Ian C. Esslemont Interview
Here we have my very first interview with an author, and I was lucky enough to get Ian C. Esslemont to agree to this. So thank you ICE, and please forgive my unpolished interview technique.
TCD: Your latest novel Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy Book 1) (currently available in the UK, and forthcoming in the US) is the first book of a prequel trilogy set in the Malazan world. So, if you can forgive the bluntness, I wanted to ask a few questions about it and thought we would get some of the straightforward ones out of the way. So what is Dancer’s Lament about?
ICE: Firstly, many thanks for the opportunity to talk about the Malazan books. One of my main hopes for Dancer’s Lament is that any general fantasy reader who has previously never read anything from Steve or I can pick up the book and enjoy it, and perhaps become interested in the wider world portrayed.
For that reason what I will say about it is that it’s about character. It is really, at its centre, a character(s) study – what choices they make and what the consequences are of those choices; how seemingly innocuous moves can have huge consequences later in life; and further, how the traditional history of “great events” and “great men and women” is to my mind completely misleading.
I will also say that I am very leery of the “prequel” word. Don’t like it. I see this as a new series in the Malaz world – the Path to Ascension – that (could) prove as long as it need be to tell its tale.
TCD: So instead of prequel would it be more correct to call this the first book of a new series set in the early history of the Malazan Empire?
ICE: Yes, I think so. Though, no promises on any further novels beyond the first three; let’s just say the door is open.
TCD: You mention the ‘great men and women’ theory of history, and I believe that you have spoken about this before, but could you explain that a little more?
ICE: It’s the distinction between older ‘classical’ history and the new (or not so new now) ‘social history’ the focuses on the experiences/culture/society of the actual majority of the population, rather than the tiny privileged elite.
TCD: The world and history of the Malazan setting is huge, so what about the early history of, can we call them Dancer and Kellanved, made them the compelling focus of a trilogy?
ICE: You are right in that the history, and prehistory, of the Malaz world goes back very far indeed. Far further than either Dorin or Wu (yet another reason why I am so chary of the “prequel” word).
For their part, K&D have, for various reason as will become apparent, serve as something of their own moving conjunction of fates and vectors that then propagate very widely in the world onward into the future, effecting very many things far beyond the founding of the Malazan Empire itself. For this reason (among many) they are very much the hands-down choice for telling the history of this world.
Not to mention that they were the main actors of Steve and my gaming back in the day …
TCD: The name thing keeps tripping me up, do I call them Dorin and Wu, Dancer and Kellanved? How do I ask about these characters without spoiling the book, although I am fairly sure that fans already know this?
ICE: Ah, names. The on-going debate. Wu of course, isn’t his real name to begin with anyway. Think of it: we all have so many names. Given names, nicknames given by parents, and nicknames given by peers. Then, as we go into the world we acquire preferred professional names, even nom-de-guerres sometimes – all taken on for various reasons (think Beau Geste). How about Dorin/Dancer, Wu/Kellanved?
TCD: The style and structure of Dancer’s Lament is not quite the same as that of your Empire Series, and seems to harken back to the style you used in Night of Knives what were you doing differently, or trying to do?
ICE: I approach each project with its own demands in mind. The Path to Ascension series demands a set of aesthetics different from the wider, more sprawling, Empire Series. In this case, an aesthetic that is tighter in focus, more limited in POVs, settings and scope. Come to think of this, it is rather closer to the Knives style, isn’t it.
TCD: Well certainly the tighter narrative focus and the limited point of view characters really give the novel more of a story centric feel to me, rather than an explored history.
ICE: Thank you. Perhaps that is what contributes to its (seeming) favourable reception.
TCD: Do you feel the need to experiment to keep fresh as an author?
ICE: I personally don’t feel the need to experiment actively. As I said above, each book, or project, automatically comes with its own new set of demands and this keeps things fresh. Not to mention that tackling new characters is by definition a fresh start.
Each and every place and period and peoples would demand a different approach, and there are so many possible stories in the world that Steve and I have set out that there is certainly more than enough for any career.
TCD: Do you enjoy playing with expectations, and by this I mean that you seem equally interested in subverting genre expectations as well as fan ones?
ICE: Yes I do. I enjoy it very much in that I think it is necessary for the health of the genre. Expectations, especially those of genre writing, are usually the product of a long line of provided rewards, and this can get stale, predictable, and is also an easy, and main, criticism of genre writing itself. Therefore, I very much enjoy upending some of these.
