John Heubusch serves as the executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation in Simi Valley, California. Though his job keeps him busy and one could hardly excuse him if he simply came home from work and put his feet up in a recliner, Mr. Heubusch decided a few years ago to do what over 80 percent of Americans say they want to do: he wrote a book.
Actually, he wrote two books. And novels at that. Mr. Heubusch penned The Shroud Conspiracy (and its sequel) — a pair of science thrillers interwoven with religion and relics.
I sat down for a video interview with Heubusch last week to ask him for his thoughts on the craft of writing fiction. As a debut novelist whose book hit the Top 25 on Amazon, what advice would he give other writers? (An edited transcript follows the video.)
(What follows is a transcript, edited for clarity.)
Lamb: So John, the amazing thing about writing a work of fiction is that you actually just have to create so much stuff. Coming up with every name for each character — like Adam in the Garden of Eden — naming characters and naming places and figuring out where those places are going to be … describing for the reader in some level of detail what it is that the characters are seeing and maybe even what they’re thinking.
Could you describe for us the process of research that went into putting together the elements, the locations — particularly as it relates to the religious relics and all that kind of material. How did your own background factor in there? How did you find out all that information?
Heubusch: A lot of questions but every one of them is a good one. First, this is my first work of fiction and so a lot of the answers to those questions unfolded for me over time as I was writing the book. I bought a lot of books on how to write “The Great American Novel”— but I didn’t read a single one of them until after I’d written my book and I think that served to my advantage.
Here’s what I did. I set up two different flat screens. I’d always have the chapter I was writing on the right-hand side and I’d have all my research on the terminal on the left. It was really useful to set things up that way because I could just easily interchange between a sentence I might be writing and a fact, as you said, that I might Google and pull down.
In The Shroud Conspiracy, there’s a great, great deal of information about religion, religious relics, lots of different fields of science, things that I might know 5 percent about. But in order to write the book—and hopefully do so in an interesting way — I needed to know 20-30 percent more. Of course, I didn’t want to weigh the reader down with too much scientific or religious detail, but I wanted to give enough to pique their interest or their imagination. So when I would come across a fact, some piece of the story that I felt would really be helped by elaborating on it, then that’s when I would go real-time, search for the important factual information about what I was writing and layer it in. I’d obviously be really careful just to try to get a fact in and not to get a sentence.
I wasn’t stealing any language in any way. A lot of times in doing that kind of research you have to be very careful that you essentially internalize facts and then in your own way explain to the reader the point that you’re trying to get across. I was able to write relatively quickly as a result of doing my research in a real-time basis like that. I think it helped me a great deal.
Lamb: You have traveled a lot. What importance do you think travel plays in writing a novel—to have a variety of travels under your belt?’
Heubusch: There’s the old adage about you don’t have to have gone to the moon to know it’s not made of cheese — and I agree.
Hopefully, you can’t tell the difference, in my writing, of places that I’ve been to and not been to. I hope that’s the case. Interestingly enough, I have been to most all the places that I wrote about and I do think that it was helpful because it gives you somewhat of a realistic starting point in the sense of confidence that the environment you’re describing really has some basis in truth. It allows you to elaborate and, if necessary, exaggerate from there and make the story as interesting as you can.
Lamb: How long did it take you to write the novel, from the day that you either thought of the idea or thought “I’m gonna come up with an idea and I’m gonna write”? Take us through that process.
Heubusch: Yeah, great question and I’ve been asked this one a lot. I think to readers it’s always an interesting question. This book took me approximately six months to write. I’m not sure why but a lot of people hear that and there’s some gasps heard when I say that — and I really don’t know why. I say that because I’ve not written 50 novels. My best friends are not the best writers on the planet so I don’t know how long it’s supposed to take you to write a fair piece of literature like this, but in my case for The Shroud Conspiracy I guess what I’d say is the environmental research that went into the book is about 35-40 years.
Meaning, I thought about this topic, not a plot specifically at all but the topic of the Shroud of Turin as a centerpiece for a great novel for many years since I was a senior in high school and I’d seen the documentary about the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. It piqued my interest and as a result, for many years I’ve followed the history of the controversy surrounding the Shroud.
But when I actually sat down to write, I knew that I needed to come up with a plot. I needed to develop an interesting story. So, I sat down and wrote it and finished entirely the first draft which was, from a plot perspective, not very much different at all from the final draft.
That process took six months.
Lamb: Wow. Ok, so what tips do you have for an aspiring author, perhaps somebody’s doing some drafts or short stories — and thinking maybe one day they’ll write a whole novel? What one tip would you have for an aspiring author?
