Today I have Matthew Stover in for an interview I conducted last month. Stover’s novels chronicling the adventures of Caine are always among my most anticipated books and recently he delivered with the publication of his third Caine novel, Caine Black Knife, published by Del Rey last October. He is a NY Times Bestselling author of several Star Wars titles including Shatterpoint and the novelization of Revenge of the Sith. His next project is another Star Wars novel, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor.
Recently, Stover alerted readers that his second Caine novel, the fantastic Blade of Tyshalle, will be re-released as an e-book (today). It’s a semi-tough book to find new in print, but I highly recommend for people to discover both it and the preceding novel, Heroes Die. Doing so will set you on path to one of the most intense and provocative rushes a reading experience can offer.
You can also read my review of Blade of Tyshalle and review of Caine Black Knife before this interview if it pleases you.
Matt Stover and I talk shatterpoints, the value of a good drink, and Caine’s bookshelf.
Heroes Die came out in 1997. This is well before books by people like China Mieville that seem to be talked about with your work (at least online) and Blade of Tyshalle is actually a work that is a contemporary of China’s work. What was going on, what had happened, in the life of Matthew Stover that put Heroes Die out there? While I’d give all work the benefit of the doubt of being personal works to authors, your work just permeates personal immediacy. What gave birth to Caine — why must Heroes Die?
Matthew Stover — Everybody dies. But in the realm of fantasy — where the terrain is psychological as well as physical — everything is a metaphor. Even death. In Joseph Campbell’s formulation, the hero’s death is an essential component of the journey.
What brought Heroes Die into being was an impulse (shared, I believe, by Mr. Mièville) to write viscerally entertaining fantasy that might also engage the reader on an intellectual level. My structural models were the adventure fantasies of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber; my intellectual models were Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick. Not that I was trying to imitate any of them, you understand — I just wanted my stories to kick Conan-sized ass, while carrying the emotional and intellectual impact of “A Rose For Ecclesiastes” and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.
The immediate inspiration, though, was Steve Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. He gave me hope that one could write fantasy for grown-ups — that fantasy could tackle serious ethical, moral, and even metaphysical issues.
What brought Heroes Die into its current form was despair. I had been trying to tell the story of Caine, Pallas Ril, and Ma’elKoth in any number of different ways for more than fifteen years . . . and nobody was buying. Finally, out of desperation, I decided to give it one last shot with no holds barred. If I was going to fail anyway, I wanted to go down fighting. I threw out all commercial considerations, and told the story exactly the way I’d always wanted to, with all the profanity, perversion and homoerotic sexualized violence on full display. You know the rest.
So that’s been my narrative strategy with Caine ever since: I never hold back. I never soft-pedal. Because that seems to be what works for him.
I think you probably write the most engaging action scenes in fiction. What inspires your action scenes? I realize that you practice/study martial arts but is there some literary, historical, real-life, viewing that you recall just made you think, “I have to write that”? Is there a manner of depicting action that you don’t enjoy?
Matthew Stover — I like fighting. Always have. (Watching it, as opposed to doing it personally, you understand, though I really like that too.) I love sword fighting (I watch the Michael York/Oliver Reed version of The Three Musketeers every time it’s on TV. I’ll sit through the entire Ronald Colman Prisoner of Zenda just to watch Colman take on Douglas Fairbanks Jr).
I love fist-fighting, both the classic brawling of American action pictures (Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine in Emperor of the North, anybody? Anybody?), and all the variations of kung-fu movie from Sonny Chiba to Tony Jaa — though Jackie Chan is still my favorite (even more than Bruce Lee. There, I said it). I even like a good gun fight if it’s a good gun fight — the climax of Unforgiven, for example, or One False Move. I even turn on Open Range from time to time. Hated the story . . . but the gun fight rocks.
Generally, the more realistic, the better. I’ve been in fights, on the street and in the ring, and I have a vivid recollection of just how desperate a confrontation can become. Probably my all-time favorite (non-martial arts) screen fight is James Caan against Kathy Bates at the climax of Misery. Every blow is delivered with the weight of everything that has happened in the movie, if you see what I mean; there is unrestrained ferocity there, and it’s personal.
