You asked and Ian Cameron Esslemont responded! In conjunction with the conclusion of the Return of the Crimson Guard Malazan reread, we’ve got the answers to your questions about the Malazan series, Return of the Crimson Guard, and more. (Just a small note before we begin, submitted questions were condensed and collected by username.) Click through to start reading!
Tufty: There’s been a lot of rumours/anecdotes that RotCG was originally written quite a while before it was published. Would you care to explain what truth there is to this, what (if anything) was changed between the original writing and release, etc?
Ian C: Sure, I’ll address this. Knives and RotCG were written way back. They were among the earliest (if not the first) prose explorations in the world, contemporaneous with Steve and my screenplay writing, including Gardens of the Moon (if I remember correctly). When these two works were accepted for publication I had to rewrite RotCG to bring it up to speed and to adjust the main narrative lines, including certain events and character lines, etc. Other than this however, the broad thrust of it, its arc and main events, remained as originally envisioned.
Tufty: One particular aspect of this is that it seems that the Old Guard characters rebelling against Laseen would have connected well with GotM’s sub-plot of eliminating the Old Guard, and this may have not connected as smoothly with RotCG being released after tBH instead of after GotM.
Ian C: Things just fell the way they fell with the publication acceptances and contracts as they came. C’est la Guerre.
Tufty: Lastly, do you ever get annoyed that people seem to spell your name as Esselmont a lot instead of Esslemont?
Ian C: Just a bit. There are lots of Esselmonts out there as well, an established variation on Esslemont. I think Esslemont is the original: just look at the map of Scotland north of Aberdeen, you’ll find Esslemont castle and village.
Tabbyfl55: I am wondering if, as co-creators of a world, you and Steven ever have any significant disagreements about how you want world-changing events to progress, and if you do, how do you resolve them? Or if not, how do you avoid them?
Ian C: In actual fact, Steve and I have had no significant disagreements over any element in the world from either of our writing. (Knock on wood). Surprising, I know, given how writing is often characterized as the world of bloated egos and over-sized heads.
I believe it all stems from us working out together the over-all thematic arc of this particular project. Once that was established, everything else had to follow in timbre and tone. Anything that would disagree with this controlling tone was simply not artistically considered by either of us.
Nimander: We’ve gotten glimpses of the Quon Talian continent in the prior malazan books, but up until this book it was just that -glimpses. Do you feel any pressure to deliver on all the build up? I’m thinking more of Korel and Jacuruku here, and speaking of which you’re -hopefully- currently writing “Assail” (and oh how that place has been built up in -at least my- imagination).
Is it daunting to tackle the new continents/cultures with all that buildup seeing as Steve set “Book of the Fallen” on three continents (don’t know about the crippled god) and you having to deliver on basically a new one every book (and one of them is Assail…)
Ian C: Yeah, build up sucks. But remember the sources, here. Most of the characters don’t really know what they’re talking about (kinda like real life …).
As to “delivering”, well, the readers will decide. These continents and locales are as they are. They and their events are in no way dependent upon how built-up they have been (at least that’s the goal). What I really hope to echo is the truth that when travelers come to a new land what they encounter almost never meets their expectations… (these expectations being based upon myths, hearsay, garbled histories, lies, delusions, and outright fabrications).
Nimander: And as an aside, what are your favourite films?
Ian C: Not surprisingly, my favourite films all have elements of science fiction and/or the fantastic to them: such as Kill Bill, Blade Runner, plus most post-apocalyptic films made.
Toster: On writing ‘naive’ characters – here i’m getting at Ghelel. she comes across as pretty naive several times in the story, and her instinctive reactions are almost glaringly naive sometimes. as you were writing her POV, did you sense that her character was in any way dislikable, and if so, did that affect how you wrote the character going forward, or did you continue to let the character ‘be themselves’, so to speak?
