James L. Rubart
Penned in Faith: One Authors Journey from Rejection to Success
James L. Rubart is the New York Times best selling and Christy award-winning author of Rooms, Book of Days, The Chair, Soul’s Gate, Memory’s Door and Spirit Bridge. With his unique blend of allegory and mystery, Rubart’s books have been compared to literary greats like The Screwtape Letters and The Shack. His books not only invite the reader to discover mystical external landscapes, but to explore their own internal landscapes as he presents profound spiritual themes. Risen sat down with Rubart to talk about the challenges of quitting his day job in the pursuit of God’s call on his life, overcoming rejection and his passion for helping others find freedom in their lives.
“If there is a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” –Toni Morrison
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, CA
Risen Magazine: Tell us about growing up. Were there any other writers in your family?
James L. Rubart: I lived in Seattle and Spokane with my parents and older sister. My dad died in 2010. He worked at Texaco most of his life. He was one of those people who didn’t know how glorious and talented he was. As I started to look back on my dad’s writing after he passed, I discovered he was really good! He started writing all these stories about his childhood, teen years and the Navy, almost like a memoir. It was really inspiring to read.
RM: When you were young, you wanted to become a novelist, but there were some outside factors that prevented you from fulfilling your dream until later in life. Share your passion and the obstacles holding you back at the time.
JLR: I was definitely passionate at a very young age. I read The Chronicles of Narnia and it blew me away. I wanted to do what C.S. Lewis did for us. In middle school, I was so excited to be on the school paper, but I wasn’t picked. My journalism teacher had told me I couldn’t write. After that I had a headline plastered above my head at 12 or 13 years old that I couldn’t write and I believed that for years and years. But I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and continued to write in secret. I couldn’t kill the dream completely. I continued to write and not show anyone. When it came time to go to college and pick a major, I chose Journalism because I still had that burning passion to write. When I got married, my wife was supportive of my writing, but I never did anything about it; it was still a dream.
RM: Ironically your wife was a catalyst to help you step into your dream and hear the voice of God. Walk us through this confirmation.
JLR: One day in 2002, my wife surprised me and said she was going on a fast. I asked, “For what?” and she replied, “I don’t know, God just told me to do it.” “How long?” I asked, and she didn’t know that either. So halfway through day three of her fast, the proverbial light bulb exploded over my head. “I know why you’re fasting!” I said. “I’m supposed to be a novelist.” And she’s like, “I’ve been hungry for three days and you get the answer?!” We had a laugh about that. God said to me, “Let’s take a wild ride. Do you want to step into this or not?” It came to a decision point. You have to make a decision to step into the dream. There are so many people like that who have the calling and they don’t take the risk. I love the quote by Ray Bradbury: “Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”
RM: After you heard the call of God loud and clear to become a writer, what were the next steps to making that dream a reality?
JLR: The first step was just writing. The next step was to join the local writing group. The biggest break for me, the biggest push, was to go to my first writer’s conference in California. I had a friend who knew some editors that I could query. I sent out four queries and received three polite rejections. The fourth one emailed me back and asked how long my manuscript was. It was a completed manuscript at 148,000 words long. The editor said, that it wasn’t his job to cut down the novel; it was too long. It was a really terse email. He wrote, “You don’t know how privileged you are that I’ve responded to you. You might consider picking up Noah Lukeman’s, The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile.”
I had already read that book. In fact, I had devoured it! This was the same message again: “You can’t write” and he made it clear that his email was our last communication. That email just slayed me. At that point, I stopped working on the novel. It was my wife Darci who said, “What are you doing? Jim, you need to go to that writer’s conference you’ve been wanting to attend.” So I went to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. By the end of the conference I had four editors and three agents interested in
my book, Rooms. One editor that loved it and didn’t want to take a chance on it wrote a note to my agent. He said, “I wish a better-known author had written this. If the novel doesn’t sell in six months, bring it back to me.” So you know, in the publishing world that means a year.
The next conference came around and he was there. I came up to him with the email in-hand that he had sent me. He smiled and said, “Oh wow, you’re the one that wrote Rooms. I’ve read 200 manuscripts since then and can’t get it out of my head.” Pretty soon I had a contract with B&H Books and then Thomas Nelson came after me. It took me about six years to write Rooms and The Chair took me about five months. Now I can do a novel in about 10 weeks, but that’s pretty fast. Ideally I have six months.
Validation from the world is never going to feed us to the point where we are satisfied.
RM: I love that you have a secret writing room that you constructed in your house and can only be accessed through a small door in your son’s closet. Did the wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s novels inspire you? Have you written all six novels in this room?
JLR: Yes, kind of like the wardrobe to Narnia, I always dreamed of having a secret room when I was a kid, and I would even dream about it at night. Yes, all of my novels were written in that room. I’m so sad, we just sold that house after 24 years so I’ll have to give up the room! But it turns out the people who bought the house from us are fans of my books! They are so excited about the house and are aspiring writers as well.
RM: Your writing has often been described as mystical—who are some of your greatest influences on this style? Who do you enjoy reading?
