Steven Erikson on the Challenges of Fantasy and a Winnipeg Childhood


Interviewed by Chadwick Ginther

Steve Lundin grew up in Winnipeg and currently resides in the United Kingdom. Much of his work appears under the pen name Steven Erikson. A graduate of the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, his fantasy debut, Gardens of the Moon was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, establishing him as a major voice in the field. An anthropologist and archaeologist by training, Erikson’s work displays a deep understanding of cultural and societal evolution over time. It is also notable for not playing to many of the accepted tropes of the fantasy genre.

Acclaimed fantasy author Stephen R. Donaldson says Erikson’s “work does something that only the rarest of books can manage: it alters the reader’s perception of reality.”

The Crippled God, the tenth and final volume in Erikson’s bestselling series The Malazan Book of the Fallen, was published in February 2011. His novella Crack’d Pot Trail will appear in September. As Steve Lundin he is also the author of This River Awakens and When She’s Gone (published by Great Plains).

What drew you to reading and then writing fantasy?

I suppose the most direct answer is: my imagination.  A more elaborate answer would be: childhood.  Although imagination and a sense of wonder may be under siege among children today – where cynicism is worn like a fashion accessory, and well-earned skepticism invites apathy and indifference – my own childhood was pretty much one long adventure, especially on weekends when our family would head out to the lakes, in the Whiteshell, or Lake Winnipeg, on fishing trips.  I probably didn’t quite understand that these trips were necessitated in some part by poverty, as we fished for food and by summer’s end would have a commercial freezer packed solid with walleye, pike, perch and trout.  For me they were ventures into the wilderness, a place where dinosaurs hid in the forests or beneath the waves; where cavemen hunted or whatever.  It’s no accident that even as a child I had ambitions of being a paleontologist and then an archaeologist – my sense of wonder reached into the past as much as it did into the future.  Science Fiction and Fantasy spoke to that part of me that delighted in wonder, and saw no limits to what could be imagined.

It would be easy for a non-reader of fantasy to hold to the notion that the genre is for the young, and that a sense of wonder and an unfettered imagination are but developmental stages to be passed through on the way to stoic, stolid adulthood; and that by easy extension, writers of fantasy are people who never grew up.  I would argue against both assumptions.  The notion that a sense of wonder has no place in adult life invites a paucity of spirit, where the act of living can lose its more ephemeral pleasures in the name of pragmatism and that most dreaded exhortation to ‘be realistic.’  To argue against imagination and wonder cannot but include arguing against spiritualism, faith and religion; and yet so many would do just that.  That said, I do not disparage popular scientists who seek to evoke wonder through the mundane magicks of the observable universe, in lieu of God or whoever – they too are still imagination’s children.  But the hard and fast rule of some kind of Aristotelian stricture on how to deal with living seems to me a surrendering of our finer qualities.  I see no need to worship pragmatism, nor kneel before the altar of reality.  Our brains are designed to break those boundaries, to reach into unknown places, and to experience the visceral pleasures of un-knowing.

Fantasy and to an extent science fiction offer up to readers (and in my case, those readers are adults) an invitation to remember what it was like to know wonder, and to immerse oneself in a drama that is not at every turn cynically undercut, or twisted into melodrama and cheap spectacle.

I write fantasy in defense of wonder.  Leave your cynicism outside the door please; it has no value in my world.

With the length of your manuscripts, do you still have time to read fantasy for pleasure? What would be your three top fantasy recommendations?

I don’t read fantasy while writing it; instead, I read science fiction, contemporary fiction and, more than anything else, nonfiction, principally histories, and science books on human evolution, genetics, physics and biology.  I went through a period of reading environmental books but that got too depressing, to be honest.  Besides, one doesn’t need a book to see the mess we’re making of things.

In terms of other fantasy writers, I would recommend Robin Hobb, Glen Cook and Stephen R. Donaldson.  I prefer ‘second world’ fantasies (those not connected to or inspired by our world).  Fantasies that are obvious transferences from our own histories always make me ask: why bother?  Just write historical fiction.

