by C.J. Darlington
Andrew Peterson Interview
"...no man ever opened a book or walked into a movie theater who wasn’t looking for God. We’re drawn to stories, to songs, to paintings, buildings, faces, feasts, and laughter because they remind us of the world that was, and the world to come." --Andrew Peterson
When not pouring imagery into his songs, Peterson focuses on another kind of writing. Waterbrook Press published the author’s first fantasy novel, On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, to critical acclaim. Garrison Keillor’s News from Lake Wobegon and The Chronicles of Narnia, along with bedtime tales Peterson spun for his daughter Skye and two sons Aedan and Jesse, inspired the book. His second book in the Wingfeather Saga series North! Or Be Eaten has also been well received. In 2007, a richly illustrated children’s book, The Ballad of Matthew’s Begats (Thomas Nelson), became a visual companion to Peterson’s song of the same name. In addition, he’s been lending his diverse talents to the VeggieTales establishment, co-writing three children’s songs with solo artist and friend, Randall Goodgame.
C.J.: As someone who’s been involved in the Christian music industry for many years now, you’ve technically been writing for quite some time with your songwriting. But when did you first realize you wanted to be a fiction writer?
Andrew: I’ve wanted to write fiction since I was a kid, and I always wondered when I’d find the time or motivation to give it a genuine try. I started a few stories here and there over the years but never finished for whatever reason. Part of the reason this one stuck was that my brother and I had a contest to see who could finish a novel first. It took about four years, and he won (his book The Fiddler’s Gun will be published later this year by Rabbit Room Press). He’s a much better writer than I am, by the way--but don’t tell him I said so. There’s a lot to be said for healthy competition, especially when it comes to brothers.
Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?
Well, it’s an obvious answer, but the Bible is the first thing to come to mind. I don’t mean to be trite, or super-spiritual. My dad is a preacher—a storyteller, in a sense—so it’s hard to imagine my childhood untouched by the Bible stories. We had one of those giant, intimidating black Bibles always open on the buffet in the family room. It looked ancient and it seemed to cast a long shadow. That’s how I think of the Bible in my childhood: always there, always open whether we were reading it or not, impossible to ignore, no matter how hard I tried (and I tried pretty hard).
That said, our house was full of other books too. Everything from Shakespeare to Robert Frost to the Hardy Boys. I don’t remember my parents going out of their way to foster our imaginations, but they certainly didn’t hinder them. I loved Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, best known for The Black Cauldron. I read the Black Stallion books and The Chronicles of Narnia, and I read and reread Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends probably a hundred times.
Have you found that your experience in the music industry, and songwriting in particular, has helped or hindered you in your novel writing? Are there any skills you learned in songwriting that you’re able to implement in your fiction?
Songwriting requires patience. You have to do a lot of waiting, which isn’t the same as doing nothing. You make yourself available to the creative process whether or not it seems to be bearing fruit. Many nights I go to bed without a single new line or musical idea. I hammer things out on the piano or pluck them on the guitar, and go to bed knowing it’s all worthless. And that can be frustrating. I don’t know how it works, but sometimes artists stumble on a treasure hidden in a field, and your only appropriate response is gratitude. To create something beautiful is to encounter grace. So I knew going into the book writing process not to expect instant results, or instant gratification. If I was going to finish this book (and beat my brother), then it wasn’t going to happen overnight. Author Dan Allender once said that he writes his books hoping to find just one good sentence.
So I learned that writing books demands not necessarily patience, but endurance. There’s only one way to write a book, and that is to plant yourself in the chair and write. And write. And months later you’re still writing. If you’re lucky, the book is readable, and even then you have to wait days or weeks for someone to read the book to experience the gratification of their enjoyment of it (or connection to it, which is the same thing). With songs, once the song is finished you get to try it out on anyone unlucky enough to be in arm’s reach, and you know in about 3.5 minutes whether or not it’s any good.
We’d love to hear the story of what first inspired you to write the Wingfeather Saga.
I started with a map. I think with fantasy you almost have to start with a map. You get to build the world from the ground up, and that’s a thrilling process. It forces you to answer questions about this new world, questions you need to answer if you hope to trick the reader into believing it’s real. At some point in the map-making I pictured a little town on the edge of a towering cliff above the ocean. There was a little stone cottage, with a garden and a barn and fences for animals. I wondered who lived there, and the Igiby family more or less appeared.