Ian C: I wrote Ghelel to be Ghelel. She came out of a highly controlled environment in which she was very sheltered. Therefore, she shouldn’t be blamed for being “sheltered.” Once her character was set in my mind I tried to be as true to it as I could in all her reactions and opinions. It fell out that she could be called naïve. So be it. Naïve people exist in this world, and others. It would be absurdly unrealistic to portray a world that contained no naïve people. (Sort of like television shows that purport to portray contemporary America yet contain no fat or ugly people—no, wait…)
As to likeable or unlikeable—irrelevant to writing. You write the character to be true to her or him self. Whether you or the reader will like or not like the character is beside the point. Talk instead about whether you engaged with the character, found him or her compelling or believable, whether his or her emotions/reactions felt consistent. Flaws in character portrayal should be talked about as whether the character’s actions felt “forced” by the author, or appeared “unmotivated”, inconsistent (contrary), or “parachuted” (inexplicable).
Toster: sticking with character, there seems to be a select group of people who figure more prominently in your books, and a group who are prominent in SE books. obviously the Crimson Guard are your realm, but specifically, i’m asking about osserc. it feels to me like osserc is much more your character than SE’s, and so i wondered if the two of you ever had correspondence respecting how SE would write ossercs back-story in Forge of Darkness, and how that should play out.
Ian C: Yeah, Osserc is “mine” in as much as Anomander is Steve’s. They came out of our gaming. Anomander needed a foil, an “enemy.” Yet through the gaming it turned out that they weren’t really enemies… anyway, enough of that as we’ll see how it turns out in Steve’s vision in the coming books.
We have talked over the back-story, and it’s still a little vague, as creation needs that kind of a vacuum in which to form.
Aaronthere: 1) is the short winged creature that mops around Oserc’s feet in the shadow warren Iskaral Pust?
Ian C: Here I can say decidedly that the creature is not Pust. As should be figured out by now, the Azath allow entities to live as “squatters” among them, provided said entities do some work, or errands, now and then.
Aaronthere: 2) Is there a connection between the Elder race of the Thel Akai and the Jade statues?
Ian C: I don’t think so. I don’t see it, and I don’t think Steve’s implied such. Is there something there in the text for you to make an argument for it?
Jragghen: RotCG is definitely larger in terms of scope and length than Night of Knives – how did this change your approach to writing the novel?
Ultimately, in the course of RotCG, Ghelel’s plotline didn’t really overlap with any of the other main plotlines, and ended up feeling tangential to the rest of the book (something which I’ll note also seems to happen in your other novels, but in the other cases they seem to be used more to set up more central plotlines to future books, which – at least thsu far – doesn’t appear to be the case with Ghelel). Was there any particular point or theme which you were attempting to approach or discuss with her inclusion?
Ian C: Ghelel, or more accurately, the people manipulating her, are engaged in scheming for control of an empire. It would therefore be prudent to cultivate numerous options, back-ups, and back doors. Realistically speaking, most of these options will come to nothing, or be abandoned, or suddenly changed at the last minute (just peruse a history of political machinations in Greek city states, or any Roman Imperial succession). Ghelel’s plotline then represents just one of the many schemes and stratagems in play during all this tumult. It wouldn’t be credible if all these plans and contingencies bore fruit. Therefore, the old guard had to abandon, or were undercut, in this particular plan. Also, for me personally, she represents a very hopeful possibility for all the characters: she escapes the machinations victimizing her. One of the most hopeful notes in the novel, I think.
Jragghen: From Erikson’s talks, it’s been established that a certain number of the plotlines of his books were gamed with you or with others amongst your friends. Is that also the case in your books, or are the stories more free-form? On a similar note, I know that Erikson has answered previously who you and he played at various times from your various character sets. RotCG deals with a number of the “Old Guard” whose adventures took place before the setting of the book series – are these other characters (Toc the Elder, Lassen, Urko, Caratheon, etc) the characters of other members of your original gaming group?
