An Epic Fantasy Come True – Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont Combo Malazan Interview
This is me combining two separate interviews I conducted with Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont and re-presenting them in one convenient place. Back in 2008 I was able to interview the architects of my favorite book series of all time – The Malazan Book of The Fallen – one of the handful of entertainment/art properties that I truly obsess over and love.
You also can check out my gut take and review after completing the Malazan Book of the Fallen.
I’m talking it’s 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 epic fantasy 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.
It’s just awesome.
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) but are would-be favorites in a world that Malazan (or aSoIaF) didn’t exist in.
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-round 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.
Let’s get to it though and I hope you enjoy! First up, my interview with Ian Cameron Esslemont!
After a long and trying journey into the Azath I was finally able to track down one of the architects of the Malazan world that I find myself completely addicted to.
When I first read Ian Cameron Esslemont’s first book Night of Knives, I must admit my reaction was a bit lukewarm, not unwelcome but not a piece that impacted me. After I added more pieces to the puzzle and studied the ones I had with more scrutiny I tackled the book again and it was one of those books that made me review it and now I’m somewhat of an unabashed fan and while I don’t think it requires defending, I find myself doing so when the occasion presents itself.
One of those books that — even if originating completely from a fan’s notion most nonsensical — necessitated thought being put down in one those rare works or series that we actively love. We can all come up with long lists of books we enjoyed or loved, but the beauty of the epic series — and in some sense SF’s Space Operas — is that it provide a constant adoration that lives between books not just during them or in the recent aftermath.
Today I talk to Ian Cameron Esslemont, who along with Steven Erikson is responsible for one of the latest additions of this affair, and we chat about his first book Night of Knives, his soon to be released Return of the Crimson Guard, all things Malazan, and more.
Jay — When I first saw the pre-publicity info for your first novel Night of Knives, my first reaction before even reading beyond the title was we were going to see something really fundamental in the political landscape of the Malazan Empire as the title immediately invoked for me the purge by the Schutzstaffel of the SA that helped consolidate Hitler’s powers, dubbed The Night of Long Knives. Was this the origin of the title or is this coincidental?
Ian Esslemont — A number of people have picked up on the reference to Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives” and I’m very gratified to have close readers! It was a little both deliberate and happy coincidence in that it meshed so very well. Like any reference, or echo, it is meant to broaden and deepen the reading experience: in this case to send the reader down other paths thinking about power, the exigencies of power, and the pursuit or turning away from power.
Jay — Night of Knives works in many ways that prequels usually don’t in that the books stature for me grows as Erikson’s series progresses — from the obvious allure of the Kellanved and Dancer storyline to reading something like House of Chains and seeing Ash among the ghosts in Raruku and so on — what — if any — pitfalls did you set out to avoid and did you perhaps look at another piece of literature as a model for success in such a task
Ian Esslemont — Steve and I hope that all the works will grow and deepen as the series progresses and that they mesh, interweaving, perhaps adding up to something greater than the sum of their parts.
As to modelling, no, I deliberately avoided looking at examples of other “prequels”. And in any case I do not see Night of Knives as a prequel at all. It is merely one more tale in a long history that stretches back far before its telling. There are many other earlier tales to tell, such as that of Kallor and his downfall.
Jay — I want to touch on Kellanved and Dancer a bit. The process of Ascension is still a semi-ambiguous phenomena in the Malazan setting. A mystical, evolutionary leap — and what strikes me with this duo is that they don’t settle for that — they actually set out to be immortal. While humanity’s individual idiosyncrasies are boundless — as seen by your entire cast — what do you gives this duo their extra gumption? Is it simple love of knowledge?
Ian Esslemont — Yes, ascension remains an ‘ambiguous’ process — but what, I must ask, is straightforward in any aspect of religion? Murkiness pretty much characterizes religion. As to what sets K & D apart, or characterizes them in particular, I suppose I would have to point to boundless, utterly reckless, ambition. Frankly, they know no limits, and this is of course (as they say) a two-edged sword for everyone.
Jay — In my review of Night of Knives I point to an observation I have about the duo, masters of shadow, and in some sense plane walkers, and given what I have read of Steve and yours backgrounds — in a way seekers of knowledge, the world, and it’s people and I almost get the sense that these character while so steeped in your setting’s history almost represent humanity’s pinnacle just fucking around and seeing what they can find.
It was also your choice to tell their story first — is their a relationship to that duo that in some way acts as your own avatars trying to unlock the secrets of that world?
