INTERVIEW: October 1991 This interview was done in October 1991, just after the UK publication of Forbidden Knowledge. A.A.Adams, S.R.Donaldson 1991 1992 1993.
Was it always your intention to be a writer or did you do other jobs beforehand?
It was an ambition I discovered very suddenly when I started college. As my first idea for a story crossed my mind I was pretty much committed to growing up to be a professional writer. Up until that moment it had never crossed my mind. It is easy to look back in retrospect and say that you can see the seeds of my being a writer everywhere in my early life, but I was completely unaware of this. It happened very suddenly when in the course of about an hour I got very excited about writing a particular story, and when I started writing it, it was actually a novella about eighty to eighty-five pages, I wrote the first four or five pages and started showing it to people and got so much encouragement right at the beginning that this vulnerable plant was allowed to take root, and by the time it had taken root I was hooked. I suppose that in the first three or four months that someone could have dissuaded me if they had worked hard enough at it, but after that it was too late.

So did you have any jobs other than professional writer?
Well, I had two years working as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I had a year working as a teaching fellow at Kent State University. I've had part-time jobs: I worked as a part-time literary agent for a while, free-lance editor, taught writers' workshops, all on a very small scale. But essentially everything in my life has focussed toward becoming a writer. I went through college and graduate school for the purpose of learning to write fiction, not because I wanted to become a scholar or an academic.

I believe it took you quite a time to get The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant published.
Lord Foul's Bane got forty-seven rejections, it was rejected by every fiction publisher in the United States. I started submitting it after it was written and while I was writing the second and third books, and during that time I managed to go alphabetically through US publishers. So I would guess I started working on it in September of '72 and I finally got a break in March of '76. Lord Foul's Bane took me nine months to a year to write so during that time I wasn't getting rejections. So I guess I was receiving rejections for about two and a half years.

Did you intend to write The Second Chronicles from the start, or when did you decide that it was there and should be written?
I was doing the last rewrite on The Power That Preserves when it occurred to me that there was a certain sense in which The First Chronicles was very superficial. If you look at this ongoing story as a study in Thomas Covenant's struggle to find an answer to the question of Evil, in the arena of The Land, the answer that you find in The First Chronicles is simply that of muscle: Evil is Hitler, he wants to conquer the world, and the only thing you can do to defend yourself is to fight back, and you've got to be bigger than he is, in some sense, in order to win. This is a legitimate issue, and is valid as far as it goes, but evil doesn't always manifest itself in the form of muscle. How are you going to deal with something like toxic dumping: you can't beat up toxic dumping. Muscle isn't going to be of any use to you at all. You need a different kind of response. So I became obsessed with the idea of trying to push the contest onto what I perceived as being a more profound level. That's how I got hooked on doing The Second Chronicles.

Do you see The First Chronicles as being the external battle and The Second Chronicles as being the internal battle, with The Land being both internal and external?
I see The Land as being the reflection of an internal struggle. I think that's what Fantasy is: turning an internal struggle inside out, and dramatizing it as if it were external. The two stories together are a kind of moral hierarchy: the first one is relatively simple concerned with muscle; the second is a test of sacrifice in relationships - Covenant can't save The Land alone in The Second Chronicles , and neither can Linden Avery. It takes what they can both give, and what they can both give up, to save The Land. I believe there is another test that which if I ever get to it I will try to explore: I guess superficially you might call it the test of acceptance, but it's a sequence: you can't get to the second stage unless you have done the first. That's how I look at it.

That obviously begs the question: Are you going to write The Third Chronicles?
I don't know if I'm going to write it or not. I am a naturally born stubborn person ad the more people push me to write it the less likely I am to do it. I want to be able to make my writing decisions from conviction and strength, not from pressure and need. If my writing career collapses and the only way I can feed my children is by writing Covenant books then I will go become a plumber because I do not want to write on that basis. I have a very pure idea of what storytelling is about, and I want to preserve that. For me, whenever I am going to start a new project the main question is: would I write the same story if I could never find a publisher? If the answer is yes then I write it. If the answer is that I am writing it because they want to publish it then I don't write it.

