An interview with Matthew Olshan about The Flown Sky

Chacmool Press: Your first book, Finn: a novel, was a kind of reinterpretation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. There was a direct correlation between your story and its literary influnces. What were some of the influences that shaped your new novel, The Flown Sky?

Matthew Olshan: My Finn entered into a direct conversation with Twain’s novel. I suppose it was an effort to reread Twain’s monstrously influential book, with an eye toward what had—and hadn’t—changed in American culture since the late 19th century. Just as Twain’s book was a depiction of the radicalization of young Huck—his awakening, so to speak, into an understanding that slaves were people, too—my Finn aimed at a similar kind of awakening for my heroine, Chloe Wilder, about the “invisible” Mexicans who cleaned and cooked in her neighborhood. But I can’t say that The Flown Sky enters into that kind of literary conversation with any particular novel.

CMP: What can you say about the novel’s influences, then?

Matthew Olshan: Actually, I did have at least two authors’ work in mind as I was writing The Flown Sky: Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis. And maybe Edward Lear. So make that three! Lewis Carroll, for the delightful rigor of his nonsense; C.S. Lewis, and specifically the Narnia chronicles, for a fantasy world based on a complete moral system; and Edward Lear, for the sheer play of silly language.

CMP: It’s interesting that you mention the Narnia books. The role of Christianity and Christian thought is so strong in those books. Yet there doesn’t seem to be an equivalence in The Flown Sky.

Matthew Olshan: One of the things I liked least about the Narnia books was the sense of exclusion built into the fantasy world. If you weren’t Christian—not to mention English—the story seemed to say, then you couldn’t be part of the story’s inner elite; i.e., the kids who become the royalty of Narnia. I loved the sense of being in the hands of an author who knew exactly where he was going, but I think I resented the feeling of being an outsider. So in The Flown Sky, I strove to create a moral world—which happens to be loosely based on a legend from Jewish mysticism, by the way—which simply rewarded good, kindly, thoughtful behavior.

CMP: Jewish mysticism? That’s something of a surprise. I’ve read the novel closely, and I can’t say that I detected it.

Matthew Olshan: (Laughing) That’s one of the tricks I picked up from one of my all time favorite authors, Franz Kafka, who managed to write an entire novel about concepts from Judaism, and, indeed, Jewish mysticism, without the word “Jew” appearing at all! Actually, it wouldn’t be fair to say it’s a trick. There is a concept in Jewish mysticism called the “Lamed Vavnick Tsaddikim,” which translates as the “Thirty-six learned (or holy) men,” which tells us that, at any time, there are thirty-six special souls roaming the world, and that the safety of the world somehow depends on them. This legend is reason enough for treating strangers with the highest degree of respect: the homeless person who shows up at the door might well be one the chosen thirty-six! I adapted this concept into the eighteen “secret souls” in the world of the The Flown Sky. I called these special creatures “Djamas.” The kidnapping of the Djamas is what sets the story in motion. Someone’s up to no good with the Djamas, and our modest heroine Eena Beena gets swept up in a grand adventure to save the world.

CMP: How did you come up with the name “Djamas” for these secret souls?

Matthew Olshan: I went through an exhaustive search for a name, looking for likely candidates from lots of Indo-European language roots. Then I asked my daughter what they should be called. She said, “Djamas,” and the name stuck.

CMP: How else did your daughter influence the book?

Matthew Olshan: Well, you could say that the entire novel is a love letter to her. It grew out of a series of bedtime stories I made up for her one summer. And, aside from naming the Djamas, she named several of the main characters. Which actually made the writing a lot harder. When she told me that two of the main girls would have be called “Diamond” and “Daisy,” my heart sank. I mean, those are extremely ordinary names for a fantasy to live up—or down—to. So I had to invent the Floral Islands for Daisy, and the entire floral culture of the Floral Islanders. For Diamond, I had to invent the Mineral Islands and, with them, a fitting mineral culture. So the novel is a collaboration, for better or for worse.

CMP: She didn’t expect an author credit, did she?

Matthew Olshan: (Laughing) I seriously considered it. Maybe on a future collaboration…

CMP: Are there any other hidden concepts a reader should know about, setting aside the mysticism?

Matthew Olshan: My hope is that the whole mystical apparatus is invisible to a reader. But there is another layer that may be less a part of The Flown Sky and more a part of the other novel I’ve written about this fantasy world. It’s sort of a Jungian idea of a collective consciousness, an ocean world, if you will, that’s mysteriously interconnected, but each soul is a separate island. And, of course, the connection of that interior, symbolically intense world with the everyday world we live in. The explosive interchange between these worlds is really at the center of the plot of The Flown Sky.

CMP: You mentioned that you’ve written another novel in this series. Has it been published?

Matthew Olshan: Funny you should ask! It hasn’t been published. In fact, I’m not sure it’s quite finished. I wrote it a long time ago, and there’s always a doubt in one’s mind about revising an earlier work. Something about altering the product of a younger version of yourself. It seems—well, not quite kosher. On the other hand, I do feel that there are several more of these stories in me. I call them the Inside Stories, a reference to the interiority of this fantasy world, in contrast to the Outside, which is where you and I live.

CMP: This is pretty heady stuff. How much of it do you expect your young readers to “get?”

Matthew Olshan: As much as they’re capable of. So much of publishing today is driven by marketing departments. If there’s the slightest doubt about the “target market” for a story, the story gets dumbed down to the youngest demographic. I think that’s a terrible disservice to young readers. Books, in my opinion, should be fun and challenging for every single reader who picks them up, from the youngest to the oldest. There are elements in The Flown Sky that no one would expect a child to grasp; on the other hand, children understand a lot more than adults tend to give them credit for. The story has some of the childish fun with words and animals that you’d expect from a Lewis Carroll story, but also the narrative drive of a book for an older reader. My strong belief is that one shouldn’t “write down” to children.

CMP: Can you at least give us a range of ages, even if it’s only your best guess?

Matthew Olshan: (Laughing) ‘Okay,’ he said, climbing down from his soap box. My daughter loved hearing the story at bedtime from about age six. She read it herself for the first time when she turned eight. My sense is that young, bright readers from ages eight onwards will enjoy the story. And so will their parents. At least, that’s what I hope. I’d hate for the novel to be pegged as a book for precocious children only. But one never knows.

CMP: Is there anything else you’d like a reader of The Flown Sky to know?

Matthew Olshan: Only that I’d be very interested in hearing from readers via the novel’s website, I had some very thoughtful responses to Finn: a novel. I’d love to keep that going.