Greg Keyes arrived on the fantasy scene with The Waterborn. Published under the name, J. Gregory Keyes, this was first in his Chosen of the Changeling duology soon followed by the concluding volume, The Blackgod. Greg then moved on to the critically acclaimed and Locus best-selling Age of Unreason saga. The fourth and final volume, The Shadows of God was published last October in mass-market paperback by Del Rey books. Greg has also contributed to the Babylon 5 universe as well as the sprawling Star Wars: New Jedi Order saga. Coming out this January is his most powerful, ambitious, and perhaps defining work yet, The Briar King. This is the first of the four-volume saga, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone and tells the story of a Kingdom on the verge of upheaval. Greg and I spoke about the new book, The Age of Unreason working in the Star Wars universe, writing in general and French Science Fiction & Fantasy, amongst other things.
Rob Bedford: The Briar King opens explosively in the midst of both a battle and storm, which immediately grips the reader, both visually and viscerally. How important, and difficult was it deciding on this important, and effective opening scene?
Greg Keyes: (laughs) It was actually a subject of much debate, when I originally wrote the book the opening scene was Aspar in the Tavern. I finished the book and sort of looked it over and discussed it with Steve Saffell, my editor. We both thought there needed to be something a little more powerful that anchored the rest of the story more firmly to that past era and sort of lay down the idea that there was something bad that could be catching up with everyone. So, it was something I thought about a great deal, and didn’t really add that chapter until fairly late in the game. Interestingly enough, after I added it, the initial reaction were all positive, some of the fans of my other books read it and the chapter with the girls, and said they were glad I added that second chapter because that first one didn’t sound like me. Like a different kind of writer all together which made a couple of people nervous. But in the end, I thought it was still a good way to start the book.
RB: I thought it was really effective, the initial battle sets the tone for the overall series and the scene with the two girls sets the tone for the book.
GK: Thanks, good, that’s what I was hoping for.
RB: This novel has an epic feel, from the span of time in the opening of the prologue to the “current” time of Everon, basically there is a lot going on. How much planning, research/reading, and outlining do you put into a book before you actually start crafting the story?
GK: I did a good bit. For one thing, I sold this book on outlines. I sold the idea of the book more than I sold the book. In order to do that, the outlines had to be fairly detailed and fairly convincing, so I outlined all four books. But the funny thing about that is…once I have an outline I rarely follow it very closely, I tend to do my best thinking when I am writing not when I am reading. In the original outline, Aspar role was very minor, he shows up in the very beginning of the book, sees the Briar King, sees some bad things happening and really doesn’t do much more than that. Winna didn’t exist at all, a lot of the secondary characters I ended up liking a lot weren’t in the original outline at all. Some of the storylines weren’t there either. You know, I outline pretty thoroughly, but then I feel free not to follow that outline, if I think of something better while I am writing.
In terms of research, I pretty read constantly when I was writing these books. I read everything I can get my hands on, or that I have time to read. European mythology for the most part, books like Spenser’s The Fairy Queen, Shakespeare and that kind of thing, mostly just for inspiration and motifs to work on.
RB: I really like Aspar, he really fits the mold of the hardened guys with a softer interior, but with a lot of the other characters you came across really fresh.
GK: I think that’s the only way to go about it. If you are working in a genre that is well established as Fantasy, it’s a genre I like, I grew up reading it and I have a lot of affection for it, that’s why I wanted to do it. I was hoping I could bring something new to it.
RB: Do surf the web at all for any SF stuff, check on Locusmag.com?
GK: I used to have a subscription to Locus, but I let it lapse, I check in there once in a while to see what’s going on. I don’t surf a lot to see what’s going on in the genre just because I don’t have that much time. I go to conventions and that kind of thing. Professionally, I like to think I know what’s going on, but it such a big field and there is a lot going on, its impossible. I really don’t spend a lot of time on the internet since it takes time away from writing. If I do go on the internet, it is just to check a quick question I can find somewhere out , rather than having to go to the library or order a book. Mostly I e-mail.
RB: Yeah it can really eat away your time. I guess part of the reason I ask is related to you citing Michael Moorcock as a writer that influenced you. As he is associated with the New Wave taking the genre and making it fresh and reinventing it. Online SF Fans, and online critics like Gabe Chouinard have placed your work along with writers such as Matthew Stover, John Marco and China Mieville as part of a sort of Next Wave and doing what Moorcock and the other New Wave writers did. How familiar are you with these writers?
