Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence uses fantasy tropes and tales to filter the modern world, as he explained in his Talk at Google last year: bankruptcies that work like necromancy, corporations that work like gods, the like. Last week, Gladstone was on Reddit’s r/fantasy subreddit, further explaining what he does in books like the recently published The Ruin of Angels: “I like to use the leverage and distance genre offers to try to get into the meat of our fractured modern moment, when the real stuff happening outside our windows is big and strange and world-shaking and weird.”
Speaking of weird, he also talks penguins drinking martinis, weaponized high art, and the topsy-turvy experience of cowriting the time-traveling love letter novella This Is How You Lose the Time War with Amal El-Mohtar. Click through for the highlights of Gladstone’s AMA!
big_mario: What would be your go to summon if you were a necromancer
MG: If I were a necromancer I’d probably just hang out in the Natural History Museum in Paris and chill with my skeleton menagerie so I didn’t have to choose. I’d bring a few books.
If I had to pick just one though? Probably a Grizzly. Bears are built even in skeleton form, and it’s big enough to ride on, and has hands to carry stuff for me. Plus, cute!
Architect or Gardener?
mrnovember09: In the words of GRRM, are you an “architect” or a “gardener” when it comes to your books? Do you plot each chapter out in advance or just start from a concept/character/image/etc and work your way through?
MG: I really like GRRM’s characterization of the difference. I’ve changed my process a lot, though. When I started out writing long fic on the FPL message boards on CBUB, I would have a powerful image in my mind and I’d write toward it, and I’d think I wouldn’t outline. But at the same time… I’d sneak into friends’ direct messages in IRC and regale them with my plans for the next five, ten chapters. The first few Craft books were written without any outlines, though sometimes (Hi 2SR) with extensive revision and rewriting. I started outlining while I worked on Bookburners, because I had to tell my collaborators what I was doing. (I modeled my work on Margaret Dunlap’s; she’s a TV writer and has a great sense of what that detailed, built-out outline looks like.) With a detailed outline, I found I could write very quickly, and revise well when the time came; notecards got me through the end of Four Roads Cross, and I had a card deck for Ruin. But of course I disregarded the cards and the outline whenever they didn’t fit my needs; characters’ desire lines, and the rhythm of the story, took over.
These days I’m relaxing a bit from the outline again, which has slowed down my writing, but I love everything else that’s happened as a result.
The Craft Sequence as Dark Mirror
abowersock: As you know, we just had May Day, commemorating the day when organized labor finally stood up for the right to an 8 hour work day (and more). A lot of the people on strike were murdered by police, and leaders taken into custody… and later executed.
The whole Craft Sequence series explored the friction and volatility between the ruling class and the state, vs the movement of general population. May Day is a single example of many, where the working class stood up, took some damage, but achieved victory. Since this series is a mirror of our own world, I wonder what historical events ended up influencing climactic moments or battles in your book. Thanks!
MG: While the Craft Sequence is a mirror, it’s a dark mirror, and I try to resist the lure of strict 1:1 correspondences so I can explore the mechanics of real events as I’ve come to grasp them in my limited understanding, rather than comment on what was done in our world or what wasn’t and why. That said, I draw from all the sources I can.
I read a lot about Clarence Darrow when I was a kid, and through him about the workers’ movement in the early 20th century US. I was so impressed by the heroism and dedication of the strikers and their organizers, and the immense forces arrayed against them. And then, of course, growing up in the south you’re growing up in the shadow of the civil rights movement, of what was accomplished there and at what cost. I was young in the early 90s and I remember trying to fit the LA riots at the time into that framework, too: what was sought, what if anything was gained, why.
And then there’s Tiananmen. The events of June ’89 raise a haunting challenge to Enlightenment notions of civil society, to my mind, one that’s of course been building since the dawn of the industrial age. What happens when government acts against the people’s perception of their own interest? Well, the governed withdraw their consent. But how? The state has resources and technology, including technologies of organization, that makes prospects for armed resistance bleak and Pyrrhic at best, and the discipline grid attacks the preconditions of civil resistance. Why does the state have to listen to the people? The state, and by extension the “ruling classes” pretty broadly construed here, has enormous force multipliers, and the people have few options. So why fear? Why change? Why not just roll over dissent and change the narrative after the fact to make dissent look like, well, whatever you want?
