Please Welcome...Anne Elisabeth Stengl

This month our interview guest is Christian speculative fiction novelist Anne Elisabeth Stengl!

Anne Elisabeth is a fairy tale fanatic. She spent her childhood years in England where, as she says, "the air you breathe is full of traditions, history, and, most of all, legends."

Until recently she was a professional art teacher and portrait painter. She studied illustration in college and would someday love to get back into the illustrative side of storytelling.

These days, though, she is focused on writing. Her Christian Fantasy novel, Heartless, was called "a clever debut from an author worth watching" by Publishers Weekly. Her second novel, Veiled Rose, is due this summer from Bethany House.

Anne Elisabeth met her husband at fencing class. She actually beat him in a term tournament, and he asked her out the week after. She says, "Sometimes, a girl has to go that extra distance to get a fellow to stabbing him with a saber!"

She also collects cats. The current count is three, and they are as follows: Molly Boots, Minerva Louise (a.k.a. The Evil One) and Lord Marmaduke Chuffnell (a.k.a. Duke or Punkadoodle, depending on her mood). Molly and The Evil One are both rescue kitties, but Duke is a purebred Abyssinian, descended in a direct line from the ancient Egyptian gods...which he doesn’t let you forget.

Fairy tales, art, swords, evil cats, and Egyptian gods. How's that for a lead-in? And now, the interview...

WhereTheMapEnds: Catch us up with you. What have you been doing lately?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Lately I’ve been getting married and settling into my new home with my husband. We have decided that we are green thumbs (first batch of dead sprouts notwithstanding) and are planting a rose garden this year. Here’s hoping for good results.

WhereTheMapEnds: What is your favorite speculative novel of all time (Christian or secular) and why is that your favorite?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Favorite? Of all time? Oh dear. How about I’ll pick the first that comes to mind, which is Terry Pratchett’s uproarious and heartbreaking Nation.

Terry Pratchett writes laugh-out-loud comedy that will keep you in stitches from page one. The wonderful thing about Pratchett isn’t the laughs, though. It’s his amazing way of preaching a sermon (not a Christian sermon, but a sermon no less) in the context of his story. You don’t realize you’re being fed a message until it’s already been fed to you.

In the case of Nation, Terry Pratchett is preaching a very atheistic message to his readers. As a Christian, I find it tragic, but as a writer, I cannot help but marvel at the genius! He lets his message work into the very fabric of the story. Without it, the story doesn’t exist.

For Pratchett, it’s not a matter of just telling a good story and slapping a moral onto the end. The moral (if you want to call it that) is the story. What he is trying to say is as important as how he is saying it. Neither takes dominance. The balance in Nation is just about perfect.

I love reading that book for the beautiful story, the hilarious comedy, the unforgettable characters. I also love reading it because it reminds me of everything I want to be as a writer: someone who not only has a story to tell, but has something she wants to say within that story.

WhereTheMapEnds: What made you want to write Christian speculative fiction?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: It’s not so much a question of “what” as of “who.” And that answer is: George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. These Christian writers who knew what fantasy was meant to be: A means to illustrate reality by tapping into the imagination. A tool to tell the truth in the form of fancy, which makes the truth so much more real.

But that’s an incomplete list. There are so many other great authors who don’t fall under the “Christian” label! Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Megan Whalen Turner, Robin McKinley . . . all talented authors who have something to say within the context of their fantasy adventures. Whether I agree with what they say, or not, I admire the brilliance with which they say it.

That’s what I have always wanted to do—tell fun, bright, comical, tragic, colorful stories with a purpose.

WhereTheMapEnds: How was your first idea for a Christian speculative novel received (by anyone: spouse, friends, parents, agent, publisher, readers, reviewers, etc.)?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: From the get-go, there has been interest in the storyline of my debut novel, Heartless. I first wrote it as a short story experiment that I posted on a (long-neglected) blog. The reader response was surprising. People were fascinated. I posted it in small segments, and everyone was desperate to see what would happen next. Many even posted suggestions and predictions of where they thought the story would go.

