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1) When did you first know when you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote this play called The Artist (in the late 90’s, long before the recent Best Picture Winner). I don’t even remember the exact plot, but it was something akin to four people painting all of their sins on a canvas, and then someone else came along, making those paintings beautiful. I know it sounds kind of serious and ham-fisted (which it was) but it had a lot of jokes in it.

2) Who first validated that desire in you?

The audience for that play. It got a standing ovation after it was over (it played at the youth event) and afterwards everyone talked about how great the writing was. I realized what I loved most was putting the story together.

3) What does a workday look like for Rob Stennett?

Everyday is a little different. I do a lot of writing and directing. But I always try to craft fiction in the morning. If I don’t the day quickly gets away from me.

4) What is your creative process?

Before I ever sit down to write I think about the story. Getting ready in the morning, in the car, I try to really think about the scene that day. It helps me so the writing kind of explodes out of me by the time I sit down. Normally, I’ll have somewhat of an outline–but then I’ll get this great idea and I have to change a bunch of stuff in earlier chapters. When the story is FINALLY finished I revisit all the chapters and rewrite them. Then when I feel done I send them to my editor who tells me there is a lot more rewriting to do. Sorry. This suddenly doesn’t feel very creative. [Ed. note: no, but it sounds very real]

5) You are on staff at a church, right?

Yes, New Life Church in Colorado Springs. It’s a really great group of people and I’m happy to be a part. I’m the Creative Director: I direct productions, oversee video and graphic content, and whatever else needs to be done.

6) How do you balance your multiple careers? Family Life?

That’s the hardest part. I love all of it. I guess lately the key is really to schedule my time well. I work a lot during lunch. Sometimes I put on a cup of coffee at night and work more. I don’t know if I’m a very balanced person. But I’m a happy person. I love my family and love what I do.

7) Your work includes a lot of pop culture references, social commentary, and satire. What drew you as a creative person to those avenues?

Pop culture is what I love. I grew up on Star Wars,Beastie Boys, and whatever else you see in my books; it’s something fun to talk about. Some earlier seasons of the Simpsons had these really great episodes about faith and religion but used satire to tell their stories. I always thought “That’s something I want to do.” I want to write about faith, but put a satirical slant on it.

8) Your first novel is The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher. Can you tell us where the genesis of the idea behind that book originated?

When I was living in LA my wife and I went around looking for churches. I guess that’s when I realized what a strange place church was. I’d grown up in it, I knew how it worked, I knew all of the code words, but I still found it strange. I thought what would someone who never went to church before think of this place. What if he had to go for some reason? Or what if some guy who had no idea how a church worked tried to start one of his own? It was an entertaining thought. Felt like it would make a good story.

9) Who are some writers you admire, and why?

I love Tim O’Brien because I want to be able to write like him. The way he crafts paragraphs is a thing of beauty.

Kurt Vonnegut was one of the author’s that changed how I viewed writing. He was so funny and human and simple when I first read his books I thought, I didn’t know you could do that.

Stephen King creates these really simple everyman characters and puts them in just amazing situations. When people talk about getting Lost In a Book his stories are the first that come to mind.

Anne Lamott because she talks about faith in a way that makes it feel fresh and real again.

There are so many more, but that’s all I’m going to give you for now.

10) Can you tell us about your weekly podcast, 9 Thumbs?

It’s one of the highlights of my week. It’s three guys (unless there is a girl) talking about three things that we like. It’s fun to learn about new blogs, books, bands (among other things), and just talk about why we admire them. Internet culture can also be such a cynical place that’s it’s fun to just heap praise on things.

11) Any questions you’re never asked that you’d like to address?

Normally yes, but these questions were so good I have nothing to add. Thanks for having me.

Thanks, Rob, for coming by! Appreciate you taking the time!

Do you have any questions for Rob? Ask away!

Folks, you can find Rob on the Internet on his (infrequently updated) website: Rob Stennett, follow him on Twitter @robstennett, see his Amazon page here, and catch up with his podcast at 9Thumbs. By the way, Rob recently published a short story, entitled Chicken, about certain events pertaining to a certain chicken chain which occurred on certain day this past summer. Whew! That was mouthful. You can pick Chicken up here for $.99.

