Sometimes it seems like there are no more renaissance persons – the polymaths like DaVinci who practiced art and math and science and philosophy. We’re so specialized these days, so couched in one discipline. And then along comes someone like Andrew Peterson.
Peterson is, first and foremost, a singer/songwriter/musician. Songs like “Dancing in the Minefields” and “Labor of Love” and his latest album Light for the Lost Boy have, with a rare combination of profundity and accessibility, cast the human condition as a place in God’s great story.
Along, the way, he realized he had a different story to tell, and he started work on a series of novels that have received international acclaim, including the 2010 Christy Award and, for the just-released final book in the series, the World Magazine Children’s Book of the Year. In fact, that last book, The Warden and the Wolf King¸ was the result of the most successful campaign for a fiction book in Kickstarter history. The four books of the Wingfeather Saga deserve a place right beside The Chronicles of Narnia on any good bookshelf. Oh, and Peterson is not a bad illustrator, either. He probably can also cook.
The Sound Opinion caught up with Peterson while he was in the studio re-recording songs for an upcoming compilation album, and we discussed the differences between songwriting and book writing.
The Sound Opinion: Is it safe to say that, historically, you were a songwriter first and writer of prose later?
Andrew Peterson: Yes, very much so. I had never tried writing fiction other than the weak attempts in high school, and I hadn’t taken any classes or anything like that. I was a student of songwriting first. It’s been a pleasant surprise that it’s become a little more significant part of my career. I love it just as much as the music.
TSO: Was there a single moment of decision when you said, “I’m going to write a book!”?
AP: I remember there being a moment when I talked to Jamie [Peterson’s wife] and said, “I’m really going to try to do this – I’m going to stop just talking about it. Are you cool with that? My attention will be divided.” She’s always been this ruthless encourager, so she was all in. A big part of the impetus for writing the book, the real serious attempt at it, was my friendship with my brother Pete who is a writer. When we were in high school I was the one with the guitar and he was the one writing short stories – usually horror fiction and weird sci-fi. I’d pass the stories around my friends and we would all geek out about them. He had all this potential and then chose to go in the Marines instead of college, and so his writing went by the wayside for years and years. As adults, he and I would call each other every once in a while and talk about whatever book we were reading. When I started writing the Wingfeather saga I told him I was going to really start a book, and he had a little older brother rivalry and couldn’t stand the idea that his punk little brother was going to write a book before he did. We ended up having a friendly contest to see who could write the first book. Honestly, that was a big part of it, a happy competition between my brother and me. The whole time he’s been a huge sounding board for ideas for the book. He would point out thematic problems with the stories that I would have to fix. I think my brother was the real difference between something that I always talked about doing and something I actually finished.
TSO: Do you write seasonally, such that on any given month you’re either making an album or writing a book?
AP: It overlaps a bit, but when I’m working on the book I have to keep the guitar in the case. Honestly, I get home from a trip and the guitar goes in the corner and I don’t touch it until we go out again. When the book was finished and I went to the process of putting on the songwriter hat, it’s like turning a steam liner around. You have all this forward momentum from a creative standpoint in one direction. It takes a while to get back into the songwriting thing. Basically, I had a deadline to record a new song which forced me to get the guitar out again. I think of it in terms of RAM: you can have too many apps open or the computer won’t work. I have to close the book app before I open the music app or the computer will freeze up.
TSO: Is one more difficult than the other?
AP: They’re both just as difficult in different ways. Songwriting is about patience. You have to be diligent and go to the pond and throw your line in and try to find songs. It’s more of an elusive muse. It requires moments of inspiration for you to dig deeper into a song in a way which book writing doesn’t. For a book, you just write and write and write. The writing then leads to the moments of inspiration, and then you go back and you tweak, you edit, you massage this thing into what it is. With songwriting it’s more about the need to think of an idea right now. With books you can force the story forward. Leif Enger at Hutchmoot last year quoted some mystery writer who said that anytime his story got boring he had somebody walk in a room with a gun. With songwriting you can’t do that as easily. The guy walking in the room with a gun is a certain turn of phrase which you can’t manufacture. It has to be something that’s a little more inspired.
TSO: Is one more rewarding than the other?
AP: Songwriting has more of an immediate reward. You can write a song and play it for somebody tomorrow or try it out at a show and this exchange happens in real time, whereas with books you spend years basically in a cave and you don’t know if it’s good or bad, and even when the book comes out it goes out into the world and you’re never there when the person experiences the story. You send it out and you turn around and start making a sandwich. I just have to hope that it goes out and does its thing. That’s why it means so much more to me when I do get an email or talk to somebody who is fresh off reading the book and they liked it or want to ask questions about it. You’re hungry for that because you don’t get that with the writing process.
I was praying, Please Lord, let it connect with people, let somebody feel something. Let it stir somebody’s waters.
TSO: Is a book’s narrative structure like the structure of writing songs for a particular album, as opposed to writing singles?
