of the Month
Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Secrets by Frederick Ramsay. I really enjoyed the wit, the humor, the characters and the philosophy; in short, I had to read more. I included Secrets on my "Top Ten of 2006" because it is a book I shared with people and one that I continued to think about when I finished.
When I contacted Dr. Ramsay about an interview he turned out to be as congenial as his main character, Ike Schwartz, always with a joke or a story to emphasize his point. I noticed when reading his CV that everything that this man has focused on in his life has to do with molding life at some level: embryology, teaching, drafting legislation, publishing in peer journals, practicing as clergy, and now writing fiction. It is not the least bit surprising that his fictional works have rich, deep personalities, even for minor characters.
Dr. Ramsay: You’re welcome. I received your list of questions. Do you want to go through them?
Beth: Let’s just start with the first one and you can tell me a little bit about yourself and your life.
Dr. Ramsay: Okay. You asked about a common thread throughout
my career since I was at one time or another, an academic, clergyman,
and now a writer. I don't see one in particular. There are people in this
world who have stories to tell, and whether they write them, teach, or
preach, in the end they want to create an impression, to impart some bit
of information. I guess I am one of those people.
For example, we are writing a study guide for the Judas book aimed at Bible study and reading groups. It is another way to reach more people.
My writing career started a long time ago. You mentioned Washington and Lee, where I got my degree in Biology. I was dating a girl from Randolph Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg. They had the biggest bomb shelter I had ever seen. This was 1955, you understand, and bomb shelters were all the rage. The Mellon family had built the bomb shelter to protect their art collection from a nuclear war. So there I was, looking at all these paintings and I dreamed up the idea of somebody stealing the collection. Years later my wife told me I should write that story, so I set it in the fictional town of Picketsville. Anybody who has been in the Lexington/ Buena Vista area will recognize the place. (NOTE: Dr. Ramsay pronounced it B-you-na Vista, like a local Virginian would).
The original for Artscape (inelegantly titled Schwartz) was written over 25 years ago. I showed it around to friends, one of whom passed it on to a Hollywood agent who liked the style but declared it would never sell. He wanted me to be a Robert Ludlum, or somebody like that, and write a "the fate of the world hanging in the balance" book. Artscape was not one of them, and after trying to sell a second book with the characteristics he asked for with no success, I decided that probably I had better things to do.
You asked me what it was about Judas that caught my attention, and we'll talk more about it later. But it was the next book I attempted. After I became full time clergy and studied more about him, I decided that I didn't like the particular point of view that Judas was just a bad guy. So after I retired I got serious about the book. Somewhere along the way I was steered to a writer's conference. I sent the first 50 pages to Raymond Strait at the Southern California Writer’s Conference. He read it and declared it a sure fire "Best Seller." I wondered if he meant best seller as in, "By Love Possessed." How many of your readers remember that 1960’s pop book?
By this time I had a very good agent who was trying to sell books for me. We were exploring the niche of Christian mysteries at the time and I submitted one to the Malice Domestic Contest. It didn't win, but Poison Pen Press came back to me and said they wanted a sequel to Artscape, so I reworked the contest entry into Secrets.
Beth: The publication of Judas seems to be timely, with the publicity on the television about the Gospel of Judas.
Dr. Ramsay: Yes, but I’m afraid I missed that wave. I started writing the book in 1996. Publishing is a funny business. If you are not going to sell around 30,000 copies the large publishers won't buy it, and agents don't like to go to small presses. So Judas languished for years.
Beth: And what about Buffalo Mountain? I noticed that you relied less on your main characters, Ike and Ruth, although the part they played was important to the overall storyline.
Dr. Ramsay: I am very fond of the characters in Buffalo Mountain. Greg Hurwitz once said, “Anyone who tells you that the characters write the story is lying." But for me, it is true—characters have individual personalities and there are things they will and will not do. Because of that, they frequently do write their own part of the story.
I'm not good at only writing about one person. The books are about Picketsville, its people, and how they interact. In Buffalo Mountain, Ike just wants people to do their job.
As far as what's next, I'm writing Stranger Room. The title
comes from the colonial era. People who lived on stage coach routes or
near them would sometimes have a room in their house that had its own
entrance and was not connected to any of the other rooms. The room might
be leased overnight to strangers, hence the name "stranger room".
I noticed one of these in Brownsburg, Virginia and thought, at first,
I was looking at a duplex, but knew that would be odd for an 1820’s
Georgian home. Anyway, Stranger Room is two locked-room mysteries,
the first set during the Civil War and the second in the present; same
room, same circumstances, solve one, solve them both.
Of course some of the characters are more vivid than others, some have more substance. And some of them are as real to me as my children. For example, I lifted Colonel Bob (a character in Buffalo Mountain) right out of my congregation in Maryland. I didn't have to change him at all. The real Colonel Bob was in the United States Army horse cavalry. One time he told me, "Padre, the worse day of my life, except when EdieB (his wife) died, was when they took away my horse." They put him in a tank. He hated it.
The easiest book I've ever wrote was Impulse. I went to my 50th class reunion on a campus where I grew up as a Campus Kid. Frank Smith is just a fantasy version of me. (What writer wouldn't want his book to be made into a movie or a television series?) All the things described in the book are real, the buildings, the uniforms and especially the cave. I remembered it, realized what could have happened, and went home and wrote the book as fast as I could type.
