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Un entretien avec Steven Erikson

Par Merwin Tonnel, le vendredi 28 mars 2014 à 22:18:04

Interview with Steven Erikson (english version)

Merwin - When you started to write the Malazan Book of the Fallen, did you ever imagine that your work would be one day discussed in a university symposium? Are you kind of proud of this?
I am proud of this! I never knew if any of it would actually reach that kind of audience at all. I was hoping. So yes, I’m very proud of that. To be able to discuss it in academic terms and not just in literary terms. It would be nice to see more literary but the academic side where we’re involved in things like the classics and antiquities is wonderful for me. I used to be an archeologist so I still keep my hand in those things.

Merwin - Forge of Darkness, the first book in the Kharkanas trilogy, was released last year. What should fans expect from this new trilogy and what shouldn’t they?
Well, it goes back in time and some of the characters in the main series were actually alive hundreds of thousands of years earlier. And that’s the period that I’m writing in now. The differences are changed styles, very much so, and the voice is different in this new book. And the new trilogy will have the sense of almost being an archaic style of language and speaking. I wanted to convene that sense of time having past with the language evolving as well. So it won’t feel the same way than the Malazan series does.

Merwin - The Malazan Book was one huge homage to Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. Will it also be the case for the Kharkanas trilogy or do you aim at a different type of writing? The synopsis for Forge of Darkness sounds kind of Shakespearean.
It’s a different inspiration, completely. The ten book series, as you say, was Homeric. It was epic. It sprawled right across 3 million words. So in a way it sort of looked for vistas beyond the page. This trilogy is more inspired by Shakespearean literature. So it turns inwards and it’s more on the characters within a specific setting, I don’t leave that continent, I don’t leave that area. It’s much tighter, in that sense.

Merwin - You’ve recently published a new Bauchelain & Korbal Broach tale titled The Wurms of Blearmouth and you’ve also talked about Excesses of Youth. How many adventures do you plan to write?
A total of nine. I’ve done five, with The Wurms of Blearmouth. So I have four left.

Merwin - For a writer used to deliver doorstop novels, is writing a short story somewhat difficult?
Actually, I started as a short story writer. And now I’m finding it’s almost impossible to go back. So I can write a novella, which is 50 000 words, and that’s about my minimum that I can do. Ironically, because I learned to write as a short story writer, I sometimes describe The Malazan Book of the Fallen, the ten novels, as the world’s longest short story. Because I never really learn how to write a novel. I just write it as if I were writing a short story. And that’s why I think it’s as dense as it is and as complex as it is and why it can sustain rereads over and over again. Fans would read the books five, six times because it’s very much like a short story. In that sense, yeah, maybe I just don’t know how to write a novel, I just write very long short stories.

Merwin - Each volume in the Malazan Book treats a different theme : the link to the flesh in Memories of Ice, slavery in Midnight Tides, treason and vengeance in Reaper’s Gale, death, grief and redemption in Toll the Hounds… Was this thematic structure planned simultaneously to the big plot or did it come to you during the writing of each volume?
A bit of both. I had an overall arc of the story. So I knew the final scenes of the tenth novel even as I was writing the first one. So it was a question of getting there. And then with each novel, I wanted it to not feel like the novel before. So each one was quite unique and so I tackled a different theme, sometimes a different voice, in each novel. They all stood apart from each other but the storyline holds them all together.
Toll the Hounds I think is a great example. The voice is completely unique to that story.

Merwin - Yes, it’s Kruppe’s voice.

Merwin - A lot of intrigues revolve around siblinghood : the Parans, the Beddicts, the Sengars or Anomander, Andarist and Silchas. Why are the family links so important to you?
That’s a good question. I don’t know, I think it invites the complexity of two or three characters who share a history. The family dynamic always has conflict implicit in it. If you’re writing about grand stories you start to write about the human condition and we all have families. To ignore that as a theme or as an area to explore, for me, you really miss a huge element of the human condition.
A lot of fantasy novels start with an orphan child, or something along those lines. So they almost disengage the family aspects until you finally discover that orphan child is the long lost heir to the throne. Both Cam and I, we like to play off of closer relationships in the stories because if you have a huge massive story you have to counterbalance it with a very human-sized element, a scale that’s very human. And so family, siblings, all of those things are integral to our life experience. It allows a sense of reality, realism and authenticity to the relationships of the characters, even though we have this huge fantastic setting, with magic and dragons and the undead etc.

