Avellina Balestri is a jack of all trades, where these trade revolves around writing. More so, she has focused her efforts on an aspect of Fantasy and Science Fiction which we don’t always get to explore: spirituality and morality. It is not an easy task, but with the help of like-minded writers, she create a place for it on the internet, called The Fellowship of the King. We got in touch with Avellina to discover more about her journey and her passion.
FB: How/when did your passion for fantasy and science fiction start?
AB: Before I started reading, watching, and writing about fantasy and sci-fi, I was (and still remain) an ardent history buff. I was drawn to explore the human stories that made up the larger fabric of grand events, including legends and anecdotes that lent texture to the tapestry. This naturally led me to explore different elements of world mythology and mysticism, which in turn led me to appreciate the historical, mythological, and mystical elements within fantasy and science fiction. Although there is often something of a false divide erected between history buffs and pop culture geeks, I have come to see that it is misplaced, and the two interests can actually enjoy a very happy married life. Indeed, they can both complement each other in some beautifully well-rounded ways, enabling a greater understanding of the human experience as a whole. It is my firm belief that all good stories, whether they have history or fantasy/sci-fi for backgrounds, must reveal some element of the human condition that helps us to learn more about ourselves and how we can show love more deeply. That is what I have done my best to reflect through the diversity of material featured on The Fellowship of The King online magazine.
FB: What book/movie/TV series inspired you to dwell deeper into these genres?
AB: As a child, Disney movies made a huge impact on my imaginative growth, and as such were my first official brush with fantasy. In my mid teens, I was persuaded by friends to watch The Chronicles of Narnia films, which I admittedly enjoyed, even though I had disliked reading the books in grade school. From there, I took the “grand plunge” into The Lord of the Rings. Although it did take me a while acquire a taste for the material, I eventually came to deeply respect the spiritual poignancy and otherworldly aura of Tolkien’s works. Beyond that, my dad’s personal connection with Gene Roddenberry through his work as an entertainer drew me into the Star Trek universe. I also came to have an appreciation for the redemptive triumph of Star Wars, the dystopian depth of The Hunger Games, the sweetness and spoofiness of The Princess Bride, and the creative quirkiness and emotional intensity of the 1998 TV movie Merlin. I even took a spin with Game of Thrones, and while I can’t say I am far from a fan of the overall production (frankly, I feel like Martin’s storytelling style borders on sadistic sensationalism and self-destructive nihilism), it did inspire me to get working on fan-fiction for it, which I have been flexing my creative muscles with in a variety of different genres and fandom realms.
FB: What prompted you to create TFotK and how has that journey been?
AB: Our fellowship was really borne out of a collective effort of Catholic homeschooled high school students from the USA who were crazy in love with the written word. The other common denominator was a shared appreciation for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I was admittedly only beginning to familiarize myself with when we got together as a group in 2012. Our rationale at the time was just to be able to unleash our brimming imaginations in a safe environment among friends and family. But as we grew older and many of us graduated from school, we got to the point of wanting to share some of our selected material with the wider world. This included essays, poetry, and works of fiction dealing with a wide range of topics and genres in the broad sweep of the liberal arts. The response from those who read our works after the official public launch was very encouraging, and our followers and likes shot up from all over the world. Tolkien material was a real “thing”, and people who might otherwise look down on Catholic homeschool graduates were starting to hold us in new esteem via the quality of our out-put. In 2015, I became the Editor-in-Chief, and since them have worked to build a strong presence on social media and release themed page spread issues in addition to our regular blog out-put. It has sometimes been a bit of a rocky ride, but always worthwhile at the end of the day, and I could never do it without the generous time and talents of the volunteers from our global community who make us what we are.
FB: What does The Fellowship of The King represent for the F&SF community?
AB: I think The Fellowship of The King is unique among online publications with a strong fantasy/sci-fi theme because we make a point of showing where spirituality morality into play in these genres. Perhaps the project is a bit like Tolkien himself in that it is Catholic, indeed unflinchingly so, and yet has gained a following from all walks of life and amassed a wonderfully wide diversity in both our contributions and readership. The reason for this is that we take the word “Catholic” very literally, in that we are true universalists, seeking to bring out truth, beauty, and quality reading material wherever in might be found. We take to heart St. Pope John Paul II’s exhortation to artists to change the world for the better, and it is through the quality of our craft that we are able to touch people from all backgrounds and beliefs. It also works in our favor that we have authors from across the age range spectrum. Here you will find trend-of-thought poetry from high school students posted up next to heady lectures by university professors. In essence, we are devoted to seeking common ground, and the universality of our published works enables us to engage the mainstream culture in ways other Christian magazines have a hard time doing. This is not to say there are not other worthwhile magazines dealing with a Christian take on pop culture, but I think we are serving as a bridge between faith and culture that extends a further stretch than many others offered.
