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Bridlinton Today Q and A

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Source: http://www.bridlingtontoday.co.uk/ViewArticle.aspx?SectionID=2098&articleid=2706341

 

An interview with Steven Erikson

 

BEST-SELLING fantasy fiction author Steven Erikson talks to www.bridlingtonfreepress.co.uk about his epic The Malazan Book Of The Fallen series and his new novel Reaper's Gale, which will be released in hardback (£20) by Bantam Press on 7 May ...

 

You seem to be very prolific in terms of how many books you have had published already in this series. Can you give me an idea of your daily/nightly routine when you're writing? Do you have a pages-per-day target? Do you let the writing flow and then go back and tinker or do you spend lots of time in meticulous plotting and planning?

My routine is pretty straightforward. I write four hours a day (sometimes slightly more, sometimes slightly less), in the afternoon in a local coffee bar where I can plug in my laptop (which is getting harder to do with all the students and wireless services virtually everywhere -- it's extraordinary how many laptops show up with four out of five users spending hours seemingly organising their photo albums, or playing online poker).

 

I have no set number of pages to write each day -- the time matters more than page count. I begin by re-reading and editing what I wrote the day before, then checking my notes on what needs to come next, and then on go the headphones and the writing begins.

 

I used to drink countless coffees but now I settle for one, sometimes two lattes.

 

Most of the plotting and planning occurs before the novel is begun -- some of it is in fact years old by that point -- although I always leave room for subplotting which I build as I go.

 

A big part of the appeal of fantasy is the escapism of new worlds, creatures and races? Do you enjoy the world-building process as much as, more or less than the actual writing? What elements of the world-building do you particularly enjoy? The history, the cultures, the maps?

 

World-building is always interesting from an anthropological perspective; the way it relates to the actual writing (for me, anyway) is in providing details for setting, atmosphere and so on, and as the cultural framework for the events being described.

 

It's also a way of infusing elements from our world into the story, although I try to be careful when doing that -- through a glass very darkly, in other words. What fascinates and drives me as a writer is predominantly the characters.

 

Fantasy fans like to speculate about characters and plot lines in their favourite books. Have you ever picked up any ideas from reading fans' forums or from the questions you have been asked?

 

That would be a dangerous habit, I think. What I do draw from the fan-based discussions is where I screwed up, especially when it comes to time-lines, certain details of character description and so on.

 

Sometimes those issues are important and need correcting; other times they aren't important -- I have never been obsessive about things like time-lines and sometimes that's burned me but that's okay.

 

My head's in the story first and foremost and I think if I paid too much attention to all those details I would lose momentum (and whatever balls are needed to keep doing this the way I have been to date).

 

If you could go back in time would you like to live in a particular period of history? If so, which would it be? What role in that society would you like to have and where would you like to live?

 

That is a tough question. Most times in human history have been sordid and without modern advantages such as effective medicine. Survival was a tougher prospect.

 

If I think of times in the past I end up thinking of what it would be like living in some of the more chaotics regions of our world right now, where life is cheap, childhood virtually non-existent (as we in the cozy First World see childhood), and violence is never far away (I recently read Ishmael Beah's autobiography of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, and this, after reading a number of books on the history of various war-torn regions of the world, stands out as a humbling reminder of just how fortunate some of us are, and how unusual are our positions of relative peace and safety. It is also a reminder to me of how tyranny is never far away and here we are, skirting its edge once again).

 

Having said that, there are times and places I would like to visit, coccooned like some invisible time-traveller, and where I'd start is about a million and a half years ago, in North Africa near Lake Turkana and in the region of Eastern Europe now known as Georgia.

 

I wouldn't mind looking in on the last neanderthals in Spain twenty-odd thousand years ago, too. Thereafter, maybe in the time of Gilgamesh in the mideast, and that of Greece and Anatolia in the bronze age -- always as an unseen observer, mind you, given just how nasty such times were for the majority of its human inhabitants.

 

If pressed, I might also choose somewhere in the southern US about a hundred years before the arrival of the first Europeans.

 

Bearing in mind the huge cast of characters and multiple story lines, is there any possibility of a synopsis of what's happened so far in the next book?

