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Author Interview: Barry Connolly

By (May 30, 2011) No Comment

An interview with Barry Connolly, author of The Good Thief:

Open Letters: Tell us a little about your inspiration for writing The Good Thief. Out of all the minor, unnamed characters in the Gospels, what drew you to this one?

Barry Connolly: Good question! Perhaps a little background first would be helpful. Most of my career I have been a professional business writer—first with IBM for 25 years where I managed several press relations departments, and later after I took early retirement in 1993 and started a marketing communications business with my wife and oldest son. By 2009 I was semi-retired and had some extra time on my hands. Now, I must confess I had no interest in writing a novel, as some retired writers do. But I did have a strong interest in the Bible—although I found it daunting to read. My knowledge of the Bible at that point was limited largely to Charlton Heston and excerpts from the New Testament on Sundays. So when my parish church offered a professional 24-week study program, “The Great Adventure,” I jumped at the chance. It was an eye-opening tour of the Bible from Moses to the New Testament.

Weeks after the class ended, I found myself still thinking about the Good Thief –this man who was crucified alongside Jesus. Who was this literally unknown man who was so dramatically promised Paradise by Jesus? What led him to Calvary? As a writer, I thought: what a wonderful idea for a book – for someone else. As I said, I had never had a burning desire to write a novel: too big a task to take on, too much work. But the thought just would not go away. And the more I looked into it – researching what little had been written in a narrative way about the Good Thief—the more I realized it was a story begging to be told. And I honestly felt – and I don’t wish to appear “mystical” here but there’s no getting around it – that I was being asked to tell the story.

I read somewhere that the Holy Spirit conveys His inspiration throughout the world from person to person. He doesn’t give up. If one person turns Him down, he moves on until someone says “yes.” I had come to believe strongly that I was being asked, for whatever reason, to take on the task of writing about the Good Thief. And so, one morning, I announced to my wife over breakfast that I was going to write the novel – that I felt it was something the Holy Spirit was asking me to do. She was incredibly supportive. That was the beginning of my own “Great Adventure.”

OLM: Although it’s refreshingly unobtrusive, there’s a great deal of research underpinning this novel. Tell us a little about what the nuts-and-bolts process of writing was like for you.

BC: Well, I knew –as I think any writer will tell you, and certainly from my personal experience—that writing is hard work: the old 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration adage. That’s one reason I had never had a strong desire to write a novel. But I did feel that overwhelming desire now. And I knew to succeed –even with inspiration– I would have to do the “heavy lifting,” that is, approach the task as I would any business project: read, gather facts, research the life and times, political and economic issues, climate, geography etc. I read books on daily life in the time of Jesus, on Roman government, customs and military issues at the time, found maps of ancient cities and trade routes, researched weather patterns, geology of the region, etc. And I created a rough outline and timetable to work against until the project was finished. I know my experience working against business writing deadlines helped prepare me for this.

From the beginning, I had “seen” Dismas (the name, I learned, most commonly assigned by tradition to the “Good Thief”) as more than just a career criminal with the uncommon luck to be pardoned by Christ at the last minute. I envisioned him as a basically good man who, through pride, arrogance and a series of terrible choices, had brought his life to ruin. And so I began my outline with that premise and began to flesh out other characters that I felt inspired to add who would have surrounded Dismas in his life and influenced the choices he made.

Of course, at this point, I had no idea how I was going to get the book published, but I felt my first responsibility was to write it. I spent about three months on reading and research, gathering facts and making notes as I refined my initial story outline –which did change somewhat along the way. Then I sat down determined to write the book over the next two months – a reasonably sustainable deadline I thought, working mostly in the evening, giving myself a personal goal of a chapter a day. Some days were more productive than others; sometimes there were bumps in the road. For example, because of my IBM background I was a stickler for accuracy. I remember questioning whether the scorpion I had initially described in Chapter One was really black in color as I thought. I checked and found in the region of Palestine they were amber in color and almost translucent, so I changed my description. I ran into situations like that again and again. What was the weather like in winter in the region and when did the season start? How cold were the nights? What wild animals were likely threats? What kind of caves could be found in the rocks? How common? How large? Whenever I had doubts about a description, I looked it up. I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes, but I tried to be as accurate to the “look and feel” of the times as possible.

I finished the first draft of the book a little over my personal deadline but under three months. There were a number of times I was frustrated. That was particularly true over the next five or six months as my wife and I went over the copy countless times to edit, polish and fact-check it.

OLM: The Good Thief is very evocative visually – have you yourself been to the Holy Land? What was the process by which you visualized all the various scenes in the book?

BC: I’ve been amazed that people who’ve read my book and have been to the Holy Land found the descriptions so close to their own experiences. I never had the opportunity to go there. I did, of course, read about the area extensively, and I viewed some documentaries about life in Palestine and Jerusalem. It’s surprising how many drawings and pictures are available either in the library or on the Internet. I knew it was beyond my ability to create a scholarly work on life in A. D. 33, but I hoped to create an atmosphere that rang true enough and didn’t get in the way of the story, but rather helped to support it.

