an interview with Frank Peretti
Writers in the suspense/thriller genre are a unique breed. They weave words so you sense the tempo of each paragraph (and your heart rate) quickening toward crescendo; crafting stories with near-superhero ability. Frank Peretti is the quintessential suspense novelist. Like most superheroes, it took Frank awhile to discover his unique talent. But unlike them, he was far from alone in his journey…
John: Good afternoon Frank, why don’t you kick things off by telling us a little about your upbringing.
Frank Peretti: Well, I was born in Alberta, Canada. I was Canadian for a month or so and then my folks moved right down to Seattle. I was up in Canada just long enough to mess up my citizenship, so now I can’t run for president or anything…
John: Oh, did you have aspirations for that?
Frank: Well, no, I wouldn’t know the first thing about that! (Laughs) My dad was an American citizen who grew up in Seattle, went up to Canada to work for the summer and met my mom who was a Canadian citizen. About a month or so after I was born they came [back] down to Seattle.
John: So that’s where you grew up. Well now we know you didn’t want to be president, but you did have aspirations of becoming a musician…?
Frank: Yeah I did, that was clear back when I was just getting married. Man, I was between the ages of 19 and 22, right in there [somewhere]. I was starving (laughs), but yeah, I traveled with a couple of groups…
John: And you played banjo for a band called Northern Cross, right?
Frank: Oh my, yeah! I’ve played [banjo] for over 30 years. I’m learning the guitar now, maybe that’s because I’m mellowing in my old age (laughs). Well way back when I was first playing, [my wife] Barb wasn’t even old enough to come in and hear us play. We were playing in lounges and things and the banjo was my primary instrument. I actually played the bass too, come to think of it. Then we got out that group and traveled with a Christian ministry group called Living Waters for two years. I think that was the sum and total of my musical efforts. I tried to do some solo ministry and that bombed (laughs), so I ended up being a carpenter and a printer working in a print shop, doing whatever I could to make a living. The thing is, after all of those early years of just doing this and doing that, I didn’t really figure out that I was supposed to be a writer until I was pushing thirty.
John: So how did you make that transition from musician and print shop worker to your first novel?
Frank: I think two significant things happened. Number one (I don’t remember the exact year, close to about 1982 or 83 but I remember where I was), I was at Deception Pass in Washington. Barb and I were on a little mini-vacation just to get away – we were so burnt out in ministry we didn’t know what to do. I had pastored a church with my dad for five years and we were just worn to a frazzle. I was kinda feeling like, well, here’s another thing I’ve failed at – I didn’t succeed at being a musician, didn’t succeed at being a carpenter and now I’ve kind of burned-out of the ministry. What am I supposed to do? I remember sitting on this bluff above the ocean just talking to the Lord and it was so clear, such a peace, such a joy, the Lord finally confirmed in my heart, “Frank you’re supposed to be a writer.” That’s what I’d always wanted to do. Through all this other stuff I was doing, I always went back to the writing, and it was writing that made me feel whole, complete. So, man! That was when I finally figured that out. Now the second thing that happened: I had started This Present Darkness, [but] I’d been pecking away at it for five years, so I just concentrated and got that book done. Then I went through the process of trying to get it published, which was long and tedious - about fourteen different publishers... and finally it got published in 1986 – 26 years ago… 26 years!
John: Wow, so did you have other books in the works before that time?
Frank: I’d written screenplays mostly. I was trying to get something going in movies and television (laughs), but [those scripts are] still sitting in a drawer somewhere… Interestingly, back in 1983 I told a story to some junior high kids at a camp and the other camp folks and pastors said, “You should write that down and get it published.” And so I wrote and sent it to Crossway Books and that was The Door in the Dragon’s Throat which turned out to be the first of the Cooper Kids’ Adventures [Series]. So that was published and (I think) Escape from the Island of Aquarius before This Present Darkness. As a matter of fact, it was The Door in the Dragon’s Throat that kind of opened the door for This Present Darkness because Crossway turned that [proposal] down the first time. But they liked the kids’ books and that convinced them that I knew how to write. So they said “Could you send us that other idea you had?” I hadn’t even typed [This Present Darkness] up yet, it was still in rough draft form, so Barb and her mom and I got three typewriters going, typed that up and mailed it to them (that was back in the old days when you mailed things) and by cracky! They published it! (In a booming voice) And the rest is history.
I was working in a ski factory up until just about 1988, and I didn’t really become a full- time writer until Crossway decided they needed the sequel, so I started Piercing the Darkness. They asked me how long it was going to take, and so I told them “well it took me five years to do This Present Darkness,” so they said, “well how much do you need to live on?” (laughs) They gave me an advance to live on, so I knuckled down, finished Piercing and sent it to them. I remember my first day as a full-time writer. I got out of bed (I didn’t have to go to the ski factory!) and I turned on my very first computer: a Corona 4 megahertz computer with a big five-inch floppy drive. And so I wrote Piercing on that computer…
John: What kind of computer did you write Illusion on?
