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An Interview with Steven K. Brust

Tuesday, Jul 08, 2008 at 9:21am

Steven K. Brust emerged on the fantasy scene 25 years ago with the appearance of Jhereg. His mix of comedy, grittiness, and tiny wise-ass dragons attracted my attention almost immediately, and I haven't been disappointed since.

July marks the arrival of the latest Vlad Taltos novel, Jhegaala, the eleventh in the planned nineteen books about Vlad and his annoying familiar. Steve has had some health problems recently (which I've previously discussed here), and I think I can speak for all his fans when I say that we hope this is behind him and he has many productive years ahead. After watching the blog Steve shares with some close friends for the last few months (recently relocated to his Dream Cafe site), I've taken the opportunity to presume on his writing time for an interview.

KP: Steven, thanks for agreeing to chat with me. I'd like to get right to what everyone is waiting for: Jhegaala. This is a bit of a deviation, as Vlad begins by setting out to leave the empire behind him in search of his roots. Is that an event you'd been looking forward to, or did you approach it with some trepidation?

SKZB: No, I can't say I approached it with trepidation. If I had, I wouldn't have written it -- my whole approach is always to tell the next story I feel like telling. It had some challenges, but that's part of the fun.

KP: Will we be seeing more of this side of the mountains and of the Easterners in general?

SKZB: I honestly don't know. I know the next book, but beyond that, well, it's just a question of telling the story that wants to be told.

KP: As an unabashed Trotskyist in possibly the world's least sympathetic nation, you've brought a bit of an outsider's perspective to society. Have you any comments on that?

SKZB: That's a tough one. Of course, my beliefs and my upbringing have a huge affect on what I write, but it isn't always easy to identify the details. One thing is that it has given me the conviction that most people do not understand the workings of their own world as well as they think they do, and that runs through my work. Another is that, in order to avoid proselytizing, I'm forced to examine questions that fall outside of the areas that I am convinced (rightly or wrongly) that I understand.

KP: Do you have any feelings about having passed over the Vlad hump, with fewer novels in front of you than behind?

SKZB: Um. No, not really; I've never really thought of it in terms of, "I need to write X Vlad novels." I've been ready to drop the series at any point if I got tired of it. I still am.

KP: Is the Vlad Taltos saga complete in your mind, and have you recorded enough to satisfy your fans if you are assassinated by the Jhereg, or IRS?

SKZB: I know bits and pieces of his future, but I haven't recorded it anywhere. So maybe you should hire me a bodyguard. Hee hee.

KP: You've hinted elsewhere that while you are done with the Khaavren romances, we might still see more of Paarfi's work. Is that a specific idea that is building in your head, or are you simply keeping your options open at this time?

SKZB: Just keeping my options open. Paarfi is fun to write, but so far nothing has jumped up and grabbed me that wants his voice. Something might at any time, however.

KP: I'd like to move away from your work now, to you and writing in general. When and why did you begin writing?

SKZB: I wanted to make other people feel the way Zelazny's Lord of Light made me feel. Ever since high school I would get the writing itch, which would hit me a couple of times a year and last for a couple of weeks. Gradually, it started happening more often and lasting longer. It was in 1980 that I kicked over into just really needing to write constantly.

KP: Do you manage to make a living with your writing, or do you have to supplement that income? If so, what do you do for supplemental income?

SKZB: So far, except for massive hospital bills, I've managed to make a living at it. I hope this continues.

KP: Could you share a bit about the writing process, and how it works for you?

SKZB: I think you'll have to be more specific with that one; sorry.

KP: Has writing always been fairly smooth for you, or are there particular aspects of the process that you find more difficult than others?

SKZB: It's always a mix of easy parts and hard parts. The annoying thing is that, after the book is done, I can never tell from reading the thing which were which.

KP: Do you write to any sort of time or word-count schedule?

SKZB: No, I write to a structure. I like to establish the shape of the book early, and then that dictates how it will come together. As for time, like many (most?) writers, it goes faster as I get further into it.

KP: Do you ever experience "writers’ block" and if so do you have any favorite technique for getting past it?

SKZB: Certainly I've had the experience of not knowing what the next sentence is, but I've never had writers' block as I understand the term. I'll be fine if I never do.

KP: Many genre writers feel restricted by the categorizations. Have you found the genre labels restrictive in what you want to accomplish?

SKZB: Not so far. I've never had a publisher try to convince me not to write something I didn't feel like writing, and I've never consciously worried about genre restrictions. If they do restrict me, it isn't at a level I'm aware of.

KP: You occasionally seem to like standing point of view on its ear. I don't recall which book, but there is a point where we are reading what happened to Vlad, as told by Cawti to someone else as it was told to her by yet another person who was told it by Vlad after the fact. Have I got that right, and was it as fun, and confusing, to write as it was to read?

SKZB: One of the really fun things about this stuff is finding the most effective way to tell the story. When its confusing, that just increases the challenge to make it fun rather than irritating for the reader.

KP: You've mentioned elsewhere that, while writing To Reign in Hell, you were surprised to learn that Satan was going to win. Do your characters often do that to, or for, you, or was that an anomaly?

SKZB: Oh, they'll do it from time to time. It just means that there are aspects of the story that I'm not aware of at a conscious level, and when they clash with those I'm conscious of, there is a conflict that needs to be resolved. I generally trust my subconscious in such situations.

KP: Could you share a few of the high points in your life that you feel have helped make you who you are, both personally and professionally?

SKZB: Well, selling your first novel is always going to be amazing experience. And having Roger Zelazny write an introduction to To Reign in Hell was a high I still haven't entirely gotten over. And then there was the Winnipeg Folk Festival where Boiled in Lead was doing a main stage show and there were thirty thousand people dancing to a song I'd written; that was amazing.

KP: Steven doesn’t realize it yet, but having visited a Canadian event and being willing to talk about it in a positive fashion practically makes him a Canadian. At least, it means we’ll be bragging about his attendance far into the future.

KP: Do you do much traveling to promote your work, and when you do, do you generally find that invigorating, or is it a tiring process?

SKZB: I don't do any kind of promoting as such; I'm not good at it and I don't enjoy it. I do go to SF conventions when I can afford it, but that's just because they're fun.

KP: Do you manage to read very much yourself, and what are you reading now, for fun, and/or research?

SKZB: I'm doing some anthropological research for a future project, and reading Rakossy by Cecelia Holland, and it's probably about time to reread Patrick O'Brian.

KP: Are there any new authors that you have found particularly interesting?

SKZB: I don't think Cory Doctorow counts as new, but his latest book, Little Brother, is wonderful. The newest fantasy writer I've gotten excited about is Jaqueline Carey. The people I'm living with, Reesa Brown and Kit O'Connel, are doing some very exciting work, and it's really cool to be there early to watch the process as it develops.

KP: With that, we'll let Steve return to his writing. I want to thank Steve for taking the time to respond to my questions. I suspect many of us are looking forward to new things, as well as more of Vlad. And for the readers out there, if you're interested in contributing to Steve's medical bills, bodyguard fund, or just want to find out what's happening in his life this week, I suggest looking him up on the Dream Cafe Weblog he shares with Kit and Reesa.

Categories: Interview, Authors, SciFi & Fantasy

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