Saturday, January 7, 2012

Meet & Greet: Author, Speaker, and C.S. Lewis Expert, Will Vaus


 Today on my blog, I interview author, speaker, and C.S. Lewis expert, Will Vaus.  I first saw Will Vaus speak at Grand Canyon University about his book, "The Hidden Story of Narnia" before Voyage of the Dawn Treader was released.

I then became friends on Facebook with Mr. Vaus and have read his other books about C.S. Lewis.  I am honored to have him here on my blog today!

So please tell my readers a little bit about yourself….

I am forty-eight years old, husband of one for twenty-four years and father of three boys. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama from the University of California at San Diego and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Seminary. I have spent most of the last twenty-four years serving in ministry both as an evangelist and as a pastor of various churches around the US. Over the last seven years I have had five books published.

You have written so many books about C.S. Lewis. What is your writing process?  Where do you prefer to write and why?

I suppose all writing starts with an idea, or in the case of fiction, with a picture in one’s mind, as C. S. Lewis said. The next step is to write that idea down, sometimes at first only in the form of a sentence, a phrase or a title. Then, in the case of nonfiction, I draw up an outline of the book as I envision it, a table of contents. Then I write the introduction and the chapters one by one, from beginning to end.

In the case of fiction, I begin by writing a one-sentence summary of the story, followed by a paragraph summary and then a longer summary of perhaps several paragraphs. Next, I write character descriptions, a paragraph for each main character. Then I write an outline of the story, a table of contents and brief, one-sentence, chapter summaries. Then I write the story from beginning to end.

In both cases, fiction and nonfiction, after I have gone through this whole process, then I go back and read the manuscript from beginning to end, revising and editing as I go. I may go through a manuscript as many as several times in this fashion before I feel it is ready to send off to a publisher.

Because I work at home and do not have an office at home, I generally write in my living room, on a laptop, while sitting on the couch with a beautiful view of our small mountain town out of the window. I would probably prefer to write in a room set aside for the purpose of writing, but that is not an option for me at this point. I hope to claim my own office in our house when my second son goes off to college.

How do you go about your research? How long does it take to write one book about C.S. Lewis?

The way I go about my research varies from book to book. In the case of writing about C. S. Lewis, I have almost all the primary and secondary resources I need right at my fingertips because I have a rather good collection of these resources in my personal library. I have, in addition, done some research at the Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois, and I have traveled to the British Isles on a number of occasions and interviewed people who knew Lewis.

I have also written a biography of Sheldon Vanauken, author of “A Severe Mercy”. For that book, I had to do a rather large amount of travel to the places where he lived (Lynchburg, Virginia, Indianapolis, Indiana and Oxford). I spent a good amount of time in libraries and other locations doing primary research that had never been done before.

Of course, a lot of information that used to be available only in libraries is now on the Internet. Thus, I do a good bit of research using the Web. However, one must be careful to make certain that the sources one is using on the Web are accurate. Cross-checking becomes even more important when it comes to Internet research.

Each book is different in terms of the amount of time required. My book, “Mere Theology”, took seven years to research and write. However, I was the full-time pastor of a church at that time. Now, I can devote more time to writing, and so the books come more quickly.

 My book, “The Professor of Narnia”, which is a biography of Lewis targeted to younger readers, took only a few months to write. I also read aloud each chapter to my family as I was writing it. However, I had already done most of the biographical research for that book when I wrote four biographical essays on Lewis for the first volume of the Lewis “Life, Works and Legacy” series.

 My book, “Speaking of Jack: A C. S. Lewis Discussion Guide”, was written over several years as I was leading various Lewis discussion groups. The final edits on that work took several months. 

Finally, my book, “The Hidden Story of Narnia” was begun while I was living in Ireland in “The Narnia Cottage”. That book took several months to write, but then went through a number of edits over about five years before it was published.

Have you ever considered writing a children’s book series?

Yes, the fairy tale that I have written “The Tales of Rathscar: The Tunnel Under Scarborough House”, is the first in a series. However, I am waiting to find a publisher for the first book before writing the rest in the series.

So, your father was a real life gangster in Mickey Cohen’s crime ring. Tell my readers a little about your book, My Father Was a Gangster. What motivated you to write the book?

