One of the few highlights of 2020 for me has been getting to read the Wingfeather Saga to my kids. It gave us a bedtime routine and something to look forward to every night for several months as we made it through the whole series. (We now have the audio books as well and my almost eight-year-old listens to them somewhat obsessively.) So with new hardback editions of books three and four releasing last week, I thought now was a good time to talk to the author of the series, Andrew Peterson, about the books. We spoke for about an hour a few weeks ago. Below is a lightly edited transcription of our conversation.

Spoiler warning: This interview discusses the entire Wingfeather Saga. If you have not read the whole series, you may want to save this until you have finished it.

Jake Meador: Thanks so much for doing this, Andrew. So the first thing I was curious to ask you about, and I think I probably know some of the answers, because I think we’ve read a lot of the same things, but there’s this quote I’ve always liked from Tolkien, who said that his stories grew out of the leaf mould of his mind; his idea being it’s almost like a compost bin that you’re just constantly throwing things into, and the stories grow out of it. I want to start by asking about some of the stories that were contributing to the leaf mould for you, as you were writing and coming up with characters and the plot line. I thought even the voice of the narrator in these books is distinctive. So I’m curious to hear what authors and books helped shape you and shape this series.

Andrew Peterson: Well, there are two answers to that question. The first is that when I was a kid, it was pulp fantasy, like when I was in junior high I talked my dad, who is a pastor, into letting me read this series called the Dragonlance Chronicles, which were an offshoot of Dungeons & Dragons, which was the most evil thing you could read back then.

Jake Meador: Right, right, of course.

Andrew Peterson: The irony is that my pastor is a Dungeon Master now, and he leads campaigns with some friends of mine. I love that. But…

Jake Meador: One of my best friends is a pastor, who is also a Dungeon Master for some people.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. I think that’s utterly delightful. But I never did Dungeons & Dragons. The thing that I loved about fantasy was always a kind of a private thing. It was this little world that I didn’t know how to talk about. So it was hard for me to be like, “Here’s my character sheet,” and even if I did try to write a story, I was very private about it. It just felt like this world that was nurturing to me, because I was growing up in a, I wouldn’t say fundamentalist, but pretty conservative evangelical situation, and my imagination was potent, and I didn’t really like where I was. I was growing up in a town that I didn’t fit into. We were outsiders; we moved there when I was 10, and it was a Southern rural town, so everybody was related, and friends, and old families, and I was just this kid with an Illinois lack of accent who didn’t belong, and so fantasy novels for me were a way to escape Florida. And so I read constantly, I read all those books, tons of sci-fi stuff. Most of it wasn’t very good. I was also reading some Stephen King stuff, against my parents’ wishes, and I would literally crawl under my bed to read Stephen King novels, in order to get away with it. But those are, in many ways, fantasy novels, too. The problem was they’re also filthy. I had no business reading those books, and I hope my kids don’t.

But the point is I read any story that felt like it would take me out of where I was, and allowed me to explore some other place. That was what I was hungry for. The Lord of the Rings didn’t come till college, I think, and I didn’t reread the Narnia books until college either. And so I missed the glory of what those books really were, for many years. By the time I started working on The Wingfeather Saga, fantasy was only one section of my library.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: I was waking up to writers like Wendell Berry, and Walt Wangerin Jr., and…

Jake Meador: I laughed aloud at the barber’s name in On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Yes, I’m glad that you’ve noticed. It’s funny to me, but I get emails and comments from people that are like, “Hey, so I’m just curious, you have a barber in the town named J. Bird, is that a Jayber Crow reference?” But I would say Harry Potter was another thing that kind of kick-started it, because those books were coming out as I was working on the Wingfeather books, and at the time, if you were a Harry Potter fan, you had this deep suspicion (that was really a deep hope) that she was going where it felt like she was going with the story, which was really a Christian story, whether or not she’s a Christian herself. And so I was like, “Oh my goodness, all these kids are so hungry for this kind of story.” So that’s what I would say. That was the leaf mould. So, that’s the first answer to the question: it was just pulp fantasy, followed by a slowly-increasing discernment for what good literature was.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: The Lord of the Rings to me is a combination of the two. It’s good literature, and it’s great fantasy. But those are few and far between, in my experience. It’s hard to find that. But then the other side of it is that Tolkien and Lewis were students of the classics. They both had classical training, and could probably read The Iliad in its original language. The bedrock of what those guys were writing from was Norse mythology, and the classics; that was kind of the stuff that underlies what they were writing. And I’m sure scripture was part of that, because they both grew up in a Christian culture. But for me, I would say that I wasn’t reading the classics, I didn’t have anything close to a classical education, but the Bible was always there. So Scripture was the epic that I was reading.

