Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Novelist overcomes his doubts

Christian writer's first book finds huge audience, but success wasn't so easy

By Deb Richardson-Moore
The Greenville News

There are two things you can tell immediately from Ray Blackston's ranch house. He's a bachelor. He's a writer.

In one corner of his weight room/writing room is a sprawling, knee-high mound of papers that eventually became his surprise hit Flabbergasted ($22.99), currently featured on the java jackets at the nationwide Books-A-Million chain. To give you an idea how big that is, last month's the stores' signature coffee holders featured Harry Potter.

In another corner is a still-growing paper pile representing the as-yet-unnamed sequel, due at his publishing house Sept. 1. After he meets that deadline, he promises, he's heading to the beach.

Not so strange, since that's how Flabbergasted opens.

The comic novel is published by Baker Book House of Michigan, which Blackston calls "the cool Christian publisher." It is narrated by a glib stockbroker who attends a Presbyterian church to meet girls and ends up meeting God.

In an early episode, the 27-year-old narrator heads with the church singles group to North Litchfield, S.C., where he encounters a beautiful missionary and her lead-footed, lime-green-Cadillac-driving best friend.

Narrator Jay Jarvis lusts after the missionary. Author Ray Blackston lusts after the lime green Cadillac.

On his current trajectory, he might just get it.

Blackston was born on the Carolina coast to an engineer and a master gardener - Charles and Phoebe Blackston. Like his protagonist, he was once a stockbroker.

Then he attended college, graduated in finance and worked as a financial analyst.

But approaching 40, he realized he "was bored silly in my cubicle" and began toying with writing, an affinity left over from second grade. A Christian since 13, he felt God wanted him for something beyond numbers-juggling, but wondered whether it was God or the boredom talking.

Then a friend told him about a writing conference in the spring of 2000. Afterwards, he sent in the first 30 pages of Flabbergasted - the only 30 pages - and won the conference's first-place award.

Encouraged, he worked up the nerve to forgo his next contract and sell the stock in his retirement plan. It provided 18 months' living expenses.

"It turned out I sold those stocks the week before the market started crashing in 2000," he says. "I felt like it was a message from God. ...I call it my modern-day manna."

Nonetheless, it's not a method for career change he'd recommend. He had lots of doubts as he wrote, lots more when he got his first handful of rejections.

Thomas Nelson, the Christian publisher in Nashville, turned the book down but suggested he try edgier Baker Book House.

Baker not only accepted the novel, but launched it in May with a full advertising blitz. The book is currently in a third printing, with 50,000 hardbacks in stores.

Crossings Book Club, the major Christian club, named it a main selection - a rarity for a first-time author.

The novel is crammed with personal snippets from Blackston's life: His fictional beach crew meets a shark-fishing preacher named Asbury Smoak - the name of Blackston's late grandfather, a pastor.

Blackston, who lives in Greenville, S.C., and now attends an interdenominational church has traveled on a two-week mission trip to Ecuador, where he collected the details of the rain forest where his fictional missionary Allie serves.

"I felt like God wanted me to write about that trip, to show that people with less can be happier than those of us in prosperous America who have more," he says.

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