My guest this week is religious fantasy author Brandon Wilborn, who combines the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien with the religious allegory of C.S. Lewis to create books with action and adventure, yet grounded in lessons on how to handle moral dilemmas of good and evil.
We talk about how the religious fantasy genre evolved from traditional fairy tales, how Brandon’s love of storytelling was nurtured at seminary, and he has advice for other indie authors just starting out.
Every week I interview a member of ALLi to talk about their writing and what inspires them, and why they are inspiring to other authors.
A few highlights from our interview:
On the Bible as More Than Story
I started reading the Bible largely because my family went to church and what I saw was not just the stories being impactful, but they actually made a difference in my life. They actually encouraged me to be a better person.”
On the Importance of Writing Communities
Those communities, both in the religious and in the secular contexts, have been invaluable starting out and have been so encouraging, and then given me the chance to encourage others.
If you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
Listen to My Interview with Religious Fantasy Author Brandon Wilborn
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About the Host
Howard Lovy has been a journalist for more than 30 years, and has spent the last six years amplifying the voices of independent publishers and authors. He works with authors as a book editor to prepare their work to be published. Howard is also a freelance writer specializing in Jewish issues whose work appears regularly in Publishers Weekly, the Jewish Daily Forward, and Longreads. Find Howard at howardlovy.com, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Read the Transcript
Howard Lovy: I’m Howard Lovy, and you’re listening to Inspirational Indie Authors. Every week I feature a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors to find out what inspires them, and how they are an inspiration to other authors. My guest this week is author Brandon Wilborn who combines the epic fantasy of J.R.R. Tolkien with the religious allegory of C.S. Lewis to create books with action and adventure yet grounded in lessons on how to handle moral dilemmas of good and evil.
Brandon Wilborn: Hi, my name is Brandon Wilborn. I live near Boise, Idaho, and I write religious speculative fiction, mostly fantasy.
Howard Lovy: Well, that’s a lot of ideas to unpack and we’ll explain what it all means. But first, a little more on Brandon, and why he writes.
Brandon Wilborn: The desire to write has been there from very young. I was fortunate to have a mother who read to us every night probably long after it was necessary but always enjoyable to have that experience with a loving parent. And that wasn’t what sparked my my initial desire for story though. I was four years old, I think, and I was at a friend’s house and they turned on the old cartoon version of The Hobbit. And I think it was actually the scene with Gollum that just entranced me and got me completely engrossed in story as as a thing and how much it could draw you in. And so I started from there just to love stories. And I think that my first attempt, though, was in first grade.
And I had seen it when our teacher gave us an assignment to write a story and I think we had to draw a picture as well. And I had seen this movie that I was really excited about, and it was the Ewok movie. And I look back at that now and I think, “Goodness, why, why was I so excited?” I think I just liked cute little animals that could throw spears and take out stormtroopers. But I basically wrote out what happened in the movie, the teacher didn’t specify that you had to have written the story yourself. So I got a very poor grade on that but at least learned, “Okay, you don’t plagiarize.” And from there I just loved the idea of telling stories.
Howard Lovy: Brandon’s love of reading and his desire to be a writer co evolved with his religious upbringing. He noticed something else about the Bible. There were some really good stories in there.
Brandon Wilborn: It wasn’t until much later that I was kind of introduced to the idea from some teachers of the Bible as story. Actually, I had a great college professor in my English degree, who kind of taught Bible as literature. And he was one of the first, even though he wasn’t intending to. He was this Bavarian, this big Bavarian guy, kind of stereotypical in some sense.
He would get up and almost perform some of these stories and his favorite was David lamenting over Absalom which is dramatically probably one of the most easily adaptable stories you can get, to take it out of Scripture, old holy book reference and bring it into something, you know, that we would see in drama of just this man has been betrayed by his son and then but he still loves him. And when the son dies, it’s just this lament and so the big Bavarian man is up there saying “Absalom, Absalom. Oh, if only I had died instead of you,” but in his accent, and that captured my attention as well. And so I’ve definitely seen, okay, these stories can be very powerful.
And but more importantly for me, I started reading the Bible, largely because my family went to church. And what I saw was not just the stories being impactful, but they actually made a difference in my life, actually encouraged me to be a better person, encouraged me to focus on things that maybe I wouldn’t have otherwise that have been very significant and important and just, you know, developing who I am.
Howard Lovy: In that way, through the Bible, the story isn’t just a story. The story is more than the sum of its parts. Well, Brandon went on to seminary and it was there that he put his two loves together. Religion and writing.
Brandon Wilborn: Go going to seminary was, in some sense, I finished my English degree thinking, “I’m certainly not going to be a writer full time.” So I dabbled in journalism a little bit. I dabbled in teaching a little bit and decided I really didn’t want to be a part of the school system. And so I went back to trying to write and in the process also decided I’d still really liked kids and teenagers so I jumped into volunteering with youth and that led to “Well, if you’re going to volunteer in a religious context with youth, you probably should know a little bit more than your average church goer. Just so you have answers when they ask you the crazy questions.” And so that led to seminary, but it was in seminary that I finally got what I felt like was affirmation, I guess confirmation that writing was the direction I wanted to go. And that was where I initially got the idea for the stories that I’ve that I’ve been writing that have actually gone to be published.
