Inside the Mind of a Writer

Philip Yancey speaks to FOL

by Sunny Joseph

It was true when a giant of a man like Billy Graham said about Philip Yancey, “There is no writer in the evangelical world that I ad- mire and appreciate more.” I find these words true to the last letter both as a reader of Yancey’s books and as one who spent a day dining, driv- ing and and dating hahahah, nay, interviewing with him. I felt like a kid exploring a treasure mine with a seasoned explorer sighing , ‘wows and good heavens’ at each answer he answered me with to my curious questions. Join me in a rewarding walk with Philip Yancey an enigmatic writer who is a mystery of a man especially as a writer. The very selection of the titles like, Where is God when it Hurts, The Jesus I Never Knew, Disappointment with God and many such iconoclastic titles are just a few ex- amples of what must be the mind of such a magi- cal writer.


FOL :At one point of time you have sympathized with a gay friend and also joined the street marches with/for him. What was your perspec- tive in identifying yourself with the gays and how did you handle this?
PY :I saw the whole thing from entirely a differ- ent eye instead from a human eye. That experi- ence proved to me as a huge turning point. I mentioned this in one of my books about a friend by David Malek who really struggled with this issue though he never practiced homosexuality but struggled with this temptation in that direc- tion even though he was a fine Christian author. The Bible talks about the woman at the well in John chapter 4 who had five failed marriages who was living with a man who was not her husband. This is about an immoral woman; kind of a moral out cast and how Jesus treated her. Her support came from Jesus who sensed she was thirsty. I learnt to see such persons who are thirsty which became really important for me. Now when I see someone who is clearly im- moral, a prostitute for instance, I will say let me see that per- son as a thirsty person. Jesus saw and felt He was satisfied after He saw the thirst of the woman satisfied which was about offering the Living waters. It was a life changing experience for me to know someone so close as David Malek. If you are a mother or a father and if your child declares someday, ‘I am a homosexual,’ you will see him differently than reading about the issue in a book or even in the Bible. And when you see how Jesus handled and treated people like this woman who was immoral and who was caught in an act of adultery, He never let the issue get in the way of the person. He saw the person first. I think of these people whom Jesus would approve though He may not approve of their sin. Jesus places value on our lives and who we are more than on what we have done and what our sin is.

FOL :What do you see is missing in the post millennium Christian literature?
PY :I would say that that Christian fic- tion is still in its infancy. There are some Christian novels but they are not very good by the standards of how Christian literature must go about. Of course there a a few good ones too. I believe there is a need for fiction writing and there is not much out there. Some that are there, they tend to be very message oriented novels and usually a message oriented novel is not a good novel. A novel is something that portrays real life rather than an idea. In- dians have produced some good novels re- cently. I would say novels are works of art.

FOL :Having said that there is no good Christian fiction writing, do you think you might one day write one?
PY :No. Though I took a university course on fiction writ- ing, I feel fiction writing is not my cup of coffee. I like doing essays. The memoir that I hope to write would be more like a fiction, a story that will have dialogue, narra- tive. It would not be about something but it would be a rendering. I have been reading a lot of memoirs. So, it would be not a fiction but fictional or fiction like.

FOL :What is your opinion on Indian Christian literature and writers? What do you think is missing or excellent?
PY :There is very good writing here in India though not much in the Christian literature. It is impressive. There are subjects being addressed and unless someone is doing this for a living free lancing, it really does not pay off much and so the seriousness would be less. (Laughing)...unless they are doing for a magazine like you. There is more that Indian Chris- tian writers could do for Christian literature.

FOL :What significant observations have caught your attention during your visit in India?
PY :What strikes me about India is it is not a mono culture. Compared to my earlier visits, there were a restricted num- ber of automobiles then, but now you have every kind of au- tomobile. What interests me is, even the animals seem to be competing with the automobiles on the streets and the high ways. A good company while you drive through on the streets (laughs). Well this is on the lighter side. I go out jogging daily as I have done this morning. The hotel I am staying is a very fine hotel in a neat locality. But just one block away from the hotel is a narrow alley where I could see people cooking on the side of the street while some were washing their clothes and motor bikes. Compared to the other cultures you have a bonding in the family. It is different in here to see such bond- ing which is difficult to see in our country where people live in isolation and privacy. So it is different, it is a people ori- ented country. I live in Colorado where there is a lot of room and not many people. I live among trees and do not have internet security because not many live close by. The same is with all the religions where you have many of them with several social distinctions. In America there is a lot of demand for ‘my rights.’ But here people live in dire pov- erty and they seem to accept and live by it. I think it was the legacy of the caste system.

FOL :What is the conventional methodology you apply when you have to write a book or an article?
PY :For example when I do an article for Christianity Today magazine which is a lengthy article with approximately 5,000 words I take about 5 days. Two days to get ready to write the article that includes, reearching, interviewing, outlining, decid- ing what I am going to write about. Then I take one day to write and two days to clean it up. This means forty percent, twenty per- cent, forty percent...second draft, third draft, fourth draft fifth draft. Now coming to book writing, the same goes for book writing. It again takes forty per- cent of the time before I write a word and twenty percent of the time writing the book and the next twenty percent of time improv- ing and editing the book. I usually start with a file folder for extra notes to be added. If I have a topic on my mind I start taking note of everything from what I read, notice and observe. Then I go to the library to do a lot of research and read all the books I can on the subject. Then, there comes a point where I sit and go through all the material I have gathered which would be a huge pile of material usually running into thousands of pages. Later, I basically format an outline in my mind like the 4th chapter, 10th chapter, 12th chapter and whatever. Then I start moving stuff into different chapters. Because I have been thinking about the book for the past couple of years, and now that I have collected all the relevant material material, I sit down and plan how I structure each chapter. I plan how to start each chapter and how I end it and what I hope to accom- plish while thinking if there are any stories that I need to fill them with...and things like that.

FOL :How do you want the world to remember Philip Yancey as?
PY :I would say, ‘someone who was truthful, honest about hard things, who would leave you with a sense of hope and mercy.’ There is a saying, ‘We should comfort the afflictedandafflictthecomfortable.’SometimesIdoafflict the comfortable. I am one of those comfortable ones and so I usually turn the questions on to myself. I try not to be a propagandist. There are not Christian propagandists out there and books that say ‘Oh it is easy.’ No, it is not easy. There are a lot of easier ways to live. Christianity does not make my life simpler; rather, it makes it harder. It is easier to go with the flock. It cost Jesus His life. It calls for a cost to live a Christian life like the apostles. And so, I want to be truthful about that and not claim myself as a person with all the answers but at least willing to ask questions and look for answers and help where I can and admit where I do not have more.

FOL :Are you taking back home any raw material from India for a future book?
PY :Well, my wife and I make 4 interna- tional trips a year which is part of our com- mitment. We enjoy seeing our country from a different perspective. My books are read in a lot of countries and translated into other languages and so I need to write them in a way that a non-American can read them. I see how people live in some hurting condi- tions and so I need such information to write. While we give out a lot through my writings I also gain a lot.

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