Merwin - It is also a very convenient dramatic trigger.
Yes.

Merwin - In a scene in The Crippled God, you treat the Malazan language as a language foreign to the reader. Is this something you made up just for this scene or have you created something more elaborated, with well-defined grammar and vocabulary?
No, I did not take the Tolkien route. But I did create a T’lan Imass language, which is a proto-language, a Neanderthal language. So I do have a list of very simple syntactical and grammatical rules for the T’lan Imass language. For example, there’s a glottal stop, signified with an apostrophe. I made the glottal stop past tense. So whenever a name is transformed from somebody living to somebody dead, you get the apostrophe.
I have those kinds of rules that slip into modern usage the way language would evolve but not universally across the world, just in certain cultures. But no I did not go that whole route.

Merwin - I’ve noticed that insects or arachnids are really important in your saga. There’s a lot of flies, midges, butterflies, spiders, scorpions in your descriptions. Is there a reason for that, some kind of meaning?
I grew up reading fantasy novels and I’d swear that there were no insects there at all, in any world. But as an archeologist I’ve battled insects in every dig I ever been on. In Central America I’ve been stung by scorpions and fire ants. There are a lot of potentially dangerous life forms out there that we end up engaged with if we actually get out into the nature. So I always wanted to incorporate that.
And then there’s the whole element that it’s kind of creepy and at the same time it’s kind of… You know, I did blood flies for example. It sounds like I invented the whole notion of a fly biting you and laying an egg and then the larva lives inside you and eats its way out. It’s actually quite accurate. It’s a creature called botfly, which I experienced in Central America. I didn’t really fictionalize too much, I just incorporated it. If these people are out in desert environments or they’re riding in the wilds, insects are as part of the experience as anything else. It adds authenticity, I hope.

Merwin - Glen Cook told me that Night Shade Books contacted you in order to write the ending of the Dread Empire series, before Cook finally decided to do it himself. Are you interested in writing stories taking place in universes created by your favorite writers, such as Glen Cook or Stephen R. Donaldson?
No. Maybe this will get back to Glen at some point. Night Shade Books’ Jeremy Lassen had been asking Glen for years for the last novel. And of course he had written one but it had been stolen. I’ve lost 300 pages of a novel I started and I know it’s heartbreaking and you never want to go back.
It was probably a case of Jeremy trying to light a fire under Glen Cook so he would write it. I’m very happy Glen wrote that final novel of his Dread Empire series. His voice is unique. I’m not one to sort of ape, or try to copy another author’s style. I could never have done the justice that he could.
Merwin - Do you plan more Malazan novels after completing the Kharkanas and Toblakai trilogies? Or do you wish to something completely different, as the Monty Python would say?
Well, I am. This summer (note: summer 2012) I’m writing for Bungie, the game company. I am writing a tie-in novel to their new game in development. I signed a non-disclosure agreement. I can’t give you any information beyond that beside it’s a tie-in novel to the game they’re working for the five past years since Halo finished. So that steps me outside the Malazan world and all the rest. It should be an interesting exercise. (note : Steven Erikson has since parted ways with this deal but he has written a SF novel, called Willful Child, which should come out in 2014)
Beyond the Karsa Orlong trilogy, I don’t know. I mean, how old will I be? Will I survive - I’m hoping to - for me the Toblakai trilogy will probably finish the Malazan stuff.

Guigz - Have you heard any news about a new French translation of the Malazan books?
I have not. I heard there has been two.

Guigz - Yes. Because French fans are very desperate to read your work but only two volumes have been translated and publication has now been stopped.
Where the translations any good?

