I am delighted to introduce you to Dan Walsh today. Dan and I share an agent, and for the last year she has told me about his debut novel with Revell, The Unfinished Gift. It's set during World War Two, as y'all know my favorite time period. So when I received a copy of The Unfinished Gift, I was eager to dive into it. I was not disappointed. This book lived up to every beautiful thing my agent said about it. But even more important than the wonderful writing in this Christmas story is the man behind it. Dan and I got to meet at ACFW in September. He's a pastor in Florida, and it was a delight to get to know him. He is a gentle soul. So it is my pleasure to introduce you to this man and debut author. You can read the first chapter of this book here.
Cara, thanks for allowing me to spend some time with you and your readers. This is my favorite time of year, especially the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Of course in Florida, the weather doesn't help much. Even in December on any given day we can be found wearing shorts and flip-flops. Cindi and I make up for it by an overflow of Christmas decorations and residual memories of snowy Christmases as children when we lived up north.
Dan, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading The Unfinished Gift. Usually I’m not into holiday specific books, but The Unfinished Gift has an underlying emotional depth that kept me turning the pages. How did you get the initial idea for this book?
Every Christmas I love watching those classic stories on TV, the ones that grab your heart and really affect you ("It's a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol"). I wanted to write a story like that, one that at least had the potential to affect others the way these stories affect me.The Unfinished Gift actually came to me just after Christmas in 1998. I started praying and thinking about it, then the whole thing came to me over two or three days. I actually saw the ending of the book first, like a scene from a movie playing in my thoughts. Over the next two days, different parts of the story kept dropping into my head. I kept stopping and writing them down. In a few days, the whole story was there, from beginning to end. Like a detailed synopsis. From there I sat down and started writing the book. Though many more details emerged as I wrote the book, as far as the story itself, what you see in the book is exactly what came during that burst of inspiration back in '98.
I love that. My first book, Canteen Dreams, came to me in much the same way as I prayed and thought about it. I love how God whispers ideas in our heads. You’ve set it during World War Two, which is one of my all time favorite time periods...but isn’t necessarily a big setting for books yet. Why did you pick that time? Was there something about it that demanded that your book be set then?
You've partially answered this question in your question. WW2 is perhaps my all-time favorite period too. My shelves are filled with books from this era, both about the war itself and life on the homefront. As I answered in your first question, this may explain why the story--when it came to me--came in that setting. Sometimes I feel, as the saying goes, as one untimely born. If I were ever sent back in time, it's probably the one period where I feel I could blend right in. As the book unfolded, I realized another benefit for this setting: the country was so different then, so patriotic and faith-centric, that I could move in and out of faith issues in dialog without it seeming the least bit forced or preachy. It's allowed the book to crossover to unchurched audiences quite easily. I've gotten so many emails from readers saying they can easily buy the book as a gift to someone they're trying to reach for the Lord.
See, Dan, this is why we clicked immediately. I joke that I'm an old soul in a young body because I love movies and music from the 30s and 40s. One of your main characters is a seven year old boy. What a challenge to write in that perspective. I have a six year old boy and kept imagining him as little Patrick. Who was easier to write: Patrick or his grandpa Ian?
Great question (no one's asked this yet). One of the challenges writing as Patrick was the emotional affect it had on me. I cried numerous times while writing his chapters. The father-side of me kept wanting to jump in and help him, protect him, or at least comfort him. When I first started the book, my son Isaac was the same age as Patrick, which made the connection even stronger. Which character was easier to write? Sadly, the mean old grandfather, Ian. I'm much closer to his age than Patrick's. And after five decades on this planet, it's much easier for me to get in touch with the grumbling, cynical impulses and emotions of an old man than the wonder and innocent outlook of a little boy.
You said you got the idea for The Unfinished Gift in 1998 and even started writing it then. Why is it just coming out in 2009?