I take it that your philosophy of writing is totally at odds with someone like Piers Anthony who has actually said that he writes purely for the money.
Well, many writers do, and this is an honourable transaction, you provide a service and you get paid for it: that's fine, but it's not me. I write for love; I sell for money, but that comes after I have done the part that I love. I have been very fortunate, I have made a great deal of money, and it is often asked of me what I have done with my money: I have sealed it away so that if the circumstance ever comes up where people don't want to buy what I write anymore, then I will have an insulation against the pressure. there is not going to be a pressure powerful enough to make me try to write something I don't believe in. That's me, I'm not prescribing this for other people but it's the way I work.

So you tend to write for yourself rather than for your fans?
I don't see it that way: I write for the story. The stories come to me, in a purely perceptual sense, and I think it is my job to serve stories. So whatever story comes to me I try to give that story what is in me in order to grow and have integrity. So sometimes I have to change my writing style completely from one project to the next, because the style would be inappropriate. Sometimes I have to go to emotional places that are very difficult for me. The Conqueror Worm, in my short story collection, was not a fun experience to write. And there is a great deal of material in the Gap novels that is hard for me to write. It goes against the grain of my personality. But the idea came to me and it was my job to figure out how to do it. From that point of view I do not write for myself, but I make the commitment for myself. My selfesteem rests on the commitment I make to telling stories, not on the nature of the individual stories. So I don't censor stories and I don't use them for personal reasons. This is all purely perceptual stuff. This is just a way of looking at things. Clearly my stories come out of my own head, they express who I am, I only get certain types of ideas. There has got to be some source in me for every idea that comes off. I'm not denying that any of that is true but my way of thinking about it is the way I have just described. I keep the whole idea of the story separate from myself. It doesn't exist because of me, it exists because it's a good story and it deserves to be told. Sometimes that's more fun than at others.

You say in the Author's Note to The Gap into Conflict that when you are writing a story you usually have two ideas, one exotic and one familiar.
That was certainly true for both the Covenant Chronicles and The Gap Series. In Mordant's Need it is much more difficult for me to identify two ideas. That story has always felt to me like it was different to my usual work. I've often had trouble identifying in what way. My current theory is that it grew from one idea instead of two. People have recently begun asking me if I would write sequels to Mordant's Need, and I think the reason I will not is because there were not two ideas. The story really doesn't have the potential to go any further. The idea in itself was not rich enough to spin off more material. It is what it is, I'm proud of it as it is, but that is all it is.

So what was the idea?
It came from that poem in John Myers Myers' Silverlock: Steeped in the vacuum of her dreams, A mirror's empty til A man rides through it. I read that and I though "Fine, dandy!", there's a fantasy novel in there. So long as I'm in a self-revelatory mood: one of the weirdest things about my imagination is that whenever I get an idea for a story I know immediately how long it is. I don't even know what the idea is about, but I know how long it is. When I read that poem I said "There's a fantasy novel in there and it's in two parts. That was what I knew about it for years. The Gap Sequence has always been around, and from the moment it appeared in my head it's been in this number of pieces. The same as when an idea is a short story idea, it is a short story and there is nothing I can do to change that. I can't plump it out, I can't add characters, I can't develop it. It's got a label on it before I ever think about the idea itself.

So you would never consider writing the prequel to Mordant's Need? The story of Joyse becoming King?
No. And we can say the same thing for Covenant. I would absolutely under no circumstances ever consider writing one, because that is the way my brain works. I'm interested in a kind of hierarchy, where you move this point forward to this point and what have you learned? I don't want to go back to a previous point and figure out what they learned to get to the starting point in the first place. I already talked about that: I didn't do it in detail but I did already tell you the story. Why am I going to do it again? Was I lying last time? Was the truth something else? Or, am I coasting now and just doing it because it's easy? That's not going to happen.

