He recently took to reddit to talk about his writing process, the importance of games, and the birth of a new subgenre! Check out the highlights below!
WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU, MAX GLADSTONE?
DeleriumTrigger: What the hell made you want to make your books so fucking weird? Thanks!
Max Gladstone: Just super weird myself, I think! It all makes sense to me. :)
Elquesogrande: Your works do not seem to fit neatly into any specific genre. Why is that? Has his impacted your ability to reach an audience in any way? If you were to create a genre name that fit your novels perfectly, what would the name be? What have been some of your favorite moments as a writer? What, to you, makes writing an awesome gig? The not-so-awesome stuff? What’s up next for you?
MG: For the genre questions: Hm, I don’t know. I don’t think too much about genre before I tell a story, and when I’m telling stories I don’t like to be following too firmly in anybody’s footsteps. Maybe it’s just that I started writing long-form stuff in a fanfiction / mashup fiction culture, where lots of different styles overlapped. Whatever the cause, a bunch of traditional mainstream genre questions (like “who is the rightful king?” which as a 21st century USican is not a question I spend a lot of time worrying about in my day-to-day) don’t interest me much—that ground’s been covered. The “what the hell, my postindustrial world-system is really weird” questions—those don’t seem to be asked as much in what we think of as mainstream epic fantasy. (Though some people are doing / have done that! Mieville and Swanwick spring to mind.)
It’s been an extra hurdle when it comes to marketing the books, for sure. It’s much easier to say “like x, but y” than it is to sell a concept that hasn’t been pre-sold to a certain extent. That said, readers are almost never the problem—once the right reader starts the right book, she’ll keep going whether or not it’s anything like what she’s read. It’s the space between finished manuscript and in-reader’s-hands that’s tricky. That’s why we need booksellers, librarians, good reviewers and critics, supersmart AI gods, wait, forget I said that last one, I’m not supposed to say anything about the—
Huh, what was I saying?
Favorite moments: finishing books. Starting books. Hearing that people liked my books. Telling stories. Surprising myself with a plot twist I didn’t see coming. (That happened yesterday!) Not-so-awesome stuff: getting zapped by supersmart AI gods, wait, dammit, I’m still not supposed to say anything about-
Up next: more Craft Sequence books. Another game. And maybe electrocution, if I keep going along this road. :)
THE BIRTH OF FAITHPUNK?
Whiskeyjoel: I’ve read your previous two novels, and when trying to describe your work to others, I’ve used a term I previously saw on this subreddit: faithpunk.While a one-word description is always going to fall short, faithpunk does seem to fit the bill. Have you seen this term before, and do you like what the term implies about your work?
MG: I really like that term, though I don’t think I’ve seen it used outside this sub. I’m cautious about faithpunk only because it seems every subgenre is some kind of -punk these days, but it fits so well! Various iterations of and issues with faith are central to these books, and I keep poking and prodding at issues of class and politics and exploitation, which impetus was a huge part of cyberpunk and punk generally. That said, most of the Craft books focus on characters with a decent amount of privilege in the universe, so maybe William Gibson is laughing somewhere as I write this. Who knows!
But it’s a good term.
LITERALLY INVISIBLE HANDS!
In Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, the world is governed by strict economic rules that link the amount of “soulstuff” a character has to their monetary worth. Many of the AMA participants jumped into this aspect of the books, asking Gladstone for more detail on exchange rates and such. Nerds!
Mundanername: I asked if your Soul economy was zero sum and if not where growth came from. You replied that “growth comes from creative action in the world—the mind’s work to create patterns.” Does this mean it is possible for an individual to become wealthy due to their own creativity?
MG: Yes, though it’s slow and rare and risky. If you carry too much soulstuff in your own consciousness, you can go a bit mad—time does funny things around you, and the risk of Prousting out increases exponentially the more soulstuff you hold. That’s why people invest. (Though there are a few monasteries on secluded hilltops… But we can’t stop there, that’s spoiler country!) For most people the pure artistic achievement approach takes way too long, and is too undependable. Folk need to eat and make rent and pay their kids’ bills. So—employment!
Mundanername: Most of the wealth we see in the novels comes from complex investment schemes. If creative action grows the soul does that mean some occupations in the world do not just pay the workers a salary but the very act of performing the job generates wealth for the workers?
MG: Depends—most employment contracts are structured so that added value goes to the Concern. It’d be a very special (and possibly doomed) Concern that didn’t work this way.
Mundanername: Do people actually spend themselves to death in this world?
