It is with great pleasure that I post this new interview. I want to thank Mr. Modesitt, who was gracious enough to answer all the questions that were submitted to him. Many thanks also to all of you who sent their own questions. As you can see, several were selected to comprise this interview.
L. E. Modesitt, jr. is the author of three fantasy series, The Saga of Recluce, The Spellsong Cycle and The Corean Chronicles. He has also written a vast number of science fiction novels, including the series The Ecolitan Matter, The Forever Hero, Timegods' World and The Ghost Books.
1- For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with your work, without giving too much away, give us a taste of the RECLUCE Saga.
First off, the saga of Recluce is not a standard series. Although there are currently 13 books, there are no more than two books about any one group of main characters. The novels are set in differing time periods across roughly 1900 years in history of the world. Each book is written as a stand-alone, although it is generally better to read the first book about a given character, and I do suggest reading the very first book –- The Magic of Recluce – before the others.The magic system is based on a “rationalized” and logical application of order and chaos, but, while black mages use order magery, and white wizards favor chaos magic, order and chaos do not automatically equate to good and evil. Some of the books are written from the “black” viewpoint and others from the “white” viewpoint.
There’s also a misconception, whose origin baffles me, that I always write about young men growing up. That’s simply not accurate. Certainly, this is true of some of the characters, particularly Lerris [The Magic of Recluce], Cerryl [The White Order], and Lorn [Magi’i of Cyador], but it is far from universally true. Nylan [Fall of Angels] is in his late 30s; Justen in his late 20s; and Kharl [Wellpsring of Chaos]is married with two children when the book opens.I do have a common plot theme in all the books, in that my main characters do learn a few things as matters develop, but what’s the point of writing about protagonists who don’t?
2- Same as the first question, but in regards to THE SPELLSONG CYCLE.
The Spellsong Cycle is a very different fantasy series, for a number of reasons. First, all five books are written from the female point of view. Second, the main character of the first three – Anna – is a woman in her late 40s or early 50s with grown children. She’s a divorced singer and music professor who has just lost a daughter and who wishes she were anywhere else. She finds herself in a world where magic is controlled by the application of accurate song and accompaniment. It’s also a world that is incredibly chauvinistic. She is potentially one of the most powerful sorceresses that world has known – if she can survive long enough to learn how.
The last two books are about Anna’s foster daughter – Secca – some thirty years later. Secca inherits Anna’s role – and responsibilities – and enemies who have been biding their time for years. Secca is no child, either, but a woman in her mid-30s.This series tends to polarize readers more. Many of those who like it are almost fanatical, but I also have heard from readers who like it far less than my other fantasies. Despite the fact that I do not write about sex, or graphic violence, the last book in the series -- Shadowsinger – did win an award from Romantic Times Bookclub for the best epic fantasy of 2002, as well as a starred review from Booklist.
3- Same as the first question, but in regards to THE COREAN CHRONICLES.
The Corean Chronicles are a work earlier in progress than the other fantasy series. So far the first “trilogy” has been published, all about a young man named Alucius. He has been raised as a nightsheep herder by his mother and grandfather, in a world where, thousands of years earlier, a great magical civilization fell, yet where isolated eternal towers still stand and great highways, impervious to time, cross the continent of Corus. Nightsheep are not like any sheep we know. Their “wool” is black, and when processed, turns into the equivalent of fabric plate armor. Their horns are razor-sharp, and a ram could gut an earthly tiger without raising a sweat. They need those defenses because the predators who prey on them are even more fearsome. Unfortunately, Alucius lives in a poorly-governed state, threatened on all sides, and he ends up, as soon as he turns of age, conscripted into the militia. His training by his grandsire and the talents that enable him to be a nightsheep herder do not save him from capture by the troops of the Matrial – an eternal ruler who is recovering much of the lost magical technology of the vanished Duarchy.
