An interview with Ian C Esslemont

Joshua S. Hill talks to Ian C. Esslemont following the release of Deadhouse Landing, the second book in his Path to Ascendency series which further explores the Malazan universe he co-created with Steven Erikson.

JSH: In your own words, give us a brief description of yourself and what you do when you aren’t writing?

ICE: A brief description of myself, hey?  Well, I’m a part-time writer, full-time stay at home dad, chauffeur, cleaner, and chief bottle-washer to a family of five.  That takes care of all my time and then some.       

JSH: What is your favourite reading genre and what are your favourite books?

ICE: I haven’t the time to do nearly the reading I used to.  I think I’ve taken that corner from “taking things in” to “turning them out.”  Reading time is unfortunately too much like writing time now.  But, when I do get the chance, I have many favourite genres – I encourage everyone to read widely and not limit themselves to any one genre.  Fantasy and SF, of course, but also contemporary literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction war histories and suchlike. 

JSH: How did you and Steven Erikson first meet, and what was it that drew you together as friends? 

ICE: Steve and I met on an archaeological dig in western Ontario.  We were thrown together to share a tent all summer in the bush.  And when that happens you either end up wanting to murder your roommate, or you end up best friends.  Luckily, we hit it off as we found we shared so much: love of fantasy and SF literature, love of gaming, love of history and archaeology and mythology, and a secret ambition to write.   

JSH: Would you mind sharing the story behind how you and Steven created and built your Malazan universe?

ICE: This has been discussed before so I won’t belabour it too much.  He and I were roommates for many years at university and over that time we gamed and built the world.  We tried to take all the best features and elements of fantasy that we loved and mix it all together.

JSH: You entered into the Malazan universe with Night of Knives; what was your purpose in starting out on the Isle of Malaz?

ICE: Its where everything started – so to speak – if anything can be said to have a beginning, which, rather deliberately, Steve and I constantly undermine in our fiction anyway.   My purpose was manifold.  For one thing, I wanted to demonstrate that ‘epic’ fantasy need not be broad or vast – or ‘shapeless and rambling’ – as critics would have it.  Also, I wanted to provide a sort of compact primer, or condensed sampling, of what our world was all about.

JSH: What was your primary goal in writing the Novels of the Malazan Empire?

ICE: To try to provide a grasp of the world for the readers.  Each one tackles a different region of the world, introducing it, and demonstrating how it fits in.

JSH: How did you and Steven decide who would cover what? Were there any tussles over a particular character or period?

ICE: We sat down over pizza and beer in a restaurant in Victoria, Canada (or it may have actually been when he was in grad school at Iowa and I came down to visit him for a few weeks there) and we each wrote up a wish-list of which regions and time periods we’d like to tackle.  When we compared them we found almost no overlap.  As for characters, no tussles at all.  We each take the ones necessary for the story we’re currently exploring.  Of course, we always keep the other updated.

JSH: How would you describe the different styles of writing you and Steven employ? Are these conscious choices in an effort to match your different stories, or more representative of your own writing styles?

ICE: I think I can speak for Steve when I say that we’re each just pursuing our own artistic vision in our styles.  They’re very different, just as the styles of any two writers would, and should, be.   As to describing styles – very dangerous territory for any writer, but I will say that I guess my style is rather direct and sparse, while Steve’s is very poetic.

Path to Ascendancy started out telling the tale of the two miscreants who would eventually become Kellanved and Dancer. In Deadhouse Landing the story exploded exponentially to bring in a whole host of would-be heroes and big-name characters from the Malazan Universe.  

JSH: Was it always the plan to introduce so many characters in the second book?

ICE: Yes, that was the whole point.  Funnily, its rather true to how things went originally.  And I like to think that the readers would (and will) enjoy it.  Despite this, the story should still work even if one hasn’t read the other books of the world and isn’t familiar with the characters.  At least I hope so.

JSH: When you say it was “true to how things went originally”, are you referring to the original creation process back when? Could you elaborate a little on this?

