Interview with Roger Bruner
As the son of a Baptist minister, Roger Bruner was born in Miami, Florida, but lived in four places in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina while growing up. Richmond, Virginia, has been his home for thirty-two years now.
After majoring in English at Frostburg State College (now University) he taught secondary school English for six years and interviewed and counseled job seekers for a Federal jobs program for ten. After earning twenty-four computer credits at night, he worked as a programmer for nearly eighteen years. Then he was downsized. He was too young to retire, but information technology was changing too rapidly for him to keep up with.
So he ended up on the register in a Target store for several years. During that time, he wrote his first novel and started reading writing books by the dozen and attending writing conferences. His writing improved enough that his wife encouraged him to retire at sixty-two to write full-time. That was nearly eight years ago, and he is thrilled to finally be using his writing skills in a way that both blesses and entertains his readers.
You carry tremendous faith in God. Can you please explain about how this faith helps you in your creations, be it writing or music?
My faith in God is the most important part of my life. I don’t believe in the term “born-again Christian.” That’s the only kind of real Christian.
When I was in the 8th grade, I had acute viral encephalitis and almost died. My survival and recovery and the fact that I did not end up a “vegetable” was truly amazing. When my parents shared with me that a number of people had been praying for me, including folks who didn’t know them or me, I came to realize that God had performed a special miracle for me. He had a purpose for keeping me alive. The older I’ve grown, the more I’ve wanted to become the person He wants me to be. The very fact that I’m alive and well at nearly seventy tells me He hasn’t finished with me yet.
As a preacher’s son, I always knew who Jesus was, and I considered myself a Christian from an early age. As I recovered from that illness and in the years since then, however, Jesus has become increasingly real. And very personal. What used to be just “head knowledge” about Him became “heart knowledge.”
Just as my faith has carried me through some difficult times—the death of a baby three days after her birth, divorce after many years of marriage, and job and financial struggles—I discovered that I couldn’t write anything that didn’t have God at its heart. That was equally true of my songs, my novels, and most of my earlier short writings.
Yes, I enjoy reading an occasional secular book, and Christian music isn’t the only thing I listen to—I love retro 50s and 60s music—but I’ve never felt inspired to write secular songs or novels. Neither have I felt compelled to seek popularity the way I probably would have done during my head-knowledge-only Christian days.
My goal is to bless and entertain. I haven’t reached millions of people, but I’ve reached several thousand, and that makes me feel great. The encouragement I receive from readers and people who’ve heard my music reminds me that pleasing God by blessing other people is more important than anything I can do to please myself.
No wonder I’m looking forward to my arrival in Heaven and hoping to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What more could I ask for than that?
Tell us about the writing work that you’ve done so far.
People often ask when I started writing. Elementary school. I wrote my first poem then. My teacher liked it so much she tried to get it published. Alas, she didn’t succeed.
As a pre-teen who loved turtles and kept as many pet turtles as he could find, I wrote a little book using what I’d learned about them. I’d be embarrassed to read that booklet now—yes, I still have the original typed copy—but it was a major accomplishment at the time.
Since then, I’ve written a variety of poetry, short plays, dramatic monologs, and a few short stories. Many of them got published in the newspaper and in a free local magazine. Three or four of the poems were published in various Southern Baptist periodicals—for a small but much-appreciated stipend.
For years I wanted to write a novel, but it wasn’t a strong desire. It was just another one of those things I would do when I retired—if I ever came up with a good enough idea for the story.
I got a great story idea while working part-time at Target and wrote my first novel. The only thing I knew about publishing was finding a publisher would be tough if not impossible. And getting a book published would take a long time at best. So, in my naïve belief that majoring in English during the 1960s had qualified me to write for twenty-first century readers, I self-published.
After reading dozens of writing books and attending numerous writing conferences, I realized that my first novel wasn’t something I wanted to be out there representing my abilities. So I withdrew it from availability.If you have one of the hundred or so print copies—the title is a well-guarded secret—you might want to hold on to it. It could be worth something if I ever become well-known.
