As promised, here it is!:-) A Q&A with R. Scott Bakker is always interesting, as you'll see!
Dear Mr. Bakker,
Let me start by thanking you for being gracious enough to take some precious time off your indubitably busy schedule to answer these questions. But with the imminent release of The Thousandfold Thought, know that your fans are extremely excited about this chance to hear from you in person.
- Given the complexity of many of your characterizations, 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 like writing about? For what reason?
There’s no one I really dislike writing - it’s more a matter of each posing their own peculiar challenges at particular points. Kellhus is typically the most difficult, simply because it’s hard to convincingly portray someone that damn smart. Others, like Cnaiur, oscillate between extreme difficulty and writing themselves. I had expected he would be the most difficult (after Kellhus of course) to write in The Thousandfold Thought, but thanks to the Melvins and Lustmord, he ended up writing himself. Conphas is easily my favourite. Sometimes I laugh my ass off while writing his sections.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
This question is hard because I still feel I have so much to learn. I think my strength is that I set explicit challenges for myself - extreme challenges in some cases. For every scene, I always ask myself what I want my words to do. Most times I fall short of my goals, sometimes I satisfy them, and every once in awhile - like the scene I call ‘Esmenet’s Song’ in The Thousandfold Thought - I sit back and think, ‘There’s no way I wrote that...’
- What author makes you shake your head in admiration? Many fantasy authors don't read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?
I used to read everything, years and years ago, but the deeper I wandered into university, the more and more I became addicted to ‘primary texts.’ I lost the ability to read for pleasure’s sake, but I think I’m on the slow road to recovery. In the genre, I probably admire George R R Martin the most, not only for his story-telling skills, but because his books made me realize that my little hobby - writing complex fantasy - could very well strike a chord with readers. Reading him was a revelation of sorts. Most recently, I finished Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which, meta-fictional wanking and meta-wanking aside, is nothing short of brilliant.
- Many purists, epic fantasy aficionados, and critics now consider you one of the best fantasy authors in the world. Is there added pressure when it comes down to writing a new addition to the series?
Finding it. Difficult. To breathe...
This is crazy. Are you serious?
Well first off, you should know that I don’t write fantasy - only hacks write fantasy. My books are about the triumph of the human spirit which just happen to have everything you would find in The Wheel of Time...
Look. See the damage you’ve done?
Seriously though, I have found myself freaking out on occasion. I wouldn’t say I’m the most psychologically robust person in the world. I feel like an imposter answering questions like this, and I get chilled by the shadow of the giant shoe some part of me knows is about to drop. I’ve suffered a few instances of depersonalization and derealization... The jargon helps.
But when a story ‘clicks’ for me - I’m not sure how else to explain it - the old priorities reassert themselves, or so it seems. The big temptation, I think, when you start garnering critical acclaim, is to start writing for your critics, which can have disastrous consequences. You write for your readers. It’s not as simple as that, but it’s where I hang my hat.
- In addition, The Thousandfold Thought sets the bar rather high. Will you approach writing The Aspect-Emperor differently now that your writing skills have reached (in my opinion at least) a new level of quality?
Thanks, Pat. I think my writing has gotten stronger with each book, and I’m hoping to put these new skills to work in The Aspect-Emperor. I’m excited by the prospect, primarily because the canvas is so much bigger - so much more (please don’t groan) Tolkienesque. The story is still the same as when I conceived it some twenty years ago, but where I used to despair of being able to do it justice (after so long, the plot of The Second Apocalypse has become something of a religious fetish in my mind) I now feel I have the tools that I need.
But when I reflect on The Prince of Nothing, I sometimes worry. Despite all the flaws, all the ways it makes me cringe, it seems like a kind of monument to me, like something truly iconic. It has a peculiar magic, like a spell an author can only hope to cast once in his or her lifetime. That’s the way it seems.
Pretty melodramatic, huh?
- What would you say was the hardest part of the entire process involved in the writing of the THE PRINCE OF NOTHING? Each new addition reveals yet more depth to a series which has shown just how rich and complex it truly is. What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the series in the first place?
