[Interview] Steven Erikson auteur du Malazan Book of the Fallen, par Marie Dunand et Nicolas Meylan
Interview de Steven Erikson
26 mai 2018, Epinal, France
SE (Steven Erikson), NM (Nicolas Meylan), MD (Marie Dunand)
SE: Tell me, what would you like to do in your work?
MD: Broadly speaking I would like to question what we are talking about in Malazan Books and in the Lord of the Rings. We have a fantasy novel with magic, wizards, dragons…
SE: … Gods!
MD: Yes, gods for you. But I understand it as a metaphor. It is trying to say something else and I would like to know what that is.
SE: Well, there is a general theme throughout the ten-book series: compassion and the avenues that people can take to achieve that compassion through their efforts and the choices they make in their lives. That is why there are so many multiple points of view in the series, because I wanted to approach compassion from as many angles as I possibly could. And so in many respects it’s a three million word plea for compassion.
MD: Is it only compassion or…?
SE: Primarily. Another of the things I was interested in exploring, and it did feel a little of presumptuous of me, but I was interested in the hero’s journey as commonly defined. But I did not want any particular character in the novel to undertake the full hero’s journey. So they would take sections of it, parts of it. And some would fail. Some would succeed. So the hero’s journey in my mind was going to belong to the reader. So the reader – in reading all 10 books – would undertake a kind of, at least emotional, Hero’s Journey through to the end of the series. And so as in the case with many heroes’ journeys many people fall to the wayside and don’t complete it. And in many ways I almost look at those readers who have gone three books into the series and then dropped it, or four books into the series and dropped it, as those who do not complete that Hero’s Journey. Like I said it is presumptuous on my part.
MD: It is ambitious.
SE: It is ambitious, yeah. And I know a lot of readers between books nine and ten were all very worried. I do not view these books as fantasy novels with tragic elements. I view them as tragedies with fantastic elements. And so many readers were worried that I was going to kill off everyone and it was going to become a very tragic end.
MD: Like George Martin!
SE: Yes! But my decision all along was that with the final book it was going to turn and the ending was going to be quite surprising in the sense of having set up the precedent for all these tragic events. I was going to turn the whole thing and create hope at the end.
MD: Ok. So, this is a positive novel?
SE: A positive series. Yes, absolutely. Yeah I’m not a fan of nihilism or grim darkness at all. I do not like the notion of writing fantasy novels that basically revel in the meaninglessness of life in the universe. As I get older I become more convinced that the universe is anything but meaningless. That it is life with meaning. So, in that sense, my own series of books perhaps created a kind of paving of the path for me to reach the conclusions that I reached in my life.
MD: Ok. That is very interesting.
NM: Reading at, it is at the end of the Midnight Tides, and you get this amazing scene where Bugg has just healed Tehol. And all of a sudden I felt like you were dealing with… you were asking this huge Christian question like why on earth would you become a manservant, right. You are a god and you incarnate yourself. So were you thinking about the New Testament when you were writing this?
SE: Of course, yes, absolutely. I mean those storylines are echoed throughout the series. You could even look to Coltaine in the end of Deadhouse Gates, as an individual who, quite consciously, makes the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of the people. So yes, it is a very spiritual message. Of course it’s not just Christian but I do use a lot of Christian iconography, if you will, and symbology. But I would think that most world traditions… traditional religions, all basically carry the same message and so that is what I wanted to explore in as many ways as possible. But yes. Bugg was a god who came down to the Earth and chose a very simple task. Yet at some point having committed his love, if you will, to Tehol. He had to break his own rules; which he did because that’s what a human life is worth for him.
MD: Are you Christian?
SE: Am I Christian? No, or am I? No, I don’t think so. I was certainly raised primarily atheistic. My father was convinced that, upon death, that was the end of everything. And my mother, who died years earlier, both have died, she was kind of (first of all they were Swedish) and she was about as ‘Old World’ and ‘Old Norse Pagan’ as one could possibly be in this generation. She was very fatalistic. So when she got ill, she had opportunities for potential treatments and she did not take them. So I do not know what her belief systems were regarding the afterlife. I really don’t know. So I was quite atheistic. But the more I read, because I am also interested in cosmology and science, the more I read about quantum physics, the more I read about theories of bio-centrism regarding universe theory of mind and consciousness quantum entanglement, the more agnostic I became. And curiously enough, this is going to sound very strange, but in the midst of writing a first contact novel which is coming out in the fall, called Rejoice: a Knife to the Heart, I felt myself experiencing a Kundalini awakening, you know the phrase. So the chi woke up big time, the prana within me and I had no idea what this was I had to basically find help to manage what was going on. And because of that I guess I acquired a new understanding of the complexity of the universe that is far beyond what we generally sense and assume is reality. But it’s a hard thing to actually discuss because unless somebody… you can have intellectual knowledge of things and then you have experiential knowledge and they are two very different things.
NM: One important question for me, especially as a historian of religion, is how do you write gods? How do you make up these various characters? How do you come up with the notion of ascendency for instance? How much is that you and maybe Esslemont’s plane?
