Q&A With Author Steven Erikson

How pleased are you with fans’ reactions to The Crippled God thus far?

I am receiving many more emails from fans via the StevenErikson.com site and of those, only one arrived where a reader spent a page or so telling me how much he disliked The Crippled God. What always surprises me is how someone – anyone – would imagine that I would a) read through such an email; and b) respond to it. Imagine making a list of everything you don’t like and then writing to the subject of such dislikes – I can’t think of a bigger waste of time (surely, this person had better things to do with their time!). Or try it from the other side: imagine receiving hate mail from people you don’t even know, relating all the ways you disappointed them. What would you do with this? I suppose if I was a masochist I might delight in reading such attacks, but really, I’m not. I am pleased when people write to say they enjoyed the novels, even if they have specific criticisms, and of course every reader absorbs a story in a different way, which is a good thing. And that kind of exchange is a gift for which I feel very privileged.

On the fan-site one long-time participant flamed off on The Crippled God and has since quit the site. I admit to being somewhat taken aback by her vehemence: certainly Dust of Dreams signposted the direction I would be taking with The Crippled God. I can’t imagine what she was expecting, but it would be nice to think she might one day revisit the series (though, given that she felt she’d wasted years of time reading the series, that’s not very likely). To me, the narrative of this series has felt continuous and consistent, but it just goes to show that one can never be certain of someone else’s expectations.

In general, however, I am pleased with the response; and was delighted to read (on Nethspace) the first effort at reviewing the entire series – which cannot help but be a daunting prospect for anyone.

– It took a number of years for The Malazan Book of the Fallen to achieve both critical and commercial success. While the series will probably never be “mainstream” SFF material the way works by Terry Brooks, Raymond E. Feist, R. A. Salvatore, and Patrick Rothfuss are, how rewarding is it to see The Crippled God hit bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic?

It’s pleasing to see any fantasy genre novels among the bestseller lists: it would be even nicer if a few mainstream reviewers actually took notice.

In The Crippled God we saw many small cameo appearances, some crucial, from earlier characters in the series, something that didn’t seem to happen much in the first few books. Did you enjoy the fact that in the second half of Dust of Dreams and the conclusion to the series overall you could be slightly less forgiving to newcomers and perhaps indulge the fans a little more by addressing other storylines and characters?

Consider it this way: I humbly asked readers to invest in and engage with a story thousands of pages long and over a decade in the telling. Do you think I would simply pretend that they aren’t there, brimming with their own hopes and desires? Someone noted on the fan site that they felt as if I was writing directly to some of them and the truth is, I was. How could I not seek to return the loyalty I’ve been given? At the same time I couldn’t do that gratuitously: everything needed to either fit with the events or echo scenes from earlier novels. But both of those serve to tip the hat to the readers, as they (hopefully) recognize those echoes.

In my mind, it is always a dialogue, and maybe in that sense the relationship between author and audience has evolved in the last twenty or so years. There is a give and take going on that never existed before, not to this extent, anyway, and for me it would be foolish to ignore it, or denigrate it. If I throw on my anthropologist glasses, I might even suggest that we are returning to the origins of storytelling as a participatory event, and even as we all engage in that we also, perhaps mostly unawares, become a story unto ourselves. People rarely think of participating in history, for example, unless it’s at easily recognizable, pivotal moments: but the less recognizable ones are the real driving forces of history, and we’re all in it, all the time. In some respects, this is what TMBOTF was all about, not just in the story being told, but in the dialogue it presented (if that sounds highblown, it’s not meant to: I am speaking here of my own sense of things, in that I invested twelve or so years, day in day out, with this tale, and felt in a sustained conversation with thousands of people; and when it was all done, I more or less stumbled off stage, both punch-drunk [took a lot of punches along the way] and run-through. But for all that, it still seems a modest contribution on my part).

– The end of The Crippled God leaves some key characters hanging out in the shattered remains of the Kolanse empire. We know from the epilogue that some eventually get back to the Malazan Empire, but there still seems to be some loose ends there. Is that somethig you’re leaving for readers to ponder or will your or Ian’s future books expand on what happened to the surviving Bonehunters and members of the Host following the end of the series?

A bit of both. Cam needs room for his stories, and they need to remain relevant. And it may be that I will revisit some of the characters with the Karsa trilogy (or not). But also consider the whole notion of history, as I mentioned above – just as each and every reader now goes on, gets on with their lives, so too do these fictional characters. We all gathered for the tale (man, I wrote that scene in countless ways throughout the series, didn’t I?) and now we all go our own ways, and life goes on. Curiously, when I was in the midst of finishing TCG, my mind started wandering back to my high school days. I went so far as to try and track a few old friends down. This is not coincidental. We all have that desire to know what’s come of people we once knew. I was probably subconsciously reacting to what I was writing, to the sense of saying goodbye and leaving behind all those ‘old friends.’ The notion that a writer can just leave the work at the end of the day is nonsense: writing is all about being haunted, without respite, until the tale is told. This series has haunted me for about twenty years, all told. I’m still numb with the sudden silence.

