Episode #7: Published Nov 21, 2018
Camron Wright, author of “The Rent Collector” and “The Orphan Keeper,” attributes his becoming an author to somewhat of a mid-life crisis. What do we do when we feel like life comes to a standstill? How can we seek and find God’s direction for our lives while maintaining hope when answers are slow in coming? Is his guidance always manifest in miraculous ways? Wright shares his personal experience in this week’s episode of All In.
Read a full transcript of the episode below
MORGAN JONES: Many years ago on a business trip, a waitress at a New York restaurant made a comment in passing to author, Camron Wright, and his wife. She, like many of us, was struggling to understand God's plan for her life. Her simple comment made an impression on the young husband and father who had yet to find what God had in store for him. Today we're talking with novelist Camron Wright, award-winning author of The Rent Collector and The Orphan Keeper. Camron tells us the story of his journey to writing books for living as well as other lessons he has learned along the way.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, "What does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Morgan Jones, and I'm excited to talk with Camron Wright. Camron, thank you so much for being here with us today.
CAMRON WRIGHT: Morgan, thank you for the invitation. It's a pleasure to be here.
MJ: So full disclosure, I recently was able to read a talk, courtesy of your daughter who I used to attend church with, that you and your wife gave at a fireside. And in this fireside, you talked about God's plan for his children. And you specifically started out by telling this story about an experience that you and your wife, Allison, had at dinner in New York with a waitress. I wondered if you might be willing to share that story, kind of as a jumping-off point for our conversation today.
CW: Yeah, you bet. Absolutely. So we were in New York, on business, we were there with another couple and we were out to dinner that night. And so we, you know, went to the restaurant and sat down and the waitress approached. And I find most waitresses are certainly pleasant, right? But this waitress was so over the top nice. I mean, she was just bubbly and kind and chatty and she was just excellent. I mean, so much so that as she walked away from the table, all of the conversation at the table was still about that waitress and how amazing that she was, and just, you know, she just had a light about her. And so we chatted about that and then a few minutes went by, and she came back to take our order. And when she did, her countenance had completely changed. She was really quiet and it looked like she was kind of fighting back tears. And it was so dramatic that when she finally got to me and then said, You know "What would you like?" I couldn't help but ask if something was wrong. And she was biting her lip, she was trying to hold it in but she couldn't and tears started to roll down her cheeks. And she finally just said, you know, I'm so sorry. She said, "I was supposed to get off today, she said, "it was my birthday. I was going to take your guys' order, and then I was supposed to get off. And when I went back to tell the manager, he told me that he'd let somebody off instead, that I couldn't, you know, I couldn't leave."
And he did it, you know, just really to spite her, and it was just kind of the last straw in really a string of, I guess, trials and her life. And so as she was kind of relating this, she looked heavenward and she wasn't really talking to me or to the table at the time, it was more to herself, but she just said, she said, "I just wish I knew what God had in store for me."
And it was just really this moment that really touched me because I have also been in that position and I think, you know, everybody has. We've had these moments where we just think you know, is God there? Is he listening? And just to see that and be a part of that was really profound, it had really an impact on my life. And later when, you know, to kind of conclude that story, as she came back later, I pulled her aside and I took some money out and we gave it to her and we said, you know, "Hey, go buy yourself a nice birthday present. We want you to know that we care about you and things are going to be okay." And you know, you could just see the light in her eyes come back and think you know, things were going to be okay. But again, I've always remembered that. And I think you know, I wasn't helping her that day, she was really helping me to kind of understand that, kind of, we're all sometimes in the same boat that we all kind of wonder if God is there, and you know, so that's the waitress story.
MJ: Yeah. Well, I think the thing that I love about that story is that it's so relatable. It's something all of us, I think, have had that moment where we look, heavenward word and we think, all right, where are you at? What's going on here? And for you, Camron, you have had kind of an interesting journey to this career as a writer. And I wondered if that made that experience with that waitress stand out even more to you over time, as you've reflected on that seeing God's hand in your own life. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey to this career as an author?
