INTERVIEW: November 2006 (Anthony Head) Interview by Anthony Head (
November 3, 2006 - Austin, Texas
Do you enjoy being interviewed?
Oh, gosh, that depends on biorhythms, the time of day, whether the interviewer is hostile, whether my brain actually works. There are times when I enjoy it a lot.

What is the question you've been asked the most?
The single-most question I'm asked is: "When is the next book going to be published?" Questions about The Lord of the Rings come up a lot, but not as much as I really thought they would. Readers in this genre generally become more knowledgeable and also more familiar with writers, so the old questions like, "Where do you get your ideas?"--those questions hardly ever come up anymore.

But the question that has been coming up over and over and over again--which was a total surprise to me--is, "What happens to us if you die?" They [readers of the Covenant books] don't want to be left hanging in the middle of the story I'm telling if something happens to me. I've made a great production out of how old and mortal I am. I've written entire sonnets about it. So I've created this image of myself as a person who's barely getting through the day, and so, of course, they're all worried: "Hey, we're going to invest money in this series and what? Half-way through book three he's going to drop dead?" So they want to know if I have outlines in my bank vault, they want to know if I've picked my successor. They want to know who's going to have access to my notes. The fact is that I haven't thought about any of those things.

Not at all?
Your own death is a very difficult subject to think about. As soon as I start trying to think about my death, what I start thinking about is, "Well, I want to be sure before I die that I ..." and some of that involves kids, some of it involves family and friends, but I never actually get to the place where I think about me dying. I don't know how to think about it.

Without thinking about your death, can you think about completing the story of Thomas Covenant?
I have tried to think about that question, and I've basically decided that if anything happens to me, people are basically out of luck. It's not my--

[at this point the interview is interrupted by a brief meeting with another author]

Were you about to say that it's not your problem?
Yeah. I know that sounds cold, but I really dislike the exploitation of dead authors I have seen in the world. I dislike what I've seen happen to [J.R.R.] Tolkien's body of notes that he never intended for publication. I dislike the way people are milking Robert Ludlum's files for possible ideas to put his name on them in big letters. That's pure exploitation.

Only I know the story. The truth is if I saw my death coming, if they said, "You've pancreatic cancer and have four months to live."--well that gives you some room to think. I have children. I'd bring my children in and I'd say, "Here's my stack of notes, here's what I can tell you about the story. I'm going to make you my literary executors, and you decide what you think is appropriate. But whatever happens, you have to do it. You can't give this to someone else. I trust you, you're my children. I don't trust anybody else. You decide." I might do something like that.

Or who knows? I might panic completely, go off my rocker and do something incredibly stupid. I don't know what's going to happen if I'm faced with a question like that. I don't know myself that well.

How important is it to you to finish the story?
It is nowhere near as important to me as it is [important] to work with what I consider to be integrity. Up until the minute that I can't work any longer, I want to do the best job I am capable of doing, and after that, really, it's in somebody else's hands. Whether you want to call it random chance or providence or the gestalt will of my readers, it's in somebody else's hands. I just want to do good work. I don't want to look back on anything I've done and say, "Gee I wish I had done a better job on that."

If you had a Tom Sawyer moment, where you were believed to have been dead, and you came back, how you would enjoy or not enjoy the reaction of your readers?
You know, I had that fantasy when I was a kid. I haven't had that fantasy for 30 or 40 years. I understand the certain ego appeal involved in trying to visualize that, but of course what I visualize is, "Oh, Donaldson's dead. That's too bad. Let's read something else." Who wants to think about that? So then why bother?

I think you know that's probably not what your readers think.
Well I certainly hope not. And I'm giving it my best shot. But the only reliable measure of that sense is time. Everything else is subjective, but time winnows out the chaff. And the good stuff rises to the top. There's a reason why we read Dickens and we don't read John Galsworthy, although Galsworthy was way more popular in his day because he was writing junk. But it gets weeded out. The contemporaries couldn't tell the difference.

You views are subjective, your views are subjective, there's the spirit of the times, which causes some things to click and others not.

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Erich Segal's novel Love Story was this mega-monster best-seller--and it was crap. It was absolute crap. But it hit a nerve; it hit something about the zeitgeist. It went to the moon. And the author lived off it on every level--financially, emotionally, career-wise, reputation-wise--he lived off it for 20 years. He spent 20 years on the lecture circuit telling, "How I wrote Love Story." And now no one knows who he was. No one's heard of that book. It's gone. That stuff just happens, and then it goes away.

From the perspective of the life we're leading, we can't evaluate those factors. Only time evaluates those factors. Of course, I hope that time will show that I've done good work. I want to believe that. But I won't live to know the answer. It's going to take 50 or 100 years.