JLR: C.S. Lewis far and away is my favorite author. Stephen Lawhead is another. I read his books in the early to mid 80s. I really enjoy Ted Dekker as well. One of the fun things is these people have become friends! Except C.S. Lewis of course [laughs]. One day in Heaven I’ll meet him. That’s one of the wonderful things about being an author—the rich relationships you get to develop in the industry.
RM: Your faith has definitely been tested through your career. How have you leaned on it to get through the harder times?
JLR: You have to truly live the idea that it’s not all about you. You have to die to yourself. It’s a nice thing to say that it’s all for Jesus. When you get to a point in your faith where you really die to your hopes and dreams, it’s not about you at all—it’s all about Him. Suddenly I don’t need validation from readers and awards. The only validation I need is just Jesus, that’s it—not even my wife or my kids. Last summer I told my wife, Darci, that it doesn’t matter if I write another novel. I don’t have to. My identity and validation doesn’t come from that. That’s the cake and everything else is the frosting. That’s how I define my faith—ultimate freedom. It’s the only thing I need to be secure and happy. Once you get to that point, there is such freedom in it! We are so lost and needy. Validation from the world is never going to feed us to the point where we are satisfied. We will always need more; we always need that fix. Some may turn to drugs or alcohol for it, but it will never be enough.
RM: Rooms has even become a study guide and DVD that small groups can go through together to step into the greater freedom that God has for them. Can you tell us some feedback you’ve received from people who have done this study?
JLR: Lifeway was under the same parent company as B&H Books. They approached me about making Rooms into a DVD. We filmed in Cannon Beach, Oregon, where the book is set which is really cool. On the cover of Rooms is a picture of an actual house in Cannon Beach that I took. If someone took the book and walked down Arcadia Beach and followed the directions I lay out, that house is there. There is a DVD with me teaching, and also we hired professional actors. It was so cool to see that come to life. It is a book that has deep themes in it, and to hear people who have gone through the series and the impact it had just makes it all worth it. They say things like, “It brought me back from the brink.” People will tell me that someone got saved because they shared the DVD with a friend. Or, “I was suicidal and your book brought me back.” That’s the whole point right there. My theme is: I want to see people be set free. I want them to be healed from the things that prevented them from becoming a writer or restaurant owner. It’s incredibly rewarding.
RM: What encouragement would you give our readers when it comes to throwing off fears and leaping into their destiny?
JLR: We are so scared of failing! We think we don’t have what it takes, like those kids on American Idol who are the only ones in the room that don’t know they can’t sing. Our definition of success and God’s definition is vastly different. The world wants you to show them results, but God’s definition of success can be found in the parable of the talents. The last servant buried the money in the ground instead of investing, and therefore he ended up with nothing. The only failure is when you don’t try. Just step through the fear because you cannot fail. Believe me, there is nothing we’re taking with us except that we tried.
This happened to me when it came to mending a relationship I didn’t think could be mended. God told me to stop by my estranged friend’s house as I drove by one night. I tested God and said, “If it’s you telling me to do this, have someone call me that I’ve never gotten a call from” and at 10 p.m. that night, I did. That was my sign and I knew it was God. The next day I went to my friend’s door and kept knocking until he opened the door. He hugged me, and God restored the relationship that day! That was a fear. I didn’t want to risk myself. I didn’t want to be vulnerable. But I tried and was successful.
RM: You have a novel due out this fall with the premise of the ability to go back in time and talk to your former self and change things. Where did this premise originate? Do you wish you could do the same for your own life?
JLR: The book is titled; The Five Times I Met Myself and it was released on November 10, 2015. In the book, the main character meets his younger self in a dream. Darci came up with the idea. God knows what we are like 10 years from now, but wouldn’t it be cool to talk to that person and see what they’re like? At first I wanted to go forward in time, but my editor said it would be better to go back. Darci loves this one.
RM: If you could live your life any differently right now, would you?
JLR: No, I’m in a great spot. Both my boys are out of the house now and we are so excited that my son just got married! We are going to miss that daily interaction, but I’m really looking forward to this next season in life. In 10 years, I see myself continuing to write novels and do a great deal more speaking—not so much at writing conferences, but helping groups and churches and speaking that message of living in freedom.
RM: What’s one piece of advice you could share for future writers trying to break into the business?
JLR: I would advise them to go to their local sports store, get some running shoes and sprint in the opposite direction! [laughs] I do have an anecdotal story to tell about that. One day a brain surgeon and an author go golfing. The surgeon decided that he was going to take time off and write a book in six weeks. The writer said, “Oh, that’s great, I am going to take six weeks off and become a brain surgeon!” The point is getting good at writing is extremely difficult! New writers will come to an editor and show their manuscript after they have spent two years on it and the editor will tell them it’s not ready, and they are crushed. If you are serious about it, then you have to treat it like a really serious craft. The good news is, most people will quit. They won’t want to push through the late nights and many drafts of rewrites. So that’s less competition!
RM: Favorite Bible Verse?
JLR: Isaiah 43:19 “Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” I love this verse because it talks about God doing a new thing. The past is gone. If you keep turning your head to the past you’re going to miss your future. God is all about restoring what was lost. Don’t look back.