THE MAN BEHIND THE ‘MAXX’
The winner of the inaugural "Best of the Best" Award is someone who has appeared quite often in the Editor’s Choice awards since becoming a member of FaithWriters – and even more often in the semi-finalist list. His writing style doesn’t always fit the mould, but his heart and passion for the Lord certainly do. Join with Challenge Coordinator, Deborah Porter, as she chats with this award winning author and gets to know the man behind the ‘Maxx.’
DEB: Maxx, first of all, congratulations on winning the first ever Best of the Best Award. Curiosity compels me to ask, how did you find out that you’d won, and what was your first reaction? I would have loved to have been there.
MAXX: I was sitting with my family just talking about things on July 1st and blindly clicking through the FaithWriters’ site looking for interesting things to read (a nice habit!). I happened to click on the Challenge page and read the announcement saying that "Under the East River" had won. I was surprised but didn't say anything. Then I glanced at my kids and said, "Come look at this." They had no idea what to expect. They read the announcement and cheered. Then we celebrated! It was a fun family moment.
As to my internal reaction, I was stunned. I knew the level of competition and actually thought there were many, many more likely candidates. I thought that there must have been some mistake. When I finally accepted the fact that my piece had actually won it was probably the most humbling experience in my writing life. I prayed and gave thanks that the message contained in the piece had actually touched someone at some level. What more can any writer want than that? To know that something that flowed through my hand might have advanced the Kingdom in some way. Wow. Just Wow.
DEB: "Under the East River" is an entry that has caused some controversy since it first appeared on FaithWriters. Even those who consider it an excellent piece of writing, admit to finding it quite disturbing. Where did you find your inspiration, and what sort of person would you consider as your target reader?
MAXX: The best inspiration for any writing is when I just let go and allow the story to take place on its own. The theme was selfishness. What type of person best represents that theme? Obviously a person who expects everything and then takes it. I decided to place a Christian into contact with a person like that and then allowed the characters to grow and unfold into the end result.
The ultimate contradiction in such a setting is that the selfish person would be focusing on the present world while the Christian would be focusing on the ultimate eternal world in the presence of God. The ultimate conflict of the story is the clash of the temporary with the eternal. What clash of priorities!
That said, I had no idea where the story was going to go when I started it. I just put the characters in the setting and then let them react as I suspected they would in the real world.
As to target readers, "Under the East River" has many elements woven into it. The most obvious is that it is gritty and dark, there is violence and implied assault. This would appeal most basically to the non-Christian looking for a "worldly" adventure. The conflict described above then plays itself out and the reader is introduced to the concepts of faith and Divine love.
However, there is more to it than that. I also tried to write in such a way that a Christian could find reason to praise God. One of their sisters in Christ has confronted the ultimate worldly evil and has held firm in her beliefs. No matter the outcome of the scene, she was faithful to the end. She finished the race. What a reason to rejoice! Like the martyrs of old.
Lastly, the concept of Godly control is center stage for both the saved and unsaved reader. It will all work for good. God's plans exist well beyond our ability to comprehend. What we see as a violent event in the current context will be used by God at some point down the road in ways that we will never know. To the Christian, we can rejoice in this and rest on His promises. To the unsaved it explains why perceived bad things take place in a world that seems to be out of control.
DEB: Perhaps the thing that makes "Under the East River" so disturbing is the fact that you chose to write it in the first person, from the perpetrator’s point of view. As this was originally written for the "Selfishness" challenge, the decision to write from the angle you did was definitely appropriate, but was it a draining experience?
MAXX: Under the East River is written in the first person because I wanted to put the ultimate in selfishness right up close and into the reader's face. There is no better way to do that than to put the reader right inside the character's head.
For me, all writing is emotional and therefore draining in some capacity. So yes, it was hard to write. I pour myself onto the page and leave it there. To write about such a selfish person meant that I had to get into a "selfish" mode and try to think and react as a selfish person would. I wish I could say it was a total stretch!
