Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Beyond Beowulf
Captures Rhythm
of Ancient Text

Beowulf is often used as an introduction to epic poetry in high school English classes. Not being a fan of poetry, a groan was my first response. But Beowulf won me over because it was a good story.

Christopher Webber’s Beyond Beowulf works for the same reason. It’s a good story. I can appreciate the poetry now as well. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Webber’s introduction in which he explains the technical aspects of the poetry and the framework in which he constructs the work.

Webber published the book through iUniverse and received the company’s Publisher’s Choice designation, endorsing the content and the cover design. The book has also earned the company’s Reader’s Choice designation which means it has sold at least 250 copies through retail channels.

His marketing efforts have included numerous book signings and appearances and an impressive blog at He even made an appearance on a cable access show in Connecticut, in which his friend, Sam Waterston, the actor who plays Jack McCoy on television’s Law & Order, read from the book.

Webber recently shared some thoughts on writing, publishing and promoting Beyond Beowulf.

What inspired you to write Beyond Beowulf?
I'm fascinated by the SOUND of the original, Beowulf, both in Old English and in translation and began by trying to do my own translation of Beowulf. I'm still not satisfied with that, but I became very aware of the unanswered question at the end: "What will become of us now that Beowulf is dead?" and thought someone after all these years should try to provide an answer.

Were you ever intimidated when you thought “I’m writing a sequel to one of the classics of ancient literature?”
I probably should have been! But I don't remember ever stopping to think about it. If I had, I might have stopped right there!

You’ve written the story as an epic poem, emulating the original. What lead you to that decision? Did you consider writing the story in a different form?
No. I had a correspondence once with a distinguished professor who believes the best translation of Beowulf is a prose translation. I simply don't understand that. Beowulf survived because of the sound of the poetry. A sequel that used some other format would not really be a sequel worth talking about.

Was writing it in that form challenging?
Actually, I think the form made it easier. The need to alliterate made it necessary to ponder word choice more deeply than I might otherwise have done and the alliteration often seemed to suggest the direction the story might take.

What kind of feedback have you received on the book so far? You’ve had a number of readings/signings so far. How have those gone?
I think most authors have had the same experience I have had: a range of audiences from very small to reasonably large. The smallest consisted of the bookstore owner and his parents! But even there, I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the book with an intelligent audience. The largest audience was probably fifty to a hundred. Reading poetry is always enjoyable. If my book were a technical manual or "how to" type of book, I think I would get bored. But good poetry like good music can be often repeated and enjoyed.

You received the Publisher’s Choice designation from iUniverse. What was your impression of the iUniverse process?
My first impression of iUniverse was very favorable. The people I worked with were prompt to respond and always helpful and supportive. The Publisher's Choice project has been less satisfactory. I was told I was being given the designation in July or August and that it would take "2 or 3 weeks." In fact, it was November before it began to move and I have only today been able to send off the necessary forms to complete the application process.

How did you arrive at the cover design? Was that something you contributed or did iUniverse create that?
I had a picture of a warrior's helmet from a book I had read about archaeological exploration of burial mounds in East Anglia that seem to indicate links with Sweden. I sent them that picture (with other suggestions) and they did the rest. I didn't much like their original color scheme so they changed it. I liked the result a lot. When they wanted to redesign the cover for Publisher's Choice designation they changed the title type face and placement and I'm less satisfied than with the original.

You mention on your blog that Sam Waterston did a reading with you on a cable access show. How did that all come about? What kind of reaction did you get to the show?
I've heard from a lot of people in the area that saw it and were very interested. I’ve come to know Sam Waterston through my involvement over the last dozen years with an Episcopal congregation in Connecticut that he’s part of. It seemed to me that his name would get more attention than mine and he, always generous, was willing.

Are you working on additional writing projects?
People have asked me whether I intend to do a sequel to the sequel. In fact, what I've begun working on is what I call a "paraquel." What I thought it would be interesting to do is tell the same story again from the viewpoint of the hero's wife, Yrfa. Wiglaf is the hero of my story and the only character carried over from the original. Since Wiglaf dies at the end of my sequel, I thought it might be interesting to begin from that point and let her talk about her bereavement and then review their life and relationship. I've done about 500 lines so far toward a goal of 3000 plus (same as Beowulf and Beyond Beowulf). I find that Yrfa is more interesting than I had realized with very strong views about male/female relationships and the male proclivity for war. I've also begun to notice that their son, Weo, inherited just the wrong mix of his parent's best qualities and is potentially a rather nasty piece of work. But we shall see how that develops.

What I'm thinking of doing is completing this paraquel and then polishing my translation of Beowulf, the original, and then publishing "The Beowulf Trilogy" in one volume.

Meanwhile I have one proposal sitting on a publisher's desk. He's indicated interest but asked me to flesh it out some more - which will take time. I've got another project well along and several other ideas I hope to be able to work on before much longer. Having had three books published this year, I'm feeling as if there isn't as much happening right now. On the other hand, I have a pretty busy schedule of readings on my calendar.


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