For The Love of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch Interview
My guest today is a less than a week away from seeing his debut hit the shelves in the UK and a month away until it debuts in the U.S. The book, The Lies of Locke Lamora, is the first installment in a planned seven book cycle titled The Gentlemen Bastards.
I first read the book in October of last year, reviewed it, and after reading it knew that Scott Lynch was somebody I needed to talk to.
You can also read my reviews of The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and The Republic of Thieves in one spot.
Jay — Tell me about The Lies of Locke Lamora, how long has this been project been brewing in your mind, and when and how did the process of bringing it into fruition begin?
Scott Lynch — I’d say the story that eventually became The Lies of Locke Lamora must have had its genesis in mid-2000. I had briefly played a character in a friend’s Star Wars role-playing game, a sort of science fiction flim-flam artist named Locke.
I conceived of this idyllic, out-of-the-way little planet that had no military, but deflected trouble and attention from itself through the efforts of a very small, ultra-secret corps of spies, saboteurs, and con artists; I think I called them the Royal Department of Reconnaissance and Provocation.
Locke was one of them, sent out to gather experience in the galaxy at large as part of his apprenticeship. After the game folded, I began to toy with the idea of tossing him and a whole crew of supporting con artists into a fantasy setting.
I remember that my first few attempts to sketch that setting out, in the winter of 2000, were disappointing. My original conception for the world was a sort of analog of our European 13th century (oooh, astonishly inventive, I know, I know…), but I realized in fairly short order that the world would not be socially/economically complex enough to support con artistry in the sense that we understand the term, so I had to move the timeline of the analog world ahead to an arbitrary blend of our 15th-17th centuries. I still have a restaurant napkin around here somewhere with a little city sketch map and the caption, “Why does it have to be set in another fucking medieval dirt town you idiot?”
Jay — You are working on the second book, Red Seas Under Red Skies, where are you at with that book, and how many books do you envision chronicling the story of young Locke?
Scott Lynch — Red Seas Under Red Skies is nearly finished, and surely will be by the time you print this; deadlines are sneaking up on us — vicious, heavily-armed, ill-tempered deadlines — if we’re going to get it out for its intended January 2007 release.
The Gentleman Bastard sequence is conceived as a seven-book cycle; a conception that I am going to live or die to adhere to — it’s all going to fit into seven, damn it. My lovely UK editor and his secret councils of publishing elders have decided to take a shot at getting this long fantasy series out on a fixed, regular, relatively speedy schedule within the bounds of its original design.
No splitting the last book into three books, or suddenly turning it into a ten-book series because I digressed excessively in book five, or anything like that. They’ll send ninjas to my house if that happens. Honest, look at my contract…”Clause 18, Reasons We Can Kill Your Family…”
After the Gentleman Bastard sequence, there is a design for what you might call a coda, a next-generation follow-up that tracks the life of…oh, hell, I can’t let that surprise slip. But if the Gentleman Bastard books actually sell, and my editors stay happy with me, and I don’t have to change my name and flee to Antarctica or anything, it’s my intention to do another seven set twenty-plus years later, in the same world with a mostly different cast.
I say this to avoid later charges of, “Aha, he said he was going to do seven, but now he’s bloated it to fourteen!” No, I aim to do ’em all. I don’t know what the next seven will be called. I suspect I should concentrate on writing the initial seven first, or, you know… find ninjas in my laundry hamper.
Jay — The Lies of Locke Lamora stands-alone very well, was this a conscious decision, and if so, something we can expect with the other installments in the sequence?
Scott Lynch — It was an extremely deliberate decision, and thank you for the compliment. I wanted the first book in the sequence to leave no obvious dangling plot-threads other than a) some characters are still alive, and b) somewhere out in the world are quite a few people who might be pretty upset with them on account of what they’ve done.
I honestly wish I could say that the other books in the series will be equally, immediately stand-alone and accessible, but realistically…I can’t. I’m doing my damnedest not to make them too completely immersive; for the most part, each book is separated by a period of time from the last, be it a few years or a few weeks, so intricate memories of the plot of each previous volume won’t be utterly essential. But they are definitely best read in sequence; they build upon and resonate with one another. At least that’s the theory.