MG: Yep. Though “death” is a bit of a misnomer—most of the time what happens is people spend themselves into zombiehood, and end up shambling about at the mercy of their creditors (depending on the structure of the debt). If they accumulate enough soulstuff by the terms of their contract they can come back to life, but apperception’s broken, and the psychological damage lasts a long time. Crafty folk are “better” at expending their soul—they can straight up spend themselves to dust if they’re not careful.
CerebralPaladin: Do you have a clear value for a thaum? How many thaums to a soul? What’s the median income in thaums in Alt Coulomb? That sort of thing?
MG: A thaum’s purchasing power is roughly comparable to 2012 USD; 2,000 thaums to a soul, which means the Hidden Schools full-tuition student loan is a nice round 100 souls; I have less ready numbers for median income because I haven’t given a lot of thought to current AC property values, but it’d probably come out somewhere in the 40-45 kthaum range.
Albill: Do you regenerate thaums or do you have a finite supply only replenished by taking soul energy from other people or things? I note in the last book that it was pretty clear that items of emotional importance tends to pick up some thaums from folks, making them worth stealing?
MG: You can generate soul on your own, but soul-generation is an exercise in imposing order on sense experience. It’s difficult, and not very dependable. Most people need jobs to earn soulstuff. It’s uncomfortable to keep too much soul in your own head. People tend to put it in things instead: basically incorporating their possessions into their own identity, storing soulstuff there.
Megazver: So in the second book the Craft was kinda sorta free market capitalism and the Religion kinda sorta the state and the argument was that you probably need both, right?
MG: More or less. Certainly that unrestrained sorta-free-market capitalism has a nasty tendency to ignore “externalities” like “we’re all going to die in fifty years because there won’t be any water left”, and that working with governments—or at least with entities whose primary motive isn’t raw profit—can help address that. But there’s also a lot going on in Two Serpents Rise about agrarianism and my own unease about the “if we just went back to pre-industrial life everything would be great (once billions of people died as we starved ourselves down to pre-industrial levels of agricultural production, and given higher death rates due to lack of medicine, and you know it’s not as if pre-industrial societies were egalitarian paradises)” argument…. In the end it’s mostly about people trying to live morally in a very complicated and compromised situation, which is very much the position of modern First World humans.
JayRedEye: It is interesting to see the different justice systems of your various cultures. Which one do you think is the most effective?
MG: As far as justice systems are concerned, man, all the ones we’ve seen so far are utterly terrifying. Maybe the Wardens, because at least their consciousnesses are more or less intact, but as for that they’re the easiest for powerful people to use for their own end… The Guard on Kavekana have the system that most closely resembles policework as it runs in our world, but then there’s that “reformation” system. Eek.
ThreeOneFive: I absolutely love the attorney/craftsman aspect of your writing—no pansy ass wands, rather cut-throat court room tactics which can turn literal. Love it. How did you flesh out this idea? I got the sense from reading Three Parts Dead that you didn’t just make something up to fill in the court room scene, but rather kind of outlined, at least broadly, a structure of legal/thaumaturgical laws, and then drew from them to write that scene and others. Anyway, as a legal nerd who does appellate law (heavy on procedure and rules), I loved it.
MG: Fleshing out the idea involved a lot of research, then drawing parallels between real-world legal and financial concepts and the books’ magic system. Litigation combines fact and presentation—so it seemed like a good idea to have courtroom combat depend both on arguments presented, and on the power & technique of the Craftsmen presenting that argument, and the rest of the system followed from those first principles. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I’m really glad it worked for you!
ONCE MORE, WITH NECROMANCY!
Often, asking an author where they get their ideas is a dead end of a question, but in TroubleEntendre’s case, it paid off: Where’d you get the idea to run necromancers as lawyers?
MG: Professionals who speak dead and arcane languages who draw their power from formulae written in tomes bound in red leather, and who fly from nation to nation resolving the problems of nearly-immortal entities? Seemed logical to me…. Also, necromancy and bankruptcy law in specific have a lot in common: take something that’s dead, surround it with a circle of protection, carve it up, argue with other people about what parts of the dead thing work and what don’t, remove the stuff that doesn’t, wire together the stuff that does, hook corpse up to lightning generator, and viola! Instant restructuring. Except what the process produces can, if you’re not careful, be very different from what came before.
JeffreyPetersen: Are necromancers the next, cooler Zombies? Poised to ride this necromancer wave of fiction, what cool monster would you like to see as the next craze?
MG: Necromancers are awesome. Oddly, with all the zombie fiction around, I’m not aware of a ton of books focusing on necromancers—though a decent amount of urban fantasy might qualify, and of course there’s the Johannes Cabal books which are a high candidate for my favorite currently-running fantasy series. My favorite necromancer-related title, though I’ve never read it, is “Hold Me Closer, Necromancer.” I’ve never read it, but damn, that title.
