Monday, October 12, 2009

Interview with Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson hardly needs an introduction. The Canadian writer is the author of the well known fantasy series, “Malazan Book of the Fallen”. The 9th novel of the series was released this year, “Dust of Dreams”, and “Malazan Book of the Fallen” will see its conclusion in the forthcoming novel, “The Crippled God”. Steve Erikson also published three novellas in his series, “Blood Follows”, “The Healthy Dead” and “The Lees of Laughter’s End”, with a 4th one forthcoming, “Crack’d Pot Trail”. He also published two novellas unrelated to the Malazan series, “The Devil Delivered” and “Revolvo” and three novels and short stories and novellas as Steven Lundin. I had the pleasure to make an interview with Steven Erikson.

Mihai (Dark Wolf): Steven, thank you very much for the opportunity of this interview.
Your “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series is already a well-known one, but how did the Malazan world come to life? What is the initial idea that lies at the foundation of your world?
Steven Erikson: The Malazan world originated as a roleplaying game, employing the GURPS game system. We were looking for something original in tone and atmosphere, and a setting that felt genuine and consistent. One thing we deliberately moved away from was the collection of tropes prevalent in fantasy fiction (and gaming). It all began with the dispensing of good and evil, and then the switch away from the traditional Medieval Europe technological and cultural foundations (and mythical as well).

Mihai (Dark Wolf): The world was created together with Ian Cameron Esslemont, but how did you start working together on this project? Did you also have disagreements while building your fantasy world?
SE: We were both working as archaeologists, which is how we met, and later on we both attending the University of Victoria (Canada), enrolled in a Creative Writing program. As flat-mates we had plenty of time to game. I can't recall much in the way of disagreements: Cam ran a number of campaigns. I ran others. The two played off one another and were the better for that dynamic. That relationship continues to this day with the novels.

Mihai (Dark Wolf): You wrote “Gardens of the Moon” in 1991, but if I am not mistaken it took three re-writings and 8 years before it was published. Did you feel at one point along these 8 years the need to quit trying to get it published? Are there huge differences between the initial draft and the final release form of the novel?
Steven Erikson: I did quit. At least six of those eight years the novel simply sat on a shelf. I finally returned to revising it once we'd moved to the UK and I had signed with Hodder & Stoughton (as Steve Lundin, Sceptre imprint) and my first contemporary fiction novel was about to be published. My agent was amenable to trying to pitch it to fantasy publishers and so I rewrote the thing (but not extensively; further rewrites followed once I had a publisher and editor on board). The initial draft of the novel started at the siege of Pale. Everything that preceded it came at this stage of revision. The very first version, of course, was a film script, and that one started in Darujhistan, with Crokus on the night he's hunted by the assassins.

M(DW): You signed a publishing deal worth ₤675,000 for your next nine novels. How did you feel when you received this offer? Did you expect or dream at one point while writing your first novel at such a deal?
SE: Well, we dream many things, don't we? My dream had always been reaching the point where I could write full time. The offer, when it came, was tailor-made. It gave me something I'd never before known: security and stability. I'd grown up poor; our family had always struggled; even at the point of signing I was in debt on Canadian student loans (the first thing I addressed upon moving back to Canada). The specific amount of the offer floored me. I never expected anything like it, but oddly enough I wasn't intimidated. I knew I could write this series: the only question was whether anyone would want to read it; and I was concerned that my publisher not come to regret their decision.

M(DW): The deal being made for other nine novels, may I ask if you already have had in mind the structure of the next novels in the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series or you worked on them after signing the contract?
SE: I admit to some coyness at first. When the deal was being made for the first novel, it was a one-off contract, with first rights of refusal for the next one. It was only after 'Gardens' came out that I made mention of my grander scheme: ten books. And since by that point I was finishing up the second novel, Deadhouse Gates, I suspect it was seen as encouraging, in that I was able to deliver manuscripts at a decent pace, and I didn't balk at the notion of doing one a year. It's hard to consider the notions of everyone else involved -- I was, I suspect, both confident and naive, as only unseasoned writers can be. The series never felt too big, never felt impossible, or frightening. All I knew was an immense, burning impatience. I had the arc laid out in my mind: I knew where it was going and where and how it would end and I just wanted to get there.

