Steven R. Donaldson is the author of the Thomas Covenant trilogy, recently a Science Fiction Book Club main selection and issued in hardcover by Holt, Rinehart, Winston. The three novels: LORD FOUL'S BANE, THE ILLEARTH WAR and THE POWER THAT PRESERVES; are currently being issued in paperback by Ballantine/Del Rey. Volume one and two should be out by the time you read this, with a final volume due early in 1979.
From the dust jacket blurbs, we know that Stephen R. Donaldson was born in 1947 in Cleveland Ohio. We also know that from the ages of 3 to 16 you resided in India with your father who was an orthopedic surgeon working extensively with lepers. What else can you tell us about Stephen R. Donaldson?
Well, I imagine that a quick summary of my life (or of almost anyone else's) would make rather boring reading. I could make any number of nebulous comments about my years in India, my education, or my stint as a Conscientious Objector. But perhaps under these circumstances only my writing career itself is germane.
I made my decision to pursue writing during Freshman Orientation at the College of Wooster in September, 1964; and I pursued it as hard as I could through the academic system until I received my M.A. in December, 1971. (That's already more than seven years.) At that point, I dropped out of my Ph.D. program, and began writing full-time. But I didn't get my first "break" until Lester del Rey read LORD FOUL'S BANE in March, 1976. (That's eleven years six months.) By that time, I had an over-all file of at least one hundred rejection slips; and LORD FOUL'S BANE itself had been rejected forty-seven times. (Both Holt and Ballantine rejected the book in the years before Lester was hired by Ballantine.)
Since March, 1976, I've been living in a completely different world. Just to highlight the contrast, I'll mention that the COVENANT trilogy will soon be published in England, Japan, Sweden, and Germany. I'm making enough money to support my family; and the future looks bright.
My point is that I'm an extreme example of both the difficulties and the possibilities of the writing business. On the one hand, nobody can accuse me of benefiting from "cheap success." On the other, nobody can look at me as an example of "virtue unrewarded." The best part about COVENANT's success is that it contains no room for cynicism.
It's difficult to answer that without getting bogged down in biographical details. Basically, the situation is this. I was in India through my Junior year of high school; and the education I received was stimulating and challenging in all kinds of good ways. For my Senior year of high school, I was in Ohio; and the noneducation I received bored me to tears. Also, I couldn't make any friends: on a social level, curiosity, a modicum of intelligence, and an unusual background were drawbacks I couldn't overcome.
Consequently, college electrified me from the first hours of Freshman Orientation. I was challenged intellectually. My former social weaknesses became assets. And I was surrounded by fascinating people: my impression of my fellow Freshmen was that I couldn't throw a stone without hitting a serious novelist, a professional musician, a National Merit Scholar, or an inventor. (In fact, this impression was an exaggeration in degree, but not in kind. The man in the room next to mine had already written three 80,000 word novels; and he is now a successful writer. Both of his roommates blew the NMSQT off the paper. The two men across the hall paid their way through college as performing musicians.) Within three days, I became a mass of energy in search of a lightning rod. I detonated when I suddenly discovered that I had an idea for a story in my head. Before that moment, I had never thought about being a writer. After that moment, I never considered anything else.
I was very lucky. Very few people are blessed with such an ecstatic sense of purpose so early in life.
You mentined that COVENANT enables you to support your family. Are you married then? Any children? How do they react to the COVENANT TRILOGY?
I've been married for ten years now-ever since the summer after I graduated from college. My wife, Lynn, and I have no children. But ever since the deaths of my parents I've been the guardian for my youngest sister, Debbie. She's lived with us for the past three years. My siblings are superior people one and all, and they've always given me every conceivable kind of encouragement. There was a time in my life when they were the only people who read my fiction voluntarily.
Besides the Thomas Covenant Trilogy, I've seen a story in F&SF titled "The Lady in White". Are there other published works I've missed? How about works in progress?
