Desert Storm Veteran and Best-Selling Author Lynn Vincent
From the Battlefield to Best-Selling Author: Lynn VIncent talks Heaven, Heroes, and Human Struggle
Written by Shelley Barski
New York Times best-selling author Lynn Vincent tells incredible stories about ordinary people doing the extraordinary. Her own life story would read the same. From a dysfunctional upbringing, to serving overseas in Desert Storm, to penning Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s memoir and all the articles and notable books in between like Same Kind of Different as Me and Heaven is For Real, one can’t help but see the hand of God at work in Vincent’s life and career. Risen talks to this talented writer about everything from why she stays emotionally connected to her work, to the surprising way she came to faith and the recent lifting of the ban on women in military combat.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Diego, California
Risen Magazine: On your experience as a writer helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories, how has hearing those stories firsthand affected you?
Lynn Vincent: Pretty much everyone walking around on the street has some extraordinary story – they have an enormous struggle that they are overcoming. Some are zeniths of joy, others nadirs of despair. As a celebrity-focused society, we tend to concentrate our storytelling efforts on those that are already well known. But the people at church, the store or the mall are just as extraordinary – even more so because they take their defeats and victories quietly and privately.
Each book I write is a different realm of human struggle. Each time I write about one of these realms, it creates a new architecture of understanding within my own soul.
Risen Magazine: Every writer’s dream is to be on the New York Times Best Seller list and you’ve done it over and over with millions of copies of your books sold. Take me to the moment when you first realized your success?
Lynn Vincent: It was during my first collaboration: Same Kind of Different As Me. It was doing very well, perking along in the Christian market. But my co-author Ron Hall wanted it to be doing better. I told him that you couldn’t keep this story down because it’s an incredible story.
A blogging colleague who worked as the managing editor for Delta Sky Magazine asked his editor if he could excerpt the book and he agreed. I didn’t know this was happening until he called me. He said he didn’t want to tell me about it until he knew for sure that the excerpt was going to go to print. That exposure was what broke the book out of the Christian market. Not long after that I got a call from Ron Hall who said in his distinct Texan accent, “I have some news for you. Our little book just made the New York Times Best Seller list!” That moment was an explosion of joy. Even if I was on the list for five seconds, they can’t take that away from me. I always say that the five best moments in my life were when I got saved, got married, had my two boys and made the New York Times Best Seller list. Being a best-selling author gives you credibility in the profession and opens up more doors to good projects.
Risen Magazine: Take me back to your childhood… I understand it was pretty rough. To what do you attribute getting out of your situation and moving on to a better life?
Lynn Vincent: When you come from a childhood which I understand as dysfunctional as mine you learn how to stumble through and survive. You develop coping mechanisms unconsciously. When you grow up with neglect and abuse, you either collapse or survive. I just survived. It wasn’t until Christ found me that I began to heal and see that real love was available—real unconditional love. There are a lot of people who come from bad backgrounds that will say they don’t really quite get out of the situation, I can relate to that. We are continually striving to become better people.
Risen Magazine: When did you become a Christian and what role does faith play in your personal life and career?
Lynn Vincent: I became a Christian because of a Jehovah’s Witness [pause]. It’s true! Her name was Leona and she was 75 and came to my door one day carrying a large purse. She needed a big purse for all her literature. I had a spiritual thirst to learn more about the Bible. I started studying with her and she would come once a week. My husband said they were a cult and that I shouldn’t talk to her. But he wasn’t really living the life of a believer at the time so I didn’t listen. I said, “She is just a little old lady who wants to talk to me about the Bible.”
Soon thereafter, I heard that still small voice in my heart when I was in my kitchen, saying, “Go to church with Hazel,” who is my mother-in-law. I let her take me to Horizon church, and then to Maranatha Chapel. I always say that God seasoned me up at Horizon and sealed the deal at Maranatha. I knew when I was at Horizon and Maranatha that I was listening to the truth. I accepted the Lord at a Wednesday night service at Maranatha in 1991. I had prayed the prayer three Wednesday nights before and then that fourth night I knew that the invitation was given and I had accepted and I didn’t need to pray the prayer anymore because I was saved. I was still in the Navy at that point. My writing career hadn’t started yet.