It’s not all bleak, of course—recent South Korean history seems to tack in another direction though I don’t know much about what went on with the mass strikes; obviously wildcat strikes have been seeing some effect in the US. But I guess I just keep asking myself over and over this question: How did we get here? What can we do?
This Is How You Get the Most “Out There” Ideas
Sharadee: I’m looking forward to your collaborative novella with Amal El-Mohtar. I love both of you guys’ work. How was/is it, working with her? How did you manage to harmonise your two very distinctive and different styles?
Another question, this time about the Craft Sequence: did you ever set aside an idea that was too “out there”, too complex to be smoothly introduced in your story?
MG: AAAAAUGH This is How You Lose the Time War is SO GOOD. One of the secret great things about writing with another author you like is that you get to be proud of the work, even if you’re a bit of a Southerner, because you’re allowed to be proud of your friend’s work.
It was pretty great, honestly. We managed to do the lion’s share of the work at the same table, in a gazebo, swapping chapters as we finished them (basically, she writes one point of view and I write another throughout the book), and being so excited for each other’s work. Since we had different POVs there was less of a question of harmonizing the style, though we learned a lot from each other over time. The simplest thing that changed: I write much faster than Amal does usually, so at the beginning I’d write my bit in a flash, then sit waiting for her to write hers. As time went on, I slowed down and cut deeper, and she sped up, so we’d be finishing in sync. It was so great.
As far as “out there” ideas: thankfully, the worldbuilding style of the Craft books is so gonzo and maximalist that most of the stuff I can think of that fits the aesthetic (that particular swirl of modern and magic and nightmare) just goes right in, even if only as an aside. Girl Scouts as a paramilitary cult? Sure! Weaponized high art? Why not? Made to order gods for offshoring? Go for it! If you can’t build a book around it, you can at least mention it and go back to it later. But there are a few aspects of the world that haven’t really fit with the tone of the books I’m writing—King Clock’s Land, for example, or what’s up with the Golden Horde—they’d be great places to set a D&D campaign or a fringer game of Star Wars d6, but not so good for the particular combination of politics, drama, fantasy, and nightmare fuel in the books. So those stay on the sidelines for the most part—or in backstory, like Elayne’s service in the God Wars or Gal’s experience as a Knight.
Burning Books and Mastering Dungeons
RyanVanLoan: What was your experience like stepping behind the scenes as an Editor with Bookburners vs. your usual role as author? Things you enjoyed? Things that surprised you? Anything you’re going to carry over to your writing?
MG: So, the nomination as editor for Bookburners is a bit odd because I’m more the lead writer than anything else—we do have an editor who reviews the storylines and a copy editor and a proofing team and so on and so forth. But! That said.
Being the lead writer in the Bookburners room is a lot more like being a D&D GM than it’s like anything else I’ve ever done. Especially the way I DM—I come in with my own notion of what’s going on, but I listen a lot to players’ ideas, even ideas that players don’t realize that they’re having. As lead writer that’s even more explicit. Everyone, together, is trying to build the best story we all can. We spot problems, we brainstorm solutions, we wheel forwards and backwards through the season, we drink a lot of seltzer water, and we make it work.
The biggest change for me, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on thread, was learning how to outline. Before working on Bookburners I was definitely Team Garden—though, to be fair, I’d also been really free in talking stories and projects over with friends, collaborators, etc., and that starts to feel like an outline when you do it enough, only a social outline.
But in any group project you need to know what everyone else is doing. On the first round of Bookburners eps, all of us wrote “outlines” so everyone would know what we planned to do in our episodes. Mine was twelve bullet points. I was very proud. Most of the rest had outlines around a paragraph to three quarters of a page. Margaret Dunlap wrote a TV outline—which is to say, it was about seven pages with slug lines for the head and heart line of each scene, a summary graf at the top, a title. Yow!
It was also, [by] a disgusting margin, the most useful of any of the outlines. Next time, we all tried to do it Margaret’s way. And ever since, I’ve understood the place a good outline has in storytelling. That said, outlines can keep you too abstract—it’s easy to lose the characters’ sentiment. As a writer you need to know where the characters are standing and what they’re doing, yes, but you also need to be the actor—conveying the truth of the moment.
“Guilty Pleasure” Reads
GreyICE34: You’ve got a characteristic “style” for the craft sequence, a mixture of political drama and action that reminds me of good spy thrillers, especially with how you’re not quite sure exactly what goals everyone has going. My question is what style would be your “guilty pleasure” to read or write? Like straight-up action hero, sappy romance, silly western, epic fantasy, do you ever have something where you just want to follow something in that vein?
