Through A New Wardrobe: The NarniaFans Interview Series: NarniaFans Goes to Hades with William O’Flaherty’s new Companion and Study Guide to The Screwtape Letters


Hey, everybody! Welcome back to “Through a New Wardrobe”, where we sit down and chat with some of today’s hottest writers who have been influenced by CS Lewis and the Land of Narnia.  For today’s interview, we sit down with William O’Flaherty, host of the All About Jack Podcast, longtime friend of NarniaFans, and the author of new companion commentary on the Screwtape LettersC.S. Lewis Goes to Hell

 

NarniaFans: Tell us a bit about yourself, for our readers that might not know much about you.

William O'Flaherty

William O’Flaherty

William O’Flaherty: Many people falsely believe that I’m an avid reader. I grew up hating to read. In fact, to this day, I have a difficult time reading just about ANY works of fiction. C.S. Lewis is one of the very few that I have read more than one of an author’s fictional works. Related to this, if I can listen to a book, rather than read it, then that’s what I’ll do. So, in the process of writing my book to help people further enjoy The Screwtape Letters, I actually listened to it greater than ten times more than reading it. Grand total, I’ve read or listen to it over 100 times!

 

Apart from my interest in Lewis, some might be surprise to learn that way back in high school I was a hurdler and even ran in the Junior Olympics back in 1981. Professionally, I’m a Mental Health Counselor. In my current position I work full-time as a family counselor.

 

 

NF: Can you give us a quick teaser for Lewis Goes to Hell that will give us an idea of what we’re in for?

WO: C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell is a book about another book, specifically it is an enhanced study guide to The Screwtape Letters. I say “enhanced” because an important unique aspect to it is what called a “Topical Glossary.” This is sort of a mini-encyclopedia of key topics and themes in the letters that allow you to see all the places they are mentioned. I also provide suggested answers to the study questions and cover the follow-up essay entitled “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” It’s also a very versatile book. An individual can use the book on their own or a small group can use it for a 13 week or longer study.

 

NF: What were your inspirations for writing a commentary on The Screwtape Letters?

WO: Part of what motivated me was the other books out there that are study guides. While I haven’t looked at two of them that actually came out in the last year, I found previous guides were good, but not entirely useful. In fact, you might say the seeds were planted for writing my book back in 2000 when I filled in to teach a Sunday School class. I picked The Screwtape Letters and created my own questions for the group because no single guide had what I thought would work.

screwtapecommentary

NF: What themes did you try to convey in the book?

WO: In both the Topical Glossary and the study guide part of my book, the main aim was to let The Screwtape Letters speak for itself. That is, while I created a list of potential questions early on and key words to index in the Glossary, I read over or listened to the entire book many times before settling on the final questions and topics. Of course, having an electronic copy of The Screwtape Letters help tremendously. In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to have effectively completed the Topical Glossary without it. But, getting back to your question, I bring to light all the major and as many minor themes as possible in my Glossary. Some of the topics that have longer entries include: Habit, Hope, Obey, Pleasure, Prayer, and Vice.

 

NF: How did you come up with the title?

WO: Various titles were considered, but the publisher already had a book called C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven about another title from Lewis called The Great Divorce. That book is about an imaginary trip to Heaven…hence the title. My book is about a bunch of letters from a demon, who is writing from Hell. Thus, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to call my book C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell. In fact, if you look at the two covers you can see that the fact they are visually similar, in many respects, was something done on purpose.

 

NF: Who designed the cover art?

WO: The publisher totally took care of that in terms of having someone they hire to design it and so it didn’t cost me anything. I did get to see a variety of layouts in terms of the artwork and provide input into the final selection. But, I actually don’t know the name of the person who created it.

 

NF: What was the hardest part of writing Lewis Goes to Hell?

WO: Everything and nothing! As mentioned already, I had begun some parts of it back in 2000, but I totally redid the questions. The other major part of the book I thought of over five years ago. So, getting started wasn’t difficult, per se. But then it took so long for me to seriously pursue getting the book published. Once I did in early 2015 and signed a contract I thought it would be smooth sailing. However, I found it took many, many more hours and days and weeks and months to finish, considering I felt I knew what I was doing. You might say that I said all that to say that the process of editing it was the hardest part. It was almost like the Devil didn’t want me to finish it!

 

NF: Did you learn anything from writing Lewis Goes to Hell?  What did you learn?

WO: I’ve always heard to write about something you love or enjoy because then the process would be more pleasant. Having completed the book I view that advice a little differently. That is, if you write about what you really like the process will be more endurable. Meaning getting a book published is to some extend (or is it just me?) a painful process, so if you’re not writing about something you are passionate about then it wouldn’t be endurable! Give me a few months or years more perspective and I’ll probably realize other things I learned.

 

NF: In your commentary you do mention that The Screwtape Letters is a satire. For our readers unfamiliar with the term, would you care to describe what that literary concept is?

