In the Dragon’s Den: Interview with Steven Erikson
TCD: Firstly I would like to thank Steven Erikson for agreeing to be the second author (and second Malazan author) to undergo my clumsy attempts to master the technique of interviewing. So thank you Steve for doing this.
SE: Just release all the funds you stole from my bank account and we can call it even.
TCD: You promised that you wouldn’t mention the financial blackmail. Anyway, it seems like you are going to have a busy year of releases as you have Fall of Light (Book 2 of the Kharkanas Trilogy) coming out this month and a new Bauchelain and Korbal Broach Novella Fiends of Nightmaria about to release from Subterranean Press. Oh, and you also have Willful Child 2: The Wrath of Betty coming out this year as well. But before we get started on that, I did have a couple of questions about the Malazan world and series in general if you don’t mind doing it that way around?
I recently posted an article about Worldbuilding and the Malazan World and I called your writing and world feminist. I know critics are supposed to assume the author is dead and ignore their perspective, but I figured that given we were speaking I would ask your opinion on it and get some answers from the horse’s mouth. It seems like too good an opportunity to miss. So did you read the article, and if so, what are your thoughts?
SE: Yes I read the article and yes, of course I consider myself a feminist, in that I believe in equal opportunity for women and men, and that I continue to see all around me the persistent oppression of an intrinsically patriarchal society, and, finally, that the Malazan universe Cam and I created was explicit in its addressing that particular issue. It was also consciously colour-blind. To be honest, I am somewhat astonished that anyone would think otherwise of me. One of the first things we realized in creating the Malazan world the way we did, was that we would not sign-post these fundamental shifts away from the real world. After all, no-one in that world thinks about it either way. It’s not a point of debate, period. That said, it’s not, strictly speaking, an egalitarian world. To be egalitarian in the proper sense would require doing away with class divisions, entrenched and institutional disparity of wealth (and anyone who would argue that our disparity of wealth is not institutional needs to open their eyes), and systems of exclusion. We weren’t interested in a Utopian vision. The Malazan world is a messy world, a world of vast inequalities (at least on the surface, with, say, a lowly thief on one side and a god on the other) and injustices. Which is why a central theme to the novels relate to an argument in efficacy or potential efficacy, an assertion that someone like that lowly thief can turn the tables, can take down a god and change the world. We were writing about agency and the power to change the world, one small gesture at a time. Was that an idealistic notion? Depends on how cynical you are.
It was interesting that in your essay you drew on the SF ‘what if’ premise when describing our approach to creating the Malazan world. Personally that’s not surprising, since Herbert’s Dune was a huge inspiration for me, especially with how the first novel, Gardens of the Moon, was structured. Dune drops you into the middle of a story. I liked that. I stole it. I guess I didn’t do as well with it as Herbert did; or maybe the Fantasy genre readership was more resistant to that approach (though Glen Cook’s Black Company did the same). Probably the former over the latter. Anyway, one could easily write an essay on the parallel structure between Gardens and Dune; it’s all there, right down to epitaphs and quotes opening chapters.
Back to the feminism thing. Unquestionably there has been a strange backlash to the notion. Even the word has become pejorative. It seems to me the only way to fight that is to identify directly with the label, not defensively, but matter-of-factly. I admit that when I hear someone speaking against Feminism, I am dumbfounded. If only in the name of fairness, and how can one argue against fairness? Apparently, one can, and some do. For me, I don’t get that and I’ve yet to see an argument raised against feminism that isn’t self-serving and specious.
TCD: Well I have to admit that I got most of my evidence from interviews and Q&A sessions that you have given so I thought I was on the right track. But I was surprised that what I said was treated as controversial by some of the fans.
