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Weaving the Colors: An Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

In one of the most enjoyable and well-answered interviews I have ever done, Jeffrey Overstreet has covered the gamut of topics from his debut novel Auralia’s Colors to Christians in fiction to review writing methods. (Here is my review of his debut novel.) I hope you enjoy his thoughts as much as I did. For more of his thoughts, check out his oft posted to blog.

Grasping for the Wind: How did you become a fan of fantasy fiction, and why did you choose to write in this particular genre?

Jeffrey Overstreet: Do you remember those “long-playing records” that Walt Disney produced for each of their movies? You’d put the needle to the record and listen to a narrator tell the story, while excerpts from the movie’s soundtrack gave the characters distinct voices. That’s how I learned to read; listening to those records over and over again, on a plastic Mickey Mouse turntable. The needle was right under Mickey’s index finger on this plastic arm.

Most of those Disney stories were fairy tales. My family didn’t watch much television, and we didn’t go out for entertainment. So I found drama sitting in my room and listening to Pinocchio and Winnie the Pooh and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

Around the time I turned seven, my neighborhood librarian took me up to the next level, introducing me to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Then came Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (I’d read it through more than once by the time I was 10), and Richard Adams’ Watership Down, which remains my favorite novel.

I write fantasy today because those stories – whimsical and wild as they are – continue to speak meaningfully to me, as much as any more “realistic” or sophisticated art. Fantasy explores spiritual mysteries through metaphor, giving shape to ideas that we can’t easily express with everyday stuff. We invent fairies, monsters, elves, trolls, dragons, and magic beans to give shape to ideas and virtues and fears and wonders. And that helps us live more fully, engaging with realities beyond what we can see and hear and touch.

GFTW: Before writing Auralia’s Colors you were widely acclaimed for your movie-going memoir Through a Screen Darkly. Why did you choose to write a book about the simple pleasure of going to the movies?

Overstreet: Movies, like fairy tales, have had an enormous influence in my life, shaping ideas, inspiring questions, giving me an appreciation for beauty, and helping me understand how the world looks to my neighbors (who have often had very different experiences).

I grew up in a rather conservative community in which moviegoing was viewed as a suspicious, dangerous, “worldly” activity. But I also came to see that when we cut ourselves off from art for fear of “contamination,” we lose one of the greatest gifts humanity has to enjoy, something that helps us understand each other, something that humbles and inspires us.

So I wanted to share my own story about how movies have changed my life, how conversations with moviegoers, movie makers and movie stars have taught me a great deal about art and life. It was also a way to write a thorough answer to those who send me emails demanding to know how I can call myself a Christian and still be an enthusiastic fan of filmmakers like Woody Allen, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese, and Krzysztof Kieslowski.

GFTW: Auralia’s Colors, your debut novel, is a fantasy with echoes of the traditional fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen. Like their stories, your story is also an allegory. What moral or cultural truth are you trying to convey to your readers?

Overstreet: I’m glad you find echoes of fairy tales there. I suppose that’s inevitable, since I grew up on those stories.

But I don’t consider Auralia’s Colors to be an allegory at all. I did not intend to teach moral lessons or write a commentary on culture. I imagined a different world, threw in some characters, and then I started asking “What if?” The characters then led me into a story I hadn’t expected.

Now, that doesn’t mean readers won’t find anything meaningful in the story. The story reveals all kinds of things, and that just goes to show that art sometimes knows more than the artist. The characters in Auralia’s Colors are struggling with questions about freedom, responsibility, power, faith, and art. But I didn’t conspire to put any lessons in there. I discovered them after I stood back and thought about the story I’d written. I keep hearing from readers who are finding implications in the story I’ve never considered. That’s exciting.

I get bored with stories that can be boiled down to a simple meaning. In an allegory, characters are really just symbols. And the reader starts solving the puzzle: “Okay, so this character represents Jesus, this one represents Satan, this one represents a Christian, this one represents Judas, etc.” Allegories are like algebra. I’m more interested in storytelling. I do not have any characters that represent Jesus or God or anybody. Certain characters might behave in a Christ-like manner, or in a devilish way, just as many different characters in everything from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Buffy the Vampire Slayer have moments of Christ-likeness. But Auralia isn’t Jesus. The Keeper isn’t God.