A great fight, whether in film or prose or comic book, does everything a great scene does: that is, it illuminates character, advances the plot, and addresses the story’s underlying themes . . . and it does so at a fever-pitch of vicarious adrenaline. What’s not to like?
That’s most of what makes an action sequence gripping, right there; the rest is (for me, anyway) mostly a question of attention to detail.
The only kind of action sequence I don’t enjoy writing is a mass battle — movement of troops and ships and masses of men. It becomes entirely too abstract and impersonal for my taste. I usually end up depicting large battles by selecting a few specific characters who can evoke the larger battle by their own individual experiences. It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s the only one that seems to work for me.
Your latest novel is Caine Black Knife, where again you deviate a bit in narrative. How was this written? Both parts separately or was it written in a similar manner in how it reads? Did the recollection or current storyline ever change the origin story?
Matthew Stover — Each scene of both narratives was written individually; in the process of turning all these separate scenes into a novel, there was considerable trimming of rough edges and spackling over of cracks. I spent a lot of time playing with different narrative strategies; at one point I had the story organized with all of Retreat from the Boedecken as the first half of the book, and Caine’s narrative of his return as the second (and the other way ‘round). I also played with glopping scenes into novella-sized chunks, and even worked with alternating the twin stories literally scene for scene.
I ended up with the published version largely because of the thematic resonances between the two timelines; I felt this was the best way to show how the two narratives complement and comment upon each other.
And no, the Consequences story never changed the events of the Origin story, to the best of my recollection; I knew what Caine had done — and what had been done to him — before I began. The major effect of the Consequences narrative was to influence, to some extent, which scenes of the Origin story actually end up presented to the reader — it determined which pieces of the Origin were pertinent.
One of the threads in Caine Black Knife is alluded to at times briefly within Blade of Tyshalle. How much of Caine Black Knife’s Retreat From The Boedecken and his relationship with the Black Knives was in the bag consciously for the next book? Or was it a matter of pulling one of many strands you enjoyed and running with it?
Matthew Stover — When I was writing Blade of Tyshalle, there was no next book. I had fallen ill about a year into the three it took me to write that book; at the time, I honestly did not know that I would live long enough to write another. That’s why Blade is such a kitchen-sink kind of story. I felt I had to cram every scrap of everything I wanted to say in SFF into that one tale.
Orbek was originally just a plot device — a stepping-stone for Caine to use to take control of the Pit; I tied him into the story of Retreat from the Boedecken to give him a plausible reason to confront Caine. As the story developed, though, I discovered that Orbek was more interesting than I had originally planned; he became explicitly a stand-in — a metaphoric echo — for the younger, stronger, more vicious Caine of pre-Heroes Die days.
The events of Retreat from the Boedecken existed in broad outline even before I wrote Heroes Die (just as Servant of the Empire, Race for the Crown of Dal’kannith, and Last Stand at Ceraeno exist in broad outline — these being the four pivotal Adventures of Caine’s Acting career). Sharp-eyed readers will notice references to Marade, Tizarre and Purthin Khlaylock in Heroes Die.
Caine Black Knife came about because, after I had finished Traitor, I was casting around for a new project, and discovered I was still not feeling well enough to invest the Gargantuan effort required to devise a wholly new milieu.
As it turned out, though, working out the details of the Knights of Khryl, their freehold of Purthin’s Ford, and the structure of post-Blade Overworld involved almost as much effort as creating something entirely new, but that’s another issue. I signed the contract for Caine Black Knife and what is now called His Father’s Fist on the same day I signed the contract for Shatterpoint . . . which was when Star Wars essentially took over my life for a few years.
When I consider Caine Black Knife and the ending, I find myself thinking that a line in Blade of Tyshalle sums it up so well:
“I fear Michaelson not at all. Michaelson is a fiction, you fools. The truth of him is Caine. You do not comprehend the distinction; and so he will destroy you.”
The relationship of Caine and Ma’elKoth is by far the most interesting to me in your work — is there a real world or literary/fictional inspiration to the relationship and if describing it to somebody how would you do so?