SE: So was I. It’s ridiculous. I’m pretty sure I’ve covered this is previous Q&As, interviews and even essays. There’s no room in my body of commentary to question my intent. We took a meritocratic approach to magic in society, and that approach can only lead in one direction, and that direction quickly dispenses with institutional sexism and the suppression of rights based on gender, race or whatever. Rights that can be successfully defended and asserted will force a society to accommodate them, and this is part of the process that is social evolution. The notion that a society is unchangeable, static and devoid of both internal and external pressures toward change, is unrealistic. Like language, society evolves and it’s a linear evolution. It can’t be halted, can’t be pulled back (to some nostalgic vision of the past), and as much as attitudes will cycle through the life of a civilization, each reiteration is new, similar only in its impulses. Or, to put it another way, the fascists of today are not the fascists of seventy-five years ago. Both movements are responses to similar situations of economic stress, disenfranchisement, fear and the desperate need for a readily identifiable enemy. That’s the cycle, back to basics (Us vs Them), but how it will all play out remains to be seen.
Anyway, I guess my point about social evolution is that more often than not drawing a line in the sand just ends up with one alone and standing in an empty field. Everybody else has moved on, inclined to condescendingly view your out-dated opinions as quaint, and is busy pursuing a happy, fulfilled life.
TCD: One of the points raised was that you, like George R.R. Martin, have a number of female characters who are raped or sexually assaulted, so your writing can’t be feminist.
SE: There’s a very good essay discussing that comparison: https://geekgirlspwn.wordpress.com/2015/07/27/women-and-rape-in-the-malazan-book-of-the-fallen/ As I haven’t read/watched the series I’m not in a position to comment on Martin’s approach, though I did read an essay by Martin that offered up one of the strangest takes on Medieval history I’ve ever seen.
To argue that a Feminist theme to a series is impossible if female characters are raped in that series, is just plain ignorant. What matters is how those rapes are dealt with in the narrative. It’s hard for me to respond to lazy thinking (in terms of motivation), so I’ll leave it at that.
TCD: This also raises the issue that your work, given some of its dark themes and violence is considered ‘grimdark’, and I know that you have spoken about this in the past, but is there anything you would like to add here about that?
SE: Do you recall a conversation we once had regards the various Star Trek series? I’d observed that the last iteration, Enterprise, was an accurate reflection of its time, with distrust, betrayal and paranoia infusing that universe; and how this stood in poignant contrast to the original series, wherein the essential ‘change’ in humanity had (as you pointed out) already happened, offscreen as it were. The crew of the original series were the products of an enlightened civilization, and its battles were against the very atavistic impulses that humans had left behind. I sometimes wonder if the last series failed precisely because it was peopled by people no different from us. The vision was, at that point, dead.
You could argue that the progression was ongoing through the series, with a strain of cynicism creeping like an infection from TNG (relatively benign until the later years) to Voyager and then, in its bleakest form, DS9. All in the name of ‘realism’ and ‘drama.’ I wonder if this isn’t how all idealistic visions sicken and die, chipped away at by people (producers) lacking faith in the original vision, lacking faith in the promise of humanity itself.
Grimdark is one such phase, the last ledge of the end-run to a dog-eat-puppy, life-is-meaningless-and-so-are-you worldview that exults in the worst we’re capable of. Also, it’s nothing new. Howard got there first, nearly a hundred years ago. The purity of the Noble Savage against the vicissitudes of corrupt and corrupting civilization. The clean cut of the sword that dismisses contrary opinions, ambivalence and ambiguity, that treats every person as an enemy and every enemy as an argument summarily dismissed in a spray of blood and bone.
I guess it’s a way to deal with anger, with a sense of the utter unfairness of the world, and a sense of helplessness against forces too vast and pervasive to comprehend, much less fight against. Better off burning it all down.
Grimdark is a response to our time. But nothing stands still. From the ashes, something more affirming and hopeful will inevitably arise. And then, like my early love of Howard, it will live on nostalgically, serving the angst of adolescence and all its anarchic impulses.
Is my stuff Grimdark? Well, if one reads only the first half of the Malazan series, they might reach that conclusion. But anyone who finishes the series will know that if anything I’m the very opposite of Grimdark, and that I was writing against it before the term Grimdark even showed up.
