Do things happen in your writing life that just don’t make sense? Do you sometimes wonder if you can take one more unexpected crisis or change? Are you tempted to wonder WHAT on earth is God thinking? Guest Robin Jones Gunn has faced those same kinds of things most of her writing career and shares with us the joy of embracing the mystery of this amazing God we follow.
About Robin Jones Gunn
Robin Jones Gunn is the bestselling, award-winning author of over 100 books with sales topping six million copies sold worldwide. Her timeless Christy Miller series for teens continues to endear her stories to moms and daughters, especially now that the characters appear in the Haven Makers series. Robin’s Father Christmas novels and one of her Glenbrooke novels were adapted by Hallmark and became record-breaking Christmas movies. Her passion for speaking and teaching has taken her around the world where she’s keynoted in Africa, Brazil, Europe, England and Australia as well as Canada and throughout the US. Robin and her husband recently moved from Hawaii to California. They have two grown and married children.
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Erin: Hello, listeners, and welcome to the deep. I hope you can hear my smile. I am just plain happy right now. We have a guest with us, and we’re all smiling. I’m going to let Karen introduce our mystery guest.
Karen: I’ve been so excited about this interview. We are talking today with our guest Robin Jones Gunn, whom I have known since 1996 when I was two years old. When I came to what was then Questar Books but is now Multnomah Books to head up their fiction line, Robin was one of the authors I was working with, and God just bound our hearts together very much like he did with me and Erin. Robin is a treasured friend, has been a treasured friend. She is an unbelievably talented author. She loves kids. She loves teens. Her Christy Miller books have been made into movies. Her Father Christmas books have been made into Hallmark movies. She is a very gifted, talented, warm and loving person, and she makes my heart smile every time I see her. We are so happy to have you here, Robin. We are just delighted.
Robin: Oh, Karen! that’s all I have right now as I’m trying to stall a few tears. I should probably jump in and say we are praying that Christy Miller will be made into movies. We’ve gotten close, it’s fallen apart, up and down, up and down. Maybe at one point when I was talking to you it was like, “It’s so close, it’s gonna happen.” But, not yet. But thank you for that very kind introduction.
Karen: You are welcome.
Erin: Robin, we are glad to have you here, so let’s dive in with the thing we ask everyone. What does the deep mean to you?
Robin: I love that word: the deep. Because from when I was a teenager and stumbling onto that verse: “Deep calls to deep…” (Psalm 42:7) I felt like that’s what I want in my relationship with the Lord. To have that deeper level and to be in that place where it’s a communion. There’s this sweet relationship that’s growing and growing and growing. We lived in Hawaii as you know, Karen, for ten years. Recently we moved to Southern California. But I had a pet name for the Pacific Ocean. I started calling it Deep Blue. Because it’s deep and it’s blue. But I got to see it everyday and it’s mysterious and wide, so that deep called to deep.
I always wanted to be walking along the ocean. I know, Karen, you love the coast, too. You love that call of the ocean on your creativity. It stirs up those waves like the rest of that verse, deep calls to deep and all your waves wash over me. Right?
I have to tell you a story about going out into Deep Blue. Soon after we had moved to Maui, we had friends who had a little pontoon boat. Like a raft with a motor. He was a photographer, and David said, “Come on out. I’ll take you out.”
We went out deep, deep. I mean further and further out in this little raft, and I felt so small. Then he stopped and said, “Slide over the edge of the boat and go down about 18 inches.”
That was terrifying because we were out so far and it’s the big, big, deep ocean. But I did it. I slid over the edge and went down. I could hear the whales.
It was a life altering moment of being in that reverberating deep. And hearing them. Then coming up for air and then going back down and just not really knowing what else was all around, because we were out in the deep. But that sense when I got back in the boat, I just felt like my life was in 3D and like light was shooting out of the ends of my fingernails.
It was amazing. It was so amazing. That experience of going in the deep has brought me, during times when I’ve been journaling, just calling me to go and slide over the edge. Go ahead and be willing, even though it’s vast and terrifying. So for me, the deep is really, another word for it, is mystery. And that relationship with the Lord is such a mystery because we are so small. We cannot understand all that he is doing. All that he is accomplishing. All that is in motion in this universe around us. But that he would care for us.
