An interview with Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's ongoing fantasy series, the Malazan Book of the Fallen has brought new life and originality into the fantasy genre. Steven Erikson kindly spoke to Fantasy Book Review in September 2009, shortly after the publication of the ninth novel in the series, Dust of Dreams.

We believe that you are now living in the UK full time. We would like to welcome you back to our little island and ask you if it was the weather or the cuisine that prompted your move across the Atlantic?

Neither. Out of the blue our son decided he would like to study archaeology in the UK, and this, combined with my wife's desire to be closer to her family, as well as my hankering to be closer to two of my publishers (Transworld and PS Publishing) and the many UK-based friends I have made over the years, all led to yet another crossing of the Atlantic. That said, we're probably getting too old to keep doing this, and I'm hoping this time we'll find roots, maybe in Cornwall, or maybe somewhere else on the island. For the moment, however, Cornwall is home.

We live in a small village, and I am presently sitting in a very nice country pub a short ten minute walk down a footpath from my home. That path takes me through a graveyard so I am looking forward to the winter and walks in the grey dusk, with the wind howling.

We are all [at Fantasy Book Review] enthusiastic readers of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series but not one of us can claim to fully understand everything that has happened in the series so far. Should we beat ourselves up for not concentrating hard enough or is it simply that much is yet to be explained?

Honestly, don't beat yourself up over it. One of the things both Cam and I were agreed on regarding this series, was to write in a style that conveyed a sense of vastness, with a strong flavour of realism where not all answers are forthcoming, not all truths survive their utterance, and sometimes mystery abides no matter how desperate we all are for an end to the questions. That said, there will be plenty of resolutions, but the world will not be wrapped up with a pretty bow.

As for the events that have been recounted in the books, well, things are always open to interpretation, and I am also rather pleased to learn from readers that the books fair well in re-reads. I am a writer obsessed with layering my narrative, so there's plenty to find for the reader even after the raw events of the story are well-known.

Dust of Dreams is the ninth novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Do you believe that you have significantly improved as an author since the publication of Gardens of the Moon? Were there any weaknesses that you detected early on and remedied?

I certainly hope that I have improved as an author! Certainly I now possess a greater comfort with things like structure and pacing (although I sense that in the case of the latter some of my readers would rather I cut to the chase quicker than I do; to which I can only respond that my reasons for doing what I do continue to satisfy me, and trust me, if I am not satisfied absolutely no-one else will be. I am very deliberate in my approach, and I would humbly remind those impatient readers that their pace is not my pace; that reading is an engagement distinct from that of writing, and that at no time do I pad for the hell of it – again, I have my reasons!).

There is also a growing comfort with language that comes with doing this year after year, but I can still recall my earliest days at the University of Victoria, when I repeatedly blindsided my fellow students by delivering stories in a broad, unpredictable range of voices, so even back then I suppose I was trying out different styles, messing with rhythm, tone and point of view. All of that fed the fantasy novels, as I moved from voice to voice, from point of view to point of view. The exploration and discovery continues and to indicate something of my sense of that journey, I have recently been re-reading the series from the beginning (my first time doing this, and all in preparation for writing the tenth novel), and there are entire sections, especially in the early books, that I do not even recognize as coming from me. Sentence construction, certain phrases, the pursuit of notions in some unusual direction – all of this tells me that I am not the same writer, but I really cannot distance myself to the point that I can actually map out these changes. They come as a shock, each time.

In my mind I always separate out Gardens of the Moon from the rest of the novels in the series. I pretty much started full-time writing with Deadhouse Gates, and it is with this novel (the second in the series) that I can see the sharpening of focus, the crystallization of intent, that has continued to this very day.

Gardens had other demands pressing upon it. As I read it now I can see precisely what I was seeking to do and if I try to imagine how I'd do it now, well, I draw a blank. So maybe in that sense I haven't improved at all! Or rather, I've not yet discovered that quintessential secret that would deliver that novel to the largest audience possible.

