Interview with David Anthony Durham, Part II

November 18, 2009 § 1 Comment

Here is the second half of the interview I conducted with David Anthony Durham over the past month.  In this part, we focus more on his Acacia novels and his future plans.  For those wanting to read Part I, just click the link here.

Acacia: The War with the Mein was your first fantasy novel.  What lessons did you take from that experience and how did you apply them to your most recent novel, The Other Lands?
Every novel (and publication) is a learning experience. There are always up and downs. Hits and misses. I don’t feel that the fantasy aspect of Acacia changed that – or that the lessons I walked away with are somehow more specific.
What I can say is that with most of the setting work done in the first book I could jump into motion faster in The Other Lands. Each character begins the novel either in action or with it thrust upon them pretty quickly. And when there is a new world to get to know it’s done looking over the shoulders of the characters who are seeing it for the first time. It’s less about world-building exposition and more about experiencing things with the characters. I like that about it. So far, at least, it seems like readers do too. That’s something I want to keep rolling into the third book, which is where Acacia’s ancient history and recent history really collide in earth shattering ways.
How different was it for you to sit down and to start writing a book which had little in the way of a true beginning and no real conclusion to it?  Did it take several drafts before the introductory and concluding chapters felt right?
It didn’t take many drafts to figure out the opening or the conclusion. I knew the ending before I began. That’s almost always the way it is for me. Right at the start I know how things conclude. Most of the writing process is about how I write the story to get to that ending.
So… The rocks that Dariel walks across heading west… The child that Kelis is guarding… What Mena is faced with in preparation for the next book… The magic that Corinn works at the end… I had all of that at the beginning. I know all the endings of the third book too. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to them, though.
With The Other Lands I took things as far as I could, up to moments of change and revelation for all of the main characters. And then I had to cut it there because the things that come next all mark the beginning of a plot arc that will take hundreds more pages before there’s a pause. To me, that’s the stuff of another book. It’s a book that’s almost joined at the hip with The Other Lands, but it is its own creature.
Is there any danger of this third book spilling over its conceived boundaries and thus necessitating a fourth volume to the Acacia series?
Ah… How much do you think people would mind if it did?
That’s tempting, but I think I can keep it from happening. I know what the narrative arc of each character’s story is for this third book. The end is the end, and I don’t think it likely that I’ll need to carry on into another book.
I have other ideas of further Acacia books, though. I don’t know if I’ll write them. That depends on how much readers are interested. But those further ideas aren’t continuations of the core plotlines of this series. They’re other stories, perhaps other multi-volume series in themselves.
Well, there might be a few people who will threaten to hold their breaths and not buy your work, but outside of that, I guess most wouldn’t mind.  So you know the end of the story, huh?  Any chance that something in the writing process might inspire you to alter the narrative arcs in some major way?
That’s always possible, but I don’t think so. I’ll admit that I probably have more loose ends than I’m entirely sure what to do with at the moment. Just the other day I realized I had two plotlines that I couldn’t figure out how to merge. They just conflicted and I was getting pretty sure I couldn’t have both. One would need to be cut.
But then… I was admitting that to my wife. Halfway through saying it I realized the way I could have both. It was very weird. It just happened, and suddenly several things that I’d introduced but didn’t quite know what to do with slotted into place. That happens a lot. Usually, it’s not a matter of the outcome changing, though; what may change is the path to that outcome.
Several reviews of your last two books noted certain “real world” issues, from enslavement to the drug trade to imperialistic attitudes, being present.  Did you set out to tackle these issues from the beginning, or did they arise to meet the needs of the story?
I’m not sure what comes first: the issues or the story. Did I sit down to write a fantasy about slavery and drugs and imperialism? Not exactly. These novels began with a family, with a father and his children. But moments after that I have to place them in a context that feels real to me. And then seconds after that the seedy elements that have always controlled the world start to climb out of the woodwork.
The “real world” elements of the story are there because I’ve never seen – looking backwards at human history – a time when these issues weren’t affecting our lives. It would be very strange for me to write a world in which some variation of enslavement didn’t exist. It was part of our history ten thousand years ago. It’s part of the modern world. For me, fantasy is wonderful, but it’s not an escape enough for me to ignore the gritty workings of the world.
Did I intend for the League to be some sort of egg-headed version of Haliburton? For Acacia to be some representation of American and European colonialism? For the mist to be something between China’s opium trade and current “reality television” and a metaphor for living on credit? No. And yet… I can’t deny that when I look at what I wrote it’s those things that I see.
I just wrote a scene in the next book where one character explains why one nation is attacking another. I realized what I was describing could just as easily been about why Europeans conquered the New World. I hadn’t particularly thought of that ahead of time, but when the moment came to explain the move I realized the words coming out of the characters mouth could just as easily apply to our world history. That seems to happen a lot.
Since the root word for “story,” historia, also deals with our present-day concepts of “history,” perhaps there is a strong connection after all?  What would the Acacian chroniclers make of all this?
Oh, they’d be gravely perplexed, I imagine. Just like we’d be a bit disturbed to discover we are characters created for the amusement of another world…
It’s funny, though. The first thing that comes to mind when you ask about “Acacian chroniclers” is that it would depend on what age we’re talking about. The chroniclers from Tinhadin’s time to Corinn’s  – a period of four hundred and some years – weren’t expected to record the truth. Their  work in preserving the history of the empire was really about building the myth of the empire. They were there to lie convincingly about the nation’s history for certain political purposes.
But history goes on and on. I do see there being different ages of Acacian history, some of which would value finding the truth much more. Maybe I’ll get to write about that age someday.
What books, if any, did you read during the composition of your latest novels?  Were there any authors, whether read years ago or more recently, who have had some sort of influence on how you’ve chosen to tackle a narrative problem or how to tell a story?
I read all the time. I have books beside my bed for at night, and I’ve always got something on my iPod that I’m listening to as I go about life.
Thing is, most things I read don’t directly influence how I write or solve narrative problems. It’s not like I read something and go, “That’s it! That’s awesome. I should do the same thing!” That just doesn’t happen often. I may read something and think it’s awesome, but that doesn’t usually translate to wanting to do the same thing.
More often, I love reading writers that do things quite differently than I probably ever will. I’ve really come to love Neil Gaiman. I’ll never write like him, but that’s probably part of why I enjoy his work so much. He reminds me of the power of storytelling for storytelling’s sake. I’m on Richard K. Morgan kick, loving the technologically enhanced violence and cyber sex and hipness of his work. I’m in awe of the crime writer George Pelecanos. His writing is so unadorned, straight and to the point. It’s deep, too, but his approach to language is nothing like mine. I got a kick out S. M. Stirling’s In the Courts of the Crimson Kings because of the everyday strangeness of his Martian world. I enjoyed the blood-splattered macho melodrama of Tim Willocks’ The Religion. I couldn’t write something in which the triumph of the main character is so clearly pre-ordained, but I enjoyed the foul, stinking, lusty ride of that novel.
Octavia Butler has become very important to me also. In that case, I do feel a lot of kinship to her, but the thing she has that I don’t is bone-deep wisdom. She’s really, really empathetically wise. She layers that into her writing with a quiet skill that I’m in awe of. But that’s good. I like being in awe of other writers some times.
It’s interesting that you proclaim a love of reading authors that perhaps might touch upon some elements you include in your writing.  Many authors interviewed in the past by myself and others have stated that they try to avoid reading anyone working in a similar area to their own work.  What do you make of these claims that reading similar-type stories might “ruin” their own work and creativity?
I certainly believe that can be true for other writers. We each individually know what effects our writing, for better or worst. Personally, I just don’t feel it’s a problem. My voice is my voice. My style of storytelling is my style of storytelling. It can no more change because of influences than I can change my speaking voice because I’d rather have a Scottish accent. My wife has the Scottish accent in our family. I love it. I hear it every day. I lived for years in Scotland. But damn if I don’t sound like an American every time I open my mouth.
Same is true of my writing. But even with that example I know that other people are different. My sister in law is Scottish, but her accent changes depending on who she’s talking to. American, English, French (which she speaks fluently), New Zealander (she’s married to a Kiwi and lives down under)… it doesn’t matter. Her accent morphs to theirs, and I don’t think she’s consciously aware of it when it happens. I kinda wish I had some of that, but I don’t. Nor do I think my writing fundamentals are skewed by reading other writers.
I think not reading other writers of similar material is equally dangerous. I’ve never in my writing career been accused of stealing from another writer – except for some readers thinking that Acacia: The War With The Mein was influenced by Martin’s Ice and Fire series. Thing is, I hadn’t read a word of Martin when I wrote Acacia. I’ve read every word of the series since, and I love it. I can see similarities, but they’re not the similarities of influence. They’re the similarities of us both finding ourselves drawn to tell similar stories.
If I had read A Game of Thrones before starting my fantasy I would have modified some things. The effect would have been just the opposite of imitation; I’d have been compelled to make changes to avoid similarity. That wouldn’t have been hard to do. I see those similarities as superficial. Thematically, I think George and I work in very different territory.
The Locus review of Acacia: The War With The Mein said something I found very interesting. It was very thorough, insightful review. The reviewer explicitly said that the book shouldn’t be compared to Martin’s work nearly as much as it should be compared to China Mieville’s. I dig that. That makes sense to me. That reviewer is the only one I’m aware of that made that comparison, though. It’s got nothing at all to do with style and character and plot similarities. He was pointing at a philosophical backdrop to it all that’s harder to put your finger on. He may just have something there. I’ll have to read more Mieville to find out.
While I hadn’t thought of comparing the two of you like that, after reading that, I can see where the comparisons between you and Miéville could be made, especially in The Other Lands when the consequences of the mist trade are revealed.  Harking back to the “truth” question above, could it be argued that the revelations given by those victims constitute a central “truth” about the Acacian world and perhaps its possible future?
Yes. Well said. That sort of observation is key to the way I think societies need to be understood. Acacians aren’t going to understand what their nation is really about until they include within their notion of themselves all the things entailed in selling children to a foreign land – why they did it, how they benefited, what happened to the ones sold and to the souls of those who were spared. That’s Acacia. The sparkling palace on the idyllic isle is only a small part of the larger picture.
The same is true of real world societies. If you studied American history but only learned about the Founding Fathers, about the high-ideals of the nation and all the fine things we’ve accomplished… you might be studying the truth, but you’d be getting an incomplete picture, one that would hamper your working understanding of this country. In terms of functionally looking to the future, you’d also need to know about slavery, about the incredibly crimes done to Native Americans, about how long women were kept out of the political process, about how various immigrant groups were exploited… I don’t think people should consider such things for some bleeding heart liberal guilt reason; I think they should consider them because they’re smarter if they do and they’re more capable of making successful decisions.
I hope that Acacians manage to get more of that perspective as they move into their future.
You mentioned above that you are working with George R.R. Martin and other writers on stories set in the Wild Cards universe.  How did you come to be a part of this?
Albany, World Fantasy 2007. It’s the night of the big signing session thing where all the authors show up in a big room, grab their name card, and find someplace to sit. Likely, you seek out friends, find a corner, or just carry on in with whomever you just had dinner with. I walked in there looking around for a choice seat. I saw George, kinda off by himself, getting settled down.
Thing about sitting near George at a signing is that… well, no one wants to do it! Who wants to sit there making paper airplanes next to a guy with an unending line of devoted fans/book dealers arriving with bags of first editions, etc? Apparently, I did. I went over and asked if I could share his table. He graciously agreed. He hadn’t read my work at that point, but he seemed to have heard good things about Acacia: The War With The Mein. He signed. We talked. He signed. We talked. He signed… You get the picture.
We ended up talking about historical fiction, including my novel Pride of Carthage. I offered to send him a copy. He said sure. So after the con I did. At some point a few months later I got an email from him saying he’d read and enjoyed the novel. Very cool. We’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve seen him at a number of cons, spent time at his parties or just in the bar.
I think is was sometime after World Fantasy in Calgary that he dropped me a short note asking if I’d any interest in being involved in Wild Cards. I’d read a few Wild Cards stories before, but never imagined I’d be part of it. Of course, when George makes an offer one should jump at it! That’s what I did.
I started reading up on the series, thinking up characters, brainstorming with my kids. I pitched him a few character ideas that he kindly shot down. And, then I offered one that he liked: The Infamous Black Tongue. Before I knew it, I was in, and IBT had a three-part story scheduled for an upcoming book!
So far it’s been a lot of fun. It makes me flex slightly different fictional muscles, and it means a level of collaboration I’ve never tried before. Wild Cards novels use characters created by lots of different authors, with twenty-some books worth of history to consider, with lots of different styles and temperaments to blend together. Very interesting process, and I’m still in the middle of it.
The book is called Fort Freak. Look for it in a year or so!
Is your contribution to Fort Freak your first published foray into writing shorter fiction, or have you had short fiction published in the past?
I’ve published a few short stories. Like… uh… three, I think. I got pretty good mileage out of them, though. A couple have been anthologized several times. Those stories “The Boy-Fish”, “August Fury”, and “An Act of Faith” are all contemporary African-American focused. Mainstream fiction.
Fort Freak is my first time writing SF in the short form. George had already signed me up before he thought to ask, “By the way, do you actually write short fiction?”
In the end, George met me halfway. My story is a three-parter, spaced throughout a larger narrative. It’s not miles away from having a novelistic feel to it. It’s still about my character over time, dealing with a series of events that are complicatedly plotted. Other characters written by other authors intersect with mine. In lots of ways I’m not so much writing three short stories as I am writing three parts of a larger narrative.
Writing in a shared-universe setting often carries a stigma.  What are your thoughts about shared-universe and/or media tie-in stories and how they relate to original fiction, genre or otherwise, in terms of story crafting and character creation?
I’m aware that to some degree I’m a writer for hire in this gig. George gave me pretty specific stipulations about the type of things that needed to happen in my sections. It’s up to me how I make those things happen, but I’ve got to do my part so that the other parts fit together. It’s not going to be about making my parts stand out from the crowd; it’s about being part of a collaborative. So, yeah, it’s different than writing entirely original fiction.
But I’m chuffed to be getting a shot at the contemporary, urban sf comic blend that Wild Cards is. By my internal cool meter, this one has the needle popping. I’ll trust that. I don’t think I’d say yes to just anything, though. Wild Cards pushes a lot of buttons that I find interesting. The first book, in particular, was serious, dark, intense. Since I respect the series I feel comfortable writing for it. If I didn’t respect the series that would be another issue entirely.
I’ve been invited in to bring things to the series. To bring perspectives and characterizations that are particularly my own. My story is about a vigilante half-snake mutant on the run from the police and trying to get the cops that framed him, but it’s also about an African-American youth that’s dealing with not having lived up to his family’s expectations. It’s about him coming to value himself despite that. It’s also about his search for connection – friendship and romance – and how the difficulties of that shape his character. Thematically, that stuff interests me, and I’m glad to layer it in the action the stories contain. To me, that’s engaging with the creative process in a meaningful way.
As for writing a media tie-in novel… that’s probably not my style, but I haven’t been asked yet either. I can’t swear I’d say no to something until it’s on offer as a real possibility.
After you finish the Acacia series and Fort Freak, what sorts of stories do you envision exploring next?
I’m tempted to give you a long, rambling answer, detailing all the story ideas that I have, all the different possibilities and explain why they’re important to me. But I think I’d regret that…
Truth is, I have lots of ideas, but I’m not sure what will come next. I won’t know until I’ve finished the Acacia trilogy. That’s all I can say with certainty now.

