Q. Who are some of your favorite authors of fantasy? How do they inspire you?
It is almost a given, I suppose, but J.R.R. Tolkien is the fantasy writer that changed my life. I’d never encountered anything like Middle Earth before, and even as an avid reader, his work set my imagination on fire. I also enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis as well-written, engaging stories, even if the depth of the world didn’t really compare to Tolkien, though that criticism is true of virtually all other fantasy writers. I also enjoyed Stephen Lawhead’s version of the Arthurian myth, especially what he did with Merlin. These are Christian writers, but I also have enjoyed fantasy outside the Christian domain. That would include the early books of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, and, if I might step over the line between fantasy and sci-fi for a moment, I’d say that Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of the great sci-fi/fantasy accomplishments of our time.
A final thought on this question – the above are all “modern” fantasy writers. I’d have to say that I am equally influenced by the origins of fantasy, the great myths and epics and fantastical journeys of the past. From Greek and Norse myths to Homer’s The Iliad, to Dante’s The Inferno, to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King – these stories have enlarged my imagination and some of them are direct influences on Kirthanin.
Q. Was writing fantasy a childhood dream or something that came on later in your life?
I always liked to tell stories, so the idea of writing was planted fairly early. How much of that desire was linked specifically to fantasy, I couldn’t’ tell you. As some evidence of interest early on, I was given an assignment in 10th grade English to write a story in imitation of a favorite book or author, and I chose to write a story in imitation of The Hobbit. So, when the various strands that gave rise to this world and this story came together, it wasn’t like it suddenly occurred to me that I should write fantasy, but at the same time, it wasn’t like all my life had been headed toward this moment either.
Q. What were those strands that came together in your mind to start creating a world like Kirthanin?
This is a pretty complex question, so I’ll have to oversimplify. In the summer of ‘92, I was on a summer study program called “Wheaton in England,” made up mostly of literature majors from my college. After the program I traveled with a friend for a little while, and I kept a collection of W.B. Yeats with me since we’d been studying him and I’d really enjoyed it. A footnote in the back of that collection gave a citation from Yeats himself where he discussed the archetypal associations of the geographic regions, north, east, south and west. To explain, he talked about how south, for instance, is often associated in stories with summer, with the heat of the day, with love and romance stories, with things in their fullness, etc. He went on to discuss all the regions. It occurred to me then, that a story that began somewhere in the regional cycle and moved geographically as it moved thematically would be interesting.
This was a structure, but it wasn’t a story. The story began when this structural idea collided with an image in Isaiah, of swords and spears being recast and reforged into implements of farming and peace (Is. 2:4). Personally, though I believe warfare is necessary to combat evil in this world, I take the vision of a day when instruments of war are no longer necessary to be one of the great images of the coming restoration that I know. It occurred to me that the great warriors in the great stories always fought because they had to, but what happened when their great battles were over? What would it be like to “live by the sword” in the pursuit of some great victory over evil, and then be asked to give up that sword? Would it be hard? Would a warrior know who he was without the thing that had defined him? It was this image and question combined with this structure that gave rise to the world and the story. These things and a lot of time.
Q. Most people would find writing a 5-volume work exhausting both creatively and mentally. Does writing energize you? How do you keep the story going?
It is exhausting. I’m about three and a half years of intensive work into the process and I have probably three and a half to go. The creative process is energizing at times, but I am able to keep going mostly because the story is carefully planned out through to the end, because my wife is very supportive, and because what I’ve started I need to finish.
Q. What role does faith have in your life, and in your writing?
God is central to life, a fact which we can embrace or ignore. Thus, my faith in God is of central importance. I should add, though, that I don’t find it necessary for the Christian writer to always write about God directly, any more than I think the Christian painter needs to always paint religious scenes or the Christian musician needs to sing every song about God. My faith influences how I see all things, and in this way, it has influenced the structure and story that I have created even if they aren’t overtly about Christianity. C.S. Lewis put this point of view clearly in “Is Theology Poetry?” an essay in The Weight of Glory, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Q. How do you keep up a full time career as a teacher et. al. and find time to write?
It isn’t easy. I suppose that with all busy people, you just learn to manage time. My wife and I have carved three blocks of time out of our schedule, two hours on two evenings and Saturday afternoon, and I work then. With few exceptions, I get done what I need to get done then or it gets done later. The job aside, the real issue is balancing any creative pursuit that can absorb you with family. Family has to be first. Being a husband and father is vastly more important than work or writing.
Q. When you have a stroke of genius or a really good idea what do you do?
When I have a stroke of genius, I’ll let you know. In all seriousness, most of the planning and creating on the large scale has already happened. I had a group of friends, three former students and one of my close childhood friends, and we discussed via the internet the world and the story. For almost a year before the writing got underway, we posted almost daily. I bounced ideas off these guys, who I called my Kirthanin consultants, and they bounced ideas off me. The good ideas were culled from the not so good and the world and story were honed. At this point, new ideas are usually on the smaller scale, but they can be just as exciting to me, a slight change of character here and a sharper conflict there. Larger changes usually come only when my editor tells me I need to rethink something. Fortunately, she’s really good, so the world and story are better because of her.
Q. Did you write as a child?
I did. My 5th and 6th grade teacher, Miss Dager, could probably still tell you about the “choose your own adventure” story I wrote on 3x5 note cards as part of my state project on Georgia. It was called, Killer Kudzu. Not a classic, granted, but it was a beginning.
Also, I did have quite a carpool ride to my grade school, and I spent a lot of mornings and afternoons in carpool making up stories to tell the younger kids to keep them quiet. Some of them are still remembered by those little kids, who aren’t so little anymore. If you asked them about choose your own adventure stories where it didn’t matter what you did, you died, or about Martian putt-putt machines, or about the oft retold classic, “The red is missing,” then they’d know exactly what you were talking about.
If I might be allowed a gratuitous additional comment. Several questions here have gone to the issue of writing. I wanted to add that while I am in one sense a writer, it might be truer to say I am a storyteller. The difference, to me, is that the writer is often that tortured individual who focuses on the how more than the what. Regardless of what they’re writing about, it has to be “just so.” I’ve had students like this, who agonized over every word they wrote, because every word had to be perfect. For me, though, the what is as important as the how. The story is as important to me as how I tell it, and a lot of time and agony have gone there, into the what. So, while I strive to write well the story before me, I don’t tend to obsess as much over every word or phrase.
Q. What advice would you give to those who would like to become writers?
Read. It is essential to read good writers and good writing, good stories and good storytelling. To me, this means that even if you want to write in a modern genre like fantasy, you need to read the giants of the past as well as the notables of the present. Also, the study of poetry was crucial to me for learning to love language. British poets especially taught me the value of the right word in the right place, even if I am not a practitioner of that art on their level. Also, get feedback from others. Brainstorming in the early days with four other sharp, fantasy-literate guys, helped to improve my vision of this world and this story. An editor who knows what she is doing has helped further refine and improve that vision. Feedback is sometimes hard to take when it isn’t all positive, which is why we often seek to avoid it. Don’t. While not all criticism is ultimately helpful, some of it is invaluable.