I was motivated to write the book about my father because a friend, who had read one of my father’s earlier autobiographical works, despaired that it was no longer in print.  Toward the end of his life, in 1997, my father had begun work on a memoir, but he did not live long enough to complete it. Thus, in 2005 I picked up his notes and began to read what he had worked on. I loved the stories of his early life, some that I had never heard before. It was as if he was alive again and speaking to me in the very room where I was reading.  I took those stories, put them in my own voice and started writing the book, following the pattern my father had set. Then I used the earlier autobiographies he had written, along with a lot of other primary material, and interviews, as my sources. I interviewed my mother rather extensively and read each chapter aloud to her as I was writing.

People often ask me, upon seeing the title of the book, if it is a true story. I guess they find it rather hard to believe. Well, it is true. My father worked for Mickey Cohen and others in organized crime in Southern California in the late 1940s. However, all of that ended when he attended a Billy Graham meeting in Los Angeles in 1949 and gave his life to Jesus Christ. The book tells about my father’s days in organized crime, but it also tells much more. I tell about his early life and what led him into a life of crime, how he got out of the syndicate, and what he did with the rest of his life—mainly helping juvenile delinquents across the country find a meaningful life through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Of all the C.S. Lewis books, which is your favorite and why?

I am often asked that question and I usually say, “Whatever book I am reading at the time.” Out of the forty books Lewis wrote in his lifetime, it is hard to choose. It all began for me with my fourth grade public school teacher reading “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, so that book is certainly toward the top of my list. “Mere Christianity” helped me to hold on to Christ during my college years when I had many intellectual questions. “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” is the last book Lewis wrote and is a devotional favorite of mine.

What was it like to actually live inside the Narnia Cottage in Ireland and step through the wardrobe door?

My family and I had a wonderful time living in the Narnia Cottage in Ireland and working with C. S. Lewis’ step-son, Douglas Gresham, and his wife Merrie. We all have very fond memories of our eight months living there. Unfortunately, we never got to step through the wardrobe door in Ireland because the original Lewis family wardrobe is at Wheaton College! However, living in a 400 year old Irish cottage was great fun. It was much smaller than our houses in America but that was all right at the time because our boys were small and enjoyed spending a lot of time outdoors. 400 year old mold in the wettest country in the world did aggravate my allergies a bit.

Living in Ireland, even for a short time as we did, was a dramatic, cross-cultural experience requiring many adjustments on our part. There are many things about everyday life in Ireland that are different from living in the USA: driving on the left, hot and cold water taps in the bathroom, the metric system, using a different type of stove, smaller refrigerators and washing machines, hanging one’s wash out on a line to dry. All of these things required us to make adjustments. We loved the Irish countryside much more than the cities, though we enjoyed some of them too. We lived not far from the medieval city of Kilkenny and greatly enjoyed visiting the castle there on numerous occasions. We also enjoyed the beaches of Ireland that are not commercialized like our beaches in the USA. Sheep have the prime real estate on the Emerald Isle. Of course, it was also great fun helping Doug and Merrie in their ministry of hospitality on their twenty-acre estate and living in their 400 year old, twelve bedroom house when they were away. Doug was working on the first Narnia film at that time and bringing back glowing reports from the set in New Zealand.

Why do you think Professor Lewis’ life and writings have had such an impact on generations?

People have been trying to answer that question for decades. I think the first reason he has had a great impact on millions of people is because he was one of the most thoroughly converted people who has ever lived. He grew up in the church and then left the faith, largely because he could not understand how, if there was a God, this God could allow so much pain to exist in the world. Then he was dragged, slowly, kicking and screaming all the way, back to faith in Christ. He was drawn back by a combination of reason, and numerous imaginative experiences he called joy. Finally, he figured that the source of joy was Jesus Christ and that Jesus had to be who he claimed to be, namely the Son of God.

I say that his conversion has a lot to do with his popularity and impact because the books Lewis wrote before his conversion did not sell very well. Then he became popular during a very dark time in history, WWII, when people in Britain especially needed hope and a reason to go on believing in God and in Christ. “The Screwtape Letters” and Lewis’ BBC broadcasts made him almost a household name, first in England then in America. However, the reason for his ongoing fame and impact was yet to come.

 Lewis is largely known today for the Narnia stories that embody the Christian faith using mythic images. Lewis knew that some people cannot be reasoned into faith. For them the first appeal must be to the imagination.

Thus, Lewis is a writer of great impact because of his conversion—he has something important to say. Second, he is a writer of great impact because he combines reason and imagination in almost all of his books. Third, he is a writer of great impact because he writes well. He honed his craft over many years of education, trial and error. He learned how to speak to the masses through his BBC broadcasts and his RAF lecture series. His most popular books have a common touch about them, we feel as if Lewis is speaking to us from across the table over a nice cup of hot tea.