GK: Some of them yeah, but I am not sure if I am familiar with that particular critique, even though I did read something where Stover was saying he and I were “throwing rocks at the glass towers” or something like that. I think he was more referring to my earlier series, The Age of Unreason. I have read some of the authors and I agree. Even though there’s a missing step, I think between the Next Wave and whatever it is that’s going on now, there was this movement in the 80s where there was this vast entrada of female writers in the field who brought character to the fore, as opposed to plot or magical devices, but rather a concentration on character. It’s not soley but I think there was a good deal of that in the 80s and it was an important step in the evolution of the genre. At least for me because I certainly pay more attention to character, at least I like to think I do, than writers in 60s and 40s who were mostly interested in…
RB: Big ideas….
GK: …big ideas plot. Slightly outside fantasy, I very much admire Asimov, but his interesting characters didn’t matter. His plot and ideas are put together well enough that you are interested anyway. I was recently talking to my French Editor and he recently went back and read the Foundation books and realized they were only one or two conversations. Most of his books were just conversations between 2 or 3 people. You don’t realize this because it seems like all kinds of things are going on, big battles or what have you. In fact it just a couple of people talking, which is really interesting when I looked back at it.
I certainly feel the genre has to have something new done to it, especially every 10 or 15 years. A lot of that has to do with paying attention to very basic things…how do people really act, what’s a new way to look at a situation or a storytelling.
RB: It seems that there are a lot of writers on the best seller lists, that while they are best sellers, they aren’t bringing an air of freshness that you and the other authors I mentioned. It’s not terrible stuff…
GK: Obviously somebody likes it this stuff has a place, a big place in fact. I’d like try to do something a little new with the whole thing personally
RB: There is a place for that stuff. If it gets people from the author’s current book on bestseller shelves to the fantasy shelves to get the backlist titles from the best-selling authors and they pick up your stuff, then that’s good.
GK: In fact, I never really…writers are a sensitive lot, generally speaking…an egotistical lot. There’s a lot of bruised feelings and jealousy and tough talking…amongst writers. I’ve never begrudged anybody like Jordan any of his success or Terry Brooks. They’ve brought the exposure of Fantasy to completely new levels, whether we think it’s everything it could be, they’ve certainly opened up the market. I can’t think of this as a bad thing.
RB: I terms of exposure, I think it will open up the doors for potential authors.
GK: A lot of us would not have careers if not for these guys.
RB: One thing I was really impressed with in The Briar King was how you were able to convey a lot of the information about the world through the characters. It came across very genuinely, rather than big info dumps, almost pages long like some authors. How do you straddle that line and decide what to leave out of the story and what to reveal? Is this where the editors come in?
GK: When I tried to break in the business years ago, I was writing short stories. I tended to start with a little info dump, to let you as the reader know what the world was like and then we will get on to the story. I can’t remember the editor’s names because it has been so long, but they basically said you can’t start your story out with a dissertation you’ve got to start it with something interesting. May be interesting to you. One of the things I worked on, once I realized some of those editors knew what they were talking about, were interesting ways to submit information to the reader. I essentially had to do that with the Age of Unreason books, because there is so much information in those books about the 18th century. There’s a lot that I was studying in the 18th c. that in the end I didn’t use at all. Something Harry Turtledove said was “the-I’ve-done-my-research-now-you-have-to-pay-for-it-syndrome.” You can never let that get in the way of story. So I find it, first of all, more interesting and convincing to introduce facts through conversation and action rather than dissertation. I think it’s just a better way to do it, and it’s more engaging. If the characters are moving through this world, then they have some part in it. None of them know everything or notice everything. That’s one reason I like to use so many different characters. The characters have a certain point of view, they notice certain things and don’t notice others. If Aspar looks at the world, Neil looks at the world and Winna looks at the world, if all these people look at the world then reveal something about it, then the reader starts putting it all together. That’s why I like so many different cameras on the action.
RB: I think that makes it ultimately more believable. The characters are living in the world and they’ve got to believe in it if the readers are to believe in the world.
In both The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, and The Age of Unreason you carved out an initial fantasy setting of the early colonial times of America or the Roanoke colony in The Briar King. As you said with The Age of Unreason you had to do a lot of research, while on the surface it seems like there would be some that people would be familiar with but there is a lot more going on. With The Age of Unreason did writing about this time period and putting a spin on it come to you first or were there other ideas?