AP: Jamie and I did a show in Italy a couple of weeks ago. While we were there we saw went to Florence and saw Michelangelo’s David. You kinda have to – it might be one of the most famous works of art in history. We had to wait three hours in line to see it, so while in line I was reading about it to see why it was such a big deal beyond just visually. It said the hunk of marble that they used was harvested from the hills of somewhere else in Italy – David is 17 feet tall, so imagine one slab of marble that would encompass this huge statue. It was a big deal to get that piece of marble to Florence. It was supposed to be part of a series of Old Testament statues that were going to adorn a church. Another sculptor had already been commissioned to do it. He had this huge chunk of marble and he started the legs and then for some reason — he got fired, or quit — he abandoned the project. For years this hunk of marble was incomplete. It sat there and so long it got the nickname “The Beast”. Eventually, they had a bunch of sculptors bid to complete the statue of David. Michelangelo was 26 at the time. He got the commission and then he had to sculpt his David not only within the confines of the marble but within the confines that somebody else had already started it. But what he ended up with was what many would call his masterwork. I’ve read books about creativity that say there’s something that happens whenever you’re working within a structure that accesses a different part of your brain. It forces you to overcome problems in a creative way. If you have a blank piece of paper and you’re told, just do anything you want, you sit there paralyzed. But if I try to write a song about, say, the resurrection that fits within a certain part of the story, it forces me into a corner and I have to get creative in order to fight my way out. That’s the reason I tend to write for an album. There will be some sort of theme in mind, and that theme forces me — maybe it’s a crutch, I don’t know — but it forces me to engage a song in a different way than if I was sitting around saying, Well, I’ve got this life, what should I write about? Something different happens that makes the songs more cohesive.
TSO: You worked some songs into the books, or at least lyrics. Do you have a tune in mind when you write those, or are you just writing poetry?
AP: I’m literally sitting at Starbucks thinking, I’ll write some poem thing here. It starts out almost as something I need to get out of the way so I can get back to the story. But then, because I like songwriting, once I get into it I really start to care about it. The song at the end of book 3, “My Love has Gone Across the Sea”, I remember crying in Starbucks when I finished the poem. I’m a big Kate Rusby fan. She’s like the Alison Krauss of Great Britain. It’s like traditional British Isles music but she has this incredible voice and her band is amazing. All of the songs are about some sailor who sails away, and there’s some tragedy involved. Two men kill each other fighting for the hand of one woman, that kind of thing. I wanted to write a bit of poetry that would have that same sense of longing or sadness in it that was also kind of a twist on the picture of the Irish girl standing on the shore waiting for her husband to come home. What if in this story the husband sailed away but the wife is not content to just wait — she’s going to hunt him down and find him? If she dies it’s a better death than if she just stands there waiting on him. I wrote the poem for the scene in the end of book 3 when Esben fought to come home to find his kids. I didn’t make the connection at all – it was a complete subconscious thing, realizing that the story the song told was a metaphor for what the kids’ dad had done. He was in this dark place and he sensed that they were nearby, and even if it killed him he was going to come home and find them. So I was sitting in Starbucks and I realized that there was this connection and it wrapped up his story in a way, and I made a fool out of myself sitting in the corner crying. For the most part the songs were my excuse to break up the story with some fun poetry, but that one took on some significance that the others didn’t.
TSO: You have a character who is a very thinly veiled homage to Rich Mullins. I didn’t expect Armulyn the Bard to show up in book four. Did you expect him to be back when you first put them in, or was he just a chance to have a fun little inside joke?
AP: I’d forgotten he existed until I got emails from people saying, “I can’t wait to see what happens to Armulyn!” And I thought, Oh yeah! That happened a lot. As I got closer to the end I would get comments from people that would remind me of little loose ends that I’d completely forgotten that I needed to wrap up. I actually started making notes – don’t forget about this little part of the story. In the beginning of the series there’s a lot of stuff that happened in the story that I honestly didn’t know where it was going. I just had to throw it out there. Part of the fun of finishing a series is finding a way to tie it all up. I went back and read his part and it made sense that he was in there. When I read the story to the kids for the first time it was right after we had seen the Rich Mullins movie Ragamuffin. I had been listening to a lot of Rich Mullins and thinking about him and wondering what he’s up to right now, and so when I read the part of the ending where Armulyn finally makes it to this island he’s been dreaming of and he’s walking around barefoot, that was a moment that made me cry.
TSO: Are there more books in your future?
AP: I sure hope so. Honestly, the thrill of talking to the readers of these books has made me wish that I could pause the music thing and just dive immediately back in to writing. The experience has been so rewarding. But as soon as I get the steamship turned around and I’m doing music again I’ll be like, Man, forget books, music is awesome! Honestly, though, I can’t wait to dig into the next story.
TSO: It’s such a privilege to be able to do both.
AP: I feel like it’s a total dream come true. I dreamed of writing books long before I ever picked up a guitar. I am overwhelmed sometimes when I think about how kind the Lord has been to let me be able to do it.
Andrew Peterson’s books and music are available at www.RabbitRoom.com.