What do you feel is necessary for a great fantasy novel?

Pretty much the same things necessary for any novel, with an emphasis on imaginative originality in the novel’s vision.  In all fictional worlds (including those that look pretty much like our own, as with contemporary or mainstream fiction) there needs to be internal consistency.  No matter what the world being written about is like, an author is faced with choosing only those details that serve to affirm the authenticity of that world (a novel about two Canadian sharpshooters in the First World War won’t fly, for example, if they’re packing TOWs [although, come to think of it, that’d be a cool alternate history story]; just as the existence of magic in a world demands some consideration from the author on the effect of magic on society, technology and belief systems.  But even then one has to back up and first decide ‘what kind of magic?’).

But these are technical details, dealing with setting and structure.  Onto that the author then layers a story, with characters; and these elements are universal in all fiction.  There is no evading the human condition, and that condition is what we all write about, no matter what genre we happen to be writing in.  I well understand that many people discount fantasy and science fiction (Robert Sawyer has argued, convincingly, that these people don’t ‘get it’ and by that he means, among other things, that fantasy and science fiction readers are primed to accept multiple meanings to what would otherwise be straightforward language: I will steal from him an example he used at a talk in Milan.  To write ‘He turned on his left side’ for non-sf/fantasy readers has but one meaning, implying that ‘he’ is lying down and turning onto his left side.  But a well-versed SF reader is prepared to entertain another meaning to that phrase, if, say, that ‘he’ happens to be a cyborg).  Whatever has primed certain readers to make that imaginative leap is a good thing for us writers of fantasy and SF.  But it should also be obvious that, at the same time as we happen to be writers, we’re also readers; and we too are ‘primed’ to read in a different way.

I suppose there is a level of discomfort to non-readers of fantasy and SF when they attempt to read those genres; perhaps more so in fantasy where the disconnection with the physics of our world is so pronounced and indeed, deliberate.  I recall the big craze over ‘Magic Realism’ when I was taking writing at university; as if the fancy term gave people permission to delight in wonder without being ‘childish.’  I would wager that our disconnection extends beyond just fiction and genre, and the serious pundits are always finding it necessary to invoke an alternate language to deal with it.  They might well laud The Iliad but stare in disbelief at the notion of that tale being fundamentally a fantasy novel (as it unquestionably is); or hasten to argue cultural context (which is nonsense, since the ancient Greeks were as smart as we are, and the idea of readers/listeners actually believing in Zeus and all the other gods is, to my mind, a bit of a stretch).

Traditionally in fantasy the hero survives to save the day. You have a reputation for being bloody-handed when it comes to your characters. How else did you seek to subvert fantasy conventions and reader expectation?

The old ‘red shirt’ convention (from Star Trek where only the non-regular characters died) has always annoyed me.  Without real jeopardy genuine drama is lost, and without drama there can be no true sense of grief or loss.  Also, this series was envisioned as a history; people will fall by the wayside, and the sense of characters being players in a much larger game is important to my notion of writing fantasy.  While there can be some pleasure taken from heroes (and I’ve mulled on the notion of ‘heroes’ long enough to have made it a central theme to the series) who miraculously survive everything thrown at them, for me it palls after a time.  It’s the old Superman dilemma: if he is invincible what’s the point?  There has to be risk, for everyone involved.

As an extension to all of this, on occasion people query about the violence portrayed in the Malazan series, to which I have replied that nothing I have written comes even close to the real violence that has been and is being perpetrated in this world.  The only difference is that I deal with consequences in a moral fashion: in the Malazan world, people don’t get away with evil deeds as readily as they do in our world.  That said, there’s more than one side to justice, and even righteous vengeance is more complicated than your average hero-movie would try and tell us.

The creation of the world of your novels was a collaborative project with Ian C. Esslemont, who is working on his own series, also set within the Malazan world. What was the demarcation of who wrote what?