Frank: I have a Mac! I’ve moved up in the world.
John: After both of the Darkness books you wrote a book called Tilly which was quite a departure from the other two. What brought about that transition?
Frank: Wow, that’s a good question. Let’s see, I’ve got to turn back the pages of time here… Tilly had her beginning clear back before I was a published author. I was working odd jobs and thinking, Boy I’d like to do a movie or TV and so I came up with this story of Tilly. I realized I couldn’t do that [TV], but I did have a tape recorder, so I thought, I’ll write and produce a radio play. So I had this reel-to-reel tape recorder and I borrowed some microphones from my church. I was living in a 25-foot travel trailer at the time with Barb (laughs), so we hung sleeping bags and blankets up in the trailer to make a sound studio and I brought in actors (just people from my church), and we recorded this story. I managed to get it broadcasted on KCIS, the local radio station in Seattle at the time. From there we had a little bit of interest perked [so] then (they did, or I did, or someone) sent it down to Focus on the Family, and I remember someone told me that copies of Tilly (on little cassette tapes) were passing each other in the hallways at Focus... So they bought the rights to produce their own version for the radio and broadcasted it, and I think maybe they still are! That turned out to be one of their most popular broadcasts. Somewhere down the road [after that], I’ve got books out with Crossway and the radio show’s popular, so [my publisher] said “maybe we should come out with a book version” so then I wrote Tilly as a novel. So see, she had a history going way back before I wrote my other books but then became a book much later.
John: Very interesting. You’ve been consistently keeping people on the edge of their seats with your suspense thrillers for years now. Tell us a little bit about your mindset for Illusion.
Frank: Any book [I write] is just a whole bunch of different ideas that fall together. I wanted to do a book that was relational – which would talk about the marriage relationship – that was kind of a metaphor or parable of the body of Christ and its longing to be with the Bridegroom, Jesus. Ya know, that whole pervasive spiritual longing to be reconciled to our Creator and to be right with things. So those were kind of the thematic elements. I created Mandy as a metaphor for a lost soul wandering around wondering who am I, where do I belong, why do I feel lost? And then there was the cool story-vehicle that I found: let’s use stage magicians, because then we can create this situation where Mandy is reverting in time through some kind of a weird inter-dimensional “timewarpy” thing that also enables her to make these incredible illusions. [Then] that opens up the opportunity to create mystery and suspense and good guys and bad guys and the chase at the end. So all of these things come together and finally form a story, but those are the essential ingredients I started out with.
John: At the end of the book you make reference to the story being a lot about you and your wife. How much of Illusion is actually you and Barb?
Frank: Oh it’s woven through there! Mandy and Dane are their own characters, but boy-oh-boy yeah, as far as the spiritual journey and the emotion – really getting into the heart of the matter – I drew upon my own love and relationship with Barb. Mandy’s devotion to Dane, I modeled that after Barb’s devotion to me. And Dane’s (shall we say) awe at this wonderful woman that would love him and be so tenaciously devoted to him for 40 years, well that’s drawing upon my own feelings and experience. See, I’m 61 now and it’s interesting, you get to this age and you start looking back and reflecting on the journey you’ve been on. And that’s what Dane does. A lot of that happens in this book; Dane is looking back and reflecting on his journey and his relationship with Mandy over the years. So you don’t see a direct correlation between Barb and me with Dane and Mandy, but the content, the fiber, the grist, the experience from which the writer writes – that’s Barb and me.
John: Have you ever approached a book and found it emotionally difficult to write?
Frank: Yeah, The Wounded Spirit is the first one that pops into my mind. That was a very difficult book because it was talking about all of the bullying and harassment I got growing up. Dealing with wounds that go way back, it was still kind of a cathartic experience for me because there’s all of this stuff in there [that] just lies in there all your life. So I started writing about it and I had to dredge all that up and start dealing with it. So that was a real tough book emotionally. Illusion wasn’t difficult emotionally, but it was emotional. I went through a lot of emotions writing that because I was reflecting on my own love for Barb and what that’s been all about. It’s a very, very human book. The Wounded Spirit was human too, but also very difficult.
John: At certain points in your career various people have used your books as sort of “manuals” for dealing with the spiritual realm. How comfortable are you with that?
Frank: I’m not comfortable with that. That opens up this whole conundrum that (maybe other fiction writers haven’t run into, but for some strange reason I have, where at least in the realm of spiritual warfare) readers have a hard time distinguishing between fact and fiction. Maybe it’s because the books came out at a time when fiction was not a widespread genre in Christian publishing. Maybe Christians weren’t used to fiction being fiction! (laughs) But, I’ve had folks ask me, “Are you going to come out with a study guide to go with your Darkness books?” No, no! Study the Bible, don’t study these books. These are just an imaginative treatment on a theme, ya know, they’re just to paint a picture that inspires, uplifts and provides a fictional, imaginative model of what it could be like. Over the years, my books (as far as that goes) have been given a lot more credence than they should. I don’t think people should take them quite that seriously. They’re not a theological treatise; they were never intended to be. I find myself in awkward situations sometimes because people think I’m some great authority on spiritual warfare, but I’m not. I never have been.