How did the story unfold? Sorry, but here again is where I felt the unmistakable hand of the Holy Spirit inspiring me. I can think of no other satisfactory explanation for it. I can only tell you that from the moment I began to write the Prologue to The Good Thief, I could see the story unfold in my mind as if I were watching a movie. Yes, I needed to come up with the words and the descriptions—but the scenes were there, the story line, unmistakably. I can also tell you there were a number of times I thought I knew where the plot was headed as I diligently followed my story outline and typed away late at night, only to wake the next morning with a different plot direction or twist in my head. In the same way, whenever I hit a road block in the plot, I would pray over it and sure enough a solution would present itself. Again, not that writing the book was easy, but I never once felt I was alone in the process.
This was borne out again after The Good Thief was published. The day after I issued a news release about the book’s publication, I received an email from an associate producer at a film production company in California asking if they could evaluate the book for a film. That kind of response to a newly-published novel is virtually unheard of. A week later the company’s CEO called me and said he couldn’t put the book down, that it “read like a movie.” Since then, they’ve optioned the book with the intent to make it into a film. I can’t be any more specific because of a non-disclosure clause in the contract. But what an amazing experience!

OLM: Tell us about how you crafted the character of Dismas; he has to be bad enough to need saving but good enough to deserve it – was that a tough balance to maintain, or did making Gestas such an out-and-out stinker help?

BC: Early Church tradition assigned the names Dismas and Gestas to the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. No one recorded their real names anywhere. There are no facts concerning their lives. Luke, in his gospel, says both men were criminals, or thieves, and that through some spontaneous act of faith on Dismas’ part, and through Christ’s mercy, Dismas was saved.

I never saw either man as that black-and-white in terms of character or background. If they were like most men, their lives were more complex than that. Certainly the unrepentant Gestas seemed the more evil. Dismas, I reasoned, could well have been drawn into his downfall by circumstances. That was my starting point. Once I developed a back-story for Dismas, and let the character behave the way I felt in my heart a young, basically good Jewish man facing the kind of family tragedy he faced would behave, his story took on a life of its own. I felt his reaction to the circumstances he encountered on his journey toward revenge were honest ones – tragic, but honest. He was always torn between a desire to be good and a passion for justice and revenge. There were so many times, as you noted, that Dismas could have stepped back and let go of the anger and saved himself. He just couldn’t do it. But he was not an evil man, as I saw him. His cousin, Gestas, on the other hand, clearly was.

Interestingly, in my original outline, I saw Dismas as more of a career criminal: someone who joined Gestas’ band willingly after the murder of his brother and sister, with a violent past in which he ambushed and killed Roman soldiers in revenge before giving his life to save that of a young associate in Gestas’ band. But as Dismas’ character developed, starting with the prologue, I felt compelled to change him, to make him a more complex, compassionate character. It was not necessary to paint him with as wickedly as his cousin—in fact it was more believable that he not be the same kind of man as Gestas. Of course, making Gestas wicked and devious helped contrast the two and helped drive the story forward.

OLM: The Good Thief has been critically well received – what was your publishing experience like with this book? Any plans to write another Biblical historical novel? What are you working on now?

BC: Thank you. I hope more reviewers—and readers—have the opportunity to read and enjoy The Good Thief. As you can imagine, a really big question with my book, as for any unknown first-time novelist, was how to get it published.

When I finished my first draft of The Good Thief, I asked two clergymen I respected to read the manuscript for theological accuracy. One is a senior pastor who travels extensively in the Holy Land and has published some 40 inspirational books. He was kind enough to read it on the plane as he headed to Haiti to assist victims of the earthquake there. He had some valuable comments (remarkably, he also said my descriptions of the Holy Land matched his own experience) and also cautioned me that it was virtually impossible for an unknown author to get Christian fiction published. That had been my impression too as I checked various sources and tried unsuccessfully to find an agent to represent me.

As I wondered what to do next, I came across two news articles in rapid succession—one in The Wall Street Journal and the other in Newsweek. Both said that more and more mainstream authors were moving to “Publish-on-Demand” and away from traditional publishers. These authors found they could exercise more control over the sales of their works and the rights to their books. (There was a similar article in the New York Times).

Armed with this alternative, I began researching POD publishers and eventually settled on iUniverse. I found them adequate for what I needed: that is, a source that would publish a quality book and facilitate sales through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and similar outlets. To be cost-effective, I believe an author must be willing and capable of doing all of the editing and proofreading required and must stay on top of the entire process—including book size and appearance, initial publicity and ongoing promotion. Purchasing any of these services ala carte can add literally thousands of dollars to the overall production cost. In addition to editing services, the major advantages a traditional publisher offers are placing your book in bookstores (with the promise to accept unsold returns) and advertising and promotion, although the latter can be minimal for all but well-established authors.

For me, as it turned out, a major advantage to POD was that, when the film production company came calling, I did indeed own the film and ancillary rights and could quickly negotiate a favorable contract.

As I mentioned, I initially had no plans to write a novel but felt moved and inspired to take on the task of writing The Good Thief. It has been a remarkable journey. The screenwriter/producer who hopes to create a film based on the book has asked for at least the outline for a sequel, since that makes a film project more saleable. I’ve been working on that in order to give The Good Thief it’s best chance for consideration. The story I envision will primarily follow the relationship that was developing between Rebekah, the former betrothed of Dismas, and of Lucius, the centurion who came to Rebekah’s aid. I have set it in the weeks and months immediately following Pentecost, during the persecution of the fledgling Christian sect by the Pharisees, under Saul of Tarsus, before his conversion to become St. Paul.

I hope I can count on the same inspiration, commitment and satisfaction that I found in writing The Good Thief!