Jay — I was able to read a pretty early manuscript of this book via some luck — big thanks to Sarah Ash — and immediately fell in love with it, and while genre fans have reason to completely ignore author blurbs regarding forthcoming projects, your debut is garnering wonderful praise by authors like George R.R. Martin, Matthew Stover, and Richard Morgan, and has been receiving almost universal praise, escalating anticipation of your book to level as high as I have seen. Has his added scrutiny affected the way you approached your current writing in any way noticeable to you — has pressure visited you yet?
Scott Lynch — Visited? It’s commandeered a room in the house, takes meals with us, and sits in on me while I write, offering highly useless comments and drinking all my soda. Yes, in some ways…the fact that readers and editors so far have just gone ga-ga for. Lies has really hit me during the conception and writing of Red Seas. It’s been helpful, getting a lot of feedback on exactly what people like and why they like it, so I can try to ensure that Book II tickles some of the same reader interests.
I can’t deny that it’s also been intimidating…I don’t want to put out a second novel that makes the first one look like a fluke. But, in a way, this pressure is somewhat mitigated by the fact that I have utterly brilliant editors backing me up, both in the UK and the US — a sort of safety net, as it were. If you enjoy Lies, and end up enjoying Red Seas, I can tell you now, it will be due in no small measure to their hard work saving me from myself, and from some of the appallingly stupid things I write.
Jay — Fantasy has grown in such a manner that now, unlike even a decade ago, one can be a fan of fantasy and completely avoid certain sub-genres, and many do. What struck me upon concluding my reading of The Lies of Locke Lamora — and I think the diversity of the sources of praise you are receiving displays this as well — is that this is a rare book that I think all fans of fantasy, no matter what their preferences will enjoy. Are the influences of the series and your writing as diverse?
Scott Lynch — I’d like to think so, said the author as he gave himself a firm pat on the back… nah, seriously, Lies is a gleeful cocktail of pretty much anything that suited…I like caper/heist/con artist films, “traditional” fantasy, “non-traditional” fantasy, weird archaic economics, Alexandre Dumas, Patrick O’Brian, good Scorsese and De Palma films, alchemy, sorcery, sharks, boats, botany, food, strange liquors…this book took four and a half years or so to write, and there’s literally not a book I read in that time that didn’t help me in some way, or teach me something. Matt Stover, Kage Baker, Ray Feist, George R.R. Martin, Fritz Leiber, Ursula Le Guin, Hemingway, Melville, Nathanael West, Elmore Leonard, Patricia McKillip…they all went into the blender, poor folks.
Jay — You have very active online journal, how significant has the web been to you as an aspiring, and soon to be published author?
Scott Lynch — Well, it’s been absolutely critical in at least one way, in that I was ‘discovered’ online. My editor at Gollancz, Simon Spanton, spotted some early excerpts from Lies that I was posting on a web journal for friends, and asked to see more, bless him. Everything took off from there, completely ass-backwards from the usual means by which newbie authors are vacuumed up from the world at large.
Nowadays, I keep a Livejournal, and try to update it fairly frequently…it’s incredibly rewarding, to a grinning little attention whore like myself, to be able to reach out and please an audience on an ongoing basis. I try not to be too narcissistic about it, and probably fail…but it’s too much fun to leave off.
My Livejournal readers and friends, and my other online associates, are in the main a pack of wonderful, generous, interesting, and eclectic folks, and they help stave off the fact that sitting alone in a little room typing day in and day out tends to make one feel like a prisoner in one’s own skull sooner or later.
Jay — When you are not writing, what consumes your time?
Scott Lynch — If I were lying, I would say that I virtuously read hundreds of pages every single day. Sadly, that’s not the case. I mean to, but a certain someone got me an X-Box for Christmas two years ago, and…well, I do try to read quite a bit. I have a lovely fiance who sensibly demands that I creep down from my little writer-cave as often as possible. We’re geeks, into all the usual films, television shows, and games.
