Follow-up Interview with Jeffrey Overstreet

I interviewed Jeffrey Overstreet, author of Auralia’s Colors last year. Now, with the release of Cyndere’s Midnight, the second book in the Auralia Thread, I had him answer a few more questions.

The Keeper is seeming a bit more Yahweh-esque in Cyndere’s Midnight. Without revealing too much by way of spoilers, how are you fighting against the “Christian fiction” pigeonhole?

Well, I object when reviewers start calling the Keeper “God”, or Auralia “Jesus.” It’s true that every character in The Auralia Thread dreams of this benevolent presence in the woods. It’s also true that there is some strange and fearsome creature out there at work in the Expanse. The characters are arguing about its existence, about its benevolence, and about whether this creature is, indeed, the Keeper that appears in their dreams. But there are still two books in the series, and when the third book arrives, I think some readers may be surprised to find that this story isn’t the simple allegory that they’re eager to make it. Having said that, if the stories remind people of the Almighty and his mysterious ways, I certainly don’t mind.

Cyndere’s Midnight has a lot more action than Auralia’s Colors. What methods do you employ to keep track of all of the different storylines?

Oh, I wish I had a “method.” It might make things easier. I do chart out a basic outline for the story, so I have some kind of framework. But then I just start writing very spontaneously.

For example, today, as I work on Cal-raven’s Ladder, I’m going to write a chapter about Cal-raven’s search for an ancient tower. I know that when he finds it, he also finds that it’s guarded by one of the Seers, those creepy fellows from Bel Amica. And while he’s there, he’s going to encounter a worried little hunchback, the Seer’s persecuted servant, who is going to help him out by answering a few important questions. But that’s all I know at this point. The fun part of the process will be discovering exactly how they meet, what they say to each other, and where that leads.

With Cyndere’s Midnight, I knew how the story would end. I was delighted to stumble onto scenes like “how the ale boy escaped from being locked in a stove,” and “what Cyndere finds when she visits Auralia’s caves.” Sometimes the surprises end up prompting me to alter my outline.

I have a list of the central characters nearby, so I don’t forget about anybody. But really, I find that the more structure I impose on the process, the more I squeeze the life out of the story. It’s better for me if I consider one scene at a time, and treat my characters as if they were improvising. That way, I write with the energy and delight of discovery. My favorite books always have that sense that the writer is caught up in a vision and he cannot wait to share it with you.

You listed quite a few books as influences for Auralia’s Colors. What were your inspirations for Cyndere’s Midnight?

The book gave me a chance to write my own version of “Beauty and the Beast.” So I was thinking a lot about storybook monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, and Gollum, and big screen monsters like Alien and Hannibal Lecter. But at the same time, I hit the brakes whenever I felt the story going somewhere that was familiar to me. It’s important to me to venture into territory I don’t recognize and find a story I haven’t read before.

I keep copies of Watership Down, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, and Mark Helprin’s wonderful novel Winter’s Tale nearby, because the language in those books are like fuel for the tank. My storytelling engines start revving when I read those books. I recently stumbled onto a poem by Mark Doty, “La Belle et La Bete,” in which he celebrates Cocteau’s classic film. When I’m invited to speak about Cyndere’s Midnight, I begin by reading that poem. It captures the ideas that motivated me to tell this story.

What else are you reading these days?

I’m reading Moby Dick! Or, more accurately, I’m listening to this extraordinary audiobook version during my morning and evening commute to Seattle Pacific University. It’s read by the late actor William Hootkins. He is a masterful reader, delivering distinct voices for every characters. His archive of voices and accents is astonishing, and it really brings Melville’s prose to life. I’m on Disc 16 of 19, so I’m almost finished.

I’m also reading Kathleen Norris’s new book Acedia and Me, I have the new Patricia McKillip book, The Bell at Sealy Head, on my nightstand. I need to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, as well — I started it six months ago and fell in love with her language, but I’ve been so busy that I need to go back and start over.

Because I defend genre like the beastmen defend the Core, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about why so-called literary authors like Michael Chabon and Philip Roth can get away with speculative fiction, and why the rest of it gets banished to a corner of the bookstore.

You tell me. I don’t get it. It’s true that a lot of contemporary fantasy merely rearranges conventions, and a lot of it is grossly indulgent in violence and sex. But there is quite a bit of fantasy that really qualifies as literature, with artful prose and deep currents of meaning running through it. I’d like to see books by Patricia McKillip and Robin McKinley and Guy Gavriel Kay in “Literature.”

Still, I’m just trying to get Auralia’s Colors out of the Christian Fiction section and into the general fantasy section. Cyndere’s Midnight is no more religious than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Stephanie Meyer doesn’t have to worry about her books being shoved into “Mormon Fiction,” does she? I don’t see any reason to make a genre distinction between what I’m writing and what Neil Gaiman writes.

What can writers and readers do to make speculative fiction more mainstream?

Don’t apologize for loving fantasy and fairy tales. Study them. Discuss them. Interpret them. Teach them in literature courses alongside the classics. There’s this sense that fantasy and fairy tales are for geeks and readers who suffer some form of arrested development. But fairy tales and fantasy are a rich, meaningful storytelling tradition, and some of the most profound philosophers and theologians I’ve encountered were passionate about fantasy.

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