I just finished reading Raven’s Ladder, the latest installment in Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread series. I am in awe of this man’s ability to imagine a whole world and then create it in words. I’m also in awe of his ability to hold so many story lines, keep them all in the air and full of tension – all at the same time. And I’m really in awe of the beauty of his prose, which often reads like poetry.
But you want to know what I’m most in awe of? His acknowledgments page. It reads like a who’s who of Christian writers: Robert Clark, John Wilson, Luci Shaw, Walter Wangerin, Jr., Eugene Peterson, Gina Oschner, among others. And he calls Sara Zarr, one of my favorite YA novelists, his “sister.” Anyone else turning green?
So, with all these awesome connections, what’s he doing moonlighting on yours truly’s blog? Well, dear readers, I asked him to.
Okay, so it’s a little more complicated than that. One of his editors, who has become a good acquaintance of mine over the past nine months, offered to put me in touch with him. Jeffrey lives near Seattle, so back in December I emailed him and asked if he’d meet me for coffee. He very kindly said yes. And when his new book came out last month I asked him if he’d do a blog interview with me. Again, he very kindly said yes.
So, clearly, in addition to being a great writer, he’s also a really nice guy. But enough from me. Let’s hear from him.
KCI: The focus of the first book in the series, Auralia’s Colors, is on the colorless kingdom of Abascar. Where did the idea for this drab country come from?
JO: Blame it on Montana. Anne and I were hiking near Flathead Lake, during the summer of 1996. We were talking about our mutual love of fairy tales. Anne asked, “Why is it that so many people reach an age when they’re finished with make-believe? It seems like most people just stop being creative and imaginative. They fold up their imaginations and put them in a closet.”
That triggered a “What if?” moment for me. What if a whole society folded up their colorful and creative work and put it away? I imagined a colorless city set in the middle of this beautiful landscape.
A few moments later, I was imagining a character—a young artist—who would come out of the forest and bring a gift of forbidden color to that place. That character became Auralia.
KCI: In the second book, Cyndere’s Midnight, you turn your attention more toward the fallen kingdom of the Cent Regus. What inspired your vision of the beastmen?
JO: When I wrote Auralia’s Colors, I became curious about the beastly creatures lurking in the forest where she lived. I wanted to know where these monsters came from.
Ever since I was old enough to read Where the Wild Things Are or fairy tales like “Beauty and the Beast,” I’ve been interested in monsters. As a kid, I loved the movie Gremlins. But I was quite interested in the idea of a monster with a soul. Like Gollum, Darth Vader, or the Replicants in Blade Runner.
Perhaps that comes from reading Bible stories about monstrous men who are considered “heroes of faith.” Re-reading the Old Testament lately, I’ve been amazed at the depravity—the violence, the sexual misbehavior, the dishonesty—of the men I used to admire in my Sunday school lessons. There are important matters to discuss and explore when we realize that God is in the business of guiding and working through monsters like them… and like me.
KCI: Throughout both books, color—and thus beauty—is central to the ongoing transformation of individuals and, sometimes, whole groups of people. Why is this?
JO: I believe that our minds are like musical instruments all out of tune, or glass that’s blurry. When we encounter beauty—either in nature or in art—our minds are “tuned” again, to some extent. Things are out of balance there, and we don’t even realize it, but art helps repair that damage. It polishes our lenses, so to speak. That’s why a walk along Richmond Beach near my house, or listening to good music, can raise my spirits after a difficult day at work. Poetry sharpens my senses and my intellect.
I’ve read so many fantasy stories that were primarily about religion or political oppression or sex. I’d never read a fantasy series that was about the revelatory and dangerous power of art before, and the idea inspired me.
KCI: Would you give my blog readers a little teaser trailer for Raven’s Ladder?
JO: Wow. I’ve never been asked to do this before. Sounds like fun.
Imagine whatever studio logo you’d like, and then the music starts.
Arrows! Someone is hunting Cal-raven, the new king of the survivors of House Abascar, through the caves where they have endured a hard winter. He and his hunting dog, Hagah, run for their lives. Then, he’s outside looking for a place to hide among the wild brambles. It’s midnight.
Suddenly, two enormous spider-like creatures appear on either side of him, and they pounce!
Bring up the title credit: Raven’s Ladder!
We see Cal-raven, tied up and bloodied in the back of a wagon, being hauled away by mercenaries.
We descend into the earth, where we join some of the Abascar survivors who are laboring as slaves to the beastmen. The ale boy has found them there, and he’s trying to revive their hopes by telling them the story of Auralia’s colors. To demonstrate her revelation, he lights himself on fire and the cave fills with light.