M(DW): Together with Ian Cameron Esslemont you stated that one of your goals in writing the Malazan series is to challenge the classic fantasy elements. Do you think that the fantasy genre was passing a stereotypical moment when you started to create the Malazan universe? Do you feel that fantasy needs an invigoration through such challenges?
SE: All forms of artistic expression need challenges; they wither and die without them. I don't think there was any stereotypical moment coinciding with the publishing of Gardens of the Moon. While it was bucking the trend, it would have done that at any point in time, if you see what I mean. The canon may seem a fixed, solid thing, but in truth it's always in transformation -- even when the works in question do not change, our relationship with them does. To look at a Warhol print today is a different thing than looking at it the day it was first shown. The product is set in a specific time and place, but we move ever forward, and that relationship, that interplay, continually evolves. Thinking on that, maybe the fantasy canon at the time of Gardens (and more accurately, the time of our gaming) had reached the point in my mind and in Cam's (though you'd have to ask him for confirmation) where the tropes verged on pastiche: the farmboy with royal blood, the evil dark lord, the brash princess, the bold knight, blah blah blah. We were fed up with it, so we fucked with it and had a good laugh doing so.

M(DW): With such an amount of details and such a complex world how do you keep track of the necessary data for keeping the Malazan world in a proper order?
SE: Badly. I fill dozens of notebooks. I make lists and end up repeating them in notebook after notebook, since trying to hunt down a single reference in some obscure page in a notebook is such a pain in the ass. But those details are small stuff. The big shemes are tattooed on the inside of my skull. Written into my DNA, whatever. None of that ever wavered.

M(DW): What process of the world building do you enjoy the most? Did it happen sometime to create an element of world building and then to be unsatisfied with the final result and start it all over again?
SE: An interesting question. I think the initial mystery is what draws me in. A blank page and a pen in my hand and a map about to be drawn. I can't imagine world building without a map (which isn't to say it needs to be printed in the book or offered to readers). you start with geography and geography guides you into culture, because the two are so tightly interconnected it's impossible to invent a civilization or society without acknowledging and understanding the effects of geography. So, that initial creative process: coast lines, mountain ranges, major rivers, drainage basins, deltas, island archipelagos, vegetation, altitude, latitude, resources: these comprise the bones of culture and history. Without them there is no authenticity. Without them, you cannot truly know the place and the people you're writing about.
It sounds rather menthodical, but I think it has to be, and I think this process is the reason I can't recall ever being dissatisfied with any element of the built world. It's internally consistent. It makes sense. It's where people live and how they live, and that can be a bad place and the life can be brutally hard, or it can all seem idyllic, but in the end it's the starting point for a story and you work with what's there.

M(DW): You wrote also short fiction set in the Malazan universe in the form of three novellas. With an experience in lengthy works how different was to work on the shorter fiction? Do you feel more comfortable writing longer or shorter fiction?
SE: All of my early schooling in creative writing was in the short forms of fiction, so I'm comfortable enough with those forms. There are some differences to be sure: in novels you can wander from the path; in the shorter stuff you can't. But in terms of discipline, I probably do an unwise thing, in that I seek to apply the rigour of short fiction writing to my novels. By that I mean I pack in as much as I can, line by line (the way you do writing a short story), and I do it across a thousand pages or more. Makes for challenging reading, and I do hear often how the second or third re-reads reveal so much more to the reader, and accordingly, the novels survive well repeated readings.
My comfort level is pretty consistent, no matter what the form.

M(DW): The novels in the Malazan series were published in an almost constant rhythm of one novel per year. Is this a self-imposed rhythm or was a condition of the publishing contract? How difficult is to manage such a rhythm?
SE: It has been my normal pace. The contract did not explicitly state 'one novel per year.' It stated it the publisher anticipated one per year. I didn't quite match that once or twice, but generally it's been all right, and indeed I've found time to squeeze in a novella or two as well. This is what was driving me from the very first: the notion of becoming a full time writer was bound to the sense in my head that I was chafing at the bit, and that once unleashed things would blaze at a fierce pace -- for as long as I can manage it. So far so good. Anyway, it's not difficult. It's nice.

M(DW): There was one time while writing your novels when you felt that you had enough with “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”?
SE: No, as you might infer from all of the above. I need to reach that end and I'm almost there. And with the other shorter stuff, I can always switch gears and screw around with other voices and styles.

M(DW): I think that working so much in the same universe has created a comfort zone for you as a writer. How hard would it be to put an end to your series and leave that comfort zone?
SE: A writer's comfort zone isn't quite the same as a reader's, I think. My comfort zone is fully transferable: it's the process, the ritual, if you like, of creativity. If I think of future works that are contemporary, or historical, or in some other genre, I don't feel at all uneasy at the prospect of writing them. Now, might be it could be different should I attempt one, and am left floundering, but then, I read all genres already and they feel fine -- I see what's being done and how it's being done. So, while I'm not worried, we'll just see how it is when it comes.