Update! Comment for a chance to win a Kindle copy of Rob’s first novel, The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher.

UNDEAD Trailer from Clay Morgan on Vimeo.

1) When did you know that you were interested in writing, and was there anyone that stands out in your memory who encouraged you to pursue it?

I was a late bloomer, always a decent writer but never passionate about it until college which is probably when I first realized how therapeutic writing was for me. My great teacher Ron Forsythe changed everything though during the college years. He was brilliant and taught me technique with a lot of passion mixed in.

2) You recently published your first book, Undead: Revived, Resuscitate, Reborn. What was the genesis of the idea behind the book?

I wasn’t even thinking about writing a book. Then one night I was debating whether or not I should read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith or another book about Jesus by Max Lucado. Then it occurred to me that dead people did come back to life in the Bible. I was surprised to learn that there were six such individuals. I was off and running from there.

3) Who would you count as your creative influences? Who do you like to read?

I wish I could say that I read C.S. Lewis as a young man and then moved onto some of the classics. Instead I started with Garfield and moved onto Dave Barry. I listen to a LOT of audio books. I’m a fan of memoirs, biographies, and more. Stephen King’s often been in front of me and recently I’ve enjoyed Matt Mikalatos, especially Imaginary Jesus.

3) You’re a teacher at several colleges in the Pittsburgh area, maintain a successful blog, and now have a book out–how do you balance it all? How did you maintain the pace? How did the daily obligations impact your “creative time?” Is sleep overrated?

Man, as I answer this I don’t feel like I’m handling it well! I left my old blog to shrivel while finishing the book. The pace wasn’t sustainable but it didn’t have to be. I made it to the finish line then rebooted this summer. Although now that I’m in the post-release reality I’m wondering why I didn’t write a second book in recent months.

I need sleep though, that’s for sure. I’m the worst at mornings ever. I’ve never been a writer who has my best creativity early in the day. That’s my stupid time. I’m lucky if I can handle emailing and driving, although not at the same time. My brain ignites at night, and much of my best stuff comes after normal people go to bed.

4) In reading your blog, I see that you’re very into pop culture and history. What, in your mind, is the intersection of the two? What is it about pop culture that you love? Who are some of your favorite historical influences? Pop culture influences?

The culture of one era becomes historical record. Shakespeare was Hollywood a few centuries ago. Now he’s studied by academics. Current pop culture is a window to who we are in part and will, believe it or not, become part of our historical record. God help us when archaeologists sift through our ashes and make determinations about us based on Jersey Shore. But they will.

I’m a product of Gen X and always loved TV shows, movies, and video games over books while growing up. I can’t do a math problem to save my life but I can quote fictional characters of the screen from the past three decades. Go figure. When I need to give or take advice, movie plots and song lyrics resonate with me. I’m just wired that way.

As for historical influences, I like guys like Alexander Hamilton and Abe Lincoln. Too many to count really. And I love the world that the Bible was set in. Too many churches miss the rich settings and characters in exchange for dull discussions on theological systems and word studies.

5) In Undead, you reference the current pop culture craze with zombies and tie it into the search for a meaningful life. What is it about such stories that speak to the deeper places in us?

Whether we admit it or not we are preoccupied with death, at least inasmuch as that’s the doorway to eternity. Solomon said that eternity has been set in our hearts by God. We’re obsessed with what happens beyond the grave. Humans have always been that way. So when we see the living dead we can actually relate to them in a strange way. Sure their flesh is decaying and they want to eat brains all the time, but they do that while still wearing Dockers and curlers. It reminds us how close we are to the other side you know? And since we’re compelled by beings that can’t be stopped by death, what then do we make of Jesus of Nazareth and the claims made by his followers?

6) You are a Christian. What can Christians specifically learn from scary stories? Would you generally agree with the following statement: most horror stories are morality tales, crucibles that expose to us what’s in our hearts, i.e. “what if” scenarios that ask us, through identifying the characters, what we would do in similar situations? A sort of “What Would You Do?” with not John Quinones, but Stephen King?

Christian Director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister) opened my eyes in this regard when he said that the horror genre is perfect for Christianity. With such an emphasis on the supernatural why don’t we appreciate that realm in pop culture? Sure, horror movies might have gratuitous sex or violence but they don’t always have to. And as Derrickson pointed out, Christians admire someone like C. S. Lewis who wrote The Screwtape Letters which is a conversation between demons!

