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God in the Life Of author Ben Jeapes

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AUTHOR Ben Jeapes tells Jo Duckles about his faith, science fiction, and his route to becoming a full-time writer.

I met Ben at his home in Abingdon where he took a break from writing about other worlds and not-yet-realised scientific possibilities to tell me his life-story over a coffee. Ben’s Dad was in the Army and his family moved around a lot when he was a child. A boarding school in Dorset provided consistency and a Christian group run by teachers helped him develop his faith.

Ben Jeapes in his study at his home in Abingdon. Photo: Jo Duckles

“I don’t ever remember not being a believer,” says Ben. As he grew up and developed as a Christian, Ben was also developing a passion for science fiction, especially short story collections written by Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Their collections included explanations of where their tales had come from. They inspired me and helped me understand how to develop and structure a story.”

Moving on to Warwick University to study Philosophy and Politics, Ben threw himself into Student Christian Movement (SCM). “They were more rooted in the real world than the Christian Union. They were accepting of gay people, for example, and we had speakers from other denominations and even faiths. My liberality is rooted in Jesus and scripture and my interpretation of those. Meanwhile I kept worshipping in fairly evangelical churches at the time though.”

While growing up Ben also regularly attended Christian youth camps that helped shape his faith. After university he began a career in publishing and communications, eventually becoming a technical writer. Meanwhile on the side his first science fiction short stories were published in Interzone magazine.

Since then Ben’s fiction career has gone from strength-to-strength with five novels published under his own name, a short story collection, and several more books and contributions written as a ghost writer. Ben’s biggest break as a novelist came from Working Partners, a company that develops ideas for children’s books, and sells them on to a publisher, complete with a commissioned writer. That saw Ben write the first three novels in the Vampire Plagues series, under the pseudonym Sebastian Rook. The books tell the story of three Victorian children fighting vampires.
“The plot for the first book was worked out before they hired me and I contributed ideas for the second and third,” says Ben, who was now earning pocket money through his writing but still needed his day job to make a living. Ben’s Working Partners editor then began working for another publisher, and hired him to write for a high profile client.

“A first book had been written, but they needed another writer to finish the series and offered it to me. I was earning more but still not enough to live on.”

The life-changing break came when the client’s agent asked Ben not just to write another series but to plan and develop it too. “I chucked in the day job and started writing from home. Since then enough work has been coming in to keep going. It is what I always wanted to do, but what I could never have imagined happening.”

For Ben, his hobby has become his work in a way that most people can only dream of. “I try to keep my writing between 9am and 5pm,” says Ben. “I try and work on one project in a morning, and a different one in an afternoon, or I might spend the afternoon editing and revising something.” As well as his own fiction and his ghost writing, Ben edits the quarterly newsletter of the Church in Abingdon, and a Classic Car Club magazine.

Needless to say he still loves reading science fiction and fantasy and watching the genre on the television. “I enjoy Firefly, Babylon 5 and Dark Matter. I try to avoid the multitude of Buffy rip-offs but I am working my way through Game of Thrones. I’m impressed by the new Star Trek: Discovery series.

“In terms of television I grew up when, if your parents decided you were going to be out at tea time, you would miss an episode of your favourite show. Some of them you would only see 30 years later when they were released on DVD.”

Ben has been to science fiction conventions, particularly Worldcon in America, and closer to home Bristolcon, which he describes as more “bookish” and therefore closer to his interests. However, he says he has never felt the need to dress up as a stormtrooper or a Klingon, or buy huge amounts of merchandise. “I have friends who light up at the opportunity to buy some piece of insignia from Battlestar Galactica, but that’s not me,” says Ben, whose home is remarkably free of aliens and space ships. The only science fiction paraphernalia evident is a Tardis icebox in his study (which he keeps his pens in), and another tiny Tardis next to his computer.

For research, Ben doesn’t always need to leave his home as much of his work is not set on earth and space travel would probably break the budget. However, he has been to some of the locations in his novel The New World Order, set in Hampton Court and White Horse Hill. “I’ve also written a couple of teenage fantasy novels set in Salisbury. My grandmother lived there and I’ve done several research trips just to make sure that I am getting the details correct.”

Christian science fiction isn’t a genre Ben has written reams of, but he does have an idea for a novel based in a fictional church setting where the golden couple of the youth group find the girl is pregnant and an older couple, one with MS, are considering a one-way trip to Switzerland. “I haven’t had experience of either scenario, but it would be looking at Christian attitudes to sin, given that to outsiders, Christianity can look like a list of don’ts. The apologetics is the important thing – not just ‘thou shalt not’ but why.”

Among Ben’s current projects is a contribution to a forthcoming series of biographies of famous people, in a similar vein to the Horrible Histories books (“but better”). Published by David Fickling Books, the series includes Elon Musk and Amelia Earheart. “I’m doing the one for Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron who became the world’s first computer programmer. It’s good stuff for a science fiction writer,” says Ben.

