The True God of Shadow – The Steven Erikson Interview

The Malazan Book of the Fallen is up there for me with personal treasures like Calvin & Hobbes, Robotech (or Macross if you feel like it), A Song of Ice and Fire, Inio Asano comics – I LOVE this series and don’t quite understand any discussions of the great series of all time that it doesn’t top.

It has all the old school fantasy constructs and landscapes in a post-modernized storytelling with incredible, let’s be clear, unprecedented diversity in this genre on this scale, and unlike a lot of works that try to mix or update older or classic concepts with advancement in character and storytelling and simple thematic depth, nothing is lost of either two original ingredients.

malazan book of the fallen steven erikson

It’s just awesome and you can check out my gut take and review after completing the Malazan Book of the Fallen.

There’s love here for the founding genre itself that have vistas that we could see pulp, sword & sorcery and module legends run across alongside a quality of drama, tension, and characterization we’d expect when turning on the best of what the new golden age of television is currently offering.

The idea that this is every bit of Band of Brothers in a fantasy setting and it is only 1/1000 of the truth of what the series is puts it so far beyond everything I’ve read in the genre I often, no offense to many great books and authors out there, can’t find anything to read.

I’ve read many books – and believe me I see all the hype and award winners for the last decade – that for the most part are just aight (to me) and are at best would-be favorites in a world that Malazan (or aSoIaF) didn’t exist.

I’m sure like many people, I don’t have time for things that I just kinda like. If I don’t have anything that’s blowing me away either from my shelf or streaming I can just walk to the beach, which is a year-around option for me.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are writers I think of as masters who always on some level always at least intrigue me: Ishiguro, Murakami, the late Saramago, McCarthy, Jonathan Carroll, Mieville, Danielewski, Kelly Link, and others, but I’m talking about works that encompass years and years of your time over numerous volumes that make you more than just admire and enjoy your sit but also have asking hundreds of questions and scouring wikis for revelation found in minutia.

Today I interview Steven Erikson who in my mind is nothing less than writer who brought Sword & Sorcery elements into contemporary, even literary fiction and creating a landscape all his own. He’s the author of my favorite series of all time.

 In the past I have seen you mention stylistic changes that were at the forefront of revisions you made from Gardens of the Moon to subsequent novels. I was wondering if you can describe this progression personally as a writer, and what would you point to as the chief difference and influences to that change from that book to Deadhouse Gates?

Steven Erikson — In many ways I approached Gardens of the Moon as I would any fiction project. I had been schooled in the non-emotive style prevalent in contemporary fiction. I wrote in the style of ‘he said/she said’ rather than ‘he/she grated, growled, hissed etc;’ and where I used such descriptive add-ons they were once removed. In a sense this didn’t fit with the genre style; readers pursuing a heightened plot with adventure and excitement foremost in their minds are used to a fully delivered emotional context to dialogue — a stylistic shortcut (the kind that rankles Stephen King). They don’t want to have to guess or prise out that context. I was working hard at conveying emotional context through gesture and inference rather than anything more obvious. The editorial push was to work those emotives in, which I did, although with some discomfort.

I have no ill feelings about that. There was enough unusual, challenging elements in the novel that anything we could do to ease the path was probably a good thing. Over time, however, and through the subsequent books, I have worked back to something close to my original style, one I am most comfortable with. I think I can get away with it now since by this time my readers know how to read my stuff.

Specific to Deadhouse Gates, well, there were eight years between writing that one my first draught of Gardens of the Moon. Eight years spent writing contemporary fiction. Finding a publisher for Gardens was a huge boost to my confidence, and I set about writing Deadhouse Gates with a sharp focus on what I wanted to achieve. Furthermore, I felt I could build from the introduction established by Gardens (even though the setting takes a sharp shift).

