Dear Mr. Erikson, Let me start by thanking you for being gracious enough to take some precious time off your indubitably busy schedule to answer these questions. But with the imminent release of THE BONEHUNTERS, know that your fans are extremely excited about this chance to hear from you in person.
Is there a character that you particularly enjoy/enjoyed writing? Why is that? By the same token, is there a character that you absolutely don’t like writing about? For what reason?
Steven Erikson: For me it’s important that I enjoy the characters I write about, or rather, those whose points of view I am using. I need there to be something intrinsically interesting in them. Often it’s nothing obvious, either. In real life, people don’t tell you what their character is — it’s revealed, in increments, through what they say and what they do. In that sense, character is subtle, and I certainly try to make it so in my fiction. So, I’ll have either a full history of the character I am using, or just its bones if that person is ‘new’ to the series. By bones I mean there’s a sense of their history, but not all the details are fleshed out — that comes as I write them at the first draft stage — so I try to start with the same feel of mystery that exists with every new person each of us meets in real life. Anyway, I don’t not like writing about any characters, even the despicable ones. As for favourites, again it’s a subtle thing with me, as each character delivers something different. For Karsa Orlong, for example, it’s his barrelling through things, both verbally and physically, and often in ways that undermine the cliches regards ‘barbarians’ or, even more pleasing (for me), undermines the genre’s conventions. On a quieter side, I did enjoy writing both Apsalar and Scillara in The Bonehunters: that they are thematic opposites with romantic ties to one character in particular only makes it more fascinating.
I’ll never pound anyone over the head with characterisation — turns out there’s some of my readers who’d rather I did just that. Oh well.
What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
SE: Yikes. Setting things up then doing the unexpected, I suppose. With well-buried motivations among many of the major players in the series, I think I can continue to surprise readers. There’s a few of those instances in The Bonehunters, including what I’ll call an inverted double-bind stick-the-knife-in reversal thing (think the phrase will catch on?), that’s clearly set up one way only to … well, don’t want to give too much away here.
Years ago, when I was learning the craft of fiction at university workshops in Victoria and Iowa, I observed a peculiar aversion to certain elements of narrative fiction; principally, plot and drama. Neither, it seemed, belonged in serious literature. This was the era of kitchen-sink stories and Carver wannabes. Plot was for genre; better the characters did nothing and talked a lot but talked about nothing while doing it, all of which was supposed to lead to some profound epiphany but mostly led to blank looks from others in the class. As for drama, well, drama was out. This was also the time of the ascendancy of the Cynical School of Fiction. Wherein we were taught that true drama doesn’t exist, and any attempt at drama in fiction was in fact /melodrama/. In other words, because the world was the way it was, and fiction was its truest reflection, there was no such thing as ‘earned emotion’ — nothing hard and heavy in fiction was in fact honest. Why? Because it was hard and heavy, of course. So there I was, quietly railing against such notions and writing ‘serious’ fiction that had people actually doing things and had things actually happen and they were often hard and heavy and the response was as you’d expect. The only loud kudos came when I wrote flat out comedy, probably because my comedy was of a cynical, sarcastic nature. Only what I was laughing at was not always what everyone else was laughing at.
One might say I fell into genre writing in order to use both plot and drama, and there might be some truth in that. It’s hard to be analytical about such things. After all, I love reading Homer and Homer’s full of drama. Nasty, brutal drama. It may also be a case of wrong place, wrong time. Which is probably the most likely, so I’ll stop now.
What author makes you shake your head in admiration?
SE: Lots and lots. John Gardner, Gustav Hasford, Mark Helprin, Atwood (no, just kidding on the last one. I shake my head all right, just not in admiration), some Doris Lessing. In fantasy, I think Robin Hobb is a very clever, very subtle writer. Alas, I’m not reading much fantasy these days, although I enoyed Tim Lebbon’s new one and I’m very interesting in how reviewers will take David Keck’s first novel..
Prior to its American release, Tor Books allowed you to take care of a number of inconsistencies found within GARDENS OF THE MOON. Are there any plans to do the same with the UK version?
SE: None of which I am aware. There weren’t many — one big gender correction, though — but the rest was pretty minor.
Now that many purists and aficionados consider you one of the best fantasy authors in the world, is there added pressure when it comes down to writing a new addition to the series?