GK: Age of Unreason? The first were in the category of these small ideas. When I decided to place the story when I did in the early 18th Century, and I started doing the research, more or less fortuitously, I found that it was this incredibly rich period that almost nobody had touched. Bizzarely enough, Vonda McIntyre wrote a book set in nearly the same period, about Louis XIV, The Sun and The Moon.
RB: Didn’t that win the Nebula?
GK: Yes, it was an excellent book too and I was in place to really appreciate it since I had just done the research she had. We were both living in Seattle at the time so we had several conversations about it. There was no way either of us couldn’t have known that the other was working on a late 17th early 18th century novel. I didn’t pick that period to be different, I picked it because it had to be set on the cusp between science and other ways of knowing the world, that just happened to be when it was. In terms using my story as a vehicle to introduce people to the 18th Century, that really wasn’t even in my mind. It was just inevitable, there was just no other way to do it. I did become fascinated with the period. I am sure there s some information I just threw in gratuitously, because I just felt people ought to know this. But for the most part, I try to keep my storytelling in charge. Certainly you can read The Briar King and never realize any of those people were descendant from the Roanoke colonists.
There were sort of a lot Easter eggs for history nuts and language nuts but you don’t have to get any of them to get what’s going on. Just little freebies for those who know about it.
I have a hard time believing in Fantasy that is completely unconnected to our world. I’ve said before if you’ve got running around with Christian names running around in a Fantasy world and there was never a Christ it seems very odd to me. Or for that matter, people running around in a world that’s not Ireland or not originally from Ireland who have Irish names.
RB: Yeah, speaking in accented tongues and what not.
GK: Ultimately everybody from the world of The Briar King and that place came from here at some point in time, the Roanoke colonists were just the last arrivals. But again to understand the story you don’t have to know that, that’s just for me.
RB: Are we ever going to see how exactly these people were brought over or any of them returning to our world, or is that further down in the storyline of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone?
GK: If that happens, its going to be waaay down the road. I’ve got plenty to deal with in the next book without returning to the deep past. I probably will at some point go back to those questions, because there are things people interested enough in…that at some point certainly may be necessary for me in the order if work things out to go back on such unsung events. Funny is that the people who have read the book who want to know about these interim periods, too like the reign of the Black Jester and all that, which I guess is one of the dangers of creating a world.
RB: With the Age of Unreason have you considered returning to the world you created (and then almost destroyed) with either additional novels, series or short stories?
GK: I did a short story that was published in Amazing when it was still up an running a couple of years ago between the first two books. Right now I have no particular plans to return to that world because the Kingdom of Thorn and Bone is really going to keep me busy for the next couple of years. I’m also at this working on another Star Wars book.
RB: Is it in The New Jedi Order?
GK: Yeah, it’s the penultimate book, I’m fairly busy also writing short stories for Star Wars Insider.
RB: About the NJO, it seems as if SF readers either stick to media tie ins or original fiction. Seeing how Lucasfilms & Del Rey are bringing in a lot of different writers has sparked my interest, and I think it is going pretty well. How collaborative is the writing process? Do you discuss things with the other authors?
GK: Oh yeah…Very collaborative. Even outlining things is very complicated. I just essentially started this book and had the outline approved maybe a month and half ago?
RB: Last book in the series?
GK: Second to last book, I think James Luceno is writing the last book. I had to coordinate with him, I had to coordinate with the two writers before me and every book between now and then that hasn’t been written or published. There are three or four of us right now who are trying to get our outlines in shape or our final manuscripts in shape and we all have to talk to each other because we are dealing with the same characters. For instance the book right before mine is going through fairly extensive revision. Certainly we’ve got some interesting people writing the New Jedi Order, they had Greg Bear do one of the Prequel era books.
RB: I’ve got to ask, have you had a chance to meet with George Lucas or talk to him or is he out on the Ranch?
GK: Yeah, he’s on the ranch. Some authors have gone out there, but only those who are on the big planning phases, I’m just one of the who stepped in and wrote a couple of books and stepped out. Though because of the nature of the thing I had to determine some of things about the Yuuzhan Vong, but haven’t been to the ranch.
RB: I just had to ask that.
GK: (laughs) No, no we don’t all get to go, but it would be kind of cool.
RB: With Star Wars there’s a lot of invented history, with the Age of Unreason you had to do a lot of the plumbing around in the history. How different is your approach to something like Babylon 5 or Star Wars: The New Jedi Order compared to your original fiction?