Ian Esslemont — The two and their story serve as one central meta-narrative for the series — I don’t think I’m giving away much there. Their journey is ours, so to speak (Steve’s and mine in the beginning, and the reader’s now). As to “just fucking around,” you know — that’s not too far from the discovery and trial-and-error of the creative process. You pretty much don’t know what’s out there until you go, and you pretty much don’t know what you can do until you try (is that last part too Dr. Phil?)
Jay — Among your POVS in Night of Knives is Temper and you use him to give us a look at the former First Sword of the Empire, Dassem. I was wondering if you can tell me the origins in creation of the element I feel is of strong interest to all Malazan fans — “the old guard”. Beyond the romantic idea of crooks plotting to and succeeding in Empire what do you think creates this almost mythic aura and appeal of them?
Ian Esslemont — Speaking for myself, I think that so far much of the interest stems from their being ‘off-stage’ so much (in the beginning at least). Any absence creates a void that invites the reader to fill and flesh-out using their own imagination. This is all ‘old-hand’ story-telling slight-of-hand from way back.
Things happening just off stage interest everyone. The audience’s imagination is engaged so much more there in the dark than in what’s going on right in front of them — too often these days in gory technicolour splatter that leaves nothing to the imagination. What to put in and what to leave out have always been difficult artistic choices, and this might sound contradictory, but often it’s what to leave out that is the more important.
Jay — Another point of view — as an offset to the Veteran in Temper — you offer is one of a girl who just wants to get out of her hometown and experience the world. Perhaps my favorite moment in the book is when you detail Kellanved’s arrival — his presence, much as we have seen Rake’s presence (or that of his warren) — being a physical sensation — Tay’s nose bleeds — and then you suddenly gives us Kiska’s vision of seeing the cripple rendered helpless as Dancer strives to defend them both. Why was it important to have young eyes to show us an event that has ramifications on the very pantheon?
Ian Esslemont — As with the previous question, again, it’s the choice of what to place plainly before the reader and what to have ‘off stage’. My opinion is that the reader’s imagination is engaged much more forcefully when they are asked to actually work it. (This draws the reader even further into the work as well).
That’s the goal for me, reader engagement — I’m not saying I’m there yet, but that’s were I’m trying to go. Also, remember, as in everything happening in Malaz, this is just point of view. The example given is what Kiska imagines occurred, not necessarily how it happened.
Jay — While I understand in previous statement you discuss a separation among your epic brethren, but where there is a similarity is the immersion that fans have in your worlds like they do with a Jordan, Martin, etc. When you succeed in epic styled fantasy, you succeed big. While this is obviously a fruitful outcome for creators has taken a life of it’s own or has it seemed to be a match to the creator’s enthusiasm? Is it a bit mind-blowing or is it more of a matching of expectations? Is any of it weird?
Ian Esslemont — For Steve and I the world we created was, and is, as fully rounded and deep as this. It always was more than a mere setting or backdrop there for us to write adventures or create characters. We did not set out deliberately to invent a place just to write stories, we discovered the place valley by valley, city by city, character by character.
The place itself is a character. Together we uncovered it as if it existed already fully realized there before us, and this, I think, is what sets successful fantasy ‘worlds’ apart from those which feel as if the author just needed a new or different setting to move their characters across. Our enthusiasm is — of course — boundless for it and it’s a real lift to see others sharing that enthusiasm.
Jay — I’m a fan of PS publishing’s track record with projects they take on — how did that relationship come about and how was working with Peter Crowther?
Ian Esslemont — Working with Peter at PS is great. It is very possible that Night of Knives may never have seen print had he not dared to take the chance. And there remain obvious reasons why Bantam, for example, was reluctant to take that chance.
Its brevity for one thing, and — to be fair — it remains the work of a craftsperson coming to grips with his medium. Few publishing houses these days are willing to take on new untried names to watch them feel their way into the industry. That’s the older model where publishing houses used to nurish and develop authors rather than searching for that instant hit or ‘blockbuster’.
Jay — What separates great epic fantasy concepts from great epic fantasy series I feel is often a writer’s desire and ability to mine other works. Michael Moorcock says “If you want to write fantasy then read everything but fantasy” — I have seen you quote the likes of Borges and see a reader — what influenced this series that isn’t related to Fantasy directly?
Ian Esslemont — Here I am in complete agreement with Moorcock. Not that I’m advocating avoiding reading fantasy. Rather, what I think is that anyone who wants to write in the genre should know it inside and out and that must come from exhaustive reading of the material. So, yes, read voraciously within the genre. However, once you’ve done that — read almost all there is out there worth reading — then, after that or during that, you should also be reading outside the genre. And slowly, as the years pass, usually you will find yourself reading more and more outside the genre (there’s just so damn much out there just to begin with).
