Interview with Steven Brust by Robert Tilendis, Summer 2008

I honestly don't remember when I started reading Steven Brust's books, but I seem to recall that the first I read was Jhereg, which I enjoyed enough to continue with the Taltos Cycle. I ran across a copy of Brokedown Palace somewhere, and liked that, then a friend loaned me a copy of To Reign in Hell and I was hooked. I even like Cowboy Feng. Over the years, as I've been reading Brust's work, some combination of two things has happened: a) Brust has become a more subtle and accomplished writer, and b) I've become a more subtle and accomplished reader. At this point, he has my vote for one of the very best fantasy writers working right now. So of course, when the idea of an interview was broached, I was right on it.

The process itself was fraught, as they say: via email, which has its positive side, but at the expense of immediacy, and blindsided by a nasty intestinal bug (mine, which left me out of commission for a couple of weeks, and already behind on too many projects), a move (Steve's), and technical glitches (I don't believe at this stage of the game I was sitting there going "The computer ate my homework!" Fortunately, I'd printed it and found the hard copy -- after only two days of freaking out).

Steve has been a gem throughout this, and I'm very grateful for his cooperation. And so, without further ado, Steven Brust:

When did you start writing?

About when I started reading.

I suspect it's a well-known story at this point, but how did you come to write Jhereg, which if I'm not mistaken was your first novel?

It was an offshoot of a role-playing game a bunch of us were involved in. When the gold crunch hit, I was laid off from a programming job with a ring-maker, and my wife said, "Why don't you take six months off working and write a novel?" So I did.

Had you been thinking about it before you actually wrote it?

Oh, hell yeah. "Obsessing" would be the more accurate term.

Was it the first book you wrote, or the first book you published?

First book I ever got more than three chapters into.

I have to be out of work to finish three chapters. A lot of fantasy writers mention Hammett and Chandler, and mid-century American detective fiction as a whole, as an influence, but I get a very strong feeling that Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries are much more important to Taltos. I'm not only thinking of the general tone of the stories but the character of Vlad himself, who in the right light is a dead ringer for Archie Goodwin. What's your take on that?

I've heard it suggested before, and there could be some truth in it. I can't honestly remember if I had read Stout before I wrote Jhereg. It's certainly possible that I had. I am very conscious of the Chandler influence, but that isn't to deny that the Stout influence is just as strong even if I haven't thought about it. I certainly do love the Nero Wolfe books. Does that help?

Bingo! I rest my case. Any thoughts on why noir detective fiction is so attractive to contemporary fantasy writers?

Because we're living in an age where it is difficult or impossible to be overtly sentimental; I know I can't buy into sentimentality unless it is set up by someone with stronger skills than I have. The only whimsy I'm really interested in these days is Lord Peter.

Second, or rather first, because there's always been a strong element in noir detective fiction that is against authority, down on the upper classes, and hostile to the forces of the state -- and how can anyone not feel sympathy to those attitudes today?

One thing I have noticed about Taltos in relation to others of the "fantasy detective story" subgenre: you've introduced concepts that most people would consider more part of science fiction than fantasy, such as genetic manipulation and the Orb itself. Why, if there's a particular reason for it?

One thing we should be clear on, in terms of subgenre: I'm writing in the subgenre invented by Fritz Leiber. As for the sf concepts, well, I think that's a natural result of being a Zelazny fan. The fun stuff is lying somewhere in the gray area between sf and fantasy, where you can address it as either depending on how you want to look at it.

So it's a deliberate tactic?

I hate giving straightforward answers to straightforward questions, but: yes.

Talking again about the science fiction fantasy divide, you've been pretty definite in agreeing with Zelazny about the difference -- i.e., sf explains everything, fantasy doesn't explain enough. Given the increasing move in speculative fiction toward blurring genre boundaries -- slipstream, interfictions, crossovers from mainstream fiction -- do you think that still holds up?

I'm far too out of touch with what's going on in the field to give that one an intelligent answer; sorry.

Is there anyone writing in those genres that you do follow? What about in general -- whose work do you pay attention to?

The writers I've been recently excited about are John Scalzi, Jaqueline Carey, and Cory Doctorow. I certainly will read anything by Tim Powers or Gene Wolfe or Will Shetterly or Emma Bull or Pamela Dean or Jane Yolen as soon as I can get my hands on it. I like Glen Cook quite a bit. And, well, I dunno. Several others.

You've mentioned that along about Teckla you realized you were writing a series. What are the upsides and downsides to working in a series like Taltos?