Think of all the people who grew up without any church affiliation or religious encounters. Where have they been exposed to ideas of the supernatural? In cinemas and on TV and through novels is where. We can complain about how evil all that stuff is or we can get in there to offer some thoughtful perspectives. I’ve had a number of meaningful conversations about God with people because of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Many of those folks I chat with aren’t interested in American churches, so culture creates opportunities to connect with people where they are.

7) Are there any questions you’re surprised that you think folks would ask, but don’t?

I never know what interviewers will bring up first. I’ve gone into most of those with no expectations on what might be the favored topic, so I haven’t been too surprised yet. Although I am still waiting for someone to ask me how they should go about supplying their nationwide network of college students with copies of Undead. Kidding. Sort of.

8) What’s in store for Clay Morgan in the future? Will you turn your hand to fiction? Are you working on another book now? If so, can you share anything about it?

Interesting you ask that. I’ve got two projects underway, one only in development. And yup, one of them is fiction which is more terrifying than a zombie squirrel. We’ll see if I can pull it off. But no, unfortunately it’s all top secret at this point.

I’m privileged to host Tosca Lee today. She is the award-winning and acclaimed author of Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, and the forthcoming Iscariot, about the life of Judas. She is also co-author, with Ted Dekker, of the Books of Mortals series; Forbidden released last fall, Mortal came out on the fifth of this month, and Sovereign is due out next year. She was formerly employed by Gallup as a consultant, but gave that up to pursue her writing full time.

Tosca graciously took time out of her busy schedule of working on Sovereign to answer my questions. Without further ado:

When did you first know that you wanted to write? When did you write your first story?

I wrote my first published article in third grade about my English bulldog, Oliver, dying. It was published in a pet-lover’s newsletter. Of course, it was very dramatic! Maybe I was always meant to write fiction. I started writing short stories in middle school and won this 9th grade story competition in my school. I remember at the time I was writing it, thinking, “Wow. This is hard. I have to describe all this stuff?” It was about a medieval girl who jousts a would-be suitor. Hmm. I’m seeing shades of Brave in there. Anyway, the fact that I doubled the 10-page limit might have been an early indication that I’m not good at short-form. It was in the next couple years that a couple high school teachers encouraged me to keep writing. I think of those two teachers often and now that they’re retired wish I could find them if only to let them know that I’m doing this for a living, and have stayed out of jail.

Other than Marion Zimmer Bradley, who are some of the seminal influences on your work? Whose work do you read and recommend today?

Gosh. I draw influence from so many. Anne Rice. I loved Memoirs of a Geisha. But I enjoy thrillers, too. And humor like David Sedaris. The ironic thing is that it gets harder and harder to read for pleasure because of time constraints. I do consume story in multiple forms–TV shows, movies. Music is a big influence. Movie soundtracks. I think the last series I read was the Hunger Games and I really had a hard time putting it down. I’ve got Rice’s The Wolf Gift on my desk right now.

Please give us glimpse into a typical “Tosca Lee” day: are you a morning person, rising early to write, or does your best work happen at night? How much bacon is consumed during a typical writing project?

We fear mornings. I’ve tried to switch my pattern, but so far, I seem to be programmed as a night person; it’s not unheard of for me to stay up until dawn lightens the windows. During the week I’m typically at my desk no later than 9 or 10am because Ted Dekker and I work through the day until about 6. When I write on my own, I might work until 1 or 2am. Midnight snacking ensues: Cheetos. Enchiladas. And mmm. Bacon. I mostly only eat bacon when I’m out because I actually hate the mess of cooking it. I’m very good at eating it, though.

I see that you are very active on social media, tweeting out updates, and posting “writer cam” photos to Facebook. Is this an important part of the writing process to you, to thus engage your fans? Is it a conscious effort on your part to lift the veil, so to speak, on the “writing life?” Do you find that your fans perhaps tend to glamorize that “writing life?”