GFTW: Much of your prose reads like poetry. A lot of the book is given over to descriptions of sight and sound, smell and touch. Why did you focus so much on the sensory aspects of your tale?

Overstreet: I grew up reading stories that had musical, poetic language. Literature wasn’t just meant to be read – it was meant to be read out loud. I want to write paragraphs that taste good and sound good.

Also, I’ve learned that natural beauty can make even the most ridiculous movie worth watching. I believe that nature “speaks.” I believe that the things God made mean something. It makes a difference if Auralia is running through a forest instead of a field or a canyon. And it matters what kind of forest that might be, what trees are there, what they smell like, and what colors are in their leaves.

When I read a story in which the author has paid attention to those details, I feel a much more powerful sense of immersion within that world. I’ve read a lot of forgettable fantasy novels. But I go back to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Patricia McKillip’s The Book of Atrix Wolfe, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, and Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, because I feel like I’ve lived in those places.

GFTW: You are a vocal Christian who is unafraid to make your beliefs known. What effect has this had on the reception of Auralia’s Colors both in the Christian and secular marketplace?

Overstreet: It’s too early to say, I think. I’m encouraged, because I’m getting mail from all kinds of readers, all ages, and very different worldviews. Some Christians write stories to “present the Gospel” or “convey a message,” but I don’t. Some people write for Christian readers; I don’t. I want to write books that I would have enjoyed reading, and that I think others will enjoy. I think everybody likes a good story. People are drawn to excellence.

If there is some truth to a work of art, or some beauty, poetry, and passion – that’s can give the audience an encounter with God, even in the artist doesn’t believe in God. I’ve read an awful lot of Christian books that were poorly written, derivative, boring, and sloppy. That doesn’t do me any good. And my faith has been encouraged and transformed by artists who would never call themselves Christians. It doesn’t matter much who is writing the story – it’s the story that matters. It doesn’t matter what color that candle’s made of – it’s the light and the heat the draws people in. You’ve probably heard it said, “All truth is God’s truth.” I would add that all beauty is beautiful because it reflects God’s glory.

I hope that Auralia’s Colors has enough in its pages to give people an engaging and meaningful experience. We’ll see what happens.

GFTW: What effect does your Christian faith have on your writing?

Overstreet: Because I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after we killed him, I believe that there’s hope, even hope that death does not have the final word. I believe there’s meaning in the world around me. I believe that there are, as Hamlet said, “powers in heaven and earth” that we cannot fathom.

If I believe those things, how can I write a story that isnt ‘hopeful? I would have to tell a lie. I can’t help but write stories in which there are powers greater than the characters, powers in conflict.

But no, I don’t deliberately write “Christian stories”, just as I don’t bake “Christian cookies.” I just want to write a good story. And I think all good stories draw us because they reflect God’s glory – even if they’re shelved somewhere outside the “Religion” section at Barnes and Noble.

GFTW: Your novel lacks any clearly defined “evil” characters or clearly defined “good” characters. Why did you avoid the standard good vs. evil theme of fantasy?

Overstreet All of my favorite stories avoid dividing their characters into false categories of “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” I don’t believe in “Good” and “Bad” people.

I believe that all of us were designed by God, in God’s image, and that we have “eternity written in our hearts.” That means that everybody will give evidence of goodness in some way, even the worst villains.

But I also believe that we are all broken, deceived, and depraved in our appetites. Thus, even the best heroes will have moments of doubt, make mistakes, and sometimes behave irresponsibly.

When we insist on stories in which there are “bad people,” and suggest that the solution is the elimination of those “bad people,” that can carry over into devastating behavior in the real world. We live in a culture that perpetually abuses labels and categories for the sake of judging other people. Genocides begin with the idea that we can divide people into the “good” and the “bad.”

