Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Interview with...Jeffrey Overstreet (Part 1)

Jeffrey Overstreet is today's blog guest. A bio from the NW Christian Writers website states: “Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a "memoir of dangerous moviegoing" called Through a Screen Darkly, and four fantasy novels: Auralia's Colors, Cyndere's Midnight, Raven's Ladder, and The Ale Boy's Feast. He is a contributing editor for SPU’s Response, and also writes for Image and www.LookingCloser.org."

Jeffrey will be teaching two sessions at the conference: "A Box of 64 Crayons: How Storytellers Can Play Without Ceasing" and "Beast and the Beauty: What Fairy Tales and Jesus’ Parables Have in Common."

Please, help me welcome Jeffrey to the blog.

1. Thanks for visiting the blog this week. Could you tell us a little about
your background and what led you to write Auralias's Colors?

I grew up in two homes: My family home in Portland, Oregon, and the local public library. My parents — both teachers — would take me to the library often. It was my candy store, my Disney world. That’s where I fell in love with stories. I couldn’t bring home enough good books to read.

And I read them aloud, either to myself or my parents or my younger brother.  I loved the whole experience — not just the story, but the music of language, and the materials that made books possible.

I loved them so much, I copied them — the full text, sometimes. I drew my own illustrations, and I stapled the results together or bound their pages with yarn. Eventually, about age 6, I started embellishing the stories, trying to improve them. By age 7, I was writing short novels from scratch. My favorite words and phrases were “once upon a time,” and “what if?” and “suddenly.” I still have dozens of books I wrote between the ages of 6 and 26.

In elementary school, I wrote a Lord of the Rings-scale adventure series set in the tiny world of talking insects long before Pixar’s A Bug’s Life had been imagined. In another story, rats stormed the White House and took over the American government, until a brave mouse overthrew them and gave us our country back. In another, nightmares learned how to break the barrier the dream-world and the waking world. I wrote nine or ten stories about an intergalactic crime-fighting team… sort of The A-Team meets Firefly.

When I was 26, I was hiking near Flathead Lake in Montana with my girlfriend. We were talking about the imagination. I suddenly had a “What if?” moment. What if an entire society folded up their colorful and creative work and put it away? I saw a colorless city set in the middle of this beautiful forest. And then I saw a person — a young boy or a young girl — looking out over the city from a high place. Eventually, I decided it was a young girl, and she was weeping. The more I thought about who she might be, the more I became convinced that she was an artist. She would try to help that colorless city by bringing them a gift of art.

The story of Auralia’s Colors flowered out of that idea.

2. Why did you choose the fantasy genre? Who were your most admired writers growing up? Who are your current favorites?

I grew up immersed in Grimm fairy tales, and those long-playing records based on animated Walt Disney movies. By age 7 I was reading The Hobbit, and by age 8 I was reading The Lord of the Rings, which I read over and over again. When I was 10, my father invited a high school English teacher over to the house to talk with me about my writing. He gave me a copy of Watership Down, which remains my favorite novel to this day.

I’ve always cared about a sense of “place” in storytelling. I always preferred The Lord of the Rings to so other fantasy series because Tolkien had taken the time to craft a vivid, detailed world. I swear that I have been to Middle Earth, enjoyed a pint in a Hobbit pub, and survived a journey through the Mines of Moria. It’s as real a place to me as the neighborhood where I grew up. Likewise, I loved Watership Down because I never doubted for a moment the existence of that beautiful world. If I don’t become interested in the context of a story, I probably won’t care much for the story.

Also, I became fascinated by the way that, no matter how wild and crazy a fantasy world may be, if the story works, that is because there is something true, something beautiful, at the heart of it. If a story doesn’t lead us into something mysterious and true, something beautiful, it will evaporate. Good stories can lead us to lessons. Great stories lead us to something much better than a lesson; they lead us to something we cannot sum up. Great stories show us some new aspect of truth every time we return to them. They may bell us the truth about goodness, and inspire us, or they may expose the the truth about evil, and horrify us. We need both kinds.

I became addicted to the process of following a story to discover what truth it wanted to reveal. And fantasy remains my favorite way to do so. In some ways, fantasy can reveal more truth than realism—it allows us to find words and pictures for things beyond mere facts. It allows the trees to speak and the heavens to declare. It gives us a language for mystery.

That’s why children love the Harry Potter stories and The Chronicles of Narnia so much. Those books are telling them a fuller truth about their world and their lives than other stories. They speak to our intuition that there are more things in heaven and earth than we’ve ever dreamt. And they help us see our own outrageous world more clearly.

These days, I’m in love with the stories of Kate DiCamillo, like The Tale of Despereaux and The Tiger Rising. Mark Helprin’s novel Winter’s Tale, a magical story about a make-believe version of New York, is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I’m awestruck by the world George R. R. Martin has created in A Game of Thrones, although I’m taking a break from that series because the events in it are relentlessly heartbreaking. Patricia McKillip, on the other hand, writes fantasy stories that are mysterious, beautiful, and full of glorious surprises.

But most of the time, I read poetry and theology. I prefer language that is musical, and meant to be read slowly and studied. That’s where the ideas for my own stories come from. I love the minds of Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, Eugene Peterson, David Dark, Madeleine L’Engle, and I love the poetry of Scott Cairns, Jane Hirshfield, and William Stafford.

My wife Anne writes mysterious and intriguing poetry too. I often ask her to read to me at the end of the day, so I can fall asleep with beautiful language ringing in my ears. Her first book, Delicate Machinery Suspended, was published last August.

3. Can you give us a sense of your journey to publication?

One day, about eight years ago, Anne and I walked around our neighborhood saying quiet prayers about our writing. I wanted God to give me a sign. I wanted to know if I should work hard to find a publisher or not. I remember saying, “Lord, if you want this story to be published, you may have to drop somebody out of the sky with a golden ticket.

A few days later, I received an email from a flight attendant — yes, a flight attendant — in Atlanta. She had enjoyed one of my movie reviews, which had been published by Christianity Today. She had noticed that my bio mentioned some “novels-in-progress.” Being a flight attendant, she could fly all over the country for free. She was coming to Seattle for, of all things, a dentist’s appointment. Would I be willing to meet her for lunch? Would I tell her about my novels? I thought this was highly unusual. But I agreed, and we met for lunch. She read a bit of my work, then made a few phone calls to friends — right there, while I ate my lunch. And she informed me that I would receive an important phone call the next morning. I wasn’t sure what to believe.

The next morning, I got a phone call from the head of WaterBrook Press at Random House.  He and I had a great conversation. He asked to see some chapters from Auralia’s Colors. I sent in proposals for both. One thing led to another. And then, during a two-week period, I was offered contracts for three books: Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, and Through a Screen Darkly.

I am still in a state of shock about all of this. I keep waiting for somebody to say “Joke!” Somebody had dropped out of the sky and given me a golden ticket. And whenever I tell this story, I feel a little shaky. I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

Please come back Thursday for part two of my interview with Jeffrey! 


  1. An encouraging story about publication. I love how God works when we allow him to lead.

  2. Jeffrey offers a very positive outlook on publishing. His entire story is encouraging. We all have different roads to publication but I think we need to view it as a journey, with its ups and downs. Don't lose faith!