Chris Colfer is renowned for his Golden Globe-winning performance as Kurt Hummel on Fox's Glee, where he helped bring the story and struggles of a gay teen to an international audience.
However, the 29-year-old actor-turned-writer is also taking the literary world by storm. Colfer has written an impressive 15 novels, most notably his The Land of Stories children's fantasy series. He does not shy away from LGBTQ activism on the page. His latest book, A Tale of Magic..., which centers on people persecuted for practicing magic, "is an allegory for being gay," Colfer told The Advocate in a recent interview.
Evoking a children's version of The Handmaid's Tale, A Tale of Magic presents a world where women have no rights and are barred from reading. Additionally, practitioners of magic are condemned to death or life imprisonment. A young girl, Brystal Evergreen, rebels against this tyranny by engaging in both. In turn, she is sent to a correctional facility to "cure" her of her magic. A mysterious savior, Madame Weatherberry, rescues Brystal from detainment and recruits her on a mission to change the hearts and minds of the kingdom.
In the following interview, Colfer discusses how antigay politics of the real world inspired his magical allegory, which he calls a "manifesto for compassion. I’ve never written anything like it before." A Tale of Magic, now available on Amazon and wherever good books are sold, also recently debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, demonstrating how Colfer's message of political resistance has resonated with young audiences.
The Advocate: Congratulations on your new book! What inspired A Tale of Magic?
Chris Colfer: Trauma, mostly. I was 11 years old when 9/11 happened. I remember I was old enough to understand what was happening, but I wasn’t old enough to understand why it was happening. And I don’t think anything is scarier for a child than confusion. I can’t imagine how scared kids must feel nowadays. So I wanted to write a book that parents and teachers could use as a point of reference when they explain the troubling things their kids and students see on the news. I hope it puts things into perspective while giving them a magical adventure at the same time.
You’ve written 15 books. What’s the secret to your productivity?
Caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine. Also, isolation. Sometimes I’ll go weeks without seeing anyone besides my boyfriend and our dogs.
Who are your literary influences?
Well, I apologize for sounding like a millennial cliché, but J.K. Rowling had the biggest impact on me. I wasn’t a good reader when I was young, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first book I actually enjoyed reading. And some of my happiest childhood memories were going to those midnight release parties. I then went on to devour everything by C.S. Lewis, Eva Ibbotson, and Bruce Coville. On some level, I think I’m still mourning the end of Harry Potter. It left a void I’ve been trying to fill by writing my own books.
What appeals to you about the fantasy genre in particular?
I suppose it’s the escapism and encouragement it provides. In fantasy, a mouse can slay a dragon if it’s courageous enough. That’s very therapeutic for those of us still battling our own dragons.
A Tale of Magic, much like The Handmaid’s Tale, shows a bleak world where women have no rights. Also, practitioners of magic are subjected to imprisonment or even the death sentence. While writing the book, how much did the real world and the current political climate influence your storytelling?
The current climate was the entire inspiration. A Tale of Magic was supposed to be an easy task for me. It was supposed to be the start of a simple prequel series. The working title was The Land Before Stories. But when I sat down to actually write it, I felt so angry and helpless by the state of the world, I had to do something more so I could sleep at night. Even if I was the wrong messenger, even if it didn’t do well, I wanted to do anything I possibly could to guide the next generation onto a better path. It ceased to be a prequel and became a completely original story. Now I consider A Tale of Magic my manifesto for compassion. I’ve never written anything like it before.
What is the overarching message you wanted to send by centering your story on a character who is not only discriminated against for her gender, but also her extraordinary abilities?
I want young people to know that just because they’re born into an environment that doesn’t accept or appreciate them, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an environment that will. There’s a lot of love waiting for you out there if you’re willing to look for it. I’m living proof. Also, the more the world discourages you, the more it needs you.
The protagonist is sent to a “Correctional Facility for Troubled Young Women” in the hopes that she will be “cured” of her magical gifts. This storyline echoes the experiences of survivors of conversion therapy. How do you think fiction — your novel in particular — can fight against antigay forces like "ex-gay" therapy in the real world?