I had always written since I was 10. I wanted to be a magazine writer. I never thought I would be writing books. Adult children of alcoholics don’t finish things and I thought to myself that I’d never be able to write something as long as a book. I really became a radically different person. The Lord changed me from the inside out. I would drink the scriptures. I would get up at 4:30 a.m. before work to read. My first son’s name was providentially “Christian.” I had him six months before I became a Christian. We had always just liked the name.
There was truth and meaning, and a model for living. Not just spiritual food but practical ways to live. From the moment that I was saved going forward, I kind of lived the scripture, in John chapter 6 where Jesus asks the twelve disciples if they would desert him like the other disciples already had, and Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:68) This verse shaped how I lived and how I interacted with people.
…passion drives me in my search for truth. If you don’t have it, then you might as well write about city council meetings or school board events.
Risen Magazine: You served in the military during Desert Storm and survived a near missile strike overseas. How has serving your country affected your reporting or writing?
Lynn Vincent: It gave me insight into a segment of society that you can’t fully understand unless you serve. It allows me to tell some stories that I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Men and women trust me with their stories because we share a common ground.
Risen Magazine: I can’t help but ask how do you feel about the recent lifting of the ban on woman serving in combat?
Lynn Vincent: I think it’s a terrible idea. For me it’s simply a matter of the physiological differences between men and women. Would a 250-pound man really want my 5’2″ frame holding him up and trying to carry him to safety? It may not be politically correct, but scientifically, men and women are different. We are different physically and psychologically. Men can run faster and hold more weight.
I’m in the middle of writing a book about a unit of the 101st Airborne and what they had to do to save each other. I’m writing a scene right now where a guy has to take an 80-pound weapon up three flights of stairs and set it on top of a roof. I couldn’t do that. And heavy weapon platoons put an emphasis on the fact that every man can do every other man’s job. In the infantry, the bedrock rule is: you do not abandon your fallen soldier. So are we asking soldiers to be abandoned? This argument does not come from an “ivory tower” – it’s from literally hundreds of interviews with people in the military.
Risen Magazine: As a journalist diving into extremely sensitive subjects like pro-choice and sexual abuse, how do you keep your emotions and convictions at bay?
Lynn Vincent: I don’t. If I lost my passion for what I was writing about, then I should probably change professions. When you are talking about abortion, you are talking about killing babies and that is a massive and heinous injustice. If I don’t get emotional about that, then there’s something wrong with me. That passion drives me in my search for truth. If you don’t have it, then you might as well write about city council meetings or school board events.
Journalistic detachment has a useful and important place, but most will tell you that there are certain topics that are emotional. We don’t have to set our emotions and passions aside—we are still human. We do still have to step back and make sure we are being factual and balanced. If you are a Christian and you are living your life directed by the truth of scripture, then it is not balanced to include equal time for people who are on the unbiblical side of the issue. The Bible says that God is the author and finisher of life. If that’s the side that God is on, I don’t need to give 50 percent of the time to National Abortion Rights Action League (Now Pro Choice America), Emily’s list and Planned Parenthood.
If you’re going to claim yourself a Christian and root yourself in the scriptures, then giving each side 50/50 is simply an exercise in kowtowing to the culture. It’s not the eye of the journalist that says it’s wrong, it’s God. Now I’m not so narrow-minded to suggest that the Bible has the black and white for everything. Where there is grey, we investigate and balance shifts accordingly.
I remember covering the felony sentencing of criminal abortionist Bertha Bugarin who had been conducting second trimester abortions without a medical license. A woman there who was pro-choice was asking me, “How can you be a woman and be pro-life?” I kept trying to bow out of the issue, but finally she drew me into a bit of a debate. So I said, “Would you agree that over 90 percent of all abortions are for the convenience of the mother and not for health and life of the mother?” She agreed. So I said, “If you’ll work with me to eliminate the 90 percent, I’ll work with you to keep the exceptions for rape and incest.” As an incrementalist, I’ll save 9 out of 10 if I can. It’s a pragmatic issue of how many babies can we save.
