After finishing R. Scott Bakker's The White-Luck Warrior (Canada, USA, Europe), I knew that we would have to do another Q&A. Teaming up with me this time around were Larry (www.ofblog.blogspot.com) and Adam (www.thewertzone.blogspot.com). This was another fun gig!
Many thanks to Bakker, who as always is very forthcoming and thoughtful with his answers.
As the title implies, this is the first part of a longer interview. Bakker couldn't get to the questions from fans before my Eastern European adventure, so those questions will have to wait for a few weeks. Since it has to do with a lot of metaphysical stuff for hardcore fans, it just might be better that way, after all.
- You seem quite pleased with the way THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR has been received thus far. Did Overlook and Orbit market this one differently than its predecessor, or has the novel just built on the wave created by THE JUDGING EYE?
There’s as many answers to this question as there readers of the series. One of the factors, I think, has to do with the difficulty of The Thousandfold Thought. Combined with the delay, many readers took their time moving onto The Judging Eye, so there was no real sales bump you often see in fantasy series. Then of course there was the fiscal crisis... Dark fiction generally doesn’t fare that well during dark days.
The bottomline is that I’m walking a tightrope with this series, balancing what I think is a celebration of the high fantasy genre with various staples of literary fiction in what I think are novel and interesting ways. It’s a rich and heady brew, and it’ll take time, I think, to move through the cultural gut. My agent worries. My wife worries. I’ve actually been offered substantial sums to abandon the series!
And I always say, "Wait... wait until its done. Then you’ll see." The catechism of the Wishful Thinker, perhaps.
Perhaps the response to The White-Luck Warrior is the first glimmer... Who knows? Hopefully people keep talking.
- THE JUDGING EYE was your most accessible book to date, yet many hardcore fans bemoaned the absence of your "spending too much time knocking around in your characters’ heads." In that regard, THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR seems to be a return to what made the Prince of Nothing so distinctive. Was that a conscious decision, or did the narrative simply demand such a return to form?
I’m always tweaking, of course, especially while working on revisions, but I think this as much a function of the story as anything else. I still think there’s too much unmotivated interiority in The Prince of Nothing, points where I wallow in this or that perspective for the sake of exploring this or that nuance of character–nuances, which, frankly, strike all but the most careful readers as bald repetition. So in The Thousandfold Thought, for instance, I was bent on exploring the fingerprint, down to the trough and whorls, of religious submission to another. This angle and that. Spin it this way, articulate it that. I see it as a meditation on some very curious facts regarding power and passion, and I indulged myself, saying, ‘Well, if they’ve followed me this far...’
‘This far,’ I now think, was ‘too far.’ All along I wanted to write an epic fantasy that rewards careful reading, the kind of scrutiny generally reserved for so-called ‘literary texts.’ A fantasy that wouldn’t be ‘ruined’ by a literature PhD, let alone a BA. At the same time I wanted to write an epic fantasy that rewards casual reading as well–to literally have it both ways. This is the tightrope. The temptation for me would be scoff at the casual readers, upbraid them for not being ‘careful enough.’ But the failure is mine: I’m the one who set the task of writing something that works at multiple levels of resolution, so it would be dishonest to simply jump from the one to the other depending on the charge. I need to have both to satisfy my own yardstick.
This is why I like to think I’ve been much more careful in The White-Luck Warrior, dipping into the souls of my characters, yes, but with more an eye for advancing the story. The nuances are all still there, and I’m sure many will bitch about ‘getting it the first time,’ but not quite so many, and I’ll take that as a measure of progress.
Otherwise, I think the book has more than enough hysterical psychodrama to please the navel porn junkies out there.
- Why was the original title, THE SHORTEST PATH, ultimately dropped and changed to THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR?
I was never quite happy with The Shortest Path, and I always liked The White-Luck Warrior, more so once the structural parallels to The Warrior-Prophet became increasingly apparent. I love blurs, the way repetitions, twisted through the lens of changing contexts, create resonances and ambiguities.
- What's the basic timeline we can expect for the release of your next few books? I understand there is a "Can-Lit" novel that will be released in the near future? What can you tell us about that novel?
We were working on a deal that would have seen Light, Time, and Gravity published this fall, but unfortunately, things didn’t work out. A couple years back I took this recipe I had been using to spoof CanLit (up here on the boreal fringe of the United States, we’re forced to subsidize culture to convince ourselves we’re more than just Americans who think they’re better than Americans) and used it to pitch a project to the Canada Council, an institution notorious for high-brow bigotry. And lo, I received a cheque for twenty G’s in the mail a few months later. Loathe to part with the money, I decided to actually write the book.
