Matthew Stover is the best fantasy author you're not reading. Interview by Violet Kane
Whenever I pick up a new and promising book, my hope is always that it will be a compulsively readable, can't-put-it-down, stay-up-past-my-bedtime, page-turning experience. The more intellectual side of me hopes that it will also be a book with enthralling characters, which drive the story forward and challenge the reader. Well written prose is always a plus, and on top of that, I certainly want something that's just simply fun to read. As you can imagine, this ambitious combination of hopes does not coalesce very often. The last new author to do it? Matthew Stover. He is perhaps best known for his Star Wars novels, but fantasy readers, please heed these words—Matthew Stover is the best fantasy author you're not reading. If you try no other new authors this year, read Stover's Acts of Caine novels. Whether you end up loving these novels or hating them (make no mistake, one of my favorite things about Stover's novels is their ambitiousness, riskiness and potential to rub people the wrong way), they are an experience you will not forget. And so, I was quite excited for the opportunity to talk to Stover to pick his brain on a variety of topics. He did not disappoint.
V: So, I've heard that you're working on a new book in your sequence of novels, The Acts of Caine. What can you tell us about this project? Are you at liberty to give any hints to your readers about what's to come? Do you have a projected release date?
MWS: I am indeed working on the next Acts of Caine book, as I have for the last three or so years, in between Star Wars novels. It's called
Caine Black Knife, and it's been going really, really slow. The Caine cycle novels are the ones I use to stretch my abilities—to try new techniques, both in prose and in narrative structure, to really push myself to keep growing as a writer. As long as I can use Star Wars to pay the bills, I don't have to worry about Caine becoming a huge commercial success (not that I would turn it down!); all I worry about is writing the absolute best novel that my skills will permit.
Which is why there's no release date yet. I am having a lot of trouble wrapping the damned thing up.
It's a juxtaposition novel that interleaves the Adventure ("Retreat from the Boedecken") that made Caine a star, with the experiences of the older, sadder, (arguably) wiser Caine when he returns to the Boedecken three years after Blade of Tyshalle. It has turned out to be staggeringly complex—much more so than I'd anticipated—but also very interesting to write. Caine's basically the only viewpoint character in this novel—none of that old familiar multiple-third-person crap in this one—which makes exploring a complex environment a bit of a challenge; I can't just switch viewpoint characters to fill in tasty bits of exposition.
That being said, though, I should mention that nothing is written in stone. If it turns out that I can't tell the story without switching over to a more familiar narrative stance, I'll do it. The reason I haven't (yet) is that I've become interested in the phenomenon of psychological closure—the ways in which our consciousness fills in details that we never actually see or hear or read—and I'm trying to find out how much I can accomplish by indirection and evocation, rather than explicit narration. It's been a real learning curve, but I think I'm getting the hang of it.
V: I've been intrigued by your discussions on Frameshift about the future projects you're considering, namely a historical fiction project. Is a historical fiction novel still in the works?
MWS: Depends on what you mean by "in the works"; I'm still planning to do one, and I have the project picked out. However, I have to finish CBK and another Overworld novel, and I've just signed another contract for a new tie-in; there's no moving out of SFantasy while I still need it to pay the bills—my wife and I just bought a new house.
V: A long-range historical fiction project then, it seems. I'm still curious, though, why the jump to historical fiction from SF&F?
MWS: Well, y'know, one definition of neurotic obsession is to keep performing the same action while expecting different results. I want to reach a wider audience. And I'd really like to make a lot more money. The sales of my non-Star Wars books have been, uhhhh, disappointing (*hahKHAFF*), and while I have a very loyal cadre of fans (I should say, Caine has a very loyal cadre of fans) there are just not enough of them out there to make publishers want to write Really Big Checks. I could make a damn good living just writing SFF if I could write faster—two books a year, and I could live (especially if one of the books is a Star Wars novel). But due to an unfortunate health issue, I'm lucky to produce one book a year. Usually less. So I'm looking into a field that 1) I'm passionately interested in, 2) has wider exposure and pays better than SFF, and 3) is more content-driven, and less dependent on the author's brand-name, because I have a tendency to fall off the face of the Earth for two or three years at a time.
I'm also a little worried that I'm running out of things to say and do in SFF. I set out to prove that a fantasy novel could be both thrilling and thought-provoking on an adult level, and I hope I managed a reasonable facsimile of that. Repeating the Same Old Shit isn't going to accomplish anything more.
V: If you end up enjoying the historical project, would you hope to write in both historical and SFF, then? Or settle on one or the other?
