Jess Lederman - Conveying Truths That Transform Lives
Jess Lederman, founder of the website The Works of George MacDonald, is well-known worldwide to fans of the Scottish novelist and minister whom C.S. Lewis referred to as his "master." Jess is currently at work on a Christian-themed novel set in Las Vegas in 1955. He remarried several years ago and lives with his wife and two young sons in the Pacific Northwest. When not writing, he's likely playing Chopin and Beethoven on the piano. As our Author of the Day, Lederman tells us all about his book, Hearts Set Free.
Please give us a short introduction to what Hearts Set Free is about.
Hearts Set Free is a novel which weaves together three plot lines--two set in the first half of the 1900s, and the third in the present day--which at first seem unrelated, but which all come together in surprising and powerful ways. It's a story of love, faith, and the glory of God's grace. An erstwhile hero of the Far North abandons his wife and son, and they set out on a quest to bring him home; a burned-out Bible-school dropout turned boxer finds he has a remarkable chance for redemption; and two Science TV producers--an ardent atheist determined toprove that mankind has no need of God, and his lover, who is trying to recover the lost faith of her youth--set out to find a 99-year-old man who holds the secret to a mystery they're trying to solve.
What inspired you to write this story?
The novel explores how people come to faith and deal with doubt--or, put another way, how God relentlessly pursues us, and will not rest until His last lost lamb is found. That is a subject that thrills me, and I wanted to share my passion for it with the world.
Why did you pick 1925 Alaska as a backdrop for your book?
In 2011, my late first wife was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrigs Disease), and given two years to live. We decided to move from Dallas to a small town in Alaska where we could look out on the beauty of God's creation, read our favorite authors, and just be together in peace. The idea for the novel came to me not long after she passed away; we'd been living near the headquarters of the Iditarod, the iconic thousand-mile dogsled race, and I chose the historical event which inspired the Iditarod for the story's opening scene. That was the Great Race of Mercy, the desperate effort to bring diptheria serum to Nome by dogsled in the darkness of the Alaska winter, with the wind-chill falling to sixty below amid gale-force winds.
The novel contains some autobiographical elements. Tell us more about this.
People who know that Hearts Set Free has such elements, and that it also features a number of historical characters, sometimes ask me, "How much of the story is true?" I answer, about twenty percent--and the rest is even more true. I like to write about truths that change people's lives, truths of the heart. I put aspects of myself into several of the characters; for example, I was an arrogant atheist for much of my life, before coming to Christ, much like the character of TV producer Tim Faber. Much of the novel takes place in Las Vegas--half back when it was only a small town, and the Hoover Dam was just being built, and half the way it is today--and back in my pagan days, I haunted the poker tables of the Vegas casinos, so I know it well.
Do you have a favorite line from the book, and can you explain what that line means to you?
At one point, two lovers are discussing the Book of Revelation, and one says, "I think what Jesus revealed to John is that forgiveness and love aren’t always gentle and sweet, that they can be terrible, they can come like a trumpet blast that shatters the heavens, they can cut like a double-edged sword…” People sometimes have a hard time understanding some of the violent imagery in both the Old and New Testaments. I happen to think that when the Apostle John said "God is love," he was making a profound truth statement about God, a lens through which we need to read all of Scripture, especially when we try to distinguish between the literal and metaphorical, or try to interpret difficult passages. Every other attribute of God is an aspect of His love. Therefore, his punishments are restorative, never merely retributive--but they can be terrible, nonetheless.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I was a music major back in college, and when I'm not writing or chasing after my two sons, I'm probably playing Chopin or Brahms for my wife, Ling. And I make pretty decent omelettes.
In which way is Hearts Set Free a coming-of-age story?
One of the novel's major characters is Luke, a native Alaskan who narrates close to half the book. He's thirteen years old when the story begins, with the sudden disappearance of his father, and we see him grow into a brave, compassionate--and passionate!-- young man during the episodes which take place in the last century, as well as meet him as a very old and very wise man in the portions that take place in 2011.
