We need to give Christian storytellers a bigger platform, says Mike Burke
Francine Rivers is one of our generation’s most successful writers of Christian fiction. In this rare interview, she explains how she moved from writing steamy romance novels to faith-based titles
The California-based author Francine Rivers doesn’t travel for speaking engagements as much as she used to, and interview opportunities with the 71-year-old are also increasingly rare.
So upon discovering she was in the UK for a few days to attend the Wimbledon Christian Book Fair, I jumped at the chance to sit down with the woman responsible for writing Redeeming Love – one of the all-time bestselling works of Christian fiction.
Francine knew she wanted to be a writer from a young age. After graduating with a degree in English and journalism she began her writing career as a reporter. It wasn’t until her in-laws lent her some romance novels that she realised her true calling was to write fiction. In the decade that followed the publication of her first novel in 1976, Francine found success in the general market through her steamy historical novels.
Francine was raised in a Christian family, but didn’t make a personal choice to “surrender to Jesus” until much later. At that point her marriage to husband Rick was “on the verge of collapse”. The couple had moved to northern California in the 1980s, hoping that being closer to family would help them work through their differences. “We ended up living between two families that were Christians, both attending the same church,” she recalls. After receiving invites to church, including one from a young boy of just eight years old, she relented. Rick wasn’t interested in attending, but the rich Bible teaching transfixed Francine. When she asked the pastor to start a Bible study group in their house to her delight Rick attended (and still does to this day!). The couple underwent a spiritual rebirth during this period, accepted Christ and were baptised on the same day in 1986.
Following her conversion, Francine suffered from writer’s block for three years. During that difficult time she felt God say her identity had become so wrapped up in her writing that it had become an idol – and at times he used Rick to pass on the message. “He said: ‘If you had a choice between me and the children and your writing, you’d take your writing.’ And it really made me stop and think, because that’s kinda the way I felt at the time. So I knew that my priorities were really off. But in that three-year period that’s when I started reading the Bible and seeking the Lord, and I realised that he was basically saying to me: ‘You say you want to be my child but you don’t even know who I am.’”
Eventually writing “ceased to matter” to Francine: “I didn’t care if I ever wrote again.” Reaching this point of acceptance was the key to ending her writer’s block. Soon afterwards, while studying the book of Hosea, the author heard God say: “This is the romance I want you to write.” The end result was Redeeming Love. The novel is a retelling of the biblical story of Hosea, the prophet called by God to marry an unfaithful woman, reflecting the relationship God has with his people, Israel.
Francine set the story during the American Gold Rush era and named the main characters Michael Hosea and Angel. Literary critics and readers alike have continued to heap praise upon it and thousands have contacted Francine to report life-changing encounters with God while reading the book. Since its release, Redeeming Love has sold millions copies, been translated into 28 different languages and continues to hold a top spot on the Christian bestsellers list. The Grammy award-winning singer Amy Grant said the truth contained within the historical novel “took me to my knees…I was a changed person when I finished reading”. And author Liz Curtis Higgs said in her endorsement: “Simply put, Redeeming Love is the most powerful work of fiction you will ever read.”
Francine has continued to publish numerous Christian novels. Although widely different in subject matter, each one usually contains a love story, and there are similar themes of brokenness, healing and redemption. The author refers to her historical steamy novels as being “BC” (before Christ) and has taken proactive steps to ensure they can’t be reprinted.
She believes that in the past, a lot of Christian fiction avoided dealing with gritty subjects and was therefore unrealistic: “If there was a conflict it was because they were tempted, it wasn’t because they actually fell into sin in any way.” But her own focus is on imperfect people: “I don’t know any Christians who have had an easy time or haven’t made mistakes.” Some of her own struggles, such as dealing with a past abortion, are themes which crop up in her books.
During our interview, Francine told me that while writing her latest book, The Masterpiece, she thought it might be her last. Upon finishing it, she told her agent that she would not be “writing under contract” again, meaning she will no longer be subject to publisher’s deadlines or demands for new books. However, fans will be pleased to hear that she already has a couple of new characters forming in her mind.
Francine has won numerous awards for her work and has been inducted into the Romance Writers’ of America Hall of Fame. But she’s reluctant to dwell on these accolades. “In the Christian world we shouldn’t be raising one above the other,” she says. And it seems she’s practising what she’s preaching: “Most of the awards are in a closet in the garage.”
You’ve called Redeeming Love your “statement of faith” – what do you mean by that?
It tells the story of God’s love; it’s an allegory. I felt like I was always looking in every other place for answers except going to the Lord. I did not understand how deeply he loves us. So that prophet story really got through to me. There’s a huge difference between Jesus as “just your saviour”, where you figure: “I can do whatever I want to do, and he’ll save me”, rather than having him as Lord of your life.
The steamy historical novels I was writing were all set in California between 1840 and 1880, so I thought: “I’m going to set it in the same time period to reach the people who had been reading my books”. I’d get letters saying: “I wish there was a Michael Hosea”, which meant I could reply: “There is – and his name is Jesus.” It was my way of showing what had happened in my life and the difference he had made.
You’ve been working on a script for a possible movie version of the book. What’s the latest on that?
Hopefully it will become a movie; I wrote the script and we are in waiting mode right now, trying to see what is going to happen with it.
