Interview: Jeffrey Overstreet, Author of Auralia’s Colors

I was mighty impressed by Jeffrey Overstreet’s debut novel, Auralia’s Colors, and am so pleased that he had the time to answer some questions for Reading is my Superpower. Check back for the winner of the Auralia’s Colors giveaway!

When did you first begin Auralia’s Colors, and what was your inspiration?

I was inspired to write Auralia’s Colors while I was hiking through awe-inspiring beauty around Flathead Lake, Montana. I think that I wanted to capture and preserve the color and the beauty of that place.

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 — my favorite novel — 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.

My wife Anne is a poet, and she always pays close attention to the most delicate details. As we talked about the dazzling beauty of that place, we were grateful that our families had taught us to value beauty and imagination. Anne said, “Isn’t it a shame how so many people, when they reach a certain age, fold up their imaginations, put them in a closet, and forget about them?”

When she said that, I imagined a colorless kingdom, where works of creativity and imagination were illegal. And then I encountered a young woman who was weeping for the poverty of that world. And she began to weave together an expression of love for those deprived people. It was a work of art, containing all of the colors in the world.

And that’s how it all started.

Do you recall the first words of the story that you wrote down, and did they remain in the book? If so, what were they?

The first chapter has been through about twenty-five rewrites, but the opening paragraphs have stayed almost exactly the way they were in the first draft. I can almost recite that first page: “Auralia lay still as death, like a discarded doll, in a burgundy tangle of rushes and spineweed on the bank of a bend in the River Throanscall, when she was discovered by an old man who did not know her name.”

Of course, Auralia isn’t dead. That old man realizes that she’s looking closely at the colors of the evening sky overhead. And what’s more, he discovers that she’s lying the footprint of some great beast. That idea intrigued me, so I kept writing.

Your book is remarkably free from the anxiety of influence so common to debut speculative fiction writers. Did you use any conscious strategies for transcending mere derivation?

Absolutely: If a scene starts to remind me of anything else I’ve seen or read, I don’t go there. The idea has to come from the characters and the situation, not from what I’ve been trained to expect or want from a story. The better I know my character and their context, the more obvious it is what must happen next. And it is almost always surprising, something that would not happen in any other story.

I made myself a list of rules for Auralia’s Colors: No magic swords. No duels. No dragons. No wizards with long beards philosophizing about the history of the world. I tried to avoid as many of the cliches that fantasy writers use so often. It’s easier to be lazy than creative.

How much of the Expanse did you need to envision, both visually as a map and conceptually as a place in time, in order to tell Auralia’s story?

I took the time to write journal entries as if I was visiting each place, scene by scene. I’d write down what it looked like. What it smelled and sounded like. What the weather was like. What kind of animals were there. What was growing there.

Often, I would travel to find a place somewhat similar to the context of a scene in the book, just to get ideas. I spent a lot of time in the woods on Whidbey Island. In the Pacific Northwest, squirrels are everywhere. So I “redesigned” them into some ubiquitous critters called “gorrels” and turned them loose in Auralia’s world.

You are planning 4 books total in this series, and I’d love to know more about what you have planned. Will the series encompass a master plot, or will each thread be largely standalone?

I think Auralia’s Colors stands up pretty well on its own. And the next book, Cyndere’s Midnight, is a lot like a fairy tale. It’s about a beauty and a beast, but I doubt that it will remind anybody of the musical. There are “threads” that run through the whole series: Auralia’s artwork spreads all across the land called The Expanse and continues to mystefy, challenge, inspire, and trouble people. Those colors provoke questions that lead the characters to new revelations.

But yes, in the third and fourth book of the series — yes, it does come to an end in Book Four — characters from the first two books come together and set out on a journey inspired by what Auralia has shown them. So there is a much larger story being told.

The book avoids pat explanations of the source of Auralia’s magic (a good thing). I’m curious to know where you think it comes from, and whether you see a metaphoric equivalent in the “real” world.