John: So, when you’re confronted with that, how do you respond?
Frank: When I wrote those books and afterward, I opened myself up to all kinds of people with all kinds of experiences, some real and some delusional. I’ve gotten letters and books and conversations from people with the most sordid stories of demonic, satanic abuse and all kinds of things. I’ve talked to some who are clearly in need of professional help, who have a serious problem but now they’ve attributed it all to demons. Ya know, the second coming, the rapture, there are certain topics out there that are just juicy; they’re appealing, there’s a certain fascination with things like that. Over the years, I’ve taken a much more balanced and sober view of all of this. I believe in the realities of what I’ve written about, but [I think] we can get a little too obsessed with it and start getting into realms that really aren’t healthy, I don’t like going there anymore. I tell people I’m not a specialist about spiritual warfare… it was 26 years ago I wrote that book. I would hope as any Christian should, that I’ve grown and I’ve gone through other seasons and lessons of my life, and that the Lord is leading me on to other things... That’s the interesting thing about it: you write this book that [becomes] so popular that it’s the book you are known for, and people are still picking up it up and enjoying it – which is fine with me, but then I have to make an adjustment because wow, I’m not there anymore! (laughs) So when I meet people in the bookstores and that’s what they’re all excited about, I still have to engage them in conversation and show my appreciation (of course!) for how they’re enjoying [This Present Darkness]. You can look at all of the books I’ve written over the years, and each book reflects a different place I was in my Christian walk. In The Oath, I was concerned about sin, how we were harboring sin and being cavalier about it. Then in The Visitation I wrote from my own frustrations with my ministry and with Christianity in general, how we can go through times of darkness and disillusionment but the Lord is still with us. I wrote Prophet to talk about my concern at how the gatekeepers of information can control what we think. I wrote Monster just to take a stab at evolution, and Illusion because I’m reflecting on how beautiful it is – the gift of marriage and the gift of love – and how it’s so sorely needed in our culture right now. I sure would like people to catch a spark when they read this book [and say] wow, I’d love for my love to be like that or I’d like to find a love like that, instead of all this flaky stuff going on. It would be nice to find something that really endures.
John: Frank, we really appreciate you giving us grace to ask a question like that. Switching gears a bit, are you a book reader?
Frank: Oh yeah! Usually the pattern I fall into is reading fiction, to keep my own creative juices under discipline, keep learning. It’s the same way I learned how to play the banjo. I’d listen to other banjo players and pick up licks and see what they’re doing – that’s how I learned. I read other fiction readers and see what they’re doing, keep a good awareness of style and where fiction’s going. So I’m always learning. The other area of reading I do is usually whatever I’m interested in at the time, whatever God’s speaking to me about at the time. For example, right now I’m gravitating toward books that deal with church history, worship, where the church is now and where it’s going. I’ve got just a few pages left and I’ll be done with Where in the World is the Church? by Michael Horton. That was a good book because it shook me up in terms of the old “four wall syndrome.” [He talks about how sometimes] everything the church has to be within the four walls and we can’t touch the outside culture because that’s worldly. He’s just addressing hey, God made music, He made beauty, He made literature, and it’s to be created and used everywhere. We don’t want to get into a Christian ghetto where we stop engaging the culture and just come up with a Christian version of everything – staying within our four walls. So it’s a neat book anyway. And then I read Church History in Plain Language by Bruce Shelley and that was good because it gave a whole history of the church, real nice read for a layman like me to go through there and see where the church has been. That really provides context for what I’m thinking about now because I’m struggling a lot with what the church is doing, where it’s going, so that’s where I feel God prodding, ya know? It’s like when I write a book I try to figure out, what’s God saying to me? What’s the subject for today, or this year? And The Church is [the current subject], so that’s what I’m reading now.
John: One last question: what do you do to relax?
Frank: (laughs) Well I’ll tell you, I go out and work in the yard. I hadn’t been out to work in awhile and the weather finally broke a little bit, we had a little sunshine. So I went out and spaded the garden, pulled weeds, worked on our water fountain a little bit, and boy that felt good. (In a booming voice) There’s something to be said for nice manual labor out in the sunshine! (laughs)
John: Well Mr. Peretti, we are huge fans of your work, and we appreciate how you’ve always been a witness for Jesus.
Frank: Well, I appreciate that, ya know - I just want to let Jesus work through me. That’s the big lesson I’m working on from the Lord right now, “Frank, write from your heart and be honest.” There’s so many strains on the market ya know, write this, write that, this is what’s hot right now, and I’m dealing with what is God saying to me. What am I going to write about? What is from my heart and not just my wallet (laughs). I’m glad what I’ve written resonates with you.
*To purchase Illusion, click here. Just now discovering Frank for the first time? Consider picking up the Peretti Three-Pack of his bestsellers including This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness and Prophet right here for a great price!