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Rich Christiano[Jeff Gerke]


Interview: Jeffrey Overstreet

[Photo of Jeffrey Overstreet]

Jeffrey Overstreet is a professional reviewer and author of the recent WaterBrook title, Auralia's Colors, a richly-woven fantasy and first of a series of four. He joined Christian Fandom for an interview in March 2008, and what follows is the edited Q&A sequence. The questions and comments were by Shannon McNear and Greg Slade. The first portion is formatted a little differently, as Jeffrey chose a slightly more informal way of answering all of the first set of questions.

SM: Tell us about your background, birthplace, where and when you grew up, what your childhood was like, etc.?

Educational background? What did you take, and why?

What is your family situation? (Married? Kids? 1.7 dogs?)

How did you get started writing?

What works have you had published? (not restricting yourself to SF/F titles) Articles, short stories?

Of your works, which one is your favorite? (including works in progress)

Greetings from Shoreline, Washington, everyone!

Thank you for inviting me to visit this community, Shannon. It's a privilege.

Wow, what a lot of questions! I'll try to address them all. I've been up to my earlobes in editing work, polishing up the sequel to Auralia's Colors. This will be an enjoyable "time out" from that project.

MY BACKGROUND & FAMILY:

I found my first online communities in email subscription lists like this one. In fact, I met one of the subscribers here – Peter Chattaway – in two different lists around ten years ago now (more, perhaps). We've been friends ever since. So I'm grateful for "neighborhoods" like this one.

Okay... to the questions!

I'm a Portland, Oregon boy. My mother Lois teaches preschool, carrying on her passion for inspiring young imaginations. My father Larry spent decades teaching Bible classes at Portland Christian High School, so I grew up in the world of Christian education. I had passionate teachers who recognized my interest in storyteling and writing, and they encouraged me relentlessly. I'm grateful for them, and for their lasting friendships.

I have a younger brother, Jason, who is relentlessly creative too. He's a composer, singer, and performer with a Christian music group called Rescue.

Jason and I had an inspiring childhood. The Overstreets didn't go out for dinner or to the movies. We lived on a low budget. Our idea of a great weekend outing was a trip to the public library. I loved the library. I read every story I could find, and then began making books of my own.

WRITING/STORYTELLING:

By the time I was five, I was stapling pieces of construction paper and meticulously copying the text from favorite storybooks. I'd write them in crayon, then draw my own illustrations. Eventually, bored of copying other people's stories, I started inventing my own. By age seven, I was typing out a fantasy series about a place called Bugland. (Imagine A Bug's Life as written by a first-grader, and you've pretty much got it.) My neighborhood librarian introduced me to The Hobbit when I was seven. (That would be, oh... 1977.) I was enthralled, and I read The Lord of the Rings when I was eight. From that point on, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: write epic fantasy stories like those.

This interest in books was paralleled by an interest in movies. Movies were frowned-upon in my church. That made me curious. I began to discover that movies were just a powerful form of storytelling, and not necessarily the "den of evil" that I'd been taught to expect, Star Wars opened when I was seven – 1977 was a big year for me, as you can tell. And my interested in spectacular adventure storytelling increased.

In high school, my passion for storytelling grew. I quit basketball because practices took up so much time and energy. I wanted more time to write. That wasn't a popular decision with my friends, but I knew that storytelling was what I wanted to do.

At Seattle Pacific University, I took literature and writing courses, found a thriving creative community, and became friends with my instructors. Without good critique groups and supportive teachers, I don't think Auralia's Colors would have been born.

MORE WRITING/PUBLISHINGÖ AND ANNE:

In 1996, I married Anne. Anne is from Roswell, New Mexico (and so most of my in-law jokes involve aliens). She's a poet, a gardener, and an excellent freelance editor. She's the first reader for all of my stories now. And her poetry inspires me.