We all have our limits, I suppose. I have read reader reviews and comments on the amazon sites and elsewhere, listing the perceived flaws in Gardens of the Moon and advising what should have been done to fix them, and to my judgement, none of those solutions would work (and I should know, since I thought about them long before they did, back when Gardens was a pile of pages and rough notes on my desk). Advice is cheap and more often than not it doesn't hold up to close examination. In any case, I often don't agree with the observations being made, so I'd hardly endeavour to make changes to suit them, would I? I can see stylistic tics in that first novel that I no longer use, but I have spoken about this before, and besides, I think it's something all writers discover in themselves. They try things early in their careers and if those things prove vaguely uncomfortable they get abandoned, and the writer moves on.

You have recently signed a deal that will see you write more Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. Is there a small part of you that yearns for a complete break from the series and a fresh start on something completely different?

With the tenth novel, The Crippled God, the 'Malazan Book of the Fallen' ends. While Cam (Ian Esslemont) has a few more to write in that sequence, I do not. The two new trilogies I am signed to write share the world and its cosmos, but they do not resume the arc of the Fallen. This may seem an odd distinction, maybe even an unconvincing one, but it is sharp in my mind. The whole point of the Malazan Book of the Fallen was to deliver a self-contained series, a slice of history, and to give the readers a sense of completion when they read the last line on the last page.

I also write other stuff, squeezing it in here and there, and with eighteen-month deadlines forthcoming (rather than the twelve-month ones I've been doing for this series), I am planning on doing a bit more of that.

Do you feel that discipline is vital for an author and that a certain amount of time every day should be dedicated to writing, regardless of whether you feel “in the mood”?

My own rule is four hours a day, at least five days a week. I don't do word counts or anything like that. Discipline is essential to being a writer, but the specifics are entirely personal and there's no hard and fast rule for how you measure a day's work. All that counts is what comes out at the end.

Stephen Donaldson, an author you have been compared to on many occasions, has always spoken very highly of your work. In 2004 he released The Runes of the Earth, twenty-one years after the previous title in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant had been published. Could you imagine coming back to complete a series after such a long gap?

I've not been a writer long enough to imagine anything like that, but as a fan of the series, I am delighted that Steve elected to return to it.

Do you think that your books would lend themselves to film adaptation? Or would you take the JRR Tolkien stance and declare that your work is “quite unsuitable for dramatisation”?

Under the present format of film-making, the Malazan sequence is problematic. Note the caution in that statement. I know precisely how this series could be made, but I will save my pitch for some future meeting with a producer (and I anticipate the moment when their jaws drop).

Midnight Tides is, at the moment, our favourite book from the series. Although all of your work features humour, Tehol Beddict and Bugg take it to a new level, and it is often wonderfully surreal. Was this a conscious effort to inject a little more light-heartedness into the series?

A conscious effort? I don't think so. I like to think the humour was present in every book, but I do accept that Tehol and Bugg delivered something new. But not as new as it may at first seem. Their precedents were Iskaral and Kruppe, as both characters engaged in a peculiar self-referential style of humour. Tehol and Bugg just took that one step further. The consciousness involved in their creation had more to do with offsetting the sheer gravity of the rest of Midnight Tides.

But even then, they arrived (on that rooftop) in one of those uncanny, slightly bewildering, fully spontaneous manifestations that hit writers on occasion. A bed? A blanket? All out of nowhere, completely unplanned. Once they arrived, I just sort of sat back and let them run with it.

Is there a fantasy book from your own childhood that completely captivated you? A book whose very mention brings breathtaking feelings of nostalgia?

Plenty. One I actually stole for a character in my non-fantasy novel, This River Awakens (written as Steve Lundin): Jack London's 'Before Adam.' Others include Tarzan of the Apes (the first one, which I still admire) and some other Burroughs books. My nostalgia is more for a period in my life when I first discovered books –- both fantasy and SF – and the awakening of my imagination.

We have received many emails asking if there will be a tour to coincide with the UK publication of Dust of Dreams. Is there anything planned?

Alas, no, although I will be at Fantasycon in Nottingham. I arrived in the UK woefully late on delivering the next Bauchelain/Korbal Broach novella. It's finally done, and I have already plunged into The Crippled God. No rest for the wicked.

Steven Erikson

Our Steven Erikson reviews

Gardens Of The Moon by Steven Erikson

The ten novels that make up A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen are works of great skill, imagination, ambition, depth and beauty. But not for the faint-of-heart, Erikson throws you in at the deep end and encourages you to swim. This series is one of the greatest fantasy literature achievements of the past one hundred years.

