INTERVIEW: March-April 1979 Conducted by Neal Wilgus in Science Fiction Review, number 30, March-April 1979.
Your trilogy, THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER, will inevitably be compared / contrasted with J.R.R. Tolkien's LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. I know you have great respect for Tolkien's work but isn't it difficult to explore the same grounds without losing your own originality? Is that why Covenant is such an unsympathetic character -- even an anti-hero? Are his leprosy and bitterness an antidote for Hobittitis?

Ah, where to begin? Let me say first that I shudder every time anybody compares / contrasts COVENANT with LORD OF THE RINGS. Of course, my respect for Tolkien is unbounded, so in that sense I suppose I should feel flattered. But comparisons / contrasts are often odious to the people being compared / contrasted. Writing fiction, after all, is not a competition. In fact, nothing can destroy a writer faster than a tendency to compare / contrast himself with some towering predecessor.

In writing COVENANT, I was certainly aware that I was working in Tolkien's shadow (after all, his shadow covers most of the field). But I took LORD OF THE RINGS as a source of inspiration, rather than as any kind of counter-argument or antithesis. I read Tolkien while I was planning COVENANT as a way of reminding myself of the value of fantasy (at that time, I had never been published; never written any fantasy, and almost never read any worthwhile fantasy; Tolkien, Lewis and Peake were the exceptions). So I certainly was not looking for any kind of antidote for Hobbittitis. I was looking for Donaldson -- trying to explore the kinds of things that moved/excited/convinced me, with as little reference as possible to anybody else.

As for Covenant himself, I've never considered him to be "unsympathetic". I wouldn't have written him if he had not so fully engaged my sympathies. But, of course, while I was writing him in LORD FOUL'S BANE, I knew what he was going to become in THE POWER THAT PRESERVES. That -- combined with my interest in people whose guilt arises from their essential innocence (just as their innocence grows out of their guilt) -- probably gives me an unusual tolerance for him.


The giant called Saltheart Foamfollower, the most likable character in LORD FOUL'S BANE is a great talker and laugher whose credo is "When comprehension is needed, all tales must be told in full". Is this an expression of your own view? Is this why you wrote a trilogy rather than a single volume?

If I were to use that quote from Foamfollower to support what I've done (not to mention what I may do in the future), that would be rationalization rather than defense. As a general rule, when I'm writing I try to express what my characters believe, rather than ask them to express what I believe. And, from a strictly logical point of view, no tale is ever told "in full".

I wrote COVENANT as fully as I did for a variety of reasons: in part because that's the way my brain works (I think I'm a natural born long-novelist); in part because the more fully I wrote, the more completely the story commanded my attention; and in part because I swore I was going to (I had recently read a spate of books, the authors of which did not appear to appreciate the value of their own material; these skimpy books were full of unrealized potential, and I concluded that the most frustrating writer in the world is one who is too stupid to know it when his imagination is trying to tell him something. I resolved not to make that mistake myself).

Structurally, COVENANT fell into trilogy form in my mind almost from the moment of its first conception. The "triple-decker", like the sonata, is a very attractive arrangement for people like me. So I welcomed the possibility of doing COVENANT as a trilogy as if there were no other choice. (To be fair, however, I probably should say that my initial forecast of COVENANT called for a manuscript of 1000 pages. The manuscript eventually reached 2355, before I was forced -- first by my friends, then by my editor -- to cut it back to 1940. I suppose that if that doesn't constitute "in full", nothing does. It turned out to be fuller than I had originally intended.)


You were quoted in a local (Albuquerque) newspaper as saying the Covenant trilogy was rejected by every fiction publisher in the country, then revised and resubmitted to Ballantine where it was accepted but was "whipped into shape" under the guidance of fantasy editor Lester del Rey. What kind of evolution did you go through during this process? What kind of guidance did del Rey provide?

COVENANT was, in fact, rejected by every fiction publisher listed in the 73-74 LITERARY MARKETPLACE, including both my present publishers, Ballantine and Holt. I was unpublished, and had no prospect of ever finding a publisher -- in view of the fact that COVENANT was the best work I'd ever done. If it was unpublishable (as many editors told me), there was no hope.

During those years of fulltime writing, all day every day, month after month, I learned to appreciate Prothall's great truth: "Service enables service". The only thing that kept me going was COVENANT itself: The story simply refused to let go of me. Even then, by the time I finished writing the trilogy, rewriting it, and then rewriting LORD FOUL'S BANE a third time (the conclusion of that work coincided very nicely with the end of my alphabetical "mystery tour" through American publishing), I was a walking textbook case of depression -- a perfect clinical study.