Also, Deadhouse Gates felt tight from the very start. Very deliberate, word by word. Whereas Gardens begins with more of a wild ramble and only tightens up towards the end (and even there it’s with a sly wink, quite different from the tone of the conclusion of Deadhouse Gates). I wanted to ‘get fucking serious’ with Deadhouse Gates. Years ago I had a mentor (Jack Hodgins) observe that my writing was not immediately inviting — in tone, in theme — but rather than fight it (and myself), I should endeavour to take the reader by the hand, gently, even when my ultimate intention was the drag that reader into hell. He gave good guidance, I think. The more a writer writes, the more the writer realizes just how manipulative language can be.

Musing on it, though, I don’t know if Deadhouse Gates opens by taking anyone by the hand, unless it’s to snap a shackle on the wrist (which, actually, is pretty accurate); but I knew the opening scene was evocative, and the first few lines — to my mind — still stand as among the best openings among any of my novels.

While several authors and books — perhaps all of them — have some level of fandom, the epic fantasist tends to have what I call an ‘active fandom’ in that multi-book sequences tend to have a more constant interaction or immersion by their nature. As a writer who has written other books, what is your initial reaction to that thousands of people visiting sites to talk about your creation everyday?

Steven Erikson — Here’s a list of words: daunting, frustrating, delightful, intimidating. One reads statements and opinions that make one’s jaw drop (and not in a good way); at the same time, the sheer satisfaction in reading someone who has taken the time to explore some of the ideas and themes behind the stories is a reward that makes it all worthwhile.

I’m reminded of reading fans announcing that I don’t do characterization. To which, I suppose, we can refer back to my response to your first question.

Such sites are, ultimately, a most precious gift — we’re the first generation of writers to have such a potentially direct relationship with our readers. It’s a new dynamic, one that some writers fully engage with while others remain remote, deliberately disconnected. Still others plunge right in only to back out later — the internet can be a bottomless well. I have been invited to create a blog more than once but I continue to decline. If it’s a choice between blogging and writing my novels, well, my choice is clear. And I assume most of my readers would agree with my choice.

You have mentioned your pseudonym is a nod to a SF/F reader in your family. Are you a true second generation fan handed down the love or was it something that came to you later?

Steven Erikson — ‘Erikson’ was my mother’s maiden name. I cannot recall if I was the one to bring the first science fiction and fantasy fiction into the home (probably), but she was an inveterate reader who would pick up virtually every novel I finished. Tarzan, John Carter of Mars — all the Burroughs romantic fantasies — she read them all. She also read James Bond adventures, as well as Matt Helm, the darker works of Mickey Spillane, Perry Mason mysteries, etc — and occasionally I’d grab an Ian Flemming or whatever, just to see what all that was about. I guess together we shared the venues of popular genre fiction. The miracle is that my love of adventure fiction and its rocking plots actually survived subsequent years in prestigious, somewhat-nose-in-the-air creative writing programs.

I’m interested in the origins of the setting that started I believe as a RPG setting. When I picture something like this I see lots of beer, and most likely perhaps a shared lightheaded daze. Do you recall the first Malazan breath and just what was going on in your own minds?

Steven Erikson — Oddly enough, mind-altering substances played no role (excepting caffeine) in our gaming. They didn’t fit the mood we were seeking to invoke. At the same time, my first ever venture into AD&D was on a dig, when Cam ran the rest of us in an introductory game. Poor Cam — it may have been weed but more likely hash but we were wrecked and completely pathetic. Our group’s first encounter (with a few wolves) resulted in one player hiding under his shield, another running away, and me climbing the nearest tree and flinging pine cones at them. I recall one player rolling up a Halfling assassin who then attempted to stab in the back a seven foot tall ranger (got him in the right calf). At which point Cam tossed up his hands and that was that.

In the more successful sessions that followed (a year or so later), we kept our wits about us. The games were in essence participatory novels in the making. We didn’t give a shit about amassing treasure, raiding pointless dungeons, etc. We created people and then messed them up in the most inventive ways we could imagine.

Sort’ve like what we’re now doing with the novels.

