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TOR Q&A Source: http://www.tor.com/erikson/meet.html


Q&A with Steve Erikson


1. When did you first start writing fantasy and why?


Answer: I started writing fiction in my early twenties — contemporary stuff for the most part, short stories and the like — until I took a creative writing course at my local university (where I was in a master's program in anthropology, but getting rather bored). It was a poetry workshop, in fact, and while that was interesting I wanted to write fiction. Fortunately, the instructor, George Amabile, was content enough with my handing him chapters out-of-class on a regular basis. So I wrote a bad fantasy novel. Lots of enthusiasm but not much else. His feedback was terrific, and extended over the following summer. Thereafter, however, with a fair chunk of archaeology and travel interspersed in the next few years, I was concentrating exclusively on contemporary fiction, switching degrees (and universities) to attend the Creative Writing program at the University of Victoria, then the Master's program at the University of Iowa, again in writing. Shortly thereafter I sold my first collection of stories (not fantasy), called 'A Ruin of Feathers,' and, living and unemployed on Saltspring Island in B.C., with my wife pregnant, I started writing 'Gardens of the Moon.' Four months later I had the first draft done. Nine years after that it got published … in the UK.


I enjoy writing fantasy. The genre is unique in many ways, especially the freedom it gives the writer to take a metaphor and make it as real as you want; also, the founding premise of genre fiction is communication — something often forgotten or outright disregarded in so-called literary fiction (hence the smaller audiences) — and I loved (and still do) using language to communicate, to tell a good story, and (hopefully) find loyal readers.


2. Gardens of the Moon has been compared to Glen Cook's Black Company books. Has Glen Cook truly influenced your writing, and if so, how? What other authors have influenced your work?


Answer: It's always hard to discuss influences — I always end up with a huge, disparate and esoteric list, and the connections of those authors and their works with my own is often impossible to categorise. Inspiration is one of those impossible-to-categorise things: reading a good writer inspires me, no matter what the genre or subject matter. In any case … Glen Cook, John Gardner, Gustav Hasford, R.E. Howard, Donaldson, Burroughs (E.R.) (in a nostalgic sense), Homer, Karl Edward Wagner, Leiber, Russell Hoban, Arthur C. Clarke, Alice Munro, Doris Lessing, G.K. Chesterton, Italo Calvino, Umberto Ecco, Zelazny, Tim Powers, well, it goes on.


The thing about Glen Cook is that with The Black Company he singlehandedly changed the field of fantasy — something a lot of people didn't notice and maybe still don't. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the cliché archetypes of princes, kings and evil sorcerors. Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote. He also showed what could be done with first person point of view, so very rare in fantasy, where the first person was not some wide-eyed farmboy, but a character with history and years under the belt, a jaded eye and a droll sense of humour — as jaded as the modern world. This was ground-breaking stuff, and maybe one day, just one day, he will get the recognition he deserves.


3. What's it like to receive all this tremendous positive feedback, especially from the likes of Glen Cook, Stephen R. Donaldson, Elizabeth Haydon, etc.?


Answer: It's overwhelming, to be honest. So unexpected, but so gratifying. Sometimes I think, well, for years in various workshops I was writing to an audience of fellow writers, and fellow writers see what they read differently from non-writers — not necessarily better, but differently. An eye for craft, the technical crap, the use of rhythm, pacing, diction, sentence structure, exposition — now, I eat that stuff up myself. And I work damned hard to avoid accidents in my writing — it's my own obsession — and when I screw up a sentence's rhythm, it's for a reason, and I burrow deep with subtext, foreshadowing (across the entire series) and the old rule of 'show don't tell.' Could that be it? On better days I like to think so — they're picking up on my devious side. But there's no real way of knowing. I've never met Glen Cook, and when Steve and I get together at conventions we usually talk politics, family and other stuff, so in the end, I don't really know. But it's great.


