Today, I’m so happy to share an Catholic Book Spotlight interview with Gerard Webster, author of one of my new favorite books In-Sight. In-Sight has earned the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval. I found the book a gripping page-turner, filled with a diverse cast of characters that will draw you into this modern day prodigal son parable. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Gerard Webster and that you’ll check out In-Sight.
Q. What prompted you to write In-Sight and did the book end up being the story you’d originally conceived?
R. Several years ago I was on a three-day silent retreat. One of the meditations was on the gospel of the talents. I had always presumed that the “talents” referred to the coinage of the day and had never thought much about it. But the priest leading the meditation corrected that misconception. Your “talents,” he said, are everything you are and everything God gave you—your mind, your time, your life experiences, etc. So I was challenged to think of what talents I had and whether or not I had used them in the service of the Master. One of the talents I was blessed with was the ability to write—this was evident from my days writing for the high school and college newspapers. As a result of this retreat, I resolved to begin writing again.
The answer to whether the book ended up being the story I’d originally conceived is both “Yes” and “No.” The skeleton of the main plot remained fairly consistent—even throughout several revisions. But when I showed my first draft to Anne, my wife, she loved me enough to be brutally honest about one of the main characters. Carie Hope was a card-board cut-out of a cold, calculating woman. Anne is at once my greatest fan and my best critic. She strongly suggested that I create more depth in the Carie character and make her more human and understandable. As a result, I went back and ended up doing a major revision of the whole book—because, when I changed Carie’s character, I had to change every inter-action she had with other characters in the novel. That’s how the sub-plot of Carie’s story was created—her learning that she was adopted, how she discovered who her real parents were, and the impact that this had on her outlook on life. In actuality, as I was revising, there came a point at which I didn’t know myself how it would turn out. The sub-plot of Carie’s story became character driven instead of plot driven. It’s as though the characters took on a life of their own and I was just along for the ride. This was the fun part of writing—when the characters themselves moved the story forward.
Q. Did you ever consider making the book “less Catholic” to appeal to a broader audience?
R. No, not really. Being “Catholic” to me is the same as being a “Webster.” It’s part of who I am every bit as much as my genetic make-up. So it never dawned on me while I was writing the story to make it “less Catholic.” I was actually more worried about the depiction of evil in the story. I wanted to achieve a balance that would depict evil realistically enough to create conflict and drive the story, but without glorifying it. That was my major concern.
The idea of making the story “less Catholic” didn’t come up until I began searching for an agent or a publisher. Most of the queries I sent out resulted in either the standard rejection slip or no response at all—which is very common for a first-time unknown author. In fact, the only “Catholic” fiction publisher that I knew of never responded. However, In-Sight did generate a little interest from some of the regular agents/publishing houses and a few from the Christian side. There were several suggestions made—many of which I incorporated into the revisions. But the two extremes that I chose not to consider because it would change the story too much were to either remove the “religion” part altogether and make it a secular story focusing strictly on the legal conflict or, on the other hand, to remove the “Catholic” part of the story and some of the “evil” to make it a book more palatable to the non-Catholic but Christian population. I wasn’t willing to make either concession. So eventually I elected to self-publish it rather than change the Catholic “tone” of the novel.
After the 1960’s, I noticed that many Catholic writers seemed to be embarrassed by their Catholicism—unless they were critical of the Church. There were notable exceptions of course—Michael D. O’Brien comes to mind. I never felt embarrassed about my Catholicism. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. We were one of the families that would make the sign of the cross and say grace in a public restaurant before we ate. So when agents or publishers suggested that I “tone down” the Catholicity in the novel, it was a deal-breaker for me. If you have a lit lamp, you don’t hide it under a basket. The same publishers who want to tone down the Catholic themes in novels don’t seem to have a problem in publishing works of fiction critical of the Church or that are favorable to eastern religions, new-age themes, or of an agnostic or atheistic bent. So, in that regard at least, I adopted the words of Pilate: “What I have written, I have written.” If it was not good enough to draw a large readership or if there were not enough readers open to looking at a “Catholic” novel—then so be it.