Ian C: Almost all our books of the main arc were gamed, his and mine, to greater and lesser degrees, all during our organization of the world. The books draw upon all the time we spent gaming, and so far, they represent only a fraction of all that material. When I say “to greater or lesser degrees” I mean that some were drawn from actual played-through moments (Gardens), while others derive from talked-through sketches and events (Blood and Bone)
As to Lasseen, Urko, and Cartheron (and so many others)—these constitute the team of characters through which Steve and I dramatized the creation of the Malazan “Empire” in its campaign to win Quon Tali. This back-story that hasn’t been touched yet: the early empire history. All gamed through by us long ago. Right now, I’m the one designated to tell these stories (I believe)—should we get to them.
Jragghen: Is it possible to get a Word of God as to how Ryllandaras the Jackal in RotCG relates to the wolf D’ivers in Deadhouse Gates? I’m aware of the prevailing fan theory, but it’d be interesting to get confirmation one way or another.
Ian C: Steve might disagree here, given that he has a backstory in mind for the wolf D’ivers in Deadhouse, however, to my mind, the two are separate in their final form, though the might relate in their origin.
Jragghen: And finally, I was wondering if you might be willing to enlighten us as to how Mallick Rel and Taya got into their business arrangement. This kinda ties into OST talk, so I’m not going to get into more detail than that (we may revisit it when we get to OST). Just curious, is all.
Ian C: Thanks for asking this question! This is just one example of what Steve and I think is extremely necessary to any fully realized world: things are constantly happening off-stage. Just because the flood-lamp of attention has swung away doesn’t mean that things stand still around any locale. My instincts say that Taya sought him out as a powerful enemy of the status quo. I won’t say anything specific here because there might be a novella there!
BDG91: I have three questions and hopefully you can answer them. First Quon Tali seems to have just about every phenotype known to people (and some that we don’t) and I am wonder if this was a conscious choice or did it simply naturally happened as you and SE were gaming?
Ian C: Nice observation. Again, here Steve and I were deliberately reacting against what had come before. Remember, this was a while ago, but for some time the fantasy offerings were drearily similar in presenting European faux-mediaeval peoples and societies (with some notable exceptions), meaning, in effect: a bunch of Nordic types. Steve and I decided to go deliberately in the opposite direction in presenting to the reader a bewildering variety of “shades” and types. There are, in fact, almost no Nordic types to be found (though some appear later). Interestingly, here the “fantasy” novel comes closest to presenting the true to life reality: most people in the world are non-Europeans, or “brown” or however you wish to frame it. Similarly so in Malaz.
BDG91: Second, throughout your books there seems to be only a few characters that are carried through to the next book, unlike SE whose takes several characters through his run. Why is this? This is not a complaint, I’ve always enjoyed your variety of characters in all of your books, but I would like to know if were every going to see Nait again or is his story finished?
Ian C: Yeah, looks like I’m ruthless in leaving characters to go their own way. In Nait’s case I believe the suggestion is clear enough that he is now well on his way to becoming a new rising legendary personality in the Malazan army. New faces are always needed to replace all the aging old guard.
As to carrying on characters, I believe readers will find that I’ve shifted in this towards the end. The through-lines increase as we move to Blood and Bone, and on to Assail. Some of these plot element through-lines will surprise the readers, I think.
BDG91: And finally third. Are you planning write anymore Malazan books after your sixth? If so would you mind detailing them somewhat? If not please just write a horror novel! I’ve always enjoyed your horror sections.
Ian C: I’m currently not under contract for any more. However, looking ahead, (as discussed above) Steve and I had divided up the fields of exploration in the manner that I might do the Imperial back-story, while he would do the Imperial after-stories. I would really enjoy telling these stories. We’ll see—it may happen.
As to horror, very interesting. Horror? Really? I see no horror in what I’ve done so far (and isn’t that frightening). I understand that Steve’s novellas have been categorized as horror—I would enjoy doing something analogous.
IrwinJon: Why Kyle? Stalker, Badlands, Coots and…Kyle? It’s not exactly the most fantastical of names.
