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Friday, June 13, 2008

Interview with Steven Erikson

Official Malazan Empire Website
Order “Toll the HoundsHERE (UK) + HERE (US-September 16, 2008)Read the Prologue to “Toll the HoundsHERE

In modern fantasy literature, there are certain select works that define the genre such as “The Hobbit” & “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire, the Shannara novels by Terry Brooks, and Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles just to name a few. Highly deserving of that same esteemed distinction is Steven Erikson’s Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen: Incredibly ambitious, fearlessly imaginative, and immensely satisfying on every level—emotionally, intellectually and from a purely entertainment standpoint—Erikson’s Malazan books not only celebrate the genre, but are redefining fantasy right before our very eyes. Continuing this epic saga is “Toll the Hounds”, and in support of the eighth volume in the Malazan sequence, Steven Erikson has honored me by answering a few questions which covers everything from elitism in the genre and the relationship between tragedy & comedy to how heroes aren’t what they used to be and a short novel that Steven is co-writing with Ian Cameron Esslemont (NOTE: These questions were first sent to Steven in March):

Q: On March 4, 2008, the US version of “Reaper’s Gale” was published by
Tor ten months after the UK release (Transworld). Now between the two markets the US is obviously much larger, but the series seems to be more successful overseas. Is that a result of the differences in the publishers’ promotional strategies, the tastes of the audiences, and market trends, or something else in your opinion? For that matter, what are your thoughts on the fantasy/sci-fi book scene in the UK compared to the US?

Steven: I have no simple answers, I’m afraid, and if I decide to spend any time thinking about such issues, I get despondent. The genre is in an odd state at the moment. I’ve mentioned elsewhere my sense that it’s kind of blown apart—or maybe, conversely, I have. Newcomers are arriving on strange tides, wherein they almost brag about not reading other authors in the genre (only to then pass judgement on the genre—wha huh?). It smacks of a peculiar kind of elitism that at its core is a rejection of the genre itself—I don’t get it, to be honest—unless of course it’s just the shtick of trying to stand to one side of the crowd, tousled head bobbing for recognition.

I recall in my early days, with the first novel especially (Gardens of the Moon), yabbering on about ‘kicking at the tropes’ of the genre, but dammit, at least that came from an actual familiarity with those tropes. And even with that inclination, I was also and perhaps more importantly revelling in the genre, since there’s plenty in it that I find interesting and entertaining and if that wasn’t the case I wouldn’t be writing the stuff, would I? Anyway, some of this more recent blank-flag-waving (‘I know nothing and I’m proud of it!”) is getting a tad tiresome. Increasingly, I find myself stretching the distance between me and the present sizzle of who/what’s hot and all that. Even though I am indeed reading fewer authors in Fantasy, of late, that’s as much to do with exploring other subjects and managing my time, rather than any particular judgement on what my fellow fantasy writers are writing.

So much for my take on the book scene, here and abroad.

Q: No worries :) It’s an issue that seems to be a hot topic today so it was an appropriate tangent.

For some authors that see a notable gap between their UK + US releases, they are afforded the opportunity to make some additional edits. Did you get to do this with any of the US versions of your Malazan books, and if so, could you talk about these changes?

Steven: There are always mistakes—the most egregious ones in “Gardens of the Moon” I have since corrected in the US edition. As for the rest, no. I am given opportunity to do so, but I don’t follow up. Reading my own stuff—especially years old—is a wince-fest on occasion, and always distracting, since at the time I am usually in the midst of writing the latest novel in the series.

Q: “Reaper’s Gale” was actually dedicated to Glen Cook who is a major influence of your work. Why did you dedicate this particular novel to the author and what do you find inspiring about Glen Cook’s writing?

Steven: Generally, the dedications I make have no direct relationship to the book in question (bizarre, huh?), the notable exceptions being “House of Chains” and my latest, “Toll the Hounds.” Instead, I have a list in my head of those people I want to single out for acknowledgement. Glen was next in line. And before you ask, the dedications for the last two novels are already decided.