Intrigued by that response, I gave up the short story and sat down to write the novel (I’ve always been more comfortable in the novel format). Again, the response, even to the simplest early drafts, was encouraging. The first agent I queried picked it up, and the first publishing house she queried accepted it!

I think it is because the storyline of Heartless, while simple, is universal. Una’s struggles are struggles we all face at one time or another. That’s the beauty of allegory. We have all been in the sinner’s chains. All of us have longed for salvation but have been afraid to let go of what we know, or what we feel we have a right to.

Note: Not every reader response has been positive. While my Princess Una is, I believe, a universal character, she’s also one who ruffles a lot of feathers. She’s selfish and strong-willed and, to readers looking for a courageous and noble heroine, very off-putting. On the whole, people understand her purpose in the story and enjoy the saga of her growth, but there has definitely been a negative response to poor Una as well. I think it’s tough, sometimes, to see sin portrayed in the form of a normal, self-centered girl rather than in the standard “dastardly villain” archetype.

WhereTheMapEnds: Interesting. I’ve seen that reaction to some of the novels we’ve published at Marcher Lord Press. For instance, Aphra, the heroine of The Personifid Invasion, struggles with selfishness and weakness, and some readers said she was whiney and weak. [shrugs] So what is your favorite speculative genre to read? To write? If they’re different, talk about that.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I love YA fantasy adventures. Stories by Diana Wynne Jones or Megan Whalen Turner that are peppered with strong, flawed characters and lots of intriguing plot twists.

My first love is always for fairy tales, which is what I write. But I do enjoy reading sci-fi, spiritual warfare, and even a dash of dystopian now and then.

WhereTheMapEnds: Aha, well, at MLP we’ve got your Dystopia, baby. We’ve got a whole section dedicated to the subgenre. Speaking of dystopias, how would you characterize the current state of Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Growing.

WhereTheMapEnds: Hmmm. I hope you're right. What have you seen that encourages you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Anne Elisabeth: I like to see that it is growing and more people are starting to dabble in the genre. There are so many wonderful imaginations out there, just waiting to reveal worlds the rest of us could never dream up!

WhereTheMapEnds: Amen to that. What have you seen that discourages or frustrates you about Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I don’t read a lot of Christian speculative fiction. The reason for this is that the styles tend to sound alike to me. There are a lot of wonderful story ideas happening, but the styles in which they are written read so much the same. Strict third-person narratives, sometimes first-person and a bit of first-person present tense. But gone are the days of Lewis and MacDonald and Tolkien’s highly expressive omniscient narratives!

I think all styles are important, all point-of-view choices legitimate. But my personal preference (to write and to read) is the omniscient narrative, which is being labeled “head-hopping” these days. No one seems to remember that the greats of Christian fantasy, Lewis and Tolkien, wrote in omniscient narrative. And in the current secular market, we get authors such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and Robin McKinley—award-winning, bestselling novelists who all use the omniscient narrative. Yet our aspiring Christian speculative writers are being told that it is bad writing.

Before signing my first contract, I was told that I could not sell a book written in the omniscient narrative. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Both my agent and my publishing house loved Heartless from the beginning. And while it needed to grow and improve before publication, no one ever criticized the narrative voice. My editors specifically complimented me on it!

WhereTheMapEnds: Yes, it’s not typically readers or even publishing executives who frown on omniscient. It’s certainly true that omniscient is the predominant style of yesteryear. I’m glad you’re finding success with it. What would you like to see changed regarding Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I would like to see the omniscient narrative make a comeback. I would like to see authors use this narrative style to express their individual voices, just as the secular fantasy authors are doing. Omniscient narrative is not being left in the 19th century, and Christian speculative fiction should notice this fact and jump on board!

Like all styles, the omniscient narrative needs to be honed and polished. But I would love to see more authors experimenting with this artistic medium. To say it is wrong is like telling a painter that watercolors are wrong and only oils are right. It’s an artistic form like all others which, when done well, can be beautiful!