My favorite place where that word is used in scripture, besides the deep calls to deep, is Exodus 20. This is Moses. He’s going up to Mount Sinai. The mountain is smoking, and there’s thunder and lightening. And it says that all the people stood back, but Moses stepped into the deep darkness because God was there. I want that in my life. I want to step into that mystery. Step into all that is thundering and crazy, and where the human response is to pull back and just go, “I can’t understand it. I can’t touch it.” But Moses, this friend of God, stepped into that deep and the darkness, because of one reason: God was there.Moses, this friend of God, stepped into that deep and that darkness because of one reason: God was there. @robingunn #amwriting #christianwriter @karenball1 Click To Tweet
Robin: I want to give an alter call right now.
Karen: I know!
Robin: Come! Come into the deep.
Erin: The thing is though, Robin, you’re absolutely right. If a writer doesn’t go there, what are they going to write about? What are they going to say to anybody, unless they’re going into that mystery and going into that deep? Getting called there by God to figure out what they have to say, what message is there.
Robin: And if you don’t feel so humble and small, and at the same time, like the ends of your hair are on fire because of the mystery, then the passion you bring to the story will be pattern instead of passion. It’ll just be, “I know how to put paragraphs together. I know at this point of the book, it’s supposed to go like this, and it’s supposed to go like that. I studied it all. I’ve got the formula, I can plug it all in and there, I made a book.”
But where’s the story? Where’s the mystery that propels us as readers to ponder? I love how you on your show here talk about the wonder and exploring that. How do you call it, Karen, exploring the wonder or…?
Robin: Yes. Savoring the wonder. We have to do that as writers or else we are doing a disservice to this gift that was given to us. We’re just going through the motions and we’re not going deep. We’re not pulling out something that can change a heart.
Karen: Well, there was a factor to that, too, when you were on that pontoon boat with that friend. It was clear, going that far out into Deep Blue, that you trusted your friend. He was your guide and you trusted him.
When he told you to go over the edge 18 inches deep, you said that was scary. That was really scary. But you did it because of your trust in him. For us in our relationship with God as believers and as writers, we need to trust him, even when he’s saying to us, “Slide over the edge and go in 18 inches deep. Just far enough to hear. Go in there.”
We look and all we see in our mind is Jaws. We hear that background music.
Erin: That’s what I was thinking. I have to admit it.
Karen: We know that if we go over the edge of what we perceive to be our safety, we will die. But indeed God is saying, “Come in here to live.” We have to trust him as the guide, because the wonder that comes from that then is, like you said, life altering—when you came up out of the water, the way that you felt.
Years ago I was hospitalized because they said I had an aneurysm in my heart. I didn’t even know what an aneurysm in my heart was. I didn’t know. I’d never heard of such a thing.
So they did all these tests. They did one really cool test where they run a thing across where your heart is, and you actually hear your heartbeat. The blood whooshing in and out. Whoosh, whoosh. The tech looked at me and said, “That’s your heart. That’s a good, strong heart.” And I’m like, “That is so cool. That’s my blood going through my heart.”
But they found an aneurysm. An aneurysm, I know now, is a blockage that could burst at any moment, and if it did that, I would be dead. So I’m in the hospital, and I have a really good friend who was the lead nurse on the cardiac care unit. She came into my hospital room, and she looked at me and said, “Karen, this is really serious. You’re way too young to be experiencing this.”
I looked at her and I just started laughing. I said, “I can’t explain it. I am not afraid. Normally I would be just consumed. But I’m not afraid. Something good is going to happen from this.”
They went in. My mom and dad’s cardiologist did the procedure going in with the heart cath to see what they needed to do. I still remember the sound of his voice when he leaned next to my ear and said, “Karen, your heart is perfect. It’s beautiful.”
I came back to the hospital room and came out of whatever slight anesthesia they had done. I looked at Don and I said, “There is sunshine coming out of me. There’s just sunshine. I have never felt this in my entire life.”
So I experienced, even as I’m talking to you I’m getting chills, I experienced God’s touch and his healing.
Karen: Everybody else was saying, “This is dangerous. This is threatening your life.”
