Wednesday, February 18, 2009

CSFF Blog Tour Day Three: Jeffrey Overstreet - Cyndere's Midnight: An Interview



Shane Deal: What inspired the characters of Cyndere and Jordam?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Jordam the Beastman is not a new character, actually. He's one of the monsters who appears in the first book, Auralia's Colors. I didn't want the beastmen to be just ordinary monsters. I wanted to suggest that even these bloodthirsty mutants have a longing for beauty and a thirst for healing, so I gave Jordam a scene in that first book just to hint at that.

But that wasn't enough for me. The image that kept coming back to me--the idea of Jordam discovering some of Auralia's creative expressions out in the wilderness, and being calmed and inspired by beauty. Just like King Kong is inspired by the woman he loves. I relate to that. Beauty calls out to Jordam just as the beauty of a painting, or a tree, or a sunset can make me stop in the middle of my distractions and take a deep breath.

Like any Beauty and the Beast story, there also had to be a beautiful woman. But Cyndere came later. I knew that it would take a brave woman to stand her ground and deal with Jordam. Most people would run screaming at the sight of him. So Cyndere came to be inspired by brave people who have been willing to give up their comforts and safety in order to to and help people in need. A friend of mine said that Cyndere's like Elizabeth Eliot, the missionary who returned to the tribe that had killed her husband and ministered to them. I hadn't thought of that. But I like that connection.


Shane Deal: Now that Cyndere's Midnight has been released for awhile, is there anything you wish you could go back and change?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Oh, that's a painful question. Yes, every time I read my published work, I see things I would change if I could. I have what you might call "the George Lucas itch." But Star Wars fans know what happens when you let the artist keep messing with things years after they've been published, right? It's probably better for me to just let those things go. I don't know... maybe someday I'll publish Cyndere's Midnight - The Director's Cut.

If some of my readers could have their way, I'd be putting in more battles. But don't you think the fantasy genre has enough of those? I want to go places I haven't been before, to see what else might happen in a fantasy story. When I realized there would be a battle in Cyndere's Midnight, I re-read all of my favorite battle scenes so that I could avoid accidentally repeating anything. Nevertheless, after I wrote "The Siege of Barnashum," I realized what old, old battle story must have influenced me. Readers will have to figure that out on their own.


Shane Deal: What is the most challenging part about writing your books?

Jeffrey Overstreet: It's tough to find enough time... and the right kind of time. Time when my ears aren't ringing from the busyness of the day.

I work full-time at another job. And I have deadlines for my film reviews. It's tough to shift gears, to quiet down and drift off into a fantasy world. There are dishes that need to be washed, catboxes that need to be cleaned, and my library books are overdue. Traffic in Seattle is a wearying experience. Sometimes, I'll write from 7 p.m. until midnight, and only get one good paragraph out of it. To finish a book the size and complexity of Cyndere's Midnight in the course of one year, with a schedule like mine, is really difficult. It's a second full-time job.

But it's also tough to keep readers' responses from messing with my imagination.

Forgive me, but I've got an itch that needs scratching. I've been grateful for the criticism and the encouragement from readers. But it's disappointing to me when readers think I'm trying to "hide" or "bury" my faith behind fantasy.

Storytelling is part of my exploration of faith. It's one of the ways I express it. I'm not trying to hide anything. I'm trying to find a way to explore and celebrate aspects of faith that I can't otherwise explain. It's like composing instrumental music, or cultivating a garden, or dancing -- those pursuits reveal truth in mysterious and extravagant ways that a "lesson" never could. Fantasy can do the same thing. The Lord of the Rings is evidence of that. And I'm encouraged to find that even stories written by unbelievers--including pagan myths and fairy tales--reveal aspects of the truth, even though it would frustrate their authors to discover that. Tolkien understood this. It was while he explained this to C.S. Lewis that Lewis came to embrace Christianity.

I approach storytelling as a chance to play with beautiful sights and sounds and experiences in hopes that they will give readers the joy and inspiration they give me. The pursuit of these stories has drawn me much closer to God, and I'm sharing them with you in hopes that you might share some of that experience. It's not my job to simplify it or explain it for you. I'm not trying to write a book that can easily be translated into a study guide. I'm trying to paint pictures that reflect my experience of the mysterious glory of God. I'm a beginner, and I'm learning as I go, so I don't claim to have succeeded. But that's my earnest endeavor.

We're told in Psalm 19 that "the heavens declare the glory of God," and "day by day pours forth speech." Sometimes I wish the heavens and the days would be a little more explicit about what they're saying. But I know that the truth dazzles gradually, through beauty and through grace. And when I'm patient, I come to sense that beauty is speaking to me about God in ways I cannot paraphrase. I'm hoping to capture a sense of that in Auralia's world

And I do hope readers will be patient, and refrain from declaring me a heretic until they've seen all four volumes. We're only halfway through, after all.