Matthew Stover — I’d describe their relationship as the Bible’s Book of Job, but in this version Job is a ruthless killer who never lets go of a grudge; he cuts a deal with Satan for the chance to kick God in the balls.
More or less.
You’ve always said that the titles of your books change a great number of times — a very fluid arrangement — and I was wondering what about Caine Black Knife finally made it the choice over the other possibilities?
Matthew Stover — I liked it. That’s all. It’s evocative as well as being directly descriptive of the story. The whole book is, on one level, an examination of Caine’s character in terms of his relationship with the Black Knives — a relationship that is considerably deeper and more binding than what originally meets the eye.
Where would Matt Stover be most comfortable? Overworld or Earth?
Matthew Stover — I suspect that I would be equally uncomfortable on either.
In a past interview with Gabe Chouinard, you once, through silence, alluded to a possibility of a multiverse concept within your Caine novels. Some years away from that statement is this more or less an actuality for you?
Matthew Stover — I’m still not tellin’. Spoilers give me a rash.
It could just be and my tastes for pulp (or probably because I’m a guy), but I was sharing the fascination with Caine of watching Marade kicking ass. I tend to think SF/F needs more of this and it seemed to be something that you (or Caine) went back over a couple of times. How important was his observation of Marade to the this part of Caine’s career that would propel him onward — and was it as just damn fun to write as it was to read?
Matthew Stover — Caine pays a lot of attention to Marade because, one, she’s smokin’ hot, and two, he’s fascinated by people with a gift for violence. I share that fascination: my beloved wife, the Fabulous Robyn — also smokin’ hot — is a former kickboxer who got her live-blade certification under the international grand master of bando.
From a storytelling point of view, Caine’s fascination with Marade serves two primary purposes: it lets the reader see a Knight of Khryl in action, and it also illustrates (later, in the segment “Bad Guy,”) just how ruthless the Younger Caine can be.
There was this terrific moment in Caine Black Knife where for just a moment you feel Caine momentarily forget everything going around him, being captivated by the discovery of a fine, strong drink in Overworld! While I realize every chapter/passage has purpose do you remember that section at all specifically, this seemingly instance of bliss for Caine?
Matthew Stover — Of course I remember it — but I’d rather not talk about it in detail. I have a policy of avoiding direct comment on the text of my stories, if I can. Two points I will make, though: one is that this scene had been in the back of my mind ever since I wrote Orbek’s point-of-view during the “Escape from the Shaft” sequence in Blade of Tyshalle; the second is that one of my favorite moments in all of Roger Zelazny’s work is the early snippet of Isle of the Dead where Francis Sandow corners the galactic white briar market . . .
You mentioned a hero’s journey above. I tend to ask this question quite a bit — are the particulars of Caine’s end something you already have in mind (even if never to be seen)?
Matthew Stover — I have a strong concept of Caine’s final adventure . . . but stuff changes as I write. If I get to a point in, say, His Father’s Fist where I feel that the book will only really work if Caine gets smoked at the end, well . . . he’ll get smoked at the end.
People who have followed the Acts of Caine so far will have noticed already that I’m not afraid to inflict major changes on my fictional worlds. I don’t think past the current book, except in broad outline. My concern is to make the one I’m writing as good as it can be. I’ll worry about the next when it comes up.
I view your Revenge of the Sith novel as definitive — it’s what I think of when I think of the creation of Vader. I think what was lost on me in the films and that you included in the very first page was the concept that that these are Heroes:
“A pair of starfighters. Jedi starfighters. Only two.
Two is enough.
Two is enough because the adults are wrong, and their younglings are right.
Though this is the end of the age of heroes, it has saved its best for last.”
It was almost like your own scrolling text.
While it’s a given the story was at the very least outlined, what did you want to make sure you added to ROTS — and thus the canonical saga of what’s possibly the biggest fictional franchise out there — certainly in the U.S. — with fixtures like Disney and Superman that you felt had to come across in this story, if nothing else?