GK: There’s obviously a difference. To a certain extent with Star Wars…with Babylon 5 I was much freer. With Babylon 5 I had a pipeline straight into Babylonia, I did in fact meet Stracynzski and watch him film an episode. There weren’t that many books and the books before mine weren’t generally not considered canon by Stracynzski. All I really had to as research for those books was watch all the shows which I was already doing and provide a brief outline. I had a great deal of creative control.
Actually in Star Wars, I had a lot more than I thought I would. For instance, before my book we hadn’t yet really seen any of the Yuuzhan Vong castes except for one warrior or lieutenant, so I got to shape up the place and the Shaper class and the underclass and that was a lot of fun. A great deal of fun. The biggest difference between Star Wars and The Age of Unreason in Age of Unreason, the people I felt accountable to, the people glancing over my shoulder to see if I was getting everything right, were a handful of individuals somewhere. Essentially, professors of some sort who would know ‘Peter the Great never did that’ whereas with Star Wars I have these fanatical fans who know everything…they know what color the light sabers are, they remember what Mara Jade’s said six books ago about something. You’ve also got these beloved characters that if you get something wrong, people really don’t like you.
RB: Yeah, I’m sure R.A. Salvatore got some slack for knocking off Chewie even though it wasn’t his decision.
GK: Oh yeah, it was not all Bob’s decision. I guess it was Troy who killed Anakin in the next book after I set him up as a cool guy. These decision were not really made by Troy or Bob. I guess I understand why people get mad at us with Chewie and what not. .
You may have noticed in The Briar King there’s a kind of a high attrition rate after the introduction of the early characters. Part of that is I feel that if I don’t make you believe right away that somebody will die, you will never believe it.
RB: Yeah, everybody will get resurrected at the end…
GK: Where’s the tension if you know that none of the original, Han, Leia none of those people can ever really actually get killed.
RB: Unless the Big Guy on the Ranch says so.
GK: (laughs) Yeah (laughs)
RB: With your success, within the genre (Locus Bestseller, le Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire Award for Newton’s Cannon) has your approach to writing changed?
GK: That award was kind of a surprise, it was a French award. The Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire French equivalent of the Nebula.
GK: Like the Nebula in that it’s voted on by writers, publishers and editors. My book won for best foreign novel. They called and ask if they could fly me there to come and pick up the award. And this was not too long after 9/11, but they thought we would be leery of flying. I said, no give me the ticket and I’m on my way. It was very interesting, very, very interesting convention because it was unlike any American convention that I’ve been to. It was very, very seriously about Science Fiction and Fantasy. There were no Hello Kitties running around.
RB: No costume parties and the like?
GK: It wasn’t about fans really, though there were a lot of fans there. They were there to have deep discussions about “What is Science Fiction for?” “What is Fantasy for?” I did these panels in which, besides the fact that we are doing them in 3 or 4 languages with a translator, they took it real seriously over there. I go to conventions here in the States, and they are fun, I try to had as much fun as anybody at DragonCon, but the level of discussion [in France] about SF&F was not something I was used to, it was a lot of fun. It was also fun to get some very different perspective. There are all these writers from all over Europe over there, and Asia for that matter.
These are people, who are…say you’re a Polish Science Fiction writer, odds are you aren’t in it for the money. There’s a real fervor about that I just don’t often see around here
RB: Doesn’t sound like its as commercial over there.
GK: No, it’s really not. Obviously everybody who is a writer there is trying to sell their work. It’s to be read, not to make a lot of money on it, because frankly, they are not. I know what my foreign sales are like and I couldn’t subsist on that. It was really interesting, I had a really good time.
RB: Is The Briar King going to be published in the UK, or will people need to go through amazon.com, to get the US edition?
GK: No as a matter of fact we just concluded a really nice deal with the Pan Macmillan’s newly launched TOR imprint. I think its just there and Germany so far.
RB: Was the Age of Unreason handled over in the UK?
GK: Nobody. England wouldn’t buy the book.
RB: A shame, I guess they’re still may be a little sensitive about the Revolutionary war.
GK: (laughs) No. (laughs) My first two novels sold in UK and that was done by Orbit.
RB: One thing I find is that the way you were saying that people at the French Convention were taking the genre more to heart, I don’t know if this is a misperception because I am an outsider to the UK, but it seems to me in the UK as if they take Fantasy & Science Fiction more seriously Literature.
