by C.J. Darlington
Stephen Lawhead Interview
"I don't outline anything. I feel that a story has to be organic; it has to grow out of its own heart. If I start out putting so many strictures on it by outlining it, it always feels wooden and dead to me.." -- Stephen Lawhead
Stephen Lawhead is an internationally acclaimed author of mythic history and imaginative fiction. He was born in 1950, in Nebraska in the USA. His early life was lived in America where he earned a university degree in Fine Arts and attended theological seminary for two years.
In addition to his twenty-four novels, he has written nine children's books, many of them originally offered to his two sons, Drake and Ross. He is married to Alice Slaikeu Lawhead, with whom he has collaborated on books and articles. They make their home in Oxford, England.
We recently had the
chance to talk with Stephen over the phone to discuss his early endeavors
as well as his newest offering, The Skin Map. (Read our review
NOTE: Be sure to visit Stephen's Facebook page and website to see if he's coming to a town near you for his 7 city US book tour in September!
C.J.: I'm surprised you don't have a British accent.
Stephen: Although we've lived here in England long enough to, people here actually think we're Canadian. We've lived in Oxford for coming up on 25 years. We're having fun.
I'm intrigued that you graduated from college with a degree in art and you played guitar in a rock back, and you went to seminary, and then you started writing your first book. So many different mediums, and yet they all tell stories. Could you share with us why you chose writing as a career?
I did have some commissions in painting early on, right out of the university, and I quickly learned that no one is going to pay me enough to make ends meet painting. (laughs) All through college I was in a rock and roll group, and we traveled all over. One of the guys who ran the group was also a business major, so he made sure we all got paychecks whether we played that week or not, so it was all very professional. I continued with that for a while, but it's not a lifestyle I can really recommend to anybody, at least in the late 60's-early 70's. Fun times, but for me it was never a serious option. So being a very practical type of person, I decided that writing was going to be it. Writing was fun. It was an expression. To me it was a lot like the same buzz I got from painting, but with different means of creative expression.
Back in the day when I went in to register for classes, I needed an art history class, but when I got there it was full. It was a mistake, and it meant I was going to end up studying a whole semester after everyone else had graduated just to pick up that class because it was a requirement for art majors. In a big huff I said, “Well, what do you have left?” And the lady looked in the cards she had and gave me a creative writing course. They had one very, very keen and able professor who gave this course. I quickly realized that not only was it a great deal of fun, but I could do this. What I learned was that I could write on the back of an envelope on the way to class what some people were spending the night doing with weeping and gnashing of teeth. I wasn't taking it seriously. Later I began to take it seriously and figure out what this is and how it works. I went on to take more informal classes with this professor, and it started an itch. I got the bug.
During seminary I had the chance to take classes at other schools in the Chicago area. I came in contact with the folks at Campus Life magazine and was hired to come on staff. I was a reader as a kid; I was fascinated by books. To me a fun day out was to go to the library and bring home a whole stack of books and work my way through it. I was not a good reader. I was always in the low reading groups, and I'd look longingly at the books the advanced readers were reading and try to get a hold of those, but the teacher would take them away. I fell in love with words, and I was always telling stories. That's where it comes from for me. For most writers there comes a day as a reader when you say “I'd like to do that.” Or even “I could do better than this.”
That first novel you wrote, In the Hall of the Dragon King, what compelled you to write that story?
It was an experiment to see if I could sit in a chair long enough to produce anything that anyone would like to read. My own bent was towards those kids' fantasies I'd read growing up, so it just went that way. I actually started two books the same day. Every day I wrote on each one of them a little bit. One of them took off; the other died pretty quickly. (laughs) So I just shifted my attention to the one that was working. I didn't have a story to start with; I just had a title. I listen to music when I write, so I was probably listening to something like “In the Hall of the Mountain King” or something like that and thought, “What would a book with a title like that be about?” So I wrote to find out. As it happens, my record company collapsed in a slow death, so I almost literally cashed in my chips and went home to write. I had to make a living somehow. I had about three months, which seemed like a long time at the time. I figured if I wrote every day that would be no problem, but then three months turned into six, and that was in danger of turning into nine, and bills were starting to pile up. My wife would come in shaking a fist full of bills and say, “What are we going to do about these?” And I'd say, “I'm writing as fast as I can. We'll sell the book and everything will be okay.” That was fairly naive, but that was the world I lived in at the moment. So I got it done, sent it off, and started collecting rejection slips. But one company said they'd buy it, and I told them that it was the first of three. They were going to pay me so little that I couldn't imagine how else it would work, so I quickly invented a trilogy in order to get them hooked on it. (laughs) They agreed to two of the three, but by that time I had two in the pipeline and they later wanted my science fiction story Dream Thief. When the first books started selling well, they wanted the full trilogy. They put trust in my abilities, and it allowed me to keep the experiment alive. It's in 28 languages now so something worked.
