Reminiscing with the Curator of Christmas Stories

Reminiscing with the Curator of Christmas Stories

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December 24, 2015

Christmas in My Heart Book 24 is out this year in time for Christmas. This series, edited by Joe Wheeler and published by Pacific Press as well as other publishers, has lasted for more than two decades. Wheeler, 79, has edited or authored 91 books and still keeps busy full-time. He talked to Spectrum about how the series began and why he still isn't tired of Christmas.

Question: Dr. Wheeler, you have been working on the Christmas in My Heart series for 24 years. What is it like to edit these Christmas books?

Answer: The selection process, writing, and editing lasts most of the year. The media interviews and book-signings take up virtually all of each November and December.

Last week, I signed books at Focus on the Family for the twentieth Christmas in a row. I've now done 31 books with Focus on the Family and Tyndale House.

And then there are so many other things that happen throughout the year. I write a weekly blog called Wednesdays with Dr. Joe, and I have been running Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club or about four years. I also have a Quote of the Day that I send out.

Are you planning to retire and rest anytime?

I discovered a quote when I was approaching 70, which I have quoted many times since.

“A life may be over at 16 or barely begun at 70 — it is the aim that determines its completeness. I would rather wear out than rust out.”

I still write everything with my Pilot pen. My wife Connie handles inputting everything into computer, contacting people, dealing with significant correspondence, and much more. She has typed out every one of the 91 books I have written or edited. It is very much a joint venture.

You left your position as professor of English at Columbia Union College (now Washington Adventist University) in 1996. Do you miss teaching?

I could say, as CS Lewis said, that I was dragged kicking and screaming from the classroom. I do very much miss the energizing interaction with students. But I don’t miss evaluating term papers.

We were so overwhelmed by our book-related involvements, on top of teaching and chairing, that, in 1996, I took early retirement so I could devote full-time to our book ministry.

Not many authors are able to make a living by writing full-time.

How did you get started creating anthologies of Christmas stories?

My student Naomi Snowdy, who was in my creative writing class, stopped me after class one day in 1989 and said: “If I have to stay one more weekend in the dorm here I will go mad.” So Connie and I invited her to our house for the weekend. 

This was the weekend I had my first key epiphany. It was a cold winter’s night and we were sitting by the fire. Naomi said: “Dr Wheeler, have you ever thought of writing a Christmas story?”

“Yeah, I’ve thought of it,” I answered lazily.

“Well, why don’t you?”

“I will — some day.”

“Why don’t you do it tonight? It’s going to be snowing all weekend. What else are we going to do? Besides,” she added maliciously, “I want to proof your story. . .”

The tables had been turned on me!

So, under duress, I sat down and wrote “The Snow of Christmas.”

Naomi snatched the pages as I wrote them, scribbled notes and made me fix them, and then made copies for our creative writing class that Monday.

The story made its way into the hands of many colleagues, friends and family members.

So the next year, they asked for another Christmas story, and the tradition began.

The next year I wrote “The Bells of Christmas Eve” about Louisa May Alcott, for my American Lit class.

And how did you end up getting published?

One day I was at the Review & Herald and I wandered into Penny Estes Wheeler’s [no relation] office; she was the acquisitions editor. She asked me what I had been writing lately. “A couple of Christmas stories,” I answered.

“What kind of Christmas stories?”

“Oh, the kind that incorporate the spiritual dimension of Christmas — and you can’t read them without choking up.” 

“But you have only written two?” she asked.

“Yes, but I was raised on them, so I’ve been collecting them all my life.”

Penny Wheeler would not let me leave her office until I promised to send her a collection of my favorite Christmas stories. 

I procrastinated. She kept asking.

Finally some time later I sent her a collection of my favorite Christmas stories.

Sometime later I heard her voice on the phone: “Joe, the committee has cried its way through your manuscript. May we publish it?”

And so it began: timeless woodcut illustrations inside and a horizontal Currier & Ives cover illustration. Result: a horizontal book.

When Christmas in My Heart came out in 1992, I thought I had finally gotten Penny off my back. But the book went through two printings before Christmas. 

So she came back and asked for a second. I had enough stories for a second, and they had enough woodcuts for illustrations. So we went ahead. 

One pivotal day, the thought came to me: Why not send a copy to Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family? For if there was another male crybaby as bad as me where emotional stories were concerned, it had to be him. He did not respond, but his vice president did — she loved it.

Next year, same scenario.

Then came that never-to-be-forgotten phone call: “Joe, are you sitting down? Dr. Dobson has fallen in love with Christmas in My Heart — he wants to use "The Tiny Foot" from Christmas in My Heart 2. May he do so?”

