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Questions pour R. Scott Bakker

Par Gillossen, le samedi 24 juin 2006 à 16:42:07

Interview with R. Scott Bakker, english version

Here in France, we are awaiting the release of "The Warrior-Prophet". On which project are you currently working on?

The first book of The Aspect Emperor, which picks up the tale of the Second Apocalypse some twenty years following the conclusion to The Prince of Nothing. And though I worry I might need therapy, it feels good - very good.

The immensity and scale of your world is impressive. Even for a methodical and orderly person as you are, there must be some difficult passages to negociate as the story is coming along.

The creepy thing is that I'm neither methodical nor orderly! I'm married, which means I'm pretty good at faking it from time to time, but usually I'm just a squadron of nuts and bolts flying in loose formation. The only thing that lets me generate the illusion of order is the disjunction between the time it takes to write a book and the time it takes to read one. Your twelve hour reading experience is the condensation of thousands of hours of writing...

Sheesh, suddenly I feel tired.

By the way, have you ever been consulted regarding the translation of your works?

Several times by several different translators for several different languages. I'm mostly contacted by Slavic translators asking about various names, particularly those pertaining to battles. I was contacted by Jacques Collin subsequent to the French translation of The Darkness that Comes Before, primarily because he was interested in discussing the book. Cool dude.

What is the most difficult facet involved in writing epic fantasy? Weaving the different plot threads? Keeping the character's souls burning with enthusiasm? Or knowing that you will spend several more years in front of your computer?

The most difficult facet of writing fantasy, I find, is also the facet that makes writing fantasy so addictive: the sheer creative bandwidth. I mean, fantasy is fiction all the way down. In writing something like Neuropath, the psychothriller I recently completed, I found myself chafing at the constraints of the real world, even though I was spared the labour of creating everything from the ground up.

The idea of spending several more years in front of the computer is at once both daunting and encouraging. After spending about 20 or so years parked in front of one, it now feels like my third lung - or testicle, as the case might be. No one likes being separated from their testicles for very long. Not in my experience, anyway.

History and philosophy are significant features of your books. For example, you show how History can be dodged by time and memories......Is the fantasy genre a good one to discourse on this?

I'd have to say yes and no. In a certain sense, epic fantasy is an ideal as a narrative platform for explicit philosophical reflection. In the modern world, philosophy is largely a 'fallen' form of cognition: compared to the successes of science, there's little to recommend the kinds of theoretical claims made by philosophers. Epic fantasy worlds, however, are fantasy worlds because they are prescientific, which is to say, they represent an age when philosophical claims were the cutting edge of theoretical cognition. This means you can get away with a lot which would sound fatuous or lugubrious in a modern setting.

The difficulty has to do with the fantasy readership, which (unlike literary fiction) is all over the map in terms of expectations, religious and political orientation, education, and so on. Don't get me wrong: this diverse readership is one of the primary reasons I think literature needs to migrate to genre if it wants to remain worthy of the name. But it does mean that if you inject real philosophical reflection (as opposed to platitudes), you're bound to alienate many of your readers. All of us suffer the unfortunate habit of disparaging things we don't understand. If I read a work I don't get, then the tendency is not only to dislike the work, but to blame the work. If I don't get something, then the 'something' is always to blame, not the 'I.'

This is the way it's always been. This is the way it'll always be. But then taking risks is what it's all about, isn't it?

Your female characters are really strong, something not very usual in the wonderful testosterone-driven world of Fantasy. Is this something deliberate since the beginning, or has it arisen through the elaboration of your universe?

Well I'm glad someone out there thinks as much! As you probably know, I take quite a bit of heat on this issue. This was deliberate from the outset. Since I'm not one for sentimental idealizations, I wanted to create a premodern world with all the ugliness and brutality of the real thing. And as a point of fact, people do not see past the limitations of their context - which they can scarcely thematize, let alone critique. So rather than planting female genitalia on a male character, I wanted to portray female characters you could reasonably expect in a premodern army - camp followers - and chronicle their apparent rise to power via Kellhus, who is of course a cipher for modernity.

The question with Esmenet in particular is, Does he raise her out of oppression, or does he simply lead her into a more sophisticated cage? And this is the question of gender equality in our own day and age.

