As Steven Erikson nears the completion of his tenth and last book of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, readers get a rare glimpse into the author’s thoughts and motivations by the author himself. — Editor
There are readers of my novels who despise Badalle and the whole story arc that is The Snake. One recent comment on the fan-site had someone calling her ‘that poet bitch’ or something similar. This seems an especially bitter growl, but I admit that I’m kind of used to it now. Happens all the time, this heat, this nastiness. The internet is one giant mouth and who knows what’ll come out from it at any given time. And as for one’s writing triggering high emotions among readers, well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?
Regardless, there are times when the narrative in my novels scrapes hard at the veil separating that internal world with that of the reader in this one. Another way of saying that is that there are metafictional elements to what I’m up to, and they’ve been there since the very beginning.
Gardens of the Moons, the first novel in the series, is clearly framed as being the beginning of a ‘book’ which is opened to reveal all that follows. The pretense we’re invited to accept is that the person ‘opening’ the book-within-the-book, is someone much closer to the history about to be recounted; is, in fact, someone living in the Malazan world. But of course no such person exists. Instead, the reader here in our world stands in for that pretend-witness. If there is one central key to the cipher of this series, that’s it.
Time and again, I cut little slits in that veil: I acknowledge the audience without ever fixing in place its details, meaning it could still be that fictional Malazan one, or it could be you. If I get specific on that count, the fictive dream is shattered and there’s no going back. So I have stepped carefully throughout.
But one element holds to both options: and that is that this audience is human and as such shares the human condition. Accordingly, I do not hesitate in using a narrative point of view to directly challenge the reader – the witness to this history – and, in the one novel where I made that a central point to the entire narrative (Toll the Hounds), why, the fur did fly.
I don’t care. I’m prouder of that novel than any other I’ve written.
The poet bitch of the excerpt plays a mental game, beginning with this paragraph:
“In her head, Badalle was singing. She sensed the presence of others – not those ahead of her or those behind her – but ghostly things. Invisible eyes and veiled thoughts. An impatience, a harsh desire for judgement. As if the Snake’s very existence was an affront. To be ignored. Denied. Fled from.”
In the context of what I said above, who are these ghostly invisible presences in her head? And more importantly, how many of them want to be there? A few are content. Others would, if they could, unleash venom and spite. Still others will skip right past Badalle and her tale.
But she knows her own story, and in the lines that follow she makes claim to her right not only to exist, but to tell that story. In fact, she demands that they listen, pay attention and, dammit, feel something of her world. Or, for fuck’s sake, to just feel anything, anything at all.
Within the fictional setting, it works. But it resonates beyond that, too. People are quick to judge. Some people take pleasure in cruel thoughts. It gives them a feeling of superiority, maybe. Who knows? Still other people cringe and look away, as if to shield one’s own eyes yields the magical effect of obliteration – poof! The unpleasantness vanishes! Pour me another beer, Madge, American Idol’s on.
One truth of this crisis upon me, here at the sun’s setting on this series, is the one that whispers what’s the point? Words are powerless. Nothing changes and the only change still waiting to find me is accepting that, leaving me to then slink off into the night without another murmur of protest. Is it nothing but conceit to want to wring emotion from people – those who are my readers – and really, where do I get off thinking I’ve the right? And in those times, it’s invented characters like Badalle who turn to me and tell me to wake the fuck up.
So here you were all thinking that those ghosts in that paragraph were you. Maybe they are, but before they’re you, they’re me. I’ve been talking to myself for nine thousand pages, and still, it seems, I remain not quite convinced. Of anything. Accordingly, I can hardly mind the naysayers out there, can I? Sometimes, in my bleaker moments, I’m right there with ya, mate.
But luckily for me, most of the time people like Badalle shake me back to some semblance of humanity, and I look at the pronouncer of the poet bitch and I think: man, you are one tragic wasteland. Not because you don’t like a character I’ve created. Not because I bore you on occasion. No, it’s because every wasteland is tragic and right now somewhere in the Sudan children are lying down on the ground to die, and not one of us (me included) seems to have the time to spare them a moment’s thought.
So how does this work for me? Badalle is my reminder, and her cry to be seen is my admonishment to myself. Can it not work for you, just this once?
In the writing of The Crippled God, the last novel in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the players are burdened beneath a vast weight of helplessness.
Is it any wonder?
The great thing about fantasy literature (and maybe all literature, to some degree) is that one can take characters (people) from this world and transplant them to another, and in the process give them the one thing they don’t have in this world: power.
If I had simply transposed the plight of refugee children in the Sudan, into the Malazan world, and left them as powerless as they are in this one, then in effect all that I am doing is exploiting their existence. I am borrowing their tragedy for the sake of fiction. If, however, I empower them, give them a voice and a will that won’t be denied, I am asking my reader to not turn away, and if I work hard at imagining their moment by moment existence, I am telling myself the same thing.
This could be attacked as facile on my part. After all, if I really cared as much as I seem to be saying here, why am I not over there saving the lives of children? Fair question. I’m afraid I know myself too well, and my tendency to feel things too deeply (touched on via the T’lan Imass). I can imagine wearing myself down to nothing working to save lives only to, eventually, put a bullet in my own head (ever take note of the suicide rate among photojournalists? What you see can kill you and what you cannot reconcile will kill you).
Over the years I’ve learned to put on armour to protect myself, but for all that it inures me to external dangers, it does nothing for what’s going on within that armour. And for that, I need a way out for what I’m feeling, and that way out, thus far, has been my writing. And that is self-serving, but without it, I wouldn’t be here right now. Not a chance.
I’ll resume the more specific deconstruction stuff next time. What you saw here was deconstruction of my motivations as a writer. But I thought I should get it out of the way. I’ll try not to touch on it again. Promise.
Bantam Books and Wikipedia
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Recent Steven Erikson Articles:
- Steven Erikson’s Notes on a Crisis Part XI: Show Don't Tell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part X: If it Hurts Like Hell
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part IX: Back to the Craft of Writing
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part VIII: With Regret
- Steven Erikson's Notes on a Crisis Part VII: Scraping Hard at the Veil