It’s very different [from writing novels], because you can’t go inside a person’s head – everything has to be visual; you can give some direction but it all has to be seen in the expressions, in the dialogue. The book is 470 pages – you have to condense it down to 115 pages for the screen while keeping the whole message; that is important to me. Other people had written scripts, but every time I read them, I thought: “They aren’t getting who Michael is and the kind of love he’s portraying”. So I thought: “I just want to tackle it myself.”
Out of the books that you’ve written, which is your favourite?
It’s still Redeeming Love. I felt like I had been Angel my whole life, just looking elsewhere, being defiant against God and then fearing him because he doesn’t ask for bits and pieces of our lives – he wants all of us. He wants everything that we are. And then humility, letting go of things and living for him. And then joy in the morning – the joy that he gives us in the relationship with him.
How do you go about the process of retelling a biblical story?
The only one where I let my imagination go was with Silas [The Scribe] because we don’t really know much about him, so I was able to imagine who he might have been. With the others I tried to stick as close to scripture as I could, with a Bible study at the end that makes it clear that this is one person’s view of that particular person.
We know a lot about the culture and we know what’s in the word of God, but we don’t know what was going on in their minds and their hearts at the time. Christian fiction is only meant to be a bridge back into the real thing – to whet the appetite to get people to read scripture.
Which book has been the most difficult to write?
The most difficult book for me was The Atonement Child, because it dealt with my own personal experience with abortion, and having to figure out: “Am I truly forgiven?” How do you get over that kind of grief and the shame that just held me for years?
The process was gruelling but it was also the most healing book I’ve ever written. It was difficult on Rick, as he had no part in that bit of my life. But we decided at the end to renew our vows.
You have written an incredible number of books – what is it that motivates you?
I have no idea! I think God must be behind it. Usually it is a character that comes to my mind and starts to build. They start yammering at me and growing in my head and then it seems like everywhere I look I’ll have a question, and then answers start popping up here and there. That’s how I feel God saying to me: “OK, this is the project I want you to tackle this time.” The people come first, the story comes later and then the setting comes after that. I’m a seat-of-thepants writer – you just start and the story begins to come. I do turn in an outline but Tyndale also know that the book isn’t going to look anything like that when it is done! We’ve built trust over the years.
I thought Redeeming Love was going to be the last book I wrote, but then I had all these questions that kept coming up. “How do I share my faith?” is what started A Voice in the Wind, for example. Writing has really become a tool; I can use the different characters to answer the questions their way, and then there is one strong Christian in the book or one struggling Christian that becomes stronger in their faith through the journey.
When do you get a title for your book – is it early in the process or later on?
Sometimes they come later – sometimes in the beginning. When And The Shofar Blew title came to me I didn’t know what a shofar [ram’s horn] was. I knew it had something to do with the Church. I was travelling a lot and seeing how churches were really turning away from Christ and softening the message. They were taking elements out of the message, because they didn’t want to offend anybody; they were taking the cross off the building. Psalm 127:1 says unless God builds the house it will not stand. What is the Church? That was the question that started that book. It’s not a building; it’s the body of Christ.
The Masterpiece is your latest book. Your central characters are Roman and Grace – two adults who were orphaned and suffered abuse when young. What was the question, and the issues you wanted to cover?
I’d been thinking a lot about the fact that there are so many broken families, and I’d been involved in watching a ministry called Crossing the Jordan growing in our community. Hearing the stories of some of these young women, I wanted to deal with childhood abuse and how that impacts adult thinking. How it follows them. And is there a chance for two very broken people to find wholeness together? Of course there is, with Christ at the centre, but it is a journey – and a hard one.
How do you make a story like that believable, particularly if you haven’t had personal experience of the difficulties they endured?
A lot of reading about case studies; the psychology behind it. This was very disturbing and I think it was one of the things that really weighed on me – how prevalent it is.
A good friend of mine, who I met in Bible study fellowship, is a family counsellor. I was talking to her about the story and she said: “Well, why don’t you bring your two characters and present them as case studies?” [to a group of ten counsellors that she gathers with every month]. So I presented Roman and Grace individually; how I thought they would respond mentally and emotionally after what had happened to them.
One gentleman, with tears rolling, said: “I work with people like that all the time and that’s exactly the way they respond.” With Roman, it is the unwillingness to bond with anybody because anybody he ever loved died. With Grace, she just wanted to be perfect – the perfect child so she could earn the love of her aunt.
There are some vivid depictions of hell in the book – what prompted you to include those?
I feel that there are so many churches now that don’t talk about hell. It’s almost as though Jesus came to enhance our lives. He saves us – but what does salvation mean? Jesus talked about hell; it’s a real place, and he’s saving us from it. In church in Wimbledon the young pastor said that God essentially saved us from himself, from his own wrath. That was a profound statement. Because he created everything, he owns everything, whether we acknowledge it or not. And he will have the ultimate say in what happens to us.
Who have been the mentors in your walk of faith?
That’s the topic right now that is fascinating me. I would like to understand more about mentoring and how that looks. We have so many older people in church – we need to mentor the younger generation. How do you do that? Truth and relationships are very fluid now so there is nothing to hold on to. There’s just a sea of confusion.
Who have been the people who’ve encouraged you and seen the potential in your writing?
My husband. As with many authors, I read a book and think: “I could do better than that.” And he said: “Well, go ahead and try.” I was working on this story in the evenings, and all of a sudden I wasn’t working on it any more, and he asked: “What happened to the book?” I replied: “It’s in the closet.” He said: “Well, I don’t think anyone is going to knock on the door and happen to ask whether you have a manuscript in the closet!”
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