The idea is the same: embrace the genre, then stuff it with as much craziness as I can get away with. When you write a literary novel you are entering a certain kind of ‘judgment space’ (one where many of the things you and I love are regarded as ‘silly’ to varying degrees). I know there’s a lot of people like me out there, people who for whatever reason find themselves stuck between judgment spaces. (As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy!) What I try to do in Light, Time, and Gravity, is put these warring pieces in narrative and theoretical motion. The point was to tell a kind of inverted ‘portrait of the artist as a young man’ tale, or Bildungsroman, to use the ten dollar term. What I wanted to show was the bullshit at the heart of so many intellectual bootstrapping tales you hear in academia and literary circles, how transcending one’s ‘benighted origins’ was simply a movement from a set of vulgar conceits to a more insidious set of sophisticated ones.
Values are judgments, so when you abandon one set for another, as happens to so many in university, you are in effect learning how to play a different ‘judgment game.’ The assumption, of course, is that the new game is better than the old, that the humanities, as people like Nussbaum argue, teach people how to think ‘critically,’ that it produces ‘citizens,’ that it somehow elevates individuals above the popular mire, and so preserves some essential kernel of true culture.
Bullshit. It teaches people how to rationalize (typically canonical) conclusions, not to think critically. Teaching people how to write essays is teaching them how to cook up reasons after the fact. This, given the world we live in, is an absolutely essential skill, but there’s nothing ‘critical’ about it. Rationalization is the primary obstacle to the possibility of critical thinking. My (entirely hypothetical) claim is that if you put an English professor in an MRI and pose a number of controversial cultural claims that they would access the problem-solving centres of their brains no more than would a Christian evangelical. (I think I’m actually a kind of proof: If the literary world were even remotely ‘self-critical,’ then you would think they would be discussing critiques such as these, rather than lace the blinders like the ‘cretinized masses’ they lampoon.)
Even worse, it stigmatizes ‘intellectualism,’ renders it the marker of an adversarial social identity. To be intellectual is to belong to a particular, ideologically entrenched out-group, one that generally assumes the cultural worst about ‘regular Joes’ like you. Brainwashed. Oppressed. Kissing the boots that kick us.
As if they were anything more than another boot. The primary social function of post-secondary literary studies, as far as I can tell, is to sift through the masses, identify the critically and creatively minded, then convince them to turn their back on their community. To make fun of popular culture rather than transform it. The sad fact is that the humanities evolved in near absolute ignorance of the pedagogical and social problems they pretend to address. Now, given their prodigious rationalizing skills, they cling to the model that secures their livelihood and prestige.
And I remain another lunatic in the institutional wilderness.
- In THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR we get some hints about the stakes that are being played for, the notion that the Consult want to reduce the population of Earwa to a specific decimal number which has Biblical significance. Was your intention here to draw a direct parallel between the story of Kellhus and the Great Ordeal and that Biblical source, or was it merely an easter egg and the correlation itself is not significant?
Is an ‘easter egg’ the same thing as a herring? If so, there’s a whole whap of them in the books.
- Many early readers of THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR have speculated over the meaning of "144,000." Considering there is a reference to that in the biblical book of Revelation, it does spark curiosity. However, what I'm more curious about is symbolism in the series. Are you consciously connecting "revealed truths" and prophecies with what is unfolding in your narrative?
In a sideways manner, definitely. Fantasy is about ‘blurring,’ taking a shared semantic palette and painting new things–new worlds. Tolkien took Northern European myth as his primary palette. I’m blurring scripture, pursuing the idea that epic fantasy is a kind of ‘scripture otherwise.’ So I employ a variety of strategies to spin a kind of scriptural tone, a certain diction, a certain kind of repetition, a certain moralistic attitude, and so on. Story-wise, I often draw content from the Bible, milking old religious associations to create something new.
Few things are more epic than the Holy Bible.
- After months of relative internet silence, you have elected to create your own blog. What prompted that decision?
I was told this was what contemporary writers have to do to keep their publishers happy nowadays. But for some reason I don’t think my blog makes anyone with a commercial stake in my work happy.