With The Hobbit coming out soon, can you briefly summarize what you feel are the differences between Tolkien and Lewis’ writing styles and messages within their books? 

 Of course, Tolkien did not write books of popular theology like Lewis did. However, in his fiction I think Tolkien provides hope, a light in the midst of the darkness. This hope is based, for both Tolkien and Lewis, on Christ. Lewis is more explicit in the use of Christian allusion in his books than Tolkien, but both of them, I believe, have a Christian message of hope in the midst of despair. They both lived through very dark times in the history of the world. Both served in the Great War, and were of course friends in Oxford during the depressing days of WWII. Their messages are rooted in their Christian faith but also their experiences of the world as we know it coming unglued.

Tolkien and Lewis’ writing styles, however, are very different, I think. Some of the content, some of the inspiration, is the same. Both had a love of rural England, the Shire. That comes through in the works of both men. However, Lewis’ writing is far more succinct than Tolkien. I think, again, that Lewis’ style was honed through having to give brief BBC talks, and purposely writing the Narnia stories in chapters that are the perfect length for reading aloud to a child at bedtime.

 Lewis can give you a picture, light a fire in your imagination, using very few words at all. The battle scenes in the Narnia stories, that played so large in my imagination as a child, really take up only a few pages. Tolkien, on the other hand, goes into very elaborate description. He was unparalleled at sub-creation, creating a whole new world, the languages and cultures of different peoples.

 Tolkien embedded his Christian beliefs very deep in his stories and the connection to Christianity sparks out in brief moments. Tolkien thought Lewis’ Narnia stories to be far too allegorical for his taste, though Lewis always denied that they were allegories.

I imagine a whole book could be written about the similarities and differences between Lewis and Tolkien’s writing style and message. There’s an idea for your readers to follow up on!

What advice can you give to a writer wanting to write about another person’s life? 

Whatever you write about, you have to be passionate about. For example, my writing about Sheldon Vanauken grew out of a fascination with his life. At times I felt almost obsessed to find out more about his family and Glenmerle, the family home in which he grew up, and which he describes so beautifully, almost hauntingly, in “A Severe Mercy”.

Thus, I think you have to start with an obsession. You need something to drive you to do the work, because it is going to be a lot of work. Then you have to completely immerse yourself as much as possible in the world of the person you are writing about. You have to learn as much as possible about the places and the time-period and the people surrounding the person you are writing about. As I was writing about Sheldon Vanauken, in particular, I felt like I was going back in time. Searching out old photographs helps me in the process—photos of old cars, people and places from the time-period. Listening to the music that person loved, watching movies or reading books they enjoyed.

I think when writing about someone else you also have to turn off your own judgment of the person and their actions. You’ve got to pull yourself out of the story and simply tell the story for what it is with great respect for the characters in it. Assessments of right and wrong, judgments of value are best rendered by the reader, not the writer.

As with any book, you also have to find a style, and find your stride in that style, that suits the material or the person you are trying to describe. For example, Vanauken was a great lover of poetry, so I have included a lot of poetry that he loved in my biography of him. My father, on the other hand, was a man of great action and humor. He seldom read a book and even the books he wrote were written by others. So the style of the book I wrote about him was in some senses different.

C. S. Lewis said that we ought, so far as possible, to “become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth-century Londoner while reading Johnson.” (“A Preface to Paradise Lost”, chapter IX.) I think the same is true when writing about another person’s life. You almost have to imaginatively become that person. Walter Hooper, Lewis’ secretary at the end of his life, gave me a great compliment in saying that he thought I did that well in the writing of “The Professor of Narnia”.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I am working on writing a book about the top ten books that influenced C. S. Lewis.

Thank you so much Will Vaus for visiting my blog!  I look forward to reading more of your books and hopefully seeing you speak again soon in Arizona. May God continue to bless your work and your family.

Will Vaus Bio:

Will Vaus is an international speaker and author. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in drama from the University of California at San Diego and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Will and his wife Becky and their three sons, James, Jonathan and Joshua, live in Virginia.

You can purchase any of Will Vaus' books at or at his web site and blog.



  1. This was longer than most blog posts that I am willing to stick with all the way to the end, yet it interested me so much, that here I am, read it all and glad I did.

    Thanks for sharing this and Happy New Year!

    Dixie Miller Goode

  2. I know! I just didn't want to split it up because it has such GREAT information. Thanks for visiting!

  3. Wow, great interview - what an interesting man Mr.C.S. Lewis is, and such a talented writer!!