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Interview: June 4, 2010

Charles Martin --- author of such novels as WHEN CRICKETS CRY, WRAPPED IN RAIN and THE DEAD DON’T DANCE --- recently spoke with’s Terry Miller Shannon about his latest work of fiction, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US. In this interview, Martin discusses the inspiration behind this “story of love and survival” and explains how the plot grew from a visual of one of the book’s minor characters. He also offers insight into his unconventional “back-to-front” writing process, briefly describes some of his own less harrowing experiences in the wilderness, and shares details about his next project currently in the works. What inspired you to write THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US?

Charles Martin: A hiking/camping trip gone bad… sort of. Me and a buddy got caught on a mountain in a bad snow storm, real cold, had to hunker down for about 12 hours. Sitting in a tent with the wind blowing 60mph and temperatures hovering around zero got me to thinking, Gee… I wonder if…. My imagination took it from there.

BRC: THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is a story that intertwines adventure and relationships. Survival in a wilderness is a symbolic tool for exploring Ben's emotional journey. Your previous work, WHERE THE RIVER ENDS, also had a journey as part of its story. Did you learn things from writing RIVER that you drew upon as you wrote this latest book?

CM: Good question. I’ve spent a lot of my life outdoors. Mountains and rivers have long been an attraction. So I’m not so sure that the process of researching and writing RIVER led to lessons learned in writing MOUNTAIN, or… that just being me for 40 years led to the process of writing MOUNTAIN.

BRC: Love and the power of love are explored on many levels in this book. Grover, the pilot, plays a small role in the book, but the words he shares give such power to the story. Was his character with you from the start?

CM: One of the first pictures I “saw” in my mind was what you read in the prologue. A man waking up, staring up through the snow and windshield of what once was a plane. Feeling around with his fingers. One of the people in that plane was Grover. In a sense, my hand ran across his and I began asking questions from there. His voice grew as I researched planes and began spending time thinking about the perspective gained as soon as the wheels leave the ground.

BRC: Ben Payne is a doctor who must perform some emergency medical procedures under extremely primitive and adverse circumstances, all of which are detailed in the book. Do you have any type of medical background? If not, what kind of research did you have to do to make these emergency measures believable and accurate?

CM: No, and trust me, you don’t want me operating on you. I have good friends (doctors) who kindly offered to help me navigate through all that stuff. Whenever I got stuck or needed to invent an ailment, I’d pick up the phone: “Hey… I need to break somebody’s leg...” They’re all a bunch of “CSI” junkies, so they love that stuff.

BRC: Ben and Ashley use humor to cope with a seemingly hopeless situation and to deal with emotional issues between them. Did you consciously set out to use humor in this book, or did it come about organically from the characters' personalities?

CM: I am often surprised, (as recently as yesterday in the book I’m working on now) at what my characters say --- and it’s often different from what I thought they’d say before they said it, if that makes sense. Somehow, characters do take on a mind and voice of their own. I once heard Stephen King say something similar, and I thought he was a little off his rocker. Now, maybe not so much. I’m scratching my head wondering if I’m just as nuts, or maybe we’re both sane and everyone else is a little off.

BRC: The fact that Ben is a physician is important not only because of his and Ashley's injuries, but also because it’s used as a distancing mechanism for some of the intimacies inevitable in their situation. Were you thinking of this as you developed his character?

CM: Great question. And no, it surprised me as well. It turned out to be a really great “out,” which I needed.

BRC: Ben's wife, Rachel, is not physically present in most of the book, and yet she comes fully to life via the notes Ben dictates to her. This adds one more rich emotional strand to the braided tale. How did you manage to balance the emotional and adventure elements of THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US? Was it challenging?

CM: You ask good questions. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about this in these terms. Honestly, I have no idea. I had two stories. Ben with Rachel. And Ben with Ashley. I tried to weave the emotional thread through both. The dictation allowed me to say things I wouldn’t have said otherwise. Because it’s “dictated,” it lets me use phrases, pauses and slights that I certainly couldn’t get away with if I was just writing. Maybe the neatest exploration I had in writing this was pressing the envelope on what I could say and how I could say it. I’m not sure I pulled it off at times, but it was a lot of fun to write.

BRC: If you wanted readers to retain just one idea or theme from this story, what would it be?

CM: Never charter a private plane and then put three people in seats made for two.

Seriously, the more I write, the more I shy away from prescribing what I hope people take away from my story. But it would have something to do with hope, and that we are capable of much more than we’ve ever asked of ourselves…both physically and emotionally. The heart is a very tough thing to kill.

BRC: Have you ever been in a situation where you had to call upon survival skills the way Ben does? How do you know about these skills, such as constructing snowshoes out of scrap material?

CM: Not really. I’ve spent a few nights in the woods when I didn’t intend to, but nothing too hairy. I was never in any real danger. Creating the snowshoes was relatively easy, it was the sled that gave me trouble.

BRC: Did you go out into a snowy wilderness to reconnoiter and plan the setting? It is so well described that it made me huddle beneath several blankets while turning pages.

CM: Yes, several trips. Snowmobiles. Mountains. Twelve feet of snow beneath me. The works. Of course, at night I was sitting in a cabin with a roaring fire, so I’m no Grizzly Adams.

BRC: What is your writing process? Do you write every day? Do you outline your books?

CM: I write best in the early morning through early afternoon. Yes, I write every day if I’m working on a manuscript. If not, then I might not write for a week. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it’s like anything else --- if you don’t flex the muscle, it withers. I outline more as the book develops, almost back-to-front. That may sound a bit off, but I start with scenes and write to connect them.

BRC: What charges your creativity? Do you have favorite music, activities, or writings that you turn to for inspiration?

CM: I work out a good bit. Helps me keep my sanity. I often write or drive in quiet because it helps my mind to spin itself free of knots. Two bands I’ve been listening to lately are Needtobreathe and Sister Hazel, followed closely by Chris Tomlin, David Crowder, Third Day, Five for Fighting, Counting Crows and a bunch of old country stuff that I grew up on, like Hank Jr., Don Williams and Waylon Jennings. The list goes on. For inspiration? I’m not sure how this will sound, but writing is so much a part of my person that I don’t know what inspires and what doesn’t. It’s like asking me to talk about the “me” in me. Or asking a fish to describe water. Not sure I can separate what inspires my writing from what inspires me to breathe.

BRC: Are you at work on a new novel? If so, can you give us a brief description of what readers can anticipate?

CM: A Texas lawman --- great at his job, bad at his marriage --- signs the papers that finalize his divorce. While questioning himself and his ability to love, he rescues a woman and her daughter from an abductor at a truck stop and helps them start a new life. The friendship is unexpected and raises a few issues, not the least of which is that while he’s good at rushing in and saving the girl, he hasn’t a clue how to live on the other side of the rescue. This is a story about the other side of the rescue --- about that gray area between being willing to die for something and learning to live for someone.

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