Is time more important than your own evaluation?
I can only guess what time decides, whereas I have to live with what I decide. I have to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, "I'm giving this my best shot." And after that, I have to say, "Gosh, I hope certain things are true, but I don't know if they're true and I can't worry about them." Otherwise I'll just go crazy.

How has it been throughout your career adjusting to different sales figures for different books, and different reader expectations while thinking about the next projects?
I knew going in that success is selective. I never expected to be successful. I had the whole first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant written and then rejected by every fiction publisher in the United States. But success tricks you into thinking is that sales equals excellence, and I got seduced anyway.

The Covenant books came out. The first six books grew and grew and grew. The One Tree was like the number-three bestseller in the country for the whole year. You know, the only reason it wasn't number two is because John le Carré published a novel that year. And I got caught up in it. And then I wrote The Mirror of her Dreams and A Man Rides Through and they did just fine, but simply nothing on the scale of what I'd experienced before. Even though I knew better, I felt like I'd been kicked in the head. It felt like a personal rejection. And for a while I got mad. It was like, "Hey, I'm the same writer who wrote the books you like. I have the same work ethic. I have the same values. You don't want to read me anymore? I'm not going to give you what you want. I know you want more Covenant, so tough luck."

Now, there were many other things going on in my creative decision-making process also, but there was a hurt little kid inside me, who felt rejected by the fact that my new work wasn't as attention-getting as those first six books. And the fact is that for my entire writing life, 90 percent of everything I do has something to do with Covenant. No matter what I'm writing people are going to ask me about Covenant. My website... people want to know about Covenant. The interviews are about Covenant. I'll go on a book tour for a mystery novel and they'll be asking me about Covenant. I'll go on a book tour for a science-fiction book and they'll ask me about Covenant.

Slowly I got over that seduction thing and I managed to clean my ego out of the process and I realized these things are not mine to choose--either the good or the bad. What's mine to choose is my commitment to what it is I'm working on, and then it began to matter less. When I started writing my science-fiction books, the Gap books, I knew they weren't going to sell well. The subject matter is too intense. I'm writing about rapists and mass murderers and people who engage in the most despicable forms of cruelty. I have what I believe is a very constructive reason for writing about those characters, but that doesn't mean reading about them is easy. I knew people weren't going to come swarming to those books, but by that time I'd reached the point where it didn't matter.

What matters is that I'm doing work I believe in and that I can look at myself in the mirror and can say, "I'm giving it my best shot." So now, I like to believe, that if suddenly somebody made a Covenant movie or the next Covenant book suddenly went to the top of the bestseller list, I like to think that this time I wouldn't be seduced. Well, maybe I'm smart enough now. Maybe I won't be. I don't know.

Maybe you're smart enough that you'll understand that it's happening and still take the ride?
Yes, take the ride, but not misinterpret it.

Throughout your career when you've spoke of writing, "fear" and "discipline" seem to always creep into your lexicon as it pertains to you. Since the third draft of Fatal Revenant is in the works I would imagine discipline is okay. How are you doing on fear?
Right now I'm in a very good place about fear. My editors love the book. The personal readers I work with and people I've learned to trust over the years love the book. Instinct tells me that the skeleton [of the story] is really solid. There's still plastic surgery that needs to be done to make it beautiful. Rewriting is always easier. Not because it's less important, but because it uses a part of the brain that is different than the creative side. When I'm rewriting, interruptions are actually a good thing--because the danger is that you get sucked in by the fact that you knew what you meant. So you stop being critical of what you're going over because you knew what you meant. You have to come to it with a cold eye.

The fear is always the worst when I have to start new writing on the next book. There will be this big fear spike that will get in my way in all kinds of ways. For a while, it won't even be about writing, it will be about dealing with the fear. I may put words on paper that have absolutely nothing to do with the book because I'm on the outside looking in. And from the outside it looks too hard. You know I'm just an ordinary guy and here's this unwieldy grand thing I have in my head that I'd like to be able to accomplish if only I was good enough. Once I get going and the story carries me, I get so involved with the characters and in what's happening to them and what they feel like that the whole fear thing melts into the background.

The Germans have a proverb, which basically means something totally obvious: All beginnings are hard. For me every book is the same, "Oh my god. How can I do this?" Then I get going and after a while suddenly I find I'm simply not thinking about that anymore. I'm doing it instead of thinking about doing it.

