Interview with Steven Brust

One of the good things of Anobii (and, I imagine, Goodreads) is the fact that it puts you in touch with books you have never heard of.

It happened to me, some years ago, with The book of Jhereg, a collection of the first three novels of the Dragaeran cycle by writer Steven Brust. I found them very interesting for a number of different reasons (they were hugely entertaining, also, which is after all the main reason why you read a book).

One of the sources of interest was the fact that the novels seemed to me somewhat derived from some role playing game: what specifically I could not say, but they expressed a certain mood that I thought I could recognize. Another was the fact that, for being based on games, the world they described was remarkably coherent and, how can I say?, autonomous from any gaming source that had been employed. Related, yes, made more interesting, sure, but eventually standing on their own literary merit.

I was intrigued. That was the first time that I thought that it would have been nice to interview some fantasy (or crime, or science fiction) writer and ask them about the relationship between their gamemanship and their writing, if building a coherent world and interesting characters would be the same writing a book or designing a role playing supplement, and so on.

I have not had the time to pursue this project until recently, when I thought it would make a nice improvement of the blog. In the meantime I had listed a number of writers to whom the same questions could be addressed, but Steven was always on top (from time to time I also lurked his site). So last week I took courage in my hands (after all, I am an unknown blogger from far Italy) and emailed him for an interview.

We mailed a little back and forth, got to terms with different local times, postponed once our appointment because we were both deadly tired and then we had a nice long chat on Skype. It was mainly textual, but we exchanged also pleasantries face to face (and Steven, I Imagine we are on first name terms now, told me a good joke about second languages. I was explaining I preferred a textual chat because so the content would be promptly saved, and also because my spoken English is not good as my written one, and he said: «Your English is pretty good, I think, for a second language. By the way, do you know how those who speak two languages are called? Bilingual. And three languages? Threelingual. And four languages? Fourlingual! And how those who speak only a language are called? American».

So we had a very nice chat, which you can find below. We spoke of games, of worldbuilding, of politics an many other subjects. All in all, I think it makes for a very fun reading. I only made some minor editing, but I left it in the original (Skype) format, to try to convey the freshness of the conversation (we both left open the voice channel, so we could time after time hear the other laughing, or grunting or muttering to himself in trying to find the right word. Steven house was especially noisy and as you can see even his dog made a guest appearance).

In all this, Steven was uniformly kind, patient and very, very friendly, and I would like to make use of this page to thank him again. It truly has been for me big pleasure!

 Interview with Steven Brust, June 19th, 2014

Brust[22:02:55] roberto.rufus: Well for starting, thinking that Italian readers can not know you, we can say you are first of all a writer, right? Or a musician? Or…

[22:04:17] Steven Brust: Oh, certainly a writer. As a musician, I’m strictly amateur. I play music for fun. And, while I have fun with my writing, I am much more serious about it.

[22:04:36] roberto.rufus: But you published some records, I see.

[22:04:46] Steven Brust: Yes, but only a very small level.

[22:05:00] roberto.rufus: Ok. Oh, and can we say “fantasy writer”?

[22:05:19] Steven Brust: I think that’s fair, yes.

[22:05:31] roberto.rufus: I think you are not translated into Italian?

[22:06:14] Steven Brust: Honestly, I don’t keep up with that. It’s sort of outside of my control. I’m going to guess you’re right. Of course, I’d love to be translated into Italian, but there’s nothing I can do, so I try not to worry about it.

[22:06:25] roberto.rufus: 😀

[22:06:43] roberto.rufus: And can you tell me what you know of Italy? Perhaps without mentioning Mr. Berlusconi…

[22:06:59] Steven Brust: lol

[22:07:52] Steven Brust: Mostly what I can tell you is that I would love to visit there. And that I adore Italian cooking, especially Southern Italian.

[22:08:06] roberto.rufus: But you have never visited?

[22:08:19] Steven Brust: Alas, no. I can’t afford to travel much. Maybe someday.

[22:08:25] roberto.rufus: Ok. I would like to start from games, if you like.