For example, prequels themselves, especially those of “important” institutions or individuals (such as origin stories of “great” men or women – think bios) usually set out to explain what made this or that person so “great” or “special”. Therefore, I set out to show rather the opposite, which quite happily is also true to the events of the gaming origins themselves.
TCD: Dorin and Wu are a fantastic duo, care to talk about how much of their dynamic is influenced by the gaming that you and Steven Erikson did, or previous famous fantasy duos like Fafrd and the Grey Mouser?
ICE: Steve and I of course owe an immense debt to the great Fritz Leiber. We grew up loving his work. So, I imagine there must be some influence there. But rather, it was all gaming originally. Wu was my character while Steve played Dancer, and sometimes he and I would just spend the whole night arguing as Wu and Dancer over what to do, while, in the meantime, nothing got done! It was all immense fun (and we would cackle gleefully by the way).
TCD: You mention the fun that you and SE had when gaming these characters, and I certainly got the impression that you had nearly as much fun writing those scenes in Dancer’s Lament, but it never read like you were recreating the gaming sessions. So could you explain a little about how the gaming influenced your writing?
ICE: Hmm. Well, I think I have gone on about this before. But, I see gaming (active social tabletop gaming) as very much akin to the writing/reading process. You have the narrator of the story (the one running the game), the subject matter (the game), and the audience/readers (the players). Together these three elements create a living breathing story that could be, and was, just as compelling as reading a good novel.
TCD: The responses I have seen to Dancer’s Lament, particularly on the malazanempire fan site, have been overwhelmingly positive. That must make you happy? Anything you would like to say directly to the fans?
ICE: I am very pleased that Dancer’s Lament has met with approval among the Malazan fans. I have to admit I was very worried about tackling the project and so for many years chose not to do it. In the end, it was only Steve’s encouragement that motivated me to actually take it on.
Over the years I’ve been keenly aware of criticism of some of my work where fans griped that I didn’t portray this character or that character in a way consistent with their vision of that person. Therefore, tackling an ‘origins’ tale full of established characters struck me the very best way to please no one. Why invite mass displeasure and mass censure when there are plenty other projects I could take on? However, Steve kept agitating. “Just do it like we gamed it,” he kept saying. So, finally I relented thinking, well, okay …
I think I had a secret advantage, though, having inhabited these characters for so long. And luckily, the fans seem to share Steve and my twisted sense of humour …
So, to all the fans who have enjoyed Dancer’s Lament, many thanks! I enjoyed writing it very much.
TCD: The Malazan world is one that is rich in detail and complexity, but you can’t possibly hold all of that in your head at once, so how do you do it?
ICE: As I have said elsewhere, much of the world exists already in Steve and my shared gaming. The skeletal architecture, in any case. However, each story is invented as required. The challenge is maintaining a consistent history. Hopefully, we’ve succeeded (mostly). As to maintaining a consistent tone or mood – this seems to come easily, or naturally, in any case, as we are both quite immersed in the world.
TCD: There are a lot of little cameos, and some big ones, in this book of characters that Malazan fans will recognise, did you drop a few of these in to give eagle-eyed readers a thrill, or were they strictly necessary for the story?
ICE: All are necessary – I hope. Most are characters that I felt had to be introduced at that point, while secondary characters are there to help convey the necessary depth of world, while, coincidentally, helping flesh to them out as well.
TCD: Your previous novels, especially Blood and Bone, and Assail, have included stark or distinct landscapes as part of the story, but Dancer’s Lament is primarily set in an urban environment, was this a change of pace, a new writing strategy?
ICE: It didn’t feel new. It felt more like a return to the earlier stories, especially Return of the Crimson Guard. On this note, let me say that Lament is in many ways the first half of Return, and I hope that readers who enjoyed Lament will now go and read (or reread) Return. I believe it will bring so very much more to that experience.
TCD: More generally then, after finishing the Malazan Empire series, and now starting this trilogy, do you ever feel the pull to write in a different fantasy world, or a different genre?
ICE: Yes, I do feel that pull. I’ve experimented with a number of projects; a YA novel involving different dimensional histories – sort of an alternate history series; a contemporary science fiction project something like Steven King’s Firestarter involving genetically altered humans; and more recently a near-future SF novel about the settlement of the greater solar system.
Right now however I remain firmly committed to the further fleshing out of the Malaz world. Perhaps after this series I’ll take some time away – but it’s hard as Malaz does feel like home.