Matthew Stover — I didn’t want to add anything. I was working directly from Mr. Lucas’s final shooting script. All I was trying to do was give the story the mythic weight I felt it deserves — Revenge of the Sith is, after all, the keystone in the arch of the Star Wars saga. So I felt that I had to somehow capture how the whole saga feels, you know? To express what it’s all about. I wanted to do justice not only to the film, but also to the grand epic that is Mr. Lucas’s vision of a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away . . .
And that’s all.
Your next book is a Star Wars book, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor. Luke is probably the modern iconic ‘farm boy’ character, a character that often times is unfavorably viewed in comparison to a Han Solo. In the recent Legacy of the Force series I really enjoy Jacen’s sense of urgency when considering Luke, saying something to the effect of “the galaxy if full of dead bodies who underestimated Luke Skywalker”. I’ve greatly enjoyed your Star Wars novels because you seem to be able to apply dimensions that seem new, but also really seem like they shouldn’t be — and I was wondering, who is Luke Skywalker to you and what part of that development will you be focusing on in this upcoming novel?
Also, I read a statement by you that used the term “pre-Zahn” — was that simply used as marker in terms of time or do you find the creative tone/direction change after the Zahn trilogy and how would you describe/differentiate the two if that is the case?
Matthew Stover — Luke Skywalker & the Shadows of Mindor deals with Luke’s painful transition from soldier to full-time Jedi. It offers an explanation of why he leaves the military behind forever, and what shapes him into the character we will later see in Dark Empire and Tim Zahn’s Thrawn novels. For who Luke is to me, you’ll have to read the book; that’s what it’s all about, after all.
By “pre-Zahn,” I meant that I wanted to take a step back from the galaxy-spanning epic that the modern Expanded Universe has become. I wanted to write something in the spirit of Brian Daley’s Han Solo trilogy — something that would evoke more Splinter of the Mind’s Eye than Heir to the Empire, if you see what I mean.
It’s not an imitation of Daley or Foster, because I just can’t pull that off — I lack Brian Daley’s light touch, and to detail all the ways in which my work is different from Alan Dean Foster’s would require something along the lines of a master’s thesis. But that’s what I was shooting for: crisp and fast-moving, fun to read even the second or third (or twelfth) time.
I really, really, enjoyed reading Star Wars on Trial as an example of a bunch of authors talking about a subject everybody knows about and being able to make great, serious points but not taking themselves too seriously (my favorite was Metzger’s contribution). How did you become the head of the defense team and did any of the prosecution’s pieces in particular strike you as rather new or clever during the editorial process?
Matthew Stover — I was approached on the project by Glenn Yeffeth, an all-around good guy who happens to be the publisher and general boss-type of BenBella Books. As far as I know, the whole thing was his idea, sparked probably by Mr. Brin’s original hatchet-jobs . . . er, essays on Star Wars on Salon.com.
The toughest prosecution piece was Bruce Bethke’s “Star Wars as Anime” piece. I couldn’t even cross-examine; his case was not only air-tight but vacuum sealed. Jeanne Cavelos was also particularly incisive. Nearly everyone for the Defense did a great job, as far as I could see . . . but then, I’m biased. A little.
You’ll see many writers who write their own novels and also adaptations get a question regarding how their own works informs those adaptations. You said Star Wars kind of took over your life for awhile, I was wondering if the experience of writing Star Wars informed your Caine novel(s) at all or are the differences overrated?
Matthew Stover — Other than the occasional overlap of a phrase or an image, the only relationship between the two is that Star Wars has made me a better writer (in my opinion, anyway), and I try to apply everything I’ve learned from Star Wars to the Acts of Caine. You could say it’s given me more confidence in my narrative instincts.
I’m making the assumption that you’ve read the recent Legacy of the Force series. It has obvious ramifications on the EU post-that event. Do you have general thoughts on the series and what interests you about it — perhaps as a writer who will write post-Legacy era books. With that, I was wondering what your thoughts were on Mara Jade as an EU creation on reflection?
