Last weekend at Ad Astra, I had the opportunity to meet and interview Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan series. We talked about his future publications, Malazan, art, his favourite novel and more. It’s fairly lengthy, but I suppose that’s rather appropriate!
As I did with the interview I did last year at Ad Astra, I’m also providing the audio recording to the interview I did with Mr. Erikson. If you can forgive both my awkwardness and the background noise, I encourage you to take a listen! There’s a bit more in there than there is in the transcript — just some of the small off-topic remarks and such like that.
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[As per usual, R = Myself, and S = Steven Erikson]
R: Hello, I’m here with Steven Erikson, author of the Malazan series.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
S: I used to be an archaeologist, working for about 20 seasons in the field in central Canada, mostly, as well as Central America (and the States). I was in a Masters program for archaeology when I dropped out to take a writing program at the University of Victoria. From there, I went onto a writing program at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Curiously, I think I learned more in the undergraduate at University of Victoria than I did in Iowa. But Iowa gave me two more years in which to write, which was great.
I was not writing fantasy – the closest thing I came to writing in terms of fantasy would be what they call magic realism. Beyond that, I’ve been writing full time for about 15 years, and by last count, I had 22 books published.
R: Very nice.
So, has your experience as an archaeologist at all influenced your writing?
S: Massively, yes. The Malazan world is actually co-created between myself and Ian C. Esslemont, or Cam as I know him. We were both archaeologists, and we met on a project in north-west Ontario. We became close friends, and ended up sharing a flat in Victoria, and we gamed a lot. In the gaming, we started to build this secondary world, this Malazan world, and its history. We did that for years.
We played through a lot of characters, and it certainly gave some depth to the world we were creating. As archaeologists and anthropologists we were both interested in a kind of realistic portrayal of this other world, so the geography, geology, history, cultures, everything’s based on what we knew about the dynamics of social evolution.
R: Very interesting.
And you wrote your magic realism under your real name, so why ‘Erikson’?
S: My second book was published when I was in the UK, and it’s been re-released under Erikson, it’s This River Awakens. At the time though, it was published under Steve Lundin. And then I signed for publishing Gardens of the Moon with a different publisher, and the publishers of the original book, This River Awakens, contacted my agent and said “Well, we don’t want the same name for this genre versus contemporary fiction”, so I had to come up with a pseudonym.
S: Which I did, which was my mother’s maiden name.
R: That works.
So, it was Gollancz that approached you right?
S: You mean for the original book?
S: No, I’d written Gardens of the Moon eight years previously, and I could not find a publisher. I’d tried, I sent it (without an agent) from Canada to New York to Del Rey, Tor, and a number of others. It would sit there for 12-18 months, and then it’d come back to me.
So I shelved it, and went back to contemporary fiction. But then, when I was living in the UK, I sort of polished it up, and got it to my agent. He started marketing it, and Bantam UK picked it up. It was after that, when I was finishing the second book, that I had one of my first conventions I ever went to, my Bantam editor could not come. So I was left on my own, basically, at the convention… So the people at Gollancz kind of took me up under their wing and took me out for Chinese, or whatever it was. In the course of that evening, I was asked when Bantam was publishing the second book. So I said “Well, I don’t know, they haven’t signed it yet.” That’s when the rival bid came in, pretty much the next day.
R: That’s sweet.
S: Yeah, but I stayed with Bantam… They matched the bid. That signed me up for nine years and nine books.
You were part of a writing group, I believe…
S: Very early on, yeah.
R: Have any of them had any success? Who was in it?
S: Two have had fair success. Ian Ross, who is one of them, he’s known throughout Canada… and David Keck has published his first two books through Tor of his fantasy series, and I think he’s hoping to finish the third and final one this summer.
R: Ah, alright.
Now, I’ve mostly been trying to steer away from Malazan questions—but there are a couple—because I know you’re pretty much inundated by those questions all the time… but what are your thoughts on it ever being adapted to the small or big screen?