The Malazan world, as best as I can recall, was slow to take shape. Started with a map or two, since I loved drawing maps. I still have one of the first ones, a small region of northern Genabackis (Blackdog Swamp, Mott and Mott Wood). From Cam’s end, well, he was running campaigns as a GM well before I took a stab at it, and those ones included characters I’d written up for them: Anomander Rake, Caladan Brood, Queen of Dreams. I think their original settings weren’t ‘Malazan’ in the sense of what we now call ‘Malazan.’ But they migrated after a time. The creation of the empire itself came from a campaign I ran where Cam was Kellanved (Dancer as NPC). I still recall that one with a smile — there were scenes I don’t think I’ll ever forget (not one of which has appeared in any of the novels, since they took place earlier) — ones that remain between me and Cam.

I asked a similar question to Mr. Esslemont: You have successfully tapped into the romantic notion that literature can give to criminals with your ‘Old Guard’. Is there a historical model for this group?

Steven Erikson — Interesting question. I’m not sure if there’s any direct historical correlation. It’s probably more the case that having created all these characters, they were all just, well, sitting around doing not much of anything — their moments in history had passed. Which is not to say they can’t find new ones. But they were fully formed characters and it seemed a shame not to make use of them every now and then.

When people speak of fantasy writers particularly the epic variety they see similar influences — but when I read your books and when I see how you raise questions of culture I see a little Dellio. Are you familiar with the writer and works like The Names and do you see this at all?

gardens of the moon steven erikson

Steven Erikson — The Names is one of my favourite books (along with Grendel, Short-Timers, Going after Cacciatto, Lord of the Flies, Foucault’s Pendulum). I’ve been less enchanted with most of DeLillo’s other works, thus far. The Names and Foucault’s Pendulum go hand in hand with me (and maybe The Man who was Thursday added on); they were delvings into the nature of mystery (rather than just mysteries) and obsession. It’s interesting that you have detected some kind of connection there, and I wonder if you can be more specific?

In a similar question with Cam we talked of non-genre specific influences and I think when we look at what we call epic fantasy — the best of it (even going back to Tolkien) brought something to it that has little to do with direct predecessors and stemmed from some individual passion or practice (with Tolkien language, with Bakker philosophy, with Martin chivalry). What I also see is outside of that ‘epic’ sub-genre are a crop of writers who are absolutely up to date not only the past masters but that avant garde group of contemporary writers (Delillo is certainly one of them) and on a generic level what I see with The Names is a historical observer in a land that doesn’t recognize or know to look for the fiction, but instead digs deeper into people, place, where aspects like central theme and plot are not moving them to and where but the characters themselves organically do so without the narrator holding judgment and leaving that to those around and when they do it’s given from many different vantages. It’s true exploration and with the Malazan setting, it seems to be an active and continuous application of that brought to the fantastic. I also actually see some prose — or rather use of prose — similarities in that your language doesn’t tell a story it forces you to live, or experience it, even while observing and taking a bit from your own answer you dwelve into the nature of people and people’s nature not just people.

Steven Erikson — I see what you’re getting at — it’s been years since I last read The Names — I’ll look at it again. It may be more a matter of ‘show don’t tell’ as a basic tenet to my approach to storytelling. In a sense, we should feel as if we’re peeking into a world and the lives of the people in it. We glean what we can but so much remains that will stay mysterious, unknowable. Many writers seem to have a fear of that — they want to explain too much and this ends up deadening the narrative flow. It’s like a magician explaining every trick, or having to explain a joke. On one level it may put the reader at ease, but on another it also implies a lack of faith in the reader — in his or her intelligence but more importantly in his or her imagination and sense of wonder. What’s the point of Fantasy without the reader’s imagination being sparked, ignited, engaged as an essential player in the creative process?

What I have enjoyed about your series from the very beginning is that there is — and with very little event to it — a number of female and non-Caucasian characters that are central in the human races in your setting. Was this a conscious choice?