We both love conventions, and travel in general. I suppose the second greatest demand on my time is that I’m a volunteer firefighter for the city Jen and I live in; I’ve been with the department since June ’05. There’s a regular training commitment, plus my pager going off at totally random intervals for this or that emergency. That’s my second passion in life; my hobby, as it were. I’m very fortunate to be able to work from home on the books, so I can drop everything and run off to do that.
Jay — Among some future works, not related to Locke Lamora, that you have mentioned is a urban fantasy called Conscience of the Storm, a project you have stated you have worked on for some time, and hope to expand on if successful. What can you tell us about this project, and what about this project resonates with you that is nine years in the making?
Scott Lynch — Oh no — you’re asking a writer to expound on a much-beloved future project he’s been nursing for years, which is sort of like sitting a role-playing gamer down and asking him to tell you about his characters…
Okay. As simply as possible, so my editor doesn’t kill me: The Conscience of the Storm is intended to be an epic urban fantasy,’urban’ in that it’s set in an obviously artificial world which is one endless city (Embras) from horizon to horizon, without any bounds that anyone has ever found and lived to report. At the very heart of this city is the secluded, heavily guarded empire of a culture with magical arts so profound as to be science-fictional. Due to a variety of physiological weaknesses balancing out their power, their enclave is as much a prison as a fortress.
Partly, it’s the coming-of-age story of a young woman named Dremagne, second daughter of a noble house, and how she gets caught up in the plans of this culture’s empress, who is a) heirless, b) aging, and c)100% completely out of her fucking mind.
It’s also the story of a young woman named Alexis, who falls out of our world and into Embras, where she makes the unfortunate discovery that our world is a sort of vast magical lie called the Pattern Dream, in which billions upon billions of human beings are stuck collectively hallucinating the “history” of our world. The good news is that people fall out at random intervals; the bad news is that in the “real” world we’re powerless and generally valued more as slave labor than anything else. Oh yes — in Embras we’re immortal, and can therefore be slaves for a very, very long time. Have a nice life.
So the story revolves around these threads…Dremagne trying to stay alive and preserve her family against the empress’ lunatic malice; Alex trying to get free and find out just why the hell everything works the way it does, and what the Pattern Dream is. It’ll have ancient secrets, violent intrigue, thieves, skullduggery, magic by the metric ton, and things exploding all over the place. Simon rather liked my synopsis; god knows where we’re going to fit it into the release schedule in the next few years!
Jay – Your setting is Camorr, which you touched on:
“I DIDN’T WANT TO BE QUITE AS DELIBERATELY ANACHRONISTIC AS MATT STOVER, NOR AS GLEEFULLY SQUALID AS CHINA MIEVILLE — I WANTED A PLACE THAT WOULD BE EXOTIC AND BEAUTIFUL EVEN WHILE BEING DIRTY AND DANGEROUS, AS I IMAGINE BABYLON, VENICE, CONSTANTINOPLE AND OLD NEW YORK ONCE WERE. A FANTASTIC PLACE TO VISIT, A QUESTIONABLE PLACE TO LIVE — AN IAN FLEMING THRILLER SETTING FOR A FANTASY MILIEU.”
In the text you reference the alien-like origin of previous inhabitants, their legacy an illuminating reminder of their existence. How much of the history the past Therin Throne Empire do you have mapped out? Furthermore, where are your own favorite haunts in literature?
Scott Lynch — The Therin Throne is pure backstory for Locke’s ‘current’ world; anecdotes and short stories may pop up here and there when they can illuminate or enhance ‘current events,’ but as to how much of it I’ve got laid out, honestly, not too much. There just wouldn’t be any use for it. All we’re really going to see of that lost empire is the occasional colorful and interesting bit of necessary or amusing history.
I’m fond of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, though it exists as more of an ideal than a concrete reality. The point of a construct like Lankhmar isn’t to have a map suitable for walking tours, but to have this ever-mysterious, ever-shifting urban quagmire of convenience where you can always tack on one more dangerous alleyway or strange bazaar.
