God in the life of Stephen Lawhead

StephenLawheadAUTHOR Stephen Lawhead blends history, science fiction and fantasy into his popular novels. He tells Jo Duckles about his faith journey and his path to becoming a professional novelist based in Oxford.

I met Stephen in the home he shares with his wife, Alice, where evidence of his creative work, paintings and books, can be spotted everywhere. Stephen tells me his story which starts in Nebraska in the 1950s, with President Eisenhower in power and the Cuban Missile Crisis taking place during his formative years. He was raised in a Baptist family and made a personal commitment to Christ at university.

“Even for someone raised in the Church, there comes a time when you have to decide whether to move closer to Jesus and make your faith your own or to distance yourself. A lot of people distance themselves in a sort of rebellion. You have to do that to find out where you are and show that you are not just an extension of your parents,” says Stephen. “I did not rebel, as such, but I came to the conclusion that I really liked a lot of what the Church did, the people involved in it, its teachings – and in my first year at university decided that it would be for me.”

After an art degree, Stephen began a three year Masters in Theology at a seminary in Chicago which he abandoned within a few weeks  of finishing when he landed a job with Campus Life Magazine, an outreach of Youth for Christ International. “Along with my theological studies, I’d been taking extra classes in writing – something I had an itch to do. One evening after class, I was asked by the lecturer – who also happened to be a magazine publisher – if I would like to work for his magazine,“ says Stephen, who took the job and stayed for five years, before leaving to concentrate on writing fiction.

“For the magazine, I interviewed celebrities and sporting figures and wrote articles on anything of interest to high school and college-age people,” he says.  “The magazine was a great proving ground for writing and one day I decided to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and try my hand at fiction. I was naïve enough to think that I would write a book, sell it and then be up and running. But, if it didn’t work out there were enough magazines around that I could probably get another job.”

If you are not pedalling you are falling off

Stephen likens writing to riding a bike.  “If you are not pedalling you are falling off. What I learnt very quickly was that you must maintain a certain momentum in order to succeed. It’s about keeping your books on the shelf.”

Stephen considers that all of his books have a spiritual theme running through them.  “For example, in the fantasy series The Song of Albion, I look at true sovereignty. It occurred to me that church folk talk about Jesus as king, but most of us don’t have a very good idea of what a true king really is. For the ancient Celts, a king would have been a man who lives out of himself for his people – he spends his life sacrificially in every way. That, for me, became a picture of what true sovereignty looks like,” says Stephen. It was research for his Arthurian series, The Pendragon Cycle in the 1980s that brought the Lawhead family to the UK.

“Oddly enough, there wasn’t a lot of King Arthur material in Nebraska and when I came to the UK and toured some of the ancient sites they awakened the latent historian in me. It was fascinating to learn what the Romans got up to, for example – it was all new to me. And once I got started down that furrow I kept on ploughing,” says Stephen, who finds visiting an actual place to get a sense of the landscape, people, and atmosphere the best form of research.

“I remember sitting on a rock at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, overlooking Merlin’s Bay. I found out that at 3pm on a winter’s day, the sun is going down in the west and that the bay has completely filled up with water, and there are sea caves, and the rocks are alive with birds – well, just to observe something like that is easier than making it up. I used to go around with a notebook and take detailed notes but I quit because even that was getting in the way. But if I experience something, it will come back to me when I need it. I can unpack it later because I was there.”

Stephen and Alice lived in Oxford city centre and worshipped at St Aldate’s Church, where they found the Sunday School was great for their sons. They were confirmed as Anglicans by the Bishop of Pontefract to enable them to carry out duties including administering communion. They stayed at St Aldate’s until they moved to Austria, where Alice took a job at  the Schloss Mittersill Christian Conference Centre in the Alps.  After four years the couple moved back to Iffley in Oxford and, with a principle of worshipping at the church closest to their home, quickly became members of St Mary’s Church. There Alice has been involved in ongoing work to encourage more families with young children to join.

Travelling is close to the Lawheads’ hearts and when I met Stephen he had just returned from a promotional tour of the US that saw him travel 2,762 miles taking in the East Coast, Boston, Nashville, Atlanta and North and South Carolina, finishing with three days in New York. It may sound like a lot, but Stephen and Alice travel as often as they can. They were in Syria three days before the war broke out, and in Egypt during the fall of Mubarak. Both of these locations are used in Stephen’s latest series, Bright Empires.

So as 2015 starts Stephen, who works five days a week, using Saturday as a catch up day (and always taking Sundays off), has begun work on a fantasy epic that sees him return to his mythic history roots. His routine is to spend eight or nine months writing and three months perfecting a book, usually completing one each year.

Stephen and Alice have two grown-up sons, Drake and Ross. Stephen’s hobbies include walking, painting, music and home brewing.

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