– Will fans have a chance to see you and Esslemont at a number of conventions or events in the coming months?

Got a gig in Milan this June, and then there’s San Diego and of course the British Fantasy Con in Brighton this autumn. The following year I’ll be in Paris for a really cool symposium, talking about Classical influences on my series. I honestly can’t wait for that one. As for Cam, well, being up in Fairbanks makes travel a bit dear, but I do hope to see him in San Diego, at the very least.

– You and Cam have repeatedly said that the Malazan world and the story that you are telling originated in a role-playing campaign and that you role-played a large number of the characters that eventually star in the series. Since the two characters that really connect everything together in the series are Shadowthrone and Cotillion it seems a good guess that you guys spend a lot of time gaming through them. So, are you Shadowthrone or Cotillion?

I was Cotillion; Cam was Shadowthrone. We still are and have been throughout the novels. The Nethspace review of the series finally mentioned the notion that this series is postmodern fantasy. You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone to say that,

– You’re currently writing the first book in the new trilogy and in another interview you mentioned that you consider it more “traditional” compared to the main series you completed. Are you structuring this new book as a possible starting point for new readers or do you believe that new readers will continue to follow the publication order? Do you feel the necessity of varying your tones or reach out for new readers, doing different things? In which way that “traditional” distinguishes the new book from your other ones, or even your approach to it?

I mulled over this issue for some time (I still am, in fact). This new trilogy needs to serve two audiences in my mind. The first audience is the one I already have, and they should have fun with this, as many questions are answered as to origins, etc. The second audience is one that is perhaps daunted by the idea of plunging into the MBOTF, and so for them I’m taking a more traditional route, in terms of exposition and structure. The writing feels more measured, I suppose, but then it has to as I am approaching this trilogy with a different scale in mind (not Homeric). Achieving a balance between the two is the challenge here. Thus far, it has been a pleasure to write.

– You’ve said that the next books, the prequel and sequel trilogies, will take longer to write. Do you envisage them being as long as the Malazan novels?

Probably not, and to ensure that’s true, I’m reducing my chapter count from 24 to 20. We’ll see if that does the trick. The simple fact is, I’m older and I still feel vaguely tired (creatively) after completing the series.

– Is the Malazan Encyclopedia still in the cards or has that been indefinitely delayed to after Ian Esslemont’s books are finished and maybe the new trilogies?

It’s in the cards. We need to get on with that, don’t we?

– Is there any chance that you will ever unveil a copy of your own map of the Malazan universe?

See above. I’m not being deliberately evasive with that map. It’s just that my only version is on a damned big piece of paper, impossible to photocopy, and as a version it contains only continental outlines, no other detail – said details are all on smaller maps. I need a cartographer, preferably dead and uninterested in getting paid, fed, etc,

– Through your books you have developed a rather interesting relationship with fans and critics. You play a bit with this in the main series with characters like Kruppe, Imperial Artist Ormulogun and Gumble, his critic, but more so in the novella Crack’d Pot Trail, where artists are forced to perform in front of critical fans who then vote which artist is to be killed and eaten. Has inclusion of this in your writing become a sort of therapeutic reaction or does it go further?

Oh it’s all therapeutic, believe me. At a conference a few weeks back, there was a panel consisting of me and Steve Donaldson in conversation, moderated by Bill Senior. One of the main subjects was a kind of admonishment to our audience (made up of academics specializing in Fantasy and SF), to wit: epic fantasy literature is the spine of genre (SRD went on to say that in fact it’s the spine of Western Literature) and yet it is being ignored by many so-called experts of the genre. Instead, at this particular conference (which I adore, btw) we would see, year after year, papers expounding works on the periphery of that spine, plucking at ribs as it were, and exulting in said work’s innovation and risk-taking in stretching the bounds of the genre. The problem is, most of those works aren’t stretching anything, and that would be clear if one were to examine in depth that central core of epic fantasy. One can go on about how various writers are doing ‘new’ stuff with the genre (Abercrombie, Bakker, Gaiman, etc), but actually, none of that is as new as their proponents think. At risk of oversimplification, Glen Cook and Steve Donaldson beat us all to the punch long ago – they made fantasy adult, and we’ve all been riffing off them (whether we’ve read them or not) ever since. How does all this relate to Crack’d Pot Trail? Well, SRD had the book and held it up to encourage the audience to read this one book (rather than a ten thousand page epic series) to get a sense of the mess I’m making with the genre, in particular how that book broke the first rule of fantasy, which is about suspension of disbelief and the use of irony. I won’t get in that any further than I’ve done, but I always knew Crack’d Pot Trail was going to flame out some readers (Pat?), but what the hell, I don’t recall ever having so much fun writing a novella as that one.

– When can we expect another Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella?