Ray Feist’s Krondor is a sentimental favorite; his port city on the Bitter Sea in his Midkemian cycle of novels. Feist’s work (the Riftwar Saga, the Empire trilogy with Janny Wurts, the Serpentwar Saga, etc.) was the first major modern fantasy sequence I explored, and Krondor got a great deal of loving focus over the course of many novels.
Lastly, and probably most emotionally important, I’d mention the Sprawl in William Gibson’s Cyberspace Trilogy, which I read when I was a very impressionable 14–15. The place was described with such a combination of gee-whiz flair and (as I saw it, at least) forlorn melancholy. Thinking about it always brings me a feeling of bittersweet nostalgia and longing to visit, to just sort of get lost in the rain and neon and glass. Probably get mugged by some genetically modified gang with a terribly clever Eurotrashy name, too. Sure, twenty years on its become Ridley Scott Cliche Future 17-A and we’ve all seen it a hundred times, but it’ll always be special to me.
Runners up… certainly George Alec Effinger’s Budayeen, and just about any part of the early 19th century as described by Patrick O’Brian.
Jay – One could see the dickensian qualities permeated in the cast, especially with young Locke. The novel also displays a growth in him, a sign of things to come. How much of Scott Lynch can one find in the Thorn of Camorr, if at all?
Scott Lynch — Oh-ho. A chance to preen in front of a self-conjured mirror. Sweet. Well, obviously, there are certain aspects of Locke’s personality that are direct lifts from how I see myself…and of course there are differences. Using me as a starting point, Locke is physically smaller, equally thick-skulled, less scrupulous, infinitely cleverer, and much better-educated, by the standards of his time.
I’m an atheist, and he’s devoutly religious…a priest of his secret order. You could say that I have a modern sense of obligation to the community that he doesn’t, at least at first. Locke’s world is his friends — as he’s an orphan, they are effectively his family. There’s a certain narrow ethical focus in him that I…don’t always agree with. Locke does some very bloody things in the book that I think are perfectly reasonable, and at least one quieter, cleverer thing that I think is an unforgivable moral lapse.
We’re alike in one terribly important respect, that we’re pig-headed romantic morons…Locke has spent several years as The Lies of Locke Lamora opens pining for the one woman in the world he loves, who is a thousand miles away, and he’s basically torturing himself. His friends have been having flings and jumping in and out of beds whenever possible, and basically regard him as a crazy person in this matter. Locke would rather be miserable longing for Her, capital ‘h’, than moderately happy with anyone else, and that’s me… except I’m marrying my Her, capital ‘h,’ and have firm plans to live happily ever after
Jay — In your view, what is the chief element in your book — a Scott Lynch book — that you think the reader is going to identify with and make the choice of picking up The Lies of Locke Lamora, if not a better decision, then a worthwhile one when leaving the book next to it on the shelf?
Scott Lynch — Hmmmm. Can I steal the Fruity Oaty Bar jingle from Serenity? “Locke Lamora book! Make a man out of a mouse! Locke Lamora book! Make you bust out of your blouse!” Ahhh, there goes the Amazon sales rating….
Okay, in all seriousness — hopefully, it’s that my self-image as an author is that of a willing entertainer. I wrote this book to be as deeply entertaining as I could. It’s the sort of highly structured, twisty-plotted, bloody, intricate, oh-god-someone-betrayed-someone-else-for-the-sixteenth-time sex/crime/violence/sorcery novel I’d personally love to read, and too rarely get to see. There’s a great deal beneath that, a great many literary games I play, but those are solely for my own amusement and the amusement of anyone who cares. My first and greatest agenda is simply to make the reader say, “Oooh, cool,” as often as possible. Books are expensive. They shouldn’t be chores all the time; they should be kick-you-in-the-ass fun, too.
Also, it has sharks. Mean ones
Jay — Recently — and cyclically — there has been discussion about the differences of fantasy and science fiction, and what defines both. What is fantasy to you?
