I haven't done any interviews since 2012, so it was time to get back to it! And since R. Scott Bakker's The Great Ordeal (Canada, USA, Europe) will be released in a few short weeks, I felt that the timing was perfect to have a chat with the author. Many thanks to the Bakker fans who submitted questions for this interview.
- Now that the galleys have been sent out and THE GREAT ORDEAL will finally see the light this summer (at least on this side of the Atlantic), can you shine some light on what caused the prolonged delays that precluded this book from getting published as planned?
It turned into two books, basically. This meant it took twice as long to write, but it also meant that my contracts had to be renegotiated, and this process took far longer than anybody expected—on either side of the table. These are strange days in the publishing world to begin with. As far as they were concerned, I went dark for four years, then suddenly reappeared, whipping curve balls.
The crime is mine, but unfortunately my readers ended up doing the time. I was determined to not rush the process, to let the story call the shots. All I can hope is that the series rewards their patience.
- In an interview we did in 2011, here's what you had to say about the glossary you were planning to include in the final volume of The Aspect-Emperor: "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." I understand that one of the main reasons THE UNHOLY CONSULT ultimately got split up into two installments had to do with the size of the glossary. If that is indeed the case and not just a question of the novel itself growing larger and larger with each new chapter, did it ever occur to you and your publishers to publish the novel as you had always envisioned and perhaps release the glossary as a companion ebook?
Now that the book itself has been split, this is no longer an issue. I still expect The Unholy Consult will have an embarrassingly fat ass. Including the Encyclopedic Glossary between the covers is crucial to what I’m trying to accomplish, so I was never comfortable with the prospect.
- Many readers are concerned that splitting up a novel that was never meant to be released in two separate parts could ultimately hurt both THE GREAT ORDEAL and THE UNHOLY CONSULT. Were some of the delays in getting this one into production caused by a reshuffling of chapters and/or a rewriting of certain portions to ensure that THE GREAT ORDEAL would stand well on its own? Otherwise, that would mean a more or less arbitrary ending with no punch or resolution, thus relegating THE GREAT ORDEAL to some sort of set-up book while the endgame and all the fireworks would take place in THE UNHOLY CONSULT. By the same token, were you able to balance the storylines in such a way that both novels can stand well on their own and each pack a powerful punch? Because if THE UNHOLY CONSULT is only made up of 200 pages or so of actual storytelling and everything else is one giant glossary, given the prices of books, many a reader might find that off-putting, to say the least.
To make a long story short my publisher found themselves short an editor, and so stranded with a monster series no one had read. A scramble ensued. These things happen.
As it happened, all the main story arcs—Achamian’s search for Ishual, Esmenet’s struggle to rule the Empire, Sorweel’s journey to Ishterebinth, and the Great Ordeal’s march—take profound twists all at around the same time. As strange as it sounds, the story had already decided these were two books. I only came to the realization afterward.
I often feel like I’m taking dictation, but the experience of writing these two books was nothing short of surreal in that regard. Time and again I found myself collecting old narrative marks, wrapping bows on plot lines, without even realizing anything was outstanding. The spears kept sailing over my shoulder, hitting targets I couldn’t even see.
- As things stand, is there a tentative pub date for THE UNHOLY CONSULT?
July or August, 2017.
- Since the beginning of your writing career, you've claimed that The Second Apocalypse has been a slow reveal over the course of many books. Fans of the series have even coined the term "Layers of Revelation" to refer to how each book published reframes the events of previous volumes. How do THE GREAT ORDEAL and THE UNHOLY CONSULT differ from what has come before?
Well, we actually find Ishual, actually delve into Ishterebinth, and actually storm Golgotterath. For the entirety of the series so far, these places have been little more than rumours of distant peril, but the story has been closing on them all along. The last of the interval vanishes in these two books.
This has been the big gamble, right? Layering to conjure that sense of reality that many fantasy readers find narcotic is pretty risk free. But introducing a plot in Book One that turns on settings concealed until Books Six and Seven turned out to be more difficult than I had thought. The idea all along was to use ‘setting reveals’ the way novels generally use plot reveals. My sense so far is that it’s worked very well, but not without exacting a toll.
