder mystery.

Bob: Let me ask you about your entrance into writing fiction, because I don't know how many of our listeners know this, but you had a number of years where you were a syndicated cartoonist, "Down's Town" was in newspapers all across the country, right?

Tim: That's right.

Bob: And then you've written some nonfiction books.

Tim: That's right.

Bob: So to say I want to write – you know, a lot of people say, "I want to write the Great American Novel, but you sat down and put pen to paper and got it published.

Tim: It's a little awkward to be writing books on both marriage and murder.

Bob: Yeah, simultaneously [chuckles].

Tim: Exactly.  It makes it look like I can't make up my mind, you know?  It's like my wife said to me once, she said, "You know, if anything ever happens to me, everyone will know."

[laughter]

Dennis: You did write a book on conflict.

Tim: That's right.  And I said, "Honey, if anything ever happens to you, no one will know."

[laughter]

You know, I think the reason that I started writing fiction is one of the same reasons that I've spoken with FamilyLife for 23 years now, and it's just the power of story.  Speakers are storytellers, and every speaker knows what it's like to be explaining something, describing something, and then you say, you know, "It's like this," and you go to an illustration or a story from your past.  Suddenly, everybody is quiet, everybody tunes in, everyone is paying attention.

Communicators always learn that if you get the right story to capture a point, that's it.  Everybody will take it home, everybody will remember.  And a story, a book, is really just an expanded story.  I think this is how people communicate, and it really got me interested in giving it a try.

Dennis: You actually wrote one of your Bug Man novels around a story that you tell at the Weekend to Remember Marriage Conference.

Tim: That's exactly right.

Dennis: Share the context for what the purpose of the message is that you are giving, and then share the story with our listeners and then how you developed a novel from that story.

Tim: In the first Persian Gulf War, there was an air war and a ground war.  The strategy was if you do that air war correctly, there won't be much of a ground war.  This was a dozen years ago – more than that – 15 years, 17 years ago.

Well, it worked exceptionally well.  What people don't realize is that we have psychological warfare people that work for our armed forces.  They're based at Fort Bragg, not far from where I live.

During the Persian Gulf War, they would fly over the enemy lines in these huge C130s, and they would drop leaflets – they dropped 29 million leaflets during the Persian Gulf War, and they would have very simple messages on them – the front would be printed some to look like Iraqi currency or some would be printed with all the flags of the coalition forces.  I actually have some of these leaflets, and I hold them up at the FamilyLife conference.

On the back of each leaflet is a message in Arabic, and it will say something like, "What did you have to eat today?  What is the meal that Saddam Hussein gave you today?"  And then it will list the menu for the allied forces and say at the bottom that prisoners of war get to eat the same thing that the soldiers do.

So the point of psychological warfare is that we know the enemy has got a limited time and limited energy.  They have doubts, and they have fears, and if we can play on those doubts and fears, get them to spend that limited energy and conflict with one another, they'll never be able to put up a unified front against us.

Well, I thought that was a great illustration of what every couple faces in married life – limited time, limited energy, we have fears, we have doubts, and if we allow them to cause us to spend that limited energy in conflict with one another, we can't have the impact on the world that we've intended to have.  That's an illustration I've used for 20 years, or at least since the Persian Gulf War, and it was such a good illustration, I thought, you know, that would make a good setting for a story.

So I wrote a book called "Head Game," and it was about a guy who was involved in psychological warfare in the Persian Gulf, and he actually destroys an enemy unit.  The commander of the enemy unit realizes what's been done to him and decides he's going to learn how psychological warfare works; he's going to come to the United States; find the guys who did it; and do it to them.  His goal will be to get them to surrender, but what he's wanting them to do is actually surrender their lives; to take their own lives – that was the theme for the story.

Bob: Now, I think we need to explain to listeners, somebody might go get a copy of "Head Game" and start reading through it, and they're waiting for the big spiritual theme to emerge.  Is there a big spiritual theme that emerges in "Head Game?"

Tim: There is a subtle spiritual theme that emerges.  I'm trying to write fiction that will cross over to the general population, because everybody loves a good story.  When I first starting writing a comic strip, "Doonesbury" was huge, and "Doonesbury" is a politically liberal comic strip.  All kinds of conservatives read "Doonesbury" because they didn't care.  What they liked was the humor.

And there's a great lesson in there.  If there is something of value, something of entertainment, something of story, people will read it no matter what you want to talk about, but you can't be too up front.  So I'm trying to take a subtle slice of Christian worldview and slide it into each of my stories.

