Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jeffrey Overstreet interview

NA: Welcome! What drew you to write Christian fantasy?

I don’t write Christian fantasy. I write fantasy.

When I was five years old, I started writing fairy tales because I loved reading fairy tales. I loved the mystery, the surprises, the monsters. And I was also a kid with a lot of allergies; it wasn’t easy for me to spend time outside. So I wrote fantasy stories as a way of exploring forests and mountains and caves in the safety of my Northeast Portland home.

In my teens, I tried to write “Christian fantasy.” I failed miserably. I didn’t enjoy it. The stories were designed to deliver messages, so they were preachy and judgmental. I gave up. I went back to writing for the fun of it. Now I write as a form of exploration.

Some Christian readers have decided that the four books in The Auralia Thread are “Christian fantasy.” I’ve read some very narrow interpretations that come to misguided conclusions. My publishers do publish a lot of religious material, so that may be the cause of the confusion. But those who read my stories expecting “Christian fiction” are likely to be frustrated. These aren’t allegories. Nobody in my stories represents Jesus. Nobody represents Satan. This isn’t Narnia or Pilgrim’s Progress.

That’s not to say my characters aren’t learning about truth, beauty, good, and evil. You can find reflections of Christ’s teachings in almost any worthwhile fiction, from Homer to Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling.

I write without a plan. I make up characters to follow them and see what they’ll do. I’m not trying to deliver a message or persuade readers of anything. I’m not interested in using stories as a “tool” to teach lessons, religious or otherwise. I write stories for fun. I like exploring things I don’t understand, and learning as I go.

Storytelling is, for me, a thrilling act of curiosity, a constant series of surprises. And the books are an invitation for readers to experience those surprises alongside me.

NA: What is unique in The Auralia Thread compared to other fantasy stories?

That’s really for readers to decide. But I can suggest a few things that seem unusual about them.

I read a lot of fantasy stories that seem to be in a big hurry. Action, action, action. They’re written like the author is afraid he’ll lose our attention. Me, I like taking my time and really paying attention to characters and environments until I discover things I haven’t read about before. I write in search of surprises.

Nothing makes me close a book faster than a sense of familiarity. I don’t want a predictable story. Magic swords, battlefields, dragons… they bore me. I read stacks of those books when I was a kid. I want surprises. And I want to fall in love with the language.

I hope that I’m learning, little by little, to write stories that are surprising, and stories that sound good when they’re read out loud.

I was spoiled, when I was growing up, by great writers like Mervyn Peake, Richard Adams, and J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t find that kind of beauty on the page very much anymore. Lately, I’ve become fond of Kate DiCamillo, author of The Tale of Despereaux and The Tiger Rising. She writes so beautifully.

I aspire to learn from those writers. I still have a lot to learn.

NA: As you look back on writing the books, what challenged you the most, and how did you get through it?

It was quite a challenge to deliver four books in four years. (Actually, it was five books in four years, because I also wrote a “moviegoing memoir” called Through a Screen Darkly.)

I had rough drafts of all four stories in The Auralia Thread before we were blessed with the book contracts from WaterBrook. But as I revised the first book, Auralia’s Colors, for publication, the story changed. That’s the thing about storytelling. If you’re paying attention to detail, you’ll know that changing even one detail changes the whole picture. By the time I got to the third and fourth books, Raven’s Ladder and The Ale Boy’s Feast, the stories were almost entirely different than their rough drafts.

That would have been fine, but the publishing world wants authors to turn in a book a year for the sake of sales. I can’t blame them—it’s how the business works. But it’s very difficult to market one novel while writing another novel.

I learned this the hard way. I was working a full-time job at a University, and then coming home to write for four hours in the evening, and then writing all weekend… not to mention marketing the books… for about five years. It took a heavy toll on my health and my attitude. I’m currently “recovering,” learning to protect time for relaxing, for exercise, for dreaming up new ideas.

But I’m not complaining. I agreed to all of those difficult contracts, and I’m still grateful that I was given the opportunity.

NA: Which character was the hardest to write, and which was the easiest?’

I don’t think any of them were difficult. They were all very interesting to me. My favorite moment in writing is when I put two characters together in a scene and get them talking to each other and I realize something about one or both of them that didn’t know before.

Having said that, it was challenging to write about Auralia’s art. Auralia is a much better artist than me, and I had to imagine how to describe things that I could never invent myself.