But more to the point, what I think Michael was getting at was that any artist who strives to improve his or her craft must study the masters, and the masters of the written word (for the most part) stand outside the genre in literary fiction. So, read Dick, yes, but also read Cormac McCarthy, know fantasy inside and out but read Ondaatje and Annie Proulx as well. Read Bakker and Gemmell, but know Graham Swift, Ian McEwan and Toni Morrison as well.
Jay — 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?
Ian Esslemont — This question appears to be directed more to Steve, but I’ll give it a shot. Friendship is all over the works! Look at Mappo and Icarium, the look at Bugg and Tehol. As to K & D, well, maybe friendships isn’t word. Maybe more a wary mutual respect for one another’s capabilities. Other than these two, the question of friendship and costs brings us to the world of the common soldier in Malaz.
The bonding (band of brothers) of those under fire and harrowing conditions is by now a cliché, certainly. Yet it remains an enduring truth — and not just for those thrown into the furnace of combat. Isolation, such as that of a crew in deep bush, can also create it. Any shared intense experience can engender such bonds. As to the costs of being human, these are very real as well — as I think Steve excels at portraying.
Jay – Both Steve and yourself highlight the common soldier by making that very fact uncommon. I referred to Ash earlier, I understand that the strength of this setting is based in ambiguity, but as the writer, to you is Ash representative of faith and loyalty or foolishness if they are at all exclusive qualities.
You highlight him — being singled out by Surly herself when he could have easily just been written out. Was their a reason — aside from dramatic purposes — and what experience or ideal draws you in my mind successfully the soldier. Almost every instance we see they are at war — yet they seem emblematic of the best of humanity.
Ian Esslemont — I hope that it would all be there: faith, loyalty, foolishness, drive, obsession. In other words, a fully rounded human being. That’s the goal (met in some cases, fallen short in others) for all our characters. No cardboard cut-outs. It’s hard to keep to — and I imagine I slip up now and then — but one can only try to reach for all the characters being ones that the reader would like to know more about. That’s the final best compliment.
Jay — Your next book entitled Return of the Crimson Guard, is due to be released in August — when does this occur on the Malazan timeline?
Ian Esslemont — The events occur just before Steve’s Toll the Hounds and relatively soon after The Bonehunters. Unfortunately, due to timing, Steve’s Toll comes out just before Return — rather than the reverse. It would be better had Return preceeded Toll, but that’s just how things turned out given my coming into all this later than we both had wanted originally.
Jay — We have heard of the Crimson Guard in Erikson’s installments, usually very briefly and referenced for their prowess and that they are lead by a military genius — what more can you tell us and why are they the choice for the subject of your second Malazan novel?
Ian Esslemont — Like Night of Knives, I’m returning to characters, or entities, whose histories reach back to the beginnings of the empire. Return was actually drafted out very long ago and I have had to completely revise it given changes in things since (nothing stands still, the world evolves even now in our shared imaginations). As to why this novel now, it was always second in line of my proposed novels for the milieu.
Jay — Would you consider Return of the Crimson Guard a novel that can be read as a stand-alone?
Ian Esslemont — Hmmm … I’d have to say that while Return is very large, it’s less a stand alone work than Knives. I do not mean that the plot elements are incomplete — it comes to a definite end — rather, it’s that I didn’t have room to give full attention to providing all the information and background I suspect readers would want. The already fat work would have just been too ungainly had I taken the time aside to give little potted histories, etc, in long expositional passages (and I hate that habit in fantasy writing anyway.
Jay — It would seem Laseen would be at the center of attention in Return of the Crimson Guard. In various times we see Laseen speak we get glimpses into a very solitary figure, one that (in Erikson’s novels) seem increasingly isolated. Without giving any of the games up — I was wondering if you would mind giving us a bit of creator’s commentary on the character, in the form of what comes to mind when you write the character?
Ian Esslemont — Laseen, or Surly, was originally one of Steve’s. He’s done the most with her to date basing his portrayal on what we talked through in our discussions of the various story arcs. In Return I am following the same portrayal, attempting to continue through with her development, themes, and arc. She remains distant — as is appropriate, I think — we do not ‘get into her head’. We continue to see her only as those around her see her. Thus our vision of her (the reader’s) remains highly filtered.