Merwin - I read the English version. To go back to the French translation is a little hard but, yes, they’re good.
They’re very difficult to translate, very difficult. I know the German translator was contacting me with emails almost every day when he started it. That was wonderful because I could actually give him the information he wanted. But it seems the case now that I only have contacts from the German translator and the Israeli translator.
There was a brief one from the French translator but it didn’t seem to go anywhere. If the translator doesn’t contact the author, then it’s very hard for the translator to actually get the idea of what I am up to because I do a lot of subtext. A lot of phrases dropped in there need to be echoed three or four books later. It is a serious job. I really felt for the German translator because he was at least two books behind me. I knew what was important for what was coming but he didn’t have the books written in front of him that he could look at. It’s a challenge. It will be wonderful to see a French translation.
Guigz - What do you think about ebooks and how do you react when you see people uploading illegally some of your books online?
Have you read my answer to that on Reddit? I had a brief exchange with somebody who was trying to defend illegal e-versions of books. Simply described, it’s no different from theft. That’s basically what it is. There may be some artists out there who give novels away. I’ve got one for free, that’s a ice hockey novel (note : When She’s Gone). That’s on stevenerikson.com simply because it’s out of print. I don’t know how we’re going to solve this. I really don’t. Google any of my titles and you’ll find torrents, illegal downloads, just page after page, and the publishers have to go shut them down and they come back. It just goes on and on.
The example I gave: the series Flashforward, it’s a great example, I talk a lot about this. One of the reasons why it was cancelled was that the sheer number of illegal downloads was taking the place of an audience actually watching the TV series. The ratings were low because people were waiting for the episode to show and getting illegal versions of it and watching it. So because the ratings were low, the series got cancelled. The very people who were huge fans of genre, science fiction and fantasy, are killing science fiction and fantasy by stealing from it. Because it won’t show up on television and good series won’t survive. We have plenty of very good beginnings, science fiction series that all die on the table because there is no revenue.

Merwin - Firefly was kind of good...
Yeah.
Merwin - … but Flashforward was really bad.
It wrote itself into a corner it couldn’t get out of. I really felt for Rob (note: Robert J. Sawyer, Canadian writer, author of Flashforward, the novel which inspired the TV series) cause he was really excited about it.

Guigz - Now that your big series is over, do you have more time to read?
Well, I‘ve got eighteen months between books now. I originally thought, yes, that would give me more time to read and work on other things…
So, what’s happening now is that I’m feeding other projects in, plus the Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. I want to get one of those out every year. Normally, they only take me a couple of weeks to write but the last one took longer.
So I’m having a hard time reading anything but the non-fiction that I read to relax. I don’t read much fiction. If I do, I read science fiction rather than fantasy.

Alethia - It’s because you don’t want to be inspired?
Yeah I want to avoid that. Science fiction is wonderful because the whole style of the writing is completely alien from what I’m doing.

Guigz - How do you find the fantasy market nowadays? Which authors do you like?
Certainly Glen Cook is fabulous. Who else am I looking at these days?

Merwin - Perhaps some new voices?
Richard Morgan. I absolutely adore his Kovacs stuff, his science fiction. It’s fabulous. I still like Robin Hobb. And if I teach a writing workshop, I will use the opening chapters to Assassin’s Apprentice to teach “Point of view” because it is spectacularly well done. She has amazing control of point of view. So, certainly Robin Hobb.
Generally I’m not reading much at all within the genre.

Alethia - Did you expect strong reactions from the foreword you put on the first book?
Did I expect it? No, I was quite surprised. Some people read into it that I was complaining. I wasn’t. Quite often, I get burned after interviews. Usually fans of George R.R Martin come on boards of some site or another and call me arrogant. I’m not. George and I get along just fine. That sense of competition between fan groups is quite alien to us. It is very strange. My sense has always been that there’s more than room enough for every fantasy author out there. Especially fantasy-reading fans: they’re voracious, they will read everything.
I’m still revisiting that question of what could I have done differently with the first novel since it was such problematic one for a lot of people. Well, I don’t have an answer. I just don’t. But I think the Kharkanas trilogy is offering another way into the series because it is a very traditional style in some ways. That might get another way in the Malazan series.

Alethia - People will be able to get to the main cycle?
Yeah, they can read the Kharkanas Trilogy, and then they’ll have some grounding of what I’m up to. And then, they go into Gardens of the Moon. So, fingers crossed.
Merwin - I think we’re done.
Is that it? We’ve got 2 hours. Any other questions, I’m fine. Why do you have Reaper’s Gale?

Merwin - No, it's Memories of Ice, just for a signing.
Is that your favorite?

