I have to say that of all the interviews I’ve done, this is one of my favorites. For my part, I found Steve’s responses immensely insightful, much akin to the depth a reader can find in his fiction, which I suppose shouldn’t be any surprise.
Below you’ll find that I’ve asked him some of the questions I like asking all writers that I speak with, in part because I find it interesting to compare the variety of responses to topics that interest me. Of course, there are some questions and answers that are rather unique to Steve.
Peter Orullian: Hey Steve, thanks for taking some time to chat with me. As a way of getting started, let me ask you to look back on the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, now that you’ve brought it to conclusion with The Crippled God. Do you find any through-lines, overarching (or underlying) themes, whether intentional or not, that seem to resonate from the body of work?
Steve Erikson: The themes from the beginning of the series more or less followed through, although they acquired more weight (for me) the further along I got. This was always an exploration into those elements of the human condition that seemed under siege: compassion, heroism and the notion of redemption, all played out against a rather epic backdrop—which of course is what fantasy does best among all the genres. The juxtaposition of normal human beings and the playing out of a dramatic history—one involving gods and beings with vast powers—was part of my initial impulse in terms of exploration. In many ways, I think, it’s all pretty much relatable to most of us in this world, where it seems that we proceed in a vague cloud of powerlessness, as civilization rushes ever onward (well, not ever onward, as nothing lasts forever), while we remain locked in our lives and the struggles facing each of us.
I never said my series was escapist, in any sense, and at no time do I recall feeling any “escape” while writing it. The themes never went away.
PO: Your reply here provoked some thoughts. I’m now thinking about escapist literature vs. literature that shows readers characters that are dealing with situations and demonstrating behaviors that have a clear correlation to their own lives. I don’t wish to become too high-minded about it, but would you say that at least part of the value in reading stories is to find models—hopefully positive ones—for dealing with the challenges in one’s personal life? You speak of compassion, heroism, redemption. It occurs to me that these are things we may want for ourselves, if in a less fantastical way. I don’t wish to suggest that the value of simply reading and enjoying a great tale isn’t sufficient but I have some personal ideas about the degree to which books resonate more when they go past mere escapism. I would love your thoughts.
SE: It comes down to honesty, I think. What are the things you value in people? And in the making of art, do we not seek the best in us? Some would counter that no, not always, but I would suggest that the worst of human nature has sufficient opportunities for public displays all around us, day in, day out. Each such event (like the recent shootings in the cinema line) batters at our souls, diminishes us. I am not suggesting that one should not write about such things (or produce art derived from those darker emotions), but I would hold that in the act of creating that art, it behooves us to seek some kind of answer to the tragedies of our lives. I think this is a universal need, and certainly when I write I struggle to find those answers (well, I suppose they’re not even “answers” as such, only gestures).
So, rather than “want,” I would use “need.” And leave it at that.
PO: Was there any part of the series that proved particularly challenging? And if so, what did you take away from working through it?
SE: The biggest challenge I faced was one of patience: the need to take my time, to not rush through any scene no matter how seemingly trivial, and to sustain that through ten volumes and three million words. I knew where the series ended—I lived with those final scenes from the very beginning, and the desire to get there was overwhelming, but I knew that if I did, if I hurried to those scenes, they would arrive without the emotional impact I wanted (and felt was necessary). The journey delivers the value, the weight, the context, and without that the series’ end would not have worked for me (and, as is every author’s mark of faith, for the readers as well, or so I hoped).
As for what I took away from the series, well, I suppose it was a sense of completion, of having done what I set out to do, for better or worse, and having done the best I could. There is a poem to close the series that offers a somewhat wry take on that, in that the one making the journey often cannot see the end for what it is, and ends up simply continuing on in his search. While there is something sad in that blindness, it is also an integral truth to the narrative of our lives—we only end by dying: the rest is journey, and every seeming conclusion is but a pause, a way-station in which to catch our breath, before we continue on. I suppose, if I’d, say, planned on topping myself once the series was done, I could never have written that poem. As an aside, the character in that poem, the one doing the walking, was crippled, and if I am to identify myself as that person, that seems a nice fit, in that I am not without flaws, and the same can be said for the series (the journey itself).