Hold me closer, necroma-a-a-ancer
Raise the dead things on the highway
Lay me in a cushioned casket
While the poor fools out there pray /sings
Um. Anyway. Next monster: bears! Not were-bears. Just bears. Bears are great.
Feministfireball talked about fantasy’s tendency to focus on “badass/grimdark/hooded white dudes,” and asked Gladstone what his own attempts to achieve diversity in his books say about his work. His answer is long and knotty, so we’re presenting it unedited:
MG: Yeah, I hear that a lot about the genre. There’s a strong movement now to diversify the genre and break out of exactly that “badass/grimdark/hooded white dude” trap you’re talking about, and I think it’s great. Of course, we need to keep working harder. This is a bit of a tangent, but have you ever read The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold? It’s this great short story about space-POWs stuck in a prison that is just a force field bubble in the middle of a desert—no walls, food and water are parachuted in through a hole in the force field dome, that sort of thing. The title, if I remember rightly, comes from a notion introduced in the story that people who live within boundaries for too long tend to have their imaginations limited by those boundaries. Like, their conception of “infinity” might just be “to the edge of the walls that define my world.” I think in fantasy we face a lot of that: since the genre’s in theory limited only by our imagination, writers and readers keep slamming face-first into the ideologically-prescribed limits of that imagination…Um, sorry, I’m getting Slavoj Zizek all over the subreddit. Anyway! What does it say about my work? I dunno. Eloquent, right?
CodaPDX: I was pleasantly surprised to find that the main character in Full Fathom Five was a trans woman (or a Kavekanan analog thereof). This has to be the first genre novel I’ve read with a trans main character, and the first time I’ve seen gender just be part of a trans character’s background and not the crux around which the whole story revolves. Which is kind of depressing, when I think about it, but hey—progress! Anyhow, this is all just a rambling way of saying that Kai is an awesome character.
MG: For my $0.02, and it’s really worth no more than that, it’s important to have a lot of different types of stories starring folk of different backgrounds, orientations, gender identities etc. Stories about people wrestling with their gender identity are important, and should be told. But there’s also room to tell stories about people with, in this case, non-cis gender identities being heroes, detectives, wizards, rocket-ship captains, or all of the above. Why couldn’t a character who was trans do all the hero stuff? It’s not like, say, Rand Al’Thor is circumscribed by his gender identity. He has a gender identity, clearly, and he’s constantly negotiating it (consider his triple-marriage, and his general tension about allowing women to endanger themselves because in his vision of gender politics men should be the ones endangering themselves to protect women, and his relationship to the dangerously-gendered half of the One Power), but his heroism isn’t determined by whatever happens to be between his legs. Why should a trans character and a cis character be any different in this particular case—that is, when considered as potential epic fantasy heroes? (Though obviously the differences in the relative levels of privilege the two groups have in our society call for greater care when creating trans characters, for fear of punching down or accidentally doing harm.)
ZoneWombat: What I find myself mentally working on are the locations. You seem to take elements of real geography and history, dump them into a pot, stir them around, and serve the results. Dresedial Lex, for example, has elements of Mexico City, Guaymas, and LA. So my questions are: are there any elements of your stories (characters, sets, etc) that have a direct source? And what’s your favorite mash-up?
MG: Location-wise, I gumbo up a lot of different histories and geographies. Even when I’m using a very explicit base I’ll do a lot of research, then change stuff to incorporate other cultural influences or the history of the world I’m writing. So, Kavekana for example—I’m drawing heavily off Polynesian myth structures and the development of millennialist cargo cults, but the island’s part of an enormous archipelago between continents that are culturally analogous to Afro-Eurasia and the Americas, so I did a lot of research on Atlantic island cultures too, and then changed a bunch of stuff because in Domain the existence of the Skeld Archipelago allowed for island-hopping communication between continents much earlier than in our realm. (Which has some nice immunological benefits for both sides.) Dresediel Lex is probably the closest to a direct quote of real world cities, but even that, as you note, is pretty blended.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE:
Kalebruss: Do you have any idea of what you will be writing after you have completed the Craft Sequence? And speaking of the Craft Sequence, will you be writing more than five book? Your world seems so much larger and vast than five books.
MG: I don’t have any immediate plans to end the Craft Sequence. I have an overall arc in mind for the “present day” stories, which could take at a bare minimum three more books after the five, but would be more comfortable with more books, which would give me more room to explore the world. Also, it’d be nice to write the big fat God Wars series someday. In the short term, though, I have a crazy burning idea for a book set in sort-of our world with magic, it’s complicated, and it’d be nice to write more science fiction. If all goes well, I’ll be writing these side-by-side with the Craft Sequence. We Shall See.
