An interview with Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's ongoing fantasy series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has brought new life and originality into the fantasy genre. Steven Erikson kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2009, shortly after the publication of the ninth novel in the series, Dust of Dreams.

We believe that you are now living in the UK full time. We would like to welcome you back to our little island and ask you if it was the weather or the cuisine that prompted your move across the Atlantic?

Neither. Out of the blue our son decided he would like to study archaeology in the UK, and this, combined with my wife's desire to be closer to her family, as well as my hankering to be closer to two of my publishers (Transworld and PS Publishing) and the many UK-based friends I have made over the years, all led to yet another crossing of the Atlantic. That said, we're probably getting too old to keep doing this, and I'm hoping this time we'll find roots, maybe in Cornwall, or maybe somewhere else on the island. For the moment, however, Cornwall is home.

We live in a small village, and I am presently sitting in a very nice country pub a short ten minute walk down a footpath from my home. That path takes me through a graveyard so I am looking forward to the winter and walks in the grey dusk, with the wind howling.

We are all [at Fantasy Book Review] enthusiastic readers of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series but not one of us can claim to fully understand everything that has happened in the series so far. Should we beat ourselves up for not concentrating hard enough or is it simply that much is yet to be explained?

Honestly, don't beat yourself up over it. One of the things both Cam and I were agreed on regarding this series, was to write in a style that conveyed a sense of vastness, with a strong flavour of realism where not all answers are forthcoming, not all truths survive their utterance, and sometimes mystery abides no matter how desperate we all are for an end to the questions. That said, there will be plenty of resolutions, but the world will not be wrapped up with a pretty bow.

As for the events that have been recounted in the books, well, things are always open to interpretation, and I am also rather pleased to learn from readers that the books fair well in re-reads. I am a writer obsessed with layering my narrative, so there's plenty to find for the reader even after the raw events of the story are well-known.

Dust of Dreams is the ninth novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Do you believe that you have significantly improved as an author since the publication of Gardens of the Moon? Were there any weaknesses that you detected early on and remedied?

I certainly hope that I have improved as an author! Certainly I now possess a greater comfort with things like structure and pacing (although I sense that in the case of the latter some of my readers would rather I cut to the chase quicker than I do; to which I can only respond that my reasons for doing what I do continue to satisfy me, and trust me, if I am not satisfied absolutely no-one else will be. I am very deliberate in my approach, and I would humbly remind those impatient readers that their pace is not my pace; that reading is an engagement distinct from that of writing, and that at no time do I pad for the hell of it – again, I have my reasons!).

There is also a growing comfort with language that comes with doing this year after year, but I can still recall my earliest days at the University of Victoria, when I repeatedly blindsided my fellow students by delivering stories in a broad, unpredictable range of voices, so even back then I suppose I was trying out different styles, messing with rhythm, tone and point of view. All of that fed the fantasy novels, as I moved from voice to voice, from point of view to point of view. The exploration and discovery continues and to indicate something of my sense of that journey, I have recently been re-reading the series from the beginning (my first time doing this, and all in preparation for writing the tenth novel), and there are entire sections, especially in the early books, that I do not even recognize as coming from me. Sentence construction, certain phrases, the pursuit of notions in some unusual direction – all of this tells me that I am not the same writer, but I really cannot distance myself to the point that I can actually map out these changes. They come as a shock, each time.

In my mind I always separate out Gardens of the Moon from the rest of the novels in the series. I pretty much started full-time writing with Deadhouse Gates, and it is with this novel (the second in the series) that I can see the sharpening of focus, the crystallization of intent, that has continued to this very day.

Gardens had other demands pressing upon it. As I read it now I can see precisely what I was seeking to do and if I try to imagine how I'd do it now, well, I draw a blank. So maybe in that sense I haven't improved at all! Or rather, I've not yet discovered that quintessential secret that would deliver that novel to the largest audience possible.