Having something to sell–like I do–makes honest communication bloody difficult. And I am always, always haunted by this. Yet I blunder on. I know that for many readers, no matter how often I spoof myself, no matter how often I reference my own foibles to condemn this or that social idiocy, I come across as a pretentious, arrogant blowhard. How could it be otherwise when I spend all my time telling everyone that they’re far less intelligent, far less rational, far less right, than they credit themselves? The endless qualifications don’t matter. The stupendous amount of research doesn’t matter. The automatic, instant assumption is that I must–at some level–consider myself the magical exception. Nothing makes people more defensive than impugning their intelligence.
Tweak someone’s pride and your wit becomes snark, your insight becomes pretense–the whole tone of everything you say is transformed. Once a brain is primed to find fault, there really is no stopping it, given the ambiguity of language and the world. I sometimes think the very premise of the Three Pound Brain makes it untenable.
This is why I fear the blog is actually doing real damage to my book sales. But what the hell can I do? Transform it into market friendly pap? I just don’t have it in me. Abandon it? I’m beginning to think this is the best solution.
I’m a critic. I’m a know-it-all. I’m a mincer and a tail-chaser. I can never quite play along–no matter what the game! All this makes me a hard sell when it comes to general audiences. The sad fact is that some authors detract from the viability of their work–they just do. Before my daughter (and the prospect of funding a post-secondary education) came along, I would have throttled forward, the torpedoes be damned. But nothing argues cowardice quite so fiercely as parenthood.
- How has your interaction with the fans and the critics colored your choices in characterization and plot? Has there been anything that you've changed because of that interaction?
Most critics are what you might call ‘extreme readers’: they tend to read a lot more than your typical fantasy fan. The paradox of reviewing is that critics are forced to offer up their assessments as typical when their training and sheer exposure to a genre almost guarantees a relatively idiosyncratic reading. So as interested as I am in what the critics say, I really don’t take much of what they say to creative heart. It’s workaday readers and the distribution of their responses that I’m primarily interested in.
I actually gave a paper on this at Aarhus University several months back, so it’s something I’ve pondered quite seriously. The argument I’ve been making ad nauseam for years now is that ‘Literature,’ whatever it is, is nothing essential. Literature is as literature does. Change the circumstances radically enough, and what once counted as Literature will cease doing literary things. And in the past couple decades I think we have witnessed a number of circumstantial game changers. First and foremost, there is market segmentation, the ever more specific and robust linking of various readers to various kinds of fiction. This transformation, I’ve been arguing, has rendered present day ‘literary fiction’ just another genre, with largely fixed audiences demanding the satisfaction of relatively fixed expectations.
The second great game-changer has got to be the Internet.
I go through these spasms of trolling the web, looking at message board responses to my work. I find it taxing at times, simply because my books seem to be so polarizing, but over the years I’ve developed a fair understanding, I think, of the ways my writing parses readers, blowing some away, and irritating others to distraction. Since I see fiction as a form of communication, an attempt to conjure worlds in the brains of others, I think this near instantaneous feedback is as invaluable as it is revolutionary.
It’s like watching the ripples your stones make when you plunk them in the pond. If you think Literature resides in the shape of the stones (the resemblance of your work to past forms), then it makes no difference if you throw them with your eyes opened or closed. If you think literature resides in the ripples (what you work does to actual readers), then you have to keep your eyes peeled, and prepare to be humbled time and again.
- In a Q&A you did five years ago, you brought up the issue of exploring sexism in the guise of what if religious tracts were correct about the "inferiority" of women. Despite this, you've received some flak for the lack of female characters that aren't variations of the "crone, whore, or saint." Has this affected your portrayals of some of the female characters?
When it comes to the misogyny charge my answer has been fairly consistent, I think. First, that I am a sexist, insofar as I think men are generally less competent than women across the majority of modern social contexts. I generally find women more reliable and trustworthy. If anything, misandry is my problem, not misogyny. Second, that people are inclined to mistake depiction for endorsement. Third, that those who decide my books are misogynistic cannot help but find evidence to confirm their view (just as people who decide my books are feminist (my intention) cannot help but find evidence confirming their view). Fourth, that I recognize the problem of the ‘Archie Bunker effect,’ that for many readers the feminist subtexts are simply too opaque to rescue the books from misogynistic misreadings.
And fifth, that the story is far from done, that my critics are passing judgment on fractions of the whole.
It would be entirely dishonest of me to suggest that I haven’t been influenced by the debate, but the fact remains that the story, the characters, and most importantly, the thematic arc, were around long before I realized how hindsight and confirmation bias would obscure my intentions. One of the recurring themes in the series has to do with the contextual vagaries of strength. I have always thought of Esmenet as being extraordinarily strong, given her oppressive circumstances. But her strength is a different strength than that of Mimara, whose strength is entirely different than that of Serwa.
