|Steven Erikson. Photo by Adrià Guxens|
Publishing ten thick books like the ones from the Malazan Book of the Fallen series is not easy. Publishing one of these books a year, is even more difficult; a titanic task, but this is what Steven Erikson has done, a writer who defines himself as a trekker and who states that he is not competing with George R.R. Martin’s saga, despite the similar topics and target both series have. Adria’s News talks to Steven Erikson at the Celsius 232 Festival of Avilés discovering that he has no intention of adapting his books for the big screen: “The books are too big. They have too many characters”, he says. Resentment towards the seventh art that can easily be matched to the fact he couldn’t afford to study filmmaking at the University of Cardiff, even after being accepted. However, he’s certain about a thing: “If I had done cinema, the Malazan world wouldn’t have been”. I bet his fans know which of the two things they prefer.
I leave the bar where I’ve just had lunch to arrive on time to Steven Erikson’s interview, the famous author of the fantastic saga Malaz: The Book of the Fallen. I have five minutes to arrive at the activities lodge and I don’t want to be late. Avilés is small, but it wouldn’t be the fit time I get lost amid its labyrinthic streets. Fortunately, the bells chime four o’clock when I get there and he hasn’t arrived. I wouldn’t like him to wait me.
I sit on a bench and I look over my watch. It’s only five minutes after. Having nothing special to do, I decide to review the main topics I want to discuss with him. I don’t know how much time I’ll have for the interview, but I always prefer to have everything in my head. Just in case.
But the five minutes turn into ten minutes, fifteen, twenty, thirty… I don’t know if Steven has forgot of our meeting or if it has been me that I didn’t understand him when we set the time. After all I’m not used to the Canadian accent. Cursing my English, I get up when there’s already a quarter to five but, surprisingly, I see Steven in the distance coming to where I am standing. He’s eating a Kit Kat. When he sees me, he puts away the snack and walks faster. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t remember we had an appointment. Do you wanna do the interview now?”, he says. I’m definitely between the sword and the wall because in ten minutes I’m meeting another writer, Robert J. Sawyer, and although I like a lot what Steven writes a commitment is a commitment.
Visibly uncomfortable, we try to find a solution. Robert J. Sawyer gives a conference at six o’clock, so Erikson asks me to set the interview at five thirty, just before. I think about it for a second and I end up nodding. After all, I prefer having twenty minutes to interview him to not have an interview at all. He points a bar and tells me he’ll be there at the terrace.
Half an hour after, and with Robert J. Sawyer’s interesting interview on my back, I sit with Steven Erikson to know more about the man behind the dark glasses he wears all time, even when he’s enjoying a cold beer.
You were born in Toronto and you moved to the UK, why?
I’ve lived in the UK twice now but I moved back and I am in Canada again. Regarding your question, I have two reasons: First, my wife is English; second, I was trying to get my first fantasy novel, Gardens of the Moon, published in the US and I was not succeeding. I was without a publisher for 18 months, and it occurred to me I may have a better chance in the UK because quite often I was being told by the editors in the US that my novels were too complicated. I didn’t believe them, and still don’t, because I do very well in the States now. Clearly they aren’t too complicated, but British audiences seemed a bit more ready to tackle something like what I was writing, so we moved back to the UK to find an agent and a publisher there.
People like to tag your series as high fantasy. Are you comfortable with this label?
I would not call my stuff high fantasy. I don’t know if I would call it low either. Hum… It’s epic fantasy. As an inspiration I look to the Iliad and what would you call the Iliad? Would it be high fantasy or low fantasy? It has elements of both, I think. So I certainly enjoyed creating a story where you don’t have good and evil, where you have shades of grey and ambivalence and ambiguity. Is that low? I don’t know. Secondly, a lot of high fantasy relates to nobility and aristocracy so it’s quite like the European Medieval social structure. So you could call that high fantasy because it has to do with princes and princesses, queens and kings, warlords and all the rest. My novels go higher than this, from the gods’ level all the way down to the thief in the street, so there are low elements to it and high elements to it.
