Interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont

Dear Cameron, Let me begin by thanking you for taking some time off your busy schedule to answer our questions. With rumors pertaining to the publication of RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD and the imminent release of NIGHT OF KNIVES in trade paperback, Malazan fans are eager to hear from you.

Q: Although surprising, there are many Malazan fans who are not aware that you are the co-creator of that universe. For readers not yet familiar with your work, without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the story that is NIGHT OF KNIVES?

Dear Patrick and all those good enough to have contributed to this Q&A opportunity:

Great to see all these questions – to my mind this translates into a lot of interest out there. All very welcome! For question #1, I most certainly do not find it surprising that there are many Malaz fans out there who are not aware of my contribution – yet. Malaz first saw the light of day with the publication of Gardens under Steve’s name. Believe me, I would have loved to have my name appear on there somewhere at that time, but it just wasn’t in the cards for a lot of plain mundane reasons plus some very real publication considerations – think about it, what chance would yet another new fantasy novel introducing yet another new fantasy world have if it was burdened by a header such as:

In a World Created by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont,
from a screenplay written by Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont,
comes a novel written by Steven Erikson …

Not likely to fly off the shelves, I imagine. Gardens set the precedent that the various books would simply have one name on the title pages; no sense tricking up an already risky undertaking.

For those who not yet familiar with Night of Knives, I would suggest reviews and discussions on the Malaz site, PS Publishing’s website, or other reviews such as the one at sfcrowsnest. However, for those don’t want to bother opening a new browser window I’ll give a little spiel (all those familiar with Knives can jump ahead).

The novel takes place all in one night, the night that the Imperial regent, Surly, assassinates the Emperor, Kellanved and his cohort bodyguard/enforcer, Dancer. It is also – coincidentally? – a “convergence” when realms overlap. In this case, the realm of Shadow. This convergence, together with other factors, draws an attack by a race that inhabits the waters in the straits between the island of Malaz and the southern continent of Korel, or Fist, as it is sometimes known. The story is told through two main characters: Kiska, a young girl who dreams of escaping what she sees as an empty life in an island backwater; and Temper, a grizzled veteran anxious to avoid all imperial attention, who has sought out the island of Malaz precisely because it is a backwater. However, as both discover, even an obscure imperial corner can hold its surprises.

Q: There seemed to be a few grammatical errors and such which made there way through the editing process in the previous version of NIGHT OF KNIVES which put some people off. Have these errors been fixed for the new trade paperback edition?

Not sure what I can say here – every book has its various proofing oversights and editing mistakes, etc. I might point out that some books have become famous (or infamous) precisely because of them. As to whether there have been any editing changes between editions – not to my knowledge. The new edition is a done deal, probably with the same exact text as far as I know.

Q: You have said that you and Steven keep the dialogue going on events, characters, sub-plots, etc, as he keep writing additional volumes of the Malazan series. How exactly do you guys work together? Do you read the different drafts of the story, and then send Steven feedback? Or do you play a more “active” role?

The very “active” role of side-by-side creation is in the past. We established the canvas back then: where and when everything fit together in the big picture. Now we’re filling in all the white space between. Currently we exchange letters and emails in which we discuss what we happen to be working on, field questions, ask for “okays” on doing certain things. What’s best is when we happen to be in the same place – then we can sit down all afternoon or evening to walk through entire narratives in which we clarify sequences, exchange opinions on the treatment of various moments, etc. Usually, as we found originally, our instincts are pretty much in alignment. For example, the last time I was in Winnipeg, we spent a lot of time talking about Bonehunters, especially the set piece of the siege of Y’Ghatan. Most recently, I sent him a few scenes-in-progress from Return of the Crimson Guard.

Q: As co-creators of the Malazan universe, was there ever a plan for you and Steven to actually write the series together, much like authors such as Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have collaborated over the years? Or did you both have your own stories to tell, and thus elected to go your separate ways?

Steve and I co-wrote a number of screenplays – long ago. We used a single pad of yellow legal notepaper that we passed back and forth across the table in coffeeshops, taking turns writing dialogue and scenes, etc. It was very rewarding creatively, reacting to what he came up with then passing the pad back for his reaction – like a great game of chess, only we were both winners. We found we could co-write screenplays in that manner but we both knew it wouldn’t work for novel writing so we didn’t even attempt it. Now, we both do have our “own stories to tell” but they are still woven together in that – if the plan can be kept to – they still cross and merge in various ways and at various moments.

