RR Interview: Jeffrey Overstreet

RR Interview: Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet was ready to dream again, so he quit his dream jobs to carve out some space for that to happen. Now he’s stepping out into the unknown to allow new stories to come to life. If you’re familiar with Auralia’s Colors or Through a Screen Darkly, then you know to expect good things. Jeffrey is  one of our speakers this year at Hutchmoot 2013 and we recently caught up with him to find out a little about what he’s up to.

I saw recently that you cleared your freelance slate for the first time since 2001 so you can “dream new stories.” Can you tell us about making that move? Do you have any glimpses of what’s to come?

It’s complicated. And it will sound crazy—but yes, I’ve pretty much quit all of my dream jobs.

As a high schooler and a college student, I wanted to be a film reviewer and a music critic. I wrote and published reviews any way I could—school newspapers, amateur websites, whatever. Eventually, I was invited to write reviews for Christianity Today, the magazine my dad read when I was a kid. That was incredible. Then came invitations from favorite periodicals like Paste and Image. Even today, I can hardly believe it.

But storytelling—that was even more important to me. My childhood heroes—J.R.R. Tolkien, Jim Henson, George Lucas—were all guys who drew audiences into whole worlds they had imagined. I wanted to write stories that did that. So, every night, and every weekend, from my childhood into my thirties, I wrote stories and shared them with people. Through circumstances that I still find difficult to believe, my stories ended up on the desk of an agent named Don Pape who found me three book contracts in the course of two weeks. Then he found two more. It was almost too much to absorb.

I’m grateful for all of it. I’m grateful that God allowed my dreams to come true. I’m grateful he gave me such wonderful teachers and role models. And I’m grateful he gave me such a relentless passion for writing.

So I feel like a fool for walking away from all of these opportunities.

But I know it’s the right thing to do. For 13 years now, I’ve been scrambling to meet writing deadlines every single week—assignments I had to fulfill during evenings and weekends, on top of a full-time job as a project manager, writer, and editor at Seattle Pacific University. Between 2006 and 2010, I added five book projects on top of it all.

It was all good. But it was too much. I overworked myself. My health declined. I burned myself out. I haven’t had a free weekend in so long, I’ve forgotten what relaxation feels like. Due to my own desire to say “Yes” to everything, and my desire to avoid disappointing anyone, I’ve nearly destroyed my capacity to find joy in my work.

So, there it is—it’s time to clean the slate and start over. I need to “go back to Square One” and rediscover the ability to dream.

I’m off to a rough start. It’s been a year full of interruptions and unexpected hardships. But I’ve written twenty chapters of a new novel—the first in a new series. It’s a start.

How long did you wrestle with that decision? Was there an element of fear in getting rid of all of that?

Fear? Yes. I’m afraid of disappointing people. I hate saying “No.” I worry that I’ll offend someone, miss an important opportunity, or become a disappointment to my publishers and teachers and friends.

But after a couple of years of wrestling those fears, I needed to face the truth of it. I can choose the path of constant writing, constant deadlines, constant publication, and constant self-promotion. Or, I can choose to be an artist.

The latter is a lonelier path, a steeper climb. It involves more risks, because there’s no guarantee of success, no promise that there’s an audience waiting at the end of journey.

To work toward what they call “success” in publishing means constantly producing, constantly throwing your name in front of readers. That can result in little flashes of excitement and satisfaction, bursts of book sales, and even a certain level of fame. That’s the path to what agents and publishers call “success.”

But it’s not my idea of success. I want to find joy in my work. I want the freedom to discover a story worth telling. And then I want to have the time to write it in a way that will be worth reading more than once.

Is there not a level of immersion into the business end of things in order to have that freedom? Or is that what the day job is for? Is there a place where those dreams you mentioned earlier, in terms of stories to tell, meet with the realities of social media and author upkeep?

Of course there is. But unless you find a rare and wonderful monetary success as a writer, you will—like me and almost all of the published writers I know, even the famous ones—have to work at least part-time, probably full-time, at another job in order to pay bills or hope for any kind of savings.

I would love to be Stephen King or Neil Gaiman, for example, and divide my time between the “play” of writing and the “business” of writing. I dream of a life in which I can spend 20 hours a week working at “the business end” of writing and 20 hours exploring, imagining, writing, and revising in a perfect writing room like Gaiman’s dream-gazebo in the woods. Then, during “spare time” and weekends, I’d enjoy the company of my wife and my friends, and I’d rest, exercise, read… all of that good stuff.