On the other hand, writing is a joyful experience, especially when everything is "clicking." I usually finish on a high, knowing that I've done my best and put myself out there. Hopefully my offering will bring joy to my Lord and will assist in advancing His kingdom. This is always my ultimate desire in writing.
DEB: I’ve read "Under the East River" several times now, and find that its impact has actually increased with each reading. The first time disturbed me more than anything – but now the ending overwhelms me with the power of the message. I’m so glad you didn’t try to tie everything up at the end with a neat little bow, and have the main character fall to his knees in immediate repentance. Were you at all tempted to finish it that way?
MAXX: No, absolutely not.
As Christian writers we know the miraculous power of God and His ability to do all things. We've felt that transformation in our lives and seen it in others. We know that He can trump any evil and/or any situation on earth. Praise God for that power!
Unfortunately, there's a great temptation there for us as writers. We know that God can always triumph. We might even believe that He MUST always triumph in every situation.... to show something other might demonstrate a lack of faith on our part. Plus, we are essentially good people who want to present a clean story that makes us all feel happy and satisfied. Due to this thinking we are tempted to use God as our "Deus ex Machina" ... in the most literal of senses! God swoops in at the last moment to perform an unexpected miracle and resolve a tough situation.
Can it happen? Sure.... my faith completely trusts that. Does it happen? No. Going for the neat and tidy wrap up isn't real and it makes us lazy as writers.
Under the East River put two real people in a difficult situation. They reacted in as real a way as possible. That said, the story actually took it farther down the un-believability path than I really wanted to go. The story needed to capture the moment that the girl's "eternal" outlook overpowered the man's "temporal" outlook. The man stumbled backward and crashed against the door, his vision clouded and turned red. Not exactly real world stuff! But something needed to be there to represent the conflict. To try and have more would have made it a bad read.
DEB: You mentioned celebrating your win with your family when you found out on the 1st. I must admit I was very surprised when I found out that you have quite a large family. Are they your greatest cheerleaders?
MAXX: Of course! They are great. My biggest supporters and toughest critics. My six kids range from 7 to 19 years old. We are a close family and share most everything. Two of them are very good writers in their own right... they keep me on my toes!
Each member of my family brings a wonderful gift to the mix of our lives. My wife plays piano and makes the world's best chocolate chip cookies. I have daughters that draw, write, and dance. My sons play piano, do woodworking, and have deep strength. They are all loving and caring. We have a lot of laughter and humor in our household! They all have a growing faith in God. What more could a parent ever want to be able to say about their family?
DEB: Maxx, from things you've mentioned in the past, I'm fairly sure that you don't write for a living. I get the feeling that it may be more a case of living to write. When did you first feel the desire to put pen to paper?
MAXX: I have no memory of when writing started in my life. It has always been there. It's like breathing.
Writing has always been my escape. A chance to get out of the real world and go wherever my imagination wants to go. The ultimate travel getaway!
Writing will always be there for me. I have plans to continue as long as I'm here. It doesn't matter if I get published or win a contest or have anybody around to read the pieces. The things I write are my offering to God. I try to honor Him in what I do. When I get to heaven I hope God will say, "You know that story you wrote about me? Way cool!"
DEB: No-one could ever accuse you of writing to formula – in fact, I don’t think I’ve heard the term "out of the box" used more often than since you first joined FaithWriters. Is this something that has come with time, or have you always been someone who thinks that way?
MAXX: I would say that one of my biggest shortcomings is that I have real trouble finding the box in the first place!
I am definitely an outside the box sort of person. God gifted me an inquisitive, analytical spirit and sometimes I just see things differently than others. But don’t let that characterization fool you. Being out of the box is not as simple as choosing "green" when everybody else likes "red."
People are comfortable with an "in the box" sort of thing because "in the box" is nice. There is low risk of hurt or rejection or failure. It gives people the warm fuzzies to think about it. There’s nothing wrong with this. It is the reason that "in the box" is successful!
