Friday, June 12, 2009

Interview with Steve Erikson

I recently started reading Gardens of the Moon by Steve Erikson, so I thought I’d share this interview I did with him a few years ago.

Steve Erikson is the author of the long Fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. The first books of the series have been published in Britain. Recently the first book, Gardens of the Moon, was published in the U.S. Mr. Erikson uses his training as an archeologist and anthropologist to give his books a realistic feel and depth. The other books in the series are: Deadhouse Gates, Memories of Ice, House of Chains, Midnight Tides and several others.

Debbie Ledesma: What led you to become a writer? Was it hard getting published?

Steven Erikson: I began with illustrating, thought about comics since narrative seemed to be implicit in my artwork, then finally left the drawing behind and settled for the narrative itself. It was easy getting published with my so-called literary stuff, and very, very difficult getting the fantasy novels landed with a publisher. In retrospect, I have concluded that the literary market (at least in Canada) is far less competitive than genre markets, simply because it is not as tightly bound to sales.

DL: Do you miss working in archaeology and anthropology? Do you plan to work a little in your fields of specialty to keep your hand in so to speak and help with your writing?

SE: I don't think I realised how much I missed field work until this summer, when my wife, son and I volunteered on a dig in Wyoming for a couple weeks; and I suspect we will be doing similar ventures each summer from now on. The dig was sponsored by the US Forestry Service and in conjunction with the University of Wyoming and the site was in the Black Hills, a lithic occupation that had seen use from about nine thousand years ago until just before European contact. The real gift such projects offers is the opportunity to meet people, and I was lucky in this instance to find not one but four serious readers of fantasy (one of them a project director), so we had plenty to talk about. Tack on another project director who was a collector of science fiction books and, as you can imagine, the campfire conversations were enlivening. In terms of inspiring my fiction, most certainly, but then again, I get inspiration from a multitude of sources so it's hardly surprising. Much of one of the themes in Midnight Tides came from a terrific vacation in South Dakota. My son's acquired an interest in paleontology so next summer we'll probably try that.

DL: Do you attempt to influence the way people view society through your writing, and if so do you believe Fantasy can have an impact?

SE: I'm not sure if influence is possible; nor am I sure I want to influence people about much of anything, since that presumes my vision of the world is somehow superior or more complete -- and such conceits affect one's writing in unwelcome ways. There are certain elements that drive my work, however, and they seem to derive from my notions of what it means to be a writer of fiction. In learning to get inside the heads of characters, no matter who they are or what they do, one ends up walking in a lot of shoes, some of them decidedly uncomfortable, and yet, with enough diligence and ruthlessness at work, the most powerful message that hits me as a writer (and, one hopes, the reader, too) is that there is more than one side to things -- to anything, in fact -- and moral judgement can only be reached (if one chooses to do so) once some kind of understanding is achieved of as many sides as possible. Now, that being said, I am no fan of 'moral relativity' wherein one shrugs off, say, female circumcision, simply because it's some culture's tradition to conduct such butchery. Screw that. But the mindset behind such an activity (to extend the example) is always contextual, and it's that context that I find intrinsically interesting. (Which is why I explored it in the fourth novel in the series.)

It's often commented that my stuff is all shades of grey rather than black and white, and I guess that sense comes from what I said above; but that's not the same as saying every character is similarly grey -- the effect is an overall one, rather than a specific one. Most of the characters I come up with have pretty fixed notions of right and wrong, they have a moral centre, in other words, whether consciously recognised or not. But in coming at something from more than one side, the reader is left free to choose which one they'll favour. The thing is, story-telling is, at its root, a form of communication intended to entertain. The subtext stuff, if there is any, generally reflect the story-teller's own obsessions. That probably can't be helped, but it's not the same as saying it's all secret code intended to brainwash the reader.

