March, 2011. A long interview with fantasy author Steven Erikson as his immense ten-volume series The Malazan Book of the Fallen reached its conclusion with The Crippled God. This was originally commissioned by SciFiNow, but a change of editors during the process meant it ended up not being used. I published it at my friend Mike Shaw‘s website The Void instead.
‘Damn right, I’m contrarian!’ – Steven Erikson in conversation.
After 12 years and ten huge novels (not counting novellas and a spin-off series) Steven Erikson’s fantasy masterwork The Malazan Book of the Fallen is – sort of – finally complete.
A dense and challenging series spanning continents and juggling hundreds of characters, its last entry The Crippled God, was published in the UK by Bantam Books at the end of February. Erikson was kind enough to spare a few (thousand) words for me from his home in Cornwall, not long before publication.
Owen Williams: Are you relieved to have reached the end of The Malazan Book of the Fallen? Sad? Ecstatic?
Steven Erikson: Mostly relieved. The final three months were ones of crushing pressure, to deliver on my promises – the ones I made to readers and the ones I made to myself. There was plenty of anxiety, as I edged ever closer to certain scenes that had been living in my head for years. Could I pull them off? Was I good enough to translate what I saw (and felt) onto the page? These worries haunted me, line by line. When it was done, I was… empty.
What can you tell us about the final volume? Does it tie up every single loose end, and answer every single question? Or is there scope for more?
Do recall that Ian Cameron Esslemont is also recounting this fictional history [his Malazan Empire novels Night of Knives, The Return of the Crimson Guard and Stonewielder are available now]. In fact, at the moment he is tying up certain threads I left unknotted in Toll the Hounds. But in terms of the situation set up in Dust of Dreams, and some of the larger series-spanning arcs, I think I finished most of them, although there’s always room for more… At the moment, however, I’m not much thinking about the aftermath to The Malazan Book of the Fallen. That will come with the second trilogy [following a prequel series], when I return to the tale of Karsa Orlong.
There’s been a slightly longer gap than usual between Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God. Just publisher whims, or did this one take longer to write?
It took the usual 8-9 months to write, to be honest. I think it’s just down to scheduling. ICE’s Stonewielder was coming out as well, and we were always looking to the New Year for this one.
Were any of the ten core Malazan novels more difficult to write than any others?
Memories of Ice was, I think, and perhaps The Bonehunters. Both were structurally challenging. In terms of story, Memories is a huge book and it probably stretched my abilities to their limit; at times when writing that I felt on the very edge of breaking point. I almost had more balls in the air than I could count. The Bonehunters covered a lot of ground, both geographically and in terms of story, and it involved two separate novels interwoven, presenting challenges in balancing them.
Emotionally, the most difficult novel by far was Toll the Hounds, but that was for personal reasons and it seemed that they did not affect my ability to write. The hell lay in the subject matter.
How do you work? Do you have a strict routine? As an author of a popular, epic series you’re sometimes lumped together with George RR Martin. It’s been five years since his last instalment, and yet you produce a colossal and extremely complex novel once a year. Is it as effortless as you make it seem? What’s the secret?
No secret. You start with the commitment: the conviction that you’re meant to do this and nothing else. And then you maintain a strict regimen of disciplined engagement. I write four hours a day when I’m working on a story. I don’t do word-counts. I don’t even do page-counts. If I get a paragraph done in those four hours, or if I write twelve pages, either is fine with me. As part of my routine, I re-read and edit what I wrote the day before, before starting on fresh stuff. I write linearly, starting on page one. No cut and paste, no re-ordering of chapters. My notes are sparse and usually involve lists of the characters who will be in a particular scene. Other notes refer to details to aid in description, etc. But those are generally scattered all through my notebook(s). The key is maintaining momentum and keeping alive the sense of immediacy in every scene, not rushing through one to get the next one, which might be more fun. It’s down to respecting each character on the page in front of you, and giving them their time. They all matter, even if only to themselves.