We all have our limits, I suppose. I have read reader reviews and comments on the amazon sites and elsewhere, listing the perceived flaws in Gardens of the Moon and advising what should have been done to fix them, and to my judgement, none of those solutions would work (and I should know, since I thought about them long before they did, back when Gardens was a pile of pages and rough notes on my desk). Advice is cheap and more often than not it doesn't hold up to close examination. In any case, I often don't agree with the observations being made, so I'd hardly endeavour to make changes to suit them, would I? I can see stylistic tics in that first novel that I no longer use, but I have spoken about this before, and besides, I think it's something all writers discover in themselves. They try things early in their careers and if those things prove vaguely uncomfortable they get abandoned, and the writer moves on.

You have recently signed a deal that will see you write more Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. Is there a small part of you that yearns for a complete break from the series and a fresh start on something completely different?

With the tenth novel, The Crippled God, the 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' ends. While Cam (Ian Esslemont) has a few more to write in that sequence, I do not. The two new trilogies I am signed to write share the world and its cosmos, but they do not resume the arc of the Fallen. This may seem an odd distinction, maybe even an unconvincing one, but it is sharp in my mind. The whole point of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was to deliver a self-contained series, a slice of history, and to give the readers a sense of completion when they read the last line on the last page.

I also write other stuff, squeezing it in here and there, and with eighteen-month deadlines forthcoming (rather than the twelve-month ones I've been doing for this series), I am planning on doing a bit more of that.

Do you feel that discipline is vital for an author and that a certain amount of time every day should be dedicated to writing, regardless of whether you feel “in the mood”?

My own rule is four hours a day, at least five days a week. I don't do word counts or anything like that. Discipline is essential to being a writer, but the specifics are entirely personal and there's no hard and fast rule for how you measure a day's work. All that counts is what comes out at the end.

Stephen Donaldson, an author you have been compared to on many occasions, has always spoken very highly of your work. In 2004 he released The Runes of the Earth, twenty-one years after the previous title in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had been published. Could you imagine coming back to complete a series after such a long gap?

I've not been a writer long enough to imagine anything like that, but as a fan of the series, I am delighted that Steve elected to return to it.

Do you think that your books would lend themselves to film adaptation? Or would you take the JRR Tolkien stance and declare that your work is “quite unsuitable for dramatisation”?

Under the present format of film-making, the Malazan sequence is problematic. Note the caution in that statement. I know precisely how this series could be made, but I will save my pitch for some future meeting with a producer (and I anticipate the moment when their jaws drop).

Midnight Tides is, at the moment, our favourite book from the series. Although all of your work features humour, Tehol Beddict and Bugg take it to a new level, and it is often wonderfully surreal. Was this a conscious effort to inject a little more light-heartedness into the series?

A conscious effort? I don't think so. I like to think the humour was present in every book, but I do accept that Tehol and Bugg delivered something new. But not as new as it may at first seem. Their precedents were Iskaral and Kruppe, as both characters engaged in a peculiar self-referential style of humour. Tehol and Bugg just took that one step further. The consciousness involved in their creation had more to do with offsetting the sheer gravity of the rest of Midnight Tides.

But even then, they arrived (on that rooftop) in one of those uncanny, slightly bewildering, fully spontaneous manifestations that hit writers on occasion. A bed? A blanket? All out of nowhere, completely unplanned. Once they arrived, I just sort of sat back and let them run with it.

Is there a fantasy book from your own childhood that completely captivated you? A book whose very mention brings breathtaking feelings of nostalgia?

Plenty. One I actually stole for a character in my non-fantasy novel, This River Awakens (written as Steve Lundin): Jack London's 'Before Adam.' Others include Tarzan of the Apes (the first one, which I still admire) and some other Burroughs books. My nostalgia is more for a period in my life when I first discovered books –- both fantasy and SF – and the awakening of my imagination.

We have received many emails asking if there will be a tour to coincide with the UK publication of Dust of Dreams. Is there anything planned?

Alas, no, although I will be at Fantasycon in Nottingham. I arrived in the UK woefully late on delivering the next Bauchelain/Korbal Broach novella. It's finally done, and I have already plunged into The Crippled God. No rest for the wicked.

Steven Erikson