Several things happened to my writing in the process. I gained insights into despair and death that improved the quality of my work. And, on a more pragmatic level, I learned to write leaner prose (COVENANT may not be absolutely "lean" as it stands; but in my third rewriting of LORD FOUL'S BANE, I reduced the manuscript from 787 to 622 pages without shedding a drop of blood. COVENANT is certainly "leaner".) I learned to trust "story" rather than "language": I learned to resist some of my bad habits -- e.g. a pernicious tendency toward abstract imagery.

At that point, I resubmitted LORD FOUL'S BANE to Ballantine out of sheer desperation. I had no idea that the former Fantasy Editor had been fired, or that Lester del Rey had taken his place. So, in a very real sense, I was saved by happenstance. Lester's enthusiasm for the book was almost immediate.

In return for restoring my psyche, Lester required that I: 1) cut as much fat out of THE ILLEARTH WAR and THE POWER THAT PRESERVES as I had out of LORD FOUL'S BANE; and 2) correct some truly horrendous problems of inner consistency that I had half-wittedly created for myself in THE ILLEARTH WAR.

So his editorial contribution was of the best possible kind: He helped me to do a better job of bringing my own desires into being. Now (two and a half years later) he and I have a relationship which is half mutual admiration, half sumo wrestling.


You were also quoted in the news story to the effect that "good vs. evil" is an important theme in your work. BANE certainly has heroes and villains, but the more heroic or villainous they are, the less convincing they seem to be. Is Covenant, who is a typical human mixture of good and evil, a demonstration of the "golden mean" between heroism and villainousness?

This seems to be a good time for me to discuss the relationship between LORD FOUL'S BANE and the rest of the trilogy. Structurally, of course, each of the three books can stand alone -- i.e. each has a beginning, middle and end. But I conceived and designed the trilogy to be a single story: LORD FOUL'S BANE launches issues that I do not even pretend to resolve until THE POWER THAT PRESERVES. It was never my intent that anyone of these books should be considered independent of the other two. Hence any attempt to interpret COVENANT based on LORD FOUL'S BANE alone is doomed from the beginning.

Covenant is certainly not a "golden mean" in any normal sense. His is an extravagent personality, for good or ill -- almost literally incapable of emotional (or ethical) moderation. So he is a mixture of good and evil insofar as he contains within himself the raw materials of which both Lord Mhoram and Lord Foul were created: both are aspects of himself. But, within that context, I perceive him as being far more heroic than villainous: Even his bitterness is just part of his ceaseless and uncompromising attempt to define some kind of integrity for himself in the face of the impossible contradictions of his situation.

In fact, I might as well come right out and say that I deeply admire my heroic characters -- Bannor, Foamfollower, Mhoram. If they are indeed "less convincing" than Covenant (or Atiaran?), that is a symptom of artistic failure rather than authorial intent. As for the other extreme, Lord Foul is more a conception, a walking definition of evil, than a person; and I would hate to have him judged solely on the basis of his believability as a character. Within this spectrum, Covenant is no "golden mean": He is a "humane instinct" seeking to define himself in opposition to an "instinct for contempt". In my view, both of those "instincts" are "typically human".


I occasionally had the feeling in BANE that the evils being fought were symbols of our real-world problems of pollution-population-war and so on. Is there a message in the Covenant trilogy?
Well, I happen to think that there are all kinds of messages - - all kinds of what we used to call "relevance" -- for the "real world" in COVENANT. But it ill-behooves the writer to go around pointing them out. I take myself too seriously as it is. So I'll content myself by saying that my conception of "evil" is very much rooted in the real world. I believe that a contempt for life-which manifests itself variously as cynicism, self-pity, self-hatred, racial or sexual prejudice, apathy, environmental suicide, political turpitude, self-righteousness (the list goes on and on) -- is the besetting ill of our civilization. We are terribly quick to commit every form of murder -- and equally swift to call everyone else murderers. Lord Foul chuckles every time.

Who beside Tolkien has been the major influence on your outlook and writing?

As a "fantasist", I look with affection and respect at C.S. Lewis, and with frustrated admiration at Mervyn Peake. But most of my roots lie in the mainstream of realistic fiction (I was, after all, a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature before I began writing full time).

My heroes have always been Conrad, James and Faulkner. Sometimes I believe that everything I have always wanted to know about writing (and most of what I've wanted to know about people) can be found in those three giants. Each of them creates an entire ethos of language. I aspire to that level, but I've got a long way to go.