Howard Lovy: Combining religion with magic is not as big of a leap as you would think. The fantasy genre, in fact, sprang from fairy tales with religious themes.
Brandon Wilborn: Yeah, I have conversations with my wife about this quite a bit. Obviously, being in a religious community, you get some people who are very, very stern and and you know, Harry Potter is off limits because it has magic. And yet Harry Potter is full of friendship and standing behind people who you care about and doing the right thing, even when it’s exceptionally hard. And those are all values that most Christians would aspire to. If you look at it, in reality, the fantasy genre actually came out of religious fiction and fairy tales. You go back to Hans Christian Andersen, for instance, the last one I read of his was the story of The Smoke, which they took and used to make the movie Frozen, but the Snow Queen is very much a religious story about the nature of sin in the world and how it came to be and how people betray each other, and can fall for evil even though we’re trying to be good. And then somebody’s trying to reach out and then grab a friend out of trouble.
And then you take that through George McDonald, who wrote many fairy tales for children that were very religious. And then you get to the guys who they inspired like Lewis and Tolkien. And even though Tolkien was not trying to write a religious book as much as Lewis was, you still have him bringing elements out of it that are very much of the same things that you would see that are good values like we have in some of the modern stuff like Harry Potter. And then fantasy from there took a turn away towards let’s just think about amazing things that may have happened with magic and beauty and things like that. But even in Scripture, the, probably the most famous story of of magic being used as when King Saul goes and asks a witch to bring up Samuel the Prophet from the from the dead. So there’s examples of magic being used. They’re just always used in a negative sense of Scripture.
Howard Lovy: So far Brandon has written two very well received, well reviewed books. The Treasure of Capric and a follow up novella, Siren Silence.
Brandon Wilborn: The first book was called the Treasure of Capric. I finished the first draft just over six years ago. And then it sat in a drawer while life happened. And I sent it out to a few agents and tried to get representation but ultimately decided kind of like those composers that this just needs to get out of me and get out there. So I went ahead and decided to publish, do independent publishing. In the process. I went ahead and said I there’s a secondary story that needs to happen. So the first book was called the Treasure of Capric.
It is largely about a young man who is in training with these monks. It’s an old order but it’s also not just a religious order. They have some level of militaristic training, because their primary task is to protect this treasure that they have. But again, they’ve locked it away. Only one person is allowed to see it and know what it is. And so they’re studying second hand materials to know what they believe. They find out in quick order that, or at least before the story begins, they find out that this treasure has been stolen, one of the local warlords has burned the monastery.
And now this young man is one of the very few survivors of the monastery. And he’s determined not just to find the treasure, but to stop the warlord who is also seeking it. But again, he doesn’t know what it is. And so it’s kind of hard to discover something or hard to find something on a quest, when you don’t know what it is that you’re looking for. And so it’s this journey of seeking and finding, and ultimately then he comes to a point where he has to change and so the external quest and then an internal journey that he really didn’t even know he was on.
The second I didn’t know how to classify it. It’s not, it’s a sequel, but it’s only about a fifth of the length. So we went from 115,000 words, which a lot of fantasy books are long to, I believe it’s about 30,000 words on the second one. So it’s a follow up novella is the best way I could come to describe it. And it takes one seeing one kind of failing from the first book and gives them a second chance to make right on that.
Howard Lovy: Like any good fantasy book his involves taking long journeys and quests, much like Brandon himself has moved from place to place for much of his life.
Brandon Wilborn: That does come into the writing because I try to, I try to use the setting as part of the, one of the characters almost. So for instance, in the first book, it’s both symbolic but it’s also greatly impacts each of the characters. They haven’t seen the sun for generations because it’s just constantly covered in clouds and mist and so it’s something that they have to deal with. And so one of the pun intended shining through moments is when the initial character, or the main character in one of his most desperate times, and desperate moments, thinks that he sees a star. And he’s just baffled by that. And it can’t be because nobody’s seen stars or the sun for generations, they know where they are, because there’s this bright spot in the sky, but we haven’t seen it. And then so that becomes this element of hope for him. And so yeah, the landscape itself has a place, I think, and I think I’ve learned that from my travels.
Howard Lovy: Through all his travels, his career changes, his evolution as a writer, he says he has five great loves in his life. At least, that’s what his Amazon bio says. But he never wrote but they were so I asked him.
Brandon Wilborn: If I were to rank everything, I didn’t want to review it, honestly. But I suppose I can here. Because it has been so important to me is God, Christ, whoever you would like to consider that if depending on your faith, I’m a Christian. So for me, it’s Christ as number one, and then I have my wife and two children. So those are two, three and four, and then writing would be the fifth.
Howard Lovy: And although this is self publishing, the writing itself does not necessarily need to be done in isolation. Brandon found that writing communities such as the Alliance of Independent Authors helped him considerably.
Brandon Wilborn: The other thing that really became helpful for me, which happened after I published was finding really good communities like ALLi and there are other communities out there for people writing almost anything, but religious fiction and religious fantasy was one of them. I was surprised to find a bigger community than I expected. And so those those communities, both in the religious and the secular context have been invaluable starting out, and they’ve been so encouraging and then given me the chance to encourage others.