TCD: Writing can be a fairly solitary experience for a number of authors, do you find that, or does having a close friend as the co-creator of the world remove that entirely?
ICE: Yes, it is solitary. Steve and I don’t talk things over perhaps nearly as much as many might think. More like trouble-shooting, really. He’s not my pre-reader, in that I want him to sit back and enjoy my work, not look for problems.
My wife, Gerri, is also a novelist, and so is busy with her own work. And I don’t really have a coterie of prereaders or social circle of writers. Very much a one-pony circus here.
TCD: Both you and SE have said in previous interviews that you have written various scripts for film and television, do you think you will ever go back to any of them to give them another go, or are you always looking forward to the next thing?
ICE: Steve and I aren’t currently planning on writing any scripts. However, over the years various production companies have approached us about tackling the Malaz world for film or for television. Let’s just say we remain hopeful, and fingers-crossed.
TCD: I know what I get out of the books as a reader, but I am curious as to what you get out of writing them? Surely it must be nerve wracking to spend all this time creating worlds and stories and then waiting to see if people ‘get’ them? What makes you keep going?
ICE: What I get out of writing is the pleasure of pursuing my chosen vocation. Painters have to paint and writers have to write. For me it’s a gift to be able to do this. I frankly don’t know what else I could possibly do. I’d like to think that I derive as much satisfaction from a well-wrought novel as any carpenter might derive from a finely-crafted table or cabinet.
TCD: What was the allure of writing fantasy specifically, as you are a pretty avid reader of SF as well as other genres and more traditional literary fiction? Does it tie in to your academic training as an archaeologist and as a literary academic?
ICE: Hmm, an interesting question. I’ve tried writing vanilla contemporary kitchen fiction but found it drearily boring. As an archaeologist I’m aware that the contemporary moment inhabits only the most tenuous existence in the world – the thinnest outer layer of deposition – while all history lies below in deeper, far broader periods of human experience. Perhaps I am drawn to fantasy as it allows access to those deeper layers.
TCD: I grew up by the coast and the sea is my thing, but you have lived in a fairly diverse range of settings and landscapes, from chilly Canadian prairies to the warmer climes of Thailand and Japan but you are now settled in Alaska, is there one landscape that really feels like home, apart from Malaz of course?
ICE: For me the prairie is home. Flat fields of tall grass in a strong wind. I love the sea and the coast (ergo all those ships) but home is the prairie. To me it is as powerful a landscape as any mountain range.
TCD: Don’t mention the ships. I got into trouble once for complaining about all the ships on the covers.
ICE: There may even be more ships to come! I’m not done with them yet, not by a long shot.
TCD: If a fan was going to buy you a drink at a bar what should they buy you?
ICE: A corona with lime.
TCD: Are you a coffee or tea person?
ICE: I’m a coffee fiend, but mornings only. Too powerful for the evenings.
TCD: Which Malazan characters would you love to have over for dinner?
Would your answer change if the dinner party was hosted at someone else’s house?
ICE: My answer would definitely change if someone else was hosting! Man, this is a tough one. All the oldest characters, I suppose. I’d love to talk to them about all that they’ve seen – the years, the changes, the migration of peoples, the cultural shifts, the technological innovations … hmm, back to archaeology it seems. The usual suspects here, perhaps, Draconus, Sister of Cold Nights, K’rul, Edgewalker.
TCD: Well that seems to be a relatively sedate group, who would be the raucous ones you would invite if it were hosted elsewhere?
ICE: Oh dear, well, Lady Envy and Kallor would make for a very explosive evening.
TCD: I know that gaming was important to you in the early days, but do you still game now, or even have an inclination to game?
ICE: I’m not gaming now, other than running an old-style AD&D game with my sons. I’ve thought about getting involved in some local campaigns, but I see gaming time as writing time now and I’m jealously hoarding that time.
TCD: Well let me be the first to thank you for sacrificing your gaming in the name of producing more books.
ICE: Thank you, but, the yearning is there …
TCD: Anything else you would like to add or address? The title of book 2 perhaps?
ICE: Ha! Well, if Bantam will allow it, I’ll say that the working title for book 2 is Deadhouse Landing. And that there’s a big hint as to the setting of this one.
TCD: Well all that remains now is to thank you again for taking the time to answer all these questions. I hope it wasn’t too painful an experience.
ICE: Not painful at all! A pleasure. Many thanks, and many thanks to all the readers and fans out there!