Are any of your fears about external sources--the readers, the critics, sales figures--or is it all about facing this idea that has been in your head for so long?
Some of it's very practical. I have to support my family. I have a wife. I have kids. I have people who depend on me. The less-well my books sell the more my kids need scholarships or something. What if one of them needs major medical care? As I get older there are very practical ways in which I feel vulnerable. I think this is fairly normal. So I really want these books to be successful because that will ease some of that fear.

But between those two poles--one's purely idealistic and the other's the most nitty-gritty practical fear--most of the intermediate fears have eased over the years of experience. It's about paying the bills and trying for excellence.

Stephen King wrote in his memoire On Writing that with practice and a lot of time a bad writer can become a good writer, but a good writer will never be able to become a great writer. Do you agree?
I think there is something numinous or transcendental that some people are blessed to access and others are not. This is not within conscious control. It isn't a matter of work ethic or intelligence or desire to touch the ineffable. It has something to do with talent or something. I don't know. That's one of those things that time winnows out. Time tells the difference between the people who are brilliant craftsman rather than artists. I really think we don't get to choose. We get to try hard and hope. Yeah, I would agree with Stephen King on that assertion... that if the spark isn't there, you can't create it by hard work. It just isn't there.

This doesn't mean your work isn't worth doing. There are good and honorable books being written by people who, a hundred years from, now nobody will know their names. That doesn't mean they wasted their lives. That doesn't mean we're wasting our time by reading their books. It doesn't mean any of those things. It just means we shouldn't use a grand scale to measure ordinary human beings. On the grand scale, who does measure up?

Now, you can fritter away or lose the spark if you don't respect it. There are writers that, I'm convinced, could do enduring work if they were just willing to work that hard. But they're lazy. You have to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair. You gotta do the work. There are people who are so reluctant to do their work that it's like all they have is talent. Well, I don't believe that's enough. I don't think that the spark alone will make your work worth remembering.

In past interviews you've said that everything in your life had been working up to becoming a writer, whether or not you actively pursued it or not. Did you know all along that you wanted to be a writer?
It was a very sudden discovery. It wasn't until I made the discovery--and truly became truly committed to it--that I was able to look back and say, "Oh my god, this is what I've been working toward all my life." Up until that point I had no idea.

I have been a self-aware student of storytelling since I was four years old. But I wasn't aware of being aware that I was doing it. All I was aware of was surviving. Storytelling, which was entirely inside my own head--I never said them out loud--storytelling was my survival tool. It's how I coped with life. It's how I got through stuff. I spent my whole childhood searching for more effective ways to tell stories. The purpose of the story was to make me feel certain ways. I needed those feelings to cope with whatever dilemma happened to be in my life. Whatever particular fear, whatever particular crisis--I needed to feel a certain way about it in order to get through it. The purpose of the stories was to create those feelings. So I had to tool the stories to create a certain emotion. It didn't happen automatically. I had to figure out how to make that story produce those emotions. I didn't realize I was doing it.

When I discovered it--which happened like a bolt out of the sky during freshman orientation at college--that I actually wanted to write stories down, it was something like, "Oh yeah. And I've had all this practice." But up until that moment, on the surface I was just your standard kid. I always hated my English classes. I was just like everybody else. I started college as a chemistry major. That lasted halfway through orientation. By the time I was signing up for classes, I was an English major. It changed in the course of an hour when this sort of a revelation came. It happened that way because I was in this enormously lush and stimulating place. I was surrounded by very bright people, very ambitious people. There was just, for me personally, an intellectual electricity in the air that I had never experienced before.

And I had one more of those [experiences] when I started writing fantasy. That was years later, but I had that same kind of experience of, "Oh my god, this is what I should have been writing all along." In between those two bolts of light there were seven or eight years.

Let's move on to something I'm sure you're unused to talking about: the Covenant books.
I always wished that somebody would ask me about the Covenant books.

In the interim between the first six books and this last quartet, did you actively work on it or did you put it down, mentally as well as physically?
I really put it down. I didn't take any notes. Whenever it came to the forefront I'd say, "No, I'm not ready to think about that yet." Everybody has personal and even idiosyncratic ways of thinking about life and visualizing how things happen. It's a coping tool. I visualize a place in my mind I call the "story shelf." I know that I am not a terribly fecund writer because never in my life have I had more than four ideas on the story shelf. Who was it, Sherwood Anderson?, who used to have steamer trunks full of ideas. Not me. That's one reason why I have to milk them as hard as I do, because I don't actually get a lot of them. But once an idea appears on the story shelf, my goal is to forget it. My theory is any idea you can forget probably wasn't that good to write anyway. So I do these long projects and periodically glance at the story shelf, then I go back to what it is that I'm doing. When the time comes to write something new, I blow the dust off to see what's there. Five years is not even remotely uncommon for an idea to sit on the shelf. Twenty years is stretching it, but I've had ideas sit there for a really long time.