MWS: Oh, I know damned well I'll enjoy the historical project; I've picked the right one. I hope to keep writing whatever project happens to grab me by the balls. I have, for example, a contemporary crime-thriller I've been wanting to write... as soon as I fulfill my long damn list of works-in-progress...
The truth is: SFF is hard work. If you take it seriously, there's nothing harder. And my brain just doesn't work as well as it used to.
V: Can I presume that your book shelves are well-populated with science fiction, fantasy and historical novels? What books, authors and genres do you most enjoy reading?
MWS: Well-populated might be a bit of an overstatement; after having moved four times in the last ten years, my stock of books is considerably depleted. Mostly, these days, I read classics and non-fiction; with very few exceptions, I can't stand to read contemporary SFF writers. This is because my vanity leads me to either shake my head in astonished disgust at How in Hell Does This Piece of Crap Get All These Great Reviews (not to mention outselling me ten to one), or I'm so blown away with the obvious superiority of their writing that it makes me feel like a third-rate hacker who should just quit altogether. The exceptions are a few writers who I believe must be read to be considered an educated fan; Steve Donaldson, Gene Wolfe and Scott Lynch spring instantly to mind. I'm not gonna run down the whole list, because I know I'll leave somebody off, and then feel like crap for having insulted them by omission. When I'm going back to re-read genre books, well—I go back to Zelazny's pre-Amber stuff a lot, and all of Leiber, some of Heinlein (mostly pre-I Will Fear No Evil), CS Lewis, Tolkien, some of Moorcock... but these days you're really more likely to find me with a Raymond Chandler or one of the MacD(d)onalds (John D. and Ross), or maybe one of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books, which never get old. Otherwise, I re-read Hemingway a lot, and Kipling's short stories, and Conrad. And Mailer. Or the Greek dramatists, or Homer, or Shakespeare, or... you get the picture.
And one of these days I'm finally going to find a decent translation of Proust—I read the prologue to Swann's Way in one of those Norton Anthologies, and I've never forgotten it. I own two different translations of it, and they're both unreadable... I need to get the one by that guy from Norton. Someday.
V: Have any of your literature favorites had a particular influence on your writing? What stories influenced you, most generally, to pursue writing? Have any specific authors or books had a strong or particular influence on any aspect of your writing?
MWS: I made the unfortunate mistake of reading War and Peace as I was developing the original concept for Blade of Tyshalle; the way Tolstoy inter-threaded each character's storyline—as though each was the protagonist of his or her own mini-novel—took my breath away. Which is how I ended up with Blade being four different novels, each with its own protagonist and stock of thematic motifs, all shuffled into One Big One. That's a mistake I'm never gonna make again.
Or... actually, I was thinking strongly of For Whom the Bell Tolls while I was conceiving the "modern-day" (post-Blade) sequence of Caine Black Knife... which just goes to show that I never get tired of beating my head against the same wall.
Though in the end the Literary Inspiration thing hasn't turned out all that badly for me; my original literary inspiration was the Greek dramatists, especially Euripides. He was telling stories where everyone in the audience knew not just the ending, but the whole plot, before they sat down, and so his main concern was not with generating suspense of the "What's next?" variety, but instead engaging his audience's intellect and empathy—and imagination—to transform a familiar story into a powerful experience. One that, I might add, never gets tired; a really good story is different each time you experience it. Because you're different (or you should be, anyway). Kinda like the Chinese proverb: "One never steps twice into the same river."
You might say, the Greek poets exchange "What's Next?" for "What's Now?"
That's the centerpiece of my narrative strategy.
V: In your opinion, which writers, working in the genres of science fiction, fantasy or historical, are producing gems of contemporary fiction? What authors, do you predict, will most shape these genres in the coming years?
MWS: Other than me?
The new writer with the most legs in my field has to be Scott Lynch; The Lies of Locke Lamora proved he's got more talent than he knows what to do with. Russell Banks has done at least one stellar historical; his Cloudsplitter remains among my Top Ten historical novels, and probably always will. In "historical fiction" as a genre, some of the most interesting work is being done by comic book guys: Alan Moore has a string of them, and everyone should keep an eye out for Frank Miller's 300... a graphic novel about the Battle of Thermopylae, and a major motion picture at a cinema near you...
V: I'm wondering if you could weigh in on the debate of genre boundaries. We at ARWZ made a not-so-typical decision by including historical fiction with science fiction, fantasy and horror among the themes of our magazine. Does historical qualify as a rightful cousin to these three "alternative reality" genres?
MWS: Well, y'know, fiction is by definition an alternative reality. Genre boundaries are marketing categories, that's all. They help minimum-wage book store clerks decide where to shelve the new paperbacks, and help publicity flacks decide where (or if) to run ads. Other than that, they exist mainly to give emotionally-dysfunctional types something to flame over on the Internet.