But, oddly enough, I don't trace COVENANT back to any of those three. Rather, I trace it to Blake and Camus -- strange bedfellows, about both of whom at least half my knowledge is second-hand. Blake in his numinous world-view - - like Camus in his pragmatic one -- insisted on the affirmation of contradictions. For Blake, neither God nor the devil was evil: Evil lay in separating God from the devil (Heaven from Hell, soul from body, stasis from energy, black from white) and trying to choose one over the other. All choices are evil unless the contradiction is made whole, Unless both sides of the paradox are affirmed. For Camus, man is in the absurd position of being a questioning animal in an unanswering universe (no, worse than that -- a universe which contains no answers, which is utterly void of purpose or meaning); and Camus' response is to affirm both the blankness of the universe and the importance of the questions -- to affirm the absurd, the paradox, because it is the vital stuff of life. "Sisyphus is happy".

Covenant is torn between the impossibility of believing the Land true, and the impossibility of believing it false: It is unreal and irrefusable. He comes into his power when he learns to affirm the paradox itself. He is like the prophet who finally had a vision of the Truth: God is/God is not. That revelation answered all his questions.


What's the story behind the fantasy language we get glimpses of in BANE? Is this an elaborately worked out part of the background?

I probably shouldn't answer this question: Some people are going to be disappointed. But I'll go ahead, if for no other reason than to defend myself against misplaced expectations.

Unlike Tolkien (or C.J. Cherryh), I'm not a linguist. In fact, from the point of view of linguistics, I can't even master English: I can write grammatically enough, as a rule, but I couldn't define a "subordinate clause" to save my soul. In other words, my grasp of grammar is visceral rather than intellectual (surely the rhetoric of COVENANT bears this out). And as for foreign languages -- well, I nearly flunked college German.

As a consequence, the "fantasy language" in COVENANT is not "elaborate" in any deliberate sense. It is visceral rather than intellectual: I created it all by ear. In the process, I "stole" heavily from whatever resources came to hand. This really should not be a revelation to anyone: Many of the names I use are clearly not "made up" (for example, the ancient names of the Ravers -- samadhi/Sheol, turiya/Herem, moksha/Jehannum - were words which met two criteria: (1 Their sound; matched the use I made of them and 2) their true meanings were emotionally appropriate to the use I made of them.

My purpose in using "fantasy language" is simply to try to evoke the strangeness, mystery and power of a "fantasy world". But don 't misunderstand me: I would gladly make my fantasy language "an elaborately-worked-out part of the background" if only I were capable of so doing. Unfortunately, you can't get blood from a turnip.


The use of leprosy in the Covenant trilogy stems from your childhood in India - - what else would you say was a result of your unique upbringing?

That's not easily answered. Like anybody else, I am who I am because of where I came from. One could easily argue that everything about me is a result of my unique upbringing.

But I suppose that the most obvious effects of my background on my writing were to make my fiction romantic, religious, exotic and grim. Romantic because my life was full of adventure (just to give one small example: I remember a day when the boarding school I attended was closed because a man-eating tiger was known to be in the area; hunters killed the cat that night and displayed the body the next day), and because my parents were people of superior commitment and efficacy (how many kids in this country can literally "believe in" their parents? The power of my father's skills was visible on every streetcorner). Religious because as missionaries we were constantly steeped in religion; it was the supreme motivator of our lives. Exotic because India is an exotic country, full of extremes of experience that make America look like a remarkably bland place (most children raised in India go through a crisis of boredom that threatens to become terminal during their first year or two in the USA). And grim because India teems with poverty, filth, degradation and pain unparalleled by anything in the United States.

Therefore, I write fantasy. I call myself a romantic, and write about leprosy. My characters don't believe in God and I call myself religious. Not many people spend as much time contradicting themselves as I do.


Your use of horses and superhorses in BANE -- is this just a poetic image or are you a horse fancier in real life?

Actually, I dislike horses. They are the stupidest animals known to man, and nothing is worth the amount of trouble they bring with them. I know from experience: My wife loves horses, and we raised one for five and a half years. At one time while I was writing COVENANT, that horse of hers convinced me to kill off all the Ranyhyn. She had to resort to emotional violence to make me change my mind.

(Well, seriously, now -- there was a time while writing COVENANT when I intended to destroy the Ranyhyn: I thought that was an appropriate thing for Lord Foul to do. My wife convinced me that I was in danger of destroying my story by carrying wholesale slaughter too far. She was absolutely right.)