Q: You guys initially wrote GARDENS OF THE MOON as a screenplay. Just out of curiosity, how different was it from what was published?

Yes, if I remember correctly, Gardens was written out as described above. And, if memory serves, the novel followed very closely to what we had in the screenplay (a copy of it remains buried somewhere in my notes, and Steve might still have a copy too).

Q: How far along are you with RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD and when might we see it published? Where will the majority of the action in RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD take place? Quon Tali? Assail? Korelri?

A first finished draft of Return was done before any of the novels ever saw publication – a good warning to those of you toiling away on your own projects: never throw anything away! Steve read it, of course, as we exchanged everything. He handed it back beautifully packaged in a cardboard mailing box with its title penned on it and he told me “send it out.” I never did; it went into a drawer. I’m not certain why, perhaps I didn’t think I was yet a good enough writer (perhaps I’m still not, it’s no longer for me to say, others will judge now). In any case, it all has to be completely rewritten pretty much from the ground up with entire new characters, etc, to bring it into alignment with what has now been established. I’m not certain how far I’m through it at this point in that I’ve no idea how long it’s going to take to get to the end. I can say that the majority of the action will take place on the home continent of the empire, Quon Tali.

Q: This from another interview you did: «Ah, here I can be unequivocal in saying that, yes, I (and Steve) both believe that Malaz is vastly different from the general popular fantasy series of the genre. We deliberately set out to achieve this goal of convention challenge, contravention, and reversal. It is deliberately anti-heroic in a genre heretofore reserved for heroic indulgences all this because we have faith in the intelligence anddiscrimination of genre readers to recognize when they are not being talked (or written) down to. In many ways the entire series is an extended critical study of the genre itself how it works, why it works how far can it be pushed to evolve?»

Do you feel that this might explain why most Malazan fans appear to be well-read fantasy aficionados, who enjoy the series exactly because it is unlike everything else on the market today? By the same token, could this also explain why the “mainstream” readers have not yet caught on?

Ah, an invitation to pontificate! With this question I’m not quite sure what you mean by “mainstream.” Do you mean readers of mainstream epic fantasy such as that of Terry Goodkind, Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, etc, etc? If so, it’s hard to say. Much of the traditional attraction of the genre (that is, of the last seventy years or so) has been the simple escapism of good guys rewarded and bad guys punished together with the “Pleasure Principle” of well-established expectations met seamlessly and on time. Maintream fantasy keeps to this safe uncomplicated niche (why rock the boat?). What we are attempting in Malaz is to see how far these conventions can be challenged by the importation of more complicated concerns such as moral ambiguity, explorations of character, and the big question, what does it mean to be “human”?

Q: You and Steven have mapped out his 10 Malazan novels, which means that you basically know everything that will take place. Regardless of that fact, name a couple of scenes in which Steven still managed to blow your mind.

Everything Steve writes frankly manages to blow my mind – even when I “know” what will happen. Knowing the outcome is not important; Malaz is more about the ride than the destination. It’s the journey, the art of the unfolding that is important. And neither of us yet knows “entirely” what will happen anyway, we’re both still inventing/sculpting the details, the execution of it all (so to speak). If I were pressed to choose anything, I would have to single out his characters. Iskaral Pust for example. How does Steve do it? How does one scare up anything so original from ground that has been plowed so thoroughly as epic fantasy has? Amazing – and scary for my own work. A very high bar to work next to.

Q: In the same vein as the previous question: Were there any scenes that you both thought would make readers’ jaw drop, and in the end the response was not what you guys expected?

Speaking partially for Steve here I can say that, yeah, that happens all the time. Writer’s expectations for various scenes, or characters, are rarely squarely met. Kruppe, for example. How can anyone not like Kruppe? What I can say for my own work so far is that I have been very gratified by the reactions to some scenes that worried me, Temper’s flashbacks, for example.

Q: Will the Malazan Enyclopedia be a joint project between yourself and Steven?

