May 9, 2012 / Creative Writing
In “O For a Thousand Tongues to Mutter,” Jennifer Strange tracks traces of corruption—a fallen soldier’s body, a swarm of ravenous ants—in the “pale business” of our passage “in and out of life.”
The Other Journal (TOJ): As an individual and parent who really loves the fantasy genre, it has been beautiful to see my eleven-year-old son read Auralia’s Colors and get excited about digging into and talking about it with me. I understand that the writing of Auralia’s Colors has been a dream ten years in the making.
Jeffrey Overstreet (JO): This particular story was ten years in the making, but I’ve been writing fairy tales and fantasy since I was seven. I guess you could say it was a dream to create new fairy tales and share them with people, with people who appreciate the value and the blessings of fairy tales that other kinds of storytelling don’t provide. And that’s an interesting subject in itself—what is it that is unique about fairy tales? But in my lifetime, looking back I have found fairy tales and fantasy to be the most rewarding genre for me personally. Whereas I love all kind of literature—don’t get me wrong, my favorite writers for the most part are not fantasy writers—there is something about fantasy that Tolkien and Lewis understood (and Madeline L’Engle too) which allows us to give expression to mysteries and spiritual realities that our practical and everyday language does not encompass.
TOJ: What are some of the unique ideas and themes that drive the story?
JO: I guess looking back at my life, I have been ministered to (if you want to use very religious language) in all kinds of ways—by teachers, pastors, fellow believers in Christ—but I have also been ministered to by beauty: by the power of the ocean, like the Oregon coast—the waves crashing in front of me when I was a kid on family vacation—or the beauty of the Grand Canyon or the desert outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I have started to understand why when Christ needed to prepare himself for something he would go to the desert. It’s not just the silence, but there’s something about the beauty and the stillness of creation that pours forth speech (as the psalmist says). I’m starting to understand that nature is a language that God gives us, a language through which he communicates things to us that mere spoken words can’t deliver or convey. So while I wasn’t thinking, “What’s the message I’m going to put in Auralia’s Colors?” as I started writing the story, I found myself drawn to descriptive language about the wild nature of this world that Auralia lives in. And the more I described her surroundings, the more possibilities emerged about where the story would eventually go. Things began to open up. It’s almost as if the environment she was living in was speaking. And so I guess for me Auralia’s Colors is a lot of things, but one of those things is a reflection of how natural beauty speaks to us and actually influences us.
TOJ: One of my favorite passages is at the very beginning of the story when Auralia is in the midst of the Gatherers, and she’s bringing up the questions that nobody else will ask—”Why does it have to be that way? Why do I have to do that? Who made that rule?” At Mars Hill Graduate School we talk a lot about bringing up the question “Why does it have to be that way?”
JO: It’s almost an artist’s instinct to look closer at the way things are and investigate them—not necessarily to find trouble, but to discover and reaffirm why things were put that way in the first place. Far too often in our lives, we find out the way something should be after we break it. We learn why God made the world the way he did when we spoil it. We suddenly realize that we cannot replace what is gone. Auralia is full of curiosity—a concern about why things are the way they are and why human beings behave so selfishly when creation is so generous and cooperative. I think she is constantly asking the people around her to look at things again and say, “Is that really in balance? Is that really the most healthy way for things to be?” She’s also reminding people of things they try to ignore: their sense that there is something bigger going on, that there are powers in heaven and earth our philosophy does not encompass. So besides being just about natural beauty, Auralia’s Colors is also a story about the power of art. So often, art is treated as mere decoration. It is reduced to being a practical tool, something that we exploit for our own purposes. But art is not just a thing—it is also a way. It is an avene of discovery. By making art, Auralia is not trying to achieve a particular end; she is exploring something. And she’s inviting others to take that journey with her by examining her work. And I think that is just something that is fundamentally misunderstood in most of our culture about the purpose and nature of art.
