Steven Erikson is an archaeologist and anthropologist and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His previous novels in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, including The Crippled God, Dust of Dreams, Toll the Hounds and Reaper’s Gale, have met with widespread international acclaim and established him as a major voice in the world of fantasy fiction. The first book in the series, Gardens of the Moon, was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award. The second novel, Deadhouse Gates, was voted one of the ten best fantasy novels of 2000 by SF Site. He previously lived in the United Kingdom, but has recently returned to his hometown of Winnipeg, Canada.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
So you recently wrapped up your ten-book epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and you’ve just written a new book called Forge of Darkness. You want to tell us about that?
Well, I guess by about book eight—or maybe book seven—I was starting to throw in some flashbacks to a very early period in the history of one of my imaginary cultures. And that started to intrigue me, and obviously I was looking past the completion of the series and thinking about what I was going to do next. And so when I finally finished the series, I had a fair idea of wanting to go back to almost the creation myths or the cosmology of the Malazan world.
Some people on the Malazan Empire fan site were sort of saying, why go for something where we know what’s happened? My response would be you only think you know what’s happened. One of the things I’m pushing for is the notion that history is not an accurate portrayal of anything at all. Certainly for characters who are long-lived—and I mean “long-lived” in the sense of hundreds of thousands of years—one has to assume their memories will be distorted by time. I mean, our memories are distorted by time, so I just extend that in an exponential fashion—this sense that how the past seems to these characters may be quite different from the reality, and so I wanted to sort of play those two off each other.
Obviously a large number of readers that pick up Forge of Darkness will have read the previous books, but is it something that you think newcomers could start with as well?
Well, I certainly hope so. I’ve not really heard back from anyone who’s not read the Malazan series, but I would certainly hope that somebody could use this as another gateway into the Malazan world. It was written with both audiences in mind.
This book has a large number of POV characters. How’d you decide which characters to make POV characters?
Well, primarily I wanted to avoid most of the main players in the Malazan series. I wanted voices that were witness to these characters as opposed to the characters themselves. I suspect a lot of people wanted points of view of Anomander Rake and various others, but if I revealed too much about these characters that are viewed quite heroically in the Malazan series, it sort of removes the magic out of them, and I didn’t want to do that.
In interviews, you’ve said that you’re glad that people are talking about your work as an example of postmodernism. What sorts of conversations have been going on around that?
Well, basically I’m having an argument with a scholar who’s studied my stuff. Whereas I’m calling it postmodern, he’s calling it post-structural. We sort of acknowledge each other’s points, but neither of us budge. [laughs]
I mean, there’s a strong postmodern element to a lot of the narrators within the Malazan series. In other words, they’re aware that they’re telling a story, and they’re also aware that they have the option of manipulating that story. Kruppe, I think, is one of the best examples of that. He narrates within the story, including applying the third person viewpoint to himself, and so you can sort of sense that he’s messing with everyone’s heads. And they may be the characters’ heads, but they’re also the readers’ heads. And that’s a reflection of how I’m approaching it as a writer as well, that one is aware that there is manipulation running all the way through this.
So why does that critic think your work is post-structuralist?
You’d have to ask him. [laughs] The thing with scholars is that they don’t really want the authors around. It sounds weird, but it certainly seems to be the case. We’re far better off, as far as the scholars are concerned, if we’ve been dead for twenty years. It makes it easier to build up a thesis without having it contradicted—potentially—by the person whose work it is. And I think there’s also sometimes this assumption that the author is entirely unaware of what they’re up to, and that’s certainly not the case with me.
Are there particular fan sites or message boards that are best for reading analysis of your work?
Not that I’m aware of. I’d love to see a lot more. But with the fantasy genre in general it’s pretty hard to find people who are approaching it in a serious fashion. And then there’s sort of an internal ghettoization where fantasy series are given less regard than fantasy standalones. So, yeah, we’re fighting against a fairly consistent tide.
I heard you were on a panel at ICFA—the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts—with Stephen R. Donaldson, and he was talking about how fantasy is actually the spine of Western literature.
We both were, yeah. He used “spine” and I used “tree” as metaphors. Epic fantasy is the core of literature. You can reach back to Gilgamesh or the Iliad or all these things, and they are all epic fantasies. There’s a tendency to step out on the branches and crawl onto the twigs, and get really excited by innovations you see on those twigs, and the argument that I was making—and I’m sure Steve was as well—is that actually those aren’t innovations at all, if you actually knew what the tree—or the spine—was all about, you’d see that that’s been covered some time ago.