It was also challenging to write about the beastmen, because they were so brutal and savage. When I wrote about them, the more I found potential in them. I wanted to see them learn to resist their cruel impulses. One of them did. The rest of them didn’t. I felt kind of like a parent who is trying to raise rebellious, destructive children, and who watches them suffer the consequences of their wickedness.

NA: If you could be any character in your books, who would it be?

I would like to be as playful and creative as Auralia… and as generous with my creativity as she is. But I’d also like to be as humble and determined and loyal as the Ale Boy. But the truth is, I feel the most like Jordam the beastman. He’s driven by bad habits and destructive impulses, but he’s drawn to beauty, and he’s developing a sort of “poetic imagination,” even if he’s only at an elementary level.

NA: Did your perspective as a film critic influence your writing?

It certainly helped me revise the stories. I took each chapter, imagined myself as a merciless critic, and “reviewed” it as harshly as possible. And then I revised the chapter in ways that would enable me to argue with that critic, should I ever meet him.

I think the best thing a writer can do is to give his writing to readers who will take the time to offer a vigorous, thorough critique… critics who aren’t interested in being nice. If you want your writing to improve, you’ll have to suffer some painful criticism. But you need that criticism. Those are the fires that will burn away what’s unnecessary and show you what is strong enough to stand.

NA: How do you feel about the possibility of The Auralia Thread on the silver screen?

I think they would work better as an animated movie than as a live-action movie. I cannot imagine how a filmmaker would represent Auralia’s extraordinary colors unless that animator was as gifted as somebody like Hayao Miyazaki.

But I have often played around with “casting” the book in my head. I had always imagined Pete Postlethwaite playing the role of Krawg, and David Thewlis playing Warney. But we lost Postlethwaite last year. I know it probably would never have happened, but I was a little sad about that, all the same. I felt like I’d lost my Krawg.

NA: Can you tell us three things about yourself we readers may not know?


I was in an improvisational comedy band for many years, and we recorded close to 2,000 songs. But we did this for fun, not for a business. So we didn’t release any of it. We played at parties in college, but mostly we played music just for fun. We were called The Garbage Chute Flyboys. And there are lines from our songs—and characters from our songs—scattered throughout The Auralia Thread.

A lot of readers of The Auralia Thread don’t know about Through a Screen Darkly, which I call my memoir of dangerous moviegoing. It’s become a textbook in classes about film interpretation in several colleges and universities, which has come as quite a nice surprise to me. I never meant for it to be a textbook; I meant for it to be an enjoyable “travel journal” through hundreds of my favorite movies.

A lot of my readers don’t know that I’m married to a poet named Anne, and her first book of poetry, Delicate Machinery Suspended, was published just a few months after The Ale Boy’s Feast came out. I love that book very, very much. I was a fan of Anne’s poetry before I became her husband, so I’m thrilled that she has a book now to share with the world.

NA: Do you have future book plans or ideas?

Oh, yes. I have several novels already outlined. But most of them are for younger readers, so I’m going to wait and write them after I’ve written another large fantasy novel for adults.

I’m a few chapters into a whole new story, and I really love the story.  It takes place in a world that’s very different than Auralia’s, even though it explores some of the same questions I explored in The Auralia Thread. I think it follows those questions off into wild new possibilities.

NA: Do you have any advice to those wanting to write Christian fantasy?

My advice is “Don’t write Christian fantasy.” Just write the best story you can, and let the story lead you. Don’t determine too much ahead of time about what the story will be or how it will end.

Besides, if your books are labeled as Christian fantasy, people who aren’t Christians will probably never read them. And wouldn’t you like to write stories that everyone wants to read? Most of us read fiction for an imaginative experience, not a message.

If you’re thinking much about the “message,” then you’re not letting the story lead you. So many of my favorite writers would agree—you write to discover a story, not to package a lesson. If you discover a story that feels true, it’ll never stop showing you new things. But if you determine ahead of time what the story “means,” you’ll make it difficult for the story to surprise you or to lead you new discoveries.

The stories that mean the most to me, the stories that have challenged my mind and inspired my faith, have been found in the Literature section, not the Christian Fiction section. If it’s beautiful, imaginative, and true… then it’s good. And if it’s good, I suspect God approves of it.

NA: It's been great to have you! Do you have any final words for us readers?

I enjoy meeting and getting to know people who have read The Auralia Thread. Readers have discovered some wonderful things in the stories that I’ve never noticed, so it’s always great to hear about that. Everybody’s invited to find me online. I’m on Facebook at and Twitter at, and I just got started on Google+.

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