I could go on and on about the complexities. I just spent so much time layering things into the world and story - it almost feels geological when I think about it. The framework arose from my attempt to ‘make good’ on all the work I put into my D&D campaigns back in the eighties. The story proper grew around the character of Kellhus, who arose from the biggest revelation I suffered in my first year of university back in 1986: the realization that belief systems are more a product of social function than of ‘truth.’
Standing inside a given belief system, canonical claims always seem ‘obviously true,’ so much so that we reflexively use them as the yardstick of other belief systems, while remaining utterly oblivious to the fact that others are doing the exact same thing with the same depth of conviction. We seem to forget that having conviction, no matter how soulful or meaningful or redemptive, is as much an indicator of deception as it is of accuracy. Ignorance is invisible, after all. Thanks to psychological mechanisms like confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error and self-exceptionalism, we’re quite content with the embarrassing notion that we somehow just ‘lucked into’ the one true belief system. And why not, when it’s the only yardstick we have? Everything else has to come up short. Outsiders are judged and found wanting.
When you consider the pivotal role belief plays in action and the ways social systems depend on the repetition of interrelated actions to exist (if everyone starting doing different things all at once - like NYC transit workers deciding to fart in front of the TV rather than going to work - society would collapse) then you can see that the primary function of belief systems is to conserve actions, not to be ‘true.’ This is why social systems collapse when belief in them collapses, which is arguably what happened in the old Soviet Union.
Given things like this, I asked myself what a martial artist who used the functionality of belief as well as his sword and his hands would look like, and I came up with Kellhus.
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy Award? Why, exactly?
The New York Times bestseller, because then I could buy a World Fantasy Award - maybe two or three of them. I would like to move out of this grungy little apartment, buy a flat screen HDTV, and it would be nice to own a car with a CD player, but aside from that my primary interest is in being read. My goal is to challenge as many people as I can possibly challenge: I really believe we’re entering a phase of history where we’ll need as much conceptual flexibility as we can get. And if I can pass on a few philosophical stretching exercises, then I will have been part of the solution I think.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I was curious about the prospect of winning awards - yes, I was vain enough to think I had a shot - but when The Darkness that Comes Before didn’t even make the list for the Sunburst Awards here in Canada... well. My agent even warned me: epic fantasy doesn’t win refereed awards. I’d like to chalk it up to the perennial inferiority complex we fantasists have. It sometimes seems that the awards go to those who bring fantastic elements to a literary format, and of course I’m trying to do the exact opposite. But that’s likely just a flattering rationale.
Maybe my stuff just isn’t good enough.
Either way, life is about honour, not honours. So the cliche goes.
- What's the progress report pertaining to NEUROPATH? What can you tell us about the premise of the story? Anything new you wish to share with your fans? Something to whet their appetite. . .
I’m working on the rewrites as we speak, and I should have something for my agent to shop around by February. In many ways, I’m doing the same thing I did with The Prince of Nothing: I’m embracing the genre, telling a classic psychothriller tale, in order to explore its significance from the inside out.
I got a good vibe about this book.
- What extensive research did the writing of the THE PRINCE OF NOTHING entail?
It wasn’t so much a matter of doing specific research - like I’ve been doing for Neuropath, for example - as the result of twenty years being a student and an information junkie. I seem to be a little bit interested in everything. Outside of philosophy, I’m as shallow as an ice rink, but I’m at least as broad as the blue line.
- The series has garnered what can best be described as a cult following. However, many doubt that 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?
It probably is too challenging to go mainstream in a manner analogous to Martin or Jordan. All I know is that it has already exceeded my initially pessimistic expectations. I have regrets, especially about the difficulties with The Darkness that Comes Before, primarily because I know they are largely the result of my immersion in the world and my inexperience as a storyteller. But the fact is I’m paying my rent, all of my publishers are very happy with the numbers, and those people who love the books, really do love them. Hoping for more is understandable, but expecting more would be presumptuous and self-defeating. I started working in the fields when I was nine years old. I put myself through university by working midnights at a grocery store - fourteen years I spent there. Drudgery was my middle name. Right now my life is slack - I know it, and I’m not about to second-guess it.