Jake Meador: Right.

Andrew Peterson: So I think that the deepest layer of dirt beneath the leaf-mold was the fact that I’d grown up taking the Bible stories for granted.

Jake Meador: Right. And that was very common for most of the history of western literature. But today that influence is just lost on us because people don’t have that level of rootedness in shared texts.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. And there’s certainly an aesthetic, at a sentence level, in the King James.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: But also there was just a greater familiarity with scripture. I think in a pre-social media age, a pre-television age, people’s attention spans were longer than ours are now, so their reading of scripture was probably a lot richer, even if they didn’t believe it. They could probably put together the stories in a way that kids these days probably aren’t capable of. I have a friend who was an English student at Vanderbilt, which is a very liberal school, but he had a professor, who was not a Christian, who spent the first semester of their English class studying the Bible. The teacher said, “If you want to understand Western literature, you have to have an understanding of the scripture first.”

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm.

Andrew Peterson: Isn’t that interesting?

Jake Meador: Absolutely.

Andrew Peterson: I would say that that was probably the biggest influence on anything that I would write—the constant presence of the Bible, because I grew up in this conservative church that had me memorizing Bible verses from the time I was little.

Jake Meador: So this was another thing, and you kind of touched on it a little bit in your letter to parents on the website, but it struck me as I was reading that there’s a lot of darkness and evil and pain in these stories. It actually reminded me of a thing I read by Russ Moore years ago though, where he talked about parents talking with their kids when they’re scared at night, or when they’re worried about monsters or something. He said, “Your child is intuiting something about the universe that’s true, in that moment, and so you shouldn’t be afraid of talking to them about real sin, and real darkness”, and I sense the same kind of approach to how you wrote Wingfeather. Can you talk a bit about how you wanted to approach some really dark themes as you’re writing these books? What were you wanting readers to take away from them? How were you wanting to present it?

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, I remember warning the publisher that even though book one has more of a fairytale vibe, a little more Monty Python, a little more of the zaniness (which is a word that I kind of hate), it changes later in the series. To bring up Harry Potter again, I love the fact that the books are funny and mix humor and darkness so well. Hogwarts is a goofy name for a school. But the story has such gravity to it that eventually you stop thinking of names like Dumbledore as weird and funny; they’re just woven into the fabric of the world. So that was part of what I was going for. But I have always, I don’t know what it is about me, but I tend, if I’m watching a detective series on Netflix, I tend toward the grittier things. I know that the world is a mess, and I know that I am a mess, and so what I need is to see the triumph of beauty over darkness.

Jake Meador: Over real darkness, not the kind of stuff that’s minimized or undersold.

Andrew Peterson: Right. It doesn’t do anybody any good to make a straw man out of evil. Which I think a lot of moralistic Christian literature does sometimes.

Jake Meador: Right.

Andrew Peterson: I just knew from a very young age, I think I was seven when I began to recognize that it wasn’t just the world out there that was dark; it was the world inside of me that was dark too.

Jake Meador: Hmm.

Andrew Peterson: I had temptations that I struggled with from a very young age, lust and anger among other things. Some stories tend to—and there’s a place for this—they tend to write about heroes, and there’s this nobility, these aspirational characters, and I don’t think that’s a terrible thing to make characters that kids who read them want to be like. But those stories tend to paint the world to look like there is some great evil out there, and our hero’s there to vanquish the evil. But even when I was a kid, I was way more interested in stories that demonstrated that the evil’s not just out there, there’s also a brokenness that’s in us; that something outside of us has to overcome. You know what I mean?

