A Few Words from Roger Zelazny, Part Seven: Roger’s Vision of Amber

Roger Zelazny’s biographer and friend, Ted Krulik, is sharing insights and anecdotes from the author.

In The Hand of Oberon, the fourth book of The Chronicles of Amber, Prince Corwin climbs down the palace staircase in Amber to the royal dungeon. There, he meets one of the guards, who greets him in this way:

“Good evening, Lord Corwin,” said the lean cadaverous figure who rested against a storage rack, smoking his pipe, grinning around it.

“Good evening, Roger. How are things in the nether world?”

“A rat, a bat, a spider. Nothing much else astir. Peaceful.”

“You enjoy this duty?”

He nodded.

“I am writing a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity. I work on those parts down here.”

When I asked Roger Zelazny about this scene in our 1985 interview, he said, “I liked being a character in the book myself. I don’t know that I’ll enter again at any point. It was just a fun thing to do.” It was also a delightful turn for all of us who are his fans; the author stepping into the pages of his novel to meet his protagonist! Wonderful!

Besides walking into the fictional world of Amber in that novel, Roger made Amber a significant part of his real life. When he became a full-time writer in 1969, he filed to be incorporated under the name The Amber Corporation.

He had begun putting down his thoughts on Amber in the late 1960s, and he continued to return to the True City through his writing in every decade of his life.


First Thoughts

In the library archives in Syracuse University, I found one of the earliest mentions of Amber in a letter written by Roger Zelazny. Dated 8 September 1967, he wrote the following to fantasy author Andre Norton:

I saw Amber on two levels. Funny. One was precisely what you described—individuals frozen in timeless moments of some particular passion or phase of their lives, as though contained like one of those insects. The other level was the city of Amber, which does exert a sort of influence on its sons and daughters. There is this dual sort of symbolic thing about the title Nine Princes in Amber in the back of my mind.

—Roger Zelazny Collection, George Arents Research Library, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY


Some Sort of Family Squabble

Roger started the first novel in the series, Nine Princes in Amber, expecting he could tell Corwin’s story in a single book. This is how Roger described the way that single novel evolved and grew into something more:

 I did not plan Nine Princes in Amber in advance. I was not sure exactly what sorts of situations Corwin was going to get into after he woke up in the hospital. It was a good trick to have him learn the answers along with the reader because of his amnesia. The discovery of identity is intrinsically interesting. I thought there was a story about to emerge, and I sat there just plotting what would happen next. When he goes to the hospital office and finds out he’d been committed by his sister, I realized as I wrote it that she would really be his sister instead of being part of some plot gimmick. I knew there were probably others in the family at that point. This was some sort of family squabble. It would have to be a fairly large family and there was a struggle going on over who was going to get something.

Then I tried to visualize the other family members. It seemed like an awful lot of characters to bring on stage as the time approached to do something with them. I would have to stop invariably to describe each character, and it would be very confusing with that many characters. I thought it would be nice to have something like a family portrait gallery with Corwin discovering it by wandering through his sister’s house. Seeing each portrait, Corwin would realize that the paintings are of his brothers and sisters, and he would describe each one in his narrative as he went by. Later on, when I introduce them into the story, they would already be described, and the reader could refer back to that one section.

I didn’t entirely like the idea of a portrait gallery; it seemed too awkward. I hit upon the idea for using a deck of cards. They could have a special function that would then be integrated into the story. People just don’t ordinarily have a deck of cards printed up of everyone in the family. That was when I got the notion to use them as communication and transportation devices. Once that emerged, I figured it would not take place only here in mundane reality; that it was a parallel worlds situation where they would communicate across the various levels of reality with the cards.

The next hundred pages or so suddenly developed in my mind. Corwin was going to have to travel to Amber, the archetypal world for all the other parallel worlds. He would find a sympathetic relative, Random, on our mundane Earth who was going to get him there. Corwin was going to play a game where he wouldn’t tip his hand that he really didn’t know what was going on. He was going to fake it.

—Santa Fe, NM, 1982


The Princesses of Amber

When I interviewed Roger at Stony Brook University in 1992, we focused on the Amber series. At the time, I was working on The Complete Amber Sourcebook and so, as we sat before an audience on the college campus, I questioned Roger on some of the details that he hadn’t explained in the novels.

I asked about the strengths and powers of Corwin’s sisters. This was his reply:

Deirdre and the other princesses of Amber are as strong as the men. Any of them born in Amber would be stronger than a normal person.

Fiona, along with Bleys and Brand, made a formal study of the Arts and had higher sorcery skills. The three of them had a knack for magic as well as an interest. Fiona had actually reached further in her studies than the others.

Llewella has the power to manipulate water. Living in Rebma, she is able to move through water to any point at will. I hadn’t mentioned that before. She’s much more in tune with the palace intrigue than I’d indicated. Every now and then she’ll say something revealing about Brand or one of the others that we didn’t know before.