But unless you find remarkable and steady success in the marketplace, or inherit a fortune, or marry someone who makes a lot of money, you’ll do what I have to do—you’ll keep your full-time day-job. If you’re really lucky, you’ll cut back to part-time.

My agent tells me, after many years in the business, that the worst thing he’s seen writers do after they get their first rush of attention and book sales is quit their day job. He’s seen a lot of writers almost ruined because of it.

Auralia’s Colors and the three sequels received far more attention than I ever dreamed. Through a Screen Darkly is still a popular textbook on art and faith, and I’m always hearing from readers, teachers, and students who read it. And every week I’m blessed by emails from new readers of my film reviews. I’m so grateful for those unexpected blessings.

Nevertheless, all of that work—the dreaming, the writing, the revising, the editing, the sharing and critique, the publication, the marketing, the social networking—all of it still happens in the time leftover after a full-time day job. In the five years of work on my books, Anne and I did not have one single weekend of “time off” or “vacation.” Every evening, every weekend was laborious. It was surprising and disillusioning to discover that, even if you publish a four-book epic fantasy series and earn a spotlight on Barnes and Noble’s “Notable Fiction” displays, you’re not going to find the bills much easier to pay.

Today, we live in the same rental house we’ve inhabited since long before the book contracts. We have the same diet, the same challenges paying bills, and pretty much the same budget. And I still work at least 35 hours a week at an increasingly taxing job that has absolutely nothing to do with my artistic endeavors. Because I must.

So, there’s the rub. Do I sacrifice my health, my sanity, and the joy of writing just to maintain what little momentum I have gained in the marketplace? Or do I risk losing the platform I’ve been given in order to turn my attention back toward the source of my inspiration, and hope to regain my health, my relationships, my love of writing, and all of the things that are really worth living for?

What are you willing to tell us at this point about what you’re writing now?

I’m working on a series for younger readers—something I wrote during the same year that I first wrote Auralia’s Colors, way back in 1996. It’s kind of like a Pixar movie . . . fast, funny, a lot of talking animals. It’s inspired by stories and movies that I loved as a kid—like Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and The Rescuers.

But the big project is a multi-book fantasy series, something even more ambitious than The Auralia Thread. It’s about a librarian who discovers a secret in his library, a source of visions, and he has to go into hiding. He ends up joining a “band on the run”—let’s call them “vigilante musicians”—and they turn his visions into songs. His visions comfort the afflicted, even as they afflict the comfortable. It’s much more reckless and improvisational storytelling than the Auralia stories. If Auralia’s Colors was classical, then this is rock’n’roll.

I hope I get to share it someday.

What has inspired you most toward this move in the last year?

Toward freedom from deadlines? I suppose I’ve remained determined to write freely because I’m starting to remember the joy of writing again.

I should also mention, though, some recent events that have made a transition in my writing life inevitable.

The last few years, I’ve been represented by an agent named Lee Hough. Lee has been an incredible friend to me. He has cared as much about my health and my marriage and my imagination as he has about my book sales. He has encouraged me to take time off and rediscover the joy of writing.

Much to my dismay, Lee himself had to give up his job. He has struggled with brain cancer over the last couple of years, and doctors say that his time among us will be short. I pray for him every day. He is the best friend I could hope to find in the publishing world, and he has blessed more writers and readers than I could name. It’s been heartbreaking to give up our creative partnership.

The main character in my new novel is named after Lee, to honor who he is and the work that he has done.

What’s your favorite movie you’ve seen in 2013?

Normally, at this time of year, I’m struggling to name ten movies that really impressed me. This year, there are so many great new films, that I already have more than ten favorites.

But you only asked for my favorite… so I’ll pick one.

Before Midnight, the third movie in Richard Linklater’s series about an American writer and a French feminist, is just astonishing. It’s a brutally honest look at the challenges of keeping love alive in the midst of the pressures of adulthood. It takes the series to a whole new level. People shouldn’t see it, though, unless they’ve seen Before Sunrise and Before Sunset first. They should be seen in order.

*Photo above by Matthew Sumi