I do have one other story "out" at the moment-a science fiction novella entitled, "Animal Lover," which appeared in STELLAR #4 this past May. And sometime this year F&SF will publish a quasi-science fiction story called, "Mythological Beast." At present, that's the extent of the Donaldson Bibliography. I find that I haven't lost my talent for collecting rejection slips.
A British author and correspondent recently wrote and raved about the COVENANT TRILOGY, however he finished his letter by saying: "My only complaint is a minor one, and that's that the plot and ideas owe so much to LORD OF THE RINGS (LOTR) . . . There's no escaping the very obvious JRRT influence. It's not a bad thing, of course, but for my money LOTR is the pinnacle and no one else will even get near it." How do you respond to that kind of statement?
My own appreciation for LOTR is unbounded. And crucial: I might never have tried to write fantasy if Tolkien hadn't taught me that fantasy was worth doing. And, of course, I can easily understand why readers insist on comparing COVENANT to LOTR,
Nevertheless, the comparisons bother me. I never intended COVENANT to be a competitor with LOTR. Writing itself is not a competition: any writer worth reading writes out of his/her own imagination, rather than in reference to someone else's work. In several important ways, any good book is sui generis: and this is especially true of LOTR. I would be a fool if I wanted COVENANT to be compared to LOTR. And I would be a fool if I were upset by the knowledge that any number of people prefer LOTR. I'm bothered by comparisons only because they seem to imply a competition which does not exist.
My correspondent friend went on to say "the Donaldson books are certainly the best thing to come out of fantasy for a long, long time. (Far, far superior to SWORD OF SHANNARA which was fair.)". Why do you think that the COVENANT TRILOGY has garnered so much praise and the Brooks book has gathered criticism? Were you aware that your books would follow SHANNARA onto the market ? And were you ever concerned that your trilogy might just be considered another rip-off JRRT imitation?
Good Heavens! This isn't just a loaded question: it's a mine-field.
I should admit, first of all, that both Brooks and I have been accused of writing Tolkien "rip-offs." I think this is unjust in both cases. It implies that COVENANT and SWORD OF SHANNARA were written cynically, to exploit vulnerable fantasy lovers. I've already presented my own defense against this charge. As for Brooks, the weaknesses of SWORD OF SHANNARA arise not from cynicism but from admiration: Brooks was simply so full of his respect for LOTR that he couldn't conceive of fantasy in any other terms. Admiration may not make good art; but it does have its own kind of integrity.
Be that as it may, I, of course, had no idea of the existence of Brooks or SHANNARA when I resubmitted LORD FOUL'S BANE to Ballantine, early in '76. After all, SHANNARA wasn't published until April, '77. Lester and I didn't arrive at a finished manuscript for the COVENANT trilogy until the end of March, 1977. And I must say that I've received real benefits from following Brooks into the market. SHANNARA convinced the people who do the marketing that new fantasy can sell. As a result, COVENANT has met very little resistence from the machinery which makes books available to the public. This machinery, as you probably know, is something over which an editor, or even a publisher, has very little control.
Other than the obvious JRRT influence, what other authors have influenced your work? Any favorite authors?
Ah, other authors. Well, my training was all in "mainstream" fiction; and my three heroes have always been James, Conrad, and Faulkner. To that list I've recently added Sir Walter Scott. I should also confess a sneaking admiration for George Meredith. No contemporary mainstream novelists rate so highly with me (for reasons which probably have more to do with me than with them); but I read Paul Scott and Anthony Powell with respect and pleasure.
However, the books which gave me the most inspiration back in the days when I was mustering my courage to attempt COVENANT were (of course) LOTR, Lewis's CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, Peake's GORMENGHAST trilogy, and Herbert's DUNE. Since then, I've read a lot of science fiction and fantasy with pleasure; but three writers have established themselves as my clear favorites: Patricia A. McKillip; C. J. Cherryh; and Doris Piserchia. If I ever get to read THE COURTS OF CHAOS, I'll make up my mind about Zelazny's AMBER books.
