UPDATE: Ken’s current book, When Will the Heaven Begin?, is ranked on the New York Times Best-Sellers List!
Ken Abraham is the New York Times best-selling author, known around the world for his collaborations with popular celebrities and fascinating, high-profile public figures such as John Ashcroft, former U.S. Attorney General; Bob Dole, Senator; Buzz Aldrin, astronaut; Joel Osteen, mega-church pastor; Chuck Norris, actor; Lisa Beamer, 9/11 widow; Joe Gibbs, NFL football coach and NASCAR team owner; Neil Clark Warren, psychologist and founder of e-Harmony.com; Bill Frist, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader; George Foreman, champion boxer and entrepreneur; and Bill Gaither, ASCAP’s Gospel songwriter of the century. Ken’s latest book When Will the Heaven Begin? is a New York Times best-seller.
Fourteen books on which Ken has collaborated have appeared on the New York Times bestsellers lists, with three of Ken’s works reaching the number one position. At present, Ken has more than ten million books in print. Ken recently walked with his mother through the journey of dementia. He has written recently of their poignant, sometimes funny, and always inspirational experiences.
When Ken was hard at work on the More Than Rivals manuscript, we interrupted him long enough to ask him some questions about his writing process.
Q: How did the opportunity to work on More Than Rivals come about?
A: This story has been percolating beneath the surface for some time, but a lot of people were afraid to touch it. It came to my attention through a talent agent, Regina Moore, who first told me about movie producer, Nancy Bailey, and her desire to tell the story of a friendship that totally transformed a town in Tennessee. I was intrigued from the get go, and when I met Nancy and understood her passion to present a strong, truthful portrayal of some tense times, and some less than complimentary events in our history, I was hooked.
Q: What were your initial thoughts upon hearing the true story about Eddie and Bill?
A: I was once again impressed with the truth we all want to believe, but often refuse to believe, namely, that one person really can make a difference, that the actions and attitudes of one person can move the masses. Certainly, civil rights leader Martin Luther King believed that, but we don’t often find two high school athletes who regard their actions that way. But it is true. What Eddie and Bill did was extraordinarily courageous, especially in the tense time following the assassination of Dr. King. Cities all over the southern part of the U.S. were on high alert. Nashville imposed a police enforced curfew to keep rioters off the streets. Eddie and Bill’s hometown imposed a curfew to help stem potential violence, as well. With that background in the not so distant past, Eddie and Bill became unwitting role models for all of us.
Q: So, did it take a while to come up with your approach to the story line or was it a eureka moment?
A: In my entire career, I’ve had only a few of those “eureka moments.” One occurred when I first considered working with Lisa Beamer, widow of 9/11 Flight 93 hero, Todd Beamer. I could picture Lisa’s entire story in my mind before I ever typed the first page of the manuscript, which we eventually titled, LET’S ROLL. The book worked, debuting at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It was a powerful and inspiring story, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to have written it.
In contrast to those special moments, most of writing is slugging it out in the trenches, painstakingly crafting the sentences, making the story flow. Some people might consider it drudgery, but I love it. My approach to More Than Rivals has been to allow the story to be told through the lives of the characters, embellishing in some areas, but for the most part, it is filled with enough tension, humor, and an human interest, I have hopefully allowed the story to tell itself.
Q: What is your process for gathering information for a book such as this?
A: I am definitely a plodder. If you want an instant book—you, know, “Elvis died last night; let’s get a book out tomorrow!” don’t call me. I am methodical about getting the story right, checking every detail as thoroughly as possible within the time constraints. Certainly, like most writers, I always wish there were more time for research, but economic realities burst the balloon of our idealism. The project has to get done; there has to be an end so there can be a beginning.
That said, I attempt to get the story in mind from beginning to end before I actually start putting words on paper in any meaningful manner. I’m a note-taker, and I record interviews with everybody with whom I work. Those notes and interviews are the fodder of my research, but I also do as much historical background research as possible, again within the time limits.
I once did a fiction project called THE JUSTICE RIDERS with Chuck Norris. Within that story, we fictionalized some elements of the worst maritime accident in American history. No, not the Titanic, as most people would guess. But the Sultana, a riverboat plying the freezing cold waters of the Mississippi in April, 1865 after a late spring thaw. The boat, built to accommodate approximately 350-400 passengers was crammed full of more than 2,000 Union soldiers recently freed from Confederate prison camps. Around two o’clock in the morning, with the boat about eight miles north of Memphis, the boilers exploded, casting most of the sick, emaciated prisoners of war into the mighty Mississippi. More than 1,800 of those people died, but few people ever heard the story, because it occurred the same night that John Wilkes Booth was captured.
To write the historical novel with Chuck, I spent months researching the Sultana tragedy, as well as many aspects of life in post Civil War America. It was a slow, tedious process, as most research is, but it was worth it and it was wonderfully rewarding to me.
When I wrote Billy, the Early Years, a novel based on some pivotal events in the life of the world’s most famous evangelist, Billy Graham, I spent an enormous amount of time researching Dr. Graham’s childhood. Again, you can’t see all that on the page, but if you don’t do the research, you are bound to have a less than accurate story, and less than satisfied readers.
Q: Do you do this all at the beginning before you start writing, or is the ‘research’ ongoing throughout the writing process?
A: Definitely at the beginning of a project, I try to spend several months reading and researching everything I can about the background of the subject or person about which I am writing. At some point, I always feel that I have “enough” to start getting paragraphs together in some readable form. That doesn’t mean the material is ready for public consumption, or even that I’m ready to send it on to an editor. It merely means that the physical process of writing has begun for me. I’m a bug about wanting things to be right before sending them out for others to read. Apart from my wife, I try not to let anyone read early editions of my manuscripts; nor do I send out anything until it is close to being in finished manuscript form. There’s always a danger of unedited material getting into the media before I am happy with it, although I try to avoid that.