S: It’s a huge series, with a lot of characters… and I actually think it’s probably impossible. It’s unlike, for example, Game of Thrones which is kind of inwardly focused on a particular group of characters, which is a very manageable approach to a storyline… mine just sprawls. It sprawls across continents, multiple cities, it’s absolutely massive.
The only time I thought it could actually make it, would be to turn every novel into a trilogy of films, and then film like crazy and produce (and release) ten films a year, for three years. That would do it… In terms of television, it would be a challenge.
R: Alright, I was just wondering, because a couple of your works were optioned, weren’t they, at one point?
S: No not really, I’ve had screenplays optioned, and rights sold… Not really any of the Malazan stuff.
R: Ahh, okay.
What are you planning on writing in the future? I know you’ve got your Kharkanas trilogy, what else is there for you?
S: I’m presently writing the second book of the Kharkanas trilogy, and it is just taking longer than any of the other books I’ve ever written. Stephen Donaldson talks of not ‘writer’s block’, but of ‘life block’. It’s basically other things in your life getting in the way of the actual writing process. When I sit down and write, it comes out just fine, but I’ve had so many other unexpected barriers to actually sitting down to write. I’m hoping to get it done by the end of this summer though.
If my agent or my editor hears this, he’s going to be screaming and tearing his hair out. It is running late, but it’s just what it does. And, I did take a break from it because I felt I needed it. So, I wrote a 75,000 word science fiction spoof called Willful Child, which is coming out in November. [Read the first chapter here] I had so much fun with that, I’m certainly planning on more volumes in that.
R: So that’s more humour based?
S: Oh yeah. I’m paying homage to Star Trek specifically. Especially The Original Series. I had a lot of fun with it.
R: Does sound like it could be a fun one.
Do you think the second Kharkanas book will end up being postponed? Or do you still think it’ll be on target for the 2015 release date?
S: I hope we can get it out for the 2015 release date.
Also, would you suggest that readers, who haven’t read any of your Malazan, start with that?
S: It’s hard to say, I mean, I was hoping that with the first one, Forge of Darkness, that somebody new to my writing would be able to step in. I don’t know how many people have done that. Most of my readers, from what I can understand, are coming from the Malazan series. So, it’s hard to say. I mean, it’s written so that you could just step in, if you wanted to.
R: Ah, cause yeah, your writing is known for being intimidating, and for being hard to get into. So, I’m guessing it could also just be people who haven’t started reading your writing yet, may be a bit wary..
S: Maybe. It might be… But my sense is that a lot of people waited for me to finish the series, and they’re buying the Malazan series now, because it is done.
I don’t blame them. I mean, there are a lot of writers out there who have begun series but for whatever reason have not, or could not finish… and that’s hard for a reader, because you invest so much into it. So, I’m relieved that I could finish the series more or less on time. Now it’s there for anyone to pick up and read.
R: Yeah, and with the trilogy it’s also easier to just wait for it to be done and pick it up then.
S: I think that’s what’s going to happen. Have you read Forge of Darkness?
S: It’s a very different style, wasn’t it?
S: And I am signed for three more after that, which will return us to the Malazan world, and the story of Karsa Orlong.
R: Well, that answers my two next questions.
S: Yep. Three books, picking up where we left off with Karsa, more or less. And of course, Cam has signed for (I think) three books to do the early empire stuff.
R: Alright, so you’re not at all finished with that universe or anything.
S: No, I don’t think so. Though, I could never do another ten book series. Even three books may end up proving more of a challenge than I expect. It’s a world that still has room for exploration.
R: Definitely. When you create a vast world like that, I think there’s always going to be more room for exploration.
Do you have any new publications coming out under Steve Lundin?
S: No, I’ve pretty much stopped that. Most of the stuff I’d written under that name has now been reissued under Steven Erikson.
R: Alright… and your Warren’s magic system, what was the process of creating that? Or the inspiration for that? It’s very different.
S: It was a very organic creation between Cam and myself through the gaming systems. We started out very early on doing D&D, and we abandoned it and picked it up on GURPS (the Generic Universal RolePlaying System), Steve Jackson’s system, which we found much more flexible. Using their magic system as it stood, worked fine in the games, but we actually wanted to create more options. So we thought of the notions of rather than having four elements, have multiple elements. Some of those elements would be light, shadow, darkness, life and death… So all of these became the aspect of Warren’s that the characters could draw from, in terms of building up a list of spells.
