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.)

Aerikson_2   Aerikson2_2 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. 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.

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