Interview: Steven Brust

By Chris Olson

The Paths of the Dead cover

Steven Brust, it has been said, might just be America's best fantasy writer. His books are fast-paced, witty, and stretch the boundaries of contemporary fantasy. He is, perhaps, best known for his Vlad Taltos series, which follow the exploits of an assassin (Vlad) and his wise-cracking familiar, Loiosh. His latest work, The Paths of the Dead, is either his 19th book, or The Viscount of Adrilankha is his 19th book, and Paths is the first third of it. (The Paths of the Dead was released in November 2002 by Tor Books.) Other works by Brust include To Reign in Hell, Agyar, Brokedown Palace, and The Gypsy (which he wrote with Megan Lindholm). The Taltos novels were recently reissued as collections: The Book of Jhereg (comprising of Jhereg, Yendi, and Teckla), The Book of Taltos (Taltos and Phoenix), and The Book of Athyra (Athyra and Orca).

Originally from Minnesota, Brust now lives in Las Vegas, where he is able to play a lot of poker.

I was introduced to Brust's work a few years ago, and in October of last year had the pleasure of meeting him at Conjecture, a science fiction and fantasy convention in San Diego. This interview was conducted by e-mail in January 2003.

Chris Olson: You've said before that the Khaavren romances, which started with The Phoenix Guards, are your homage to Alexandre Dumas. What is it about Dumas' style, in particular, that drives you to imitate him?

Steven Brust: I suppose his wry sense of humor. Which is often lost in translation. Or perhaps created there -- I do not read the French, so I'm at the mercy of translators myself.

CO: In writing the romances, you've written stories that break new ground and stories that fill in a past that readers already know, at least in outline: Adron's disaster, Zerika bringing the Orb out of the Paths of the Dead, etc. Filling in a past is not unusual in fantasy writing, but it is often done poorly. You've done it well, however. Do you approach writing a story for which the ending is already known differently from a story for which the ending is not known, at least to the reader? Does the reader's knowledge of a story's ending help you to be more playful or experimental with style?

SB: I guess in a way it does, but I don't think about that a lot. I'm usually just shooting for the next cool scene. I'll do anything for a cool scene, including blatantly contradicting something I said in a previous book. Well, that isn't entirely true. Sometimes I'll put in the contradiction just for its own sake.

CO: Do your tales "grow in the telling" as Tolkien said of The Lord of the Rings? What are some of the biggest surprises you've found in writing?

SB: They always change during the writing. Characters surprise you, plot changes insinuate themselves into the mix. That's because while you're writing, you discover things you didn't know were there. You might have blocked out a conversation where certain information is conveyed. But in the course of it, you realize that the way this guy talks is really going to bug this other guy, and the other guy is going to object, and suddenly you have a conflict you hadn't counted on. It might be a conflict that changes the whole direction of the story. You can either ignore it, which means being unfaithful to those characters you're trying to realize, or you can run with it. Running with it is always more fun. And, of course, one always has the revision process to fall back on if it turns into a muddle.

CO: You are of Hungarian descent, and have written a lot about Hungarian folklore. Do you plan on writing anything using other under-utilized folklore?

SB: I don't like to make plans.

CO: Have you ever been to Hungary? If so, when? What was it like?

SB: Twice, so far. Don't get me started. Oh, man, you can't find a bad meal. You don't go sight-seeing, you just open your eyes and look. If you want to make ten new friends, open a map on a street corner and look confused. I could go on. The food. . . .

The Phoenix Guards cover

CO: Speaking of food, you seem to prize it highly in your writing. Did you grow up around a restaurant? Did your parents teach you to cook? Are you simply a food aficionado? (For my part, I love reading about meals in your writing because it always sounds good, and there are always little word-plays in the names of food items. Pinkfish, springs instantly to mind. . . .)

SB: Mostly an aficionado, I suppose. I mean, I cook all right. I learned the basics at home, and I can make stuff I like eating.

CO: At the first panel you were on at Conjecture, you introduced yourself as "Steven Brust. I'm a drummer." You've been in a couple of bands, and even have a solo album (A Rose for Iconoclastes) out. How has music influenced your writing? Do you use musical ideas to pace your writing, for instance?

SB: Nope. The connection between music and writing, if any, isn't one I'm consciously aware of. They are just two things I enjoy doing.

CO: Also, what is your favorite instrument? (As opposed to, say, the one with which you are best acquainted.)

SB: Depends on my mood. I love the banjo, because it's so hard not be cheerful while playing it. Guitar is great for sitting around swapping tunes. The drum set is great because there's such a rush in filling a dance floor. And the doumbek is the one instrument I play where I feel like I can actually create music. So, like, it's hard to choose.

CO: You have collaborated on two books, and written some stories for the Liavek series. Can you talk a bit about what the collaboration process is like for you? Does it alter your normal "work mode" at all?

SB: With those two [books] it was just a blast. More fun than I could stand. With anything as long as a novel, you're going to have parts that just aren't fun to write. Well, with those books, my collaborators did all those parts. As soon I hit a "this isn't fun" moment, I'd ship it off and say, "your turn." Presumably, they were doing the same. The whole thing rocked. And I'm really, really happy with the results.