TOJ: So in a bit of a left turn here, let me confess that I’m a shameless Facebook stalker [laughter], and I have noticed that you comment about your “allergic reaction” to Christian contemporary music [laughter]. I wanted to ask about a section in the book when Shar Ben Fray and Prince Cal Raven and are at the dig site and there is a girl playing music, and she is playing the songs that are the ones she is forced to play, and she’s not allowed to play the beautiful songs she has written. Then there is a spontaneous and reckless burst from Cal Raven when he tells her she can start playing whatever she would like to play.
Another thing I noticed was a really powerful part early on in the book where it talks about all of the sacrifices that the Gatherers and the Housefolk have to make to give their colors to the palace, and it says, “The palace loomed above it all, trumpeters lining its walls and Abascar’s flag flying from every window, every watchtower, and every spire. To some the sights and sounds were festive. But others, especially those who gave up what little they had to offer, murmured that the palace resembled nothing so much as a gloating thief.”
For me, I saw in both of these examples some of the dark and sad elements of megachurchs and church-building programs and praise bands and televangelists . . .
JO: The first example, about the musician at the dig site, came from a real story of a Christian musician, and the more I looked at the story, the more I thought to myself that there is a fairy tale here . . . I can’t sum up the lesson of this story, but by repainting it, so to speak, as a fairy tale, I think what the story has to say can come out more clearly or at least in a way that promotes some more serious thought and discussion. So that was a chapter inspired by a real life event, and it definitely has direct connections to something I’ve observed and, to some degree, experienced.
In the second example, about the interpretation of the palace: If I’ve learned anything from interviewing filmmakers and writers and artists it’s that the story or the song often says a whole lot more than the artist intends. This is definitely one of those cases. I mean, to me, I was thinking about the way the king and queen were behaving and the consequences of their choice, and I can stand back now and look at it and say, “Oh, yeah, well, you know, you’re right. That reminds me of the way, not just megachurches, but any organizations or institutions want to lay claim and have a sense of ownership of the best things.”
And that’s why labels like contemporary Christian music or Christian filmmaking bother me so much. The label seems to be prompted by this need to say, “We’ve got the good stuff, and you don’t; we’ve got the truth, and you don’t.” When, the truth is, as soon as you create that category you turn things into an us-versus-them dynamic. And you are automatically driving people away from you with your smugness and setting yourself up on a pedestal.
I think that one of the reasons that Christians are the only ones who listen to Christian contemporary music is because others are driven away by the idea that it is going to be preachy—”They’re trying to sell me something, they’re trying to make me something, they’re trying to persuade me of something”—and that’s not why people listen to music. They listen to music because they want to hear something beautiful; they go to a movie because they want their imaginations to be stimulated, not because they want somebody to be preaching at them. And I use the word preaching reluctantly because I believe that great preaching is art too, but here I use it in that persuasive sense of trying to sell somebody something. Christian artists, most of the time, are more like salespeople than artists because they’re trying to package a message to deliver to somebody, and if you’re just delivering the message, then you don’t need the art.
Art is something that invites us to consider and explore and come to our own conclusions, and if you break the trust between artist and audience by trying to reduce it into something then I think the smart observer in the audience will see right through that. There is another fantasy epic out there right now that really broke my heart because in the first book it was so full of beauty and imagination and then, slowly, during the second and third book you started to feel all this imagination suddenly start to turn and focus on one particular point, and by the end of the story it wasn’t so much about the fairy tale anymore—you had a character turning into another character and saying “Christianity is a mistake, a seductive and powerful mistake, but a mistake all the same”—and suddenly you step back and say “Wait a minute! This has stopped serving as a story or a fairy tale, and now it’s all about an agenda: This guy just wants to bash Christians and Christianity.” And I hope that the Auralia series never becomes my way of trying to persuade people of something. I’m writing the story because I’m enjoying the story and the characters, and I want to explore this world more and see where it goes. I think that’s how Tolkien worked. I don’t think he was out there trying to sell anybody a particular message.
TOJ: This comes as no surprise to me, and I hope you take this as a compliment, but you definitely write with a cinematic flair and maybe that’s intentional or maybe it’s just in your blood.
JO: [Laughter] I think it just comes from watching too many movies!
TOJ: I wondered about that—is it intentional, or is it a by-product of your love of film? I guess what I mean by that is when I read it, I can see it on the screen, and I’m assuming you can too.