Merwin - Yes, I’ve hesitated. Should I take the first volume, the tenth? I’ve decided to choose my favorite. That’s not very original because it is a lot of people’s favorite.
It is. Interestingly, it was the only one of the entire series where I felt I had one too many balls in the air. I was juggling. I was desperately holding on to control that story throughout the entire thing. It just felt like it was going to explode on me. Somehow I just kept holding on to it until the end. That one probably stretched me the most of all the novels.

Merwin - That’s kind of strange because when I speak with other fans, Memories of Ice is always the favorite. But for the second favorite it’s always different. Sometimes, it’s Deadhouse Gates. For me, it is The Bonehunters. I heard Bonehunters readers who despised this novel. That’s a very strange reaction, different from a reader to another.
What has happened actually with the fourth book and onwards - House of Chains, Midnight Tides, less Bonehunters, but definitely Toll the Hounds - is that the original read is about 50/50. People hate it and say it is much worse than all the previous ones, or they love it. But then after about six months to a year, people go to the second read and then it starts moving up in the ratings in terms of their favorites. I don’t know what that means. Were they racing through the first time and not picking up all the nuances, subtext, all that kind of stuff and getting it the second time?
I took so many chances, especially with Toll the Hounds, took a huge chance with House of Chains with a single point of view for the first quarter of the book. Midnight Tides switched settings, switched time periods, everything. It kept jarring people. They have different expectations. So we’ll see what happens with Forge of Darkness. I know that of lot of my fans of the 10 book series are going to expect a continuation in style with Forge of Darkness, and they could be surprised.

Merwin - I know you’ve got asked this question very often: what about Encyclopedia Malazica?
Well, we’ve talk about it. Both Cam (note: Ian C. Esslemont) and I, we’re happy to sort of sit down and do it. Not as a full time project though. We want somebody as an editor to actually grab all our stuff and put it in some order and create a format for it. But our publishers, they just seem to be sitting back and still waiting. They have not sort of approached us with the notion of actually “let’s get on with this and we’ve got twelve months to get it out there” or whatever.
We’re waiting for guidance from the publishers, from Tor and from Bantam. Because it will be a lot of work. I have my gaming notes, Cam has all his gaming notes and they’re boxes of notes. Sometimes the only relevant bit of information is one line or one page in a scroll of notes. It will be hard work for an editor.

Merwin - One day, will we be able to see the whole world?
Yeah, one day, after I’m very long dead. Somebody will inherit the hard work. They can have fun with it for years, I’m sure.

Guigz - With HBO’s Game of Thrones success, have you been approached to develop a screen adaptation of the Malazan Book?
A few times. They’re very different approaches to the fantasy genre. Martin’s series - I only read the first book but I hear all the time people talk about it - it almost seems it was designed to go to film/television because it’s quite closed-in, it’s quite contained in the storylines. It bears enough similarities to the War of the Roses, to historical events, and that has worked to George’s advantage.

Guigz - And it’s a low fantasy story.
And a low fantasy element to it, yeah, which will allow for marketing beyond the fantasy audience. With all the intrigue, all the sex, all that kind of stuff. It’s really beautifully designed, if you think about it. The fact that George has control over the script certainly helps… You know, from what I understand the novels and the series are very close to each other. So he’s had to make very few compromises which is the ideal situation for an artist, to be able to do that. It is amazing that he’s brought fantasy, adult fantasy onto television and has made it as profoundly successful as it is.
But I heard from other fantasy writers that it may be the same case as with Lord of the Rings where people have initially that excitement “Well, OK, we’ve got fantasy into film, now we’ve got fantasy onto television, so it’s gonna to spill over into other fantasy series”. It is not necessarily the case. Lord of the Rings was quite exclusive, it was all about Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter is all about Harry Potter. There is no spillage into other authors, or very few. So there’s no telling whether the success of Game of Thrones is going to spawn other series. I would love to see Roger Zelazny’s Amber as a series. I think it would be phenomenal, certainly with more sense of humour which should be really nice.
But as for mine, my stuff is huge. It’s so epic, in terms of set pieces and all the rest. I literally can’t think of how it could be done.