SE: That was roleplaying games, as characters level up, as they power up. We have to think, well they cannot keep doing the same things they have always been doing. In other words their vision has to expand and at some point it expands beyond regular considerations of a mortal life especially if they are achieving a kind of immortality which means their value system changes. And what both of us did in terms of approaching how we were going to write gods was to keep our distance. So that, generally, we do not get that point of view. We just get the point of view from characters around those gods and those gods will appear before them. And that made it a bit easier to manage I think, in some respects. The only exceptions would be Kellanved and Dancer. And we roleplayed those characters straight through ascendancy. And that was great fun.
NM: Were you the Emperor?
SE: No! No! I ran the game, Dancer was the NPC (Non-Player Character) and Cam, Ian Esslemont, was Kellanved. And so the entire Malazan Empire was all part of the campaign: the rise of the empire. And that became kind of the back story to the novels that we did not initially write about (Cam is writing about it now). But it was the backstory – that is sort of what it did, entirely by accident, was the characters who stepped into the story in Gardens of the Moon were well established to experienced veteran people. And so, there was no character that we could use as a vehicle to explain the world, because they already knew it, they lived it. And so, this is why there are no info dumps at all anywhere in there. We have no sort of farm boy who then gets educated in the world by a wise wizard or anything along those lines. You just had people who were living it. And if you live it, you do not explain it. You just live it.
NM: That is anthropology speaking, right? That is your background in anthropology, or…?
SE: In some respects, I suppose.
NM: Because I think it is a great idea.
SE: The other thing of course was that we wanted to create a world without sexism. So we asked ourselves: “Well how can you… what would happen if magic actually worked? And then what would happen if we define magic and the acquisition of magic as egalitarian as something that anyone can achieve with sufficient discipline and determination?” Once we thought, OK that is the premise of magic, then any gender based on hierarchy of power cannot survive. It would never rise in the first place. Because you could not make your claim to power exclusive of either gender or skin color or culture or anything. So that kind of changes how people interact with each other and it changes the roles of gender as well, because if a woman needs only produce one or two children and be very confident both will survive to adulthood, they do not have to be the medieval baby factories that they once were. You know, when they had to produce ten children in the hope that two survive. They could produce two children, or one, and then get on with their lives. And that opens up for them any opportunity they choose. So it is a very different world. But having decided this, we faced the same problem. We were not going to have some farm boy come into the world and have a wizard explain to him that men and women are equal, right? We could not signpost any of this. So it is there, but it is not explicit, it is implicit. And many readers never caught it. They never noticed. They never noticed that it was a world without sexism. They never noticed that it was a world where pink skinned people are the minority, which is our world as well. But you know, that’s how it goes.
MD: But maybe they interpret this as a feminist discourse with Laseen as the Empress for instance.
SE: Sure. Yeah. I mean at some point the most powerful people in the Malazan world are all women. And it was almost accidental that it came up that way. So, you know, that is great.
MD: But there are also a few men who are very powerful. I think about Quick Ben or Tayschrenn.
SE: There are female souls within Quick Ben. He is not just a man. He’s got ten souls and about five of them are from women. Yeah, interesting character.
MD: It is a character without sexism.
SE: Yeah. Well, it is a world without sexism.
NM: But it is still a world with social hierarchies, right?
SE: Yes absolutely.
NM: Obviously there is a link between magic and social hierarchies. How did you… How did you… say “let’s drop the racism, let’s drop the sexism but let’s still have some kind of…”
SE: Sure, because there will always be human ambition. There will always be individuals who determine their self-worth on the basis of how many people they can suppress or oppress. And of course, they become sort of the enemies of or… Not of the bad guys because I feel great pity for that kind of self-determination or self-esteem issues. The fact is that it is all comparative. I would love a world where everybody has the same size house or the same expensive cars. But, you know, people are like that and they determine their self-worth on the basis of comparison. And then you have other people who are obsessed with control. They need to control the environment. And I suspect it becomes almost neurotic it becomes obsessive-compulsive, so that if you could control your environment in your house with your family as a tyrant, it does not feel enough. You have to control the neighborhood. Then you have to control, you know, the country and you have to control as much as you possibly can because everything out there beyond your control is a potential threat. And so there is plenty of opportunity, I think, for ambition and the imposition of tyranny regardless. Of course, the risk is on the religious side. You cannot have a high priest decide: “My God has spoken to me and wants all you women to wear nothing but, you know, clothing covering all of your facial features” and all the rest. Because in that world, in this world, in the Malazan world, the gods are real and a god may say: “Hang on a minute that’s not what I wanted!” Right. And suddenly the moral authority of that high priest is gone. And so quite often when we look at religious structures in this world we are looking at secular structures of power. But if the gods actually exist, those secular structures of power are subject to the desires of that god. And that makes it a whole different relationship. And quite often a lot of fantasy these days is written by someone who brings a modern atheistic sensibility into religion and they view religion exclusively as a social structure of control and wealth acquisition and… I mean salvation is probably the least of interest to them in terms of “how religions operate within a civilization or within a culture”. And I think that is a mistake. I think early religions were very different from the religions we view right now. And I think their role in society was far more profound than it is now. If that makes sense.
