CSFF Blog Tour: Character Profiles: The Autobiographical Insert

I sighed and put my head down on the steering wheel. “I hate shrinks. But I guess I could take you to see Dr. van Pelt.” I had to start seeing Dr. van Pelt after my first book, Imaginary Jesus, came out. With all the hallucinations of Jesus and time travel and talking donkeys, my boss thought it would be wise for me to get some professional help, even though I had explained to him numerous times that those were just literary devices. Nevertheless, he had insisted that I visit Dr. van Pelt. I didn’t like her that much.

– Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

We would all be peeved if our bosses made us go to therapy. But for Matt Mikalatos, at least, there was some benefit. Not that it cured him of strange literary devices, but it did allow him to give ready help to a werewolf looking for a psychiatrist. And, in the back seat, a zombie, a mad scientist, and an android listened.

Matt Mikalatos was an unusually blatant Autobiographical Insert. You read Matt Mikalatos’ novels about how Matt Mikalatos got counsel from a talking donkey, and chased his imaginary Jesus around Portland, and went church-hunting with a werewolf; normal things may be mixed in, but they lose the ratio war to the strange things. And still, somehow, you get the feeling sometimes that Matt Mikalatos is writing himself.

All authors insert, at one time or another, an opinion, or a religious conviction, or a personal experience; some give their protagonist their own personality traits, or one of their struggles. Many characters have a little of their author, and some have a lot. Usually, though, they have their own names.

And Matt Mikalatos is, believe it or not, the second exception to this rule that I’ve seen. The first is Oliver North, who briefly appeared in his novel Mission Compromised. Oliver North, writing in the third-person, referred to himself as “North”.

The Autobiographical Insert is usually more subtle – sometimes so subtle you don’t even notice it. But in some degree or other, it’s always there. Every author, good or bad, pours himself into his novel; naturally it spills over into the characters, too.

And speaking of what authors insert … Matt described Dr. van Pelt – to whom he took his werewolf friend – like this: “She was crabby. All the time. But on the plus side, she was surprisingly inexpensive.” And when he poured into her waiting room with his friends (“the mother lode of wackos needing counseling”): “She came storming out of her office and demanded to know why I hadn’t made an appointment. She had her dark hair up in a bun and that same blue dress that she always wore. It must be her work dress or something.”

The only other van Pelts I know of are Lucy and Linus. And “crabby” was the word that defined Lucy. She also had a psychiatrist’s practice that was very inexpensive – only a nickel a session – and her hair was dark, and she always wore that blue dress …

Matt Mikalatos is clever. The author, I mean.

CSFF Blog Tour: My Imaginary Jesus

Many people have, I suppose, believed in an imaginary Jesus – taken from the pages of Scripture and then quietly tailored to their own psyches. But Matt Mikalatos is uniquely privileged in being able to see his imaginary Jesus.

He is even more uniquely privileged in having the Apostle Peter show up to expose his self-perpetrated fraud. Most unique among all his privileges, he is educated in theology by a talking donkey named Daisy.

My Imaginary Jesus is written by Matt Mikalatos and stars Matt Mikalatos. It is, as the author/character says, a “sort of semiautobiographical novel comedy thing”. Here Mikalatos traces his search for the true Jesus. Some of it is what they call an unvarnished account of things that actually happened; most of it is a comedic-speculative fiction retelling of things that actually happened. The characters are entertaining, and the plot takes some good twists, but My Imaginary Jesus is not really a proper novel. It’s the most unique spiritual memoir ever to hit the shelves of your Christian book store.

Various misconceptions of Jesus appear as characters – 8-Ball Jesus, Legalist Jesus, Perpetually Angry Jesus. Of all the elements of the book, I think this is the most original and the most daring. It very effectively reveals – and pillories – the false notions about Christ that grow up in our minds and in our culture. I suspect, nonetheless, that some people may not like it

My primary concern with the novel is not something that was put in so much as something that was left out. Among all the false ideas about Jesus, no distinction is made between those who know Jesus to be God and Savior and those who do not. A Christian in the novel is actually told that hiscrazy ideas” about Jesus are not much different than the Mormons’. I don’t know if the author believes that, but there’s a danger of leaving the impression that we’re all in the same boat – Baptists who believe Jesus never drank wine right along with Mormons who believe that Jesus is Satan’s brother.

