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'Catechisms with flesh on'

Q&A | Stories, says novelist Nate Wilson, can powerfully shape who we are and how we look at a wondrous world

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

Nate Wilson at age 33 is the father of four children and seven books of young adult fiction, including such titles as the 100 Cupboards trilogy and Leepike Ridge. From his Idaho base he's also put out a terrific video apologetic, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken World. Here are edited excerpts of our interview before students at Patrick Henry College.

Was it a blessing or a curse to be both a preacher's kid and a writer's kid, with your dad, Doug, writing influential books? The disadvantages turned into advantages for me. I knew from a very early age that my father took his qualifications seriously, and I was one of those qualifications. So I, at a very young age, felt I was in a position to ruin everything-I could ruin all of it. But our house was joyful. He was a pastor, but we weren't a house of rules: We were a house of jokes and rock songs. I benefited immensely from the education that he worked to build-the classical education model in Christian schools.

And you saw antithesis? I remember being taken along to events where he'd been invited to come be the crazy Christian, the one guy in the room who they could all scream at and spit on, and watching him smile and laugh while writing a note to a moderator to please call the police.

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You've said you learned more philosophy, maybe even theology, from C.S. Lewis and Tolkien than from anything you studied in college. Is that one reason you write fiction rather than theological tomes? Christians have sometimes been suspicious of stories, because they really can influence you. If you read the Twilight novels once a month for a year, I think you'd be a different human afterward-and not a sparkly one. Stories are like catechisms, but they're catechisms for your impulses, they're catechisms with flesh on.

In Tilt-a-Whirl, the video, you have some dark subjects, including walking through a graveyard. In anything I write, I want to engage with darkness in the same way that God engages with it in His story. The story of the cross, the story of Moses and Pharaoh, the story of Samson: I look at those stories and want to imitate them in every way, but one of the most important ways is in the ratio and use of goodness and evil.

How powerful is darkness? I don't like the Joker in Batman because he's an omnipotent Satan: He's just psycho and everywhere at once. I also don't like Batman in Batman because he's just a billionaire in a bat-suit with no superpowers, sneaking into people's bedrooms.

In Tilt-a-Whirl, you deal with the problem of evil essentially by saying that God is a writer producing a narrative. Once the questions of, "How dare you, God?" get to a certain point, Paul says, "Who are you, pot, to ask the Potter why He made you?" Could you, if you were Frodo the hobbit, raise the problem of evil to Tolkien? Frodo might say, and this is a traditional postulation, Tolkien is either bad at writing, or evil. Or, option three, he doesn't exist." Does that argument hold water? Can Frodo look at his reality and say, of the author, "There either isn't one, or he sucks, or he's really evil?"

Those are the philosophers' choices. That's what they give us. But we look at Frodo and we can say, "You idiot. It's a good story. The evil is here to be beaten. It's here to be overcome. It's here to be broken-break it. Go throw the ring in the volcano. Don't sit there and look at it and say, "There is no Tolkien, because if there was, how could such an evil exist?"

Hamlet could deny the existence of Shakespeare. Or Hamlet could say that if Shakespeare does exist, he's a bad writer, bad at controlling his narrative, or he's an evil writer. We do the same thing, but when we are Frodo the hobbit, or we are Hamlet, it appears to hold water for us.

The world God created is in many ways even stranger than the fictional worlds human authors present to us. I want kids to realize that they live in a fantasy world: They should not finish a novel and think, "Now back to my un-magical, boring existence." This world is crazy. The grass outside is made out of thin air by sunlight. Heat from a ball of fire in the sky turns into carbon dioxide, air grabs some heat from the sun and rips the carbon out and makes itself a leaf. It's not made out of the dirt, it's made out of thin air. We're on a ball of rock flying at Mach 86 around a ball of fire in the sky, right now, just around and around.

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