[22:11:00] roberto.rufus: Do you play? Are you a gamer?

[22:11:35] Steven Brust: I used to play a lot more. I love fantasy role playing games. I haven’t had the chance to play much lately.

[22:12:02] roberto.rufus: And is there some relationship between your playing and writing? What was first?

[22:13:07] Steven Brust: Gaming was first. My friend, Robert Morgan (I think that’s his name, he’s changed it a few times), created a “homebrew” game that turned into what eventually became the world I write about.

[22:13:10] Steven Brust: Also…

[22:13:52] Steven Brust: The relationship between gaming and writing is strange and complex. I know that I cannot run a game while I’m working on a book – something about how the two forms interact prevents me from getting any writing done. It’s strange.

[22:14:22] roberto.rufus: That’s interesting.

[22:14:43] roberto.rufus: You mean run a campaign, or also a one shot game?

[22:15:19] Steven Brust: A campaign. I’ve never run a one-shot. The whole fun of the game, for me, requires a campaign. It’s about developing the characters, the in-jokes, the ongoing plots.

[22:15:53] roberto.rufus: Yeah. I understand it can detrieve from the effort you put into a book

[22:16:08] Steven Brust: So it seems. Never understood it, though.

[22:16:13] roberto.rufus: 🙂

[22:16:38] roberto.rufus: But have you ever translated some campaign directly into a book? Some other authors claim to have done that, I think.

[22:17:12] Steven Brust: No, not really. Some characters, and some elements of the background. But plots – story, if you will – don’t seem to translate well for me.

[22:17:50] roberto.rufus: Yeah, Some times I thought those who claimed a direct transcript were a bit preposterous…

[22:18:06] Steven Brust: I don’t know. Maybe some people can make it work, but I know I can’t.

[22:18:18] roberto.rufus: Well, changing the subject, albeit partially, is not the House system of Dragaera a bit reminiscent of role playing? Like classes?

[22:19:39] Steven Brust: I’d say so, yes. That’s one of the things I got from Charles’s game, though I changed it somewhat. But I thought it was a cool concept at the time we were playing.

[22:19:59] roberto.rufus: I think it works very well.

[22:20:07] Steven Brust: Cool! 🙂

[22:20:37] roberto.rufus: And this is surprisingly, because often it doesn’t work in games 😉

[22:21:08] roberto.rufus: I mean, everyone has to be something, like a fighter or cleric…

[22:21:58] Steven Brust: Well, the thing is, gaming is a sort of combination of collaborative writing and impromptu theater, right? So you trust the GM to give you a setting you can be comfortable in, and then you run with it.

[22:22:13] roberto.rufus: And writing instead?

[22:22:27] roberto.rufus: A reader has to trust the storyteller, no?

[22:22:49] Steven Brust: Yes, exactly. But in gaming, the players are both the reader and the writer; the performer and the audience.

[22:23:02] roberto.rufus: Yeah, obviously.

[22:23:21] roberto.rufus: And you are part of a group of writers, right?

[22:23:29] Steven Brust: Right.

[22:23:53] roberto.rufus: What this mean, in practice: do you meet every Friday to read each other what you have written, like Tolkien’s Inklings, or are you a collective think thank, or what?

[22:24:17] roberto.rufus: Or simply you drink beer and have a good time, like me and my pals?

[22:25:10] Steven Brust: For us- for my critique group – it’s scheduled as the work demands it. Someone finishes a piece, and we schedule a meeting to talk about it. Of course, all of us also enjoy sitting around and drinking beer (or whiskey, or coffee) and talking about books. We thrive on that sort of thing. I can’t get enough of it.

[22:25:55] roberto.rufus: I fully understand. But it is above all a critique group, like a sort of beta-testing?

[22:26:03] Steven Brust: Yes.

[22:26:25] roberto.rufus: Don’t you have some shared worldbuilding, for instance?

[22:26:33] roberto.rufus: Or do you trade ideas?

