February 17th, 2009
(If you haven’t read my full review of Cyndere’s Midnight, you can do so by clicking here.)
Today I am “pleased as pear cider” to present an interview with Jeffrey Overstreet regarding his latest book, Cyndere’s Midnight, conducted via email over the last few days.
And he gets some extra points here because I didn’t give him much time to answer these at his leisure, one of his answers coming in at 11:00pm, and another at 1:00am!
He is very busy not only with his day job, but also finishing up the third novel, Cal-raven’s ladder, the Gold Strand in The Auralia Thread.
And if you take the time to read the interview below, there are some fascinating scoops on that third novel, and a bit about the upcoming fourth novel—hooray!
(Click the following link to keep reading — interview below!)
Who Is Jeffrey Overstreet?
Jeffrey Overstreet lives in Shoreline, Washington with his wife, Anne.
He is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response, posts perspectives on art and entertainment at LookingCloser.org, and his reviews are published in ChristianityTodayMovies.com and Paste.
His movie-going adventures are chronicled in his award-winning book, Through a Screen Darkly.
He is the author of Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight, and is busily working on the third book of the Auralia Thread, Cal-raven’s Ladder.
Interview With Jeffrey Overstreet
RT: Your books have very little direct poetry, per se, yet you create turns of phrase as poetic as anything I’ve read. I wanted to start out by asking you to tell a bit about yourself and how you became a writer, and not just a writer, but a writer of beautiful prose.
JO: Thank you so much for saying so. I’m delighted to see that it matters to someone! I feel like a beginner when it comes to “poetic prose,” but I’m learning as I go.
What can I do but thank my parents, who read fantastic stories to me when I was a kid? My mom often brought home vinyl versions of fairy tales and Disney movies, so I could listen to them and their casts of colorful voice-actors. I learned to pay attention to voices, to rhythms, to the music of language. And it’s important to me to compose paragraphs that people will want to read out loud to themselves.
I’m so grateful to authors who wrote in such a way that their sentences taste good when you read them out loud. It prepared me to appreciate poetry when I was older. And I read more poetry today than I do fiction. I’m interested in what people have to say, but I’m just as interested in how they say it.
Perhaps that has something to do with why I married a poet, and why she’s the first person who reads, or listens to, drafts of The Auralia Thread.
RT: The fact that you make “sentences taste good” fits in with my next question, because the words you write are also “nutritious” in the sense that there are many discernible, yet subtle Christian themes in your work. How do you go about picking the themes for your books? Do they flow unplanned or do you think deeply about these things beforehand?
JO: That’s tough to answer, because I don’t choose themes ahead of time. The themes sneak up on me while I’m writing. And I’m often surprised by readers’ interpretations of my stories—they notice themes that surprise me.
The stories begin as images, really. I start asking “What if?” If a possibility intrigues me, I explore it, and more possibilities appear. Auralia’s Colors began with an image of a colorless kingdom in the middle of a beautiful forest. Cyndere’s Midnight began with the picture of a beast spying on a beautiful woman who was drawing water from a well. The third Strand, which I’m still writing, has grown from an image I can’t tell you about, because it would spoil the surprise.
It’s like the opposite of preaching. Preachers usually begin with a lesson and finds ways to illustrate it. I start with an illustration and start exploring it. If it’s a good picture, it will eventually reveal all kinds of themes, all kinds of insights. For some people, Auralia’s Colors is a story about artists and the power of imagination. For others, it’s a story about following your calling. For others, it’s about God. Maybe it’s about all those things. I’m not worried about that while I write. I’m just following characters so I can find out what will happen to them if they choose a particular path.
If I become preoccupied with interpreting the scene, instead of just experiencing it, then my mind strays from details and possibilities. The life goes out of the story. I prefer to let the story lead. If I do, I’m likely to be surprised. And I write with much more passion if I’m in a state of excited discovery.
RT: That makes sense of what I’ve read in your books, as those images stay with me for a long time. I won’t be surprised if your books inspire someone to create music based upon your work.
One image, I noticed, is recurring in your first two book: the “fear chamber". In Auralia’s Colors it was Maugam’s dungeon. In Cyndere’s Midnight there were two: The Core for Jordam and Auralia’s cave with the statue for Cyndere. Have you had your own or witnessed others in a “dark night of the soul", and has this inspired you to write about fighting through fear and grief, etc.?
JO: I was writing stories about characters who “descend into hell” by one road or another for a long time. But when I think about it, this was the pattern of the stories I grew up dreaming about. The original Star Wars trilogy took Luke down into some kind of nightmare in every chapter. The Lord of the Rings takes the hobbits through the mines of Moria, then into Mordor; and before that, Bilbo descended into one dark abyss after another in The Hobbit. These are all stories about darkness, but they are even more about finding hope as we pass through the valley of the shadow of death.