So I’ve been interviewed, for the second time

November 1, 2009 § 1 Comment

This time, it was Harry Markov from Temple Library Reviews who decided for some odd reason that I would make for a good interview subject.  Click on the link above and go decide for yourself if I have had an interesting life.  Or just go because you might like Harry’s site.  Or maybe just go because you’d love to know more about rabid squirrels and foxlings?

Interview with David Anthony Durham, Part I

October 28, 2009 § 2 Comments

Due to the growing length of this interview, David and I decided it would be best to divide it into two parts, with the second part appearing in the next few days.  


A couple of years ago, you were interviewed by several bloggers at Pat’s site, including myself.  What important things have happened in your professional and personal life between the publication of Acacia: The War with the Mein and The Other Lands?

Lots of stuff, mostly good. Acacia: The War With The Mein performed rather nicely. I was very happy with the reviews it received and with the overseas attention and publications. It got me nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer twice, and the second time I won it!

As important as any of that is that I’ve been overwhelmingly pleased by my acceptance into the community of science fiction and fantasy writers. When I walk into a convention now I know I’m among friends. Also, I’m part of a group of sff writers from around the world that daily shares information and exchanges ideas and stories about publishing. I’ve been asked to do several anthologies and collaborations – most of which I’ve had to turn down – and I’ve had the pleasure of accepting George RR Martin’s invitation to write for his Wild Cards series, which I’m doing right now.

All things considered, it’s been a good couple of years professionally.

Very cool news!  I’m curious about this group of sff writers of which you are a member.  Can you divulge any information on what that group does – is it more of an informal manuscript peer review, support group, or all that and a bag of chips more?

Oh, the group isn’t exactly a secret, but we don’t really advertize ourselves either. It’s sort of quiet, self-regulating group. Every now and then we invite new folks in, not as if we’re trying to be elite or something, but just with an eye toward keeping the group supportive and diverse and low-key. Once in, we’re just sort of an extended group of friends and peers to call on when we need to. We talk publishing biz stuff. We ask questions as we make publishing decisions or just want to get other perspectives. It’s great to see what other writer’s experiences are, and to have folks to talk to other than our editors and agents. For me in particular it’s eye opening in terms of issues specific to sf genres. It’s a good group.

Interesting.  So this is as much of a social support group as it is a writing workshop one?  Also, have you been involved in such groups for all of your professional writing career or have there been shifts in how you approach the writing craft and the sharing of written material with other writers?

It’s not really a writing workshop group at all. I’d say social support group describes it.

I’ve not been involved in anything remotely like it before. This genre nurtures more networking and interaction than the “literary” genre does. There’s certainly plenty of friction between factions in sf, but there’s supportive communication too.

In terms of sharing work with other writers… I still don’t do that much. I had a few people read Acacia: The War With The Mein during the revision period, and a few read The Other Lands. Mostly I work alone, and then bring my wife, agent and editor in.

That said, I have floated my stories for Wild Cards out to a few of the other people working on the series, and I’ve read pieces from others as well. And one prominent author recently asked me to read an early draft of the first novel of in a new series. So I guess sharing is becoming more and more a part of my writing life.

Whenever I read your blog, one of the things I notice most is how close-knit your family is.  How much of an influence has your family been on the characters and settings of your novels?

Quite a bit, actually. It would be hard for me to explain just how, though, since they get into my writing in bits and pieces, in fragments that probably only make sense to me. For example, the Akaran children are based on the template of my wife’s family, but once the template was set the characters began to evolve different. Sometimes Mena is my wife; sometimes she’s more inspired by my daughter; much of the time she’s neither. A character like Melio is named after one of our cats, a fact that brings my kids fits of laughter every time I mention something heroic the character did.

Other things I only understand afterwards, like that in writing about the relationship between Mena and Elya in the second book I was sort of writing about the relationship between my daughter and another one of our cats, Dolphin. Go figure.

My family affects everything I write. How could they not?

Since your family takes such an active role in influencing the characters, have there ever been times that one of them has been tempted to throw something at you because they saw themselves reflected in one of the characters?

For a while I lived in fear of that. It’s most obvious with the Akarans. Aliver was based on my brother in law, and look what happened to him! And Corinn began as my sister in law, and you know how she turned out… I’m happy to say they took it all in good humor, though. The truth is that from the moment the characters first open their mouths and start moving around the Acacia stage they become something different than any of the real life people that inspired them. My family understands that. Lucky for me.

Every now and then, there’s some comment or assertion on some blog or article about how there’s some discernable difference between “mainstream,” “literary,” or “mimetic” fiction and “speculative” or “SF/Fantasy” fiction.  As an author who has had stories marketed in both categories, what differences, if any, do you believe exist between these perceived narrative modes?

There are differences. Sure. There are commonalities too. I tend to think we make too big a fuss over differences, though. People stake out their turf and take too much self-righteous glee in lobbing insults onto other people’s turf. To me this is kinda silly. Kinda childish.

Here’s what I believe about “literary” and “mainstream” fiction – just today’s selection of thoughts.

I believe that there is value in writing and reading purely for entertainment, but I also believe fiction can offer more than that and that when it does it’s often harder to access without effort.

I believe that literary fiction by its nature intends to speak meaningfully about the human experience, but I also believe literary writers have no monopoly on this and that they often wear blinders that stop them from seeing quality work in other genres.

I believe that genre fiction has its roots deeply in long-standing traditions of storytelling, sometimes reaching right back to the classics, but I also believe a lot genre writing is uninventive and boring.

I believe that literary fiction’s goals are admirable, but that it’s often… uninventive, boring, safe and lacking ambition.

Looking at my own work, I’ve heard many responses that make it clear genre readers have appreciated my literary attention to character psychology, language, complexity of detail in social and political landscape, but I’m also aware that my writing seems to short circus some readers that don’t connect with any of those things at all.

Some genre readers seem to choose not to like a book when the book fails to be what they expected it to be, when the story or characters aren’t just like the last book that they really loved. That’s a perfectly valid reaction, but I don’t think it should necessarily lead one to conclude that a book is bad – or that literary is just boring. That book may just be different. The author’s interests may be different. Not all readers may share those interests, but some readers give up before they’ve engaged enough to know.

And that’s where I think there is a difference between mainstream and literary that matters. Mainstream writing by its very nature should be easy to swallow. It should go down smooth, without challenging a reader too much – or by challenging them in the ways they expect to be challenged. To take another example, McDonald’s isn’t a massive chain because they make the best tasting hamburgers in the world. They’re massive because they’ve managed to find the right formula for delivering consistently familiar food, food that never surprises and… never fails to be what you expect when you walk in the door. That’s a rather remarkable achievement, and I do think similar impulses drive book buying in the genres as well. Why not return to authors, stories, plot twists that have worked before, rendered in language that doesn’t get in the way?

Literary fiction often begins with a different premise. It may require that a reader learn to read it. Even if you’ve bought a hamburger of a novel, it’s hopefully a different cut of meat. Your first bite isn’t just like the first bite of every Big Mac you’ve ever tasted. You might have to chew for a while to know what it actually tastes like – and then to figure out if you like it.

That’s probably a lot easier an experience to go through with a hamburger than with a novel, but I think there’s a parallel. Some genre readers are turned off by literary fiction before they’ve chewed on it long enough. And, to be fair, I think that many literary readers ignore that the genres do have lots of complexity within them, many titles that they’d love if only they had the sense to give them a try. I’d say one has to learn to read Octavia Butler or Neil Gaiman or Kelly Lynch. They’re literary. They’re also fun to read regardless, but I think they get better the more you digest them.

I’ll never forget an early review of my first novel, Gabriel’s Story, in the San Francisco Chronicle. The reviewer found the language of the first part strange, convoluted and a bit hard to figure out. But then he wrote that by the second part the language had started to work to “greater effect”, and by the end he loved the book! He seems to have walked away thinking that the first part wasn’t as good as the following three parts. But I’d argue that the writing was consistent. What changed was that it took him that first part to get into the rhythm of my writing. After he did, everything got smoother and smoother for him.

Now, if I’d started the book with simpler language he might have been happier from the start, but if I’d done that I wouldn’t have been using the language that he’d learned to love by the end. I think that’s often the case with good literary fiction. (And I do mean the “good” stuff; I’m not saying that all literary fiction is.) Hopefully, it holds you from the start, but in a great many ways full appreciation of it comes gradually.

Nice presentation of the literary/genre presumed divide there.  You raise an interesting point about how your first novel was received.  Would it be fair to say that for those who read Acacia: The War with the Mein and struggled with the first section before finding themselves enjoying the rest of the book might have had a similar experience to that review of Gabriel’s Story?

Before I delve into that, I should make it clear that I don’t believe a writer has an elevated authority in terms of judging how readers respond to them. We think about it and can have opinions, but I don’t think we can determine exactly what any reader is or isn’t experiencing. The whole process is about offering stories to people. It’s the offering that counts, and once you do that you loose control over how others interact with your stories. That’s the way it should be.

With that caveat out there, do I imagine that some Acacia readers had the same experience as that Gabriel’s Story reviewer? Sure. And I thank them for sticking with it! I hope my novels are enjoyable to many people, but they do require some effort on the reader’s part. Most of the people that read Acacia were new to my work. It makes sense that some would need to get used to my approach. I’m just thankful they did.

When someone comes up to me and says they were hooked right from page one I’m always a little surprised. Really? From page one, huh? I’m proud of everything I’ve written, but I don’t think that hooking readers quickly is one of my strengths. I try to get readers chewing on an entire mouthful of baited hooks without really feeling any of those hooks too obviously. I don’t rush to yank too soon, either. I’d like to think it happens gradually, that it grows on readers so that they never know the exact moment when the hooks start sinking in.

Anyway, that’s my approach. It must be natural to me because even in novels that begin in mid-action, like Walk Through Darkness, I still don’t reveal the main hooks controlling the story until near the end.

Have there ever been times that a reader or reviewer comment has led you to reevaluate your approach, perhaps even add an element or two in order to “clarify” a point that may have been more confusing for readers (I’m particularly thinking of Acacia here) who were not used to your narrative approach?