In The Gap Series, you have this Triad of The Villain, The Victim and the Rescuer. Do you know how many combinations of this you are going to use on the way through?
Well I haven't actually sat down and analysed it in those terms. Clearly at the end of The Real Story, Nick is in the process of becoming the Victimizer, Angus is becoming the Victim and Morn the Rescuer. But Nick as Victimizer quickly loses Angus as a Victim, which returns Morn to the role of Victim, and she now has to struggle once again to move out of that role. Angus is throughout the next novel stuck in the role of Victim. So clearly he'll be moving out of that role. In the third book Nick has to spend some time in the role of Victim and I think it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

That seems to be the way it was going towards the end of Forbidden Knowledge: moving to the point where Nick feels he is the Victim, with Morn as his Victimizer.
Yeah, I mean he does everything he can in the world to her and she keeps winning. It was a terrible narrative challenge to figure out how to make it work: I kept getting her locked in the room - how to get out AGAIN? But that's what imagination is for.

Going back to your short story writing, you have published a collection, but do you have them published elsewhere?
Well, I have done that. Several of my stories have appeared in F&SF. Only one recently. Only twice in my life have I written something essentially to meet a particular request. Normally I write because I had the idea. Writing because somebody wants me to write something is not the way I work. Twice I've done it. Once when I was the Guest of Honour at the World Fantasy Convention. They wanted a story from me to go in the programme book. I thought "I've agreed to be Guest of Honour, I knew what the rules were, this is no time to be pure." I forced out a story. The other time was for Fred Saberhagen. He came up with this weird idea for a whole bunch of other writers to write stories about his berserkers and then he would pretend it was a collaborative novel and we had all written this book together when essentially we had each written a chapter, which we had made up independently. Fred lives in Albuquerque and he leaned on me for a year to try to get a Berserker story out of me. Finally I caved in: Larry Niven sent in his story and Fred sent it to me and I read it and I thought if I can't write a better story than this then I don't deserve to live. So then I was stuck and had to write a Berserker story, and I forced one out. Those are the two stories of mine of which I'm not especially proud. But, the Berserker story got picked up for The Year's Best Science Fiction collection and other people seem to think they're OK, and was re-printed in F&SF. The story I wrote for the fantasy convention was re-printed in an anthology called Arabesques edited by Susan Schwartz. Since then I have only written two short stories. Both of them got stuck in the pipeline. One of them got stuck in the pipeline for four years, and we've just reverted the rights and we're going to have to start over again looking for someone to publish it The other got swept up into the Tolkien mania and next year [1992] all kinds of stuff will be done on Tolkien. One of them is the publication of an anthology called After The King; stories by Tolkien's imaginative heirs. So one of my stories which I wrote a couple of years ago got picked up for that and it has had to wait until the centenary for it to be published. So, the four stories is half enough for a book. As it happens I have three ideas in my head on the story shelf and they're all ideas for short stories. That brings us up to seven. By the time I hit eight I'll be ready for another book.

You've said that you've always wanted to produce a collection of short stories. Is that because you particularly like the medium, or something else?
No, its because short stories, and especially short story collections, have a particular aesthetic credibility. Where I received my mental training - in college and graduate school - studying Henry James and William Faulkner, it was very often agreed that the short story was the purest form of fiction because it required you to distill everything down to its essential parts. It doesn't go to the extreme of poetry where you essentially have to distill out the storytelling because there isn't room for that anymore. But up to the edge of poetry, the short story is the purest form of storytelling; according to the intellectual milieu in which I grew up. So it was like proving something. I had finally succeeded in demonstrating that I could write a novel but I had written all three of the First Chronicles without ever having written a successful, in the literary sense, short story. It was important to me to prove that I could do it. Besides which I had some ideas. Then the other issue is that probably the single biggest area of criticism I had directed at me for the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant has to do with the writing style: people feel that it is over ornate, so rococo as to be the moral equivalent of obfuscation and I get put down for that a lot. People talk about me floundering hopelessly through wads and wads of text. For better or worse I chose the style of Covenant. It was a conscious literary decision I made because I felt that it would help me communicate my intentions most accurately. I wanted people to know that. The only way I could think of to let them know that was to publish stuff in a bunch of other styles too. That short story collection was very important to me because it is eight stories in eight completely different styles. I wanted people to know: Donaldson can do this; that it was not hopelessness which caused him to write Covenant in the style in which he did. So I invested a lot of my desire to be taken seriously in that collection.

