Thirty years ago, Charles Martin struggled to express what obstacles he faced as high school graduation approached, he said.
School was difficult and his dream of playing college football required grades strong enough to pull him through, the New York Times best-selling author told a room full of Vanguard College Preparatory School seniors Wednesday morning. Martin’s high school football coach, Bill Borg, is now Vanguard’s head of school.
As Martin opened up to students in wide-ranging conversation spurred on by their questions, he reminded them it was OK to not have life figured out right now, as long as they rely on their faith to help them ask the right questions.
“I’ve always been very interested in writing and the arts,” senior Emily Shelton said. “I’m always playing with how can I turn something I love into some form of career and use my creative side. I’ve been playing with different majors, and to see somebody who was able to take what they love and turn it into what they wanted it to be was fascinating.”
At 18, Martin’s thoughts constantly churned between questions about his future and whether he was too much of a dork to get a date, he said.
“I didn’t know what to do with all that swirling in my brain, and I certainly couldn’t sit down with you and tell you everything I as a 48-year-old man just told you,” Martin said. “I didn’t even know where to get the words for that. Nothing in school prepared me to say, ‘Sit down, dude. Here’s what’s going on.’ So I began writing.”
The process quickly became cathartic for Martin as he went through high school and college, like a vent on a pressure cooker, he said. But he didn’t know at the time falling in love with words would later turn into 13 novels.
His work includes “Long Way Gone,” which was recently named book of the year at the 2017 Christy Awards Christian Fiction Gala and “The Mountain Between Us,” which was recently turned into a major motion picture staring Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.
Shortly he started writing, Martin fell in love and started thinking about marriage. Questions bubbled again. Who will he be when he grows up? How will he take care of a wife, and maybe children? With a successful family lineage behind him, he felt pressure from his parents to be more like those before him and become an attorney or go into finances or medicine, he said.
“They were just wanting to help me make my place in this world,” Martin said. “But the thing they did that was the coolest thing for me, my mom and my dad allowed me to ask the question, ‘Charles, why did the Lord put you on planet earth? Why are you here? What’s in you that you’re passionate about, that you love doing and would like to do more of?’ ”
He was a walk-on on the Georgia Institute of Technology football team on the verge of a scholarship he said. An injury the year before his team went on to win a national championship forced him to discover who he was without football. He had to choose between what could have been a secure next option and what he loved, he said.
“I left this place in my life. Got married. Had some cool stuff happen. Tried to become a writer. Sent out a whole bunch of queries, and I’m 26 years old, sitting at my desk with bills I can’t pay and 85 rejection letters in a file next to me,” Martin said. “Eighty-five people across the country, editors, publishing houses, agents, told me my stuff would never be published. My stuff stinks.”
Then his wife went to the mailbox.
“I believed my stories were good. I just couldn’t get anybody else to give me the time of day. She comes back, lays the 86th letter on my desk, kisses me and says ‘you’re not a reject.’ And then we stumbled through the next year or two trying to figure out how do I make a life as a writer,” Martin said.
After he finally became a published author, he still encountered obstacles, he said. He had two more books rejected. And those singular rejections were more difficult than all the letters, he said.
Fast forward to today, and Martin said the last six weeks, which included the release of the film based on his novel, have been one of the most difficult points in his career so far.
“By this point, I have invested readers all around the world who have read ‘The Mountain Between Us’ and love it,” Martin said. “The cool thing about reading is you take my book, and you and I spend about 12 hours together. I’m in your head and in your heart, and you grow in affection for this story. Then because you don’t understand the process, and the movie comes out and it’s different, and what the movie holds up as noble is different than what the book holds up as noble, then you send me really angry emails and you think I had something to do with it.”
The hate mail is a double-edged sword. He’s grateful for invested fans but has had a difficult time getting some to understand he had no control over the production of the film. Three weeks ago, he disabled the “contact us” feature on his website, and two weeks ago, he wrote a letter to his readers titled “What I think…About the Movie.”
“That’s been more difficult than handing somebody a book,” Martin said.
And if he’s honest with himself, he still has days when he feels like he’s still figuring out his career, honing his craft and sometimes can’t seem to shake away the grip of writer’s block, he said. Fans see him stand in front of classrooms and give speeches or earn awards and publicity, but at the end of the day he still sits down to a blank page, he said. None of his success means life is easier. He’s just pursuing what he loves, he said.
“There is going to come a day in your life when you are going to know hardship and you are going to know rejection, and you may know it already,” Martin said. “The question is when you do, what’s going to be the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning?”
Martin doesn’t know where he would be now had he been able to stick with football, he said. He said he has remained close with Borg, and the support and encouragement from Borg and others keeps him going.
“You can imagine with the school here and the type of students we have as we’re preparing them for their future and their college choices, he gave a great message when he talked about how you have to love what you do,” Borg said. “Imagine trying to get up with a job you don’t love. It will destroy you, no matter how much money you make. It won’t solve that internal issue you’ll battle with, and he’s been blessed to be able to do something he loves to do, even with his pitfalls.”