Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Stephen Lawhead: Only He Knows Where The Skin Map Leads

  • Laura MacCorkle Senior Editor
  • 2010 29 Oct
Stephen Lawhead:  Only He Knows Where <i>The Skin Map</i> Leads

Reading and ley lines:  what do they have in common?  Both, it is argued, can be pathways to "different worlds."  But in Stephen Lawhead's newest novel, The Skin Map, this is doubly true.

The first in the new Bright Empires series, The Skin Map brings the concept of "ley lines" front and center as readers are introduced to Kit Livingston, a lonely twenty-something whose life is going nowhere fast in present-day London, England. 

"Had he known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe," reveals the first sentence of Chapter One, "Kit might have been better prepared."

Better prepared, perhaps, for meeting a man claiming to be his great-grandfather—someone named Cosimo, who as family lore had it, had disappeared in 1893, never to be seen again.  When the white-haired man wearing an old-timey greatcoat and trousers oddly stuffed into his high-top shoes interrupts Kit's life one morning, he persuades the young charge to join him on an adventure, which Kit soon learns, will involve travelling through time in a multi-layered universe.

"I'm the man who has come to rescue you from a life of quiet desperation and regret," Cosimo says. "I need your help with a project.  It will be an adventure of a lifetime—of several lifetimes  But it will change you forever." 

But why ley lines?  Aren't they just the stuff of New Agers and nonsense?  Why the reappearance of a long-lost relative (and how)?  And what does it all have to do with another explorer who left a tattooed part of himself behind:  a skin map separated into five pieces, that once found and rejoined could lead Cosimo and Kit to "the secret of the universe—or something even more significant and momentous."

I sat down recently with Stephen Lawhead on a stop in his book tour and asked him to clue me in on this fantastical adventure and share more about The Skin Map—without giving away the entire story of an epic treasure hunt involving ancient history, alternate realities, cutting-edge physics, philosophy and mystery.

It's been said that The Skin Map has been 20 years in the making.

It's been rolling around in my head for a long, long time.  To put it this way, pieces and bits of it have been floating around [for 20 years].  It's scattered over so many different time periods. … To gather the history parts of it, the philosophy parts of it, the physics parts of it, all of that makes it what it is.  And all of that took time. 

How would you describe the basic premise of The Skin Map?

Well, I can't.  That's the big problem that I have.  It's easier to actually write it than to describe it.  It's life, universe and everything—sort of a chance to look at the really big questions:  Why are we here?  Where are we going?  What does it mean?  Those sort of ideas.  You know, the five books [in the Bright Empires series] will really be able to dig in to that.  It's cast in the form of a treasure hunt. 

Have you finished writing the rest of the books in the series?

Oh no.  I have finished the second one, called The Bone House.  It comes out next summer.  I finished it almost just days before starting on this [book tour].

So what happens after you turn in a book to your editor? 

You submit your manuscript, and then you go hide for a few days and wait for the storm to blow over.  It can take various forms.  Sometimes you need to do some massaging of the manuscript.  And [in The Bone House], there are a few chapters that are going to shift around a little bit to get the flow a bit better.  Stuff like that. 

Have you ever strongly disagreed with your editors about any changes they may have wanted to make in one of your books? 

Oh always.  But it could be anything.  It's usually me.  Here's the thing:  I don't look at rewriting or editing as different from the writing process.  To me, it's almost like shooting film.  You shoot the scenes, get them down and then you go back and start looking at it and say, "Well, this isn't doing what I wanted it to do.  Or,  "This is doing it in a way that could be improved."  Or whatever.  And so some things get cut out, but you have to get it down first.  You have to see what there is, what the possibilities are before you can even do it. 

It's like moving furniture around.  You've got your room set up and everything's working out.  But you just move the furniture to make it really, really pop.  So that process—it can go on.  It might go two or three rounds.  It just depends.  It's very rare that things just flow seamlessly from start to finish. 