You’ve created this universe with your friend Ian C. Esslemont. How do you work together in order not to have any mistakes in the storyline and history of your common universe?
I’m sure we make mistakes all the time. We gamed the world. It was role-played, and then we partitioned the storylines that we had so that he’d take some stories and I would take others, and then he’d pick up some characters that I left behind and run with them and then I’d pick some characters that he left behind and I’d run with them. So we’ve stayed away of each other’s paths, that may be the reason. We also are in constant communication. We were very clear on which elements we wanted to keep pushing but, at the same time, things were open.
Both Ian and you write books about the same world and the books are not strictly in chronological order. Which would be the order you would recommend a newcomer to follow?
Wow [Thinks]. Some people find my first one, Gardens of the Moon, a challenge to get into, so I have recommended people to go for the Deadhouse Gates, the second novel, and that seemed to be successful for a lot of people. At the same time, Ian’s short novel, Night of Knives, is chronologically the earliest of all stories. It actually occurs between my prologue of Gardens of the Moon and the rest of the novel, so yes, you can jump in on any of these, I would think.
In 2000 you said that your Malazan Book of the Fallen series would have a total of ten books. I am surprised that you ended up having ten books, just as you said. How could you know how long the story would be so far ahead?
Well, I sort of arbitrarily decided on ten books but I wanted to face a challenge, especially in a long series, where you don’t want a sense of repetition. You don’t want the readers to be able to anticipate what is coming and keeping the readers surprised for ten books has been a huge challenge for me. But you are right, I had final scenes that ended up having to wait for ten or eleven years before I could even get to them. The end of the series was like a magnet that was pulling me forward.
You actually almost wrote a book per year. Wasn’t that hard?
I don’t know. I look at Robert J. Sawyer, or even at Joe Abercrombie and they landed their book deals at a much younger age than I did. It took me eight years to find a publisher for Gardens of the Moon. It’s been an element of impatience. OK, not of impatience, but I felt the urge of actually making sure to finish the series. One story I heard that stayed with me for a long time was a 76 year old woman standing in line in a signing by Robert Jordan [Author of The Wheel of Time] and when she got up to have her book signed she asked him when he was going to finish the novels because she didn’t want to die first. And that really struck me. There are readers out there who are sort of looking forward to not only the continuation of the story, but to the completion of the story. You’ve read all these novels for a reason. I’m going somewhere with them and I wanna take you to that place and then we are done, so for me it was a great joy to be writing. I’ve always been a fast writer, but to be writing a novel a year and not having to worry about anything else is great.
At the beginning of Gardens of the Moon you talk about a word that you especially like: “ambition”.
If I’m not challenged then the reader will never be challenged. I suppose at some point I made a choice that the thing that I find rewarding in active writing is the challenge, as opposed to writing something that is familiar and comfortable, something I can almost do in my sleep. So I want that challenge at all times. I guess that is one of the reasons for that level of ambition. If you’re going to do it, go all the way and create a world history that people can come back to again and again. I hear from a lot of my fans that the second and third re-reads of the books are, if anything, more rewarding than the first. So clearly this ambition has done something to the books, I guess resonance and depth.
Do you think you’ll ever write a set of books as big as this one?
No. I certainly felt by the time I finished the 10th book that it’s a strange psychological state. I’ve been living and breathing the series and the world we created for ten or fifteen years before that. And when I finished, it was as if I could walk out into the street and get run over by a bus. I would die satisfied. But that’s a bit of an alarming feeling at the same time. You feel like you have done what you set out to do in your life and this is your legacy for good or ill, you created it. It took me a long time to sort of gather my energy again to sit down and write the next book. It really felt like I had done everything I could in the series so it is out of my hands now.
How has your academic background as an archaeologist and anthropologist affected your stories?