[22:27:37] Steven Brust: Um. Not really, no. We’re all pathologically independent. We critique each other’s work – which will sometimes involve problems with worldbuilding – but we create separately.

[22:27:52] roberto.rufus: Ok, thanks.

[22:27:59] roberto.rufus: I asked because…

[22:28:21] roberto.rufus: Looking from from Italy, Anglo-saxon (I mean both American and English) science fiction and fantasy writers seem rather a sociably lot: I mean, lot of collaborations, an umbrella organizations like SFWA, peer adjudicated prizes and awards. It seem there is a strong “esprit du corp”, or am I mistaken?

[22:28:34] roberto.rufus: And your groups seemed a good example…

[22:29:13] Steven Brust: I’d never noticed that, but I think you’re right. I know that I’ve been involved in three collaborative novels so far, and they were all just wonderful amounts of fun. I want to do more.

[22:30:07] roberto.rufus: I would like to show you what “pathologically independent” means in the Italian scene 🙁

[22:30:15] Steven Brust: Okay…

[22:30:32] roberto.rufus: so America seem really another world from here.

[22:31:07] Steven Brust: I hadn’t been aware of that. Of course, we Americans tend to be terribly provincial, and think the way we do things is just the way they’re done. It’s sad, really.

[22:31:18] roberto.rufus: 😉

[22:32:05] roberto.rufus: Coming back to Dragaera, did you designed all the world from the beginning, or it grew as you wrote more novels?

[22:32:45] Steven Brust: It grew. I had a lot of the basics at the beginning, but the more I’ve been writing, the more it’s opened up in front of me. That’s part of the joy.

[22:33:09] roberto.rufus: Yeah, I know. But what were the design “cornerstones”? I mean, the building blocks.

[22:34:21] Steven Brust: Well, for me, the biggest one was just the idea of a Mafia in a sword-and-sorcery setting. Something like the Thieves Guild from Leiber’s work, but illegal. That was the real take-off point. That gave me the character, and everything else has flowed from it.

[22:35:24] roberto.rufus: Yeah, but from this starting point, and the big Vlad character, to the finished word, there were some main steps?

[22:35:42] Steven Brust: Well, there was writing 🙂

[22:36:05] roberto.rufus: You mean 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration?

[22:36:24] Steven Brust: After the building blocks were set – the initial nature of the world- it grew organically. One decision just naturally led to the next. Does that make sense. And, yes, exactly right! Mostly, it’s just doing the work.

[22:37:03] roberto.rufus: Excuse me if I insist, but for gamers worldbuilding is a theme of great interest.

[22:37:13] Steven Brust: Yes, of course.

[22:37:14] roberto.rufus: Have you some special suggestions to go from the “big idea” to the finished world itself?

[22:38:56] Steven Brust: Well, for me – and this is writing, not gaming – there is very little distinction between creating the world and revealing the world. Let me explain – in gaming, one is much more likely to spend a lot of time figuring out how things work: the magic system, the political economy, &c &c. In writing, those things much more directly serve the story, so they grow and are created as I need to reveal them. Does that make sense?

[22:39:25] roberto.rufus: Yeah, but I am a little dubious. Can I make an example?

[22:39:45] roberto.rufus: Have you read Name of the Rose of Italian Umberto Eco?

[22:39:57] Steven Brust: No, but I’ve seen the movie. 🙂

[22:40:07] roberto.rufus: The book is better, I think. 😉

[22:40:12] Steven Brust: Probably.

[22:40:13] roberto.rufus: Anyway…

[22:40:40] roberto.rufus: In his post scriptum, Eco explains that a some point he stopped writing altogether and got to worldbuilding. He designed character sheets (biographical sheets) for all monks in the abbey even those who eventually didn’t go in the book!

[22:41:55] roberto.rufus: Have you ever felt this necessity?

[22:41:56] Steven Brust: Sure. That’s exactly it. At some point, as he needed it. Here’s an example:

[22:43:15] Steven Brust: I had my character enter a small peasant village – I had to stop, and learn how small peasant villages operated. Then I wrote some more, and realized I needed to understand what a physician in the culture would know and not know, so I had to study that, and I had to create it. But I didn’t know any of those things before I started writing. I came up with them as they were required.