Steven Erikson — Conscious in the sense (that both Cam and I shared) that we were reading so many fantasy novels modeled on the European feudal motif; and everyone was white, pretty much Anglo Saxon stock (unless they were the dark horde, miserable allusion intended). It was ridiculous. Believe it or not, the blonde hair blue-eyed genotype is a serious minority globally speaking. Why should all these fantasy worlds be so monochromatic?

As for the female characters not-to-swooning-type, well, fantasy worlds would do well to acknowledge modern, hard-won sensibilities, when to reject them yields the unpleasant echo of sexist nostalgia, don’t you think? I ain’t John Norman here, after all (thank god).

Can you give me a literary (or a historical ) figure that you relate to Kellanved/Shadowthrone?

Steven Erikson — Easy. Ian C. Esslemont. That madman is Cam’s creation, lock stock and barrel. As you might imagine, running a game with that character in your face was an adventure. I’m grinning right now.

Ha! I knew he was Kel! Do you see any real distinction between your ‘literary’ work that makes them deserve that label in a manner that your Malazan works probably wouldn’t be viewed as outside of the hobby?

Steven Erikson — I don’t see much difference, to be honest. The label helps acknowledge, perhaps, the intended audience. But even that is suspect, as it suggests that readers of fantasy fiction are unwilling/unable to read such works as ‘literary.’ Naturally, readers of exclusively ‘literary’ works are actually self-limiting their canon, which in effect disregards genuinely literary endeavours within genres. It’s their loss.

I don’t know if the Malazan books will ever be viewed as ‘literary’ by the people for whom such a title distinguishes worthwhile from ‘popular’ dross, if you see my point. I can’t really concern myself about all that.

Another aspect I love about the series is when it seems a storyteller drops into your books talking tongues that is actually mythic language — or language of myth, from Pust to Kruppe. Does a bit of a bard come out when you write their passages?

Steven Erikson — I’m sure it does, although I’m not entirely certain about your observation — what do you mean by a language of myth? Thinking on it, yes, I suppose Kruppe occasionally talks in tongue, but only in the sense of playing linguistic games in a self-referential way. Pust, on the other hand, is simply mad and the question of whether he knows it or not is naturally one that will never be resolved. By ‘mythic language’ do you mean word choice? Or the evoking of something more archetypal? Cadence, rhythm?

Since the Iliad was a major inspiration for me, I know I wanted to give hint, every now and then, to an oral tradition of storytelling. But mostly this appears in the poems, songs and such at the beginning of chapters. And, I suppose, in the overall structure of the novels and the series.

Excellent, your mention of The Iliad answers my question perfectly. I have found myself living in the proximity of the/a military most of my life. I know several traditionally non-fantasy readers in the armed forced that have come back to me and spoke on how much they love your portrayal of soldiers. I know you credit the works of Glen Cook’s Company work in this regard but is there any other reason or source that you think allows you to capture these ‘soldier’s stories’?

Steven Erikson — Digs. Get a crew of misfits (all us archaeologists are misfits), isolate them in the bush for a whole summer. Most of the trappings of civilization are stripped away, and what comes to the fore is a nefarious combination of camaraderie, absurdity, and the inevitable revelation of genuine personality along with the occasional ridiculous posturing. The only thing missing is being shot at, and even that wasn’t a guarantee (especially during hunting season or the odd armed drunk on a bridge, or, as once happened to me, one smart-ass quip too many and a fellow crewman comes at me with a hatchet). It’s a fact that people get bush-crazy, and archaeologists who do field work can fill a night with stories to prove it.

A lot of those memories filter through with the squads we write about in our novels.

Another detail that’s probably added to it: a number of digs ended up in close proximity to military bases (CFB Shilo in Manitoba and British units in Belize); finally, a writer needs to listen and listen well — I’ve sat in enough bars in the company of military and ex-military folk to soak plenty in. Finally, there are the novels and books written by vets.

I was wondering if you would discuss the notion of ‘convergence’ in your setting and the mechanics behind the idea.

Steven Erikson — It’s mostly a plot mechanism, to be honest, one we then tied to a principle of power-attracting-power as manifested in the Malazan world (and, let’s face it, ours as well). With multiple threads running through a narrative, part of the pay-off needs to involve, to some extent, drawing in all or most of those threads.