I haven’t read Legacy; it’s not my era. I suppose I’ll have to, if LFL ever gives me a chance at my fondest Star Wars dream: to write the final adventure of the Big Three. Since that job appears unlikely to be forthcoming, I’ll very likely restrict myself to the Clone Wars-through-Dark Times eras — the post-RotJ era is entirely too crowded for comfort.
I have no particular feelings about Mara Jade one way or the other; she’s pretty much off my radar. That may be because I first encountered her while doing research for my New Jedi Order piece, Traitor. I didn’t actually read her introduction to the EU until I was researching Luke Skywalker & the Shadows of Mindor.
I was primarily concerned with Jacen, Jaina and Anakin Solo (and by extension, of course, their illustrious parents). But that’s not a knock on Mara; until LS&TSOM, I had managed to avoid depicting the Skywalker Twins altogether (with the exception of a name-check or two at the end of Revenge of the Sith).
Does Caine have a psychological shatterpoint? Is he a walking shatterpoint?
Matthew Stover — People who enjoy both sides of my work will see a lot of Caine in Mace Windu — Mace is very like a light-side version of Caine. He lives in a simpler universe, that’s all. Caine does not have shatterpoints. Not that he is psychologically invulnerable, not at all — but an essential feature of the “shatterpoint” is that striking it alters the situation (or the individual) in a more-or-less predictable way.
I prefer to think of Caine as he describes himself in Caine Black Knife: as a boundary condition in a chaotic system. With Caine, the only thing that’s predictable is that people are going to get hurt.
I see you often praise Gene Wolfe and specifically his Book of the New Sun cycle. I’ve always felt Severian became one of those characters that seem to act as root molds to others after — like to some extent a Merlin, Conan, Frodo, Corwin, a Jerry Cornelius — if you can pinpoint just one aspect of Wolfe that makes him ‘that writer’ what would you say it is and how — if in any way — do you apply that to your own work?
Matthew Stover — Beyond his obvious gift with language, I think it’s probably Wolfe’s steadfast refusal to indulge in easy answers that I find most attractive. In a Gene Wolfe book, a complex issue demands a complex resolution . . . and all solutions are imperfect.
Above, you offer an example of Zelazny’s short fiction. Is there any interest on your part to write more short fiction?
Matthew Stover — Not so much. I don’t write quickly enough to make that sort of avocation pay for itself. That being said, I do write short pieces when I’m offered a substantial chunk of cash for them (i.e. “Equipment,” the Clone Wars tie-in), or when friends of mine solicit one and I have a couple of days to spare — both “Br’er Robert” and “In the Sorrows” were contributions to two of Gabe Chouinard’s various late, lamented webzines.
And I have a story in the new DAW anthology Catopolis, which may actually be on the shelves by the time people are reading this interview, because Janet Deaver-Pack is a friend and she offered a substantial chunk of money. And she bought my very first pro short, for Legends: Tales from the Eternal Archives, which she co-edited with Margaret Weis.
You mention Covenant and one of the members of our community is a huge fan of yours and Covenant, and he makes the point that Donaldson was perhaps the first to use the Tolkien map and use it as a vehicle for something new, something (for a lack of a better word) his own.
While certainly there have been fantasists who broke completely new ground post-Tolkien Donaldson seems to be a writer who (much like many others) took those basic tenets or familiar reader associations but made them into as you say something that displays “fantasy could tackle serious ethical, moral, and even metaphysical issues”.
Do you think your own preference for his work is attached to his use of that familiar fantasy territory to tell his story? In some way perhaps new-waved fantasy (a term usually associated more with SF) using familiar archetypes? Or is it something as simple as having the chief character not being an ideal?
Matthew Stover — I wouldn’t call The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant a use of the “Tolkien map,” despite the magic-ring-as-Maguffin trope. The Covenant books are, in my view, a wholly different genre: the Lost Earthman fantasy. Lord of the Rings is what we call “high fantasy,” in that it’s story and the world it takes place in are completely self-contained, without direct reference to what we think of as “our world.”
The Lost Earthman story is a whole different animal; it explicitly uses a “real world” human as a focus and reference point for the fantastical doings in the fantasy milieu. This has been termed “low fantasy” by some critics, but that term carries derogatory overtones that fail to capture the extraordinary skill that a well-done Lost Earthman story requires.