CW: Yeah, sure. Absolutely. So I'm not an English major, right, I didn't come up through those ranks, I'm kind of a business guy. And writing, for me, was really midlife crisis experience. Now, when I say that I need to clarify, you know, nothing to do with my wife or family, that was all great, it was sort of this professional midlife crisis. We had some businesses that we'd sold, and I took some time off to build a home and as that was kind of winding down, I needed to, you know, I needed to go do something, right. I mean, I'm kind of the personality, I need to wake up and feel like I'm making a difference in the world. And I was struggling to find that I, you know, I thought well, I'll start another business. But I didn't know what and you have to have an idea, right? And I didn't know what to do. And so it was just this, this time in my life where I was just struggling to really feel like I was making a difference like I was finding my path and I couldn't find it, I didn't know what to do. I remember telling my wife at the time, you know, "If I woke up and I realized I wanted to be a doctor, that would be great. I'd have yeah, 12 years of medical school, never mind that I faint at the sight of blood, right? That could be overcome if I just knew if I had a direction. It was getting up and not knowing what to do, what direction to go, I was really struggling. And it was kind of during this time, my wife was in a couple of book clubs and she'd bring these books home, and I pick them up and I'd read them. And I remember telling her, I could write this stuff, you know, and I think she, she kind of looked at me like oh, okay, didn't think much about it. And then I had an experience which kind of prompted me to start. So I had some, I was doing some artwork at the time just to kind of keep busy and I had a piece in a gallery and I was out looking for some wood to make some frames with. And I was at an exotic wood store. And this store, it was more of a warehouse, but they had purple wood and black wood and woods from all over the world. And this old man was kind of taking me around, showing me this different wood. And we came to a stack and I said, "Oh, what's this?"
And he kind of got a little gleam in his eye and he said, "Oh, I'm glad you asked. He said that's actually not exotic wood at all. It's just maple. So there's nothing exotic about it, we carry it because it's in demand, we sell it, but it's just plain maple."
And next to it, I noticed there was a stack of wood that had all these cool black lines through and it was just beautiful. And I said, "Oh, what's this?"
And that's where he kind of smiled and he nodded and he said, "Well, let me tell you," he said, "that's actually the exact same type of wood, it's maple." But he said "there's a beetle that will eat into the tree," he said, "if the tree's strong enough, if it survives, then these burrows grow into these, you know, beautiful black lines, which make the wood rare and beautiful and more valuable."
And I remember thinking like that is such a cool analogy on life, right? If we can withstand the adversity, then we become more rare, more beautiful, more valuable. And so I went home that night, really with the intention of just writing that down thinking, you know, I don't know, I'll use it in a Sunday school lesson sometime or who knows?
MJ: Tuck that away.
CW: Yeah, but I'll write it down, I'll use it somewhere. And so again, this is sort of in the midst of all this, what am I going to do with my life? And I sat down, and I started to type and I just thought, hey, this might not be a bad first chapter for a manuscript. And so I just kept typing and I wrote a couple of what I thought were, you know, okay chapters, and then I thought, I got to tell my wife, right? That I'm thinking, because I'm a guy who, I can't spell a word if it has more than three letters, right? And so it was, would have been very out of character for me to say, "Hey, I'm gonna, I'm writing a book." And so I thought, I have to tell her. Well, that night, I kind of hummed and hawed, and I finally, you know, blurted out, "Hey, I'm thinking of writing a book." And she was just silent, it was just like crickets, right? And then after a minute of thought, she said, "Actually, I think you could write a great book." And it was really just the support and help that I needed. And then I, you know, for the next several weeks, I banged out and got my first manuscript, and that's kind of how I started.
MJ: Wow. And at this point, how many kids did you have?
CW: At that point, we would have had four kids. Yeah.
MJ: That has to be an interesting spot to be in as a husband and father, kind of feeling like there's something else that you're supposed to do, but not quite knowing what that is.
CW: Yeah, it was a real paradox, right? It was a real struggle because I felt like I should try and write. And yet, at the same time, it wasn't easy, right? I mean, there are all sorts of roadblocks, and you'd have times where you'd think, "I'm just not capable of this. I can't do it." You know, "What am I thinking? I'm not an English guy. Why am I trying this?" And, so yeah, those doubts and those struggles, were all there.
