Austin author rockets from Christian market to mainstream
Thrillers with spiritual twist make Ted Dekker a hit.
Click HERE for the online article with photos
Sunday, May 03, 2009
He likes to say he’s just a jungle boy. Just a jungle boy who:
Was born in Indonesia to missionary parents and raised in the village of Kangime among animists and cannibals.
Went to college in the U.S. and became an atheist â€” or at least an existentialist â€” losing his religion while studying it and, as he puts it, became a “post-Christian believer,” averse to organized religion but a follower of Jesus.
Is perhaps Austin’s biggest-selling living author, with about 4 million books sold domestically.
Never mind that you might not have heard of him. Say hello to Ted Dekker, who’s lived here for about three years and is now poised to be Austin’s Stephen King or Dean Koontz â€” sometimes with a spiritual twist.
His first truly mainstream novel, the serial killer thriller “BoneMan’s Daughters,” debuted at No. 10 on the New York Times hardcover fiction list. He has a three-picture deal with Lionsgate Entertainment and an upcoming nonfiction book, “Tea With Hezbollah,” scheduled to be out in early 2010 from Doubleday, for which he visited some of the most dangerous places in the Middle East.
“We’ve done hugely well with him on the three titles we’ve had of his in fiction, with ‘Skin’ and ‘Adam’ and now ‘BoneMan’s Daughters,’ ” says Sessalee Hensley, a national fiction buyer for the Barnes & Noble chain. “If I threw Stephen King out of the mix of horror, Ted Dekker would be the No. 1 horror author. … Everybody likes a creepy story.”
Some of the books can be read simply for thrills or allegorically, but either way the spiritual themes are plain. The BoneMan (he kills his victims by breaking their bones but not their skin) fancies himself to be Satan, and the protagonist has a prodigal daughter. For all its action, surprise and suspense, Dekker sees the book as a love story â€” the story of a father’s love for his daughter.
Here Dekker sits in jeans and a T-shirt, respectably hip for a man of 46, in the office of his home in the hills southwest of downtown. He’s describing his body of work â€” about 20 books, including thrillers, young adult titles and fantasy â€” as “pure escapism with inescapable truth,” the primal struggle of good versus evil, light versus darkness. They commonly involve killers or serial killers. These themes and characters connect viscerally with his impassioned if not obsessive fans who hang out at teddekker.com, about 700 of whom are expected to congregate at a sports and entertainment venue in June near Nashville, Tenn., to talk about Dekker’s books and with the man himself.
Life with the Dani
The tale of how he got to this point begins in the early 1960s in an Indonesian province now called West Papua or Papua, where about 700 languages were spoken. Dekker’s Dutch-born father, John, and his mother, Helen, from Montana, moved there to do nondenominational missionary work. They arrived to find a 50 percent infant mortality rate and a life span of about 40 years among members of the Dani tribe, who had no written language. It was a place where a few tribes still hadn’t seen a white person, where a war might break out “if somebody steals a woman or a pig,” where every sound in the jungle was a spirit and where colleagues of the Dekkers were killed and eaten in 1968.
John Dekker writes about this remarkable experience in his own book, “Torches of Joy: A Stone Age Tribe’s Encounter With the Gospel.” He wrote, “We didn’t find this out until later, but for the first two years the people couldn’t decide whether or not to kill us because they thought we were evil spirits because our skin was white.”
Dekker and his brother, Danny, were the only white boys trying to fit in with the natives, running barefoot through the jungle all day. Dekker loved every bit of it. In fact, a temporary move to Montana â€” he returned to the States every four years for one year â€” during fifth grade proved difficult.
“I felt so alien,” he recalls. “I didn’t feel like I belonged here at all; then you don’t feel like you belong anywhere.”
Back in Indonesia, he attended an international boarding school, where he met LeeAnn, his high school sweetheart, a jungle kid and the daughter of missionaries herself.
By the time he got to Evangel College in Springfield, Mo., to study philosophy and religion, he was in the grip of rebellion.
“I lost what faith I had,” he says, “which is liberating at first but then hopeless. I saw America as so abnormal. I had it so good living in the jungle. When I came back to the U.S. for college, I was completely against capitalism. I was extremely liberal in my political leanings. I was against anything American, and as soon as I was out of college I was ready to head back.”