Is there any way to determine if fiction -- any fiction -- has an impact on the way people view anything? I'm not so sure. Non-fiction, certainly. But fiction is by far much more complicated a thing -- the thesis, whether the author is aware of it or not -- is always buried deep, and may often be contradictory, especially when the writer hasn't bothered thinking hard enough about 'what it all means.' How can any effect be measured? Did the underlying quasi romantic anti-industrial subtext of Lord of the Rings create a generation of Luddites? I don't think so. Yet people like the notion of going back to the land, to simpler, rural times -- at least in the abstract (if it means dumping the SUV and swearing off fossil fuels, forget it) -- and so they conform, in a sense, with the trilogy's moral centre. But LOTR didn't create that sensibility, it simply reflected it, and in a rather simplistic way at that.

DL: What do you think is the important function of Fantasy as a genre?

SE: Hmm. Well, the fantasy genre lets a writer take a metaphor and make it real, and barring magic realist or absurdist fiction (which are, arguably, forms of fantasy anyway), it's unique in that. I am aware of myself doing that all the time, sometimes in an ironic sense, but other times in a far more visceral way. I'm not sure if anybody notices, but that's okay too. Now, is that function important? Who knows -- see my reply to your first question....

DL: I'm always fascinated with Fantasy that has mythic themes. Do you use themes from mythology in your books?

SE: Not directly, although no doubt some archetypal stuff seeps in. I love the language of myth, and the dialogue it creates (or created) with its audience, particularly the way it can seem entirely alien to our modern sensibilities (as in Beowulf or Gilgamesh), and the way in which we can at times re-interpret a myth and so embrace it under our own terms (as with Homer, for example). For so long the fantasy genre was trapped in the inherent antiquity of myth -- by that I mean it clung to the trappings that, to my eye, seemed of least importance -- feudal hierarchies and archaic diction come to mind as examples -- which quickly became pastiche. In other words, the outward form and cultural source of mythology took on absurd importance, as if to mime the style was to celebrate the meaning. Which is rubbish. It misses the point. So when I say I love the 'language' of myth I don't mean that stuff, I mean everything that's underneath and behind it -- because style, diction and social structure (and the sensibilities it entails) are all context-based and, while interesting in the abstract, not as important as the way in which a myth or legend explores and celebrates the human condition.

Yikes, I'm in real academic mode this morning. Sorry!

DL: Have current events such as 9/11 and such found their way into your writing or influenced it?

SE: I don't think there is a way wherein current events do not reflect upon what someone writes; with some writers it's more direct than with others, but we're all thinking creatures and it'd be pretty difficult to will oneself blind or indifferent to the world. Having lived in England, where security issues were always present regards the IRA, I was to some extent used to the idea of persistent risk. And any reader of history and anthropology can get a sense of social/cultural/religious upheaval and the desperate acts that result. The human mind seems capable of virtually anything, and in a very senseless and tragic way that was made all too clear on 9/11, and yet in the aftermath we saw the other extreme, in the instances of profound courage following the attack.

The human condition is central to all fiction, and for myself, writing military fantasy wherein tragedy plays such a fundamental role, I've spent a long time considering how one gives answer to the most terrible acts undertaken or witnessed, and for me it keeps coming back to the realisation that one rarely has the chance to match the magnitude of the bad with grand gestures of good. Instead, those gestures, of humanity, are always small, subtle, and all the more powerful and, ultimately, more meaningful than what went before. Sometimes a single life saved can in some way give answer to a thousand lives lost. I don't know how or why that is, but thank God it can, or we would all be in deep trouble. Compassion is always personal, and a focus for grief seems essential to healing.

I've not considered whether there's been any direct influence on my writing. Each work of fiction has some sort of emotional context, but that's never clear cut or simple, and often the whole process of identifying and interpreting it belongs solely to the reader. Which is, I think, as it should be.

DL: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

SE: 1. Finish what you start
2. Keep writing
3. Read books on writing fiction that discuss the gritty details of narrative structure and craft. If you don't see words like dialogue, point of view, exposition, theme, plot, psychic distance, diction level, setting, etc. and examples of the like -- find another book. If you see stuff like 'the bliss of talent' and the 'wonders of writing' stay away. Try John Gardner, Jack Hodgins and Stephen King -- all three have written excellent books on writing.

DL: Thank you very much Mr. Erikson.

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