Scott Lynch — Heh. Whew. Glad you just asked what I thought and didn’t offer up any theories for me to applaud or shoot down! I’m nuts about science fiction and fantasy, and I like to think I have a broad-enough knowledge of literature (genre and otherwise) to not have to suck my thumb when people start talking books and authors… but discussions of genre taxonomy, in my experience, tend to be agenda-driven, subjective beyond useful margins of allowable error, and, ultimately, patently useless.
All literature is fantasy literature; what we regard as “mainstream literature” and “literary fiction” are genres in which the use of overtly mechanistic fantasy elements (like werewolves, or necromancy) are by author/reader consensus kept off the table; they are, in their own way, more properly regarded as caricatures of our world and ourselves in which fantastical presumptions like omniscient narration and glimpses inside someone else’s thoughts are treated as mundane and transparent.
As to fantasy, fantasy is anything. Any! Damn! Thing! If I attempted to set any sort of limitation around it, I could name exceptions to my own rules seconds after dictating them. There’s just no point, no point whatsoever, from my perspective, in attempting to dissect fantasy and science fiction — to imply that there are universal, concrete differences, qualities of one that the other does not possess. These two flavors of fantastical literature are deeply interwoven across their long history, and it’s a sad, boring, aggravating mistake to presume that all fantasy writers somehow share authorial methods and intentions. We damn well do not.
Genres are tendencies, not limitations. What I will admit,in my own writing, is that there is a fairly distinct set of tendencies…Teresa Nielsen Hayden once described the standout qualities of a certain sort of fantasy literature as “numinous landscapes and significant personal actions,” and to that I tend to hew. It’s a good place to start, perhaps as good as any. But it’s certainly not the end.
Jay — You repeatedly mention the work of your editors (both from the UK. and U.S.), and from my limited communication with, you have been very open to criticism. What have you taken from your experiences with them that you think reflects the most in the crafting of your subsequent books and drafts?
Scott Lynch — Hopefully I’ve learned to just be more damn careful — more attentive to continuity errors, to clear separation of character viewpoints, and to sentence structure. There are certain places in Lies, that are, shall we say, more exuberant than controlled.
As to what I’ve taken from them for, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and beyond, well, I can’t really go into details without getting very, very technical and boring, but the easiest way to put it is that I’ve never bounced a manuscript off them and had it come back worse for their suggestions… invariably the opposite. Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz, in particular, has done a bang-up job rescuing Red Seas from some glaring flaws in my original design.
There’s this sort of urban myth that editors are out to needlessly distort the pure and precious artistic visions of noble authors, and that an author’s relationship with them needs to be antagonistic. That’s bullshit (nurtured by a few fairly high-profile literary divas who claim that they won’t let anyone else adjust their oh-so-precious prose ever again); in my experience, the only parts of my work my editors have been antagonistic to are the stupid and self-indulgent bits.
Jay — You choose a narrative that features a series of flashbacks that I thought performed a dual function of allowing the reader to both discover new elements and satisfy reader curiosity simultaneously — when did this become the mode you choose to tell your story, and what brought you to use this narrative?
Scott Lynch — Happy accident and experimentation, basically. I tried approach after approach until I found one that fit the book. Originally, what I started writing was the story that will be the fourth novel in the Gentleman Bastard series, but I quickly realized that I wanted to back up quite a bit and get to know the characters better — explore their roots and past history for at least one novel (which became three).
After that decision was made, I flirted with the idea of using a first-person narrative in Locke’s voice, but that never went anywhere. I was unable and unwilling to contrive a means for Locke to get his hands on information concerning things that he hadn’t personally witnessed…I didn’t want to retcon in a damned crystal ball or something at the end of his memoirs to explain why he was conveniently omniscient.
Nonetheless, I wanted the reader to have as much of a sense of intimacy with Locke and his life as I could present, and the next best thing for that, after first-person narration, is to do a sort of bildungsroman and follow a character’s early development. It also worked out fairly elegantly, by happy accident, for the purpose of introducing all the intricacies of Camorr’s underworld — an info-dump doesn’t feel quite like an info-dump when you’re in the head of a seven-year-old being lectured on how his world works.