The book explores the theme of redemption stretching across generations. Why did you take this approach?
I'm fascinated with how patiently God works with us; over the course of a lifetime we discover more and more about His ways, and sometimes only at the end of life do some things become clear. That's certainly one of the themes in Hearts Set Free!
Were any of the characters in this book based on real people?
There are several historical characters who play an important role in Hearts Set Free. One of the most important is Jack Johnson, the first black, heavyweight champion of the world. He was a fascinating figure, a self-educated man, a fighter familiar with Shakespeare and who could perform Bach on his bass viol. He was an arrogant narcissist--that was his fatal flaw--but at the same time had a big heart. Needless to say, he was much maligned by the racist culture which prevailed in the U.S. during his lifetime. Georges Lemaitre is one of my favorite characters, and one of my personal heroes. He was one of the greatest scientists of all time, yet most people have never heard of him! Lemaitre was a Belgian who became both a physicist and a Roman Catholic priest. As a young man, fresh off the battlefields of WWI, he challenged Einstein's view of the universe, and though at first Einstein called his ideas nonsense, within ten years he acknowledged that the young priest had been right! Other historical characters include Amelia Earhart and gangster Bugsy Siegel.
Readers say that this book keeps them thinking - long after they have finished it. Was this intentional? How did you pull this off?
I'm pleased but not surprised that people often tell me that. The reason, I think, is that I'm writing about matters of such terrible importance to all of us, subjects that I care about passionately. The characters engage in conversations about what some might call "theological questions," but not in an abstract way--they do so out of an urgent desire to love God with all their heart, strength, and mind. They wrestle with how to apply Scripture to their daily lives--how to forgive and love their enemies, for example! When you ask questions like that in the context of a story that has romance and adventure as well, you've given a reader lots to think about. Certainly they are issues that occupy my mind as well!
How did you go from atheism to faith in Christ?
One day, when we were living in Dallas, my late first wife heard a radio interview with Francis Collins, an eminent scientist who wrote The Language of God, which tells the story of his journey from atheism to becoming a disciple of Christ. Collins’ book led us to the writings of C.S. Lewis, and George MacDonald, who became the midwives of our rebirth from above. MacDonald was a 19th century Scottish novelist, poet, and minister, of whom C.S. Lewis remarked, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” He’s not nearly as well known as he should be, although MacDonald was not only a major influence on Lewis but on G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L'Engle, to name only a few. In gratitude for his influence, I manage a website, The Works of George MacDonald, which includes much that is by, about, or inspired by the Scotsman.
Tell us more about your family
In 2013, I met a wonderful woman—my current wife, Ling—and soon we began talking about having children. “Impossible!” said our doctors. “According to your test results, there’s no chance at all, even using the latest techniques.” Of course, within two months of that pronouncement, Ling was pregnant with little David, three and a half, and we subsequently adopted Daniel, who’s now twelve.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer to just see where an idea takes you?
I start out with an outline, and I knew early on exactly what some of the most climactic moments would be in the closing sections of Hearts Set Free. But outlines change once the writing begins! Sometimes characters just have their own ideas about what ought to happen. One character who was supposed to have only a bit part pretty much demanded a larger role, and he was just so compelling and charismatic I couldn't say no!
What are you working on right now?
These days I'm hard at work on a Christian-themed novel entitled The Church on Misfit Row, set in Las Vegas in 1955.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
My website is jesslederman.com. I've got a dozen blog posts on there now, excerpts from reviews of and articles about Hearts Set Free. People can receive the first three chapters by filling out an online form, and can also listen to an audio recording of Chapter One. At the moment, it's a recording of me reading the first chapter, but I'm excited to announce that the Audible edition of the novel is in the works, with an expected release date in September. So I'll soon feature the new recording of the first chapter! And, speaking of first chapters, I'll likely begin to post excerpts from The Church on Misfit Row as well.
There’s no hiding from the Hound of Heaven, once He’s on your trail!