I have always enjoyed reading Glen Cook’s fiction – fantasy and science fiction both. He’s simply a very good writer—which in itself always inspires me—and I have always appreciated the ease with which he draws the reader into the words he creates, even when ‘eye-level’ drops right down to an inch above the blood-soaked muck.

Q: In my opinion, “Reaper’s Gale” featured both more humor and more tragedy than any other book in the series so far, and seems to be something you’ve been building toward since you first wrote “Gardens of the Moon”. Now Shakespeare has proven that tragedy & humor can go hand-in-hand, but how do you feel about the two subjects and their relationship with one another?

Steven: Tragedy can be unrelenting, but often that becomes counter-productive, especially if one is dealing with a vast series of stories. The reader needs a break, a breather – unless of course the writer decides to withhold such relief, for whatever nefarious, cruel reasons might serve. I don’t think of the two as being locked in some form of diametrical opposition. If I was to diagram all this, it’d be as three points rather than two. Tragedy is answered by humanity – a gesture of hope or redemption. Comedy relates more to issues of relief when it comes to structure, or happens to be tightly bound to a specific set of characters. It’s related to tragedy, but not in any direct way (for me at least). Sometimes laughter is the only answer to something overwhelmingly tragic – as when, for example, I stand at an intersection and watch hundreds of cars and trucks whiz past. And it dawns on me that nobody really gives a flying fuck about this planet – today’s smoking addiction isn’t cigarettes, it’s oil, and who isn’t blowing smoke in all our faces? Tragedy, comedy, haha.

Q: “Toll the Hounds”, the eighth volume in your
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, is slated for a July 1, 2008 UK release (Transworld) and the anticipation is really building with the unveiling of the book’s covers, the synopsis and the prologue HERE. Now I know that you’re not big on revealing teasers, but is there anything more that you can tell readers about what to expect in the novel? For instance, maybe expand on something that was mentioned in the prologue, or give us a minor or new character who will play a major role in “Toll the Hounds” like Beak did in “Reaper’s Gale”, or someone who will be important later on like Nimander Golit?

Steven: Oh, I don’t like teasers. You mention Nimander – yes, he plays a major role in "Toll the Hounds". How’s that?

Q: I suppose that will have to do ;) Character-wise, you write from literally hundreds of different point-of-views including characters both major & minor, human & inhuman, and by doing this I think you really capture just how diverse the world can be and how individuals’ perspectives may vary. Yet, not everyone agrees with this kind of setup. What are your explanations for the way you write your characters and what are you trying to accomplish through so many different viewpoints?

Steven: Multiple points-of-view are for me a way of ensuring that no single world view, philosophy, or attitude dominates the story. Conversely, I am happy with a single point of view when the subject I’m exploring is precisely about a single, truncated point-of-view (as with a na├»ve narrator) where I make of point of driving that character headfirst into the wall of reality (that outside world that doesn’t give a whit about your beliefs or assumptions). With this series, I decided on innumerable points of view to hopefully emphasize that ‘history’ is not something that happens to the chosen few, but to everyone. I also find it rewarding to weave modest character riffs (what’s behind that person’s eyes?) in order to play with perspective, voice and tone. This latter effort, with luck, keeps the narration from becoming monochromatic – and in books the length of the ones I’m writing, that’s essential.

One can on occasion see novels employing single points of view wherein the author’s own attitudes, politics and prejudices make every scene smell rank as a locker room – as those biases are squeezed out through that character, tainting every other character in the process. Rubbish writing. Dishonest writing. Blah.

Free up characters to test one’s own assumptions, tear down one’s own cherished beliefs – the author who does this is an author I will read and respect. It is, for me, the difference between intellectual cowardice and fearlessness.

Q: You’ve mentioned that worldbuilding has been one of the most enjoyable aspects in writing the Malazan series, but also one of the most challenging partly because you’re trying to avoid any close cultural ties with our own world and that of past fantasy novels. Personally, I think you’ve accomplished that feat, but how do you feel about the world that you and Ian Cameron Esslemont have created, and is there a particular culture or race that you are most proud of from the series?