Shane Deal: You have some rather interesting names, do you wish to share any particular stories of how you came up with some of them?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Sometimes it's as simple as finding words that describe the character, and then smashing them together to see what happens. I can't remember exactly, but I think "Auralia" came from playing around with the word "aura" and the name "Laura" (which means "light.") Sometimes, I look for sounds that give me a sense of the character.

One of the Gatherers is a rough, crass, hard-edged fellow, and the name "Krawg" just sounds right. It sounds rather like a cuss word from some other world, doesn't it?

Krawg's friend is overly cautious and worried, so "Warney" just sounded right for him. I was delighted when someone reminded me later that C.S. Lewis's brother was called by the same name.


Shane Deal: Do you have any story ideas for after you finish this series? Or is that too far ahead at this point?

Jeffrey Overstreet: I have a lot of big ideas. I have an adventure series for younger readers that takes place in a world of talking animals, like something Pixar might turn into a movie. (Forgive me if I dream about that for a moment.) And I have a few stories from my high school experiences that I'd like to tell, with a bit of a fantasy flourish. There's another huge fantasy story--a horror story, really--about a group of artists who start experiencing something truly unusual in their work. But I don't feel quite ready to launch that ship just yet. And I have a couple of non-fiction projects brewing as well.

But I'm going to rest for a while when I finish The Auralia Thread. I'll need to rest, recharge, and start training for the next marathon.

------

Many thanks to Mr. Overstreet for allowing me the privilege of an interview.

Also worth checking out:

I highly recommend watching the following talk, given by Mr. Overstreet at Seattle Pacific University in October of 2007:

"We Gotta Get Outta Here" - How Tolkien, Lewis, and L'Engle Help Us Hope"

I watch or listen to it quite often. (Usually listening while driving.)

-Shane

Featured book, Cyndere’s Midnight - http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1400072530
Jeffrey Overstreet’s Web site - http://lookingcloser.org/
Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog - http://lookingcloser.org/category/journal/
Jeffrey Overstreet at Facebook - http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeffrey-Overstreet/42902959

8 comments:

Robert Treskillard said...

This is an EXCELLENT interview!

I really like the info you pulled out of him regarding his Christian faith and how he views his series.

Thanks!

S. J. Deal said...

Thanks Robert.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

And I do hope readers will be patient, and refrain from declaring me a heretic until they've seen all four volumes. We're only halfway through, after all. Hmmm, believers vilified J.K. Rowlings, too. Whatever you think of her theology, it seems apparent, now that Harry Potter 7 is out, that she was writing all along with an eye for showing Harry as a type of Christ.

This was an excellent interview, Shane.

I still disagree with Jeffrey on the idea of intention when it comes to theme. Because he uses his writing to explore his faith doesn't mean that's the only right way of doing so. Nor that someone who has a clear idea of what they want to say in their fiction must necessarily be writing preachy stories.

Becky

Jeffrey Overstreet said...

Rebecca said:
I still disagree with Jeffrey on the idea of intention when it comes to theme. Because he uses his writing to explore his faith doesn't mean that's the only right way of doing so. Nor that someone who has a clear idea of what they want to say in their fiction must necessarily be writing preachy stories.

A) I never said that my way of writing was the "only right way of doing so." Mercy.

B) I never said that somebody who has a clear idea of what they want to say in their fiction must necessarily be writing preachy stories.

So, based on those two points, no, Rebecca doesn't disagree with me.

Authors have all kinds of methods for telling stories. Methods are one thing. Results are something else.

Some authors explore, some have an agenda. Either kind of author can write a good or bad story.

Meandering, aimless, shoddy storytelling is something less desirable than the kind of exploration that leads to new discoveries and intriguing mysteries.

Preachers, like Frederic Buechner, may know very well what they want to say in a story. But if they tell the story well, the reader will not feel hit over the head. Instead, they'll feel like they had the insight on their own while reading the story. And the best storytelling, while conveying what the author wanted to say, will also end up saying more than the author ever intended.

Again, I have no problem with themes. I have no problems with authors who want to "say something" in their art. But the excellence of art has as much to do with *how* you say something as it does to do with *what* you are saying.

If a movie about Jesus comes out this year, will it automatically be the best movie of the year? Let me tell you... I've seen some really, really bad movies about Jesus. They didn't necessarily contradict scripture--they were just sloppy in their crafstmanship, poorly acted, poorly edited, and every scene felt like a lesson instead of an encounter with living, breathing, complex, mysterious human beings.

C.S. Lewis described great storytelling as "casting a net" made of words. The net might catch something true. But it would be something larger than the words actually *said.* The words would suggest something bigger, something that no mere "lesson" could convey.

That's what I want to accomplish. If I can paraphrase my story down to a lesson, what was the point of telling the story? I want to convey something that could not be conveyed any other way. I'm trying, anyway. I've seen so many authors accomplish it.

What's the "message" of Watership Down? Oh, where do I begin? There are so many insights to be found in it.

What's the "theme" of The Prodigal Son? There are so many themes, pastors are still preaching new sermons with new insights.

