Canadian Steven Erikson: Genuine Emotion, Genuine Talent
Canadian Steven Erikson (not to be confused with Steve Erickson, author of Zeroville) is one of our best writers, having created a world in his Malazan fantasy series that has all of the complexity and grit of real-life, informed in part by his background in archaeology. As a result, since the 1990s, Erikson has garnered tons of critical praise while building a large and fanatical fan base (exemplified by the Malazan website). Erikson's most recent novel is The Bone Hunters, sixth in his Books of the Fallen, with the seventh, Reaper's Gale, to be published in North America next year. I caught up with him via email earlier in November. He is, without question, one of the most fascinating and provocative of interview subjects. (For more with Erikson, check out the latest installment of the online magazine Clarkesworld.)
Amazon.com: Can you describe where you are as you're answering these questions?
Steven Erikson: I am sitting in a cafe called The Black Stilt, in the city of Victoria, British Columbia. It's twelve-thirty and the sun is bright. If lucky, I find myself at one of the copper tables in the center area, within range of an outlet for my laptop, but there is a college and a university relatively near so the opportunity is rare, as this place fills up with students some of whom actually work with their laptops (the rest look at photo albums...all day). So I find myself in the "lounge" area, in a comfy chair with the laptop on my thighs. iPod Touch is on, and I'm listening to Jon Anderson's cover of "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." To date, I have written three novels and one novella here at the Black Stilt. And spent a small fortune on coffees and lunches. They know my name here, and are pleased to see the cafe mentioned in the acknowledgements of my novels. At the Bar Italia in Winnipeg, I got free coffees at least once a week. Here, I'm still waiting. But then, I'm told that's how Victoria is. You get nothing for free in this city, mate.
Amazon.com: What are you working on at the moment?
Steven Erikson: 've just finished Toll the Hounds, which is the eighth novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. At the moment I am working on a co-written novella with Ian C. Esslemont set in the same world, and I confess I've started the prologue to the ninth in the series. As for Toll the Hounds, I guess I can say I'm pleased with the result; that's a statement that needs qualification, however. The novel is about love and grief, and integral to that exploration was my fair share of both this past year, as my father fell ill and in the course of four months withered away and died. There is something mercenary in writers, something that others might view with faint disgust, and that is the terrible desire to feed off one's own circumstances, using genuine emotions (including suffering) to infuse a fictional tale that is, at its core, meaningless. I don't mean that as a disparagement of fiction; as writers we play a game of illusion, pretending to a reality that does not exist, and if we can, we use that false reality to generate real emotion. And that's what can make a normal person understandably uneasy, as the writer guides that person into a very personal world; as, in this instance, I happen to be inviting him or her to share in my grief. Does all this stem from an overblown ego? I'm not sure; I feel pretty humble these days. At the same time there is an undeniable ego to the presumption of being writers: that we actually possess something worth saying, not to mention the conceit that words possess real efficacy (but those are topics for some other time). All that makes the novel sound like a downer, but while there are tragic elements to the tale, there are plenty of lighter ones, too. It's more like a wake. You get laughs, you get tears, and maybe when it's all said and done, you walk away thoughtful, standing in the afternoon light, saying goodbye to someone who is no longer there. As I did.
With each of these novels I work at finding something that sets it apart from the ones that came before, while remaining true to the spirit of the series. In the case of Toll the Hounds, that uniqueness was found in the narrative voice coming directly from a character that readers should know well by now. The risk is that those readers happen to be fairly split on whether they like the bloke or hate him, with equal amounts of passion. To those who happen to hate him, sorry for this, but: tough luck. It is what it is. As the eighth in a ten volume series, some pretty huge events occur by the book's end. According to my advance readers, there will be surprises--things no-one can anticipate (despite all my foreshadowing, which has been going on for seven books now), and for me that remains a measure of success. As to how the novel is received by the majority of my readers, that remains to be seen.
Amazon.com: What's the craziest thing that's ever happened to you during your writing career?
Steven Erikson: It's crazy that I am lucky enough to be doing this for a living, Jeff. It's crazy that people I don't know grant me the privilege of taking them by the hand and dragging them into a story of my own making. It's crazy how they obsess on seemingly endless aspects of the Malazan world (crazy cool). It's crazy how I constantly face the stigma of being a Fantasy writer when in the company of other writers. It's crazy that I pretty much don't exist in my own country, And it's crazy that I still let that bother me on occasion; in fact, that's the craziest (and stupidest) thing of all.
Amazon.com: What writers do you read, and what would you recommend that you've read recently? (fiction or nonfiction)
Steven Erikson: As I'm sitting in a café I don't have titles, at hand (and I'm bad with titles and authors both). There's a nonfiction book called 1491, by Charles Mann, which is an analysis of the New World just prior to European contact. It's a dense but fascinating read. [Others include] Elaine Dewar's two books, one called Bones and the other, more recent one, The Second Tree which is about genetics. I like her stuff because she doesn't suppress her own personality--it's the kind of thing where, after reading an author's voice for a couple thousand pages, you sit back and say, "you know, I think if we ever met, I'd like this person."
Amazon.com: What, writing-wise, has been on your mind lately? (issues, controversy, problems, etc)
Steven Erikson: Well, reviewing the above comments, probably a kind of malaise (and, as bizarre counterpoint, my iPod's playing Talking Heads, Naked). There's this series now on PBS, about modern art, that takes three or four active artists and gets them to talk about their work, their process, motivations, etc. It's extraordinary the vapid crap out there, and even more extraordinary when you find yourself watching and listening to genius. One artist, a photographer, has been doing a series of landscapes; the one focused on in the show was a book with shots of [forest] clearcuts. Even on a damned television screen, the horror of page after page of destruction filters through. But then, we come back to the notion of efficacy. The artist unleashes anguish and grief with terrible beauty, and who gives a crap? The converted share tears and such; the indifferent look away; and the guilty get belligerent and defensive. What's changed? What changes? Another artist professing to a brutal upbringing now sculpts looming, spirit-crushing prisons made out of hacked and slashed cedar; all of which is interesting if you happen to be a psychologist, or a logger. Another one takes a fallen fir (or spruce) tree and transplants it and its immediate environment into a glass box in a city, where it's then necessary to install elaborate environmental controls to recreate the forest's natural process of decay and re-growth. Talk about missing the point. Talk about a fatal spiritual disconnect. What's all this to do with writing? The efficacy of art in society (sounds like a university course, 3 credits; prerequisites--none). The next great social, cultural, and spiritual movements seem likely to bypass art entirely, or rather, snatch from it what it needs and then move on. Sharp-eyed artists will catch and ride the wave for a time, and then get left behind. Change is inevitable and the notion of being able to control it is an illusion, as far as I can tell; even mere observation becomes a passive posture and that just puts you in the avalanche's path. Whatever's coming will be sounded in a billion voices, no two saying the same thing, all in a setting of environmental collapse. Sounds intriguing. We're in for a helluva ride.