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: And that’s what the gospel tells us, of course: We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; there has to be some outside grace that invades us, that changes things, and so that’s what I was going for, was to show that yes, the world is evil, but also these characters have some deep problems that they’re going to have to work out, over the course of the story. A lot of it is rooted in the Tolkien idea of eucatastrophe, which you probably know.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: In his essay on fairy stories, he lays out his theology of storytelling, a particular kind of storytelling. And eucatastrophe, which means “good catastrophe,” is a way of awakening us to hope and longing. He does it in an almost mechanical way. You construct a story where the reader and the characters in the book have stopped believing that their story can end well. They cannot see a way to conquer the bad guy. But they just keep fighting anyway. It’s like the “long defeat” idea that the Elves talk about in Lord of the Rings; that okay, even if the bad guys win, that doesn’t let me off the hook; I still fight for what is right. And so the characters in the story can’t see a good end to their story, and then you as the reader are in the same boat, because you’re reading it and going, “How in the world is this going to work out?”. And then there’s what Tolkien calls “the sudden joyous turn.”

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: The moment where the author lifts the curtain and shows you that he had some amazing surprise in mind all along. That’s the way that God works, of course, and so the story of scripture is a eucatastrophe. Tolkien argued that the incarnation of Jesus was the eucatastrophe of creation’s story, and that if you zoom in on the incarnation, on Jesus’s life, the Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of Jesus’s story. And in a world that we’re living in now, with COVID, and riots, and everything else, I sometimes cannot see a good way for this to end. I think everybody is looking at the election that’s coming up, and we’re like, “No matter what, we’re hosed.”

Jake Meador: Yeah. Yeah-

Andrew Peterson: I have been feeling that, but then when I think about it in terms of eucatastrophe, I get this glimmer of hope, and I go, “Oh man, the author of the story has this amazing ending in mind.” And whether or not we see it in our generation, or it happens later, we trust that the author of the story is good. And so, that’s the kind of story that I was trying to tell. My goal was for a kid to finish the last page of The Wingfeather Saga, and to know in a way that they didn’t know before that there is something stronger than the darkness.

Jake Meador: Hmm. That’s a good way to put it. That actually leads into another thing I was struck by while I was reading the stories. These characters have a very well-developed interior life, in ways that Narnia sometimes gestures toward, like with the roots of Edmund’s meanness or Eustace’s general unpleasantness, but I think you spent more time working on that. I’m thinking about things like the flash of anger that Janner has in the rockroach den, or the scenes in the coffin in the Fork Factory, or the way you talk about Kalmar’s fear on the Phoob Islands. There’s a lot of interior depth to the children.

You also take time to develop it with Bonifer Squoon, who just kind of swings all over the place; first he’s this character that’s just kind of a trivia item that we come across early on, and then he’s this kind of welcome connection to Esben and to Anniera, and then he turns into a villain very abruptly, and then in the end… he’s not redeemed in any way, but his story is told in a way that makes sense so that you can understand how Bonifer became what he finally turned out to be.

So I guess maybe you’ve kind of already answered it, but a lot of fantasy is driven by the world the author creates, and plot twists, and the characters can often end up basically being these props the author uses for his world-building. But it seems like you took a lot of time to really understand motivations, and even just understand the human heart, how it works, especially with Janner. And now I’m not sure how to ask the question since you’ve already touched on some of these things.

Andrew Peterson: Well, I think I could say this: I grew up watching the original Star Wars trilogy, and loving it. And then when the new ones came out, not the Disney sequels but the prequels, the space battles were much more impressive, more amazing than the ones in the original trilogy, but it didn’t work because nobody cared about who was flying the spaceship.

Jake Meador: Yep.

