The Revelatory Power of Story: An Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet
By John Ottinger III
13 April 2009
Jeffrey Overstreet is a film critic turned novelist. Well known for his non-fiction work Through a Screen Darkly, a memoir of his experiences with watching film, he is also a film reviewer for Christianity Today and Image, a writer and editor at Seattle Pacific University, and the author of two fantasy novels, Auralia's Colors and Cyndere's Midnight, stories akin to the work of Patricia McKillip or Guy Gavriel Kay.
John Ottinger III: What was your path to becoming a writer?
Jeffrey Overstreet: It's hard to say. I still have some adventure tales and horror stories in my desk that I wrote when I was six or seven. I have picture books that I stapled together or tied together with yarn when I was five. I just fell in love with books, and my favorite place to go for fun was the library.
The whole package intrigued me—the cover, the table of contents, the story, the indexes in the back, the blurbs on the back cover. So even stories I wrote when I was eight have made-up blurbs on the back cover that I dreamed up myself. I didn't decide to become a writer—I just wrote.
My schoolteachers would shake their heads and say, "Well, I think I know what you're going to be someday." I remember thinking, "Going to be?"
Now, writing is a different thing than writing well. I'm learning how to be a better writer because I had teachers and mentors along the way who introduced me to compelling, poetic, inspiring writing. And they also taught me to learn to accept rigorous criticism. Today, I appreciate a thoughtful, detailed negative review more than I appreciate a rave review that doesn't include any specifics or demonstrate any actual critical thinking. I don't want praise—I want to learn.
Writing well, meanwhile, is different than getting published. And my path to getting published took me up a long, steep road. I gave up trying to get published early on, because I hated the process of marketing my own work. I wanted to write, not advertise. But I was blessed with people who came along and discovered my work and offered me opportunities, and that was quite a surprise. I'm grateful.
JOIII: What would you say is the primary theme of the Auralia Thread? Did you choose that from the beginning of your writing, or did it grow naturally as you wrote?
JO: May I "phone a friend" on this question?
Seriously, it's a good question, but I love finding out what themes emerge for readers.
I suppose that the story has led me to think about the revelatory power of art—how beauty "speaks" to us in mysterious ways. But it has also caused me to think about the "monsters" in the real world, and the "monstrous" ways I've behaved at certain points in my life. I'm realizing that Cyndere's Midnight is a strange twist on the old Beauty and the Beast story, and there are many timeless themes in that tale.
JOIII: I don't quite get the title of your latest novel. Auralia's Colors was self-explanatory, and the Cyndere of Cyndere's Midnight makes sense, but what exactly, did you mean by the word "midnight" in your title? In essence, what is Cyndere's midnight?
JO: When I arrived at that title, I was thinking about the midnight encounter between Cyndere and the beastman, out in that dark forest.
But as the story went on, I came to see it as many other things. Cyndere is in the darkest point of her life. Her father died in a shipwreck. Her brother was slain on the road. And her husband, daring to try and rescue others from the wreckage of House Abascar, never returned. She feels alone, opposed, and broken. She's feeling suicidal impulses. But I'm reminded of a refrain from a U2 song: "Midnight is where the day begins."
Late in the book, she stumbles onto one of Auralia's undiscovered works of art. It's a frightful, horrible thing to behold, and in a way, it's like Cyndere enters into "Auralia's Midnight" . . . and that influences her in how she responds to her own.
JOIII: Cyndere's Midnight uses what I like to call "replacement expletives." Your characters curse and swear, but use a made-up word rather than a real-world counterpart. Was this something you did on purpose, a requirement of your publisher, or for some other reason? What is your opinion of the use of expletives in fantasy fiction, and epic fantasy in particular?