[22:43:57] roberto.rufus: And have you never had the need to go back and undo something you had already done?

[22:44:07] Steven Brust: Sure.

[22:44:35] roberto.rufus: Or thought that , had you known, you wold have written something differently in a previous novel?

[22:45:28] Steven Brust: Sometimes. But here’s a funny thing: when I find that I did something in a previous book I wish I hadn’t done, that’s usually a challenge – I ask myself, «What can I do with that to make it so I like it?». And, as often as not, I’ll come up with something really fun.

[22:45:51] roberto.rufus: Well, you are a lucky man 😉

[22:46:00] Steven Brust: That is a true thing!

[22:46:10] roberto.rufus: ‘cause seems you appreciate fun 😉

[22:46:20] Steven Brust: Yes I do.

[22:48:37] roberto.rufus: Can I make a political question?

[22:48:42] Steven Brust: Certainly.

[22:48:54] roberto.rufus: So, I read you are a Trotskist sympathizer. I have known Trotskists from when I was eight, so I have no problem.

[22:48:57] roberto.rufus: 😀

[22:49:09] Steven Brust: 🙂

[22:49:12] roberto.rufus: Furthermore, my uncle was at a time Chairman of the Italian Communist Party, the strongest communist party in Western Europe (they were Third International, however, not Fourth).

[22:49:24] Steven Brust: Right. What I would call Stalinist.

[Note to Italian readers: here, to hear Enrico Berlinguer be called “Stalinist” gave me a little shudder, so I got derailed in a probably useless explanation of ’70 eurocommunism politics, NdRufus]

[22:50:24] roberto.rufus: Yeah, it’s a bit more complicated, because they were Italian, French and Spanish Communist trying to liberate themselves from Soviet Union supervision, it was called “eurocommunism”.

[22:50:39] roberto.rufus: Anyway…

[22:50:48] roberto.rufus: What boggles me, is… a Trotskist American?? In Europe we tend to think that Obama is as leftist as Americans can be…

[22:51:44] Steven Brust: Yeah, well. The thing is, the American labor movement never managed to create a labor party, so the only thing you have are major political parties of big business.

[22:51:56] Steven Brust: But that doesn’t mean there isn’t opposition.

[22:52:20] Steven Brust: Remember that the same media that is lying to us is also lying to you about us.

[22:52:29] roberto.rufus: Yeah.

[22:52:53] roberto.rufus: And how long is the specter of those which are not mentioned?

[22:53:04] roberto.rufus: I imagine labor, green…

[22:53:08] roberto.rufus: minorities…

[22:53:23] roberto.rufus: Occupy Wall Street?

[22:54:18] Steven Brust: The biggest problem is that the American labor movement, in the last 30 years, has been emasculated by the trade union bureaucracy, so the opposition has splintered into middle-class identity politics, because the labor movement that ought to have been leading it has sold out at a level that is even worse than it is in Europe.

[22:54:58] roberto.rufus: I understand perfectly.

[22:55:21] Steven Brust: I was once at a meeting – during a Wildcat strike – when a bureaucrat from the Airline Pilots union was BRAGGING that they had pioneered the policy of givebacks. It was astonishing.

[22:55:39] roberto.rufus: Excuse me: “givebacks”?

[22:56:12] Steven Brust: When the union volunteers to give back gains – wages, conditions, benefits – that it had previously won.

[22:56:31] roberto.rufus: I am perplexed: why should they?

[The above question was written instinctively. Then I recalled Marchionne, FIAT and Italian trade unions, and all got clearer, NdRufus].

[22:56:42] roberto.rufus: Ok, ok, I see what you mean 😉

[22:57:04] roberto.rufus: And really, we had something of the sort here, too.

[22:57:52] Steven Brust: Yeah. And, of course, in Europe right now, what is happening in Greece is terrifying, and a lesson. The rise of the Golden Dawn shows us what happens when the leaders of the labor movement refuse to take on a fight that the masses want.