Since I used to be an archaeologist, my interest is in the rise and fall of civilizations and, also, I guess the sense of the cycles of civilizations and what survives. For example, when I was on the train from Madrid coming up here I was looking at farms and I noticed very rural elements. I recognised that, as much as Romans had a strong presence in Britain, none of the architecture of the Roman civilization has really survived there, but the Spanish style of architecture is fundamentally Roman. I not only mean the style of the archaeological monuments, but your actual style: it is persistent beyond roman civilization and it’s now emblematic of here and I love noticing those kinds of things.
Why do you prefer fantasy to science fiction?
It’s, I think, the only genre or rather the finest genre, which you can take a metaphor and make it real. In every other instance you are stretching it, even in science fiction. But in fantasy any kind of metaphor you can imagine can be made of physical living things, if you wish, and that allows to really make comments on our present human condition, of our reality, with greater freedom that you could otherwise.
What projects are you currently working on?
I started a trilogy and the first book is out, Forge of Darkness, which is set hundreds of thousands of years before the Malazan series. I’m also about halfway through a second novel, but I realised I needed a break. I was just feeling tired. And yet the break I took was to write a 75,000 word science fiction novel, which is something of Star-Trek spur, it is called Willful Child and will be my next book, although I don’t know when it’ll come out, maybe the New Year. And that was a lot of fun, to shift voices and shift styles completely, basically write over-the-top comedy. I mean, I’m a long time trekker; it’s one of my favourite universes… So it was fine that I just sort of took a few quotes from it. All in good nature, obviously, so now I have the second book to finish and I think I’ll have to inform my agents and my publishers that I’ll take a year off. I want to refill for the third book to make sure I put all my abilities in there.
In the dust jacket of your book Forge of Darkness there was a comment that said: “It will appeal to fans of George R.R. Martin for its characters and intrigue but goes leaps further in the realm of imagination”. This has created controversy amongst Martin’s fans.
I’ve never understood. First of all, if I believed there was a competition or rivalry, I have seriously lost, so there’s no competition in that respect, but even at the beginning I knew that the fans created these two communities. Certainly George and I never thought in these terms. I spoke to him some years ago, early on in the series, and we are aware that in fantasy we started out as fans before being writers and we know that fantasy readers read everything; they are just voracious readers. But it’s also an interesting coincidence that Gardens of the Moon, my first novel, and A Game of Thrones came out at the same time. Independently, we were both dealing with the notion of killing off characters. It was entirely a coincidence.
You use a pen name. Why?
It was not by choice. I was publishing contemporary fiction with my original name and when those publishers in the UK heard that I was about to publish a fantasy novel they called my agent and requested that I come up with a pseudonym.
Why Erikson, then?
It’s my mother’s maiden name. And then, of course, when the books became much more popular and I signed a nine-year deal and all that, those original publishers came back to my agents and said: “We changed our minds”, and we just said: “It’s too late. It’s done.”
Since you are Canadian, what do you think about the Quebec independence debate?
It’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before. I guess in a practical sense it’d be very difficult for Quebec to become an independent nation and I think it probably applies to most regions and provinces that have their own cultural identity and they’ve been subsumed into a larger country. Economically it is extremely difficult, but I quite admire what Quebec has done in terms of its culture, its support of the arts and the French language. It’s extraordinary and it would be wonderful for the rest of Canada to get that involved. So I admire their effort to sustain their cultural identity in a positive sense through the arts. For me this is the direction to go.
- Interview with George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire).
- Interview with Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle).
- Interview with Neil Gaiman (American Gods).
- Interview with Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn)
- Interview with Tim Powers (The Anubis Gates).
- Interview with Joe Abercrombie (The First Law series).
- Interview with Steven Erikson (Malazan Book of the Fallen).
- Interview with Adrian Tchaikovsky (Shadows of the Apt).
- Interview with Dmitry Glukhovsky (Metro 2033).
- Interview with Lisa Tuttle (Windhaven).
- Interview with David Simon (The Wire).
- Interview with Christopher Priest (The Prestige).
- Interview with Ian Watson (Artificial Intelligence).
- Interview with Robert J. Sawyer (FlashForward).