The Malazan world and its history was the product of the two of us roleplaying during our student years (using a system akin to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons but more freewheeling).  Many of the characters seen in the novels were formulated through gaming.  By the time we were done we had on our hands a huge history, and then it was simply a matter of partitioning it out.  Esslemont has two or three more books to come for his side of that history.  Ideally, we would have been publishing in tandem from the very first, but it didn’t work out that way and now he’s catching up.

How did your background in archeology and anthropology influence the creation of the world of the Malazan Empire?

For both Esslemont and myself, we were fully in concert in our determination to think through the world we were creating, and by that I mean anthropologically, geographically, geologically, and in terms of history.  Many fantasy worlds seem to exist on the page in a kind of stasis, as if magic would trap in amber the cultures portrayed.  We didn’t want to do it that way; we wanted something more dynamic, in perpetual flux – just as in this world.  For that we needed solid foundations.  But even here there were alternatives: for myself, I don’t find the history of ancient Egypt particularly interesting, principally because it was a stagnated civilization, conceptually bound to ritualized forms and backward looking.  The Greeks and then the Romans were far more interesting as civilizations.  Anyway, you’ll find corollaries for many kinds of civilization in the Malazan world: we just made it an obsession to be mindful that cultures evolve, and we held to the notion of cultures in transition being intrinsically more interesting that static ones.

It’s hard to know how much consideration that stuff is given in many fantasy novels; the tropes of the genre resist the notion of malleability, since they tend to invite a singular structure (European medieval) with rigid hierarchies, an overbearing class system and limited social mobility.  Esslemont and I settled on a quasi late-Roman empire technology level, and then we thought long and hard on the effects of magic in such a setting (magic-use relating to discipline rather than non-merit based stuff), and concluded that the end product would be a world without gender-based hierarchies of power.  We then had to apply a language in the story-telling devoid of sexism, racism, etc, which we did by never mentioning those things – they simply weren’t in the mindset of any character in the story.

In 2012, the Manitoba Book Awards will present an award for genre writing for the first time. What were attitudes toward fantasy and genre writing like while you were living and writing in Winnipeg?

Hmm, let’s see.  In the seven years I lived in Winnipeg while writing the series, not once was I invited to the Winnipeg International Writers’ Festival (and the shut-out continues).  Most of the time I am content with whatever recognition and validation I get from readers and genre-specific conferences and conventions I regularly attend, but on occasion I feel it’d be nice to get the occasional nod from the CanLit crowd.

That said, Winnipeg was hardly unique in ignoring me!  As a graduate of the University of Victoria undergraduate Creative Writing program, it’s probably safe to say that I remain the bestselling graduate that program has ever had: but while living in Victoria for four years I was pretty much ignored by the faculty and its guest-writing program though I made overtures more than once; certainly I never got the chance to visit fiction writing workshop classes, do readings or anything like that, even though I really wanted to give something back to a program that had done so much for me.  They weren’t interested and I regret that and remain more or less baffled by it.

Not all of your writing has been in the fantasy field. Aside from the obvious difference, your Malazan novels being set in an invented world, how does your fantasy work parallel or diverge from so-called literary fiction?

I’ll be blunt here: writing fantasy is a lot harder than writing ‘literary’ fiction.  For any writer of literary or contemporary fiction out there who might scoff at that notion, I invite you to try writing a fantasy story.  Apply what you already do in fiction but place it in an entirely invented setting, with its own rules, its own laws of physics, unique and possibly nonhuman sentient species; its own history, societies, cultures, religions.  Tack on a plot that will entertain, along with unique and interesting characters; and above all, make it all original and non-derivative.  Do all of that and come back to me and we’ll talk.

I won’t be taken up on this offer.  Unless those writers have read fantasy (and maybe it’s necessary to have grown up reading fantasy), and even should they be inclined to try (which they probably won’t be, since they’re just not interested in the genre), they’ll find their imaginations challenged in unfamiliar, uncomfortable ways.