The novels stem from a role-playing campaign, as I understand it. How many people were involved in your initial RPG, and how similar was it to what it became? How many of the characters already “existed” before the novels?
Initially, it was just Cam and I. Later on we roped a few others into the tales; maybe in total seven or eight people were involved in the gaming of this invented history. They know who they are.
The number of characters who ‘existed’ first in the gaming goes down, percentage-wise, with each novel we write, as the necessities of the novels demand. But most of the principal characters are gamed characters: Whiskeyjack’s squad; Fiddler’s squad, barring Cuttle and Corabb; the whole Darujhistan crew; the originators of the Malazan Empire itself; Karsa Orlong; the three Tiste Edur brothers; Bauchelain and Korbal Broach… all game characters. Oh, and Rake, Brood and T’riss….
Gardens of the Moon [the first novel in the series, which baffles many readers to the extent that they don’t continue with the rest] began life as a treatment for a film. How on earth did it work as a two-hour screenplay? Do you ever let people read the script?
We’d love to let people read the script, if only we had a copy. It’s gone the way of the dinosaurs… As a script, it started and ended in Darujhistan, opening with the assassins’ war on the rooftops and closing with the events at the fete. As I recall, there was no Jaghut Tyrant, but I might be wrong in that. And it played for laughs.
How do you go about selling a ten-part series to a publisher? Was it mapped out from the beginning, or has the story grown in the telling? How can you assure a publisher and an editor that it’ll be okay to leave cliffhangers in the first volume that won’t be resolved for several years and literally thousands of pages?
There’s two elements to that question, the first involving the publisher and the second involving the editor. But of course my only real point of contact with the former is through the latter. It’s been a while, but I think my agent probably pitched Gardens of the Moon as Book One in a trilogy. Of course, I already had all ten titles, with a fair idea of the tale I wanted to tell. It was after the release of Gardens that my editor was made to understand the full extent of my ambitions. How he in turn sold that to his bosses will forever remain a mystery, since I was effectively unproven beyond that single novel. As for untied threads and cliffhangers, I recall with a smile how often my editor queried a section, asking whether we could cut it, only to have me reply, ‘well, that comes back in the seventh novel…’ Eventually, he just sat back and gave up on the notion of cutting scenes. For a writer that’s a good thing: some readers might wish it had been otherwise; and for the publisher, well, we pushed the physical limits of a single novel more than a few times…
My great fortune was in having a single editor through the entire series, and finding in him a great friend, beyond the scope of the writer/editor relationship. I was and am bloody fortunate. How has he coped? We’re both much older than we used to be, but as far as I can see, he’s fared better than I have. Simon Taylor is a man of irrepressible good cheer, loved by all who know him. Man, I lucked out big time.
People often die in the stories, but when they die they rarely end. Does that chime with a particular philosophy or belief of yours?
Sure: you can’t keep a good man/woman down! In all honestly, no, it’s not to do with any particular belief, just consistent with the blurring of realms in the Malazan universe. Just as gods are active in mortal affairs, so too the dead never quite leave. Philosophically, you could say that I am stating that the dead never leave us (and they don’t, they live in our memories), and for all those well and truly lost to our memories, well, that’s sad and, indeed, tragic. They existed; they had lives, loves, hopes, fears, and aspirations. Some left a mark; most didn’t. But still, they live on, in our genes, in the details of our faces. The great gift of Fantasy as a genre is that it can take a metaphor and make it real.
There’s a lot of horror in the series: especially quite existential horror. One recurring motif is characters trapped in small spaces, awake, for millennia: the Forkrul Assail that Karsa Orlong finds; Raest in the barrow; the Imass in the mine in TTH; Trull’s shorning and so on… Is there a particular reason for that?
The mere thought of, say, being buried alive, waking up in a coffin six feet under ground – and knowing that such things have indeed occurred – is enough to weaken my knees. Has that personal phobia affected my writing? Not consciously. The examples you give bring to mind the notion of imprisonment as a state of mind (Karsa); the restless past (the Forkrul Assail, Calm, and the T’lan Imass in TTH); and the injustice that can be committed upon innocent people (Trull). They’re all motifs of the human condition, I suppose. People can feel trapped in their lives (see above, metaphor made real).
