In Conversation: Jeremy Bouma
Jeremy Bouma, also writing as J.A. Bouma, is a former pastor who mentored US congressional staffers in Washington, D.C., before returning to his home state of Michigan. His fiction includes two series—one coming-of-age and the other he terms as “history-meets-special-ops religious conspiracy”—while his nonfiction aims to make the Christian faith relevant to the modern world.
Thanks for joining us, Jeremy. The poet Cecil Day-Lewis is attributed with the words: “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand.” What is the act of writing for you?
Similar to Day-Lewis, for me the act of writing is both the act of discovery and the act of sharing a little of what I’ve discovered. In my nonfiction writer’s life, I have often drilled down into a topic of which I myself wanted to plumb the depths, and then shared what I’ve learned through a blog post or book. As I’ve grown I’ve hoped others have grown alongside me. Now that I am mostly writing fiction, I still enjoy doing a deep-dive into a topic. But now I’m afforded the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone who themselves is transforming—and then transform along with them, as much as I invite the reader into that transformation process.
Tell us about your path to becoming a pastor. Was the ministry something you had always been drawn to?
Not at all—I had never intended be a minister when I grew up! After college I had moved to Washington, D.C. and meant to enter into a life of politics. Then I stumbled into a life of religion. You can imagine I’m not all that popular at parties! And further down the list still was becoming a full-time writer. But I’m thankful for the decade in the ministry walking with people through hardship and grief, joining them in their questions and doubt. I think it has added a texture to my work I wouldn’t have had otherwise, strafing the depths of the human condition and all.
What’s significant to you about fiction in particular, and how has it played a part in your own faith journey?
Well, in my own faith tradition Jesus was the master storyteller, weaving the everyday into simple tales of the sublime. And as I figure it, if it was good enough for Jesus, then why not?! Cheek aside, in many ways, stories are the ground of our being, the ground-zero of where humanity starts. It seems that people navigate the questions of faith, life, and everything in between best through story—rather than through didactic arguments and doctrinal tribunals outlining this or that reason for believing in this or that dogma. As a former minister, I still believe in the doctrines and believe there is a certain measure of transformation that comes from believing in them. But I’m less inclined to lead others into them through the ways I used to. Instead, story seems best for that sort of heavy lifting.
You appear to be interrogating a central communications challenge across various different written forms (fiction and nonfiction); that is, reframing and/or making relevant and accessible Christian teachings and ideas for the 21st-century human. Why so many different avenues and genres?
I suppose in some ways I’m trying to reflect the way in which people engage with ideas in general—whether through history or poetry, more argument-based works or story. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate the Bible: it’s a multi-genre book that touches upon the various facets of humanity itself in all of its emotional, propositional, and narrative forms and persuasions. In a deeper sense, I’ve discovered offering different paths of engagement with ideas is simply a good way to be human. Even the best political movements—both the uplifting and not so uplifting—were driven by a narrative, by story.
It could be argued that every work of art carries its creator’s values in one way or another. You have written that you have been a preacher, but you don’t set out to preach a Christian message in your fiction. Firstly, how does one measure the ‘preachiness’ of a work of fiction? And, secondly, what do you think your broader message or themes might be?
Great question, a needle I myself am still trying to thread! I have a preacher’s heart in the sense that I love to provoke life transformation at any level—and that can be the ‘spiritual’ kind in helping someone work through their questions about faith, or the ‘non-spiritual’ kind in helping someone work through their baggage or offer a glimpse at what it looks like to be a better human. And yet I know that when someone plunks down a chunk of change, they don’t want a sermon; they want entertainment. I’m speaking for myself, here! I think people can tolerate engaging with an idea within a story if it is told well and with authenticity, especially if a likeable character is emerging through a believable experience.
My novels tend to be 80% entertainment + 10% inspiration + 10% information. When it comes to my own message and themes, they are tightly bound to my own experiences with faith, life, and everything in between. Having grown up in Christian fundamentalism, I know what it’s like to have questions about God or Christianity or the injustices of the world without a way to ask them. I’ve moved through a period of faith deconstruction and I’ve experienced doubts. So I’ve taken some of these personal experiences and used them as springboards for some of my work.
Devoting substantial chunks of time to works of a spiritual nature is not for the fainthearted (even—or especially—when the fiction involves special ops). Who or what inspires and sustains you through the hours spent at the keyboard? And who are your ‘writerly’ role models?
What inspires me are the people who have been part of my various ministries over the years. I think what ultimately inspires me is that one person who offers me their time, their mind, themselves for however long the story has them. That one person who journeys along with me to explore in the interest of discovering—knowing they are with me for the ride makes all the difference.
Now, for writerly role models, independent author Joanna Penn is at the tippy top of the list. I appreciate how she herself approaches story and the questions I’ve been talking about. But I also appreciate her work ethic, that she just buckles down and just gets on with doing the work. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch are similar in terms of the way they push out stories into the world. Those three have probably taught me more about writing than most—and from both the angles of craft and business.
A process question: What does a typical day look like? Do you tend to work on different writing projects in parallel or do you roll with project ‘seasons’?
Well, since I’m also a stay-at-home dad a ‘typical day’ isn’t all that typical! Though I can count on some solid writing time during naptime, I usually need to roll with the way the day unfolds. However, my time is split between two roles: my contracted writing business and my personal writing business, where I have several ongoing series in fiction that I’m working toward fleshing out, as well as some nonfiction aspirations in the near future. With the release of my most recent series, I’m hunkered down in marketing. But when I have a book in mind, I will typically do a deep-dive for a week or two researching and plotting my major story movements—which for me follow Larry Brooks’s ‘story engineering’ formula—before pounding out the first draft in a month, typically writing 2,000-3,000 words a day. Then I often let the draft sit a while before picking it back up for edits and a revised draft, and then one more polish before I consider it finished and send it off for proofreading.
What’s next on the writing agenda for you?
I’m trying to take on less client work and focus on more of my own stories. I have a few books in the wings to write for my religious conspiracy thriller series. And I need to pick back up the spiritual coming-of-age series I began a few years ago. Then I have a fantasy universe I’m toying with. There are always too many choices with limited hours in the day—particularly with an eleven-month-old and four-year-old in tow!
And, finally, The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?
A toss-up between C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings world. There is something incredibly compelling about engaging with the Big Questions of Life—whether issues of suffering and depravity, of justice and equity—in a fantastical world full of depth and intrigue and agendas and back history.
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