Now, the above two paragraphs will likely trigger a few ripostes, and at some point I will be labeled arrogant.  It’s curious how the genre I work in (and its writers) can be denigrated in mainstream media and among serious critics of literature and the appellation of ‘arrogance’ is rarely if ever applied to those pundits.  Yet, should one of us (me, here) fire back we acquire that label in a flash, and with it the dismissal of our opinions.  So, try living in my shoes for a week or two: your writing is not taken seriously, is often misrepresented, and even the uninformed never hesitate offering up their opinions on it (my stuff was once labeled ‘nihilistic’ from a critic who has never read any of it, not that his ignorance stopped him pronouncing on it: when in fact what I write is the very opposite of nihilism).  If that’s not enough, I take hits from fans of the genre as well, since I don’t much play by the rules of the accepted tropes.  You want to hold the notion that there is value in what you do as a writer, and that the people who read you take something from it that is worthwhile, and just as you wish not to be dismissed, nor would you want your readers to be dismissed – by anyone (I have heard CanLit writers complain that no-one reads [their stuff], and should I show the temerity to reply, ‘well, I have a few million readers,’ they smirk and then proceed to put down the tastes of those readers.  Why?  Because they read fantasy).  Anyway, live with that for a while and you’ll see how frustrating it can be on occasion.

Back to your question and the notion of there being a difference in the writing of literary versus fantasy genre:  it’s all the same from my end.  I just write about what interests me.  Technically, the craft of fiction writing applies to all genres.  Lying beneath everything I write, regardless of genre, is my fascination with storytelling itself, with the dynamics of that ‘conversation’ between storyteller and audience.  It’s all manipulation in the end, but what counts for me is the honest conviction behind that manipulation.  To write tragedy is to invite an audience to feel.  And that emotion has to be genuine and heartfelt: for me, the only way to reach that is to feel what I want my audience to feel, and feel it first.  Otherwise I risk sentimentality and melodrama (the portrayal of false emotion), and I have no time for either.

I suspect it’s why many writers, especially ‘literary’ writers, apply a terse, understated style: there is the fear of being labeled melodramatic (I know it was prevalent when I was at Iowa), as if proceeding on the assumption that there is no such thing as genuine drama: it’s all melodrama.  This is, to me, intellectual evasion at best and at worse, cowardice.  Needless to say, I have strong views on that subject.  But I won’t go any further into it here.

Your novel When She’s Gone chronicled the departure of the Winnipeg Jets. How did the experience of writing this novel differ from your other work? Do you have any thoughts now that Winnipeg has written a fantasy story of its own with the return of NHL hockey to the city?

Towards the end of that novel the main character describes a dream he had while in a coma after a lightning strike (this novel was deliberately over-the-top, by the way), and being obsessed with the loss of the Jets his dream was of a trio of fans, girls, wearing Jets jerseys: but not as a memory of times past, but as a vision of the future.  The notion was: when she’s gone, she’s gone… but she’s coming back.

It was only a matter of time, for as long as it took the NHL to comprehend that the southern expansion was doomed to fail (you can’t grow hockey culture from the top down), before a team returned to Winnipeg.  The only real gut-wrenching fear was the rumour that the team was going to be named something other than the Winnipeg Jets.  Thankfully, all of us petitioners swayed TNSE [True North Sports and Entertainment, owners of the revivified Jets].

I have since offered up that novel on for free, in various e-formats.  It was a blast to write, by the way.  Oh, and I guess you could call it Magic Realism ;)

With the publication of The Crippled God, the Malazan Book of the Fallen is complete. What is next on your plate?

I am signed for two trilogies and six novellas.  I’m halfway through the first novel in the first trilogy.  Keeping, uh, busy.

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Chadwick Ginther

Chadwick Ginther latest novel is Tombstone Blues (Ravenstone). He lives and writes in Winnipeg.