Things that readers/reviewers say may plant seeds that effect decisions I make in the next book, but I’m not sure I’d be able to pinpoint what comment effected things I did a year later. It just gets in the mix somehow. On one hand, I make decisions consciously and I believe in them, but I also know that the whole thing is about communicating stories and ideas with people. I’d be a fool if I didn’t keep an ear open and stay willing to respond to readers.

Multiculturalism in literature of all sorts has become more prevalent in the past two decades.  However, in certain fields, epic fantasy being one of them, there seems to be some controversy over how certain characters are portrayed and if the imagined secondary worlds are a bit too homogenous.  What is your take on the arguments on this issue, including the so-called “Racefail ‘09″ debates online?

I can’t speak about Racefail ’09 specifically. I didn’t participate in it, and, though I know some of the details, I’m no expert on what went on. What’s my take on this issue in general? Again, I offer the thoughts as I have them today…

I think it’s part of the record that a lot of fantasy and sf has been laughably white.

I think it’s a bit silly when depictions of humanity in the future 1) are basically white, or 2) are diverse in ways that mirror our contemporary notions of what diversity is. The first is embarrassing because the majority of the human population isn’t white (not even right now), and unless all these folks have been killed off in some way they’re going to be in the future in ever larger numbers. The second is embarrassing because it’s so limited and shortsighted. I think it’s much more reasonable to imagine a browning of humanity that means it will be harder and harder to find people that have kept the bloodlines undiluted (and lacking the benefits of genetic diversity).

I believe that in fantasy there is something insidious about creating an entire world peopled only with variations of white people: humans, elves, dwarves, etc. I’m not moaning about it. I’m just saying that intentionally or not writers that have done that are revealing things about they way the perceive – or don’t perceive – people of color.

But I also see growing diversity in fantasy. I think it’s always been there in the readership – although not necessarily visible in the folks that make up fandom – and I see it in people’s work and in the small, growing population of writers of color that are striving to get into the field. That’s progress. It should be acknowledged and encouraged – partially because it’s just a good thing, and partially because it can only make the genre more interesting. It doesn’t mean the issue is resolved, though.

There are layers upon layers of issues built into our racial perceptions and interactions. This is one thing I think white people often view differently than people of color. (I’m very aware that I’m speaking in generalities. Such things aren’t perfect, I know.) I think it’s easier for a white person to point at a few authors or books and say, “Look, there’s proof that there’s diversity. Case closed. Can we please stop talking about it?” Whereas a person of color is more likely to say, “Yeah, you can name five black sf authors now, but let’s look at what they’ve written, how they’ve been marketed and received, how that compares to how white writers of similar material were treated, etc. And, yes, there may be other races in lots of new fantasy series, but let’s look at how they’re depicted, how central their roles are, how much they embody earthly stereotypes, and let’s consider that there’s something wrong when the people in the book are all brown and the people on the cover are all white, etc. And perhaps you can stop talking about it, but that’s because it doesn’t matter to you the same way it does to me. I have no choice but to keep talking, because stopping would mean I was failing to acknowledge and express things that I think, feel, experience every day.”

As with everything to do with race and culture and social history, there aren’t any easy answers. And when there are advances it doesn’t close the matter; it just opens up further avenues that need exploring/debating. I do wish the debating didn’t get so hostile so quickly, though. From a distance, that’s one of the things that seem problematic with episodes like Racefail ’09.

In general, we can all do better. I had a friend over from Scotland a few weeks back. White guy. He’d been talking about how much he liked District 9, which I haven’t seen. As I looked up stuff about it online I came across Tananarive Due and some other writers of color talking about depictions of race in it. Some were highly critical; others supportive of the film, etc. I showed them to my friend. He came away from reading them and said, “Well, I don’t exactly agree that it’s racist in the ways some of these authors think it is, but, still, it does get me thinking about some things I hadn’t before.”

To me, that’s perfect. Couldn’t ask for more. I wish more folks could listen to people they don’t agree with like that – with a mind open enough so that the dialogue broadens their perspective in some way, even if it’s in ways lateral to the point being argued. 

Good points.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t part of the problem many PoC writers and readers have is with “diversity” in writing that consists of having a shallow, token non-caucasian appear in a limited, or rather limiting roles?  In what ways have your stories shown a substantive difference in approach toward addressing the issue of representing PoC characters, concerns, and situations that might differ from how a caucasian writer might represent them?

Yes to the first question. Often when white writers included PoC they’re there as part of the gang around the main characters, in support roles. I’m sure those writers feel that they’ve been inclusive by doing that, but being on the margins of the story doesn’t help if the PoC characters are always at the margins. That’s not true engagement.

White writers having true engagement with non-white protagonists is rare. Richard K Morgan does it. I love it that Neil Gaiman has had lots of diverse characters in supporting roles in his books and stories, and that he made a black Caribbean character the primary in Anansi Boys. Neil delivers. He also made the decision to have Lenny Henry read the audio version of that book. You could say that’s just because the main character has a different personality than Neil, but that’s only part of it. We all know Neil’s an awesome reader. I’m sure he chose Lenny because he wanted a black voice narrating his story about a black character. If he’d tried that with his own voice the identity would’ve blended with Neil’s, and that would be diluting the effect of his narrative choices.

And that happens a lot too. Writers like Ursula K LeGuin have explicitly written about worlds filled with brown skinned characters, only to then see their publishers or filmmakers present those characters as white on the covers of their books. This is partially a subconscious thing – the ones making the artistic decisions kinda forget that the characters were described as brown-skinned. And I know it’s partially intentional – that publishers believe they’re more likely to sell less books with a PoC on the cover.

Readers may scoff at that. “I don’t think about the color of the person on the book!” I can’t argue with an individual on what they do or don’t consider. I’ll just say that it’s a fact that publishers consider race and prejudice as they make marketing decisions in which race and prejudice may play a part. You may not think you think about it; they’re sure that at some level – even subconscious – you do.

In terms of my own writing, the most direct ways I’ve approached race differently can be seen in my earlier novels. Gabriel’s Story was a response to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I loved that book, but I hated the way the one black character in it was called “the nigger”. He was as much a part of the group as any of them, but his marginalization had it’s own nasty character to it. So I wrote a Western that began with a solid historical fact – that there were many black settlers in the West, especially after the Civil War – and ran with it. I made the black characters the central focus. I’m not aware of a white writer ever having done that.

Walk Through Darkness is as a runaway slave story, but an entire half of the book is focused on a white character, the one who I’d argue is the real main character of the book. It was an exploration of how intermingled the American bloodline is, how much that’s been subverted, and how freeing it can/could be to acknowledge it more directly. I choose to include it because I think it’s an important aspect of the American experience and because the story is in my blood, in my family history.

In my Hannibal novel, Pride of Carthage, I wanted to translate what ancient sources and what modern historians tell us about the Second Punic War into fiction. That meant making decisions, choosing between alternative possibilities, condensing and splicing things, but it was all in an effort to get that epic conflict on the page. I also wanted to pay tribute to the diversity that was the ancient Mediterranean. That’s part of why there was such a wide cast of characters: Carthaginians and Romans, Greeks and Macedonians, Gauls and Celts, and Libyans and Numidian. They all featured in the war; they all feature in my novel – not just as walk on characters in the background, but with devoted scenes specifically telling their stories. I’ve read a few fictional takes on the Second Punic War, but none of them made central characters out of North Africans other than the Carthaginians. I did. It felt important – and natural – to do that.

With Acacia: The War With The Mein I just wanted to write a large fantasy story set in a racially diverse world. I didn’t center the story around Northern European-like cultures or around sub-Saharan African ones. I went for placing it in between, and then casting a wide net around that. Once that was in place I just proceeded with the story I wanted to tell.

 How have reader reactions been to your decisions in your novels, especially in Acacia: The War with the Mein, to include so many different ethnic groups that have their traditions and which aren’t shallow riffs on the dwarves/elves/orcs that you noted above?

Nobody’s complained about it. Nobody’s said, “I’m so disappointed. Where are the elves?”

Readers of color and folks interested in PoC have quite welcomed it, who seem to feel that the combination of a writer of color creating a multi-cultural world is a very good thing. I’m happy about that. On the other hand other readers have said, “What’s the big deal? It doesn’t feel that different.” Different readers; different reactions.

I believe that only part of the way an individual perceives a story is shaped by the written words themselves. Those words mix with whatever perceptions/perspectives/prejudices the reader carries with them. That’s the magic of it, but it means that not everyone reads the same thing the same way, especially when ethnicity is one of the issues at hand. When I read Earthsea I’m jolted each time Ged and most other people are physically described as dark, coppered, brown. Each time that rings in my head like a little bell, reminding me that this is a world of PoC characters. It’s so very there in the text, and I think readers who match those descriptions themselves latch on to the ethnicity of the characters – as LeGuin wants us to do. But I’ve also spoken with a lot of white readers that look at me funny when I point this out. They don’t notice it the same way. To them those descriptions don’t stick, or don’t seem to mean the same things.

The same is true in Acacia. Again and again, I mention that the Acacian’s are of a light brown complexion, that they tend to have brown eyes and dark hair, that feminine beauty is typically round featured in the face. By contrast, the Meins are the ones that have really blond hair and fair skin and sharp features. The Talayans are very dark-skinned.

Still, though, a lot of readers sort of slide the Acacians to the European realm. I’ve seen this in the artwork for some of my European covers. I’ve certainly seen it in the names of actors people come up with to fit roles in the film. I think the tricky thing is that secondary world fantasy has been Euro-centric for so long that it’s become the default picture people have in their minds. Subtle changes to that template don’t always register.

On the other hand, complete shifts, like what Charles R. Saunders attempted with Imaro, truly resets the template. He wrote African-based sword and sorcery. No mistaken that. Problem is that few people read it. Sales dove. The series got cancelled. They tried this twice, by the way, and the same thing happened both times.

Interview with Jeff VanderMeer

October 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Jeff VanderMeer is a multiple award-winning author of several books, including one of my favorite fantasy settings, Ambergris.  The Ambergris Cycle is composed of City of Saints and Madmen (2002; rev. 2004, 2006), Shriek:  An Afterword (2006), and the just-released Finch (2009; review forthcoming).  In addition, VanderMeer has edited several anthologies, with recent ones being New Weird (2008); Steampunk (2008); Best American Fantasy (vol. 1, 2007; vol. 2, 2009); and the soon-to-be-released charity anthology of flash fiction, Last Drink Bird Head (2009).  Finally, VanderMeer also just had a non-fiction guide for writers, Booklife, released this past week.  

This interview was conducted via email from October 14, 2009 to October 18, 2009. 

The past year has seen quite a bit of activity from you. What are some of the projects that you have completed or are in the process of completing that will be out soon?

It’s such a muddle in my brain right now, I’m just going to list them in no particular order: The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, Last Drink Bird Head (antho), The Leonardo Variations, setting up Best American Fantasy with Underland, working on the Shared Worlds writing camp, tweaking The Best of Leviathan, starting research for the Steampunk Bible and pre-prep on Steampunk Reloaded (a second Steampunk reprint antho), continuing work on the graphic novel version of The Situation for Tor.com, and others. Booklife, Finch, are out in the next week or two and represent the two central, major projects I’ve had since Shriek came out in 2006. You may remember more than I do, frankly. There are too many. I need a break.

That pretty much is all that I can recall off-hand, with the addition of your upcoming 2010 story collection, The Third Bear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t most of these projects due for a 2010 release, or are some slated for 2011?

Oh, also Monstrous Creatures, my nonfiction collection, although I haven’t turned that in yet–I’m generating so many essays and articles related to Finch and Booklife due to requests that I want to wait and turn it in the end of the year, so I have the largest pool of material to choose from. Last Drink comes out in 2009, in a couple of weeks. Most of the rest are 2010 or 2011. Ann and I are still working out the schedule so that we don’t have too much out in 2010. I need a good five months to finish off the Steampunk Bible starting the beginning of 2010. I also need time to recharge.

You have worn many hats over the past few years, from anthology editor, short fiction writer, novelist, columnist for Amazon’s Omnivoracious blog, and now the writer of Booklife, a strategy guide for writers. Which one (or ones) of these roles has been the greatest challenge for you and how have you adapted to the demands of these diverse jobs?

