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A Conversation With Steven Erikson
An interview with Neil Walsh
May 2000

Photograph © Jill Regan Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson
Steven Erikson was born in Toronto, grew up in Winnipeg, and now lives in the UK with his wife and son. He is an anthropologist and archaeologist by training, as well as being a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. Gardens of the Moon (1999) was his first fantasy novel. Its sequel, Deadhouse Gates, is scheduled for release in the UK in September 2000. When asked about his age, Erikson had this to say:
"I was born in 1959, had my 40th last October and after painting the living room ceiling I'm feeling every one of those 40 years at the moment. Even worse, my riding instructor tells me I sit a horse like a cowboy; subsequent exercises to adjust my posture has my neck killing me. Anyway, I ain't young no more."

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon
Deadhouse Gates

Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon was given an honourable mention in the SF Site Best SF and Fantasy Books of 1999, as it tied for the #13 spot on our top 10 list. Pretty impressive, when you consider that over 90% of our contributor voters for 1999 were based in North America, where the book wasn't easily available.

In his MacLaurin Fat Fantasy Awards, Wayne chose Gardens of the Moon as one of his favourite fat fantasy books of 1999.

All in all, it's a very popular book -- not only here at the SF Site, but also in the world at large. The mass market paperback of Gardens of the Moon is available in North America as of June 2000. Deadhouse Gates, the second book of the Malazan, will be available in the UK in September.

It was only within the past year that you've been able to quit your 'day job' and devote yourself to writing on a full-time basis. What was that transition like for you?

The transition to a full-time writer was an immense relief. Unable to find archaeological work here in the UK (18 years' experience in North & Central America don't count for squat over here, it seems), I was falling into various office jobs, the last one what started out as a three month contract stretching out into two and a half years. Every moment sitting at that desk felt like lost time, time which I would never get back. Worse, since I was writing Deadhouse Gates during my lunch breaks at a nearby mall cafe, I couldn't get my head out of the world of Malaz. Frankly, by the time I was winding down at that office I'd been merely gliding for some time. I suppose I should feel guilty about that. Then again, the art of gliding's pretty common in most office jobs, even when one's in it for the long term.

In her review of Gardens of the Moon, J.V. Jones suggested that, although she liked the book, it was not an easy read. Do you feel that's a fair criticism, or do you think that readers have had enough brain candy and now should be, or should want to be, challenged in their fantasy reading?
'Not an easy read.' Yeah, true enough. Sure it's a fair criticism. A lot of Gardens was a dismantling of various conventions of the genre. I'm not a fan of blindingly Good heroes versus insipidly stupid Evil bad-guys. The notion of evil for its own sake strikes me as boring -- all these Dark Lords intent on creating wastelands packed with enslaved victims... for what? Granted, the tradition asserts an archetypal juxtaposition and so illuminates the human condition -- I'll swallow that, and even acknowledge that as the source of the genre's universal appeal. But my personal fascination as a writer is with ambivalence and ambiguity. My anthropological back gets raised hackles with simple worlds and simple conflicts. Nothing's simple. Nothing ever was. So Gardens involved a twisting of loyalties, hopefully offering to the reader the choice of to whom to pledge allegiance. Good guys do bad things and bad guys do good things and sometimes things that look good are actually bad. With luck every character comes across as genuine in their uncertainties...

Also, I wanted, with Gardens, a sense that we (as readers) are just stepping into a fully realized history -- we're taking a peek at a slice of events. Some of the criticisms I've read regards landing at a run or floundering for footing at the start are ones I humbly accept. Then a secret part of me rails that if I wanted to write of the Roman Empire do I need to start with the Etruscans? The Greeks? Cro-Magnon Man? Basically, I had to start somewhere.

For all the seriousness of the above, I was simply having fun writing Gardens. All the twists, the duelling perspectives, reversals -- with the character of Kruppe doing my dirty work, subversive-wise. Funny how the most easily written work I've ever done turned out to be the most challenging for readers. Got no explanation for that, I'm afraid.

Now that you've created such a vividly detailed world, and committed to writing a total of 10 books to take place in it, have you already mapped out the direction you want to go? Or is it the case that one book, only once completed, will lead you logically to the next?
I've a pretty good idea of the series arcs leading up to and including the 10th novel, but I'm trying to retain a flexibility for each novel's distinct plot-lines. I suspect if I'd mapped things out down to the last detail the pleasure of writing would vanish. I crave the spontaneity.

