Articles From the November 1994 Unification News
Profile of an Author: An Interview with Larry Witham
Larry Witham is a 1978 graduate of UTS and Religion Editor of The Washington Times. Author of two previous works of nonfiction, he has in The Negev Project (Meridian, 1994) produced his first novel. In this interview with Cornerstone, Larry reflects on writing, publishing, work at The Washington Times, and the possibilities of a Unification aesthetic. Reprinted from Cornerstone.
Cornerstone. Larry, could you say something about the books you've done?
Larry Witham. The first thing I wrote and put in book form, though not formally published, was a 1988 book on Father's trial. It's titled From Pyongyang to Danbury. I had just about finished it when the Carlton Sherwood Inquisition project began and I was asked not to publish. I pretty much forgot about it and printed up a few copies for my own bookshelf. The second work, published in 1991, was Rodzianko: An Orthodox Journey from Revolution to Millennium, 1917-1988. That was an historical biography of a Russian Orthodox bishop who is living in Washington, D.C. His grandfather was the last president of the Duma, Russia's parliament [before the Bolshevik dictatorship]. I thought: why not tell his family story from the revolution to him as a post- glasnost Russian Orthodox bishop, looking at the rise of Soviet communism and then at the change under glasnost. The book was published by University Press of America.
That same year I published another book, Curran vs. Catholic University. That was the result of a contest sponsored by Andrew Greeley for a first-time author of a Catholic book. I had eight months, and I thought I'd knock off a quick, definitive book on the Charles Curran affair. Having covered the civil trial in D.C., I had everything in front of me. I submitted it, but didn't win. At that point, I began farming out the manuscript to publishers. Secular publishers felt it was too detailed an account of a religion topic, and the Catholic publishers found it too controversial. So I published it with Bob Rand, who has a business called Edington-Rand. We packaged it, put his imprint on it, and marketed it. We printed a thousand, sold about 900, and won an award from the North American Catholic Press Association-second place for the best popular rendition of a Catholic subject.
About then I thought: why not write a novel? since a limited number of people were reading my nonfiction. At first, I planned to write a novel on the life of Jesus. However, one day it dawned on me that this was not going to sell. So I decided to do a modern fictional adventure which raised questions about Jesus' life. Very quickly the main elements of the plot fell into place: the discovery of ancient manuscripts and a protagonist who is a Bible scholar able to reflect on these issues. I wrote the novel's first draft in a year after work and on weekends.
With an agent, for a year we tried to sell it, got some helpful comments and some critical advice, which helped me improve it. But my temperament wants quick results, so after a year I decided to self- publish and get on with the next project. I created a name, Meridian Books, a very generic, old-line sounding name and with my friends in publishing put the final package together. I hired an old-line book printing house to produce a hardback, and I'm distributing it now.
The release date was May 15, so it's about reaching the high point of marketing. Reviews are being written and sales are picking up, but it's going to take some months to see if it will sell the first printing, which was only 2,000. CS. So you are still a struggling author?
LW. I'm still a struggling author, but there's no indignity in publishing your own work. There are about 60,000 small presses in the country. Many are one- or two-title presses. Some do literary fiction or poetry that just can't get into the commercial market. But sometimes a self-published book goes off like a rocket. There have been a lot of them.
A recent example is The Celestine Prophecy, a novel, or parable, as the author says. It's an adventure story about going down to Peru and finding an ancient manuscript with 10 insights. For a few weeks it was at the top of every bestseller list in the country. This work was self-published as a low-budget paperback by a New Age therapist in Georgia. He and his wife started giving it out free, and then a lot of people in the Unity School of Christianity starting buying it. They all went to the bookstore and chose it for group reading. This looked to the publishing world like a massive public response, so New York publishers bid on the rights, pumped in millions of dollars and made it a national bestseller. The author and his wife printed it virtually on their kitchen table. Of course, my thought was that if a thousand Unification Church members went to the bookstores on one weekend, my novel might have a chance of success by the smoke and mirrors of marketing. But I don't think it's in the cards.