WO: The idea behind satire is to use humor to criticize or show the faults of another person, concept or even institution. So, in The Screwtape Letters Lewis is “letting the Devil speak for himself” through the voice of Screwtape and reveal how ridiculous life is from a demon’s perspective.

 

NF: Do you feel that the satirical nature of Screwtape often gets misunderstood by some readers?

WO: Indeed it does get misunderstood in some way by many readers today. This reminds me of comments recently made by Dr. Michael Ward (author of The Narnia Code) on my podcast show, All About Jack. He was one of several guests talking about The Screwtape Letters in a show that was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the first appearance of the letters in a weekly publication. Dr. Ward stated he was surprised how many of his students don’t find the humor in The Screwtape Letters. He suggests it’s because of being aware of the seriousness of the main topic (temptation) and the fact that the two central characters are demons.

 

NF: With this in mind, how do you feel readers should “read” The Screwtape Letters?

WO:  Considering the way Lewis wrote the letters (using the voice of a demon to show not just how smart devils sometimes are, but also how much more smart-alecky they are) I recommend people not be afraid to find humor in the book. Also, be open to seeing how some of what the patient experiences might apply in your own life.

 

NF: Another area of concern some Christians have in reading Screwtape is that Screwtape refers to Wormwood as his “nephew”, when we know from Scripture that Angels both unfallen and fallen cannot marry. How do you interpret Screwtape calling Wormwood his nephew?

WO: I was never bothered by this because it is common in works of fiction to suggest something that isn’t true in reality…that is taking “creative license” to make a point. So, when the letters end and we learn of Wormwood’s fate, it shows how cruel Hell is. Additionally, the way Lewis depicts Hell is different than the way it is in the Bible. Hell isn’t run like a business as the letters suggests. Lewis did it the way he did to be able to tell the story in a way people could relate to.

 

 

NF: Now, one of the many topics of Screwtape Letters is on guilt. Do you feel, as a mental health professional, that apart from the spiritual life, guilt can have an adverse effect on the life of the mind and body as well?

WO: Those familiar with Scripture are probably aware of the first verse in Romans 8 that states there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (NIV). Thus, as a Christian, one can be free of guilt in an absolute sense. But, guilt, in another sense, doesn’t have to be bad. Another favorite verse that is related is found in 2 Corinthians 7:8-11, where guilt is spoken of in terms of “sorrow.” There it speaks of “Godly sorrow” resulting in a positive response. If I may put on my “counselor hat,” I received some training in Christian counseling and recall the following points:

  • Unhealthy guilt is rooted in rules. Healthy guilt is rooted in relationships. (Galatians 5:1, 13-15)
  • Unhealthy guilt carries a compulsion to confess matters that are mostly trivial. Healthy guilt also carries a compulsion to confess things, but they that are things that are important to one’s relationship to God and others.
  • Unhealthy guilt never yields to forgiveness, while healthy guilt always yields to forgiveness.

 

NF: By “Yield to forgiveness” do you mean accept it?

WO: Great question, as that information actually comes from a lecture on the topic that is about an hour long. Let me expand on the entire last point. Guilt that is unhealthy will not accept that once a person has confessed to God the fact that he or she is forgiven. So, healthy guilt (something a person feels convicted about that is coming from God and not the Devil) will yield, or accept forgiveness once it is asked for. Interestingly, Lewis wrote two short pieces on the topic of forgiveness. One is found in Mere Christianity and the other is an essay called “On Forgiveness” that is available in the book The Weight of Glory.

 

NF: Do you have a favorite letter in Screwtape Letters? Why that one?

 WO: Historically the eleventh letter dealing with the four causes of laughter is the one letter that stood out as a whole. I found it very insightful. However, since reading all the letters over and over again for my book, I’m going to have to “cheat,” or give an honorable mention to number fourteen that deals with humility. A friend who hadn’t read the letters until a few years ago spoke of really enjoying that part and when I studied the letters more I found that I was amazed at how Lewis spoke such truth through Screwtape’s “mouth.”


NF: When and why did you begin writing your commentary?

WO: As noted, the beginnings of my book are from around the year 2000. I was in a Sunday School class for singles (I’m married now) and there was an opportunity to take a turn leading a study. I picked The Screwtape Letters. So I gathered what I could find at the time for study materials and found the questions for discussion only moderately helpful. Thus, I began to develop my own questions and summaries of the letters. Sadly, only the summaries for most of the letters and a handful of questions survived the changing of computers over the years. What is now the Topical Glossary in the book got its start around 2008. I first thought about doing a book and wonder what would make it unique. I remember noticing that some topics or themes are revisited in other letters, so I began to create a basic index. Fast forward to 2015 when I finally said to myself that I definitely wanted to pitch a book somewhere. I say “a book” because at the time I had created material for my EssentialCSLewis.com site that I felt could be compiled and published. I approached a place that was somewhat like self-publishing, but didn’t have any upfront costs. Well, they had changed their model and now there were upfront expenses…money I didn’t have to spare. That motivated me to pitch another book idea to Winged Lion Press. That was, of course, an enhance study guide on Screwtape that had been on the back burner. They accepted my Screwtape book proposal and so as they say the rest is history.

