Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 1 (Raven’s Ladder, Day 2)

A slight change to the planned schedule: as I revisited this interview, I realized that it is long and rich and worthy of being posted over more than one day. So this week my touring days are going to extend to Thursday, methinks :).

Today we discuss allegory, art, religion, and shockwyrms. The interview begins:

Rachel: The “one true religion” concept is common in Christian fantasy, although it’s more likely to be couched in political terms (the “one true king” idea) than presented as an actual religion. But Raven’s Ladder delves more deeply into false religions and their origins and powers than it does into the “true faith,” even showing how truth can be twisted into something deviant (I’m still thinking about the scene with Auralia’s Defenders). What inspired you to explore this territory?

Jeffrey: That’s a big question. So forgive me if I ramble on for a moment.

For me, the central questions in The Auralia Thread are about art. Writing these three books, I’ve found the characters stirring up a lot of those questions: Where does inspiration come from? Should an artist seek to please an audience, or focus solely on their work? What is going on when a work of art takes on a life of its own? Religion was never the primary subject.

But conversations about art and religion are intertwined. They both ask us to venture into mysterious territory. I’m not surprised that the characters around Auralia and her extravagant artwork have been struggling with questions about what they believe.

King Cal-raven realizes that Auralia’s colors suggest there is a better world somewhere within reach. That shakes up his assumptions about the world. He’s determined to follow those implications and lead his people to a better place. I can’t tell you how many times a good book or a good song has done that very thing for me.

Beauty restores my faith because it reminds me what is possible, and it trains me to read the world around me in such a way that I sense the design, the love, and things that—as Hamlet tells Horatio—“are not dreamt of in our philosophy.”

Beauty inspires us to awe, and makes us feel like we’re a part of something tremendous. But it also humbles us and makes us feel smaller. That can threaten a person’s ego, or their sense of control. Or it can be an exciting invitation to discovery. That’s what happens when Auralia’s colors are revealed to House Bel Amica.

So it makes sense to me that people in a consumer-driven society like House Bel Amica would react to Auralia’s colors by exploiting them for their own advantage. They try to control them, instead of responding to the possibilities they suggest. People do this with art and religion all the time. In the name of American “freedom,” we justify destructive behavior. In the name of Jesus or Mohammed, we justify all kinds of violence and prejudice. But if we take the claims of faith seriously, we’ll realize that it requires humility and sacrifice, and that is disturbing to us. We want to avoid that. So we pervert the original idea to suit ourselves.

Fore example, look at the flourishing industry of “Christian art.” It’s a huge industry. People love the name of Jesus, and so they’ll accept any shoddy, derivative art that has his name stamped on it. A lot of that art is designed to make them happy, to make them feel good, and to tell them things they agree with. “Christian art” is, in most cases, processed comfort food. It pleases them without requiring any change. But if they were really paying attention to the effect of Jesus on people around him, they’d realize that his presence did not make people comfortable. His ideas challenged them. He discomforted them. He made them wrestle with hard questions so that they would grow. The hope and love he revealed to them called them to sacrifice and commitment.

That’s what great art does.

But those artists who are really wrestling with Christ’s scandalous ideas—they produce something different that shakes up culture all around them. Look at Marilynne Robinson’s novels. Bach’s compositions. The politics of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, Films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Carl Dreyer, or Robert Bresson. The films of Andrei Tarkovsky. The poetry of John Donne, John Milton, or W.H. Auden. Annie Dillard’s nonfiction. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Art that is true and beautiful will not let us sit still. It will break us and humble us even as it gives us hope.

But we don’t want to be shaken up. So we excuse ourselves from dealing with big ideas by blaming the idiots who pervert those ideas. Conservatives mock John Edwards and his infidelity so they can put down liberals. Liberals mock George W. Bush’s lousy vocabulary just so they can bash conservatives. This shuts down progress and the hope of reconciliation. It’s a cop out. Fools do not falsify the truth they’re misrepresenting.

In the world of art, we need to be discerning, so that attractive art doesn’t seduce us into believing lies. At the same time, we need to be careful not to reject great ideas merely because they’ve been distorted into terrible art.

So, it made sense to me that in a free, consumer-driven society like House Bel Amica, people would take advantage of Auralia’s beautiful work in order to promote themselves and to deceive people. That’s so much easier than doing what Cal-raven does—respond to the art by changing his plan and taking terrible risks.

Rachel: In our age of The Secret and Disneyfied spirituality, the Bel Amican moon spirit religion is a bold statement. Thanks for making it.