Now, in stories for small children, I think it’s useful to have simplistic “good guys and bad guys” because you are giving children figures that represent fears they must overcome, or virtues they should strive to imitate. But when storytelling becomes more sophisticated, it’s important to discourage any interpretations that will cause people to judge others and exalt themselves.

495189545_ea1379394e_m.jpgGFTW: My favorite quote from the novel is on page 254. “You want a gift from the king? Hear this: if you allow Abascar freedom, some people will choose what they shouldn’t. But take away that freedom, and no one has opportunity to choose what they should.” Why is having a choice so important?

Overstreet: Wow, that’s a question that would take a book to answer! Here are a few thoughts:

In Auralia’s world, the king and queen of House Abascar take away their people’s power of creative expression. And they also forbid them to tell certain stories. The people of Abascar become resentful, because they are not able to ask certain questions, investigate mysteries, and express the mysteries within themselves. They can’t be human.

The king tells them that the world outside is dangerous, so he makes them stay inside the walls. And the world is dangerous. But if the people are forced to obey the king, without any choice in the matter, they have no chance to develop discernment. And worse, when they become afraid of the world around them, they become starved for beauty. Sure, they might be safer from some dangers inside of Abascar’s walls, but by walling themselves off from the world they’re creating an enclosed space, and new dangers will arise and flourish within that space. Worse, the people remove their chances of making a difference beyond the walls, so the world outside just spirals out of control.

It reminds me a bit of my own experience growing up. I was taught to avoid the world beyond the church because there were so many temptations out there. But as a result, my Christian community became rather isolated and had very little effect on the surrounding culture. We talked about “loving our neighbors,” but in truth, we were repulsed by our neighbors and we tried to create a society in which we could live apart from them. And guess what? Temptations and sins of all kinds festered within that community, so we were fooling ourselves by thinking we could withdraw from “the sinful world.”

We need freedom. And yes, freedom is dangerous, which is why we also need to be responsible and discerning.

GFTW: The ale boy, one of your primary and perhaps most interesting characters, lacks even a name. Why did you choose to make him nameless throughout the novel?

Overstreet: The reason is rather simple: I liked the sound of it.

It kindled my curiosity. And while some storytellers like to solve of the mysteries for the reader, I prefer reading books that leave mysteries, big and small, for me to ponder. This is one of those small mysteries in Auralia’s world.

As I began to write Auralia’s Colors, the ale boy was a minor character. My friend Danny Walter is an actor who pays close attention to characters and their voices. He started asking me questions about the ale boy. I started exploring possibilities, and realized that the ale boy had a much bigger part to play in the story.

I’m finishing the sequel, Cyndere’s Midnight, and I’m still discovering more about the ale boy. He has a particular call that he’s following, and it’s leading him into some rather horrifying places.

GFTW: What has been your favorite reaction to Auralia’s Colors from a reader or critic?

Overstreet That’s a tough question. I’ve been bowled over by the enthusiasm in the letters I’m receiving.

I thought I had made up the name “Auralia.” I experimented with combinations of letters from other names and words I like: aura, Laura, Leah. But then I received a letter from someone named Auralia. She bought the book simply because her name was on the cover! She informed me that the name means “golden lion of God.” That kind of freaked me out. I had no idea.

I had to chuckle when a fellow at Amazon gave the book a low rating because it reminded him of the writing of George Macdonald. Hey, I’ll take that as a compliment!

But my favorite responses have come from two extraordinary artists whose work has not received the kind of attention it deserves. They both wrote to say that they felt related to Auralia, because of her relentless creativity and her frustrations at how others take what she does for granted. That made the whole project worthwhile.

GFTW: What can you tell us about the sequel to Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight?

Overstreet: You could call it my version of Beauty and the Beast. But my version has two beauties and a whole pack of beasts.

Auralia’s Colors focuses on House Abascar. Cyndere’s Midnight takes you into a world of monsters – the ruins of House Cent Regus, where people have fallen under a curse that turns them into murderous beasts. You’ll catch glimpses of these beastmen in Auralia’s story, and you’ll learn about the mysterious monster who crept into Auralia’s hideaway in the first book.

