Twists and turns | WORLD
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Twists and turns

For author Lynn Vincent, crafting a story is a lot like riding a Harley

Lynn Vincent Sophia Lee

Twists and turns
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When Lynn Vincent zooms by on her gleaming Harley-Davidson bike, people stare, amused at the sight of a 5-foot-3, 120-pound figure straddling a massive machine. But when she’s with her Harley Owners Group (HOG) friends and their collective engines howl guttural vrrroom-vrrrooooooms like a pack of street beasts, people grab their young and hurry away, mistaking the group of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts for hooligans.

The 54-year-old Vincent is hardly a rabble-rouser or an attention hogger. Shorn of her bejeweled Harley-Davidson leather jacket, black riding chaps, and 755-pound turquoise Heritage Softail bike, she’s a mother of two with curious blue-green eyes, scarlet-manicured nails, and free-flowing laughs.

She’s also the co-author of 11 nonfiction books including Going Rogue, Same Kind of Different as Me, and Heaven Is for Real. All three made it onto The New York Times bestseller list, and the latter two became blockbuster movies—all impressive achievements, particularly for a writer whose books manifest her conservative Christian convictions.

Vincent’s own life is the kind of story she loves to tell. She grew up with an alcoholic mother in condemned drug houses, then lived in a tent on the beach until she borrowed a quarter to catch a cross-island bus. At 14, Vincent left a home for runaways in Manoa, Hawaii, and flew to the muddy riverbanks of Scottsboro, Ala., where her grandmother raised her. There in the Deep South, a culture-slapped Vincent heard someone spit out the N-word for the first time and became physically nauseated. Her senior year of college, nine semester hours shy of graduation, she dropped out to join the U.S. Navy, where she served eight years as an air traffic controller and met her husband, Danny. (She later completed her college credits and graduated.)

All these experiences developed in Vincent an acute sense for justice and an empathy for human suffering, endurance, faith, and grit—all major themes in her books. Another component of Vincent’s literary success: She doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The day I visited her Mediterranean-style ranch house on a secluded hill near San Diego, Vincent, her husband, and four other HOG members zipped on a four-hour cruise through the winding paths of green-and-gold-speckled country hills—round-the-bend curves that Vincent calls “twisties.”

Vincent once feared those “twisties.” Before she learned to trust her skills, her neck tensed, her grip tightened, and her mind raced faster than her bike as it sped toward the dreaded corners: “Am I going to make it? What should my entry speed be, when should I press on the handlebar, how fast should I accelerate?”

Similar cacophonous thoughts ricochet in her mind when she’s tackling a new book project, each more challenging than the last. In the thick of discouragement, she wonders, “Who am I fooling? Is this the project that finally proves I’m not a writer after all?” Then she remembers the insights she learned from riding: Be where you are. Focus on what’s right ahead of you and take things one sharp turn, one keystroke at a time. She looks across her desk at the shelf where she keeps her published books, and breathes out slowly: “OK, you’ve done this before. You can do it again.”

Vincent began her writing career in 1992 freelancing for “free magazines that you find in laundromats.” In 1998 she began freelancing for WORLD and joined the staff in 2000. Even as a journalist, Vincent gravitated toward challenging stories with strong justice components, such as her 1999 piece on trafficked aborted human fetal parts and her 2002 investigation into sexual abuse among Protestant clergymen.

Her 11 years at WORLD taught Vincent how to tell a good story. “I still have a little Marvin who sits here on my shoulder,” Vincent said, referring to WORLD’s editor in chief, Marvin Olasky. “He looks over at my page like this”—she raised her eyebrows, pursed her lips, and arched her neck forward—and this imaginary Marvin grills her: “How do you know that’s true? Needs more specific detail.”

After interviewing thousands of individuals—tragedy victims, politicians, church leaders, activists, and soldiers—Vincent has fine-tuned the art of extracting intimate anecdotes and key facts. Her drill-sergeant persistence and unending questions excavate the details needed for the engaging prose, come-to-life characters, and vivid imageries that earned her recognition in the literary world. By 2009, when Sarah Palin picked her to ghostwrite her autobiography, Vincent was the most successful writer few have ever heard of.

Vincent prefers it that way. It’s why she loves hanging out with her HOG buddies every weekend: Nobody ever asked what she did for a living. Nobody blinked when they finally found out she’s a best-selling author. Once on the bike, all they care about is the road ahead—and to Vincent, who admits to being “a bit of a workaholic,” that simplified, one-tunnel mental zone is sweet, clean relief.

Currently, she’s working on her first historical nonfiction book, about the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the greatest at-sea disaster in naval history and the one made famous by Robert Shaw’s gripping monologue in the movie Jaws. Vincent undertook this project because it contained all the elements that interest her—military history, intrinsically human stories of tragedy and courage, notes of justice—but “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

For all of her previous books, she simply picked up her phone and called her sources to procure the details she needed. But almost all the witnesses for the USS Indianapolis tragedy are dead. That means in order to write a brief scene about a young crewman getting a midnight meal, Vincent had to dig through national archives, memoirs, interviews, and reporting notes: What sandwich did John Woolston order? Did he sip or chug his coffee? What was Woolston thinking and feeling at the time?

Writing is a “maddening, but fun” process that requires strict discipline, Vincent said. Every Tuesday through Friday from 7 to 11 a.m., she closes the door to her home office, shuts off all social media, and straps herself before a vintage wooden desk to write, even when she’d rather hop onto her motorcycle, even if she has to extricate each word like a brain surgeon.

The morning of my visit, she texted her co-writer a photograph of six remaining index cards: Only six scenes, 10,000 words left to write. And that’s how her magic happens—word by word, chapter by chapter, punctuated by weekend HOG rides.

–Please read the next page in this issue’s special Summer Reading section: "Staff picks"

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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