MJ: Yeah. So you have this manuscript and I think that this is interesting, as I read the talk that you gave, you shared a little bit of this experience. And then I was reading, Christmas by Accident, and I couldn't help but notice some parallels between your life and this experience and writing a manuscript and trying to find an editor and the life of the male lead in the book, Carter. And he has this experience where he thinks, you know, editors are only in big cities, and he kind of stumbles upon one and you had a similar experience.
CW: Yeah, and of course, that all is in the book because it's really what I went through, and it kind of mirrors a lot of what I went through there. Yeah, so I finished this manuscript, well I actually didn't finish it, rather, I was working on it. And then I hit this, sort of this roadblock, where I just I couldn't, I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do. And I remember telling my wife at the time if I just knew a book editor, you know, and I had no idea whether there even was such an occupation. I mean, we're in Utah, right, and so I'm thinking, well, there probably are book editors in New York, where the big publishers are located. But I've never met a book editor, I don't know anybody in the publishing industry. And so that's where I was frustrated, realized that there's nothing I can do, and so I set the manuscript aside. Around that time, I had a friend I'd run into, he owned the "Hello Window Store" franchise, and I was looking, I figured, okay, my manuscripts not going to make me any money, right> And so I better do something and I went to meet with him, he wanted me to sell windows for him. I sat down and met with him and it didn't take very long for me to realize I'm not a great salesman, right, this job wasn't for me, so I turned him down. And that just made him more anxious and he kept, you know, saying, "Please, come. I think you'd really do a great job." And so I finally relented.
It took about three months to realize selling is not for me. And I told him I was going to quit, but he said, "Hey," you know, "would you just stay around until we find somebody else?" And so that was kind of all going on at the same time I was working on this manuscript. And so I hit the roadblock in the manuscript, two days later, I was in the store and a woman came in, and she was working with another salesman there at the store. And so kind of as a courtesy, if the salesman wasn't in, you would show their customer, the salesman's customer, the windows, and so I did that. And then, she had a friend with her, and after I showed her these windows that she had purchased through this other salesman, her friend pointed to me and said, "Well, I'd like you to come out to my home and measure windows." And I said, "Well, I'll have Cody," who was the other salesman, "I'll have him come out." And she said, "No, I would like you to come out." And I thought, well, you know what, I mean, really, it was the other lady who was Cody's customer, not mine. And so yeah, okay, fine, whatever, I'll go measure the windows and so I told her, I'd come out. Well, that night, I got a call from Cody and he was livid, right? He thought I was stealing his customers. And I tried to explain, hey, you know, I was just trying to be helpful and it doesn't matter to me, I'm leaving anyway, so you go, you take the appointment. And then he wouldn't, he said no. And that was really peculiar, because he was a very aggressive salesman, right? And so I said, no, really, I think you should. And I tried a second time to get him to go to this appointment and he said no, and then he hung up. And I was pretty angry, right? Because I'm thinking he's, he's accusing me of something that I don't think I'm guilty of. And so I kind of stewed about it for a little while called him again and said, "Look, I'm not going you really need to go."
MJ: You're like, "I don't even want to be a salesman."
CW: Yeah, I said, "I'm leaving anyway, so I don't care." And he still refused and so finally, I just threw up my hands and said, like, fine, dude, whatever, I'll go, you know. And she lived up by the University of Utah. And I remember I went in, I was, you know, just kind of frustrated and angry. My goal was to get in, measure the windows and get out, so I'm sure I wasn't very nice. I measured her windows, and then, in my one lone single attempt to be friendly, on my way out, I said, "Oh, I see your professor at the University." It was obvious to me that she was, you can tell, right? They just kind of they have that,
MJ: The professor vibe.
