Writer and pastor Ward Tanneberg hails from Washington state in the United States, and he has spent most of his life in the northwestern part of the country. He discovered a love for reading as a small boy and as an adult, and turned that love into a suitable companionówriting. He made the bold statement that he was going to be a preacher someday when he was still in his pre-teen years, and after several years of growing up, he left home at 17 to pursue his calling and attended college. Still married to his love of his life, Tanneberg began his writing career in the exchange of more than 500 love letters with his sweetheart.
Today, Tanneberg is the author of four fiction novels and three non-fiction novels as well as numerous magazine articles. He continues to pastor from the pulpit as well as through writing and strives to follow the example of Jesus: teach through stories. In the midst of a busy schedule, Tanneberg took time out to answer some questions about his latest novel, Vanished
CBP: I've read that you never intended to be a novelist, but now that you are, what routines do you follow to complete a book?
Tanneberg: It's true that initially, as a part of my pastoral work, I was writing magazine articles and non-fiction, which I still do occasionally. It was several years before I first wrote a couple of short stories and took them to a writer's conference to see what an editor might think about my skills (or lack thereof). A couple of editors encouraged me saying, "You can do this; go home and write the great novel." I subsequently had to wrestle with whether or not I was being frivolous and should stay with more "serious and meaningful stuff." I think at the time it was still more about me than about the gift God has given me. Then one day I seemed to hear a somewhat exasperated God say, "Look, how did my Son communicate when he was with my people?" My answer: "He told stories to get his thoughts through to them." God's response: "So if the storytelling mode was good enough for my Son, what is your problem?" That was my permission slip.
As to routines, it depends on the story. Some stories require unique research experience of a first-hand nature. Spending time on board a vessel similar to the one described in Vanished. Visiting a firing range. Travel to specific geographic locations. Studying people may be as simple as spending time at a mall or a school or at church. Once an idea has germinated, I usually do a very broad synopsis so that I have a sense of beginning and ending. I usually storyboard in very general terms to ensure plot and pace. I set a certain number of pages per week during first draft stages. That keep me going regardless of whether or not I am "inspired" to write. I have no idea how much I rewrite but it is a major part of the process. I usually give the work to two or three readers I trust to be candid. One may read for story; another for grammar and style. Eventually the baby is born.
CBP: Who inspired the characters in Vanished, and it's prequel?
Tanneberg: The basic plot for Without Warning was first formulated while I was in Tel Aviv. Two boatloads of terrorists landed just south of the city with the intent of taking a hotel in a suicide attack and killing as many tourists as possible. I began to think about the day when terrorists would eventually come to America and how vulnerable we were to such attacks. Since, in my view, the terrorism we face today has a radical religious base, mixed in with politics, I began to think how vulnerable the American church would be to such an attack. Without Warning was first published in 1994 under the title, September Strike. When Kregel's staff read the book, they were struck with how the story almost prophetically paralleled the 9/11 attack and subsequent events. However, they chose not to use the same title out of respect to 9/11 and its victims.
The characters in Without Warning and Vanished are composite characters made up in my head. The rule of thumb is to write what you know. Having been a pastor for many years, I know about church. There is a little bit of the author in John Cain, though his exploits are far beyond my reality. My wife and I have never gone through the challenges they struggled with, but we have lost a grandson who died as an infant. Our family has experienced other severe disappointments and challenges. Jessica is named after one of my granddaughters, who was twelve at the time. Though all my characters are composites, if you are a writer's family member or friend, expect that one day you may see a bit of who you are in one of the characters.
CBP: I was intrigued by the premise of how far John Cain would go to find Jessica--even resorting to buying a weapon and learning to use it. Such a dilemma! How did you research this aspect of the book?
Tanneberg: I actually lived out the scenario personally by going to the yellow pages, searching out a firing range, spending time there, handling the weapons of choice, and taking a lesson. My real life instructor was Chinese, but was male, not female as in the book.
CBP: The terrorist characters are well drawn and interesting, especially the caretaker for Jessica. Her humanity and caring nature came through despite her role. I'm glad you were able to show that good hearts reside in the worst places. What inspired you to use this to drive the plot forward?
Tanneberg: I have been in the Middle East and Turkey several times and have made acquaintances and friends among both Jewish and Muslim people groups. There are many wonderful, loving, and compassionate folk to be found in every situation. As a result, particularly with the friendship of a Turkish Muslim woman who helped to research a different story, I found it easy to portray that quality in Jessica's caretaker.
CBP: Jessica is a fascinating child and very resourceful. How did you get inside the head of a 12-year old?
Tanneberg: First, I tried to remember my daughter at age 12. Then, I spent time watching and talking with 12-year-olds in our church. I spoke with their teachers and their parents. Soon I had the ingredients for formulating this character. In an inspirational/suspense genre, I then set about stretching her, forcing her to use out of necessity all her 12-year-old insights, feelings, memories, and courage in order to face an extraordinary life-or-death situation in which she must depend on herself and her young faith in God.
CBP: Will Jessica and her family appear again in a third book?
Tanneberg: I am working on such a project. But in this business, one never knows until a publisher expresses interest.
CBP: What projects are you working on now?
Tanneberg: I am working on a two-book manuscript dealing with parents who came to faith in Christ at midlife and whose young adult children find it difficult to understand and accept the change. The son's job loss forces him to return home while the college-age daughter has chosen to run away.
CBP: Which do you enjoy more: writing non-fiction or fiction, and why?
Tanneberg: Fiction is my favorite. Telling stories that are entertaining while filled with meaning and purpose is to me the greatest of challenges. Crafting characters that readers love to love or hate is what painting portraits is to an artist. My characters become members of our family. They join my wife and me at the dinner table. Who they are becoming, and the circumstances that surround them, are very much a part of our conversations. We even pray for them. My wife is a wonderful source of insight and imagination. And she is willing to put up with this "other world" that is so much a part of who I am.
CBP: What type of situation inspires the fiction writer within you?
Tanneberg: I am inspired by ordinary people who rise to extraordinary accomplishments; people who whose faith in God and whose determination to overcome handicap or personal failure or grave danger causes them to reach above and beyond themselves. I am inspired by adverse life situations or disappointments that demand more from a person than would otherwise be expected.
CBP: When writing fiction, do you find it challenging to stay true to God while trying to both inform and entertain? How do you meet those challenges?
Tanneberg: I maintain that it must be easier to write excellent general fiction than excellent Christian fiction. The "boundaries" in Christian fiction are more difficult to adhere to when developing strong, believable characters with which readers can identify. For one reason, it is a challenge to entertain first and not preach first. If the reader wants a sermon, he or she goes to church to hear it. They do not want to buy a work of fiction only to discover it is a sermon in disguise.
In my opinion, it would be easier for one's character to use four letter words to express anger, frustration, or fear than it is without them. I believe that's the reason movies and secular literature today have so much bad language attached. It requires more effort and intelligence to express feelings and ideas without resorting to "easy-out" bad language. It would also be easier to describe emotional or sexual relationships where no literary boundaries exist. I am not suggesting we should do this. I am simply saying that having such boundaries makes defining strong, believable characters and circumstances with which the reader can identify more difficult for the writer who is working out of a Christian value system than for one who is not.
Interview by Dian Moore, www.handsforhope.com.