Earlier, I had been warned that if Dr. Dobson decided to use my book, my life would never be the same. 

Truer words were never spoken: By the time Dobson sent out three million copies of that story, and read it on the air around the world, Connie and I lost control of our lives.

Result: We signed on with agent Greg Johnson of Alive Communications, Inc. He flew out to Annapolis and we discussed our future options with him. After an exhaustive discussion, especially our nearing the breaking point because of full-time day-jobs and full-time book-involvements, Greg leaned back in his chair, paused, then asked me a life-changing question: "Well, what are you going to do with the rest of your life?"

I answered, "I always thought I'd continue teaching until the end of my teaching career — but God appears to have other ideas."

"So what would it take for you to answer God's call?"

I told him we just couldn't take early retirement without a solid foundation of contracts to build a new life on.

Greg said he'd see what could be done, and left.

The next thing I knew I got a series of contracts, mainly with Focus on the Family, for other books, including Great Stories 1, 2 and 3. Focus on the Family also asked for the Classic Book series, and later the Heart to Heart series. All of this just piled up.

But we were still living in Annapolis, both Connie and I working long hours at our day jobs, with long commutes.

My agent said: “You have enough contracts, what is stopping you from answering God’s call and doing this full time?”

“We need medical benefits,” I countered. Greg was clearly a bit disillusioned by my unwillingness to step out in faith.

Just a few days later, I got a letter from a Dr Phil Burgess, who had picked up a copy of Christmas in My Heart and was intrigued by an English professor who created Christian story collections and also loved the Old West of Zane Grey. Burgess asked if we could meet.

We did, and bonded. After considerable conversation, Dr Burgess posed the exact question Greg Johnson had: "So . . . what are you going to do with the rest of your life?"

I answered that we just didn't feel we could retire from teaching without full-time medical.

Several days later, I received another letter from Dr. Burgess. "You have expressed your interest in moving back to Colorado. As of this morning, you are Senior Fellow for Western Studies, Center for the New West, headquartered in Denver's World Trade Center. Furthermore, as of today, you and Connie are on full-time medical — so now what's keeping you from answering God's call?"

So what could we say? God had boxed us in. So we made the move to Conifer, Colorado, and our new life.

Since then, we have worked very very hard. You don’t produce this many books without working your tails off. But we are very blessed.

So Pacific Press is not your sole publisher? How many books have you sold?

I have worked with 16 different publishing houses — there has been a very significant broadening from the world I had when I was at CUC.

First, Christmas in My Heart was at the Review & Herald for 16 years. When the Review terminated the series, Pacific Press immediately picked it up. We also created other Christmas books with Focus on the Family, Tyndale House, Doubleday/Random House, Howard/Simon & Schuster, RiverOak/David C. Cook, and Thomas Nelson. We also created genre collections with other publishing houses.

All the books together have probably sold about 1.5 million. That’s not a lot compared to top sellers, but it’s 1.5 million more than I ever expected to sell!

Where do you get your ideas?

In terms of my own creativity, I had another major epiphany one day. I was getting lots of mail from people everywhere telling me how wise I was — but I knew I wasn’t.

I was randomly thinking about this thing we call wisdom. I thought about Solomon. God asked him what gift he wanted. Solomon said he felt very dumb, and God granted his wish and made him the wisest human who ever lived.

Nowhere in the Bible does God say he wouldn’t grant that gift to anyone else who asked. 

I didn’t have Solomon’s chutzpah, so I asked God for just one day of wisdom.

From that day to this God has been there for me.

I ask him every day for access to his wisdom, so that what I say and write will be worth listening to and reading.

And that has had a profound effect on everything that I do and everything that I write. It has resulted in a very personal relationship with God. Though I have been a Christian since I was young, this is something new.

I prayerfully consider every story. I ask God for help deciding which stories deserve to live on.

For each collection, I go through hundreds of stories, and I start winnowing them down. I ask God if it is satisfactory, and usually I know I have to keep working. I go through many drafts — maybe an average of 12 — until I feel I have something God has signed off on.

I am different from most anthologizers, in that it is not the name of the author that counts, but the power of the story.

“Meditation in a Minor Key” was the first story of yours that I read. I thought maybe the Christmas in My Heart books all began with that.

Yes, that has been one of the stories that people really remember. I usually include one story that I write myself in each Christmas in My Heart book, but there were two of my stories in the first book.