Consider the PC criticisms made against the series. From the beginning, I committed to telling a complicated story, one where bootstrapping souls free of oppressive cultures proved every bit as difficult as it happens to be in real life. “Just give the series time,” I would say to critics, even though I had drafts of episodes like the Whalemothers written before The Darkness that Comes Before was even published. It’s hard to make arguments based on story arcs only you have seen, but then that’s part of the adventure of relating an adventure such as mine.
- Now that you have reached the end of the second series and looking back at the story that was the Prince of Nothing, how well do they fit the vision you had of the tale you set out to write? Is there anything that you wish you had done differently? Are there any plotlines or characters which grew well beyond what you had initially envisioned for them?
I would rewrite the whole thing if I could, and I also wouldn’t dare touch a thing. It feels biblical to me by this point, a monument somehow blessed for its imperfections. Some days I just marvel over the fact of what I’m writing, smack my head thinking, This is Golgotterath!
The details of the vision have mutated in numerous ways, but the frame remains the one I came up with so very long ago. I had always assumed I would come to this point feeling anguished, overmatched, chronically dissatisfied, and following The White-Luck Warrior I was initially, but as I mentioned above, something happened in the course of writing these two books. Who knows? Maybe living with a vision for thirty years was what it took. It all came together so effortlessly, so, well, perfectly...
For me, that is. What others make of it is an entirely different story!
- You've previously described The Aspect-Emperor series as ending in a 'Gordian Knot' of plots. At which point do you think the reader will have all the pieces to elucidate the problem, let alone the answer?
Plot closure, yes. Thematic closure, not so much. The problem of the books—the problem of ourselves—has no solution, of course. All the things that make fantasy fiction fantastic—the magic, the spirits, the gods, the objective morality, the fate—also happen to be staples of Scripture, be it Christian or ancient Greek or Hindu or what have you. Fantasy celebrates and critiques our most natural way of conceiving the world, a way that has been and continues to be undermined by the findings and proceeds of science. The way I see it, fantastic literature is the dirge of our civilization, a final retelling of our most ancient and primordial songs. The song ends when our voices fall silent. No one knows what follows the song. We can only hope that we’re somehow stronger for the singing.
This is what the best storytelling does, I think: arms us against what we cannot understand. Given my themes, ending any other way would be a betrayal.
- With both THE GREAT ORDEAL and THE UNHOLY CONSULT turned in, has work begun on the yet-to-be-named duology that will follow The Aspect-Emperor?
Nothing more than notes and fragments. At the moment I’m rewriting The Unholy Consult, buffing, polishing, strapping muscle on some bare bones.
- If you could collaborate with another writer to write stories set in Eärwa (or whatever the Eärwan universe would be called), who would that writer be, and what would you want to write with them?
Roger Eichorn. Without a heartbeat of hesitation. If I were to croak before finishing, he’s the one I would want to finish the series. What I would most like to write with him is some kind of intrigue set in the Thousand Temples—I’m still haunted by his fantastic reimagining of the ecclesiastical in Three Roses.
- What fan theories and ideas have surprised you when you've heard them? Any that you thought 'wow, I wish I had thought of that' or something along those lines?
I’ve stopped lurking on boards where my stuff is being discussed a long time ago. The big reason wasn’t so much that I found myself tempted by other plot possibilities (though many of them struck me as excellent), but that coming across those who guessed right given this or that plot twist was making me inject more mystery into my writing, instead of less.
One of my biggest weaknesses as a writer, I think, is the inclination to make everything mysterious. Those with unfortunate inclinations should avoid inclines.
(My wife refers to me as “Misterrrr Mysteriosoooo” those rare times she gets drunk.)
- Which character in the series has been the most difficult to write for, and why?
Kellhus has always been the most difficult, simply because he’s a super-intellect, and I’m lucky if I’m smart enough on any given day to fake a super-intellect for the span of several words... like I just did back there... just a few words ago... Didn’t I?
I have my daughter fooled at the moment, I think, but my wife has always seen through my facade. My drinking buddies think they see through it, but that’s always been part of the master plan.
- How much of the history and the details of the history were set in stone when you started with the series, and how much have you added to it since you started?