I would like my writings to be successful as well. So, I study "in the box." I dissect "in the box." I strive to understand what "in the box" is made up of.
Then, when I think I've got a handle on it, I take the component pieces of "in the box," mix them around in different ways, and reassemble them into my pieces. Sometimes it works, other times it fails badly. Either way, I want to put a new and fresh spin/angle on the tried and true (aka: In the Box) messages that God has laid before the world. Love over hate, redemption over damnation, order over chaos. When you look at it like that, my writing's not toooooo far out there. Even a piece like "Cali-hood" is a straight forward salvation message presented in a different way.
"Under the East River" is different, yes. But it is not so radically different as you might assume. It has all the basic elements of faith and praise and Divine majesty as most any other piece on FaithWriters. I just presented them in a slightly unique way. I hope the same can be said for most of my work.
DEB: One of the things that strikes me most about your writing is the fact that you can switch styles with such apparent ease. One minute you might be writing something as disturbing as "Under the East River," and the next you are being absolutely delightful with a story like "Estrogen Moment," or beautifully sensitive with "The Homecoming." You can even be a little bit mischievous with your tongue-in-cheek spoof of the type of writing that sells, with your piece "From Ashes to Ashleigh." Do you have a favorite style, or is every new story an adventure?
MAXX: That is one of the nicest compliments that you can pay a writer ... or a performer of any kind, for that matter. Thank you.
To be a successful writer (as I hope to be someday!) one has to be able to move the reader through the full range of emotions and feelings. This includes the pleasant ones as well as the dark ones. God made them all and as writers we try to communicate His message to the reader by tapping into each. That is what life is made of. We see David dancing before the Lord one day and weeping in sackcloth and ashes the next. To reach a real world we need to present the real world.
As for a favorite style, I would say that there are definitely similarities between all of my work. (Don't believe me? Go back and see how many of my challenge entries use the word "gape"... and look how I struggle between "towards" and "toward" in just about every story!) But, I hope that each story takes on a unique life of its own. As I've said before, I like to take a character or two, place them in a setting, and then let the situation evolve naturally. This is bound to deliver different results every time.
DEB: It’s always interesting to know how people find their way to FaithWriters. Did someone point you in the right direction, or did you just happen to stumble in the "door" one day?
MAXX: Nothing happens by chance. God led me here, for some reason I'll probably never know. But I do know this ... it's a good reason!
I don't remember exactly how I first heard of FaithWriters. I have a close relative who is a member, though, and she rekindled my interest. The rest, as they say, is history!
DEB: You’ve been a member here since December and have definitely made yourself at home, jumping into the full life of the community, including the Message Boards. Has being a FaithWriters’ member had an impact on your life (apart from the obvious – winning the "Best of the Best" award)? What do you consider to be the most valuable aspects of a site like this?
MAXX: Oh, most definitely. FaithWriters is a community that spans the globe. We all love and serve God Almighty. In addition, we are all struggling to spread His word and share His love through the writing skills that He has given us. To be connected to others who are bound to the same calling is a dynamic experience.
On the practical side, FaithWriters offers a place where writers can try new things and polish up their skills. I personally use the Challenges as my regular weekly writing exercises. It forces me to use "writing muscles" that I normally don't have the opportunity to "flex." The acquisition editor at a major Christian publishing house advises writers to do "pilates for writers" ... or small, regular, writing workouts that allow you to stay in top form. For me, that is what FaithWriters provides in great abundance.
Beyond practical, I have a vision for FaithWriters (even though I'm just a regular member). There are over 13,000 FaithWriters’ members who are all aspiring to serve God through their writing. What if FaithWriters helps each of them to become the absolute best writer God wants them to be? Then each remains faithful to the task of writing powerful stories for God that touch the heart of a failing world in an effective and creative way? Can you imagine the positive impact we could make for the Kingdom of God? We could move mountains .....
May it be so through my work, dear Lord.
DEB: Amen to that! I couldn’t agree more.