By now, via our correspondence, I hope you realize that I do not consider the COVENANT TRILOGY a "cheap imitation" of LOTR. It stands uniquely by itself with or without the reader's knowledge of LOTR (Perhaps most importantly it stands well with readers who do know and love LOTR). But LORD FOUL'S BANE, et. al. are derivative in the sense that they probably could not have preceded LOTR. There seem to be other books and authors who may have influenced you and provided the inspirational pieces that ultimately fit together to make the COVENANT TRILOGY. Besides LOTR, I see some influence from the Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs school of adventure fiction. Am I just seeing what I want to see, or do you feel influenced by REH and ERB?
Wonderful. Here's another chance for me to blow myself up. Oh, well. I read one "Tarzan" book when I was in high school. Didn't like it. And I met "Conan" for the first time a couple of months ago. Didn't care for that, either. The only convenient explanation I can give for my lack of enthusiasm is that, as craftsmen, both Burroughs and Howard are just too crude for me. Remember, I was trained on James, Conrad, and Faulkner.
I seem to remember an old Harlan Ellison story (for which I cannot recall a title) which appeared in a Marvel Comics adaptation back around 1972 or 73 wherein the protagonist hurries to work a few minutes late and because he's late, manages to end up under a wrecking ball. The character awakens in a fantasy setting where he's called on to save a "damsel in distress" being threatened by a monster. Ultimately, the protagonist doesn't abide by a chivalrous code, abandons his men to die, saves the girl by stabbing the monster in the back (rather than a heroic frontal attack) and ravishes the maiden.
In the Ellison story, the author seems to be saying that people are often in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thomas Covenant speculated early in THE POWER THAT PRESERVES that "life was poorly designed; burdens were placed on the wrong people". That seems basically in agreement with Ellison, yet ultimately one of the themes of the trilogy seems to be "even though we think we cannot handle the burden placed upon us in life, there is a purpose behind all things and in fact each is best suited to handle those challenges placed before them". Am I reading in too much?
That's a tough question. Any absolute answer would have to depend on whether you believe that individual human lives are guided by God or by Chance. Is Chance as we know it simply a mask worn by God? or is God as He/She/It is usually understood merely a mask worn by Chance? I'd rather not try to unravel such dilemmas. My own views are self-contradictory to the point of absurdity; and I've already presented them about as well as I can in COVENANT.
But I would like to observe that the essential issues (and answers) in this trilogy are religious. And I do think that it is possible to give a relative rather than an absolute answer to your question. I believe (and I could probably get High Lord Mhoram to agree with me) that people are frequently inadequate to the burdens placed upon them-and that people can grow to meet their burdens. (Mhoram comes to understand this when he realizes the fallacy in trying to protect his fellow Lords from the secret of the Ritual of Desecration.) The secret opportunity hidden in every burden is the chance to rise rather than sink. Therefore we don't do our fellow human beings any favors when we try to protect them from pain, responsibility, need, or guilt: instead of helping them, we limit their humanity. Which is surely one of the besetting sins of our civilization. In COVENANT, the Creator and Lord Foul are gambling on the essential unknown - Covenant's capacity to grow to meet the burdens placed upon him. Both take the necessary risk of being wrong. The difference between them is that Lord Foul seeks to ensure that Covenant will find the entire burden impossible; the Creator lets Covenant find his own fate. If "there is a purpose behind all things," it is probably the purpose of opportunity: sink or swim.