 

NF: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

WO: I consider the origin of my writing to have occurred in college. I was reading something in the bi-weekly (2x week) college newspaper that was an opinion piece and couldn’t believe all the crazy stuff the person had written. So, I went straight back to my dorm room and wrote a response. Not long after this I found out that I, too, could write editorials for the newspaper and share what others might find as “crazy stuff.” I consider this to be the point that I became a writer, because it was what made me go through the process of improving in my writing. I was writing about what mattered to me and I took more careful steps in learning how to say what I wanted to say with greater clarity.

 

NF: What inspired you to write your first book?

WO: This will be no surprise based on the answer to an earlier question; my inspiration to write C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell came from my love for The Screwtape Letters and a desire to help others get the maximum benefit from the great truths found in it.

 

NF: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

WO: The first thing that comes to my mind is to say that C.S. Lewis is my writing mentor and that’s partly true. A person can learn a lot from him about writing and living out what you passionately believe in. In addition to him, two other individuals come to mind. One is the late Dr. Bruce Edwards, who only died in 2015 and the other is Dr. Devin Brown. Interestingly neither have ever directly gave me writing advice. But, their friendships have led to much encouragement in my life and that has made me a better writer.

 

NF: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

WO: As mentioned earlier, I’m not an avid reader, so I couldn’t even begin to name any new authors.

 

NF: What are your current projects?

WO: In terms of writing I have a variety of ideas dancing around in my head. I’m considering doing a “spin-off” of my current book. That is, since my book was published I spoke a few times and those talks focus on expanding on one of the appendices in my book. It’s the fourth on dealing with an unexpected method the devils use. In the book I merely list examples by sharing short quotations to back my claim. I’m not sure yet if there is enough material to justify a book, but there is enough for at least four-part talk on the subject.

 

Also, I’m exploring a couple of other projects related to content I’ve posted online at EssentialCSLewis.com. One has to do with quotations falsely attributed to C.S. Lewis. I’ve discovered close to thirty and then there are at least a handful of ones that Lewis said, but apart from their context they can mean a variety of things. This material would be combined with myths or misunderstandings about Lewis. Another idea is a bigger project that would use the days of the years to highlight the life or work of Lewis. I’d love to say more, but I’m discussing co-authoring it with someone else and there are a lot of details to work out before revealing more about it.

 

Finally, I’m considering using the approach I used with C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell and tackle one of Lewis’ final books, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer; it could be called C.S. Lewis Goes to Prayer!

 

NF: Do you have any advice for other writers?

WO: Writing can be one of the most rewarding activities a person can do. Often though, it only feels rewarding when you get positive feedback from others. Sadly, however, it’s more common to not get any feedback and only hear about when you’ve written something another doesn’t like, or if you’ve missed some errors in your writing. So, my advice to writers is to make sure you are doing what you’re doing because you enjoy what you are writing about. While you do want input from others to help improve your writing, on the other side of that it’s important to “not” listen to others and do what you believe the Lord has called you to do. Of course, determining what that might be does mean considering input from others, but also having your heart open to allowing the Lord to direct your steps.  Some of this relates to comments Screwtape makes regarding the “temple of Fame” and humility.

 

Also, there is a lesson I was relearning recently regarding my full-time job. It has to do with working with all my heart as unto the Lord and not for man (check how this is phrased). If you think about it (and I was obviously NOT thinking about it), it means working a lot harder than you normally would for another person. That’s because in some work settings it can be fairly easy with getting by with cutting corners and doing your work at only 80 or 90 percent. So, don’t neglect whatever job you have that pays the bills. Work at it as best you can with all that is in you. That might mean you don’t have much time to write for now. However, sometimes having less available time to write results in more focused writing.

 

NF: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

WO: If you only read one more book this year, then make sure it is my book…no, wait, I guess I better make that TWO, as my book is worthless unless you also read The Screwtape Letters!

 

NF: Now, what if our readers read both Screwtape and your Enhanced Study Guide and want to read more about Screwtape Letters? Are there any other good books about Screwtape Letters out there or ones that helped in your research?

WO: As noted, a key reason I wrote this book was because I couldn’t find another to use for leading a group through a study of the letters. Years ago when I was exploring what was available I did like some elements and I hadn’t examined two study guides that I know came out in the last year before my book. So, I don’t have any to recommend, but that doesn’t mean none of the other books aren’t useful. With today’s technology you can easily preview up to the first couple chapters of a book, so I’d suggest people take advantage of this possibility and see if what they find is useful to them.

 

NF: Thank you so much for your time during this interview. It has been a pleasure!

 

William’s commentary C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell: A Companion and Study Guide to The Screwtape Letters is now available online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. You can learn more about it by visiting ScrewtapeCompanion.com; there you can get an immediate download of a free 20 page PDF sample of the book. Again that’s ScrewtapeCompanion.com

 

 

 


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