M(DW): If it were possible in which part of your created world would you like to live in?
SE: Not sure. I'd probably try and find a cave no one knows and just hide there till the end of my days.

M(DW): How about the characters, is there one of them which is a reflection in fiction of Steven Erikson?
SE: They all are. No way around that. At the same time, they are each and all alternate versions, some of them so alternate I barely recognize them myself. No, I'm not being facetious. One moves from the familiar to the unfamiliar in small increments, so small it's sometimes hard to notice it's happening at all. This is the power of voice in fiction: you're invited, taken in hand even, and led along. Everything seems fine. Normal. But then the shadows start to gather... On the creative side of the process, it's much the same progression, and if you're fearless enough for it, a character can take you a long way away from anything you thought you knew, or even imagined.

M(DW): After the publishing of the 10th book in the Malazan series if a commercial demand will arise or the public will ask for a continuing of the series will you keep writing novels in your series?
SE: I'm committed to two trilogies following the ten-book series, both related to the Malazan universe. Plus, there's the Bauchelain/Korbal Borach novellas and a few spin-offs from those. Finally, to add to the Malazan fix for readers, there's Cam's stuff.

M(DW): If it were the case in the future would you write another series as long as “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”?
SE: You reach a certain age when planning in terms of decades seems rather foolish. So, no, I wouldn't. It's one of the reasons I reduced the future stuff to trilogies.

M(DW): Speaking of commercial demand it seems sometimes that our modern society takes one successful product and tries to take advantage in the fullest from it. Such is the case with successful novels which are then brought in different mediums such as graphic novels, movies, TV shows and so on. Do you feel that this is just a commercial and materialist process or it can make a novel reach new audiences and make it even more successful?
SE: It can do either. Comes down to integrity (yeah, listen to this idiot, talking integrity in the same breath as film and television!). Also, there are many varied ways of measuring success. The private ones are the most precious, because all the others are essentially out of your hands. When you give up rights, there's no telling what will follow. One of the first formal acts of any media producer is to emasculate the original creator as quickly and effectively as possible. I understand their reasoning: we're snarky bastards for the most part (we use the word 'integrity' after all), and sometimes our egos are a match to theirs and that spells trouble for sure. Anyway, I'm not entirely serious here. LoTR was produced with admirable integrity: I hope it's not unique in that regard.

M(DW): I know that the Dabel Brothers are working on a graphic novel based on your series, but are there any other projects based on your novels? In which medium would you like to see your series adapted?
SE: Both Cam and I are amenable to various representations: our own stipulation is that it be done well, and this comes down to actually knowing the people involved.

M(DW): Not always the movie adaptations of novels have the desired result and they are rather disappointing, but I am still curious to see such adaptations. Would you like to see the Malazan series adapted into a movie? Who would you like to direct such a project or to act in the movie adaptation?
SE: I'd love to see an adaptation, but it would be a formidable challenge. I'm not sure television-based format would work as well as the big-screen, however, except perhaps for the novellas, which are scaled down to a suitable size. The problem with the Malazan Book of the Fallen, of course, is the sheer immensity of the series and each novel as well. Would I like to direct? Not a chance, wouldn't know where to start. Act? Sure, some bit part in the background. I can see Cam as Aragan...

Thank you very much for your time and answers. It has been an honor and a pleasure.


Valashain said...

Nice interview! Good timing too, I just finished reading Dust of Dreams. So when are we finally going to see some Dark Wolf Malazan reviews? ;)

Mihai A. said...

Val, thank you. I believe that the first one will be in November or December the latest ;)

Rahul Vohra said...

Hey there, good interview. Looking forward to your Malazan reviews :)

Dave de Burgh said...

Very cool interview, Mihai, am hugely jealous and impressed! :-) Awesome stuff!

Mihai A. said...

Rahul & Dave, thank you very much. I am very happy I got the chance to interview Steven Erikson :)

Barbara Martin said...

An excellent interview, Mihai. Next time in the bookstore I'm looking his books up.

Mihai A. said...

Thank you very much, Barbara. I have them for some time now, but I just took the final push for reading them :)

Yagiz Erkan said...

Very nice interview indeed! Thanks!

Mihai A. said...

Thank you very much! :)

ediFanoB said...

Great,excellent, awesome!
This interview forces me to resume reading the series. I stopped in summer. For me the Malazan books are a perfect read for autumn and winter.

Mihai A. said...

Thank you very much, Michael. I'll start Steven Erikson's series very soon too :)