PO: I ask many of the writers I interview about the notion of “fiction as autobiography.” By that, I don’t mean a thinly-veiled effort to tell your life-story. Rather, more a way of seeing (probably in retrospect) how your life, your thoughts, in a particular period influenced the work. Any of that resonate for you?
SE: Absolutely. The idea that an author can extricate her or his own ongoing life experience from the tale being written is a conceit of very little worth. If you hear it said, it’s probably a self-defense mechanism. The whole exercise of writing is a prolonged blood-letting of the soul (or it should be)—and this is probably why criticism can be so devastating if you let it get to you. As a writer, you begin (presumably, at least I do) with a premise of honesty—that is, what you are about to say will reveal whatever truths you might possess (and, potentially, challenge those truths via the characters and their freedom to live on the page, and outside the page, too, for that matter); and then to ask—of the world out there—is this how it is? Is this how it must be? Do you understand, at the very least, where I’m coming from? And, finally, do you want to come along? It’s a risky venture, and a risky place to begin a conversation with strangers, but then, I’d never want it any other way—would you?
Through hard experience, we have learned how to live in a world of suspicion, and we tend to hold ourselves in a guarded position when engaging with people we don’t know, and the world of the media seems to delight to promulgating a certain level of fear (through news reports and through films with all their themes of random violence and sociopathic behaviour). But the novel—the story—is in itself a foil to that, so long as the intent of the exchange, between author and reader—remains an honest one. If there is any value in this damned job, it has to be that one.
PO: What do you think the self-defense mechanism is defending against? Is it that the author worries the reader won’t find him creative? Or that if he’s writing auto-biography that he’s only really got one story to tell? Or maybe it’s a way to avoid coping to rather personal, even painful, parts of one’s own story? I believe you’re right, and am interested in your thoughts on why a writer takes the conceit you mention.
SE: All of the above: every potential reason for that self-defense that you listed might well lie at the core of it. All art is an intensely vulnerable gesture, and it is made with no small amounts of risk, and fear. So, I have plenty of sympathy for self-defense mechanisms, especially among artists.
PO: This genre we write in, what does it do better than other genres? Any strengths you particularly enjoy relative to other spec fiction categories?
SE: I’ve spoken often of how the fantasy genre is able to, with the greatest freedom among all the genres, take a metaphor and make it real. But of course that’s only the starting point. The question then is: what do you do with that metaphor? What is it, precisely, that you want to expose, and explore? In many respects, the very distinction made by the label, fantasy, is a bit ridiculous: every work of fiction is a fantasy, and every world created in every such work, is a fantasy world, an unreal world, a made-up, fake world. Some proceed with constrained rules, ones we would recognize as shared with this (real) world, but that’s just a feint—those recognizable elements are there to disguise the unreal elements hiding behind them. What do I mean by that?
Well, choose any work of fiction, set anywhere, and strip away the familiar elements of setting, so that the narrative bones are laid bare. Well, though I spoke earlier of the “narrative of our lives,” that sense of narrative is of course an illusion, or, rather, it only exists as the internal monologue we all possess and operate from. The only consistent narrative we possess is one that we share with every other life-form: we are born, we live, and then we die. The rest is filler, but it’s that filler that artists are obsessed with. The bare bones narrative has to be taken as a given, but it cannot be altered in its core truth.
Also, it’s not in any way value-laden: it simply is. But we, as self-aware creatures, we hunger to attribute meaning and significance, to add the muscle of meaning to those bones. And it’s artists, perhaps more than anyone else, who take that on, until it’s like a fever. Now, in a contemporary work of fiction, behind the façade of familiarity, you’ll find countless arguments about meaning, about morality, about what it all means: and those arguments impose an artificial narrative—lives structured, filled up with clearly determined cause-and-effect, and often with a sense of deterministic inevitability. This last point is the kicker: we need it for a sense of satisfaction by the story’s end, and this is where the “fantasy” aspect hits home (unless, I suppose, you happen to be a fatalist). The storyteller is always speaking after the fact—the events in the novel have already happened—and in the looking back upon those events, the principal exercise is a search for meaning. Even where it simply doesn’t exist. This is where narrative structure is universal, crossing all genres and, ultimately, making them all the same. Fantasies.
By the way, this is not an irreligious position. The face we put on morality is not relevant to my argument. The only thing that is, is the notion of free will (and even if the world was predetermined, well, it’s not like we can do anything about it, is it?).
