Thursday, 31 January 2008
Author Interview! Jeffrey Overstreet
Every year there's guaranteed to be at least one book that you won't have planned to pick up but will end up becoming a personal favourite. I had a couple of these last year and one of them was Jeffrey Overstreet's debut fantasy novel 'Auralia's Colors'. Instead of telling you about it all over again, I'll just point you at my Review . I think it's definitely one to read if you get the chance.
I got the chance to ask Jeffrey some questions about 'Auralia's Colors' and here's what he had to say...
When I first realised that ‘Auralia’s Colors’ had been written by a Christian author my first thought was that “there’s allegory in there somewhere…” I couldn’t see any though, did I miss something?
No, you didn’t miss anything.
Tolkien was a Christian author, but he didn’t write allegory. From Flannery O’Connor to Annie Dillard to Stephen Lawhead—there are plenty of Christians who gave us literature rather than lessons. And I find that inspiring. Allegories can be engaging, but they’re like codes. Once you’ve broken the code, and figured what each symbol or character represents, what’s left?
I believe any writer expresses something of what he or she believes about the world, about good and evil, about spiritual matters, whether they like it or not.
And I’m sure that my own faith influences my storytelling. But I’m not interested in writing allegories. I write a story to discover something, to explore, to play — not to disguise some pre-determined message. Where would the fun be in that?
For people who haven’t read the book yet, could you briefly say what it’s all about? This is your opportunity to really plug your book!
Here’s how it starts:
Two cantankerous thieves are doing hard labor out in the wilderness to pay off their debt to the kingdom of House Abascar, when they stumble onto an abandoned child.
She’s lying in a footprint... a big footprint. They bring her back into the society of crooks, where she grows up manifesting strange and artistic powers, and suggesting that a mysterious, mythical creature might have something to do with her inspiration. Her name is Auralia, and her mastery of color reveals wonders no one seen before.
This is a problem: House Abascar has tough restrictions on color. In fact, the common Housefolk live in an almost-colorless society. Auralia’s work stirs up rebellion as they remember what their greedy king and queen have taken. And her colors upset the balance of power in the kingdom.
The king must decide whether to imprison her, cast her back outside the protection of the walls to live with the criminals, or execute her. But he’s distracted by trouble stirred up by savage creatures called “beastmen” in the wilderness beyond the walls. Ultimately, Auralia’s colors throw House Abascar into a violent turmoil that will claim many lives and change the course of history... not just in Abascar, but all four houses of the Expanse.
I felt that ‘Auralia’s Colors’ had a real fairytale feel to it, both through the language and the content. A lot of fantasy these days has a more edgy and gritty tone to it, what made you decide against taking this route with ‘Auralia’s Colors’?
Well, to be frank, I don’t read a lot of contemporary fantasy. I miss the sense of wonder that I felt reading fairy tales when I was a kid.
So much of modern fantasy feels like it’s just another version of The Lord of the Rings. Or else it feels like the author is striving to be draw attention to his showmanship and audacity, rather than drawing us all into a sense of wonder. Much of it feels like a contest to see who can write the darkest, most disturbing material. And it often feels driven by distracting agendas—take Philip Pullman, and his Christianity-bashing heroes, or various Christian stories that feel more like advertisements for Jesus.
I don’t go to fantasy to discover Tolkien wannabes, or for the ugliness, or for lectures. I’m looking for the kind of story that will dazzle all ages. I go to fantasy for encounters with something truly mysterious and enchanting. My life has enough trouble in it, so I’m looking for beauty rather than just another epic battle between monsters. Now, don’t get me wrong: I do have a huge library of favorite fantasy stories. But when I want grit, I’ll read Cormac McCarthy.
When I want inspiration, I’ll go back to Tolkien, or re-read Richard Adams’ Watership Down, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast stories, or Patricia McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe. These stories all have elements of fairy tales, but they also have musical, wondrous language that I find inspiring. I wanted to write something that readers would want to read out loud.
Can you see yourself sticking to the same kind of tone or can you see a darker edge appearing in future books?
Auralia’s Colors takes us to some dark places. Maugam the jailer, who haunts that passages beneath House Abascar... he gives me nightmares.
But Auralia’s Colors focuses on Auralia, who’s very young, and the ale boy, who’s even younger. That brings a sort of “lightness” to the story. The beastman are fearsome monsters, but they’re in the background, in the shadows.
In Cyndere’s Midnight, a beastman is one of the two main characters, and we follow him into the heart of the world of beastmen. So naturally, it’s going to take us into grim and troubling places. But don’t worry. We’re not abandoning the other characters.
Out of all the things a King could outlaw in his Kingdom I wouldn’t have put colour at the top of the list. What made you decide that it would be colour that was to be outlawed?