Steven: We wanted something unique and original, as non-derivative as we could possibly make it. But it’s not as unrelated to this world as it may seem. Confounding stereotypes is predicated on the sordid existence of stereotypes – without them, nothing created in a fictional world could ‘surprise’ readers. That seems to have been the case in the Malazan series, especially when it came to gender roles, female soldiers, non-gender based hierarchies of power, etc. Even the fact that the Malazan world is essentially colour blind, it is ultimately making a point. But the point being made is not a presence but an absence.

I suppose if there was one creation that I was proud of (from the series), it would be the T’lan Imass, which proved a fairly original take on the generic ‘undead’ of fantasy/horror fiction.

Q: An ongoing issue with the Malazan books has been the covers which even prompted
Transworld to release special mass market paperback editions of the novels sporting new artwork by Steve Stone. Why do you think it’s been so difficult to come up with covers that fans can agree with?

Steven: To be honest, I can’t even imagine a world where fans agree, whether it be on covers or anything else. Which is what makes things interesting for me, and a nail-biting crapshoot for marketing departments. I don’t envy ‘em.

Q: Perhaps the best artwork that’s been produced yet is the design by
Michael Komarck for the Subterranean Press limited edition of “Gardens of the Moon”. What can you tell us about this new version of “Gardens of the Moon”, and will we ever see the books reprinted with an artist of your choice or perhaps even you yourself providing the covers considering your hobby as a painter?

Steven: I love the two samples I’ve seen thus far of Michael’s work for “Gardens of the Moon”. It was such a treat to be actually provided with a list of artists to choose from – that just almost never happens. Kudos to
Subterranean Press for the balls.

From what I gather, this edition will be very limited (125 and already sold out I believe :).

While I am painting a series of ‘Malazan Portraits’ I don’t think any publisher art department would see them as marketable assets for future book covers.

Q: Regarding the ninth (Dust of Dreams) and tenth (The Crippled God) volumes in the Malazan sequence, how far along are you and when do you anticipate that you will have finished at least the first drafts? What about a UK release date for “Dust of Dreams”?

Steven: Release dates remain unknown. I am into the ninth chapter of “Dust of Dreams” right now and things proceed apace. I anticipate completing the manuscript some time in the autumn of this year. I normally roll straight into the next novel with not much of a breather between the two, then get slowed up doing the edited version (of the previous one) that comes back from the publisher. With a novella or two thrown in as well.

Q: I’ve heard that the last two volumes in the series will be set up differently from the other eight books. Can you tell us a bit more about this, how all of the storylines will come together and where Ian Cameron Esslemont’s novels fit in the picture?

Steven: For the first time in my side of the series, the ninth novel will be a cliff-hanger (it's my vicious streak). There are two reasons for this. First, the ninth and tenth volumes actually comprise a single novel split in half. Second, I can think of no better way to work up anticipation for the tenth and final novel. While that may seem excessively manipulative, consider that I am closing out a ten book series. I could either make the tenth novel two thousand pages long (and still leave readers feeling cramped), or I could play it out, giving the finale the room it deserves. I chose the latter option.

As for Cam's venues, of course they are intricately woven into this grand narrative. It's not even a question of 'fitting into the picture' – we don't need shoe-horns in a world this big, and even the notion of a single dominant storyline or mega-arc runs contrary to this fictional recounting of a history. The 'grand narrative' is multifaceted and countless threads will spin on without obvious resolution.

Q: Besides the novels, you’ve also written three novellas for
PS Publishing that are set in the Malazan universe and star Korbal Broach, Bauchelain and Emancipor Reese. In the past, you’ve mentioned that Pete Crowther was interested in a short story featuring the same characters and that you had several other ideas for novellas. Has there been any development on this front that you can talk about?

