by Kevin Lucia
Jeffrey Overstreet Interview
"I would count C.S. Lewis as my greatest human influence. His Chronicles of Narnia and Perelandra helped my fantasy fires burn brightly." -- Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet lives in two worlds. By day, he writes about movies at LookingCloser.org and in notable publications like Christianity Today, Paste, and Image. His adventures in cinema are chronicled in his book Through a Screen Darkly. By night, he composes new stories found in fictional worlds of his own. Living in Shoreline, Washington, with his wife, Anne, a poet, he is a senior staff writer for Response Magazine at Seattle Pacific University. Auralia’s Colors is his first novel.
Kevin: I see from your bio that you wrote your first fantasy story at the age of seven. Would you say then that having your first novel published is the culmination of a life long dream?
Jeffrey: Yes and no.
Publication was never my dream. Having a life where I could write stories and share them with people, that is still the dream. I hope I can find a way to live as a full-time writer, not so that I can write more, but so that I can write better. I’m still working three jobs, and I haven’t given up on that dream.
But don’t get me wrong, it is a thrill… an amazing privilege that I never expected… to see Auralia’s Colors published. Even better, it is an honor to have signed contracts for the whole four-book series with WaterBrook Press. To follow in the footsteps of the writers who inspired me when I was young — Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and Stephen R. Lawhead (with his Pendragon cycle) — that’s the kind of opportunity few people get to enjoy. I’m so grateful for that chance. I hope that my work contains at least a flicker of the glory that those writers revealed to me.
And one of the best parts of this experience is taking the opportunity to thank my parents and my school teachers, from elementary school through college, who encouraged me to keep writing.
Your nonfiction book, Through a Screen Darkly, has been described as a “travelogue of dangerous movie-going”. How did this book come about? Would you call yourself more of a movie fan, or movie critic?
Instead of keeping a diary when I was a kid, I made little magazines about my life. And at 12, 13, and 14, I was already filling them with reviews of the music I listened to, the books I read, and the movies I saw. Later, I wrote reviews for the student newspaper at Seattle Pacific University, and I’ve been writing reviews at LookingCloser.org and Christianity Today for about ten years now.
Writing reviews is, for me, a learning experience. It’s a process of finding out what I think, seeing the errors in my thoughts, and slowly refining those thoughts. It’s a way of looking closer (thus, my website: LookingCloser.org). It’s a way of learning what great art has to reveal. When I do that, I end up looking closer at my own life, and I learn to consider the perspectives of people who are very different from me. That changes me. It helps me learn compassion, and it humbles me by showing me all that I don’t know.
Unfortunately, reviews tend to be short. So I wrote Through a Screen Darkly to explore my experience with movies more fully. Every day, I get email from people who read my reviews. They often pose challenging questions that I can’t answer in a simple email or a review. So I wrote this book to capture ideas that can’t be reduced into a few paragraphs. I wanted to show how all kinds of art have inspired me, challenged me, and changed me. Through a Screen Darkly is full of stories about my experiences with great films that I recommend, but ultimately it’s about the power of art to change the world. Which, strangely enough, is also what Auralia’s Colors is about.
How is writing nonfiction different from writing fiction? Did it present any challenges unique to its genre?
Nonfiction is tougher. Writing in the first person, I am challenged to think about how to describe my experiences in a way that will be meaningful to all kinds of people.
And as a critic, I am very aware that people may expect me to be self-righteous, arrogant, sarcastic, and overly critical. I wanted to convey my love for movies, and my understanding that even mediocre movies can change lives.
Also, I am writing from a Christian perspective, and that will scare away most readers right there. I wanted to remind readers that a Christian perspective is one of wonder and enthusiasm and grace… not the critical, judgmental, condescending approach that so many people have come to expect. Mean-spirited religious loudmouths have really misled people about the nature of Christian faith, and I myself flinch at most of the media that falls under the banner of “Christian.” I just wanted to share my experiences with my neighbors, with no sales pitch or propagandizing. That requires finding a “voice” on the page that is welcoming and gracious, not heavy-handed.