As for the theme of the story, it’s an age-old premise. But the moment where my imagination quickened and I caught a glimpse of what the Wingfeather Saga could be was when I listened to one of Garrison Keillor’s Stories from Lake Wobegon called “The Royal Family”. I’m not sure where to tell folks to find it, but it’s out there. And it’s beautiful.
Did you envision this as a series when you first started?
Yes, I knew from the beginning that the story was bigger than one book. In fact, as I was writing On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness I could hardly wait to get to the next book, which is where the story really deepens. And darkens.
Any challenges you faced in writing the second book, North! Or Be Eaten that you didn’t experience when writing the first? How did you overcome them?
It’s hard to think of specific differences in difficulty. They were both a lot of work, and I still feel like I’m a kid treading water in the deep end. I just finished The Call of the Wild by Jack London, and I marveled at his command of language, at the epic sense of heroism and wild beauty he was able to convey—through the perspective of a dog of all things. Then I think about my own writing, and I remember again just how far I have to go before I’ll ever be able to compose passages like that. It’s daunting, but I’m eager to grow as a writer. I have no illusion that I’m a great writer or ever will be, but whether I’m composing songs or books, that’s what I aim for. Or, it’s what I aim to aim for. So to try and answer your question, the difficulty with writing is writing. You can’t get around it, so it’s best to just get used to it. Then shoot for the moon.
These books have a lot of interesting humor. Do you find yourself writing funny naturally, or does it take a conscious effort?
One reason I read so little fantasy is that it all takes itself so dreadfully seriously. People don’t usually think of the Lord of the Rings that way, for example, but there’s a delightful goofiness to hobbits that makes the long darkness of those books bearable. The Narnia and Harry Potter books are the same way. Humor is a part of our experience, so it should be made welcome in whatever world you’re making. As Aerwiar demonstrates, some worlds are sillier than others. As for whether it comes naturally, I reckon it does. My neighbor thinks I’m writing these books just to be able to use the weird words I make up.
I love a quote I saw from you that said, “Art can’t satisfy a longing for beauty. [But] art can pique it.” Could you elaborate on that thought a little bit?
I think of works of art as windows in the world. The brightest of those windows open darkly on the vast beauty of Christ himself. They draw our attention away from ourselves, away from the comparative ugliness of the world and show us beauty and truth and grace. We get hints of eternity. I remember reading a G.K. Chesterton quote: “Every man who ever entered a brothel went there looking for God.” His point is, we’re looking in vain for something to satisfy this terrible hunger in us, and so often we go looking in the wrong places. Well, to borrow Chesterton’s idea, no man ever opened a book or walked into a movie theater who wasn’t looking for God. We’re drawn to stories, to songs, to paintings, buildings, faces, feasts, and laughter because they remind us of the world that was, and the world to come. The art itself is only a window. Beauty can’t satisfy; only Christ, the source of it, can.
Tell us about the Rabbit Room.
Ah, the Rabbit Room. It’s basically an online version of the Oxford pub where Tolkien, Lewis, and their buddies hung out and read their stories. Art flourishes in community. It’s one of the things I love about Nashville. So in the interest of celebrating art that shines, art that tells the truth and tells it well, I invited a few pastors, authors, and songwriters to engage in the Rabbit Room experiment. It’s a webstore where you can buy used and new books by authors we love, music we recommend, and even handmade mugs—all in the name of drawing attention to writers, artists, and musicians who are, in our humble opinions, getting it right. But its also a glorified blog, where we write about whatever’s on our minds. Once we find the funding we plan to open a bricks-and-mortar Rabbit Room in Nashville—a place to foster community, to draw attention to art we love, and to sip a good cup of coffee.
Of all your characters, who’s your favorite, and why?
The answer is different depending on the day. Right now I think Kalmar (Tink) is my favorite character. His impulsiveness and his aversion to responsibility, as you know if you’ve read North! Or Be Eaten, get him into a lot of trouble, and cause him and his family a lot of pain. In some ways, that pain is just beginning. And yet, as the author of the story, I see in Kalmar not just who he is, but who he is becoming. That gives me hope.
What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?
The Wingfeather Saga, Book Three. I’m serious.