4. How has your background in anthropology and archaeology influenced you as an author?


Answer: In every way. One can take the notion of stratigraphy — so essential in archaeology — and apply it as a mechanism for world-building, not just geologically or in an evolutionary sense, but culturally as well. Layers upon layers — the landscape itself tells its story, and some, a lot, or very little of that story can involve human (sentient) hands. Walk the countryside in England and everything you see has been shaped, completely and absolutely altered by human activity. Walk the precambrian shield in Canada and, unless you stumble on a petroform site, all you see is unchanged, fundamentally unaffected by human existence. Both realisations are equally profound to me. Cultures are the same way. We think of things as overlying other things, but we're often unaware that what lies on top has roots deep into all that lies below it. So, to build an entire world, one starts from the bedrock and works upward, layer after layer.


In addition to anthropology, there's also history, and in many ways that discipline works more than the former in a fantasy series (or it should), because building the world is just the beginning, you need to infuse history in those layers, because from history all that really matters derives — the essential truths of the human condition. And all art, regardless of the media, is an exploration of the human condition. Precambrian shield is just 4 billion year old bedrock; the handful of people who walk across it are the ones who set upon it a new layer of meaning, of significance, by what they do and who they are and all that they believe.


5. Are there any other influences in your work, whether it's particular music, art, or personal experiences that have inspired you as an author?


Answer: mostly stuff I don't talk about (unless I'm babbling after hours upon hours of no-sleep at a convention) — I travelled in the wrong places at the wrong time, once, long ago, and saw, I guess, both the best and the worst of human nature. Mind you, flip on the news these days and you get the same.


I write to music. I pick the music to suit the novel's feel and pace, and often there's only two or three CDs I listen to throughout the writing of the entire quarter million word novel. Scary, huh.


6. Your Malazan Book of the Fallen will be a 10-book series. Could you explain the series title, and do you already have a vision of where this series will take your readers?


Answer: the title was inspired by Napoleon's Book of the Fallen; although that one simply lists the names of the fallen soldiers from his campaigns. I was more inspired by the notion of it than its actuality. Fallen soldiers is one thing, but fallen lives and the stories surrounding them is another — one need not die to fall, in that sense. So, while characters will fall to the wayside (die), others will survive the series.


The ten books are mapped out regards the principle arcs. I know where the series is going, have done from the first, and now it's just a matter of getting us there, step by grisly step. It's that inexorability (is that a word?) that compels me as a writer; that and an abiding love of tragedy. My primary inspiration for the Malazan Book of the Fallen is the Iliad. There's a hint for ya.


7. You have created a unique, fascinating and extremely intricate system of magic in your world. Where did the inspiration for the Warrens come from?


Answer: I really don't know. The AD&D stuff was everywhere, not just gaming, but in fantasy novel after fantasy novel. Character classes do this bizarre feedback loop, springing from fiction into the RPG world then back again and the more it bounced back and forth, the more entrenched and dogmatic became the tropes. I started getting claustrophobic. The Warrens are a more organic approach, less predictable, less visually cliched, and kept mysteriously vague by my deliberately being mysterious and vague. In cultural anthropology one can read innumerable monographs on various 'primitive' peoples and discover endless, unique and strange takes on the principles of magic — and some of them are outright lies, invented on the spot by mischievous shamans stifling howls of laughter as the anthropologist records and writes down every detail. Or you look back on history, especially religious history, especially Christian history, and gain yet more insights on the notion of magic. Warrens and the idea of 'aspected' magic is simply a means of throwing the field wide open. There is a structure. Honest. I am just being furiatingly infuriating.


8. There are quite a large number of characters introduced in Gardens of the Moon. Have you created a personal history for each of the characters you refer to by name, no matter how minor? Any particular favorites among the characters in Gardens of the Moon?


Answer: Sometimes a character appears on the spot, so I have to back-story them (beauty english) and at that time I may stumble on something interesting, or not. For most of the characters, I have a fair idea of who they are, and how much they'll give away of themselves (which usually isn't much, just like in the real world). It's odd, some readers love the characterisation I do while others ask: what characterisation? Well, it's there, but it's all show and no tell. A character who walks up and says this is who I am, where I'm from, what I want, why I want it, and answers every question asked of him or her is, to my mind, a complete bore, not to mention absurdly unreal and so thick the chances of even surviving to adulthood are virtually nil. Nor do I give away much on what people are really thinking, and hold hard as I can to particular points of view. Even stranger, the few times I climb inside a character's head most readers would have me get back out as soon as possible (it's dark in there!), so hey, sometimes there ain't no winning for winning.