How did Auralia's Colors find its genesis? I don’t suppose that was the story you wrote at age seven? That’d make a nice story for interviews, wouldn’t it?
Heh. Most of the stories between the ages of 7 and 17 were my own versions of The Hobbit, Star Wars, The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Auralia’s Colors is, to borrow a phrase from Monty Python, “something completely different.” Those other stories were grand epics about a clash between good and evil. In Auralia’s Colors, almost every character has serious conflicts going on in their own hearts. It’s about the capacity for beauty and imagination to unleash powerful, transforming revelations that will bring out the best in some people, and it will turn others into monsters.
I stumbled onto the idea for Auralia’s Colors during a hike through some beautiful country near Flathead Lake in Montana. My girlfriend, who was so insightful that I later asked her to marry me, happened to comment on the way most people “outgrow” their imaginations. Fairy tales tend to get left behind as people grow up. As I listened to her and looked around at the colorful landscape, I started imagining a society in which color and imagination were made illegal. And then I imagined an artist who might reawaken them to the power of beauty. And my imagination quickly led me into a story about redemption and catastrophe.
It’s obvious from your previous body of work that you are very much in tune with today’s popular media. Do you feel it’s important for Christians today to constantly be evaluating and judging media at large?
Evaluating and judging? I wouldn’t use those words. Christians have earned a rather unfortunate reputation as always evaluating and judging things for other people. Many of the things that other Christians have “judged” and “evaluated” have become truly inspiring and transforming in my life. I would hope that Christians, like everybody else, would approach art with humility and patience and grace… with “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” In our hasty rush to declare judgments, we often miss the true meaning of a work of art. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The truth must dazzle gradually.” That means we must meditate on art, discuss it, and be more inclined to applaud excellence than we are to complain about something that offends us.
Auralia's Colors is a work of fantasy; how does this genre, more than others, lend itself to the creative process?
Fantasy has a way of clearing the scene of distractions. It takes us back to a “Dark Ages” perspective, if you will, where we lived in a more elemental world, closer to nature, more inclined to discern the meaning of signs and wonders. Sure, the Dark Ages were as corrupt as any other age. But back then, a lion wasn’t just a creature of hair, muscle, and bone… he was the King of Beasts!
I believe that creation is meaningful. When I stand by the ocean, it speaks to me in its own way, and I come away changed. When I walk through the woods, I am moved to contemplation. Forests, mountains, rivers, tunnels, fire, water, creatures of all varieties — in fantasy, we are immersed in these things, and we cannot escape the sense that there is something mysterious at work. Middle-Earth’s Ents taught us something about trees. Narnia’s winter taught us about spiritual desolation. In fairy tales, we can’t get away from the sense that there is a “curse” on the world, and that we need someone to break that curse through the intervention of something beyond ourselves… a magical kiss, a redemptive spell. That’s why I resonate so powerfully with The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo fails to save the world and yet there is “another will at work” that works all things together for good.
Fantasy helps me re-tune my senses and my mind to pick up what is really happening in the world around me, and it renews my faith.
Would you consider any authors – contemporaries or otherwise – as inspirations? If so, which would you say have influenced you the most?
It’s predictable to say Tolkien, but The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were the greatest inspiration for me to write stories of my own as I grew up.
Since then, storytellers like Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Patricia McKillip (The Book of Atrix Wolfe), and above all, Richard Adams (Watership Down) have set the standard for me. Mervyn Peake’s phantasmagorical prose in Titus Groan has been a strong influence too, giving me a love for description that not everybody shares. If I were buying books for children today, I’d be giving them everything that Kate DiCamillo has written. She’s doing timeless, beautiful work. If I can capture a glimmer of the glory that these writers have shown me, I’ll be overjoyed.
And yet, Auralia’s Colors was inspired most by contemplative nonfiction writers and poets like Thomas Merton, Annie Dillard, G.K. Chesterton, and Scott Cairns. Madeleine L’Engle’s nonfiction writing has been hugely inspiring too.
Christian entertainment has changed much in the last few years; especially in the areas of music, fiction, and movies. What do you see in the future for Christian entertainment?