Interestingly, I’m waiting for the mood to strike. Those works definitely need me to be in the right frame of mind. I made a start, with satire firm in mind, but it started out probably too vicious, so I am reconsidering my approach. It’s finding that right balance between laughs and cruelty…

– It was mentioned that you recently recommended A Game of Thrones at a book signing so it was assumed you read the book end liked it well enough. The question is more general, are you in touch with the current market or do you maintain a sobering distance? Do you continue to follow for example the works of those you “endorsed” like Bakker, Cook or Morgan? On a very general level some defining aspects of the Malazan series, like the overturning of certain tropes and breaking typical structures, have become themselves a well represented trend today. In the article on your site about the RPG origins of your series you wrote how some of the creativity that fueled your creation came from the constraints and limits of the genre at the time, the desire to raise the bar on your own terms. So I’m wondering what is your stance toward the genre market today and whether or not it has a different impact on your ongoing writing?

Huh, what do you know – I addressed that a few moments ago, I think. I recommended A Game of Thrones? Really? Perhaps I was being ironic, as that first novel is the only one of the series that I read, and it was long ago and I recall very little of it, meaning it had little impact on me. I enjoyed Bakker’s first trilogy but have not followed on from it. I read all of Morgan’s stuff. As for other works in the genre, I look in on occasion, and at the conference I mentioned earlier, I get a good sense of what’s at the forefront of critical thinking with respect to the genre (though that can be a frustrating exercise – at times I felt as if the last ten years in epic fantasy have been virtually ignored, barring a few superstars. But honestly, how many papers do we need on Harry Potter and how is it, or vampire fiction, in any way innovative to the genre?).

Now, all this is at the forefront of my mind at the moment, swirling as I am in the wake of said conference; but normally I don’t think much of such matters. Let me reword that: I don’t give it much thought.

– The limited edition of Gardens of the Moon published by Subterranean Press was incredibly beautiful. Have you seen early sketches of the artwork which will grace the pages of their limited edition of Deadhouse Gates? What can you tell us about it?

Only some very early roughs. Should be lovely.

– Is there enough information dropped along in the series for the fans to piece together, with some degree of accuracy, who Quick Ben really is?

No.

– What was the purpose of the Eres’ storyline? How did she tie into the plot of the series as a whole?

Well, that’s a storyline begun but not yet finished. There had to be a few of those, didn’t there?

– You’ve mentioned elsewhere that many of the scenes in The Crippled God are ideas you had in mind throughout the entire series, and I imagine that finally writing them after all this time was both daunting and incredibly cathartic. One thing I found myself wondering: did everything more or less execute according to your designs, or were there any surprises for you in writing? Any plans that changed at the last?

It more or less went as envisioned, and yes it was daunting. As to their efficacy for readers, at least some of them found them effective enough to write and curse me for making them cry for three hundred pages. Others, alas, found it all lukewarm. There’s just no predicting these things. I wrote for what would affect me and then just hoped for the best. It’s all anyone can do.

– Can you explain the source of Tavore’s knowledge throughout the series?

– Olar Ethil is an intriguing character, but her motivations and goals remain a bit of a mystery. Could you elaborate on what her plans were in The Crippled God?

I group these two questions, as the answer for both will be the same. It’s all about interpretation, and to that extent I’m no longer part of that conversation. My work is done, as frustrating as that might be. Interpret as you will. Just as you cannot know the mind of anyone else, not completely, not absolutely, so too these characters. Tavore will always be a mystery, closed in and hidden away. She is that world’s Alexander (ie, what the hell was he up to in Northern India? What was he seeking? Did he drink himself to death in some twisted esoteric worship of eastern cults? Was the whole conquest born of guilt over his father’s death – was he involved? – or just the fatal desire to out-conquer his old man? And so on). If we have all those answered for us, we’d not be satisfied anyway. So, what you ask cannot, will not, be answered. As for Olar Ethil, the same thing. She could be insane, or not. Her motives might have been moral, or not. Did she deserve her fate? For you to decide.

– Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?

Stunned? I don’t think so. Writing involves two tracks, the emotional and the intellectual. The latter obtains in the mechanics of using language to give shape to and create the effect of the former. That’s how I see it anyway (at least today, at this moment). The intellect is active, driving forward, seeking. The emotional stuff is what spins off, swirls out from that collection of words arranged just so. I may begin with a sense, vague, very vague, of some kind of emotional, cathartic outcome, but that cannot achieve precision without applying those mundane mechanics of language. So, it’s impossible, I think, to be stunned by one’s own written scene. Pleased, sure. Satisfied, hopefully. Awed wonder – time to get skeptical, or change my initials to TG.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this series now begins. It is done, and the question of how it fares over the years, how it bears up to whatever analysis is applied to it, and whether or not it acquires a shelf-life through new readers, all remains to be discovered. Of course my greatest fear is that it will be forgotten … unwitnessed. Of course I used that (non)word deliberately, and am reminded (with a faint sizzle of … whatever) of that portentous label … postmodern.

– Anything else you wish to share with your fans?

Naw, I’m all written out.

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