What is the value to young people of reading fiction—in particular, fantasy?
I think children and young people should read as much as they can in every type of literature available. The literature needs to be appropriate to their age level in terms of their reading skills and of course to their developmental stage emotionally. Informational reading is valuable, but it’s also very important to read things, I think, in the world of fiction because fiction allows the child or young person to live somewhere else. That’s what reading does for all of us, really—not just young people but all of us. Reading is so powerful because it transports us into the minds of other characters and into other scenes and places. It broadens our experience because great writing allows us to be absorbed into someone else’s life and situation and to live those out. I also think that fantasy, as a subcategory in the world of fiction, brings all kinds of special features and attributes to it. Fantasy has a classic structure that involves other worlds with highly imaginative places, people, activities, and events. It traditionally, of course, involves the clash between good and evil, which is really good for all of us to reflect upon.
I love the world of fantasy; it was a rich part of my reading as I grew up. It sort of died away for a while during my early teenage years. But then as an older adult I came back to reading fantasy and science fiction. It’s powerful. It shapes the mind, and I think that’s particularly important both for children and for teenagers because fiction, again, expands our mental horizons and stimulates the ability to think. It truly shapes the imagination.
You say that fantasy shapes the mind. What do you mean by that?
The mind is a growing and dynamic thing, and it is going to be shaped. So how and with what influences will we shape our minds morally, intellectually, and emotionally? The great thing about fantasy is that it shapes the mind through imaginative people, creatures, and events. It stirs the heart, it raises questions of good and evil—always one of the classic confrontations in fantasy literature—and it forces the reader to think, to engage with big issues. So one of the great things about fantasy is its capacity or potential to shape the mind in good directions. That doesn’t mean everything that happens is good, but it means that the human experience is multiplied and enriched, that we become engaged with big events, clashes, and ideas, and that we find ways through the plot and characters to experience futility, hope, and resolution. That’s what I’ve tried to do in the Hamelin Stoop series. There are going to be at least four volumes, maybe more. Volume one is titled The Eagle, the Cave, and the Footbridge. It quickly introduces my main character, and he, of course, is someone who is looking for something. In his case, the quest is for family, for identity. He wants to know his name and where he’s from, and he wants to find his parents. So a test is set for him that involves not only the need for courage but also some very strange events. On the one hand, his courage has been or is being tested, and on the other hand, he has to deal with these very strange things that are happening. That’s the situation of the character. Obviously a cave, an eagle, and a footbridge are involved, but there are many other characters in this series as well. And, of course, you know it has some supernatural features to it.
You have completed volume one. When should we expect to see volume two?
Volume one is finished, and it’s going to be out in a very short time. But, believe it or not, volume two is also nearly finished. Volume one will hit the book markets and the e-book markets very soon, and then volume two will follow quickly. I think the ending of volume one will hold readers in suspense, so I had to finish a near final draft of volume two before releasing volume one. Each book has a story arc to it, but, of course, in a series there’s a bigger story that’s involved. So volume two is virtually done, and I’m very excited about being able to release it really very quickly after volume one.
For you as the author, which character was the most fun to explore? What do you think the reader will love most about that character?
It’s really hard for me to pick one character. Obviously there’s a main character, Hamelin Stoop. How he gets that name is a big part of the story, but he’s looking for his family and his real name. He’s a character that I was able to identify with in an interior way but not because of life circumstances, especially since I knew who my parents were and had a very good home life and upbringing. But I at least tried to draw upon my own experiences as an eight-year-old, as a ten-year-old, and as an eleven-year-old. In volume one, Hamelin’s story begins with his birth, but the storyline really mostly runs from when he’s eight years old to when he’s about eleven and a half. There are, of course, other characters, and it will be no secret to anyone who knows me that for some of the other characters I’ve borrowed the names of our children and a few other family names. The characters are developed in a fictionalized way, but using their names helped me think about the characters’ personalities. Of course, as the series has developed, the book personalities have taken on their own character. As I was starting out, however, I found that it really helped me to borrow the names of our children. I have their permission, and I hope it’s fun—and not embarrassing!—for them to see these characters with their names.
Have your life and career experiences contributed to this book?