V: Not only do you write in a variety of commercial genres, but you have created, in the Caine books, a complex cross-genre world. What value do terms like "science fiction" or "fantasy" have in categorizing fiction? The Earth/Overworld dichotomy you've created in the Caine books would seem to render such categories useless, or at least, somewhat irrelevant.
MWS: The conventional categories, yeah. But rather than going by tropes and trappings (spaceships: SF, wizards: fantasy, I prefer structural definitions (as I am, after all, one of those emotionally-dysfunctional types I mentioned above).
Specifically: genre is defined by the protagonist(s)'s problem, and by its solution. In SF (especially "hard SF") the protagonist must solve an external problem—one existing in society, the world, the galaxy, whatever—and the solution to the problem depends on creative use of a key speculative element, usually technological. You see this in every hard SF story, and most of the "softer" ones. Don't bother arguing with me. I'm never wrong.
By this structural standard, Heroes Die is a hard SF novel: the solution to Caine's problem depends on a creative application of the two central speculative technologies of the story: the Winston Transfer and the cross-dimensional sense-link of the Studio's thoughtmitter (not to mention the central speculative social element: the world-wide fascination with a Reality-TV-type blood sport).
In fantasy, on the other hand (real fantasy, not swords & sorcery retreads), the protagonist(s)'s problem is internal: his or her separation from, or resistance to... well, pick one: God, Society, Destiny, or even the Truth of Himself... and the solution is a psychological or spiritual struggle to overcome that separation—usually in an environment that serves as a metaphoric externalization of the protag's internal state. The landscape of SF is the future; the landscape of fantasy is the land of dreams. You might be dreaming of the future, sure... but you're still dreaming, and (as Jung pointed out) everything in your dreams is you.
Using this structural standard, Blade of Tyshalle is a pure fantasy: each of its four protagonists (Hari/Caine, Kris/Deliann, Raithe/the Caineslayer, and Tan'elKoth/Ma'elKoth) is divided into two conflicting identities; the external problems they face are metaphoric extensions of their inner struggle, and the solution to their external problems comes about by resolving their internal problems: reaching, as Campbell might say, atonement with their Higher Selves.
V: Can you tell me a little about the inspiration behind the Caine books? How did the concept of Earth/Overworld evolve in your mind? Was it a challenge getting from concept to story?
MWS: The story came first. I forged the concept around it like a blacksmith beating armor into shape. My initial inspiration was an attempt to "sciencefictionalize" the experience of playing in a truly immersive RPG: the thrill of vicariously becoming someone with real power to affect the world, someone who lives and dies, loves and kills, entirely for your entertainment. Beyond that, it was a simple (well, okay, hideously complicated) process of SFnal extrapolation. People like magic; okay, the "game" takes place on an alternate world where magic works. Et cetera.
The same thing might have been done by creating Overworld as a virtual environment, a la Dream Park, but that would have removed what is, for me, the central element of these books: the moral, cultural, and psychological effect of violence as entertainment. Having the victims, er, non-player characters, be real people who really bleed and really die raises the moral stakes. What kind of culture would permit such a practice? It'd look a lot like ours; in fact, my favorite moment in Heroes Dies is where Caine essentially addresses the reader and reminds them that they've been enjoying all this violence-as-porn just as much as his viciously callous fictional audience does.
But as with any rigorous extrapolation of a really fertile concept, there turned out to be implicit elements in the novel's universe that I didn't—really couldn't—anticipate; these formed the basis for Blade of Tyshalle, and further implications that spring from Blade undergird the forthcoming Caine Black Knife... It'll be interesting to see how far this extrapolation daisy-chain will lead me. I hope it'll be interesting for other people, too.
V: How about Caine, himself? The character of Caine, a.k.a. Hari Michaelson, has earned the reputation as one of the most complex protagonists that action-adventure fiction has to offer—not to mention the fervent admiration of your readers. In fact, the dedication of Caine fans among ARWZ visitors recently put Caine near the top of our Best Characters poll, trumping Merlin and coming in right on the heels of Gandalf. Can you give us some insight into the creation and continuing development of Caine?