PO: I once asked an independent bookstore owner—one who specializes in fantasy and science fiction: “What do you want in a good fantasy?” He replied: “I want simple answers to complex problems.“ I’m not sure if this is related to your reply, but it feels like it might be. I think about the randomness with which terrible things happen, real tragedy. I see it on the news every day. I grieve, personally, a lot when I hear stories about the victimization of children. And I instantly—through my anger—want to understand: Why? So, again—and not to get too high-minded about it—would you say that at least one of the reasons we read is to participate in a story where we can answer the question “why?”
SE: We probably participate in all stories that way, and are given simplified reasons for all that happens (or doesn’t happen). Even a news report is delivered as a ”story,“ after all. But all of this is an exercise is what you say: understanding, when, ultimately, all stories fail in offering that. Sure, one can look at a sequence of events and piece together a reasonable list of causes, connections and so on, but where to draw the line? While here in Croatia, and in the company of a PhD student in history, I’ve been lucky enough to learn a lot about Croatian history, and the history of the Balkans in general. And it is very clear how things scale up, almost endlessly, so that an entire multi-country war can start from something as mundane and trivial as a family feud on a border. And that’s just the linkage of history: how much more complicated can we find it, when we examine things such as human biology (hard-wired proclivities to act in certain ways), cultural identity, mores of that culture, the unspoken versus the spoken; the personal fears, worries and hurts behind things? Or a legacy of oppression and brutality passed back and forth between peoples? What of disenfranchisement, and poverty, and stress? It is never as simple as it may seem, or as we might want it to be.
So, does the fantasy genre simplify things, and so offer up a kind of comfort? Yes. And is that comfort an illusion, in itself a fantasy? Yes. Are we each and every one of us comforted by illusions? Some more that others, and for many, it’s a partitioned kind of comfort, and maybe then it serves as the ”answer“ you seek. Needless to say, I am skeptical of such illusions, and did my damnedest to tackle them in what I write. That said, I cannot tell you that what I do has any value at all. But I know of no other way in which to engage with the world (this world, that world).
PO: With your own work: What do feel you’re doing better now than when you started? Were these areas where you worked consciously to improve? Or do you find improvement of the craft comes more organically?
SE: Any sense of improvement one gets, is after the fact: it’s the result of applying an analytical eye to what one has written. But the process of creation—the mind-set during the act of composition—is anything but analytical (and I suspect, when the analytical mind bleeds over into the inventive mind, is when writer’s block arrives. I just finished watching the first season of Treme, and the one character in it suffering from writer’s block, made me frustrated beyond belief—I wanted to step in there and give the guy a shake!). So, am I better than when I started? Well, that’s very hard to answer. Looking back, analytically, I see a clash of currents, one on the rise and one descending. The one on the rise is all about competence: line by line, word by word—the simple facility with language that comes with lots and lots of practice. The one on the descent relates, I think, to imaginative inventiveness, which was probably a quality of youth and the ambition that thrives in it. In many respects, my ambitions are more modest these days: or, rather, they have turned inward, introspective rather than balls-to-the-wall-in-your-face-take-a-look-at-fucking-this (which more or less describes the Malazan Book of the Fallen). The vast epic panorama has given way to a kind of folding in, leading me to a place where my fascination and ambition is now with language, in seeing how much weight it can carry, moment by moment, through the story being told. Forge of Darkness and the trilogy that novel begins, feels … meatier.
Whether that constitutes an improvement or not remains to be determined. Even if I like what I have done with this opening novel in the new trilogy, doesn’t mean anyone else will.
PO: I’m also fond of asking writers about this notion of “semantic contagion,” which is to say: Some ideas should not be expressed. I suppose the question has a lot to do with self-censorship. But by way of example, there’s a condition called apotemnophilia, which describes an otherwise rational person who expresses the desire to have a healthy limb amputated. It’s an extreme example, but by one account, the broad sharing of this idea increased instances of those who exhibited the desire. So . . . in your own work, do you ever say to yourself, “Nope, not that,” and move on? Or is it all fair game, as they say?