Merwin - I always envisioned it as a Japanese anime, with big explosions of power. That reminds me of Full Metal Alchemist.
Yeah. I think some of the novellas are being published now in Japan. I’m in the process in translation in China. So there are other potential venues. The Chinese film industry is actually quite exceptional when it comes to large-scale production with cast of millions. I would love to see a setting like that because for me the whole thing with Game of Thrones is that it is a very much Euro-centric kind of setting. I would love to see something spill out beyond Europe in terms of the setting, in terms of knights, in terms of Western feudalism, and all that kind of stuff, and draw in some of the mythological and cultural background that exists in Japan, China, or Korea, for that matter, which is actually quite Homeric in the approach to heroes and epic tales which I think would fit quite nicely. And besides, most of the characters in my novels are not of European stock, in terms of physical descriptions. My stuff would be well suited for any other, non-European setting. It would be cool to see but it hasn’t happened yet and to be honest, I’m not holding my breath.

Alethia - You have to be careful because if it were adapted in the US, it could be a case of white-washing.
Yes, especially Kalam, Quick Ben, all these major characters. And turning all the female characters into having to be absolutely beautiful, looking like models on a catwalk when they should be very normal in that respect. The Brits could pull that off, though, as their film/tv industry has a tradition of emphasizing acting talent over looks.

Merwin - Except for Masan Gilani.
Yes! But even she is curvaceous.
It is a risk. Of course once you’ve sold rights as the author, it’s usually all out of your hands. David Gemmell’s first piece of advice he gave me many years ago was: “never sell the rights”. I don’t know if I would go that far. If the right person and the right production company came to me and say “We’re fans of the series and not interested in compromising or dumbing-down the project”, I would listen. But if it’s just some sort of run-of-the-mill production company that wants the rights and wants to sit on it, forget it, I don’t see the point of that.

Merwin - But Gardens of the Moon was first a movie script. Now that the Malazan universe is well-known, aren’t you interested to go back to this script and just do the work yourself?
That script was basically the last quarter of the novel. That’s all it was. The only thing from the script that showed up earlier in the novel was the fight sequence on the rooftops with the assassins. But everything else was the finale, it was almost the entire script. So structurally, a lot got added on for the novel and I would have to think in those terms and it would be a very different script. Also, we were thinking along the lines of 1001 Nights, Indiana Jones style of humour… It’s deadpan jokes all the way through, that kind of thing.
We did do a second one which was actually a prequel to Gardens of the Moon. It’s called Blackdog Blues. The only version we have now is a on a little floppy disk. We lost the Gardens of the Moon script long ago but we do have Blackdog Blues which I haven’t been able to access yet. Hopefully, it’s still there. It’s the whole Genabackan campaign that precedes Gardens of the Moon. It would be fun to see.
Merwin - You spoke about humor in your script. There is a lot of humor in the Malazan series. Do you envision it as a comic relief or is it really a part of the series, something meaningful?
In many respects, I’m not writing fantasy with tragic elements, I’m writing tragedies with fantastic elements. But you have to relieve the pressure for the reader, and for me, because if I were to sustain that pressure for 320 000 words per book, that will be just overwhelming for both of us. So there needs to be occasions to be entertained or to laugh, as a cathartic release to all the heavy stuff that’s going on. As long as it’s tied to the characters, and is character-based humor, then I’m happy to do it. And it is fun for me as well.

Alethia - Did you know from the start that you wanted to write something that could be challenging or was it just the way you envisioned fantasy?
Don’t forget, there was eight years between Gardens of the Moon and Deadhouse Gates. So it’s an early book. But it was very much a reaction to the fantasy genre that was going on at the time. The whole series is post-modernist and post-structural… I set up all the epic fantasy tropes I could think of, then kicked them down, undermined them, subverted them in some way or another. This was just an exercise, I was just picking up all those tropes and messing around with them. So there was an element of humour to it. But I realize now that it will only be successful for people who have read a lot of fantasy, so that they can be in on the joke. So people who were new to fantasy, they might end up floundering.
I knew that it was going to be challenging but I was just hoping that there’d be enough to the storyline to sort of pull people along ...I’ve since told people, and other people said it, “You’ve got to get past the first 50-60 pages”.
Alethia - That could explain the polarized reactions to the novel.
Yes. People wanted a lot more info-dumps to begin with which is quite traditional. I mean, Gardens of the Moon was more structured like Frank Herbert’s Dune, which also drops you in the middle of things.

