Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Losing Yourself in Malazan? Here's What Erikson Thinks

Even though I haven't read all of the published books of the epic Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I am a big fan of Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont's work.

I remember when I started to read Gardens of the Moon, the first book of the series, I stopped after a few chapters and wondered if I had missed a few introductory chapters or a previous book. But I quickly appreciated Erikson's style. And over the years, I've heard how readers love to re-read Malazan books. These topics have been continuously discussed among the fans but now here's a chance to hear what Steven Erikson thinks about them:

I'd like to take you all back more than a few pages, and talk about why these novels seem to thrive in the context of re-reads, and why first-time readers are often left feeling bewildered. I think the two are very much related.

It goes back to how I first started writing fiction. I was in a Master's program in archaeology when I came second in a local short story contest in Winnipeg, a tale called 'Wooden Trucks.' On the weight of this one venture into writing I applied to attend a creative writing program at the University of Victoria. I recall being in a sweaty phone box in Belize, on the phone with my mother back in Winnipeg, as she opened the envelope telling me I'd got in. From that moment onward, my entire world changed.

The writing program at Uvic at that time was at its zenith. When I showed up it was as a wide-eyed neophyte with a secret love of genre fiction (one keeps these things secret if one wants to be taken seriously). What I learned, almost from day one, was that I knew nothing about anything; that my writing to that point had only 'worked' because I was instinctively consistent, with emphasis on the word 'instinctively.'

Uvic taught me the craft of writing; it taught me to be mindful. The key though is this: it made me a short-story writer. Short stories are a particular beasts. In them, not a single word is superfluous. Everything carries extra weight, or at least that's how I saw it.

Track forward a few years and scores of short stories later, and I begin writing novels, only to discover that my 'muscle memory' is now absolute -- the obsessive adherence to multifunctional, multilayered writing (line by line, word by word) is not something I can relax -- when novel writing in fact demands just that: an ease with wandering, with transitive passages, with a gentler hand taking hold of the reader, etc. Instead, novel-writing for me is the building of ever more elaborate structures, designed to carry ever more weight.

A long ramble to get to this: on one level details in making a setting carry the more obvious virtues -- placing the characters somewhere, giving them things with which they can interact; in creating an atmosphere and a tone; and in painting a picture for the reader's imagination. But other levels are possible. Setting as 'animated environment' can feed your sense of the characters in it; can foreshadow elements of plot; can reveal theme.

Take some opening scenes in Gardens as examples, and see how they relate to subsequent scenes for those select characters. Whiskeyjack and Fiddler on Mock's Hold: high above a burning city, in a place of power. There's smoke and the smell of carnage -- they are above it but only moments from descending into it. But we don't see that bit. They are on stonework, but it's cracked, and their backs are to the sea. All of these details shapes the reader's sense of them to some extent. When next we see them, they are on the ground, far away from Malaz City, surrounded in destruction and desolation. It's a different place, but their descent began in the prologue, if you see what I mean. And even then, they were only a short time earlier under the ground itself.

If we look to Kruppe, things get a little more complicated. Kruppe and his city are the same things; just as his language and attitude (and mystery) reflect the exotic, byzantine confusion of Darujhistan, so too his half-mocking smile and spark in the eye invite you into the labyrinthine cityscape (and the literally over-the-top assassin/Crokus chase). Kruppe is both flashy but on close examination somewhat scuffed, stained. He has a cherubic face, but plenty hides behind that. And so on. His voice is the city's voice, and it begins in a dream, as all great cities do.

Where is all this going? It goes here. Three storm clouds converging over Lake Azure, into which Whiskeyjack and co. are headed. A reader comments that I'm too smart to now say that there was deliberate portent in the detail of three clouds warring over the lake. Hmm. It's been too many years since that for me to be more specific than this: I could have written 'there was a storm over the lake,' and left it at that. The foreshadow is obvious enough. But, if I'd written that description, I would have immediately seen the foreshadowing element -- it's almost too cinematic and verges on cliche. I could then have changed it to two storm clouds, but then, that wouldn't have made sense; or rather, it would have been suggestive but inaccurately so. There are three forces converging on the city. Two storm clouds would have been lazy and misleading; careless.

Of course there are three storm-clouds. Of course this detail is relevant. It's how short stories work.

Uh oh. This ain't a short story though, is it? And therein lies the problem. I know what I'm up to; I know how I think and how I write. And to make matters worse, everything I put into a narrative is saying (pleading, begging) 'you can trust me, honest.' But I'm not taking the reader by the hand. I've invited them into a place, left them standing, looking round, wandering a bit but not far, not far at all. And every now and then I tap a shoulder, point, nod to over there, or here. And that's it.

Re-readers will nod and smile. First-timers will blink, bewildered -- and will decide to either trust me or not. I really want them to trust me, but I don't know how to manage that... beyond making sure that everything fits, that everything has meaning.

A virtue or a flaw in my writing? Maybe both. You see, I already know that world, but the only details I show you are the important ones. There's no filler. And that's not fair.

And the structure is such a crazed, manic machine, an engineer's nightmare, a spider's acid trip, it's really no wonder that readers will doubt, and on occasion give up on the effort, on the trust I so desperately ask for.

So, to all you new readers on this, I am ever amazed and slightly astonished to find you staying with me. I tell myself that what is happening is a kind of education process: read me this way, it's the only way. Pay attention! You will be tested on all of this, I guarantee it. Stay with me and in turn I will promise you that it will be a blast.

And even better, then you'll have all those re-reads, when things will really get wild.

You can find the entire article on Tor.com - The Malazan Re-read of the Fallen: Gardens of the Moon, Chapters 16 and 17


  1. I loved Gardens of the Moon, precisely because Erickson put you into the action and expected you to just swim or sink.
    Unfortunately, haven't been able to get my hands on the second book yet.

  2. I really, really love the Malazan books. They quickly pushed Erikson to one of my absolute favorite authors. I'm going to be heartbroken when the series is over but they do thrive as re-reads. This excerpt from him is really fascinating to me. I liked his discussion of Kruppe, put an interesting light on him.

  3. I forced myself to read the first 150 pages of Gardens of the Moon, but I just had to give up. I found the whole thing arbitrary, nothing gripped me, the characters all felt flat as the page they were on - the descriptions were awful. Everything was 'a wave of magic' or some totally random made-up-on-the-spot thing pulled out of a 'warren'. It felt like 150 pages of 'a wizard did it'. I'm a huge fan of GRRM and Hobb, but Erikson, never again.