Interview with R. Scott Bakker

Rob Bedford (RB): You have obviously put a lot of time and emotion into your work. How much time and effort did you put into The Darkness that Comes Before prior to contacting an agent or publisher? Did you contact an agent before submitting the book to publisher(s)?s

R. Scott Bakker (RSB): The world of Earwa was born in the basement of a small house in Port Stanley, Ontario, in the early 1980’s. The rudiments of the story started evolving in 1986, my first year of University. I actually have multiple versions of the story, and aside from one sterile exception, I never sought publication. It was my hobby – and one I felt an inordinate amount of shame about, actually. I’ve been working on the monster for a long, long time – so long that its meaning has long ago escaped me.

The only reason I’m published at all is because of Nick, my closest friend while I lived in Nashville working on my philosophy PhD at Vanderbilt University. Though I think the actual language he used would be inappropriate, one drunken night he said something like, ‘Get off your friggin’ ass and send that frigger to my old roommate!’ who just happened to be an agent in New York. Yet another ‘who you know’ story, I’m afraid. Anyway, it took a couple of years, then things just started to happen. I’m still pinching myself.

RB: The cultures you present in the saga, thus far, have a strong sense of familiarity about them. Which cultures or peoples did you use as a basis for the people of this world?

RSB: The analogy I always like to use when discussing worldbuilding is sculpture: when you build a world, what you’re doing, it seems to me, is taking a lifetime of shared cultural and historical associations and sculpting them into different shapes. When writing contemporary fiction, you simply say ‘New York’ and all the associations come ready made. But when you say, ‘Carythusal’ or ‘Nenciphon,’ the words are meaningless. The fantasy author really has one of the most difficult jobs in fiction: he or she has to make the meaningless deep with meaning – the more authentic the better, as far as I’m concerned. This is one of the things, I think, that makes Tolkien such a genius.

Some fantasy authors, Guy Kay comes to mind here, take things ‘ready-made’ from that quarry of shared associations. The advantage is that much of the work is already accomplished: once the reader realizes that Sarantium is an alternate Constantinople, the associational image is immediate and clear. Others mine the collective quarry in a more eclectic, fragmentary, or mysterious fashion – here the work can be more difficult, since nothing comes ready-made. Because my interest lies in exploring and extending the conventions of Tolkienesque epic fantasy, I followed his ‘middle approach,’ making use of fragmentary but still extensive parallels, drawing primarily on the Hellenistic Mediterranean, which I find so interesting because of its inclusion of the far more ancient contexts of Egyptian and Sumerian societies. I wanted a literate, socially intricate, and cosmopolitan world – something I could have fun destroying.

RB: You probably had intentions of publishing all along, but some writers say they reach a point when the story clicks and say to themselves: “I’ve got it.” How far were you into the writing of Darkness when you realized things clicked?

RSB: As you might have surmised from above, I actually finished writing The Darkness That Comes Before quite a while before that first ‘click.’

For the longest time I thought publication was a pipe-dream, like saying ‘I wanna be an astronaut’ in elementary school. I sent the original manuscript ofThe Prince of Nothing away once, in my early twenties – I can’t even remember to whom anymore. It was rejected, I remember that. And I also remember thinking that some editor had stolen my names: shortly after the manuscript was returned several of the names I used started popping up on the Whorf/Klingon episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation! Ah, the heady days of creative paranoia…

But even then I think I looked upon the whole thing as an impossibility. I pretty much knew ‘I lousy writer was,’ and that the themes I set myself were beyond my ability to explore in anything other than a hackneyed fashion. There was always this gap between what I wanted to write – the reflections, the feelings, the tapestry of actions – and what I was actually able to write. I never sent the manuscript out again. Instead, I started rewriting from the very beginning, and elaborating and remoulding the world of Earwa.