And I was just like, “God is going to do something cool.”
That’s not normal for me to react that way. Sliding into that deep and knowing who had hold of me every single step of the way, I saw wonders and savored them. That’s where it started to me. That’s where I looked at that and I thought the way I dealt with that life-threatening situation was so different from anything I’ve ever done. And that’s because God. God reached in, took hold of me, breathed his peace into my heart, and drew me out with sunshine that he breathed into me. It was the most amazing thing.
Robin: It’s so connected to the surrender of our control. I didn’t know why David was saying slide over the boat. I didn’t know what was going on. Was it going to repair a leak? I didn’t know.
It’s just that step of surrender. Like, “Okay. I’m not going to question. I’m not going to have to have control to understand it all. It’s a mystery. Okay. I trust you. I’ll do that.” And that’s exactly what you did.
I remember a moment with a woman, whom I thought was wonderful, years ago, spent time with her. But it started to get to where everything you talked about, she had an answered for. She had an app for that. Oil for that. You know, like everything. Oh, you shouldn’t be eating this food or something.
There was one moment where I remember we were a group of women together and someone asked her something and she paused and had an expression I hadn’t seen before. She said, “I don’t know.” And I thought, “Okay. Now we can be friends. Now we can walk together into the mystery and we may never know.”
But it’s that I have let go of the control that I have to know everything and have it all figured out. Because we don’t. When we humble ourselves before Almighty God, that’s when he lifts us up.
But I feel as writers we have to do that with every story. I feel like this sort of rhythm I’ve had for decades—I present myself to the Lord before every book I write and it’s over a hundred books now. I write out a prayer, a prayer of surrender, of dedication. I’ve kept them all. It’s that moment of saying, “I’m your handmaiden. I’m your servant, Lord. May I be able to communicate your personality, your love to others. If that’s something you desire for me to do through story, I want that. But I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t control this. I just surrender this and make an offering of myself before you.” You know, the living sacrifice we’re called to be from Romans 12.
That’s when he does this deeper work. That’s when deep calls to deep, because I’m not in complete control anymore. We have to do that as writers to have that sense that we are truly doing what we were created to do. Otherwise, the influence from outside takes over. If we aren’t so centered and anchored to get that audience of One, to get that understanding of why I’m doing this, even if no one ever reads it, even if it has to be rewritten. This is the process. It’s a mystery. I have to go into this.
Karen: I think that he also, well I know that he also brings partners alongside once we’ve surrendered and we’ve said, “Yes, I do this however you want me to do this.” He brings people, the people that he’s brought to me in my life to assist me as a writer. To assist me in editing. To assist me…Erin. If Erin hadn’t come to me and out of the blue said, “You know, I feel that God is leading me to join you in a ministry.”
I had shared with her that I longed to be a chaplain to writers because so many of my friends were so depressed and thinking about quitting and just beaten down. I said, “We need to lift them up. We need to give them hope.” And if she hadn’t said to me that God had led her to that. I just sat there and stared at her. I was like, “Well, I can tell you what I’ve been thinking lately.”
Karen: It was such a shared passion. It was so clear that God brought us together. It was really amazing how that worked out.
I remember, too, that those who are brought into our lives have to be willing to submit. When I came to what was then Questar Books and became Multnomah Books, you were the top author. You were one of the top authors, but I think you may have been the top author there. When I came, you turned in a new manuscript and I read it. I had read your other books and I thought, “This isn’t Robin. This just, this isn’t right.”
I was terrified. How do I go to Robin Jones Gunn, who I adore, and say to her, “Yeah, I can’t accept this. This has to be rewritten.”
I prayed and I prayed and I talked with people that I trusted in my family and asked them to pray for me. So, I went to Robin and I shared with her that it wasn’t acceptable. I thought to myself, “She’s going to hate me. She’s never going to want to work with me again.” So now you can tell your side of it.
Robin: So that book was number eight, I think, in the Glenbrooke series. What was the title? Oh, it was Meadows. Meadows was never published. But to have written as much as I had and as fast as I had—about two or three books a year for a decade and a half—and then to get to the very last book in the series and to have turned in the story—again that story was surrendered to the Lord. I did the work. And then I received your advice, Karen.
