Roger Thomas Interview on From Afar
What inspired you to write From Afar?
Originally, it was a song, entitled We Will Find Him, on Michael Card’s album The Promise, which came out the same year as my first book. The song had an upbeat, fast-moving tempo that fired images in my imagination, images of galloping horses and turbaned men making their way through dark passages by torchlight and brightly robed magi kneeling before a baby sitting on a woman’s lap. I thought, “There’s a story that ties those images together, and someday I’ll have to write it.”
The actual occasion for that came in about 2014, when I was between other projects but still feeling the urge to write. I was thinking about the parallels between the Hellenistic world right about the time of Christ’s birth and our own times. Both are shallow, secular times, obsessed with worldly success covered with a patina of what we’d call today “spirituality”. Those times and ours are marked with a lot of seeking for truth and meaning in all the wrong places, so I thought there could be some resonance in portraying the central characters as men of their time but nonetheless people to whom modern readers could relate.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological) in bringing your book to life?
I’ve done a lot of informal study of the Hellenistic period over the years, so it wasn’t so much that I researched for this particular story as that I drew on what I’d learned over the years. The biggest challenge is to keep at it – to outline well, then to bring the outline to life in the rough draft, then to edit and re-edit (since I’m too poor to pay a professional editor) until the tale is polished to my liking.
Literarily, the biggest challenge for a story like this is to strike a good balance between action and depth. I can’t seem to avoid writing adventure stories, but it’s easy for them to devolve into simply describing a sequence of exciting events. (“The hero went here and beat up the bad guys, then went there and foiled that plot, then took the girl out for drinks…”) To me, a good story helps the reader to relate to the parties in the story, to see how they’re like him, and how the challenges they face are similar to those he faces. This requires depth to the characters, developing who they are alongside what they do. But overemphasizing this makes the story drag on. At least at the outset, readers are usually not as intrigued by an author’s characters at the author is! It’s the author’s job to get the reader engaged with them, and striking that balance is a big challenge.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Lewis, Tolkien, and other great authors had a great aversion to stories with an overt message. This was partly due to the times in which they were raised, which held that reading for simple diversion was seen as idleness and that tales for children should be used as a vehicle for moral instruction. Hence the cloying, shallow Morality Tales of the Victorian and Edwardian times, which were sermonettes wrapped in a story. Lewis and Tolkien consciously avoided this, choosing instead to write stories that were first of all good tales that people would enjoy reading. Of course, having done this, they found that within those tales were some of the greatest messages in all literature, conveyed all the more powerfully because they weren’t trying to “send a message”, but simply to tap into common human experience. This is the model I like to follow when writing.
That being said, there are some things in From Afar that I hope cause readers to think. One is what I’ve already mentioned, which is the close parallels between the Hellenistic world of the first century and our times. I hope that by looking at another period, people will be able to see their own more clearly. Also, I hope to describe the entire situation around Christ’s Nativity from a different angle, to hopefully help people to shed a lot of the romantic accretions of the years and see how desperate and humiliating it was for the Second Person of the Diving Trinity to take on human flesh and dwell among us.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
For me, the hardest thing to hear is that the reader couldn’t connect with the characters, that they were two-dimensional and unrelatable. Since that’s one of the goals of the story, to have failed at that is to have failed at the most fundamental task of writing. But such criticisms have to be taken advisedly, because not everyone is going to relate to every story or every writer’s style. There are books I’ve read that have left me cold, which others have found very moving. Not every writer is going to appeal to every reader.
The highest compliment is related to that: if a reader says that they are “drawn in” to the story, that it’s like they’re right there in the room with the characters, and that everyone seems so alive and three-dimensional, that’s very rewarding. That indicates that you as an author were able to draw at least one reader into what you were envisioning when you wrote the tale. I believe it was Robert Louis Stevenson who said that ever story is a letter written from the author to the readers. There’s a degree to which that’s true, and if a reader is so drawn into the story that they forget they’re reading it, then they “got the letter.”
What books and authors have influenced your writing?
C.S. Lewis was a heavy influence on not just my imagination but my entire life from my early years – age eight or so. Tolkien came later, when I was in high school. Rudyard Kipling’s tales enchanted me, and I loved the mythologies of the Greeks, Romans, and Norse.
What do you think makes a good story?
In a word: engagement. The reader is not only drawn into the events of the story but also engages with the characters. The characters aren’t just two-dimensional stereotypes but real people to whom the reader can relate. When we can appreciate Samwise Gamgee’s struggle about what to do with the Ring now that it seems Frodo is dead, or sympathize with Anna’s longing to connect with Elsa despite a lifetime of rejection, then we’re engaged in a good story.