TCD: You and Ian C. Esslemont have spoken at length about the influencing of gaming and RPGs on your work, and I don’t want to re-tread those discussions, but the influence of gaming on fantasy is an area of research for me, and I always want to discuss it. So if there was anything you wanted to say here about that topic I would love to hear it.
SE: Only this. RPG’s both as table-top and computer/console versions are seminal in the development of Modern Fantasy literature, and without an understanding of that, one can’t wholly understand Modern Fantasy. And the fact that you are one of the first scholars to address that influence is astonishing – the rest of academia studying this genre needs to catch up, fast.
TCD: You seem to have an avid fan following, especially at the Malazan Empire Forum, anything you want to directly say to the fans?
SE: The most dangerous kick-ass character in the Malazan series is … oh crap, forgot the name. I’ll get back to you.
Other than that, thanks for your patience. Fall of Light took a while. Longer than expected. I appreciate you hanging in there and I look forward to your commentary once the book is out. Oh, and I’m delighted at the response to Cam’s Dancer’s Lament. It’s a great book and, since I know what’s coming, you’re all in for a treat with that trilogy.
No-one ever believed me when I said Wu was insane. That’s the first time I ended up playing the straight-man (with Dancer) to one of Cam’s characters (Wu) in a game, and oh, it was good fun.
SE: Most of Dancer’s Lament is pure fiction: not simply a rendition of what we gamed. The key here is that when we were gaming out the initial adventures of Wu and Dancer, we didn’t know where it would take us; we didn’t know how the story would play out. Accordingly, there was no foreshadowing at all since RPG campaigns just aren’t built that way, being so dependent on spontaneity and the potential of digressions. In going back to it, then, Cam was able to fill in all the gaps we didn’t know existed the first time round (all the character set-up that feeds directly into Return of the Crimson Guard, for example). I think what makes it so much fun is that, finally, both author and reader can share in that foreshadowing, being equally informed about what’s coming, and so the journey is taken together, leaving Cam free to concentrate on ways to surprise us readers. And he’s very good at that.
TCD: So, Fall of Light? What can you tell us about it?
SE: I write these things and I never know if I did well or not. The readers will decide. But for what it’s worth, everything’s ready and in place for the third and final novel in the series, Walk in Shadow. I don’t want to say much about it before the book’s actually out. One of the things that happens to a writer is they have to move on once the final draft’s been signed off. That meant Wrath of Betty and The Fiends of Nightmaria, each demanding a major persona shift for me. The guy who wrote Fall of Light is somewhere behind me, coughing in the dust of my wake. That said, once the book is out and I start getting commentary, I will re-engage, since that will be an important precursor to writing Walk in Shadow.
TCD: One of the things I have enjoyed about the Kharkanas trilogy is that it evokes a feeling of Shakespearean tragedy more than what we might call a typical Epic Fantasy vibe. What made you choose that style to tell this particular story?
SE: I wanted to take a break from the style and voice used in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It was probably a somewhat misleading body of evidence – particularly if people didn’t look at my shorter fiction from PS Publishing – but even back in my first Creative Writing program, I was known as a writer who could shift styles. So, there was no way I would simply rinse and repeat with the Malazan series style, for my latest projects. Each needed to define itself, find its own voice and rhythm.
But the Kharkanas series poses its own challenges. It’s a style of writing that is under constant pressure. I can’t think of any other way to describe it. When I plunge into that style, I head straight for the deep water, aiming for the bedrock of an unlit, unseen world. Once I’m there, it’s a blast, but when I’m back on land, I battle a fear of returning. It’s not the pressure that’s seductive, it’s the rhythm of the narrative voice. Wrath of Betty offered up a refreshing breath of air, as did Fiends. I need those breaks before jumping back in.