Again, it’s that trust. I knew you. I trusted you. I wanted you to be my editor. I wanted you to call me deeper in. I wanted to be a better writer. So I remember that phone call. I was actually feeling kind of sorry for you because you were in such agony.
But it was to better the craft, and I trusted that part of it. But I did hang up the phone and cry and cry and cry and cry and cry. I’m like, “Maybe this is it. Maybe it’s the Wizard of Oz syndrome—pay no attention to the writer behind the curtain. Karen, you’re my Toto. You pulled back the curtain and now everybody knows I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just sort of trying here and it’s not working.”
But what happened as a result is that you mentored me and walked me through the process of what that last book was going to be. Wildflowers was quite different from the first seven books. I had an older character and she’s struggling in her marriage. So I got to go into more issues, and I got to see this story develop in a way that it ended that series the way it needed to be ended.
Then the next series I wrote was an entire series about women in mid-life, which I would not have been prepared to write the Sisterchicks series had I not gotten to know Genevieve, thanks to you, for challenging me to draw deeper and find a new character. Because I think in the other book, the character was twenty-two and like many other young flibbertigibbets, you know, but you challenged me to dig deeper.
So that process was for good. And wow. If we could understand that as children of God and as writers and as those who are wanting to see our work make a difference, we have to be in that place of being teachable to that. But Karen, you’re such a good teacher. You made it a joy and look how it strengthened our friendship.
Robin: That was a gift, too.
Karen: I can’t even begin to tell you what it meant to me when you contacted me after that phone call. I knew you would be in tears. You contacted me and you said, “I trust you. Let’s move forward with this.”
One of the things that has always stayed with me, in our conversations afterwards, one of the realizations we had was that your voice was missing in that book. You had tried to do something a little different. You had been feeling that your stories were too fluffy and you wanted to write something more serious. And with Wildflowers you dealt with something more serious, but it was back to Robin’s voice. In Meadows you were missing from the story.
So when you went back to that and you accepted who you were as a writer and you just moved forward joyfully in that, it was a delight to me because the final manuscript, when it came in was so, so good.
I’ve told Erin before in my work as an editor, nothing gives me more joy—you know, it’s like the Scripture that says, was it Paul who says nothing gives me more joy than to know that my children in the Lord have grown? And when I saw the advances in your writing, and in your heart and your spirit and in our relationship, I just, I danced around my office. I was like, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Robin: But what a gift that you gave me because that really could have been the end of my writing career if I had not been willing to receive instruction or had been so full of myself that I said, “Hey, look, I’ve written so many books, and you’re the new editor, you don’t know.”
But the thing that prepped me for was I wrote a Christmas novella, Finding Father Christmas, and then the publisher asked me to write a second one. So I wrote Engaging Father Christmas. I got a new editor at that publishing house with that sequel and that editor also, when I turned it in said, “Nope, it’s not like the first one. We really wanted more of a love story. Though the first one wasn’t a love story, we need a love story. Can you redo it?”
I was befuddled but I said, “You know, it was for my good, when Karen told me this, and this editor is saying the same thing. I want to learn. I want to grow.” I went back to work, wrote a second sequel, turned it in and she said, “Oh dear, this is worse than the first one.” She said it more kindly, but…
Karen: I was gonna say who is it? I’ll beat her up.
Robin: You know her. You love her. I do, too. I saw where I had gone as a writer, just sort of in that automatic place of, “I’ve got to get this deadline. I’ve got another project over here,” and just “Do the work, do the work,” without the heart in it. So it goes back to that deep. I just skimmed the surface, like, “All right, you want a book? Here’s the book. Done.” You know? And how cheap. How sad.
So I turned it in the third time and, she’d given me lots of good suggestions to make it more of a love story. And I did and when I turned it in the third time, she said, “I think the first one was better than this.”
I mean, it was just…. I wrote it a fourth time. I wrote Engaging Father Christmas four times and made it more of a love story than I had ever intended it to be. And it turned into, “I don’t want to ever talk about this book.” Then sure enough, what was it? Twelve years later is the phone call from my agent. Hallmark wants to make a love story Christmas movie out of your Father Christmas, because you wrote a love story.
