Focus on Fiction is pleased to feature
Robert is the author of four popular youth series, as well as Practicing God’s Presence, a non-fiction title, and two adult fiction novels, The Duet and The Celebrity. A former journalist and newspaper editor, he now spends his time speaking at schools and conferences and weaving spellbinding tales for youth and adults alike. Robert makes his home with his wife, Ronda, and their three children, in rural Idaho.
Focus: Robert thank you for joining us! Can you start our interview off by telling readers a few things about yourself? What one word would you use to describe Robert Elmer to someone who’s never met you?
Robert Elmer: I've been writing books for the past 11 years. My first novel for young readers, “A Way Through the Sea,” came out in 1994. Before that, I'd been a newspaper editor, reporter, assistant pastor, and advertising writer. I went to school at Simpson Bible College in San Francisco, where I met my wife, Ronda. We have three college-aged kids, two of them are at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and one is working. We live in the Pacific Northwest, in Idaho. Ronda’s my “office manager,” and we enjoy traveling together whenever we can. We attend church in a nearby city. I also love the outdoors and sailing when I get a chance, working on my old boat. Walking the hills with my dog. Oh, did you say just one word?
Focus: ‘Prolific‘might be another good word to describe you, at least in the area of writing! You’ve written two adult fiction novels, one non-fiction book, and how many youth fiction books, thirty? Forty?
Robert Elmer: 38, in five series so far: The Young Underground (kids in World War 2 Denmark), Adventures Down Under (Australian pioneer/riverboat adventures), Promise of Zion (kids in Israel in the late 1940s), AstroKids (misadventures on a space station in the year 2175) and HyperLinkz (Normal kids literally pulled inside the Internet). I love writing for kids and I’m having a great time with them all! The kids’ books give me a chance to visit schools all over the country, speaking and doing writing workshops. It’s a kick.
Focus: Before we discuss your fiction, let’s talk a little about your non-fiction book, Practicing God’s Presence. Translating the writings of a seventeenth-century monk into modern language must have been a challenging process. What motivated you to take on a project of this magnitude?
Robert Elmer: I’ve always been motivated to write in a way that reaches people right where they’re at, in clear language that speaks to the heart. That’s been true whether I’ve written newspaper columns or kids’ books. So when the opportunity came up to work on this project, I jumped at it. After all, here’s a classic heart-stirring book about prayer and a simple walk with God—but it was handicapped by outdated language and badly needed translating into today’s English. I figured that God had been preparing me to do that project for the past 25 years!
Focus: It’s been said that Practicing God’s Presence has crossed every denominational line. Is this multi-denominational relevancy one of the reasons you enjoy Brother Lawrence’s work?
Robert Elmer: Absolutely. Jesus prayed fervently that believers would be one, and I have to take that seriously. But what does that mean, exactly? Surely not that we trade the truth of the Gospel for ecumenical picnics. Biblical truth matters. At the same time I think we can do a lot better job at loving and appreciating other believers who don’t happen to worship in our building. Isn’t that how outsiders are supposed to recognize disciples of Jesus? Wow, look at how those crazy people love each other!
Focus: Faith that transcends denominational boundaries is a strong theme in both your adult fiction books, The Celebrity and The Duet. What kind of response have you received from your readership to this theme?
Robert Elmer: I love it when I hear from readers who say something like, “I liked how both characters came to respect the other’s position, without sacrificing their own.” Christianity Today had a really good review of the book that basically made that observation. Of course, the whole free will-predestination issue isn’t one I expected to explain or solve in one novel. I just wanted to show two dedicated believers who learned to find common ground—even though they never convinced the other to change their opinion. My hope is that real-life Christians can do the same thing.
Focus: Another theme in each of your adult fiction books is music—piano music specifically. What significance has piano music held in your life?
Robert Elmer: I took two weeks of lessons in the third grade, and was totally intimidated by the teacher. Thus endeth my piano career. But my wife and daughter both play the piano, and a piano has a place of honor in our living room. I love to listen to piano music, and I’m fascinated at how people can create such beauty with their fingers. So I love to weave musical themes into a lot of my books, even the kids’ books.
Focus: While we’re talking about these great books, would you mind giving us a quick synopsis of both The Celebrity and The Duet?
Robert Elmer: The Duet is about two very opposite souls: A piano teacher who takes a year’s sabbatical from her position as a professor of music to be near her daughter in a small town. And a dairy farmer who’s slowly losing his grip on his farm. Both have lost spouses in the past. But when the dairy farmer brings his granddaughter to piano lessons, he’s attracted both to the music and the teacher. The book becomes a song of second chances, an unlikely romance between the sophisticated teacher and the dairyman with mud on his boots.