Recently, I was moved by Kate DiCamillo’s version of that story in The Tale of Despereaux (the book, not the movie—they’re very, very different).
So, in most of my stories, my characters pass through dark places where they either find unexpected sources of light, or they end up reflecting light.
And sure, the stories are in some ways influenced by my own experiences of disappointment. When I was young, I thought I understood God, that I knew all the rules, and that I knew who the “good guys” and “bad guys” were in the world. Then he smashed those definitions, and revealed to me how judgmental and arrogant and hateful I’d become. I hope I’ve learned from that. Later, somebody took my heart and smashed it to pieces. People are capable of unimaginable selfishness and cruelty—I learned that the hard way. We’re fickle creatures; what we so proudly call “love” is often a matter of convenience, untrustworthy emotions, and selfish desire.
But if all these broken things can be healed and restored, then that must mean there’s higher love at work in, and through, the world around us. I was at my wits’ end. I didn’t know how to get up and start over. But God took the wreckage of my life and said, “Lean on me. I can work with this.” He started surprising me with one small blessing after another. And today, I live in a state of astonishment and gratitude. Sure, I feel the ache of those old wounds, sometimes. But they’re nothing compared to the blessings that have grown from the wreckage. I’m sure that’s influenced my storytelling.
RT: Wow. When I asked that question, I did so because your writing resonated with me and my own life experiences. Especially the part where Cyndere explained the “your heart has only one hand” analogy to Jordam. So true, and so apropo to finding our way out of our personal dungeons.
And this leads to the next question, which is about Jordam. When I realized you were writing a large portion of the book from his perspective, a beastman, I was surprised because very few authors attempt such a difficult task. It reminded me a bit of Stephen Lawhead’s Song of Albion book 2 where he writes the book from the 1st-person perspective of a blind man.
Did you rrStruggle getting into the head of Jordam? How did you do that?
JO: Yikes. I see that Jordam’s speech patterns are affecting your own. Am I a bad influence?
I knew when I started writing Cyndere’s Midnight that it could not have the same lush, descriptive style of Auralia’s Colors because so much of it would be from the perspective of a monster who has a very simplistic, crude understanding of the world around him. Thus, the book is much more of an “action-adventure” than its predecessor. Jordam is a creature of impulses and violent action, so the story moves much faster.
But it was a challenge to get into the head of someone who has never considered the consequences of his actions, never thought about the meaning of his life. Having never experienced a murderous impulse, I found it difficult to write from the point of view of someone who murders all the time. I worried that readers would find Jordam to be intolerable company. But my worries faded fairly quickly, because we all have our own “monstrous” impulses—jealousy, selfishness, ego. And we all know how difficult it is to overcome those weaknesses. So I feel a lot of sympathy for Jordam, because I could sense his potential.
What I found most interesting was his discovery of metaphors. I spoke with Dr. John Medina, an expert on the brain and author of a brilliant and entertaining science book called Brain Rules, and he told me that what separates the human brain from the animal brain is the capacity for “associative thought.” I was so thrilled to hear that, because I had already found my way into chapters where Jordam was beginning to compare things: A stormy sky, for instance, looks like piles of plums, or coals when the fire’s gone out. The more that Jordam began to consider poetic connections between things, the more he began to see what he was “like.” And that dawning self-awareness is the beginning of his journey to a better life.
But I’m glad to be writing the third book now, spending time outside of the beastman world. The beastmen are frightful company, and spending a year seeing the world through their eyes was a taxing experience.
RT: Only one year to write the second book? I thought I read somewhere that you took considerably longer than that to create Auralia’s Colors. I’ve heard it said that an author’s second novel can often fall below the quality of the first because the publisher wants it on the store shelves the very next year. But I don’t find that’s the case here. How did you manage such an excellent, touching, action-packed second novel on short notice?
JO: I’m grateful for your encouragement regarding Cyndere’s Midnight. It’s true that I wrote it in a very short amount of time. Auralia’s Colors developed over ten years. Cyndere’s Midnight was written in about eight or nine months. And that looks like it will be the case with the third book as well.
I’m learning that, along with the blessing of publication comes the challenge of deadlines and dealing with the realities of a very competitive market. That means that series authors need to deliver sequels quickly, or they’ll lose a good deal of their audience. Unfortunate, but true.