Jay — In Night of Knives you utilized 3 or 4 central POV’s can you discuss if the same will be used in Return of the Crimson Guard and give any of them up for the fans?
Ian Esslemont — The same technique of multiple POVs is used in Return. Many more this time though! We’ll see a number of familiar faces and meet a number of new characters as well. Fans of the world will be happy to hear that we’ll be seeing much more of Traveller, of Greymane, and even of the Wickan twins Nil and Nether. We will see many of the Crimson Guard of course, including K’azz, and even Iron Bars. We will also be seeing the return of a character who seems to have evoked a very strong reaction, Mallick Rel.
Jay — Can you pinpoint a character or two that has grown in a manner in Steve’s work that you find particular enjoyment in terms of where the character’s gone or become?
Ian Esslemont — This question is a real delight. I love the way Steve allows characters the room to grow. So many have surprised me with where they’ve been taken and how they’ve grown. Look at Iskaral: I love that guy though he’d drive me crazy if I ever met him. I suppose Icarium comes to mind as an example — I was very impressed by what Steve did with him.
Jay — While the Malazan world has been allowed to grow through Steve, this is your second novel. What would you say have you taken in since having a book with your presentation of the Malazan world out on the shelf?
Ian Esslemont — What have I taken in from Steve’s ongoing series? More I suspect than even the most rabid fan the world! It’s a delight to see so much realized, developing, and broadening. It’s quite the challenge to keep up, I tell you. I’m doing my best to smooth out any inconsistencies, and to mention things that should be mentioned, but we’ll both mess up now and then — I hope the fans will keep in mind the sheer volume of what we’re dealing with here.
Jay — What would you say has been the biggest or most comical misstep that either you or fans have caught?
Ian Esslemont — Hmm, this is a tough one in that ‘comical’ is not what first comes to mind regarding our missteps to date. No huge gaffs have gotten through yet (fingers crossed). The biggest headache has been the subsequent geographic distance between Steve and I and the lack of opportunity to sit down together to hammer things out whenever we want.
So far, given that handicap, I think we’ve done a pretty good job in keeping things in order. There are the usual small mix-ups that plague all long projects. One persistent ‘misalignment,’ if you will, is that Steve and I somehow see Dassem differently in our mind’s eye — odd that one.
Jay — What will your third Malazan novel center around, and where are you at in terms of progress?
Ian Esslemont — The third novel deals with the over-reach of the Malazan occupation of Korel lands to the south of Quon. After internal reordering the empire turns its attention, and resources, to this drain on its treasure and blood. Currently I’m just getting into it — the writing is slow in that I’m trying to learn from my experiences with both prior novels and adjust accordingly (fan feedback helps here!).
Jay — What do you view as the most important lessons — via feedback or experience — that you take into book II and now Book II once that Night of Knives was released and bantered about!
Ian Esslemont — I’ve been pretty lucky in that feedback and response from online and elsewhere has for the most part been helpful and constructive. I took away a lot from the response to Knives and I think Return will show that. It’s part of the overall process in anyone’s growth as a craftsperson and that evolution continues; my next work will, I hope, continue that development.
Jay — Has any progress been made on The Encyclopedia of Malaz?
Ian Esslemont — Steve and I took a throw at it some years ago, so various incomplete versions exist. Happily for me writing the actual fiction took over — good thing too; I think attempting to assemble a comprehensive guide to all we’ve pulled together would’ve driven me crazy.
Jay — Do you have any non-Malaz writing goals?
Ian Esslemont — Writing the Malaz material is very close to my heart but I do have a great deal of other writing goals. I’m looking at science fiction short stories and eventually I hope to return to various science fiction novels I have waiting for my attention, as is a fantasy series for juvenile readers involving a kind of time-travel.
Jay — Who do you admire in short fiction?
Ian Esslemont — I have to admit that I’m not reading much short fiction these days. Of the limited number of authors I have read recently I guess I’d mention Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, Gene Wolfe, and Steven King. In science fiction I’d like to make a plug for fellow Alaskan resident, David Marusek, whose short fiction I really enjoy.
Now on to my interview with Steven Erikson!
Today I interview Steven Erikson who in my mind nothing less than writer who brought Sword & Sorcery elements into contemporary, even literary fiction and creating a landscape all his own. He’s nothing less than the author of my favorite series of all time.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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?
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?
Jay — 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?
Jay — 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).
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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?
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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?
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
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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?)
Jay — 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).
Jay — Whose journey do you think you have taken most satisfaction from?
Steven Erikson — Probably Karsa Orlong.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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.
Jay — 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!
Jay — 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.