How do you do that?
I just play with it.  In Return Policy, there’s a short story that turned into a novel.  I knew I had a guy who wanted to destroy an espresso maker, but I didn’t know why.  Who would do that?  What’s eating at him so badly that he wants to kill an espresso maker.  I’m almost always going to write humor, but I like to write pathos.  I really need to empathize with the characters.

Do you have a lot of experience with pathos?
Well, inside my head I’m probably as neurotic as the next guy.

You mean you didn’t grow up in a dysfunctional family?  With characters like these?
Oh, I did.  I grew up in a sitcom.  We didn’t know it at the time, but I think everyone did—except my wife’s family.  When you peel back the layers, every family is odd.  When I was a kid, I would often fantasize about being in someone else’s family, and that leads to other people’s stories.

So what made you want to write?
I never thought about writing until 2001 or 2002.  I was married, and we had a couple of kids.  We had both majored in music, so there was always something creative swimming around in there.  One day, we were driving down the road in the van and I said, “I think I’d like to try writing a book.”  All the creative planets lined up.  All of the other endeavors were filling up that writing cup.  And, all the frustrations with not being as good of a musician as I wanted to be just fit there.

Tell me about the journey to publication.
With music, I always knew the rules.  I knew what it took to make it.  But with literature, I didn’t know any better.  I started reading books about writing.  I think I read 32 of them.  I’m not good at memorizing things, though.  If I read a rule, I can’t wait to break it—or I forget it.  But I just started writing and submitting.  I found likeminded people online and started going to writer’s conferences.  So I blindly and ignorantly jumped in with both feet.

What kind of writer’s conferences did you go to?
Christian writers’ conferences.  The first one was in Florida, and I went during a weeklong vacation.  I got just enough encouragement there to send me home to keep writing.  I was always the outcast, though. 

Outcast?  Why is that?
Well, I got along with people.  I had a great time.  But I was walking around peddling Russell Fink, and that’s a bit like women’s fiction.  It’s like Lifetime Television for women.  The men at these conferences were all writing mystery or crime.  My great plan was to go and hang out with the people that I had met at other conferences, because I knew no one was going to publish Russell Fink.  I mean, there was an alcoholic dog in that book!  But, I decided to take advantage of the fact that there were a lot of industry people there.  I get a little nervous at these conferences, but I had read the bio for this editor, so I decided to write one about him.  I customized a really god-awful synopsis about my novel using things from his bio.  I just shoehorned it in there.  When I got in there, I just handed it to him and waited.  He was quiet.  I started to get really nervous.  He didn’t say a word.  I figured I had made a huge mistake.  Then suddenly, he started howling with laughter and pounding the table.  He asked me for a copy of the whole book.  I got a call not long after from my agent who said we had a deal.  That clairvoyant dog worked.
So that’s when fame and fortune happened?
Exactly.  I’m the most famous guy in this shirt.  No, we’re still waiting on that part.  I was nominated by Christianity Today for book of the year, though.  I lost out to Marilyn Robinson.  It’s kinda cool to be in that company, though.