And I continued doing this into my mid-thirties – at this point I regarded the project as little more than an embarrassing hobby. I was living with my fiancée, Sharron, and my dissolute ways had started to dissolve. I had discovered philosophy, and the endorphins were coursing through my veins. I was hellbent on becoming a professional academic. As strange as it might sound, this was when things ‘clicked’ for me writing-wise. I still farted around with the world and the story, but for the first time, it seemed that I actually could write what I wanted to write. Expression and expectation became one and the same thing. “Some day I’m going to finish this damned thing” – that was my mantra. But as a worshipper of the great god Procrastidemus, I never really believed it. When you’re a radical pessimist, life is full of pleasant surprises.

RB: Much like fellow Canadian author Steven Erikson, your work appeared up North and across the Ocean before hitting the US shelves. Do you feel being a Canadian/non-US writer was a hurdle or obstacle to finding a US publisher? And how important was it to you to be published by a US publisher?

RSB: I’m green, so many of my opinions on this issue are simply guesswork. Many US publishers, I think, have simply rolled the Canadian market into the larger American fold, so for them, purchasing works without Canadian rights can be something of a pain in the ass – this was a barrier at places like Tor, for instance. So I guess it was something of an obstacle.

From what I understand, it’s very hard to make a living as a writer unless you have some kind of US presence. Since eating becomes an issue when you can’t make a living, you could say that getting a US deal was pretty important. Up there with sex, definitely…

Jokes aside, there are benefits to being published in Canada first. There’s what I like to call the ‘home son effect,’ which allows even a lowly fantasy author a crack at radio and television interviews. And the publishers here know the Canadian market much better than those in New York, (where Canada often seems, as A. Whitney Brown puts it, little more than “a summer camp with its own currency”). As a first time author, you’re literally at war with your own obscurity. Building a readership, I’m discovering, is far more difficult in the vast clamour of the American market.

RB: You’ve received some high praise from well-known and regarded names in the genre; specifically the blurbs on Darkness from Steve Erikson and John Marco and on The Warrior-Prophet from Kevin J. Anderson. How rewarding was this acknowledgement from you peers and did it help secure a US publishing deal?

RSB: Peers – I’d never really thought of them that way before! The acknowledgement is good, very good. I can still remember the day when my editor forwarded Steve’s blurb to me… I was floored. Here I was, this egghead with a small deal in a small market, casting about looking for ways to reach those I thought would love the book: world-junkies (such as myself), and those who’d abandoned epic fantasy when they went to university. All I could think was ‘9-out-10-first-novels-fail-9-out-of-10-first-novels-fail…’ You really feel helpless in that situation: As I said, I hadn’t taken publication seriously, but once I had the taste… That first book seemed like a hopelessly tiny doorway I had to squeeze through. Then without warning, Steve kicked open the cover from the other side and cried, ‘Where the hell have you been?’

It’s hard to explain. All I can say is that I’m very grateful to those who helped during the darkness that came before The Darkness That Comes Before. I intend to pay it forward.

RB: With Darkness, you probably did not have a deadline and the most pressure was probably from yourself as your own editor. In completing The Warrior-Prophet, was there a deadline and/or external pressure, to complete the book? Did the critical success of Darkness have an impact to your approach to writing The Warrior-Prophet?

RSB: I can honestly say that last year was the most trying year of my life – labour-wise. I taught part-time at Fanshawe College here in London, rewrote and defended the prospectus to my dissertation, and completed The Warrior-Prophet. I woke up at 5AM every morning seven days a week. Between May 2003 to March 2004, I took only one day off (to get messy with my buddies and watch The Return of the King). I wrote on Christmas. I even worked (with a hangover) on New Year’s Day.

Because I had about 15 years to finish The Darkness That Comes Before, I really had no idea what I was getting into when I signed the deals for The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought. Suddenly my private passion had become a collective enterprise – and I just don’t mean the immediate circle of commercial interests that suddenly spring up around an author (your agent, editor, publicist, greedy relatives, and so on), there’s your readers as well. Buying into an uncompleted series, especially by an unknown author, is an act of faith – $26 is a tank of gas or a week’s worth of groceries for me! The idea of defaulting on my end of the bargain tormented me, and the idea of writing anything other than the book I felt compelled to write was unthinkable. Pressure-pressure.