The story was inspired by a question about what happens to people when they stop caring about creativity and imagination. I was talking with Anne, my girlfriend at the time, about our strange mutual devotion to fairy tales. We wondered why so many adults “outgrow” them, and brush them aside as “kids’ stuff.”
We were hiking in Montana, near Flathead Lake—an incredibly colourful place. I started imagining what it might be like to live in a kingdom that outlawed creative expression. The first thing that struck me was that this society in my imagination was almost colorless. The story revealed itself from there.
And here’s the happy ending: Anne and I kept talking about fairy tales, and now we’ve been married for eleven years.
It’s an old adage that writers write about what ‘they know’. Did Auralia’s use of colour, as rebellion against her society, stem from any similar feelings in yourself?
Well, I don’t think I’d characterize Auralia as “rebellious against” so much as “passionate to inspire.” She was not part of Abascar’s society to begin with. She’s an outsider who has been dragged into House Abascar by their authorities, because they want what she has, but they also want to force her into conformity with their standards. And the truth of what she does, and who she is, clashes with that, because it shows people there is so much more that they need.
And yes, I can relate. For various reasons. I grew up in a particularly stifling community where art was—and still is—viewed with suspicion and condemnation. I was influenced by those standards. But I longed for the beauty and the wild truth I saw reflected in art and nature. I was like the folks in Abascar who get a glimpse of Auralia’s colors.
Since I grew up in a Christian community, some might jump to the conclusion that I think Christianity is a corrupting and stifling influence. But I don’t think it’s Christianity that stifles art. In fact, art and nature both affirm and increase my faith.
No, I think that fear within any community or institution can lead to suffocating restrictions. Art at its best reveals glory and mystery, and that’s an unsettling thing. It humbles us. It shatters our preconceptions. And that makes many people uncomfortable, so they try to organize it in a way that allows them to have control. When they do that, the art becomes something less. It becomes an expression of themselves, not of something higher. I’m in search of revelation, not a sales pitch.
The story is about more than that. But that is one of the reasons that I resonate with Auralia’s story. And I guess I relate more to the people of Abascar than to Auralia, for whom revelation seems as effortless as breathing.
I’ve read that your wife is a poet, what affect does this have on the language that you use in your own work?
It means I have an observant editor right in my own home! While I tend to produce many pages of text very quickly, Anne helps me slow down and pay attention to every word. Her poems sound musical to me, and that inspires me to pay attention to the rhythms of my own writing. Her poems have a strong sense of “place,” and that inspires me to pay attention to the environments of my stories. The places end up participating in the story as actively as characters.
And then there’s the fact that I think she’s beautiful. And beauty tends to inspire writers to write.
You don’t just write fantasy, you’re also a film critic. Which of these came first for you? Was it much of a jump from one to the other?
I started writing fantasy stories when I was about seven. I started writing movie and music reviews in my diary at around ten. So, no, it wasn’t much of a jump. They’ve both been part of my writing life for as long as I can remember.
The challenge is not to let the work I do as a critic make me too critical during the creative work. It’s hard work to silence your inner “censor” and just imagine wild and crazy things until you find that one idea that you love. But the critical work does help me later in the creative process, when I start thinking about editing, and about eliminating what is unnecessary to the story and the vision.
Staying in ‘film critic mode’, are there any films in particular that you recommend we all go and see this year?
I’ve just posted my list of favourites from 2007 at lookingcloser.org, so you’ll find about twenty or thirty recommendations there. But we’re in 2008 now, and there are some new releases I’m excited about seeing, like U23D, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But I’m so busy trying to finish Cyndere’s Midnight that I’m not allowing myself any moviegoing for a while.
What are you reading at the moment and why do you think I should read it too?
At the moment? Well, I’m reading the sequel to Auralia’s Colors! And I’m still finding plenty of paragraphs that need some polishing.
But seriously, it always helps me to revisit works by Mark Helprin, Patricia McKillip, Cormack McCarthy, and other favourite writers just to get good language running through my head. It gives me a standard to reach for.
Can you tell us anything about ‘Cyndere’s Midnight’ (the next book in the sequence)?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with this story, and I’m excited about all of the new adventures that the ale boy is experiencing, along with the large cast of new characters who are the focus of the book: Cyndere, the heiress to the throne of House Bel Amica; Jordam, a murderous beastman; Ryllion, a soldier who is zealous in his faith, and who follows it to extraordinary decisions; Emeriene, who is Cyndere’s closest friend, and whose loyalties are divided. And then, of course, we’ll learn more about Auralia, Scharr ben Fray, Cal-raven, and, yes, Krawg and Warney.
The book began as an idea inspired by Beauty and the Beast. But this version has two beauties, and quite a few characters who could qualify as “beasts.”
Thanks for your time Jeffrey, it's been great talking to you.
If you want to find out more about Jeffrey Overstreet and his books, take a look at his website Looking Closer.