I was and am a fiction writer first, a book editor and nonfiction writer second, and everything else third, although I really enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching. I always thought, growing up, that writers always wore lots of hats and did many different jobs within that rough description of “connected to writing”. I never thought of it as the idea of being a “man of letters” or anything pretentious like that, but it was an idea that to do so was to be well-rounded. I also knew early on that I had the kind of talent that could be flexible and multi-various if I developed it properly. I’ve also never shied away from a challenge–forced myself to jump head-first into scary writing situations. I love the diversity of it, in part because it all feeds into everything else. My editing gives me insight into writing fiction and vice versa. The business end gives me insight into editing, etc. The main challenge as a full-time writer is learning how to take time off, because without time to recharge, writing and editing all the time, you can easily burn out. Part of that, too, is playing to that idea of variety. It was a relief after Finch not to have to do a major fiction project for awhile and turn to other writing–even better to have the next major fiction project be so different: a collaboration with Australian writer Tessa Kum on a Halo novella for Halo: Evolutions. (Which means the next fiction project I’m taking on, a long story called “Komodo” is, of course, like something William Burroughs would write after getting drunk with Philip K. Dick and Angela Carter. I hope. )

The greatest challenge wasn’t actually Finch, because even if I’ve never written a novel like it, I have written short fiction a bit like it, and although the Predator novel was completely different, I used Predator to experiment with different approaches to pacing that worked great for Finch. Booklife turned out to be the greatest challenge because half-way in I suddenly realized: Oh, yeah–I’ve never written a nonfiction book before. This is going to be more work than I thought. Since the deadlines for Finch and Booklife were almost identical, juggling two such major projects was also difficult. I’m happy to say that they both came out as I wanted them to , though .

But in terms of pivoting left and then pivoting again and moving amongst a great diversity of things–I thrive on that so long as the workload isn’t insane. I jump into that willingly without a safety net. Just in the last few months I’ve plunged headlong into new challenges. It’s important because it makes it difficult to get stuck in ruts. And there’s still a connected narrative thread that runs through a lot of my projects, so there’s still a sense, for me at least, of an overall structure that’s consistent.

You mention that you enjoy the challenges and rewards of teaching and you have detailed on your blog and elsewhere the experiences you’ve had the past two years teaching at the Shared Worlds program offered by Wofford College each summer. In what ways has teaching in that program and at Clarion and Clarion South helped you develop as a writer and communicator?

I think the Clarion and Shared Worlds gigs have crystalized for people that Ann and I are also teachers, but we’d been teaching workshops and doing public speaking for years before that, all over the world. My first guest lecture was given to a writer’s group in Orlando when I was sixteen, and I’ve done critiques and whatnot since that time as well. I think the difference with Clarion and Shared Worlds is just that they’re longer, which is an important difference. It’s one thing to come in and do a day-long workshop. It’s another thing to be immersed in a teaching situation for one or two weeks. First of all, you wind up deploying most of your “material” and thus have to plan out what makes the most sense timing-wise. You also have to have an overall plan and sequence that takes into account, at Clarion, the efforts of the teachers from the weeks before you, and, at Shared Worlds, how to best use all of the visiting writers. Shared Worlds is the most intense. First, it’s two weeks, second I’m not just teaching I’m also part of the planning/management/administration as the assistant director. And while you want to have a plan in place, you also have to be adaptive to the situation and to each student. To that end we added individual one-on-one sessions where each student got to sit down with me and Ann or one of the guest writers and talk about what they wanted to get out of their writing, how they were enjoying the camp, etc. I’d say that Shared Worlds has given me more opportunities to be involved in planning something large-scale, whereas teaching at Clarion helps me by reminding me of the basics of creative writing and by seeing the sometimes new approaches used by the next-gen of SF/Fantasy writers. It’s not as pronounced at Shared Worlds, this learning from their writing, just because they’re so much younger, 14 to 17, that they’re still finding their voices and dealing with basic technical issues , but in having to communicate effectively to them I do rediscover hidden truths about even the most basic subjects . They have a lot more energy, too , and, man, it is tough work keeping up with that pace for two weeks.

 Bob Dylan released an album several years ago called “Love and Theft,” devoted to honoring the musicians that had an influence on him. What writers or other people have had a profound influence on what you write and how you write?

Influence is a strange thing. I see it in terms of acquiring technique, because acquiring technique is the process of acquiring a kind of mastery. But that’s all it is. You cannot teach yourself voice and imagination from other writers–you either have that or you don’t. You can draw it out and develop it, true, but not spontaneously create it through mimicry. So those I acquired technique from include Thomas Pynchon, Edward Whittemore, Vladimir Nabokov, Angela Carter, Stepan Chapman, and quite a few others I’m probably not remembering. I quite clearly recall reading a passage in Perfume, for example, that did something unusual, and wholesale transferring it to the story I was working on. I took it out later, but in the meantime that helped me see how it worked. At another time I copied passages from Proust and from Joyce for similar reasons. To copy is to inhabit the ghosts of the decision-making processes, and from that comes understanding. And with understanding comes the ability to internalize, and then you are simply applying an ever-growing variety of technique and approaches to accentuate and strengthen your own natural voice and imagination.

From what I understand, based on your comments in other interviews and on your blog, Ecstatic Days, your Ambergris stories have had a long gestation period. Looking back on these stories, how much of the stories were envisioned beforehand and how much came to develop unplanned/unexpected branches and dimensions?

By 1998 I had a clear idea in my head of the entirety of the Ambergris Cycle. Which is to say, that there would be three or four books, ending at a certain point. It became three books because Shriek ate parts of the fourth and then the third ate the rest of the fourth, and the end point changed because it always does when you actually write the material. The overall underlying reason for things, the mysteries behind the city, have been pretty consistently unchanged since 1998–which is important, because otherwise the three books wouldn’t actually form a cycle, the cause-and-effect would be off. Many, many details changed, though. Many characters went away and new ones came to the fore. So basically those things that had to stay the same stayed the same and the rest changed as I changed. Also, the details of Ambergrisian’s surface history were always meant to change as our own world changed. So in Shriek you see the beginnings of war and global warming, albeit possibly caused by the gray caps. In Finch, in terms of the occupation and torture and interrogation, it’s the internalization of the whole sorry eight years of American foreign policy. I let these things wash over me and then they come out in the fiction in an organic, non-didactic way.

But with some very key differences between the real-world inspirations and your writings, right? Is it safe to presume that an allegorical reading of the Ambergris Cycle would distort quite a few of the stories’ thematic and structural elements?

Changing the context to a fantasy setting gives me the distance to let that kind of thing come into the writing without it being a point-to-point allegory. I find this process replaces the specificity of situation from the real world with the specificity of the fantasy setting while retaining the universal elements of the situation, if that makes sense. The essential questions remain the same. But I am always disappointed when a reviewer or critic focuses on, for example, squid or fungus, without seeing the core of the work. I think I was most disappointed in reviewers of Shriek who, even though it got many good reviews, didn’t even try to “unwrap” the novel so to speak. There’s a ton of stuff woven into the surface of the story that takes on various ideas about history and how we process information. Among other things. I’ll shut up now.

Interesting point about Shriek. When I re-read it recently, I thought about how personal prejudices and fears (especially as personified by Mary’s later treatment of Duncan) often shape societal views of past history. Furthermore, there seems to be connection between this and what you raised above about Finch and its internalization of actual history. To what degree would you agree with the argument that each of the books in the Ambergris Cycle deals with different facets of memory and the manipulation of interpretations of both the past and present? Or is there even more to the overall picture than that?

Shriek was always meant to encompass as much of the world, personal and public, as possible, and meant to be read from and interpreted from several different angles. It’s also meant to be one of those novels that changes each time you read it, depending on where you are in your own life. Those are the novels I read that I love the most, and if I was going to write a sixty-year chronicle about fucked up artists, historians, and art gallery owners, I thought I might as well do it right.

I’m fascinated by those very issues you raise–the fact that most of history and historical theory is so shaped by individual neuroses and prejudices and the need by those interpreting history for us to put their own spin on it, bring in even their most personal hang-ups. Growing up, you take classes and are told that certain things happened this way or that way, and then when you start reading on your own, outside of class, you find that even the supposedly most factual accounts are full of liberties taken by the writer. We live in a reality we continue to spin every day, every minute. We’re each of us telling stories all the time, but trying to present them as fact.

Regarding your point about memory and manipulation of interpretations–sometimes that’s the point of a section of one of the books, sometimes its a strategy to build either characterization or view of the city. I’d say it’s one point among many, that Ambergris has always been, on one level, about having a setting malleable enough to do several things at once with it. For example, here’s one of my favorite reviews of Shriek because it looks at the novel from the viewpoint of environmental history: . Another one I’m fond of, at Pinocchio Theory, that emphasizes the element of absurdism and rejection of institutions in my work that is essential to who I am as a human being and comes out most perfectly in Shriek: .

I’m curious about reviews of Finch, because I’ve set up a few traps in there, but unlike the previous two books, the traps are less obvious because of the approach to narrative and pacing I’ve chosen. Although I’m somewhat gleeful about having pulled off several experimental techniques essential to the story that no one has pointed out because they don’t call attention to themselves in the normal way we think of when we encounter the word “experimental”.

Traps, huh?  Guess I’ll have to be careful when I review Finch then.  But going back to what you said about the liberties that history writers took when recording information, wouldn’t it be fair to say that history (whose etymology just means “story”) is perhaps the closest brethren to fictional storytelling, since it seems there are many goals and elements in common?

I’m kidding. There aren’t any traps. (Yes, there are.) I just wanted to see how you’d respond, so I could include that in the next novel. (Yes, there are traps.) But, no, there aren’t any traps. Why would I do that? Regarding histories…yes, I’d agree with that statement. For most history books for a general audience, you have to find that narrative thread that will bind it all together, and thus you’re already weaving story. It’s impossible not to, and we all know, stories are full of lies. Some lies are just lies and some lies are actually a kind of truth, though. It’s also interesting that historical novelists face some of the same challenges as SF/fantasy writers, in terms of having to create a place that does exist (any more).


Hrmm…I’m beginning to wonder if Duncan Shriek has managed to make his own commentaries to your responses to my question, Jeff 😉 Which I guess might in turn serve to further reinforce the need not just to question what is going on within the stories, but also what has been going on with our recorded histories?

History is rife with texts not written or not written entirely by whomever gets the byline. You should just be glad that I didn’t let Evil Monkey anywhere near the computer…

In the “About the Book” section at the end of Finch, you note how each of the three books in the Ambergris Cycle vary in structure and approach, but with each ultimately building upon and developing a greater understanding of the other books in the Cycle. Ambergris itself emerges as a sort of quasi-character in these books, seen from various vantage points, leading to a place that to me seems to resemble in some aspects what M. John Harrison did with his Viriconium stories. Was there an intent to create a sort of meta-narrative revolving around the city and how it exists in so many places and yet does not seem to be of any particular time/place at all?

The publisher put the “About the Book” section together, but I did provide them with that description of the three books. I don’t think a city exists without the people who live in it, so when you say the city is a character I think you mean “the city looks different from different characters’ points of view.” I think City was meta enough to take care of all of that, and Shriek and Finch were actually getting out from under the meta aspects of the first book. Which isn’t to say I don’t love all three equally, but that the second and third books couldn’t be meta because that would just be repeating, for diminishing returns, what I’d already done. Shriek: An Afterword is written as it is, sees Ambergris as it does, because of who the narrator is–it comes completely from the character, and the same for Finch. I’m also not sure that it’s all that meta to think of a city existing in so many places, because that’s the nature of cities anyway, that’s how people perceive them. As for Harrison, he’s going for something even more metaphorical.

So in other words, while each of the three stories complement each other, there is never a retreading of structural elements? What about thematic elements in common?

Structurally, yes, the books are completely different. But in terms of characters often seeking something they’re obsessed with but might be dangerous if they found it…that’s a commonality. A sense of the absurdity and contradictions of the world. The subjectivity of anything approaching “truth” or a common reality. The way that the events of history shape character, and how character can rise above history, if with a monumental effort. Finch is trapped by history, in a sense, and yet literally fighting his way out of it. Janice Shriek is trapped by a sense of her own mortality, and struggles against that. Voss Bender creates his own history but then falls victim to his own myth, history eating itself. Institutions, standard modes of thought, critics trying to interpret the personal from the public all come in for a heavy beating in these novels. Imagination–our ability to perceive something beyond our situation–is often paramount, and characters live or die, succeed or fail, based in part on how imaginative they are, except in cases where an imagination is so profound, like Duncan Shriek’s (despite his other faults), that the popular conception of reality in the form of the mass opinions of other people will not support it–in fact, actively punishes it.

So in part, the characters’ conflicts are rooted in a larger conflict revolving around different interpretations of the past and how myths are created?  Also, just how subversive would “imagination” (or creation) be viewed by the authorities who are in charge in each of the books?

Everyone wants their story to be the dominant one, even if it only dominates their own mind; when this happens, we call the person “crazy”. As for authorities, I think the gray caps are the harshest toward those with good imaginations, because their own imagination is so different from a human imagination. This is what creates the (deeply) darkly humorous bits in Finch, where they just cannot understand humans and the manifestations of human imagination–when they try to lock in on that, they produce things for their detectives like disgusting fungal guns that leak (and, in an early draft, actually bleated and chirped).