Add to this all the crazy reviews The Darkness That Comes Before was racking up. I really thought the book was a ‘love it or hate it’ work, which was no problem as far as I was concerned, because I didn’t write it for everybody. I thought the reviews would be split, and that the raves, if I received any, would be peppered with telling criticisms. After all the reviews the book has received, I think the first review I read (and what a nail-biting experience that was!) comes closest to my own feelings toward the book. Everyone else has been too kind – including you, Rob!

This is where I think the pressure was a good thing. Because my schedule was so tight, I really had no time to fret (that much) over whether The Warrior-Prophet would live up to its predecessor. All the collective concerns faded into a single imperative: ‘Write, write, write your ass off!’ And as strange as it may sound, suddenly there was me, the world, the characters, and a blank screen – just like the good old days.

Now that I have time, I’m freaking out.

RB: Was The Warrior-Prophet a more difficult work?

RSB: Both books were difficult for different reasons. One of the things about The Lord of the Rings is that the story it tells is a story that can be told (and has been told) in any number of different worlds. One of the many things that makes the story so remarkable is the way it engages the breathtaking intricacies of Middle-earth without really depending on those intricacies. People usually crinkle their noses when I say this, so let me explain a little.

When I started my first exhaustive rewrite of The Darkness That Comes Before, this time with the intent on getting published, I joined something then called the Del Rey Online Writers Workshop (or ‘the DROWW’ as we called it), where I learned fairly quickly that although I could write, I really knew squat about storytelling. If you want to write something mysterious, the first tendency, I think, is to make everything mysterious. And if you have a vast world of which you are overweeningly proud, the first tendency is to try to reference everything. Both are big mistakes. In order to interest readers in a mystery, you need to give them firm ground to stand on – concentrate on the mystery rather than on making everything mysterious. Likewise, in order to interest readers in a world, you have to give them a clear road into that world.

One of the lessons I’d learned from Tolkien is something I call ‘narrative transcendence,’ which expressed as a rule might be something like: In epic fantasy, the world must transcend the story – it must, like our own world, seem like a place capable of containing innumerable stories. To me, this meant creating a detailed world. Reality, afterall, is a function of detail. But Tolkien has a storytelling lesson that’s the compliment to this worldbuilding one: no matter how detailed the world, keep the story simplestupid, at the beginning at least. Give the reader a clear road.

Now, through the rewrite, I had little difficulty with the mystery problem, but the ‘clear road’ problem proved nearly insuperable. Unlike Tolkien, I had a story which, though universal in abstract (the Son searching for the Father), turned in so many ways on different details belonging to the world. Since I set out to write an epic fantasy as convincing as a historical, you might think this is a good thing – and perhaps it is – but it sure made rewriting The Darkness That Comes Before difficult. I’ve lost count of all the various ways I tried making the Three Seas and Earwa accessible. And in some ways I think I failed.

With The Warrior-Prophet, I already had the world in place, and in certain respects, this made things so much easier. Even still, I found the new difficulties that arose just as challenging, but I’ll save that story for the next question.

RB: Again, comparing the two novels, Darkness, as an opening novel, naturally had more background and back-story to bring to the fore. Was focusing more on the progression of the plot in The Warrior-Prophet a more challenging or enjoyable process?