I think every author draws upon his or her life experiences. Even though I have not done, prior to this, any writing of fantasy, storytelling itself was a rich part of my life in my own family growing up. My parents and uncles and aunts were big storytellers, and sitting around the table and listening to them tell stories of family events and family experiences, well that was a lot of fun. And, too, I was a very involved reader as a young person. I loved to read stories of magic and that sort of thing. I also read a lot of biographies. So entering into the minds of others and hearing their stories has always had a great influence on me. But I think, really, just having a big family, seeing our children grow up and wanting them to have good things to read, and wanting the books that they read to stretch their souls and challenge their faith, their way of thinking about life, their ability to relate to other people, and their imagination—those are the kinds of things that have informed and motivated me. I recall reading that both Lewis and Tolkien wrote the kinds of books they wanted to read. That’s the first thing—this is the kind of book that I wanted to read, and so I decided to write it. I’ve been influenced by my life experiences and by my family, but I’ve also been influenced by people like C.S. Lewis. I love the children’s literature of Lewis, as well as his space trilogy, and through Lewis I began to read the books of George MacDonald, and of course Tolkien, and others, including Charles Williams and Dorothy Sayers. Those have been very great influences, and then in recent years I’ve read J.K. Rowling and other YA fantasies and realized that these are the things that young people enjoy reading. They enjoy reading stories about other places and strange characters, and so this project began at just that time of life when the stories that had been forming and bubbling up inside of me for many years finally started to come out.
You have written a lot of articles in your life. Fantasy is a whole new area. How did you explore this region?
You know that’s exactly right. I’ve really spent most of my life as an academic in the non-fiction world—writing historical articles, or theological pieces, or leadership lectures. Writing fiction is something I have wanted to do. It has been on my bucket list going back a very long time. I started this process more than eleven years ago. I remember one night I just told myself, I’ve got to start writing. I had this story idea, and so I began to write. And after I had written quite a bit, I suddenly realized after reading it—I had thought this was going to be easy—that this wasn’t easy and I didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I realized that I was writing like a non-fiction author. But fiction is a very different product with a different process. So I went back. I had to start over; I had to revamp. The storyline was still there, but I had to redo everything I was writing. I had to learn about dialogue, and setting the hook, and this thing called fiction—and of course fantasy. Characterization, setting, and tension—those are the kinds of things I’ve had to learn about. It’s a very different kind of writing, but I’ve learned so much from it. So, yes, this first volume in the Hamelin Stoop series is my first venture into the world of fiction, but I feel like I’ve written twenty books, because I’ve probably re-written this in a significant way at least that many times. Anyway, it’s been very enjoyable, and I’m very excited for it to be released now.
Without giving away the plot, please tell us a little about the characters.
Yes, it’s very difficult to talk about the characters or say very much about the book—which I want to do—without giving something away. I don’t want to do any spoilers, but I will give a little bit of an introduction. The characters are different ages. The main character is introduced at birth, but he quickly gets to be about eight years old, and then most of the book for the main character happens in about a three-and-a-half-year period until he’s about eleven-and-a-half years old. But there are other major characters, including high school students and young adults. Two young adults in particular, who grow from about age eighteen to their mid-twenties, are very important characters in the book. So there’s a dynamic, an interaction between an eleven-year-old and a twenty-three- or twenty-four-year-old that’s part of this book, part of the characterization. Then of course it’s a fantasy, so some unusual things are going to happen—entering into another world, and having spiritual forces try to come against the main character. There are bad guys in this series—some really bad guys—and then there are animals that play a key role. Some of the animals work on the side of the good guys, and some don’t. There are magical elements to it, and even, I would say, mythic elements. But I think there are also a lot of elements and symbols that are subterranean. I think sometimes the old stories and other literary echoes that are embedded in this series are not obvious to the reader, but they come out. I used, for example, one very old myth as something of an undertow for what’s going on in this series. Anyway, I think it’s going to be enjoyable for those who love YA fantasy. There’s a lot of action, with rescues, danger, and magic elements. I think middle-school children, young adults, and even older adults who like fantasy are going to enjoy this.
How does the story relate to contemporary issues?
You know one thing I’m often asked about has to do with contemporary issues and that sort of thing. I didn’t write this to speak to contemporary issues, but of course when you write about life in a work of fantasy, you always get elements of good guys, bad guys, good and evil, so those kinds of contemporary applications always come out in good storytelling. So, without giving away any of the plot, I’ll say that the main character gets very frustrated, feels very lonely, has a deep longing that involves searching, and has the kinds of experiences that children often have. He gets bullied in school, and he’s working to overcome that. And I think one of the more interesting things that developed over the course of writing and my own thinking about this is that the main character thinks he’s doing one thing and has one set of purposes—to discover who he is, as any orphan would want to do—but he comes to find out that he’s part of a bigger story and that things that maybe include his story, but are larger than his story, are taking place all around him. He gets caught up in that of course in the typical dangerous and magical ways that you find in fantasy.