Finch combines elements of noir, thrillers, and surreal-like fantasy. After writing Shriek: An Afterword, how difficult was it for you to create a story that differs as much in narrative tone and characterization from its predecessor as Shriek did from City of Saints and Madmen?

Luckily, I had the Predator novel as a palate-cleanser. But I don’t think it would’ve been difficult anyway. It’s always just a matter of finding your way to a particular tone and way of thinking about the character as cross-hatched to story/style. I guess it doesn’t strike me as difficult to do precisely because I rarely repeat myself, especially at the longer lengths. So I am used to having to start from scratch, so to speak. But in a larger sense, I see something “difficult” as something that isn’t fun to do. I love finding the right approach, so the stops-and-starts involved were a joy to me. I love facing a problem in fiction and having to solve it.

Speaking of tone and character, you have stated on your website and elsewhere that Finch, both the character and narrative style, changed quite a bit from the original plan. Did these changes take place because of external influences (such as reading other authors’ ways of dealing with similar characters or situations) or through internal shifts based on your own experimentations with the text?

In part because the original Finch was entirely too enamored of Alexander Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat, and although I could’ve eventually digested and assimilated that influence, I think in the process the novel would’ve become something I’ve always feared in working with fantasy: too removed from the real, flesh-and-blood world. Also because I workshopped (at Turkey City) an early draft of my new approach to Finch after wrenching it totally out of the Theroux mode and found that oddly enough the delivery system not the content was the problem. People weren’t buying things that made perfectly logical sense because their perception of the idea of “detective” and the idea of “murder case” didn’t include a Shriek-like approach to style. Once I changed the delivery system, too, I had a much, much better idea of both character and story. It’s a bit like being an actor and picking up the right nuance and inflection that then opens up the character they’re playing. I never ever see style as separate from character and story, so before I get too far into a piece of fiction, I have to have those things correct. And one reason I think I had only gotten 60 pages into the new Finch when I workshopped it wasn’t because there was necessarily anything wrong with the plot or the situations, but that the tone was just wrong–it was the wrong delivery system, the wrong entry point for the reader–and thus I needed to rethink that. The great thing is that in addition to a terse style being right for the novel, writing in that mode has given me a whole new arsenal of approaches to fiction. I feel a certain flexibility gathering, even as flexibility flees my joints and bones in anticipation of encroaching old age and senility.

The gray caps, or fanaarcensitii as they call themselves, are a cipher throughout the Ambergris Cycle to date. What do you make of reader interpretations of the gray caps as being representations of “the Other,” of our own tendency to misunderstand our own selves, or of them being a possibly “damned” species? Are there any clues in Finch about their origins, goals, and societal characteristics?

I think there are more clues in City of Saints to their way of life and organization and society. In Finch, as is often the way, being actually confronted by them, having them speak, puts them at a remove. In a sense, you are so close to them you can’t really have the perspective to see them. You’re living with them and with the consequences of them being in control, but that’s a different thing. I always thought the gray caps could be interpreted in many different ways, but I have always first and foremost seen them as somewhat alien living, sentient creatures. I haven’t seen them as representing anything. In “An Early History of Ambergris” I did allow commentary on their society to create a sense of “the Other.” But as you may have noticed in Finch, there’s another “Other”, and one I’ve been waiting for readers to pick up on: the actual indigenous tribes living in the area, displaced in part by the gray caps and then totally disenfranchised by the original founders of Ambergris, in a sense. Their path through the history of Ambergris has not been well-documented, but it begins to take shape in Finch, as they’re one of the players in the political and military fabric of the city. If I were to write more books set in Ambergris, that is one strand that I would explore more fully.

I did notice that and how it was embodied within an important secondary character.  Is the near-silence on those indigenous tribes before Finch itself a commentary on the self-delusions and quasi-imperialistic views of the invading settlers who razed the land to create Ambergris?  Or does their relative silence reflect even more upon certain real-world situations today?

I think it’s there in the “Early History of Ambergris,” but the main reason it’s not front-and-center is that I’ve been focused on the gray caps and it’s too much to cram into one story arc. But it’s clear from the start that the inhabitants of Ambergris have committed crimes against not only the gray caps but the original inhabitants of the area. I have had characters like Sybel in Shriek who were from the indigenous tribes, but those characters have been integrated with the mainstream of Ambergrisian life. In Finch, readers discover that some of the narrators they’ve had in previous stories/novels set in Ambergris may well have been telling history by leaving out the inconvenient or the disenfranchised. My feeling is that in the future after this third novel, it’s this group, the dogghe and nimblytod who have joined forces, who not only adapt best to the changing cityscape of Ambergris but begin to re-assert their primacy. So, perhaps, in a way, what you’re saying is correct.

So instead of readers worrying about whether or not they need to read City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek before Finch, perhaps it might benefit readers more to (re)read those novels after reading Finch?

I see them as self-contained stories, with the history of the city running through them. If you only take away the history of the city from the series, then I guess you could say Finch might take away a few surprises in the previous two books. But all of these stories are about human beings and only work if you believe in the characters. In that respect, going back would only deepen an understanding of the city. Also, despite some of the central mysteries about the city posed by the first two books are answered in Finch, there are many subsidiary mysteries and many other pleasures that are given short shrift in Finch. At least, that’s my perspective. I’m genuinely curious as to how it actually plays out. I think Shriek: An Afterword, for example, actually gains pathos after reading Finch. Certain stories in City of Saints gain a different texture, too. But the writer is not the person to ask–readers will decide. There will also be readers who loved Shriek who hate the noir style of Finch, and then those who read Finch and find Shriek a pretentious mess. That’s their right as readers. It’s also my right as a writer to want to do something different, and to let the demands of character and story determine the style. I’m at peace with that.

In addition to Finch, you just had your guide to writers, Booklife, come out. In what ways has the writing market changed that makes a book such as Booklife worth reading, compared to other books for writers that came out say ten or twenty years ago?

We’re completely and utterly enamored of and often enslaved by new media and opportunities on the internet. These opportunities have also been of great benefit–they’ve leveled the playing field for the disenfranchised quite a bit, given a voice to the voiceless–but they come with a lot of risk. Most writers do not think strategically, which wasn’t a problem pre-internet when there were just a few opportunities and more support from publishers for books. It was pretty hard, I think, to really risk fragmentation of your mind in that paradigm. Now you most definitely can over-extend your brain in a sense–you can have so many open channels that I’d argue it’s like having a thousand extra voices in your head, with a direct conduit to your brain. Also, people think they can just get on Twitter and Facebook and start talking about their book and that that constitutes a plan. It doesn’t. So Booklife is in part an argument about (1) knowing what you’re getting into and the possible good and bad permutations of that, (2) being more organized so that you can actually be less stressed and have more time for your writing, and (3) making the kinds of decisions that support the health of your creativity while also acknowledging that if you want to build a career you have to find some time for that as well.

When I read Booklife recently, I was struck by how much the focus was not on prescriptive, authoritative “solutions” that are self-based, but by how much time was devoted to presenting others’ perspectives that seemed to underscore the “networking” aspects of writing.  When you began writing Booklife, did you have this focus in mind, or did it come gradually to you as you wrote?

As a teacher, I know that you must check your ego at the door. Often, what you’re trying to do is find the best way to communicate information to a beginning or intermediate writer, and also figure out what they want to do with their writing and their career, and just try to be a conduit to help them achieve that. This means adapting to the student while not abdicating your authority, which you’ve won primarily through experience: encountering so many contexts and situations in your writing and career that you have this databank of information you retrieve in the right combinations to be of use for the individual person.

In writing Booklife I wanted to apply the same philosophy. The book has to have a single author that the readers believe is being honest and accurate and transparent–and in control of the narrative. But at the same time, every writer is different and there are many different solutions to the same problems. So I have the other voices in there not just to lend support to my ideas, but to express different points of view. In some cases, they directly contradict me, and that’s perfectly okay. Sometimes they just present a slightly different point of view. What I wanted Booklife to be was coherent on a macro level but to be full of other voices on a micro level. A good example is that I think many computer tools to help with writing are just distractions or actively a hindrance to writing. But I know many writers who swear by them. Would I be doing a service to writers by just stating my opinion? No. So in those cases, I very firmly make my argument for my position but also provide the other side’s position.

On another level, besides Ann, my friend and publicist Matt Staggs and my friend and Australian writer Tessa Kum were perhaps most influential on the narrative. Matt is gung-ho for new media and has a high tolerance for open channels and seeking out allies. Tessa is introverted and has no tolerance for open channels. Their very different reactions to the material not only helped me to test it–they also helped to then shape it by including elements of both extremes (although I hesitate to use the word “extreme” because it’s not a spectrum–there’s no “normal” position; there are only individuals with their own individual, very valid needs).


You’ve had two novels, a non-fiction guide for writers, several short stories and novellas, a handful of anthologies, and a few podcasts here and there released in the past couple of years.  What do you plan to do to recharge your creative batteries if you begin to feel drained?

Oddly enough, this five-week book tour for Finch and Booklife will help quite a bit, since I won’t be multi-tasking, and I always get energy from seeing new places. But, also, the schedule gets easier after the tour. Most of my focus will be on the Steampunk Bible while Ann will be handling the other projects. And then starting in September of 2010, our schedule really opens up. We definitely need to slow down. I’m quite frankly surprised I’ve managed to do the books so far to the standard of quality I expect from them. But I don’t think that would hold true if we continued at this pace. It’s taken a lot out of both of us.

I remember reading in Booklife where you touch upon the writer’s need for balance in his/her everyday life.  Are there any non-writing/publishing pursuits that you have contemplated (or are currently doing) that helps maintain this balance?  I know you’re an avid sports fan, but are there other hobbies or activities that help keep the writing aspects from overwhelming you?

Hiking and weightlifting are the major ones. Also going to movies with Ann and things like that. Reading itself–hours of uninterrupted reading for myself–are also highly recommended. As I say in Booklife, if you lack the ability to concentrate on a book, especially a serious book and especially if you used to have that ability…something’s wrong in your life.

Thanks again Jeff for agreeing to do this interview.  For those wanting more information about the author, one can visit his personal site, Ecstatic Days, or the recently-opened companion website to Booklife, called Booklife Now.

Interview with Jeffrey Ford now up at the Nebula Awards site

August 25, 2009 § Leave a comment

This is my longest (around 8200 words) and perhaps best interview so far. Well worth the time both Ford and I put into making sure this was an interesting and fun interview to read. Please leave some feedback there on what you think, or you could be less lazy and leave some here as well, I guess.

My interview with Charles Coleman Finlay now up at the Nebula Awards site

August 18, 2009 § 5 Comments

Just click here for the interview. For a little bit of background, keep on reading.

This interview was conducted via email between April and May. Charlie was very gracious in putting up with my delays at the time (if I recall, this was when I had just interviewed for my present job and was in the process of doing the onerous tasks of readying my public school students for their US History exit exam in early May) and the two of us had fun talking about history as well as the fictional elements of his latest series.

When I was conducting the interview, only the first book in his series, The Patriot Witch, had come out. Now all three volumes are available in MMPB format. As a historian (albeit one who focused on modern German cultural/religious history and not on colonial American history), I am wary whenever someone attempts to write historical fiction, since my mind is geared toward parsing the text much more rigorously than I do when I’m reading imaginative, speculative fiction. However, I can say that I found The Patriot Witch to be very enjoyable, with the historical elements of the impending 1775 outbreak of rebellion meshing well with the character of Proctor Brown and other practitioners of witchcraft (Salem being “real” for the witches in this setting). The pacing was very fast-paced and I hope to get around to reading the final two volumes, A Spell for the Revolution and The Demon Redcoat, in the very near future.

Hopefully, there will be people curious enough about the interview and my short synopsis that they’ll check out Finlay’s work. Also, there will be another interview of mine, this time with Jeffrey Ford, that’ll be posted on the Nebula Awards site sometime in the next few months. That one is the longest interview, at just over 8200 words, that I’ve ever conducted.

New Sidebar Category: Interviews

March 28, 2009 § 4 Comments

Since I’m in the middle of porting over quite a few more earlier interviews that I and others at wotmania have done over the years, thought it might be best to create an Interviews category in my sidebar. Yes, I know there are a few authors with multiple interviews over the years and that in some cases, I split the interview into two parts, but I like to think that by labeling the month/year, it ought to cut down on some of the confusion.

Within the next week or so, there should be another 20-30 added. Since I’m creating a category for these, I’m going to have future ported interviews carrying their original post dates, so if there suddenly seem to be more entries for 2003, 2004, and 2005, that’s why. Figured that would save on the clutter on the front page as I do all this. So please be sure to keep looking at the Interviews bar for more interviews and Q&As!