SE: If there’s pressure, it’s to do with time management — the edit of The Bonehunters especially involved a lot of back and forth, given its length — which meant I had to drop everything else at that time. Some other manuscripts needed some editing as well, then TOR sent me on a signing/reading junket down the US West Coast which while fun took five days out of my writing schedule. That kinda pressure, sure.
The other kind, dealing with the expectations of readers, the answer is no, not at all. The thing’s mapped out so I know what I’m doing (I hope that simply relieves your readers rather than coming across as boastful — really, I do know what I’m doing!) and I can see the light at the tunnel’s end. As mentioned earlier, I’m fairly certain I will surprise readers with future events, with enough twists and turns to keep them reading.
What would you say was the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen? Each new addition reveals yet more depth to a series which has shown just how rich and complex it truly is. What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the series in the first place?
SE: The first question: the hardest part was twofold. One was finding a publisher. The second was convincing myself that writing the series really has been as easy as it has seemed and continues to seem — I mean, it should be hard, right? The plot-lines and arcs are so folded and interwoven you could make a trampoline out of them strong enough to handle a plummeting bus. And yet it all arrives, timely and satisfying (to me) with nary a wayward step. It feels uncanny, Patrick. I wasn’t drawn to halt once in the entire writing of Midnight Tides, for example. Not even a half-hour’s pause. At times I felt like a spectator to the whole creation process. Pretty much the same for The Bonehunters and now Reaper’s Gale. It just flows. Scary.
The second question: oh the sparks were all negative things, frustrations at the genre’s confounding predictability. Wanting to write something in fantasy I myself would like to read (and not just me, but Cam as well — the one reader who stays in my head as I write). Wanting to kick the tropes around, wanting to get rid of that endless quasi-medieval class-conscious blueblood crap. Wanting a fantasy world as multicultural as this one (the preponderance of white-skinned heroes and blonde princesses … man, what century is this?). Wanting a fantasy world with a history beyond the Dark Lord of three hundred years ago who’s found a rock that will help him rise again and do, oh, bad things; a world with geology and geography, etc.
Sure, there’s some good stuff out there, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe still isn’t.
If you could go back in time, what advice would you give the younger Steven Erikson concerning his writing career?
SE: Find the secret potion that would de-complicate Gardens of the Moon. It must exist. Problem was/is, I don’t see anything confusing in it. Wish I could, wish I did. The world was as full for me then as it is now — and to write a history the way I wanted to, well, I still haven’t got an answer. Poor young Steven Erikson — sorry, mate, you’re on your own.
Is a World Fantasy Award something you covet?
SE: Not really. It’d be nice, eventually, but I don’t toss and turn at night chewing on it. Having been a judge … well, never mind that — the system does not really allow for books in a series (barring the > first one). It would be nice to see a special category for series, though.
What’s the progress report pertaining to REAPER’S GALE? Is it likely that the book will be released a year following THE BONEHUNTERS?
SE: From my own standpoint, progress is just fine. The first half of a novel (for me) always takes longer than the second half. It’s where everything is set up, after all. The second half is the pay-off — which means more action (drama?), which is always quicker to write. I’m at that halfway point right now in Reaper’s Gale, so the pace is just about right.
To a large extent, however, my pace and completion date do not relate much to release dates. The Bonehunters was done last spring, after all. Mysterious arcana is involved in the publishing house when it determines release dates. Outa my hands.
What extensive research did the writing of the Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen entail?
SE: Nothing specific to the series. Research is something I do for fun, and the subject matter is all over the place. Quantum and post-quantum physics, the life and times of Ghengis Khan, Seahenge, bronze-age Ithaca, Lakota religion, modern war, ancient war, primatology, paleoanthropology, paleontology, terraforming planets, biology, the Crusades, cargo cults, the Templars, politics, literary criticism — those in the last six or so months, I guess. Odd details will stay with me and will on occasion manifest in what I’m writing, or give me a new way of seeing something. Filling out an entire world, and all its cultures, is one of the things I enjoy the most, but it’s also the most challenging. I don’t want any close cultural ties between the Malazan ethos and our own — our own including the canon of fantasy writing past and present. At the same time, the unavoidable reality exists that archetypes will cross over — as part of our nature there’s no escaping them, especially when writing stuff with a tragic flavour.