With The Skin Map, there is a lot going on from chapter to chapter—different realities, different time periods.  If a reader isn't paying attention, it could get confusing pretty quickly.

It's demanding for readers.  Then again, I figured again there's a whole nation of people who were just besotted with Lost and they seemed to jump around a lot and they forgave a lot just to get through the story.  They seem to be able to keep track of that.  You just tell them to look at it like a miniseries.

Two of the first characters that readers encounter are Kit and his girlfriend Wilhelmina.  They both seem to be leading kind of blasé lives at first.  And then BOOM.  Kit's great-grandfather Cosimo arrives on the scene, and he and a little ley-line travelling change all of that.

Survival sharpens your wits a bit.  But they're just, I think, typical of so many people, modern urban dwellers in particular—you're in a big city and the demands of work and social pressures of various sorts, and it's easy to lose yourself.  You just let things slide, one by one.  And as Cosimo tells [Kit] in the beginning, "You have your friends who you see less and less of, they've all moved out, they've got families and stuff and what are you doing?"  But that is just like so many people that I run into, and they recognize themselves.  Like I said, survival sharpens your wits.  You begin to engage with what's going on around you and try to make sense of it.

Both Kit and Wilhelmina seemed to adapt pretty quickly to their new alternate realities. 

Maybe there are other people who don't.  I don't know.  Well, Wilhelmina's sharp.  And she's one of these people who could look around and sees what the opportunities are and goes for it without worrying too much about what she's leaving behind.  Kit, of course, is different because he had help.  He had people around him at first to sort of cushion the blow.  Then when he gets off on his own, he sort of has a feeling for what is going on.  So he's not completely frightened by it.

But I think what will emerge in the second book is that he's pretty much in development mode.  Things begin making an impression on him, and there are things that will happen as the series goes on that will bring him to new places in himself in addition to what's going on around him.  So we just have to be a little more patient with him.

Cosimo plays a big part in changing in Kit's life or at least guiding him and helping him to change his perspective. 

Yes.  So much of who and what we are depends on the worldview, depends on how we view things.  Are they danger or opportunities?  Sort of like getting hit over the head.

Is that what Cosimo has done figuratively for Kit?

Well, that's exactly what it is.  That little speech at the beginning where he's trying to convince him to come along on this quest is very much that.  What are you holding on to that's so important that you can't make a change?

Do you identify at all with any of the characters in The Skin Map?

Oh, probably all of them.  I don't write myself into any of my books, but you can't stay out of them either.  I don't worry about it too much.  When I imagine these characters, I just try to make sure that once they sort of come forth from the story then you try to just be true to them and make them as natural as possible. 

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were creating these characters and interweaving their stories?

Could be myself.  Could be anybody who likes this sort of thing.  I don't really think, Well, a 12 year-old to 16 year-old is going to really get this.  I can't do that.  But I think anybody who has a taste for a kind of adventure story.

The Skin Map seems to have a lighter feel to it.  Would you agree?

Yes, because the series will get heavier as it goes because the subjects that I want to really look into are pretty weighty and if you put that on the cover and have the story begin with this … whoa.  

So that's what I'm up against a little bit is that there's no reason for anybody to open up a book these days.  Entertainment's so easy.  You stream a movie on your iPod if you want to or whatever.  To get someone's attention and to keep it—and to keep it over the course of five books—is going to be a real challenge.  But it also is just fun.  I wanted to make [The Skin Map] a really fun ride, a really fun journey.  And yet we're going to hit some serious subjects along the way:  life and death and what comes after and what this is all about.  Why are we here and where are we going?

Will the more serious topics begin with The Bone House?

Well, you won't know that they're starting.  You'll just all of a sudden realize that they're starting when you begin to think about some things that you maybe didn't think you'd be thinking about when the book started.  I don't want to frighten anybody and say, "Well this is about quantum physics and reinterpreting the world that we live in."  Because I'm not a scientist and I'm not an essay writer or a philosopher or anything like that.  So it's going to have to come out as part of the story, as part of the ongoing development of the treasure hunt.