The other answer to your question is that the Kharkanas trilogy, given it recounts a distant past to the setting of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, would in one sense offer no major surprises (we know which of the characters survive, for example), so it needed other things to make it interesting and engaging. I settled on language, which is why I went back to Shakespeare, especially the plays with their direct linkage to the precursor of written literature: the oral tradition, complete with declamation, soliloquy and exclusively character-based conflict. Whatever forces exist in a civil war are expressions of people in conflict, people driven inexorably into an extreme response. Only in retrospect can we map the increments, step by step, that led to the moment of eruption. Which is why the Kharkanas tale is one told by a poet to another poet, a poet’s take on a history (not an historian’s). A poet sees differently than would an historian. A poet focuses on seemingly irrelevant details, ignores crucial events, and tracks streams and currents of thought that are usually beneath the surface of history. This interested me as a writer, and offered up an unusual structure to the tale, and this is what I continue to explore in this particular series.
Not for everyone’s taste, alas.
TCD: Given the scope of the civil war, with at least three sides and multiple perspectives, and also the Jaghut War on Death, did that affect how you structured the novel?
SE: It was not so much the shift in perspectives that affected the novel’s structure, it was the dramatic shift in tone. Curiously, the War on Death story-line (perhaps because of its essential absurdity) invited a lighter tone, in the true sense of gallow’s humour (sorry, that pun was too good to resist), and I knew the trilogy needed that, especially given the oppressive tone of Forge of Darkness. The challenge was in how to balance the two tones, more-so than the change in setting or character.
TCD: One of the enduring pulls of the Malazan universe for readers seem to be the characters that you and ICE created, what do you think makes them resonate so strongly with readers?
SE: I don’t know. In our gaming we always held to a sense of irreverence, a self-directed penchant for mockery. We’d create scenes that made our heroes look ridiculous, awkward, fumbling, and then we’d laugh. So, we kept them human, I suppose. Flawed and like so many of us, prone to excesses, misplaced enthusiasms, over-exuberance, delusions of grandeur, ego-centred obstinacy. Just warped mirrors of me and Cam, with all of our wild ambitions (Novels! Game-books! Films! Television Series!), and since this was a time when we were co-writing Feature Film scripts and pounding our heads against the walls of that industry (especially here in Canada where ambition was a dirty word), it’s probably not too surprising that our RPG characters lost more often than they won, and what victories were attained inevitably turned out to be Pyric. We created those characters to keep us sane.
This is just off the cuff here, but maybe something of that persistent creative frustration infused in our characters an honest vulnerability in the face of an unsympathetic world. One of my favourite television shows back then was The Rockford Files. Poor Rockford, that well-meaning PI with the loser friends and the con-men trying to play him at every turn: the quintessential antihero.
That appeals to me. I love the wry humour of it, the invitation to not take life too seriously. Through our RPG characters, we held off the real world for a few hours. Maybe for the readers, those characters serve the same function. If so, that’s kinda cool.
TCD: Given the setting of Fall of Light, will we finally have an Anomander Rake Point of View section?
TCD: In many of your previous books you have included outrageous characters like Kruppe, Shadowthrone, and Iskaral Pust, but Forge of Darkness was a much more sombre novel, do we have any potentially comedic characters to look forward to in Fall of Light?
TCD: Always good to see you answering with your characteristic verbosity.
SE: You’ve got to ask yourself, what kind of people would join an army that’s declared war on death? Okay, maybe a few dire, miserable characters in the bunch. But also characters who delight in the absurdity of the notion. Enter the Thel Akai….
TCD: At the heart of The Malazan Book of the Fallen there seemed to be a core of compassion, hope, and mercy, what do you see as the emotional core of the Kharkanas Trilogy?
SE: I’m not sure yet, to be honest. I’ll probably be able to say more on the trilogy’s themes once it’s done. For the moment, however, I am exploring the ways in which a civilization self-destructs (which seems to me a timely subject). And I’m kind of exploring the relationship of art with that decline and collapse. Because there is one.
As for the War on Death, well, that’s a more insidious exploration, because it poses an argument that cannot be won. I’m quite interested to see where that one takes me with the third book (I have the sequence of events worked out, of course, but that’s just the framework. What still needs to be discovered is where that journey will take us, emotionally, spiritually. The journey is a gradual descent, and I won’t know its details until I make that descent, step by step).