It was generated out of the need of gaming, more than anything else. It also suited very well in what we were doing when we finally sat down to write in that world. It seemed to be a very good system. And the other thing was to just use it, and don’t explain it. That keeps the mystery.
R: Yeah, and I feel like that does make it a bit more real. Like, you don’t explain why light’s work, when you turn on a light switch… It’s just there, it’s part of the culture, and everything.
Alright.. and the ‘evil’ question. What is your favourite book?
S: Probably Grendel which is written by John Gardner, primarily for what it did for me when I first read it. Because I was in the University of Victoria. I was struggling with all the demands it placed on writing and how you actually find your voice, and how you find your way through it, and how you manage language. I was having a hard time with that.
Well, my instructor, Jack Hodgins, directed me towards John Gardner’s writing, and his non-fiction, what he called “moral fiction”, which moved in opposition to William Gass’s position. Where Gass would say that you have no responsibility towards your characters, and that they can do whatever they want; there’s no moral or ethical framework with which to create a story.
It was John Gardner who said it was actually the other way around, and that you have an immense responsibility toward your characters, and towards your story, and by extension to that, the audience. I really took to that.
The novel then just holds that place for me in my heart. This is where my eyes opened, it’s my book of revelations.
R: Definitely sounds good. It’s a good reason.
S: Have you read it?
R: Nope, I’ll look it up later though.
S: It’s a short book that’s utterly brilliant.
R: Alright, I’m always looking for more book recommendations. Especially since I’ve got a long flight coming up in a few days.
S: Oh, right! Well, it’s basically Beowulf from the point of view of the monster. It’s the monster’s voice. It’s Grendel’s voice.
You know, I’m used to a more “How could you ask that question?” response to that question, ‘what’s your favourite book’. Most don’t like it at all.
S: Really? Interesting.
I mean, we grow up with certain books that for whatever reason, they reach us at the right time. For a lot of fantasy fans, that would have been Tolkien in their teens, or Jordan, or anything along those lines. Those become our gateway drugs. And it’s funny because if you go back, when I first started reading, really. It was Burroughs’ Tarzan, and John Carter of Mars, and mostly I actually bought books originally because of the covers which were painted by Frank Frazetta. Phenomenal art. I started as an illustrator, so I was interested in the art rather than the content.
I was of that age though, 12 or 13, that I got caught up in the romantic adventures that Burroughs was writing really took me. But you go back to it, it’s very difficult to read now. And I was talking with a podcast for Gary Wolfe and Ian MacDonald, and we were talking just about this… about going back to the early works that inspired us. It occurred to me, that when we go back and read these things, we’re actually (and we’re often disappointed by what we’re reading) because what inspired us when we were 13 or 14, now we get to see the bones of the construction of the story or whatever. But what I think what we strive to go back towards, and the reason for rereading all of it, involves a nostalgia for a sense for wonder and discovery. So that’s what we keep trying to find again, and when new books arrive and we go into the bookstore, you’re hoping to capture that sense of discovery all over again in a new book.
Because going back, as much as you’ve read something that’s familiar from when you were 13 or 14, you can capture it, but it’s a very nostalgic sense. But I think that’s what drives us to buy new books again and again. It’s that sense of discovery.
R: Yeah, because even if it’s the same basic plot line, and everything it’s still.. a new book, a new world, and anything can happen.
Do you have any favourite authors? Other than Gardner?
S: Well, Glen Cook definitely… He was a huge inspiration for me. Stephen Donaldson was probably the biggest because I came to it in my late teens, early twenties… the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and suddenly it was as if, with that series, fantasy had grown up. It was no longer straddling YA sort of approach to the genre. With Donaldson, it really grew up. So those two definitely were huge inspirations for me.
R: And did you attend any conventions before you became an author?