SE: You are thinking on that one.
MD: Yes, I am thinking. Because at the end it depends on the cultural frame we are in. Do you think each culture has its own autonomy?
SE: All cultures are in state of transition at all times and there will always be individuals within that culture who resist that transition – usually the elder generation, you know, speaking out of nostalgia, how things used to be. But at the same time all cultures appropriate from other cultures, they take what they want. They redefine it if they need to. They incorporate it into their own mythology, their own worldview. And that is an ongoing process as well. So I have never viewed culture as being static at any time whereas many fantasy novels are quite static. You begin the novel with, I don’t know, medieval style culture with serfs and knights and nobility and all the rest…and the dark lord arrives and then the heroes kill the dark lord and then you go back to the medieval stuff and nothing has changed! Right? So, it is static. Cam and I, as anthropologists, we know there is no such thing as a static culture – instead of culture it is an extinct culture. It is not real. And you can even see it in the, you know, artefactual remains of cultures which are no longer with us. Even those cultures you can track the transition and changes running through them just from the artefactual heritage. So autonomy is a dubious thing to defend. Put it that way.
MD: Speaking of this I have another question: what is your opinion on Tolkien and his world?
SE: This is going to be a short answer here because I did not grow up reading Tolkien. There are two general parts to epic fantasy or high fantasy. One is the high fantasy of Tolkien and the other is what you could call the low fantasy: Sword and Sorcery. So the early books of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and these writers were kind of tricky fantasy, but from the ground they levelled up and that is the part I took away in terms of my reading. When I was growing up I basically went from Edgar Rice Burroughs, which are romantic fantasies, to Robert E. Howard and writers such as Fitz Leiber, Clark Ashton Smith, a little bit of Lovecraft – but I was not really thrilled with Lovecraft – and Karl Edward Wagner. These writers who had a very different sort of sensibility of what fantasy was. I really cannot say much regarding Lord of the Rings, although I have been quoted many times with shock by others as saying Frodo needed to have died. He needed to die for fictional reasons for fictive dramatic reasons.
It becomes a cheat to have all of Frodo’s companions grieving and weeping for his apparent death when he did not die. To me it is much more valid if they are grieving because he did die because he made the sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice to save everyone else. That is just my opinion.
MD: Yes, I agree with you.
NM: I have a similar view. I think Gandalf should have died personally.
SE: Yep. But there comes a point, I think, when authors are at risk of loving their art, their characters too much. And so they surrender the dramatic necessities in order to, you know, hug them. Embrace them. Keep them breathing.
MD: You try to avoid having only one hero in your novels.
SE: Yes. Heroes or heroism. It is something that is actually another subtheme of what I was writing. The question I asked was: “Can a person do something heroic? Can it even be called heroic if it is unwitnessed?” Because my sensibility regarding that is that: “There are acts of heroism every single day that nobody notices.” And yet that does not make them any less heroic. For some people getting up in the morning and not slitting their wrists is an act of heroism. But nobody sees, that nobody knows that, and yeah it can take all the same fortitude, will, discipline, as any other kind of active, you know, fairly obvious heroism for somebody to get up in the morning and get dressed and go to work. And so in the series you get acts of heroism of all kinds. So, all scales, all levels, but some of the ones I love the best are the smallest of them all.
NM: Another subtheme I feel is power.
SE: Power, yeah,
NM: And I guess that is something I would like to hear you talk about. And the link between power and magic I guess because all the magic, the big magic wielders are very high up in the hierarchy, they are either empire builders or gods, whatever. And again, I go back to the question about sexism. You said that there is hierarchy, people have this thing, so how did you decide that: “Well magic is going to be the key.” Maybe I am overinterpreting but I get the feeling that… the day Wu, who wants to become emperor, decides this, he has to go through magic. Right? So more than the question of “what is the nature of magic”, it is rather, how did you get to the point where you thought: “OK, I have to build a magic that will make it somewhat logical that these people end up on the top”?
SE: I don’t even know if they end up on top. They end up increasingly exposed by moving through and becoming higher beings if you want.
The more powerful they are, the more in danger they become. It’s kind of magic as a metaphor of any kind of acquisition of power, which is “the more powerful you are the more vulnerable you get.” And we try to manifest that in the series by something called “the Convergence”. So if you expose your power, if you show it, if you exercise it, you draw other powers. And that is when things can get scary for everyone and it is not all that different from the natural historical incidences of escalation between two nations, that each one keeps upping the stakes. The next thing you know you’ve got the First World War right? It is just like that. And this is the same kind of thing with magic. So it is a standard for the same notion that power is not only dangerous for everyone else, it is dangerous for the one who wields it as well. Is that making sense?
NM: Yeah I guess.
MD: So, if I understood correctly, wizards are dangerous for themselves?