I could speculate on why I hope you wrote LORD FOUL'S BANE, THE ILLEARTH WAR and THE POWER THAT PRESERVES. I could also go search for answers to numerous moral dilemmas which face our society. . . and I think I'd find satisfactory answers within the trilogy. The book draws me because it's enjoyable, adventuresome fantasy. . . it's good reading. But a greater attraction is linked to a search for meaning and a rationale for the despair, the hatred and the self destructive tendencies I see in the ebb and flow of modern society. I could easily put words in your mouth, but I'd rather just ask: why did you write the COVENANT TRILOGY? Why use Thomas (always reminds me of the biblical doubter) and Covenant (a word loaded with implications)? Why the Oath of Peace in a genre where a warrior's oath would be more commonplace? Why symbolically loaded words like "desecration", "Lord Foul", "The Despiser", etc?
Ah, now you're really asking me to pontificate. Which could be dangerous. I believe that stories should speak for themselves rather than for their authors. Any attempt on my part to "explain" what COVENANT "says" would be reductive as well as misleading.
I wrote COVENANT, not because I wanted to preach, but because the story excited me in every conceivable way - imaginatively, emotionally, intellectually, morally. So, of course, I had an ethical perception in view as I worked. In retrospect, that perception seems to me to have been in two parts: what is the nature of evil? and what constitutes both an authentic and effective response to evil?
My belief on the first point (seasoned by Dostoyevsky, Lewis, my father, and several other spices) was that evil is Despite - i.e. the ability or willingness to hold Life (other human beings, the environment, whatever) in contempt. Cynicism in all its manifestations. My belief on the second point (conditioned primarily by people like Blake and Camus) was that any valid and viable response to evil must be predicated on an acknowledgment of the inherent paradox of human nature - on a simultaneous recognition and denial of the sovereignty of Despite. We are all "the Despiser." At the same time, we are all "the Creator." This idea can be looked at from many different angles. For Covenant, it is his central dilemma: he is caught between the impossibility of believing the Land true, and the impossibility of believing it false. We are all creatures of paradox, simultaneously sick and well. Despite tries to tell us that we are one or the other - sick (therefore contemptible) or well (therefore superior). The power to combat Despite comes from an affirmation of the paradox.
(One incidental corollary of all this is that people tend to become what's expected of them. As a leper, Covenant is treated as if he were hateful; and that pressure moves him in the direction of actually being hateful. Despite is a self-fulfilling prophecy.)
The other issues you raise seem to me to grow fairly naturally out of these basic propositions. For example, "Desecration" is what happens when someone sinks rather than rises under his/her burdens. (The burden, of course, is the necessity of finding an authentic and effective response to evil) In the "Oath of Peace," the people of the Land tried to carry their burden by denying themselves the option of sinking. (Which was why they had so little power. They were trying to deny the paradox.) And so on.
But let me hasten to add that I had only a vague sense of these ideas when I began to write COVENANT. Any good piece of writing is (among other things) a process of discovery. I learned to understand (as much as I do understand) Despite and paradox by writing about them. Which is one reason why I find this kind of work to be so exciting.
When you mentioned the "process of discovery" in writing, it brought to mind a statement Alvin Sargent (who wrote the screenplay for JULIA, STRAIGHT TIME, BOBBY DEERFIELD, THE STERILE CUCKOO, etc.) made in an interview with Arthur Knight. When asked if he enjoyed writing, Sargent responded:
"Sometimes it's okay, but not as a rule. It's not enjoying it so much as finding, finally, some satisfaction in yourself that you made it work, that some kind of life has gotten onto the page, some surprises got written. That's always good for a high. When I surprise myself, when the characters say something that I never expected them to say. You see, that's when you know you're onto something. The trick is to get every character to surprise me, say things I don't expect to hear, make physical moves not anticipated.To be unpredictable, that's what it takes, and if that happens enough I guess I could say I enjoy writing, otherwise it's hard to enjoy unless you hanker after frustration, back pains, headaches, stomach troubles, self-distrust and out and out terror."
Do you agree with that view of writing? Did Covenant ever "surprise" you or react differently than you originally expected?