But as a child (say, eight to ten years old) I was fairly typical in my attitude toward horses. I wanted to be the Lone Ranger and I couldn't very well do that without Silver. (Or was his horse named Kemo Sabe? I forget.) Writing fantasy is often a child-like (if not actually a childish) activity. In creating the Ranyhyn, I harked back to the days when I would have wanted one of my own.


What are you working on now? Science fiction? More fantasy? Non-fiction?

After Lester and I arrived at a final manuscript for COVENANT, I wrote one fantasy story ("The Lady in White", F&SF, Feb. '78) and two science fiction stories ("Animal Lover", STELLAR # 4, and "Mythological Beast", F&SF, to be announced) . But then I decided to tackle something different. I wrote a detective novel. It had a lot of virtues, but the plot wasn't good enough - it bombed. But producing it did me some good: It reminded me of all the reasons why I like writing fantasy so much.

That lesson gave me the courage to attempt something of which I had been deathly afraid -- a sequel to COVENANT. I think the fear was justified: There's nothing in fiction as bad as a bad sequel, and I might never be able to salvage my self-respect if I let COVENANT (not to mention Covenant) down. But finally I decided that the sequel I had in mind was worth the risk. After all, life is a risk. And, as Mhoram once said, "Anything that passes unattempted is impossible". So that's what I'm working on now - - the Second COVENANT Trilogy (variously known among friends and sceptics as "II Chronicles", and "Covenant Redux"). It's going very slowly because I've made a lot of mistakes. All I can say to readers who liked COVENANT is, I'm doing my damnedest to make this story a worthy companion to the first trilogy. And Lester is holding my nose to the grindstone with an iron hand.


That brings up the age-old question of where-do-you-get-your ideas? Is inspiration or perspiration the most important in your fiction?

Where? From the un- or sub-conscious recesses of my own mind (ideas that actually originate outside have no value). When I'm receptive, they can be fished to the surface by almost any kind of external stimuli (one whole sequence in THE POWER THAT PRESERVES was triggered by a can of disinfectant in a restaurant washroom). However, to the extent that ideas do come from some discrete source, most of my ideas come from the story itself. "Service enables service": Working generates both the capacity and the material for future work. In short, I endorse E. Newman's dictum (which I paraphrase - he was talking about musicians): "Great writers do not set to work because they are inspired, but rather become inspired because they are working".

Of course, no one can ignore what Patricia A. McKillip calls, "the tail of the comet": Revelations which sweep out of nowhere and change everything. One cannot predict or summon such intense insights - one can only be grateful for them. But I do get a lot more of them when I'm working than when I'm not. And where less exalted ideas are concerned, I believe that the imagination is like any other muscle: exercise makes it stronger. Writers grow by writing, not by waiting around for the comet. When the act of writing itself (sitting down at the typewriter, putting words on paper) becomes a habit, that habit greatly facilitates the achievement of the receptive state in which ideas appear. Furthermore, the excitement of putting previously-obtained ideas into practice brings up new ideas -- which increases the excitement - which generates more ideas. That is where the true magic of writing occurs -- in the imaginative cyclotron which enables the writer to exceed himself.

The single most crippling obstacle to this process is self consciousness: Self-consciousness blocks receptivity. No writer can reach down into his own intuition while his attention is trapped on the surface of his ego. That, in a nutshell, is why writers need privacy - - and why no writer can afford to think of writing as a competition.


How does it feel to be a hit? Are you satisfied with the response to the trilogy?

How do you define a "hit"? For a $30 set of books by an unknown author, COVENANT has sold fairly well in hardback. The reviews have been good, and I get a certain amount of fan-mail. Thus far, I'm more than satisfied.

But I think that the contemporary audience for fantasy is largely a paperback audience. We'll find out whether or not COVENANT is a serious success when Del Rey Books publishes its edition. Frankly, I hope that COVENANT does not become what I would call a "hit". Success in large doses exerts a great deal of pressure, and most of its effects are negative (quick, try to think of an immensely successful author whose future books were not a disappointment). For one thing, successful writers tend to lose their privacy: They become part of the public domain. For another, it is very difficult for a writer to have a "hit" behind him without falling into the trap of looking at his new work as a form of self-competition.

However, I'm trying to support my family (and my ego) in this business. Large success or small, I'll try to accept it as gracefully as I can. After what I've been through as a writer, I'm grateful for success, period.


Thank you, Mr. Donaldson.