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An Interview with George Bryan Polivka

As part of this month’s CSFF blog tour, I was able to interview (via email) George Bryan Polivka, author of The Legend of the Firefish, first book in the swashbuckling Trophy Chase Trilogy. It is an unusual novel, as it is billed as a fantasy, but is really an alternate 18th century novel. Best comparisons might be Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, although those are more alternate histories and do not involve alternate worlds as this book does. It also draws comparison to Pirates of the Caribbean, and James Ward’s Midshipwizard Halcyon Blithe. But more on that in my review tomorrow. Enjoy the interview, and come back tomorrow to read my review of Legend of the Firefish.

GFTW: Why did you choose to write a fantasy?

GBP: I have always been enamored of the Lord of the Rings. In fact, it played a crucial role in my conversion when I was fifteen. It showed me the stark difference between light and darkness, and convinced me I wanted to be on a path toward the light.

GFTW: Why should Christians read fantasies?

GBP: God gave us imagination in order to apprehend Him. Good fantasy (and by that I mean fantasy in which good battles evil, and prevails through honorable means) stretches that capacity. Mine puts God in the center for that reason. I want people to walk away saying, “I understand God better. And I like Him even more.”

GFTW: What themes in fantasy do you think parallel those of the Bible?

GBP: The Christian story, as C.S.Lewis pointed out, is Myth with a capital M. It is the source and culmination of all great themes of literature. The Golden Age, the Fall from Grace, the Desperate Quest, the Great Self-Sacrifice, the Victory of the Underdog, the Redemption of the Lost, the New Beginning… it’s all there. It comes from there and finds its meaning there. Any literature that does not delve into these infinite, universal themes will not resonate with humans on this planet.

GFTW: What are your favorite fantasy books/series and/or authors?

GBP: Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle. I have read a lot, but no other fantasy authors have reached me quite like they have.

GFTW: What writer, of any genre, has most influenced you?

GBP: I have had a lot of influences from a lot of genres. The biggest one lately is David McCullough, the history guy. I love his books… can’t get enough. All true, all history, and so well told. He gets into the heads of these historical people. I want my fiction to read with the authority of his history. But my biggest influence has to be Tolkien. I’ve read the trilogy four times, the first three times before I was 21. It helped forge the eternal loyalties of my heart.

GFTW: What is your explanation for the growing fascination of our culture with fantasy?

GBP: Too much ugly reality, in too large a dose. “Escape” is one aspect, but not the whole story. I think people are looking for ways to overcome or rise above evil.

GFTW: Do you see your writing as an evangelistic tool? Why?

GBP: I am not an evangelist, and I do not write to convert people. In fact, I write for a Christian audience. What I mean by that is NOT that I target my books so other Christians will like them. Rather, I write with an underlying message that God has given me for His people… the truth about the nature of power, how evil is to be opposed on earth. And it’s not the way the church is generally doing it today. If non-Christians like it and take something away, for me that’s a bonus. But it’s not my mission. I’m equipping the saints.

GFTW: In writing a fantasy, did you fear writing something that might contradict your own beliefs or lead others to believe something contrary to what you know is true?

GBP: Never.

GFTW: How should Christians react to the inclusion of magic in many fantasies?

GBP: I think it’s a delicate balancing act. I actually don’t find Harry Potter to be offensive in this regard, because I think Rowling is careful about the uses of magic. Though I know many do have a problem with her. But my kids grew up with Harry, and don’t seem to have any illusions that people in the real world who want to become witches and wizards are anything but idiots. My stories do not have magic. They have Firefish, sea monsters that are quite the equivalent of dragons, but they must be dealt with using normal human means. (Unless you consider the grace of God not normal.)

GFTW: You set your story in an 18th century world with large sailing ships and a vast ocean. Why did you choose this setting?

GBP: Nothing captures the longing of the soul, for me, like the sea. And nothing quite captures the sea like tall ships.

GFTW: You chose to quote Scripture directly, rather than allegorically (as in Narnia or Middle Earth). As a reader, I felt this stopped the flow of the narrative a bit abruptly. Did you have a reason for quoting Scripture directly, rather than allegorically representing the Christian life?

GBP: As much as I loved Tolkien, I always felt it unfair that the bad guys had precisely the same motivations as bad guys in the real world, but the good guys couldn’t have the same motivations as many, many good guys in history… and that is their faith in God. Why should evil be literal but good allegorical? Who made that rule? Anyway, I broke it. I think it surprises those who are expecting a particular type of fantasy, but not those who are looking for a good read. Certainly, characters in 18th Century settings quoted scripture all the time.