S: One, David Keck, myself and Ian Ross – that little writing group, we did the World Fantasy Awards Con when it was in Winnipeg. We published a little chapbook, in that, there’s actually a scene from Gardens of the Moon. It’s a very early scene, on the rooftops.
R: Cool. Have you noticed your experience at conventions changing as you’ve become more well known, or just gotten more experience going to them?
S: I suppose. Once you start arriving as a guest of honour, everything changes. But I’ve been going to the WFC for many years, just as a writer. I don’t think that’s changed in a huge respect. It’s just you now meet writers and you can sit and chat with them. It’s great fun.
R: Authors do tend to be good people, from what I’ve noticed.
S: We certainly try. It’s important to pay attention – and it goes back to what Gardner said about respecting your audiences… You do have to respect your audience. If you don’t, it shows. It shows in the stories you write, and that can burn you in the long run.
R: You’ve been inundated by questions for years now, but are there any questions you’ve been wanting to have been asked, or topics you’ve been wanting to explore in interviews, but haven’t been asked about?
S: I don’t think so. I mean, I do like Q&A’s and stuff after I’ve done a reading, and when people want to talk about the process of writing. I’ve written on that on a site called lifeasahuman.com. All about the process and mechanics of writing.
Workshops and programs for writing, they’re not to create talent, it’s what you bring to it. Your proclivities. It’s all about craft. Once you sort of understand the terminology for narrative structure, then that’s when you can come to realize the potential of what you can do with your story. So, I like those kind of questions, deconstructive questions, on the language that you can use.
R: Alright. I figured those would be among the main questions that you’d always be asked.. The process of writing, outlining and everything.
S: Outlining, yes. But I’ve never really had in a Q&A someone reading back a line I’d written, and have them say “How did you put that together?”
R: Well then! Let’s see….
S: Obviously find an evocative line..
R: Not just “Quick Ben entered the room beyond.”?
R: You’ve got great imagery, so it’s like, how to choose one?
S: Well, I’m very cinematic because I started as an illustrator. But I found that most of my artwork had an inherent narrative of some form. So I had a thought, well, maybe I’ll go into comic books. Back then though, comic books and comic book art was hard. You needed the equipment. There was stuff out there that I just couldn’t get a hold of, and couldn’t afford even if I wanted to. So that sort of got me into just writing it instead of illustrating it.
The creative process though is exactly the same, it’s very visual. I become a camera, and I’ll sit on someone’s shoulder or whatever and enter into any scene. It’s not a question of relaying every detail we see in a room. Those details you choose have to serve the story. Not only the details you choose, but the details you choose not to mention serve the story. Because by choosing certain details in a room, you’re actually putting a lot of emphasis on them, so they need to serve more than one function generally.
R: Are comic books something you’ve considered going back to, or ever thought of, now that it’s a bit more accessible and there’s more ways to do it?
S: No. Illustrating, drawing, painting… I think it’s similar to writing in the sense that if you get out of practise, you get out of practise. I’d basically have to stop writing. They come out of the same creative well. If I’m painting, for example, I’m not writing. And when I’m writing, I’m certainly not painting.
So, I’d have to go back and spend 2-3 years becoming familiar with drawing and illustrating in and of it self. Again, it’s not something I’ve really thought of doing, I’m having too much fun with writing.
R: Going back to your imagery, I do like this sentence… “Her laughter had been the final punctuation to all his dreams.” It’s a beautiful sentence.
S: Hm.. What can I say to that one? Well, so much of what I’m sort of obsessed with in a sense is point of view. By anchoring the point of view to a specific character, you’re closing a lot of doors, but you’re also creating a situation whereby you can actually tell and show far less than you would have to if your point of view was an omniscient one. Then you start playing games like “What does this character know?” and “What does the character believe?” And if you stay close to it, you realize that every point of view is an unreliable source of narration.