Oh, and as a special tip, be sure to look for the two-part Hal Duncan interview to be posted within the hour.

Update: Since I have little to do this afternoon, I went ahead and ported over all the remaining interviews. I still have about a half-dozen Q&As to edit into interview format, but after those are done, every single interview or Q&A ever posted at wotmania will either be on this blog or at Neth Space. While there are a few that I helped with that I didn’t add here (since they are available at other sites, plus I wasn’t the primary interviewer), the current total of 63 links to interviews/Q&As ought to provide plenty of reading material for those who missed these originally being posted on wotmania over the past 6 years.

The wotmania Files: Q&A with Scott Bakker Part II (Nov. 2004)

March 28, 2009 § 5 Comments

Due to all sorts of things happening the past few weeks, forgot about editing/posting more of the Q&A session Bakker did with wotmania back in November 2004. Here it is for those curious to know more about the author and his works.

You have given some hints that this world was at least discovered by off worlders. Are we going to see more of that? Are the No-men meerly a technologically advanced people from another world? I guess I am asking if they are a different species from the people we see.

Also, thanks tons for doing this.

Good questions… The problem is that I see the unveiling of the world (which is HUGE) as part of the reader’s adventure. All these issues come to play decisive roles in the story. I wish I could give you a better answer…

Otherwise, I’d like to thank YOU ALL, and especially Larry, for giving me the opportunity to do this. This MB is very, very cool.

Robert Jordan is a lucky man!

I mean, you are popular because you’re good, so much so, that we have a little fan club in El Salvador, Central America, where I am from. Larry adviced me to tell you here so I am doing it now. But the point is, your storytelling is great, why would a great writter not become successful,or if he does, why be surprised by that?

Thanks, dark gholam. Be sure to say hi to everyone!

Well, two things, I guess. First, I’m painfully aware of the many ways we humans like to delude ourselves, particularly when it comes to flattery. Do you remember the coverage of Ronald Reagan’s passing a few months back? The one thing all the American news organizations kept saying more than anything else was that Reagan ‘reminded us of how great they were.’ Somehow they managed to turn this poor guy’s death into an orgy of self-congratulation. They did this because they’re selling a product in a competitive market, and they knew that people want to be flattered more than they want to be informed. Just think of how awkward those words “Tell me what you really think” can be!

When you receive attention the way I’ve been, it pays-pays-pays to be suspicious, especially since it’s so HARD to gain perspective on one’s own perspective. I can actually understand what happened to Goodkind, I think.

Secondly, I had a hard youth in some ways. I grew up poor, working all the time, and profoundly suspicious of good fortune. Those kind of emotional habits are hard to shake.

My mind is a bit random so I hope you can excuse that these questions are a bit random.

Do polar bears wear sunglasses were you live?

Nope. But they DO drink Coca-Cola.

Were would you recommend someone that is interested in philosophy to start?

Hard question. I’m not sure there’s any one book that I would recommend: the best place, really, is a freshman philosophy course. There’s also a philosophy discussion section on The Three Seas Forum, where you can debate and ask questions to your heart’s delight. So far it seems remarkably flameproof, despite the charged subject matter.

Do you ever drink soft drinks? If you do what are your favourite?

I compulsively drink caffiene-free Coke Classic. Tastes the same as the regular, but doesn’t keep you up all night pondering the imminent destruction of the world. I like to feel rested when I ponder such things…

Do you prefer to write in the day or during the night?

I’m a lark when it comes to writing, which is a pain because all the years I spent working midnights transformed me into an owl.

How many books do you think you will write in your lifetime?

That depends. How long do I got to live?

Is death the beginning or the end?

Death lies beyond beginnings and ends.

Do you think you will some day be as popular as J.R.R. Tolkien?

Good lord, no! First off, I think the first 200 pages of TDTCB will ward off many readers, as will the general complexity of the world and the names. Kind of like St. Peter… Then there’s the dark and violent themes I tackle, which I’m sure will convince many, like poor Dorothy from Curved Lake, Ontario, that my books should be burned. Then there’s the fact that Tolkien is the God of epic fantasy, and as such, tends to be a jealous God, and will tolerate no others, and you know, blah, blah, blah, blah…

Do you see any parts of yourself in every character you create?

Only the well-endowed ones…

Couldn’t resist! What can I say? I grew up on a tobacco farm. The first time someone mentioned “Touched by an Angel” I thought they were talking about a porno. I like to think of my humour as ‘earthy’ rather than ‘dirty.’

Insofar as I put myself in their headspace, you could say that all of my characters are expressions of the possible headspaces I can occupy. I know this unnerves my wife, who now and again asks me to sleep on the couch after proofing a chapter.

Thank you for the great books and for taking time to answer questions from us lowly readers.

/Håkan

Thank you, Dark Matter!

I live in Australia and that leads me to my first question, I had a hard time getting your book down here, and it took so long to get here I have only read the first quarter. I think I have a British published copy, getting to the questions:

1. Are there going to be Australian editions or am I going to have to pay for international postage on ‘The Warrior Prophet’.

Simon & Schuster UK handle worldwide distribution in English (outside of the US and UK). I’ll ask my editor there about it. Thanks for the tip, I Am.

2. The cover art (on the edition I have) is very evocative and I know most authors have no control over cover art. Do you like the images on the covers and what they suggest about the book/story?

I’m happy with the S&S cover, but I haven’t the foggiest as to WHO that is staring out at you. I had thought that the Canadian cover was just so obviously superior, more ‘eye catching,’ so to prove myself right I took the book to one of my pop culture classes and put both covers up on the VDP, and without letting anyone know which I preferred, I asked my student which one they liked best.

They voted for the S&S cover by a 2 to 1 margin.

Which explains why publishers always reserve the right to put whatever they want on the covers. Though we authors fancy ourselves creative geniuses, the bottomline is that we haven’t a clue as what sells books. In this case, I’m told that it’s the face. Our brains have powerful face-recognition circuits, which often makes covers with faces more engaging.

I STILL prefer the Canadian covers though (as does my US publisher, thank Gawd).

3. Where does you interest in religion come from?

I’ve had a strange personal odyssey when it comes to religion. When I was young, I was ‘born again,’ but then around 14 or so I started asking questions, lots of them, and troubling enough to convince my mother to have the pastor over for dinner a couple nights. It had dawned on me that if everything had a cause, and those causes themselves had causes, then my thoughts, which were part of ‘everything,’ were themselves caused, and that there could be no such thing as free will…

I was the guy who you DID NOT want to talk to on acid or mushrooms.

So I spent my teens as an athiest and a nihilist, filled with moral outrage at the fact that morality did not exist, and yet everyone pretended it did.

Then I went to university, and somehow ended up reading Heidegger, the German father of what Sartre would later turn into existentialism. The intellectual ins and outs of my transformation are too complicated to relate here, but I ended up being an agnostic, firmly convinced of the reality of things like meaning and morality.

Then while doing my Philosophy PhD at Vanderbilt, I started playing poker on a regular basis with some classmates, one of whom was an avowed nihilist. I argued and argued and argued, and got my ass kicked. And I realized that if you were honest and only committed yourself to warranted claims, then nihilism was inescapable.

But nihilism, of course, simply HAS to be wrong. There’s gotta be more than function, process, and mechanism…

And this is the central thematic question of The Prince of Nothing: What is this ‘more’? What are the shapes we give it, and how do these shapes affect the way we see the world and each other? Is it real, or is it all a gigantic racket?

Could it be both?

I have no answers to any of these questions. All I know is that if you set aside your hope, your childhood upbringing, and stick only to what we know, the picture looks pretty grim.

Why epic fantasy? What is it about this form of communication that appeals not just to you as your chosen medium of writing, but to those of us here who love to read it?

*ducks the probable withering stare for turning the tables here*

No ducking necessary, you ducker. I think it’s an excellent question!

I should start with a caveat, though. Everyone knows that there’s a variety of ‘worldviews’ out there, and despite the fact that everyone is convinced that their’s happens to be the true one, everyone remains convinced that their’s happens to be the true – primarily because it just ‘feels’ right.

First: If it ‘feels’ right, then odds are it’s wrong. Despite what the movie hero or the commercial says, our ‘gut instincts’ are miserable when it comes to getting things right. Since collective beliefs underwrite collective actions, and since the repetition of collective actions is what makes societies possible, only those societies that successfully manage the beliefs of their constituent members survive. Ronald Reagan didn’t cause the collapse of the Soviet system: a collective crisis of faith did.

This is just a fact. If you were socialized in the traditional manner, your possess the belief system that your social system needs you to have in order to function as it functions. Our society is no different than any other in this regard, though most of us are convinced that we’ve monopolized the truth, just as most everyone in most every society has been convinced. In our society we call this requisite belief system ‘Individualism.’

One of the things I find so fascinating about epic fantasy is the way fetishizes a certain type of world-view – specifically, the pre-scientific one.

More than anything else, science is a kind of discipline, a set of methods and techniques that prevent us from duping ourselves in the quest to answer questions of fact. This is the reason so much science is so alienating for so many people: we’re hard-wired to prefer flattering, simplistic, and purposive answers. Evolution is the classic example here.

The world-views one finds in epic fantasy are examples of the world-views our ancestors developed in the absence of scientific discipline. This makes epic fantasy horribly important in at least two respects, First, those ancient worlds were the worlds enshrined in scripture. It’s no accident that Banker’s novelization of the Ramayana is shelved in the fantasy section. Fantasy worlds are versions of scriptural worlds. This is why poor Harry Potter has enjoyed all the controversy he has. For fundamentalists who still believe in the scriptural world of the Bible, being a ‘young wizard’ is as odious as being a ‘young gunslinger’ would be to secular readers. Second, since those ancient worlds arose without the ‘benefit’ of scientific discipline, they are bound to reflect a whole host of human foibles and human needs. They are pictures of the world as we want it to be.

The wotmania Files: First part of a Q&A with R. Scott Bakker (Nov. 2004)

March 5, 2009 § 2 Comments

This is the first of at least two and maybe three parts of the Q&A Bakker did with wotmania back in November 2004. For the most part, I’ve tried to preserve questions, silly and serious alike, with the exception of a couple of my own time-specific silly questions on hockey. Since this will be rather lengthy, I’m going to break it up into 2000-2500 word chunks and will try to post the entire thing over the course of the next few days. There ought to be a few matters of discussion for people reading this over four years later, including a comment on Esmenet being a “moral” argument for gender equality.

Since I just dropped my opinion about this in the book discussion below, I am curious. What are your views about gender roles in the world you created, how they are portrayed in the two books (not necessarily the same) and how they relate to our world?

With the recent elections, do you think a woman will ever be elected president of the US? Who would be your choice?

Great questions. Without a doubt I think this is the topic I take the most heat on, something which I see as ironic given that my initial concern was that I was being too overtly feminist!

Epic fantasy worlds are almost exclusively pre-scientific worlds, which is to say they’re worlds where traditional authority, rather than public debate or scientific method, tells us what’s true or false, right or wrong. What I wanted was an unsanitized epic fantasy world, one that was true to the brutalities and beauties of our own world before the Enlightenment. I thought the most honest way to explore our fascination with these worlds would be to look at them as they would really be. The culture of the Three Seas, as a result, is as misogynistic as western culture once was. Women are often treated as a sexual and reproductive resource. As Kellhus points out in TWP, when men cannot control their desires, they try to control the objects of their desires.

The reason I think I take so much heat on this issue is that some confuse representing such a world with endorsing it – which believe me certainly isn’t the case! The idea, rather, is to explore the psychological consequences of such a culture on my female characters. We keep returning to these worlds (as fantasy readers), I think, because they represent something we’re missing, but it’s a mixed bag – very mixed.

A female US President? It’ll take some time, I think, but with the way women are out-performing men in school, we’re about to witness an immense gender role reversal. Things are going to look a lot different in 20 years time. And it’ll all be blamed on video games.

I think I can see your point. Did you try to move away from the type of women portrayed in early fantasy works? Let’s face it, Tolkien portrays women as almost holy in a way. He has a very Victorian attitude. This is not surprising given his time period. However, many people have shown women in the role of objects of desire, but not very bright. Were you concerned that readers would not buy that Esmenet was smarter than the men who used her? Or that we would be offended? Since we started down this path, it seems she does a total reversal by the end of The Warrior Prophet. Is this just another example of how well Kellhus manipulates those around him?

For me, the Kellhus/Esmenet dyad is one of the thematic cornerstones of the book. My big concern, and I think it’s been borne out, has been that I’m simply being overly subtle.