Well, if it really is a magical power, then it can’t be explained. But I do believe in that magic. And I think you do too. When we walk down to the ocean at the end of a bad day, and we stare out at the water, and listen to the waves, we will feel a little bit better. When we watch a sunset, there is nobody there to *explain* the sunset to us. But somehow, the beauty of that color and light does do a powerful work in our minds and hearts. You might not call that “magic” … but what is it, then?

A great artist once said that “the heavens declare the glory of God” and that the days “pour forth speech.” Beauty… whether it is the beauty of nature of the beauty of art… is conveying something to us, but without words. Auralia is an artist, and her creativity is no exception. Her artwork is comprised of colors that have a profound effect on those who take the time to carefully observe them.

I once watched a documentary in which a mean-spirited, dangerous animal was “tamed” by a piece of music. While the musician drew a bow across the strings, the animal actually shed tears, and what was broken inside of her was repaired. In our busy-ness, and in our eagerness to explain everything, I think we miss out on the healing power of beauty. Beauty is one of God’s languages. When we listen, we become more whole.

Will we see more of Auralia? I’m not looking for plot spoilers, I’m just not quite ready to say goodbye to her!

The series is called The Auralia Thread… so if that gives you any hint. She’s a rascal. She’ll vanish when you wish she would stay, and she’ll appear when you least expect her.

I have always been a huge fan of fantasy fiction, ever since I was a little girl. But it’s the only kind of writing that truly stymies me, from the perspective of its creation. Your bio says that you’ve been writing fantasy since you were a child. Can you shed some light for me on how you do it?

Two powerful words: “What if?”

I have stacks of stories I wrote growing up based on questions like, “What if mice could talk?” “What if the pieces of candy in the box suddenly came to life attacked the person eating them?” “What if there’s a whole world, a labyrinth, inside this anthill?” “What if a piano fell out of the sky? How did that happen? Why?” “What if there was an island that broke loose and floated around in the ocean, showing up in unexpected places?”

But I’m fascinated by the way that, no matter how wild and crazy a fantasy world may be, there are certain absolutes that always play out in a good story. Pride comes before a fall. The humble rise up. Power corrupts. When characters are given boundaries, they transgress, they trespass, and then all kinds of trouble happens.

For me, fantasy is a way of tracing the outline of what is really true. We can invent all kinds of creatures and places and imagine all kinds of magical spells. But these things, if they are done well, always bring us back to the truth.

This blog recently hosted quite a heated debate over whether or not genre fiction can hold its own with so-called literary fiction. How do you feel about the enduring quality of genre fiction and why?

I think fiction in any genre can be lasting and meaningful… even essential. Looking at the library of classic literature, there are examples of every kind of genre. Even the Bible contains comedy, drama, thrillers, romance (even erotic poetry) and stories of mythic scope. But it all depends on the excellence of the craftsmanship. Most fiction is written in an attempt to hold the reader’s attention through frantic, dramatic, fast-paced happenings. This may hold our attention for a while, but it won’t draw us back to ponder any mysteries or bask in any beauty.

I think that the more we read and re-read books, the more we’ll come to care about aesthetics, the music of language, and the integrity of a story. We start to develop a sense that tells us whether the author really has a vision worth exploring, or if the author is just trying to trick us into turning another page.

The Lord of the Rings lasts not just for the dramatic battle scenes, but because the language is exquisitely crafted. You can pick it up, open it to any page, and find something rewarding. It’s not all about “what happens next.” It’s about the joy of the different characters’ voices, the fantastic descriptions, the poignant metaphors. Many of Tolkien’s imitators don’t understand that. They just think that if they stage an adventure with little people carrying magical trinkets in a struggle against a bunch of nasty monsters, they’ll achieve the same thing.

You’ve expressed some dissatisfaction that your books have been placed in the Christian fiction section, as opposed to the fantasy/sci-fi section, in some bookstores. Why do you think this is and what’s the crucial reason for your preference?

I have found many memorable, meaningful books in the Christian Fiction section, so I’m not condemning those books. But I do question how we should define that category.