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what are some of your favorite bands/artists?
I can’t listen to music with lyrics when I write, or I don’t get anything done. I end up staring off into nowhere, wondering how the songwriter did that, wishing I had a guitar handy so I could sort it out. So I listen to movie soundtracks. If I’m writing a creepy scene, I go to the playlist labled “Creepy”. If it’s a moving scene, I have a playlist for that, and another for adventure. For the first book I mainly listened to Thomas Newman’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. For this book I added Harry Gregson-Williams’s beautiful soundtrack to Gone, Baby, Gone, and Kerry Muzzey’s Hole in the Paper Sky.
I just want to say that I really have enjoyed your song “Nothing to Say”. I know it’s been a couple years since that released, but we’d love to hear the story behind that song.
I wrote that one in 1996, in college, right after a spontaneous trip with my wife to the Grand Canyon. We lived in Florida, so it was several thousand miles of spontaneity. When I got home from the trip the moment I remembered most was the drive north to the canyon from Flagstaff, through the San Francisco mountains. I was driving badly because I couldn’t take my eyes off the land. Also, we were listening to the Rich Mullins album A Liturgy, a Legacy, and a Ragamuffin Band (the finest driving music I know). I was bawling. Finally I asked my wife to drive so we wouldn’t drive off a cliff.
How do you balance all your creative endeavors and your family life?
That’s a hard one. I have weekly (sometimes daily) conversations with my wife in which I remind her to throw in the towel the minute she sees my work interfering with family life. So far, so good. She actually believes in my gifting more than I do most of the time. It helps that I actually really, really like my family. It goes without saying that I love them, but I enjoy their company too. My boys and my daughter are some of the finest people I know. Sometimes it’s more a matter of me neglecting work because I want to be with them, not the other way around.
Where is your favorite place to write?
We homeschool our kids and my wife has about sixteen piano students, so during the day our house is crazy. We like it that way (sometimes). But there are too many distractions to sink into my story at home. So when I’m not on the road I think of my writing as a nine-to-five job. I have breakfast with the family, then I head to a coffee shop down the road, buy a cup of joe, and camp out for the day. After a few weeks I felt kind of bad for practically living there so I checked with the manager. He gave me the go ahead, and I gave him a copy of the book when it released.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started writing fiction?
Avoid adverbs whenever possible. Short sentences are okay. There is no formula, so don’t get sucked into reading a thousand and one books on writing. You won’t learn a thing unless you actually sit down and write. Read the book out loud to yourself (but not in the coffee shop).
What was the lowest point in your writing career, and how did you get out of it?
Let me see. It must have been earlier today when I was trying to write a lyric and came up with almost nothing, then I felt like a failure and closed my notebook. I got out of it a few minutes later when I opened the notebook again and started writing. Most of the time I try and write, I feel like a sham. Or I feel like God reached down and turned off the tap and said, “Thou shalt write no more, forever.” But somehow, his true voice cuts through (in Scripture, more often than not) and he reminds me who I am. Then I muster the gumption to write another line, hope for the grace of inspiration, and sometimes look back with wonder and see that a chapter or a chorus has been written. That happens every day.
What’s next for you on the book front?
As soon as I finish my next album, hopefully early 2010, I’m digging in to book three of the Wingfeather Saga. I can hardly wait.
Who is Andrew Peterson?
Real Andrew Petersons I know of: 1) A Swedish immigrant to Minnesota in the late 1800’s, famous for his extensive journals about life in a Swedish community. 2) An espionage thriller writer who owns www.AndrewPeterson.com and has caused untold confusion. Seems like the guy could have added a middle initial or SOMETHING.
What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?
I am a spy in the British Secret Service. I am not an espionage thriller writer.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Avoiding discovery by the KGB and watching movies with my family.
What did you eat for breakfast this morning?
The largest apple I’ve ever seen.
Three things always found in your refrigerator:
You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?
A tall coffee with room for cream. And an apple as big as my head.
What’s left unchecked in your “goals for life” list?
Living in England for a year with my family.
When was the last time you cried?
I never cry. Unless it’s to maintain cover while spying on the Russian mafia.
Three words that best describe you:
Stealthy. Abletodiffusebombs. Hungry.
What’s currently in your CD player/iPod?
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.