Q. What type of responses have you had from fans and readers, both Catholic and non-Catholic?
R. Overall, the response has been very good. So far, In-Sight has received mainly 5-star reviews—whether the reviewers were Catholic or not. It has also won 2nd place for the Creative Arts Council 2009 Book Awards—which is a purely secular fiction contest. From the feedback I’ve received, the readers enjoy the story-line and the moral of the story—Catholic or not. People in recovery like the incorporation of the 12 Step Program in Paul Wingart’s sub-plot. People who champion less government identified with the Timuqua residents fighting the eminent domain takeover of their homes. There seems to be a general empathy for the little guys fighting back against those who would use wealth, power, and influence to run rough-shod over them. And almost all the readers champion the fight against pornography, back-room political and business deals, and the abuse of the media to crush opposition. Instead of being a turn-off, some non-Catholic readers have commented that they’ve learned more about the Church or priests or the sacraments (especially confession) after reading the book. A few have even asked questions about it.
Q. Your varied personal life and career history certainly bring an air of credibility to In-Sight. Which character would you say you most resemble and why?
R. The character of Dan McNulty was actually modeled more after my father. He served in combat in WWII. And he was a strong no-nonsense man, both physically and spiritually. Physically, Dan resembles my father as well. But most people who read In-Sight think Dan was modeled after myself. If that means I’m somewhat like my father, I consider it a supreme compliment. In one sense, Dan McNulty, my father, and I have one thing in common: we’re all fathers who are concerned very deeply about the ultimate salvation of our children’s souls. In that sense, I identify with Dan. Everything else is secondary. As the character of St. Thomas More stated in A Man for All Seasons: “Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing if he gives his soul for the whole world…but for WALES?”
Q. In-Sight is a prodigal son type of story, and yet the ultimate outcome of the book is never obvious until you come to the end. Why was Ward McNulty’s ultimate redemption such an important part of the book?
R. Hope. Never giving up on hope. At one point in the novel, Dan McNulty states: “As long as he has a pulse, he has a chance.” He’s talking both about his experience as a medic in Vietnam—where he tried to save men’s lives—and about his experience in the spiritual combat we’re all engaged in here on earth. Even if we are “spiritually dead” through mortal sin, there’s always hope in the infinite mercy of God.
As an addictions counselor, I heard one of my client’s jokingly explain why he drank so much. “24 cans of beer in a case—24 hours in a day—no coincidence!” My wife and I have a similar saying in regards to our children: “Five decades in the rosary—five kids–no coincidence!” When we pray the rosary together, we typically dedicate one decade to each of our children (and their families) by name.
The bottom line is that the ultimate salvation of Ward McNulty is so important in the book because the ultimate salvation of our own children is so important to me and my wife. I had to make Ward’s salvation key to the story—as a father, any other outcome would be unthinkable.
Q. Please say a few words about Dan and Ward’s “gift”—how did you come up with this concept and did you fear it would bring too much of a supernatural quality to the storyline?
R. After the silent retreat and I had made the decision to write, I knew I’d write fiction but I had absolutely no idea where to begin. So I started praying, reading, and meditating for inspiration. All through this process, an intrusive thought kept barging into my consciousness. Several months before the retreat, one of my kids had rented the movie Shallow Hal. We watched it together, but I didn’t really enjoy the movie that much. It was about a young man who judged everyone by their external appearance and beauty—until he was hypnotized to see the beauty of their character vs. the beauty of their bodies. As much as I tried to think of something else, the memory of Shallow Hal kept wandering around the corridors of my mind. Eventually I talked with a brother in the faith about it—not exactly spiritual direction—more to find out how I could shake this thought and get on with the business of writing. My friend suggested that, instead of trying to purge the thought, I should go with it and see where it leads. I got home that night, pulled out a pad of paper, and started writing down “what if” questions. What if a man really could see the character of a person rather than just the external appearance? What if he could see inside himself? What if a worldly, selfish, sinful man could actually see—not only the condition of others’ souls—but the condition of his own soul—whether he was alive with divine grace, “dead” in mortal sin, or “wounded” by venial sins or past-confessed mortal sins? How would he react to that? How would he react to others? How would that change his life?
From that thin thread of a thought, the story of In-Sight stretched out in both directions. The original thread actually takes place in about the middle of the novel, but that’s where it started. After I had that idea, all I had to do was think of how this could take place and chronicle the events that occurred both before and after Ward received his “gift” to show the change in his character as a result.