 

The only teasers I can provide are probably known to many readers. If by 'next book' you mean 'Toll the Hounds' (rather than Reaper's Gale), I can tell you that the two main settings are Darujhistan and Black Coral. Returning to Darujhistan after all these years has been a treat.

 

The fact that you kill off major characters adds weight to the series. Is it a wrench to do this after spending so much time building their personalities and stories? Which has been the most difficult character to kill?

 

If it is not a wrench killing a main character then I have really messed up.

 

It's one of the harder things to explain. There is a kind of imperative at work, a necessity that has been built over time in the narrative, which makes the death of the character in question inevitable and, more importantly, functional -- to achieve the full sense of tragedy that I am striving to reach.

 

Many readers have railed at the deaths of certain characters and I understand that and accept that, even when it makes me hated.

 

Occasionally at conventions and signings I have ventured the opinion that in Lord of the Rings Frodo should have died. He should have gone down into the magma with the ring. Only then would the notion of true sacrifice have any real meaning -- seen in the grief of his friends. Sam should have come down from the mountain alone.

 

My sense is that Tolkien bailed -- he loved his character so much that he couldn't bear to do what everything in the story was pointing towards.

 

Naturally, my opinions are met with stony silence, or outright shock. And I shrug and say: it has to do with fiction, you see ... and eventually I give up trying to explain.

Which ascendant and which mortal would you choose to have as shaved knuckles in the hole?

 

That is almost impossible to answer, but I'd probably choose Gothos for an ascendant and for the mortal it would have to be Kruppe.

 

Are any of your viewpoint characters particularly difficult to write or does it depend on the circumstances of their scenes?

 

Some viewpoint characters are not particularly nice or likeable. I have no trouble with those ones at all.

 

I work hard at stepping into the skin of every character I write, of seeing things from their eyes, feeling how they would feel. Even the completely helpless characters (like Udinaas and Seren Pedac) serve a purpose.

 

Curiously, those characters I felt I have been most successful with are the ones many readers despise. The Mhybe in Memories of Ice. Felisin in Deadhouse Gates. Seren Pedac. Karsa Orlong.

 

A subject that's been touched on in the fan-based site concerns the inspiration I may have had for certain characters.

 

Imagine my disbelief when someone asserted that the character of Icarium was based on the comic-book Hulk. Apparently, because both have green skin and a tendency towards rage. My jaw dropped. The things people believe!

 

I have never hesitated in giving the nod to the efforts of other writers living and dead who have inspired me ... but the Hulk!? I suppose it's a generational thing.

 

The Jaghut (whose blood Icarium shares) emerged from my love of the novels of E. R. Burroughs when I was very young, in this case his John Carter of Mars novels.

 

I suppose if, in addition to the green skin and tusks, I'd made Jaghut four-armed and egg-laying, this reader would point a finger and shout -- yeah! A four-armed egg-laying Hulk!

 

So I'll take this opportunity to respond to all those sniffing round for what inspired me.

 

The T'lan Imass did not derive from Donaldson's Bloodguard. While I loved the Covenant books, the T'lan Imass actually emerged from the very first fantasy novel I ever wrote, when I was about twenty, in the time when I was studying as an archaeologist and thinking often about those species of humans who didn't make it, like the neanderthals.

 

The T'lan Imass's vow of immortality was a way to tie in ice-ages as works of sorcery, an endless war, and the function of being able to move those undead armies around by unusual means (in our role-playing games). There, I suppose some of the mystery just washed off, huh?

 

Anomander Rake was a roleplayed character -- do I regret deciding that he had white hair? Do I ever. Rake is not Elric. I was not a reader of Moorcock and the only book I have of his is Mother London. Rake's sword was created by Ian Esslemont -- as for what inspired him, by all means ask him sometime.

 

Karsa Orlong is not Conan. He's the very opposite of Conan.

 

Glen Cook was a great inspiration -- for the tone I set out to find in the Malazan series; for the laconic feel of soldiers as characters; for the ambivalence of the world being portrayed.

 

I finally got a chance to meet Glen Cook last autumn, and I thanked him and did my best to convey my respect. In almost every way imaginable, he set the groundwork for this new kind of fantasy fiction, the kind without good vs evil, black vs white. Neorealist fantasy, to coin an oxymoron.