I guess it’s a perfectly natural desire, if you’re going to specialize as a scholar in something, to find something that’s manageable. A six-book series or a ten-book series or whatever is a hefty thing to invest yourself into. But we were speaking very much on behalf of the idea of at least getting somebody looking back at those who never left the trunk of the tree and are continuing to write epic fantasy, which has been going on for three thousand years now, four thousand years.
It seems like the success of HBO’s Game of Thrones has brought a large new group of readers to epic fantasy. Have you witnessed any shift lately in the popularity of the genre?
Well, it’s funny because people sort of predicted that with the Lord of the Rings films, and then with Harry Potter and all the rest. I think what tends to happen is what I’ve called “exceptionalism,” and that is where an individual is sort of extracted from the genre in which they’re writing, and the popularity of the genre itself actually becomes less relevant than the individual.
I think if anything is going to have that kind of effect, it’s probably going to be computer games and console games. And for myself, I’m constantly frustrated by most fantasy computer games, for the simple reason that the stories are just lacking. I’ve dealt with some companies that wanted to do Malazan stuff, and become aware that, from their point of view, they want 80 percent action and 20 percent story, and I guess in many respects I want it the other way around.
Are there any fantasy videogames that you do like and would recommend?
Um . . . no. [laughs] Yeah, I guess that’s just the answer. I did play a bit of Skyrim, and visually it’s fantastic, and it does have a storyline that one follows. But for me it ends up becoming too trope-driven—sort of the medieval, northern European kind of approach to things. Elves, dwarves, all that is stuff I’ve been actively writing against—well, not against, but that I’ve been ignoring, put it that way. And so when I look at the games, they tend to fall back on those tropes and clichés very quickly.
It seems like epic fantasy readers are some of the most outspoken fans, in terms of both loving and hating certain authors—we’ve seen this a lot lately with George R. R. Martin. What do you think it is about epic fantasy that inspires such vehemence?
I don’t know. One of the things I suppose is it’s probably one of the most immersive of fictional forms, where you as the reader are investing over a span of years in a particular fictional world and the characters within it. And I think it’s part of “geek cool” to love something and then hate something else, and then that can sort of be raised up to indicate difference or uniqueness.
I remember talking to George a few times now. Both of us are kind of baffled at the vehemence between our fan bases. We don’t see ourselves in competition . . . which is probably a good thing, since he’s done so well. But I was a reader long before I was a writer, and a reader of fantasy, so as far as I’m concerned it’s almost as if there is no competition, because fantasy readers will read everything. They’re the most voracious readers that I know of. I mean, I’ve been to people’s places—just various people I know who read this stuff—and I’ll look on their bookshelves and there’ll be Martin, there’ll be Erikson, there’ll be Robin Hobb, you name it. They’re all up there on their bookshelves.
I don’t know if you noticed, but on the dust jacket for Forge of Darkness it says this book “should appeal to fans of George R.R. Martin for its characters and intrigue, but goes leaps further in the realm of imagination.” That kind of seems like fighting words. I assume you had nothing to do with that?
[laughs] No, I had nothing to do with it. I think actually when somebody pointed it out to me—that’s the Tor edition, isn’t it?—yeah, I probably sent off an email saying, “Can you pull that comment?”, but it was probably too late.
One of the ideas of yours I really like is the idea that magic swords start screaming the first time you take hold of them. How’d you come up with that?
I’ve often said that fantasy is the one genre where you can take a metaphor and make it real. Well, if you consider the trauma and the horror and the mayhem of battle, then if I were to take that metaphor and place it in a weapon, then of course the weapon will scream. But it would also be driven to madness through repetition of these violent scenes, so the laughter is there as well.
I know there are many novels and stories where swords have a voice—and quite often a seductive one. Or they have a will of their own. I like the notion of the will being completely mysterious and unknowable to the wielder of the weapon. It’s almost more horrifying to not explain the mind that’s in the weapon, and to just sort of have to react to it.
I was reading some discussion of your books online, and I thought it was interesting how a couple people mentioned that a lot of your characters—even commoners—have these long philosophical discussions, and some people were questioning how realistic that was.
Well, some of the smartest, wisest people I’ve met . . . here, I’ll give you an example—there was this guy who was hired with his shotgun to take care of our camp in Belize on an archaeology dig. No education. No teeth. And yet if you would sit and talk with him, this guy thought about everything. He kept himself informed about world events and had read a whole series of books on philosophy. I think the assumption—I’ve been fighting against it for a long time in terms of creating characters—is that one assumes a level of intelligence or lack thereof on the basis of class, and I don’t see it. I’ve never experienced it.
