They Dared Him to Write
BY Bud MacFarlane Jr.
October 24-30, 1999 Issue | Posted 10/24/99 at 2:00 PM
He is founder and director of the Mary Foundation, which sends Catholic audiotapes throughout the country, and CatholiCity.com Internet sites, specializing in interactive communications, chat rooms and e-mail discussion groups. More than 500,000 copies of his three novels are in print: Pierced by a Sword, Conceived Without Sin, and House of Gold. He spoke recently with Register correspondent Tim Drake.
Drake: Tell us how your first novel,
MacFarlane: The first novel started on a dare from my wife. A friend of mine was writing a novel and called me for advice on Marian apparitions, the end times, that kind of thing. In my hubris, I gave him writing advice for an hour. You know, “Your characters are too holy. You've got to make sure most of your protagonists are fallen-away Catholics, because that's what most Catholics are nowadays.”
After I got off the phone, I told my wife that my friend was lost. “You're a good writer. You should write that book,” she said. I wrote the first chapters that afternoon and evening, almost as a joke. My friends loved those first few chapters, and so we decided to go for it. It was also my wife's idea to see if we could give them away the same way we gave away audiotapes.
Have you always wanted to be a novelist?
I never wanted to be a novelist. I was surprised how easily it came to me. I love it. I've been an executive, a teacher, a cook, a salesman, even a UPS driver. It was the first kind of work that ever “wore out my brain.” My friends and family think it's ironic how the seemingly endless stream of so-called dead-end jobs I had after college turned out to be such great training for making up stories.
The most satisfying part is how effective novels turned out to be for evangelizing. They're almost stealthy. Fallen-away Catholics are open to reading novels, even if they won't crack open a nonfiction religious book or listen to a Catholic audiotape.
You've just published your third novel, House of Gold. What is it about?
House of Gold started with the image of a man falling and getting back up, falling down and getting back up, time and again. He was carrying a cross or a plow (it gets fuzzy here), but he wasn't Christ. The falling man turned out to be Buzz. The theme was simple: Perseverance is what saves souls. There is also a strong theme of God the Father's desire to make his children fertile, physically and spiritually, against all reason and odds. The story itself is about what happens to two Catholic families when a computer problem wipes out the world's infrastructure. There is a lot of suffering and a lot of death in the story. It's the most gritty and gripping writing I've ever done.
What has been the reaction to your novels? How have your novels touched readers?
I receive and answer over 10,000 letters and e-mails every year, most from readers, and the vast majority are very positive, though a small number of readers find them a bit too earthy. Because the characters in my stories face modern problems, much of the subject matter deals with divorce, adultery, depression, godlessness, etc. That kind of thing is unavoidable in a contemporary Catholic plot. But the same can be said for subject matter such as redemption, conversion and grace.
The biggest thrill I can get as a Catholic writer is to hear a reader tell me that they've started praying the rosary, or returned to confession, or even, stopped using the pill. This last happens quite often. It seems like I get a letter every week with a picture of a baby born in no small part due to his parents' change of behavior regarding the Church's beautiful teaching on openness to life. Other readers, some in second and third marriages, are inspired to seek annulments because they want to receive the sacraments again. Many readers tell me that for the first time, they feel like it's “normal” to be a practicing Catholic.
There is a supernatural dynamic to these conversions that goes well beyond any particular skill I have as a writer. Before I start a novel, I send a letter to over 1,400 priests, nuns, deacons and brothers asking them to inter-cede for me and for all who will read the novel. I attribute many of the conversions inspired by my novels to the graces merited by these prayers, and by the prayers of the readers' relatives, with some of these relatives doubtlessly part of the Church Triumphant in heaven. Logic can change a mind, but only grace can change a heart.
You send audiotapes out as well, don't you, in the Mary Foundation?
Both the Mary Foundation and my novels were unplanned; they were accidents. Soon after we were married, my wife (who is also a Notre Dame grad with a degree in engineering) volunteered us to organize a weekend family conference in Cleveland.
As an afterthought, we decided at the last minute to give away free copies of an audiotape of one of my dad's lectures, despite my dad's warning that he didn't want publicity. It was going to be a one-time thing, but we had tapes left over, and so we told people to write to us. Well, there were some immediate and spectacular conversions from the tapes, and people wrote to us for more, sometimes enclosing donations. Protestants became Catholics. Fallen-away Catholics reverted. It was and remains very exciting.
