Robin Jones Gunn is a bestselling author of nearly 100 books. Her “Father Christmas” books have been adapted into a trilogy of Hallmark movies.
Welcome! Before we begin could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing career?
I’ve been writing for over 30 years. The interesting thing is that I didn’t set out to be a writer. As a child I was always telling stories but I wasn’t someone who dreamed of writing a book one day.
Once the push came to get something published I sought as much training as I could find through books on writing, writers workshops, conferences and classes on creative writing.
When I first started sending my work out it was still all done via mail. It took weeks to hear back and months or years before my first pieces were published. I started by writing articles and moved on to writing 14 children’s books that were all published.
It took two years for me to write the first Christy Miller novel for teen girls. That book received 10 rejections but once it was published, the door was opened for me to write a series about Christy. After that I just kept writing about two or three books each year.
I now have nearly 100 books published and plenty of ideas for more stories.
Your husband noticed you had storytelling abilities early in your marriage. What exactly was it he saw that led him to urge you on?
My husband was a youth pastor. I worked with the girls in the youth group and I was always telling them stories. He saw that I had an ability to make up stories on the spot and that I enjoyed speaking to groups.
He coaxed me to go to a writers conference and I was terrified. I didn’t think I belonged in a group of writers, publishers and editors.
But as soon as I arrived I discovered that the people at the conference were really wonderful and genuinely interested in helping me develop my writing skills.
That first conference was life changing because I have remained friends with some of those people over the decades as they have had a profound impact on my life.
What role do family values play in your books—and your storytelling in general?
Family values are at the core of what my husband and I have believed and perpetuated throughout our 41 years of marriage.
Since that is the way of life for us, God-honoring, family values are the foundation for everything I write. In my novels the characters always discover something about God’s love and His faithfulness to them.
I receive a lot of mail from readers who fell in love with the Christy Miller series when they were teens and they tell me how Christy was a role model for them during those important formative years.
I’m still writing about Christy and the other memorable characters in the teen series. The two most recent series are “Christy & Todd: The Married Years” and “Christy & Todd: The Baby Years.”
Now the same readers are writing again to tell me that Christy is still a favorite role model for them because they are now in the same young married, starting a family season of life.
Almost every week I hear from readers that they can’t find enough novels and TV shows that display uplifting family values. They continually request that Christy Miller be made into a TV series. I would love to see that happen!
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The process is much different now than it was when I started writing. What I have learned from new writers is that they still benefit as I did from going to writers conferences and taking classes on creative writing. There are also many online groups that provide support and direction for beginning writers.
My best advice is to keep going. I know far too many talented writers who gave up easily. Storytelling is a form of art. And art is not always appreciated nor is it an easy way to make a living. But we need art.
I believe there are many people who need to write simply to create their art or to leave their story as a legacy.
Now that there are many options to self-publish it always seems a shame when I hear from people who started out with a lot of enthusiasm but then gave up because the actual process of writing was so difficult.
Writing is difficult. It takes a lot of discipline. But I believe that there is great value in doing the work so that you leave something behind that is art and that came from your heart and your imagination.
How did you first get involved with Hallmark and what were your first thoughts and feelings when learning your book would be adapted into a movie?
My agent called one day about 10 years ago and said that she received a call from a producer who was looking for books that would make good Christmas movies. I was so excited because I was certain that Hallmark would pick up “Finding Father Christmas” and rush it into production. That’s the dreamer in me.
It took about five years before the project was approved and a screenwriter went to work on the script.
It was a happy day when my agent called to say that the project had been green lit!
Once things were in motion it went quickly. The first movie did so well that Hallmark approved a second movie, “Engaging Father Christmas.” When that one had even higher ratings than the first movie, the third movie, “Marrying Father Christmas” went into production.
I attribute the success of the three films to the superb production team and the blessing of having such great actors. Erin Krakow made my character Miranda come alive. Niall Matter is perfect as Ian and I love the way Wendie Malick added so much depth to the character of Margaret.
The whole process has been such a great experience. I love working with Hallmark and really hope more of my books go into production. It’s an incredible gift to be able to see your characters come to life on the screen and to know that the story is touching the viewers at the heart level.
What do you most remember about the time and effort you put into reworking the novels to facilitate the film adaptation? Were there moments of discouragement—especially after the first rework was rejected?
It was actually the second book in the series of Father Christmas novellas that was rejected by the publishing house editor several times over. I appreciate her directions and involvement in the process now. But at the time I felt as if someone had finally discovered that I didn’t know what I was doing as a writer and I should stop and never write again.