The abilities of my female characters enable me to move the story along in ways I couldn’t do otherwise.

—I-CON, Stony Brook University, 1992


Bill Roth, Friend from Shadow Earth

One of the continuing threads that I see recurring in Roger’s work is the relationship between his protagonist and an older man. We see this occurrence in Corwin and Bill Roth, who resided in New York on Shadow Earth. In the first five books, Bill is a minor character, to be sure. But he takes on a greater role in the second five books that Merlin, Corwin’s son, recounts.

Roger explained:

I kind of liked Bill and I slighted him a bit in the earlier books [the first five Chronicles of Amber]. Corwin had promised him that someday he would take him to see Amber and he hadn’t gotten to keep his promise. So I let his son do it. I wanted to give him a bigger part.

When you’re dealing with figures like the Amberites, who are in one sense demigods, you try to show that they are human, capable of having friendships the same as anyone else. Bill’s existence added to Corwin’s characterization just by showing the kind of person he could be comfortable with. Also, from a practical standpoint, unless Corwin was a complete misanthropist, it would be strange that he didn’t form some kind of friendship after living in that place for so many years. Corwin’s not really an unfriendly person although he can be tough and a bastard. Having Bill there helped me to describe Corwin.

—Necronomicon, Tampa, FL, 1985

Of the Shadows and Amber

The concept that Amber casts Shadows of itself is Roger’s unique version of the theme of alternate universes. In the Amber Chronicles, Shadows are the variant worlds cast in progressively distorted images of the True City—Amber.

Roger saw it this way:

If there is an infinity of parallel worlds in which anything can exist, and if one then allowed for a race of intelligent beings with the ability to traverse any of these worlds under their own power, then it follows that one particular world must be the keystone or archetypal world.

I looked at it from a sort of radial symmetry, and placed this world in the middle of the others in concentric rings. Just that mental image, when it came along, for some reason the name Amber occurred to me.

—Santa Fe, NM, 1982


A Telephone Call from Roger

I was watching television on Sunday, July 1, 1990 when the telephone rang at 10:10 P.M., E.D.T.

“Hello, Ted? This is Roger.”

I was stunned. I took a quick look at my watch and noted the time; then, as we spoke, I crystalized everything that was said, knowing I would have to transcribe our conversation immediately afterward.

“Roger,” I said. “Good to hear from you.”

“I was going over the questions you sent me and thought I’d give you a call to answer them. You ask about Bleys. About how he survived his fall from Mt. Kolvir in the battle against Eric.”

“Yes, that’s right. Did he catch the trumps that Corwin had thrown to him?”

“He may not have used the trumps that Corwin threw to him,” Roger began. “Like the characters of Merlin and Luke in the new series, Bleys, as well as the other red-headed children of Oberon, Brand and Fiona, is able to hang a spell that needs a single word or phrase to put it into operation.

It is hinted that Bleys used one of his spells to save himself from his fall and then joined one of the other little-known relatives, like Sand, in the Shadow in which she dwelled.”

He spoke in this precise and lengthy manner while I urged him on with mumbled sounds like “Uh-huh” and “I see.”

He talked about various activities he was involved in: he had taken over a martial arts class and was teaching it three nights a week; he had completed an audio reading of his novel Eye of Cat for a local recording company called Lotus Light; and he was continuing work on the Amber series.

“I have enough material about Amber,” Roger said, “to write three more Amber novels after the tenth one, but I’ll do it somewhere down the road rather than very soon.

I’ll begin writing the tenth book—it’s just called Book Ten, don’t have a title for it yet—this week. It’ll probably take me about six months to finish it.”

Then Roger said something that thrilled me to the core.

He told me: “When it’s completed, I’ll send you a copy.”


Top image: Roger Zelazny at a book signing in NY, c.1990

zelazny-biographyTheodore Krulik’s encyclopedia of Roger Zelazny’s Amber novels, The Complete Amber Sourcebook, published in 1996 by Avon Books, is still the most exhaustive reference book on that revered series. Through his literary biography Roger Zelazny, published by Frederick Ungar Inc. in 1986, Krulik made accessible to the enthusiast the famed author’s personal concerns. For the first time, aficionados discovered the sources in Zelazny’s own life that inspired his writing. Other literary work includes essays on Richard Matheson in Critical Encounters II for Ungar, edited by Tom Staicar, and on James Gunn’s The Immortals in Death and the Serpent for Greenwood Press, edited by Carl Yoke and Donald Hassler. As a member of the Science Fiction Research Association, Krulik wrote a regular column for their newsletter in the 1980s and 90s entitled “The Shape of Films To Come.” Currently, he is writing a novel about a science fiction writer who gains remarkable powers to see into the minds of others. Krulik hopes to complete World Shaper by the end of 2017.


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