Steven: Well, Cam and I are co-writing a short novel that was commissioned by the duo of
PS Publishing and Subterranean Press. The characters in this work may well return for more installments. There will also be more Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas; but I'm not sure I see short stories in the future – the whole dynamic of writing short fiction is fundamentally different from longer stuff. At the moment, at least, I'm not being pulled back in that direction.

Q: Focusing on Korbal Broach, Bauchelain and Emancipor Reese, you seem to really enjoy writing about these three characters. What about them do you like and will we get to see them again in the main storylines?

Steven: They won't reappear in the main series, but their last novella may well end up novel length or as near to it as to make no difference. Of course I enjoy writing about them. Where the Malazan series runs counter to Fantasy tropes, the necromancer novellas strive to counter the ethics of modern, presumed sensibilities – which is just a fancy way of saying that they are satires. We are daily inundated with mythic assertions about what's good and what's evil; and even when the means to each becomes virtually synonymous, the notion of that similitude seems to impinge of our sensibilities not in the least. The insane sheriff and the psychotic gunslinger are both pointing guns. We cheer on the sheriff. Terrorists, freedom fighters, revolutionaries, insurgents – the titles relate to point of view and a miasma of conflicting definitions (who is the enemy? What is the enemy?). With Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, we have two sociopaths who are reprehensible no matter how you look at them. And yet time and again they find themselves in like company, only none of the other players are in any position to admit it: they aren't much different after all. Or are they? Now, before anyone goes off half-cocked thinking that I'm equivocating with all the world's sources of violence and conflict, I'm not. My point relates to perception.

Two examples come to mind that may help to illuminate what I'm talking about, both film motifs, one with a venerable history, the other a new phenomenon (in its present seemingly wide appeal).

The first one is a theme revisited recently in the most recent Rambo film. The ongoing story of Rambo is rather fascinating. First Blood (both book and film) invoked a fascinating revisionist working of the classic Western form, one quintessentially American. The lone hero, possessing an uncompromising vision of justice—battling against corruption in the obvious form (the tyrant or tyrants) and in a less obvious one (spiritual submission to tyranny, cf High Noon)—now, that's the standard motif. First Blood applied a post-Vietnam sensibility, in presenting just such a hero, created by the society that then rejected him. (Btw, First Blood is a seriously underrated film). The melodrama of his commanding officer aside, Rambo is an orphan, trapped in a world of justice now outmoded, betrayed and deemed criminal. He's basically fucked.

This last Rambo film sort of clambered, clanking and awkward, back into that original notion of frontier justice, presciently tackling the tyranny of the junta-ruling Burma and its campaign of genocide (against Christians, with strikes me as a gratuitous detail). New elements delivered to the audience belonged to the graphic accuracy of bodies torn apart by gunfire and explosions, and a scene of tossing babies into flames (anyone recall that old Russian flick about the Teutonic knights?). So, the film's first two acts deliver the crime, the last act delivers the punishment, Rambo style.

My sense is that the film wasn't quite as popular as its makers probably wanted it to be, and its basic theme of violence as the only response to violence (a peacenik doctor ends up bashing a baddie's skull in with a rock), probably left audiences with a sour taste in the mouth.

Maybe we're having trouble these days, buying into that clear-cut mythos of good guy and bad guy (to give the film credit, there's a scene where the local soldiers descend on a village to conduct a brutal recruitment of young boys – ensuring the next generation of indoctrinated, drug-addled killers). Our perceptions, in other words, have evolved since the first film in the series.

The second example is the rash of torture horror/stalker films showing up every second month or so on the nearest big screen. It's ironic that censors still go apeshit over a bared tit, but say virtually nothing about senseless graphic assaults on the human body by dead-eyed maniacs who turn out to be damn-near omniscient. This stuff is pornography of the worst sort. Good and evil is irrelevant. The world is out to kill you, but not before delivering terrible pain first. The world eats the innocent. They're out there, waiting to find you…yikes, what a message! If I believed in hell-not-on-earth, I'd lobby for a special place in it for the writers and directors and distributors of such films.

