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Friday, September 26, 2014

Interview with Robert J. Bennett (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Mr. Shivers
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of City Of Stairs

Robert Jackson Bennett is a writer who has made it extremely hard for reviewers and readers to pin his books down in any single genre. Readers though have lots to rejoice with the release of his books in the past few years as they all have been terrific to say the least. With his newest release City Of Stairs, he has gone on to write a book that is easily the one of the three best titles we have seen this year. Robert was kind enough to talk about the world and characters in City Of Stairs as well as his wacky twitter account. Read ahead and enjoy...

Q) Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic, thank you for joining us. How would you describe your writing style and which book of yours would you recommend readers start with? 

RJB: I would say that I write novels set in worlds where reality is somewhat soft, where there’s a great deal happening beyond the boundaries of conventional existence. Sometimes these function more like fantasies (The Troupe), and sometimes they function more like science fiction (American Elsewhere), but that’s what they are at their heart.

Q) You have in your previous works focused on various aspects of American life but then you also added some strange twists to them. What was your fascination with such aspects (Military-Industrial complex, Vaudeville, small town suburbia) of America? 

RJB: I suppose it’s because America is so vociferously rigorous about re-imagining itself in various forms and fantasies, with each era and facet about its own origins overloaded with stories, nuance, and symbols. Untangling and uprooting these elements is something of a hobby of mine.

Q) Talking about American Elsewhere, I loved the amalgamation of SF and the post-cold war era science race. What was the inception for its plot? 

RJB: It was actually an idea that eventually became City of Stairs. I was thinking of a city visited by a woman where all the residents were secretly gods. It was originally going to be this gothic, 1920’s affair, but I found I was bored with the “secret gods” idea in this regard, so it slowly morphed into Lovecraftian horrors. Lovecraft is really tied up with early 20th Century science, but it hadn't been paired up with mid-Century, golden-era sci-fi all that much, or so it seemed.

Q) Moving onto City Of Stairs, this is your first post-secondary fantasy world. Why did you wait to write about secondary fantasy so long? 

RJB: I didn't quite have a good enough idea to write about. I have to like the world enough for me to hang around in it for two to five years of my life or however long, and none of the ideas I had before this seemed worth it.

Q) In City Of Stairs, the naming convention seems to have a strong Indian & Russian bent to them. Was this a purposeful move on your part? 

RJB: A bit. The idea was inspired by a novel by Alan Furst, Dark Star, which is a WWII spy novel but the spy is a Soviet, operating in Eastern Europe. It was an interesting perspective that I rarely saw. I was thinking about setting a story in this region, this densely balkanized, patriarchal old world, and I thought it’d be very hard to be a diplomat in this region. I wondered which sort of person would clash the most in this place, and my immediately went to a Southeast Asian woman.

Q) Talking about the characters within your newest work, the protagonist Shara Komayd is a very fascinating character. Her past is shrouded with youthful mistakes but she now has gained experience & no longer sees the world with stark good-bad clarity. How did you approach writing about her? 

RJB: Shara was initially quite hard to write, because she is, like most spies, very withdrawn. She’s been burned before, she’s made mistakes, so she’s very careful not to let anything unintentional peek through. So this was difficult to write, in that on the surface she’s extraordinarily taciturn and doesn't let people in.

Except with her passion – history. History, I found, was the easiest way to get inside of Shara and see what made her tick.

Q) With regards to Saypur and its citizens, we are not given much of a glimpse into the island. Can you talk to us and describe what it is like? 

RJB: It’s extremely large, with northern coastline with many islands, very wet, very fertile, and very resource abundant. It’s also extremely modern, as all of its cities have been developed only in the past 50 years or so. In other words, it’s the opposite of the Continent in every way.

Q) Your book deals with some pretty heavy effects of history (or its denial), & colonialism. You also did a reverse with the brown folks subjugating the white people. Can you tell why you chose to go this way? 

RJB: There’s an ongoing issue with schoolbooks in Texas right now, in that our history textbooks have been heavily edited to make sure they’re presenting history in the “right way.” Often people don’t even bother to pretend that this isn't a nakedly political act. But people will always worry about history. They will worry that reality may claim that they are not important, that they are wrong, that the future might not go their way, so they wish to override it. It’s an impulse that is vain in both meanings of the word.

Q) This book is basically about science versus magic. Bulikov’s magical past versus Saypur’s technological advances. What truly is at stake as per your thinking? 

RJB: It’s not quite about that, though – it’s about the past versus the present. Almost no one controls the Continent’s magic – those who claim to often do so at their peril. And neither the Saypuri forces nor the Continental ones are particularly in the right – both are trying to force reality to bend to their wishes, either through laws or through miracles. What’s at stake is Shara’s heart – will she continue to enforce Saypur’s policies, or will she strike out on her own?

Q) Previously your book The Company Man came close to this style of noir wherein the protagonist ventured into a new environment, which is partly fascinating and partly hostile. Besides the magic component, which do you feel was the tougher environment for the protagonists? 

RJB: Probably the one in The Company Man. That city was wholly built and controlled by people with their own agenda, and it’s gamed in such a way that denying that agenda is almost impossible.

Bulikov, after the Blink, has no agenda. It’s structurally insane, and hazardous to everyone.

Q) What can you tell us about City Of Blades? What will be its plot focusing on? Will there be newer POV characters introduced? 

RJB: As I’m writing it, it’s Mulaghesh and Sigrud in the polis that once belonged to the Divinity of war and death, searching for a missing Ministry agent and trying not to interfere in one of the great construction projects intended to bring aid to the Continent. They’re two soldiers and killers in their own right, and both they and Saypur itself are wondering if they can change and move beyond their pasts.

Q) How many books do you plan to write in this series? Is there a title for it, I refereed to it as the Divinities series in my review as I haven’t found any official one so far. 

RJB: I’m not sure yet, to be honest. It could go in a lot of directions. I believe we’re considering calling it “The Continental Saga.” I’ll have to let you know!

Q) What are your thoughts on the current state of fantasy fiction, and what is fantasy to you? 

RJB: I don’t have much, I’m afraid. Sam Sykes made a very good point, though, in that we tend to ask what influenced a book or what other, highly regarded books it’s like, rather than what the book itself is actually about. That suggests how extraordinarily rigid our expectations are, in that the only way we can approach new fiction is by asking if it’s like what came before. If this is true, then it offers far less flexibility than I think a healthy genre needs.

Q) In many articles, you have mentioned how Alan Furst’s Dark Star and The Third Man were so instrumental in shaping the narrative focus of your story? What are your thoughts about recent TV series like Americans, Homeland that focus on such similar subjects but in America? 

RJB: I haven’t seen Homeland, but I do love The Americans. Spy stories, despite the Bond pyrotechnics, are intensely introspective stories, maybe the only action-packed introspective stories out there. The main driving force behind spy stories is doubt, so it’s immensely fruitful to point that doubt in new directions: be it a marriage, or a government or a faith.

Q) Your twitter account often seems to run in a very wacky manner. Can you say what’s your reasoning behind your goofy & sometimes NSFW tweets? 

RJB: There’s an idea in people’s heads that if they get to know me, personally, then that will somehow make your experience of my novels better. As if a personal relationship with me, perceived or real, will give people some desperately needed context.

I don’t believe this is true, and I often delight in denying people that connection online, providing an online persona that is wholly ridiculous.

NOTE: Author picture courtesy of the author himself.


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