Film critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet has written three fantasy novels in the last few years, two of which I’ve read. They are fantastic (perhaps that goes without saying). He writes this series, Auralia’s Colors, not to depict any historic people or setting, but “to capture the questions that keep me up at night.” The third one, Raven’s Ladder, is shown on the left and is being released this month.
I have found that wonderfully hopeful, powerfully redemptive, and gorgeous. His new world has an appealing natural magic which is hard to describe, like the difficulty Tolkien’s elves in Lothlórien describing their handiwork to the hobbits. It wasn’t magic to them, but the hobbits it was.
I asked Jeffrey some questions about writing and publishing these books.
1. You’ve been a critical writer for many years now. Do you think you’ve always had the writing spirit/muse/curse?
I’m hard-wired to tell stories. When I was five years old, I already felt compelled to make books. I’d take fairy-tale storybooks and painstakingly copy the text onto piles of scrap paper. Then I’d illustrate those pages with crayon or watercolors.
Soon after I read The Hobbit – around age seven – I stopped copying stories and started writing my own. And sure, those first stories sounded a lot like The Hobbit. But they became more unusual and distinct as the years went on. My first “series” was a four-story epic set in a world that resembles Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. In fact, when I saw that movie decades later, I laughed at the incredible similarities. (Where Pixar had nasty grasshoppers, I had wicked wasps.)
By the time I was in fourth grade, my schoolteachers were giving me about 20 minutes a day to read my stories to the class. And by my early teens, I was typing several storybooks a year. I wrote horror stories, Indiana Jones-style adventures, and even a story about mice who take over the White House and start running the country.
I wrote a series that was rather like “The A-Team in Space.” It was called “Force One”, and the team was led by a lizard named Guns, who was sort of like Kermit the Frog with a red cape and a helmet. They fought a two-headed villain named Xa.
So yeah, I knew very early that this is what I wanted to do.
2. How did publishing two books in 2007 change things for you or change your perspective? I think many unpublished writers and would-be writers hope their ship will come in once the first book hits the shelves, but that won’t be the case for them.
It has changed my life, but not in the ways people might think.
Some have said, “Wow. Four books in three years. That must be nice for you!” They seem to think I’ve struck it rich. But I still drive the same car, eat the same meals, and work the same day job at Seattle Pacific University that I did before.
Here’s what has changed. My life has become much, much more stressful. This opportunity has cost me my free time, my evenings, my weekends, and my vacations. I look back to my university days and think, “Wow! I used to think finals week was hard work!”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s always thrilling to see my latest project arrive in stores. I love hearing from readers. And I’m deeply grateful to WaterBrook Press for giving me these opportunities, and to my agent for his patience and guidance.
But because they’ve given me these tremendous opportunities, I feel both an overwhelming sense of gratitude and a burdensome sense of responsibility. Since others are investing in my imagination, I want to do the very best I can. I haven’t found a critic who’s as tough on my work as I am.
I found it very difficult to let go of both Cyndere’s Midnight and Raven’s Ladder. Readers keep telling me that the series is getting better as it goes, and I’m glad they think so. But when I look at the sequels, I think of so many things I’d like to revise.
So in short, yeah. It changed my life. I’ve met a lot of new friends. I’m busier than ever. And I’m learning how to manage incredible stress!
3. How did you pitch Auralia’s Colors to your publisher?
Truth is the publisher found me. It’s a long story. Here’s the shortest version I can manage:
I never expected to be published. Reading about the process of finding an agent and a publisher depressed me. It seemed like an impossible game, like playing the lottery. I couldn’t muster the energy to pursue a publisher.
Then one day, I wrote a movie review of the film Secondhand Lions. It was published in a magazine, and the review impressed a flight attendant in Atlanta. The flight attendant wrote to me and said she was coming to visit Seattle. Could we meet for lunch?
During lunch, she asked about my other writing projects. She got excited about what she read, and she called a friend. That friend happened to work at Random House. He called me the next morning to ask about my work. And the rest is history.
Here’s the thing. Several days earlier, I had prayed these words: “God, if you want these stories to be published, you’ll have to show me how to make that happen. If you have to drop somebody out of the sky with a golden ticket, hey, I’m ready.” And then, somebody dropped out of the sky with a golden ticket. I am still thanking God. And I’m still thanking the flight attendant.
4. You were writing Auralia’s Colors a long time, weren’t you?
I started writing Auralia’s Colors in 1996. I lived with it for a whole decade, revising it, throwing whole chapters away, dumping characters and introducing new ones. The ale boy was not very important in the first draft, but he became the second most important character. Some characters, like Radegan the thief, didn’t show up until the last couple of drafts.
I wrote other stories during that time too, including an epic adventure about a bird that runs away from home and becomes a secret agent. I hope I get to share that story someday. That bird’s my favorite of all my characters.
But I just kept kneading and kneading the dough of Auralia’s Colors, until I was sure that every page would sound good read out loud. You can do that when you spend ten years on a story.
5. Have you worked closely with an editor on the novels? Was there a good bit of back and forth?
Oh, yes. I’m so grateful for my wife, Anne, who has a voracious appetite for fantasy novels. She’s an excellent editor—she has her own freelance editing business.
But I am also grateful to Shannon Marchese, my editor at WaterBrook. She was extremely patient with me as I finished Auralia’s Colors, helping me amplify the story’s strengths and work through its weaknesses. And WaterBrook also introduced me to Steve Parolini, who is incredibly perceptive about how to make good scenes better.
Get this: In the last edit of Raven’s Ladder, Steve helped me condense the manuscript to about half its original size. And I didn’t have to revise the story much. Now that’s an amazing editor!
6. Are you satisfied with how your two novels have sold?
Auralia’s Colors and Cyndere’s Midnight are still in stores, so… yes! And I’m grateful for all of the readers who have written to me about their experience. I never expected any of this.
7. Are you satisfied (maybe that’s not a good word) with the reviews you’ve seen and the criticism you’ve received?
When I read the praise for Auralia’s Colors from Publisher’s Weekly, I was overjoyed. It was an honor just to show up in PW, but that review was an extraordinary blessing.
Since then, I’ve been delighted with any review that convinced me the writer had actually read the book and thought it through. Most of them have been surprisingly generous.
There haven’t been many negative reviews. But I don’t mind negative reviews, so long as the reviewers offer useful criticism instead of arrogance and insults. Any six-year-old can be a snarky critic. It takes maturity to write meaningful criticism. I should know. I used to write snarky, condescending film reviews all the time. But in recent years I’ve been trying to grow up and recover some dignity.
8. Do any of the reviews or comments stand out to you, for better or worse?
There’s one reviewer—I think she’s known as the most prolific reviewer on the internet—who proves time and time again that she doesn’t read closely. Her reviews of all three stories have contained drastic errors, and her plot descriptions don’t match the stories I wrote. I think she’s a fraud. She just likes to see her name in print.
Otherwise, I don’t have serious complaints.
I once read a review by a woman who interpreted Auralia’s Colors as a story about the revelatory power of art. I wanted to give her a hug.