GK: I understand your point and I think you’re correct. Here it is taken as sort of light entertainment or it isn’t taken seriously at all. Mike Stackpole and I were just talking about the phenomena, and sort of referring to the certain classes of the literary science fiction writer, something I admire very much. He said we were all fighting to see who’s going be the first one in line to never to enter literary canon. It’s just a paraphrase…that’s where a lot of SF&F writers have made a name for themselves, being taught in grad school and Yale and comparative lit course.
RB: Seems to be happening though at least on the undergrad level. When I graduated years ago as an English major, one of my higher-level lit courses a few years ago was a Science Fiction Literature course books like Dune, Frankenstein, watching Blade Runner, etc.
GK: I was an anthropology major so I was sort of disconnected exactly from what was going on in Lit crit. I do know there is a bias against it on that side. There’s also another bias against that in the general reading population, in that people just think its strange or weird, they just don’t want to deal with it.
GK: The problem with it from a literary view is that, talking about it earlier are the data dumps. In science fiction and fantasy we have to spend so much time explaining the world to you, take up so much ink on that. We don’t get to spend as much time doing classic, things people do in classically well-written literature recognized
RB: Literature with a capital “L”
GK: Yeah, Literature with a capital “L.” We don’t have as much time to spend on character development and other things because we are trying to explain this world to you and these ideas. I’ve noticed things that do get into the canon are dystopian, Brave New World. They tend to be these dystopian allegories. But if I am writing a novel in the here and now in the present, not Science Fiction or Fantasy, and I say “He’s driving a blue Buick,” that’s pretty much all I have to say to give you the image of it. But if start describing some far future contrivance moving around in space, I have to explain it all to…explain exactly what a ‘blue Buick’ is, explain about internal combustion engine and all of that.
RB: Info dump, almost.
GK: Exactly, when you spend more time doing that, frankly traditionally SF&F writers haven’t been nearly as concerned with the things that go into Literature with the Big L. I think that’s changed, it certainly has changed. As you know, there are certainly writers out there who can write every bit as well as….
RB: Like Gene Wolfe…
GK: Oh yeah…Gene Wolfe would be certainly somebody I would point to.
RB: Any other current writers you’ve been reading or mainly sticking to the research reading and writing?
GK: Unfortunately, I don’t really get to read as much of my peers as I’d like to. I will say the last, trying to remember what I last read that wasn’t research….modern writers in the Fantasy field, I think one really important writer is Sean Stewart. I think Mockingbird was an awesome book, a little off the wall for fantasy almost more of that magical realism. I think some of his other work is incredibly good, I think Stover is doing some interesting things, too. All the authors you mentioned I haven’t read nearly enough. I think Nicola Griffith is an interesting voice in the past decade.
Part of the problem is that it’s daunting how many people there are to read and a lot of them are worth reading. Right now I’ve been too busy to do the field justice.
RB: Has the genre success like the Locus bestseller and Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire colored your writing at all?
GK: Neither in particular, I’ve won a couple of other awards for my first couple of books. If anything changes the way I’m writing, hopefully I’m maturing I’m learning more about what works and what doesn’t as I move along. The Locus bestseller, that’s really interesting, it’s not quite the same thing as NYT bestseller. To me it was just a vindication, because I’ve been working somewhat outside the mainstream of the genre, in some ways, even my first two novels. Though they were ostensibly high fantasy, but the background that went into them was a little strange, it was mostly central Asian and North American Indian as opposed to European and medieval. The Briar King is really my first shot at the sort of medieval.
RB: Big Fat Fantasy…
GK: (laughs) Yeah, the Big Fat Fantasy (laughs), it’s really my first shot at it and I feel, especially The Age of Unreason which was a real chance in a lot of ways, especially in the market that I wrote it in. It was really nice to be vindicated both in terms of sales and critical recognition I guess.
RB: You were saying how your writing has grown. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet read The Chosen of The Changeling, but from the first book in the Unreason books, Newton’s Cannon, you could see your growth through the series, and it’s always nice to see that in a writer.
GK: Thanks, of course the first book in that series was a lot different than the others. One of the main things with the first book is that around 200 pages were cut out of it, mostly by a line-editor. Often amounted to cutting every third or fourth word or whole sentences. Then Once I got a chance to from the editor and brush it up. Because of that, as a whole it comes off a lot terser than the following three books. At times I think thinner.