CS. Larry, what is your background in writing, and how did you get to this point?
LW. If there's a lesson here, with enough practice you can do anything, because I was a very poor writer. I took remedial English when I entered college to catch up from goofing around in high school. In Seminary, I wrote a brief article for The Cornerstone, no more than 10 inches, but the editor changed every sentence. But I had a feel for writing, which I improved at UTS.
Following graduation, I went to England for almost a year and did home church. I came back, had a 40-day workshop, and went into CARP with Tiger Park with the first Seminarian draft. I was assigned in winter '79-'80 to Boston, followed by almost a year in Philadelphia. When Ocean Church was launched, I was drafted for it as Daikan Ohnuki's assistant, administering all the logistics and resources.
Next came the newspaper draft. Every church department had to give a certain number, and I was in the first group to go to The Times However, someone picked me out and said, "Why doesn't he do Unification News. He's a Seminarian. He's an intellectual." So I was editor for the first four or six issues, a couple of months in early 1982.
When The Washington Times was instituted as a corporation, Equal Employment Opportunity laws mandated that no one could be hired for their religion. Church members had to get hired before a deadline, so I jumped a bus with all my worldly possessions in a box and went to Washington. What we basically did there was mix 120 church members with a few hundred non-church people who were professional writers, and our inabilities glaringly showed up. Slowly but surely, church members were fired because we couldn't do the work in a fast-paced news routine. I saw the writing on the wall and rapidly, almost not rapidly enough, learned to write. I was able to get along well enough politically so that I survived, and eventually became a senior writer. In the beginning, there were some church people who told me, "Don't put your hopes in being a writer. Get into newspaper circulation and delivery instead." But I wasn't interested in that, so I learned-which happens if you are desperate enough.
CS. Could you speak more about your experience at The Times?
LW. In the original plan, all the church members were to meet the professional challenge very rapidly. At Unification News I was told to go to The Times and be religion reporter. But this was the big world of newspapering where one can't fake the skills, and there were other complications of newsroom politics. I was first attached to the Features desk, then the Metro. Essentially I was put on the Metro desk to test me, then fire me. There was no job for me there except as calendar editor, a clerical job. I felt my mission was to be here, and I just couldn't quit. So I did the calendar until one day I got fed up, wondering why I was spending my days typing in information about which clubs people can go to on the weekend. I finally submitted a resignation letter, with a few weeks' lead time.
That was precisely when Jim Whelan was fired and Smith Hempstone came in as editor-in-chief. I was known in the news room as not, perhaps, a crack, cynical news reporter, but as a reasonable, stable guy who got along. So I was recommended, even by non-church people, to Smith Hempstone to be his assistant. With a new chance, I came in as executive assistant to the editor-in-chief. I worked for Smith about a year, taking care of office affairs and setting up newsmaker lunches with reporters. In the process I gained stature in the newsroom. People treated me as a professional. I also gained confidence that a lot of us lacked in those first years. I wasn't writing much, but I finally picked up the instincts for what newspapering is about. Hempstone was fired, and Arnaud de Borchgrave came in as editor-in- chief. He also took me on as his assistant for almost two years, allowing me to write stories in my free time, on religion mostly. This was a time I made a lot of progress.
One day, I said to Arnaud, "I'd really like to go back to the newsroom because that's where you make a future in this business." He was very supportive, and I went to the newsroom as religion writer attached to the Metro desk. By then, I could write anything that was needed. I had finally made it.
CS. As religion editor?
LW. It's a matter of terms. When I went full time in the newsroom, it was really as a reporter because "editor" implies that you have underlings, which I didn't.
Actually, religion editors at the big secular newspapers are essentially specialist reporters. They are called editors, because they may put out a weekly religion page. Otherwise, the so-called editor is really just the topic's expert in the newsroom. I prefer the term "religion writer," as do a lot of my peers at other newspapers. If I were a boss with underlings, it would be a different case and I would be an editor. My salary would reflect the difference, too.