Your short story Unworthy of the Angel,
My personal favourite.

seems to be nonstandard religion. I take it that you don't follow the standard religious image of white Americans.
I grew up on the mission fields in India. My parents were Presbyterian fundamentalists, especially my mother. There is no way in the world I could have the intellectual or imaginative freedom to be a writer at all and accept the presuppositions of my upbringing. On the other hand it did shape my mind. So the frames of reference, the terminology, the ways of looking at life are very familiar to me, they are part of who I am; but the specific belief structure is one which could only interfere with the work I wanted to do. So what I've done is put a little reinterpretation on this. So instead of being a missionary for Christ, I am a missionary for stories. I believe in storytelling in the same way that my parents believed in God, and it is my version of God. But it's a very personal thing, and I certainly don't push it on people. I don't usually use the terminology because people don't understand what I am referring to. They may hear the words and they hear the concepts that they are used to, not the ones I personally subscribe to.

There are a couple of stories in Daughter of Regals that are Science Fiction. Do you classify your stories as it comes to you or do you just write it as it comes?
Well, I recognise the nature of the milieu of the setting, when it happens, and for me it is a fairly clear distinction. I know a lot of writers blur it. Some blur it deliberately, some blur it naturally, and that's fine. But in my own head, stories partake of one character or the other. It has to be the setting. Fantasy settings are indefensible rationally: you ask your reader to accept magic and the reader is either going to accept it or not. You can't argue them into it. But what you can do is offer them magic and monsters that cohere into a self-justifying whole because it has that kind of internal consistency that Tolkien had: that sense of unity which makes it so real. It becomes easy to accept even though it has not been rationally presented. There is a very different process of creating that than the much more materialistic logical process of Science Fiction. So I think: Ok, this will be fun, I want to write a story about Ore Pirates. This is like doing a western: the good guys will shoot at the bad guys and we'll have lots of fun. But Ore Piracy doesn't mean squat if you haven't got a market, and you have to think about that because it's Science Fiction. You have to pursue the implications logically. You come up with a premise, in this case the Inter-Dimensional Gap, and then you have to understand what the implications of that would be. Literally these people can get around the galaxy in a matter of hours. How does that effect how you think about space. If you can't defend your position the story is going to be weaker and so it is a very different mental process. So because the mental process is different it feels different to write.

Taking a new subject: What do you read, for enjoyment or research or whatever?
My reading is probably about fifty percent Science Fiction and Fantasy and fifty percent mainstream. I spend a certain amount of time revisiting books that I love. For some reason I have very little taste for American mainstream fiction: the John Barths and John Updikes, people like that really leave me cold. On the other hand I think I have read every book that Anthony Powell ever published and I certainly have all of Paul Scott's works. It's one of those dumb things, I mean Paul Scott has been dead for about ten years now and I still call him the greatest living British writer because I think his books are so wonderful. In Science Fiction and Fantasy, Dan Simmons is a real phenomenon these days. One of my favourites is Sheri Tepper. Her books are impressive in several different ways. She tackles themes that practically nobody else in this field has dared to tackle, and her ambitions have been growing. Truthfully I think they've been growing faster than her abilities. I don't think anybody's abilities could grow as fast as her ambitions have. But her abilities do catch up. She will do a transitional book, where it is clear that the reach has exceeded her grasp and then on the very next book, the grasp catches up, and then you have something that is damn near perfect. And then she goes and raises the stakes again. It's a wonderful thing to see. It's an incredible thing: she didn't start writing novels until she was about fifty-five years old. She had a real life. Then out of the blue she decides to be this writer and she doubles the ante every year. It's an amazing process to watch. I find her books really exciting to read. C J Cherryh was one of my favourites for a long time, but she seems to be stuck in a rut. She doesn't quite know how to get herself out of where it is she's stuck. So recently I haven't enjoyed her books as much as I did over the years, but stuff which she did about five and ten years ago is on my very short list of books which I wish I had written.

Do you see any similarity between the mirrors of Mordant's Need and Morgaine's gates?
No, in fact that is a connection that had never occurred to me. I was of course aware of Lewis Carroll's Alice and the work of Vonnegut involving mirrors. But Gate of Ivrel and things like that never crossed my mind: I have read them, years ago. I considered them minor C J Cherryh. I wasn't terribly excited by the concept when I read her version of it, but obviously it was in there somewhere. There is no way I can say there is no connection: the brain combines weird and wonderful things, which is why it is worth having, and it's possible that that was one of them.