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The Crippled God by Steven Erikson

And so to and end comes what is arguably the best fantasy series ever written. This is of course subject to personal opinion and fans of Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and Robin Hobb's trilogy of trilogies (Farseer, Liveship and Tawny) are quite able to put a very strong case forward for their favoured works but few can deny that the quality and ambition of the ten books that make up A Tale of the Malazan Book of the Fallen are unmatched within the genre.

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Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates continues the Malazan Book of the Fallen, a story begun in the wonderful Gardens of the Moon.

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Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

After decades of internecine warfare, the tribes of the Tiste Edur have at last united under the Warlock King. There is peace – but it has been exacted at a terrible price: a pact made with a hidden power whose motives are at best suspect, at worst deadly.

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Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson

Memories of Ice is the third book of the series entitled A Tale of the Malazan Book of The Fallen. It follows directly after the events of the first book, Gardens of the Moon, and runs concurrently to the events in the second book, Deadhouse Gates.

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The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The Bonehunters sees us rejoining the Malazan Fourteenth Army, under the command of Adjunct Tavore Paran. Sha’ik is supposedly dead, the army of the Whirlwind in tatters, and the last survivors making for the refuge fortress city of Y’Ghatan under the leadership of Leoman of the Flails.

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Toll the Hounds by Steven Erikson

So here we are for the eighth time and it just gets better and better. I found this book to be a bit less frenetic than The Bonehunters as it seems like Mr Erikson is getting things organised for the final push. But that is by no means a reason to believe the action slows down. I guess things just seem more in control since we don’t spend any real time with the Malazan army.

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Reaper's Gale by Steven Erikson

Rating a book is inherently dangerous. Well beyond the normal trials of dealing with authors who believe they’re the next Tolkien but are lucky to know how to spell Tolkien, it’s the really good authors that provide the greatest problems. For example, I finished my review for the Bonehunters by Steven Erikson over a week ago. At the time it was a 10 out of 10 book. I still believe it is. However, what happens when the next book is just as good?

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Dust of Dreams by Steven Erikson

We’re back with the Malazans marching into the Wastelands to meet up with their allies the Burned Tears and the Perish to head into territory where they believe they will have the final confrontation with the crippled god. But an uneasiness seems to have taken hold of the Malazans as their leader, Adjunct Tavore has grown even more distant and unfocused while crossing the Wastelands. This is added to by the feelings of betrayal from the “sensitives” in the ranks. Definitely a different view of the Malazans to see them so unsure of themsleves.

"As I stated before, a strength of this series is the way in which major characters are eliminated, but I never imagined the scale in which people disappeared this time. I was getting flashbacks of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. But for the first time in this series we have a cliff-hanger ending. With the good news is we only have to wait a year to see who survived"

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House Of Chains by Steven Erikson

In the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs extraordinary destinies are being played out. Karsa Orlong, a tribal warrior from Northern Genabackis descends into the southern lands as part of a raiding party. Adjunct Tavore faces the legions of the seer Sha’ik with an army of raw recruits. Waiting in the heart of the Holy Desert the Sha’ik’s warlords are at each other’s throats and she herself is haunted by the knowledge the her nemesis is her own flesh and blood. So begins the pivotal chapter of Steven Erikson’s spectacular fantasy series.

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The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson

Set in the awe-inspiring world of the Malazan Empire, three tales of the enigmatic and eccentric necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach collected in a single, readily available volume.

"This collection of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas is an ideal companion pieces for fans of The Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence. It is also a great entry point for those contemplating reading the series. Definitely recommended." Fantasy Book Review

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The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson

Tyranny comes in many guises, and tyrants thrive in palaces and one-room hovels, in back alleys and playgrounds. Tyrants abound on the verges of civilization, where disorder frays the rule of civil conduct and propriety surrenders to brutal imposition. Millions are made to kneel and yet more millions die horrible deaths in a welter of suffering and misery. But leave all that behind and plunge into escapist fantasy of the most irrelevant kind, and in the ragged wake of the tale told in Lees of Laughter's End, those most civil adventurers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their suitably phlegmatic manservant, Emancipor Reese, make gentle landing upon a peaceful beach, beneath a quaint village at the foot of a majestic castle. There they make acquaintance with the soft-hearted and generous folk of Spendrugle, which lies at the mouth of the Blear River and falls under the benign rule of the Lord of Wurms in his lovely keep. Make welcome, then, to Spendrugle's memorable residents, including the man who should have stayed dead, the woman whose prayers should never have been answered, the tax collector everyone ignores, the ex-husband town militiaman who never married, the beachcomber who lives in his own beard, the now singular lizard cat who used to be plural, and the girl who likes to pee in your lap. And of course, hovering over all, the denizen of the castle keep, Lord--Ah, but there lies this tale.