Andrew Peterson: It was just a spaceship flying around, with these cardboard characters in them.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: If I compare that to that scene in Return of the Jedi when the Emperor and Luke are having their final showdown, and Luke is looking out the window and he sees the battle happening a long way away, and you know that Han Solo and Lando and… they’re all fighting, and you love these characters. Suddenly it matters when a spaceship blows up.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: That’s part of what I was trying to avoid. I wanted to make it so that these weren’t just chess pieces moving across the board, but that you actually felt like something was at stake, on the inside. And, one of the wonderful things about storytelling is you get to see how it builds. This was my first attempt at writing, so I can look back and see myself slowly figuring out how it worked as the books were written.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: When it started, I began with the world-building part. Tolkien started with a map, so I took a cue from him, and that’s how I started—with sketching the map of the world of Aerwiar, and then filling in the towns and the rivers and so on. I remember just letting my imagination run wild, and thinking up Gnag the Nameless as a funny kind of name for a villain… but you can’t stop there; you have to figure out why he’s named Gnag the Nameless, and so, I have these documents that I was writing before I started book one, where it was kind of like an archeological dig, trying to figure out why somebody would be named Gnag the Nameless, and why would he want to destroy the world. And so the “why” was the story. It was getting to the bottom of things. I had this sense that Kalmar was going to make some bad choices, and that he was going to turn into a Fang, while I was writing book one. But I didn’t know why yet. So getting to the bottom of “why?” was part of the joy of writing the story, and the “why” always comes down to the human heart. You’ve got to come up with a compelling reason for why somebody would make a terrible choice. And then to chase those choices to their logical conclusions.

I don’t know if you’ve seen Breaking Bad?

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: That’s what’s great about Breaking Bad, right?

Jake Meador: Yeah-

Andrew Peterson: They make these small decisions, and then for the next five episodes you see the outflow of the sin that created this situation. So you see the destructive nature of our sinful personal choices. And that’s what makes that show feel so real, you feel the weight of it. So that’s the thing, that’s what I don’t like when I read a lot of fantasy, is this feeling that whoever’s writing this is mainly interested in taverns, and dwarves, and magic.

Jake Meador: So I want to circle back to the thing about figuring out why Gnag the Nameless wanted to destroy the world, because I had questions about that too, but before we get there, I wanted to continue with the question about what’s driving these characters, what do they care about. Something that intrigued me is that it felt to me like a lot of the time, Podo and Nia, you don’t actually get to see their interior life as much, which is kind of a plot necessity in the first book, especially.

But it also works in terms of this is a book about these kids, and often kids, they don’t perceive the inner lives of their parents, and their caregivers. So it made sense to keep that a bit closed off. And yet, you’re able to convey aspects of what drives them and what motivates them through their actions, and we do get these glimmers into what they’re afraid of, what they care about. How did you approach that challenge of kind of writing adult characters, for kids, while still giving them that kind of depth, even when you can’t show it, in the way you could with Janner?

Andrew Peterson: This is another pet peeve I have with a lot of books, especially kids’ books. Often the parents and the grownups in general are oblivious. One of the most frustrating moves that I see in stories is when the kids are trying to tell the parents, “Hey, there’s this crazy thing happening”, and the parents aren’t listening, they aren’t paying attention. And so it kind of makes the parents look like knuckleheads. But there’s a good reason for that, from a practical standpoint. I think Philip Pullman said it. I only read the first of the Golden Compass books, and I liked it until the end and then I hated it.

Jake Meador: It doesn’t get better. I read the full trilogy.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Talk about having an agenda. It blew my mind how obvious his spite was.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: At the expense of what could’ve been a good story! Anyway, I remember hearing someone, Pullman I think, say that “you have to kill the parents.” If you think about how in many stories, kids’ stories, the kids are orphans. Or they’re removed from their parents in some way. Why? Because it’s hard to write a story where the main character can always be let off the hook by some grownup presence; by a parent who can always kind of swoop in and save them. I remember in North! Or Be Eaten when Janner was finally separated from Kalmar, the parents were gone, and Janner was in Dugtown alone. I remember feeling like the story found its legs, like something was really happening, because now Janner is isolated, he’s got to make his own decisions. Nobody’s there to save him. He’s got to figure this thing out.

So the easy way out is to make the parents oblivious. If they’re present at all, then make them mentally distant; they don’t listen to the kids. But that’s not my experience as a parent. My kids aren’t growing up in a house where their parents just don’t care about what’s going on in their internal world. We try to take it seriously. If our kids came to us and said, “I need to talk to you about something”, we don’t go, “Oh, I’m paying the bills right now.” That feels like a cardboard thing to me.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm.