Once you’ve created all these characters with their own points of view, that’s how you build your world. With each character though, it’s a limited and sometimes erroneous view of the world. I mentioned last night in a panel that it’s as if you’ve got this invisible rock, and in order to give it shape, you slap clay on it. And that’s what all these points of view are. Underneath all that, your rock remains invisible. That’s the world itself. All I’m doing is slapping clay on it from various angles, points of views, and thickness. In terms of sensibility and sensitivity of the characters, and that’s what creates that world. I think the effect it has is to actually make the world seem bigger and much more filled with detail. Even though you don’t have to provide all that detail. You echo it, you create connotation rather than the denotation.
R: Yeah, because everyone has a different perspective on the world, different view points…
S: Of course, with that close point of view, you sit on their shoulder, you can dip into their heads and then slip back out. So long as you’re consistent, and you do a one point of view per character kind of thing.
R: You close doors, but open windows, kinda thing.
S: In a way, yeah.
R: So, are your next three, that are going to be set in this universe… are they going to be much the same style, where you either love it, or can’t get through it?
S: I think they will fall back to the 10 book style. Because what I’m doing with the Kharkanas trilogy is quite self-contained. It’s a bit more Shakespearean. There’s an intensity to the language, a poetic bias to it. Which is well suited to what I’m doing right now, but would not be suited to Karsa Orlong. It’s a bit more headlong.
R: Ah, yeah, there’s a bit of a steep learning curve for when you’re getting into the series. I remember when I first picked Gardens of the Moon up, and I read the introduction.
S: It’s a perennial question. In a sense, Gardens of the Moon is a kind of instruction manual as well on how to read me, and how to immerse yourself in the world. I guess in that respect, it’s the litmus test for the reader. You either stay with it, or you don’t. Might as well find out in the first book, rather than five books later.
R: Yeah… That would be a bit tough, getting five books then…
S: It’s important for me that people are prepared… you know, if I’m going to reach out, I want to take their hand and guide them through this. We’ll come out the other side, and that’s a promise because I finished the series. I expected there would be people stopping half way, or part way through or whatever… but it’s a loss for me, in the sense that I could not keep hold of that reader.
R: It’s inevitable to happen though, with any series… But you know, if people do stick through it to the end, it is worth it.
S: I hope so!
R: Well, as a reader and reviewer, I do say it’s worth it.
And… Veering way off topic from what we’ve been talking about for the past 10 minutes or so.. What are your thoughts on the digital revolution, ebooks, and e-piracy and all that?
S: The e-piracy is always going to be frustrating for an author, because, from what I understand… writers these days, who can make a living at writing is down to about 1-2%. And yet, the desire for original material is bigger than ever. So, those who feel entitled to just pick up whatever they want and pay nothing for it are shooting themselves in the foot, because they’re going to run out of their writers.
It’s a tough one. It’s one area that we really need to… I don’t know how you’d fix it, to be perfectly honest. Because the notion of the value you place on things in our society, our civilization, is a bit skewed to begin with. The fact that we pay bankers enormous amounts of money, but not child care workers, just tells you how skewed the whole thing is. So how do you fight that sense of entitlement? I don’t know.
As for ebooks in general, I have a Kindle, but I’ve never actually used it. I think I have some books on there, but the hardcovers, or actual physical books to hold in my hand is wonderful.
R: Alright, and one last question… The audiobooks, what did you think of the pronunciations and such?
S: Well, it was a bit strange because they switched readers I think at House of Chains, and the original reader never contacted me regarding pronunciation. So he set up his standard. The new reader, they got in touch with me very early on, so we’ve had to decide whether we’re going to hold on to some of convention set up by the first reader, and we’ve had to do that in some areas..
But all new characters, and new terminology now is now properly pronounced from my position. The irony is of course, is that some of Cam’s pronunciations are different from mine. He’s left-handed though, that’s my excuse. I’ve had fans tell me that I’m pronouncing things wrong. So, it just is how it is.
R: Yeah, that’s one thing I’ve noticed in general in fantasy. Names in general tend to be a point of contention for pronunciation.
Anyways, I think that’s it. So, thank you very much! It was a pleasure and I hope you enjoyed yourself.
S: Yep, I was losing my voice but I knew that was coming.
I hope you guys enjoyed reading! Thank you again to Mr. Erikson for taking the time to answer these questions.