So, what does all that have to do with a few novellas about a couple necromancers and their hopeless manservant? Well, heroes ain't what they used to be. The satirical element relates in part to how far I can take these characters in their diabolical pursuits. It's also an old-fashioned twist on the 'the road to hell paved with good intentions' theme. The one thing you won't get, however, is visual reveling in torture. Tongue firmly in cheek with this stuff, despite or perhaps because of its serious undercurrents (which satire needs to be effective). What happens when the good guys are just as bad as the bad guys?

That's one of the themes these novellas are playing with. Beyond that, I'm just playing for laughs.


Q: As you mentioned, writing in the short form is a different dynamic compared to writing a long-form novel. What challenges did you face in penning the novellas and what do you feel are the advantages and disadvantages between the two formats?

Steven: I don't know. Novellas are just long short stories busting out at the seams, really. Fuck epiphanies and denouement. Just clobber the structural confines and ramble all over the page.

I'm actually less deliberate in the novellas, as compared to the novels. This is the only change in my approach. I'm wilder with tangents and absurd sidelights. Looser.

Q: Back in November 2007,
Solaris Books released “The Solaris Book of New Fantasy” anthology which included your short story “Quashie Trapp Blacklight”. Now I know editor Mark Newton is a big fan of your work, but how did Solaris get you involved with the anthology and can you tell us more about “Quashie Trapp Blacklight” which is a departure from your Malazan stuff?

Steven: Mark probably regrets the inclusion of that story – it's the only one not even mentioned in
Locus's review of the book. I was asked to provide a short story – simple as that. I responded with: “I've not written one in years, and those I've done where rights have reverted back to me are either contemporary fiction or magic realist tall tales.” So, Solaris got the latter. Poor guys.

(In response to Steven's answer, editor Mark Newton had the following to say: "I loved the story! I thought it was totally mad, hilarious and one of the anthology's highlights.")

Q: By the time “The Crippled God” is all wrapped up, you’ll have been working on
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen for a very long time. What are your plans for when that happens? For example, will you be taking an extended break from writing, or just dive into the next project no matter what that might be?

Steven: I don't think it's a secret any more that I've signed with
Bantam UK for six more fantasy novels. Two trilogies, in fact. But not one a year – that pace (with novellas thrown in) is wearing me out. I won't get into any details on the books, or whatever stand-alone works I may squeeze in here and there. Not yet. Too early.

Q: Speaking of projects, what’s the status on a potential Malazan RPG, the Chain of Dogs film, the proposed graphic novel by the
Dabel Brothers, the Malazan Encyclopedia, and any other possible adaptations or Malazan-related ventures in the works?

Steven: Nada on the RPG, same for the film.
Dabel Brothers graphic novel seems to be ongoing. The encyclopedia will probably not get done until the series is finished. It'd be nice to see a computer game version of the Malazan world…

Q: Let’s fantasize. What would be your dream adaptation for the
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Steven: My notions about the perfect movie adaptation will have to wait until the moment I'm sitting across the table from a producer who convinces me he/she has serious intentions on such an enormous project.

As for a videogame, well, I'm not into the console stuff. Computers preferred. Age of Conan is proving fun to play; but again, I have ambitious notions about how a Malazan rpg would work best.

Q: Because of your experience in other formats like film and role-playing games, what are your thoughts on the cross-pollination today between different mediums such as literature and movies, comic books and videogames, TV and animation, etc?

Steven: Cam and I always enjoyed writing feature film scripts – we just never got anywhere with them. As much as I'd like to return to that, at the moment I have no time.

Q: Considering how long you’ve been working on the series, it’s inevitable that you’ve evolved as a writer and a person. In fact, and I apologize for bringing this up because I’m sure it still hurts, your father passed away last year—my condolences. How have this event and others, shaped the way you now write and your current perspective on outlooks that are being reflected in your books?

Steven: It was one of those sharp reminders that the older we get the more losses we end up having to deal with. Some reward for surviving. At the same time, it reinforces the value of mindfulness, of appreciating and thoroughly existing in the here and now.