Sargent has a very good point. I don't write for the enjoyment, or because writing makes me happy. I write because the sense of "discovery," when it comes, is simply the most exciting thing in life. I think of it as magic: at unexpected moments, something happens to the connection between my story (which is always more opalescent than anything I can hope to communicate) and my resources of language (which are always dismally limited), and I begin to write better than I know how. This magic, this surprise, frequently comes in the form of being surprised by one of my characters; but it call appear in other ways as well-unpremeditated imagery, incandescent prose, delicious thematic twists and perceptions. Such surprises, which come more and more frequently as I drive myself harder and harder into a story (and driving myself into a story is definitely not an enjoyable process), make me live more fully than I do at any other time. I write because being alive is addictive, and I want more of it.
It's rather interesting that you've accented a facet of the "hero" which is often overlooked in the heroic fantasy genre. Covenant holds the power to save the Land or doom it. Every protagonist has the power to become the hero we expect or to take another path. Yet we never give a second thought to that option in heroic fantasy. Why the emphasis on "choice" in the COVENANT TRILOGY?
There's a pragmatic explanation: all my background and training revolved around writers who spent their time analysing questions of "choice." (Tolkien does this: Howard does not.) But I also write about "choice" by choice. Any individual personality or character is defined by the choices he or she makes---and by the areas in which he or she believes that choice is possible. All ethical (and religious) questions are questions of choice. In my view, someone like Conan is not a hero, for the simple reason that he never makes a meaningful choice between courage and fear.
May we expect to ever see "the further adventures of Thomas Covenant" or more "tales of the Land"?
Yes. In fact, I'm currently hard at work (breaking my butt) on "II CHRONICLES" ---the second "Covenant" trilogy. For my own purposes, I call this RESTORATION, to distinguish it from COVENANT, the first trilogy.
I tackle this job with a great deal of fear and trembling. Few things in life are worse than a bad sequel: I'm terrified that somebody who reads RESTORATION might say, "he should have quit while he was ahead." But I decided to take the chance for a variety of reasons. For one, I don't want to sink under my own burdens. For another, my head is swarming with ideas: I think I know where to go with Covenant and the Land, and how to develop the central ideas so that RESTORATION will be an "advance" rather than a "rehash." (There's an interesting side-light on all this. While I was writing COVENANT, I watched my parents die, and LORD FOUL'S BANE was rejected forty-seven times; and I ended up writing a story about impotence. Impotence, and the imperative need for power. In my personal life, I could hardly have felt more helpless. Well, now things have changed. To give one small example-at the moment (August, 1978), LORD FOUL'S BANE is the best-selling book on the entire Ballantine list. So now I find myself writing a new story about the limitations of power. Covenant is about to learn that power is not the ultimate answer to Despite.) And for another, I've just spent about a year of my life proving to myself that on the whole I'd rather be writing fantasy. A year of new rejections has helped to convince me that I don't write other kinds of fiction very well, simply because I don't find them as exciting as fantasy. I'm perfectly serious about this: I believe that good fantasy (Tolkien, Lewis, McKillip) strikes closer to the bone and blood of life than any other narrative medium - including (especially including) mainstream "realistic" fiction as it is currently practiced by the pale inheritors of James, Conrad, and Faulkner.
You realize that you're directly contradicting the critics of the fantasy genre by claiming that good fantasy "strikes closer to the bone and blood of life". Fantasy, science fiction, dark fantasy and heroic fantasy have always been inheritors of the "escapist literature" stigma. How can you claim that fantasy deals more with life than realistic fiction?
Hooboy! You had to ask a question like that, didn't you?
I have three entirely different answers. The first is inductive. As I said earlier, I feel more alive when I'm writing than when I'm not. Well, when I'm writing, I feel more alive when I'm doing fantasy and other "escapist" fiction than when I'm doing realism (of which, let me tell you, I've done a ton). Therefore I conclude that good fantasy reaches deeper into the human psyche than does good realism. (This is the argument from experience.)