Ian C: Variety. Again, Steve and I loathe the cliché names and naming schemes one finds in much of the fantasy offerings. Names that are attempting to be overtly “fantastic,” or edgy, typically end up sounding absurd. Because of this, I decided to choose a use name that was a little uncommon, not utterly strange, such as for example “Daldorian.” If your name was Daldorian, it would quickly be shortened in use to “Dal.” So too with “Kyle.” We will find that, as with most names, it is just a handy shortened version for everyday use. Alternatively, Badlands, and Coots, being two and one syllables, can’t easily be shortened. Stalker, you will note, is sometimes referred to as “Stalk.”
Djk1978: How does one person keep everyone out of the Imperial Warren, even if that one person is Topper? Isn’t the Imperial Warren huge?
Ian C: You are correct, the Imperial Warren is huge (theoretically limitless). However, its all about natural choke points and geography. He only cared about trespassers from Malaz. Mages entering the Warren from the regions of Malazan territories had to move through certain passes, or use a limited set of access points. Topper hung around these with his senses raised and anyone entering set off alarms like a stone thrown into a pond. Not to mention he could probably tell Claw magics from everyone else’s.
GoodOldSatan: My question relates to the handling of shared characters … Kiska, Tay, Traveller, Bars, etc. (and I wouldn’t be surpised if thee were more to come … at least for me … in OST and B&B). Given the way these characters appear throughout the two bodies of work, there must have been significant allignment going on between you and SE regarding what each of you could (and could not) do to/with them. So, was that a negotiation? Gamed? Or where these characters included primarily to provide continuity?
Ian C: GoodOldSatan? Really? The question above asks about the name Kyle and you give the name… well, never mind (sigh). Okay, shared characters. Not too much of a problem, actually. We saw how each of us played, or wrote these characters, and then merely worked to continue their arc as established. For example, Bars. Steve introduced him and I looked at him as a character, saw how he was so concerned about the people he commanded and, well, that was that. I decided to test that commitment—and there we are.
So, no negotiation at all, actually. We each look at what has been done, then try our best (I believe) to continue that character’s journey. I do not know if you have read OST yet, but in this regard I faced my greatest challenge in taking up Kruppe. It was terrifying, but I hope I managed not to embarrass myself. At least Steve hasn’t complained (but then he wouldn’t, as he’s so damned supportive and generous).
Jordanes: Just who was the girl Ragman/Topper fought in the Imperial Warren? Was it Apsalar or someone else? Lots of speculation on this but no definitive answer I’m aware of.
Ian C: Ah, yes. She represents another one of these off-stage potentialities that Steve and I hint at to suggest all the “other stuff” going on off-stage all about the world. She is thus a possibility, a potential that he or I might return to (and thus answer these questions).
KallorAndAshes: When can we expect Assail? And would you write more about Malazan after that book? I really would love to read more about Kallor.
Ian C: Is this because of your name? Have you read Blood and Bone yet? (just a hint). As to when Assail is coming out, well, I’m working on it now and it’s proving a real challenge. Don’t know when I’ll be done, but I’d expect to see the book out end of this year or so—but this depends upon Bantam, and their schedule. After this, I expect I would return to the world if I find a story that really pulls at me (see above).
KallorAndAshes: How has that sword Vengeance/Grief augmented Dassem’s skill? Would he have defeated Kallor without that sword that easily? Or was Kallor just overconfident? And he did defeat Skinner with ease. Skinner was reputed to have fought Dassem to a standstill.
Ian C: Vengeance/Grief would invariably augment the wielder’s ability. However, at the level of such masters as these, my instincts say that it comes down to who is more ‘on their game’ that day, or who is more up for the confrontation. Kallor is given to overconfidence; Dassem can be slow to be roused to his full ability; while Skinner can be impatient and dismissive of his opponents. These tendencies, plus their current goals and commitment to any duel would all contribute.
KallorAndAhes: Will we see Ghelel again? Does Moss get her? Moss does seem to have appeared in Stonewielder.
Ian C: Again, as above, Ghelel and Moss have been sent off into the wide world to meet what fate they may. My instincts work against any chance encounter to “show” them again, as that would smack of too convenient coincidences in plotting—which I hate to trip over in books.
