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Un entretien avec Robert Jackson Bennett

Par Gillossen, le mardi 13 avril 2021 à 09:00:00

L'entretien en anglais

Les Maîtres Enlumineurs is just out here in France. First of all, compared to your previous works, does this new trilogy hold a special place in your heart?
It does. However, for me it’s not new! I just sent in the rough draft of the final installment.
This one surprised me quite a bit. Neil Gaiman once said that he writes to figure out what he thinks about things, and in this trilogy I was a bit obsessed with innovation, and how our species uses and abuses it, and how the promise of innovation and a founder or inventor, specifically – a sold, brilliant mind striding forth with the light of civilization in their hand, and us following in their wake – actually takes us to many dark places. It was a series about unstable, transformative things in unstable, transformative times, which I hadn’t quite anticipated going in.
Could you tell us a few words about the birth of Foundryside?
I was driving on a long distance trip, and thinking a lot about magic. I found myself frustrated with how some magic systems just don’t feel very organic, or something a human being could learn and explore and experiment with. Eventually I decided that magic is functionally just a series of instructions you can deliver to the world to make it change – and then I realized we had all kinds of systems similar to that.
My first instinct was to make a magic system that was a bit like a legal system, with contracts, but you would be making a contract with reality, specifying how it needed to change. But then I realized that computer code was a much closer and more accessible parallel. Many of us have sat squinting at an Excel sheet, unsure why our formula isn’t behaving as it ought. It suddenly felt right to imagine that, but for changing the world.
To promote your new series, your French publisher heavily highlights your magic system. Are magic systems that important in the fantasy genre for you?
It is, but it’s sort of a facet of my larger writing philosophy. I think each book or story is a conversation, and a conversation needs to have a subject or a thesis to debate. Once the thesis is decided, every aspect of the storytelling needs to touch on that thesis. The magic system is one of those main aspects, naturally – how a culture powers itself and captures power need to be part of that conversation.
Brandon Sanderson elaborates a lot on magic. I wonder if you have any opinion about his First Law of Magic.
Absolutely. But I think it goes bigger. If the magic system is emblematic of the larger thesis of the story, then if the reader doesn’t understand the magic system, then they fundamentally don’t understand what the story is talking about.
Another trope in (epic) fantasy could be big city as character in its own right. I’m thinking about Lankhmar, Camorr… How did you create Tevanne?
I was inspired a bit by the notion of old trade quarters during the mercantilist and colonial periods, where different companies would carve up territory in Canton (now Guangzhou), and I wondered how that would come about organically. What would a city look like if there was no notion of the state, of a cohesive municipal structure, and there were just territories captured by companies, who could enforce laws as they felt? I think we take the concept of the state – of a cohesive governing apparatus – as a given these days, but it didn’t really come about until the 15th or 16th Centuries in Europe. Human civilization is messier and more improvised than we realize, and I wanted a city to match that.
In my opinion, you excel in writing both short fiction (I’m thinking about Vigilance) and novels. Do you see any difference, other than length, of course?
I think short fiction is a knife – the goal is to puncture the reader’s thoughts. A novel is more like a processing factory, a three-dimensional space with many production flows, which take the reader’s thoughts and cuts them up and puts them back together into something new.
I think your writing possess a very unique… musical quality. Do you have a special bond to music as a person?
I associate specific scenes with specific songs, and usually make a playlist for each novel that I put out once it’s published. Because the songs are so random, I don’t think the playlists are terribly popular, but inspiration isn’t always attractive to look at.
And what is your favourite aspect of writing?
The newness. The ability to start from scratch and challenge yourself again. I fall out of love with stories the second I’m done with them and then it’s on to the next. I’m very Marie Kondo about the whole thing.
I am a big fan of American Elsewhere. Could you return to that world one day?
I’m very compelled by the conceit of suburban surreality, but I think I’m done with that one. I might write something akin to it – someplace next door to Wink, I suppose.
You said in another interview that you were “not going to write straight fantasy, or straight horror, or straight anything", because that would be “dull”. You were referring to Mr. Shivers but we can also see that in Foundryside or American Elsewhere. Is blurring the line between genres something essential to you?
Oof, that was a while ago. The thing is now, I think I write straight fantasy! There are beards and swords and magic and monsters in this stuff. I just write the straight fantasy that I want to read – which I guess isn’t terribly straight at all.
And as a reader?
I read lots of nonfiction these days. My incursions into fiction are terribly rote. Murder mysteries and the like. It’s very possible the pandemic has made me dumber, which is an achievement.

Your work is frequently lauded.

Are you influenced by book reviews, or do you seek to write something that satisfies you in the first place?
I used to be, but I don’t particularly care anymore. Once you’ve written eight books or so, and are reasonably assured you can get eight more published in your life, you realize you’re going to be doing this a lot, so the impact of one bad comment in a review gets much diluted. You also begin to see that good reviews don’t necessarily help, bad reviews don’t always hurt, and people will assume, believe, and say anything. Honestly, you see the dumbest things in some reviews and comments, and you get inured to it. The pathway to success is mostly paved by luck and accumulated goodwill.
Is the Internet an important tool in terms of communicating with your readers (with Twitter, Reddit…), do some research, etc?
Absolutely. More for research, frankly. I feel like I don’t engage with my fans too much because I don’t feel too comfortable how to engage with my stuff, I suppose. I listen to lots of obscure history podcasts, and read probably too many odd economic theories. I also spend too much time playing in Google Translate, dumping things into Hungarian or Kazakh to see if I like how it sounds.
Do you have any book recommendations for our readers, fantasy or otherwise?
I would recommend Imperial Twilight, which is the book I read about the Opium Wars. It’s all too pertinent these days.
I would also recommend fantasy readers read anything written by columnist David Fickling. His pieces on the history of shipping, of capturing trade straits, of how a particular wood eating snail accelerated the shift to metal ships – that’s all basically crack for a certain kind of fantasy reader.
Last but not least, is there anything you wish to share with your French fans?
Stay safe! And thank you for reading.

Propos recueillis et mis en forme par Emmanuel Chastellière.

  1. L'entretien en français
  2. L'entretien en anglais

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