For a time Steve and I exchanged notes on an Encyclopedia Malazica. Now, I’m much more happy to be able to continue writing the fiction! The encyclopedia will have to wait. Who knows, perhaps one will be built on-line. It could be tackled as an on-going project. In fact, I’ve just found out about one now being assembled Wikipedia-style.

Q: Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.

No, never. (Just joking). Time, that’s all that’s needed. Once enough time has passed since a fantasy work’s début it suddenly becomes safe for critics and scholars to treat it “seriously”. This is true for other genre work as well, such as detective or mystery. Thinking about it though, that is not absolute. J.K. Rowling’s work has met with immediate “serious” treatment – there are even conventions supporting “serious” panels and paper presentations. But it’s formally children’s literature so it possesses that extra layering of protection, or dissociation, for any critic or scholar who might dare to handle it professionally.

Q: Have the plotlines diverged much since Steven began writing the series, or did you two have the entire plot more or less figured out from the very beginning? Were any characters added or further fleshed out beyond your original intention? Have you made any changes to your initial plans during the course of the writing of the series?

It’s true that Steve and I sketched out roughly where everything went but that skeleton is nothing compared to the flesh and blood of what is being realized. Of course new characters and events appear in every book and of course neither he nor I foresaw any of how it would in fact “look.” The “feel,” I think, is what we had down pretty firm – I maintain again that Malaz is mostly about its feel — it’s a mood, a tone, and an atmosphere … Malaz is fantasy noir.

Q: Are you surprised by what little support fantasy writers receive from the Canadian media? Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker rank among the best fantasy authors out there, yet both Canucks appear to get very little recognition in their own country.

I am not in the least surprised by the lack of support, or even recognition, that genre writers receive (or rather fail to receive) in Canada. To be brutally brief, the Canadian arts industry shares the national hang-up, that of a massive inferiority complex, which manifests itself as an equally massive superiority complex. To compensate, the arts industry (a crown corporation), embraces and supports only that which it perceives as the “high” art pursuits – Literature, capital L, in the case of writing. Thus anything that smacks of less than the highest artistic pursuit in writing, such as detective fiction, mystery writing, science fiction, in short, “genre” writing, is avoided like the proverbial plaugue of crass low-browism that has been traditional in literary criticism to dismiss it as. There is room for hope that eyes may be opened though; Dickens used to be dismissed as low-brow entertainment for the crude undiscerning masses.

Q: Is there any particular piece of worldbuilding that you are especially proud of?

That is tantamount to asking which element of Malaz am I the most proud. Well, of course I have to answer that I get a kick out of it all. If I had to answer with anything I would say that if Malaz were an artifact picked up from a field or found on a beach, it would have great patina – it’s the creation of that patina of which I am most proud.

Q: I think I read somewhere that you will be dealing more with the History of the Malazan Empire while Steven dealt with the present. I felt NIGHT OF KNIVES confirmed this, but now i understand RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD will be set after THE BONEHUNTERS. Can you confirm what aspects of the Malazan world you will be dealing with.

Well, Knives does sit in the past in that it deals with Kellanved’s assassination. Technically, it doesn’t in that many of the novels deal with events that reach back tens of thousands of years, even hundreds. The projected novels all deal with post-Kellanved times so in this sense they extend the mapping out of Malazan empire events. Depending upon how things go, further novels could germinate and those could deal with events extending very far back into the past indeed.

Q: We’re given to understand that the Deck of Dragons is your *baby*. Will there ever be a full unveiling of the entire Deck, or is that unlikely given it’s amorphic nature?

The deck is currently being explored for development. How that will go is out of my hands. What you give as “amorphic” I identify as its strength in that it was conceived of as eminently contingent, that is, it’s all about responding in a creative way to any set of preconditions. Yet a core “arcana” can be delineated, together with peripherals. It’s a question of how much to include and where the focus for application should rest.

Q: Although you are not under contract to write them yet, what can you tell us of the remaining Malazan novels that you and Steven mapped out all those years ago? You did not really think that we would be letting you off the hook so easily, right!?! A brief synopsis — without spilling the beans, of course! Tentative titles? Progress report, if any of them are being written as we speak. Know that your answers will inject new blood and keep the message boards occupied for months! In addition to this, here are a few specific questions from various Malazan fans. . .