If I am a Christian, and I bake some cookies, are they “Christian cookies”? Can I be a Christian, and still write a story that anybody will appreciate? Or am I stuck writing “Christian fiction”?

If we must divide books into “fiction” and “Christian fiction,” why we stop there? What about “Agnostic Fiction”? Or “Athiest Fiction”? Or “Buddhist Fiction”? Or “Anarchist Fiction”?

Some would say that “Christian fiction” is “fiction designed to persuade people to believe in Jesus.” But a storyteller is something different from a salesman. Most people I know don’t read novels in order to be lectured on a subejct — they go so they can be caught up into the world of imagination. If a story can be reduced to a simple lesson, then why bother writing the story?

A good story is full of possibilities, questions, and mysteries that will lead readers to personal interpretations. That’s the power of art. A great story knows even more than the author. It continues to reveal its meaning. That’s what distinguishes a work of art from a lesson or a sermon. Even Jesus understood this. That’s why people are still arguing about the stories he told, and coming to their own conclusions about what they mean.

Auralia’s Colors is not a story about Christianity. I am not writing a story for Christians, although I’ll be delighted if they enjoy the book. It’s a fairy tale. It never mentions scripture, and you won’t anybody named Jesus. I read a review that called the Keeper “God”; and I think that reader is in for a surprise later in the series. I didn’t write Auralia’s Colors to “send a message.” I wrote it because I had questions and curiosity and I wanted to see where that led me.

I don’t want to read “Christian fiction.” I want to read “Great Fiction.” Great fiction is characterized by beauty and truth. That’s what I want. Beauty and truth. That’s God’s territory, no matter where they shelve it in a bookstore.

What current authors are you reading that particularly excite you, and why?

Kate DiCamillo is classified as a “children’s writer.” But her stories are so powerful, true, and moving… even the book about the talking mouse… that I wish more adults would read her. They are going to stand the test of time because she creates authentic, complicated, believable characters, and writes about them with poetry and compassion. Read The Tiger Rising, and you’ll see what I mean.

For life-changing revelation, I read Annie Dillard (For the Time Being) and Thomas Merton (The Sign of Jonas). And I can’t get enough of novels by Mark Helprin and Cormac McCarthy. My favorite fantasy writers who are working today are Patricia McKillip and Guy Gavriel Kay.

But I love poetry most of all, because it helps me pay more attention to every single word that I write. I love the poetry of Scott Cairns, Jane Hirshfield, and William Stafford. And my wife Anne writes rather 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.

Can you give a reading list for fans of Auralia’s Colors wondering what to read while waiting for your next book?

I’m revisiting a lot of books by Madeleine L’Engle, who died a couple of weeks ago. Her book about art and faith, Walking on Water, is a treasure trove of anecdotes and insight about the power of art and imagination.

There’s a great story for all ages written by Michael Ende called Momo that had something to do with the inspiration for Auralia’s Colors. I wish somebody would rediscover it. I think Hayao Miyazake, who made Spirited Away, should turn it into a movie. And then, as I mentioned earlier, Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Rising and The Tale of Despereaux are going to become classics on par with Charlotte’s Web. And finally, Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. It’s a magical, powerful novel. When Anne introduced me to that book, I quickly determined that I would marry her.

Jeffrey Overstreet composed his first fantasy novel on a black Royal typewriter when he was seven years old, and he’s been writing stories for all ages ever since. Since 1996, his film reviews, music reviews, and interviews have been regularly posted at his website, LookingCloser.org. His perspectives are frequently published at Christianity Today’s website, and in many other periodicals including Paste, Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, and Risen. His “travelogue of dangerous moviegoing,” Through a Screen Darkly, was published by Regal Books in February 2007.

Jeffrey and his wife, a poet and freelance editor named Anne, spend time writing in the coffee shops of Shoreline, Washington, every week. He works as a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine. And now he is hard at work on many new stories, including three more strands of The Auralia Thread.

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