Dekker eventually made a conscious effort to embrace American culture â€” and found he loved it. He remains passionate about movies, fast motorcycles and loud, obnoxious rock music.
Perhaps most surprising, he became a success in the world of commerce. He started out of college as a truck driver and eventually became director of marketing for Bower, a medical supply company. In the early 1990s he moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., where he acquired a printer supply company.
But at night he was writing. “I couldn’t get the haunting call out of my mind. I was so passionate and I had enough money to live and I wanted to perfect the art of storytelling.”
He says that call was a product of his outsider’s perspective.
“I think I had a very creative mind and that was facilitated by my being outside the cultural bubble, and I became an astute observer,” he says.
You can guess what happened next. He showed his book to an editor who kindly said, “This is crap.”
While in Colorado Springs, Dekker approached novelist, screenwriter and occasional writing coach Mark Andrew Olsen for guidance on becoming a writer. Olsen recalls being “moved to tears within three pages” while reading an early sample of Dekker’s work. “I realized immediately he was a rare talent.”
Recalling a “Star Wars” scene “where Darth Vader says the student has become the master,” Olsen says that “now I’m calling him for advice.”
To reduce distractions from writing, Dekker and his family moved to a small town on Colorado’s western slope and sold the printer supply business and some vehicles to free up cash.
And then he sold a book, and then another and another, and Ted Dekker realized he had made himself a writer, albeit one sold heavily through Christian book stores, that all his 30 years of experience up to that point, including his intellectual training in college, had prepared him to “explore through story.”
There is irony to the fact that a man whose faith journey has been unconventional would turn into a best-selling author in the Christian book market, but it turns out that Christian readers were hungry for tightly crafted thrillers with no bad language â€” Dekker has lots of young fans â€” or gruesome violence.
For Dekker, the exercise of writing is an intellectual journey. “That’s how I engage in truth now,” he says.
“Studying religion in college is just learning to crawl,” Dekker says. “Suddenly fiction becomes more real. It’s my working through my own ideology, and my ideas change over time. I want an authentic exploration of truth and character.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working â€” his novels resonate with readers across the religious continuum.
Kimberly Wilcox, a college student in the Los Angeles area, has been reading Dekker since high school.
“I became intrigued by a Christian author who doesn’t use Christianese and yet throws out a belief structure,” said Wilcox, a Pentecostal. “You don’t have to tag your work as Christian for it to have Christian values.”
Indeed, Dekker’s earlier work was more Christian, but his characters aren’t necessarily Christian â€” although in “BoneMan’s Daughters” a few take time to debate theology in the middle of a manhunt.
Christian booksellers typically don’t report sales to the New York Times’ bestseller list â€” hence his absence from that list until now. At the same time, he was growing a huge underground fan base and challenging notions of what Christian readers wanted in a book.
“I don’t think we need more stories about how to come to faith,” said Gregg Hart of Toledo, Ohio, who helps oversee Dekker’s online fan community. “There are tons of books like that, but few that are outside the box.”
Outside the box is also where the author’s thinking lies regarding religious orthodoxy.
“Christianity has become a social and political animal that has alienated itself from the core teachings of Jesus,” says Dekker, who has four children, ages 12 to 23. “But I’m a huge fan of Jesus. I think his teaching was totally countercultural. If anything, my belief in Jesus is more passionate than most Christians’.”
He says he’s part of a “fledgling young movement that’s taking root.” This is how he puts his thinking in an e-mail:
“I’d call myself a post-Christian Believer. I wouldn’t say that I am a NON-Christian as in against Christian, but rather UN-Christian and am defined solely by the man I follow, not the institution that bears his name.
“His message was to love your neighbor as you love yourself, and for me that’s a difficult enough task to spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to do.”
He does this in writing and in life, and in that regard there’s little division between the two, although the wall-length shelf in his office is filled with his books and awards, the product of a self-starter with a remarkable work ethic.
It takes him six months to finish a novel, and he knows that pace can burn a writer out. He swears he’s slowing down, but his career is heating up.