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Reading fiction is fun, but is it wise? Doesn’t Scripture tell us that life is a vapor, and that we need to “make the best use of the time” we’ve been entrusted? Can reading a novel count as a valid, even wise, use of time?

Trevin Wax believes it can. The longtime reader of fiction recently embarked on an attempt to write some of his own. The result is Clear Winter Nights: A Journey into Truth, Doubt, and What Comes After (Multnomah), a story about a young believer facing disillusionment and doubt (Chris) who spends a life-altering weekend with his grandfather, a retired pastor (Gil). No subject is off limits in this stirring tale about questioning, hope, and what following Jesus means in today’s world.

I corresponded with Wax, TGC blogger and managing editor of The Gospel Project, about his inspirations, common misconceptions about fiction, what he learned, and more.

I know you enjoy reading fiction books, but what inspired you to write one?

For several years now, I’ve been encouraging evangelicals to consider the aesthetic elements of our presentation of truth. How can we express the beauty of the gospel through song, poetry, prose, and story? At some point, I felt like I’d issued the challenge enough. I wanted to try it myself—to mix apologetics, theological dialogue, and story elements.

What are some of your favorite novels, and what authors have particularly inspired you?

As far as classics go, Julie Rose’s translation of Les Miserables is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve also read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov multiple times. I enjoy fantasy (Narnia, Middle Earth, Hogwarts, and so on), and also more recent fiction—the literary type (Marilynne Robinson) as well as contemporary Christian fiction (Randy Alcorn does well with the genre). As far as influences go, I love the wit and wisdom of Chesterton, the imagination of Lewis, the artistic mind of Calvin Miller, and the sermons of Spurgeon. And I’ve been studying the parables of Jesus regularly for 11 years now.

What are some of the most common misunderstandings you sense among theologically minded people about the purpose and value of fiction?

It’s easy for us to think of fiction as an excursion into entertainment, not something substantive. We underestimate the power of a good story and the potency of a well-turned phrase. Fiction opens up worlds that abstract statements do not, which is why some of Jesus’ best-known statements came in connection with a fictional story or an actual event. Reading fiction can help a pastor grow in his ability to imagine the world he wants his listeners to inhabit. We can use a bullet list to explain who our neighbor is, or we can tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Both are valid approaches (and we need both), but people are more likely to remember the story. We impoverish our souls when we fail to imagine our world.

Where did you get inspiration for your characters, and how did they develop as you wrote?

I was meeting regularly with some guys in our church’s college ministry when I started the book. Based on my own journey as a college student and some of our conversations, I felt like the character of Chris embodies the young man who wants to either “own the faith” he’s inherited or walk away. We never make these kinds of decisions in a relational vacuum, so there’s a backstory involving hypocrisy, betrayal, intellectual doubt, and strong relationships.

Gil, the grandfather in the story, is a composite portrait of the three men who have been grandfathers to me (my father’s father, my mother’s father, and her stepfather). There’s also a Chestertonian flair to his interaction with Chris. I’ve enjoyed watching both these characters come alive on the page. My hunch is that readers will initially resonate with Chris, but the person they’re most likely to remember is Gil.

Not everyone’s a “reader.” But why might a book like Clear Winter Nights be a wise use of time even for one rarely inclined to read?

It’s identified as a “teaching book.” It says “Theology in Story” on the cover. There’s a didactic purpose to the story, and I’m upfront about that purpose. I would tell people who aren’t inclined to read that this is a way to ease into some theology while (hopefully) encountering an engaging story along the way.

You’ve written that your personal attachment to Clear Winter Nights is stronger than anything else you’ve written, yet you’re less defensive about this book at the same time. Why?

The personal attachment is because I’ve grown to love these characters I’ve created, and because the editing process was so extensive. It was the hardest I’ve ever worked on a book.

I suppose I’m not defensive because it’s my first try at doing fiction. I didn’t labor under any illusions that I was creating a masterpiece of literary art. My goal was more modest: to tell an interesting story that engages the reader with some good theology. If I succeed at that goal, I hope to get the chance to do it again and get better (hopefully) as I go.

Another reason I’m not defensive is because criticism is generally focused on the characters or story. So, for example, when an early reviewer had a strong negative reaction to one of the characters, I wasn’t distressed or defensive. Instead, I was fascinated. What was it about the character that rubbed her the wrong way? How are people interpreting the story and the point of the narrative? How can I keep creating characters in the future that lead to a gut reaction? That’s part of the fun, I think.

In what ways was the fiction-writing process different than you anticipated? What advice would you now give to someone attempting to write his or her first novel?

I didn’t expect the process to be so laborious. I thought it would be similar to my non-fiction books. You write on a manuscript and then tweak it for a couple months before sending it in. With fiction, every tweak is related to dialogue, character, or a story—which means the repercussions affect other parts of the story. Needless to say, this makes the editing process longer and more extensive. It was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

For those who want to write fiction, I recommend you start small. There’s a reason my book is only 140 pages, and not the usual 300 or so for a novel: I didn’t want to bite off more than I could handle. So I recommend starting with short stories, getting feedback from people, and growing in your ability to create characters.