Megazver: Do you have any awesome non-Craft Sequence settings brewing in that head of yours? Any hints?
MG: Mentioned this off and on throughout the thread, but I’ve got a burning scheme for a sort of our-world fantasy novel, ideally a one-off, crazy On The Road / Amber Chronicles sort of thing.
A few readers chimed in with requests for certain characters to show up in the sequence again, with MikeAWants saying “I’d love to read more about Tara and the rest of the gang again” and JayRedEye asking “My main question is when are we going to see more Gargoyles?”
MG: I just got done writing a pivotal scene in the fifth book in the series, which features most of the central characters from Three Parts Dead, so yes! It’s coming. Part of the reason I move around is that I don’t want all of my characters to become giant walking sacks of regret and post-traumatic stress, which tends to happen to people who have too many adventures in too short a time. But Tara and the gang have had more than enough time to rest. It’s time for their lives to get a little worse exciting. More gargoyles: SOOON! I’m writing a book with gargoyles in it now. Muahaha.
Glowingdark: How many more three word titles do you already have figured out?
MG: One: the next, Last First Snow. I’m still brewing a title for Book 4. That grating sound you hear is my editor’s teeth grinding themselves to a fine powder. Hi, Marco!
zombie_owlbear: I’m curious whether you can point out a specific writing exercise that was very helpful in developing your craft. Thanks!
MG: Pushups. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Um. Best writing exercise I’ve ever done, and I haven’t done many of them: take a defined period, say three months. Every day during that period—and I mean every. single. day.—write a journal entry. No more than one page—you might not want to go over half a page. Catch: you’re not allowed to write it in journal-voice (“today I did this, and then I had lunch, and then I did that”). Write a scene of your life, as you lived it. Pretty soon you’ll start to run through your bag of rhetorical tricks, and have to try new ones. This is good.
Feanysab: I was just wondering what are some of your favorite books.
MG: A few, in no particular order: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny; The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett; The Hero and the Crown, by Robin McKinley; The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons; Little, Big, by John Crowley.
PLOTS VS. PANTS!
Lordmarlowe: how far in advance do you plot out your stories? Do you tend to write off-the-cuff, or is there always an overarching structure in mind?
MG: I’m half-plot, half-pants. When I start, I’ll pursue various ideas for scenes and stories, but eventually I settle on a general goal and a path with which I’ll reach it. I try to keep things flexible, though, because if I’m doing my job right characters and scenarios will suggest themselves during the work. If I had too rigid a structure, there wouldn’t be enough room for that kind of inspiration to strike—and when it does, it’s incredibly valuable. Then I edit extensively to make sure everything fits.
Themightygresh: What or who would you say was the greatest inspiration for the Craft series of novels, and is there anything or any idea you feel like you absolutely wanted to put into this universe and felt like you just shoehorned it in?
MG: Greatest inspiration, hard to say. For worldbuilding style, Roger Zelazny. For pacing and plotting, Dorothy Dunnett. For magic and awe, Ursula LeGuin and Madeline L’Engle. For economics being cool, Frank Herbert, and Dunnett again. Most of the worldbuilding ideas I put in end up fitting with everything else, because they’re all weird—kind of like how if you’re outfitting a room with wooden furniture you can make it all match, or make none of it match. I do shoehorn in references to stuff I like. There’s a Neon Genesis Evangelion reference that’s showed up in every book so far, for example, and a Hyperion Cantos one as well.
Author and action hero Wesley Chu came in tow present Gladstone with a challenge: “Max, in Thunderdome, you see a chainsaw, a rubber mallet, and the broken ends of a Victorian park bench. You are up against an angry Asian man who is impervious to pain, but has less reach. What weapon do you pick up?” Gladstone met the his foe, saying, “Definitely going for the Macallan. Failing that, the park bench. Maximizing reach & all.”
Lordmarlowe: And just for fun: what are your favorite board games?
MG: Board games: Eclipse, as noted. Excellent game. Hugely fun. I like Quantum a good deal as well, and Tales of the Arabian Nights, and I’m developing an affection for Mage Knight though I haven’t played it much yet.
Albill: I know you’re a gamer geek for tabletop RPGs. Does your history of role-playing games have any impact on how you write, world build, or anything else that comes to mind?
MG: Yes. RPGs at their best encourage envisioning full, living worlds in which player characters can act, but to which no particular party is central. A good setting can give many parties freedom to run around having their own adventures, telling their own stories. RPG work also helped me learn about scene-building through detail—and about reader reactions. There’s no training like GM’ing for learning how to freak a reader out.
A HAPPY ENDING!
Cachagua: What is your favorite part of being a writer?
MG: The evil laughs. Definitely.