Lt. Colonel Bill Collins, Author Extraordinaire
By: Brad Rowland
After five decades as a Salvation Army officer in the USA Southern Territory, USA Central Territory and abroad, Lt. Colonel William Collins began a second career as a prolific author and storyteller. He is the author of more than 50 novels and is a member of the Florida Writers Association. For additional information, visit his official website at CollinsAuthor.com.
Lt. Colonel Collins recently spoke to The Southern Spirit, and the interview is lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
Southern Spirit: Tell me about your background and your extensive service as an officer, both home and abroad.
Bill Collins: We did 50 glorious years, had the greatest time, and the greatest blessings. We loved Chicago. Of course, my wife was from the South, so there was always that little tug at her heart to return to the South. (Commissioner) Andy Miller was able to work his magic and got us transferred, so that worked out really well. In the Central Territory, we were corps officers. We were DYS’s in Kansas City. We had a lot of great appointments.
We met at Asbury when we were at university and fell in love. I was in the Soldiers of Christ Session, and then she was a part of the Servant of Christ Session, which was the next year. We were commissioned in 1962 and had our baby.
We said we wanted to go to Africa. The chief secretary said, “You guys will never go. It takes a long time.” And then, that summer, we were sent by boat to the Congo. We went through a lot of dangerous times with the rebels fighting in the Congo, but they never came near us. We had a glorious time. I was principal of the Army’s high school there. And then we went back later, and I was principal of the William Booth High School. We loved that. We fell in love with the African people. Our two daughters were speaking French and other languages when we came home. It was a great experience. Then we were assigned to corps work. I was also made the education secretary, which meant that I had the glorious task of taking five-year groups to the Holy Land. That was extraordinary. Then the General asked, “Now that your daughters are grown, would you be willing to go back to Africa?” And we said yes.
SS: Can you tell me about your experiences in Africa?
BC: Who wouldn’t want to go to Africa? You would have 600 or 700 people, maybe more, in your meetings. The singing still gives me chills. We have recordings of a lot of our high school boys and the singing from my wife’s Home League rallies. It just gives you a lump in your throat the whole time in the best way. It’s so wonderful, so cool.
SS: How did you get started as a writer? How did you progress in your publishing work?
BC: I didn’t start writing until I retired. The girls wanted me to write an autobiography because they couldn’t remember a lot of places we went. I wrote it, and in it, I put about 1000 photos on the right margin so they could see photos of what I was writing about. I had so much fun doing that. I always wanted to write something about King Solomon’s first wife. His first wife was an Egyptian princess. I said, “That would be a cool story. What would your life be like having to leave the glories of Egypt for little Jerusalem?” So, I wrote To Catch the Wind, which is a phrase from Solomon’s writings. It sold well. It’s pretty thick, but it’s a great story. I found the publisher, and they wanted some more Egyptian stories. That’s what got me started. Before talking to you, I was working on chapter seven of my 53rd novel. A lot of my book origins answer questions, for biblical ones especially. Where was Daniel when Shadrach was in the fiery furnace? Where in the world did he go? I wrote a whole novel about that. I thought that would be a great story, and it was. It’s called Daniel and the King.
SS: Is it simply a desire to answer a question that motivates these books? Are there other inspirations?
BC: Sometimes it is people wanting me to write a book about a certain thing. My daughter Melanie wanted a book about Africa. So that’s one of the books. Actually it’s her story. I also belong to the Florida Writers Association. We have a group meeting every other Saturday where we present our chapters. They tear them all apart. The lady who does all my covers is on the newspaper staff here in Daytona. She is a horror writer. That challenged me to do a vampire novel. In fact, I did two of them. I also did a science fiction fantasy of how they built the Great Pyramid because nobody really knows. It depends on what my mood is. I lost my wife this year and that changed things. There was my great editor. She was born in England of (Salvation) Army parents and great heritage. She always read my chapters first. For one thing, I wanted to make sure I treated women correctly, but she was a fantastic grammarian. I have to find more editors now. But I like to write about whatever strikes my interest. Historical fiction is also funny. It has to be more than 60 years old for it to become historical fiction. You can’t change any of the facts of the past, which is both good and bad because it’s hard. One of my biggest resources is the Cairo Museum. All I have to do is email or text them. They know who I am, and it’s great to have that resource that will respond to me quickly for background. Thank goodness for Google! That definitely helps.
SS: How did serving in Africa change your perspective to write books based abroad?
BC: It changed the way I thought. The people were great. My teachers were great. The United Nations sent us teachers for the high school each year. The school was already like the United Nations with people from different backgrounds. I was a troublemaker because when we first got there, the European officers were thought to have a lot of privileges that the Congolese officers didn’t. I think “You’re a major and I’m a major. So what? We work together.” It made us more tolerant and more understanding of people. We went one Christmas to a little village, 60 miles into the interior. The headmaster of the primary school had his students stand. There were 300 children, from five to around fifteen years old. They sang the Hallelujah chorus. All the notes were correct. Everything was sung by memory. It was perfect. Here we are, in the middle of the jungle, no electricity anywhere, and there is this glorious sound. It broke us down into tears. It was absolutely incredible. That happened everywhere we went. We fell in love with Africa. We learned so much from the people. They taught us so much about patience. I could talk for hours about it and all of the impact that time had on us.
SS: What would you want people to know about your published work that perhaps they don’t know or couldn’t glean from your extensive archive?
BC: I find that a lot of Christian people, even Salvationists, sometimes look down their noses at fiction, thinking, “I don’t really have time to read like that. I have to read a Bible study book or whatever.” I look at it this way: I preached for 50 years, and I listened to a lot of great preachers in the Army. A lot of our sermons are fiction. They talk about the Good Shepherd and all of that, and then they begin talking about what shepherds do. All of that’s not always in the Bible. That’s the fiction that the preacher has added. I would hope that people understand that all of my biblical books are biblically accurate. I worked on my degree at Emory in the Old Testament. I studied Hebrew. My books are in temples and synagogues here in Florida because the rabbis have read them. I want to tell their story. I hope they would enjoy it, that they learn things. I have one nonfiction book, Jesus in the News, which are 37 Sunday school lessons on the miracles of Jesus. My best seller has been On a Hill Far Away, because I keep the reader guessing to the last chapter as to who the main character is. I’ve had more requests for that book than any of the others. I’m just an old, retired pastor, but my writing is biblically accurate. I hope it will be inspirational. Maybe the reader will learn something. I’d say one more thing, and that is the opportunity I’ve had to witness to people at so many book signings at Barnes & Noble and other stores. The money from those sales goes to support corps that need help. We’ve also helped pay for the new stained-glass window in Daytona Beach. But the bottom line is witnessing. I’ve talked and prayed with so many people. It makes everything worthwhile.