You just completed a trilogy in the saga of Recluce, which if I recall is the first time you’ve used a main character in more than 2 books. What was it about Beltur’s arc that made you want to take it further?
It wasn’t so much that I wanted Beltur’s story arc to be three volumes as that the story I wanted to tell simply didn’t fit into two volumes. I really would have liked Outcasts of Order and The Mage-Fire War to have been one book, but there was no way Tor was going to publish a 475,000 word novel in the Recluce Saga, and without much, if not all, of what happens in Outcasts of Order, too many readers would find the resolution of The Mage-Fire War unnecessarily harsh – which it’s not, because the events in the previous book make it clear that Beltur and Jessyla, by trying to avoid unnecessary conflict, have been backed, or backed themselves, into a corner from which there is no other truly workable solution besides the one they take.
Order and Chaos make up the framework of the magic system in the Saga of Recluce. You have gone in to detail about the actual structure of the magic system before, but can you discuss Order and Chaos as they relate to your protagonists and antagonists, specifically why an Order Mage is not always the “good guy” etc.?
In the world of Recluce, as in our world, matter consists of structured energy, the energy being chaos, and the binding force being order. Most order and chaos are bound into matter, but there’s a tiny percentage of free chaos and free order. Chaos – or “white” – mages have an affinity for using and manipulating free chaos directly, while order – or “black” – mages use order to block or contain chaos, and sometimes use that order to manipulate chaos. The use of order or chaos has nothing to do with morality, but because chaos is chaotic and corrosive, it struggles against structure, so that chaos mages usually end up using their skills in more destructive fashions. Order, however, wants structure over everything, and the danger for order mages is that the extreme among them want to impose their view of order on everyone and everything, and that they use their power to create rigid absolutes.
A great deal of your series deals with various political structures. Some nations such as Westwind are controlled entirely by women, with men in subordinate roles. Obviously things have changed in the real world since you developed these structures, but what did you have in mind when you developed this divide between men and women?
In most of the world, gender and sex roles haven’t changed that much since I wrote The Towers of the Sunset, in which the Marshal of Westwind is a woman who is about to marry off her son to the younger daughter of the Tyrant of Sarronnyn, also a woman. The son, the protagonist of the book, is anything but happy about this, particularly since his younger sister is the heir. At that time, there were a great many fantasy books dealing with the subordinate role of women, and I wanted to explore that from the other side, thinking, perhaps naively, that it might provide some insight to male readers, while allowing female readers to smile a bit when the chastity belt, so to speak [only metaphorically], was cinched around a male. In later books, I showed how the lands of Westwind and Sarronnyn came to be, based on events and personalities that made such results almost inevitable in the circumstances of that world’s history, hinting, at least, that male political and social domination is not necessarily predestined, as all too many men seem to feel.
Reflect, if you will on The Saga of Recluce as a major work in Fantasy so many years later. I know that you have mentioned that you expected The Magic of Recluce to be a standalone, but once you began writing sequels did you ever expect there would still be such a large interest in the world and that you would still be writing in it nearly 30 years later? What do you think has kept your writing so enduring?
I have to say that, when I finished The Magic of Recluce and turned in the book, I had no idea that it would be a long-running series for several reasons. No one at Tor knew I was writing a fantasy, and I had no idea what the reaction would be, or even if it would be published, because I had no contract. My previous books had done nicely, but not outstandingly, and were all science fiction, although The Hammer of Darkness had touches of the fantastic.
As for why the Saga has continued to be successful, I can only suggest reasons, based on what I’ve done and on what readers have conveyed to me over the years. First is the fact that the books convey a sense of “reality” in a fantasy setting, because every character has a real job and the events in the books arise out of a conflict between the requirements of that job (and sometimes the failure of the character to live up to those requirements). Second, given the magic system, the economics and politics are workable and arise out of the world, the magic system, the geography, and the societies. Third, the societies are unique to the world and aren’t copies or knock-offs of societies and cultures in our world. And fourth, I’m neither a gloom-and-doom writer nor a Pollyanna. Most books end with hope, with more than a little of the bittersweet, and a high price having been paid for that resolution.
You were writing extremely literary, sometimes abstract, genre fiction long before it became a “thing”. What are your feelings about the current state of Fantasy, particularly some of the more Grimdark offerings?