Bob: And what are you hoping that a Christian will get out of it?  Are you hoping they'll see the subtlety and recognize it – and what about the non-Christian?

Tim: I think Christians will just enjoy the story, and I think they will be more sensitive to, more aware of, the subtlety there.  For the non-Christian, I want to ask good questions.  I want them to start thinking in areas that they may not otherwise think about because I think the Christian and non-Christian worlds are polarizing.  Our job is to mix things up – keep this a topic of discussion.

Bob: I thought your novel, "Plague Maker" may have touched on kind of the most universal, most powerful spiritual theme because you really have a terrorist attack going on with forgiveness issues right there in the midst of the whole thing, and at one level the terrorist attack is a metaphor for what can happen if you don't resolve conflict.

Tim: Exactly.  In "Plague Maker" I've got two very old men whose lives have paralleled each other.  Each one was terribly hurt as a young man, but each man has a choice about what path he'll take.  One man takes the path of revenge, and that determines his life.  But the other man spends the rest of his life seeking to offer forgiveness, which is what Jesus said we are supposed to do.  So his life takes a very different direction.  That's the parallel in the story.

Dennis: You know, Tim, as I've thought about you writing these books, I've thought in some ways it would be easier to write a book for those who aren't in the Christian faith than those who are, because those of us who are in the Christian faith have all kinds of boundaries we adhere to around the movies we watch, what we read, and all kinds of boundaries about language and issues.

I'm just curious as to how you've come to the standard that you've come to in your writing in terms of what you're going to permit in the book so it's real life, and what you're not going to permit.  You've had to grapple with that.

Tim: Oh, you bet, and it's a difficult balance.  You know, when Jesus first sent his students out to have contact with real unbelieving people on their own he said, "I have two requirements of you.  I want you to be as shrewd as a serpent and as innocent as a dove."  Well, if you think about that imagery, what He's actually saying is you should be as shrewd as Satan and as innocent as the Holy Spirit, which is no simple balance.

Bob: That's right.

Tim: But he's saying that's what you're going to need if you're going to walk that balance 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.  I don't want to be taking the Lord's name in vain; I don't want to be unnecessarily profane; I'm not going to write gratuitous sex or even violence.  But, at the same time, I need to write realistic characters in real settings, and I want to talk about the real world.

And, you know, Dennis, I think the Bible gives us the freedom to do that, because – this may shock you to hear this, but the Bible is an R-rated book.  If you filmed it from beginning to end, it would make an R-rated movie, and there are parts you would not show your kids, and that's because I think 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.  This is a seriously fallen world, and if we're going to talk to it, we're going to have to address the fallen parts of it.

Bob: You have been frustrated, at times, by the fact that there are people who – their own standards, their own boundaries, put you in a little restrictive spot in terms of things that you feel freedom to do that maybe your readers or book store owners aren't comfortable with.

Tim: Unfortunately, sometimes in the Christian world, books, movies, are evaluated by what's not in them.  You'll love this book because there's no cussing in it.  Well, you know, it's hard to make a good book out of what's not in it.  You eventually have to get around to what is in it, but there are people who will scan the books in the bookstore to see if there's any word they consider improper and will complain if they see them.

This is unique to Christian bookstores.  It never happens in a secular bookstore.  So it's an additional balance that Christian writers have to address, and it's not an easy one to do.

Dennis: And so, as you applied this standard to your own writing, what did you decide to do, for instance, around language?

Tim: Well, for me, I look for creative ways around it.  I was telling somebody earlier that what you can't do is come up with sanitized profanity.  If I've got some hardened cop in the inner city, and he gets shot in the gut, he can't say, "Shucks, I've been shot."

[laughter]

He just – it doesn't work.

Dennis: "Graham crackers" or something.

Tim: Yeah, I know.  And people try it and, you know, it isn't real.  So what you do instead is you avoid it.  You just say I'm not going to write that way.  I won't establish my character through his language, and you write around it.  And I look for ways to do that.

You know, I'm writing forensic crime fiction, so there are dead people, and there are, in my case, decomposing bodies, but I've got to decide my own limits about what am I going to describe and how gross is this going to get, and I'm keeping in mind that there are people of all ages reading my stories, and so I'm dealing with a real-life situation but without going too far.

Bob: There are moments in reading your books where there is some of that forensic descriptiveness that's coming through, and I'm thinking, "He's been reading a little Stephen King here on the side."  I mean, there are times it gets kind of real.  I guess that's the best way to put it, right?