I've heard you say that you've been writing your latest book, The Skin Map, in your head for fifteen years, and I'm wondering what made you decide now was the time to write this series?
Different things get hot at different times. A big part of it was that I just didn't feel ready until now to write it. I wanted to include fantasy, physics, philosophy, and loads of history. I've been collecting notes in a big file. One of my favorite ways of research is to actually go to the places I write about, and that's how I ended up in Britain in the first place. So it took a long time. Over the years we've traveled to see things that proved useful for the story. Nothing is ever wasted; nothing is ever lost. Some place that we've visited suddenly becomes very important to a storyline. That's part of the fun, to keep your eyes and ears open to ideas.
Did you outline this book?
I don't outline anything. I feel that a story has to be organic; it has to grow out of its own heart. If I start out putting so many strictures on it by outlining it, it always feels wooden and dead to me. Other people have to meticulously outline, like in mysteries, before it ever starts. But for me it doesn't work that way. I describe the process of writing a story like building a house of bricks. You don't build the whole house at once; you build it a brick at a time. So I start at the beginning of every book and I work my way to the end, and I don't skip any parts in between. The book changes as it goes along. Some parts will stay and in other parts I'll take out characters or collapse them into one and shift them around. To me it's all the same process. We have a term around here called shooting film. I shoot a lot of film that doesn't make it into the final picture. I don't worry too much about that. Each chapter of the book is a file. Some of those files will be opened 100-200 times before the book goes into final edit, so it's always fluid and in motion until it goes to the publisher.
How much of this book is based on actual science?
The story mentions a book on lee lines. I have that actual book on my shelf here. It's a real book, and the author is a real character who did pretty much the same things I said in the book. You'll meet some more in the next book, The Bone House, which I'm just finishing up. Rudolf II and His Magic Court---those are all real places and real people, pretty much as I described it. A lot of the science, although it's fairly heavily disguised, is genuine stuff. I think it'll hold up.
It was fun to read about Wilhelmina starting a coffee shop. Do you spend a lot of time haunting coffee shops?
I just like coffee, and it seemed like a natural fit for her. Her character more or less suggested that. It tracks with the Austria/Hungarian Empire introducing coffee to the rest of the earth and how that might have happened. It might have been that somebody got the wrong beans on the dock that day, and coffee was invented. That's just a bit of fun and it's quite useful. It made a lot of sense, because coffee houses in those days were even more of an important meeting place. People went to see and be seen in those early coffee shops, and it's pretty much as I described with the Empirical Court coming down with coffee hour and bringing her in contact with the alchemists, and that became important for the rest of the story, too.
Sometimes if you give the characters the proper grounding, they can get up and do things that are surprising. She surprised me, but it seems natural to her. I remember writing in Byzantium . . . there is a character who is a Danish king, Harald, who was supposed to be a bit part, but he came on as such a forceful character that he ended up staying on for the rest of the book. I make room for those things to happen.
The series is set to be 5 books. Can you give us a glimpse of what we can expect?
The story as we set it out in The Skin Map begins to both spread wider and go deeper. It's going to go in some very interesting new directions. Each book will introduce new locations, new times, and new characters, and we'll move around the world a little bit more. I don't want to say too much, but a lot of the characters will continue, and more and more back story will be revealed. It is a treasure hunt of sorts, so we have to keep collecting these pieces of the map and finding out what was so important to our main man. We'll keep working away on that mystery and put it all together. Part of it is a quest, but the other part is the ride.
You are a Christian, but you don't necessarily write what people call “Christian fiction”. The Skin Map touches on some greater themes without the bad language and violence. Is that purposeful on your part?