CW: Yeah, that thing about them. And there were books stacked everywhere and so it was obvious to me that she was a professor, and she kind of tipped her head and she paused, and she said, "Well, no, I'm not a professor. I'm a book editor." And it was just this moment of like, wow. And if, by the time I walked out, I'd given her contractor pricing on her windows, and she had agreed to read my manuscript. And it was just this really amazing moment where I thought, okay, maybe I do need to push forward. And indeed, kind of her advice helped me to realize I could solve my problems, I could finish this manuscript, I could move on. And then it was not very, you know, a couple of years later, I was able to get the publishing contract for "Letters for Emily." So it was pretty amazing.
MJ: That is incredible. So I'm curious, when you give the book editor this book, obviously, I feel like I would be so nervous, handing my work over to someone. What was her feedback for you like?
CW: Yeah, it was really funny, and this will kind of give you an idea of where, where I was at in my writing career. She read the manuscript, I went over to her home, and she was very completely blunt, very honest, which is great to be as a book editor, right? And she said, "Camron, I want to tell you," she said, "I see a glimpse of hope in your writing." She's like, "I think I see a spark here, there's something to it." And then she said, "But I want to tell you, you're using way too many adverbs." And I kind of nodded and agreed, and I said, "Oh, yeah, that's, I realize that's a problem I've had, I'll fix that." And then as I'm walking to the car, you know, I'm thinking what, of course, what's an adverb, right? I couldn't remember, I was a business guy, right? Yeah, I'd learned that in school but I couldn't remember. And so yeah, it gives you an idea of really how far I've come.
MJ: That's hilarious, I love that. So we mentioned that this character in Christmas by Accident, Carter, he kind of has a similar experience. I'm curious, in your other books, have there been any autobiographical pieces of those books? Because the other books are a little bit heavier than Christmas by Accident.
CW: Yeah, I mean, as a writer, you can't help but sort of interject those experiences, right, these little bits of life into your writing. And so there will always be those situations. Probably, well, I think in all of them, but really, maybe in like "Letters for Emily," for example, which was my first book, and it's the story of this grandfather. And a lot of the experiences, he has a favorite granddaughter, and my own grandfather had a favorite grandchild, and it wasn't me, I can tell you that. But this grandfather writes these poems and then letters to his favorite granddaughter, and a lot of those experiences in there are experiences I actually had with my kids. And again, I would, I have always kind of saved those, I would write them down, stick them in a folder and so when it came time to write that book, I would pull those out and work those in. And so certainly in "Letters for Emily," there was that. In all the books, there's a little bit of that.
MJ: Yeah. So it sounds like you are a real record keeper, you've mentioned several times, writing things down so that you could go back to them. What role does that play for you in being able to recognize God's hand in your life?
CW: That's a very good question. I try, the experiences I write down are usually little stories or little anecdotes, or little things that are just sort of lessons of life if you will. And I don't know why I write those down, and maybe just because, hey, that was kind of cool. You know, I mean you'll forget if you don't write it down. But I think they are sort of little records of the purpose of life, of the things that are valuable in life. And therefore, because they're sort of records of values and things that are important, and I think that means their little, maybe whispers from God, if you will.
MJ: Yeah, absolutely. So I want to talk a little bit about your advice to someone who might find themselves in a similar situation, you called it a midlife crisis, I'm not sure if it totally is. But what would be your advice to maybe a young dad who finds himself in a situation like yours? Maybe he's had a business and he's like, I don't know what I'm supposed to do. What would you say to someone like that?
CW: Yeah, and you know, I don't have any magic answers other than you just have to follow your heart. I had somebody wants to say, "Passion finds a way." And I've kind of love that saying, because you know, you wake up and you sometimes think well, it doesn't make any sense, because I'm trying all of these things, and it's not working. Well, just because some days it's not working doesn't necessarily mean you shouldn't follow that path. Now it may, so I, you know, I don't want to be the one to stand up and just say always move forward. Because maybe there are times in our life, and I've had those experiences where I've had experiences tell me that, hey, you shouldn't be going down this path. And so you have to kind of, you know, make your own judgment, do your best, but you just have to keep working at it and keep trying, because even the things that you're supposed to do are never east, right?