It also struck me as odd that, when Matt’s imaginary Jesus is exposed, it’s so central that he went to an all-white church. I suppose that point was that Matt was making his Jesus and his church just like himself – same culture, same tastes, same opinions, same race. Still, the focus on skin color rubbed me the wrong way, as did calling it uncaring that the church had only whites in it. Would an all-black church be judged the same way?

For all that, the principal idea of My Imaginary Jesus is not only true but vital. Matt’s quest to find Jesus – to know Him as He is, not as we want Him to be or think He should be – is a bracing reminder that Jesus is more than a doctrine to be defined. He is a Person to be known. The novel reminds me of C. S. Lewis: “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence? The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.”

Matt Mikalatos has an unusual talent of making deep points with a light touch. I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else such a combination of humor and searching spirituality. There are gentle, sometimes sad moments, too, mixed in with the wacky adventures. My Imaginary Jesus is a book that can be enjoyed; more, it’s a book that can do you good.

My Imaginary Jesus was first published two years ago under the title Imaginary Jesus. CSFF toured it back then; here is Becky Miller’s review and her list of participants and posts. Word to the wise: If you click on a name, it will take you to that person’s blog; if you click on the check marks beside the names, each will take you to a different post on Imaginary Jesus.

Now: The author’s site is here, and further information – not to mention buying opportunity – may be found at Amazon.

Finally, before I go: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

I think the FCC wants us to do that. Or something. I don’t mind, except that every once in a while it makes me want to add: But I give fair, unbiased reviews anyway. But that should go without saying, so I have a policy of letting it.

All right, all right: Now I’m going.

CSFF Blog Tour: Night of the Living Dead Christian

If you discovered that one of your neighbors was a werewolf, what would you do about it?

If you answered, “Move”, you are not Matt Mikalatos. He would decide to kidnap and cure the werewolf or, at last resort, kill him. Then – because silver bullets are so hard to buy and even harder to make at home – he would arm himself with a slingshot and silver quarters and go ambush his neighbor.

You are, I trust, more sensible than Matt Mikalatos.

Here I must make a distinction. Night of the Living Dead Christian is written by Matt Mikalatos and features Matt Mikalatos as a main character. Most of the book is written from his viewpoint. (The rest is written from the werewolf’s point of view.) I do not know what, precisely, is the difference between the author Matt and the character Matt; it is merely justice to note that the author might not, in fact, attempt to subdue a werewolf with a slingshot.

There are other characters who carry the names (and who knows how much else?) of real people. But it’s appropriate that some of the characters aren’t entirely fictional; the novel isn’t, either. In its largest idea, it’s an allegory. The werewolf in the man is the sin nature, the old self that must die. The imagery may be from horror movies, but the idea is Christian.

Night of the Living Dead Christian is also, as the title suggests, a satire. It’s actually a very funny book. Mikalatos makes fodder of much in our culture – the foibles of American churches, robots, mad scientists, monsters.

It is also a dressed-up theology book. The novel is a search for our healing, but the answer is not given as allegorically as the question. A pastor could splice together a pretty good sermon from these pages. What is unique is that the target of the sermon is equally Christians and non-Christians. Matt Mikalatos asks what it means to be transformed by Christ, and how we can be – and it seems as much a challenge to believers as a lesson to unbelievers.

I will dock points for this statement: “Hitler was firmly opposed to atheism. He claimed to be a Christian.”

In truth, Adolf Hitler disdained Christianity. His belief that the races were in a struggle was based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s what all the talk about the great Aryan race was about: They were the fit to the unfit, and the triumph of the Aryan race over the Jewish race was the survival of the fittest. The truth of Hitler’s bloody philosophy has been too obscured. I fear that Night obscures it more.

I will also dock points for a small inconsistency. Matt is clearly portrayed as being knowledgeable about Christianity. He quotes Scripture from memory and casually uses the hefty, overwrought word transubstantiation. But somehow, he doesn’t know the story of the rich young ruler. Stranger yet, he fails to recognize the beginning of an exchange between Christ and a Pharisee – and then quotes the end of it.

Still, Night of the Living Dead Christian has many points left. It gives you much to laugh about and even more to think about. The characters, though generally strange, are generally likable, and thoroughly entertaining. Despite its comedic side, the story engages humanity’s deepest needs with great urgency and emotion. Not often do novels show so vividly that we must be transformed, and that we can be. Night of the Living Dead Christian challenges, teaches, comforts, and entertains. Try it and see.