Heubusch: Get started. I think most aspiring authors are “aspiring” because they stay in the aspiring stage. The aspiration stage is kind of exciting because you’re able to think about what world lies ahead, but you never really put pen to paper. It doesn’t become reality. It just stays an interesting idea. I think that stage is where a lot of people get stuck for a long time. Perhaps they are not practiced yet as writers so they’re a little afraid to launch off.From the standpoint of tips for aspiring great writers that are out there, beyond just
From the standpoint of tips for aspiring great writers that are out there, don’t let a lack of a complete story stop you from starting off. Some people are brilliant enough to have thought through an outline of a story and they know from the first page to the last where all the characters are going and who’s gonna enter into the story and exactly what’s gonna happen by which chapter. If that was the process of writing for me I think I might get bored pretty quickly. That doesn’t, in my mind, make for a lot of fun in the writing process.
For me, the story essentially unfolded just like it would for a reader, page by page. I didn’t have an idea exactly where the story was gonna go from chapter to chapter and I found myself laughing to myself or just smiling and wondering. I’d be in the shower the next day thinking about the plot, thinking a lot about where to go next and I think that made the process interesting for me, a bit like watching a miniseries on TV or whatever and being able to come back time after time to see what would unfold. That’s what made the process interesting for me so a big tip would
I’d be in the shower the next day thinking about the plot, thinking a lot about where to go next and I think that made the process interesting for me, a bit like watching a miniseries on TV or whatever and being able to come back time after time to see what would unfold. That’s what made the process interesting for me so a big tip would
That’s what made the process interesting for me so a big tip would be—Don’t wait until the cake is fully baked to think about selling it and what to do with it. I think just get started and have fun and enjoy the process of writing and let the story go with where it needs to go.
Lamb: That’s good. Well, The Shroud Conspiracy certainly has a lot of accolades that have been given to it since it released last month. Brad Thor, No. 1 New York Times bestselling author said: “The Shroud Conspiracy is an absolutely brilliant thriller. This riveting, intrigue-filled mystery is like nothing you’ve read before. Once you start you won’t be able to put it down.”
I can certainly attest to what Thor said. Once you’ve turned the last page you’re wanting to know what happens next. So …when’s the sequel?
Heubusch: Yeah, another good question. The sequel, according to my good publisher at Simon & Schuster will be a year from the time of publication of the first, so that would put it right at about Easter time of 2018. I’d love to, if I could get the story out sooner than that because it’s a great second half to the play. In my opinion, a lot of these sequels are what you might call Jaws 2. I never really think the sequels or the second movies or the third really measure up often to the original and the first. But in my case, I’m not really sure why, maybe it’s because I was really relaxed in the process of writing the sequel but I like the sequel as much or more than the first book. It might be a little unusual in that regard and I’m just happy about it. I’m happy it’s done and it’s in the can.
Lamb: One final question. Of course, during your day job, you are the Executive Director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Foundation so you’re completely surrounded by beauty — the mountains there in Simi Valley—but also by history. You literally sit in a building that’s dedicated to history—and presenting that inspirational story of President Reagan with storytelling techniques. Being around history so much there at the library, how do you see the role of both books and history in today’s world?
Heubusch: Yeah. I don’t think there’s enough of a role to be honest. I love fiction, I love non-fiction. Strangely enough, I’ve written a book that’s fictional but the kind of reading I like to do is non-fiction biographical. In some
I love fiction, I love non-fiction. Strangely enough, I’ve written a book that’s fictional but the kind of reading I like to do is non-fiction biographical. In some respects, it seems like it’s a best combination—history combined with a life story. And a life story in these cases might actually be factual but there’s some interpretation involved and a little bit of creative writing to keep a reader interested in someone’s life story. To me, that’s what I find genuinely interesting.
And to your question in a pointed way, I think we would all be better off if we were better informed about history in every conceivable facet. I think it would improve not only our decision-making in the present, but I also think it improves storytelling. It improves knowledge. And in improving knowledge, you improve arguments. You improve your ability to make decisions. And I just don’t think there’s enough good, in-depth history that resides in all of us.
While it may appear old-fashioned for people to sit down and read a good 400-page book, I just think it’s the best thing in the world for you—fiction or non-fiction. It sharpens the mind and we could all use a little bit of that.
Lamb: As a final note of full-disclosure, John Heubusch is both a dear friend and a client. I served as the literary agent for The Shroud Conspiracy and its sequel.