"The novella is in essence a tale of xenophobia taken to the extreme and I would recommend it mainly to existing fans of the Malazan series. I will close this review with these apt words uttered by Bauchelain shortly before the novella reached its end: “A most enlightening lesson, wouldn’t you say, on the nature of tyranny”. Quite, and so it was."

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Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

It is the Age of Darkness and the realm called Kuruld Galain - home of the Tiste Andii and ruled over by Mother Dark from her citadel in Kharkanas - is in a perilous state. For the commoners' great warrior hero, Vatha Urusander, is being championed by his followers to take Mother Dark's hand in marriage but her Consort, Lord Draconus, stands in the way of such arrogant ambition. As the impending clash between these two rival powers sends fissures rippling across the land and rumours of civil war flare and take hold amongst the people, so an ancient power emerges from seas once thought to be long dead. None can fathom its true purpose nor comprehend its potential. And caught in the middle of this seemingly inevitable conflagration are the First Sons of Darkness - Anomander, Andarist and Silchas Ruin of the Purake Hold - and they are about reshape the world...

"And here we are in the second phase of the Malazan world, The Histories. I’ve been anticipating something like this happening since the Books of the Fallen ended and I have to say it, I was disappointed. Not from the content or style. It was good solid Erikson, but I just kept waiting to get caught up in things. It was like I was watching an episode of Mad Men and thinking something is going to happen soon to make this interesting and I will be able to forgive the slow build-up and won’t call AMC Studios and ask for that hour of my life back. Unfortunately I was never really satisfied. But unlike Mad Men, I will be reading the next books of this trilogy. I was satisfied enough from the history lesson and origins of the Tiste groups and factions, but that’s what it seemed to be to me, a history text book. I don’t know the reason and I am disappointed in myself because I have been on the Malazan ride from the beginning and counting the days until the next book came out. But this book failed to grab me and hold me tight. For the first time in years, and never in the Malazan series, I found myself looking at the page numbers and saying in my best 5 year old voice, Are we there yet?"

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The Second Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson

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Willful Child by Steven Erikson

These are the voyages of the starship, A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life life-forms, to boldly blow the... And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback - think James T Kirk crossed with ‘American Dad' - and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space’...

"If you are a fan of Steven Erikson; if you are a fan of Star Trek; if you are a fan of science fiction, its tropes, and making fun thereof; if you are a fan of comedy, hilarity, and spoof; if you are a fan of any of these, or just like a good read that will keep you up into the wee-hours of the morning, then Willful Child by Steven Erikson is simply a must-read!"

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Rejoice by Steven Erikson

An alien AI has been sent to the solar system as representative of three advanced species. Its mission is to save the Earth's ecosystem - and the biggest threat to that is humanity. But we are also part of the system, so the AI must make a choice. Should it save mankind or wipe it out? Are we worth it?

The AI is all-powerful, and might as well be a god. So it sets up some conditions. Violence is now impossible. Large-scale destruction of natural resources is impossible. Food and water will be provided for those who really, truly need them. You can't even bully someone on the internet any more. The old way of doing things is gone. But a certain thin-skinned US president, among others, is still wedded to late-stage capitalism. Can we adapt? Can we prove ourselves worthy? And are we prepared to give up free will for a world without violence?

And above it all, on a hidden spaceship, one woman watches. A science fiction writer, she was abducted from the middle of the street in broad daylight. She is the only person the AI will talk to. And she must make a decision.

"In the end, then, Rejoice, A Knife to the Heart is a must-read for the 21st Century and a vital commentary on the sins of current politics. It is powerful and damning, unflinching in its honesty of humanity’s flaws and touching in its portrayal of our potential."

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