The problem is that so many people think strength consists of agency and nothing more–that strength is simple. Even worse, most think they have far more agency than they in fact do. Everyone thinks they would do better than others who falter or fail in various moral situations. This is why, for instance, they overrate the value of confessions in trials: no one believes that they could be verbally cajoled and coerced into confessing to a crime they didn’t commit (when a frightening number can be). Or consider all those fast-food managers who, convinced that a sophisticated prank caller was a narcotics officer, found themselves talked into strip-searching, and in some cases, sexually assaulting, their employees.
Perceptions of authority make us do crazy things. It’s not just that nobody wants to be as weak as they are, we’re simply hardwired to believe otherwise to varying degrees (just another unpleasant human fact that we need to come to grips with as a society). As a result, many people have difficulty identifying with ‘weak characters.’ Why? Because they’re continually doing things they think they wouldn’t. A surfeit of ‘weak female characters’ they then consider a flag for misogyny. Add that to a brutally patriarchal setting, and we have a pretty compelling case that Bakker is a misogynist.
All they need do is keep reading after this point: a character will have a hundred thoughts, and they’ll pounce upon the one involving sex. That thought will have a hundred different possible interpretations, but they’ll crow about the one that confirms their criticism. The very semantic density of the works begins working against me. Competing interpretations are dismissed, particularly if they’re charitable. To preempt the possibility that I’m doing something more complicated, I get dragged through the mud in other ways. I become trite, derivative, preachy, and the list goes on.
Once people socially commit to this position, then its game over. Others challenge them (because the books really are more complicated) and suddenly making their case becomes a matter of in-group prestige. They become invested, to the point of repeating the same arguments over years. It really is remarkable. They end up sounding like, well, gay conservatives. People who act like fans in so many ways, devouring the books, discussing them, and yet spending all their air-time taking the piss out of them. Such is the need to be believed!
And the unfortunate fact is that they prime the expectations of other readers, bend the funhouse mirror in ways that tend to close the possibility of open, charitable readings–a mindset that I think the books genuinely reward. I have no doubt that sales have suffered, such is the power of labels. Books that interrogate misogyny, that ask genuinely hard questions about gender (as opposed to politically correct ones), become shunned as ‘misogynistic.’
Is this me ‘blaming the reader’? Fucking A it is. Books are not like shoes: the customer isn’t always right in the world of writing. But I’m only pointing out weaknesses that we all share, that screw with all of us all the time. Me. You. It’s just the way it works. Moral intuitions are tweaked, then the reasons come rushing in afterward. I know these reasons are convincing: for most people they’re identical to conviction. There just has to be something wrong with me or my books. It’s so obvious. And yet, when I tell friends of mine, male and female, that people ‘out there’ think I’m a male chauvinist, they laugh their asses off. People who actually know me think it’s preposterous.
This is getting really longwinded–such is the need to defend one’s honour, let alone sell books! Anyway, I was already committed to the story long before these controversies erupted. More than a few times I found myself writing material that I knew people would intentionally read against my intent, but like I said, I was already committed. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that a certain subset of readers will see flags instead of ciphers, and that this controversy will always dog the books. All I can hope is that the overall reputation of the series will survive and eventually overshadow this perplexing sideshow. For all the praise you hear about ‘risk taking,’ you still get punished for taking them. That’s what makes them risks in the first place!
The moral of the story? Be careful of what you ask for.
- There appear to be parallels between THE WHITE-LUCK WARRIOR and THE WARRIOR-PROPHET, in both name and the fact that huge armies face massive difficulties (logistical and otherwise) in traversing huge wastelands. Was this deliberate or a natural side-effect of them both being 'middle books' in their respective series?
It was always in the cards, simply because the story always involved two holy wars waged over great distances. War stories of the kind I’m trying to tell seem to possess a natural tripartite structure: assembly, transport, conflagration. Tailor-made for trilogies...
- In the past you've said that the final sequence of The Second Apocalypse cannot be named because it would be a massive spoiler. Will THE UNHOLY CONSULT - the final volume of The Aspect-Emperor sequence - reveal the name of the final sub-series? And if Kellhus is the Prince of Nothing and now is the Aspect-Emperor can we assume that the title of the final series will also refer to Kellhus?
So much will be revealed, in fact, that I can’t comment–at least not in a family-friendly interview such as this! Things. Get. Positively. Hardcore.