Quite often you won’t get those heavy conversations with somebody who’s struggling to stay alive, but at the same time if you were to somehow sit down on a park bench and start talking, you might be surprised. It’s easy—especially as a fiction writer—to fall into that kind of class-based thinking, where you pigeonhole people and create characters who are minor characters with very little social standing and you give them no brains. I suppose it would be easy to do it that way, but I’m definitely not into that. And I have talked to soldiers—veterans—who think a lot about what they’re up to. So I don’t find it in any respect unusual.
One character in Forge of Darkness is a painter, and I know that you’re a painter yourself. Did your interest in painting inspire that character at all?
To some extent, sure. But also, there are themes that are running through the trilogy which relate to how civilizations destroy themselves, and one of the themes I’m advancing is that the various forms of art have to be destroyed first—the meaning of art, if you will. So this first novel is very much tied into that painter character. And fortunately I had a character who showed up originally in the eighth book, I think, of Malazan Book of the Fallen, that was the ideal character for approaching things as a painter. It did help that I have been a painter and started as an illustrator and all the rest, so it might be more challenging when I move on to some other art forms in the next books. We’ll see.
Could you elaborate a bit on the idea of art being the first step in civilization collapsing? You’re saying that’s the first symptom?
Certainly. I think when art ceases to oppose—or to stand outside—the desires of the power bloc of a particular civilization, it gets into trouble. I’m really generalizing here, but you often see how art in the past is a reflection of the health of a particular civilization. There was a strong period of high propaganda, say, in Roman art, especially the sculptures, elevating the emperors to god-like or demigod status. You have paintings like that of royalty in Europe as well—oversized compared to the horse, and looking fit in their armor, even though they never were. All of these things are basically intended to reinforce the status quo of whatever element is in power at the time.
And then you see the contrast sometimes when art moves in the other direction. There was a Grotesque period for Roman art as well as Greek art that removed the idealization of the human form. And it was probably a reflection of the slow collapse—or quick collapse, if you will—of the civilization at hand. And so art is definitely a reflection of society, and if it gets co-opted—and let’s face it, advertising is the greatest co-opting of art you can think of—it sort of removes the social function, I think, the purpose of art.
I’ve also heard you say that as a result of fencing injuries you have sort of an ever-growing exoskeleton on your arm?
[laughs] Only when I fence. I’ve broken my right index finger—the knuckle—a couple of times, once fencing and another time on a hand-pumped well at a farm. So I’ve picked up a lot of injuries that weakened the vertical strength of my forearm—or my hand, specifically. And in fencing you hold the weapon in such a way that a lot of the weight is actually sitting on your index finger. All another fencer would have to do is basically push down on my weapon and I couldn’t resist it. So I went to a hand clinic, and I got this molded plastic thing that slides over the upper part of my right hand, and that actually allows me to continue fencing. So that’s the only exoskeletal element that I can think of. [laughs]
I recently watched the documentary Reclaiming the Blade, which was about how ancient medieval swordfighting techniques were more effective than modern fencing. What do you think about that?
Here in Victoria many years ago, I was invited to a Society for Creative Anachronism event, and there was period fencing. And I showed up with my épée, and was invited to a number of duels, including people with two weapons, and it may have just been that they weren’t particularly good, but I toasted them all using an Olympic style of fencing. I went away from that and thought, well, I suspect one of the reasons was that Olympic-style fencing is almost a perfection of the form, over centuries now, that moves away from some of the earlier styles of fencing that actually are probably not particularly useful. In Olympic-style fencing, the whole point of your positioning—you’re standing sideways to your target—is to reduce your own target area and also to reduce the amount of movement you need to defend that target area with your weapon.
Now, in fencing in the round—especially with two weapons, at least with people I’ve faced—opponents are mostly facing you head on, which means that their backward and forward movement is severely limited. I could lunge forward—or even step forward—much faster than they could back up, because they don’t have a back leg and a front leg, they have two legs sort of sitting side by side. And so I’m always a bit dubious when people say, “Well, this is the old style and it’s far more practical and efficient than the modern Olympic style.” I’m having trouble being convinced by it.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
Well, I’m writing Fall of Light, which is the second in the Kharkanas trilogy. And while I was on a book tour these past few months, I did mess around with something that I think is going to show up this week on Tor.com. I did a Q&A for their Reaper’s Gale re-read, and at the end of my answers I added a Chapter 1 of something I’ve been working on. It’s more just having fun. I just had to let off some steam, and I’ll probably continue it. It’s a shorter science fiction novel.
And is there anything you can tell us about the Karsa Orlong trilogy that you’ll be writing after this one?
Not yet. I need to get the next two books out of the way in the Kharkanas trilogy, and then probably toward the end of writing the third one, I’ll start really putting my thoughts into the next trilogy.
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