Since my graduation from SPU in '94, I've been writing and publishing film reviews. For about 12 years, I've been building an archive of reviews and articles at lookingcloser.org. After a few years of that, I was contacted by Christianity Today (CT), and became a weekly columnist, writing about movies on their website. When CT established ChristianityTodayMovies.com, I joined their team of regular film reviewers, and I'm still doing that today.

That led to a project called Through a Screen Darkly, my first book, published by Regal Books. It has been a blessing to hear from readers, and to see several Christian universities using it as a textbook. It's a memoir of sorts. I discuss how great movies have led me into a deeper faith. I recall conversations and debates within the Christian community about movies and the dangerous nature of art. Let's just say I usually disagree with what Christian media personalities say about movies and the arts, and I wrote the book to encourage a more adventurous engagement with the imaginations of cultures around the world.

I've also contributed reviews to Paste magazine, Image journal, and Books and Culture. I work a full-time desk job at Seattle Pacific University as a contributing editor to their award-winning magazine Response. And I'm the film critic for a pop-culture magazine called Risen.

Through a Screen Darkly was published in early 2007. In September '07, Auralia's Colors, the first book in The Auralia Thread, was published by WaterBrook Press. So, while 1977 was a big year for me, 2007 was even more life-changing.

FAVORITE PROJECT:

You asked if I have a favorite project. Well, the books I've written are all very different, so it's hard to say. Auralia's Colors was a novel that took me ten years to develop, so that's a very important project to me. Through a Screen Darkly, though, was a chance to pass on so much of what I've learned from inspiring teachers and artists, and an opportunity to thank them for their vision and guidance.

I'm also very fond of an as-yet-unpublished adventure story for younger readers about a runaway bird, but I've been so busy with The Auralia Thread that I haven't worked very hard to find that bird a nest yet. Hopefully you'll meet him someday. His name's Max, and he's an impossible grouch. But he's bound to become an adventurer around the globe.

That's didn't hurt a bit! Thanks for the questions.

GS: That'll teach me to pay more attention. At first, I read that title as Australia's Colors, and wondered what Australia's flag has to do with fantasy... :-)

Greg, you're not the first person to make a mistake with that title. I was once asked about Australia's Colors during a live radio interview. The show's host said he was very excited about the book. I had to carefully break the news that the book had nothing to do with any adventures in "the outback."

SM: Who are your influences as a writer, and why?

If the prose is musical, I find it easier to surrender to the story, just as I find it difficult to turn off the radio in the middle of a beautiful piece of music. The music draws me along, So I love Patricia McKillip's fantasy stories, Mark Helprin's novels, Kate DiCamillo's children's stories, Thomas Merton's spiritual meditations, G.K. Chesterton's arguments... you get the idea.

Now, that doesn't mean that the storytelling isn't important. But it's easier for me to finish a book that's beautiful with a mediocre story than it is for me to finish a great story that's written in clunky, overly-efficient prose.

So when I'm writing, I'm tuning in to McKillip, to Helprin, to Merton's music. I may only capture a trace of their music in my own wriitng, but I find them inspiring.

When it comes to structure, I'm interested in Mervyn Peake, with his phantasmagorical, extravagant description. He can spend two pages, or ten, describing a castle, and I don't mind because the descriptions are dazzling. At the end of the chapter I feel like I've been to a new place.

And I like Guy Gavriel Kay's willingness to tell a story through the perspectives of many different characters. That trains me to consider life from all kinds of perspectives, which somehow encourages me to be compassionate.

SM: What was the first exposure you can remember having to SF/F as a genre?

The first stories my parents read to me were Bible stories and fairy tales.

And the two have a lot in common, actually. While I believe one is richer and more grounded in the details of history than the other, they both acknowledge powers and conflicts beyond the reach of our senses. They are both full of meaning in sign and symbol. They both explore how the natural world is infused with language and glory. I found them so fascinating and meaningful. They both seemed to relate to my life and help me make more sense of it. So I can't remember a time before fantasy.

SM: What is your personal all-time favorite SF/F work, and why?