One of my early worries in devising a long series was the recognition that, over the years spent writing it, my perspective would change. I thought that would be a problem, as the thematic elements in later books would ‘outdate’ those of the early ones. I’ve since stopped worrying — in some respects it’s inevitable, and it’s what assures me I won’t be continually rewriting the same story — just as characters evolve, so too should the writer. Interests flower then die away and that’s just the way it is. I see that evolution now as a positive force.
Back to the question. The ‘research’ was part of my schooling and subsequent field work. That field work was exclusively archaeological, not anthropological. But I found that anthropology is like sociology and psychology — observable all around you, no matter where you are. And the archaeology took me places I would not have otherwise ventured into, which gave me more to observe in an ‘anthropological’ way (three months with a crew of seven people in the wilderness pretty much runs the gamut of the human condition, and that’s no lie).
The series has garnered what can best be described as a cult following. However, many doubt that it will ever become “mainstream.” With that in mind, how rewarding is it to realize how successful the series has been and continues to be to this day?
SE: It certainly seems the case that people either hate the series or love it; and even among the latter there’s little concensus in what works for them and what doesn’t. That part is somewhat baffling, I admit. The range of opinions among my readers often leaves my jaw hanging, and I’m finding I have to be careful of visiting the fan site too often — some things I read can be a real downer. Writing is an isolated activity, and there are times when being isolated is precisely what the writer needs. With the internet providing both quick, potentially interactive feedback, and a forum for speculation, criticism and so on, it has the power to both enliven the writer and take the wind out of his or her sails. Now, that is entirely legitimate and I would never want the fans to curtail their opinions — the discipline issue is with me, not them, and is one of the main reasons I have become a far less frequent visitor.
That said, reader feedback is important — especially in catching errors of detail and continuity and the like. They don’t miss a thing. Animals! I wouldn’t have it any other way, though.
I am aware that at least GARDENS OF THE MOON has been translated in French. How many foreign sales have you been able to secure so far?
SE: For a time there all these books would arrive at my door — Polish, Czech, Greek, Dutch, German, etc. Not one or two copies, but ten, twenty — I had no idea what to do with them. Anyway, I’m not sure how many foreign rights have been sold, nor all the languages concerned. But man, some of the covers!
What’s the progress reports on the upcoming novellas? Anything new you wish to share with your fans? Something to wet their appetite. . .
SE: Well, I’m due to deliver Pete Crowther (PS Publishing) another Bauchelain/Korbal Broach novella this year (2006); and he has also asked me for a short story with the same characters and I just might oblige him (it’s very hard to say ‘no’ to Pete — he’s too nice, damn him). When I started writing, it was short stories exclusively. Certainly one of the hardest forms of narrative — my hat’s off to all those writers whittling away with short stories. And I find I am looking forward to tackling one after all these years.
You have been acknowledged as one of the best writers in the genre? Where do you think you stand in the fantasy field?
SE: Beside the poppies.I don’t really know and don’t think much about it, I’m afraid. Sorry!
The fact that there is a website dedicated to your work is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. I know that you haven’t had the chance to do so in a while, but how special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?
SE: Ah, see my comments above.
Without giving anything away, what can you tell us of THE BONEHUNTERS? Are you satisfied with the way the book turned out? Anything you wish to share pertaining to REAPER’S GALE?
SE: The Bonehunters is big. Didn’t feel it at the time, but then I toggled the word count. The rebellion in Seven Cities needed wrapping up and that is what the novel does, more or less. Some of its story lines tie Midnight Tides a little closer to the others; and Reaper’s Gale will tighten that weave considerably.
There’s plenty of imperial stuff in The Bonehunters — politics and how legends can be reworked, reshaped, to suit the present. Don’t want to give too much away, but there may be a few screams of outrage on occasion….
It took many years for you to find an American publisher. In the past, you have claimed that the concensus was that the books were too complex for US audiences. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the series was probably too vast in scope for most publishers?
SE: Not a claim. I was told that to my face. Same for my agents. I don’t recall hearing any concerns about the length of the series. A lot of long series originated in the States, so I don’t think that was ever an issue.
Are you surprised by what little support you receive from the Canadian media? You and R. Scott Bakker rank among the best fantasy authors out there, yet both of you Canucks appear to get very little recognition in your own country.