Now … about that name. I don’t think you realized that your choice of pen name was going to cause more than a few readers to think, "Hmmm? What’s he hiding?" Why did you choose "Maxx?"
MAXX: I wish that I could say that there was a profound reason for choosing my pseudonym. It would be perfect if I could point to some obscure Biblical passage or say that God gave it to me in a dream. Truth be known, "Maxx" is one of many real world nicknames that I have. There was a point in time that as many people knew me as "Maxx" as by my given name! If memory serves, it originally came in some form from the old Mel Gibson movies. I don't remember exactly how ... maybe someone figured I looked like Mel's monkey! Or maybe they thought I belonged in post nuclear Australia! I don't remember. Just one of those college things from many years ago.
But the real question is, why use a pseudonym at all? One of the things I struggle with is arrogance. I tend to be prideful. I pray about this weakness and constantly strive to humble myself before the Lord. That is not the best weakness for an author to have! We are constantly putting ourselves out there hoping that our readers like what we have to offer. Sometimes we long for that feedback and praise. It can be a narcotic for me. So, I choose to cut that strand. I write for God. I write to advance His kingdom. My work goes out there and hopefully plants seeds or exhorts believers. None of those things require that my name be attached to it. I don't need the recognition, feedback, or praise. Let any glory that comes from my work go to the God who inspired the work in the first place.
Bottom line is that if I am faithful in serving God through my writing then I am satisfied in that fact alone. Having my name on a byline doesn't give me some additional high. If I am not being faithful to God through my writing then no amount of earthly praise will satisfy anyway. So, again, a byline won't help in the least. As long as I know that what I write is for God and He knows that I am writing for Him, what else is needed?
DEB: Finally Maxx, what advice would you give to a brand new FaithWriter who is just dipping their toe in the Writing Challenge pool? Or perhaps to one who is starting to feel a little discouraged?
MAXX: The real trick with the Challenge is to look at it for what it is. It is:
1. A chance to practice your writing skills each and every week;
2. A chance to push yourself to a higher and higher level;
3. A chance to be disciplined in your growth as a writer,
4. A chance to see how you rate against your peers; and
5. A chance to be faithful to the calling God has laid on your heart.
If someone comes into the Challenge with these as a focus then there is much to be gained. The Challenges are a chance to learn and grow. Winning becomes irrelevant.
That said, I mentioned on the boards in the past that after three weeks in the Challenge I was getting discouraged. I couldn't muster a "highly recommended," let alone a win. Everybody feels that way. We all get down. We all get frustrated and want to be on top. But we have to press on, be disciplined, write because we are accountable for how we use the gifts God gave us. That sees us through the down times.
One of the most amazing things about writing is that we as authors never know how God will use our work. The best "prize" I receive in the FaithWriters Challenges is when a reader sends me a note or leaves feedback that says "Wow, I really needed to read this today." Or, "Your story delivered a message that was the answer to my prayers." That is what it is all about. I would trade the Best of the Best and all my other wins for one email describing how a story has blessed someone. That is the reason we write. It makes all the struggle and frustration worthwhile.
So, to the newbie or the pro who's getting a little down on themselves ... go for it. Get in there. Send in your piece whether you think it's a winner or not. Be faithful to the message God lays on your heart. It's there for a reason. There's a person out there waiting to be blessed or comforted or exhorted by it. Trust this to be true. Then, little by little, one story at a time, you and me and the rest of the FaithWriters working under the direction of God will change this world. What an honor to be part of that task.
DEB: Maxx, thank you so much for sharing with us in this interview. It has been a pleasure and a delight from start to finish and I really have enjoyed the opportunity of getting to know you – and I feel sure that others will feel the same. On behalf of FaithWriters, I wish you every success in the future.
MAXX: It has been an honor and a privilege. Thank you once again to FaithWriters, the Challenge volunteers, and you, Deb. This has been a wonderful experience and I am thankful to have been allowed to be a part of it.