Andrew Peterson: So, in this story, I wanted to make the parents actual parents, who actually loved and liked their kids. And would listen to them if they needed to tell them something. So it was tricky, but part of the goal was to make it clear that this family works best when they’re together.

There’s none of that artificial bickering, I don’t think. I tried not to have any. It’s like a cheap version of conflict. The Harry Potter books do this sometimes. Sometimes Harry and Ron or Hermione are mad at each other, and you’re like, “Come on. In real life, they would’ve just talked about it, and then moved on.” Right?

Jake Meador: Yeah, right.

Andrew Peterson: The misunderstanding feels so… it doesn’t ring true with my experience of what it’s like to be a friend to somebody.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: So I think that’s what I was going for; was to have Podo and Nia be these characters that actually were present, and were in as much danger as the kids were.

Jake Meador: Mmm.

Andrew Peterson: There doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship between parents and kids; they can actually be on the same team.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Andrew Peterson: And it doesn’t mean that they don’t misunderstand each other, but they’re also present.

Jake Meador: Yeah. And the way that that gets expressed is a little bit different for the parents, because I mean you show it really beautifully I think with Podo at the end of North! Or Be Eaten, where he’s had to kind of just bracket the defining fear of his entire life.

Andrew Peterson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jake Meador: The greatest pain in his life. He’s just had to kind of compartmentalize that, almost.

Andrew Peterson: Right.

Jake Meador: To get his kids to safety, and yet it’s still there. So I thought you handled it in a really true-to-life way, where you’re a parent and you kind of have to push things to the side sometimes for your kids. But you can’t just bury them forever; you still have to confront it. And you get both of those things with Podo and with Nia, especially in the fourth book, I think. You see what Nia’s greatest fears are, and she has to also confront those.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah.

Jake Meador: Okay, so this is circling back around to the Gnag thing, a little bit. Names are a huge deal in the series, and the sense I get is that especially from the way that it’s set up in the first book, there’s a kind of playfulness to Gnag the Nameless, in the beginning, but then as you spend more time there, you realize this is actually a really central theme. But then I was listening to some of your music last night, as I was just getting ready for this, and you have a line in Dancing in the Minefields that says, “when I forget my name, remind me.” So it seems like it’s a very central concern, not just in Wingfeather, but with your art more generally. I also noticed that name changes seem to be happening at really pivotal moments in a character’s life. This happens most obviously with the Fangs, when they get a new name after they’re Fanged. But it happens with other characters too. He’s Tink in the first two books, and he’s Kalmar in the last two. He’s Peet in the first two books, and he’s Artham in the last two.

Can you talk a bit about names and about what made that such a central theme for you?

Andrew Peterson: Man, that’s a good question. I’m trying to remember back to 15 years ago when I was starting the books, what was going on, and what I remember is talking to Ron Block, who is the banjo player for Alison Krauss & Union Station.

Jake Meador: Oh wow.

Andrew Peterson: He’s basically a George MacDonald scholar.

Jake Meador: Nice.

Andrew Peterson: Lay scholar, I should say. He doesn’t have a degree, but he knows George MacDonald about as well as anybody I know, and is just this really wise, wise man, and I remember at the time I was going through a lot of things, struggling with a lot of shame and self-loathing, and I’d have a breakdown, and I remember one night in particular for some reason calling him, at midnight, and kind of weeping into the phone, and he just soothed me with the gospel, reminded me what was true, and he talked a lot about names in that conversation in a way I hadn’t heard before. In Revelation 2, it says God will gives us new names. That idea of inheriting this new name from Jesus is pretty powerful. Another influence for me as I was writing is that I think one of my most persistent spiritual struggles is my imagination. It’s a pretty potent imagination, and has been as long as I can remember, which can be good if you’re a songwriter, or a novel writer, whatever. But it’s really bad if you’re susceptible to voices, the voice of the enemy.

Jake Meador: Mmm.