As Steve has hinted, future novels past Return are planned to deal with the Korel campaigns, a return to Darujhistan, and, finally, the mysteries of the Assail continent. As this point things are so tentative I’m reluctant to go any further and risk painting myself into a corner.

Q: According to Steven, Fisher Kel Tath’s story is fairly integral to one of your planned books. What little can you tell us about it?

Fisher would be a very challenging character to do justice to; he has a very strong “voice.” If I could pull it off to my satisfaction then I would go ahead and use him as planned. I was certain that we had seen him, but Steve writes in an interview that we haven’t yet – that’s a measure of how “real” all of it is for he and I. However, nothing’s set in stone. Other characters can always push their way forward as things evolve – at least that’s been my experience in writing these stories. New voices come out of nowhere and take hold. I think that’s a good thing.

Q: Will reading your work be essential for understanding Steven’s novels, and vice versa will reading Steven’s work be essential for understanding your novels?

Our goal is that all of the novels should “stand alone” (as much as possible). Reading one alone should satisfy all the immediate story demands. Of course so much more wealth and depth opens up once the reader becomes familiar with more of the world – especially its history. So, essential only from the point of view of grasping the entirety of what the world has to offer.

Q: Do you intend to use characters from Steven’s books, and if so will they play major roles?

Steve and I swap characters as freely as we wish. We use those whose “appearance” makes the most sense continuity-wise, and such, but the short answer is that none of them are reserved for either of us. It’s all open territory – I would love to see him to run with what I’ve done, and I hope he feels the same.

Q: In a previous interview, you claimed that, in addition to NIGHT OF KNIVES, you had 5 Malazan novels planned. Is that right? RETURN OF THE CRIMSON GUARD was already written and you were rewriting it. How far along are the others?

Five novels in total including Knives. Sorry for any confusion. All that has pretty much been covered above. Nothing beyond Return has been written out yet though all the main anchoring events have been set out by Steve and I.

Q: Are any of your other planned novels set in the ‘past’ relative to the timeline of Steven’s series?

No, actually none of them are. Not sure where this rumour came from, maybe from general talk in that I’ve always expressed interest in those past events. Wishful thinking on my part perhaps! Who knows though, with enough interest …

Q: You have said that three of the remaining four Malazan novels you have planned ‘use the Malaz Empire as the route of entry into the world’…which, taken opposite Steven’s comment that the remaining books of his series will take place outside the Empire, causes me to wonder if those three novels might serve as the Malazan POV, concurrent with the remainder of Steven’s series – wholly, partly, or just a bit?

Sort of. Knives and Return obviously deal with the empire, as will the narrative set in Korel. That’s three of the five. But after that, if I do get to visit Darujhistan, the empire would be there but it wouldn’t be the dominant plot line. Same for the last.

Q: The fourth remaining planned novel, in your own words «more of an epilogue to many of the main story threads in which remaining questions are answered (and surprising revelations are made, of course!)» Will reading that epilogue be necessary to “understand” how The Malazan Book of the Fallen ended?

The goal is for that last one to compliment Steve’s tenth. It will mostly be an epilogue. Hopefully, however, we’ll manage it so that there will be opportunity to cast light on some of the theaters of action in the final crux. It would offer a “fuller” understanding of many of the plot lines, etc. Structurally, it might be the most difficult one for me to pull off. I might have to float the possibility of breaking it into two separate projects: one to compliment Steve’s tenth, the second to focus on the epilogue story entirely.

Q: And finally, NIGHT OF KNIVES is the living proof that the internet can provide a lot of exposure for a book. Do you feel that most publishers don’t yet understand the full potential of this tool, in terms of exploiting the wealth of fantasy-related websites, message boards, and blogs?

Yes, I do feel that way. If copyright and piracy problems are ever solved it would be an interesting world if we reached books-on-demand. But until that time the internet does provide a great place for fans to meet to hammer out issues of relevance. This is of course especially true for fans of SF and fantasy who tend to be more tech-savvy. As far as publisher’s attention goes, it’s true that Malaz and gritty military-fantasy are still not mainstream fantasy. Last I heard even Glen Cook still has his day-job. We’re still banging on doors out there.

That’s about all for now. Many thanks for the opportunity to talk about Malaz. Always a pleasure.

Yours, Cameron.

___

Interview by Patrick
fantasyhotlist.blogspot.com

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