The same, but more of it. We’re in the first stages of the aftermath of The Passion of the Christ and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Hollywood is trying to figure out what appeals to the moviegoers who bought those tickets. So studios are aggressively marketing movies to Christians. And more and more Christians are making movies. Unfortunately, most of the work that wears a “Faith” label is shallow, preachy, and mediocre or worse.
But there are many Christian artists already at work for decades, striving for excellence and beauty and truth in their work. Not all of them like to identify themselves as Christians, because they know that they will be immediately judged and disregarded. They are interested in pursuing a higher art… not just family-safe entertainment. And looking back, I consider Terrence Malick, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer to be great “Christian artists.”
Art is bigger than mere entertainment. Art cannot be reduced to a “lesson” or a “message.” Truth is unsettling, and beauty is hard to capture. Both are very mysterious. Thus, a lot of great art — by Christians another others — is overlooked or rejected outright by Christian audiences who are looking for movies that tell them things they already know, movies that preach what they like to hear. True visionaries will show us things that remind us we have much to learn, and that open new possibilities. They show us things that haunt us and keep us going back to experience them again. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “The truth must dazzle gradually.”
On an unrelated note, how do you feel about Amazon.com’s new wireless reading device? How do you feel about someone potentially downloading Auralia's Colors on Kindle?
I think stories can be powerful in any form. And if Kindle is a convenient way for someone to discover Auralia, that’s fine with me. But frankly, I want the book to take up space on somebody’s shelf. I want a reader to touch the pages, enjoy the smell of the ink, and give copies to their friends and family for Christmas. If it’s just a digital file, it seems insubstantial. A book has a life of its own that moves around from person to person. It has a body.
I read in Stephen King’s On Writing that he has an “inner circle” comprised of his wife and closest friends who read his work before any editors or publishers do, to give him an “everyman/woman’s” opinion. Who reads your work – if anyone – before a publisher and editor does?
My wife Anne reads it first. Or I read it to her, because it’s important to me that writing sound good when it’s read aloud. She’s a poet, so she helps me focus on every single word. Anne and I fell in love while we were reading and critiquing each other’s writing. When we were dating, we’d spend the weekend on the ferry boats in Puget Sound, sailing out into the fog and marking up our manuscripts. We both love fairy tales. She’s got a good sense of what makes a fantasy novel original and strong, and what makes it merely derivative. Right now, she’s editing the sequel to Auralia’s Colors, which is called Cyndere’s Midnight.
I have other friends whose opinions I covet and respect. Danny Walter is an actor with a strong understanding of characters, motivations, and consistency. He’s also a good writer.
Auralia’s Colors grew up in a writing circle led by Linda Wagner, an educator who worked for years at Seattle Pacific University. She and a wonderful childrens’ writer named Beth Harris, a pastor named John Edgell, and an economist named Margaret Sampson… they all played important parts in helping me shape those first drafts.
Finally, if there was any advice you’d like to give to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Write all day. On coffee
breaks. On the bus. During staff meetings at the office. If you get an
church, God won’t scowl if you
jot it down… in fact, the idea might be straight from Him. And if
you find that you don’t enjoy writing every day, then find another
line of work. Writers who write with passion are, surprise surprise, passionate
about writing. They find it difficult to go a single day without writing.
If you don’t enjoy the process, but just prefer the idea of “being
a writer,” then you’re leading yourself into a world of misery
Lucia Kevin Lucia writes for The Press & Sun
Bulletin and The
Journal. His short fiction has appeared in Coach’s
Midnight Diner, The Relief Journal, All Hallows, Darkened
Horizons Vol. 3 & 4,
NexGen Pulp Magazine Issues 1 & 4, From the Shadows, Morpheus
Bohemian-Alien, Shroud Publishing’s horror anthology, Abominations,
Tyndale House’s inspirational anthology Life Savors. He’s
writing a novella for Shroud Publishing’s upcoming novella series, The
Hiram Grange Chronicles. He resides in Castle Creek, New York, with his
wife Abby, daughter Madison and son Zackary. He teaches high school English at
Catholic Central High School
in Binghamton, New York; and is finishing his Masters of Arts in Creative Writing
at Binghamton University. Visit him at his website and