When I wrote “Meditation in a Minor Key”  Ingrid Vargas, one my students at CUC and a musician, asked if she could help, and proof it. I have never written a story as perfect as that one. She signed off on every last sentence, and every last word. She would call me in the middle of the night and say: “This line — it doesn’t quite ring true.” After editing and reworking and multiple drafts, she would say, “This draft is not as good as an earlier one. You need to try to regain the power.”

Because of her input and the endless fine-tuning and editing, the piece turned into about as perfect a story as it’s possible to get. 

Usually I struggle all year long with the Christmas story I write. I feel God makes me wait and wait. It is only as I get toward the final deadline that he gives me some characters and a setting, and each day I ask him to take it where he wants it to go.

A story can be good, but not perfect. A story can be well written, but not have power. I remember in one particular story, after about 30 pages, the characters were dead, lying on their backs, and I simply could not bring them to life. I prayed again and again. One night, in a dream, God brought my characters to life. When I woke Connie about 3am, telling her what God had done, she ordered me downstairs to write it all down before I forgot a word of it.

The manuscript for Christmas in My Heart volume 25 [for next year, 2016] has already been sent to the publisher. If there is any valid reason for the success of our story ministry, it is because God is at the helm and not me. I am only a very grateful understudy. It is the Lord’s ministry.

After 24 books, and 25 next year, aren’t you running out of Christmas stories?

I have more good stories now to choose from than at the beginning. For every story that makes it in, between 100 and 300 don’t. We keep acquiring stories, and people keep sending them.

Every now and then, a story slams you against the wall. It’s emotional. It leaves you limp. You remember it, like it or not.

My mother had the ability to read and recite stories so she left her audiences limp. Those stories are incredibly rare. But I discovered after a while I was actually raising the bar every year, and becoming more and more demanding as to what stories make it in.

This is a key reason why people keep reading them, and keep buying the books.

Do you ever get tired of Christmas?

No, I never get tired of Christmas. It is a very energizing topic. People who are “Christmasy” are happy and joyful. 

I would say there are thousands of people who have all 24 books. You would be amazed at how many people tell me: “Don’t you dare give it up. I couldn’t face a Christmas without your collection. I was raised on these tearjerkers.”

I once asked famous concert pianist Roger Williams what was his greatest concert ever. He told me with great seriousness: “The concert tonight.” 

People loved him because he gave everything he had — after a concert his tux would be wringing wet, and the piano always had to be retuned at intermission. 

He told me that most performers work really hard until they get to the top, then they start thinking they don’t have to practice so hard anymore and they lose their edge. He determined to make every concert the greatest of his career.

Now every year I ask God to give me the guts to just hang it all up if I come up with a collection inferior to the ones before. But every year I have to say: “This might just be the best one yet.”

How long will you keep at it?

I notice at alumni gatherings there are two kinds of people among the older ones: Ones who watch TV, play golf, look after grandkids — but have no real goal. Then there are the people who are still creating things, still doing, still achieving, still becoming. They live longer. In Scripture, there is no such thing as retirement. God expects us to keep on creating as long as we live. 

Is it difficult to get permission to publish all the stories?

It can be very difficult, especially with very old stories. My attorney says that if we have a paper trail showing that we really tried and did our very best to find the owner, and are willing to pay them, we are covered. Connie and I do all that.

Tell us about some of your other projects.

I have a new series: “My Favorite. . .”

It includes “My Favorite Angel Stories,”  “My Favorite Miracle Stories,” and next will be “My Favorite Answer to Prayer Stories.”

I have published two Abraham Lincoln books with Howard, Simon & Schuster: one about his spiritual life, and one collection of Civil War stories. The first, a biography I wrote called Man of Faith and Courage, was issued in a proprietary edition by Barnes & Noble this year, and sent to all 650 stores. It was such an honor to be chosen.

Do you have a favorite Christmas tradition in your family?

The trading game (which has been memorialized in “Hans and the Trading Game” in Christmas in My Heart 5). It involves picking and trading gifts.

What else would you like people to know?

Please make sure you tell your Spectrum readers about my conviction: No matter what aspect of your life you are talking about, and no matter what your career is, this prayer for divine wisdom is something God would grant to anyone. This might be the most significant epiphany of all: God will partner with us no matter who we are. God can work with anyone.

From beginning to end, this ministry of stories and books has never been a Joe Wheeler-thing, but rather a God-thing.

Interviewer Alita Byrd was a student of Joe Wheeler's at Columbia Union College, and spent many hours working for him, photocopying stories from old Youth's Instructor magazines in the library.

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