We made more tapes. Within a year or two, we were giving away hundreds of thousands of tapes and I reluctantly quit my secular job as a national marketing director because our little “home” apostolate was exploding in growth. My wife has always been responsible for the bulk of the computer programming, purchasing and shipping systems design.
She's the brains; I'm the figure-head. She hacks and I yack. The real work, however, is done by tens of thousands of Mary Foundation lay distributors who literally hand the tapes out to family and friends as tools for evangelization.
We rarely advertise. Most people “discover” us when somebody hands them a tape or a book. We continue to offer all the tapes free of charge, and we don't send out fund-raising letters. Our models for this particularly Franciscan way of doing things are St. Maximilian Kolbe and Mother Teresa. Not fund raising forces us to be the most efficient apostolate in the country, and to rely on God, not our cleverness, for our funding.
What are the aims of the Mary Foundation?
The Mary Foundation's primary mission is simple: to spread total consecration to Immaculate Mary to as many people worldwide by distributing free information as quickly as possible. It's pretty much cribbed directly from St. Maximilian Kolbe and his work as the founder of the Militia Immaculata. He believed that total consecration was the essential tool for converting every soul in the world to Catholicism.
That's my goal in life: to help convert everybody in the world to Catholicism. Before you laugh, think about it, and you'll realize that this is the only goal in life for any Catholic. Of course, taking stock of my own faults, sinfulness, and lack of worldly influence, it only makes sense that such an organization would recruit others to help. That is the essence of the mystical body of Christ. We all have a role to play.
So we provide tools for evangelization to enable others to do the work. We ask our distributors to pray every day for all who will read and hear our materials. This is why the materials have to be affordable, even free. So everybody can take part, not just the well-off. It always struck me as tragic that those Catholics most willing to evangelize are those who can't afford the materials: one-income families, often home-schoolers, who can't rub two dimes together, much less buy 50 $10 tapes or 25 $15 books to give to their friends.
Ten years ago, this system sounded even crazier, and we spent a lot of time explaining our free materials/no fund-raising efforts, but the people who needed the tapes and books caught on quickly. Many Catholic materials, serving a glaring need in our postmodern pagan society, are primarily designed to catechize.
With our emphasis on technology, it was only natural for us to jump headlong into the Internet before most people had e-mail. Again, we concentrate on providing those services which have the deepest impact on conversion, on the fallen away, the searching soul.
The human contact that chat rooms and e-mail discussion groups offer does this. We're now branching out into conferences, and soon, trying our first ever “spinoff” — again, copying the secular media model, used mostly in television — that is, helping a new apostolate for Catholic men called the Joseph Foundation [www.catholic-men.com] get up and running. It will be independent of the Mary Foundation, run by a very experienced businessman and now full-time Catholic missionary, Jim Prusa.
What are your future hopes for the Mary Foundation and for your writing?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I'm never sure. Our Lady could decide to shut us down tomorrow, and I would be happy with that. If not, I would hope that some day soon, every practicing Catholic in the United States, Canada, England, Ireland and Australia was distributing our books and tapes to those who don't practice. Then we'll work on non-English speaking countries. We'll work on our Protestant brothers and sisters to bring them back to the fold. When everybody's Catholic, the project is complete.
As for my writing, I would like to adjust things so I can write at least one adult novel per year until I die. I'm only 37, and I feel that I know less about how to write a good novel than when I started. I've got a lot to learn. In a perfect world, I would also write young-adult fiction, children's books, and books for toddlers. With guidance from my spiritual director,
I've come to terms with the fact that writing is my calling in life, besides being a husband and father, so I might as well go for it. Unlike my friends, who wanted to be engineers or businessmen or carpenters, I never had any ambition to be anything besides a dad, so this is all new to me. I'm sure I'll write a couple of stinkers along the way, but I'm also sure I could write, with God's grace, another couple dozen novels before it's all said and done. Every line in the New Testament is a novel in embryo, so there's no lack of good material.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Readers can obtain a free copy of any of Bud MacFarlane Jr.'s novels by visiting http://www.CatholiCity.com
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