I kept writing novels, though, and I kept pouring through writing books and attending conferences. An acquisitions editor who couldn’t use Found in Translation at her publishing house was so impressed with it that she found an agent for me. The rest is history.
Within a year I had a contract with Barbour Books for my first two Young Adult Christian novels. Barbour had wanted to start a Young Adult line, but hadn’t found anything they thought worthy of publishing until they saw Found in Translation. They released it and Lost in Dreams in 2011. My speculative satire, The Devil and Pastor Gus, came out in 2014 from Lighthouse of the Carolinas Publishing.
That leaves nine completed, unpublished novel manuscripts—close to a million words’ worth. After realizing I don’t have the savvy to keep writing teen-acceptable YA novels, I’m focusing on adult novels now. Not “adult” as in “for mature audiences only,” but having adult characters and being written for adult readers. My novels are all very clean. And quirky.
I’ve self-published two little collections of my short writings, Yesterday’s Blossoms and More of Yesterday’s Blossoms. I used photos I’d taken for the covers. I’m not concerned about whether people buy them or not; I mostly wanted something I could use as inexpensive thank you gifts.
I’ll probably self-publish several of the unpublished manuscripts—maybe even the left-over YA novels—but not until I can afford proper cover design and editing.
My writing hasn’t made me rich or famous. I never expected it to. Truth is, my book expenses are higher than the income they bring in. But that’s okay. As a committed Christian, my desire is to bless and entertain my readers. And for God to use my writing in ways I can’t imagine.
Every writer has his own writing style and seeks a kind of specific environment. Could you please tell us about the writing process that you go through before and during writing a novel or a song?
Most of the novelists I know have more book ideas floating through their heads than they’ll ever have the chance to use. Unfortunately, I’m not like that. I do keep a folder on my laptop of ideas that have occurred to me over the years, but—whenever I review them—nothing seems right.
So coming up with the basic idea is the hardest part for me. It usually comes when I least expect it.
Unlike my earliest manuscripts, the ideas now often come with what I consider a suitable title. (Two of my three novels were published with my original title. That was quite an accomplishment.)
Novelists are either typically outliners or SOPs—seat-of-pantsers—which means they just start writing without any prior planning. I can’t do a full outline. I don’t have the patience, and doing that is apt to lock me into going in a direction that isn’t ultimately the best one. It’s important to let my characters have enough freedom to help guide the direction of the story.
For example, in my WIP (work in progress), Play the Right Game, I threw someone into the first chapter, intending her to be a temporary character. Instead, she became one of the two main female characters.
That doesn’t mean I don’t do any planning, though. Very much the opposite, in fact. I typically create an 8-10 page document of bullet points of things I think should happen in the story. Knowing how the story ends is especially important. By the time I figure out the bullet points, I know the story so well I never need to refer to the document again.
The funny thing about Play the Right Game, though, is I just couldn’t come up with the bullet points. So I actually prayed my way through the writing, one day at a time. I always feel my books come from God, but especially this one.
Song writing is a bit different. I don’t normally sit up one day and say to myself, “I want to write a song.” I pray that God will give me an idea every once in a while, and that generally happens about once a year. It usually starts with a phrase or maybe a couple of lines, and many of my songs are based on Scripture verses that just seem to say, “You need to sing me.”If it is Scripture, though, I work very carefully to keep the meaning intact while figuring out how to word it in a way that’s my own.
Regardless of the source, though, once I’ve worked out a whole stanza, I start singing it to myself with no particular tune in mind. Just whatever comes out.
For the past few years, that has worked exceptionally well. I don’t try to write the melody down yet, though—I use Personal Composer software—but wait to see if the same tune comes to mind the next day. When it does, I keep refining it.
And while I’m refining the tune, I’m working on additional lyrics. Many of my songs are simple in terms of their repetitiousness, but many of them took weeks—possibly months—to finish. And during the last year or so I’ve actually gone back and added a refrain or a bridge to songs I’d written a number of years earlier.