SE: Sure. The other risk to the acquisition of power, which we, sort of, explored kind of tangentially, is that there is an inherent chaos to power. And so the more you reach for it, the more you pull it in, the greater the risk for your own soul. And so in that sense magic is again power personified – you can lose your soul to magic or to power, and power corrupts absolutely. So, I mean that’s a fairly old cliché notion, but the challenge to a fantasy writer is to take those old ideas and twist them and make them feel new again in some fashion.
MD: But the powerful ones do not die.
NM: Some of the powerful ones do not seem to die. Some of them seem to be so powerful that nothing can really hurt them, like Mael seems to be one of the characters you really… it’s not going to be easy to do anything better.
SE: No. So, he is just tolerated. But if you look at the angle that Kellanved took to become Shadowthrone is that the more powerful he got, the less substantial he was.
MD: He destroys himself. And he becomes uncontrollable.
MD: But what would be the role of Dancer regarding this?
SE: Dancer, because Kellanved or Shadowthrone becomes more and more insubstantial and indistinct, Dancer has to go in the opposite direction and become more human. To hold, to keep the linkage, so that Shadowthrone does not completely lose its connection with humanity, he needs Dancer, and for Dancer…to try to balance the journey that Shadowthrone is taking Dancer has to step down from Ascendency to take a more human approach. So they balance each other that way.
MD: They are like a couple.
SE: They are very much like a couple. You will find a lot of pairing up and you will find a lot of complementary style characters. In that respect, and in a lot of ways, that echoes the longstanding friendship I have with Ian Esslemont. Many of those characters were characters we played.
NM: So Fiddler and Hedge make sense.
SE: We had entire sections of, you know, three hours at night when the game session was nothing but a conversation between a few characters. No dice roll, no monsters, no journey, nothing – just a conversation.
NM: And just the two of you?
SE: Quite often yeah. Very unusual.
NM: So how is it that Fiddler does not get on with Hedge anymore when he comes back? That is kind of harsh!
SE: It is kind of harsh. Well Fiddler grieved through to the core of his soul. So it would almost devalue that grieving. But, as you know if you have read the entire series, they are reconciled at the end. But I needed that to be a struggle. And of course Fiddler is not every man. Right?
NM: Well… well…
SE: Yeah, he’s got some divination abilities.
NM: And he has got some leadership qualities not everybody else seems to have.
SE: Sure, but it is not like he went out looking for it.
NM: Fair enough.
SE: It was a natural leadership. That actually embodied the ethos of the original Malazan armies, when Kellanved was still Emperor. That is the ethos of leadership for instance.
NM: Why do you use the word “Marine” ? Is this a reference to the U.S. Army?
SE: OK. Oh a great inspiration for that came from two things: Glenn Cook, Black Company. Glenn Cook is a Vietnam War veteran and he brought that kind of sensibility into fantasy in a very very unusual ingenious way. Way ahead of his time with Black Company. The other angle was… I was doing a lot of research on Vietnam War literature and one of my favourite books of all time was The Short-timers, which is by Gustav Hasford, also a Vietnam War veteran. His work was turned into Full Metal Jacket by Cooper – although Kubrick missed some of the best parts. I was really frustrated with it. Gustav Hasford’s short little novel called The Short-timers was a profound influence on the Malazan stuff. So the idea of Marines is actually closer to the idea of a Roman legionnaire. They have engineering skills and sapping skills, they can build a road, right? They can build a fort. They are just sort of one man construction machines.
And we liked that idea also because the Malazan Empire began as a thalassocracy: a ship born empire. We wanted Marines, shock troops, to land. Make their landings and you know fight their way up on the beachhead. And that was something we did not see very often in fantasy. Right. Even if you think of, say, Tacitus or whatever and Caesar’s first visit to Great Britain. The landing was actually uncontested. You know, the whole idea was the Legion formed up and then you fought with the Celts, right? And I have always thought: “Well if those Celts had any brains at all, they would have contested that landing.” Same thing for the Norman invasion, William of Normandy, if he had not gotten his horses onto shore, it would have been a whole different story. So we kind of wanted that modernized element to sort of infuse the cliché ideas of fantasy and history, that if you have a highly mobile force it could be far more effective than the standard warfare of the Roman Empire and before that even, and after that, for that matter. They were just fine. Sappers are good.
NM: Sappers are definitely fine.
SE: Yeah. And that was the thing we needed again: culture in transition. Warfare is in… was in the midst of profound change at the beginning of Gardens of the Moon because Moranth munitions were arriving in large numbers. And we wanted Moranth munitions to be a mundane counterbalance to magic.
NM: Works very well.
SE: Yeah. And so everything changes with that. You can see that the apotheosis for that is in Cam’s book Orber Sceptre Throne. Where the Seguleh are, I don’t know if you’ve read it. The Seguleh…
NM: They get destroyed by the…
SE: Wiped out, for all those skills and all those abilities are really pointless, are really meaningless. That is a profound statement in fantasy I think because we tend to see magic doing that. And I think for Glenn Cook, his magic was really no different from Napalm and Agent Orange. Everything that was being dropped on Cambodia and Vietnam from the skies is his magic. And so that is what soldiers do. They keep their heads down. I like that, it is cool.