One of the questions I’m interested in is, What happens to truths when they become instruments of manipulation? Kellhus enslaves Esmenet by emancipating her, by showing the ‘truth’ of the misogynistic culture she lives and breathes. In effect, he makes her modern. I have no idea how to answer this question, but it seems to me to be an important one.

If you believe that all values are simply social artifacts (which I don’t, because I think this is tantamount to nihilism), then what we call ‘women’s rights’ is simply an expression of changing technological and economic conditions. Given the way that technology increases productivity, the ‘base economic units’ of society become smaller and smaller. Just a few centuries back it was the village, then it became the extended family, then it became the nuclear family, and now it’s becoming the individual. Every society in history rationalizes its economic organization in its belief-system, and our society is no different. So as the possibilities of female economic independence expanded, the more and more ‘oppressive’ the standing beliefs in the auxilary, familial role of females came to seem, and so the ‘women’s rights’ movement was born. It’s not that women are in FACT equal to men and always have been, it’s just that their labour has recently become equally useful. There’s no moral fact of the matter: just a social system spontaneously adapting its belief-system to better exploit its resources.

I see Esmenet, who is through and through the product of a society that subordinates women to men, as embodying this question. Is there a moral fact of her station, or is it simply the result of an arbitrary, socially grounded belief-system? How do here own decisions feed into this question? And how does the manipulation of Kellhus bear on the whole?

Her native intelligence, I think, is itself a powerful moral argument. It demonstrates her equality in fact.

Enjoy sci-fi?

Or are you solely a fantasy kind of guy?

I’ll read anything, so long as it’s good. Fantasy just happens to be my fave. My big problem is finding time to read what I want to read. I find that if I like reading something, it always makes me write, which is good for the writing, but bad for the reading.

What was Nietzsche’s beef with Wagner?

I’m not sure. Holstein? Texas Longhorn?

Explain the meaning of life.

To stumble about without a bloody clue, convinced that you pretty much know everything you need to know. At least that had BETTER be the meaning of life, otherwise I’m screwed.

Over the course of TDTCB and TWP, we learn that the magic employed by the Schoolmen are based on semantical understandings and that the Chorae unravel these. Will we be learning more about the underpinnings of this conflict in TTT?

Quite a bit actually. I’m overweeningly proud of my world as it is, but I see sorcery as the jewel of Earwa.

I’m still waiting to learn more about the bathing habits of the Scylvendi. Anything to reveal in regards to that?

The memorialists tell harrowing tales of the legendary ‘Loincloth of War,’ but not much more than that…

Silk or cotton, boxers or briefs, this loincloth?

Rancid wolfskin… As if you didn’t already know, Larry!

Ah, so the old and comfortable choice, huh? None of that effeminate silkworm refuse for them, yeah?

By the way, doesn’t Rancid Wolfskin sound like a great name for a band?

LOL!

Hi Scott. I loved TDTCB and I’m looking forward to TWP and future books. I imagine with the success of your books comes change. What has been the biggest change in your life (for better or worse) since you were published? How have you indulged yourself? Fantasy is your favorite genre, do you have any favorite authors? Favorite books? Are you reading any books now? If I think of anything else, I’ll ask later. Thanks for taking time to do this and the other things you do like book contests, etc. It’s very cool of you, and much appreciated!

Well, I’m still driving my 1991 Golf diesel… The big thing, though, is that I no longer have to work for a living – and after working midnights at a grocery store for 14 years while going to school, that makes me a happy duck indeed! I’m not sure my books are accessible enough to have any hope of making real money.

My favourite fantasy author at the moment has got to be Martin, followed closely by Erikson. My favourite author in general is Cormac McCarthy. Right now I’m reading Mieville’s The Scar and Vassanj’s The In Between World of Vikram Lall.

What is your name? What is your quest? WHAT…is your favorite brand beer? Any favorite movies? Do you play video games (#1 reason for decreased male average intellect)? Do you play chess? Favorite music/musicians? Any bad habits? Whats the one thing you’d like to change about yourself?

Holy moly, Moncul! Let me see…

My full given name is Richard Scott Bakker, and my ‘quest,’ if I get your meaning, is to always be a better man than I was yesterday, and to convince the world that they shouldn’t be convinced by ANYTHING. Beerwise, I enjoy IPA’s, but I’m not fussy – I think warm Bud is just fine. My favourite flick is A LION IN WINTER. Presently, I don’t play video games, but only because I’m too broke to buy a computer capable of playing anything interesting. Bad habits? I fart in the morning and scratch my nuts in the afternoon. Those few times I’ve had a good computer, I’ve turned into a video game addict. I tend to drink and toke too much, though as it happens, toking is the one thing I’m trying to quit.

Makes me stupid. Drinking likely makes me stupid too, but I feel smarter…

Why does paper beat rock?

Because Rock is a bad boy who just won’t listen!

Hey there. Cool of you to do this; we loves our authors, we does.

I’m partway through your first book in the series, and I quite enjoy it, but I won’t ask any questions about it because any I would have at this point will surely be answered if only I read on, brave soldier, read on. However, I do have some other questions, which I believe are of some importance in the scheme of things.

1. Which of the four Ninja Turtles do you most identify with?

The one with the shell.

2. What sort of writing schedule are you used to, if indeed there is a schedule?

I try to plunk my ass in front of the computer every morning at 5AM. I try to write as consistently as possible until 5 PM, but…

Let’s just say I have a very clean nose.

3. Do you write longhand first drafts, or do you type from the get-go?

I rarely, if ever, write anything in longhand, despite the enormous length of my index fingers.

4. You have twenty-four hours to save the last six living penguins from the attack of a giant killer giraffe who has waded through the ocean to Antarctica. How do you do it?

Hire Karl Rove.

5. Is it just me, or does Larry taste funny?

OBJECTION! The prosecution is leading the witness, your honour. No matter how he answers the question, Larry will be tasted, and the jury will be duly disgusted.

*tries to think of something witty*

*gives up*

What are you reading nowdays?

At the moment I’m reading THE SCAR and THE IN-BETWEEN WORLD OF VIKRAM LALL – loving both of them.

Do you ever find yourself reading something or watching a movie and thinking, “That plot twist should have been handled differently.” or “Sloppy exposition.”

Sometimes that’s ALL I do. It drives my wife bonkers. When you’re writing, you always encounter the ‘How do I get there from here?’ problem. The one thing I’ve learned is that you can get between any two points in a plausible fashion, so long as your prepared to take the time to think things through. That’s what makes me gnash my teeth more than anything else when I encountering a huge plot hole while reading or watching: I know it’s more a matter of laziness than anything else.

How’s Thousandfold Thought coming along?

Awesome, at the moment, anyway. I’m pretty neurotic when it comes to my writing, which is just another way of saying that I’m not sure it’s ME who’s writing at all. Half the time it feels like I’m just watching my fingers dance.

What is yourPhD work about? When can I read it? After reading TDTCB, I became vastly interested in whatever you’re cooking up. Is Prince of Nothing in any way related to or reflective of your academic work? What’s the best IPA and who brews it?

Quit tokin’….still drinking…

Crackpot stuff. I think the various metaphors used to illustrate basic fundamental positions, such as the ‘picture’ for representationalism, or the ‘game’ for contextualism, actually play a powerful ‘inferential’ and explanatory role, and that by simply playing with these metaphors it’s possible to develop novel approaches to a large number of philosophical problems.

I have nothing approaching a readable manuscript, I’m afraid, though I’m hellbent on completing the thing as soon as I can scrounge together a few fiction-free months. Are you studying philosophy, Anasurimbor?

Actually, a few things surface here and there. In TTT, one of these ‘metaphors’ actually finds a prominent place vis a vis sorcery…

Currently, my favourite IPA is ‘Keiths,’ though as I think I mentioned, I’m not really all that fussy. So long as I have a headache in the morning…

Revision. How much do you tend to revise? How long does it take you? Do you find yourself taking only a bit of what you wrote, and essentially rewriting it, or do you lean more towards doing the work the first time, and just tidying it up later? Finally, being an author. Fun, or not worth the effort? Thanks for dropping by!

Good question. Revision is the heart and soul of writing for me, but I know people who would say the exact opposite. It’s different all the time, though I still think one of the most important skills I learned was what we used to call ‘killing our babies’ on the Online Writers Workshop. You need to be absolutely merciless when it comes to killing words (especially modifiers), phrases, passages, and even entire chapters – anything that isn’t pulling it’s weight.

To give you an example of just how much I revise, I would bet my next advance that there isn’t a single sentence that survived from my initial draft of TDTCB. But then not only did I cut my teeth writing that book, I had tremendous difficulty reworking it to make those infamous first 200 pages more accessible. I think several sentences survived from the TWP, but even then, they know I’m looking, and that sooner or later…

Is writing fun? I love it. I still can’t believe it. I still find myself expecting a bus or a dumptruck to take me out at some intersection. I always wanted to be a writer, but I never really pursued it because I thought it was a pipe-dream. Now I find myself feeling guilty for some reason – probably because I started working in the fields when I was ten.

People are supposed to work for a living.

The wotmania Files: Interview with Brandon Sanderson (11/15/2005)

February 26, 2009 § Leave a comment

Before Brandon Sanderson was chosen in 2007 to complete Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, he was a first-time author. One of the members at wotmania, Bryce, contacted Sanderson and the following interview was arranged. Interesting to see how things have developed a little over 3 years later, no?

As a new author, many people are starting to discover Elantris and would love to know your story. Can you tell us a little more about yourself and how you came to be a fantasy writer?

My story starts back in junior high. I’d never really read any fantasy books, though when I’d been in grade school, I’d been a big reader. My favorite series was the “Three Investigators” books, a kind of Hardy Boys style mystery series.

Well, as I grew older, people tried to give me other books to read. Most of these were realistic fiction–the types of books that bored me out of my skull. My reading habits dribbled off, and I landed in junior high as an average student who just didn’t get through many books in a year.

Then I had a wonderful English teacher–Ms. Reader, ironically–who told me I couldn’t keep doing book reports on novels that were four grades below my reading level. Instead, she gave me her copy of Dragonsbane, by Barbara Hambly. That was the beginning of the end for me! I was amazed by the book–I hadn’t realized that there were things like that out there. The book engaged my imagination to an extent none ever had. I read through every book in the Library that had “Dragon” in the title, then quickly move on to the bookstore, buying whatever fantasy I could get my hands on. I still remember when both Dragonbone Chair (by Tad Williams) and Eye of the World (by, of course, our friend Robert Jordan) came out in paperback–both books quickly hooked me as a reader, and those two became my favorite authors.

I went to college as a bio-chemistry major, but it only took me about a year to realize that I was in the wrong place. I spent all my free time writing, and eventually gave in and changed to an English major. After that, I dedicated myself to becoming an author. I learned the craft (Elantris was the sixth book I wrote) and learned the business of writing, and eventually got a contract!

As a new writer, what are some of the surprises and favorite experiences that you’ve had with Elantris?

I’d have to say one of my favorite experiences was getting the cover art for Elantris. This can be a harrowing experience for a writer–you know that the cover is going to make a big difference in your sales, and you worry about how someone will interpret your book into a visual medium.

Tor was great with me on this one. They asked my opinion, asked if there were any artists I preferred, and eventually decided to go with the artist I’d asked for to do the cover. Stephen Martiniere is his name–he’s done work for Lucas and for the Myst video game series. I think he did a brilliant job with the cover. (Irene, Tor’s art director, is a real genius when it comes to placing artists with books.)

Overall, in fact, the experience of working with my editor (Moshe Feder) my agent (Joshua Bilmes) and the whole Tor team was wonderful. In relation to your original question, I’d have to say that the most surprising thing for me was how kind and easy to work with everyone was. Authors were very considerate in reading the book to give it a potential cover quote–Orson Scott Card, David Farland, L.E. Modesitt Jr., Katherine Kurtz, Simon R. Green, and Kevin J. Anderson all read the book and gave it quotes. Pretty much everyone I asked was very accommodating.

After hearing about some horror stories about the publishing industry, I wasn’t expecting it to be as easy as it was to work through the editing process and work with everyone in the industry. After all of this, I can honestly say that I think Tor is a first-rate company.

From what we’ve seen on the internet, it looks like Elantris is receiving a great amount of praise. What was your reaction to this criticism?

Relief!

To be honest, as a new author, you really never know if your work is as good as you feel it is. Your editor and agent tell you it’s great, and your friends do the same, but honestly–how unbiased are they? Every author, I think, has a little voice inside that whispers “This book is
actually terrible, and everyone will see through you once you put it on the market. You think your book deserves to be up on those shelves with people like Asimov and Jordan?”

I realize that, in a way, my book STILL doesn’t belong on the shelves with Asimov and Jordan. Fortunately, there are only a few of them, and there is room up there for some of us who are still learning and growing. The reaction to Elantris has been nothing less than astounding–and humbling at the same time. My agent told me not to expect any foreign sales on my first book. We’ve sold in ten different foreign markets now. My editor warned that the review markets might overlook a book by a new, unimportant author. We got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, and got very favorable reviews in Locus, the Library Journal, and Booklist.