MWS: I'm almost irresistibly tempted to insist that Caine sprang, grown and fully armed, from my brow. Seriously, though: it's hard to say exactly where he came from. It's like he's been always there, from long before I ever noticed him; he has some fundamental reality that my books can only partially express. There are a number of characters in the Acts of Caine who strike me that way; Ma'elKoth, of course, but also Deliann, and Duncan Michaelson, and Arturo Kollberg, Kierendal, Avery Shanks, Majesty and Toa-Sytell... even Lamorak; in the new book, Caine Black Knife, there's Rababàl and Marade, Markham Lord Tarkanen, Tyrkilld Knight Aeddhar, and (much more so) Angvasse Khlaylock. There are also characters who are more, well, programmatic, like Berne, and Tallann, and even Pallas Ril; they are defined largely by their function in the story. Some of the most interesting characters are, to me, the ones who start out programmatic but develop, in the course of the writing, into "live" people: Raithe is the exemplar of this, but it also goes for t'Passe, Orbek Black Knife, and of course Faith Michaelson.
But that wasn't really the question, was it?
Okay, it's like this:
There's a quotation attributed (probably apocryphally) to Bob Dylan, supposedly when somebody told him he was considered the greatest poet of his generation: "Hey, I'm just tryin' to make it rhyme, man."
When I undertook Heroes Dies (originally, back in the 80s), heroic fantasy was considered popcorn fiction of the lowest kind; there was also a prejudice, in LitCrit circles, against Thrilling Stories of any kind—i.e., any exciting and suspenseful tale must have, almost by definition, no literary value. In those days, to be taken seriously, you had to either be a Raymond Carverish minimalist or you had to write "experimental fiction"—which is code for a story that has no plot, character, or actual reason to even read it except to make yourself look Intellectual and Deep. I eventually got tired of ranting at these shitheads that The Iliad and The Odyssey are heroic fantasy, and that Nobel Prize-winning authors from Kipling to Hemingway specialized in exciting action-adventure stories... so I set out to prove I could write one of my own.
Now, in those days I was a rising star of the Drake University English Department, even though I was actually an Acting major; my Fiction prof (a Frost Award-winning poet and short-story writer) wrote on one of my stories, "You could be a great writer someday, if only you get over your obsession with violence, madness, and death." I thanked him for the compliment and for the advice, even though I was thinking, "Get over violence, madness, and death? What else IS there?"
So part of what inspired Heroes Die was this Quixotic attempt to write a heroic fantasy thriller that was also serious fiction; I used the common tropes of heroic fantasy (elves, dwarfs, magic wands and magic swords, dashing swordsmen, a damsel in distress, an "evil" wizard, etc. etc.) because each and every one of those tropes was, in those days, a giant flashing neon sign that spelled out DON'T TAKE THIS SHIT SERIOUSLY, DUMBASS. My theory—which I think has been reasonably well borne-out—was that heroic fantasy isn't bad by definition, but that its problems were (and are) a result of writers themselves not taking it seriously enough.
So part of what has gone into Caine's development as a character is *serious intention*; I was (and am) interested in What Kind of Man Would Do This Stuff—and What Would Doing This Stuff Do to Him? And I don't get anywhere with that if I accept easy answers. Beyond that, I'm just tryin' to make it rhyme.
And if you'll allow me just a bit of name-dropping... Steve Donaldson once confided to me how astonished he was at the amount of fan mail he gets that runs along the lines of "Love your books, love everything you do... but why does Covenant always have to be such a pain in the ass?" He was, at first, entirely baffled by this: to him, Covenant isn't a pain in the ass. Steve certainly doesn't consciously MAKE Covenant a pain in the ass. Covenant's just... Covenant, that's all.
Which is the only answer I can give to the "complexity" of Caine... To me, he's not complex. He's Caine, that's all. That seems to be enough.
V: Your novels represent something of a rarity and a seeming paradox—a story that is both action-packed and character-driven. How do you keep your stories centered on your characters and their motivations, while satisfying your readers' cravings for creative action sequences?
MWS: Hah, that's an easy one. When writing a character, there's no such thing as motivation. There's only intention: what the character is trying to achieve, and how he or she is trying to achieve it. Which is not to say that motivation doesn't exist; motivation is what steers the character toward specific goals, and governs the tactics he or she will use to go after it. But in general, motivation doesn't have to be spelled out; it can be inferred by the reader from the character's goals and tactics. A perfect example is Heroes Die, where I (as author) don't bother explaining how much Hari loves Shanna, nor the perverse nature of their relationship; that's motivation, not intention. By showing his drive toward his goal (and his choice of goal in the first place, and her reaction to his actions), all that motivation crap is clear. It's all there in what they do. Character is defined by action. Period.
As for the whipass side, that's even easier.
In fantasy, action has a deeper element (like everything else in fantasy): the physical action (especially conflict or violence) is a metaphor/symbol/allegory (sometimes more than one, or all three, depending on the author's style) for the psychological, spiritual, or mythic progress of the protagonist. Which might sound complicated, but it really isn't. Action is crafted to express truth; as long as the character is evolving, the action by definition will stay new.