- You've said in the past that Cil-Aujas in THE JUDGING EYE was a nod of thanks to Tolkien and Moria. Similarly, was Cleric and Akka's adventures in Sauglish a nod at Erebor and Smaug from THE HOBBIT? Some have also mentioned McCarthy. Are there other literary touchstones in your books fans may or may not have perceived?
More than I can count. I don't have an original bone in my body. Derivations piled upon derivations. I'm kind of like calculus that way.
- In DON QUIXOTE there is a line, "History is the mother of truth." To what degree, if any, would the altered "memory is the mother of truth" apply to your novels, particularly DISCIPLE OF THE DOG and the scenes involving the Nonmen in your Earwä novels?
Beautiful aphorism, isn’t it? One thing I love about aphorisms is the way they can become a kind of conceptual haiku, how abstract claims, left to hang in isolation, seem to soak up profundity and possibility. Consider these alternatives to Quixote: History is the mother of power. Power is the mother of truth. Hunger is the mother of history. Knowledge is the mother of history. Each of these versions possess some whiff of truth: the concepts involved are so abstract, their meanings so overdetermined, that you seem to capture something in the mere act of shuffling them around. Each says something (apparently) crucial without in any way saying anything final.
History, Appetite, Knowledge and Power are of course four of the bigger thematic pillars of the series. The story literally bristles with them. With Achamian, history is indeed the mother of truth: the key to understanding the Second Apocalypse lies in comprehension of the First. With Kellhus (and the D nyain more generally) history is the mother of deception, another ‘darkness that comes before.’ In both cases, history is the frame, the ground of what happens. And the series has become somewhat notorious, I think, for the way histories are layered throughout.
With the Nonmen, history is not so much the frame as the object of appetite. They are way to explore what happens when history is piled too high, so high that the losses begin to crowd out the joys. Disciple of the Dog explores a similar theme, only for Disciple it’s the crowding that’s the problem more than what gets crowded out.
In both cases, history becomes the mother of insanity.
- Being as meticulous as you are, have you ever drawn a "world map" of the areas that are outside the ones already depicted?
I’m not sure ‘meticulous’ is a word that I have any right to. Any rigour in my worldbuilding is simply the product of having lived with (and in) Earwa for so long. I’ve actually resisted mapping out the entire globe over the years. Ideas for alternate civilizations seem to crop up like mushrooms in my imagination, and the temptation is to make good on them by giving them a ‘place.’
But way back, I wrote this paper on the difference between ancient and modern roads (in the context of a philosopher named Levinas). The signature conceptual difference, I argued, was the way modern roads enclose the globe, the way civilization, in a sense, never runs out for us the way it did for the ancients. At the time I decided the best way to remain true to the ancient headspace I was trying to conjure was to make sure all the roads in Earwa run out, to make the terra incognita in my world absolute.
But this isn’t to say that surprises haven’t been painted across the horizon.
- As the final volume in The Aspect-Emperor, will THE UNHOLY CONSULT also feature a massive encyclopedia about the setting, like The Thousandfold Thought?
I’ve already started working on the ‘Expanded and Revised’ Encyclopaedic Glossary, in fact, but more and more it’s looking as though The Unholy Consult will be larger than even The White-Luck Warrior. If so, I’m guessing that the Glossary will have to be published... gulp... separately.
- Speaking of THE UNHOLY CONSULT, what can you tell us about the final volume of The Aspect-Emperor?
Completing it will certainly be a tremendous relief, simply because it’ll allow me to finally talk about so many things I’ve kept bottled up for so many years. I’m not sure whether The Second Apocalypse will be anything more than a cult success, commercially speaking, but when you live with a story as long as I have, it becomes a kind of yardstick, something almost religious in its demands. I am very, very happy with how the tale has come along–thanks, in large part, to some important lessons I learned along the way. My brother and I used to pine and daydream about this back in our D&D days, so to see it rendered, every bit as epic as we hoped, and as profound and lyrically beautiful as I could make it... well, that’s just way, way cool.
It feels scriptural, in my imagination at least.
Now, at the top of the sixth inning, the bases are loaded and I need to hit the ball out of the park. So what I want to say is that The Unholy Consult is where most of the burning questions will be revealed. I write books that many people love to hate: my hope is that after this latest set of reveals, the series will have earned their grudging respect as something genuinely unique and daring.
- Will the final sequence still be a duology or do you think there is scope for it expanding to another trilogy?
I won’t know until I begin working on it in earnest.