It's too predictable that I'll say The Lord of the Rings. But really, it's the story that convinced me that fantasy can be more than allegory. It can be an experience unto itself, a real world, as real as this one, which more meaning than any paraphrase that encompass. And it taught me that you can write compelling stories about noble characters, and you can find hope in the darkest places.

SM: What is your faith stance, and how does it affect your writing?

I'm not sure how to define a "faith stance." Do I believe that Christ is the son of God? That he died, conquered death, and rose again? Definitely. My belief that there is a Creator influences my storytelling. The Creator's work leaves evidence that there is design and order in creation. As a result, storytelling becomes a process of discovering those designs, finding that order. So it works the other way too. Faith inspires my storytelling, and storytelling reinforces my faith.

That means I don't have to write a story to "deliver a message." I can write a story as an act of exploration, trusting that design and meaning will reveal itself along the way. That makes storytelling exciting for me... not knowing ahead of time where it's all going.

I do have a good sense of where The Auralia Thread is going, but that's because I drafted all four stories several years ago. And yet as I revise them, I'm discovering new details, and I'm surprised by new twists.

SM: What Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

I'd have to say Madeleine L'Engle's Walking on Water. It helped me understand the role of the artist, and the gift of imagination.

SM: What NON-Christian book(s) (fiction or non-fiction) have had the greatest impact on your thought and writing?

Richard Adams's Watership Down has had huge influence on my imagination since I was ten. And he may be a Christian, I don't know. But is his story "Christian"? You could say that it is, in some ways. It is full of reflections of God's glory, in its descriptions of the natural world; in its heroes who put their lives on the line for their friends; in its tales of sacrifice to save the prisoners; in its affirmation that there is a higher power, a creator looking down on us.

SM: I've read elsewhere what your overall vision was for the first book--for the whole series--but could you share that here for the benefit of the list?

I didn't have an overall vision for the series, really. I picked up a thread and followed it.

The first book was intended to be a short story. I was interested in a simple idea, a fairy tale for children about a kingdom in which color becomes illegal. And then, I would follow the central character, Auralia, into that culture. As an artist, Auralia would face all kinds of challenges in a society that limited imaginative expression. I wanted to see what would happen, and how different parts of the society would respond.

The more I explored this oppressed culture, the more complex the story became. Incidental characters became more interesting as readers asked questions.

And then, I got to thinking about what would happen to Auralia's artwork. I was certain that, even if it was illegal, it would be passed from person to person in hushed and reverent whispers. Eventually, it would spread across the land and influence other cultures. The rest of the series explores how simple creative expression can change a whole world, from king and queens to children and even monsters.

SM: When you write, have you ever come across theological "puzzles" you had to sort through to your own satisfaction before you could continue with the story?

The story has confronted me with my own inclination toward judging others and giving "the good guys" some kind of earthly victory. In the real world, terrible things happen to the righteous and unrighteous, and I needed to be willing to let terrible things happen to characters I loved, and to let villains flourish. I needed to give villains second chances, and I needed to find the weaknesses and failings in even the most admirable characters.

That's what makes it seem real to me, because I know that in this world even those who pursue God most passionately are wicked in some way, and the people who trouble me most are also capable of surprising goodness. So I'm learning something about humility and compassion and mercy from the act of writing the story.

But I'm also constantly wrestling with my understanding of how a loving God might be working in a world that seems out of control. And as these characters pursue their conception of a Higher Power, they'll be constantly revising their understanding as well.

SM: What do you do when you aren't writing?

These days, there are very few hours when I'm not writing. As you know, I see a lot of movies (but then I write about them). I walk for hours and hours – usually at Richmond Beach in Shoreline, Washington, or in my neighborhood. I listen to a lot of music. I try to visit Santa Fe a couple of times each year, which is a great town for walking. I also play in an improv-comedy band that has recorded around 1500 songs in 16 years.

