KC: Pastor Wiley, I am always interested in hearing from different authors regarding the place of fiction in the Christian pursuit of wisdom. Where, in your opinion, does its value lie?
CR: I think there is something to say for the value of both the reading and writing of works of fiction. The appeal of story says something about human nature. As far as we know, we’re the only visible creatures that make stories. Even the most utilitarian of people tell themselves a sort of story about how no nonsense they are, and how impractical and useless “artsy” people are. So I think that gets to it. Fiction is just the most fanciful form of story telling; by definition, a fiction is a story that didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean that fiction can’t tell the truth. In truth, I think it is a good way to tell the most important truths because we imaginatively participate in well-told stories. In a way, the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist or narrator become our thoughts and feelings as we go where the mind of the storyteller leads us.
When it comes to writing fiction, as a Christian I don’t set out consciously to tell a “Christian” story. What I try to do is tell a good story. To me, that means attempting to come off as believable to the reader. For that to happen, I need to base the story in realities that include human nature and the nature of the world as we see it. This may be especially the case when writing fantasy. When you don’t manage it, people will probably disengage their interest from the story, put the book down and move on. There are other reasons that this can happen. Some truths just aren’t conveyed well in a story, but what I’m getting at is the truth of the story.
Where does my place as a member of the Christian faith come into this process? I think the story of the Christian religion is true – that it reveals the truth about human beings and the cosmos. I can’t help but tell a Christian story if I want to tell a good one, even though I never set out to tell what might be called a “Christian” story.
KC: Who has endured as your favorite author of fiction and what drew you to his or her style and creations?
CR: I’m pretty run of the mill in some ways. I love Tolkien (Smith of Wooton Major is a favorite) and to a lesser degree, C. S. Lewis (but he’s a close second, some things in the Chronicles are very good, his best is Til We Have Faces). There is some George MacDonald I’ve enjoyed (The Golden Key has its moments). G. K. Chesterton is always fun in a breezy sort of way (The Napoleon of Notting Hill for instance, and The Man Who Was Thursday).
Getting out of the ghetto, I’ve enjoyed Roald Dahl, especially his short stories for adults. Sometimes I pick up a little Lovecraft—I’ve written about him for Touchstone Magazine. In the cases of Dahl and Lovecraft I’m looking for the sublime. When it comes to Tolkien or Lewis and their like I’m looking for eucatastrophe. I’ve enjoyed Bradbury and some things in Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Richard Adams, moving away from that sort of thing, I like Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson. Looking over the list I suppose I’m pretty conventional. But here’s something that may be a little unusual for a writer of fiction: I’d say less than 10% of what I read is fiction. I’m a believer in the idea that isolation makes things quirky and interesting. If you’re looking for unusual animals, go to Australia or Madagascar. If any of my quirks are interesting it may have something to do with my isolation.
KC: The Purloined Boy is the first in your Weirdling Cycle. What has been your favorite aspect of the series to imagine and write?
CR: I enjoy the whole thing, really. But going into I assumed my strengths would be plot, and certain literary techniques, foreshadowing as an example. What surprised me was how I’ve taken to writing character, for which I’ve been told I have a fair hand. In the first book Zephyr is a favorite character, Epictetus, too. Sabnock is enjoyable in a diabolical way, and I enjoy writing Maggie who is the biggest surprise for me — I actually have fans among feminists for her. Looking forward to book two, characters that I have to mention are Winkle Bustlebottom and Mother Root — especially Winkle, professor of Harestory (Yes, you read that right—“hare-story”).
KC: Do you listen to music during the process of creating?
CR: A little, mostly classical music, the sort you play in the background when you’re studying. Anything that I find more engaging would be a distraction from writing.
KC: How have the study of classic works of literature and other languages enhanced your ability to probe for meaning in works of art and to find delight in the seemingly mundane aspects of life?
CR: Most of my work is in classical philosophy. In my elevator pitch I say that The Weirdling Cycle is Plato meets R. L. Stine. I think I have a pretty fair grasp of both classical and modern philosophies, both of which I have taught, at an undergraduate level, for about a decade. When it comes to art and life, they are invaluable. But I think it’s my background in the visual arts that makes the difference for me. I showed promise early and I was in and out of art schools as a child and a teenager, dreaming once of moving to New York City and pursuing comic book illustration. So, it is aesthetics that appeals to me, not in an academic way, but from the vantage point of a practitioner. That’s how I really think of myself, by the way; I’m an artist who is a pastor, an artist who reads philosophy, an artist who writes. When it comes to the debates that really fire up academics on aesthetics and so forth, my energy fades quickly. I’d rather do it than talk about it, even though do I enjoy talking about it. I’m actually working on a children’s picture book at the moment. I’ve included a preliminary concept drawing for you to publish. Hopefully I’ll have enough done by the end of January for my agent to start passing it around to the trade press.
Reverend Christopher R Wiley is a Senior Pastor at Presbyterian Church of Manchester, contributor at Patheos, Senior Contributing Writer at The Imaginative Conservative, and a former professor of philosophy and ethics for Eastern Nazarene College. The Weirdling Cycle is YA Fiction aimed at 4-9 graders.