Today, we have a very special guest: Robert Liparulo, suspense writer and author of the new book The 13th Tribe. I was able to meet Bob at Ted Dekker's Ragged Edge writers' conference last year and sat under his teaching for a session or two. He's a very down-to-earth guy with a lot of good practical advice on being a writer. I was especially honored when he endorsed my novel Enemies of the Cross for its release (you'll see a snippet of that quote in the "burning church" header at the top of this blog). At the Ragged Edge, Bob gave us a special treat in the form of an Advance Reader's Copy of The 13th Tribe. I'm a notoriously slow reader, but I've started it and can tell you that it's a fast, smooth style--and the characters are great. Bob was gracious, once again, to visit our little corner of the Internet for this in-depth interview on him, the new book, and this whacky "Christian Fiction" thing.
Greg Mitchell: So we’ll start off with an easy one. Who are you and what’s The 13th Tribe all about?
Robert Lipraulo: I’m a former journalist, who worked in the fields of celebrity profiles, business writing, and investigative reporting. I wrote my first novel, Comes a Horseman, eight years ago. The 13th Tribe is my eleventh novel. I’m also a screenwriter. I wrote the screenplay for Ted Dekker’s Blessed Child; I’m contracted to write the scripts for several of my own books; and I’m working with Andrew Davis (director of The Fugitive and The Guardian) on an original political thriller.
The 13th Tribe can be summed up in two words: Immortal vigilantes. A group of people who were “cursed” with immortality because of their transgression at the golden calf are trying to regain God’s favor by killing sinners. Now they’ve targeted a major city, and only one man can stop them—if he can overcome his own brokenness and anger at God.
But, really, it goes much deeper. It explores our struggle to grasp God’s holiness; our stubborn belief in “earning” God’s favor, though we know better; and how even our good intentions can be twisted when we insist on abiding by our own limited logic instead of God’s righteous wisdom. All of this in a story filled with the action, cutting-edge technology, and complex characters my readers have come to expect.
GM: Now this is the first of a series. How many do you have planned? Do you have a sort of overall story you’re trying to tell or this more in the vein of a “series of standalones”?
RL: Right now, I’m planning on three books in the series, with the possibility of more. I’m writing them as standalones, but the characters continue through all of them—the ones who survive, anyway. I recommend reading them in order to get the full picture.
GM: Where did you get the inspiration for The 13th Tribe?
RL: Some time ago, I started thinking about vigilantism, frontier justice. I think most of us would say we’d do something to stop, for example, a child abuser, even if we have to go outside the law to do it (assuming all other recourses have failed). But what are the ramifications of that . . . to society? To our souls? It’s a scary door to open. The best way to examine a topic is to exaggerate it, or look at how it functions under extreme circumstances. I wanted to look at vigilantism that way: an exaggerated reason to be a vigilante . . . how far could you take it . . . what do you become if you practice it over a long period of time?
You can’t think too deeply about taking the law into your own hands, about hurting people before they can hurt others, without eventually getting around to thinking about the nature of forgiveness and grace. So now there’s God, filing off the edges of my story, shaping it into something bigger than it was before.
GM: One of the things that really sticks out to me about the story is your, I guess, “embellishment” of a Biblical account—in this case you’ve given a twist to the story of Moses returning from Mount Sinai to find that Israel has turned into a bunch of cow-god worshipers. I think it’s really cool, but I could see where some might see this as crossing a line, theologically speaking. How do you address that? Do you feel that there is a line that can be crossed, or is it all up for grabs in fiction?
RL: Well it is fiction—speculative fiction, at that. I consulted a lot of theologians about the incident at the gold calf. Many of them have theories about the details of what happened at the golden calf, based on what we know about the Israelites and the culture back then. The line for me was that I didn’t want to contradict scripture in any way. For example, if scripture says a biblical figure died, I didn’t use that figure as an immortal. The embellishments at the gold calf are all supported by scholars’ theories; they could be real. We just don’t know, but they don’t contradict what we do know.
