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Interview with Bryan Litfin

Bryan Litfin is on faculty at Moody Bible Institute, where he is a professor in the Theology Department. He teaches courses in basic theology, church history, and Western civilization from the ancient and medieval periods.

Bryan, congratulations on the release of THE KINGDOM: A NOVEL. Can you share with us where the concept for this novel (and THE SWORD and THE GIFT, the three novels comprising THE CHIVEIS TRILOGY) came from?

In one sense, the books came out of thin air in a moment of inspiration, which is the sort of thing you think doesn’t actually happen to you—until suddenly it does. In another sense, though, the Chiveis Trilogy is deeply rooted in my travels in Europe for educational purposes. I’ve literally walked the lands of Chiveis on numerous occasions. Most of the story locations are real, as is revealed in an appendix to The Kingdom. So when I’m over in Europe taking students on historical tours, I’m also imagining plot locations.

But like I said, there was a flash of inspiration too. That happened one cold winter morning in Wheaton when the idea for the trilogy hit me. It occurred to me that historical fiction can often be full of grand adventures, yet you’re limited by what ‘actually happened’ in the past. On the other hand, fantasy fiction is not limited by that restriction, yet the reader always know this land is ‘made up.’ But what if you set something in a future post-nuclear world where the people had reverted to a historical lifestyle? Then it could be realistic—no magic rings, spells, wizards, dwarves—but you are also freed up as an author from the tyranny of history. So it seemed like a great premise. And then you throw in the idea of ‘the people have lost the Bible and their memory of the one true God,’ and that’s the concept for the trilogy right there.

It is clear that these novels are somewhat theological. So, can you share how your faith and spiritual life play into the picture and affect your storytelling?
Well, I am a professional theologian by day and a novel writer by night (and weekends and lunch break). So I think I would suggest that these novels are not just ‘somewhat’ theological, they’re absolutely shot through with theology on every page, not to mention quite a few allusions to church history if anyone happens to pick them up.

I didn’t want to write a novel that is superficially Christian by having good moral characters and some ‘God loves you just like you are’ rhetoric. Even putting in some ‘I love Jesus’ stuff wouldn’t be enough. It is way more deep than that. The whole trilogy is Trinitarian in its macro structure. The first book focuses on the discovery of the Creator God, but only as he is known through the Old Testament. Then the second book is quite literally a quest for the New Testament, and thus it is a quest for Jesus Christ. The characters have perceived from the Old Testament that there is a Promised King and a Suffering Servant; but they can’t figure out which one this “Jesus’ is whom they’ve heard about. Surely he can’t be both, for kings are triumphant, whereas suffering servants are sort of like losers, or maybe martyrs at best. But at last the characters discover the amazing truth that in God’s convoluted wisdom, the weak things of the world shame the wise, and the pathway to victory in fact runs through defeat. And nothing is more Christological than that point.

In The Kingdom, I wanted the focus to be on the Holy Spirit. This was a little tougher, because there’s not an obvious narrative of ‘Incarnation/Crucifixion/Resurrection’ to follow like I had for The Gift. Yet the characters in the third book grapple with the elusive nature of God’s Spirit and their need to depend on him for strength. In this way, they come to a rediscovery of the fully Trinitarian God, and they do this by reading Scripture in community with the church catholic, which is the home of the Spirit.

Clearly, a well thought out trilogy! Who/What spurs you to write? Where do your story and character ideas come from?
The amazing landscape of Europe is a big part of my inspiration. I took a couple of trips just to scope out my story locations. The Swiss Alps, Rome, medieval castles, Gothic cathedrals, the Italian Riviera, Sicily – these places are etched in my brain, and the stories emerge organically from those lands. If you drop water and sunshine on a seed, it’s going to grow.

I guess I have a creative side in me that has been squelched since probably college days. Once I went off to grad school and started down the academic path, I didn’t have much time for made-up stuff. But it was in there all along, and one day it just started bubbling up. What can I say? I couldn’t stop it. Teo and Ana just had to get out and make themseleves known.

Glad you got Teo & Ana off your chest! What do you think makes your style of storytelling unique?
I would say the interwoven theology is a big part of it. I guess I would make the case that the books are very deep, if you know what to look for.

