This is the inspiration behind "The Last Verdict".
In 2010 I picked up John Grisham’s latest novel, “The Confession”, which features the story of a wrongfully convicted man facing the death penalty. When I chose the book, I knew that I would be challenged in my thinking (after all, I have Grisham to blame for several major life choices inspired by his books), but I could not be prepared for the impact it would have on my life.
As I read the last page, I knew I had to do more than I was doing to see the death penalty put to an end. While I have always been opposed to capital punishment on an ideological level, the story humanized the realities in a way that changed me. I put the book down, picked up my laptop and began to look for ways to make a difference. One thing I decided that night was that I would correspond with men on death row. That is how I met Matt.
One of the reasons I decided to correspond with Matt, a death row inmate in Mississippi, was because we born within a few weeks of each other. Being the same age allowed me to identify with him in a way that was startling. In the end, we became fast friends, sharing a passion for justice, a deep love of spirituality and faith, and the belief that the power of restorative justice and forgiveness was the only hopeful direction for us all. He introduced me to his family and many of his friends, allowing me to join the groups advocating to see his death sentence commuted, as well as those of other men and women on death row. Of all those amazing people, however, it was Matt’s mother, Mary, who impacted me the most. She has become so dear to our family that “friend” seems to weak a term. We love her deeply. We all worked hard together to see true justice done.
And yet, for all the hard work and advocacy we engaged in, at 6:18pm on March 20th, 2012, the state of Mississippi declared Matt to be dead, killed by the state-sanctioned injection of deadly chemicals into his body. As I watched the clock tick down the seconds, knowing that Matt’s life was ending, tears began to stream down my face. It was then that I began to imagine what Mary would be feeling in that moment. As a new parent myself, the thought of losing my son at all, let alone in this horrific way, crushed me. And again, I knew that I had to do something, to do more, to play whatever part I could to see that the death penalty would be ended forever.
Before he was executed, Matt asked me to use my writing to help the cause- not just his cause, but the larger work of ending the death penalty. He was always as deeply concerned for others as he was for himself, perhaps even more so. And so I began to spend the next few years learning everything I could about capital punishment, both in the United States and abroad. While I had initially been inspired to write because of my relational and emotional response to the death penalty, the research soon demonstrated that the death penalty is not merely morally and ethically wrong, but that it doesn’t work, damaging countless innocent lives, needlessly costing tax payers millions, and in no way deterring violence and crime.
It is fitting that, because it was a novel that changed my life so significantly, that it would be a novel I would write to change the perspective of others. As important as they are, I did not feel that I could write another non-fiction title about these issues that would add anything, at least not yet. Others have done that already and far better than I could. It was my hope that the story would let readers see another facet to the realities of this issue, another perspective on why we need to question the continued use of the death penalty in America—everywhere.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first story I ever wrote was in grade one. With the help of an older student from another grade, I wrote and illustrated a story where my classmates and I were on a field trip, when suddenly our teacher was taken by a giant rat. I had planned on ending the story there, with the cheering students being liberated from the teacher, but the older student reminded me who was going to be grading my work, so I relented. In the end, I saved my teacher from the rat.
There are two reasons why I remember that story so clearly more than 30 years later. First, because I still have the notebook with that story. Second, because I remember watching my friends listening, entranced by my words. I was hooked!
What is your writing process?
Whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction, I generally need an overall structure to my project before I can start writing. Until that forms, I dive into research mode. Once I have a "skeleton" worked out in my head, I'll start writing. While the book might deviate from the original plan, the structure gives me general direction to work with.
That said, I do sometimes start writing without knowing where the story is going. That's an adventure for me and the reader, as I wait eagerly to see what while happen next as well!
How do you discover the ebooks you read?
Most often I read the ebooks that are recommended to me by trusted friends or that are endorsed by authors I enjoy and respect. More recently, as I have been devouring podcasts on self-publishing, I have heard a lot of recommended titles from guests and hosts of the shows. So many great options to choose from!
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
In the last nine months I have been able to make the shift to write close to full time. However, what that means might be somewhat unromantic to new and aspiring authors. While I try to write for at least three hours in the morning, four days a week, I spend as many afternoons learning about and working at marketing my books. I call both aspects writing because that's part of the process every writer who wants to get their work into the hands of readers must participate in.