NM: Yours is a little bit less. Yours is more epic fantasy with the big waves coming in.
SE: Yeah that was a challenge: “OK well how do you visualize this stuff and how do you come up with something new ?” You know, I didn’t want lightning bolts and fireballs. And I thought Glenn Cook took it even further than I’d like; you know with his glowing bubbles coming over the wall and then landing and just causing grief. You know, the fact that he actually pulled that off I thought was really impressive. So I thought: “OK let’s make a wave.”
NM: But I think, if… I am not sure I remember the passage correctly. It is at the beginning of the Chain of Dogs, I think the Malazan hear explosions and I think you have a line something like: “Oh Kamist Reloe has started fighting” something like that. That was, I thought, that was the strongest way to use magic.
SE: But then you saw the horrors of it in Midnight Tides. Right? That was awful, awful stripping bodies that just stood there.
MD: But how would you define magic in the Malazan Book?
SE: I do not. No, it is funny because, you know, people like Brandon Sanderson will detail and basically turn their magic into a technology, you’ll have everything sort of worked out. Cause and effect and all the rest. To me that defeats the purpose of magic: magic is a metaphor for wonder. And so if you can explain it, you have taken the wonder away. And so it needed to stay mysterious. I know everybody asks, and have been asking for decades basically, you know, how to explain the magic system? My response is: “No. No. It’s about wonder.” We know how it works. So we have our own rules but we are not going to spell them out because that’s not the purpose of magic in fantasy, at least in our fantasies. It is not a stand-in for technology. It is something very different.
MD: But in your opinion are there different types of wonder?
SE: Well sure. There is fear-based wonder. There are all kinds of wonder. But the point is: it’s a celebration of that which we cannot know. Which is counter to our mechanistic vision of the universe. And I kind of like that. It seems I had already come to that conclusion even before my Kundalini awakening. Which is pretty cool.
MD: But I have a question about Otataral. Why did you create a means to block or to cancel magic?
SE: It was just another sort of counterbalance, to balance out magic. And Otataral was something I think we came up within the games as the very opposite of your +1 swords and all the rest. With this one thing you could just shut it down. But of course the secret was, if you heat it up enough, it becomes a conduit to magic. So it actually flips. I am sure one could create a whole sort of argument on the basis of quantum physics in particle VS wave, you could probably do it, but you supercharge it and suddenly it’s a focal point for magic. It is a lens.
MD: So everything is about keeping balance, you know, with Kellanved and Dancer?
SE: Yeah. Well let’s face it. Balance is sort of… I put it this way: imbalance usually means extinction eventually. Imbalance is that. And whether it’s an economic system, whether it is resource extraction system, whether it is income disparity.
So, almost anything you can think of, when imbalance reaches a certain point, as any historian will tell you or archaeologists will tell you, you know, it all comes down. It all comes down. I was standing on the pyramid Tikal in Guatemala in 1983. And looking out and imagining what it would have been like if I was the high priest in 80-70 AD. I would have seen nothing but farmland up to the horizons. In every direction. And I probably would have thought this is going to last forever. And there I was standing on the top of this ruined pyramid in Guatemala seeing nothing but jungle. It’s gone, all gone. Just like that.
NM: Do you have children?
SE: I have one child, 26.
NM: How much have your experiences as a father informed Toll the Hounds?
SE: Toll the Hounds? It is about children, is it not?
NM: I read the book, I had small children at that time, I was like, this is a hard book.
SE: It is a hard book. It’s funny because it did not, I do not think it started out that way. I do not think I intended it that way. What I was dealing with on a personal level was my father dying of cancer. At that time I was struggling with the notions of grief. And…. But I guess I probably would have given thought to this, that when my father died, my brother and I would be that last generation still living. And that is a profound shift for any child to no longer have sort of that elder layer of humanity above you, in experience. So then I suspect that maybe I started thinking in terms of the relationship, what it is to be a child. And the choices that are forced upon children, or not, you know, not choices, but the tasks that are forced upon children. I don’t know, it just, it became that story. Maybe it was because I was writing from Kruppe’s point of view. There is something inherently optimistic in Kruppe and I love it.
NM: You pronounce it “Krupp”?
SE: Yes. Something very loving in Kruppe and that is the love of life right? And so if he is going to be, which I end up having to do, writing about and talking about grief, I needed to counterbalance it. So I think that is where Harllo in that story comes from. It is an answer to the grief … It is a promise of a future.
MD: But considering the counterbalance, I was thinking about Whiskeyjack and his fate. Why did you choose to kill him? Because after that Tayschrenn takes the power and the leadership among the Bridgeburners, and it is not Quick Ben. Why?
SE: It’s hard to explain. I mean the thing with Whiskeyjack is, I guess you could answer from the opposite end. This is full of spoilers obviously.
MD: It is not a big deal.
SE: But what better Guard of Death than Whiskeyjack, right? Who else would you rather have? A profoundly compassionate man who is, you know, who gave his life in defence of someone else’s. Wow! I mean that is it. And a man of integrity. That seems pretty good.
MD: But without magic powers.