RSB: The main difficulties I faced in The Warrior-Prophet stemmed directly from the outrageous goals I had set for myself. In a sense, the book is about conquest, the myriad and often bizarre ways in which humans submit to one another, whether through violence or seduction. So on the one hand there’s the conquest of the heathen by the Holy War. I really wanted the Holy War to come across as a living, breathing thing – as an alternate protagonist, in fact. Doing this, however, required a line of quasi-historical narration (which I patterned off of Harold Lamb’s Iron Men and Iron Saints) threaded through the various strands of character narration. Since I wanted to play these two lines against each other in interesting ways, they became painstaking affairs. Also, I find the tendency is to gloss over the details when telling the story of collective actions – to narrate at a level that invites abstractions. This is what makes history boring to so many people. So there was also the continuous struggle to keep the Holy War concrete, to keep it alive in my reader’s imagination. If I think I succeeded, it’s only because I recognize that it’s impossible to carry everyone with you – the detail that enlivens historical narration for some is going to overwhelm others. There’s no way around that. As a writer I think it’s very important to pick your reader.

On the other hand, there’s the conquest of the Holy War from within – by Kellhus. Here my goal was to tell a story that shows a prophet coming to power, rather than simply telling it. Think about the difference between describing a conversation that captivates a listener, and actually giving that conversation. The former need not be captivating at all, whereas the latter has to be, somewhat, if the reader is to find its consequences plausible. Now I’m as conceited as the next guy, but I have no doubt that if I met Kellhus he would have me washing his drawers while marvelling over my good fortune. It’s bloody hard writing someone that much smarter than you! I just used the shot-gun approach, writing stupid thing after stupid thing, until I got lucky and wrote something improbably intelligent.

RB: With The Warrior-Prophet just released in Canada, when do you expect to see the next volume(s) published? Once completed, how many volumes will make up The Prince of Nothing?

RSB: The Prince of Nothing consists of three books, The Darkness That Comes BeforeThe Warrior-Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought. They tell the story of the crucial events that occur some twenty years before the Second Apocalypse begins. I have outlines (whose original forms, coincidentally, date back some twenty years) that sketch the story of the Second Apocalypse, starting with The Aspect-Emperor and ending with The-Book-that-Shall-Not-Be-Named. Whether these will turn into trilogies like The Prince of Nothing remains to be seen. My guess is that each will be a dualogy.

I once boasted while very drunk that I wanted to write something that would ultimately make The Lord of the Rings look like ‘Little Miss Muffet.’ It’ll never happen, of course, but I truly do want to write something worthy of the word ‘epic,’ hoping that even if I fail I’ve accomplished something interesting. Since buying into a series of books is very much like getting into a car with someone else behind the wheel, people should know why I’m wearing a crash helmet.

RB: With the publication of The Warrior-Prophet can you commit yourself to a full-time writing career? How much of your writing time do you devote to writing Philosophy?

RSB: I took the plunge after finishing up the spring term. Against all reason the translation deals keep trickling in, and my fiancée Sharron and I are managing to scrape by. Having the Best Agent in the World helps… As it stands, I have very little time to devote to writing philosophy, which is probably for the best. Like sobriety, it keeps me from becoming too preachy. At the moment, I’m more interested in re-enacting the crime than I am in solving it.

RB: Growing up and finding your own authorial voice, which writers/books influenced you, both in and out of the Fantasy & Science Fiction genre?

RSB: First and foremost, Tolkien. Then Frank Herbert – especially the original Dune. In some ways I think I’ve never escaped the fences these two writers have imposed on my imagination. Outside the genre, Ernest Buckler has always been the model to which I aspire, both with regard to character and style. For some reason, I always keep a copy of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby within reach – just to remind me, I guess, of the sensitivity and nuance that thought and care can instil in one’s prose.

RB: What authors are you finding time to read, again either in or out of the genre?

I just finished rereading Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, and have started rereading Deadhouse Gates, all so that I can catch up on Memories of Ice andHouse of Chains - I’ve just been so bloody busy! Erikson is single-handedly reminding me of how much fun I had reading before being institutionalized by University and ‘primary texts.’ Before that it was Mieville’s Perdido Street Station - an extraordinary book – and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which took some courage to read due to a bizarre near-death experience I had some years back. It’s the kind of book that carves its initials into your psyche. And before these it was Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, just to see what all the fuss was about. I’m still mystified.