This does not mean that some unconscious part of my brain hasn't been working on it, but it hasn't been telling my conscious mind that it's working on it, so there are no notes, no conscious preparation. Regardless of the nature or scale of the project, it's always like that.

So it was like that with The Last Chronicles, too. I knew that if I could carry it off it would complete the whole project. I knew it would be the most difficult thing I'd ever try to write in my life. I knew that I didn't want to be known only as the writer of Covenant. And I knew that I had left the story at the end of book six in a place where if I never went on I didn't owe anybody any apologies. It's not unfinished where it stands. So I thought about the other things I was going to work on. And I did that and I did that and I did that until the story shelf was empty--except for this one idea that had been there for twenty years. That was actually pretty scary for me because I'm used to there always being at least a couple ideas there. I said, "There's got to at least be a short story up there somewhere. Nope? Nope. Nothing."

That was when the fear issue became really big for me because I'd been putting it off because I was afraid of it. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be harder than anything I'd ever done before. I knew I didn't know how to do it. But it was the only idea on the shelf. I looked at it and I thought I'd either have to face this fear or I'd have to quit writing. Those were my choices because I'd created those conditions myself. So, here we go. The further I get into it the less that kind of fear comes into play.

In 2001, I made the decision that I was going to do this. I spent six or eight months re-reading the previous books, writing notes, trying to prepare myself to gather ideas, brainstorming. I started writing on September 10. And on September 11 the world changed.

That's a good excuse to stop writing.
It sure was. And by the time I really got going on Covenant seven, Runes of the Earth, I was probably more frightened than I've ever been about being a writer. I was just so afraid of failing this story. The practical effect was that that book needed more rewriting than...probably more rewriting than any other book I've ever published.

Did you go back and read the entire series again?
Oh yeah. And I had all those little Post-It arrows, the books are packed with them, and things are underlined, plus, I'm taking notes the whole time on what I'm reading: "Don't forget X, don't forget Y." I screwed up anyways. That's what people do. And I'm still spend a significant amount of my writing time cross-referencing: "Oops. What color was his jacket? I know it's in here somewhere. I've got all my colored tabs."

Do you enjoy reading your writing?
You could really embarrass me with this interview.

Well, I don't have to.
When I started back on Lord Foul's Bane, to re-read the Covenant books after twenty years, I was blown away. I thought if these books had been written by anybody else, I would call them masterpieces. These books were written by somebody whose a better writer than I am now. It was a very intimidating experience. I had expected the opposite. The truth is I can find some flaws in the first six books that I wish I could change, but that didn't have to do with how they're written. I love how they were written. I was blown away, and I thought, "I can't compete with this." I thought anybody who picks up Covenant seven will be disappointed because I can't compete with this, which was another reason why the fear was so intense.

Since then I've worked my way through that. The point is not to compete with myself. I know stuff now that I didn't know then. Of course I am a different writer than I was then. Okay, so maybe I don't have whatever quality made that writer unique, but I've got lots of other qualities that make me unique. The idea is not to compete with those, the idea is to offer the ones that I have. After lots of Sturm und Drang--or as my wife says, gloom and bloodletting--I eventually worked my way through it and I got to be okay again. But for a while, I wanted to crawl into a corner and suck my thumb because I didn't think I could ever face the challenge of continuing this story.

That sounds like a double-edged sword: The great feelings as well as the great fear to think, "I produced this."
Yeah, if I hadn't been planning to continue [writing the story], then reading the books would have been pure joy. But because I wanted to continue, I felt, "Oh shit!"

Do you ever dream about your characters?
I did when I was young. Particularly writing Lord Foul's Bane. But I haven't for so long. It's like I get it out of my head during the day.

Have you started thinking about life after Covenant?
I don't do that. Whatever story I'm working on that's really the only thing that exists at that time. I don't ever ask myself what I'm going to do next until I get that one done. Even for a short story I wouldn't.

I'm not talking about your next project, I'm talking about the day when you know that you will never again write about Covenant.
No, I haven't thought about that at all.

So how does the story end?
You can't possibly be asking me to tell you what thousands of readers have been trying to get me to reveal for years.

I've got twenty dollars...
Um, well, that's a powerful inducement, I must admit. I'll tell you what, I've said this before: I think as an exercise in intellectual construction, it's possible to predict the exact shape of how the story is going to end. Not how, not the details, not even the content. But the shape of it. There's a very paradigmatic structure: In the first chronicles, Thomas Covenant defeats Lord Foul. In the second chronicles, Thomas Covenant surrenders to Lord Foul. What's left? I think you can sit down and reason this out for yourself.