I've been a member of the Religion Newswriter Association for 12 years. They voted to let me be a member even though our newspaper, as they see it, is owned by a church. Its membership is only for the secular media. They know well we are a secular newspaper, but technically the bylaws said that only reporters at non-church owned newspapers could belong.
CS. This brings up the question of your mission in covering religion at The Times?
LW. Well, interestingly, no one has ever told me what the mission is. The closest to it was a general meeting in the first year when members met Father and said what they did. The only thing he said to me was: "You should make friends with all the other people who write on religion and create an association." It already existed, so I couldn't do that. In fact, there's an implicit rule that The Times doesn't write things about the Unification Church. That's how non-church management wanted it from the beginning. Whenever we did cover the Church, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other gadfly media who were after us announced that this revealed that we were truly just a propaganda organ of the Unification Church.
If there's a mass wedding, we handle it as objective news. Or if there's a wire story about the Church, it's examined and may be run. But we don't generate such stories, as much as members in Washington and elsewhere at one time thought that's why we ran a newspaper company. It was hard to explain then, but members may understand that now. Basically, it's out of my hands. If the editors told me to write a story on the Unification Church, I'd do it. However, to decide on my own might get me fired or create public perception troubles for management.
My positive task is to make sure The Washington Times provides very accurate, fair and positive coverage of every sector of American religion. If there's any kind of message, it's that the owners of the newspaper are for religion in America. They have a positive outlook. That's a self-defined mission, and it seems to work. The Times is liked by religious people, both liberals and conservatives. They indicate we write about their religion in ways they are familiar with, that we are accurate and convey the right tone. That's my goal.
As the newsroom settled down, as people discovered their identities and what the paper was, and as all the politics and infighting evaporated, there emerged an additional sense of the kinds of stories The Washington Times does. They are fair and accurate, but we pick the stories that have a moral issue at stake. If I can find it in the religion area, or where religion and values intersect, I do those stories.
CS. Back on the novel front, don't you have another in its final stages?
LW. During the year that I tried to sell The Negev Project, I wrote a second novel and have the three final chapters to finish up. I was in a writing mode, and didn't know what else to do with my free time. Put it this way: I'm still shaped enough by church life that if I have any free time, my conscience says I should be either witnessing or fundraising. Not to be elitist, but as a Washington professional, it's difficult to do that. If you're out there reporting, getting your name known, getting into the thick of other people's lives, and then on the weekend readers meet you knocking on the door asking for money for your church, it gets complicated. So I decided that if I'm not willing to do that, I should spend all my spare time producing written works.
CS. Okay. How about some details on the second novel?
LW. This one has a few characters from the first one, and the very tentative working title is something like "The Eastern Wind" or "Winds from the East." The bigger picture is a global trade war focused on Japan and the United States, and the advance of science in computer and genetic technology. In the midst of this, people start having revelations. It's a regular, mundane plot that's believable, with a few murders and lost diaries that surface. Someone finds out that a clergyman tried to kill Hitler, and a Buddhist monk tried to persuade Emperor Hirohito not to order the Pearl Harbor bombing. The minister and Buddhist did this because they had revelations at that mid-century point. So the overall theme is this: what happens if a direct, monotheistic revelation comes into this secular, modern time, with a crisis-like a trade war leading to another Great Depression. The modern characters realize that somehow the revelations are coming to warn the world about some brink, like World War II. At first, they think the brink is the trade war, which could make societies collapse. But the worry actually is the idea of controlling the genetic map of people so that it takes away their free will. This may sound pretty abstract, but in the novel it works all right. There are ordinary people and some clergy who have the revelations and they race in the end to discover their meaning. They, in effect, avert the crisis of which God is trying to warn them. There's no point where they save the world in a big crescendo, but they understand certain things about the freedom that God gave people. And hopefully the reader will feel that also.