You spent several years developing the world in which the Malazan Empire exists, before Gardens of the Moon was published. The depth and complexity of your world's history and mythology are immediately apparent to the reader. What or who were your inspirations for the world you've created?
This is a tough question to answer succinctly. Books, gaming, and academic training all conspired to lure me into a fantasy world (ahem), as well as a certain sense of frustration regarding a lot of the fantasy novels I'd been reading. Like any genre, fantasy is self-defining. There's a well-established set of conventions in style, structure and theme. It's difficult to push on those boundaries and foremost in the resistance to doing so are publishers, who are (understandably) a notoriously conservative lot for the most part. There's a danger in paying attention to the bottom line -- I'll give an example to illustrate what I mean. I know a group of over-educated highly critical adults who regularly rent Conan the Destroyer, then watch it with the sound turned off and ad-lib all the lines for entertainment. Now, a pencil-pusher might peruse the steady royalties said rental accrues and conclude that Conan the Destroyer is what the people want, resulting in a whole bunch of B-movie clones. Bottom lines lead to assumptions, but sometimes those assumptions are wrong.

My point? Well, I think there's a readership out there that'll go for complex stories, characters, worlds. I certainly hope so, since that's what I am trying to write.

In any case, I was and remain a fan of fantasy fiction -- one of the multitude whose buying habits are so vigorously analyzed -- and I buy a lot of books and a lot of it's trash and, dammit, I read it anyway. I'm insatiable when it comes to fantasy novels. And desperately searching for something worth sinking my time into. In other words, my buying habits don't accurately reflect my tastes, except in a most general sense (i.e., I buy fantasy novels) and even that's misleading -- I buy political thrillers, military adventures, historical, science fiction, international intrigue, mysteries, and contemporary fiction, too -- everything but romances.

And every one of those genres has contributed to my writing, to the creation of the fictional world of the Malazan Empire, some more than others -- when taking a writing degree at the University of Victoria I plunged into the novels of the Vietnam War written by veterans -- from Tim O'Brien to Gustav Hasford, I read them all. There's one influence (especially Hasford, with his laconic, brutal style and the sly, sardonic eye). I'd already devoured all the Ludlum and Tom Clancy novels (these guys can put together a complex plot), and Stephen King (seriously underrated as a writer, he is). Three more influences. Who else? John Gardner's Grendel, Don DeLillo's The Names. Ursula LeGuin -- ah, now we're moving into fantasy genre stuff. Okay. Stephen Donaldson's Covenant novels impressed me with their sheer risk-taking -- very complex characterization coupled with a latinate style that had me reaching for the dictionary. The first chapter to Lord Foul's Bane remains with me as a truly extraordinary piece of writing. Tim Powers, yeah, brilliant stuff. Glen Cook's Black Company novels, in which I see (or think I see) a certain Vietnam War literary influence. And, more recently, Paul Kearney -- his Monarchies of God is simply the best fantasy series I've read in years and years.

The non-fantasy-genre influences are probably responsible for the non-traditional aspects of Gardens of the Moon. Multiple points-of-view is pretty much standard practice in various thrillers and science fiction novels. Moral ambivalence, atmosphere and tone from the Vietnam stuff. And so on.

So much for books. My academic background includes a degree in anthropology with double minors in history and the Classics. When I finished that degree I walked out of the university with a working knowledge of history starting at 60 million years ago (we were shrews!) and ending at the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Forgotten most of it now, but occasionally something filters through... A couple of other degrees in creative writing gave me the invaluable space in which to write without feeling guilty, and exposed me to a whole range of styles and genres besides.

I discovered gaming in my early 20s, settling into a GURPS-based system. Running games and writing novels aren't that different, and doing the former certainly helped me in the latter, especially when it comes to humility. In a game, the GM narrates but has no control over his or her characters, forcing a certain flexibility to plot-lines. What I take from my gaming days and still hold onto today is a sense of respect for the characters of a fictional world. Their lives are theirs and that life goes on beyond the confines of any particularly novel. Not really, of course, but you know what I mean.

You've mentioned the influence of Vietnam literature on your writing. Did you have any kind of personal connection to that war, or was it just another one of many interests for you?
No actual connection with the Vietnam War (I'm not THAT old!), though I had some hairy experiences travelling through the Peten in Guatemala in 1983.

What was the most interesting archaeological project you worked on? I have a good friend who is a working archaeologist based in the southern US. She tells me her most exciting finds are things like mostly intact pre-WW II Coke bottles, rusty old civil war shell casings and bones so old that none of the aboriginal groups lay any claim to them -- but she still has some pretty wild stories.
Uhm, best archaeological site I've ever worked on. Not easy to answer. I could respond to 'best' in archaeological terms, or geographic, or, indeed, social (met my wife on a dig, for example). I did a two-person survey of the Whiteshell Park in eastern Manitoba that certainly is up there rank-wise. One van, one canoe, one whole summer searching for and mapping petroforms (boulder formations). The project in Belize was pretty good, too, especially locale-wise. In terms of pure archaeological interest, the site at Mud Portage on Lake-of-the-Woods is hard to match -- a 4-5000 year old archaic occupation site with associated rock-carvings. Another rock-art site in southwest Saskatchewan ranks close... Thing is, I've got over 18 years' worth of summer projects to mull over...