I write for the widest possible readership, and I always have, even at Campus Life magazine. This whole thing about earning the right to be heard is important. I always enjoyed the classic, golden age of the novel, back in the 1880's and 1890's. It's amazing how many men of faith were involved in that, and yet the books they produced are not labeled Christian fiction; they just wrote books for people like themselves who liked to read. That's what I've tried to do. Sometimes I would like to have a little freer hand with the language, but I know that can also be a barrier. I've learned that most people in books when they use off color language, that is usually a failure of imagination, if nothing else. It's also a moral failure. It's so easy to put a graphic word or a swear word for shock value. But when I use a word I want it to mean what it means and have the value that I put on it. There are rare times when an artist needs to even have black on his pallette. You have to draw the line somewhere, and where I choose to draw it may be over the line for some people and others sail right by it. I don't willfully try to offend, but sometimes you reach for a word and there are only one or two that will do. In The Skin Map we use the word “bastard” a couple times in the way it is intended to be used, but I'm sure some people will not appreciate that.
A fiction story is meant to present a dream, a sort of waking dream for the reader. You want to create a world where they can enter in and participate. You try everything you can to keep that dream alive in a continuous, seamless, whole. Any jolts that wake the reader up from the dream have to go, whether it's a clunky scene or a sentence that isn't quite right. You try to minimize shocks that will wake up the reader that you are trying to lull into a dream. Language can do that. Sex scenes are quite overdone these days, so I try to write scenes that aren't dependent on that. I got in trouble with that with Patrick, because he's a 17 year old young guy whose attracted to all the young ladies. To make it true to his life as a saint who has to battle these demons there was a scene or two that was illustrative of this point. Some people don't understand why that has to be there, especially for good ol' Saint Patrick, but even the best saints struggle. That is part of the human condition.
A good friend of ours, Lori Fox, who actually wrote the reviews of your King Raven books for us on TitleTrakk.com, and she asked us to ask you what is the next legend or historical person you're going to tackle next?
Is there another Robin Hood type legend I want to tackle? Actually there is. It's not as well known in America, but it has great European interest. But if I tell you what it is, someone else will do it, and then I won't get the chance! Sorry, Lori! I've talked about ideas before, and someone found out and did it first. I once unwisely talked to an editor about an idea, and the editor mentioned it to another writer, and they turned in a manuscript with it before I got around to it. I made them at least change the title. It happens. And there hasn't been anything done on this in at least fifty years, so it's a good one. But there are other things too, historical novels that I'd like to have a crack at, that go further back in time than medieval.
If you could write only one genre for the rest of your career, what would you pick?
I'd probably go with something like I'm doing now, this hybrid historical fantasy thing. It has the most variability. The problem with straight historical stuff is that I just get tired of writing about horses. (laughs) Although you don't have to worry about the latest cell phone business and that kind of thing. Electricity complicates things. I like this series because I can jump around in time. That's a lot of fun. Plus you have to invent a whole vocabulary that makes sense to that time. There are loads of words in a historical book that I'm not allowed to use. Usually it has to do with verbs. It drives me nuts that in other historical books people will get in a fight and fire arrows at each other. But you can't “fire” an arrow. It's a word that came after the invention of gun powder. Before that you would not say “fire” an arrow. Another best seller drove me nuts, it takes place in the late 1200's, and here again before the first chapters the main character had “focused” three or four times on different things. That's an optics word. In the 1200's no one would think of focusing in anything but a mathematical sense. “Focus” becomes important when you have a world of cameras, telescopes, and things that have to be focused. Instead he would concentrate or something. You have to have a vocabulary that fits the time. You can't write like they really talked back then either, because it would be too tedious; no one would read it. So that's the trick.
Another thing was that in the 4th century, Patrick could go to the window, and rub the fog off the window to see outside, but in the 5th century he would not have done that. It would all be gone. They did have glass in the 4th century, but they didn't in the 5th. They weren't invented again until later on in the medieval period. But if I put that in, even though it's correct, everyone will assume it's a mistake and it'll waken them up out of the dream. You have to find those little things that ring true. It's a cat and mouse process. With this new series I don't have quite as many of these problems. They can be a little looser in their associations and the words they use. There is a little more freedom there.
Is there anything else you'd like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?
I'm on tour in 7 U.S. cities this September. There will be some readings
and some fun and games with prizes coming up. We'll do readings and some
question and answer times. I'd love to tell your readers about our new
website and the facebook
page. All the cities and events will be listed
there. That's the best way to keep updated. I hope people will interact
with it as an adventure, a fun ride.
US Tour announced so far:
September 14 - Denver
September 15 - Portland
September 16 - Seattle
September 20 - Boston
September 21 - Nashville (Brentwood)
September 23 - Dallas
September 25 - Austin
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.