But I’m glad I took all of her direction and did the hard work of rewriting the second book four times. I recently learned from the producers that the only reason Hallmark chose to do the first movie was because of the love story that was included in the second book.
If I had given up when it was so difficult or given into my fears and insecurities these three movies would never have been made.
What a valuable life lesson all this has been! That’s why my advice to beginning writers is to keep going, humble out and do the hard work.
Are you frustrated when the movies diverge from the book or excited that your books are at the heart of something magical—or something different altogether?
That’s a great question because I did have a lot of apprehension at first. My agent let me know that once I signed the contract I was turning over all rights and control. It took me a full day before I could pick up my pen and sign on the dotted line.
I was not involved in the pre-production. It was up to the screenwriter and producers to create their interpretation of what I had written in the books. I had no idea how it would turn out.
My agent had written into the contract that she and I could be invited to go on set for three days. When we showed up and saw the story being filmed, it was clear that the talented team I was working with had managed to capture the essence of the story even though many parts were changed. I have deep respect for the process and for the value of working with a talented screenwriter as well as an experienced director who feels passionate about the art of storytelling.
What memories do you have from your very first day on set for “Finding Father Christmas”?
I didn’t expect to be included the way we were and treated as honored guests. We had our own directors chairs and headsets and were seated with the director and director of photography.
The other surprise was the amount of time we were able to spend with the actors. We forged genuine friendships with many of the actors and I keep in touch with them via text and email.
When we were on set for the second movie the actors were in the middle of blocking one of the scenes when Wendie stopped and looked around for me. We were in a small room in the cottage with at least 50 people trying hard to do their job in the tight space.
Wendy spotted me, pointed her finger and said “I love the way you write, Robin.” The crew all looked at me because they didn’t know who I was. The director said, “That’s Robin, the author. Be nice to her. She is the reason all of us have a job.“
I will never forget that moment. It’s rare for someone who does their work in isolation most of their career to have a sweet moment of recognition like that.
What is “Marrying Father Christmas” about—and why do you think fans will love it?
As you might guess by the title, “Marrying Father Christmas” is the anticipated wedding of Miranda and Ian.
I believe fans will feel as if they have watched this relationship unfold in the first two movies and are now being invited to be included in the next special moment for this couple.
In true Hallmark style, the story is sweet and romantic but also touches on real life family issues.
I am looking forward to seeing the great dynamic that has been there between Erin and Niall throughout the movies. They are both so talented.
In what ways do Erin Krakow, Niall Matter and Wendie Malick encapsulate your vision of their characters?
Erin was able to capture in the first movie a compelling sense of deep heart longing when she was trying to find her birth father. I have loved watching the way her character, Miranda, has grown and changed through the three movies. Erin is a lovely woman, a Juilliard trained actress, and a joy to watch.
I love the way that Niall was able to play several characters. He had more costumes than anyone else. He takes on the role of Scrooge for the Carlton Heath Christmas play in the first movie. He also takes on the role of Father Christmas for the village tree lighting ceremony. And he convincingly portrays Ian, a young man who is falling in love and sincerely wanting to do what is best for Miranda.
It was fun being on set with Wendie. On screen she usually plays the role of an intimidating woman. In person she does have a commanding presence but she is down to earth, warm and kind, just like Erin and Niall.
Wendie invited my agent and me to go to dinner after we had been on set for “Marrying Father Christmas.” I admit it was fun to watch heads turn when she walked in the restaurant and came over to our table.
We talked for three hours and shared about important experiences in our lives.
I’m so grateful that Wendie agreed to take the role of Margaret in all three movies. She told me that her days on set for “Marrying Father Christmas” conflicted with the filming of the season finale of “This Is Us.” She said she wouldn’t give up “Marrying Father Christmas” and as a result, the producers of “This Is Us” were gracious enough to adjust the days she filmed with them.
The actors and production team of these three movies made it clear that they have enjoyed the journey as much as I have.
What are you working on next?
I recently released an eBook titled, “How My Book Became a Movie”. I wrote the book in response to all the questions I received about the process of getting a book onto the screen. The proceeds from sales go to LittWorld, a non-profit that provides training for writers in difficult places in the world.
I am in conversation with several producers about projects based on my books. Nothing final to report yet. But you can be certain that I will be sharing any good news via my newsletter social media and website – www.robingunn.com
I’m also writing more novels about Christy and her friends. My next novel comes out in May 2019 from Waterbrook/Multnomah a division of Random House and is titled, “Becoming Us”.