What I find rather delightful is that it’s a plot point that the characters are not only aware of but the world is somewhat dictated by them!

Steven Erikson — yeah, nice, uhm, convergence of intent and form, huh?

The late Robert Jordan always stated he knew what was going occur in the last pages and panels of his Wheel of Time series — can the same be said about The Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Steven Erikson — Yes. The final scenes are already written in my head. I just need to get to them.

You have expressed an interest or even a necessity to subvert fantasy norms, and while many of our great voices have taken almost a different path to do so you decided to do so using those classic tropes, a bit of change from truly within, which seems from a marketing standpoint much more advantageous, yet from your telling of attempting at first to get an American book deal it wasn’t. First why the choice to choose this manner and second how has the fantasy reader, or people in general have changed to allow for the success of such a series and do you point to any other works that perhaps allowed for that transition to a Malazan fanbase that is really representative of the largest audience in this market?

Steven Erikson — First off, I have little inkling of just how much a success the effort has been to date. My works rarely find the bestseller lists, after all. Subverting the tropes from within seems the most honourable way of effecting change. Imagine trying it from the outside, and you’d end up with a work that was mocking rather than celebrating even as it subtlety undermined; it would show contempt and we never wanted to do that — we love the stuff, after all.

Most of the initial rejections from US publishers had more to do with perceived complexity rather than subverted tropes, although I suppose the absence of any true ‘heroes’ threw a number of them.

From what I’ve seen, we are seeing more ‘realistic’ takes on fantasy worlds of late; we’re in a less romantic age, so it’s not that surprising. We’re also in an age of disillusionment — our political leaders are suspect; the pursuit of money takes precedent over human lives and, indeed, the lives of every other lifeform on this planet. Shades of grey proliferate, and the fantasy genre is just catching up to an approach already explored in, say, Science Fiction.

Why is it you think that Science Fiction got that jump on fantasy and is there a book you look at that may have started the trend for fantasy? I ask due to the RPG roots of Malaz. Was what Malaz became very close — in terms of this non-romantic look — as it was when originated?

house of chains steven erikson

Steven Erikson — I’ve mentioned earlier how Glen Cook’s novels brought that gritty, ground-level sensibility to the genre, and how it may have been way ahead of its time. We took alot of Black Company atmosphere in our RPG ventures. Good Science Fiction is an extrapolation on the present, so it depends first and foremost on cogent, measured observation of the world around us, by the writer. This approach is not implicit for fantasy. But it seems to be coming to the genre

You describe Kellanved as a madman, do you do so with a positive or negative glint and is there a difference. In Cam’s latest novel and in your own novels we see the unraveling, indeed the chaos, possibly caused by his abdication. That his removal was his own choice being noted, is there a part of the explorer with supreme gumption in Kellanved that you find endearing — or is he just mad?

Steven Erikson — Oh, it’s madness with a wink, to be sure. The great pleasure in seeing such a character (in a game or in a book) is their shear unpredictability. Even in the games neither Cam nor I ever elaborated on the motivations of the characters we played. We didn’t explain to each other much of anything — this is what made the game-master side of the conversation as entertaining as the character/player side. Neither knew directly what the other was on about.

 I asked a question of Esslemont that he stated would be more appropriate for you. It was: What I think you did best — in a world that is cutthroat, that is about betrayal — from the Chain of Dogs to the assassinations, to Silchas Ruin’s fate — you cement another extreme. Is it safe to say Kellanved and Dancer are friends? Such a simple element is actually something we see little of without some sense of trepidation — but you see Dancer essentially saving Kellanved at the doorstep of immortality, himself already safe. Was your intention to establish the roots of this relationship and how deep do you think it is?