It’s also about House Bel Amica, the wealthy and powerful society beside the sea. You’ll meet the heiress to the throne, Cyndere. Cyndere has the scandalous idea that there is a better way to deal with the beastmen than just hunting and killing them.

Things get out of control quickly when Auralia’s Colors bring together the heiress and a beastman, as well as the ale boy, Cyndere’s beautiful helper Emeriene, an ambitious soldier named Ryllion, and that dreamer from House Abascar named Cal-raven.

GFTW: Beyond the usual authors recommended (like Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle) whose works would you recommend that fantasy enthusiasts read?

Overstreet: When I first read Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, I was enthralled. And I ended up marrying the woman who first recommended it to me. It’s set in New York, but it’s a New York so richly imagined that it’s a whole new wonderland. Helprin writes so beautifully that it could make you want to just give up writing.

I love the way Guy Gavriel Kay tells a story. In books like Sailing to Sarantium and The Lions of Al-Rassan, he imagines new worlds, but they’re firmly rooted in the details of actual human history. He gives us many different perspectives on a single world, from the rich to the poor, the young to the old. That is not only creative, but it’s compassionate. It trains us to consider other people’s perspectives, which is good for our hearts.

I also recommend Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, for his exaggerated, spectacular descriptions; Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, a powerful work of “theological science fiction”; and a little-known story by Michael Ende called Momo, which is a fairy tale just waiting for someone to turn it into a fantastic feature film.

GFTW: As a professional movie critic, what advice would you give to people (such as myself) on the best way to critique a work of art like movies or literature?

Overstreet: I spend quite a few pages in Through a Screen Darkly telling stories about what I’ve learned about writing film reviews. And I’ve included a guide there for movie discussion groups. I highly recommend starting a movie discussion group. We learn a lot about each other when we compare our responses to a work of art.

There are a lot of questions to consider when watching a movie, or reading a book for that matter: Don’t just ask, “Did you like it?” Talk about what worked and what didn’t. Ask what the artist’s intentions seemed to be, and then weigh whether you thought those goals were achieved. Consider the film’s intended audience: Who are they, how old are they, and will this film serve them? Consider the technical aspects of the film: Whose performance was memorable, and why? What did the filmmaker’s choices regarding color, design, editing, and music do for the film? Did anything in the work draw too much attention to itself?

But I’d also encourage people to examine their own feelings about the film. It may have been powerful, but did it reveal anything true? If it was disturbing, why did it disturb you? Was it a film condoning evil, or was it exposing evil so we can understand both good and evil better? Did it make you feel good? If so, how? Was it sentimental, or honest? Was it telling us what we want to hear, or was it telling the truth? Did it preach its message, or did it show us something and let us think for ourselves?

GFTW: Any parting thoughts or comments?

Overstreet: If anyone is interested in discussing Auralia’s Colors or movies for that matter everyone is invited to visit me at LookingCloser.org. That’s where you’ll find my archive of film reviews, and my blog, which I update almost every day.

GFTW: Thanks for taking the time.

For more, read Fantasy Debut’s Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet.

This post is part of the CSFF blog tour for January 2008. Read posts from these other participants in the tour:

Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer Grace Bridges Jackie Castle Carol Bruce Collett Valerie Comer CSFF Blog Tour D. G. D. Davidson Chris Deanne Jeff Draper April Erwin Marcus Goodyear Andrea Graham Jill Hart Katie Hart Timothy Hicks Heather R. Hunt Becca Johnson Jason Joyner Kait Karen Carol Keen Mike Lynch Margaret Rachel Marks Shannon McNear Melissa Meeks Rebecca LuElla Miller Mirtika or Mir’s Here Pamela Morrisson Eve Nielsen John W. Otte John Ottinger Deena Peterson Rachelle Steve Rice Cheryl Russel Ashley Rutherford Hanna Sandvig Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachelle Sperling Donna Swanson Steve Trower Speculative Faith Jason Waguespac Laura Williams Timothy Wise

(Photos &copy Fritz Liedtke or Jeffrey Overstreet)