WhereTheMapEnds:  I wouldn’t say omniscient POV is wrong. I would say that, in the hands of beginning novelists, it can lend itself to lazy writing. It’s often related to telling (as opposed to showing) in those same authors’ hands. Why work so hard to figure out cinematic methods for revealing information when you can just spell it all out and explain exactly what everyone is thinking? I also think you lose a layer of suspense and ambiguity about characters when you tell us what’s going on inside their heads. But there’s no denying that some popular novels even today are succeeding with omniscient.

So, what do you think Christian speculative fiction writing and/or publishing will look like in three years? Five years? Ten years?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I suspect Christian speculative fiction is going to boom sometime in the next five years. There are so many writers experimenting with the genre in all its various forms and styles! With all those imaginations hard at work, I look forward to plenty of good reading...the sooner, the better

WhereTheMapEnds: I certainly hope you’re right. My hunch is that there will be a boom but that it will not be in traditional Christian publishing companies. The boom will come with the small presses and even some self-published authors. What advice would you give to someone who aspires to write and publish Christian speculative fiction??

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Pray a lot! Know what it is you want to say with your novel. Have a purpose behind all those dragons or spaceships or alternate dimensions—and make that purpose the story itself.

Read the great writers! Not only your favorite contemporary authors (read those too!), but also the masters of literature who paved the way for us. There’s a reason their books are still on the shelves. Even if their styles seem strange and stilted to you now, study them and find out what is at the core of their work. Find out what makes their books last when so many books get forgotten.

Oh, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Know when to laugh at yourself, your work, your genre. Fantasy, especially, can be so hokey sometimes! Enjoy the hoke—Shakespeare did! Life is about the laughs as well as the tears. Good fantasy is that way too!

WhereTheMapEnds: Great advice. If you’re in the mood for a fantasy that will make you laugh (on purpose) check out Hero, Second Class. What’s the best book or seminar on fiction writing you know?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Stephen King’s On Writing. I have read a handful of King’s novels and didn’t really enjoy them. But On Writing is brilliant, so full of truth! Read it and take it to heart. Every writer has a different writing process, and no diagram, chart, or formula will solve all your problems for you. But there are some universals out there that will help, and King knows all of them!

WhereTheMapEnds: What’s the best part about writing and publishing Christian speculative fiction?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: The opportunity to use fairy tales to illustrate the truth of Christ and the story of the Christian walk.

Lewis expresses it as only Lewis can in the voice of Aslan in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan tells Lucy: “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

This is the joy of Christian speculative fiction. We take readers on fantastic journeys into other worlds, other dimensions, other times, but there’s more to it than the adventure. We take them there to reveal to them through fantasy the truth of reality.

WhereTheMapEnds: Terrific answer. What writing project(s) are you working on now?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I am just finishing up the galleys for Veiled Rose, book two in my Tales of Goldstone Wood series. It is due to hit the shelves this July, so watch for it! I’m also beginning the edit-and-polish stage for book 3, Moonblood, coming April 2012. I’m drafting a super-secret new novel, but since it is super-secret, no more on that just now.

WhereTheMapEnds: What’s a cool speculative story idea you’ve had lately?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Um...that's super-secret...

WhereTheMapEnds: Gotcha. What’s the best speculative story (Christian or secular, book or otherwise) you’ve encountered lately?

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: I just read Lois McMaster Bujold’s, Cordelia’s Honor, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic. It was a lot of fun. Good characters, great plotting, a bit spastic in pacing. (It was her debut novel. My debut is a bit spastic too, so I can’t judge!) Lots of fun ideas and interesting characters. It is secular fiction, and not my favorite of all time, but I definitely plan to read more in her Vorkosigan saga.

WhereTheMapEnds: What else would you like to say to the readers of

Anne Elisabeth Stengl: Keep reading, buying, and supporting your Christian speculative authors! Who else do you know who can transport you to other worlds, and other times, and other dimensions, and other realities? With dragons? I mean, what’s not to love?

That's All for This Time

Another awesome interview! Thanks again to Anne Elisabeth Stengl for stopping by. Be sure to visit her online.

If you missed any of our previous interviews with other speculative authors, including Frank Peretti, Jerry Jenkins, Karen Hancock, Tosca Lee, and Ted Dekker, you can read them here.

Come back next month for an interview with another heavy hitter in the world of Christian speculative fiction.


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