SE: Well, that there is a loaded question, isn’t it? To what extent is a creator responsible for the consequences to her or his creation? Are all such consequences predictable? Can we think in advance of every single one that might occur? There’s probably a sliding scale to this. Invent an Atom bomb and it will get used. Throw a banana peel on a sidewalk and someone might slip on it, but not necessarily: what you’ve done is created a probability, which can be measured via a number of varying factors (if the sidewalk is in a ghost-town versus a busy city street, etc). There seems enough evidence accruing these days, however, to predict that whatever might occur as a consequence to what you write, will occur, somewhere, somewhen. Bearing that in mind could freeze a writer in their tracks. The very idea of relying upon the common-sense of one’s audience is increasingly precarious, which poses a dilemma to the artist: where does responsibility begin and where does it end? Should writers of mystery novels and thrillers evade the gory details of a murder or serial murders? Is this about ”putting bad ideas in people’s heads“?
There’s no shortage of neuroses out there, and it does seem as if mere description will be taken by some as invitation, which in turn invites, as you say, self-censorship.
The way around this that most writers work with, goes back to that moral context to things: the bad guy gets it in the end, and we as readers are satisfied with that, and this is how stories will comfort us in the evocation of justice and righteousness (and where author as a god comes in, doing in their invented, fantasy world, what we don’t usually see in the real one). But back to the example: the bad guy gets it in the end, but really, is that as satisfying as it should be? There were victims in the wake, and periods of terrible suffering, and grief among the survivors, and a truth of lives ruined from now on. Is it enough to see the bad guy dead or in jail? Isn’t it, in fact, less relevant than witnessing the act of the victory (and inevitability?) of justice?
Authors will subvert that, and many do, and we are left (usually) with unease, with dissatisfaction: we are also left wondering, what was the author’s point here? That we’re all fucked: that life is shit; that the bad guys win; that we exist in a nihilistic nightmare? At which point, isn’t it fair to ask: ”why did you bother telling me that? I mean, what’s the fucking point, asshole?“ And you know what, you’d have a point (I often ask that after a particularly miserable film—Surveillance comes to mind).
So, I do hold to John Gardiner’s views on this: there is a moral imperative in fiction (perhaps in all art), and more to the point, an author/artist should be prepared to defend their position (as it was presented in their public creation, be it book, film or whatever), and if in the end they can only articulate abject nihilism, well, don’t expect me to just smile and nod, or even hang out in their company.
PO: I like that you mention Gardner. I’ve recommended him to a lot of writers who weren’t familiar with him. And I’d be with you in finding someplace else to be rather than in the company of an artist whose sole aim is abject nihilism. If nothing else, I just don’t think we’d have much to say to each other. For such work that does garner an audience, though, what do you think that audience is finding valuable in those stories? Is it as simple as “it’s different?” Do you think nihilistic literature is more prevalent and/or successful now than in periods of literature previously? They’re big questions, I think. But I’m interested in your view.
SE: There are forces in history that rise and fall, and the factors contributing to both are complex and varied to be sure. Others have made the observation that escapist literature thrives most when reality sucks. As for the proliferation of nihilist fiction, I would think that is but a lazy extension of what we have seen a lot of in film and television (the psychopathic, jaded, non-reactive hero who kills and kills and kills and doesn’t give a fuck beyond the memorable tag-line concluding the mayhem—yippee kay-ay). So, there on the screen, all the cool dudes with the craggy faces and the fawning women hanging off one arm. Nothing phases them. They sleep well at night (after the perfect sex with the perfect woman), and get up the next day, gun in hand, to do it all over again. Cynicism is cool, didn’t you know? It’s the mature way to be.
Fuck all that.
Well, see what happens when you get me started on this?
PO: Okay, on to a more light-hearted topic: Do you have a writing quirk? Some writers have rituals. Some a certain desk? You get the idea.
SE: Not really, or at least, none that I am aware of. When I edit, I do imagine that I am reading the section out loud, to an audience, and for all I know my lips move and I make gestures (okay, I do neither, but I’m trying to think of a possible quirk or two. Well, I occasionally smile or even snort if I’ve written an amusing line, or scene, which might prove disconcerting to others in the café where I write). My only ritual is to write outside my home, in a public space, and not a lonely, isolated space either, but in the midst of crowds, noise, conversations, and so on. Oh, wait, sitting in one place for four hours a day and having very little fat on my body and living in the UK where they don’t understand insulation or the purpose of doors, I often wear more clothes than most people around me—someone noted the scarf I was wearing and asked if I was cold and I said, ”no, I’m wearing a scarf.“ Another person recently mocked me for wearing a scarf when it was warm and I replied, ”it’s not for warmth, it’s an affectation.“ So, you see, I have responses for both positions. Does that constitute a quirk?