Right now, I personally think that Fantasy is in a state of flux, with a great variety of work being published, while at the same time, a number of newer writers are trying to find or define the next “great new genre or subgenre.” As you suggested by the question, there’s more and more darkness in the field, most likely a reflection of current fears about the future of the world. Personally, I’m not terribly fond of “Grimdark,” for several reasons. We all know there are problems out there. Wallowing in the dark isn’t either all that entertaining, unless you’re a masochist, nor is it particularly useful, either in addressing the problems or instilling hope.
At the same time, I also see too many critics and writers lavishing great and often unjustified praise on stories and novels simply because they address something “new.” Sexual and gender problems have been around as long as there have been human beings. They’re anything but new. Most cultures suppressed the unconventional. Now that much of that literary suppression has been removed, at least in western cultures, there’s great enthusiasm and cheering for anything that exalts the “new,” primarily “new” (but not really) sexual/gender issues and “new” technology. Right now, the biggest and most important gender issue is an old one – the continuing minimization and subjection [direct and indirect] of women by men.
The associated problem is that “new” doesn’t automatically mean “good,” nor are stories dealing with “old” issues bad. I worry that too many of the Twitter and “on-line” boosters are overemphasizing the new and unconventional, while excellent novels and stories that aren’t dealing with “new” topics are being overlooked and disregarded. Of course, in time, the current “new” will become passé, and there will be a new “new,” which will be equally hyped… and then discarded.
Since we last talked you’ve completed another long running series, The Imager Portfolio. How would you describe this series to new readers, and while it is also long and jumps around between different time periods, what do you think separates it most from Recluce (aside from the different characters and magic system)?
The Imager Portfolio is really the story of the unification of a continent and its struggles from the time of the introduction of gunpowder and the weaponization of imaging magic through what amounts to industrialization and social upheaval to an early modern society, and from essentially warlord cultures to monarchies and then to a commercial democracy moderated by magic — except that I told it backwards, beginning with the transition to comparative modernity, then going back to the wars of unification and then forward to the time of early industrialization and the conflicts between the landed gentry and the rising commercial class. While there’s a great deal of military action in parts, especially in the early years, the series deals primarily with how rulers and powerful magicians deal with massive socio-political problems, whereas in Recluce, the focus is much more on how individuals deal with the problems caused by economic, political, and military strife.
This is a bit of a selfish question but I’m sure many others are wondering as well. In our last interview you addressed the new Marc Simonetti covers on your first 3 books replacing the original Darrell K. Sweet covers. (Along with the covers of the newest releases) What I’m wondering is if there are any plans to re-release the entire Recluce series in new paperbacks as so many of them are out of print?
All I can say to this is that this is something Tor is looking at. I am somewhat skeptical that the entire Recluce Saga will be re-covered, given the drastic decline in the sales of mass market paperbacks.
You are returning to sci-fi this summer with Quantum Shadows. Can you talk a bit about this book?
Only a bit, because the summary doesn’t convey the richness of the book, and the richness is too complex to summarize.
Quantum Shadows is a far, far, future science fantasy, with the subtitle of “Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.” A shadow avatar of the Raven must discover which one of the ten Hegemons [who each may be either a god or a prophet of a god] it is who wants to unite all Heaven under a single faith. Then Raven must defeat that deity before that god brings about the final Fall of Humankind.
What’s next for you after Quantum Shadows in 2020 and beyond?
The next book after Quantum Shadows is Fairhaven Rising, which is a sequel to The Mage-Fire War, except that it takes place sixteen years later and features Taelya, who is a very young white mage at the time of The Mage-Fire War. It’s scheduled for publication in February 2021.
I’ve just turned in the initial manuscript of the first novel in what is projected to be a new series in a new world. The tentative title [because the title’s never final almost until the book is published] is Isolate, and I won’t know for weeks, if not months, exactly when it will be published, but it’s most likely to come out in late 2021 or early 2022.
What’s been taking up your time these days when you aren’t writing?
I’m pretty much never writing, but I will be taking a few days off over Christmas because we have family visiting.
In all your years as a professional writer, what would you say is the biggest lesson you learned? And if you could offer some sage-like advice to writers that are just starting out, what would it be?
There are no single “biggest” or “best” lessons. Nor is every technique right for every writer. Everything in writing and life is connected to everything else. What makes a novel or a story is not the idea, but the way the writer handles it, including the plot, the choice of viewpoint and tense, the characterization, the pacing, and the right supporting details… and that’s just the beginning.
It takes time and effort, more of both than most writers want to invest, not only to become successful, but to stay successful.