I'm glad you included an essay at the back of the book ("The Ley of the Land") that helps explain ley lines to those of us who would have been frightened by terms like "quantum physics." 

Well, that's just to let people know that I didn't make that up.  They're real things.  You learn about them and you go away scratching your head and saying, Well what's that about.  The world is far stranger than you can imagine, than anyone can imagine.  What is our grasp of reality, really?  Do we even understand what's going on?  But once you get a bigger view, things can happen. 

You had to do a lot of research for The Skin Map.  In fact, I was overwhelmed when I read all that you had to do.  Do you enjoy this stuff?

It's fun!  I enjoy it, poking at things.  I don't have any kind of any real disciplined way.  It's just whatever catches my fancy.  You just begin to get in sort of thinking a thread, and you follow that and that leads to this and that's interesting.  Pretty soon it's just a mass of materials that could be anything—books, it could be travel things, it could be visits to museums, any number of things will help contribute.  Just be able to move comfortably in [your research], so that the reader can feel comfortable in it.  Not that we're straining at any of the borders of ignorance, because there's a lot of that.  It's a real place, and you're in safe hands and you can just believe it and go with it. 

Did you finish all of your research before you started writing?

No.  That doesn't work.  I'm usually writing something and then researching ahead of that.  So there isn't a situation where's there's a gap of two or three years.  I get antsy, and so I always have something going on.

What about the storylines?  Did you plot out The Skin Map in advance or did you just figure it out as you wrote?

Everything I write is like that.  It grows organically out of the situation, out of the concept of the story, the characters that are given to me or that announce themselves in the course of a book and then the story grows out of that.  There's a thematic element that many people may not be aware of.  And it could be just a few words; it could be a sentence.  So is this scene advancing that and is it somehow explaining that it is somehow relevant to that theme?  So it all sort of has a coherence.  I don't know how it will end or where we're going to end up right now.  That's not important right now.  But it'll be real important in the last book.

So you don't even know what's going to happen in the last book of this series?

Yes.  It's not a perfect analogy, but you try to build a house with bricks.  You don't have to build the whole house at once.  All you have to do is worry about the brick in your hand at that time.  And if it fits with all of the others, you probably have the house.  A friend of mine said, "Well that's great, but how do you know where to put the doors and windows?"  I don't know.  This seems like a good place for a window.

As part of your research process, did you visit the places that are in The Skin Map?

Yes.  Egypt and Prague and, of course, London.  The only place we have not gone to is Macau.  But we've been to others and Thailand and some of the places like that, and you get the flavor.

What would you say to someone who has not read any of your books before, and perhaps is not a big reader of fiction and is considering giving The Skin Map a go? 

They do probably like entertainment, and I think that fiction can offer a style, a variety of entertainment that's probably a little higher pitched than most things they're watching on television or in the movies or whatever.  I think often we demand too little of our entertainment.  I think it can do lots more than it's often called upon to do.  It can uplift you, it can change you, it can inspire you, it can challenge you, it can do all kinds of things.  It doesn't usually do, but it can, given a chance.  But fiction is one of the better vehicles for all that, because of what you might call the total immersion of the person in it.  They can actually become part of the story without too much effort if it's done well.

The comment I get a lot, more and more these days, is just that.  "I was never a fiction reader until. …"  And I think what that tells me is most of what they had been reading … is not making a connection, it's not making that mental/ emotional connection that fiction can do. 

There's a guy I read many years ago, who was very influential to me, I never met him.  John Gardner was a professor, and he was also a writer.  He wrote a few novels.  But he said his idea was that fiction can come in two forms:  one you call "true fiction" and the other he called "toy fiction."  And toy fiction would be sort of the spy thrillers, the beach reads, the romance books—and I'm not denigrating them.  These are his words.  People like toys, and we want to go read a murder mystery and we want it to be a well-made thing.  And they're enjoyable.

