Bryan Litfin is Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Insitute. His book Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, is what you would expect from a patristics scholar, but now he has also written a novel, The Sword, which is the first volume in “The Chiveis Trilogy.”
The book is set in a future time when the Bible has been lost, only to be rediscovered. I think it captures the kind of society the gospel encountered as it spread through the Roman world.
I got The Sword at ETS, and after our Christmas company left town I indulged myself on it. I could not put it down, and I commend it to you. As I told Bryan when I wrote to ask him if I could interview him here, the book made me love my sweet wife more, made me more grateful to have the whole Bible, and helped me feel more deeply the sheer wonder of life in this world. I commend it to you.
Thanks to Bryan for agreeing to do this interview! I hope it spurs you to pick up The Sword. My questions are in bold, followed by Bryan’s answers.
Was The Sword your first foray into fiction or was it preceded by other published short stories or books?
In 2007 I published a popular-academic book on the ancient church called Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Brazos). After that came out, I got bitten by the fiction bug and decided to try my hand at it. The Sword is my first fictional work and is the first volume in a trilogy.
What have been the most significant works of fiction that shaped your approach to writing?
I’m not sure it was fictional works that primarily shaped my writing. Rather, I read many, many books on “how to write fiction” and those played a larger role. However, there are certainly some novels that influenced my thinking. The Lord of the Rings was inspirational. In Christian fiction, I point to the works of Stephen Lawhead, particularly Byzantium. Two other novels that influenced me, and which remind me of The Sword in some ways, are Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, and Walter Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
The book reminds me in some ways of Quo Vadis. Was that novel significant in your thinking?
No, but I have been told by others I should read this and I’d like to.
How did you approach the writing of fiction? I’ve seen references to the research you did on writing fiction. Was there something that was most helpful in your work? Did you read “how to” books or just great fiction itself?
My approach to fiction was to (a) admit I’m a total novice, (b) go research and become knowledgeable, and (c) start writing. I went to the public library and read everything they had on the craft of fiction. I also bought some “how-to” books and they were very helpful. In particular I was struck by some of the plot techniques for developing the archetypal hero in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Another insightful book was Ron Benrey, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction.
Yet I have to say, I learned more about writing fiction from my excellent editor, Erin Healy, than from any particular book. She and I worked through the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb. Along the way I was like a disciple sitting at the feet of a master. The quality of Erin’s own books prove she knows writing. The Sword greatly benefitted from her expertise.
I saw a video clip where you said teaching was your “day job.” Did you work on the novel through the “meat” of the day or only on the margins?
My approach has been to take the time afforded by the academic schedule to write my novels. During the semester, my main writing day is Thursday, when I do not have classes. I also write intensively over Christmas break, spring break, and summertime. When things get intense I also snatch time at night or on the weekends. The process of writing The Sword took more than three years from the day I woke up with the idea to the day it came out from Crossway. Sometimes I would write a few chapters and then set it aside. For example I wrote chapters 1-4, then I did not come back to it for several weeks. It bothered me the whole time that I had left Ana with a bag over her head. I was relieved to get it off her in chapter 5.
Was writing this book significantly different than the academic writing you’ve done?
Yes! I have found fiction to be a very different kind of writing. Of course, the process of putting words together and then re-reading them to choose better words or make it smoother is the same. But the content of the words is so much different than academic writing! I am not trying to argue a thesis in fiction. I am trying to entertain, and to elucidate the human condition before God along the way. I had to learn all sorts of things that academic publishing does not teach you: like how to do attributions (“he said”), or when to “show” and when to “tell,” or how to stay in a character’s point of view, or how to arrange scenes for maximum effect. It has been a steep learning curve but I’m well along it now, I think.
The other main difference is the creativity that is required. The content of academic writing is there for you already. You just have to lay out the evidence from your research. But in fiction, you are dependent on ideas hitting you. Sometimes you have to daydream for an hour before you write anything down. You have to visualize it, see it in your mind. For me this was greatly aided by traveling around in Europe with my students or on trips of my own. I could “see” the landscape of Chiveis. I had walked the same trails that my characters were walking.
I’m curious as to what influenced the decision to do a trilogy as opposed to a stand alone volume – was it simply too long a story for one book?
I pitched the book as a potential trilogy but Crossway did not sign onto that right away. They only contracted The Sword at the outset. However, once it was written, we could all see that the ending begged for more. And that is probably the number one thing my readers tell me: “You left me hanging, I can’t wait until the next one!” Well, The Gift comes out this April, and my editor Erin says it is even better than The Sword.
I think you are right that it was too long a story for one book. I always conceived of this as a hero’s tale, a quest, an epic. The trick is to make each novel stand on its own as a complete work, and yet to write an over-arching story that encompasses all three. I am in the process right now of concluding that metanarrative. All I can say is, Teofil and Anastasia have one incredible adventure – and the things they encounter in The Sword are just the tip of the iceberg.
Do you have the plot for the other two books fully mapped out, or is there a general destination with things developing along the way?
Over time I have learned what my personal approach to writing is. I outline extensively. I write a scene by scene account of what I think is going to happen. I take notes on what the main theological through-line is. I delineate themes I want to weave into the story. I discipline myself not to start writing until I know where things are headed. This keeps me from writing myself into plot dead-ends. However, I maintain flexibility with that outline. Sometimes the characters get “talking to each other” as my fingers are flying over the keyboard, and I run with it. Sometimes a scene takes a different turn on me. Sometimes I type a line and then realize, “There. That’s it. That is how the scene must conclude,” even though I had other ideas. So it is a balance between mapping it out and letting the Muses take over.
Do you have other fiction and/or academic writing planned after the trilogy?
During the time I have been writing fiction I have not stopped my scholarly publishing. After the conclusion of the Chiveis Trilogy I hope to write a church history book and some more articles and chapters in academic works. But I have enjoyed fiction too much to stop doing it, if the Lord gives me further opportunities. My instinct is to go with historical fiction, set in the ancient church period since that is my academic specialty.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Bryan!
Enjoy the adventure!