FB: What type of feedback have you received on the project so far?
AB: Largely, The Fellowship of The King has been a positive response. We have been called “the forefront of the Catholic Literary Revival”, “the smartest blog in the Catholic media”, “a breath of fresh air”, “an extraordinary blend of belief and imagination”, and “a community of those who joyfully bathe in beauty and ache for the source of that beauty”. A regular comment is that we manage to bring together both quality visuals and substantial material instead of settling for one at the expense of the other. Readers also confirm that no matter their religious affiliation or lack thereof, they feel comfortable and welcomed frequenting our site, instead of being mere outsiders looking in. Several have stated that we are the only Christian magazine that makes them feel at home. I think this is fascinating, as every day brings new surprises on the site, and our regulars who come for the fantasy/sci-fi elements are usually just as game to pull up a chair and join the discussion on history, philosophy, theology, mysticism, social justice, current events, and beyond. The works themselves have been described as “very high standard”, “provoking and insightful”, “refreshing”, “uplifting”, “professional”, “informative”, and able to “broaden perspectives.” I also receive frequent comments about the quality of our fan-fiction selection, which has happily expanded from almost exclusively Lord of the Rings pieces to include Star Trek, Star Wars, Chronicles of Narnia, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who and beyond. This is an art form that has suffered much scorn over the years as being only the domain of second rate authors more obsessed with fawning over favorite characters than cultivating originality. However, we take our art seriously and use fan-fiction, like all other mediums, to explore emotionally mature themes in a way that builds skillfully upon the foundation already laid by the original works. The readers can tell the difference and appreciate it.
FB: Do you have further plans for the website?
AB: My main goal is to continue building our online community, both on the site itself and our Facebook Page, so that word about us travels and we become more mainstream in both the fantasy/sci-fi world and beyond. We are also working on becoming affiliated with Catholic diocesan departments and online networking circles, while still maintaining our policy of welcoming those in from different persuasions. Sometimes this proves to be a delicate balance, but I think we have gone huge strides in overcoming obstacles, and I personally take to heart the example of Pope Francis who projects himself in a similar fashion via interreligious dialogue and global outreach. Beyond continuing to build our magazine base and expand our readership, we hope to be able to streamline our themed page-spread issues on a regular basis and futuristically look into monetizing options. For now, we’re taking things a step at a time and seeing what each new day brings. But I sincerely hope that the readers of this interview will be inspired to stop by the site (thefellowshipoftheking.net), like us Facebook (facebook.com/thefellowshipoftheking) and follow us by email. If they are writers themselves and might like to contribute, I warmly encourage them to get in touch with me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FB: In addition to being an editor, can you tell us a little bit about your work as a freelance writer and the nature of freelancing?
AB: Freelancing is a different ball of wax than being a published author in the book world. Instead of focusing more intently on larger projects to put one’s name in literary lights, we work per gig, sometimes for monetary rewards and more often simply for exposure that can lead to bigger and better things. This also means there is a broader variety of topics we may have to cover in a shorter span of time, and we want to be able to expand our knowledge on as many subjects as we can for that purpose. For example, my expertise range has thus far enabled me to write for magazines specializing in Catholicism, spirituality, history, media, music, literature, fantasy/sci-fi, and beyond. In addition to SFFN and The Fellowship of The King , these publications include The St. Austin Review, The Wisdom Daily, Geeks Under Grace, Catholic Insight, Catholic Lane, The Latin Mass Magazine, Ink and Fairydust, Tumblar House, and A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. I might accurately dub myself a jack-of-all-trades in the realm of the liberal arts. But the world is changing, often in the favor of such “jacks” as myself. Back in the day, book publication was considered the only proper way to be considered an official published author. But now with the internet, you can instantly become a published author, able to gain greater exposure and larger following in different locations then if your writing was stranded solely between the covers of books. Don’t get me wrong; being able to publish a book (or a bunch of books) is fantastic, and I have an historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution and a non-fiction history text covering the rise and fall of the Royal House of Stuart currently in the works. But I personally feel that freelancing has far more opportunities of getting recognized and getting ahead. It takes time and labor and a lot of “free exposure” gigs, but eventually a trickle of paid gigs can start to come through. If built upon, it could eventually turn into a small but satisfactory income. Beyond writing itself, getting involved in online literary circles opens up other job opportunities dealing with editing, designing, and organizing on the web. If any of the readers are interested, they can find out more about my personal freelance endeavors by visiting and liking my Author Page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/avellinambalestri)
FB: What would you say about your personal philosophy behind your drive to creation with the written word?