Have you any idea when the Gap books will be finished?
Finished I don't know about. My deadline in the US contract is for a year and a half per book. It seems like a good thing for me because the writing has been difficult and life has been complicated.

But you do know how they are going to turn out?
I haven't totaled the exact body count, but I do know how they come out.

You have said that when you're writing it's like you are working to a particular goal, do you ever take short cuts?
No: why not just sit down one day, write out the ending in two sentences and spare yourself telling the story at all? Because you would lose the experience, and it is the experience that makes the ending make sense, gives it power and emotional resonance, makes it worth it. You need interaction between the process and the goal, and it wouldn't be worth writing or reading if that process were shortcircuited in some way. Other writers are different: they have something different to offer. I have many friends who start at page one and discover the story. This is an enjoyable book to read, but it never focuses the way I want my stories to focus: even the best of the writers I know who work this way have other virtues to offer but they don't offer that. I aspire to it. The ideal balance in a book is that absolutely everything is aimed like a laser at the climax of the book. Despite the length of my work, I think of myself as being a very tight writer, there is actually nothing extraneous there. It may take up narrative space but it is not extraneous. That's because I am striving always to make sure that whatever I do is leading us there. I use the analogy of architecture: the structure I am building needs justifying in that particular way: any lintel or cornice or joist or roofing slate that doesn't fit that purpose must be disposed of, which is one reason we got rid of Gilden-Fire. It violated the whole narrative integrity and it wasn't necessary. It added a dimension which if it were necessary it would have been good to have it in: I really like Lord Hyrim, though Lord Shetra was a pretty nice character too and I'm always interested in the bloodguard. It would have been nice to have that material in. But ultimately it was secondary: it was worth sacrificing in order to achieve the kind of focus I wanted the story to have.

So how did Gilden-Fire come to be published?
I was approached by a specialty publisher in the US called Underwood and Miller. They wanted to do a collector's edition of any Covenant digressions I happened to have lying around. The only Covenant digression I had was this out-take. I took it out but I hadn't thrown it away. I wrestled with myself for a while. I finally decided that granted that it violated the narrative integrity of the story I would explain that in the foreword. And I would make the material available to those who, having read the original story and accepted it for what it was, would enjoy having a little extra light shed on some of the characters. It was only a thousand printing kind of fun to have this nice book,illustrated and it could be nice for everyone. So I decided to go ahead and do it. But Underwood and Miller were amateur publishers and didn't think through the contract I had signed with them. They were approached by the Science Fiction Book Club to try to get the rights to republish Gilden-Fire, and they didn't realise they didn't have the right to say yes. So they did say yes, and without ever consulting me, the Science Fiction Book Club came out with, I mean this book is still selling, so about a hundred thousand copies. Well, the first thing I heard of this was when I got my mailing from the Science Fiction Book Club announcing the new release of Gilden-Fire. I almost had a stroke: I mean it's an out-take, and these people are paying hardcover prices for something that I threw away. I felt that everybody who bought that book was being cheated. I mean when you buy from the Science Fiction Book Club it's not like you get to read the introduction first and then decide whether you want to buy the book or not. They thought it was like The Lost Tales or The Silmarillion or something that Tolkien had dug out of his trunk, but had really been there all along, and was really part of the idea; it just didn't fit in the book. But that wasn't true in this case. I screamed at Underwood and Miller for a considerable period of time because they were getting the royalties too, it was a really wonderful system the money went to them, they were having a great time. They were horrified when my agent called up and asked them what they thought they were doing. I really felt that my readers had been cheated. So the only solution I could think of was to put the story in my short story collection which I was doing at the time, to try to make it available cheaply. People could then read the introduction and could go into the bookstore and look through it before they paid money for it, and besides it wouldn't be hardcover prices, it would be paperback. I was trying to restore the inequity which I felt had been accidentally created. So that is where it rests, it's in the short story collection and people who are fascinated by the Covenant material can read it and get a little extra light shed on it.