- I am aware that The Darkness that Comes Before has been translated in French. How many foreign sales have you been able to secure so far?
Hmm. So far it’s also being translated into Spanish, German, Polish, Czech, Romanian, and Russian. Not bad for a newbie, I think!
- The fact that you have your own forum on the internet is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?
It’s very cool, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a mixed bag, because it is. The web is a precarious place for an author to be. Say you knew that two people were whispering about you in the next room. What would you do? Ignore them and continue cleaning your toe jam, or hold your breath and try to hear what they’re saying. I think it’s human nature to do the latter, even though there’s something unhealthy about doing it. The web is a big whisper, and once you strain your ears to listen, it becomes very hard to stop. For me, anyway, it tends to become a kind of psychic noise pollution, and it interferes with the clarity that is so integral to my writing. The problem is that the more I log on the more I succumb to a morbid curiosity for the vox populi - even though afterward it feels like sticking myself with pins.
Some people really don’t like me.
On the other hand, however, the actual interaction is absolutely priceless - there’s no better way to work out your thoughts on a topic than to debate them on a web forum. Then there’s the desire to give back to those who actually spent a part of their lives - because that’s what money is: what we get for surrendering part of our lives to assembly lines, kitchens, highways, or whatever your occupation happens to be - to share your thoughts and your stories. And the web is the perfect way to do this, even if you find yourself saying RAFO over and over again, and your readers keep pointing out inconsistencies that you missed, or factual mistakes that you made, or seem to think your imaginative excesses offer clues to your sex life or psyche or...
Which is to say, keep you honest!
- Are you surprised by what little support you receive from the Canadian media? You and Steven Erikson rank among the best fantasy authors out there, yet both of you Canucks appear to get very little recognition in your own country.
Don’t get me started. It all comes back to the pigeonhole. We have a brain you can fit into a shoebox in a universe so big it defeats the speed of light. As a result, we constantly simplify things by using evaluative tags - things that identify, interpret, and dismiss all at once. ‘Epic fantasy,’ unfortunately, is one of those tags. And despite my early hopes and considerable literary hubris, my work has not managed to shine through.
Thanks to Penguin, I have received some attention here and there, and I sometimes wish I could pull it together enough to manage what Rob Sawyer has accomplished in terms of homegrown media exposure. Part of the problem, I sometimes think, is that here in Canada the literary culture has a powerful nationalistic subtext - not surprising when you consider overwhelming influence of American mass culture - which has led to an almost academic inwardness. The only way to get onto the conveyor belt is to write about Canada, which I have yet to do.
If I ever become commercially successful, I imagine things will change. Canadians love Canadians who manage to beat the Americans at their own game. Failing that, I suppose I could try breast implants or talking out of my butt. Worked for Pamela Anderson and Jim Carey.
- Having read The Thousandfold Thought, I've been telling everyone who will listen to me that it just might be the best fantasy novel that will see the light in 2006. For the benefit of those who have not read it, and without revealing too much, what would you like to tell your fans about it?
I thank you for that, Pat. Word of mouth has been the primary engine for The Prince of Nothing from the start. All I can tell you is what I hoped to accomplish. I wanted to create a world as deep and as consistent as Middle-earth, but as unsentimental and as gritty as the real thing. I wanted to write something that was truly epic and truly fantastic, something religiously faithful to the genre, and yet utterly unlike anything fans have read before. I wanted to tell a story that, when completed, left readers of all stripes feeling as though they had climbed something, even if the full dimensions of the structure escaped them.
The Thousandfold Thought is the summit.
- Some readers have commented on the fact that there is an inordinate amount of semen in the series. Is there a reason for that?
I read somewhere that the average man produces enough ejaculate to fill a bath-tub over the course of his lifetime. By my own estimates, the books contain a small fraction of that - a quart or so at most. So those readers are quite mistaken...