There’s lots of humour too (I love Gothos’ garden). I see a lot of Samuel Beckett / Vladimir and Estragon in Tehol and Bugg: is that actually there, or am I bringing that myself? What makes you laugh?
I laugh to keep from crying. I don’t read much comedy, but if I had a list of favourites, in print and in film/television, it would be a fairly eclectic one, from Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (Heinlein was no fool and that film version would have infuriated him, hee hee); from Airplane! and Top Secret! to Get Smart (the original TV series)… so it ranges from absurdist stuff to vicious satire. I prefer wry over slapstick, droll over frenzied, and I love puns, both good ones and bad ones.
I don’t really know where Tehol and Bugg came from. Tehol just showed up lying in a bed on the roof of his shack, with a nice view of the city: his first scene. I wondered what his story was, and then set about finding out. Some might point to PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories, but I only actually ever saw two episodes of the TV series, and that was last year. I think most of the Malazan humour found its first expression when Cam and I were gaming our characters: it was in effect our usual repartee, especially from our archaeology days, when on digs in remote places, going squirrelly. We once sat beside the Winnipeg River near Rat Portage, in ratty lawn chairs, whittling (of all things), and any other crewmember wandering past behind us would have heard us discussing, in Alabama accents, the ‘worldwide military industrial complex’ and how to cook decent crawdads.
I sent a copy of my hockey novel (When She’s Gone, written as Steve Lundin) to [fellow Canadian fantasy author] Scott Bakker and he read it and wrote back: ‘smartass’, or something like that. I think he liked it, though.
How do you divide up the narrative between yourself and ICE, and how hard is it to keep the two series’ stylistically consistent with one another? Is that even important? I have a friend who loves Iron Bars in your stories and can’t stand him in ICE’s, for example. Is there any way to account for / address that sort of subjective reader reaction? Does it concern you?
We divided up the story years ago. There’s always a stylistic challenge to two distinctive writers plying the same waters, and this was made more difficult for Cam as his works arrived halfway through my series. There’s not much we can do about all that, in terms of how readers view our own takes on certain characters. The only key for us is: are our works complementary in terms of atmosphere and tone? Do they seem to belong to the same world, even when the voices and styles happen to be different? We think the answer is ‘yes.’ Cam’s work is as quintessentially Malazan as mine. There was no chance it wouldn’t be, because we created that world together.
Iron Bars? Really? I didn’t give him much to begin with… how odd! I know that Cam has expressed some worry to me on occasion, particularly when dealing with characters like Kruppe, but in truth I have no worries myself on that account: never have. A good example of the very opposite is his take on Manask, one of my roleplayed characters who appears in Stonewielder. His version is a hundred times better than I could have done, and I know that Manask is destined to be a series favourite for many readers.
It’s never easy taking on someone else’s character: in fact, it’s probably the hardest thing a writer can attempt, as if dealing with plot, setting, point of view, theme and all the other stuff one generally has to deal with in the writing of a novel isn’t enough of a hassle. It’s an added complication for sure. But what would a reader want? A straight-out copy, or another take on someone they think they already know? I’d prefer the latter.
The Malazan Book of the Fallen constantly withholds information (I think that’s one of the most divisive things about the series: that’s where you shed the readers who don’t understand that they’re not supposed to understand – or just hate it). Your dinosaur race are masters of technology. Are you being deliberately contrarian?
Damn right! I delight in wrong-footing readers. I know it’s perverse. I know it pisses some off so badly they turn away and never come back, to which I can only shrug. As for withholding information, it’s more down to holding to a particular point-of-view, tight with a single character at any one time, seeing only what they think they see, knowing only what they think they know, and believing only what they choose to believe. Once that becomes the rule, then it is inevitable that information is not forthcoming; that info-dumps are virtually impossible and where attempts are made, the voice and imperfect point-of-view makes them unreliable and often flat-out wrong.