You asked about other things I have written and how they might have made a difference. I am proud of the Baltimore Declaration (insert link). A few of my fellow clergy and I got together and wrote a paper patterned after the Barman Declaration (A document written by Karl Barth and the confessing church in Nazi Germany in response to Hitler's national church). It started a small fire storm in the church, and all because we insisted that Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life represented the orthodox position of the church’s teaching. It is the only time I ever got hate mail from clergy; and they would sign it, "Yours in Christ."
There is also some Maryland legislation I am pleased with. There was a perceived shortage of physicians and medical schools were under considerable pressure to increase enrollment, open more schools. The problem was that rural areas had the shortage and cities had a surplus. I drafted legislation that created a state-wide regional medical program, a new type of health care delivery system. It made a point of sending students to outlying areas. Somebody did a study at one point that showed that newly graduated interns tended to settle where their wife came from, I don’t know for certainty that that was operative but now there are more doctors in rural areas.
Lobbying in the state is more fun that at the federal level. At the state level you literally stand in the lobby and walk legislators to their offices and make your pitch on the way. At the federal level—forget it. Congressmen have a limited idea what the issues are. They rely on a well paid staff to keep up with everything and tell them how to vote. The benefit of lobbying at the federal level is that you can eat in the Senate Dining Room.
You mentioned that you like the way I write Ruth Harris. Men writing a woman character is touchy; this Mars/Venus thing is real, and my wife keeps me honest about it. There's a popular author right now—who will remain nameless—with a tough, potty-mouth, female cop character—who will also remain nameless. She is, in my view, an overdone male fantasy and I don't care for it. But then his books are popular and who am I to argue with success? I do like Ruth, and I like tweaking her. That would be Ike's job, of course.
Now back to Judas: A Gospel of Betrayal; It is more than historical fiction. It is a Midrash, a fictional representation of a character from scripture intended to elucidate that scripture and give it depth. Judas is a Christian Midrash. Judas is depicted in a variety of ways in the Bible. For example he appears in the Gospel of John as an arch villain but Peter, in Acts, is very forgiving. He doesn't castigate Judas but portrays him as a man that had a part in their ministry. Then you look at John, written a 100 years later you have the tradition of betrayer. I don't want to argue with the “Beloved Apostle” (NOTE: I can hear the grin on the other end of the phone line here-Beth) however, Judas was the only disciple that Jesus ever called friend.
The other thing is the money. Judas was given the money to manage. At the time the only people with an understanding of numbers and simple computation were the antecedents of present day Arabs. Judas must have been a very shrewd person, special in this group. He bargained, exchanged money, paid their taxes, and so on. None of the fishermen would have lasted 10 minutes with that responsibility. Even Matthew, who was a tax gatherer, only collected money, he didn’t manage it. So what do we know about Judas? Well, he had to be a Jew. He had to do complex things with money. Where did he come from? We don’t know. For me, that's where Judas of the Galilee comes in. There is a reference to him in ACTS and he is chronicled in Josephus as the man who led a revolt in/about 8 or 10 AD in Sepphoris. Judas of the Galilee decided to confront the Romans, but his rebellion failed. The penalty was that every man, boy, and child were slaughtered and the women and girls taken as slaves. Josephus writes that the road to Nazareth was lined with crosses bearing the bodies of hundreds of men. And what do you think that the neighboring town did after they saw a road like that? Well, rebellions were not a common thing. The Romans were the Nazi’s of their day. Anyway, I think the story is plausible.
By making Judas of the Galilee Judas Iscariot’s grandfather it gives him a motivation to strike against the Romans and a back story. It also lets you look at the conditions of the time. There was no monolithic Judaism until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. After that time the Mishna, the formal ordering of Judaism, is drafted and the groundwork was laid for modern Judaism. There have always been questions about which sect Jesus belonged to. Was he a Pharisee, a Sadducee or another?
The end of the first century BC and the beginning of the first century AD is a positive goldmine for books. (Herod, for example, was an area rival of Cleopatra, her barge with Marc Antony aboard stopped in Tarsus—the birthplace of St. Paul) So it is fascinating that Jesus, this itinerant rabbi from a small town in the Galilee, was even noticed.
Where Judas intersects with the gospels, it is orthodox. I do not make Jesus anything but the person depicted in the canonical gospels, but it is not a gospel. I attempted to write a “gateway” book. You may not be a person who would read the Bible, but maybe you'll read JUDAS and then look at the gospel to see if I got it right.
Beth: I want to thank you again for taking time to talk with
me on behalf of MyShelf.com. I really enjoyed our conversation and look
forward to reading Stranger Room next year.
Doctor Ramsay continues the portrayal of favorite Picketsville residents and friends and introduces new characters that are sure to charm their way into your heart.
The big outside world just can’t seem to leave peaceful Picketsville, Virginia, alone. Ike recognizes the ex-Russian operative who lies on the border between his jurisdiction and the Commonwealth’s. It is worrisome to him that a man who was reported dead several years ago should look so good; at least it is good for a man with bullet holes in him. Ike has the choice of calling in the troopers and Feds or taking this one himself; but it is too much of a puzzle and hits too close to home to let go for now.
The story runs up and down I-81 between the extremes of our nation’s capital and Buffalo Mountain in Floyd County. Buffalo Mountain is a real place in Virginia's Blue Ridge, and the reality of feuding and fighting, moonshine and poverty that is America’s stereotype of mountain people remains evident in the 21st Century. Ike’s big question is who is trying to make a professional extermination look like a family squabble, and why leave the body where he will be forced to make the identification? What is the message he is missing?
In the same way that Floyd County is in the in the ominous shadow of Buffalo Mountain, Picketsville will forever lie in the shadow of the choices made by Ike Schwartz.
2007's Honorary List