Jay — Is Locke a thief, an artist, or both?
Scott Lynch — He’s a prick. Well, to answer the question on your terms, he’s a masterly thief who makes his craft look like an art, but he doesn’t think of himself as an artist. He has limitless professional pride, but zero interest in contemplating his craft in the abstract. He doesn’t sit up at nights plotting intricate schemes simply for the glory of his professional discipline. His religion and his temperament(he’s just shy of being a kleptomaniac, really) drive him to do what he does, along with occasional periods of real need.
I’m sensitive about over-romanticizing what Locke does…he’s a confidence trickster, a crook. I’m fascinated by this sort of crime, but the fact is that in our world these people are parasites of the worst sort — credit card scammers, predators upon the elderly, identity thieves, etc. If you think overseas spammers and their fanciful English are amusing, try actually rendezvousing with one with money in your hands. The fabled age of quaint and “gentlemanly” con artistry, of Yellow Kid Weils and Big Stores and Golden Wires, is many decades dead and buried.
On the other hand, Locke’s world is so much crueler than ours in many of its presumptions… there are no declarations of human rights, no guarantees of individual liberty. It’s straight out of the worst years of our past. Camorr is a city of 88,000 in which a few hundred aristocrats have any degree of appreciable power, and perhaps a thousand other merchants, money-changers, and guild members can buy some measure of enfranchisement. Everyone else is screwed. Repressive laws, harsh justice, short life-spans…in this social climate, becoming an outlaw is really the only way for someone of common birth to have any freedom at all. Does it make him a nice person? No. Does it buy him a bit of ethical wiggle room? Possibly.
So, while he’s remarkably deft at what he does, I don’t look at him as an artist as yet, the ubiquitous term ‘con artist’ notwithstanding. Maybe some day we’ll see him start to build something larger than himself, and conceive other aspirations. Until then…
Jay — What’s the best advice you have received during the process of writing The Lies of Locke Lamora?
Scott Lynch — Not necessarily much advice, per se, but there was an awful lot of timely moral support from my editors and friends in the field. At one point, I was about 3/4 of the way through Lies and pissing and moaning to Simon about something that was awry with the book…some author-pattern nonsense, I’m sure. He forwarded a link to Neil Gaiman’s blog, where Neil was mentioning that he was about 3/4 of the way through Anansi Boys and he was sure it was the worst thing he’d ever written; that he was a fraud, a sham, a shadow of his former self, etc. Apparently, every author on the planet goes through a bout of intense self-loathing about three-quarters of the way through a manuscript, no matter how good they are. I mean, Neil Gaiman, for chrissakes.
I suppose that does condense down to a piece of advice, actually — to remember that every author, at some point, will despise what they’re working on, and that these feelings are more than likely unjust. You just need to bite you lip and keep hitting the keys.
Jay — The Lies of Locke Lamora’s movie option was purchased, has there been any more news on a film adaptation, and if there was a film production, how much control would you want to be able to exert on it. Would you approve of a film that didn’t require your direct involvement?
Scott Lynch — There’s no more news on progress at the moment. Sorry! As for my degree of control over it, I can tell you plainly that I have none. Nor would I necessarily want any. I’ve spent years studying and working to squeeze my way into one industry — print fantasy/science fiction. The sum total of my practical knowledge of film production could fit on a Tic-Tac. I can’t see what use I’d be attempting to give orders, make decisions, etc. in a strange environment where I’d be a know-nothing outsider.
I wholeheartedly approve of a film that doesn’t require my direct involvement! It leaves me more time to spend doing my actual job, which is writing books, and the option money makes it that much more feasible to keep with that as a full-time career. If a movie is made, and it’s any good, I’ll be delighted. If the film isn’t to my taste, it still can’t make the books vanish. My literary Locke will always be there; my readers’ experiences will always be their own, even if the film has singing purple Muppets in it or ends up rated ‘G’ or something.