But true fiction calls for different sorts of responses from the reader and a different kind of engagement and involvement.  So that's what I decided I wanted to do was to try to do that.  And if it's done well, it can have a value beyond the moment, beyond that initial read.  It's not something that you sort of read and then put away and say, "Well, what else is there?" Because it might stay with you a while … because you've been challenged, you've been awakened to another possibility perhaps or inspired in some way.  And true fiction can do that. 

What makes up your personal reading diet?

Mostly anything.  There again, reading loads of theology and science of different sorts for [The Skin Map] and becoming comfortable with it.  I read bestsellers of various sorts and sort of to figure out what's going on. 

There's a fellow I usually mention who I think should get more attention.  His name is Martin Cruz Smith.  He's best known for Gorky Park—the Russian detective novels.  I just think they're delightful.  They're very well made.  He does some other things, too.  He's written a few historical novels.  The one I just finished is called Stallion Gate.  It's about the Los Alamos project at the end of World War II … and it all takes place in New Mexico.  [Martin] is what I call a safe pair of hands, someone you can just relax into.  He's not going to disappoint.  There are no cheap thoughts.  He's going to do the hard work.  It's effortless. 

How do you choose what you're going to read?  Do you rely mainly on word of mouth?

Well, the word of mouth is the word from our son's mouth.  And he's the one who guides us.  He's the real culture vulture.  It's Ross, our son.  He reads widely all kind of things.  He reads Shakespeare.  He's a huge G.K. Chesterton fan.  So whatever he passes on.  He's a good filter for things. 

Back to your catalog of work.  Have any of your books ever been optioned for film?

Yes, that happens.  And then the option runs out, and we sell them again. 

What about this series?  Do you think something might happen with The Skin Map or the forthcoming Bright Empires books to help them get to the big screen?

It's nothing I could influence.  I don't spend a lot of time thinking about it.  It would be nice if it would happen.  This one, because of the whole episodic nature of the whole animal, it could be a miniseries of some sort.  Here again, if it was up to me, they'd all have been blockbusters years ago. 

I'm sure your readers would agree as well.  Speaking of which, when you do meet your readers on book tours, what are they like?  Is it fun or a little scary for you to meet them?

Both of those things.  It is fun, and it's also a little scary because you don't know what to expect.  The thing is they are so respectful and so many of them are so happy to be there.  And so it takes me back a little bit.  Maybe I have created [a book] that is a vehicle for them to find something perhaps that they've been looking for or that they can connect with in a way. 

Have ever had a reader show up to a book signing who really surprised you, like a 95-year-old great-grandmother or something?

Yes, that always happens.  Part of the surprise is … well, since it always happens it's not a surprise anymore.  They'll show up with their children—some of them are kind of old children now—with names of the characters in my books.  The other night we met Charis which is one from one of the early Arthur books.  There are loads of Aidans around now, and that comes from Byzantium.  So that's always fun.  So they have me to thank for their names [chuckles].

But no one's showed up yet with tattoos of The Skin Map on them have they?

No, but they will!  They will. 

And then for those who aren't inclined to get inked, how would you persuade them to try The Skin Map?

This is real hard because I guess it's life, universe and everything, who are we, where are we going, why are we here.  And are those people—the ultra materialists—are they right?  Are we just some sort of fluke of nature and we're here today, gone tomorrow or is there really a purpose for all of this?  And that's why the quote at the beginning the book is why is the universe so big.  Because we are here.  It had to be this way.  There's no other way for this universe to create what we are except the way it is.  And the two are intimately connected. 

It's not a mistake, and it's not a fluke.  We are meant to be here.  And all that we see around us is meant to support us.  And the reason is because this is the way God has chosen to grow conscious creatures that can know and experience and have a relationships with him.

For more information about Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map, upcoming titles in the Bright Empires Series and other literary works, please visit