JO: I don't believe there is any such thing as a "bad word." But any word can be used badly. Every word has a meaning, and thus there are proper and creative ways to use them. We can also abuse words by using them as blunt instruments, weapons, insults, or curses. Most of the people I know who are offended by certain words have their own more acceptable ways of "cursing" and unleashing explosive expressions of frustration. My characters, like anyone, have moments of feeling helpless or angry or dismayed, so of course, they're going to express those feelings. And I remember being delighted by the characters in Watership Down, who had their own unique expletives. So I thought I'd play around with what characters in the Expanse might say. They don't use the word "god" very much, so it didn't make sense for them to abuse that term. It just didn't sound right for them to use the expressions that come so easily to so many people in our world, so I had some fun inventing their own outbursts.
JOIII: Do you have a source for your unique character names (for example, Cyndere, Jordam)? Or are they made up whole cloth?
JO: Some names come from words that sprang to mind when I was discovering the character. "Cyndere" came from a feeling of being "burnt out" or "scorched." It wasn't until later that I thought about the fact that there's already a fairy tale princess with "Cinder" in her name.
"Jordam" . . . that has more to do with the sound of it. "Jor" sounds like a growl to me. I may have considered how the beastmen were "damned," as well. But I don't remember. . . . I came up with his name more than a decade ago. Sometimes they just spring out of nowhere, and I just go with the flow.
"Ryllion" was a different name originally, but it sounded too much like another character's name. So I started playing with letters on the keyboard, and "Ryllion" just . . . appeared. I liked the sound of it. It fit. And Bel Amican names tend to use the letter "y" creatively, so it went from "Rillion" to Ryllion."
JOIII: Of the characters in Cyndere's Midnight, which is your favorite? Why?
JO: I tend to become fond of the characters on the edges of things. I'm very fond of a coarse, grouchy old guard named Wilus Caroon.
Of the major characters, I enjoy how the ale boy seems to slip through walls, taking us from dungeons to the high towers, from snowstorms to dark woods. He reminds me a little of R2D2. . . . He just keeps trucking, no matter how tough things get, and most people don't even notice him. But he also has a compelling sadness that comes from being orphaned, from going so many years without knowing his real name, from having a gift that compels him to seek out people in all kinds of trouble.
JOIII: You are published by a Christian publisher. Was it your first choice to be published by a Christian publisher, or did you try for publication elsewhere first?
JO: I wasn't really trying for publication. I was writing stories for the pleasure of it, and so I could share them with friends. A total stranger became curious about my writing after reading one of my movie reviews. She asked if she could read more of my work. When she did, she made a phone call, and the next morning I received a call from the head of a Random House imprint—WaterBrook Press. We had an exciting conversation, and it was clear to me that they were interested in good stories, not religious propaganda. So we kept talking about different stories and possibilities, and, a year or so later, I was offered a contract. I'm so grateful, because it all came as a surprise and a blessing.
JOIII: Have you found there is a stigma attached to being published by a Christian publisher? What kind?
JO: Categories matter. Wouldn't you look at the autobiographies of John McCain and Barack Obama differently if they were shelved in the "Christian/Inspirational" section? I suspect most people would. Why weren't they shelved there? Obama and McCain are both professing Christians. Why were they categorized in more general categories?
It just goes to show how ridiculous it is to have a subsection of the bookstore marked "Christian." Some bookstores are burying Auralia's Colors in the "Christian Fiction" section, where the audience most likely to enjoy and appreciate them will never notice them. They're shelved alongside a wide range of volumes from preachy allegories to classic literature. I want to know why, if we must have a "Christian Fiction" section, we don't also have an "Atheist Fiction" section. Or "Vegetarian Fiction," "Hindu Fiction," or "Hispanic Fiction."
Fiction is fiction, isn't it? I wish we could assess each volume individually, by its artfulness.
If you're immediately identified as a "Christian author," people tend to read your stories suspiciously, using reader radar to search for allegory or some kind of suspicious agenda. That's because so many Christian writers don't know much about art—they're intent on preaching a message using characters no more complicated than flannel-graph figures. That tradition of shoddy and manipulative storytelling has created an unfair prejudice against those of us who just want to tell a good story.