V: It would appear that you're something of a renaissance man. Well-read, skilled in martial arts, an aficionado of excellent margaritas (which is to say I've tried the recipe you posted on Frameshift). How much does your personal life experience play into your novels? It is well-known that your expertise in martial arts informs your writing of action sequences. How else do you draw on real experience in the creation of otherworldly fiction?
MWS: Renaissance man? Hmp. Just a man, I think, and a blue-collar man at that. As for the margaritas, I was a bartender for twenty-three years; I've had plenty of time to perfect my recipe.
Fantasy is—my fantasy is, anyway—a metaphoric reflection of the author's take on our consensual reality. Which is to say: it's about everything. Kind of like Jung's critique on Freud's approach to dream analysis; where Freud developed an encyclopedic list of supposedly-universal dream symbols, Jung contended that each individual's dreams use a metaphoric language specific to that individual. As he put it: "Everything in your dreams is you."
Which, when you think about it, is perfectly obvious, once one discounts psychic phenomena, possession, and incubi. It's all happening in your brain, right? It's a product of your mind (pacé the neurolinguistic nihilists) processing memory and perception. Which are also all in your brain...
Everything in my books is me. And pretty much everything that's me is in my books. Eventually. One way or another.
Welcome to my head.
V: In the writing forums here at ARWZ, we often debate the extent to which our SF&F worlds must be grounded in reality, specifically, to what extent should an "alternative reality" be grounded in real-life fact? In other words, what should be researched and what can be made up. How do you achieve the balance of a "fictional reality" that is both realistic and otherworldly?
MWS: By sleight of hand.
There are no "shoulds" in fantasy (or fiction in general) except the One Great Rule: You Should Not Induce Your Reader to Hurl the Book Across the Room.
In other words, you can do whatever you want, as long as you can make your readers buy it. That's the thing. It has to feel real. That's why they call it verisimilitude: it's the appearance of truth. And there are any number of techniques of misdirection and elision that you can use to enlist your readers' imaginations on behalf of your story's verisimilitude. An example near and dear to my own heart: Robert E. Howard (creator of such master swordsmen as Conan the Cimmerian and Bran Mak Morn) knew a grand total of dick about blade combat. So instead of faking it, he glided past it with phrases like "his wearied arm still drove the mighty blade in strokes of death." See? Sure, he could have gone the route of Leiber and Heinlein and studied fencing or the German broadsword manual-at-arms so he could give a blow-by-blow, but in the end he didn't have to.
It's the same with every element of world-building and storytelling. If you don't know the details, you can 1.) study up and just learn them (this is my personal technique—may all gods bless Wikipedia), or 2.) find ways to let your readers' imaginations supply them for you.
"Should"? Ain't no such animal.
V: Before we wrap things up, I would like to touch on one of the more controversial aspects of your fiction. There has been a trend in recent years for gritty realism in fantasy. Your novels are teeming with glimpses at the darker side of humanity, and violence isn't even the half of it. What is it, in your experience, that readers respond to in this often disturbing imagery? Is it shock value they crave? Morbid curiosity that drives them to read further? Or something more?
MWS: Nice people who have nice lives bore the crap out of me. And everyone else. Today's readers (well, my readers, anyway) have found out they can no longer kid themselves about the nature of the world we live in. Child soldiers, genital mutilations, slavery (not just in the sex trade, and not just overseas, either—it's still going on in this country, every day), death squads inside the police and armed forces of our client state in Iraq, rape as a strategic tool of ethnic cleansing, honor killings, suicide bombings, the Bush Administration's murder of our ideals of justice and freedom... Look, I could make a really long list. Here's the point: my readers are the ones who just can't find it in themselves to believe that True Love Conquers All and all the world's problems can be saved by a spunky princess, a courageous stable-boy and a wise-cracking unicorn.
My books aren't about the "darker side of humanity" (in quotes because I don't buy the notion that there is such a thing). My books are about people. People who Face the Bad Shit, instead of pretending it doesn't exist.
When you come right down to it, there's a theme that underlies everything I write: Your life isn't defined by what happens to you. It's defined by what you do about it.
V: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any closing comments?
MWS: I'm writing this the morning after the death of Kurt Vonnegut. He was one of my heroes. He famously wrote that "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—"God damn it, you've got to be kind."
I'd add one of my own: "Keep your head down, and inch toward daylight."
Those are, as near as I can tell, the only things I know that actually resemble wisdom.
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Violet "Violanthe" Kane is the Webmaster and Founder of ARWZ.com. She is an editor of ARWZ Literary Zine and is currently pursuing a Master's degree in Medieval studies.