CW: I mean, look at any of the accounts in the Scriptures, right? Nothing was easy for any of them. And so life does take a lot of effort. That was one of the really the lessons that I loved from The Orphan Keeper. Taj's story is this story of amazing miracles, coincidences if you want to call him that, that are really unbelievable. But in every single case, it was Taj coming to a dead end and saying no, there's more, I can feel it. And he just wouldn't give up, he wouldn't take no for an answer. And so I think that kind of taught me that we need to sometimes get out of our chair, that if we just sit there and think I'll wait for the miracle, that's probably not going to happen. We need to get out of our chair, we need to go do something, we need to make it make a difference. When we do that, then on occasion, the miracles will come.
MJ: Yeah. I would love to talk a little bit more about some of the characters in your book, you mentioned Taj. Are there other characters that you feel like you've seen this theme of kind of discovering what was happening all along around them throughout the stories? Because I think I feel like I saw that in The Rent Collector, as well. How have you learned about this principle of discovering God's hand through the characters in your books?
CW: And if we want to take like a broad view of that question, so The Rent Collector, a lot of that story came about, because I've been amazed, really for years, about the lessons and morals that we see repeat over and over in classical literature. And I'm talking about morals and lessons like "don't give up hope," "people deserve second chances," you know, stories of redemption, which really, The Rent Collector is a story of redemption, right?
CW: And so you have these morals that you can take literature from 1000 years ago, a hundred years ago, these morals repeat over and over again. And I've always just been fascinated by that. And I mean, you know, because you have to ask why? The "Cinderella" story and The Rent Collector are really a perfect example. So you can take any culture, any, you know, group of people in any period of time, you can take even isolated cultures, and they all have their own "Cinderella" story. And, you know, I scratch my head and I think, how's that possible? You know, why is that? Well, you know, the answer we know is that we're supposed to have second chances, you know, because that's part of the plan, right? We're supposed to-- redemption is part of the plan. And so it's, in a gospel sense, it's kind of been fascinating to me to sort of see the hand of God in things as simple as literature, classical literature over the years. And you know, that's in a larger sense, I think we see that repeat in specific, well, in my life, certainly, I've seen the hand of God. And really, take any story and any bookstore library, it's going to be about somebody having a conflict, overcoming that conflict, finding value, finding truth. I mean those are the stories that we love as people. And I think the reason we love them is because there's something you know, to the whole notion.
MJ: There's truth in them, it rings to our heart I think. Do you have, are there specific books that have influenced you in your writing in a powerful way that you really love or would recommend?
CW: You know, because I'm sort of new to the whole writing gig, if you will, the whole business of writing, about half the books I read are really books on writing, and so I find those interesting. Other than that, I mean, I read a wide variety of authors. It really kind of depends on maybe the story I'm writing, what I need to focus on, you know, if I'm going to write descriptions, and Anthony Doerr writes amazing descriptions. I mean, if I'm going to write dialogue, then you know, Nick Hornby is pretty amazing at dialogue. And so you try and look for people who, in the craft, who really write amazing stories, amazing work and see how they're doing it, and then try and do something similar. But yeah, I can't think of anything really specific there, but in general, I read a wide variety of stories.
MJ: I'm fascinated by that concept of trying to pull out these different aspects of writing from different authors, I think that that's amazing. One thing I've noticed, as we've talked, you've mentioned your wife several times. You've mentioned, you know, my wife probably thought I was crazy, or my wife, you know, gave me this bit of encouragement that I needed, right when I needed it most. And I think that is a powerful thought. It's something, I think everybody needs someone that believes in them. What has that meant to you to have your wife's support?
CW: Ya I wouldn't have been able to write, to start you know, the first book really without it. I don't think I would have had maybe that confidence that "Okay, maybe I can do this." And logistically, right, it would have been really difficult to try and pull that off without her agreeing. And so it's been very valuable. At the same time, I think, man, what was she thinking? You know, I mean, like, I didn't know what I was doing. And so I do question her judgment, but no, it's been, we have a great relationship and that's been really amazing.