Q: You and Ian Cameron Esslemont have always expressly stated that one of your major goals with
Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was to write a fantasy series that was unpredictable and challenged classic fantasy tropes. Recently, I’ve noticed that a lot of newer fantasy titles are trying to be ‘darker’ and ‘grittier’, while even a few like Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself and Richard K. Morgan’s upcoming “The Steel Remains” are explicitly attempting to tear down established fantasy conventions. What are your thoughts on this burgeoning movement and the influence that yours & ICE’s Malazan novels may be having with these releases, and undoubtedly with future titles?

Steven: I'm not sure anything we're doing is influencing anyone. Abercrombie's stated he doesn't read fantasy. In my few conversations with Richard via email, he too was unfamiliar with the Malazan series. He told me he was taking "Deadhouse Gates" with him on vacation, and I haven't heard from him since. That tendency towards a darker or grittier form of fantasy fiction more likely reflects the presence of a more discerning (perhaps slightly older) reading audience; discerning in the sense of wanting a more 'real' feel to the worlds unveiled by fantasy writers.

Q: You seem to be a hard person to please when it comes to other fantasy fiction, but you have expressed your respect for such authors as Ian Cameron Esslemont, Paul Kearney, R. Scott Bakker, Tim Lebbon, David Keck, James Barclay and the aforementioned Glen Cook? Are there any other writers, new or established that have impressed you lately?

Steven: I love Richard Morgan's science fiction novels and am looking forward to reading his first foray into fantasy. Mostly, however, I've been reading nonfiction, from Michael Wood's book on India to Elaine Dewar's explorations of new world prehistory and genetics. I also found this amazingly well written series from an Australian writer, riffing on the time-travel theme where a near-future naval battle group drops back into the Second World War. I liked being pleasantly surprised.

Q: In closing, is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?

Steven: Well, I'm very pleased with reading the warm reception on the Malazan site to Cam'sReturn of the Crimson Guard.” Ironically, although I know the gist of the story, I've yet to actually read it. That will have to await my visit to the UK.

The ongoing dialogue between me and Cam, that is The Malazan Book of the Fallen, has well and truly begun. We both hope that those who choose to
listen in will find the effort worth while.

Steven Erikson


RobB said...

Awesome interview Robert!
they almost brag about not reading other authors in the genre (only to then pass judgement on the genre—wha huh?).


ThRiNiDiR said...

I've managed to work my way through the whole length of the review, which was quite a feat since I usually skip those :). There was some great interaction going between you two, I really enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Great interview Robert, and nice to read one with an author who genuinely loves the genre he's working in, as well as the fact that he's less concerned with the splash he's making and more with the (fantastic) end product.

Mihai A. said...

Absolutely brilliant interview Robert, congrats :)

Bill Bittner said...

I've never heard of this author or series. And now I'm glad I have. Love your blog. Very thorough and informative reviews. And recommended your blog in mine.

Robert said...

Glad you liked the interview Rob :) Yeah, Steve had some great things to say :D

Uros, it was a little long, so thanks for sticking with it!

Tom, I totally agree :) Looking forward to your US debut btw...

Mihai, thanks!

Bill, you're in for a major treat :) Thanks also for the recommendation! I really aprpeciate it :D

Anonymous said...

Ah Bill, you're in for a treat if you check the Malazan books out: not everyone loves them of course but if you like your fantasy big, grim and intricate there's no one better. The first book isn't quite as good structurally as the others, (NB, take that in the context of a series I think it an unparalleled achievement, it's still very good!) but we're all a bit naive in our first book and it just gets better from there on.

Austin said...

I picked up the first book of this series on a whim one day at the bookstore. Now, I am just finishing Reaper's Gale, and purchased Toll the Hounds a couple days ago, which I am HIGHLY excited to start reading. Hands down, Erikson has become my favourite author due to the intensity in his books, along with the intricacy and superbly written viewpoints of each character. I would recommend these books to anyone who has a love for the Fantasy genre. :)


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