Visionary author Kathy Tyers is best known for her Firebird trilogy of futuristic novels — Firebird, Fusion Fire and Crown of Fire, set in another galaxy where a Savior has not yet come. Recently the series was re-released by Marcher Lord Press as The Annotated Firebird, including not only all three novels but the author’s own notes about the stories’ creation. Now in this interview with E. Stephen Burnett, she shares more about her books and learning, and what’s ahead in the Firebird world.
ESB: Many readers are well aware of your contributions to the limited field of Christian sci-fi, but for those who may not, let’s start with a recap. You got started with the first version of your Firebird novels and other SF books, then went from unpublished Star Wars fanfiction to Star Wars novels, then later, revised versions of the Firebird series with a Christian publisher. How did you get here — not only because publishing is so difficult to break into, especially for speculative stories, but because many women are more into other genres?
Yes, Firebird was my first book, and I was thrilled when it was published by Bantam Books. It was followed by the sequel Fusion Fire, then two stand-alone novels, Crystal Witness and Shivering World. Then my Bantam editor, Janna Silverstein, invited me to write a licensed Star Wars novel. At that time – and maybe still – all Star Wars novels were written by invitation. I wrote One Mind’s Eye for Bantam and then jumped to Bethany House Publishers, with the help of BHP editor Steve Laube, who wanted to give SF a chance in the Christian publishing market. And as for Star Wars fanfiction — well, I did write a novel-length fan manuscript before publishing my first novel. However, as soon as I finished it, I rewrote it completely, without using any of George Lucas’s copyrighted material. In The Annotated Firebird, I’ve pointed out a few lingering similarities between Firebird and Star Wars, besides the fact that they’d both be considered “space opera,” which is an adventure-romance laden sort of SF.
As for being a woman – some my favorite SF authors are women, stretching back to Zenna Henderson and forward to Lois McMaster Bujold. Statistically, though, you’re right. There are fewer of us.
ESB: I first read Firebird in 2006, after hearing about it for years — I’d found the big three-in-one version at a Christian bookstore. Reading all the novels back-to-back, I was stunned at the depth of both characters and God-centered theology. What do you think contributed to that?
Kathy: Thanks! These characters really did come to life for me. Everything a novelist experiences becomes writing-fodder. Every aspect of real life can be reflected in fiction, if the author pays attention. I did try to give the whole cast plenty of depth, including some inner compulsions that didn’t seem obvious at first. One example is Firebird’s sister Phoena. Her role in the first draft was simply to be “the enemy.” As I took the book through dozens of rewrites, I realized that Phoena too had reasons for her behavior—even when it was very bad behavior.
Bringing forward the theological themes in Firebird, when I re-wrote it for Bethany House, was satisfying. Firebird always had been a cultural conversion story, and this was a chance to show that there’s more to human culture than the purely secular. Roughly quoting C.S. Lewis, what an author is will turn up in his writing whether or not he makes a conscious effort to put it there. Bringing forward the theological aspects of Brennen Caldwell’s pre-messianic culture let me apply my understanding of the universe to some of the big questions of science fiction.
ESB: What images and concepts do you think inspired your creation of Firebird’s characters, story and world — especially the later themes of a world in which a Christ-figure is still to come?
Kathy: Science fiction writers often start writing with a “what if” question. “What if” the Messiah hadn’t come before people went to space? That was a good starting point, but it led to more questions. What if the chosen people had dabbled in genetic engineering? Could God use that as part of his plan for them? Here’s another “what if” that underlies Wind and Shadow and Daystar: What if one young Galilean woman had not had the courage and reverence to say “Be it unto me…”? There are lots of other “what if” questions that I enjoyed playing with, not trying to give definitive answers, but simply creating some entertaining and hopefully thought-provoking possibilities.
ESB: When Firebird was republished by Bethany House, what was the reception from Christians and other readers? How many told you similar reactions to those felt by many of us (Yes! Someone actually made it! God-glorifying sci-fi in actual print form, and it’s fantastic)?
Kathy: Wow, thank you again! Yes, I had some warm responses. There were cold ones, too. One that stuck in my mind (authors really shouldn’t read their own amazon.com reviews) savaged the Bethany House Fusion Fire and said that the previous version was much better. Generally, though, the responses that reached me were very positive. Best of all: occasionally, I hear that someone has connected with Christ after reading the Bethany version.
ESB: Since that re-publication, your life has changed a lot. You became a widow (I’m so sorry; and my mother-in-law was widowed in 1998), went through much hardship, then finally returned to school — Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. — to study theology. I’m curious how God has been working in your life through all that, and how it may have affected your writing since.
Kathy: My late husband’s last years pretty much took the life out of me. I needed a rest and a recharge, and I chose to attend Regent College because it looked like a place where I could grow deeper in my faith in the company of supportive, creative, well-educated fellow believers. It was all that and more! Regent’s emphasis on honoring God as both creator and redeemer means that the arts (as our own sub-creative activity) are highly respected, seen as ways to honor and follow our marvelously creative God. Regent’s “Christianity and the Arts” option was satisfying, grueling (not much of a rest), liberating, and enriching. Imagine studying Systematic Theology under J.I. Packer! And since I knew from the get-go that I would have to produce a full-length piece of art in my chosen genre before I could graduate, I was able to punch out of my creative funk and write the first fiction I had attempted in many years. That project became Wind and Shadow.