SE: Yeah fuck magic powers.
NM: Ok, I need a spoiler: Who is the Ruthan Gudd?
SE: … You will not get that one. No, not at all. He is a fun character, though, isn’t he?
NM: He is an amazing character and he is very human.
NM: I have been looking very carefully at the new Karkhanas trilogy.
SE: Oh, well, when I get to Walk in Shadow you’ll find out who Ruthan Gudd is. Yeah, he comes from that realm. That is probably a big big giveaway right there, but that doesn’t matter.
MD: And I have a question about myth: What is your opinion concerning myths and their links with the rise and fall of a civilization? Or how do you define myth?
SE: Well, mythology is an ongoing process. People think mythology is, you know, the old books but it is not the case: it is the means by which civilization and culture legitimizes itself. And so if you were to think of the United States, it has a myth of the opening of the West. It has the myth of manifest destiny. It has a myth which was embodied by the Western as a genre in film and television. Especially film. And all of those stories were all about a kind of perpetual tension between individualism and authority. And those continue to this day, although they have evolved somewhat. Quite often the mythology that we are seeing now, we’re actually seeing it expressed in superhero films. It is a very different ethos going on there than, say, in the classic Westerns. And I find it quite fascinating. I really do. The mythology is, it is that ongoing self-definition of culture.
NM: Malazan Book, is it myth?
SE: Sure yeah. Absolutely. Not only that, it is metafictional. The eighth book (Toll the Hounds) it’s a cipher for the whole series. Because in the eighth book it is made very overt that Kruppe is telling you a story that has elements of which he cannot know. And yet he tells it to you anyway. And that is, for me, kind of linking the role of the narrator into the fiction. And so what it actually reflects on, the entire ten book series, is me, as a narrator, choosing the details that I selected for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional response in the reader. So it is manipulative, but all fiction is.
And trying to convey through Kruppe in the eighth book that, yes, I knew exactly what I was doing.
MD: And what about post-modernism and post-structuralism in the Malazan Book? I read that you qualified your series as…
SE: And one of my best friends who is a narratologist, he defines it as post-structuralist…
SE: … And we argue about it all the time.
MD: And could you explain what do you mean by that?
SE: Well I mean it refers to basically what I just talked about, what is the role of the narrator? As a kind of. Oh. Well. I find it overt, but it is not overt to the reader, but in the selection of details to construct a plot and the point of view, the choice of a point of view. The author is quite deliberately skewing whatever reality they presumed to have created. And so you then have to ask: “What is the purpose behind that skewing, that reality?” And for me, again, each time it was to elicit a particular emotional response in the reader, in the hope that you would have that response. And that makes it ultimately, all of it, self-conscious writing. In a sense you almost cannot have unconscious writing. Although you could, if I was doing stream of consciousness writing. Yeah, that’s not what these novels are.
MD: Ok, that is interesting, thank you. And just to come back to myth, what would be the main use of political power?
SE: Well, political power is basically the extension of relationship dynamics beyond the family. Does that make sense?
MD: Yes, it does.
SE: Whatever is expressed within the family structure then becomes exaggerated or elaborated on in larger structures, or just social structures. And you can dress it all up with all kinds of complexity but ultimately it is all about who is in charge. And the constant battle generationally could be gender, could be on the basis of worldviews, you name it. But that battle is a constant one. And there seems to be forces in politics that are cyclical as well. I think we are sort of living through that right now.
NM: So there is not much place for democracy in the Malazan Book?
SE: Mmmh… democracy…
NM: I mean magic is a problem for democracy because all of a sudden you have got people who are more than human.
SE: But at the same time it is potentially the ultimate democracy, if everybody acquires magic.
NM: But that is not the case.
SE: It is not the case because people are lazy. It is the only reason. And that seems realistic enough.
NM: It certainly does…
SE: Yeah….people are lazy.
MD: And about this political power, why did you choose to use religion represented by gods, priests, rituals, and so on… Why did you choose that?
SE: Well I wanted to explore the notion of religion from an efficacious point of view. In other words: one that is … has the potential of not just being a one-sided conversation between mortals and a silent immortal. I like the notion of… I mean if you think about it, some of the early tribal cultures that employ shamanism, people think of shamans now as intercessionaries between everyone else and the spirit world. But what is often forgotten is that the role of shamans within the community was one of absolute unequivocal trust. And that in itself was a gift. And that I think even anthropologists quite often sort of do not grasp that their role was far more than just taking on the role of contacting the spirits and finding out what they wanted out of people or in banishing spirits for illness and all the rest – there is a lot more involved. And yet you would never find any of these cultures in which the shaman was the chief. So there is a separation between the political organization and the spiritual. And what happens if all kinds of people can intercede and take on that role? It changes how cultures exist.
MD: But for you the political and spiritual organizations are separate?
SE: Well yeah. It is quite often separate. But of course, if you follow the journey of Kellanved the Emperor and Dancer they become synonymous. They become the same. They merge, and that is one of the central storylines in the series. It is as if through ascendancy, achieving godhood at least, for these two characters, you had enlightenment that came with it. And that’s a whole different kind of approach. So yeah there are a lot of things to explore!