RB: Yeah, I think I know what you’re saying.
GK: I had a friend that read the first one and read the second one and she asked how many years elapsed between the two. I said none I started the second immediately after finishing the first one. She said the style is really different. I certainly hope I got better because it took me four years to write those.
RB: This may be a bit of an odd question, but why the move from “J. Gregory Keyes” to “Greg Keyes?”
GK: (laughs) That actually happened when I wasn’t looking. Essentially my name is John Gregory Keyes, it’s the name I was born with. I’ve always been called Greg by my friends and family since my father’s name is John. When I sold my first novel, The Waterborn, Del Rey gave it a pretty good push, they made it a hardback, they put it through a publicity campaign. At one point my editor at the time, Veroncia Chapman asked if Greg was my first or middle name. I said its my middle name, so she asked my first name, I told her John. I heard her turn around and say “It’s John” and maybe 10 or 15 people clapping.
RB: I guess they must have had a bet or something going on.
GK: I asked what was going on, she said they were hoping for something with J. I asked why? They said that they feel Greg Keyes was too terse a name for a fantasy author, a science fiction writer maybe, fantasy no. Would you mind being J. Gregory Keyes? I said, Well if you think it will really make a difference… it doesn’t really matter to me. So that’s how we went with “J. Gregory Keyes.”
When I wrote the Star Wars book they chopped it back down to Greg Keyes, was more science fiction and terser. And also frankly, they wanted to make my licensed set apart. They maybe wanted to pull more SW readers to The Briar King. Not quite sure, but anyway the book ended up with Greg Keyes. It doesn’t really matter to me, I think people are smart enough to figure out we are the same person. And frankly, it would be nice to pull over SW readers. Not sure how much cross-over there is between licensed and original fiction. I certainly know there are people who read nothing but SW.
RB: Have you seen yet if any readers are going from SW to original stuff.
GK: I think some have, but I don’t know statistically or anything. Often I’ll get fan letters from people who read my SW books and then read the Unreasonbooks. One of my biggest boosters has been a guy on Jedi.net who became originally interested because I did some interviews and chats with them about the SW books, but he’s ended up reading everything I’ve ever written and he boosts them on the site, which is really nice. It’s a pretty well read SW site.
RB: It seems to me that’s one good thing The New Jedi Order is doing. For me at least, it got me reading the books because of the authors writing them. It seems that it will have the converse effect, the people reading the SW books will go to the respective author’s original fiction. At least from browsing online discussion boards, it seems a lot of people that have read Matt Stover’s NJO entry, Traitor have read that book and gone to his original fiction.
GK: His was really quite different, even for NJO. Traitor was a stand-out in a lot of ways. Some people didn’t like it, some people don’t like mine. The funny thing about SW is, I went to amazon and read the reader reviews, I’d say to me from the reader reviews, but it could be an artifact of who writes reviews and who doesn’t but the vast majority of people that have read mine have liked them. And then the vocal minority doesn’t like and a small minority thinks they are the best SW written.
RB: Yeah, I think they are two of the stronger books in the NJO.
GK: Thanks, but there are also a handful of people who hate them period. “The worst SW books ever written are the ones written by J. Gregory Keyes.” And the funny thing is you’ll read these guys reviews, and they’ll say something like “Greg Keyes should never be allowed to write another SW book, but I will buy his next one because it is SW, but he shouldn’t be writing them.” Which is bizarre.
RB: I guess it’s the addictive nature of Star Wars.
GK: Yeah, I think so. I agree the New Jedi Order has been really interesting in terms of who the writers are they have brought in and its sort of a new direction. I don’t say that in any way to say the previous Star Wars writers aren’t interesting.
RB: Oh I know.
GK: Just the diversity of the talent they’ve brought to New Jedi Order is startling.
RB: So the next is hardcover?
GK: No, the last is hardcover, I believe by James Luceno. Mine’s the paperback that leads into it.