CO: In regards to The Gypsy, which you wrote with Megan Lindholm, I'm curious about the character of the Coachman. You've used such a character more than once. Are Coachmen often seen in Hungarian folktales, or are they a product of something else?

SB: Good call. Yeah, coachmen are a regular part of Hungarian folktales.

CO: On your web page you state that you are a Trotskyist sympathizer. Without venturing into your views on current politics, I wonder how your political background influenced your writing.

SB: That's sort of like asking a cook how the ingredients he uses influence the final taste of the dish. But I'll give you just one part of the answer: I have the arrogance of conviction. That is, I believe that I have a more clear and accurate picture of what is happening in the world than most people. This comes out in my work in at least this way: I have a lot of trouble imagining a world filled with people who actually, truly grasp what is happening in their society. And so very few, if any, of my characters really know what is going on, although many of them think they do. I'd have trouble actually believing in a character with a firm and accurate understanding of his world because I've met so damned few people who do. If I can't believe in a character, I cannot expect my reader to. Sometimes I'll run into a reader who seems to think that my characters are stupid because they don't get what's going on around them. And this same person will then come out with an opinion about current events that makes me bite my tongue and stare at the ceiling.

CO: I'm curious: how did you arrive at this clear picture? Where or what did you read or hear that lead you to be so well-informed? (Aside, that is, from Trotsky.)

SB: What did I read? Well, most of Marx, most of Engels, lots of Lenin, and, as you surmise, pretty much all of Trotsky. Lately, I've been getting more and more into Engels. Anti-Duhring. Brilliant.

CO: Do you feel science fiction and fantasy to be political? Is commitment or aesthetic loyalty to a political movement something to be praised or avoided in speculative fiction?

SB: I think if I were to try to write a story espousing a political program I believed in, it would be a terrible story, because I can't pull off that sort of thing. Nor have I any interest in doing so. On the other hand, we are alive here and now, writing about here and now, and reading with an understanding developed from living here and now. Our understanding, as reader and writer, informs everything. So of course SF and fantasy are political. I'm not certain what "aesthetic loyalty to a political movement" means so I'll remain mute on that one.

The Book of Athyra cover

CO: Irony seems to play a major role in your writing. Are you trying to say something with this, or are you simply a lover of irony?

SB: Ha! Thank you! An opportunity to use one of my favorite quotes. This is from Trotsky, when he was accused of over-using irony: "That purely individualistic irony which spreads out like a smoke of indifference over the whole effort and intention of mankind, is the worst form of snobbism. It rings false alike in artistic creations and works of history. But there is an irony deep laid in the very relations of life. It is the duty of the historian as of the artist to bring it to the surface." (History of the Russian Revolution, introduction to volumes II and III).

CO: The Vlad Taltos series is probably your best-known work. I feel I must ask: why an assassin? Was it simply born out of your "Cool Theory of Literature?"

SB: Yep. Or produced it. I dunno. I think Vlad is cool. I like hanging out with him.

CO: For those who might not know: what is this theory, and when did you come up with it?

SB: The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature states that all literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool, and the reader will enjoy the work to the degree that the reader and writer agree about what's cool -- and this functions all the way from the external trappings to deepest level of theme and to the way the writer uses words. I came up with it when I had to do an interview for Locus and hadn't enough sleep the night before, so I had to invent something interesting to say. Its Godfather is Gene Wolfe and some advice he gave a writer when judging a writing contest. I heard the advice and it got me to thinking. Most of the things Mr. Wolfe says get me to thinking. Why aren't you interviewing him?

CO: Well, uh. . . Mr. Wolfe's work, as far as I'm aware, doesn't contain flying reptiles with a penchant for sarcasm. . . .

SB: Man, couldn't he do a helluva job of it though, if he wanted to?

CO: Vlad has done a great deal of growing during the Taltos novels. Has Vlad's evolution paralleled your own in any way?

SB: Oh, I dunno. If Vlad hadn't grown, I'd have lost interest in writing about him. If I hadn't grown, I'd have lost interest in hanging out with myself. I guess that's a parallel of sorts.

CO: In Teckla a Marxist-like text ends up sparking a workers' revolt. However, because the fantasy society is so different from our own (the Dragaeran genetic makeup largely determines profession: untrue in our world), the revolt fails. Is this a comment on revolutions in our world? What is going on in that moment?

SB: It isn't a deliberate, conscious comment, no. It is the background against which I set the development of those two characters' relationship. I set it up in Yendi, it went off in Teckla, and resolved -- to a point -- in Phoenix.

CO: Seventeen is the "magic number" on Dragaera, and each of the books you've written that are set on that world follow a seventeen-chapter form (thirty-four, in the case of the Khaavren romances and Viscount of Adrilankha). How does this form affect you as a writer? What, if anything, do you hope a reader might get out of paying attention to the form of books that you write?