The second “trilogy” begins with Alector’s Choice, scheduled for June 2005 release by Tor. This book takes place thousands of years earlier, in the days of the Duarchy, and follows the acts and careers of two individuals. One is Mykel, a captain of the Cadmian Mounted Rifles, and the other is Dainyl, one of the magically-Talented alectors who rule the world of Acorus and who are using human beings to make it more habitable for full colonization by the alectors. Dainyl is a colonel and third in command of the Myrmidons – those who fly the pteridons and enforce the will of the Duarches through their expertise and superior weapons. A rebellion breaks out, and the ancient soarers – the original inhabitants of Acorus – reappear.
In the Corean Chronicles, magic, or “Talent,” is linked to the very lifeforces of the world, exemplifying a Gaiean concept of world structure.
4- What role does magic play in each of those 3 series? How does the magical system work in each universe?
As I’ve noted elsewhere, I don’t believe magic – or technology – solves anything. It only makes matters more complex and harder to resolve, and that’s certainly true in all three series.
5- The RECLUCE saga has garnered what can best be described as a cult following. You have stated in the past that you don't believe it will ever become "mainstream." With that in mind, how rewarding is it to realize how successful the series has been and continues to be to this day?
I think it’s fair to say that every author hopes that his or her work will not only be read, but will continue to be read. That mine has been received well and continues to be read is extremely personally gratifying, and I feel very fortunate in that.
6- I have to admit that the reason which compelled me to buy THE MAGIC OF RECLUCE, in 1992, was Darrell K. Sweet's cover art. Like Robert Jordan's THE WHEEL OF TIME, the entire RECLUCE saga has distinctive cover art, giving each book some sort of visual continuity. How important is cover art to you, in terms of a marketing tool?
According to surveys by the publishing industry, cover art is the single most important factor in attracting readers, particularly new readers. My editor, David Hartwell, has worked very hard with Irene Gallo, the art director at Tor, and her predecessors, and with the artists to obtain art which represents the spirit of what I write. Darrell K. Sweet is particularly good in his use of color, especially, in my view, in such things as skies, buildings, and sunsets.
All in all, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my cover art, and I’m very grateful that I have been, because the covers are extremely important in today’s book-selling world.
7- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write each series in the first place?
The Saga of Recluce was generated by my very first con, BaltiCon, when I was placed on a panel that discussed economics, politics, and technology in fantasy and science fiction. In the process, I realized that I’d never seen a fantasy that tried to integrate all those factors within a rationalized structure. So I wrote The Magic of Recluce to see if it could be done. Before that, I’d written about seven or eight science fiction novels, but no fantasy.
The Spellsong Cycle came about because I’m married to an opera singer who is also a professor and the director of a university opera program. I was thinking about the rational [again] application of song as a way of controlling magic, when I realized that it wasn’t possible from within the culture – because of the power constraints. So... I thought about what would happen if someone like Carol Ann were placed in such a situation… and the books developed from that.
The Corean Chronicles… I’m not sure that they had a genesis in anything so concrete as the earlier two series. I did want to write a series where magic was tied to the very environment itself, and I just kept playing with the possibilities and concepts until I had something I liked.
8- What authors have had the biggest influence on you?
Probably William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. I did start out as a poet, you know. I just never got beyond the small magazines and rejections from the Yale Younger Poet’s competition.
9- Is there a character that you particularly enjoy/enjoyed writing? Why is that? By the same token, is there a character that you absolutely don't/didn't like writing about? For what reason?
I’d have to say that I’ve probably enjoyed writing Johan Eschbach in the “Ghost” books [my alternate history series in a world where ghosts are indeed real and can be measured with scientific instruments] and Anna Marshall of the Spellsong series. I just liked Johan, identified with him. As for Anna, it was a challenge to write from the female perspective.
I can’t say there are characters I disliked writing. There are a number of characters I wrote, however, that I would never wish to meet in person.
10- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
I used to think that I could define that. I’m no longer sure that I can. According to my editors, I’m a very good technical writer. I’d like to think that I’m able to present a more complex vision of the conflicts my characters face without losing the ability to entertain my readers.
11- Do you have a different approach when it comes to writing fantasy or science fiction?
As far as the basic approach goes… no. The underlying rules differ, and I have to keep that in mind.