Andrew Peterson: And so, my imagination is often where, if I go dark, it’s because I begin to believe something about myself that isn’t true, and it’s because I’m listening to the voice of the enemy and not the voice of the Father. And so, whether that means me interpreting some look or the way a friend said a thing, and then, and at midnight I’m lying in bed and I’ve constructed this whole false narrative about how they hate me, and how I’ve ruined everything, and “Why did they say that thing like that? I must be an annoyance to them”, and blah blah. All of this ridiculousness.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: I’m a four on the Enneagram, if that helps.

Jake Meador: Hah, OK.

Andrew Peterson: What the voice of the enemy is doing in my head in those moments is he’s naming me. He’s giving me names that aren’t mine. And so, I’m not going to get into it, because it will get dark and I’ll overshare, but the point is, I think shame is a way of allowing the enemy to name you, as opposed to clinging with all your hope to this other name that God gives you. You’re beloved. That’s a big part of The Warden and the Wolf King.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: There is also this hope that God is making me into something, I’m being conformed to Christ’s likeness, and in the new creation, there is this sense in scripture that we will receive this new name, this completed identity, or something. It’s already true, but we’re still growing into it, in some sense. So, anyway, I think that back then, the idea of receiving a new name from Christ was part of what was at the root of that idea that Tink was… the metaphor that was playing out was that Tink was afraid of being a king, he didn’t want to be, so the name became a very tangible way to convey that idea.

Jake Meador: That’s helpful. It’s interesting to me you’re citing Revelation, because when I think about names in scripture, where my mind goes is the creation account. So we have this idea presented right away in the text that people are made in God’s image in a way that the rest of the creation is not. Well what does that actually mean? Well, in the text, one of the first things it means is that they get to name the rest of creation, and so that was kind of where I was thinking with that theme. I hadn’t thought about the Revelation text, so that’s interesting.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah,I think that’s a big one. I love names anyway. I named all three of our kids. My wife… I just kind of told her, “Just so you know, this is very important to me.” You know this, Jake, given what you named your kids.

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: This is why we named our property too.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: We call it The Warren. I think that that’s something that America could learn from the UK. They name their houses like people here name boats.

Jake Meador: Yeah, yeah.

Andrew Peterson: And it really does change the way you think about your place. You treat it differently if it’s got a name.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: You add it to the story of your community, and of the world in general. And so, I think that happens at a deeper theological level, when it comes to naming humans.

Jake Meador: Yeah. Okay, I just had one other question because we’re almost out of time. So this goes back to something I heard someone say probably 10 or 12 years ago. It’s one of those classic Christian songwriter conversations, I expect, which is about the legacy of Rich Mullins. I heard someone say that his successor as a poet was Andrew Peterson and his successor as a prophet was Derek Webb. That was when Derek was doing Mockingbird, and those kind of things, and I remember tracking with it at the time.

But then as I was reading the Wingfeather books, I thought back to that again, and I thought that they maybe weren’t getting your work quite right. If you think about what prophetic speech is doing… well, it is trying to kind of catch people, get their attention, help them to see this thing that’s happening that is wrong, and we need to repent of it. And even if that means changing our lives, that’s what we’re called to do. It’s disruptive of our comfort, basically, because it forces us to repent in precisely the places where we’re most at ease. And as I thought about that, I think you do have that element to your songwriting, and it’s certainly there in the stories. But what I think is different about your work is that even in your prophetic moments, there’s also still a gentleness you have about you.

So I was thinking about someone like Bonifer. On the surface level, he could kind of scan as a Saruman-type character: He’s this old man with white hair, who’s read lots of books, he’s always been at the arm of power, and he’s been corrupted by it. But with Saruman, what corrupts him is just pride and it causes him to turn away from the work he’s called to do. It’s hard to sympathize with Saruman. Obviously that’s not Tolkien’s point with him anyway. He isn’t wanting you to sympathize with him. But in any event, that’s the character.