9. Given the vast tracks of history and geography not to mention many different cultures and races represented in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, do you already have extensive notes ala The Silmarillion as well as the appendices and indexes found in the Lord of the Rings? Is there enough material for a sourcebook, or will it be closer to a small set of encyclopedias by the time The Malazan Book of the Fallen is complete?


Answer: tonnes of material, notes, notebooks, maps, charts, lists, etc. So much stuff I can't keep track of it all. There will be an encyclopedia, although I can't say when.


10. With such a broad vision of the entire series, how do you go about making each novel a standalone tale, rather than merely continuing action?


Answer: Plotting was something rarely discussed and almost never critiqued in all the workshops I attended, yet it was what interested me again and again. There was (and is, but to a lesser extent) the notion that in literary fiction plot was pejorative, indicative of, dare we say it, something common and anti-intellectual. Style over substance was preferred, where all drama must perforce and by its very presence, be melodrama — in other words, revealed emotion in a story is inevitably seen and interpreted as false emotion, something concocted to fish for a response from the reader. Blah blah blah. I couldn't stand that pompous, pseudo-sophisticated crap. Get deep enough into a character and his or her life, and the emotions become real, the sweat becomes real, the trauma becomes real. Getting there takes good writing, hard writing, but it's got to be the greatest reward of all, for writer and reader alike.


Plotting is character-driven as much as it is consciously constructed. It is derived of conflict, and most conflict comes from clashing interests backed by antagonistic motivations. Rocks don't have motivations but characters do and that's where plot comes from. Besides, it is the well-fount of entertainment and the nose-in-the-air ponces proclaiming otherwise … well, never mind. What was the question again?


Stand-alone plots — I hated cliff-hangers in trilogies or series. As a reader I'd often throw the damned book across the room, knowing I'd have to wait a year or six before I found out what happened (I'd go get it again, of course). So it was important to me to plot these things so's there's a beginning, a middle and an end. Naturally, Gardens of the Moon sort of broke that rule, since there's no real beginning (oops); and I suppose in a way with Book Ten, there'll be no 'end' either, since life goes on (for whomever is left living, that is). I'd like to leave readers with a sense of completion, maybe even satisfaction, after the last page of each novel, no matter how momentary or illusory it might be.


11. What are your favorite, and least favorite, things about being a writer?


Answer: Favourite thing? Easy. Writing full-time means I can do what I love to do and get paid for it, enough to not have to worry about where the next meal's coming from, or having to work another job at the same time.


Least favourite? My back gets sore from sitting too long.


12. How do you spend your time when you are not writing?


Answer: I fenced for years and years, but have taken a hiatus; now I'm a goalie with a university team playing hockey every Sunday night and that's fun, since I did that in my early teens. I also play Civilisation (the computer game) although I'd love to get my hands on the developers since I've got about a thousand ideas for 'em — I do that most nights, as a wind-down. What else? Canoeing in summer, cross-country skiing now in winter (man, what a killer exercise), watching loving and hating NHL hockey, watching my son grow up….


13. Having lived in both Canada and England, can you compare the two experiences? How have each influenced your writing?


Answer: touched on that somewhere above — landscape and history, environment and meaning. England was, culturally, a crowded place filled with people seemingly on the edge of rage, and other people (thankfully) who were generous, welcoming and were and have remained good friends. It's a post-imperial society over there…. But London is the greatest city on earth.


I grew up in Canada, and returning to it was both heartening and depressing; the former for the renewed friendships; the latter for, well, a whole lot else.


The effect of a place often doesn't manifest itself in writing until you've left it: I've been sling-shotting a bit the last few years, and as yet I'm not sure how that is translating into my work. I love both countries, even as I find them often frustrating. Must be the same with most people, I expect, no matter what the place.


14. Has your work in archeology taken you to any other interesting locales?


Answer: Most of Central America, central Canada, and now, next week, to Wyoming on a volunteer dig — it will have been about ten years since my last project, and I am really looking forward to it.


15. While there are quite a few interesting stories still to come, have you put any thought into what comes after The Malazan Book of the Fallen, both in your life and in your writing career?


Answer: a long rest, I think. Six, seven days at least. Then I start gearing up for whatever comes next. Assuming I'm still in one piece, of course.

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