Merwin - You speak about post-modernism. I’m surprised because – have you read Brandon Sanderson’s stuff?
I’ve not read Brandon Sanderson’s stuff.

Merwin - He spoke also about post-modernism but your works are very different. You break all the rules from the start but Sanderson uses a classical influence and twists some elements. What really is post-modernism in fantasy to you?
For me, certainly with this series, I use the structure, and I use character voice and point of view to actually undermine the tropes. Certainly you got some commentary from some characters. Kruppe was the most self-conscious of them all because he’s basically telling you that everything he tells you, he’s telling you for a reason. And everything he doesn’t tell you, he doesn’t tell you for a reason. The reason is he wants to elicit a certain reaction, an emotional response from you. So he’s doing a self-conscious storytelling process. So it’s metafictional in some respects which in itself is post-modern because it’s actually looking at the genre and its tropes and its conventions and saying “that’s what these are. These are simply the means by which certain elements of the story are propelled along.
But what if we actually dismantle these things, what if we actually go into the meat of them and find something hidden beneath it all?” In that respect, it is a commentary on the genre of fantasy and a commentary on storytelling itself. It’s a commentary on fiction and veracity, I think. As an author, I have to convince you that this world is real, even things like magic, dragons, magical swords, and so on. I work really hard to convince you that all of these things are real.
But why is the question. Why do you have to convince the person these things are real? I guess so that you can slip elements of the human condition into the storylines. But then what’s the purpose of doing so? In other words, the post-modernism thing is to question actually every element of storytelling and you explore it in a structural sense, a tonal sense, a stylistic sense, a character sense as I did with Kruppe and Udinaas who at one point tells a story about the expectations of the heroes and all of the stories of going in a dungeon, fighting evil ghouls, killing them all and getting the treasure, whatever. Nobody ever asks the question of how psychotic that is. You actually invade somebody else’s culture, you kill everyone because they look different and they’re uglier than you, and loot the place and somehow this is viewed as an heroic act. So if the characters are actually questioning and mocking those conventions within the story but not in such a way that it breaks you from the fictional dream of the story, that you’re actually still in the imagined world, then that’s a way of actually, in a post-modernist sense, commenting on the conventions of the genre itself.

Merwin - So, when Udinaas or Kruppe are speaking, is it your voice or their own voices?
It is their own voices. Certainly with Toll the Hounds, it blends; in many respects because of my personal experiences - my father was dying the time I was writing that novel and the novel coincidently happened to be about grief and dealing with grief - Kruppe’s voice and mine would blend on occasions and I let it. To me, it was the only way to be honest about the emotions being conveyed. He’s telling an entire story even though, physically he cannot be in particular places to tell that story but he tells it anyways. Somehow, it’s all part of his voice. He has the sense that he is almost inventing and the inventing process is being witnessed through the voice of Kruppe.
When I was going to writing schools, there was a big push at the time for magic realism and a big push for metafictional, self-conscious fiction, self-conscious narrative. So I read a lot of examples of both of these forms of writing but neither one struck me as being particularly subtle. In other words, they were all, sort of, sign-posting metafictional elements, sign-posting the magic realist elements for no particular reason apart from just getting them in there. And this was true of a lot of American writing as well. It has always occurred to me that it would be much more interesting to remove the sign-posts and working to be subtle in being metafictional, being subtle in magic realism, that kind of thing. So even when I did my contemporary, literary fiction or whatever you want to call it, non-genre, I was playing with magic realism all over the place but was buried deep, sitting underneath everything. The metafiction especially, I wanted to make it as subtle as possible. So it was with that background that I approached the fantasy series. That’s why I always said that Toll the Hounds is the cipher for the entire series because the series is actually metafictional. So far nobody has actually done an analysis on that yet, but I’m waiting. Hopefully, somebody will. People have mentioned post-modernism and I know somebody who would argue it’s not post-modernist but post-structuralist and we argue that all the time. We’ll see. Who knows?
  1. L'entretien en français
  2. Interview with Steven Erikson (english version)