And if you can't, it's not a flaw in you, it's just because you haven't studied the particular schools of psychology that I've studied. It's probably only obvious to me because of the particular areas of interests that I have. But I feel like there's a way in which everybody already knows how the story's going to end. My job is to get there in a way that is satisfying and still takes everybody completely by surprise. I feel, rightly or wrongly, I feel like anybody can figure it out for themselves.

The website's Gradual Interview is fascinating. More authors are starting to have this same type of ongoing conversation with their readers. Was it your idea?
It was my webmaster's idea, and I went into it reluctantly because I didn't want to promise a certain amount of effort on my part. I wanted to try it out and see what I felt comfortable about doing, and what I didn't.

I suppose you could say that I got sucked in. Sometimes I'm [taking part in the Gradual Interview] simply because my readers care enough to contact me, so, I'm trying to be respectful by giving an answer. Sometimes there are subjects that come up that I haven't thought about myself, or are really worth talking about, or that make life seem more interesting. It allows me...I try very hard not to show it but I'm really a fairly shy person in my normal life. I have very little interaction with people. [The Gradual Interview] gives me a way to interact with people without violating my feelings of shyness. I can feel like I'm staying engaged with the people who care about what it is I do and still not feel like I'm losing control of that engagement

There are times when they help me catch inconsistencies that I hadn't caught myself. Overall, it's definitely been worth doing for me.

You've got to be aware that some people read the Covenant books as scripture. They read them ten, fifteen times. They say, "I live my life according to the values that you have set down." You've reached an iconic stage for them.
Well, that's only because they haven't met me yet.

Is that daunting?
Of course. Of course. I'm not qualified to be anybody's icon. I'm just a guy. I'm trying to write books and I'm trying to write them as well as I know how. People write in and say these things, and I write back to them and say, "I really value your opinion, but you're placing the credit in the wrong place. If you live your life by a certain set of values, that credit belongs to you. It doesn't belong to me. I'm just lucky that my books just happen to be at the right place at the right time for something that you were experiencing. But the credit goes to you."

It isn't about me. But it fits in with the whole way we organize our entire society around celebrity...the iconization of writers. It distorts what creativity is really about. And it distorts what reading is about. It diminishes the participation of the reader. It diminishes that importance. It shifts responsibility. We need to resist that process. People change their lives because they change their lives. Not because they read a book. I say that every time I catch somebody trying to lionize me.

There's got to be some type of an ego boost if for no other reason than you know you wrote compelling prose.
I got over that years ago. If you separate your ego from the fact that your books are not as successful as they used to be then you also have to separate your ego from those things that are successful. You have to separate on both sides. I do not get a rush when somebody writes and says, "Reading The Mirror of Her Dreams saved my sanity." I feel empathy for the person. I want to treat their feelings with respect. But I don't think, "Good for me! I really came through that time!" No.

I think we have to place the emphasis in the right place. You saved your life; I'm grateful that my books were there. I'm telling you the truth as best I can. I don't get a rush from that.

Did you ever reach out to one of your favorite writers the way your readers do?
No. It would never have occurred to me. I grew up in the world of English literature, which basically meant everyone I studied was dead. So I'm not the kind of guy who writes letters to dead people. Other than that, it would not have occurred to me to intrude. It would never cross my mind.

So then, although you are a willing participant in the GI, are you befuddled why people write in to you?
I have absolutely no idea why they are doing it. I have intellectually, of course, some abstract understandings.

But I don't have any idea why people want books autographed either. Why? Deep down in my heart, I'm completely befuddled by that. I know hundreds of writers and I'm glad I know them, but I don't ask them for autographs. It's not because I don't respect them. I respect the hell out of them, but what difference does a scribbled name make? Something in my brain just doesn't get it. And I don't get why they post questions on my website. I just don't get it.

Within a day you might get a question that puts your work in context with world events and at same time there's a question about the minutia of one of your stories, such as the color of Drool Rockworm's eyes. Are you amazed that people are paying this close of attention to what you've written?
On both ends of the spectrum, absolutely yes. We have discussions, some of which I've made public on the Gradual Interview, about the role of myth and the distortion of myth in human civilization and how taking ideas from the past and changing them has led to the politics of the present and so on and so on and so on, and they write, "Aren't you responsible for that?" I'm completely at sea--and I have to keep saying this: I'm just a guy. How can I be responsible for myths or world events? And how can I be expected to remember what color Drool Rockworm's eyes are all the time?