ICE: Yes, I’m referring to the original creation.  I was trying to do justice to Steve and my original vision.  I may have misremembered here and there; but the intent was to attempt to capture the fun of that process of discovery.

JSH: What was it like navigating all those type-A personalities – bringing them out of the woodwork and slowly revealing these Malazan heroes and villains?

ICE: As above: it was great fun (or was intended to be).  Each came out strong and swinging.  In fact, I’m having a rather hard time keeping each from taking over the narrative.

JSH: What was it like shaping the early-lives of some of the most famous Malazan characters? Did you feel any pressure to ‘get it right’?

ICE: Steve and I have worked out most of the ‘early-lives’ stuff.  Much of it is mentioned in the books already.  For example, Tayschrenn came from Kartool where he was high in the cult of D’rek – all this had been set out already.   Yet of course I did feel a great deal of pressure to ‘get it right.’  And all that pressure came from myself only.  I was very scared of dropping the ball, as they say, on that.  I hope the readers will enjoy the glimpses they get.

JSH: Was there a particular character that was particularly nerve-wracking “to get right”? I would imagine Surly would be up there.

ICE: Yes, Surly was right up there, as is Dancer of course.  I must say that I’m rather more concerned about getting the established ‘facts’ right.  Continuity between Steve and I is my bugbear.  He may have shot off one line in one of his novels that I missed, or don’t remember, changing a character’s backstory!  Oh well, there’s bound to be some measure of disjointedness between our differing visions / memories of things.

JSH: What was the decision-making process like for choosing which character to grant point-of-view to, and who to leave hidden behind the mask of separation?

ICE: Choosing a POV for any scene is one of the most important choices a writer must make.  The centrepiece characters will always remain hidden away while we, the writer acting as the reader, can only look on, witness, report, and wonder.   

JSH: Was it as fun for you to write (as it was for me to read) the return of some of the characters you first introduced in Night of Knives?

ICE: It was a great deal of fun.  I enjoyed it immensely, and I hope that delight is conveyed in the story.

JSH: It certainly is. Who is your favourite current character to write?

ICE: My favourite current character?  You mean a new character never before seen, or one I am currently writing?  Well, I’m currently writing Kellanved for the third novel, and he’s one of my favourites.  For ‘new’, well, we’ll have to wait for the third one to come out!

JSH: What was it like building the more fleshed-out Dancer and Kellanved? They are both so unique – Kellanved particularly; How did you go about creating their individual personalities?

ICE: Yes, Kellanved is particularly enjoyable.  I never know what he’s going to say or do until I’m in the scene with him.   During these times my POV Dancer, as we both wait to see what’s going to happen.  Funnily enough, originally, Kellanved was my character and Dancer was Steve’s, but I found that I had to switch things in order to present the history in writing.

JSH: Path to Ascendancy is a trilogy, correct?

ICE: Currently, the Path to Ascendancy series stands as a trilogy (sort of).  It may expand, but that will all depend upon its execution and reception.  In other words, if it works and I enjoy it as much as the readers, then there is a chance it could expand.

JSH: What is your current tease for the third book in the Path to Ascendancy series?

ICE: Gah, I have no current tease.  What I will say is that just as Deadhouse Landing picked up right after Dancer’s Lament, so too will the next pick up, and that its current working title is Kellanved’s Reach.

JSH: Do you think you’ll ever write books outside of the Malazan universe?

ICE: I am working on some projects outside the world and I do hope to complete them – if I ever have the time.  Malaz is quite consuming, there are a lot of facts and precedents to chase up and keep track of.  I find if difficult to switch over in mid-stride, so to speak, into another wholly separate world.

JSH: Have you and Steven ever considered publishing miscellaneous material, along the same lines as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The History of Middle Earth, or will the Malazan universe always be contained in your more-traditional prose series?

ICE: God I hope not!  My notes and miscellaneous works are all very messy.  Just as at a butcher’s shop – you don’t want to peek behind the swinging doors to see how the sausage is made.  Believe me, it’s ugly.