12- Few authors are capable to jumping from fantasy to science fiction and maintain the high level of quality for which they are known in either one of the genres. But apparently, you manage to do so with baffling ease. What is your secret?
I don’t know that it’s a secret. Books, whether they’re science fiction or fantasy, should tell stories about people. Most readers, and certainly most of my readers, like to identify with or understand the characters. For me, while the magic should be logical or the technology possible, both are tools in the hands of the characters. For me, the characters are what make or break a book, although the setting and background certainly have to work as well.
13- The entire SPELLSONG CYCLE was told from a female perspective. And according to both readers and reviewers, you did so very convincingly. In this day and age where men have almost given up on trying to understand women, how were you able to pull this off!?!
It might have something to do with my life – and my failures. After three marriages and six headstrong daughters, I’ve been forced to learn a great deal. Remember, I didn’t write the Spellsong Cycle until after I married Carol Ann, and after my daughters were mostly grown. In such matters, I’ve been a slow learner, but eventually, I have learned a few things.
14- We spoke a few years back, and you were telling me that you doubted that your novels would ever be translated in French. Imagine my surprise when, last summer, I saw French translations of your books in Paris! Have you sold foreign rights in many languages? How does it feel to now have the possibility to share your books with people from around the globe, in different languages?
I had my doubts about being published in French for several reasons. First, translation from English to French increases the length of the books by as much as 40%. This increases costs. That’s why you seldom see large translated books in French unless they are books “guaranteed” to sell many, many thousands of copies. I don’t write short books, and my books are complex. That means they’re hard, if not impossible, to condense without losing much of the underlying support. Some readers would prefer that, I know, but most of mine would not.
So, initially, most of the translations of my books were into Germanic and Slavic languages, rather than romance languages.
However, recently that’s changed. There’s the French edition of The Magic of Recluce, and the first Corean book has appeared in Italian, and the second will in early May of this year.All told, I’ve had books translated into eight languages other than English. Because French is the only language I read besides English, I can only hope the other translations are good!
15- What author makes you shake your head in admiration?
I really don’t follow authors per se. I tend to look at particular books, or poems, and I’m not comfortable making a statement in print about such. There are many works I’ve admired, but for many different reasons. To list those and why would take too much space, and to list just a few would be grossly unfair to those not listed.
16- Thus far, the RECLUCE saga is composed of 13 books. Only two of them occur in the "present" of the RECLUCE timeline, while all the others take place in its "past." Are there any plans to write a number of books taking place in the "future," since you have left a lot of things up in the air at the end of THE DEATH OF CHAOS?
As I have said, there will be no books set chronologically after The Death of Chaos. There are very good and structurally-based reasons why not, but to explain why not would reveal more than would be fair to those who have not read that far.
17- I know that you were not asked to participate in the first LEGENDS anthology. But were you asked to contribute to the second one? Many believe that you deserve to be a part of such a project.
I was never approached for any of the Legends anthologies.
18- Is a World Fantasy Award something you covet?
I certainly wouldn’t turn one down, and it would be nice to have one, but I can’t say I ‘covet’ one. I think it’s highly unlikely that I will ever be nominated, let alone receive one, because while my readership certainly includes devoted fantasy readers, my readers also come from many other areas, and because I’m a lousy literary politician.
19- You have claimed that Tom Doherty is one of the most underappreciated men in fantasy. What do you mean by that?
Tom Doherty is one of the few visionary publishers. He also has always been willing to allow his editors freedom in publishing a wide range of authors. His vision and energy have taken Tor from being something like the fifth largest publisher of F&SF in the U.S. in 1983 or thereabouts to the largest in the world today. He’s courteous, but direct. He doesn’t hide behind subterfuges, and he understands how the publishing business operates – all the way from the creative side to end-point sales – far better than do the bookstore chains. He’s a consummate salesman, and he’s also an excellent editor. And yet, I’ve seen very little recognition of Tom as an individual – just the recognition of Tor itself.
20- Does each new book you publish attract more readers than the one before? Or are your sales relatively steady, meaning that you have a loyal following? I ask, because at times it's as if you are fantasy best-kept secret.