Whether we’re talking novels or songs, it’s very difficult to consider a work finished. It always seems as if there ought to be some way to make it better. God deserves my best.
But at some point I have to say, “That’s the best I can do for right now,” and leave it alone.
You have also contributed in music both in song writing and composing the same. Please share your journey in music, i.e. how did it all start and what so far you’ve achieved in music?
I always wanted to play guitar. Always. As a small child I had a toy guitar that wasn’t capable of making music, but it allowed me to pretend. And I had a close friend whose family had a guitar they didn’t mind me fiddling with whenever I came to visit. I don’t believe it even had strings, but at least it was real.
In the 10th grade I had a special new friend, Bud Richardson. He had a guitar, and he brought it over when he came over to visit. He showed me a few chords, and I was hooked more than ever.
My parents would’ve paid for me to take piano lessons, but they weren’t interested in buying a guitar for me. So I started saving, and I bought my first guitar, an $18 Silvertone, in September of my junior year in high school. They wouldn’t pay for guitar lessons, either, so I paid for seven lessons before deciding I could do just as well—or better—on my own.
That was during what I refer to as the “folk fad of the 1960s,” and that’s what influenced my style—a style I’ve never really outgrown. I’ll never forget my frustrations at learning to finger pick at first, but during the days following John Kennedy’s assassination, when nothing else was on TV, I finally mastered what had been so elusive before.
I spent hours practicing, although it never seemed like practice. Then two of the fellows in my Sunday school class wanted to form a folk group, and they acknowledged me as the best guitarist among us. I was on my way, or so it seemed. We played and sang wherever we could, usually for food; I doubt we ever earned actual pay.
My Silvertone wasn’t worthy of my playing anymore. I couldn’t tell you how many lawns I mowed to save most of what I needed for a Gibson, which cost $151 in those days. By then my parents realized I was serious about my playing and advanced the difference between what I had and the cost so I wouldn’t have to wait. I still had to pay them back, though.
High school graduation meant the breakup of The Flatlanders. Even if Will and Bobby hadn’t been heading off to college, too, my father had accepted a pastorate in another state, and I had to go with my parents. Without a trio, I decided to try being a soloist. I’ve never considered myself a great singer, but it worked.
I’ve shared my songs in various churches, migrant camps, and a prison ministry. Not to mention on mission trips to Australia, Nicaragua, England, Wales, and Romania. I’m not a professional, and right now I’m only getting to use my songs in a nursing home ministry.
Yes, I’d love to have more opportunities to present my music—and perhaps to share about my books at the same time. But that’s beyond my control.
My song writing is an entirely different story. I started writing my own songs when the popularity of folk music dwindled. I’ve written about two hundred songs and four or five musical dramas in the years since then.
I’ve never had a song published or recorded by someone else, and it’s not because I didn’t use to bombard Christian music publishers with my lead sheets.
Do you know what I’d really like to see? I’d be thrilled to have one of my songs appear in a hymnbook. Even though hymnals get updated periodically and unused songs are replaced with newer songs, I think that would at least give a number of different people a chance to discover—and hopefully be blessed by—even just one of my songs.
Incidentally, because it’s so hard—not to mention expensive—to get permission to quote other people’s lyrics in a novel, I’ve started using my own. I also share one lyric each week on my AsIComeSinging.wordpress.com blog. I offer the use of my lyrics free to other writers with the simple request that they acknowledge where they got the lyrics from.
I do a lot of home recording, and I post a number of my recordings on my website. What good are they unless they have the opportunity to be heard?
I’m not worried about anyone stealing a song and using it as their own. Not if it means someone else will hear or read it, someone who wouldn’t, otherwise.
I’m not claiming I’d be thrilled at having a song stolen from me, though. But my books and my songs are a ministry. Touching people’s hearts and lives is the most important thing.