But the research is never done; it is an on-going element of writing a story. As I am proofreading the final manuscript, if I find a detail that adds energy to the story, I will make that change.
Q: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, what do you do?
A: About a hundred times each day! Actually, I don’t have time for writer’s block. My job is to get up each morning and put words on a screen that somebody wants to read. Making it even more daunting of a task, I am charged with writing material that somebody actually is going to pay money to read! Talk about pressure! Certainly, there are some days when I turn on the computer and the words flow like a river. But there are also days when I toil over every sentence, every word, and still may not be satisfied. Both experiences are equally part of the writer’s life and for me, part of the process of creating a book people will want to read.
When I do feel burnt out, or recognize that I need to get away from the computer screen, a walk around the neighborhood helps. Sometimes, a round of golf (oooh, four hours or more . . . can I really afford to do that?) is effective, and of course, getting away for a few days of rest and relaxation at a beach usually serves as restorative magic for me.
But writer’s block, albeit real, is not something with which I regularly deal—I simply can’t afford that luxury. I know that whether I feel well or not, whether I feel creative or not, there is work to be done.
Q: Sometime we envision authors toiling away with two index fingers at a manual typewriter. How do you work?
A: That’s a fascinating image of writers that has been foisted on the public by Hollywood movies and by some authors themselves. But the truth is much more boring. I have friends who are authors who work four hours a day, between the hours of ten o’clock in the morning and two in the afternoon. If I tried that, I’d starve to death! For me, creativity cannot be put on a clock. I work best sometimes at three o’clock in the morning. The phones are quiet, email has subsided, and I can focus on the story. Moreover, I don’t stop working simply because I go to bed. The story continues pulsating through my brain until I fall asleep.
But I am rather disciplined in a loose sort of way. I get up each morning and head for my office as soon as I’ve downed a few cups of coffee. I work throughout the day, every day—except those on which I am scheduled to do interviews, or attend another boring publishing meeting! I do take breaks about every hour or two, but then I am right back at the computer. A friend of mine who researches such matters says that most people nowadays cannot focus on their work for more than eighteen straight minutes. That may be true, but for me, I force myself to focus in one eighteen-minute segment after another, throughout the day. A normal working day for me is ten to twelve hours. During the deadline crunch, I often work sixteen to eighteen hours every day, except Sunday. I believe in maintaining a Sabbath; I won’t work on Sundays unless there is an excruciatingly painful reason to do so. I’m convinced that by shutting down for one day a week to worship God and to spend time with my family uninterrupted by work responsibilities, I do better work the other six days of the week.
Q: Do you do numerous drafts or does it pretty much flow to paper without a lot of changes?
A: I do indeed produce numerous drafts, each one hopefully getting a bit better, the writing stronger, crisper, more refined. But I attempt to write as though the first draft must be ready for the printer. That’s why I work slowly. A good day of production for me is five to ten pages, but those pages will be almost publishable at that early point (thanks to notes and interviews and research). Nevertheless, each reading and editing of the draft will help to make it better. I don’t like to do major re-writes, as in re-writing entire sections or chapters of a book, although when it has been necessary, I’ve done so. My goal is not to let something out of my office until it is ready to be read by millions of people.
Q: How is No Slam Dunk similar to or different from the other books you have written?
A: It is similar in that it has numerous emotional hot buttons built into the story. It has a lot of tension and intrigue, and best of all, it provides hope. Those are the kinds of stories I love to write.
It differs from most books that I have written in that I have never done much with racial issues.
Q: Did you grow up in an area that was experiencing the tensions of racial desegregation and how did that affect your process or vision?
A: I grew up about an hour and a half outside of Pittsburgh. At that time, the city had severe racial issues, but not merely between blacks and whites; we had tension between Jewish people and Catholics, Irish and Syrian, Polish folks and Italians. We had a melting pot of communities, and that was the good part (we also had some delicious food festivals!), but the downside was we also had xenophobia issues.
Although the Pittsburgh area dealt with desegregation matters, those concerns did not exist in the little town in which my family lived. We did not have a single black family in our town.
Nevertheless, I became a Christian around the age of 17 and I quickly came to understand that racial prejudice was not merely rude; it is a sin. So I could identify with Eddie Sherlin’s Christian faith influencing his attitude toward the black basketball players of Union High School.
Q: What did you learn or discover during your interviews or research that surprised you the most? (No spoilers!)
A: I was somewhat surprised at the varied memories on the part of many of those people who were actually involved in the true story of More Than Rivals. Black people could not drink from the same fountains as white people. Blacks were forbidden to enter the same doors at the theater as the white folks. Most churches were totally segregated, black people worshiping only with blacks, white people with whites, both ostensibly worshiping the same God, but not able to sit in the same room to pray to Him. These were real issues, and we portray them truthfully in our story.
Q: Last question. I see you are quite the actor and certainly have starred in some terrific prime-time TV series. Do you miss acting?
A: Ha! Actually I don’t miss acting at all, because the actor Ken Abraham is another person. Really, another person. He gets some of my “fan mail,” and I’m sure that is an unwelcome surprise for him! I’ve never seen his work, but I hope it is good. It must be. After all, he has a great name! I’ve done a lot of television interviews, but so far no movies or television series. But if I ever star in a movie or television series, I’ll be sure to let you know!