Risen Magazine: What was your reaction when Going Rouge: An American Nightmare came out at the same time as your book about Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life? How did you handle suddenly being on the receiving end of Democratic criticism?
Lynn Vincent: I had developed a pretty thick skin from working at World Magazine so I didn’t give a rip about Going Rouge. I expected a big backlash when the publisher announced that I was going to be the collaborator but it didn’t happen. When the publisher moved the release date to November 2009 instead of Spring 2010, that’s when the backlash happened. The best thing to do when someone foams at the mouth is to keep your own mouth shut. Soon there will be a shiny new toy and they’ll go after that.
There was one incident though, where I had to take action. There was an article in the Daily Beast by Max Blumenthal. It was a “guilt by association” claim that I collaborated with a racist. It said verbatim, in the subhead that my work contained “unsettling references to black genocide“. What he was doing was twisting reporting I was doing on abortion in the black community–which black pastors were calling black genocide. Rachel Maddow had already gone on Meet the Press and called me a racist. By that time I had been on national forums and called a “homophobe” etc. But that subhead was it! Once they successfully ring the racist bell, it’s hard to un-ring it. I called a reporter at Politico, and asked who wrote it so I would know whose name I should write on the lawsuit. Within a couple hours, the subhead had been changed. All of the attacks instantly stopped. All it took was a phone call to an honest reporter. It was pretty ridiculous to call me a racist. I mean, my book, Same Kind of Different as Me, a book about racial reconciliation was on the New York Times Best Seller List and my pastor was Miles McPherson, also African-American.
Risen Magazine: There have been talks about Same Kind of Different as Me being made into a movie. Why do you think it resonates with so many people, over so many years?
Lynn Vincent: There have been two movie deals that didn’t go through. One went all the way to signing with Disney but the author decided not to go through with it.
I think it resonates with so many people because of the universal themes of prejudice and the dispelling of prejudice. It talks about the difference between the classes—the veil is torn away for this man who was very much into his high society lifestyle. I think also, the simplicity of Denver Moore’s faith is compelling.
The book has also resonated on levels that we didn’t anticipate—like readers would call on the brink of divorce and say this book saved their marriage. In the book, Ron Hall has an affair and his wife, Deborah, forgives him. We got a call from a woman who said she found her husband in his closet curled up in the fetal position because he had read about Deborah Hall’s grace and didn’t know it could be possible to be forgiven. He had been racked with guilt about having an affair. He and his wife ended up going to counseling and saved their marriage.
Risen Magazine: What was Heaven is for Real, A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, like to write?
Lynn Vincent: It was a real faith changer for me. Before I was a “here and now” Christian. I told myself I’d worry about Heaven when I got there. But when I encountered this story, I realized there really is a thin veil between this life and the next. I don’t know where it is – what preposition to even use – is Heaven up, around, out there? But I know it is. The reason that book has touched so many people is because it comes from the point of view of a child who was too young to have an agenda. The first printing of that book was going to be 40,000 copies and most of the advance that Todd Burpo received was my fee – a modest advance – and the rest of it he gave away. He didn’t make a dime. He had no agenda. He just wanted this story told.
Risen Magazine: Who is your biggest hero?
Lynn Vincent: I have heroes in different categories. The American soldier who goes out on the line and does this thankless job with no applause. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor in WWII. He’s a hero for his uncompromising view of what it means to be a follower of Christ. His classic book The Cost of Discipleship, and his opposition to what he called “cheap grace,” was formative for me. My husband is also a hero of mine—he has overcome a lot in his life and is a very strong person.
Risen Magazine: What motivates you to get out of bed each morning? What are you excited about?
Lynn Vincent: #1. Coffee. [Pauses and laughs] I’m really not joking. #2. Embracing each new day and living the most honorably and productively as I can. The writing is hard work-it is so not fun. The interviewing and getting to know the people in my stories is the real joy for me. Screenwriter and producer Barbara Nicolosi talks about how she doesn’t enjoy writing, she enjoys having written. That’s me! [Laughs] The real joy in my art and craft is the people.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Spring 2013
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