I've been part of a gathering called The Thomas Parker Society for 17 years. People from all over gather and read aloud to one another from their favorite books, or from the news, or from their own journals. We've heard a little bit of everything over the years. Recipes. Plays. Songs. Confessions. I vividly remember one of the most troubling readings ever shared there – the ingredients listed on a Twinkie wrapper.

SM: What sorts of things stir the pot of creativity for you? Music, artwork, certain films, etc.

Poetry. Poetry slows me down enough so I can see more clearly and more deeply. There's so much text, so many images bombarding me every day, but they're moving faster than the speed of thought. They prevent thought.

Poetry slows me down and liberates me from the frantic pace of absorbing other people's imaginations. It allows me to start using my own.

Walking is a source of great inspiration for me. I usually go on a long walk before I write, just to find some quiet and take an opportunity to observe.

Of course, movies and other creative writing offers whole worlds of inspiration. But I especially like those that inspire me with beautiful language and imagery.

SM: Do you have a favorite place for writing?

Coffee shops. The constant flow of life and personality through a good coffee shop is a great source of inspiration. And even though it's busy and noisy, none of it demands my attention, whereas the quiet at home can easily distract me--I start thinking about how the mess all around me is my mess to clean up! Also, at a coffee shop, I get away from the telephone. I don't own a cell phone for that very reason... I have enough interruptions and distractions in my life. In Seattle, I'm very fond of Hotwire Internet Espresso Cafe, Zoka, Zu Cafe, and a little coffee stand near Seattle Pacific University called The Grinder.

Road trips are also great opportunities for writing. In new environments, I find new ideas. Trips to a place called Camp Casey on Whidbey Island have provided so many details for Auralia's world.

SM: Do you try to work each day until you're "done," or do you have certain hours, or daily word count goal?

Here's the goal: As much writing, or editing, as possible in the time allowed. That means on the bus, during lunch break at work, after dinner at home, and all weekend long. I got so caught up in writing last Thursday that I only got three hours of sleep. But then I caught the flu, so I need to be more careful with my health.

My brother Jason is the same way. He's a musician – a composer and a singer for a Christian group called Rescue – and he's so committed to refining his craft that he sometimes forgets to sleep. I suppose we should start encouraging each other to stop working so hard. But excellence is terribly important to both of us, so we strive. I don't know how often I succeed, but I strive.

SM: Do you tend more toward outlining, or do you work with just a general idea of where the story is going, and the characters just tend to take over on the details?

I set out a general outline, so I have a destination in mind. But the characters lead me to all kinds of discoveries. That's the greatest joy of the whole process for me.

SM: Any plans yet for more projects after the Auralia Thread is complete?

The Auralia Thread will keep me busy – too busy – for the next few years. But I have several other stories that I've sketched out ready to go. I have a wild adventure series for young readers that's ready to go. It's about a cantankerous bird who becomes a secret agent.

SM: The last question is this ... what 3 bits of advice would you give new (or not so new) writers?

Here are some words of advice that have made a difference to me:

1. Don't talk about what you want to write. You'll spend your passion for it. Seize your passion and energy for an idea, and write. Write now. And if you don't love a project enough to keep revising it for months and months after the first draft, then you don't love it enough, and you shouldn't waste your time.

I've been revising the Auralia stories for a decade, and I'm still enjoying it. I've dropped many other stories along the way because they were too much work, and the stories weren't as worthwhile.

2. Don't write a story to make a point. It makes for bad storytelling, and you lose the joy of discovery.

3. Share your writing with writers you admire, and be willing to take their critique, even if it hurts. I have this opportunity to share Auralia's Colors with the world because a total stranger stumbled onto my writing in a very unlikely way. If I hadn't been writing and sharing my work, that wouldn't have happened. It's also worth noting that the piece of writing that got her attention was something I had written for next-to-nothing. Don't write for money. There are much, much easier ways to make money. Even now, I work a full-time job to support my writing habit.

I hope that you've had fun with this. I have. Thanks so much for the privilege.

Jeffrey Overstreet


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