The upside is that I get to keep hanging around with characters I love. The downside is how often I trip up over details, or worry about tripping up over details. On the other hand, that's an upside too: it can be a lot of fun to notice a screwup and find a way to justify it.

The Taltos Cycle is, as you've noted elsewhere, your most personal group of stories, and Vlad has displayed a kind of growth that is fairly rare in this kind of series. How much of Vlad has grown out of who you are, or who you have been at any given time?

Eh. That question. I don't know. One of my favorite ways to write is to get into the head of the viewpoint character and let fly -- sort of a writing equivalent to method acting. That happens so easily with Vlad that I'm sure there are bits and pieces of me in there that I'm unaware of. And, to be sure, some, here and there, are quite deliberate. And the whole idea behind Vlad in the first place was to start with wish fulfillment then examine consequences; and, you know, they were my wishes being fulfilled, after all.

Do you worry about Taltos becoming one of those series that goes out with a whimper before it's finished?

I think you'll have to explain what you mean better; I'm not quite grasping the question. But I suspect the answer is "no."

Too many series seem to lose something along about the third or fourth volume -- the honeymoon is over, I guess, and fans lose interest. It's probably more of a problem with the "Story That Wouldn't Die" type rather than the "New book, new story, same people" type. Do you worry about that happening with Taltos? (Although I have to say, Vlad seems to have a lot of life left in him.)

Yes, I worry about that; but the only way to deal with it is keep him interesting to me, and hope that also keeps him interesting to others.

And on that topic, does "aging" Vlad as the series progresses present any particular problems?

Not so far. I've actually been enjoying that aspect, because it gives me so many different things to play with.

Can you give an example? Maybe something in Jhegaala, which is just out?

He is gradually becoming aware of how little he understands his world; and of how big the world actually is. He is losing some of his cockiness, and, as that happens, he's both becoming more and less self-confident; which is what happens to people as they age. People are made up of contradictions, which increase in tension with age, and sometimes resolve only to create new contradictions.

What I've called "playfulness" with formal elements seems to be a hallmark of your writing. In the Taltos books, this centers on your use of asides, flashbacks, and digressions, which adds another dimension to what is, usually, a fairly simple and straightforward story (give or take a plot wrinkle here and there). How deliberate is this? Do you go in thinking of a workable frame for the story, or does it just grow?

That's one of the ways I get my jollies in this business. Any time I get to play with the relationship between form and content in an interesting way, or to slip in an extra layer of meaning that isn't obvious, I'm having fun. When I read, those are some of the most fun things to discover, but I'm a terribly obtuse reader and usually need the subtleties pointed out to me. When I write, I don't have that problem; I can put them in ways that seem to me to add depth and power and fun. Now, when you're playing structural games like that, it's only natural that sometimes things will slip in that you're unaware of. The best of them, when they're pointed out to me, I claim to have had in mind from the beginning.

One thing that I've noticed about the Taltos Cycle is that the earlier volumes seemed to come at random -- their chronological order had little to do with their order of publication. This changed with Phoenix, and the rest, with the exception of Dragon, adhere to chronological order. Is this deliberate? I guess what I want to know is whether Vlad's story is going to become a truly ongoing one, or if there is still room for time hopping. (There are, after all, those mysterious references to Vlad's history.)

The next one goes backward again, which ought to answer your question. It isn't really that complicated: I've been telling the next story that I feel like telling, whether about Vlad or about something else entirely. The order of those books only reflects my whims on which story to tell. But then, to be sure, once I've told a certain story, it will frequently suggest others. And I try to be aware of the order in which I'm telling them at least to the extent that each new one should add to what came before.

Let's move on to the Khaavren Romances for a bit. You mentioned playing with the relationship between form and content in Taltos. How did the "metafiction" -- the note from the publisher, the book review, the interviews, and such -- around the narrative of Khaavren develop? Was it something you had in mind from the beginning?

Some of those things are simply riffs taken from Dumas, in the same way the voice was. Other came up as the series progressed, Pamela Dean was the first I asked to write an introduction (500 Years After), and I loved it so much that I couldn't resist seeing if anyone else felt inclined to do that sort of thing. It's hard to describe the thrill I still get when I read over those guest intros and afterwords.

You've called The Phoenix Guards a "blatant ripoff" of Dumas, but you've taken some of the characteristics of his works -- especially those of bad translations -- and run with them. I'm thinking specifically of the sort of leitmotiv you've constructed with the repeated phrases ("I think I've been asking for nothing else for an hour.") that form a preamble to any substantive exchange of information among the characters. How did that come about?