But this isn’t just the fantasy world of Malaz. It’s our world, day in day out, every fucking moment, in fact. Given that, what are people complaining about? Well, I suspect the ones complaining are the ones looking at a fat fantasy tome as a means of escaping from the confusion and overwhelming complexity of real life. Alas, I don’t deliver on that. I just drag this world’s shit over into that one, mess with a few rules of physics and whatnot, and sit back and watch.
That’s not contrarian, but it is, I suppose, subversive, especially to the tropes of the genre. But there’s no way I can make claim to being the first to do so. The most powerful example of this I know (and it is that clash of worlds that proves the thematic spine) is of course Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Our shitty world (and one miserable life) dragged into a fantasy realm. That’s probably the most subversive fantasy series ever written: breathtakingly, jaw-droppingly so. From what I hear, people either love it or hate that too, just like with my stuff. I feel privileged for that company.
On a similar note to the above, your dramatis personae lists seem deliberately oblique, and more so as the series progresses.
Well, sometimes I don’t want to give away the appearance of unexpected players. How many readers are going to immediately jump at the Dramatis Personae to see which Bonehunters survived the cliffhanger ending of Dust of Dreams? Why offer up spoilers at the very beginning of a book? The temptation to look would be overwhelming.
When can we expect to see the projected Malazan encyclopaedia, and what sort of form will it take? Will it have any of the illustrations from the gorgeous Subterranean Press editions?
I’m not sure when the encyclopaedia will be ready. I expect we’ll start seriously talking about it after the launch of The Crippled God. We’re not yet sure what form it will take, apart from saying that it will contain stuff not yet seen or published, including … maps!
How did the relationship with the indie publisher PS arise, and why keep Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (initially, at least) separate from the Bantam books?
Pete Crowther got me drunk at a bar at a convention and asked me for a novella. This was just after the release of Gardens of the Moon. I had a hand-written version of Blood Follows about half-done, and since I already had a drunken man-crush on the irascible bastard, I said I’d finish it and send it his way. Imagine, a market for novellas? That’s not big publisher material (hence it’s separateness from Bantam), and even better, the rights would revert back to me in a year or two. The deal seemed great. The deal remains great. To this day, I’ll pretty much do anything Pete asks of me (except get naked).
What’s your feeling about / input into the covers? They’ve changed in the UK in the last couple of years. Was that at your request? Did you dislike the originals? What about the American covers, which are much more “traditional” fantasy? Are they necessary for finding the right audience?
I pretty much have no input on covers, although Bantam begins by asking me what kind of scene I’d like to see. After that it’s all down to the respective art departments and their artists. Re-branding, re-packaging, all that’s out of my hands. I do think TOR had to do a rethink of the [American] covers of my books: to be fair, their remit has always been high-end fantasy, and my stuff kinda looked like that, even when it wasn’t, not in the traditional sense, anyway. But we’ve worked all that out now, so I’m happy enough these days.
Is it correct that your next project is a prequel trilogy about Anomander Rake? What’s the plan? And will there be further spin-off series? You’ve written away from the series. Do you envisage ever ending it permanently?
It took me a month to think about writing after completing The Crippled God. That’s the longest break I’ve had since I first started writing full-time. It was vaguely alarming. In thinking about it and in writing it, The Malazan Book of the Fallen consumed more than twenty years of my life, day after day, night after night. And suddenly… nothing. I felt (and still feel) I could drop dead tomorrow, and apart from some regret over those who would be saddened at my passing, I’d be pretty fine with that. I did what I wanted to do, said what I wanted and needed to say, completed my modest salute to Homer and The Iliad, and all that.
Eventually, things started stirring again (keep your thoughts out of my trousers!), and I started thinking about another modest salute, this time to The Bard himself, and from that impetus some notes started taking shape, and the new trilogy was underway.
Obviously, I won’t give much away, only to say that it’s tighter, not quite so sprawling, not so wide-angled in focus, and that structurally it’s looking far more… traditional. Who’da thunk, eh?