 

Who have been your major influences and whose writing and story-telling techniques would you say have most styled your work?

 

See above. A good many authors contributed to whatever voice and style with which I write, most of them (with the above exception) not fantasy writers.

 

But as with any writer who survives the growing pains, eventually a unique style is arrived at.

 

I am certainly not conscious any more of riffing off of someone else.

 

The voice pretty much feels like my own, although if I wanted to I could say: here, this is Mark Helprin; that is DeLillo; that there is Gardner. That's Homer; that's Shakespeare; and right there, that's Homer Simpson.

 

Is there any possibility of a TV series or movie adaption of the books?

 

There's been talk but nothing else. It'd be a massive undertaking, wouldn't it?

 

Have you ever found yourself working on and formulating an idea ... but then read it, or something very similar, in someone's else's book and thought "damn, they got there first!"?

 

Not yet, although that's happened with titles. About eight years ago I was having a conversation with my editor, telling him about a novel I had in mind that I wanted to call 'A Murder of Angels.' That title showed up about three years back. Sigh.

Have there been any story lines, scenes or viewpoint characters you have to had to give up on because they were not working as you would have liked?

 

The occasional tangent but my in-built s*** detector started pinging pretty quick, a paragraph or two, never more, so it caused no pain to highlight the block and press delete.

 

How do you keep track of all the story lines and characters? Do you have a fantastically-detailed and organised character/plot filing system, post-it notes all over your office or a 400GB brain? Has your mental capacity been used up by the series to the extent that everyday life becomes somewhat of a muddle?

 

My wife says my head gets smaller with every book I write. Pretty soon....

 

I make notes, I try to remember as much as possible, I write dialogue in my head virtually anywhere then scramble to find a piece of paper to write it down.

 

I mentally walk through final scenes in a novel, in the entire series, until they're imprinted there on the caffeine-wired hard-drive of my brain. And the only task left is to reach those scenes.

Who are your favourite characters. Have you got any favourite scenes?

 

Different characters serve different functions.

 

For humour (but even here there's different kinds of humour) there is Tehol and Bugg, Ublala Pung, Iskaral Pust and Mogora, Kruppe, various soldiers like Sergeant Hellian, Captain Kindly and Lieutenant Pores, Balm, etc.

 

For humanity there's Udinaas, Seren Pedac, Scillara, Samar Dev, Trull Sengar and Onrack, Barathol and Chaur.

 

Generally, whomever I'm writing about at the time is my favourite character, and the same for scenes. It's a conceit but a necessary one.

 

Can you give me a teaser of new places we may be visiting in Reaper's Gale and new characters we may be meeting? Any other teasers you would like to share ...?

 

Reaper's Gale is pretty much centred on the empire first visited in Midnight Tides, the fifth novel. It also draws in some of the broader story arcs, since we are nearing the end of the series and much of what I am doing right now is setting up the final two novels.

 

There are plenty of familiar characters and a few new ones that are sure to enrage and/or entertain the reader. I tend to be rather cagey with teasers, I'm afraid.

There is a lot of darkness, grittiness and moody philosophy in the books but also a great deal of humour. Do you find

writing scenes involving characters such as Iskaral Pust, Kruppe, Sergeant Hellian and the inter-action between Tehol

Beddict and his manservant Bugg lots of fun?

 

Each of the characters you mention deliver amusement in diffrent ways, and I obviously find the need to express those in the midst of all the heavy, tragic, dark stuff. Kruppe plays linguistic games with a tendency towards sly and often atrocious puns.

 

Iskaral Pust makes no distinction between words he thinks and words he says aloud and that's always fun since it shows how discordant the private and public faces of a character (suggesting, I hope, to the reader not to take anyone else at face value).

 

Hellian plays more of the classic comedic role, as do many of the soldiers. Do I enjoy writing such characters? Oh yes.

 

What are the main themes of the series and why do they particularly interest you?

 

I try to tackle specific themes in each novel, to give each work a distinctive tone and flavour -- it's not enough to hammer away on a single theme (like 'war is a terrible thing and here's why') over and over again.