TCD: Is it true that you toyed with the idea of writing the War on Death section as an extended Epic Poem in the style of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey?
SE: I did, briefly. I toyed with the idea of writing the entire trilogy as an epic poem. And it proved useful in that it directed my thinking towards the style I eventually selected for the Kharkanas tale. So much thinking actually precedes the writing of something (at least it does for me and, I would think, most writers), and a lot of that thinking has to do with structure. What’s the best way to tell this story? If you come up with multiple approaches, is there something that they all share? If so, then you now have a good idea of what the story is actually about, and that in turn applies greater focus on thinking about structure – about the best way to deliver that story. But that process can have a lot of fits and starts. You kind of have to feel your way forward.
Forge of Darkness established a particular structure; its two principle story-lines meshed well in their tone. Fall of Light demanded a greater separation of those story-lines. I initially fought to keep the tone unified, until I realised that I was trying to impose the structure of Forge onto Fall of Light, and that just wouldn’t work. So I cut the ties between the story-lines, in terms of tone, and once I did that, it freed everything up.
Having now established that precedent, it’s likely that Walk in Shadow will extend that separation, at least until its time to pull everything together. Luckily, I know precisely how it all comes together (whew).
TCD: With the Kharkanas books, how much do you fear revealing too much about the mythology and the history of the world? What I mean is, the history and pre-history of the Malazan series that both you and Ian C Esslemont have written is huge and full of mystery. How do you balance the need to investigate and explore that while still retaining some the very mystery that gives the world flavour and depth?
SE: Recall that this is a poet’s take on that history. It serves a different master, not one particularly interested in events per se. This has the flavour of a requiem more than some kind of accurate historical account, and to make it even more complicated, there are two currents to that symphony: the specific, seemingly dominant one that is the civil war in Kurald Galain; and then the more ephemeral current that is the War on Death.
Certain events need to occur and we’ll see those ones because they will add massive resonance to the main series (my Book of the Fallen and Cam’s Tales of the Malazan Empire). But not everything is answered. It can never be – this is what you have to live with as an archaeologist, that impossibly fragmentary assemblage of artifacts and trace-evidence from a lost epoch. It’s an entire profession that states as its central desire the unlocking of the past, and yet is made up of people forever seduced by mystery and wonder. We want to know, but then we don’t want to know, and often the revelation of a mystery ends up somehow … disappointing. Now, how is that any different from what a reader experiences? How often are we, as readers, disappointed by a revelation, or let-down by a mystery explained (why does a brilliant writer like Stephen King so often mess up the endings of his novels?)? Endings suck, especially if they strive for resolution, or revelation, or the fullest exposure of a mystery. Consider how often in adventure/fantasy films and whatnot where some hidden civilization or long lost valley of refugee Atlanteans or whatever, invariably ends up being destroyed by the time we get to the film’s end – earthquake, fire, flood, etc. It’s almost a necessity, call it the Law of Usher (consider the end of The Shining): If you want to avoid explaining, burn it down instead (by the way, that’s a much better way of ending a story, as opposed to simply explaining it to death. Although, on rare occasions, one can pull off a very good ‘explanation,’ as in, say, Straub’s Ghost Story).
Sure, we all yearn for resolution in these tales, but I would humbly suggest: never resolve too much, never explain it all, and never, ever, reveal everything.
Accordingly, I’m not too worried about too much being explained with this trilogy, or with Cam’s.
TCD: It is by now very well established and widely known that you and Esslemont gamed much of the world as a GURPS RPG, do you have any plans to develop an RPG rule book for the series? Perhaps a Kickstarter?
SE: We’ve talked about it, but neither of us has the time to actually invest in such a project. So it’s on a backburner for the moment.
TCD: Thanks for all the answers thus far. At this juncture why don’t we take a break and pick it up again later?
SE: Well, some bread and water would be nice, and if you could loosen up these shackles some … oh and don’t take away that candle – no, please, I need light! Light! Aw fuck.
[Part 2 of this interview posted here]