MD: Ah Yes! You created an amazing work! Really, really.
SE: Thank you.
NM: It is one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read.
SE: Thank you. You know this could be the longest live interview I have ever given. I do not often get opportunities to talk on that level, over the subtext of the series. I really appreciate the questions you ask. You are good.
MD: Thank you! And just another question: what is a good ending for you?
SE: Hum. I want the reader to come out of a story having experienced whether they like it or not, a sense of catharsis. So I am very Aristotelian in my approach, which is why there are so many tragic elements in these stories. And people often ask, you know, well “I cried at the scene”, “I cried at that scene”, and then they ask me: “Well, did you?” And I say: “Well there is no way I can hope or even expect at any point to achieve that level of emotional response in the reader if I have not gone there first”. So I have to take that journey before they do. Yeah, otherwise it is melodrama.
MD: You do not like melodrama.
SE: No, of course not. It is unearned emotion. This has to be earned. That is why I take my time. That is why sometimes novels feel slow because I am really taking my time and the weird thing is, if I hadn’t done that, if I did not take my time, I do not think the emotional impact would be as big as it was for those particular scenes. You know, you’re thinking of Beak, for example, Trull Sengar or even Whiskeyjack for that matter …all that foreshadowing.
NM: I thought of the scenes with the children in the Glass Desert.
SE: Yeah. No kidding! Yeah. I mean that was one of the longest setups I have ever done and that was one where I had those final scenes and some final lines relating to… What… is it Held? Held in place with the toys? Anyway, one of them, you know, that whole revelation. When Tavore becomes the mother and the little boy has got his collection of things and has identified finally as to what they are, that the child has forgotten. Yeah, I had that right at the beginning, and it was a question that I have to hold off, I have to hold off, we have to hold off …
NM: So at the beginning of book nine, you already…
SE: Yeah! Yeah I had those final scenes. And I had, you know, Tavore’s line regarding her comment on having been led up to that point. All those things were there. And so then it’s a question of, I don’t know if you have ever done any horse riding?
NM: Yeah, she has.
SE: Well, you know, you keep your horse collected, right? You know, that’s the term used in England. Anyway, you keep the reins tight, you know, head’s down: it’s collected. So all our energy is bridled but we cannot let it go, right?
MD: You have to be so strong to not let it go.
SE: To be strong to do it. Yeah. And that is the same with this. Because those final scenes I have to stay collected until I get there. That is one of the hardest things about words. I had scenes at the end of Crippled God that were in my head for 10 years. And I just had to stay collected. You know, that was not easy.
MD: I think so.
SE: I had Tavore’s voiceless cry. All that. All through. Throughout 10 books. I knew it was coming.
NM: Even at the beginning of Gardens of the Moon?
SE: She had to just stay massively contained. I was not going to let any light leak through until I got to her statements and some of her gestures in the end of Cripple God. Comment on her hair. Again the smallest gesture is… can have the greatest effect. And then her speech to the regular forces. Her address to the army.
NM: The one about “being unwitnessed”?
SE: Yes. Which again is metafictional right? In a sense because I could easily have chosen those characters, as she’s named at that moment, could have been Bottle and Tarr and all the other characters, right?
SE: I had to just say: “It is who you choose? ” It only could have been their story. And it would have been, I think, just as interesting, just as good, just as fascinating. But the author, the narrator chooses. So I sort of cracked the window open at that point and used Tavore to do it. Basically speaking, I could have gone that way, I could have taken it this way. But I did not do so.
NM: I got the feeling when I finished House of Chains that the series could have stopped there. I mean when you realize that the goddess of the Apocalypse is actually the T’lan Imass and a lot of strings are tied there. So was there a point for you where you thought this maybe could have… no?
SE: No. Because I knew Midnight Tides was jumping into another continent to pick up the last third of the narrator and so, no, it was just… that was a good place to basically undercut all the expectations of readers. Because, you know, the whole final fight scene is nothing like you would expect, because Deadhouse Gates ramps it up, at the end of Deadhouse Gates. Memories of Ice ramps it up even higher and so the question is: “Well how do you go any higher than that?” And you do not! Actually you go the opposite way.
NM: Did you get fans’ reactions from the first book of House of Chains?
SE: Oh yeah! In fact it was written in response to fans’ commentaries saying I could not keep a single point of view, that I did not know how to stay with one character for any length of time. I thought: “Well, fuck you. Of course. Of course I can do that!” So I did, and so the first section of House of Chains is a very tight, very tight point of view of Karsa.
MD: I enjoyed a lot this part, ah yes! With Karsa!
SE: And that’s a very collective narrative that one, it is very tight.
NM: And works beautifully with the Deadhouse and Chains, where all of a sudden you are like: “Oh, this is the guy”.
SE: Yeah, there he is. Just wrap him around, right? And of course that foreshadows what happens in the three books because Memories of Ice does that wrap around. So I am kind of repeating that into the fourth book, I have often described my writing as elliptical as this goes through.