Tim: You know, I try to keep it as real as I can.  When I started writing forensic entomology, I actually attended a forensic entomology workshop for crime scene investigators in Indiana.  It's hosted there once a year.  We meet in an American Legion hall.  For the first half of the day they show slides of murder scenes.  And the people all around me are pathologists and crime scene investigators – they're immune to this stuff, this is where they live.  They're serving Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the back of the room.  So for the first half of the day …

Dennis: Now, wait, wait, ho, Tim, I've known you for a long time.  I'm picturing you going to one of these workshops.  Why in the world did you go do that?

Tim: Because I want to get it right.  I do the research for my stories so they're as realistic as they possibly can be, and when I finished my first novel, I sent it to this forensic entomologist, and he said, "You know what?  I always thought I'd write a novel about this field, but you've already done it, so I guess I don't have to."

Dennis: So it's kind of a "CSI" for Christians, of sorts.

Tim: Yeah, in a sense, it is.

Dennis: Well, keep on with your story about the workshop.

Tim: So the first half of the day, we're watching slides of murder scenes, and they're absolutely horrendous scenes.  And then in the afternoon we would all go out to his farm where he had dead pigs that he had collected from his next-door neighbor who was a hog farmer, and these decomposing pigs are in all different settings – one in the shade, one in the sun, one in a creek.  You are assigned a victim, and you've got your toolbox, you've been learning about how to collect insect evidence at a murder scene, and your job is to collect maggots from a decomposing pig – make sure you collect them correctly, label them correctly, then you bring it back, they check you out, and, at the end of the day, they have a pig roast.

Dennis: And, Bob, would you remind people what the name of our broadcast is?

Bob: It's FamilyLife Today.

Dennis: With your host, Bob Lepine.  I'm outta here.

Bob: You're disclaiming all this?  You know, there are folks who are listening to us talk about this and go, "Now, wait" –  Philippians 4:8 – "Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is" – think on these things, don't think on maggots on dead pigs.

Tim: Stories about murder are stories about justice.  They are about good and evil, and that's why people read those stories and, by the way, that's why people love the forensic stories.  It's our love of technology applied to our love of story and good versus evil.  And this is just a fascinating emerging science. 

You know, it reminds me of the story of Cain and Abel – when God says to Cain, you know, "Your brother's blood is crying out from the ground."  You look into forensic entomology – that is literally true.  The blood of a victim on the ground actually speaks, if you know how to listen to it, if you know how to interpret the evidence.  A body can be moved and by studying what's left behind and the insects that are there, you can tell if there was a body there and sometimes connected that spot with the body later on.

Bob: Are you a little twisted?

[laughter]

Tim: Define "a little."

Bob: I'm just thinking, if I were going to sit down to write my first novel, probably the last place I'd go is maggots on dead bodies. 

Dennis: Bob, you'd be at a rock concert.

Bob: Okay.

Tim: You need to get out more, Bob.

Bob: But, I mean, you had all kinds – you had a white board in front of you.  You could write about whatever you wanted to.  Why maggots?

Tim: I read an article in a science magazine about forensic entomology.  There's half a dozen guys in the United States that do this, and I remember thinking two things – number one, this is gross; and, number two, this is fascinating.  And that's when I thought this has the makings of a good character.

If you think about crime stories, it's all been done – the detectives, the police, the FBI, but forensic entomologists aren't law people, they're bug people.  I mean, who gets a Ph.D. in entomology?  And yet you take one of these guys, who is an outsider, put him in a crime scene, now that's a great setting for a story.

Bob: I have to tell you, I've tried to imagine, as I've read through the Bug Man novels who, in Hollywood, would play Nick Polchak, your Bug Man, and I guess in the first one the guy I had in mind was somebody like Gilbert Gottfried, you know?  I mean, just kind of a quirky, thick glasses – that's one of the big things about Nick is his glasses – but in this most recent one, he, all of a sudden, got a little more handsome and a little more leading mannish – so who do you pick to play Nick Polchak?

Tim: I think Bob Lepine, what do you think, Dennis?

Dennis: You know …

Bob: Which is it – the …

Dennis: The glasses aren't thick enough.

Tim: It's the handsome part …

Dennis: It's the handsome part, the leading man.

Tim: The radio does not do him justice.

Bob: Who do you have in mind?  As you write, do you have someone?

Tim: I don't know that I do.  Some people have said Nicolas Cage, some people have said Jeff Goldblum.