JO: I can see it on the screen in my head, but frankly, the way most movies go and the way most movie adaptations go, I’m very reluctant to see Auralia’s Colors become a movie anytime soon. But first of all, I believe there’s sacredness to the experience of the reader and the text, where the reader is painting the pictures for themselves, and when you imagine something, you’re making it your own because you’re putting some work into it. Orson Wells said—I’m paraphrasing—”Theatre is a social act.” He wanted to give the audience just the sense of a scene or just a fragment of a scene and draw them into filling into the rest of the picture. Because when you do that, it becomes your own; it becomes a part of you. Most of the time movies, especially fantasy and science fiction movies, are seizing every opportunity and using every dollar to stuff somebody else’s picture of something into your head, and it’s exhilarating for a time, but when you walk away—unless it was a powerful work of storytelling that drew you into it—you forget it, and you’re on to the next even-better special effects extravaganza. In Auralia’s Colors, there is a lot I’ve chosen not to tell readers because I want them to fill in the gaps. From chapter to chapter, the reader jumps from one person’s perspective to another, and it can be a little challenging to understand how much time has passed between chapters.
TOJ: Yeah, that was an interesting question I had related to the passage of time in the book, and you’re saying that lack of specificity was an intentional mechanism on your part to ask the reader to jump in and make some of those calls.
JO: Definitely. And I think it is also practice for all of us to learn, essentially, to consider and love our neighbors by learning to see the world as they see the world. Most fantasy stories introduce you to the good guys and the bad guys, and you travel with the good guys, and you fight the bad guys, and you never really come to understand why the bad guys became bad guys in the first place or what the world looks like from their point of view. So this is a technique I noticed in the fantasy books by Guy Gavriel Kay: that throughout the course of the book he will put you in the head of people of all different social strata in that culture, from the king right down to the kitchen boy, and I learned to appreciate that so much because when I went back to my everyday life, I realized it was having an effect on me just to try and see the world from the perspective of all kinds of people in the same place. And to realize that they’re all experiencing things very differently, that makes good-guys-versus-bad-guys break down pretty quickly. Sure, people make good and bad decisions, but you start to realize that everybody is messed up in some way.
TOJ: That’s a helpful point, and I haven’t gotten that good guy/bad guy sense in the story. I mean you get some of that with certain characters in the book, but I think you’ve largely accomplished what you’re trying to articulate here.
JO: It’s funny—people want to put labels on something, so they can simplify it into something they already understand or already makes sense to them. I’ve already read a few reviews that forego using the term Keeper and just say God, and they start describing Auralia as a symbol for Jesus and, well, fine, if that’s the way they understand it, but I think they’re going to be bewildered a couple of books down the road when these characters stop fitting [into] these neat little categories, [when] they stop fitting in these little boxes that people have built for them. I think the way that Christians have exploited the Chronicles of Narnia has taught us the wrong lessons about how to tell a story. “Aslan is Jesus; Aslan dies, he rises again. The White Witch is Satan. Blah, blah, blah.” You know, as soon as you turn a story into a mathematical equation for “this equals this” then, like I said earlier, you don’t need the story anymore. There’s no mystery to it; there’s no chance for discovery. And I want these characters to be themselves; I don’t want them to be God and Jesus and Judas.
TOJ: There is a great passage near the middle of the book where Auralia is being questioned in the center ring, and they are asking her where Shar Ben Fray is, but she’s answering where the Keeper is, and she says, “He’s always looming about, but he likes to hide just to see who will come seek him,” and whatever you think about the Keeper, that’s a great statement about God, I think.
JO: And he reminds me of God, definitely, and yet I think part of what’s behind the command of not creating graven images to represent God is that God does not want us to think that we’ve arrived at a definition of, or at an absolute description of him. Because he’s always something more, and there will come a point for these characters where they will feel they’ve got the Keeper figured out, that they know what the Keeper is. Then whatever it is that is drawing them forward is something beyond the Keeper. We grow up with the idea of Jesus in these very simple flannel graph images or coloring book images from Sunday School, and as we grow up, we realize he’s more than that, he’s more than that, he’s more than that! One of the things I’m wrestling with in this series—because I don’t fully understand it—is how do we follow a God who is constantly busting out of our attempts to understand him? One of the challenges ahead for the characters is coming to the realization that maybe they’ll never figure it out, and maybe as soon as they think they have, the Keeper will fail them in some way, and they’ll have to enlarge their definition of what is really leading them.