The bulk of the history has been roughed out since before I began writing The Second Apocalypse. Fleshing out the details has always been one of the joys of writing the series for me. I rewrote the Ishterebinth chapters several times, for instance, simply trying to get the Nonmen right. Details are what conjure the depth, so how do you balance that against the primary driver of interest, the action? There’s so many ways of walking this tight rope, so many ways to stumble. Sometimes I have too much prior information and I find myself pruning, and sometimes I don’t have enough, so I begin tending to empty plots, and these quite often turn into seeds, and I find myself pruning again.
- Are there any plans for you to explore Eänna or the south of Kutnarmu?
One of the things that makes ancient worlds ancient is the way they find themselves encircled by terra incognita. Since shedding light on the globe spoils that, I fear cryptic references are the most anybody will get. Ancient maps are supposed to be blank about the edges.
- In terms of scale, do you have any plans to write another fantasy series as vast in scope as The Second Apocalypse?
Only every time I step out of the shower. In other words, no.
- The Atrocity Tale, The Four Revelations of Cinial’jin, is quite confusing and purposely so, as a stream of Nonman consciousness. Even breaking the story into its narrative threads doesn't yield much by way of answers, only tantalizing clues. Any plan to expand on that story? Or its backstory?
Not directly. It’s tied into the history of the World, of course, so it’ll always be an exotic puzzle piece in a tragic whole. I love the piece myself, but I realize it’s not for everybody.
- You have what can best be described as a cult following. How does it feel to have such loyal fans?
Fortunate. It means people get the vision, appreciate that something different is going on with this series. I genuinely have a message, right? I truly do believe we’re sailing drunk into the mirthless night, that we are murdering meaning as a civilization. Pretty much everyone can feel it, I think, the growing sense of technosocial vertigo. Those who share this sinking feeling and who also happen to be lovers of dark, hyperrealistic fantasy tend to really dig my books.
They also happen to be very rich and good looking.
- Outside of Eärwa, do you plan to publish any other fiction/fantasy/sci-fi in the near future? Any other short fiction in the works?
My New Year’s resolution was to get. Shit. Out. The door. I’ve accumulated a huge back-log over the years. I’ve got a novella, several stories and articles at a wide variety of venues. This summer I have an article called, “Outing the It that Thinks” coming out in Digital Dionysus, an anthology of Nietzsche essays. “Crash Space,” which I think is the best short story I’ve ever written, recently came out in Midwest Studies in Philosophy special issue on philosophy and science fiction (which you can read here). I’m writing the Forward as well as another Atrocity Tale for Grimdark Magazine’s forthcoming Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology, a collection of stories featuring evil protagonists written by several dark fantasy luminaries. I have Through the Brain Darkly, a collection of material from my philosophy blog, Three Pound Brain, ready to be sent out. The same could be said for Light, Time, and Gravity, my ‘CanLit’ piece, but I’ve just been too busy rewriting The Unholy Consult.
There’s even more... ugh.
- Have you/would you considered publishing a short run of limited edition with someone like Subterranean Press or Easton Press?
I’ve always thought it would be nice. Maybe somewhere down the line, who knows? It all depends on timing and the project.
- What has been the worst/hardest decision you have been forced to make through the editing process? Has anything come to light through the editing process that has made the books better than they would have otherwise been?
Ishterebinth... O’ Ishterebinth! I killed so many ‘babies’ in rewriting those chapters. The problem was that I initially worked so hard to bring the place alive with detail that I killed the action. (That’s all writing amounts to, I sometimes think: well-planned and executed bloodbaths) It took a lot of work to get the pacing right, to generate a relentless sense of going too deep.
Otherwise, rewriting lets you see relationships between disparate parts of the text and to explore them. In the case of The Great Ordeal, for instance, there’s deep parallels between Momemn and Ishterebinth that editing allowed me to craft in interesting ways. I’m a rewriting writer, so there’s countless examples, really.
- Will you be touring to help promote the release of THE GREAT ORDEAL? If so, are there any details you can share with your readers?
Alas, book tours are no longer counted among the perks enjoyed by cult authors. They reserve that for world religions, at least nowadays. They say Buddha is thinking about retiring, but every time I shop my resume they say I’m too fire-and-brimstone, not enough redemption.
- Anything else you wish to share with your fans?
Thank you, all. We’re nearing the end of what has to be considered a very unlikely series of books. Controversy could have derailed them. Delay could have derailed them. You are the primary reason the Slog of Slogs marches on.
And now there it is. That golden pinprick on the horizon.