Ben also preaches about once a term at Christ Church, Long Furlong in Abingdon, where he worships. “I often use the Brick Testament as a visual aid. I used it when I had to preach on the Prophets of Baal.” Previously, Ben worshipped at St Aldate’s and St Ebbe’s in Oxford, moving to Christ Church in 2001.

Ben lives in Abingdon with Kerstin and her grown-up son.

God in the life of Stephen Lawhead

StephenLawheadAUTHOR Stephen Lawhead blends history, science fiction and fantasy into his popular novels. He tells Jo Duckles about his faith journey and his path to becoming a professional novelist based in Oxford.

I met Stephen in the home he shares with his wife, Alice, where evidence of his creative work, paintings and books, can be spotted everywhere. Stephen tells me his story which starts in Nebraska in the 1950s, with President Eisenhower in power and the Cuban Missile Crisis taking place during his formative years. He was raised in a Baptist family and made a personal commitment to Christ at university.

“Even for someone raised in the Church, there comes a time when you have to decide whether to move closer to Jesus and make your faith your own or to distance yourself. A lot of people distance themselves in a sort of rebellion. You have to do that to find out where you are and show that you are not just an extension of your parents,” says Stephen. “I did not rebel, as such, but I came to the conclusion that I really liked a lot of what the Church did, the people involved in it, its teachings – and in my first year at university decided that it would be for me.”

After an art degree, Stephen began a three year Masters in Theology at a seminary in Chicago which he abandoned within a few weeks  of finishing when he landed a job with Campus Life Magazine, an outreach of Youth for Christ International. “Along with my theological studies, I’d been taking extra classes in writing – something I had an itch to do. One evening after class, I was asked by the lecturer – who also happened to be a magazine publisher – if I would like to work for his magazine,“ says Stephen, who took the job and stayed for five years, before leaving to concentrate on writing fiction.

“For the magazine, I interviewed celebrities and sporting figures and wrote articles on anything of interest to high school and college-age people,” he says.  “The magazine was a great proving ground for writing and one day I decided to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and try my hand at fiction. I was naïve enough to think that I would write a book, sell it and then be up and running. But, if it didn’t work out there were enough magazines around that I could probably get another job.”

If you are not pedalling you are falling off

Stephen likens writing to riding a bike.  “If you are not pedalling you are falling off. What I learnt very quickly was that you must maintain a certain momentum in order to succeed. It’s about keeping your books on the shelf.”

Stephen considers that all of his books have a spiritual theme running through them.  “For example, in the fantasy series The Song of Albion, I look at true sovereignty. It occurred to me that church folk talk about Jesus as king, but most of us don’t have a very good idea of what a true king really is. For the ancient Celts, a king would have been a man who lives out of himself for his people – he spends his life sacrificially in every way. That, for me, became a picture of what true sovereignty looks like,” says Stephen. It was research for his Arthurian series, The Pendragon Cycle in the 1980s that brought the Lawhead family to the UK.

“Oddly enough, there wasn’t a lot of King Arthur material in Nebraska and when I came to the UK and toured some of the ancient sites they awakened the latent historian in me. It was fascinating to learn what the Romans got up to, for example – it was all new to me. And once I got started down that furrow I kept on ploughing,” says Stephen, who finds visiting an actual place to get a sense of the landscape, people, and atmosphere the best form of research.

“I remember sitting on a rock at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, overlooking Merlin’s Bay. I found out that at 3pm on a winter’s day, the sun is going down in the west and that the bay has completely filled up with water, and there are sea caves, and the rocks are alive with birds – well, just to observe something like that is easier than making it up. I used to go around with a notebook and take detailed notes but I quit because even that was getting in the way. But if I experience something, it will come back to me when I need it. I can unpack it later because I was there.”

Stephen and Alice lived in Oxford city centre and worshipped at St Aldate’s Church, where they found the Sunday School was great for their sons. They were confirmed as Anglicans by the Bishop of Pontefract to enable them to carry out duties including administering communion. They stayed at St Aldate’s until they moved to Austria, where Alice took a job at  the Schloss Mittersill Christian Conference Centre in the Alps.  After four years the couple moved back to Iffley in Oxford and, with a principle of worshipping at the church closest to their home, quickly became members of St Mary’s Church. There Alice has been involved in ongoing work to encourage more families with young children to join.

Travelling is close to the Lawheads’ hearts and when I met Stephen he had just returned from a promotional tour of the US that saw him travel 2,762 miles taking in the East Coast, Boston, Nashville, Atlanta and North and South Carolina, finishing with three days in New York. It may sound like a lot, but Stephen and Alice travel as often as they can. They were in Syria three days before the war broke out, and in Egypt during the fall of Mubarak. Both of these locations are used in Stephen’s latest series, Bright Empires.

So as 2015 starts Stephen, who works five days a week, using Saturday as a catch up day (and always taking Sundays off), has begun work on a fantasy epic that sees him return to his mythic history roots. His routine is to spend eight or nine months writing and three months perfecting a book, usually completing one each year.

Stephen and Alice have two grown-up sons, Drake and Ross. Stephen’s hobbies include walking, painting, music and home brewing.