Thank you for making that connection. In my opinion, the purpose of fiction, besides providing an escape, is to subconsciously plant seeds of reason and compassion in people’s minds. That was the sole mission of the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. After reading about the horrible and abusive experiences at the Correctional Facility in A Tale of Magic, I hope my readers will grow up with a resentment of conversion therapy already ingrained within them. If I can get them to sympathize with the struggles of a fictitious magical community, then maybe, just maybe, they’ll be more likely to sympathize with the struggles of other communities fighting for acceptance in the real world.
In addition to A Tale of Magic being a novel, do you see it as a work of LGBTQ activism?
I’d like to think so. Although, I have no control over how other people will interpret it. For me, the magic in A Tale of Magic is an allegory for being gay. The characters are raised to believe magic is demonic and unnatural. They’re sent to camps where they “pray the magic away.” And they’re all on a mission to prove "magic isn’t a choice." But what magic represents for me may be different for a little girl in Egypt or a teenage boy in Japan. We all have obstacles that hold us back. We’re all assigned different stigmas based on our circumstances. So, whatever your “magic” may be, A Tale of Magic is about overcoming the forces that suppress it.
We’re living in a world when books are still being banned — and the written word itself is under attack. As a novelist, do you see it as your duty to fight against censorship?
Absolutely. You have to be incredibly strategic to get your book into the hands of the people who need it the most. Especially when your books have LGBTQ themes. So many authors get criticized when they reveal a character’s orientation or gender identity after publication instead of on the page. But I don’t always agree with those critics. In some places books are instantly banned if they have any LGBTQ characters or LGBTQ references whatsoever. But there are ways of getting representation into those territories that goes under the radar. That’s the purpose of the character Xanthous Hayfield in A Tale of Magic. His orientation is never directly addressed in the first book, but there are enough clues so a closeted little boy living in an oppressive country can relate to him and know he’s not alone. But I don’t think censorship can survive the modern age. In fact, I think governments shoot themselves in the foot when they apply censorship. It instantly triggers a wave of curiosity and publicity you can’t buy. So please, by all means, ban me.
Did you have a Madame Weatherberry, the "fairy godmother" character in A Tale of Magic, in your life?
My grandmother was my biggest cheerleader growing up. She made me believe in myself, and I think that’s the greatest gift you can give a kid, even if you don’t necessarily believe their dreams are practical. I used to sit with her for hours and hours on her back patio and talk. We’d make game plans of how I was going to accomplish my goals while she smoked and polished her guns.
You dedicate your novel to those whose shoulders you stand on — presumably LGBTQ pioneers. Did you have any particular figures in mind when making this dedication?
There are a hundred names I could list that everyone knows, but it’s really about the people who are unknown. I get pretty emotional when I think about it. There are millions of people who never got to reap the benefits of their courage and honesty, but because they stood up when they did, I get to do what I love and be with who I love. I can’t imagine the bravery it took. Even right now, there are people in other parts of the world reading this website in secret, looking for encouragement as they fight for their right to exist. Wherever they are, I hope they can feel the future’s gratitude.
If you could have any magical ability, what would it be?
Honestly, I’d be happy with just a faster metabolism. That sounds pretty magical.
What appeals to you about your literary work, versus the world of television and film?
I suppose it’s the control. When I write a novel, it can be anything and everything I want it to be. I get to tell the story and describe the images exactly as they exist in my mind. In film and television there’s always so many cooks in the kitchen it’s difficult to produce a pure vision. There’s a lot of compromising and negotiating and it requires a lot of patience. Also, I can write books in my pajamas. It doesn’t get better than that.
Would you adapt A Tale of Magic into a movie or TV series?
I would love to see A Tale of Magic come to life. I guess it all depends on my experience with the Land of Stories film adaptation. For my own physical safety, I hope the Disney/Fox merger settles so we can finish it. There are millions of kids around the world who are going to want to hurt me if they don’t get a movie soon.