Bob: Okay.

Tim: I picture Nick Polchak, my forensic entomologist, as tall, kind of long-limbed, he's basically a nice-looking fellow except he wears these thick Coke-bottle glasses which are, in effect, his microscopes.  Nick is like an outsider to all of life.  He thinks of himself as a bug.  He doesn't really like people, and that allows me to do commentary through him.

Bob: You really developed that in the most recent novel, and I thought of, back to high school, when I read Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," which opens with this line about Gregor Samsa who awakes one morning to find he's turned into a giant cockroach.

Dennis: You read what?  I'm sorry, I missed that literature.

Bob: You weren't in that class?

Dennis: I missed that literature, growing up.  I'm looking at our engineer, Keith Lynch.  Keith, Keith, did you read that book, too?

Bob: He's familiar with "The Metamorphosis."

Tim: By Kafka.

Dennis: Oh, my goodness.

Bob: When I started reading Nick Polchak describing himself as a bug, I went immediately to Kafka, and I thought, "You've read your Kafka, too, haven't you?"

Tim: Yeah, you bet.

Dennis: What you're really talking about, Tim, is writing – well, as Bob said at the beginning, a good read that is clean, that has been put through a man's filter who is a Christ-follower.  And unashamedly, you're putting your name on the front.  You're saying, "Read this.  This is entertaining, but there is also some underlying themes, some humor and some lessons for you to take away."

I find in this entertainment-crazed culture we live in that when I get a copy of your latest book, I always look forward to it because I think, "You know what?  I can trust Tim, I really can.  He's going to take me down some roads where I've never been before," as is illustrated by your study of dead pigs.  And you're going to introduce me to some characters and to a side of life I may know nothing about.

In fact, I'm a very curious person, that's why I like interviewing folks here on FamilyLife Today, and I'm just asking the questions I think other people would ask, and I think a book like yours is really a safe read – not just a good read, but a safe read for a follower of Christ and one that's a good one to put in the hands of maybe a next-door neighbor.

Bob: And you can put a used book in a next-door neighbor's hand.  I mean, you can get a copy, read it yourself first, and then pass it along to your neighbor, if you want.  We've got Tim's book in our FamilyLife Resource Center.  The book is called "First the Dead."  It's one of the Bug Man novels, the third in the series.  In fact, you might check – I think we've got all three of them in our FamilyLife Resource Center as well.

If you're interested in a good summer take-to-the-beach book and something that you can share with a friend or with a neighbor, go online at FamilyLife.com, click on the right side of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," and that will take you to an area of the site where there is more information about the book, "First the Dead," by Tim Downs.  Again, our website if FamilyLife.com, click on the right side of the screen where it says "Today's Broadcast," and you can get more information about Tim's books.

You can also call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, that's 1-800-358-6329 – 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY.  Someone on our team can let you know how you can get a copy of Tim's latest novel sent out to you.

And let me remind those of you who are regular listeners to FamilyLife Today that not only do we appreciate your tuning in and being a part of this program, but I know some of you have, from time to time, contacted us to make a donation to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, and we really appreciate your financial support as well.  We're listener-supported, and so donations that come from folks like you are what keep us on the air on this station and on other stations all across the country.

And while I'm on that subject, and I just say that we want to make sure that when you make a donation to FamilyLife Today you are not, in any way, taking away from your regular giving to your local church.  That ought to be your first priority, and we hope you would never take from there and send the money to FamilyLife.

But if you are able to go above and beyond and make a donation to FamilyLife, we want you to know we appreciate your financial support of this ministry, and this month we'd like to send you a CD as our way of saying thank you for that financial support.  The CD is a great message from our friend, Stu Weber, talking about what it means to be a man and what it means to be in balance as a man; to understand toughness and tenderness; to be sensitive and strong at the same time.

The message is called "Applied Masculinity," and you can request a copy of this CD when you make a donation of any amount this month to FamilyLife Today.  If you are on the website, and you're making your donation there, when you come to the keycode box on the donation form, just type in the word "Stu" – s-t-u – and we'll know to send you a copy of Stu Weber's message.  Or if you call to make a donation just mention that you'd like the CD on manhood or the CD by Stu Weber.  We're happy to send it out to you and, again, we appreciate your financial support of this ministry.

Tomorrow we'll continue our conversation with Tim Downs; find out more about his mission a novelist.  I hope you can be back 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.

[Burl Ives sings "Ugly Bug Ball"]

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

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