But, in the end, who is your favourite character?

None of them stand alone for me: they form a circuit. Achamian and Esmenet stand nearest my heart. Cnaiur, I sometimes think, is too cool for school. Kellhus, though, was the breakthrough character: the sun/blackhole about which all the others orbit.

How would you define your relation with fans? Can their expectations sometimes weigh you down?

For me the problem is one of focus. Too much feedback, I'm discovering, can hobble the creative process. So unfortunately, I've been more inclined to be withdrawn of late. Ultimately, I think my fans are far more interested in reading the stories I create than listening to me explicate or pontificate! It feels like the former suffers when I do too much of the latter.

Are you influenced by book reviews, or do you seek to write something that satisfies you in the first place?

I think the temptation to write for your reviewers is a peril that every author faces. Since reviewers are not typical readers, succumbing to this temptation means writing for people with very specialized expectations. I actually think this is a very profound cultural disease, one which has lead to the degradation of spectacle as a literary category, and thus to the effective segregation of thoughtfulness and mass appeal. Here in North America at least, literary culture trains those with the desire to challenge readers to talk amongst themselves - or in other words, to write for people who have the least to gain from being challenged. They pilfer all the talent, then call popular culture dreck. Then, rather than acknowledge their own institutional role, they blame it all on the evil corporations, even though the human fascination for spectacle predates General Electric by the length of recorded history. After all, something must be preventing the masses from coming to them and to their status-preserving preference for the mundane.

I believe that writing is communication, and that communication is always about meeting people in the middle (and so pissing everyone off!). It's when you can speak to someone totally unlike yourself that you've created something deep - something literary. Praise from the like-minded may feel good, but it's rarely significant.

In some ways, humans are too predictable. Always drawing self-congratulatory circles. Me heaven; you hell. Me smart; you stupid. Never vice versa. I sometimes think writing for reviewers or for yourself are simply ways to draw more of those circles. Writing to communicate, on the other hand, is a way to erase them.

Do you have any book recommendations for our readers, fantasy or otherwise?

Since I primarily read nonfiction, I'm going to lay a couple of egghead titles on you, both of which are very accessible, and I think valuable (though I'm not sure whether they've been translated into French). The first is David Dunning's Self-Insight, which is a treasure-house of psychological research results showing how (despite the obligatory happy-face Dunning attempts to put on it) we humans are pretty much self-serving brats who continually bullshit ourselves to feel better. We all do it all the time, and of course we're taught nothing about any of it in school, public and private (can't have Junior pointing out how silly Mummy and Daddy's beliefs are!). Meanwhile, we're fast approaching the time when these shenanigans will see us in our graves.

The second is Jay Ingram's Theatre of the Mind, which does a fantastic job summarizing the bizarre and unnerving conclusions coming out of consciousness research.

Both underscore an age-old axiom of human nature: the more we think we know ourselves, the greater the chance we're completely deluded.

I'm so tempted to name names, here!

Last but not least, is there anything you wish to share with your French fans?

Ah, a chance to preach preach! So here's the pitch:

We're ringed round with apocalypse, my friends, and our greatest enemy is ourselves - as it's been throughout history. I'm not just talking about nuclear holocaust or environmental armageddon; even if the optimists are right, and we're able to innovate our way past these pickles, this, whatever life you happen to be enjoying or enduring at this very moment, has an expiry date. There's a series of scientific revolutions right around the corner which are going to transform things so fundamentally, it's not even clear we could be called human in their aftermath. Our brains are going to cut out the middle-man, stop trying to dominate their environments, and go directly to the source. And once we start re-engineering consciousness, it truly is game over. Most will argue that it's heaven come to earth, but don't be fooled. It is the end of the experiential frame of reference that makes our past intelligible, our literature great, and our hearts human.

Whatever the case, we're going to need all the wit and flexibility we can muster. This means recognizing that we humans are believing machines, that we have a hardwired tendency to believe without basis and to do so absolutely. This is simply a matter of psychological fact - as is the fact that everyone reading this will think themselves the exception! Our greatest enemy is literally our own overpowering sense of conviction.

  1. Entretien avec R. Scott Bakker, version française
  2. Interview with R. Scott Bakker, english version

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