GM: You have an incredible resume with your previous novels and The Dreamhouse Kings series finally wrapped. Did you learn anything about series-writing, in particular, that you’re bringing from DK to The Immortal Files? How to keep the tension going from book to book, tying up loose ends, etc?
RL: The Dreamhouse series and this one are structured very differently. I saw the Dreamhouse story as one long story broken into six books. Going from one book to the next, is very much like flipping from one chapter to the next. The Immortal Files, on the other hand, are each complete stories. Each book, while retaining some of the same characters, locations, and the “world” created in the first one, has its own story, its own problem and resolution. What I learned from Dreamhouse was how to cover a bit of backstory without boring readers who already know it, and how to continue character growth by building on what came before.
GM: You’ve said before that your previous work, while in the CBA, hasn’t been what some would consider “blatantly Christian”. In fact, I’ve heard you talk about some people even asking you what’s “Christian” about your books. But, with The 13th Tribe, you’ve taken a different route—writing something more extroverted when it comes to its themes of faith. I find this really interesting as it seems to me that more authors want to go the opposite way. That is, they’re billed as “Christian Fiction” writers, but they start trying to pull away from that market to go mainstream and less obviously Christian. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or was it one of those things that just happened?
RL: I’ve always tried to follow God’s leading in how I tell my stories. When I started Comes a Horseman, I prayed and fasted about how much overt Christianity to put into it. One morning, I was looking at Pikes Peak and I heard God speaking to me. He said, “Do you see me in that mountain.” I said, “Of course, I see you in everything.” He said, “Do you see my name carved into it?” “No.” “That’s how I want you to write your story.” So, I believe God is in my earlier books in ways that I could not have possibly written Him into them. And readers have responded, telling me that scenes comforted them and got them thinking about God—and none of it was intentionally written into those scenes. In fact, if the Holy Spirit weren’t pointing it out to them, readers wouldn’t have seen it at all.
When I was preparing to write a book about vigilantes, I heard God telling me it was time to be more overt about the spirituality. Following His calling, the story exploded into an examination of faith and justice and grace, and the idea of the Tribe fell into place. But despite the faith elements becoming more prevalent, I’m still a thriller writer, so making The 13th Tribe a Christian thriller felt very natural.
I don’t think Christian authors should necessarily try to fit into a particular market, whether that’s Christian or mainstream. They need to follow their hearts, where they feel God leading them. If that means having strong spiritual content or addressing faith more subtly, then that’s what they should do.
GM: I very much agree. Do you feel that there’s a stricter standard with fiction that falls under the “Christian Fiction” category? Do you feel that it’s judged harsher by its readers and/or its detractors? Do you feel that there should be a higher standard?
RL: There are different categories with different standards. Until recently, the standard for the quality of writing in Christian fiction was lower. It used to be that pastors and theologians composed the bulk of “Christian” novels, and the emphasis was on the message, not the writing. But can you imagine the quality of work Jesus put into his carpentry? I wouldn’t doubt that the things he made are still around today. I’m glad to see that the overall quality of writing is getting better in Christian fiction.
As writers writing about Christian things, we better have our own theology down pat. In that sense, we are held to a higher standard when representing Christian belief, as we should be.
There will always be detractors of all things Christians. No author likes negative reviews, but I tend to chalk up the ones that blast the fact that there are spiritual aspects in my stories to people who don’t have the eyes to see. It’s a part of writing in this field, with the label “Christian,” that will never change. I try to take those kinds of hits in stride.
GM: What drives you from book to book (other than paying the bills, I’d imagine!)? Do you ever feel like leaving writing behind and striking out on your own in television repair or refrigerator installation? What keeps you coming back to this job?
GM: Thank you so much for taking the time out of your crazy promotional tour to talk with us. What’s next up for Bob Liparulo?
RL: Thank you for doing this, Greg. Wonderful questions!
The sequel to The 13th Tribe is in the can, and I’m onto the third book. I’m also working on the first book of my next YA series, called Hunter. When I have a spare moment (ha!), I’m pushing the scripts I’m committed to writing a little further down the pike. It’s all great fun, really.
GM: That's all we have time for now. Thanks to everyone for stopping by, and be sure to go check out The 13th Tribe--in stores now!