MG: The trick with guilty pleasure reads as a writer is that I can bounce if the raw technique—like, the line by line writing work—isn’t good. Or if the structure’s busted. Or or or or. A true glorious pleasure read is a rare find. Hammett and Chandler often fill that space for me, and so does Bujold, and so does Pratchett. Yoon Ha Lee is approaching that level of high-technique readability though I’d never characterize those books as “guilty” pleasures. Dunnett is a joy, Akunin’s great—the Fandorin books are delightful (the Sister Pelagia books even more so until the last one goes off the rails, through the wall, off the continental shelf and ends up somewhere near Atlantis).
Oh! I rarely mention this one for some reason, but Peter F Hamilton is a huge guilty pleasure read for me. I devoured the Nightsdawn books growing up, and the Judas duology is almost as good. I’m a sucker for cosmic deep time cast-of-thousands work.
The Key to Diverse Characters = Making Friends
monkeydave: I know you are very culturally conscious. What sorts of things do you do and think about when writing diverse characters and drawing on other cultures to make sure you are respecting and not not appropriating these cultures?
MG: Thank you for asking. There are a lot of angles into this question, and I don’t make any claim to having the right one. But here’s how I’ve been thinking about it lately.
In our lives there’s a tension between psychogeography and real geography. We have detailed worlds inside our heads, with complete casts of characters—world populated by assumptions, culture, good stories, bad stories, strong thinking, lazy thinking. Often these worlds are structured by power, and by our reactions to it. (These reactions can be positive, negative, inverting, whatever.)
Then there’s the real world, full of real people who have their own interiority, their own psychogeography. Yours might not map up to mine.
One of the things that happens when you make friends is, you have to stop seeing the person as a sort of psychogeographical projection—the sort of person you think they are or you’d assume them to be based on a chance meeting in the street—and start seeing them as a real human being with a real inner life. You stop considering what type this person is, and start considering who they are.
Working with characters who are different from you is a bit like that. You need to do a lot of work and a lot of listening, some of which may be pretty uncomfortable at first, to break through your psychogeographical representation of what someone who’s not you is like. And then you need to start asking what that person’s psychogeography is, how they see the world and how they see you.
If you’re featuring characters who aren’t like you not as they’d appear in stories about you (or someone like you), but as the core of their own stories, their own structures of meaning, then a lot of things start falling into place. You can see someone else’s culture not as a monolith but as something encoded and reinterpreted in their every reaction. You begin to ask yourself what power relationships shape other people, and then you ask what power relationships shape yourself?
And then you do an enormous amount of work and try to trust friends to call you on your bullshit.
That got very complicated and I wish I could go on for another few thousand words. But really, at heart, I think it all starts with making friends, and developing compassion, and learning to see outside the relatively small space that is our head. The walls are glass, but they’re covered in paint.
Will the Craft Sequence Eventually End?
monkeydave: If it were up to me, I would want you to continue writing Craft Sequence books and games at the same pace and quality forever.
But that leads me to ask, because the series was not a trilogy, or even a set number of books, do you ever feel ‘trapped’ by fan expectations, not wanting to disappoint your fans by moving to a new series, ending the Craft Sequence or putting it on hiatus? Do you feel comfortable/confident enough that you could just say “I’m done with that, here’s what’s next” when you want to?
MG: Your question’s a really sharp one. I… don’t exactly feel trapped by fan expectations. For one thing, when I felt like I wanted to write books outside the language of the series, I was often lucky to encounter the kind of window that often happens in publishing, when you’re waiting to hear back on this project or that and you can create the opportunity to write another book. So I’ve done two of those so far, and they’ll be coming out in the near future.
As for the Craft books overall… for a long time I thought I could just continue this forever. The nightmare lens is powerful, and there are always new weird corners of our messed up world to peer at. But as time’s passed I kept building continuity into the books, and now they’re as much the story of these characters as they are the story of this world. And I feel like I owe my characters (and the readers who follow them) an ending. So I’m working on that now. It will take a few books, because there’s a lot of ground to cover, but that’s the path I’m walking now. I hope you’ll walk it with me.
The rest of Gladstone’s AMA delves into the nitty-gritty of the Craft Sequence, plus he shares that time he was thrown from a horse in Mongolia. Check it out here!