RB: With all the fervor surrounding the Tolkien/LOTR films and Epic/High fantasy becoming a more recognizable genre, there also seems to be an undercurrent of writers who espouse to writing fiction in a vein quite the opposite of the Tolkien tradition (Elves, Wizards,and what not). While this is a good thing for the growth and (lack of a better term) diversification of the genre, there also seems to be a bit of derision towards Professor Tolkien’s works. In our Fantasy forums (http://www.sffworld.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?f=6), there is a continual debate regarding the genre and where it is going, are there too many Tolkien clones and are there not enough “original” voices in fantasy, writers who don’t exactly mimic Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Though your work straddles the line between the two in the best possible way, something reminiscent of the spirit of Tolkien’s work mingled with an incredibly detailed, rich, vibrant and new world, where do you personally stand, in terms of diversity in the genre from Tolkein-ish fantasy to the New Weird writers like China Mieville?

RSB: I actually see myself as slavishly following Tolkien’s model… But then that was the point: to explore these enormously popular conventions by taking them seriously – turning them inside out, you might say, as opposed to upside down. When the first galleys of The Darkness That Comes Before were printed, Penguin sent me two boxes of fifteen by mistake, and following the helpful advice of John Marco, I started sending them far and wide, asking various people if they would be interested in taking a looksee. Now I knew nothing, and I mean nothing, about the bigger SF&F scene – I’d scarcely read three or four fantasy novels in the preceding decade – so I had no idea of what to expect. But I scoped out various websites, thinking the book would be better received by eggheads like myself. I started emailing queries.

Then I ran head on into this debate. First I received a couple of outright refusals of the ‘I don’t do epic fantasy’ stripe, then a couple of warnings: ‘Send it, but you should know that I hate epic fantasy.’ Given the hype surrounding Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, I thought this was understandable. Everyone knows someone who seems to hate popular things because they’re popular. You have those who cultivate what I call the ‘iconoclastic chic,’ on the one hand, and those who have a principled suspicion of the culture industry on the other. No surprise here, I thought. Every nook and cranny of culture has its own ‘literati.’ If SF&F is ‘paraliterature,’ then ‘paraliterati’ are pretty much inevitable, aren’t they? All I have to do, I told myself, is show them I’m the ‘real deal’ – they’ll come around.

So I posed a question on a message board where epic fantasy seemed to be taking a particularly hard beating at the hands of one of these reviewers. I realized something was amiss the first time I had my knuckles rapped for using the term ‘sci-fi’ instead of ‘SF.’ Then I ended up spending my time fending off a succession of strawman criticisms and attacks on my character – and I kept apologizing, thinking that it had to be my ‘e-tone’ or something like that. I mean, these people were all about celebrating difference and diversity, weren’t they?

No such luck. The grease was burning and I was on the grill!

At the time the reasons behind the flames escaped me, but now I think it had to do with an attack I made on postmodernism – something which only became clear to me after I had read Perdido Street Station. If I remember correctly, I was in the midst of reading Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and apart from being awestruck by his incisive observations and immaculate prose, I found myself disappointed by what seemed – to me, anyway – an almost mechanical reproduction of a number of post-modern tropes: the use of ‘existentially subversive’ doubles and mirrors, the continual references to hybridity and the carnivalesque, the decentred self, the eschewing of motivation and ‘psychological realism.’ So much of it seemed straight out of the po-mo manual to me, to the point where I started playing, quite against my intentions, ‘spot the trope’ while reading. Even worse, it seemed to me that he was using themuncritically - or worse yet, thinking them inherently critical rather than the statement of an alternate status quo.

I think the reason I was flamed was simply that these tropes, which seemed a tired expression of a bankrupt formalism to me, actually seemed exciting or important to those I debated. Their reaction, I think, was akin to the reaction lovers of Jordan or Brooks must have when one of the paraliterati parachutes in and starts enumerating and dismissing all the recycled tropes they adore. They got their backs up.