So much of history begs to be re-written, or to be written with more panache than the historians have told it. Have you ever thought about writing a fantasy novel in a setting that parallels an actual period of history? If so, what area and period would interest you the most?
I've quite a number of ideas for alternate-history style novels. My schooling included emphases on the Byzantine Empire, but I also have interests in other areas, including (dare I say it?) early Canadian history. If I do eventually get around to them, it'll be with a tip of the hat to the master of such novels, Tim Powers.

What other projects are in the works right now or planned for the future?
At the moment the only other major project I'm working on is a three-part television series, written with two other writers. Yeah, it's fantasy, pretty dark, pretty gritty, with lots of plot-twists. We've completed the pilot and are in the process of pitching it. It ain't 'brain-candy' so our fingers and toes are crossed.

The television project is set in a different fantasy world from the Malazan Empire, though it shares something of the dark, gritty atmosphere. No 'thees and thous' and if we introduce a white knight we'll kill him off ignobly in seconds flat. Not much in the way of heavy duty special effects, either. We'll see, I guess.

I've notes for various other novels in various genres, but at the moment it's all at a research stage and in a holding pattern. I'm busy with the third Malazan novel at the moment (a return to Genabackis, Paran and the Bridgeburners).

Returning to Genabackis in the third novel is proving a lot of fun. I've just hammered out the scene where Kruppe makes his first appearance in the novel and hopefully at least a few readers will find themselves grinning. Oddly enough, of all the comments I've received regards Gardens of the Moon, it seems the characters readers talk about the most are people like Anomander Rake, Tattersail, Whiskeyjack and Tool. Kruppe seems to have slipped past unnoticed. Not sure what I should make of that, since writing him was a blast.

Gardens of the Moon was your first fantasy, but not actually your first published work. Apparently you put out a literary novel in Canada some years ago. Can you tell us about that?
I've had a cycle of short stories (all linked), a novella, a short story collection and novella, and a novel all published through minor presses in Canada (the latter in the UK as well), all contemporary fiction. Thus, Gardens was the 5th book to be published. Mind you, it was written 8 years ago, so chronologically it's the second major work I did, preceded only by the story cycle.

Steven Erikson isn't the name you were born with. Why did you change it, and how did you arrive at Steven Erikson?
'Steven Erikson' resulted from a request by a previous publisher (of my contemporary fiction) that I select a pen-name for my fantasy novels. Erikson is my mother's maiden name. She was a great reader of adventure novels, from Burroughs (Edgar Rice, not William S.) to Flemming, and I think, were she alive to read Gardens, she would enjoy it. I'm happy with the pen-name.

You have a deal with a German publisher for some of the Malazan books. Are there plans at this point for your books to be translated into any other languages?
Foreign language rights have sold in Germany, France, Poland, Russia, Latvia (!) and Holland. I've been in consultation with the German translator and have gleaned something of the formidable task translation involves. My heart goes out to translators. There's some East Asian deals pending and with those it will no doubt get even more complicated, as, given the length of my novels, each one will involve multiple volumes. Turns out English is, in comparison, a pretty terse language.

It has been suggested that some of your current success with Gardens may be attributed to the positive comments it received on the Internet. Do you feel that's justified? Any comments/opinion on the role of the Internet and its relation to books?
Certainly the internet response had a profound bearing on the book deal following Gardens of the Moon. What I find most gratifying, however, is the ability the web provides for an author to read what his readers have to say. What flies, what doesn't. At the same time, an author can't simply absorb every criticism -- some of it has to bounce off. For example, a few comments have been made regards the types of names some of my characters possess. Dislike for Antsy, Whiskeyjack, Fiddler and so on. I've no intention of changing that style, however (if it worked for Dickens...). You won't get many Elfsparrow Raptor Featherhat's in my stuff, alas, nor Malific Malabyss the Dark's, either. Or, if they do occur, I'll kill the hapless character off quickly enough, and ignobly to boot. What can I say?

In any case, all those comments on the internet are terrific -- I literally can't get enough of them. As for the promotional potential of the digital arena, it may be a while before print publishers get a full grasp, at least over here in the UK -- it may well be different back in North America...

You've told me that Deadhouse Gates follows Sorry, Crokus and Kalam back to the heart of the Empire. Any other teasers you can toss our way?
The mass market version of Gardens contains a teaser for Deadhouse Gates, in the form of that novel's prologue tagged onto the end. Crokus, Sorry/Apsalar and Kalam find themselves in the midst of the Seven Cities uprising, and the leviathan that is the Malazan Empire shows a whole new side -- one quite contrary to whatever impressions readers may carry with them from Gardens of the Moon. Hey, ambivalence and ambiguity, right?

Copyright © 2000 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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