MJ: I love that. What would you say, Camron, throughout all of these experiences that you've had, what would you say are the biggest lessons that you've learned about personal revelation and about seeking for God's hand in our lives?
CW: I think that sometimes we want the thunder, right, and the lightning and the angel to come down. And that doesn't happen to me. You know, I'll hear stories and people will say, "Oh, I felt like I should stop and see this person." I don't have those. I'm, you know, full disclosure here, right? So what happens in my life? Well, in my life, I'll be driving home, and I'll think, oh, I need to stop at the store and get something and that's where I'll run into the person. So I think God has kind of full control, right? I mean, if I'm not in tune enough for that, he's like, I got this, I can work things out. And so I think we just need to be open, I think we need to just get out there and, you know, make our best decision, and certainly seek God's counsel and try and do what we need to do. But then go do something and realize that he's got us covered, you know, he'll take care of it. And that's really kind of been the experience in my life. I mean the experiences like with the book editor, those are really a fraction of the time, most of the time, it's just sitting down and working and struggling and trying to do the best I can. And I think that happens, because, you know, we don't need these "signposts," I call them, these miracles every day. You know, I think sometimes God expects us just to jump in, and let's get going, Aad I'll let you know if you're going the wrong direction.
MJ: I'll stop you.
CW: I'll stop you, yeah. But so that's kind of how I govern my life.
MJ: Yeah. And you're a father of four?
MJ: How, how have you tried to help your children understand this principle? What counsel have you given them as a father and in maybe their own individual efforts to see God's hand?
CW: Gosh, that's going to bring up a lot of failings for me. You know, my kids are great, I have great kids but I don't feel like it's me, or, you know, I think they just came down as really good kids. And so it's been fun to watch them, they have ambition, that they're trying to make a difference. And we certainly encourage them, I mean, we certainly try and, you know, think through the choices and be good parents, but also we are pretty independent parents, we kind of gave our kids a really long leash, and that seemed to serve them well. Doesn't mean that all parents should do that, I'm not suggesting that, but you know, again, it's just the do your best, right? How else do you do it? I don't know. Nobody sent me the parenting manual, so.
MJ: I guess Heavenly Father gave us a fairly long leash as well.
CW: That's excellent thought, yeah.
MJ: My my last question for you, is a question that, I think is really the whole idea behind this podcast, which is this concept of being "all in." And I think that that means different things to different people, but for you, Camron, what does it mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
CW: Yeah, my first reaction, and I think maybe perhaps that of many, is to say that, you know, being all in means that we should be strong and valiant and committed to the gospel and I think perhaps it does, it means that. But the problem, at least for me, is that you know, I stumble, I make mistakes, I have days where I'm not strong, I'm not valiant, I'm not as committed as I should be. And, you know, I may even start to wonder if God's too busy for me, if he's really listening. And in fact, one of my favorite movie lines is in the film "Return to Me," and it's this moment where an exasperated, Minnie Driver, she looks heavenward, and she declares, "What was God thinking?" And I have those moments, all the time, right? And I think it's okay. I mean, I can be human, I can still make mistakes, and yet I can be all in if, at the end of the day, I know where to look for redemption from those failings. I think if I remember to keep Christ at the center of my life, in all that I do. If I try and cultivate a love for others, that's even, if it's just a fraction of the love he has for me, then, yeah, I may not be "all in," but I can certainly feel the sun on my face and I think I', inching in the right direction. And I think for me, that's what it represents to be all in.
MJ: I really appreciate that. I think that sometimes, we don't give ourselves enough credit for the little victories that we have along the way. And we also sometimes, I think, don't give God enough credit for the little manifestations of his hand in our lives. And so Camron, thank you so much for sharing your experience with us here today. I think that it's something that all of us have felt those moments of being like, all right, what am I doing? And hopefully, by hearing your experience, others will have a little glimmer of hope for themselves that maybe they're not so far off track. So thank you.
CW: I hope so. Thank you for having me, it's been a real pleasure.
MJ: Thank you to Camron Wright for joining us and to you, for listening. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. Look for Camron's newest book, Christmas by Accident, available now at Deseret Book.