Now – you knew it was coming – here are the links.

the author’s site;

the book’s Amazon page (buy it there!);

and the blog tour links:
Gillian Adams
Julie Bihn
Red Bissell
Thomas Clayton Booher
Thomas Fletcher Booher
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Morgan L. Busse
Theresa Dunlap
Amber French
Tori Greene
Nikole Hahn
Ryan Heart
Bruce Hennigan

Janeen Ippolito
Becky Jesse
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
John W. Otte
Crista Richey
Sarah Sawyer
Chawna Schroeder
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Fred Warren
Shane Werlinger
Nicole White
Dave Wilson

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Reports for Those who Worry (About Planet Earth)

I said in my last post that the CSFF blog tour would be this week. Well

The tour normally starts on the third Monday of the month. I thought, then, that the blog tour would run this week, but as is painfully clear, I was wrong. I would’ve (should’ve, anyway) posted on this earlier, but most of this last week I have been out of town.

All told, I spent a couple dozen hours on the interstate. I am pleased to report, for those who worry about the earth running out of space, that there is plenty of space in the Midwest. Scads of it – mile upon empty mile.

Unfortunately, I also have to report, for those who worry about global warming, that the temperatures in Wisconsin have been in the high seventies. This is in the middle of March and, I repeat, Wisconsin. So the polar ice caps are going to melt, and the oceans will rise, and Manhattan will be submerged. And then the Manhattanites will have to move to Kansas.

At least, when they relocate to the Midwest, they will be able to appreciate the wind turbines. Even I appreciate the wind turbines. There’s something very evocative about what looks like sci-fi windmills – all smooth metal – towering over flat, green fields. It’s even more striking when there are trees or houses close by, and you realize how enormous the turbines really are. Jack might not have needed a beanstalk, if he had lived near one of those.

But back to the CSFF blog tour of Night of the Living Dead Christian. It will start next Monday, the 26th. I know this time – I got the e-mail.

You Had Me At Hello

A couple weeks ago I checked into Becky Miller’s blog on writing and found a post on Hooks Versus Openings. While analyzing what sort of novel opening is best, she quoted Jerry Jenkins:

I recently critiqued a beginner’s manuscript that began, “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage …” Well, if it’s an adage, it’s old, and if it’s an old adage, yes, we’ve all heard it. So why in the world would you want to start your novel with that? …

You tell me. Would you be more gripped by an old adage, or by something like, “When he kissed her goodbye and said he’d see her at dinner, Elizabeth believed only Ben’s goodbye”?

Honestly, I’d rather read about the old adage than Elizabeth and Ben. Sure, the Elizabeth opening makes me ask questions. “Who are they?” “Are they married?” “Does Elizabeth care?” Unfortunately, it also makes me ask, “And why should I care?”

Elizabeth and Ben are obviously in some sort of dramatic situation. I know that. I don’t know what the stakes are, what they care about, and why I should care about them. “I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage” gives me the impression that the writer is settling back to tell me a story. “Elizabeth believed only Ben’s good-bye” gives me the impression that he started in the middle.

But in either case I’d stick with him, at least for a while. You can’t judge a book by its first line. I don’t even think you can judge a book’s opening by its first line. When approaching a novel of a hundred thousand words, a little patience is in order.

It is true that everybody likes to be hooked on the first line – a sort of literary equivalent to “You had me at hello”. It’s nice to be had at hello, but it isn’t vital. What’s vital is to be had at good-bye. Not all good beginnings must be exciting, and even the best beginning is a small thing compared to a good end.

Nor is the first sentence always a reliable predictor of the thousands of sentences that will follow. I am here thinking of Moby Dick – which, as you all know, had one of the greatest opening lines of all time, a triumph of openings, a masterpiece for the ages: Call me Ishmael.

I have never read Moby Dick. My chances of ever reading Moby Dick, unless I wind up stranded with it on a desert island, are very slim. But I have heard from those who have that Call me Ishmael was the best part, and it all went downhill from there. I don’t know if that is true, but I do know this: If the rest of Moby Dick had been as good as its first line, the book would not be kept alive primarily by mandatory English courses.

So if a book has you at hello, or if it doesn’t – be patient. There are many, many words to follow.