There are writers who more-or-less specialized in the Lost Earthman genre; Lin Carter is one, as well as L. Sprague deCamp; the early Gor novels by John Norman are clearly in this tradition, and there are many, many others. It’s a fairly common trope in adventure fantasy . . . but it is also the central trope of many of our genre’s classics: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars books, HG Wells’ The Time Machine, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. But I would contend that the most direct ancestor of Covenant is Ransom in C.S Lewis’ Planets Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).
Because, like Malacandra, Thulcandra and Perelandra, the Land is explicitly allegorical (despite being non-religious — the Land’s elements are objectified features of Covenant’s psychology, so much so that he’s never entirely sure he’s not dreaming), and the whole structure of the fantasy realm, not to mention the action of the plot, is functionally designed to exert overpowering moral pressure on Covenant: to force him to face the truth of himself, and in facing that truth, to remake himself as a better man. This genealogy of this sort of tale stretches all the way back through Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress to the medieval drama Everyman — hell, all the way to The Odyssey.
Its descendants include the Acts of Caine.
Reading Caine Black Knife, half of it felt like it could have easily been a great crime noir story. I believe you are from or live in the Chicago area which has the obvious history/affair with both fictional and real crime — is there a possibility at all to step away from SF/F or perhaps write a crime/SF/F novel?
Matthew Stover — I’ve been wanting to write hard-boiled crime fiction my whole life. Caine’s narrative voice is unquestionably a literary descendant of Philip Marlowe, CW Sughrue and the Continental Op. If I ever get caught up on my SFF projects, I have a couple of contemporary thrillers I’d like to try, as well as a historical or two.
You have dabbled in historical fiction before with the Barra & Co. books. What historical eras interest you as a potential backdrop for your work?
Matthew Stover — I really like the Late Bronze Age, where I set those two books — there was a collapse of civilization around the Mediterranean far deeper and darker than what we now refer to as Europe’s (post-Roman Empire) Dark Ages — times of chaos are ideal settings for adventure stories. I like the American Civil War, and have been looking into setting a straight historical (non-SFF) series then. I have a certain fondness for the early (Charlemagne-ish) Reconquista, and for the Carthaginian Wars. Every time I take a close look at a period of violent upheaval I start to get ideas.
One of the fun things you do is throw in reflection by Caine on some contemporary writers and books. If t’Passe had a list of Caine’s favorite books, what would we see among them?
Matthew Stover — Caine was, in his youth, a voracious reader — classic novels in the public domain were a source of free entertainment while he was too poor to afford anything else. He’s pretty well grounded in European White Guy Lit, from Homer through Shakespeare.
Among later authors, he is a particular admirer of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, particularly Hammett’s Red Harvest and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. He also likes Kipling, Conrad and Hemingway (especially The Light That Failed, Lord Jim, and For Whom the Bell Tolls) — all those guys who write about how men end up defining themselves once they leave civilized society behind.
In our own genre, he enjoys mid-period Heinlein (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Glory Road) and much of early Zelazny (particularly This Immortal and Isle of the Dead.) From what I’ve seen so far, he’ll probably end up an admirer of Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards sequence. His library in the Abbey (until all his books are confiscated in Blade of Tyshalle) includes signed first editions of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
It’d be a really long list, if I name them all; his taste in literature is pretty similar to my own.
His Father’s Fist. What is the Studio sales pitch for what readers should be looking forward to?
Matthew Stover — This is a more difficult question than you probably intended it to be. Condensing an Acts of Caine story into a slugline and a paragraph or two of teaser is always challenging for me.
Let me put it this way: though Caine Black Knife is a self-contained story, depicting a horrific past and its consequences in shaping a disturbing present, it’s also the premise of His Father’s Fist.
Having followed Caine this far, you’ve already slogged through nearly all the (potentially) tedious exposition His Father’s Fist would have otherwise required. The heavy lifting is over; from here on out, if all goes according to plan, the balance of Act of Atonement will be — to coin a phrase — a pop-top can of 100% pure Grade A whipass.