I wouldn't say those were bad translations. In the sense of accuracy, I can't say because I don't speak French, but they are delightful translations. I took those sorts of things straight out of the translations I read because they delight me anew every time I read them. At one time Tor republished my favorite translation of The Three Musketeers, and I got to write the introduction. That was fun!

Well, not "bad" as inaccurate, but perhaps "bad" as "over the top." This may seem off the wall, since it's not really a major issue in speculative fiction as a whole (or perhaps it's a sub rosa issue), but what about race and race relations in the Dragaeran universe? You do offer a bit of a satirical slant on the "Easterner/Dragaeran, which is human?" question, but I also note that you make frequent references to the relative darkness or lightness of people's complexions among the Dragaerans. What's your thinking on that?

My thinking is that any form of class society is going to introduce subsidiary divisions (race, religion, whatever). For one thing, the idea that people are not perceived as equal in a fundamental economic sense will lead to all sorts of perceived and imaginary inequalities to justify it. As for race qua race on Dragaera, I couldn't think of any reason for it to be an issue, as Dragaerans run the gamut of complexions from extremely dark to extremely pale.

Also, moving on to the "non-series" Steven Brust, I'm fascinated by the history of The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, Songs from The Gypsy, and The Gypsy itself. Can you tell me how that all came about? I'm particularly interested in how the collaborations with Boiled in Lead and Megan Lindholm actually worked.

God. Let's see if I can reconstruct it. I was grabbed by the Hungarian folktale "Csucskari" and used it as the foundation for The Sun, The Moon and the Stars. Then I was in a band, Cats Laughing, and we wanted some originals, so Adam Stempel and I started working on songwriting. I'm not sure how it happened, but I ended up grabbing onto that same folktale as material for songwriting exercises ("Now I'm gong to work on characterization in a song'" "now I'm going to work on selection of a few telling details;" "now I'm going to work on creating a mood;" "now I'm going to work on telling a story in the negative space," etc.) Later, when the band broke up, Adam joined Boiled in Lead, and they wanted some originals, and those songs were just sitting there.

Meanwhile, the story "Csucskari" wouldn't go away. One day, out of nowhere, I just sat down and wrote what became the prologue. I looked at it, had no idea what to do with it or where it went, but it somehow reminded me of what Megan had done with her Wizard of the Pigeons. I'd worked with her before on the Liavek anthologies, and we'd had a blast, so I wrote to her and sent her the bit I had, asking her what she thought about it. What she thought, it seemed, was that she would pick it up and run with it, and we just started telling each other a story, a chunk at a time. It was an amazing experience.

About Agyar -- why did you decided to write a "vampire" story?

That one just sort of happened. I hadn't known I was going to write it five minutes before I started. A bunch of things came together all at once and demanded that one be written right now. I'm still not entirely clear on how it happened.

What, if anything, prepared you for a career as a writer? I know you didn't study writing formally (in school) but have you participated in workshops (Clarion) or the like? What about the Scribblies? What was the fallout from your participation there?

Most of my preparation was the same as everyone else's: I read a lot. I ought to have also prepared by studying grammar, but I didn't and so had to attempt to teach myself later. It's hard to estimate the effect of working with the Scribblies. Huge. Immense. Mostly, it had to do with training the editor who lives in the back of my head. He still isn't what he ought to be, but he's a lot better than he was.

What kinds of exchanges happened within the group? I'm trying, I guess, to figure out if there was a group dynamic that influenced your development as a writer.

Exchanges within the group? Well, there's the sort of exchange where someone will identify a problem passage, and someone else (usually Will) will formulate the general rule that applies to those sorts of situations. Then there's the exchange where someone will point to a passage that doesn't work and someone else (probably Emma) will identify the writer's general problem that lead to it. Then there's the exchange where someone will bump over a sentence, and someone else (probably Pamela) will point out the questionable grammar that caused the jarring sensation. And there's the exchange where someone will mention a passage he likes, and someone else (probably me) will suggest a way to make it even cooler. And once I Emma and I exchanged coffee cups.

You collaborated with Emma Bull on Freedom and Necessity -- was there more of this sort of thing talked about, or was that something that happened outside the group?

That was outside the group, then we ran it through the group.

About this internal editor -- do you edit as you go, or just write and go back later? Do you find your editor can sometimes be an impediment to getting a story written?

I do a quick editing pass as I finish the draft of each chapter, but I don't get serious about revising until the entire first draft is finished.