RB: With every new fantasy, it somehow gets compared to Tolkien. I don’t want to sound clichéd, but I did see resemblances, not quite as much to the world it self but your approach is very similar… in terms of your interest in language. The Briar King himself sort of reminded me of the Ents in a way…
GK: (laughs) Actually its been so long, even though I’m a Tolkien fan, since I’ve read the trilogy probably since High School which has been a long time. So lately I’ve been seeing the movies and kind of forgotten about the Ents. But a lot of things get buried in your subconscious and they come back out. The other thing that fascinated me as a kid the most about Tolkien was the appendices…Reading it thinking, “Wait he’s got those all worked out….he’s got languages here, he’s got history,” then The Silmarillion came out and it’s even just more of the same. That was just fascinating to me. And this was just before, not long before, nevertheless before the mass-marketing of role-playing games. This idea of world-building to that extent was not really around and I immediately started building a world. Not the world of The Briar King, nothing I every really used. I started working on languages and that’s my biggest debt to Tolkien. Of course I wanted to know where Tolkien got all that from, Norse mythology, Celtic mythology, that’s where my interest in it came from, spurred by Tolkien. So my debt to Tolkien is enormous, but I don’t think it’s particularly specific it that makes any sense.
RB: Yeah, yeah that does make sense. There’s a lot, I guess in the 80s there a lot of “We’ll take what Tolkien did and kind of not so much copy it exactly, not write in the spirit he did.
GK: Yeah, it seemed that the only research that anybody did was to read Tolkien. The interesting thing about people like Tolkien and Poul Anderson is they were writing about the same time, pulling from the same source material. They produced these vastly different kinds of Fantasies. Three Hearts and Three Lions.
RB: The Broken Sword…
GK: Yeah, you know not very much like Tolkien except very superficial ways like swords and warriors. Both of those guys had a lot of influence on me. I remember Poul Anderson saying at the time The Broken Sword was a much more brutal novel then he could write now, well at that time he was speaking, it’s one of his early ones. I’ve read and like all his early fantasy.
RB: Yeah, it was a lot different, I had a hard time tracking it down since it’s out of print in the US.
GK: Actually another book that was enormously influential on my Fantasy writing was The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison.
RB: Yeah, I actually found that and The Broken Sword at the same used bookstore.
GK: Another book that’s very difficult to come by these days. And it’s a difficult book to read. The language is a lot like Spenser, I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Fairy Queen. Spenser made up a lot of his language. Language that no other writer in history has ever used, unless its like Joyce or somebody. Eddison does a very similar thing, language has strange intricacies, they are both very beautiful. In a lot of ways it’s [The Worm Ouroboros] a very strange fantasy, it took me several tries to finish it. When I finally did…it’s was actually what I re-read in preparation for The Briar King.
RB: I got through about halfway through it. It’s difficult there was a lot there to enjoy. It’s a book I really want to revisit.
GK: You have to be in a really patient mood. It’s not for everybody. My brother, for instance read it when he was fourteen and reread it every year since. I couldn’t read it, I kept trying thinking “what’s wrong with me, I can’t read this thing.” It was years later actually before I finally read it. When I finally finished it, it did have a powerful impact on me.
RB: When I initially read Michael Moorcock, I had a tough time, for some reason. I went back to his work again a couple of years later and really enjoyed. Once I got through I really enjoyed, I’ve been reading a lot of the Eternal Champion stuff recently.
GK: It may have to do when you read it. I read the Moorcock books in high school. They were really easy for me to read then, his characters are alienated, and its basically easy identify with those characters, at least the high school student I was, easy to identify with the Anti-hero. I may have had a different reaction if I read them later in life.
RB: Was the move from hardcover in your first two books to trade paperback in the Age of Unreason completely a marketing thing or what was the reason?
GK: I suspect. It’s not a thing you hear much about. Writers talk a lot to our editors, but were insulated from a lot of that stuff in so much as they can. Basically the Age of Unreason books were an enormous risk for everybody involved. They were not standard fare, I was not an established writer with a huge following. So there was certainly some effort to make the whole thing economical. At the time, in the late ‘90s there was a perceived wisdom that trade-paperback was the way to go. A lot books with a literary feel come out in trade-paperback.
RB: Gene Wolfe…
GK: Not just SF&F, mainstream…airport books, bestsellers, that kind of thing. Ultimately I don’t know how well it did, but probably it was better that they did not come out in hardback. I think we probably did have sell a few more and it got a wider audience, because they were a little more affordable. One of the really interesting things they’ve done with The Briar King is to put in e-book format. It really blew out as an e-book.
RB: Yeah, I saw in the current issue of the Del Rey Internet Newsletter that it did really well.
GK: I haven’t read that yet, but I’ve followed how it’s done. It was offered at a fairly inexpensive price, but still, I was really astonished by it. I thought it was a pretty good promotional idea.