And, of course, there’s the praise on message boards and blogs. In all honesty, this is what means the most. Some authors write to be remembered, some to win awards. I just want to tell good stories. That’s the beginning and the end of my aspirations. I want people to read my books and get that same excited, wonderful feeling that I got when reading Dragonsbane as a teenage boy. That sense of being taken to another place, of meeting people who feel real, and of seeing things that you’ve never seen before. When readers pick up my book and feel that it was worth the time and money they spent on it, then I feel vindicated in all the years I spent trying to get published.

What is your method for writing? Do you have a daily schedule? Are the novels planned well in advance, or do you let story take shape as you write?

I think a daily schedule is very important for writers. When I was working to get published, the thing I did was get a job working graveyard shifts at a local hotel. That way, I could go to school full time, work full time, and still have plenty of time to write. By doing that, I built a schedule for myself–I went to work every night, checked people into the hotel, and by about midnight things were quiet enough to sit down and work on my novels. I wrote for four or five hours, every night, and then did my other work for the hotel.

This got me into the habit of writing. People ask me how I managed to write thirteen novels before I finally managed to sell one (as I’ve noted, it was my sixth.) It’s because I had good habits. Writing was what I loved, and so doing it so much became second nature to me. Even now, if I’m not making significant progress on my current book, I start to feel anxious. I need to be writing!

I do make outlines. Plotting is one of those things that is difficult to explain. Not because I don’t know what I do, but because I can’t ever be certain that my method will be useful to another person. The thing is, everyone works in different ways. For some, a very strict outline is essential. For others, writing a book without an outline is necessary, for this gives them the freedom to discover what they really want to write while they’re writing it.

I’ve found that people who outline a lot spend more time up front planning. People who discover their story by writing it spend more time at the end revising. It tends to even out. The danger for the outliner, however, is that they sometimes plan so long that they never get to their story. On the flip side, it’s just as easy to spend so long revising certain sections of your story that you never get around to finishing it–so the other method can be dangerous as well.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s often very useful to try different things, and discover what works best. And, what works best is generally whatever keeps you writing and finishing things!

Anyway, here’s my method. I tend to lean a little bit more toward the ‘outliner’ side than the ‘reviser’ side of things. I like to know where I’m going. I, personally, can’t start a story until I know what the ending is. To me, that would be like starting a trip without knowing
your destination!

So, I always plan a good climax first. Then, as I’m pondering a story, I begin to pick out very important or interesting scenes. These could be climactic confrontations, moments of great character growth, or simply beautiful setting images that I want to portray. These ‘super-scenes’ will develop in my mind to the point that I’ve almost got them completely written before I put pen to paper. (Or, uh, fingers to keyboard.)

Once I have some of these scenes, and I have an ending, I decide where my beginning is. Sometimes, this is obvious. (The beginning is often one of the super-scenes.) But, if it isn’t, I try to start in a place of great motion–something has to be happening. Important events are afoot. I always tell newer authors to be wary of starting their stories too long before important things start happening!

Now I’ve got a beginning, an ending, and a smattering of scenes. I place the scenes in order, and they kind of become my destination points. It’s like a trip–I know I’m starting in LA, and I want to get to New York. I also know I want to pass through Denver, Chicago, and Boston. So, I begin building an outline. What do I have to do to take me from the beginning to the first super-scene? What character growth has to happen? What clues need to be discovered? All of these things go as bullet points on my outline beneath the ‘part one’ section heading. Then, I take myself from super-scene one to super-scene two. What needs to happen here?

I build an outline that way. After I’ve got ten or so bullet points for each section (one point roughly being a scene or chapter) I’m ready to start writing!

Also, I’m assuming that you’re LDS. I could be wrong, but you teach at BYU, right? We were wondering if it would be possible to ask a question about how your religion and values influence the way that you write. I thought this was an interesting question, having just finished R. Scott Bakker’s first book . If you want to answer this question, feel free. If not, don’t worry about it.

No problem at all! This is the type of question that I like, since it forces me out of dry “how to write” mode and gets me talking about more personal things.

I am indeed LDS. I would be lying if I said that my philosophies on life, including my religious philosophy, didn’t influence my writing. Who we are as writers dictates inherently which kinds of conflicts we choose to put in our books, and how our story deals with them.

That said, I come down with Tolkien (and against C. S. Lewis) on the side of the debate about the didactic nature of stories. I don’t think that fiction–in most cases–should be written in order to perform some agenda, even if that agenda is to make people into better people. That undermines the story–to me, the most important thing about the book needs to be the story, and not a group of morals an author decides his readers need to learn.

So, while I deal with issues I think are important and valuable, I don’t intentionally put any sort of moralistic themes into my books. Being religious myself, I tend to deal with religious conflicts because they interest me. Those who have read Elantris realize that my antagonist is a very religious man. I did this not because I had a moral to prove in saving him, nor did I do it to show that any particular kind of religion is evil–I did it because his internal conflict fascinated me. What would a man do if his conscience disagreed with his religion? How would he react if he were told to do something terrible, but knew something even more terrible would happen if he didn’t follow orders?

In the end, I think it comes down to being true to your characters. One of the characters I enjoyed writing the most was an atheist. I knew from the start that I couldn’t put her into the novel just to have some warm-fuzzy of a conversion story–if that were her purpose, I’d not only be betraying the character, but insulting any of my readers who shared her philosophy on life. So, I worked hard to read up on the atheist worldview, and tried to present her arguments–where appropriate in the story–as forcefully and logically as possible.

Some people have told me that a side-effect of my religion is that my books tend to be inherently optimistic. I tend to write characters that are optimistic, even when they get thrown into terrible situations. I can look at it and see that they might be right, though this was never my intention. However, I guess that it really is true that you can look at an author’s soul through his writing.

When you said that you spent time working at a hotel in order to write during the nights, I had to laugh. I work nights at the Holiday Inn right now, and I tend to use that time to ponder writing and do a few things for wotmania as well. Quite the coincidence, no?

Perhaps. However, I notice that creative people I know have a singular aversion to ‘real’ work. We try and find people who will pay us to do our own thing, even if that requires us to sit at a desk over night!

Speaking of writing and what influences your style of writing, what advice would you give to aspiring writers? What important lessons have you learned that could help us (speaking for all aspiring writers at the site) to get published and generally write a better novel?

Well, lets see if I can get some quick ones down. First off, I’ll talk about writing, then I’ll give a few tips on getting published.

1) Write what you love! I believe that passion shows through in writing, and it is very important that you feel passionate about the subject you choose. Don’t switch from SF to fantasy just because fantasy seems to be selling well at the moment. Excellence will always get published–and I believe that passion has a lot to do with excellence.

2) Write something original. Don’t write what you’ve seen before. Try and capture the same feel of something you’ve read and loved without writing that same story. You do this, in my opinion, by experimenting a lot with setting, magic, and worldbuidling concepts. What was it you really liked about Tolkien? Was that he had elves and dwarves, or was it that he created new cultures that felt real?

3) Keep reading, and read a lot in a all genres to give you a broad basis of ideas.

Now, unfortunately, I’m going to have to contradict myself. See, here’s the thing–writing is a very strange job. You have to be one-half artist, and one-half realist. So, you need to have a professional mindset as well as an artistic one.

1) Write what you love, but if you love several things, write the one that will sell. If you’re a really creative person, you’ll often have a lot of ideas. Some of those ideas will be more marketable than others. Those should probably take priority.

2) Be original, but don’t be too wacky. Breaking conventions is all well and good, but you need to understand the business side of marketing. The sales department is going to know what genre sticker to slap on your book. If they can’t, they have a very tough time selling it. So, before you write, decide what about your book is going to be innovative, and what is going to be familiar. (And, if you do happen to write a brilliant western, fantasy, comedy, dark gothic romance hybrid. Just tell the editors it’s a historical fantasy and let them figure out the rest on their own.)

Just as a note, I think this, actually, is one of the best things Jordan did with Eye of the World. He was creative and clever, yet still managed to write an epic fantasy with many of the traditional elements. The books that sell, I believe, are the ones that walk the line between the familiar and the original. They have something old to love, but also something new to discover.

3) Read around in all genres, but pay attention to what is selling. Read first novels by new authors (hint hint) and see what the editors are buying. (In other words, find out which editors bought those books and which agents represented them.) It comes down to learning the business side of publishing, and learning the tastes of the different editors. You don’t have to write toward those tastes, but you improve your chances drastically if you can place your manuscripts on the desks of the editors who seem to like books similar to the ones you write.

About the WFC last weekend. Did you get to meet any authors that you previously hadn’t talked to? We heard that there was some talk about R. Scott Bakker and his goings on at the WFC. How was WFC, and what role did you play there?

I got to WFC late, missing the first day and most of the panels on the second because of a booksigning in another state. So I had a fairly low profile at this con. I went to the parties Saturday night, then hit the banquet on Sunday. I did meet several people I hadn’t before–I got to talk to David Drake and Jim Frenkel at the banquet, and they were both very courteous and nice to a newcomer like me.

I’d say, however, that the last author I was really star struck to meet was Robin Hobb, who sat next to me at a booksigning at Nasfic this year. She’s one of my favorite authors, and one of the best things about being in this business is that I can actually sit next to her and feel–a little bit–like I belong there. It’s a weird feeling. (Don’t worry about my humility though–that was well restored when I had all of three people come get books signed by me, while she had quite the line. She deserves it!)

Elantris is a stand alone novel, which really excites many people here who don’t prefer to get into a long series before it’s well underway. You do, however, have a series planned, correct? What can you tell us about that series? Number of books, date of release, brief description, etc.

Well, if you insist. . .

First, let me say that I love having written a stand alone. I always wanted my first published novel to be a stand alone because I felt that was a much better way to introduce myself to a readership. Nothing annoys me more than looking through a bookshelf, wanting to try a new author, and only finding “Book one of this series” or “Book one of that series.” Not knowing the author, I don’t want to get bogged down by a trilogy (especially one that isn’t done yet) without having confidence that the author can tell a good story.

So, that’s why I don’t plan on a sequel to Elantris right now. I won’t say it will never happen, but it probably won’t be any time soon.

That said, however, I also love to read in a series. A trilogy of books give a reader more time to know the characters, and lets them return to a world they love and find familiar. A lot of my favorite books are part of a series. However, I told myself I wouldn’t let my series go on forever. I don’t have Mr. Jordan’s weight to throw around! I decided, then, that I would write only three books in the Mistborn series, with each book standing alone fairly well. That way, I could go on to another project, and worldbuild something new. (Which is one of my favorite parts of this process.)

So, the new series is called The Mistborn Trilogy. Book one, Mistborn, will be out in June of 2006 from Tor, and they plan to release the other two at nine month intervals. (Getting them out quickly so people don’t have to wait too long! And, don’t worry. The first two books are already turned in, so I promise that they’ll come out on time.)

Mistborn came from two concepts. First, I was watching the movie Ocean’s Eleven, and realized that some of my favorite movies (Sneakers, The Italian Job) were centered around a team of specialized thieves pulling off incredible feats. I wondered why nobody had done this in fantasy. So, I built a magic system with sixteen specialized parts, and came up with a team of underground con-artists who each specialize in one or more of these aspects of the magic system.

The second inspiration for the book came from the weight of fantasy novels I’d read when I was younger. It seemed to me that so many of them were the stories of a young peasant hero who went off to fight some powerful dark lord. I wondered what would happen if. . .well, the dark lord won. What if he squished that little peasant, as probably should have happened in all of those stories?

So, Mistborn takes place in a world where the dark lord won. A thousand years ago, a prophesied hero rose up to fight the evil power, and got abjectly defeated. Now, a millennium later, our little team of thieves is annoyed. Their prophesies failed, and the world has become a dark place where ash falls from the sky and most of humankind is enslaved. Our heroes, lead by a charismatic man with the powers of a Mistborn, decided that they’re going to take down the dark lord their own way–by stealing all of his money then bribing his own armies away from him.

Of course, they get involved with much, much more than they expected, as the story a thousand years ago isn’t quite as simple as everyone believes. (Sample chapters will be up on my website beginning in January!)

Last, but certainly not least, if you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

Well, I would certainly hope that they would, indeed, be monkey midgets, rather than just one or the other. I would have an infinite number of them, of course, because then they could produce fantasy novels for me in iambic pentameter while I swung in my hammock and ruled over my unending simian empire.

Great interview, huh? For those of you curious to know more about how others have received Elantris, check out the reviews section. And Sanderson has also provided commentary on the chapters in Elantris, so feel free to check those out here.

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