So, since I also have a full-time job at Seattle Pacific University, I write almost every evening, and I write all day on Saturday and through the afternoon and evening on Sunday. I read it all out loud to myself repeatedly. Anne reads it and makes suggestions. This year, she and I skipped vacations. This was the first year I worked instead of visiting my family for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s like running a marathon that lasts about 300 days. But with the fourth book coming into view, it’s exciting to know that in a couple of years I’ll be able to look back with gratitude and say, “I did it. By God’s grace, I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do since I was seven years old. I had the privilege of sharing a fantasy series of my own with the world.” And I expect I’ll take a long vacation. I’ll rediscover what eight hours of sleep is like, read all the novels and see all the movies I’ve been missing, track down all my friends, and then dream up some new stories. I want to visit some new worlds.
RT: Speaking of new worlds—as I read your books I clearly see your innovative fantasy elements. But then I run into things like mechanical elevators and green moons and I sense a slight touch of science-fiction. I also detected a tribute to Frank Herbert’s Dune in the slumberseed oil scene at the end. Tell me what books and movies have influenced and inspired you?
JO: You thought of Dune too? That’s funny. While I’ve loved Frank Herbert’s book for many years, I truly hadn’t planned on any kind of ‘tribute.” I followed a character into a moment where he had very few options available to him. When I realized what he was going to do, I had to shrug and say, “Well… there’s nothing new under the sun, is there?”
I can’t think of any particular book that had a direct influence on Cyndere’s Midnight’s plot. I suppose a few movies—Blade Runner in particular—helped me think through what life would be like for a character tho must learn to overcome his “programming.” When it comes to style, the whole Auralia Thread series is inspired, in part, by Patricia McKillip’s prose, and by Guy Gavriel Kay’s approach to telling a story with multiple points of view.
So far, I don’t think I’ve incorporated any “technology” that feels out of place for a fantasy world. An elevator raised by weights and chains makes sense, especially since some of the residents of Tilianpurth are crippled and can’t be climbing stairs all the time. And I’m glad you’re intrigued about that rather unusual moon. In the third book, it becomes very, very important. May I make another Star Wars reference? “That’s no moon.”
RT: The Dune comparison runs deep for me because something of the same feeling I had reading Dune came back when reading your work. Something otherworldly, mysterious, intriguing. Something of the currents of an old and yet inevitable history running under the surface that I know nothing about but which will shock me in the end.
I was about to ask you to tell us about your next book, Cal-raven’s Ladder, but I think you’ve just given us a tantalizing green scoop! Anything else you can add, perhaps about the fourth book?
And to close, one final question: have you ever wept reading your own work?
JO: The fourth book focuses on Cal-raven and the people of Abascar. I miss writing about the ale boy, but he’s going to have to stay in our peripheral vision for a while so Cal-raven can learn all of the things he needs to learn. The remnant of Abascar has got to get out of those caves or they’ll go crazy. But the ale boy’s most important adventure is coming in the fourth book, so don’t forget about him.
We’ll also visit a strange, creepy crater called Mawrnash, and get a tour of House Bel Amica. But I’m most excited about the conclusion—a scene I’ve had in mind for ten years. It was inspired by something I saw in a Disney movie when I was very young, something that really shook me up. And this week I’m finally going to write it all down.
Have I cried over my own work? I think I got a little choked up writing the conclusion of Auralia’s Colors because I knew that I was saying goodbye to some characters that I loved. By contrast, I felt great relief finishing Cyndere’s Midnight, because beastmen tend to wear out their welcome. But when I read aloud to someone else, that can be an emotional experience for me. It’s such a privilege to share a story that I care about with others. It’s something I dreamed about as a kid, so it’s overwhelming to be blessed with the chance. And believe me, I don’t want to give the opportunity anything less than my best.
Thanks, Jeffrey, for putting up with all my questions! That’s quite a peak into the future of the Expanse. And I’m just excited that there is a fourth book coming. Based on the “moon” hint, I’m wondering if the color of that thread is green.
And for anyone who missed my post yesterday, here’s the “go get it” info for Jeffrey Overstreet’s book, Cyndere’s Midnight.
- Purchase Auralia’s Colors At Amazon
- Purchase Cyndere’s Midnight At Amazon
- Jeffrey Overstreet’s Web site
- Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog
- The Auralia Thread Blog
- Jeffrey Overstreet at Facebook
Also, don’t forget to read my interview with Jordam, the Beastman!
Not that Auralia's Colors is as "big" as Dune, as thats pretty hard to do. More the feeling I got reading it. Maybe its the mysterious liquid Essence, or the life-giving well water that reminded me. But there's definitely something happening that I'm not aware of. Just when I think I've got it all figured out, Overstreet surprises me.
Like that "green moon" not being a moon at all. What could that be? If it was science fiction, I'd have a million guesses, but in a fantasy, I'm rather stumped! Especially because I don't think Overstreet would do anything cliche.
I'm definitely curious as to what the moon thing is all about.