However, when I am not doing either of these things, I am spending time with my wife and son. As cliche as it may sound, they are my everything! My wife, Kim, is an Australian and my son, Micah, is from Ethiopia. I was born in Minnesota, but raised in Canada, where I now live. The only person in our household who was born in Canada is Nala, our Miniature Schnauzer. We're a regular United Nations up in here!
I also work for a non-profit connected to our church. Our inner city church is not your typical church, but a genuine community that tries to extend radical welcome to all. In recent years we've started providing affordable housing with an emphasis on supporting those with mental illness. It's very rewarding work.
What is your e-reading device of choice?
The e-reading device of choice for me is my Kindle Paperwhite. While I might occasionally read on my smart phone (and far less on my laptop), I read from my Kindle daily. That said, smart phone reading is likely to grow for me as it continues to be the fastest growing medium for such reading. As the tech and program catch up with the growth, I am sure I will find reading on my phone easier.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up near a small town in northwestern Ontario, right on the border of Minnesota. In fact, the only thing that separated the two towns on either side was a broad river that made up the border itself for it's entire length. Growing up in that beautiful place has had a huge impact on my writing, in large part due to the fact that my grandfather was editor of the local newspaper, which had been in the family for generations. So writing was in my blood.
However, the town itself and the surrounding region also shaped my imagination. Living outside of town in the woods alongside the river, I grew up with bears, wolves, foxes, raccoons, skunks, deer, moose and countless other kinds of wildlife literally in my backyard (and front yard, and on occasion, some even made it into our house!). It is a stark contrast to the urban setting I live in now.
People who know the town and the area will easily spot their influence in my writing.
How do you approach cover design?
I have written a lot about this on my blog, but here are some of the key points:
-A good cover is worth a good price. Unless you are professional designer, you should really consider budgeting for a decent cover. It is the most effective marketing tool your book will ever have. That said, I have tried my hand at cover design with some success. The point is, take it very seriously.
-With very few exceptions, don't choose a design that is too far outside the norms of your genre. Be creative and stand out, but don't lose potential readers who WILL judge your book by its cover.
-Look at the covers of the authors you love, especially in your own genre. What works? Why do you like them? How can you emulate (and not copy) the intentions of their styles?
-Finally, don't settle. If you have hired someone, work with them until you are happy. It might seem easier to give in (and the designer might push for you to accept early drafts), but you will regret few things as much as accepting a sub-par design.
How important is an authors website?
It is not absolutely necessary for an author to have their own website, but there are countless reasons why they should. Having a consistent place to engage with readers where you are in full control is worth its weight in gold. Like book covers, because author websites significantly impacting on your readers first impressions, they are worth invest money in.
Which books have most impacted you?
"The Sparrow" by Mary Doria Russell is one of the most unexpectedly powerful works of fiction I have ever read. When people read the premise, they tend tilt their head and ask, "Jesuits in space?". However, it is a book of profound depth that explores the human experience of suffering and unflinchingly confronts us with our easy answers and demanding better.
I also love J.K. Rowling. The world of Harry Potter deserves all the laurels it has received. I was a child again when I read the books. In fact, I was a child for the first time because I had never read such stories when I was a kid. There is also a depth to her writing that most people miss that more seasoned story tellers marvel at.
I've read almost everything Hugh Howey has written, as well as John Grisham. As I read back over this list, I don't see much consistency. What can I say? I love good stories in whatever genre the are written in.
What are you working on next?
I have several projects on the go, with several more coming. I am getting ready to release a new book on writing focused on introverts. As an introvert myself, I wanted to help other introvert writers discover their strengths and address the pitfalls common to our personality. I have another short book on writing in the works after this one.
I have started writing a coming of age novel. After writing about a lot of serious topics (such as the death penalty in "The Last Verdict"), this book is genuinely funny and one of the most enjoyable writes I have ever worked on. My wife and I are planning to write our first book together as well, which is really exciting. However, details are not public yet.
I am also writing a dystopian story on Wattpad called "Isinglass", so be sure to check that out too!
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