You see? You see how that works? If I had not been willing to surrender to the process and be stripped of all the arrogance that I had of thinking, “I know how to do this. Everybody stand back. I’ll do it. I’ll get it done.”
But what is God doing? Calling us deeper. More. Bringing us closer to him in the whole process. What a joy that Hallmark did three Christmas movies out of the Father Christmas novella. Never would have happened if it hadn’t been a love story.
Karen: That editor..well no, I won’t beat her up.
Erin: You know what else I’m hearing about all of this, Robin, is that even veteran writers get difficult edits. I think sometimes the newer writers out there feel like all of the hard work ends once you get to the publishing phase. You know, once you get published, it’s all smooth sailing.
That’s not true. It’s still a process. It’s still work, and it’s still humility, and it’s still growing, and it’s still watching what God does with each thing. And it’s a surprise.
Robin: It’s the mystery. But if we are willing to step into the mystery because God is there, it’s thunder and lightning, and don’t stand back. But I think we all have. Those times in my life when I’ve stood back from a project and not entered in at that deeper level, that’s when graciously God has brought editors who called me. “No, no, no, come deeper. Come deeper.”
Karen: You know, what I love about all this is that it speaks to us as writers and it speaks to us as those who follow Christ. Because life nowadays, it’s very difficult for those who claim Christ as their Savior and as their Lord. So many places, if you speak the name of Jesus, you know, you’re being left out and cut out. I just watched a news report this morning about a young woman who was valedictorian of her high school class. The principal put the kibosh on her valedictorian speech because she had the audacity to say that the purpose of life is to live serving Christ. How dare she do that? It was a public school. How dare she do that?
Rather than honoring who she was and all that she had accomplished because of her faith in Christ, they told her, “No. You can’t give this speech. You have to write something else.”
I listened to that and I thought, “Lord, we are in a world that is willingly walking into darkness without you. That is willingly saying, leave God behind and all the ills of the world will be fixed.” And that’s never going to happen without us going into the deep with him. Without us embracing the mystery.
There’s a friend of mine who listens to prophecies, and the jury is still out for me on how I feel about some of that. But one of the things that she’s been saying is so many current day profits are talking about the fact that it’s just going to continue getting more difficult to follow God in this dark world. And we have to go deeper with him so that whatever comes, we can say, “Yea though, he slay me. I will serve the Lord.”
We have to hold on to the deep. We have to swim in the deep. We have to embrace God’s mystery in every aspect of who we are and in every aspect of our writing, because only in doing that will we bring God’s truth, and only in bringing God’s truth, will we change the world.”
Robin: Here’s the thing: We have to write.
Robin: Those who are listening to this podcast. I want to tell you right now you have been stalling. Stop it. Get back to work. Come on! Mama Robin is telling you, get that book finished. Get that article written, get those words out on your blog. And be willing to be taught along the way, but to put in the work, because we need truth and light in this world more than ever.
Karen: Amen. And what a perfect word to end on. Robin, thank you so much.
Robin: Oh, it was my delight. Thank you, Karen. Thank you, Erin.
Erin: Thank you.
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
Has God been calling you into his mystery?
THE NOVEL MARKETING PODCAST
For the next few months, we have a sponsorship from the Novel Marketing podcast, and we’re bringing you Novel Marketing’s 10 Commandments of Book Marketing. We highly recommend this podcast with host Thomas Umstattd Jr., guru on marketing and all things publishing! You can find the podcast at novelmarketing.com.
Today we’re covering Commandment Number 9: Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.
This is the most controversial commandment, but think about an athlete. Your first race is never in the Olympics for a gold medal. You have a lot to learn before you can get to that level. So it is with writing. Your first book isn’t gold medal quality. It’s the training ground.
Writers too often feel that any word they write is wasted if they’re not published. But you can’t get better at writing without writing. That means that lots of words are going to be practice, and that’s okay.
We’re not saying it can never be published, but later after you’re better. Too many writers get overly focused on their first book and become discouraged when it doesn’t get published. Or they publish it themselves because they think it’s ready, and it’s not.
Books by Robin Jones Gunn mentioned in the podcast
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