With Bonifer, though, there’s actually this backstory that helps us understand his transformation. It’s not just a generalized pride or ambition. There’s a specific reason unique to Bonifer that Bonifer goes bad. Or I think about, you mentioned Berry earlier, there’s not a super-sympathetic account of Troy Chatham in Jayber Crow. He’s just this vain person whose decline could be guessed from his earliest days.

But in the Wingfeather books, even with Gnag, you actually realize there’s this wound there, that has caused him to be the way he is. So I guess I’m just curious about how you can retain this gentleness even as you do practice a kind of prophetic speech. You’re not straw-manning evil, but also even your darkest characters are not just dark.

So could you talk about how you tried to explain them, first to yourself, and then as you’re writing the story? How did you create them?

Andrew Peterson: I think it comes down to the fact that I wanted the world to feel real, and therefore, I wanted the characters to feel real. And in order for that to work, there had to be a paper trail, so to speak, of how they became who they became, because we all have it in us. We all have it in us by virtue of the choices that we make, whether we choose to partake of the fruit of the tree of life, or the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

If you eat from a tree that is poisonous, then you become poisoned. So, for example, I went and saw Tenet last night. Have you seen Tenet yet?

Jake Meador: I’ve not yet.

Andrew Peterson: Christopher Nolan movie.

Jake Meador: Yeah yeah.

Andrew Peterson: I mostly hated it. I actually like some of his movies a lot, but it was just too much… whatever. I won’t get into it. But there were some good things about it, but the bad guy, Kenneth Branagh’s character, at no point did I ever believe their reasons for why he was so bad, and at no point did I ever understand why he wanted to destroy the world. And so I just didn’t care. The whole movie felt like a cardboard cutout of a story that was an excuse for a whole bunch of cool special effects and concepts. But at no point did I care about the characters. I didn’t care about their spaceships when they blew up.

Jake Meador: Yeah yeah.

Andrew Peterson: And so, I think I wanted… Look, the bad guys are human too. I guess that’s the point. And so, Gnag the Nameless was human, in the beginning. And he started out as a human being who kind of like Tom Riddle, just partook of the wrong fruit for so long that he lost his humanity. I also didn’t want to make the bad guy so sympathetic that you were sad that he got what was coming to him.

Jake Meador: Right.

Andrew Peterson: You know what I mean?

Jake Meador: Yeah yeah-

Andrew Peterson: But at the same time, I didn’t want the bad guys to come from nowhere, for there to be no explanation for how they went bad.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: I don’t get that from the Narnia books, by the way. There’s not a lot of interest in the world itself, where things come from, where characters come from. I think that’s the difference between Narnia and Tolkien is that earthiness of The Lord of the Rings. I just read this part of a book about the environmental vision of Tolkien. I can’t remember the author now…

Jake Meador: Dickerson, Matthew Dickerson.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Have you read that book?

Jake Meador: I’ve not read that one, but I’ve read some of his other books.

Andrew Peterson: Okay. Yeah. The author talks about how in Narnia, we can see that people are eating, but you never see any evidence of where they get their food. The food sometimes just magically appears, but there’s no evidence of farming implements or vineyards or anything; everybody’s just kind of hanging out in this world and they’ve got food. Whereas in Tolkien, in The Shire, you actually get the sense that this is a real place. You see people working and celebrating and having a beer at the pub.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: So I care about The Shire more, or in a different way than I do about Narnia. Does that make sense?

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: I just wanted, if I had to choose one or the other, I wanted The Wingfeather Saga to tilt toward something like the Shire, an actual place that people actually want to visit.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: To go back to the beginning, when I was first trying to write the story, I kept running into these world-building walls, like I didn’t know what kind of money they used. At one point Janner strikes a match, and a friend of mine was like, “Matches require gunpowder, basically. If he’s got matches, does that mean there are cannons in this world?” And so I had to figure out what kind of world it was, so that it felt to the kids like they were dealing with a real place, with real human beings, who they could know and love. And so, that also extended to the villains. The Fangs aren’t that way, because the Fangs have mostly given up their humanity.

Jake Meador: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: But a character like Gnag the Nameless, who has not yet transformed, he’s still got this spark of humanity in him, so I needed there to be some real reason for it.