AB: I suppose the philosophy behind my writing begins with a new take on “I think, therefore I am”; I amend it “I am, therefore I write”! I think true writers are born with the seed of a gift, a calling, a vocation deep in their souls, just waiting to sprout forth and bloom in time. Once the roots have grown, they remain a part of you forever. The stories come pouring out like an underground spring that bubbles to the surface. Trying to stop that flow would be like trying hold back the sea with a broom. But it’s a lot of hard work. I have heard some authors comment on how they feel like their fictional characters “take over” at a certain point and seem to write the stories themselves. To be honest, I have never had this experience. Sure, as you work more with the same characters it becomes easier to construct their dialogue and actions, but it still the author steering the ship. It’s easy enough to lose that sense of character individuality and find your plots running into brick walls in your brain. For this reason, writing isn’t always a particularly “fun” endeavor for me, but rather a driving passion that will not be put to rest until it is satisfied. Non-fiction essays tend to be easier, because there are no “middle-men”, so to speak, between the author and the audience as there are when dealing with fictional characters. But still it takes a lot of focus to properly articulate one’s ideas in a way that is both consistent and applicable to the given readership. Poetry requires yet another set of skills involving a musical intuition that unfolds thoughts and stories with some form of beat, rhythm, or flow. But in spite of (or perhaps because of) the labor intensive nature of this art, each completed work brings a new sense of satisfaction to me, a feeling that I am doing what I am supposed to be doing and hoping that my ideas are able to resonate with others who read them.
FB: How would you describe your personal writing style?
AB: I think all authors develop their personal style gradually over time, and it takes them years to properly categorize it. In my non-fiction essays, I have been told that my style falls somewhere between the scholarly and the colloquial. I do not try to do this, but it tends to happen naturally because I invest myself personally in the stories I am telling and the ideas I am projecting. Depending on the subject, my writing can take on a flavor of poetic prose, especially when dealing with issues involving spirituality and metaphysics. In my actual poetry, I draw a lot of inspiration from traditional folk ballads that have always impressed me by their simplicity yet deep emotional impact and timeless endurance. In the arena of fiction, I have been told by some of my readers that I have something of a knack for capturing the feel of pre-existing characters in both my historical fiction and fan-fiction endeavors. I don’t mean my variations are dead-ringers for the originals; actually, I have been told they seem different, yet paradoxically the same. I think this is because I strive to capture the spirit of the character, but at the same time bring into play my own interpretations and developments. I suppose one could call it the middle way of the bard, taking preexisting tales and adding something unique to each retelling. It’s the survival story of almost all folk tales. So when dealing with Eowyn and Faramir from The Lord of the Rings, or Sansa and Tyrion from Game of Thrones, or Spock from Star Trek, or Prim from The Hunger Games, they will be themselves, and yet in new ways. Sometimes I’ll make conscious decisions about which character traits from the original I want to bring to the fore and which I would rather leave out. I am not a book or a movie purist, so I have no problem with working outside the box and making amendments if I feel they will be beneficial to my own versions. I use a lot of dialogue to explore different aspects of the characters I am dealing with and bring about emotional build-ups in the plots. I love the magic of simple conversations and gestures that convey a depth of meaning gushy sonnets and dramatic transactions could never achieve. Hence it is often within randomness that I encase the jewels within my tales.
FB: Finally, what kind of an impression would you like your work to leave on your readership and how would you like to be remembered as a writer?
AB: In the broad sweep of things, I’d like my work to be seen as a voice of hope in a world of cynicism. As I have mentioned, I feel that a lot of entertainment nowadays tends towards a rather oppressive sense of darkness and despair. But I feel that in real life there is an ample amount of goodness to be found counteracting and balancing off the evil. In fact, I will go further and say that goodness, by its very nature, is always stronger than evil and therefore amply empowered to triumph over it. In my fiction, I find myself drawn to highlight flawed characters with good hearts who, after traversing many a rocky road and battling their own inner demons, find redemption through the love and friendship of others. I don’t shy away from dark themes, including the pain involved in loving and the depravity that can corrupt even our best intentions, but I always keep a light burning at the end of the tunnel. So in essence, like Tolkien, I’m something of a romantic realist, who believes in the transformative power of love if we have the courage to open ourselves up to it. But we must continually remind ourselves that world that this transformation can happen, and we must never fail to strive for it every day of our lives. In my own Catholic spirituality, this is a very important aspect of holiness, as we see humanity as being wounded by sin but not destroyed by it. We must respond to the grace given us on a daily basis and use a sacramental imagination to see the workings of the spiritual realm in the physical one. Stories epitomize this for me, as they make such a powerful impact on the human consciousness. I would like mine, whether told in the form of non-fiction, fiction, or poetry, to reach through to the hearts and remind people that, as Samwise Gamgee stated in The Two Towers, “There’s some good left in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.” Worth fighting for, and writing about, I would add. That is the crux of my mission statement.