Steven Erikson — I think what exists with those two characters is a sense of a longstanding shared history, a trove of experiences. At the same time, it should be clear that each is his own person, and while they are together they are also separate, and this establishes a balance between the two. Maybe in some ways they are the most accurate (not in terms of madness!) composites of the creative side of myself and Cam. We share a world, but we are each distinct as individuals. The natural tension that exists in such a condition is one that both of us acknowledge and which does not frighten us or make us defensive. It’s a complex kind of friendship, but a solid one for the mutual respect involved.

In the midst of all what is — at it’s base — very pulpy fantasy archetypes — I felt you kept us grounded with the soldiers. Where in the process did you and/or Cam come up with the Bridgeburners. With that, the presence of munitions — humanity’s god smackers — you make a choice not often seen in this mode of fiction. Why a focus or interest in sappers, or was it just another element?

Steven Erikson — Hmm. The notion of munitions probably arrived as a counter-weight to sorcery, a means for non-magic practising characters to, as you say, level the field. We were also drawn to the grim and often miserable world of the foot soldier, one you see very rarely explored in most Fantasy fiction (barring Cook). It was always the rulers and leaders and great heroes leading the massed ranks, never that blurred, anxious face in the ranks themselves. Armies were fodder, something to end up strewn on the churned-up, bloody fields of history (real or imagined). To me, such victims represent the most tragic element to large-scale conflict. It’s their lives that are ruined by the desires and ambitions of their leaders. Those victims are where my compassion finds a home. For both Cam and myself, it’s where our emotion, our empathy, is most fully engaged. That may be, in the end, what makes them so compelling (and entertaining). I’ve been in enough airports down in the States to see soldiers returning from Iraq, and see in the eyes of some of them something blasted, wounded, and it breaks my heart.

 Ian called Laseen — Surly — ‘one of yours’ and in his latest novel, Return of the Crimson Guard, he does something very interesting with her. Her name (Surly) — and the history of the word itself — always interested me. Being the creator it’s hard to take a step back, I know, but when you think of this very central figure what is your gut reaction put in words?

Steven Erikson — Well, there shalt be no spoilers. Throughout our own world’s history, one can find again and again sharp, capable rulers for whom events just didn’t work out the way they were planned. Bad luck, errors in judgement, all sorts of things can fuck them up and often do. I do not yet know the specifics of what happens in Cam’s novel — I only know the general gist — but we both understand how often bad timing becomes the definitive force in history. Surly was an NPC with unexpected ambitions.

The element of Deck of Dragons is something we have seen in some fashion with Zelazny. I have seen you list him as an influence before — is there something(else) that you drew from Zelazny?

Steven Erikson — Another great writer who left lots to the reader’s imagination. Also, the sense of humour, so thoroughly anchored in the characters themselves. One thing I recall from the Amber series was the maddening uncertainty about so many of Corwin’s siblings — what were they up to? Friend or foe? And even then, alleigances could swap in an instant. Loved that. And his short fiction was very literary.

Yes! I guess it is rather plain now that you mention it — the familial relationships in Amber. For myself, I came (from my own experiences) came to view Brand as my anti-archetypes archetype for fantasy villains. House Paran certainly does have it’s interesting dynamic, as does the ‘Old Guard’ and many other examples! Mike Harrison recently had some comments to make about world-building:

“Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.”

Being a writer who often is noted for his world building, do you have any thoughts?

Steven Erikson — Oh, I’ve commented on that quote elsewhere. It’s rubbish. Every form of fiction involves worldbuilding. Psychological type? What the hell is that? Anyone who puts any weight on the notion of ‘types’ is being lazy about human psychology. Convenient, I suppose, in argument, but way too simplistic for reality.

What did you enjoy most about Night of Knives?

Steven Erikson — Its compactness. There are scenes in there that I’ll never forget — sent chills right through me (Temper and the Hound, for one — to see a character reduced to a piece of meat … fabulous — how many fantasy writers have the guts and skill to deliver that?)

The idea of the cullings is something we are introduced to very early. From where did the idea of class cullings come from as you applied it?

