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Dave Swavely is the pastor of a Pennsylvania church, the father of seven, and the author or co-author of several nonfiction books and one new novel, Silhouette.
Pastor and writer. Do those two callings go together? The discipline of writing, having to think through the way you’re using words more than when you just talk, is good for my trade as a pastor. Fiction published in a secular market gives me the opportunity to make connections that I wouldn’t otherwise make with people who are uninitiated to the Christian faith.
Which calling came first: pastoring or writing? When I was a little boy, I began to write. If somebody would have asked me even when I was very young, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would have said, “A writer,” and I actually also said, even, “A novelist.” I majored in creative writing. I didn’t believe I was called to be a pastor until I became one after college.
Let’s talk about your futuristic action/mystery novel, Silhouette. It’s published by a big New York house, Macmillan, and doesn’t have much about Christianity—although the main character is starting to sense that he’s missing something. He’s being exposed to Christians, liking some of the things he sees but mostly disliking Christian ideas—yet Providence behind the scenes is working in his life.
It’s set in a post-quake San Francisco, which has become a city-state ruled by a semi-benevolent dictator, so it and the draft of your sequel have some violence and sexual (not explicit) situations. Any good literature will contain both the sacred and profane, because life is full of both. Authors get shot at from both directions. In the Christian publishing world you can’t have too much of the profane or they won’t publish you. In the secular publishing world you can’t have too much of the sacred, or they won’t publish you or they’ll try to cut it out. It’s hard to write about the sacred and profane, to have a place for it to be published and read in today’s market, and also to do it in a way honoring to the Lord, where the profane serves the purpose of showing how great the sacred is.
The bad news makes us understand more our desperate need for the good news? Experiencing the bad news through the characters shows how great the solution is and how much it’s needed.
I won’t give away the plot, but I do want to ask how you found the publisher. I was 34 in the year 2000, writing nonfiction and ghostwriting. I figured if I’m ever going to write a novel, I might as well do it now. I used every free moment I had and produced this novel. It’s changed considerably since then, because editing is very helpful. There’s a tip for you Patrick Henry students who want to write—you need to be edited and you need to listen to editors, because they do help a lot.
Yes, listen to editors! Yes! I wrote it and was busy with a growing family and a growing church, so I went to the library, pulled out the big book of literary agencies, and picked out nine literary agencies that said they represented material like I had in the novel. I looked for one more and came across the William Morris Agency, which represents all the biggest stars in Hollywood. I chuckled, wrote down its address as my 10th, and said, “That’s it. I’ll send out cover letters and chapters to the 10, and pray about it. If the Lord wants it published, He will do it. If not, I won’t be writing fiction, because I don’t have time with my big family and my growing church to do more than that.”
And the result? Six said no. Three never responded. Lo and behold, someone from the William Morris Agency wrote back to me and said, “I’d like to see the rest of the book.” I sent it to him. He wrote back to me and said, “I’ve been reading unsolicited manuscripts here for two years: Yours is my favorite book I’ve ever read. I would like to represent you.” I said, “Great! Let’s go for it!”
Author’s dream come true? A month later, the same man called me back and said, “I was all excited about selling your book and a series and so forth from it, but I just got offered a great job in the film industry, and I’ve been hoping to get into the film industry, and I’m going to do that. I’m sorry; I won’t be a literary agent anymore.”
Not the end of the story, I suspect. He said, “I could take the book with me and see if I could try to sell it here and there, on the side, or we could try to find you another agent.” I said—trusting in the Lord and knowing that there’s not much I can do to make this happen—“Take it with you.” I figured, “What are the chances I’m going to find someone else in Manhattan who likes my novel enough to champion it?” So he took it with him. He stayed in the film industry and all through the 2000s he had it, but wasn’t able to sell it.
Did you ever hear from him during that decade? At the beginning, he tried a few publishers and told me, “They said no,” or, “They still have it and didn’t say anything.” Eventually we lost touch. I not only gave up on seeing my novel ever published, but gave up on all writing: I don’t have a huge church and I haven’t been to heaven and back, so marketing staffs vetoed my proposals.
But this is not the end. At a conference I heard Gregg Harris ask the audience, “Do any of you have talents, gifts, dreams you’ve stopped pursuing because you’ve given up on them? Let me encourage you: God is able and He can make things happen. Don’t give up.” So I sent out emails to everybody I knew in the publishing business, Christian and secular, and said to the Lord, “If you want something to happen, please make it happen. If nothing happens, I’m content: I trust you for that.” I got one back from that agent I told you about, who had just been hired by Macmillan. So Silhouette came out.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Dave Swavely: