GRADUAL INTERVIEW (all dates)
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Zack Handlen:  Mr. Donaldson,

I just started reading Runes of the Earth. It's been a couple years since I last read the Covenant books (although I did read most of the Gap series recently; had to put it to one side, as their darkness was really getting to me, but I'll be picking them up again soon), so I had to re-discover your writing style again. It's unique; initially, it always seems labored and over-done, but after a few paragraphs it becomes clear that this is intentional. The effect is one of the reasons I love your work so much, as it lends an amazing weight and intensity to the story, and makes the reader more vulnerable and empathetic to the characters and their needs.

I said this style is unique to you, and it is, but I have found one other writer with a similiarly gravid prose line, who's work I had only discovered a year ago- Mervyn Peake. You've mentioned elsewhere that you're a fan of the Gormenghast trilogy (although man, it hurts saying "trilogy" when you know the last book is as disappointing as it is), and I was wondering, has Peake been an influence on your writing? Had you read him before you started the first Covenant series? Or is it simply a case of two different authors developing similiar styles based on a similarity of intent, even if the end results are disparate?

Thank you, and thank you for your wonderful novels.
I suppose I could pretend that I wasn't influenced by Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books (as you say, the third is a crushing disappointment), but I would be lying. I love the richness of Peake's prose: in certain ways very akin to some of Joseph Conrad's writing ("Heart of Darkness" or any of the other "Marlowe" stories), but deployed for very different purposes. And I love what Peake achieves with his prose. Certainly I read him before I began work on "Covenant".

My own purposes probably have more in common with Conrad's than with Peake's. To see what I mean, look at Peake's florid use of caricature, normally a technique of satire, but employed by Peake to poignant effect. You'll find little that could be called caricature in my novels--or in Conrad's. In this respect, Peake more closely resembles Dickens.

(09/28/2005)

Allen:  The language spoken by the peoples of the Land is very distinct; full of dignity, grandeur, a kind of romantic beauty and power; the sound the gods might of made if the gods were rendered subject to the trials of mortality.
I'm curious about what the antecedents to this language are. Could you name any specific poets or writers who set your vitals on fire when crafting such speech? Perhaps Covenant's Struggles Against Despite In The Arena Of The Land should be regarded as a gigantic opera. Did Wagner's arias play their part?
gracias, Allen
As I keep saying, I seldom have *conscious* antecedents (with the obvious exceptions of Wagner's Ring cycle for the GAP books and Tolkien's LOTR for "Covenant"--which, now that I think about it, hardly counts as "seldom" <grin>). Nevertheless it's obvious that I've been influenced by all kinds of things (e.g. Wagner's music and story more than his libretto). In addition to citing Joseph Conrad, Henry James, William Faulkner, and Sir Walter Scott (and George Meredith and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Mervyn Peake and Alfred Lord Tennyson and...), I should probably mention Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Butler Yeats. The distinctive rhetoric of the "Covenant" books would not be what it is without all of them.

(10/05/2005)

Jason D. Wittman:  Dear Mr. Donaldson,

First, a thank you. You were kind enough to sign my copies of your books in the hotel lobby at WFC, and I thought I should take another opportunity to voice my appreciation. You were very gracious.

Now to my questions: you stated in your afterword to _The Real Story_ that listening to Wagner's _Der Ring des Nibelungen_ inspired you (in part) to write the Gap series. Does that mean that you are fluent in German? Do you know any other foreign languages? You also said that some of your literary techniques in TCoTC "were extrapolated from the way Wagner used musical ideas." I'm curious to know how that worked, though I'd understand if you found it difficult to explain.

Finally: have you read China Mieville? You've stated on the GI that you're a fan of Mervyn Peake, and Mieville is a big fan of Peake, and tries to emulate him in his writing. I highly recommend him to you, though you should be forewarned that he is weird, weird, weird. :-)

Take care, and keep writing,

Jason
Sadly, I’m not fluent in any languages except English and Cliché <grin>. I found going to India when I was 4 more than a little traumatic; and one symptom of my particular distress is that I locked my mind against languages I didn’t understand. And now I sort of *can’t* learn foreign languages. In college I missed Phi Beta Kappa by .003 in my GPA because of my Ds in German. No, I understand Wagner by reading the scores (in piano reduction) and libretti while listening to the music.

Because I wanted to understand the emotional power that Wagner’s music has over me, however, I’ve read a fair amount *about* his music. For example, he used repeated musical motifs to (literally) underscore the links, the relevance, between the various aspects of his composition. And when I became conscious of how his techniques affected me, I began trying to develop stylistic analogues in my own writing.

China Mieville: I’ve read “Perdido Street Station” (and have referred to Mieville elsewhere in the GI). I wouldn’t describe his work as “weird”: in good sf/f, “strangeness” is one of the norms (which makes it something of an oxymoron <grin>). But I would describe it as dense, difficult, and disturbing--all of which are either strengths or weaknesses, depending on the predilections of the particular reader. In my case, those qualities elicited admiration.

(01/22/2006)

Arnold Blatz:  Why isn't George Bush as eloquent a speaker as Lord Foul? I mean, obviously Bush has been taking lessons from the old Gray Slayer but I seriously feel something is lacking. As the (ahem) creator of Lord Foul perhaps you have an answer.
This isn't a forum for political discussion. But I think that the answer to your question is obvious. Bush needs a better speechwriter--and he didn't ask me. <grin> Like *that* was ever going to happen.

(02/22/2006)

Christian Bonn:  While I assume you are in great and vigorous health, how would you handle your ‘Last Chronicles’ in a [life- and livelihood threatening disease]? Would you want some designated author to complete your Last Chronicles for you posthumously? Would you rush to complete ’Last Chronicles’ yourself as best you could? Would you just leave the conclusion of your series to the imagination of your readers? Also, I wonder what type of precedent there is for authors who fail to outlive their many volume epics?

Forgive me for bringing up such a morbid topic in the gradual interview, but you seem accessible enough to consider and respond to this type of question carefully. Stay healthy!
For once, I'll try to avoid a jokey answer. (Surely you understand that this is an uncomfortable subject? At my age, I'm forced to think about death--my own, and that of the people I care about--with some regularity; but it ain't exactly fun. Hence my impulse to defuse the issue with jokes.)

First, I need to emphasize that I *do not* have a plan for this contingency. I don't know what I would do if the situation came up. So everything that I'm about to say is pure speculation.

(And please: no volunteers. Do I need to say this? If/when the situation arises, I'll make my own plans, thank you. If nothing else, that will be consistent with the way I've lived my writing life.)

Being as detail- and care-oriented as I am, I can't imagine "rushing" anything--unless I happen to be somewhere quite near the end of a particular volume, or a particular phase of the story. In that case, I might try to put on a burst of speed.

One thing that I believe I would *not* do is authorize my publishers (or my estate) to pick some random writer to finish the project for me. Sorry, but this is the inside of *my* head we're talking about. No strangers allowed.

At the moment, I'm torn between two scenarios. 1) I contact a writer whom I know and respect personally, and I ask him/her to finish the job for me. If s/he agrees, I spend as much time as I have left discussing the story so that my candidate has as clear an idea as possible of my intentions. 2) I just give my notes to my publishers and ask them to publish the notes verbatim at the end of however much I've completed. That way, each reader can imagine the conclusion of the story for him/herself.

Of course, these are only the thoughts of the moment. Assuming that I don't think otherwise later: "how much time I have left" will be a big factor.

I can think of two examples of writers in the predicament you describe: Mervyn Peake (who appears to have rushed "Titus Alone" in order to complete his trilogy), and E. R. R. Eddison, he of "The Worm Ouroboros" [sp?], who left behind dissociated fragments of a projected trilogy or tetralogy (for some reason, I can't remember which right now). Whatever happens, I won't follow Eddison's example, for the simple reason that I write the story in the same sequence that I intend it to be read; I don't "skip around" in the tale, as Eddison did.

(07/08/2006)

Matt Fensome:  Dear Stephen,

Through reading the interviews (both 'structured' and 'gradual') on this site I've noted a few names that recur - Conrad, Faulkner, Peake and Henry James in particular - as your literary 'heroes' or inspirations.

I'm of the opinion that most great genre writers are great because they read deeply and enthusiastically *outside* their genre, so I for one would love to hear a few thoughts, however brief, about these guys. I'm especially interested in how you feel they've influenced or inspired you as a writer of fantasy and sci-fi in particular.

Are these guys a natural choice for a fantasy writer's heroes, or is there some leap to be made here? What specifically about these writers do you admire or love? Have you tried to emulate specific devices or elements of their style in your writing? How far over the question limit am I now?

Finally - if you could send a question to Conrad or Faulkner or Henry James or Mervyn Peake's 'gradual interview', what would you ask any or all of them? ;)

Thanks very much in advance (and thanks again for the GI itself),

Matt.
I feel compelled to warn against a few generalizations. First, I doubt "that most great genre writers are great because they read deeply and enthusiastically *outside* their genre." Writers are too distinctive--not to mention idiosyncratic--to support broad assertions. For example, I know of mediocre genre writers who "read deeply and enthusiastically etc." This suggests that the nature of the reading cannot be a defining characteristic of greatness.

Second, I'm concerned about generalizations concerning "greatness" itself, since--as I've argued elsewhere--one obvious characteristic of greatness is uniqueness (e.g. LOTR simply could not have been written by anyone other than Tolkien). Generalizing about anything which is inherently unique is laden with conceptual pitfalls.

Third (which follows from my first two postulates), my example isn't likely to be of real use to anyone else. Certainly when I talk to other writers I invariably find that their reading is wildly different than mine. Everybody (and I do mean EVerybody) has to find his/her own path.

With all of that in mind:

I studied James for story structure and Faulkner for rhetoric. I studied Conrad for style--and for his demonstration that "adventure stories" can be used for the most serious literary purposes (a vital lesson which I could not have learned from, say, James Joyce). Tolkien (I don't know a better way to put this) gave me "permission" to write fantasy: he created the modern fantasy epic. And Peake showed me that fantasy can do great things which don't involve wars and quests. He also deploys a wider variety of narrative strategies than Tolkien does.

As for Questions For Famous (Dead) Writers: I don't have any. (I think I've said this before.) Everything I want to know is contained within their work. All I have to do is find it.

(07/16/2006)

Sean Casey:  You've talked in this interview about your reasons for using certain words, certain kind of words. Some of your writing can be pretty heavily laden with similes. What does your use of imagery bring to your work? Do you have any favourite images you'd care to share?
As far as I'm concerned, imagery is the life-blood of writing. It is a rich tool for making the reader *see* and *feel* the story: it inspires sight in the reader's mind; and it also creates mood, atmosphere, emotional resonance. It can be used to control timing and pace--which also have a direct effect on emotion. But it can do more: it can enable and enhance meaning. A material detail can achieve the concentrated import of symbolism and universality through imagery.

Of course, many writers think differently. Some aspire to the reticence of Hemmingway or Vonnegut rather than the profusion of Shakespeare or Peake. Some consider imagery a form of laziness or self-indulgence: it's easier to describe something by saying it's "like" something else than to actually *describe* that something. And some consider mood, atmosphere, emotion to be the province of the reader rather than the writer: the reader should find those things because they are inherent to the material, not because the writer added them by using imagery.

But I disagree. (Just my opinion, of course.) And I might add that almost any use of language can contain a wealth of "implied" imagery. The simple fact that we're talking about this is an example--because of course we aren't actually "talking" at all. My use of the word "talking" implies a simile. Many writers who appear to eschew imagery are merely embedding it rather than deploying it directly. (Notice the abundance of implied images in *that* sentence.)

(07/19/2006)

David Linehan:  Hi Mr D,

As a personal observation for readers who have never met you. I thought I would relate my experience of your Q & A and book signing for ROTE at the Waterstones bookstore in Manchester, England, 11th November 2004, when you kindly signed my hardback copy of the 1983 Richard Drew publication of the First Chronicles, among others. ;-)

From the bio's in the dust jackets of your books I had always assumed that you were a somewhat austere and reserved person. So what an amazing and delightful contrast you proved to be as an engaging, passionate and entertaining speaker that night. You infused the evening with your fervor for writing and your animated responses to the questions posed, put flesh on the bones of the author! This was all the more surprising as I'd previously read on the G.I. that you didn't necessarily relish such events. So thanks so much for that.

A couple of questions. What dictionary or dictionaries do you use? And have you ever tasted a beverage and thought 'this could be Diamondraught'?

P.S. Thankyou so much for 'Also love in the world'.
OK, I admit that I'm mostly posting this for the gratification of my own ego. <rueful smile> It's nice to think that I succeed at something which I find draining to the point of debilitation.

On a day-to-day basis, I use any dictionary I can get my hands on. But in emergencies (!) I turn to the Oxford English Dictionary (complete with magnifying glass).

I don't know if it qualifies as diamondraught, but I have very fond memories of Black Bush Irish whiskey.

(08/06/2006)

Tom:  I have a question within a question, I suppose. Do you read books for enjoyment while you are in the process of writing? Particularly books of the same genre for which you are writing? I have written on and off ever since I discovered fantasy as a young child, and I have always, without fail, been inspired to write stories whenever I am actually *reading* a good story.

It's almost like when you are watching TV and you see a good beer commercial and you immediately want a beer. The problem, however, is that I like epic fantasy (as your essay so well discussed). Those books take awhile to finish, and I often have put off my writing until I finish (and hear is the crux of the matter) for fear of being too influenced in my writing by what I am reading.

Going down that road further, I now have say 30 years of wonderful stories tucked into my memory and subconsciousness. These things cannot be avoided and it is very hard to not be influenced by them unless one actively seeks to avoid them as a writer. These two things concern me so much that I have thrown literally hundreds of pages of my writing in the garbage because I was not satisfied with their "originality" - even though anyone would be hard pressed to write something that is truly 100% original (see also: music).

For me it has always been the wonder of a great story, the feeling of actually being there that has pumped my creative juices, and I have always been wary of that trigger. I wonder what your thoughts were on the subject and if you experienced similar things. I also wonder if I should press on with my ideas even when caught up in reading, if that is in fact when I am often most motivated to write.

Looking forward to FR and thanks so much for GI, it's really great.

Tom
To answer your last question first: yes, you should press on with your own ideas regardless of what you're reading. If reading gets your creative juices flowing, *use* that. You can always revise later if you feel that what you've written has been unduly influenced by what you've read.

Yes, I do read books for pleasure (and inspiration, and reassurance, and education) while I'm writing. When I was a "young" writer (the first "Covenant" trilogy), I stayed away from reading in the genre I was writing--but not because I was afraid of being influenced by what I read. (Being influenced by what I read is one of the many ways in which I try to improve my skills as a writer.) No, I was afraid of feeling depressed (if what I read in fantasy was bad) or intimidated (if what I read in fantasy was good). During those years, I read widely in many other forms, including sf (and Renaissance poetry), but I avoided fantasy.

But then I got over it. Writing my first books helped me to internalize the knowledge that creativity is not a competition. Therefore (in my case) it doesn't matter what other writers have done: it only matters what I do. (Feel free to substitute your name for mine whenever you're ready. <grin>) And it doesn't matter whether I milk, say, Tolkien and Peake for all they're worth, as long as what I have when I'm done is honest Donaldson rather than ersatz Tolkien or Peake.

Does this address your concerns?

(09/05/2007)

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J West:  Dear Steve,

First I want to thank you for your great stories, and also for the time you spend on the GI. Also, my best friend's mother attended your book signing in Albuquerque and purchased a signed copy of FR, which she sent to me here in chilly Illinois. Very nice!

Now to my question, I just saw this list of Top 50 British writers since 1945 at the Times web site(http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3127837.ece), which was posted Jan 5, 2008. I notice there are a number of fantasy writers on the list, including Tolkien, Lewis, Peake, and more. It would shock me to see that many fantasy writers on an American writers list. Do you have any idea as to why the British literati seem more accepting of fantasy in general? Thank you again.
I'm posting this more as a matter of general interest than because I have an answer. I'm confident that you're right: any list of significant US writers compiled by our present "intellectual establishment" would include no fantasy (or science fiction) writers--apart from Ray Bradbury, and (perhaps) Kurt Vonnegut. But why this is true, I can only speculate. One theory is that "real life" in the US has always contained too much that is new and strange and horrible (exploring a continent, slaughtering its inhabitants, becoming a global embodiment of self-righteousness: the list goes on). In context, it's no surprise that many thinking people are inclined to cynicism, irony, despair, black comedy, etc.. (And surely it's no accident that Bradbury and Vonnegut regularly match that template.) Indeed, thinking people here often find comfort in cynicism etc., just as unthinking people find comfort in self-righteousness. But fantasy and science fiction (considered in the broadest possible terms) have two qualities that don't fit in this dark picture: they imply hope (by not being afraid of the new and strange and horrible); and they preach accepting responsibility for the consequences of your own actions (which is not an attitude that anyone would consider characteristic of the US).