NM: With bigger and bigger loops.
SE: Yeah. Well it’s fractal. Let’s put it put that way. There is a small loop for each section and then larger loops for the chapters, and then for books one two three and four within a novel, and then the novel, and then the ten books series and, you will see, I mean having read the series you know that I reversed the pattern of Gardens of the Moon to leave the series scene by scene, right? I completely reversed. And that’s how it completed those loops.
SE: You have to go back, look at it and you will see what I mean.
MD: Not yet for me because I am at Midnight Tides.
SE: Holy crap! I have been spoiling it for you all over the place.
MD: It is not a problem. I discovered this series last year.
NM: So, what are you reading right now?
SE: I tend… I do not read fantasy at all. I have been reading a lot on metaphysics, a lot on cosmology, tons of… I had to, I had no choice because I had to absolutely revamp my worldview. I have to leave the mechanistic universe behind. But I read science fiction.
MD: You are a fan of Star Trek, right?
SE: Huge fan of Star Trek! The original series. It’s what I grew up with, yeah.
NM: So no Star Wars?
SE: No, no Star Wars. I have written essays on Star Trek and I think there is a slow decline of the original ethos of the series through every single series that has been since then. Star Trek began with the promise of optimism for the future. By the time we got to Deep Space Nine the future was as miserable as it is now. That was a great loss. I am not sure if the new series is going to address that or not. I haven’t decided yet.
NM: Funny coming from you, as in your writing you do not come out as a particularly optimistic writer.
SE: You don’t think?
NM: Yeah, I mean, yes because of the compassion… Shit happens to a lot of characters.
SE: Sure. But they picked themselves up.
NM: But how much does Fiddler pick himself up? Because the very last scene with him? It was very bittersweet I thought.
SE: You thought it was bittersweet?
NM: Yeah because it feels like he has nothing. He has gained… I mean obviously he changed but he has gained not very much.
SE: I don’t think it matters to him.
SE: That is why he is sitting where he is. It does not matter. And I prefer that. This is the best ending I could come up with for him.
NM: I mean I am very happy with that ending, but it does not strike me as very optimistic.
SE: Do not forget, you know, I am coming to the end at that point, when I am writing something I invested, well…. eleven years of consistent and constant writing, and before that at least another 10 years of wanting to write it, because it took 8 years to find a publisher for Gardens of the Moon.
NM: But you already had Gardens of the Moon at that point, right? It was written already.
SE: A version of it. I revised it after 8 years and before it came out. And then before that, well another ten years of gaming. So coming to the end of a series that had consumed me for most of my adult life. Is it bittersweet? I suspected it is. You know, it was great sadness but also a sense of… well exhaustion as well! But the sense that I set out to do something and had completed it to the best of my abilities. And that was going to be good enough. So I felt at the end of that series that if I had stepped outside and got run over by a bus right there, it would be fine. I did what I set out to do.
NM: Must have been…. you said 3 million words?
SE: Yeah, 10,000 plus pages. That is not including Cam’s stuff. There are about 26 books now in the Malazan world including the novellas.
NM: I know he has five with the Crimson Guard, he’s got…
NM: Dancer’s Lament I have read.
SE: Deadhouse Landing is out. He has finished the third one as well.
NM: Ah, good.
SE: Yeah. I have done six of the novellas, Buchelain and Korbal Boach. I have got three more to go. I have got four more to go… three more to go. And I have done two of the Kharkanas trilogy, so yeah, it is a lot.
MD: That is impressive. But just a question about your writing: Why did you choose to write fantasy?
SE: I was a reader of fantasy. I loved fantasy. I was frustrated by fantasy, and fantasy is the only genre where you can take a metaphor and make it real and I wanted to do that. So some of my early writings, say Iowa Writer’s Workshop, there were magic realists, which is just fantasy for intellectuals or something. According to them, anyways. For me they were tall tales. That’s all, I was writing tall tales, that seemed to be legitimate as literature. Generic fantasy in a sense of genre fantasy would never pass, especially in Iowa. Yeah, no chance. I mean Joe Haulderman had a struggle just getting into science fiction through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. That was earlier.
MD: Ok. And the last one is about Tayschrenn. Do you think he plays a central role in the Malazan Empire?
SE: More in the gaming than actually in the books. Cam did a lot more with Tayschrenn than I did. In fact, I think that I only have him show up a couple of times.
NM: And that can be a base for the following question: How is it possible that Laseen can survive as the Empress so long? Because she does not seem very powerful.
SE: Well, she is smart. I mean… yeah being smart is the greatest weapon we can have.
NM: But she makes a number of questionable choices, I mean the cull –
SE: Like every one of us!
NM: Fair enough.
SE: We all do.
NM: But the cull at the beginning of book two is eventually going to precipitate her end, so…
SE: Yeah, it does.
NM: Are you seriously saying something about what it is to make political decisions?
SE: Sometimes all your choices are bad ones.
MD: Because they are humans.
NM: Well, anyway thank you both for the interview and for writing the books.
SE: You are welcome, this has been fun. Good fun.
MD: Yes, really thank you.