PO: Are there any writers whose work you eagerly anticipate? As in, you pre-order their work, or get it as soon as it’s released?
SE: Tim Powers, maybe Banks, Hamilton…
PO: I’m a musician, so I’m really interested to know a little about your musical tastes. Who do you listen to, if anyone?
SE: Well, I’m old, okay, and the older I get the broader my tastes go, excepting all the head-rocking rave shit, and the misogynistic-testosterone rubbish. So, my range of tastes go from Sinatra to Floyd to Coldplay to folk to blues to jazz (but not the experimental kind); Dylan, Cockburn, Cohen, Mitchell, Young. Rare Earth, Humble Pie, Nick Cave. Heavy is good. Poignant is great. Skill is brilliant.
PO: Well then, let me recommend to you Dream Theater. They’re a favorite of mine, and they’re heavy, poignant, and you’d be hardpressed to find a band with greater skill—both as songwriters and as instrumentalists. Beyond that, we’re of like minds. My tastes are really quite broad. And glad to find you’re a Sinatra guy.
SE: I’ll give Dream Theater a try. Thanks for the recommendation.
PO: Similarly, is there a concert or two that were particularly memorable?
SE: Best concert? David Byrne in Vancouver, about four years back.
PO: On the topic of music, I’ve been lately thinking about lyricism in prose. Is this so much fluff? Or in your view, is this a bona fide skill/ability? I think about writers like Jack Vance or Gene Wolfe or Ursula K. Le Guin when pondering lyricism.
SE: Well of course it’s bona fide, because it isn’t easy no matter how easy it might look (and making it look easy is the whole point, and it ain’t easy). It echoes the oral tradition of story-telling, which is a natural narrative, tied to body and breathing rhythms. People calling it fluff haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about, and are probably just jealous. While I’m a huge admirer of Ernie H (is it Hemingway or Hemmingway? I never remember) and that bared, cut-down reportorial style, I can also see how it can become an obsession in itself, to the exclusion of almost everything else (The Road comes to mind—all I kept seeing were the little knives endlessly paring away, snip snip snip, oh, enough already). Terseness can become evasion, sometimes, as every serious, heavy, honest emotion is quickly skirted around. Lyricism can tackle such emotions head-on, but in a way where the beauty of the language acts as seducer, with the emotional impact coming slowly (but resoundingly), like good chili.
PO: It seems in recent years most fantasy fiction must be “gritty” to be esteemed any good. I’m generalizing, but in large part this seems to be a common lens through which folks are viewing the genre. Have you thoughts about this? Is it a reaction to earlier movements in the genre, in the same way, as with music, grunge succeeded glam? Are there larger societal things that could be at play here? Or is it mostly a fabrication for tireless con discussion?
SE: Grittiness for its own sake is all peacock: the author strutting through the gore with a jaded look in the eye (give me a break), as if cynicism was a virtue. Grittiness that reaches for (and grabs hold of) something otherwise ineffable—emotional resonance, in a context that, through the very use of those gritty details, seems ”authentic"—seems to be a worthwhile thing. There is some element of the reactionary to this trend, I suppose: one where the things glossed over in the previous iteration of the genre (well, every genre) for the sake of the heroic, are now the subject of focus (but still, we get massive armies and massive battles showing up with tens of thousands dying, and still we’re only supposed to care about this commander or that prince, so the glossing over hasn’t quite gone away), but I would suggest that where humanity is being reached for in that grittiness, it’s a good thing. Where the only thing being reached for is the potential shock value and the dry Hollywood quip, well…
PO: What’s next for you? What can we expect over the next few years?
SE: I’ll write till I drop.
PO: Thanks, Steve.
I won’t belabor a summation here. I’ll just say I’m glad Steve plans to keep writing. His contributions, I believe, will be seen with increasing appreciation, which will eclipse his current and already well-deserved place as part of the fantasy genre’s vanguard. Buy his books.
Peter Orullian is the author of the recently released epic fantasy novel The Unremembered, the first in the Vault of Heaven series. You can find his interview series with popular fantasy authors of the day both here on Tor.com and at his site.