Just a theory.

(03/05/2008)

MRK:  Mr. Donaldson,

Apologies for some much belated kudos on Fatal Revenant. I'm looking forward to seeing what you have up your sleeve for "Against All Things Ending".

I was just reading your wikipedia entry, specifically the sub-entry on "Mordant's Need" (which neglects to mention that one of the main themes of the story is gender dynamics; I keep meaning to add that). It suggests that the castle of Orison may have been inspired by Peake's Gormenghast. Having recently read "Titus Groan", I can understand this notion, if simply in terms of scale and appearance, since the two castles have different thematic meanings. Was this one of those "unconscious influences" or did you actively think of Gormenghast at the time of designing your own mammoth castle? (Revelstone also, retroactively, puts me in mind of Gormenghast, but again only in terms of scale).

Also, have you, redundant as it may be, read any of the Doctor Who novelizations? (one of my early introductions to the Whoniverse was reading Terrance Dicks' adaptation of "The Caves of Androzani" as an adolescent.)

thanks,

MRK
(This is what I get for never reading wikipedia. All things considered, that's probably good.)

Yes, the castle of Gormenghast was an "unconscious influence" on both Orison and Revelstone. "What a minute," you protest. "If it's 'unconscious,' how do you know it exists at all?" Well, because I read Peake's trilogy before I ever imagined the first "Covenant" books. And by the time I wrote "Mordant's Need," I had read Peake's trilogy twice. I wasn't *thinking* of Gormenghast when I created my own Big Castles (to my mind, Gormenghast is entirely different). Nevertheless Peake's writing must have influenced me *somehow*, if for no other reason than because I liked it so much.

Meanwhile: I don't read novelizations at all, including those for Doctor Who.

(06/11/2008)

Philip (Ireland):  Dear Mr Donaldson,

First of all belated thanks for your kind response to a previous question of mine (May 2007 from phealy20@eircom.net). I had thought that the appearance of Jermiah as displayed in Chapter 1 (posted online) was a spolier - I now know it wasn't!

I have read a number of posts where you have discussed authors who you admired or were influenced by. Bronte, Conrad and Peake spring to mind. As a part of your general reading or your formal education have you had much interest in medieval, rather than modern, tales or mythologies? If so do they come from any particular part of the world?

I know that Anglo-Saxon texts are studied (and occasionally enjoyed) in many English Literature courses. Over the last few years I have studied medieval Welsh and Irish literature – and although the tales do not evoke the lyric responses that a modern novel might – they still contain the stuff of fantasy: monsters, heroes and time-travel (!) for example.

On another note, I recall reading in a post of yours that if a book is bought in a bookshop it may take a while for the record to be used for generating a bestseller list, whereas if it is purchased online the information is readily available and the chance of the book appearing on a bestseller list is greater. I really enjoy walking around bookshops and normally prefer to make my purchases in them, but I would be more than happy to order the next Covenant novel online if it meant increased exposure, sales, and revenue for one of my favourite authors. If this is the case then I recommend that you strongly advertise this on your website site rather than just having an option to purchase displayed.

I enjoy your work very much and am looking forward to the continuation of the series.

Yours faithfully,

Philip Healy
Strangely, I have no particular interest in medieval (or pre-medieval) tales and mythologies. They strike me as the "raw ore" of human consciousness, and I'm much more interested in the metals that can be forged from those basic materials. Or, putting the same thing another way: whenever I read those old tales and mythologies, they feel like stories I already know: they're so deeply embedded in how human beings think that I've already learned them by studying more recent literatures. For that reason, I'm more interested in the specific use that a particular writer makes of the raw ores than I am in the ores themselves.

As for generating bestseller lists: these days, electronic means make it easy for individual stores to report their sales to the people who compile bestseller lists. So "where" you buy a book now has little or no effect on whether or not that book appears on a bestseller list. What really matters is "when" you buy it: bestseller lists measure the speed of sales rather than the total quantity of sales.

(09/06/2009)