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I find that people are fascinated with the writing process and that lifting of the veil as you say. Fans see the nicely-done author photos, makeup on, hair done, that are on my stuff or know that I used to model. But 99.5% of real life isn’t like that and I think people appreciate knowing “realness.” Writing is hard work. I think some people believe that you sit down to write, write the book, and then go back and edit it. If that’s how it works, then I’m really doing something wrong, because for me it’s very laborious. I want my readers to know–especially in this 5-year lull between the release of my last and next solo project–that I’m working hard for them.

I’ve heard other writers say that composing and editing seem to occupy different parts of their brains; as such, they are able to work on one project in the morning, and edit/revise another at night. Does it work this way for you? Are you simultaneously working on both Sovereign and Iscariot?

I was two weeks ago right up until 1am the morning I left for tour. I worked on Sovereign during the day and then line edits for Iscariot at night. They do take two different sides of the brain. Creating from scratch is one thing… editing is another. It’s the reason I don’t stop or self-edit as I write. I know other authors who do, but it doesn’t work for me.

Can you share with us what the pre-publication schedule is for a novel like Iscariot? Or Sovereign? Are there many rewrites and/or revisions?

There are four main rounds of edits after a book is acquired by a publisher. The substantive edit, which tackles larger structural issues in the novel (characterization, plot, etc.), a line edit that addresses flow, paragraph and sentence structure, the copy-edit for fixing grammar and the final page proofs.

How did the collaboration with Ted Dekker come about? Who first broached the idea? Did you first consider it with anticipation, trepidation, or both?

I asked Ted to endorse the re-release of Demon, which was coming out in 2010. He had heard of me before and in the dialogue about our current projects, we realized how much we enjoy writing same kinds of stories, are interested in the same thematic explorations. Our styles are vastly different, as are our strengths, which are quite complementary. Writing together just made sense.

Is your creative process conducive to collaboration? And what are some of both the joys, and difficulties, of working on the Books of Mortals series with Mr. Dekker?

It takes time to learn how to work together. It requires a lot of laying down of ego, hearing one another out. Making decisions that serve the story and reader. I think we’ve both learned a lot through the process. The real luxury of a writing partner is that you really can rely on their strengths, assuming both parties are aware of what they’re bringing to the table. You don’t have to figure everything out yourself or even get it written perfectly the first time–because you know you have someone (at least the way we write–both writing fresh content and editing/re-writing the other’s) coming in behind you.

A hallmark of your work seems to be bringing to light a sympathetic portrait of usually much-maligned characters. How did you come by this approach? Is it difficult, or does it come naturally to you?

For some reason I just think that way. But I always was that kid who asked the questions you’re not supposed to.

Stephen King has said that “fiction is the truth inside the lie.” Does this ring true with you? How does truth (in this sense) inform your work?

I think it’s true that fiction is the lie that tells the truth. The truth being a spiritual truth, or the unchanging nature of the human heart.

Some years ago, you went through a divorce. Having lived through my parents’ divorce, and having seen friends go through them, I know something of how painful it can be. Would you care to share some of its impact on you personally, and how that time in your life may have impacted and/or informed your writing as well?

20120619-192157.jpgI actually got my first contract at the beginning of my divorce. So during that time, I rewrote and released Demon, worked full-time as a consultant traveling every week all over the world, sold my house, built another, moved, and wrote Havah. I’m not sure how I did it all, to be honest. Much of what I was processing about my divorce is in Demon. I explored marriage and relationship and womanhood in Havah–I couldn’t write either book the same today. But that’s what novels are: snapshots in time in the artist’s life.

Tosca, thanks very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to come by today! Thanks for “lifting the veil” on your creative process. As one of your readers, I appreciate how hard you work to deliver excellence via the written word. You are an inspiration to us all.

You can connect with Tosca via her website, ToscaLee.com, on her Facebook page, Tosca Lee, and/or follow her on Twitter @ToscaLee. Here is a link to Amazon’s Selection of Books by Tosca Lee.

Because Tosca is hard at work completing Sovereign, she is unlikely to be available for comments today; however, please feel free to leave any questions, or comments, for her below, and I can forward them on to her to answer at her leisure (not that she knows what “leisure” is right now). That way maybe I can run a subsequent post where she answers your questions. Thanks as always for reading!

Update: All previous, and subsequent, commenters are eligible to win a free electronic (Kindle) copy of Tosca’s novel Demon: A Memoir. Just leave a comment below, and I will enter your name in a drawing using Random.org.