I’m told that, over the years, my sales have continued to increase, although they don’t necessarily increase book by book. One book may sell about the same as the last, and then the sales of the next several may increase significantly.
I’ve often joked that I’m the most anonymous, best-selling author in the field. Part of that is, I believe, because a larger portion of my sales than of many other authors comes from readers outside the field. So, while my sales increase, my visibility inside the F&SF field doesn’t necessarily increase correspondingly.
Then, too, it could be that I’m just not charismatic. A number of years ago, I did a signing at a book store in London, and near the end, a gentleman appeared and said that he very much enjoyed my work. I asked him if he’d like me to sign a book for him, and he replied, “Oh, no. I’m not interested in you. I just like your books.”
21- Is the RECLUCE universe vaster than the island continents we see on the map? If so, will we ever discover what lies beyond?
Both Ordermaster and Wellspring of Chaos reveal more details about Austra and Nordla, since most of the events take place there, as well as a few scenes in Hamor. Over time, I hope to explore more areas.
22- What was the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of the RECLUCE saga? Each new addition reveals yet more depth to a series which has shown just how rich and complex it truly is.
I honestly can’t say that any one part has been harder than the others. When I start a new Recluce novel, however, I do take the precaution of studying the maps and my notes carefully.
23- Your science fiction novels are not as popular as your fantasy books. What can you tell us that could introduce readers to your work in that genre?
My science fiction, while also character-driven, tends to be somewhat more overtly thought-provoking than the fantasy. Most of my recent science fiction has received starred reviews from reviewers such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal, although not universally from all of them. Flash, which came out last October, features a resigned Marine lieutenant colonel, now a media/advertising consultant who has developed a high-tech method of evaluating the success of high-tech product placement advertising on the world-wide entertainment nets of the 22nd century. When he takes a contract for a public interest group to look into the application of these techniques to politics, people start trying to kill him and his family, and replica clones of him appear in illegal actions. Add to that the subversion of police AI nets, and a renegade AI, as well as the rebellion of a Mars colony against its corporate sponsors. The book is not only action-filled, but explores just what happens when the regulations of society, designed to protect us, become a trap where, if Jonat obeys the rules, he dies, and if he doesn’t, he has to go against everything he believes in.
24- What can you tell us of your future projects? Any chance of a new SPELLSONG novel?
A new Spellsong novel is unlikely at any time in the near future.
The next novel after Alector’s Choice is The Eternity Artifact, a stand-alone SF novel set some 4,000 years in the future. Mankind has explored much of the Galaxy, but has encountered no alien sentient life – until a strange planet is discovered at the edge of the Galaxy – with an abandoned and perfectly preserved single huge city upon it – and nothing else. The city is over 5 billion years old and contains advanced and inexplicable materials and technology. Every major government either wants to monopolize the city or deny to everyone, which creates considerable difficulties for the members of the science team trying to unravel those mysteries. I’m currently working on the second book of the second Corean trilogy, and will probably write the third one after that, followed by another SF novel.
25- What is your work ethic? You appear to be the only fantasy/scifi writer capable of putting out 2 or 3 books a year, and big books to boot.
First off, I happen to like to write. I admit that there are days when it’s a bit harder to get the first words on the screen, so to speak, but I can’t imagine anything else that I would enjoy doing so much as I do writing, and since I’ve had experience in a number of fields over the years before I was able to become a full-time writer, I’m not at all tempted to change full-time professions again. Second, for better or worse, I was raised by parents with a love of language and an incredible work ethic. They also had high expectations. Third, it’s become very clear that if I want to remain a successful writer I need to write books regularly. Readers do not pay for books writers do not write. For these reasons, I attempt to maintain a writing schedule of between 8 and 12 hours a day. I use the word “attempt” advisedly, because there are always interruptions, either from dogs who need to be fed and walked, meals that need to be prepared, and from all the other non-occupational miscellany of life.
I appreciate having the chance to ramble on at length, and hope my comments will provide some additional insight to present readers and intrigue possible new readers.
L. E. Modesitt, Jr.