Jeffrey: Thanks! Growing up, I learned right away that Disney movies—well, actually, American movies—wanted me to follow my heart. But my heart is “deceitful above all things.” Every mistake I’ve made, I could blame on the impulses of my heart. I need a compass that’s made out of something greater than my own skewed perspective.

I like the character of Ryllion a lot. He’s a monster, but he’s been taught to be a monster. He has a sense that he should respond to something greater than himself, so he falls for the lie of the moon-spirit religion. But the Seers tell him that the moon has given him all of his desires, so he should indulge them. That’s a road to self-destruction.

Rachel: In earlier interviews, you’ve said that you don’t like it when readers pigeonhole the characters into an obvious allegory—The Keeper as God the Father, Auralia as Jesus (Raven’s Ladder will certainly explode the notions of those who’ve done the pigeonholing despite your warnings). But I’m wondering if readers have just chosen the wrong allegory, or if you’re avoiding allegory altogether.

Jeffrey: I’m not really thinking about allegory while I write. I’m trying to think about what the characters would do in any given situation. When I stand back and look at the story, sometimes I see various possible interpretations. Some see it as a story about religion. That’s fine. Others see it as a story about art, and the prophetic role of the artist in culture, that’s fine too. I think that if I’ve done my job right, it will inspire different interpretations. Time will tell.

But if I feel that the story is just illustrating a lesson, then I’m doing a terrible job. The story, the characters, the particulars… they need to come first. A good parable will leave the listener or the reader in some measure of doubt about its precise application. That’s what wakes up the gray matter and gets us wrestling with a text. It’s what makes a story personal. It’s what makes a work of art stick.

You’re right, though. Anybody who took Auralia’s Colors as a simple religious allegory is in a position to be very surprised by Raven’s Ladder, I think. And the fourth book should do away with any notion that Auralia is Jesus. Perhaps her artistic endeavors have a redemptive influence in the world around her, but she’s a much more complicated character than just some cardboard messiah.

Rachel: The Expanse is full of strange creatures, even plants, and while you use their names you don’t always describe them—making the Expanse at once familiar and foreign. As a reader I’m sometimes frustrated that I can’t clearly picture the things you mention offhandedly. And I’m curious: can you? Do you know exactly what a gorrel looks like? A shockwyrm? A coil tree?

Jeffrey: Some people seem to like that, some don’t. I try to leave just enough hints to get the reader working with me at painting pictures. I love the idea that readers might come up with strikingly different illustrations of some of these critters. But there was one critic who went on a rant that I didn’t ever describe what vawns are like. I don’t think he read very closely. There are several passages about their raptor-like bodies, their colors, their scales, how they eat, what they sound like. You just have stay alert.

Gorrels—I see them as kind of a cross between a possum and a squirrel, with the occasional nasty effect of a skunk. A shockwyrm is kind of a cross between a rattlesnake and an electric eel. A coil tree—I could swear I’ve seen coil trees—broad, black trees that twist as they sprout branches, until they’re a swirl of rising, spiraling branches.

I know that I would write these books differently if I started over. What author wouldn’t? You learn as you go. So I’m still finding my way to a good balance of details and mystery.

——-

Readers, come back tomorrow for the rest of the interview, in which we’ll talk about the joys of copyediting, fantasy as an under-appreciated genre, art, and influences.  My thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for his generous gift of time and thoughtfulness in answering my questions at length!

In the meantime, check out the other CSFF bloggers covering Raven’s Ladder this week. The links are in yesterday’s post.

7 thoughts on “Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 1 (Raven’s Ladder, Day 2)

  1. The names of those fantasy critters sound like the names of some weird animals that Lewis Carrol came up with! (Forgive me for ending with a preposition :-) )
    Jeffery Overstreet offered me a new view of art! I’ve never thought in those terms before.
    As a side note on art: when I’m writing (or drawing or embroidering or whatever) I tend to craft it the way I would want to see it and to not bother about what other people think (which can be good–at least I’m not a mindless people pleaser!).

  2. Thanks, Becky :). I loved it too!

    Elisabeth, no forgiveness is necessary. You are entirely within your rights to end in a preposition, in my opinion at least. Silly rule.

    And yes, Jeff’s got some great things to say about art.

  3. I like this bit:

    “I know that I would write these books differently if I started over. What author wouldn’t? You learn as you go.”

    Sort of makes me wonder how I’d write MY books differently if I started all over again now …

    Love your comment to Elisabeth #1 :) about the preposition rule. Sometimes I rewrite a sentence ten times to avoid ending with one. Maybe I should relax!

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