Q&A: Zachary Bartels (Playing Saint)
It's a fascinating premise for a novel. How did you get the original inspiration? Can you tell is a bit about your main character, Parker Saint?
The book is, in many ways, about what defines us and what we value most. It seems to me that whatever we're willing to defend at the expense of all else--that's what we really love and who we really are, even if we don't want to admit it. Like every pastor I know, I am constantly feeling the tension between wanting to faithfully preach the word and administer the sacraments on one hand, and wanting to do whatever it takes to increase the numbers by the world's metrics (in order to affirm my own value), on the other hand.
Parker's character is kind of a manifestation of that tension. He's really starting to get some traction in building his own little empire of loyal followers and he's successfully managing his brand, but then something rattles him deeply enough to cause him to step back and question whether this is really who God wants him to be. I think we've all had those little (or big) moments that cause us to question everything; Parker's just happens to involve demon possession, occult killings, Vatican operatives, and ancient relics, which I find (for me, personally) constitutes a very small minority of those moments.
As a pastor, what is your opinion of Christian celebrity culture?
I don't think celebrity, in and of itself, is inherently helpful or destructive. Jesus and John the Baptist were, in a sense, celebrities, which actually kept their enemies from killing them on a few occasions (i.e., fear of the crowds). However, if Jesus had been taken by the love of the crowds, he would not have gone to the cross and we'd still be in our sins. St. Paul's celebrity got him an audience at the Areopagus, but it also vexed him that some in Corinth wanted to follow him instead of following Christ. At its best, Christian celebrity culture looks like Spurgeon packing out the Metropolitan Tabernacle or college kids filling their iPods with John Piper Sermons and Lecrae songs, while their classmates fill their heads with trash.
At its worst, though, it can create a vicious cycle of idolatry in one direction and scratching itchy ears in the other. That sort of satanic symbiotic relationship always seems to result in a limp, crossless "Christianity," amounting to little more than entertainment and self-help. I see this all over the place these days. When pop culture becomes our mechanism, the market, not the Scriptures, becomes the driving force behind the message. There's also the temptation, with any level of success, to stand on the palace roof like Nebuchadnezzar and bask in our own awesomeness ("Look what I have built by my mighty power!"). I don't envy people with giant platforms, but I do pray for many for them regularly, that they will maintain the same attitude toward the approval of men that the Apostle Paul did.
What is your secret to keeping the suspense high as readers turn the pages?
I don't have a secret per se. I just write the kind of stuff I love to read and hope that will keep the pages turning. I like reading books that don't just turn the suspense screws tighter and tighter, but give the protagonist a moment to process here and there so that we can get to know him in some different contexts, then throw a wrench into the works (or right at the protagonist's head or whatever). I also try to mix in pop culture references and sarcastic humor and a healthy dollop of theology. As a reader, I'll seldom keep turning the pages of a book that's just persistently dark and frantic, so that informs how I write. To create suspense, I like to make sure I know precisely what dangers are lurking out there waiting to pounce on the protagonist, hint at them frequently, and unleash them in bursts--just when the reader has started to catch her breath.
How was this project different from your previous books? Well, it's my first book with a major publisher. It's been quite an experience to have the incredible team at HarperCollins Christian Publishing working with me to make this book the best it can be and get it out there into the hands of potential readers. A couple months ago, I was flipping through this book I wrote called 42 Months Dry (a kind of violent, gritty, urban adaptation of the story of Elijah), and, while I'm still proud of it, I could see all the rough, unfinished edges that could have really benefited from a team of professionals. My wife works for a different publishing company, so I've had great appreciation for that end of things for years and years, but it's a whole different deal when you're the beneficiary of such a team.
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
First and foremost, I hope it's an exhilarating ride. If I can make people gasp, laugh, bite their nails, and stay up way too late to find out what happens next, I'll be a happy man.
As far as a spiritual take-away, I want to impress on readers that "positivity" in and of itself is powerless to save them. Only Jesus’s substitutionary death and triumphant resurrection can raise a broken sinner from death to life. Without the cross, all our efforts at self-reform and self-improvement will just give us a false sense of religious security. Jesus told the Pharisees that they were whitewashing the outside of the tomb, without addressing the death that lay within and that self-made spirituality and morality, without regeneration, just sweeps the place clean for sin and death to return sevenfold. I'm afraid I've gone "full-preacher" here, but what I love about writing is that I can explore these deep, heavy spiritual concepts in a fun, exciting setting.
What does your writing process look like?
It starts with espresso, of course. Then I like to take this old-school battery-powered word processor to a particular bench downtown with a view of the state capitol and the city skyline and bang out large chunks of text at a time. I also like to find a song or two that kind of evokes the vibe of a particular book and listen to it to get my head in the right space (not unlike my process for writing sermons, just different songs).
What's next for you?
I have another suspense novel coming out with Thomas Nelson next June, called The Last Con, about a con man who gets saved in prison, but finds himself dragged back into a life of crime, with some ancient intrigue, alchemy, and secret societies to boot. It's similar to Playing Saint in tone--i.e., suspense, action, and snarky humor--but a very different story. It's going through the editorial process right now and I'm incredibly stoked about it.