Semen was magical to our ancestors, though it has become quite taboo for us. Think of the Old Testament, which certainly spills a lot of ink about ‘seed.’ The word itself comes to us via old French from the Latin word for seed. Suggestively, the ancient Greek word, s‘ma, meant sign or token or signal. It belongs to a nexus of meanings that are conceptually crucial, I think. But most importantly, it is the visible link between generations, the rope that binds each of us both to the generations that have come before and to our shared animality. When you think of this in the context of Esmenet, who is the perspectival focal point for most of the references, I think you’ll quickly see that my use of the word is far from gratuitous.
- Throughout the trilogy, you have shown your desire to take your tale on the path less traveled. The Mideastern setting, as well as the religious and philosophical aspects, are great examples of how you took epic fantasy on a different path. Was it something that you truly wanted to work on, or did it just happen that way?
I think it just happened that way. I wanted something literate and cosmopolitan, so the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean just became the associative quarry where I cut most of my stone.
- Were you surprised that Penguin Books Canada, a publisher not particularly known for producing much works in the fantasy genre, gave you your first opportunity?
I certainly never expected it, but when you consider that they first published Guy Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry it makes sense. They’re actually something of a powerhouse when it comes to Canadian SF&F.
- Since there was no glossary in The Warrior-Prophet, I was a bit shocked to see such a comprehensive glossary in The Thousandfold Thought. Was it difficult to get your publishers to go along with the idea?
Not at all, though they did ask me to keep it as concise as I could. It was part of the plan from the very beginning. A tip of the hat to The Return of the King.
Either that or plain old thievery.
- Will we continue to learn more about the Consult and the Inchoroi from Seswatha's dreams, or will there be more information given in the next series?
There will be much, much more information. As I think I mentioned earlier, a larger part of the world, especially when it comes to the Sranc and the Nonmen, will come into the narrative spotlight. I get giddy just thinking about it!
- Speaking of the next series, what can you tell us about The Aspect-Emperor?
As those who frequent the Three Seas Forum know, I’m pretty paranoid when it comes to potential spoilers. I’m one of those people who covers their ears and sings nonsense when people even mention something I want to read or see. All I’ll say is that it begins approximately 20 years after the conclusion of The Thousandfold Thought.
- Do you have any details concerning a possible upcoming book tour to promote the release of your new novel? Fans are curious to know if you'll be stopping by in their home towns.
Not at the moment. I know I’ll be flying out to Calgary and Vancouver, but not much else.
- Honestly, do you believe that the fantasy genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
If I have my way.
I have some pretty insane ambitions and rapping the insular knuckles of the literary mainstream is one of them. Let them kneel at our pew for a change. To bring commercial genres to the literary mainstream is to use genre as a literary resource for literary readers. To bring literature to commercial genre is to use literature as a resource for popular readers. I’m not interested in singing to choir. I want to write for people who could be potentially offended by what I have to say. I want to start discussions, not rehash them or string them along. The irony, of course, is that this is what literature is supposed to do. Span perspectives, not entrench them. Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost sight of this.
I’m convinced that the division between the commercial and the literary is an artificial one, and that universities are the primary institutional culprit, not the media corporations (which is not to let them off the hook). The same firewalls that provide academic communities the freedom to explore what they will has produced standards of artistic merit drastically removed from those with only their socialization in popular culture to draw on. Isolate any conversation long enough, and it will eventually become esoteric to the point of general unintelligibility. Far from being the heights of contemporary culture, universities have become vacuums, sucking up the individuals with the talent and sensitivity that mass culture so desperately needs, using institutional pressures to rewire their priorities and tastes (just try, without embarrassment, arguing the virtues of epic fantasy in an English literature class), and putting them to work for the also-trained, where everyone can collectively bitch and moan about the commodification of culture and cretinization of the masses. They rob us with one hand, then dare wag their finger with the other. "Look how poor you are."
There’s lots of bullets that need to be bitten, I think. Pass the ammo.
Well, thanks again for accepting to do this. I wish you continued success, and wish you the best for the release of The Thousandfold Thought.
Thank you, Pat. It’s been a pleasure.