Parables don't "deliver a message." They tease our minds into active thought, and the more we meditate on them, the more we see the contours of many, many true and rewarding themes.

S. J. Deal said...

Hmmm, believers vilified J.K. Rowlings, too. Whatever you think of her theology, it seems apparent, now that Harry Potter 7 is out, that she was writing all along with an eye for showing Harry as a type of Christ.

I was absolutely delighted when I read book seven, I'd been suspecting the Christian themes since 2004 and reading the seventh book was like finding confirmation of so much of what I'd been reading in the previous books. In all or almost all there is a scene that plays out a morality play of sorts near the end that in some way reflects the truth.

In the first book Harry descends deep under Hogwarts, faces and confronts a deceiver, dies a figurative death that nearly did kill him, awakes incidentally three days later victorious over Voldemort.

Second book: Harry descends again deep under Hogwarts, this time to face again, the deceiver who has captured Ginny Weasley-later Harry's bride's, soul. Harry goes and again nearly dies but saves Ginny by doing so. His deadly wound healed by a phoenix. (And the rest of Hogwarts is saved as well.)

In book three Harry meets the man who betrayed the Potter family to Voldemort, and offers the man undeserved grace by placing himself in the path of the one who would be acting in taking justice upon him, sparing his life.

In book four we have a direct combat with Voldemort and in the very scene that causes a great amount of discomfort for some with the series the shedding of Harry's blood allows for Voldemort to be defeated three years later.

Book five: Love conquers Voldemort.

Book Six: Doesn't really have one that I can think of in regards to Harry, there are however still images of self-sacrifice.

Book Seven is rather obvious with Harry's almost literal death and subsequent resurrection, by which the school is from that point forward unable to be held under Voldemort's powers.

Now I do have to credit John Granger (hogwartsprofessor.com), Travis Prinzi (thehogshead.org), and others,with many of the observations. I probably wouldn't have guessed until the seventh book otherwise. Very often I can get something in Bible studies etc. because I've been able to find an illustration of it in the Potter books, so I don't think it's a stretch to say the series has Biblical themes woven throughout.

In fact the Harry Potter books serve as a great example of theme in a story. A great example of how to preach without being preachy, how to give a message without knocking folks over the head. There is the fact that the Harry Potter books are also satire. There is a lot of themes and messages concerning such things as government, education, religion, tolerance and intolerance, political viewpoints, racism, and even slavery. The themes are woven in but they don't replace the value of the story. Or if you will, the storytelling takes the first importance. I would not however consider the Potter books to be necessarily a Christian-fiction book series. (Though I feel the same way about The Chronicles of Narnia. I mean, I don't believe it to be an allegory in its first intent.) Their purpose, I believe, is not to evangelize or even set forth a moral message as the predestined intent of the author. Never the less moral messages do exist within them along with analogies to Biblical concepts and truths within them.

Which brings me back to the subject at hand: Mr. Overstreet's books. I view The Auralia Thread very like I do Potter. There are certainly Biblical concepts and truths to be found, but first and foremost there is a great story. Or as Mr. Overstreet says in the speech given at SPU (The link in the above post.): "...It gave me permission to use my imagination, as a Christian, without the moral of the story always boiling down to Jesus saves..." (Not certain that's the exact wording.) Like Potter, the artistry itself brings in themes and weaves truth into the story. Both series are great examples of showing rather then telling their respective themes and ideas.

I personally find the idea of the redemption of the beastmen to draw an incredible picture of the truth. It's not an allegorical story true, but the theme is still there, and it's there very strongly. I could not help but draw a mental picture of us as the beastmen in need of redemption, slaves to ourselves, in our world. They're us. Again, it's just the theme at work, not in my mind a deliberate allegory. Likewise, I see the themes of redemption continuing in the characters of Jordam, Auralia's colors, and Cyndere. These are themes and symbols, deeper meanings then the direct surface meanings of the books. The secret in The Auralia Thread's deep and profound storytelling lies in the fact that it engages the reader on multiple levels: It has the direct literal story. It also goes deeper and has themes and redemptive storytelling. It engages the imagination and I might even go far as to say it touches the very soul of the reader. The spiritual aspects being the deepest level of the book, are not absent, though not perhaps deliberately placed. The fact that it's a good story that reflects truth, beauty, goodness is sufficient to do bring about change in the reader pointing them towards the source of truth, beauty, and goodness. A good story is one that does that. The Auralia Thread does that.

I agree with Jeffrey: Again, I have no problem with themes. I have no problems with authors who want to "say something" in their art. But the excellence of art has as much to do with *how* you say something as it does to do with *what* you are saying.


Thanks for your comments Rebecca and Jeffrey.

sally apokedak said...

wonderful interview, wonderful comments. Thanks for taking the time to delve into this topic. I've not read Mr. Overstreet's books but I think I'll have to give them a try now.

S. J. Deal said...

Thanks Sally.

Alexander Field said...

Thanks for the fantastic interview Shane, some great thoughts from Jeffrey in the interview itself (and in the comments too). Great job!