SE: Surprised? No. I had good reasons for packing up my manuscripts and moving to the UK. If I elaborate on this subject, Patrick, you’re looking at another fifty thousand words, easy. Canada’s an odd country. It seems to like having maybe ten ‘big’ writers around at any one time — and some of those are only ‘big’ because people in some other country liked them enough for a few shortlistings on awards. And that is the ‘literary’ side. Regards all us genre hacks, not a chance. Mind you, it doesn’t help when other Canadian writers of fantasy and sf diss the genres in interviews (‘I write /speculative/ fiction’). Yeah, well, all fiction is speculative….
Are you perplexed by the fact that Tor Books doesn’t market you more aggressively? The immense success of such writers as Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin demonstrates that there is a market for series vast in scope and quality. But it seems that Tor hasn’t been making much noise about your books so far.
SE: I’m easy on all that. Less time on the road for me means more time to write! Tor’s doing fine by my regard.
As an archaeologist and an anthropologist, do you think that you influence your novels in a manner that an “ordinary” writer can’t quite match?
SE: I don’t know any ordinary writers, to be honest. We’re all strangely twisted. In any case, those disciplines aren’t secret code — there are more books coming out on those subjects for the layperson than ever before (I should know, I buy most of them). I’d imagine it would be essential for any writer seeking to create a new world or culture to do some groundwork before plunging in. Keeping in mind that all the humanities have theoretical underpinnings that wobble loose on occasion, forcing new paradigms in the field — and there’s a ripple effect — so that something in, say, paleobotony can change the archaeogical take on prehistoric cultures dwelling close to glaciers, for example; which in turn alters views on the first peopling of the New World, which can then flip a hundred years of entrenched dogma on its ass. And the telling of all that in turn reveals something about human psychology and the tribal characteristics of academia, including racism, sexism and intellectual fascism.
I just read a great example of this by the way. Some human footprints were found in Mexico, in a bed of solidified volcanic ash. Initially dated at thirteen or so thousand years old. Well, that seemed a bit early for some people (see above note on dogma), so a second team was sent there to take a look. They observed the prints, confirmed that indeed they were made when the ash was mud; then proceeded to use potassium-argon dating on the volcanic material. And came up with a fixed date of 1.3 million years. Their conclusion? ‘Those aren’t footprints.’
My old highschool debating teacher would howl at that one. Anyway, the disciplines are motile, which is a very good thing as Martha Stewart would say. So, for research purposes, take it all with a pound of salt.
And here are a few questions submitted by your numerous fans. Several of them have encouraged me to remind you to make more regular appearances at www. malazanempire.com!
Any solid news concerning an RPG adaption of the Malazan Empire?
SE: Yes. No. A florida-based OGL paper-based rpg company (PCI) has expressed interest and the matter’s sitting with my agent right now. Has been for some time, actually. Same for the Dabel Brothers doing a graphic novel of Gardens of the Moon.
Any chance of publishing a world map ahead of the Encyclopedia to satisfy the geography junkies out there?
SE: We’re all over the map on that one. I’ve since learned to make no bold promises. It does exist. A few people have seen it.
Reading the books, one gets the impression that the Empire knew something big was coming and planned for it accordingly (i.e. Laseen taking over, Kel and Dancer ascending, inversion of the ranks, making sure that the Master of the Deck was Malazan — even though it ended up being luck that it even happened — forming alliances with powerful beings, etc…). Would you be willing to shed some light on just how much the Empire knew in advance? Not anything big, just some tidbits. . .
SE: Ah now, that’s a central plot-line in the series. But for clarification, the ‘empire’ knew nothing — the emperor and his scary cohort might be another matter. As for Laseen, well, she’s a little busy these days….
Will the mysterious Assail continent be visited in any of the next four books?
SE: Nope. Not from me, that is.
Have we met Fisher Kel Tath already in the series and if not, will we ?
SE: No, we haven’t met him. I’ve thought about his making an appearance, but I would need to talk with Cam about that, since Fisher’s tale is fairly integral with one of Cam’s planned novels in the Malazan world.
Will we get a firm timeline for the Malazan Empire, aside from the chronology for the world as a whole?
SE: I suppose when we get around to finalising the Encyclopedia, we’ll end up having to creep into that funhouse.
Well, thanks again for accepting to do this. I wish you continued success, and wish you the best for the release of THE BONEHUNTERS.
SE: Thanks, Patrick.
The second part of Patrick’s Q&A with Steven Erikson can be read here.
Interview by Patrick