Steven Erikson — It’s basically a variant on pogroms, and there’s plenty of historical precedent for a power (especially one under stress) finding scapegoats among its population. In the case of the Malazan Empire, it also served to trim the growing power block and its attendant corruptions of the society’s workings (a burgeoning bureaucracy that ever threatens to grind a culture to a halt).

Whose journey do you think you have taken most satisfaction from?

Steven Erikson — Probably Karsa Orlong.

He really was the vehicle of the first deviation I felt in the series. House of Chains seemed to start out as what felt like a comparatively prolonged spotlight on Karsa. Was this the original plan, or was the character whose journey had to be expounded upon past initial thought due to organic growth in-series?

Steven Erikson — The intent all along with the hold with Karsa for the first section of that novel. When one sets the precedent of multiple points of view the question invariably comes up where a reader wonders if the author can pull off a longer, more sustained point of view. I suppose I was partly making a point. Also, I wanted to play on the standard theme of the barbarian from the back of beyond launched on a journey into the world, and through that, by holding tightly to that point of view, explore that theme as realistically as I could. To this day I am very pleased with that section — it still feels very tightly controlled.

You have an ability to at times let character take the role of dramatic narrator. An instance that comes to mind is when you Cuttle observes Fiddler doing the drum in Reaper’s Gale. Is it something that you think of at all in terms of being mindful of that shift and how much you use it, or is it something that just occurs?

Steven Erikson — I employ it a lot, and quite deliberately. It permits a change in tone, diction, and so on, and has the combined purpose of providing characterization twice — the voice and the character being described (or characters). It draws the reader a little closer in. If I maintained a strict narrative voice, over these many novels, it’d probably drive everyone mad, including me.

I realize that it would be quite obvious that your archaeology and anthropology background play into the series. I wonder however if it’s all a one-way relationship. Have you unearthed anything as a writer whether in the Malazan setting or your other work?

Steven Erikson — Well, I do play with alternate interpretations, regarding cultural mechanics, and human evolution. As an example, I was watching some archaeology show on Egypt and the topic was the early habit in that civilization of killing a pharoah’s advisors, bodyguards, wives, etc, when the pharoah died — thus entombing everyone at the top. The general interpretation of this is that the king needs his staff in the afterlife. I recall sitting up and thinking about that a bit, until it occurred to me that an even more likely reason was to ensure that there would be no treachery among the king’s closest advisors — after all, when the king goes, so do you.

Personally, I think that is just as reasonable as the religious-we’re-all-in-this-together-sacrifice deal. Later on, of course, the practise was done away with, probably because the bureaucracy got too big, too powerful. Another example relates to my growing suspicion that our present interpretation of hominid evolution is probably way off base. I now wonder if we’re missing a huge element of our evolutionary story simply because a vast amount of fossil evidence is presently below sea-level, along coastlines (whether they be on the North American westcoast, straight down to South America, or the East African coastline, round the Indian Ocean and straight out to Indonesia.

I’m thinking that water transport was a much earlier phenomenon than generally viewed, possibly as far back as Homo Erectus. If I had stayed an academic, such views would see me turfed in no time. But as a fiction writer, well, I can mess around with this stuff all I want. Curiously, the recent finds of hobbit-sized Homo Erectus variants in Flores didn’t much surprise me; although the twelve thousand year old date did.

What can we look forward from you post-Toll the Hounds?

Steven Erikson — I need to complete the last two novels in the series, and maybe fit a novella or two in besides.

Most people will ask for teasers — answers to questions, I ask you for something bit different — what is the subject of the secret that most makes you take on a Kellanved rubbing his hands look?

Steven Erikson — Well, there’s certainly a few in Toll the Hounds; and most of those final scenes mentioned earlier. The ones that close out the series. I’m also heading towards one now with the ninth novel’s final chapters. But I’m not giving anything away, Jay. Sorry!

No apologies! I want to thank you for the time and remind everybody the eighth book in his Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence is soon to be released both in the UK and U.S.

If you enjoyed this interview you will probably like interview with Malazan co-creator Ian Cameron Esslemont.

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