GFTW: Packer Throme was kicked out of seminary, and chose a new vocation of swordsman in order to reach his goals. Why did you choose to have you main character be a person who failed at a spiritual vocation but that finds success in a secular one?

GBP: Because that hits pretty close to home for me, and for a lot of my friends who went to Bible College with me. Not everyone is called into full time Christian work. And when you think you are, and then you don’t end up there.. it leaves deep and lasting scars. But there is a reason for it. Packer doesn’t find it until the last chapters of Book Three, but he does… eventually.

GFTW: What is distinctive about the Trophy Chase trilogy from other fantasies out there, other than its Christian content?

GBP: I think the lack of magic is distinctive. But also the multiple viewpoints, the “omniscient” point of view. I get into a lot of characters heads, including the Firefish. People have told me the Firefish is their favorite character. The beasts have a motive for everything. Usually it’s incorrect reasoning. But that doesn’t make it less frightening… like the madman with wild theories that lead him to murder. You get to see this world from lots of different angles.

GFTW: You have been a writer for a long time (since 1981, I believe), tell us a little about your journey.

GBP: I couldn’t quit writing and I couldn’t get published. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. But it was always about His timing. And this is the right time… I can see it in a thousand ways.

GFTW: You use exceptional detail to describe your story, especially the life at sea. Some readers might find that a bit tedious. Did you have a particular reason for describing certain scenes in more detail (even when describing torture*)?

GBP: People mention the torture thing a lot. Actually, I cut a lot of it out. It’s important to get to the root of who Packer is, very early, to understand that there is no deception in him and that he is ultimately much weaker than Talon. And in that scene, we get to the root of Talon as well. It’s painful, yes, but it sets the whole rest of the story in motion… those two will meet again. As regards detail, I write what I like. What I see. I understand if some people want to “cut to the Chase,” (excuse the pun), but it’s a book… readers are allowed. A lot of readers have told me they love all that tall ship sea stuff.

*GFTW Caveat: I mentioned the torture scene because people mention it in interviews, etc. but I personally did not find it distasteful as some Christians seem to, only a good example of Polivka’s use of description. See here.

GFTW: You try to convey the emotions of the characters in the story, particularly Packer Throme and Panna Seline, but you even get inside the Firefish’s head. Why spend so much time on the psyches of these characters, even to the point of analyzing their emotions through the omnipresent narrator in some detail?

GBP: I find it fun to write, and most people find it fun to read. And again, there is some underlying theme here. You can watch someone do something heroic, and think, “Oh, he just did it.” But “just do it” is a Nike ad, not a biblical directive. What happened in that hero’s mind and heart might be very, very different… doubts, fears, complete despair leading to the power of God. A whole lot can flash through a mind in a few seconds of critical decision-making. You don’t always understand how people think by watching externally. You have to get in there with them.

Sometimes I think the passion the publishing industry seems to have for objective 3rd person is just an enormous, well-laid trap… a way to convince the world that everyone’s the same and everyone’s on their own, and there is no way of thinking that can lead to a better outcome. Just do it. Existentialism at it’s worst.

GFTW: Finally, any parting thoughts to potential readers?

GBP: This trilogy is a bit of a throwback… it’s not the “modern” novel in many regards. It doesn’t fit neatly into categories. And that’s purposeful. The payoff is a different way of thinking. I had one reader tell me, “I found myself thinking like Packer Throme.” That’s very satisfying.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk about it a little bit.

George Bryan Polivka’s second book in the Trophy Chase Trilogy, The Hand That Bears the Sword is also available. The third book in the series is slated for release in January of 2008. You can keep up with Polivka at his blog, or website.

Check out the other participants in this month’s CSFF Blog Tour.

Trish Anderson; Brandon Barr; Wayne Thomas Batson; Jim Black; Justin Boyer; Grace Bridges; Amy Browning; Jackie Castle; Valerie Comer; Karri Compton; Frank Creed; Lisa Cromwell; CSFF Blog Tour; Gene Curtis; D. G. D. Davidson; Merrie Destefano; Jeff Draper; April Erwin; Linda Gilmore; Beth Goddard; Marcus Goodyear; Russell Griffith; Jill Hart; Katie Hart; Sherrie Hibbs; Christopher Hopper; Jason Joyner; Kait; Karen; Dawn King; Tina Kulesa; Lost Genre Guild; Terri Main; Rachel Marks; Karen McSpadden; Rebecca LuElla Miller; Eve Nielsen; John W. Otte; John Ottinger; Robin Parrish Lyn Perry; Deena Peterson; Rachelle; Cheryl Russel; Hanna Sandvig; Chawna Schroeder; Mirtika Schultz; James Somers; Steve Trower Speculative Faith; Jason Waguespac; Daniel I. Weaver

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