KallorAndAshes: Has it ever happened that between you and Mr. Erikson, one of you had disliked a character the other liked?
Ian C: As I write above, like and dislike doesn’t enter into things. There are characters I have written, and Steve has written, that I wouldn’t like if I met them in real-life, but in the fiction what matters is how well conceived the characters are. And in this regard I’m lucky as all Steve’s are very well conceived and portrayed. I can only hope a few of mine are as well.
Ian C: Nice question. Yeah, like all good things in novels it just kinda took off in the telling and became an origin story. Its great when something like that happens in writing. I think it shows that the author is in “sync” with the material (at that moment), and what’s needed, or possible, emerges for the novel.
Billcap: Laseen. She is, in many ways, a cipher to readers. Personally, I love how much that is true, but I had a few questions about that. One is did the two of you have any discussions over that aspect of her—the lack of a pov from her, the idea of keeping her a mystery to readers? And if so, did either of you ever chafe at that? How did it get decided whether/how/when to kill of such a prime character? Was that negotiated? Had you always planned that for this novel?
Ian C: Ah yes, Laseen. Keeping her a mystery just emerged naturally from our handling of the “old guard”. Her death was determined by the material. The thematics demanded it at that point. By then she’d been abandoned/betrayed by everyone she had worked to advance and now had nothing left. She is one of our most tragic characters, I think. I wanted her death to be savage, brutal, and abrupt. I suppose I could have softened it with a few more touches, but in the end I just decided not to play with it too much (and risk messing it in some yet new way).
BillCap: There seemed a general consensus among our readers that the battle scenes were a particularly strong aspect of the novel. Do you take any particular approach to these scenes?
Ian C: I can’t say that I have any general manner of approach. I just try to portray the truth of the confrontation (which really has more to do with perceptions, than statistics) I’m very gratified to hear that these scenes are regarded as “working.” That means an awful lot to me as a writer, thank you. I guess what I should do is just keep doing what I’m doing in this regard.
BillCap: I’m driving to Alaska this summer (picking up the would-rather-fly family in Fairbanks). Beyond the three days we have scheduled camping in Denali, what’s your top suggestion (knowing we’re driving a Toyota Prius and not an off-roader)?
Ian C: Hmmm. The summer, you say? Depending upon how long you have. I would recommend a drive on south to the Kenai Peninsula. Homer, perhaps. (two days down) Or a drive to Seward (two days down), which is a great place.
Djk1978: When’s the last time you were in Winnipeg and what area of the city did you frequent (I live there myself). Any chance you are a Jets fan? What are your thoughts about a city that some people who have never been there like to slight?
Ian C: Go Jets, hey? Well, I’ve been away from the city for too long now to claim any allegiance to the Jets. When I lived there I was in the very south end, close to St. Norbert. And it’s too bad that the city gets bad press—it’s actually a very livable city. An ideal place to have grown up. I do miss it.
Stevenhalter: Was Laseen’s death here a planned or a played scenario. In other words, was there a chance of her surviving?
Ian C: I don’t believe it was gamed (though I may be misremembering). However, Steve and I talked it all through and this end was agreed to by both of us as necessary at this point (if everything went as planned).
IskaralPust: I’ve been wondering about this for some time, but it is more of a general question that a RotCG question. Many different sources indicate that yourself and Mr. Erikson originally created the Malaz world for gaming and that you’ve gamed some of the story. My question is – would we be reading a completely different story if the dice bounced a different direction?
Ian C: Ha, the bounce of the dice. Well, the truth was that we drove the true gamers mad with our blatant disregard for the mechanics of the game. We neither of us cared for what the dice said and preferred instead the unfolding of poetic truth. Excellent, inspired, or entertaining role-playing always won out over the dictates of the rules. In other words, Malazan gods were as Greek gods who always reserved the right to intervene to cheat the fates for inspired moves or speeches. The short answer then, is that the poetic truth of a tragedy is that the tragic hero or heroine must die, and this was how we saw Laseen.