I'm not sure why the Lord gave me the inspiration for the story in '98, but I know why I had to set it aside. Back then, my children were much smaller, and I was the lone pastor of a growing church. As I began to write the book, it grew from a enjoyable pastime to a full-blown obsession. That's just me. I don't multi-task well. I realized I had two choices: finish the book or be a bad dad. So I set it aside and didn't pick it up again for 10 years. By the summer of '07, my children were grown and I had much more help at the church. My wife urged me to pick the book back up and finish it. That's what I did. As I read it through to refresh myself and reconnect with the story, I realized I had left poor Patrick sitting on a bench in a blizzard...for 10 years (you'll have to read the book for that to make sense).
I’ve learned that with each book, God teaches me something as I write it. There is a rich spiritual thread to this book — yet it never gets preachy — a balance that I loved, appreciated, and know is hard to strike. What did you learn as you wrote this story and what do you hope readers learn afresh as they read it?
Thanks for your kind words. One thing I learned that might help newer writers of Christian fiction...don't force the message into the story. Pray about it and wait for the right time to emerge. I've read too many books where the gospel message or biblical truth is inserted in a way that feels forced or artificial. Like someone trying to evangelize in a pushy, awkward way. How much better when the person is in a situation where they are asking for help. I knew I wanted to share the gospel in my story, but I just waited until the right time emerged, and it did. I've just finished my 3rd book, and it's happened that way each time.
What do I hope readers learn from the book? I suppose this: Forgive as we have been forgiven. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the gospel, but one we often fail to grasp. We are happy to receive God's forgiveness but then find it very easy to withhold from those who've wronged us. The alternative to forgiving others is not complicated. We become bitter and start to pull away. As the book shows, we can stay on this path for years, growing harder, becoming more isolated and more unhappy. This is why Christ came at Christmas, to set in motion God's redemptive plan, to reconcile us first to Himself, then to each other.
You did a great job of making the World War Two era come to life without bogging down in the details. As a fellow World War Two lover — I just got really excited when I realized our library had the WPA book on California — what was your favorite, new fact that you learned as you wrote the book? And do you have a favorite research trick?
Perhaps the hardest part for me, were all the details I had to leave "on the cutting room floor." I think writers of historical fiction all have this struggle. We love research and love all the details we discover. But some of these things can become bla-bla-bla to our readers and really slow the story down. Let's see...what fun fact did I learn? During WW2, women all across America saved up every ounce of fat and lard they could get their hands on, then stood in lines at the butcher's shop so they could exchange these jars for a few more ration points of meat. This lard was converted to nitro glycerin to make bombs. And this gave them a sense of pride that they were directly contributing to the war effort. As Mrs. Fortini pondered, "How can fat ever be a good thing?"
I don't really have any research tricks. But I'm continually amazed by the vast wealth of research material on the internet. All there for free and most of it just a few clicks away.
Finally, if you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go and who would you take.
If I was being selfish (although Cindi would actually love such a trip), I'd like to tour the areas around England, France and Belgium most directly involved in WW2. I would take my wife Cindi and only Cindi. If I was being unselfish, (although I would also love this trip), I would tour New England in a mini-Cooper with Cindi, when the leaves were changing. This will likely be the setting for my 5th book, so this might actually happen, if God allows (not sure about the mini-Cooper part).
Where can people find you on the web?
They can find me at my website: http://www.danwalshbooks.com or on my blog at http://danwalshbooks.blogspot.com. On my blog, just under my picture, there's a spot where they can send me their email address. I won't give this to anyone, but it will update them on new blog posts and allow me to inform them when the sequel to The Unfinished Gift comes out in June. It's called, The Homecoming (also published by Revell).
Thanks again Cara for this opportunity to interact with your readers.
I think y'all can see why I enjoy this man's heart. And this book is a holiday treat. I ended up with an extra book from the publisher, so I would love to give it away. Here's how you can be considered... since Christmas is coming...fast...leave a comment about your favorite Christmas memory or miracle. Thanks!