Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 2 (Raven’s Ladder Day 3)

And yesterday’s discussion continues, this time touching on editing, plot, fantasy as a genre, and influences. Enjoy!

Rachel: You once mentioned on Facebook that copyediting is one of your favourite parts of revision: I think you said you would turn the whole Auralia Thread into a long prose-poem if you could. Can you comment on that?

Jeffrey: Copyediting used to be agony for me. But the more I come to love poetry, the more I see that any sentence in the book is full of revelatory potential, and the more I like playing with the sounds and rhythms of each paragraph. So yeah, I’d prefer to have three years per book instead of eight months.

Rachel: Your work has strong literary sensibilities, yet you’re working in the much-maligned area of genre fiction. What drew you to fantasy rather than more “realistic” fiction?

Jeffrey: Let me give you a few quotes in answer.

Stanley Kubrick said, “I’ve always liked fairy tales and myths, magical stories. I think they are somehow closer to the sense of reality one feels today than the equally stylized ‘realistic’ story in which a great deal of selectivity and omission has to occur in order to preserve its ‘realist’ style.”

I completely agree with that. Fairy tales are, for me, some of the truest stories I know. They distill things down to such a concentrated, poetic truth. Yes, we live under a curse. Yes, we long for redemption. We are the beast, longing to be healed, and hungry for beauty. We are beauty, feeling compassion for the beast and sensing that there is something worth saving there. We are Sleeping Beauty, deceived into error, and suffering the consequences. We cannot save ourselves, so we have to hope for some kind of grace.

Tolkien said, “It was in fairy stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.”

That’s been my experience. And it goes on. In fantasy, we’re allowed to “play” with ideas in a childlike way that helps us apprehend the mysteries beyond the practical, beyond what is immediately available to ur senses. I think the world around us is meant to be read like poetry, and fairy tales help us train our senses for that kind of reading.

Rachel: You’ve pointed out before that there are some amazing writers working in fantasy, some real depth and artistic merit. Why does the genre still get such a bad rap?

Jeffrey: Well, trashy book covers don’t help. And in a consumer-driven society, people will exploit their audiences by fashioning their work to appeal to our baser appetites. Thus, most fantasy takes from Tolkien the violence, the epic battles, the grotesque monsters, but they don’t carry on the grand and glorious ideals that stand in such stark contrast to the darkness.

Our imaginations are more easily dazzled by perversion, by what is lurid and twisted and shocking, than by what is true and beautiful. Beauty requires us to do some work to comprehend it. In our busy culture, where so much is competing for our attention, whatever is loud and shocking will win out. So a lot of fantasy writers and illustrators, as in any genre, exaggerate whatever will grab people’s attention.

But I also think that as people get older, they feel threatened by the mystery of fairy tales. They grow to prefer portrayals of a world that they can understand and control. So they write off fairy tales as childish, because their ego has a desire to feel very grown up, sophisticated, and in control. Not me. I like Madeleine L’Engle’s perspective: I’m 39, but I’m also 5, and 7, and 14, and 21.

Rachel: The power and purpose of art is a major theme—if not the major theme—of the Auralia Thread. I have to ask: What works of art, be they fantasy novels, music recordings, movies, paintings, etc, have influenced you most? What have delighted you most?

Jeffrey: Bible stories, like the Joseph narrative and the Exodus, have sunk right into my marrow, I think—just as much as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Dune, and especially Watership Down. The music of the language in those books, as well as in works I discovered later like Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and Patricia McKillip’s books from the last fifteen years—those have inspired me too.

But readers familiar with the music of contemporary bands and artists like U2, Over the Rhine, and Sam Phillips will find echoes of song lyrics here and there. And I’ve named some characters and musical instruments after some of them.

Rachel: I re-read both Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight before reading Raven’s Ladder, and in all three books I’m struck by how masterfully you handle plot. We never feel cheated, yet things rarely if ever turn out the way we expect them to. You are a master of surprises. Does that come naturally, or do you have to work hard to keep from falling into more predictable plots? To what extent do your plots surprise you?

Jeffrey: I suspect that I liked to play “peek-a-boo” when I was an infant. I love the kind of surprise that is both startling and yet the best possible outcome.

But I find that it won’t work if I decide those surprises ahead of time. It works best just to spend a lot of time writing about characters and their surroundings, and the surprises just suggest themselves.

I was writing a scene about the two thieves Krawg and Warney very, very quickly one afternoon, and I found myself writing about how they met, and what made them into thieves. I’d tried to imagine that story for years, and nothing felt right. But one day, following them into a certain predicament, the whole back-story just unfolded right in front of me like somebody putting on a slide show. I was totally surprised and delighted to learn about Warney’s childhood, his sisters, and how he was accused of being a thief from the moment he was born. I hope readers enjoy that scene as much as I enjoyed writing it.

But you throw away a dozen dissatisfying scenes just to get to one that feels like that one.

Rachel: I’m listening to Nathan Partain as I write these questions, thanks to a link from your Web site. Any connection between Nathan and the Bel Amican musician Partayn?

Jeffrey: I feel like you should win some kind of prize. Nathan and Sarah Partain used to lead music at my church, along with a guy named Rick Jensen. They would sing and play with such joy, such rapture, that it took my attention away from them and turned it toward the mysterious interplay of the ancient texts they were singing and the music they were discovering. It was one of the most profound artistic experiences of my life.

They’re making music elsewhere now, and there’s a big Partain-shaped hole in my heart. So I had to name the great musician of The Auralia Thread for them—although he also represents the spirit of Rick Jensen. Sometimes I’m tempted to give my characters long, complicated names in tribute to large groups of people!

Rachel: Jeffrey, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on so many subjects. This has been a great interview!

—–

This officially marks the end of our three-day tour, but I’m not done with Raven’s Ladder yet. Check back tomorrow for a more personal look at the story AND a chance to win a brand-new copy of the book for yourself.

5 thoughts on “Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 2 (Raven’s Ladder Day 3)

  1. Now this is really strange. I just heard of Nathan Partain five days ago when a song of his was played at my church in St. Louis. I asked for a copy of the song because I found it inspired me in working on my novel.

  2. Outstanding interview, Rachel! It’s always fun to discover a few tributes and “easter eggs” an author has scattered through a story.

    Just realized I missed a few links from the updated blog list, including yours, on my page. Fixed now.

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