TOJ: So, as much as you can reveal, what is next? Do you see sort of a three part series or is it just happening as it is happening?
JO: The Auralia series is four books long. I wrote all four versions of the books between about 1996 and 2000, and then we went into serious revisions, and people started [saying things] like “The Ale Boy is interesting—I want to know more about him.” Little [comments] like that are dangerous, and soon the first book went from 175 pages to 400! So since that happened with the first story, I’m going into the other three and rewriting them to understand some of the peripheral details now that I understand that they’re not so peripheral but rather essential. And the books are growing up in that way. So there’s still a lot that I have to discover about the story, but I do know where we’re headed. The next book is going to be all about the strange, mysterious beastman who walks into Auralia’s caves—you see him for moment—but you don’t really ever find out what’s going on with him, and the next book is all about what’s going on with him.
TOJ: Do you have a timeline for the next book?
JO: We actually signed the contracts a week ago for books three and four, so it will be a book a year now if all goes as planned. The next book is called Cyndere’s Midnight. Cyndere is the daughter of the Queen of Bel Amica, and it’s about Cyndere and her encounter with this beastman, which will very obviously bring to mind the Beauty and the Beast story, which it is definitely modeled on, but the story is actually about three beauties and a whole lot of beasts!
TOJ: That’s cool. And then finally, as you reflect, what have you enjoyed most about this process since the book has come out—where it goes from just being a story in your head and shared with a small circle to now being out in the world?
JO: Wow . . . there’s so much, and yet I’ve had very little time to appreciate it. I’m still working full-time at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) and doing movie reviews a lot of the time, so it’s very difficult to find the time to just sit down and sort of enjoy the fact that it’s finally happened. But here is what I would say has been the best thing: I was blessed all along the way from elementary school until now—it’s still going on—with extraordinary teachers and family members who have been so supportive of my writing and my imagination. And I know they have given me a safe place and permission to explore whatever my imagination wants to wrestle with, whereas there have been times in Christian community and other kinds of community where people say, “Oh, no, no, no. Don’t go there; that’s too dangerous.” And friends and family have always affirmed my interest in this. So to me, the real joy of this, genuinely, is to see them affirmed for all of their support along the way. Two weeks ago, I presented Auralia’s Colors to a very gracious audience at 3rd Place Books in Lake Forest Park, and my high school English teacher (Mike)—who I talk about a lot in Through A Screen Darkly—was there. He drove up from Portland just for this little half-hour reading, and some of my college professors were there, and someone from the Education Program at SPU was there, and I said a few words about how much Mike’s teaching meant to me, and afterwards I saw them go and find him and just compliment him on his teaching and on the passion he had to instill an appreciation of art in his students. And that was the highlight of the event for me because I really look at Auralia’s Colors as a collaborative effort. I mean my parents have invested so much in my being able to grow up as a writer. So when I see that occur, I see this as God’s blessing on so many people and so many different contributors and so many investments in my desire to write. It’s a very meaningful thing. And it impresses upon me to continue being a storyteller who tells stories that make a difference and, in its own small way, to encourage other people to not be afraid of their own questions. It goes back to the first question you were asking about Auralia and her questions, because if we really believe what we say we believe, then it’s true and it’s going to hold up against whatever questions we throw at it. And we shouldn’t worry about the questions getting us into trouble because the truth is the truth, and it belongs to God, and it’s not going to break for any of our curiosity.
TOJ: Jeffrey, thank you so much for your time and reflections today.
JO: You’re very welcome, and it’s been a privilege.
J. Paul Fridenmaker
J. Paul Fridenmaker is the director of financial development and alumni relations at Mars Hill Graduate School. He lives in Lynnwood, WA, with his wife Julie and four children ages four to eleven.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.