I've seen reviews of Auralia's Colors and Cyndere's Midnight that treat them as sermons, or that point out which character "represents God" and which figure "represents Jesus." I hate to disappoint them, but there's still a lot of this story to be told, and they're jumping to rather hasty conclusions. Might as well go looking for which character in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire represents the Virgin Mary. J. K. Rowling's a Christian. Why aren't the Harry Potter books in "Christian Fiction"?
JOII: Most Christian authors write historical or contemporary fiction. Why do you write fantasy?
JO: I loved fairy tales when I was a kid, and I still love them now. They give us a way of acknowledging and exploring the mysterious aspects of our lives, the timeless longings of our hearts that incline us toward spiritual things. The Lord of the Rings has been as relevant to my day-to-day life as any work of historic fiction—probably more so.
I also like to make stuff up. In fantasy, there's a lot more room for that.
JOIII: There has been discussion at times on the Internet about whether published authors should blog. Your blog, Lookingcloser.org, gets new posts several times a day. Obviously, you think it is okay for authors to take time away from writing stories to work on a blog. Why do you do it?
JO: Art, blogging, journaling . . . any kind of creativity is a way for me to get to know my own thoughts. I often don't know what I really think about a movie until I've taken the time to write a review of it. But it's also a way for me to get to know other people with similar interests. I love interacting with readers, and responding to their own work. Blogging is just another manifestation of community, and in a culture that encourages us to disconnect from meaningful relationships by constantly entertaining us, I think any kind of genuine conversation about ideas between inquisitive minds is a good thing.
JOII: You also tweet at Twitter regularly. You are often at a coffee shop writing. Is there a specific atmosphere or environment you need to write?
JO: Twitter's a creative exercise. How can you best capture what's going on right now, in front of you, in only 140 characters? It's like a haiku challenge. It's good exercise for people who tend to be verbose . . . like me.
I write in coffee shops because I can stay away from the zillions of things around the house that whisper to me, distract me, and demand my attention. At home, it's too easy to busy myself with things I can do later. At a coffee shop, I have my spot at a table, and I stay there, focused on what's in front of me. The activity around me is just good white noise, and sometimes even inspiring. But if there's a mess at the coffee shop, it's not my mess. I can sink deeply into a scene. Plus, there's something to the added pressure of knowing that you paid for this time, so you'd better make something out of it.
JOIII: What has been your favorite response from a reader?
JO: It's hard to choose. I met a couple in a coffee shop who told me they were naming their daughter Auralia because of the book. My brother- and sister-in-law also named their daughter Auralia because they love the character. That's pretty hard to believe.
I've received emails from a couple of my heroes who had discovered and read the book and sent me a note of appreciation. When your favorite rock star in the world sends you a thank you note . . . that's hard to forget.
But I'll never forget sitting at my desk at Seattle Pacific University during a rainstorm, and seeing a student rush past my window. She stopped a few steps later, opened her backpack, scribbled something on a piece of paper, and planted it against the window. It said, "I READ YOUR BOOK AND LOVED IT." She smiled, and then she ran off into the rain. It was quite a shock. It made my day.
JOIII: You write film reviews as well as writing fiction. Do you think a person should approach the experience of fiction on film and fiction in novels differently? How so?
JO: Fiction on film, if it is done well, conveys as much through imagery as it does through language . . . sometimes more. We have to learn to interpret pictures, to think in visual metaphors. And we have to be careful not to let the stream of stimulating images short-circuit our brains. It's so easy to just swallow two hours of stimulating imagery without thinking things through. Reading a book, our imaginations must provide the pictures, and that engages our minds more directly. That's why I tend to prefer films that respect our intelligence, and that give us time to think things through, rather than just bombarding us.
JOIII: When not writing, what do you do professionally and personally?
JO: I'm almost always writing. My day job at Seattle Pacific keeps me writing and editing a magazine. In the evenings, I write reviews or fiction. But I also spend a lot of time reading, watching movies, and walking. Walking is as essential as reading, I find, for my writing. If I feel "stuck" in a scene, I go for a long walk, and I come home inspired and excited almost every time.