SB: I love playing with structure. It's fun. It's cool. It's another thing for me to play around with, and for the reader to play around with if he cares to.

CO: As a follow up, what do, or would, a Dragaeran literary theorist have to say about the seventeen chapter form? Is it ironic that an Easterner like Vlad would use such an Imperially inflected form?

SB: Hey now. Vlad isn't writing those books. I am writing those books. He just tells me what happens.

CO: Fair enough. What would those same theorists, or even Paarfi of the Khaavren romances, say about you using such forms? (Or is he oddly silent on the subject?)

SB: I asked him once, but I fell asleep during his answer.

CO: What is the connection between the Dragaera books and role-playing games? Were any of the characters in the books originally RPG characters? I've heard different stories.

SB: All of them were. None of them were. Some of them were. It all started with an RPG. I've never played an RPG in my life.

Glad to be able to help.

To Reign in Hell cover

CO: How did you come up with the crazed chronology of the Dragaera books?

SB: By telling the next story I was in the mood to tell.

CO: In Issola, Vlad has a conversation with Lady Teldra about courtesy in which she says "Appropriate action means to advance your own goals, without unintentional harm to anyone else." I've loved this line ever since I read it. Do you hold to this view? Do you recall how it came to you?

SB: I guess it's a distillation of Miss Manners (Judith Martin). I adore Miss Manners.

CO: I recently read The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, and was amazed at the metaphor you created between writing and painting. Have you painted before? Did you talk to painters and artists while writing it?

SB: No to the first (I'm dyslexic, and utterly unable to do any form of graphic art). Very, very, very much yes to the second.

CO: To Reign in Hell twists the story of the fall of Satan from Heaven in a surprising and wonderful way. What made you want to write that story?

SB: A lot of things came together to make me want to write that one. That's what usually happens. But one of the big ones is that, in Milton's version, I reacted to Abdiel as a strike breaker, and thought it was awful nice (probably too nice) that Satan & Co. let him get away from the strike planning meeting unscathed, and yet Milton made Abdiel a hero. That irritated me.

CO: In the novel Agyar you again take a twist on character type. Did you have a specific direction for that novel or character? Was it a comment on the numerous novels in that genre?

SB: I have no idea how I wrote that. It was the most sustained period of inspiration I've ever experienced. Now, inspiration, in my view, doesn't necessarily mean good as much as it means fun to write. Inspiration is the creative unity of the conscious and the unconscious, which means that one doesn't know exactly what is going on during moments of inspiration. I wrote the first draft of that book in six weeks. I have no idea how I did that. I am very, very happy with that book, but I do not know entirely where it came from.

CO: The protagonist of Agyar mentions, at one point, how he won't listen to music which is not at least fifty years old. Does this reflect your own views, to a point? What type of music do you enjoy?

SB: Oh, I dunno. I'm a Deadhead, of course. And an old folkie -- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk. I like R&B. '30s and '40s jazz. Various oddball stuff.

CO: You have mentioned, somewhere, that you have read James Gardner's work On Moral Fiction. Are you in agreement with his ideas? Has his work influenced your writing? If so, in what way?

SB: I think I agree with about 80% of what he says. I think a writer should be responsible for what he is saying. I think that a criticism such as "Well, the only conclusion one can form from reading this book is that we should all give up and slit our wrists" is legitimate criticism. And, yes, it's influenced me, although I don't know if I could give specifics.

CO: Can you talk a little about what challenges you've faced trying to make a living as a writer?

SB: Lack of money is the biggest challenge.

On the other hand, I'm still here, and I ate dinner last night, so I can't really complain. I think making a living at this business is mostly dumb luck (as opposed to becoming good enough to publish, which is mostly hard work). I think I've been terribly lucky.

CO: On hard work and publishing: your first novel, Jhereg, dives into the world of Dragaera. Was much of the world created before you began writing in it, or did most of it come out while you were writing the book? Also, do you recall how long it took you to write that first novel?

SB: My favorite way to build a world involves a lot of just writing something because it's cool, and then examining the consequences. I do that a lot. I seem to recall that the first draft of Jar-head [Brust's nickname for Jhereg] took six months.

CO: You've mentioned Dumas; what other authors do you like to read? Which author(s) or book(s) have had a strong influence on your writing?

SB: Roger Zelazny. Duh. <wink>

CO: What are your thoughts on the current state of speculative fiction? What directions or subjects would you like to see current speculative fiction exploring that are not getting much attention right now?

SB: I don't actually follow it closely enough to have an opinion, I'm afraid. Sorry.

CO: With The Viscount of Adrilankha finishing up, do you have a new project on the horizon which you'll be working on?

SB: Yes.

CO: Heh. Well, that about does it for time. I wish to thank you for agreeing to interview with Strange Horizons, and I look forward to reading the rest of Viscount when it comes out. (The next installment is due out in August from Tor Books.)

 

Copyright © 2003 Chris Olson

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Chris Olson is an actor, singer, writer, avid reader, and arithmetist. He works in the computer industry in the Bay Area.