After I came back to Montana, I started work on a contemporary rural fantasy, Holy Ground. In that book, several characters wrestle with some of the issues I faced during my late husband’s decline – and they also must learn to work together cross-denominationally, which was another vital issue at Regent College. People come to Regent from all over the world and a broad denominational spectrum. I loved that place!
ESB: I haven’t heard of a whole lot of Christian authors who’ve written a novel as part of studying theology. As a doctri-nerd, that thrills me — I think God-centered theology, always mindful of personal application and delight in Him, can only improve whatever art Christians attempt.
Kathy: Regent was a wonderful experience. The Integrated Project in the Arts and Theology was available in both six-credit and twelve-credit options, depending on the length of the project, and I did the twelve-credit option. I had to produce not just the book but a theological paper exploring how my time at Regent impacted the themes I explored (creeping Gnosticism was a big one). I also had to do a public reading, then get publicly questioned by my thesis advisors – like any master’s degree thesis defense. Some folks might find Wind and Shadow a little doctrine-heavy, since that’s where and why I wrote it, but I do hope there are also people who’ll especially enjoy those parts.
ESB: “Don’t make writing your top priority. … Your relationship with God comes first.” You said that on your website. What made you want to say that, especially while others might think that would be a given for a Christian writer or artist?
Kathy: Over and over, writers are told to make writing their top priority, to write every day, no matter what. I’m not an argumentative person, but I did want to speak out on that topic. I had also made the agonizing decision, back in the 1990s, to give up reading and writing SF entirely because of that priority. In the hope it would help my late husband with his personal struggles, I laid my career at the foot of the cross and said “Lord, if you ever want me to write science fiction again, you are going to have to make that crystal clear to both Mark and me.” God did just that. I wrote about it in The Annotated Firebird – how’s that for a plug? Sadly, it didn’t help Mark turn the corner—but I am glad I made the effort.
ESB: “If we’re trying to write ‘The Christian Answer To [whatever secular novel we happen to not like],’ we’ll probably end up producing a pale echo instead of something that stands strongly on its own.” You said that here, and I say: amen times ten. Why is it, perhaps, that Christians do tend to issue reaction-based echoes, instead of following the rich heritage of honoring God through in-depth truth and imagination as many Christian artists and writers have in the past?
Kathy: There are marketing factors at work: if the original sold well, folks might believe that an imitation will sell well, too. Also, there’s a tragic polarization in US society, creating a crazy cross-melding of faith, politics, and lifestyle. Maybe some of the “Answering” books—the fact that they’re written, marketed, and purchased—can be attributed to a growing tendency to consider everybody outside one’s own tribe as enemies and fire “answers” back at them. Maybe. I’m still thinking about that.
ESB: Many writers we know, including several on this site, enjoy discussing whether Christian fiction is too limited and whether or how it needs to become more “edgy.” In one interview you said there are some ideas, events and words you refuse to include in anything you write, even if they’re supposedly realistic or marketable. What might you avoid and why? And were there elements you considered for Firebird or other books that you ultimately didn’t use?
Kathy: I leave alternate human sexualities alone. And though I’m a show me, don’t tell me writer, I choose not to show particularly detailed or graphic violence or sexuality when there are other ways of letting the reader know what’s up. For instance, in the rewrite of Fusion Fire, I deleted scenes that showed the evil Shuhr forcing their children to murder each other, as part of their training process. I felt that the story was just as strong, and the Shuhr just as evil, without forcing those details on the readers.
ESB: What are some differences between the first version of Firebird, the second and the third?
Kathy: Here are a few; there are more! In the second version, instead of simply imagining a space-opera scenario, I started with the assumption that Brennen’s people were still waiting for the messiah. As I just said, I also toned down some aspects of the Shuhr. For the annotated version, I pointed out some of my inspirations and bits of the writing process. I also took time with Crown of Fire to add a little more description. When I wrote the original I simply ran out of time, since I was concurrently writing my second Star Wars novel! My Regent College thesis advisor urged me to make all my writing “thingier,” with more cultural and creational details. I especially enjoyed tweaking the choreography in the ballroom scene after taking some dancing lessons.
ESB: It seems like not many series would have that varied a transition: from secular publisher to traditional Christian publisher, then to an indie publisher like Marcher Lord Press. Yours is the first of several book series it plans to republish, after their runs at traditional Christian publishing houses. How did you come to come aboard Marcher Lord?
Kathy: I read some of Marcher Lord’s recent releases, and I knew I would be in good company with these gifted new authors. Also, I wanted to see my books in electronic editions, and this is one of Marcher Lord’s strengths. Several people who left messages in my website’s guest book asked specifically for e-books, and I did pay attention!
ESB: At least two more novels are coming in the Firebird saga: the first called Wind and Shadow, and the second Daystar, you’ve said. Can you share a little more about these, their themes, perhaps their relation to the first three installments, and perhaps when they’ll be releasing?
Kathy: Wind and Shadow is a story of Firebird and Brennen’s twin sons, Kiel and Kinnor, as well as a young woman of Shuhr ancestry. Kiel and Kinnor were so different from birth that I knew they could carry a next-generation story. I’m writing Daystar to keep a promise that I think I’ve been making my readers ever since I wrote that Brennen was an heir to ancient prophecy. It is taking a bit of chutzpah—I never would’ve even tried this before Regent—and it definitely keeps me in prayer. You can hope to see Wind and Shadow in late 2011 and Daystar sometime in 2012.
ESB: Thanks so much, Kathy. I know it’s not just me who anticipates where the story now goes.
Kathy: Thank you!