We've touched on this before, but what, if anything, led you to some of the methods you use to structure your books? I'm thinking of the various frames in Taltos, but there's also the episodic nature of To Reign in Hell, the diaristic approach to Agyar, the folkloric quality of Brokedown Palace. How much time to you spend on working these things out?

Um. How can I answer that? Figuring out a cool way to the tell the story, in which the way the events unfold play off the events in interesting ways, is one of the fun parts of doing this. If something hits me as, "it would be really fun to tell a story this way," I might have that before I know anything about what will happen, and then build the events around that.

Define "cool stuff."

Anything in a book that makes you go, "Wow! Cool!"

Please elaborate, with special attention to Brust's Theories of Literature.

The point is, you can get the reaction from the external trappings props, setting), or from the ideas, or from the way the writer uses words, or from the themes that are being explored, or anything else. I think of a novel as a structure designed to hold the maximum amount of cool stuff -- that it all works together to form a coherent whole is just another cool thing.

What about the "Hungarianness" that shows up in your novels? I'm thinking not only about the folkloric cast of The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, The Gypsy and Brokedown Palace, but the naming conventions in Taltos (and the name Taltos itself, which if I understand it correctly denotes a "magical" creature). What role does that play in your thinking as a writer? (By which I mean, is it a source, an inspiration, or anything like that?)

I love having tons of stuff available to haul out as needed. Hungarian folklore is one of those things. You really can't have too many. Anything that strikes me as cool is going to eventually find its way into a book, in some form or another.

Brokedown Palace makes great use of that. It's also the only non-series book set in the Dragaeran universe, if I'm not mistaken. How did it come about the way it did?

It's built around a Grateful Dead song that my friend Fred Levy Haskell used to play. There's a line in the song that goes, "Mama, mama many worlds I've come since I first left home." I remember a moment when Fred was singing that and I thought, "Devera!" After that, the story kept building in my head until I had to write it.

The coachman is a character -- an archetype, actually -- that shows up in several of your books. Tell us a little bit (or a lot, if you like) about the coachman.

To me, the coachman is a lovely metaphor for the writer. He's me, if you will -- taking the reader for a journey that may or may not end where the reader wants it to, but will certainly be going through unexpected places.

What about your musical career? Is there, or has there been, any sort of synergy between that and your writing? (And, a corollary, I guess -- what relative weight do you assign those two roles? Or do you see them as separate things?)

I'm sure there is a connection, but I've never been able to identify it. Except, of course, for the terribly prosaic answer: I type, I drum, I play the banjo, I play the guitar. All of these can lead to carpal tunnel, but none of them the same way. By swapping around, so far I've managed to avoid it.

"Exploring" seems to be a constant but unstated idea in your novels. How does that idea relate to the stories you decide to tell?

Exploring is what it's all about. I have a deep, passionate hatred for proselytizing fiction. I refuse to commit it. Contrariwise, I have strong opinions about, well, everything: politics, philosophy, the proper proportion of paprika to sour cream in a paprikash -- everything. The only sure way I've found to avoid it is to use the work to explore something about which I haven't made up my mind, and use the story as a vehicle of discovery. Whether any of this comes across to the reader is somewhat beside the point: it keeps me from pounding the pulpit in a way that, were I the reader, I would find distasteful.

I'd offer to trade paprikash recipes, but it's been so long since I've made it, I may not remember how. Food is one of Vlad's passions. Is it one of yours?

You damn betcha, ratface.

And before we leave this idea, what's your take on the concept of science fiction or fantasy as vehicles for social commentary?

I can't recall it ever not irritating me when I was aware of it; that doesn't mean it's never been done in a way that I didn't notice, or that it couldn't be done in a way that I'd like.

What was the attraction of Las Vegas? Was your life radically different there than it had been in Minneapolis?

The attraction of Las Vegas was that there was nothing to do there, and no one to talk to, and so no reason to leave the house. It was, indeed, radically different: I got more work done.

What about Minneapolis as a place for writers?

If you (like me) are inspired by being surrounded by Smart People Who Read, than it is a great place for a writer to live -- up until the point where you start spending all of your time talking to Smart People Who Read and so start neglecting your work.

Should I be looking for any of these people in your books? How do you create characters?

Look all you want. :-)

You've recently moved. Why Texas?

Her name is Reesa Brown, and she's just made her first fiction sale. The first is to an anthology called Unspeakable Horror: Shadows From the Closet. Due out in the last quarter of 2008. The second is to the Triangulation anthology series -- this one is called Taking Flight. Due out fall of '08.

Congratulations to you both, and tell her to be sure GMR gets a review copy. And thanks very much for doing this.