In his early forties, when Dale left his job in the trades sector to become a stay-at-home dad, he suddenly found himself with time on his hands, so he pursued a lifelong dream and taught himself to write.
Using an online writer’s forum as a training ground, he wrote his first short stories in 1996. As his writing skills improved he turned to novels, publishing his first book, Sutter’s Cross, in 2003.
The following is a January 2013 interview with Dale.
I recently turned 60, and it's the first time in my life that a birthday ever bothered me. I didn't want to be 60. So my sister brings my mother down for dinner on my birthday, and my mother has dementia. She's on about a 2-minute memory loop, and her question du jour was, "So, how OLD are you?" The question sticks in her mind; the answer does not. She asked it roughly twenty-five times during the evening, which the others enjoyed immensely. I did not. After awhile I was answering through gritted teeth. On the other hand I've been practicing for years in anticipation of the day I could claim official curmudgeonhood, and now that it's here I can't think of a better baptism.
2. How did you become a novelist, and did you always want to write?
I always thought I'd like to try to write a book "someday", but life intervened and I spent twenty-five years working in construction. When I did finally become a novelist it was almost entirely accidental. I took a summer off to stay home with the kids and started dabbling in writing for an online forum while the boys were taking naps, mostly because it was a quiet thing to do. But the stories were well received, and some of them got published in literary magazines. A brief study of Writers Market indicated that it was easier to publish a novel than a short story, so I set out to write a novel. Three years later I actually finished it, and I figured the only way to find out if it was any good was to send it out. So I sent it to an agent, and after some changes she agreed to represent me. Ultimately, she landed a two-book deal with a publisher and I was forced to write another book. I've been busy ever since.
The same significance, I think, as any other fiction: it has the potential, through story, to challenge people's thinking, to ask them questions they might not otherwise ask themselves.
4. How do you hope your readers react to the stories you write?
I hope they're absorbed by it, immersed in it, because that's the focus of all the craft that goes into it. But more than that, I hope it makes them say, "I never thought about it like that." Good fiction should, of course, entertain and transport readers, but great fiction will make them think.
I've gotten letters from prisoners who identified with the father/son issues in Levi's Will and were moved by it. I once got a letter from a woman whose best friend of many years was dying of cancer. In the latter stages they had difficulty connecting for any length of time, but one evening as she sat reading Bad Ground she laughed out loud. Her sick friend asked her what was so funny, and she started reading the book to her. She told me she ended up reading the entire book to her dying friend, and it provided them one last shared experience that she'll never forget. Then there was the fact that Levi's Will helped restore my father to his family when he was eighty years old. Things like that can't be planned or anticipated, and they are priceless gifts.
6. How has being a novelist impacted your relationship with Christ?
It has made it stronger, more confident. It has become a rare thing I wish more people could experienceÑ a working relationship. It has also broadened my vision, having to look at things from new angles, considering ideas they don't talk about in Sunday School, and questioning old ways of thinking. Every now and then somebody needs to rock the boat.
The great American philosopher Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face." I don't make a lot of plans or goals anymore. It's easier to just get up and see what the day brings.
8. What do you like to do in your spare time?
Years ago, when I still had spare time, I went fishing every now and then. And I like to read.
9. What can you tell us about your latest novels?
My last three novels (Paradise Valley, The Captive Heart, and Though Mountains Fall) comprise a trilogy called The Daughters of Caleb Bender.
The three together tell the story of a colony of Amish who migrated to Mexico in the 1920's to escape what amounted to persecution in Ohio, and it's inspired by historical events. My great grandfather was the elder statesman of the Paradise Valley colony. My grandparents lived there, and my father was born there. While the characters and their stories are largely fictional, the geography and historical context are quite accurate. It's different from a lot of Amish fiction out there in that it's historical, it's set in Mexico, and it contains a fair amount of action. There are also seven daughters, who provide plenty of opportunities for romance.
10. What stories can your fans expect from you in the days ahead?
I really can't say. I've started several projects, but none are far enough along for me to talk about them. This has been a very tough year, and it hasn't left a lot of time for writing, so it may be awhile before I release another book. I'll be back, I'm just not sure when or how.
11. What would you like to say to your fans in New Zealand, and others worldwide?
I'd like to tell New Zealanders that if I can ever find my way I'm going to spend a few weeks tramping around your lovely country someday. It's on my bucket list under Travel. Growing up an Army brat I saw a lot of the world, and now I'm itching to see the rest of it.
12. Do you have any parting words?
There's a quote from Ken Kesey that keeps coming to mind for some reason. "It's the truth, even if it didn't happen." The line in his book has a slightly different meaning, one that English majors love to write about, but if you're a novelist you also recognize the author peeking around the curtain for a second to offer a bit of wisdom about fiction itself. People sometimes think of fiction as pure entertainment, unrelated to reality, but writers know better. Even in fiction, especially in fiction, a writer's first responsibility is to the truth. I hope the stories I write are true, even if they didn't happen.