Until you asked the question, it never occurred to me that it might be “too supernatural.” Popular movies and books nowadays propose the most unbelievable things as a foundation for the plot. Think of all the “time travel” themes in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Back to the Future, The Lake House—and I could go on and on. Or using radio waves to talk across a span of twenty years as in Frequency. Or the presence of “bodashes” heralding impending violent deaths in Odd Thomas. Or having a dead person as a therapist, as in The Sixth Sense. Or a child suddenly finding himself in a grown-up’s body, as in Big. In actuality, all of these proposals are more unbelievable than what’s put forth in In-Sight. In fact, in researching for the book, I found that Padre Pio, Don Bosco, the Cure d’ Ars, and others were all able to see the condition of a person’s soul in certain circumstances. The spiritual condition of a man’s soul is a reality—whether we actually see it or not—vs. the totally imaginary proposals of time travel, switching bodies, bodashes, etc. The modern reader or movie-goer is used to being asked to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained. And they willingly do it, too—if the story is good enough. In all the other examples, the writer of the script or book presents the unbelievable theme in a context that makes it seem believable. If a writer can pull this off successfully—and entertain at the same time—I think the reader will willingly suspend his disbelief long enough to savor the full flavor of the story.
Q. What did you personally learn in the writing of In-Sight?
R. The first thing I learned was to listen to my wife. Anne is my greatest fan, but also my best critic. I’m so grateful for her having the courage and love to point out things she felt needed changing. In-Sight would not have turned out nearly as well as it did without her input.
Along with that, I also acquired a taste for humble pie. Do you know how hard it is for a writer to swallow criticism and then go back to the computer and start over? As a man, I imagine it would be like a woman giving birth, then showing her baby off proudly to another, only to be told after all that pain and labor that “his eyes are crossed” or “he’s pigeon toed.” What??? Do you know what you’re saying? That’s my BABY you’re talking about!! But then, you take a second look, and—sure enough—the baby’s not exactly perfect. In fact, surgery is required—maybe radical surgery—maybe more than one surgery. And so you swallow your pride and start revising—and then revising your revisions.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned was to not be so superficial in how I see others. After writing about seeing the condition of the soul for the more than two years it took me to write In-Sight, I feel less apt to base first impressions on clothing, status, or wealth and more inclined to get to know the person. It’s amazing what you can discover if you take the time to listen. The old saying “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is true in most cases.
Q. Do you have plans for any future book projects?
R. Yes. I’ve had about 3 or 4 ideas rattling around in my cranium since I finished In-Sight. One, of course, is a sequel. Many of my readers have been asking me to do a follow-up on Ward and Carie—what happened to them after In-Sight—whether they ever get back together, etc. I think it’s a natural sequel to the original story.
Another idea that’s been pounding at my mind’s door and demanding attention is a story that involves near-death experiences—from both the perspective of the man who gets a wink of heaven and one who gets a glimpse of hell. Again, spiritual realities put in a fictional format. The key is in tying the two men together and have them interacting both before and after their experiences. I’ve bounced the idea off Anne—and she’s excited about it—thinks it might be better than In-Sight from what I’ve told her so far. Based on past experience, I’ve learned to trust her instincts about such things. If she’s my greatest fan, she’s also my best sounding-board.
Two other stories that seem natural outgrowths of the original novel are Dan and Ali’s story and Bob Rohrbach’s story. Those are on the back-burner for now though.
In all, I have more ideas than I have time to write. With a full-time job, it took me two and a half years of lunch hours, weekends, and evenings to finish the first novel—and all while trying not to have it interfere with family life at the same time. If I can ever retire, I plan to write fiction full-time.
Q. Are there any additional thoughts or comments you’d like to share with our readers?
R. Yes. First of all, I’m grateful to you, Lisa, for having this platform to promote Catholic and good fiction. I foresee a resurgence in good fiction and movies. There are more Catholic fiction publishers out there now than there were even a year ago. Ignatius Press, Imagio, Sophia Press, Chisel & Cross Books, Loyola Classics—to name just a few. Good films, too, are making a comeback, such as The Passion, Fireproof, and Bella. And there’s a whole new flock of Catholic writers: Regina Doman, Ron Hansen, Michael D. O’Brien (of course!), Tom Grace, Carmen Marcoux, Christian M. Frank, John Desjarlais, Piers Paul Read, and Elena Maria Vidal. But if Catholic culture is going to change the secular culture, we have to support those types of media that promote Catholic and Christian values. Your readers are already doing this by the very fact that they’ve shown an interest in your recommendations. Keep up the good fight.
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