This trilogy is a romance in the classic sense of that term, but it’s got tons of ‘guy’ adventure in it as well. So while the two main characters do have lots of romantic tension, the story is not ultimately about that. It’s a theological swashbuckler on a grand scale.

I’m also not trying to win any literary awards for my gorgeous prose and fancy talk. I think some authors are impressed by their own writing. I would rather the reader encounter the story itself. I like to write a great big amazing plot and let the epic events propel the tale. I don’t write weird expressions that sound literary but break the reader’s spell. The author’s writing should just disappear. I strive for well chosen words that paint a vivid picture, not startling turns of phrase that make me seem highbrow.

The books are quite edgy in places for Christian fiction. I didn’t write them for pre-teens. Yet I would say this is a series that glorifies God, and it certainly never celebrates evil or its consequences.

Would you share with us your secrets for plotting novels?
I have heard of writers who just go by the seat of their pants. Jerry Jenkins told me just the other day that he calls them “pantsters,” and he’s a member of that club. Well, Jerry is a lot more experienced and deft of a craftsman than I am! I’m not a pantster. I couldn’t be one even if I wanted to. I’m an outliner. I would never write an academic article without an outline, because I’d start to be illogical, or go down rabbit trails, or my argument would lack coherence and unifying structure. For me, the same applies to fiction.

So what I do is, I figure out how many chapters I want in the book and how many scenes would be in each. Then I spend a lot of time crafting the whole story as a sequence of scenes with detailed notes about what I imagine happening in each one…snippets of dialogue, scenic descriptions, the characters’ emotions, everything I can think of. The scenes all have to move toward the finale, and in the proper sequence. Then after the whole book is constructed, I sit down and begin to write each scene in order.

The key to this, though, is that you absolutely have to be willing to change things on the fly once you begin to write. Rarely does a given scene turn out completely different from the plan. Yet the nuances often change as you watch it unfold by writing it. You have to run with the Muse. When the characters start talking as fast as you can type, let it rip. And also, you have to be willing to end the scene somewhere other than where you imagined. Sometimes you hit that period and say, “Whoa. That’s it. Boom. There’s the end.”

So what I’m saying is, I like to plot everything in advance. Every scene has to have a role to play or it gets axed. You have to know how each piece fits into the grand scheme and how it contributes to the story goal. This also helps you foreshadow things, because you know what the characters are going to be doing later so you can drop in hints. However, if you stick to that outline too tightly, you’ll kill the creative part of your writing.

A fellow outliner, wonderful! You helped start Clapham School, a Christian primary school in Wheaton using the classical model of education. Please tell us a bit more about a classical education.
Yes, that was a true privilege that my wife and I were part of a few years ago. Classical education is nothing other than the way people were educated since the ancient Greeks and Romans, all the way through the Middle Ages, and to be honest, it’s the way many Europeans are still being educated today. But America got trendy sometime in the 1960s, and now in our schools you get more self-esteem boosting and ‘say no to drugs’ mantras than a true encounter with the world’s greatest ideas. So classical education teaches fundamental building blocks, then teaches you how to think logically about them, and then, just like the ancient Greeks would have said, you have to be able to express yourself beautifully and persuasively. This certainly works as a secular education—it has worked for many pagans—but when you bring it all under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, it’s a pretty amazing way to run a school. The name ‘Clapham’ comes from those Christians associated with the British evangelical politician William Wilberforce. These folks used their learning and their eloquence for the glory of God and for justice on earth until the Savior returns. Isn’t that what education should be about?

So true, I firmly believe in classical education myself. Bryan, any parting words?
I am genuinely excited to share the Chiveis Trilogy with readers. If you read them all in sequence—The Sword, The Gift, and The Kingdom—you’re going to be taken on an amazing adventure that will sweep you off your feet. You’re going to see hardship and trials and hope and victory juxtaposed against one another, all set against a magnificent epic backdrop. It’s just a big, sweeping story about heinous evil and God’s even greater goodness. I don’t say those things to toot my own horn as the author. I say them because I truly believe that for the right kind of reader, this is just the tale you’ve been waiting for.

Thank you for sharing with us Bryan!

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