My second answer is rather Emersonian. He believed that the way to reach out is to reach in: man comprehends the world, and the spirit of God within the world, by exploring the innards of his own mind. Every writer does this - tries to communicate with other beings by investigating his own being. Well, I believe that anybody who explores his own mind honestly isn't going to find realism in there. In there is where the dragons live. We all exist in a state of tension between the outer world, which is realistic (by definition), and the inner world, which is fantastic. Anybody who wants to understand human behavior has got to investigate the fantasy within and the tension between fantasy and reality. I don't question the value of investigating the outer reality. But I think that the energy which drives human behavior comes from the fantasy within. (This is the argument from authority.)
My third answer is that good fantasy (and science fiction) correct an imbalance which exists in most realistic fiction. A man named Pelz (if memory serves) once wrote, "Beauty is controlled passion. Passion without control is destructive. Control without passion is dead." This is the essential paradox of what Blake called "reason" and "energy": "Reason is the circumference of energy." Neither means anything without the other. Well, to put Blake in my terms, "Intellect is the circumference of imagination." I believe that most realistic fiction these days has lost its potential beauty by sacrificing imagination to intellect. Control crushes passion; reason squeezes out energy. In good fantasy and science fiction, the imagination regains its crucial, energizing role. The result is the single most human thing in the world: beauty. (This is the argument from conviction.) My intellectual grad school friends used to denounce LORD OF THE RINGS because it had no relevance to the "real world." They were wrong. LOTR is intensely relevant to the human heart because LOTR is beautiful. I believe that the "escape" into fantasy is an escape from materialism, dead intellect, and cynicism into humanity.
However, to avoid being misunderstood, I should go on to say that people who sacrifice intellect to imagination are making the same mistake which is killing realistic fiction. "Passion without control is destructive."The person who uses fantasy to avoid dealing with reality is in as much trouble as the person who uses intellect tou avoid confronting the inner dragons.
In deciding to chance a sequel to COVENANT you stated that one deciding factor was a desire not to "sink" under your "own burdens". Are you saying that for personal peace, health or whatever RESTORATION has to be written? You make writing sound almost like a personal form of therapy or release.
The "burden" to which I was referring was the burden of fear. One reason why I finally decided to write RESTORATION was precisely because I was afraid of it. (I did say, "one reason." I don't jump off tall buildings just because I'm afraid of heights.) RESTORATION is an opportunity; and like most opportunities it can go either way. I don't want to lose the possibility for good simply because I was afraid of the possibility for ill.
In a general way, of course, writing is "a personal form of therapy or release." People breathe because they have to: writers write because they have to. But I'm reluctant to apply that kind of statement to any particular story. I write because I have to: I'm writing RESTORATION because Covenant and the Land won't let go of my imagination. There is a difference. Just ask any writer how easily he or she can postpone writing a story by writing letters, reviews, whatever.
After RESTORATION what do you have planned? Any ideas knocking around?
Oh, I have some ideas "knocking around." But I don't want to talk about them. The future is too uncertain. I don't want to lock myself to my present ideas: I may get better ones tomorrow. Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.
There's one "silly" question I must ask. You've written a tremendously popular first novel. You're married with one child in the household. How autobiographical is COVENANT? You haven't contracted leprosy yet. . . have you?
In a way, that is a "silly" question. Most fiction writers tend to wax autobiographical in one way or another; but the autobiographical elements are usually pretty well booby-trapped.
In fact, I am married. COVENANT (or at least LORD FOUL'S BANE) seems to be rather successful at the moment. I am not now, and have no intention of ever becoming, a leper. Nor, for that matter, has my wife ever raised horses for a living. I used some quasi-autobiographical details in COVENANT because I needed to start the story with material which felt familiar to me. In a sense, that was my way of affirming the "reality" of my "fantasy." RESTORATION also contains some autobiographical material, but I think I've hidden it better
Thank you for your candor and your willingness to answer.