Of course none of this means that postmodern tropes can’t be made interesting – I actually think Mieville has one up on Wolfe in this regard. And of course, an indictment of postmodernism is not necessarily and indictment of the New Weird. Personally, I look forward to sharing their explorations as a reader and an unabashed fan.

But this encounter, which dismayed me at the time, set me thinking long and hard, not simply about fantasy, but about what fantasy should be. As a result, I’ve come to a handful of tentative conclusions, any of which I’d only be too happy to be argued out of…

i) Intellectual conventions, such as the po-mo tropes I mention above, can be every bit as stifling as commercial ones – perhaps even moreso, given the way they seem to fool otherwise intelligent people into thinking they’re doing something critical, or even worse, revolutionary. The ‘traditional paradigms’ of self, meaning, and representation crashed a long time ago.

ii) Defecting from conventions is cheap. Rule-breaking is simply a formal exercise, and one which can be pursued, as modern art has shown, to the point of utter inaccessibility. It does not magically possess a more privileged relation to originality than rule-following. The issue, it seems to me, is always one ofhow we break or follow the rules.

iii) Commercial conventions can be profound. The paraliterati, I’ve found, often gloss over the dialectical nature of the culture industry and claim that media corporations dictate what the masses read – this is every bit as weak as the libertarian or market fundamentalist claim that the masses dictate, through their purchases, what media corporations produce. Obviously the two are in dialogue with one another, and the pendulum swings.

Any mass market product is in some way the result of collective desire, which is to say, the result of some collective lack. Now in the case of many mass consumer products, I would agree that the lack at issue is largely a corporate contrivance: diamond engagement rings are the classic example here. Ashamed you can’t afford a decent rock? Thank DeBeers, who in their wholesale promotional videos openly admit to engineering new ‘cultural imperatives.’ Epic fantasy, however, is a different story: Tolkien’s original publisher simply stumbled upon the collective lack it answers to, one that predates any marketing campaign and seems damn near universal.

This makes the sub-genre, and all the family resemblances belonging to it, horribly significant. Epic fantasy is a cipher, a way to decode who we are during this strange and dangerous time in our history. For me, this means the conventions of epic fantasy need to be understood far more than they need to be lampooned. Those who think they already understand, that the case is closed, are nothing more than dogmatists. There’s precious few open and shut cases in cultural criticism. It’s interpretation all the way down.

iv) If epic fantasy is a symptom of a far more fundamental phenomenon, then wishing away its commercial dominance simply makes no sense. This, I think, is the crux of the ongoing debate. If epic fantasy was simply an arbitrary phenomenon, a historical accident or a corporate imposition, then perhaps the tactics of the paraliterati would make sense – perhaps. I have my chits on the opposite side of the table, and a host of what I think are compelling arguments (some of which are summarized in an old article I submitted here at sffworld called Why Fantasy and Why Now?. But even if I’m wrong, I’m not sure what the paraliterati hope to accomplish by continually railing against epic fantasy. Surely they don’t think the demise of epic fantasy will mean the end of commercially dominant conventions, do they? Perhaps they simply want their conventions to become commercially dominant, though you’d think they’d realize, given the way the market caters to our all too human need for flattery, simplicity, and certainty, that the chances of this seem pretty bleak.

It’s pretty hilarious when you think about it: epic fantasy fans on the one side, dismissing the paraliterati as arrogant cranks, and the paraliterati on the other side, dismissing epic fantasy readers as ignorant fools. Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? Generic conventions aren’t the only things being repeated ad nauseum!

So what should fantasy be? Enjoyed. Explored. Criticized and extolled. Arguing the form it should or shouldn’t take, it seems to me, is something of a mug’s game.

Discuss this interview in our Fantasy Forums

Visit R. Scott Bakker’s Web site: www.princeofnothing.com

 

© 2004 Rob H. Bedford

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