From the Unificationist point of view, there is so much of the New Age idea of revelation around, the idea that whatever you feel is the truth. I want to propose not that, but an actual revelation from a single God, an objective message to this world. What do people do when that happens? This second novel may be just as hard to sell to Park Avenue, New York.
CS. Where do you come up with these ideas?
LW. The prelude is to read a lot and write a lot. For people not in a writing industry, that takes a lot of discipline. You have to get the momentum going. I begin at the newspaper. Newspaper writing is rather wooden though, compared to writing novels or even nonfiction prose. So I had to loosen up and try a new style.
An interesting concept in fiction writing, as a few great writing teachers convey, is the continuous dream. First you conceive and outline your story. If it's very factual, all your data is in front of you or on your computer memory. Then you have to get to a state where your imagination is walking through the scenes you want to write about.
This takes a certain state of mind. Of course, some writers do it through drinking. A whole slew of great writers were drinkers; of course, it ruined them eventually and they lost their creative powers. But they get in these moods through a few drinks, then sit down for a few hours, and float off into an imaginary world where characters come alive, with the ironies and plots. Of course in my case, I have to just do it through coffee and anything else I can muster. But in writing fiction, that's the trick I learned.
CS. Is this a particular type of novel you're trying to produce?
LW. Yes, it's a genre I call a "religion thriller." It's all part of the salesmanship. Everywhere I go I use the term, "religion thriller," and now I've even got the media people saying it. There's the medical thriller, the spy thriller, the high-tech thriller, the biology thriller-and the religion thriller. And who specializes in that?-well, Larry Witham. If you create a niche you can potentially commercialize it, and that's what I'm trying to do. The first novel may not carve that niche, or it may carve it without commercial gains. If I get the second one out, whether a big commercial publisher or, God forbid, I do it myself again, it may still take off like Celestine Prophecy. And if it's a flop after two novel attempts, maybe I'll do something else.
CS. Dr. Thomas Walsh termed The Negev Project a "literary expression of Unificationism" (see Unification News, June 1994, p.25). Is there a distinctively Unificationist aesthetic?
LW. As of yet, particular themes stemming from the Unification cultural ethos relate to encounters between East and West, the unity of the faiths, the ideas of a new era. There is as yet not enough of a cultural base to be more particularistic such as, for example, a novel about a Korean messiah.
Workable themes still derive primarily from the existing cultures. Now if we get millions of members around the world, we would have a world culture, in all its diversity, and a book exemplifying that would be a bestseller.
My premise is that, though God works supernaturally, we need worldly bridges. A novel is one way to influence popular culture. Obviously I'm not making much of a dent yet. But someone had to do it first. If we have more of this, it may get easier for Americans to accept our ideas about arranged marriages, moral warfare in your personal life, obedience, and living a hard life when you could more easily live an easy life. These are hard ideas to sell, the way the culture is now.
To influence the world, the aesthetic has to be general to start with and as more people become attuned to it we can get specific. Even in the best of all worlds, you'd have stories about families-living and loving and dying and challenging-human stories that are not exclusively Unificationist. They are common to all humanity. We didn't create them first.
CS. Larry, what's your final word to fellow seminarians?
LW. Perhaps this is more of a justification for myself and what I'm doing, so that I feel right with God in the church, but I could say this: Everyone who goes to the Seminary has an opportunity to gain a sense of their talents. And one question we can ask is how can I accomplish something for God with a talent or ability I have, or want to learn? If I follow that, then I have to take responsibility to succeed and offer it back to the Church. If I follow that, then I have to take responsibility to succeed and offer it back to the Church. If I don't succeed, then the Church can rightfully say you wasted your time. But that's what taking responsibility is about. If one does not feel a calling in a certain area, it's probably wise to do what the Church is asking you to do. Both of these are better than just surviving, though I know just surviving in cases can be full time. Nearly all Church members got started late in life, having kids usually before we had jobs or career paths. I must say I'm blessed with the best of all possible worlds in the Church. I have the time and connections to do these projects. So I had better make something of it.
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