The Celebrity is also a story of second chances, but in a very different way. When pop star Jamie Lane brings his mother’s remains back to the small town where she grew up, he decides to stay just a while, incognito. A temporary escape from the paparazzi. But there’s something very genuine in Riverdale that attracts him, including local teacher Anne Stewart. Yet Anne is still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of a head injury, and has challenges of her own to face. Can The Celebrity reveal his true identity, without losing everything?
Focus: Writers have been known to smuggle parts of their own personalities into their books. Of your main characters, Gerrit, Joan, Jamie and Annie, which one most resembles you?
Robert Elmer: Interestingly enough, probably Joan the piano teacher, even though I’m not from the big city, and I’m obviously not a piano teacher. But I identified with her struggles to fit in to a community (been there, done that) and as far as personality I would say I’m a lot like that character. I enjoyed writing scenes where she would come tip-toeing into a barn, unsure of what the animals would do, that sort of thing.
Focus: Gerrit Appeldoorn, your main male character in The Duet, has a penchant for Dubbel Zouts. Can you tell us a little more about this dubious sounding candy? Do you share Gerrit’s appreciation for it?
Robert Elmer: Dubious? Now, hold on! Both my folks are from Denmark, and they introduced me to strong salted licorice at an early age. It’s something you either acquire a taste for by age four, or there’s no chance. This stuff will turn your mouth inside-out, and I suspect it doesn’t do wonders for one’s blood pressure. But as it turns out, the Dutch double-salted licorice (Dubbel Zout) is very much like the Danish stuff I grew up on. Since the setting for The Duet is a Dutch-American small town, I had fun with this.
Focus: Besides your character’s refreshingly real tastes and preferences, their traits and personal battles are also highly realistic, especially those of Annie in The Celebrity. What prompted you to choose the trauma of brain injury as her personal struggle?
Robert Elmer: An acquaintance of mine had gone through the same struggle: She was hit by a drunk driver and nearly died. And it wasn’t just a matter of checking out of the hospital, all better now. She struggles with short-term memory loss and has spent countless hours in speech therapy, re-learning simple words that can leave her tongue-tied. She’s often more emotional, and her personality has changed. She wrestles with anger. But I was impressed by her faith through this tough experience (a little like Job in the Bible!), and I knew I wanted to represent some of what she went through -- in the character of Anne Stewart.
Focus: Rumor has it you’re working on a sequel to one of your adult fiction books. Can you tell us which one, and give us a sneak peek at what else we can expect from the pen of Robert Elmer?
Robert Elmer: Ah, rumor! Yes, I’ve just contracted with WaterBrook Press to work on a sequel to The Duet. Life is going to change drastically for Gerrit and Joan. I’m excited to get started on this book soon.
Focus: Both The Duet and The Celebrity are based in small towns in Washington State, where you made your home until just recently. Will your new Idaho home-base have any effect on the settings of your future stories?
Robert Elmer: We moved to Idaho in part to be closer to my wife’s family, in part because we love it here by the lake. There’s a rich history in this beautiful part of the country, and I think it would be a great setting for a few stories. We’ll see. But the canvas is much bigger, and I’d love to do more stories with a small town flavor… all over the country. I just need to get acquainted with the culture of the region, first. Even though there’s a mall culture wherever you go, there are still subtle differences from place to place.
Focus: Though you’ve moved into non-fiction with Practicing God’s Presence, most of your books, whether youth or adult, have been fiction. Can you tell us what you feel is the greatest message with which God has entrusted you, and why you’ve chosen fiction as the medium for that message?
Robert Elmer: That’s a great question, not so easy to answer. You might notice sometime that my publisher (WaterBrook Press) has come up with a catchy little line for me and my books: “Stories of renewed hope and second chances.” And I have to say that’s more than a marketing line. We touched a little earlier on the theme of finding common ground. That’s a big part of what makes me tick as a writer. I love to take two seemingly very different characters, toss them into the same scene, and then force them to discover what they might have in common, after all. And if they do find something in common, is that enough to build a relationship on? What kind of relationship?
And then the second issue I love to explore is related: So you blew it once. Are there any second chances? If so, what do they look like, and how can we claim them? When God offers that second chance, are we willing to accept it on His terms?
Those ideas get me going on what I hope will be stories that touch people’s hearts, because they’re central issues we all have to face to one degree or another. And finally, I love the way a setting can work as a crucible, a strong backdrop for the plot and characters. Small towns especially hold a place in my heart, but it’s more the idea of using the culture of a place to reinforce the theme. I love a story with a strong sense of place.
Focus: Is there anything else you would like your readers to know?
Robert Elmer: Yes! Readers can always keep track of my latest news, as well as hear more about the upcoming sequel to The Duet (when the info is available) by visiting my website, www.robertelmerbooks.com.