I met Mike via email and then in person here in Southern France. He and his family came over for a well-remembered meal. We later met up at ICRS. Below is an interview he conducted with Glass Road Productions. I greatly admire Mike and his exhaustive contribution to the Christian Bookseller’s Association.
By the Sword –Interview
Answers by Mike Yorkey, co-author of By the Sword, released in January 2006 by Broadman & Holman
How did the idea for this book spark?
My church pastor, Rick Myatt, and I began talking about writing a novel in the spring of 2000, based upon our mutual love for thrilling fiction. I wanted the lead character to be an investigative reporter who chases after a major, global-changing story. I had done some investigative reporting for a small-town newspaper when I started my journalism career, and I’ll never forget how my job was on the line when I investigated the tax judgments and liens filed against the most powerful politician in the county. Fortunately, the story stuck, and voters recalled him eight months later in a special election.
Rick and I were also interested in the Middle East and how that part of the world would play out in these modern times. We began fashioning a plot, but we wanted to include many plot twists because that’s what we liked when we read a thriller. We came up with a terrorist event to open the book that we called “The Passover Massacre,” which took place in Jerusalem and involved the middle-of-the-night killing of 74 innocent Israelis. We placed our investigative reporter, Amber Robbins, at the scene of the crime, and then we worked on fashioning a plausible plot that involved Iran pulling the strings. Remember, this was more than a year before September 11.
Who handled the research? Plot line? The actual writing?
I handled the research and the actual writing, although Rick wrote bits and pieces of dialogue because he had a good ear for pious “religious” talk. Rick was great in talking out loud on the plot line . . . if we have this person do that, then we can do this . . . we really haven’t had any readers predict what happens in By the Sword, which is great since the last thing we wanted to do was write a predictable novel.
How do you think 9/11 affected the way publishers and readers view your story?
September 11 was huge-and didn’t help us at all. As the Twin Towers lay smoking in ruins, we were 75 percent done with By the Sword. Rick and I looked at each other and shivered. While our novel was not prophetic in terms of Osama bin Laden, it certainly seemed very plausible in light of the new global situation. We stuck with our view that Iran would play an increasingly larger role in Mid East events, and we’ve watched with amazement to see that happen, especially after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Getting back to 9/11, Rick and I hustled and finished our novel by December 2001. When our agent sent it out, the response was . . . underwhelming. In fact, no one wanted to touch a novel with a major terrorist act, and publishers were wary of how much interest Americans had regarding the turbulent Middle East.
We got rejected by every CBA publisher doing fiction. Some acquisition editors were forthright in their reasons behind the rejections, and we listened to them. One pointed out how the manuscript was not ready for prime time because of its writing quality. I took those criticisms to heart. I studied books on writing fiction. I rewrote scene after scene. I combined characters and simplified a few plot threads. I avoided any narration and stuck to action. I eliminated flashbacks. I tightened up the prose and reworked the dialogue. I reworked plot details based upon the Iraq war and new global realities. I paid two fiction editors to give the manuscript a hard edit. After more than two years of rewriting, I felt the novel was ready to be resubmitted in 2004, and I found a few publishers more welcoming. I was a happy fellow when Broadman & Holman greenlighted the novel-with our original title-in the fall of 2004.
Writers often find that their books mirror real life in ways they never anticipated. Have you seen this happen with By the Sword?
Very much so. Rick and I are blown away with the new president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and how he’s moving the country toward nuclear weapons. He’s also denied the Holocaust and wants to wipe Israel off the map. Lots of saber rattling. In By the Sword, we have Iran purchasing a nuke submarine from the Russians, intent on international havoc. Keep in mind that we originally wrote this more than five years ago. Scary.
How has writing fiction differed from non-fiction? Which do you find harder to write?
Fiction is definitely more difficult and more pleasing to write. Readers can tell when amateurs are writing fiction. I’m sure the manuscript we finished in 2001 was pretty amateurish. But we learned from our mistakes and have written a pleasing, professional book that is entirely plausible while still keeping readers turning pages. In other words, I had a ball writing a book that I would want to read.