Jake Meador: Well and even after Gnag is gone, there’s Fangs that are like, “We don’t know what we’re supposed to do now.”

Andrew Peterson: Yeah.

Jake Meador: “We’ve just been evil for so long, and…”

Andrew Peterson: Yeah. Right.

Jake Meador: When I was reading that to Davy Joy my wife was in the kitchen and overheard the part where one of the one Fangs is like, “What if we like being evil?”

Andrew Peterson: Yeah.

Jake Meador: And she just burst out laughing.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah.

Jake Meador: But that brings up another interesting thing about that last book—what do you do with all these fangs that have totally lost their identities after Gnag is gone?

Andrew Peterson: Right-

Jake Meador: I had been reading the whole series without realizing it and then I got there and was like, “huh, that’s actually a huge plot problem.”

Andrew Peterson: Yeah, well, okay, so that’s a good example of what we’re talking about. Because when I got to the death of Gnag… We’re giving all kinds of spoilers here, but…

Jake Meador: Yeah.

Andrew Peterson: I got to the death of Gnag, and I was like, “Cool. There you go.” But then I realized, “This is not the end of the story.” It couldn’t be the end of the story; there were too many practical considerations. If this world was real, if I wanted the reader to feel like there were real consequences to characters’ decisions, then what do you do with a bunch of Fangs after their leader is gone? And I didn’t do it perfectly. I’m sure there are a lot of loose ends. But that moment, where I was like, “Ooh, their story isn’t over yet” led to what I love the most about the whole story, which was the ending, the last-last part.

Jake Meador:  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Andrew Peterson: Which is in my mind kind of like The Scouring of the Shire, when Frodo and Sam come back home.

Some of my favorite parts of the whole story are like, “Okay, what happens next?”. When I’m watching Marvel movies, and the cities are getting blown up, I’m always like, “Who cleans this up?” I’m always just kind of like, “My goodness, all the work that they put into that building, and it’s just rubble now.” If there are real consequences to our decisions, then it begins to smack of the real world in a way that is more moving than otherwise. And you end up finding little pockets of the story that carry more weight than you ever would’ve thought. It’s not just plot moves, it’s the ripple effect of our decisions.

Jake Meador: I think when we started reading, we were gifted the first two books by a friend, and we were actually just trying to get Davy onto something other than Harry Potter.

Andrew Peterson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jake Meador: Because she’s going to be eight soon, and so we’re holding off on the later Harry Potter books.

Andrew Peterson: Yeah.

Jake Meador: And so we had read Prisoner of Azkaban three times in a row, and so when we got Wingfeather I was thinking, “This is a good way to give them something else that they’ll be into for awhile instead of that.” So that’s kind of what I was expecting–adventurous kids fantasy, basically. But then I remember reading in the second book, when Kalmar is transformed. That was one of the first moments where I was like, “This is not what I thought I was picking up.” And it really is all building up to the final pages of the story, which felt like the way that story had to end. Even leaving that little bit of ambiguity at the end… it worked for me. Davy Joy wasn’t a fan, but I thought it was right.

Andrew Peterson: Thank you. I usually tell kids “You may be mad at me now, but when you read it to your kids, I think you’ll understand.”

Jake Meador: I like it.

Andrew Peterson: When you’re a little older, you’ll get it.

Jake Meador: Yeah. Yep. All right, well, this has been fun, so thank you so much for-

Andrew Peterson: Man, can I just thank you for caring about the stories and reading them?

Jake Meador: Oh, of course. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me!

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Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of "In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World." He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • RonH

    Thanks for that interview, Jake. I’m reading aloud the Wingfeather Saga to my kids (again). We’re over halfway through the fourth book, and I’m already dreading the ending, which I will not be able to get through without coming unglued. I swear… it’s as bad as Watership Down.

    There’s a lot of… well… silliness, especially in the early parts… the sort of stuff that makes little boys cackle (which worked out, as all I had were little boys). But to any readers who may have stopped reading them because of that, I say “Stick with it: the payoff is worth it.” Andrew Peterson understands Story.

    He’s an even better poet. His song “Don’t You Want to Thank Someone” is a thing of beauty.

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