We fly to House Bel Amica, a city built on a rock above the ocean. We see Cal-raven climbing out the window of his room in a moonlit Bel Amican tower at night. He steps onto the top of a ladder the he finds there, and then he pushes off, riding the top of the ladder across the avenue far below… until he crashes against the wall of another tower. There, he takes hold of the stones and begins to climb toward somebody’s window.
We see Cyndere, daughter of the queen of House Bel Amica, standing very close to Cal-raven in an empty outdoor marketplace at night, far above the stormy waters of the Rushtide Inlet. It looks like it may be a romantic moment.
Then, in a rush of images:
The Keeper spreads its wings and descends into an abyss, fire flowing from its jaws.
Cal-raven sealing himself inside the hollow of a stone statue sculpted to look like his father.
A parade of glowing phantoms—Northchildren—sneaking through the forest.
One of the devious Seers plants the Queen of Bel Amica’s face in a pan of bubbling lotion, and then pulls her out. The potion has made her seem younger than her own daughter! (Cut to a shot of Cyndere looking disgusted with her mother.)
We see Jordam the beastman charging alone against a troop of spear-wielding beastmen in red armor.
We see Cal-raven, surrounded by noisy ravens, climbing up the incline of a leaning tree. The camera pulls back to reveal that the tree is so massive, Cal-raven’s as small as an ant climbing up its bark.
We see a massive, serpentine tentacle come up out of the water of a harbor and smash in the hull of a ship. Then we see the ship leaning, burning, sinking.
Finally, we see Cal-raven standing on a high place and looking northward through a large, round, blurry pane of glass, and suddenly the swirling light of Auralia’s colors flowers into the air all around him.
And then we see a young girl holding two glass discs up to her eyes, which enlarge them to cartoonish proportions, and she laughs mischievously.
Boom! The title Raven’s Ladder appears.
And then a message appears: “Visit LookingCloser.org for more details.”
KCI: Awesome. Now we just need some cinematic music with an ever-increasing drumbeat, ending with a cymbal crash.
Your writing is lyrical and lush, and you weave together many different story strands in each novel. What writers do you read to keep your own well of creativity full?
JO: In the last couple of years, I’ve been so busy working at the day-job and writing in the evenings, I’ve had very little time to read.
I do, however, find Patricia McKillip to be a very inspiring fantasy writer. Her novels The Book of Atrix Wolfe and Alphabet of Thorn are some of the best fantasy books I’ve read in the last 20 years. I also love the style of Guy Gavriel Kay’s complicated fantasy novels, which are a lot like historical tapestries. Mervyn Peake should be as famous as any fantasy author; his Gormenghast stories are pure joy to read, especially to read aloud.
But mostly I’m inspired by non-fiction. I think the nonfiction written by Annie Dillard, Madeleine L’Engle, Eugene Peterson, Philip Yancey, and Thomas Merton has had as much influence on The Auralia Thread as any other text. In fact, the meaning of the name of Cal-raven’s dog comes from Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book.
KCI: Hagah. That’s Hebrew for “meditate,” though Peterson points out that it also can also mean to “growl” or “chew” or “worry” as in a dog worrying a bone. Clever. (And aren’t I clever, too, for knowing all that? No, don’t answer that.)
Finally, if the series were to be turned into a cadre of movies, who would play the title role of each?
JO: I just hosted a book giveaway on my Facebook page where I asked people that same question. I saw some great ideas there. It’s hard to decide. I really don’t know who should play Cal-raven; he’d have to look about 22 years old.
I think Benicio Del Toro could make a great Jordam. It would take some amazing makeup, but he did that for The Wolfman.
Somebody suggested either Embeth Davidtz or Rosamund Pike for Jaralaine, and those are both brilliant.
I’d pick Summer Glau to play Cyndere, and I’d love to see the rock singer Annie Clark (better known as St. Vincent) play Emeriene. The young actor from The Road would make an excellent ale boy.
I haven’t come up with a better actor for Scharr ben Fray than Derek Jacobi, but I’m still pondering.
Well, friends, as you can see, the man is smart, creative, and savvy. He’s also written a beautiful trio of books (the last one comes out next year). If you’d like a copy of Raven’s Ladder, just leave a comment. Jack the random number generator will choose a number and if he picks yours, you get a free book! I’ll be out of town and completely offline by the time you read this, so Jack will choose his number when we return at the end of the month and I’ll let you know then who the lucky winner is.