Good reading precedes good writing, and for that I thank my Irish-American grandmother, who set me down with a Bible when I was four years old, and taught me to read, mostly to shut me up. I wish I could report that was a spiritual awakening for me, but I labored on primarily so I could close the book at the end of Revelation and get to the second-thickest book in our house, A History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II—a tome to which my father had contributed a photograph (of tracer fire crisscrossing over his foxhole on Guadalcanal). It thrilled me just to think about reading up on my father’s adventures in the Pacific, and it would be many, many years—decades, really—before I would come to understand that the Bible was about my father’s adventures, as well.
From that I progressed to our village library, a pueblo-ish anachronism in rural Illinois, where I devoured everything that was age-appropriate in very short order, and swiftly progressed to the inappropriate (age and otherwise). I wondered about the people whose names were on the books, and while I never thought of writing a book at that age (who had that sort of time?) I did entertain the idea of making a living as a poet (certain slow starvation) or a short-story writer (ditto, albeit with an increased consumption of typing paper). Finally, at age twelve, after hearing career-day presentations at our school from a policeman, an insurance agent and—could this memory possibly be accurate?—the Archbishop of Canterbury, I came home and announced that I was going to write for a living and gave my mother a poem as proof of my commitment. The poem was about climbing Mount Everest and contained lots of exclamation points, and Mother, may God bless her gray head, still has it, and won’t give it back.
I was still an undergraduate with no declared major at The University of Toledo when I discovered that I could subsidize activities I enjoyed—such as rock-climbing—by writing about them. I wrote a piece on the subject for The Toledo Blade Sunday Magazine, and then a piece on climbing-gear technology for Popular Science, and on the strength of that, Contemporary Books asked me to write a book, a mountaineering travelogue called 20 American Peaks & Crags, which I amortized by doing articles on the individual destinations for magazines such as Mariah (later Outside) and Off Belay. The book came out while I was still in grad school and made me neither rich nor famous.
It did, however, get me into the MFA in Creative Writing program at Bowling Green State University, and that was where I ran into Al Lee, a Detroit-area fiction writer who also wrote for the auto industry, and invited me into a quarter-century digression from which I have not yet fully extracted myself. Al introduced me to people at the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency, the same agency that had employed Elmore Leonard some 20 years earlier, and I freelanced for them a few times before being hired as an editor in their custom-publishing division. That in turn led to a spectacularly brief career with General Motors as a science writer in their research laboratories, followed by more custom publishing, and ultimately by the realization that I didn’t like, to paraphrase Woody Allen, the sort of job where one has to show up. So I returned to freelance writing, doing a considerable amount of work for Ford Motor Company, editing the Advanced Diving Journal section of Scuba Times magazine, and generally leaving the transom open for anything that might come flying through.
Well into midlife, I came to Christ, and spent a year searching for my spiritual gifts before realizing that writing probably qualified. In response to one query (for Wild by Nature, which Baker Books eventually published), Zondervan editor Dave Lambert replied that he didn’t think it was the sort of thing that Zondervan could find a market for, but he said that he liked my writing, and he was wondering if I would like to propose a novel.
That easily qualified as the silliest question I’d ever been asked. I set a lunch date with Dave, and kept it, but failed to arrive with an idea to propose, the intervening two weeks having been filled with freelance assignments. Then, as we were walking through Zondervan’s lobby and passing the fountain statue of Jesus washing the feet of St. Peter, an idea began to dawn on me. By the time we got to Zondervan’s front door, twenty feet away, I had the entire novel in my head, and I pitched it to Dave.
That idea became Yucatan Deep, which was published just a little over a year later and was a finalist for the Christy Award.
Today I try to concentrate my writing around my interests, which are spirituality, fiction, adventure and suspense, in that order. I enjoy what I do and live in daily fear that someone will eventually discover how much I love it and stop paying me. But it hasn’t happened yet. Thank God.
Some Christians can tell you right to the minute when they invited Christ into their life, and I certainly count myself among their number. But I can also tell you exactly when I realized that I had that Pascalian God-shaped hole within my heart. It was not all that incredibly long ago—it was 1994—and I was on a deep wall dive off the island of Andros, in the Bahamas. We were diving next to The Tongue of the Ocean, a stretch of water so deep that the US Navy regularly uses it for the acoustical testing of submarines. Our agenda was to go to a ledge that was 190 feet deep, and as I was the photographer for the party, I was going to go a little deeper and get a shot looking up at the rest of the divers, with the wall soaring surface-ward above them.
It was a time when the list of things going right in my life was absolutely nonexistent. And when I had finally leveled off at about 205 feet and taken my pictures, the rest of the party became engrossed in the profusion of life that is a healthy coral wall, but I found myself drawn the other direction—to the deep water that lay beneath the wall. It descended in increasingly dark shades of blue: from turquoise, to azure, to cerulean, to purple, to black. There was absolutely nothing moving in it. It fascinated me, because it looked exactly the way I felt. And even though one of my pet peeves about us Christians is the way we’re drawn to exclusive language and code-words, I vividly remember the phrase that washed, over and over, though my mind as I looked at that empty water: “I’m lost … I’m lost … I’m ... lost.”
Two self-effacing years later, while having lunch with Dan Woodward (a pastor friend who is so like me that it is scary) I surrendered myself to Christ at a Chinese restaurant in Pontiac, Illinois—just after the entrée and well before the fortune cookie. Within six months I was active in evangelism, and within the year I had become convinced that it would not be enough for me to dabble avocationally in ministry; I was going to have to live it.
When I tell people this story, they often refer to it as my “conversion.” I disagree. I’m convinced that my conversion is an ongoing process. It’s not that I’m not sure of heaven—I am—but like Peter, who decided to follow Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, called him “God” two years later, and did not realize Christianity could be for everybody until after the Resurrection and the Ascension, I am constantly discovering new layers to my relationship with God, new depths to the walk.
Maybe I’m just naturally slow on the uptake. Probably not. I don’t believe Jesus ever wants us to master Christianity. I think it’s a long slow soak in humility and wonder—one that dissolves the part of us that loves the self, and irrigates our concern for those around us.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I scuba dive quite a bit. I’m certified as a Full Cave Diver by the National Speleological Society—Cave Diving Section, and I am an Open Water Scuba Instructor with PADI—the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (and will be a Master Scuba Diver Trainer whenever I get around to sending the paperwork in…). I’m currently working on reviving two old passions: I’m a ni-dan (second-degree black belt) in Ryokukai Karate-Do, I have taught literally hundreds of people to rock-climb over the years, and I’m getting back into both of those, both for fitness and because doing such things is symbiotic with my work.
I also shoot semiautomatic pistol in bullseye competition and am a Life Member of the National Rifle Association. I work with parolees from time to time, have participated regularly in prison ministry and am constantly astounded at how very much like me the people I minister to in that capacity are … feel free to take that any way you like. While I am not much of an upper breass player, I have often volunteered to sound “Taps” at veterans’ and military funerals because I believe that heroes should not go into the ground to the sound of a recorded bugle. And I enjoy speaking to book clubs and writers' groups; these are welcome social interludes in a job that is done, for the most part, absolutely alone.
It amazes and appalls me to watch my 17-year-old daughter grow up. And I am thankful that my wife has occasional lapses of judgment because if she did not I would probably not be married.
Okay. That’s about it....