 

Throughout all of the novels, however, I try to explore the dichotomy between the individual and the forces of nature (including vast sweeps of history, civilization, and the human abuse of power).

 

In a general sense, I'm writing tragedies, and this imposes another kind of pressure: namely, balancing the tragic events with gestures of humanity.

 

If I was to tell you that Memories of Ice was a novel about motherhood, would you believe me? Most of my themes are buried deep and should probably stay that way.

 

The setting of the series is unusual in that it is not a typical pseudo-Medieval Europe fantasy series and the roles of women are also unusual (although not portrayed as unusual in the books) - for example female soldiers. Have you had

lots of positive feedback from female readers on that?

 

If there are readers out there like me then the mere shift away from the quasi-medieval setting should have brought sincere sighs of relief. I certainly hope so, because I was adamant from the very first to avoid that particular fantasy trope.

 

As for the egalitarian approach regarding gender, well, that sort've followed naturally from thinking about a magical system based on merit and without prohibitions; and a society where a woman need not produce fifteen children to see one or two reach adulthood.

 

Since power was therefore accessible to all, then gender-based notions of hierarchy simply did not apply. And so they were stripped from the story and with it all entrenched memes of sexism as we find in cultures on this world.

 

Has there been positive feedback from women? I think so.

 

I like the gradual unveiling of characters' backgrounds and past events, revealing people to have surprising strengths and weaknesses and good and bad qualities. Which characters can we look forward to finding more out about in Reaper's Gale?

 

Nimander Golit -- yes, obscure enough that you might have to go hunting for who that is. His role will expand beyond Reaper's Gale -- he only has two or three scenes in Reaper's Gale but there's plenty more to come.

 

We get more of Udinaas and Seren Pedac, two of my personal favourites. Again, apologies for being somewhat reticent on these teaser-style questions.

What lengths do you got to "feel" scenes you are writing? For example, have you tried wielding a sword, wearing armour, walking through a forest at night, etc? What sources have you found to be most useful when it comes to describing battle scenes?

 

I've been a fencer for over half my life. Some elements are basic to all martial arts, even European ones such as fencing. Balance, timing, footwork, distance, defensive positions, attack methods and so on.

 

I have messed around with heavier weapons some. I recall seeing a few mock battles by the Society of Creative Anachronism and came away thoroughly sceptical that anyone ever fought like that -- if they did no-one would survive a single battle.

 

On the other hands, I saw some bared-steel choreography and mock-fighting in Wales once that looked a lot more real (as in lethal but survivable) -- unlike the SCA crowd these players were fast on their feet, highly mobile, and that makes a lot more sense.

 

As an archaeologist I have walked a lot of wild land, both in Canada and in Central America.

 

In the latter I found myself in a war zone which is not something I would recommend to anyone (the nightmares have faded but, like some masochistic ghoul, I routinely resurrect the whole thing to ensure what I'm writing feels authentic -- it's crazy the things we do).

 

Forests at night? Often, yes, including being cold-cocked by a bear once.

 

I believe you used to live in the UK? What do you miss about life this side of the Atlantic?

 

At conventions I invariably find the UK crowd and somehow I immediately feel right at home, taking the p*** and getting p****d, and it's that sort of company I do miss.

 

We are all so squeaky clean and safe here in Canada, offended at the drop of a hat and all that.

 

The complacency of a beautiful, relaxed country, I suppose. Now, the UK is indeed beautiful, stunningly so, but ... relaxed? Maybe out in the moors.

 

I miss the energy, the layers upon layers of history, the 6X.

Do you get much time to read? Which books have you enjoyed recently? What other interests and hobbies do you have?

 

I tend to read non-fiction and SF when

writing fantasy -- there's no bleed-over of styles, content and so on.

 

Most of the non-fiction is either historical or anthropological.

 

For SF I will devour virtually anything if it's well written.

 

Hobbies? I've not sat on a horse since leaving England so I miss that. These days it's fencing, three days a week barring a proliferation of injuries that arrive as one turns into an old fart.

 

Thank you very much for your time and the best of luck with your future books.

 

You are welcome. Best Regards. Steve.

 

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