Terry Brooks helped me out a lot in that he wrote a letter to his fans [on his Web site] and the people who buy ebooks from Pal Digital. Actually that means something from Terry. He was asked to do a quote for my first novel. He didn’t like it and he didn’t do the quote. The Briar King he really had like. That means something because he really did like it, I know that means something coming from him, because he actually liked it, which is not always true.
To thank him, I used to live in Seattle and Terry lives there now. I called this wine shop I know to have them pick out a couple bottles of wine for me and take them to his place. I didn’t tell them who they were delivering it to, but I did ask them to get back with me and tell me exactly what kind of wine they delivered. When the guy called me back, I asked if there was any way he could write himself in a tip using my credit card. He said, “Oh no that’s not necessary, I just read The Briar King on ebook its when I realized who you two guys were. I’ve been a Terry Brooks fan for ages, and I just became a fan of yours a couple of weeks ago with e-book.
RB: He’s got the blurb, doing this for the Website I surf the web a lot. He’s got, or had the blurb, at the Web site.
GK: Extremely generous of him actually.
RB: Yeah it seems Del Rey is doing a lot of the advance reader thing, and from my limited web perspective, its getting a lot of good pre-publication buzz.
GK: Yeah, Del Rey is definitely behind this book, there’s no doubt about that. That’s always nice, it helps.
RB: This month there seem to a couple of other big Fantasies coming out this month, Jordan’s new one, Robin Hobb’s new book. It looks like Del Rey is trying to capture a lot of those readers with the great marketing, it looks to have a great chance to get those readers.
GK: I’ve learned to be pretty guarded about this sort of thing. All they have really asked is for one book to be successful enough to write the next one…so I can go kayaking and stuff.
RB: So writing is full time now?
GK: Yeah, I’ve been writing full time for about four years now. I moved to Seattle when my wife was going to grad school there. In making that move and leaving the University of Georgia, that’s when I quit teaching. I pretty much had to write full-time to support us, when we lived in Seattle which is a fairly expensive place to live.
RB: A very nice city.
GK: Oh yeah, I loved Seattle, but I love Savannah too. They are very different. My life is very different here.
RB: At an old job, I was actually to Seattle and Savannah on two business trips in a short time a few years ago and they are two of the nicer cities I’ve been to.
GK: I like them both. Seattle is a little weary me, with the weather because I’m originally from the south.
RB: Not used to the gray weather.
GK: Yeah (laughs). Nine straight days of rain is not something I’m quite put together to weather. But the beer was good and the food was good. The city itself on perfect day when the sun is out is one of the beautiful places I’ve seen.
RB: Yeah, the Pike brewery down on the wharf was good. Four years now…
GK: Actually a little bit before I moved to Seattle…actually about five years now.
RB: Do you have a strict regimen where you write for a few hours a day?
GK: I try to work it like a 9 to 5 job, I don’t always succeed. When I am writing most successfully I do it like a 9 to 5 job.
RB: That’s good. From what I’ve seen with other authors the discipline is a big part of getting it done.
GK: Yeah, there’s definitely that sort of term-paper quandary. You can work on it all quarter and not have the panic at the last minute. Or you can wait until the last minute and cram it. I find it a lot more pleasant if I work on the book all of the time. Also, most of my friends are work 9 to 5, so what I am I going to do during the day anyway? It doesn’t mean I don’t take a day off or a week off.
RB: Getting set for the tour? Six-city?
GK: Yeah, those can be fun. I’ve toured a few times before and I usually enjoy it.
RB: Meeting the fans and everything?
GK: Yeah, one of the big things about touring is meeting the people who are selling your book. Signings are funny, especially at my level. It could be 2 people or 100 people. But at the very minimum, you meet the people who sell your book, and I think that’s a lot of what touring is about.
RB: My perspective is if I was the guy working there, at the bookstore, I would feel more inclined to sell the book of an author I met, you have that face-to-face relationship.
GK: Assuming I’m basically a nice guy and don’t come in act like an ass (laughing) and don’t cause any trouble for everybody. I think you’re right, that hand-selling factor is really important. I tend to recommend the books of the people I know too.
RB: I think that’s everything, I enjoyed talking and learning more about your work. I just have to go out and pick up the Changeling books now.
GK: Thanks for the interview.
RB: Appreciate your time, good luck on the tour and with The Briar King. Really looking forward to reading The Charnel Prince.