[22:58:59] roberto.rufus: Yeah. There is also Tsipras, however, from the same smelter.

[22:59:58] roberto.rufus: I mean: from the same trouble, Golden Dawn but also a renewed Socialist/Communist Party come out.

[23:00:05] Steven Brust: *nodnod*

[23:00:17] Steven Brust: Yes, there is opposition. I haven’t given up hope.

[23:00:25] Steven Brust: Far from it – I’m pretty optimistic.

[23:00:32] roberto.rufus: And so we come to Teckla [In the third Dragaeran novel, main character Vlad Taltos wife, Cawti, enters a semi clandestine liberation movement which is strongly reminiscent of clandestine socialist groups in the ‘800 – and any other group fighting for the oppressed afterwards, NdRufus]. I was amazed, reading it. I did (and still do) my fair share of grassroot activities and political work, and had not difficulties in recognizing peoples and situations. But to find them in a fantasy book was very… interesting. How did you got to write the novel?

[23:02:03] Steven Brust: I had a comrade named Tom Hennehan who was killed by American mafiosi for his political work. It made me reevaluate some of the things I was glorifying. Also, fantasy novels often neglect the political economy of their worlds, and it was time to focus on it a bit.

[23:02:34] roberto.rufus: You are excluding Heinlein, when you say that…

[23:02:37] roberto.rufus: Joking.

[23:02:41] Steven Brust: 🙂

[23:02:58] roberto.rufus: So Teckla was a little of an apology?

[23:03:08] Steven Brust: More of an examination.

[23:03:24] roberto.rufus: Yeah. In fact, it is very controversial. I mean, it examine every point of view and its opposite.

[23:03:48] Steven Brust: Right.

[23:03:58] roberto.rufus: It was intentional, I suppose.

[23:04:28] Steven Brust: If one is going to introduce politics into a work of fiction, one is obligated, I think, to give the other side fair representation. Otherwise the reader will feel cheated.

[23:04:54] roberto.rufus: You are very honest, in this.

[23:05:29] roberto.rufus: but if you were to coalesce Teckla in a lesson, or in a political statement, what would it be?

[23:06:10] Steven Brust: I kind of cheat. What I like to do is to make the sympathetic character support the position I oppose. But, really, Teckla is much more a personal than a political story – the politics form only the background. To Reign In Hell is much more about politics.

[23:07:10] roberto.rufus: I suppose I will have to read it, then 😉

[23:07:29] Steven Brust: I’m not sure it worked well – I was being very ambitious.

[23:07:44] roberto.rufus: Just two last questions…

[23:07:48] Steven Brust: Okay.

[23:08:02] roberto.rufus: I read something about your theory of literature and ”cool”: I think that resembles gaming a lot, because we all love putting in our games what we loved, be it books, films, serials…

[23:08:11] Steven Brust: Yes.

[23:08:26] roberto.rufus: However, often in games it is simply too much.

[23:08:40] Steven Brust: Not sure what you mean.

[23:09:30] roberto.rufus: Well, if I were to put in a game all that I find cool I would have some coherence problems.

[23:09:41] Steven Brust: Ahhh….yes, right.

[23:09:49] roberto.rufus: Have you not felt the necessity to discriminate and how do you it?

[23:10:00] Steven Brust: Part of making it cool is making it coherent – making it hang together.

[23:10:11] Steven Brust: The point is, it has to serve the story.

[23:10:21] roberto.rufus: And also be surprising, I imagine.

[23:10:37] Steven Brust: If I can surprise myself, I think there’s a fair chance I’ll surprise the reader.

[23:10:51] roberto.rufus: Thanks, I thinks I understand.

[23:11:03] roberto.rufus: So what matters more is the story?

[23:11:08] Steven Brust: Yes.

[23:11:12] Steven Brust: The story is everything.

[23:11:21] roberto.rufus: The story rules.

[23:11:24] Steven Brust: Yes.

[Barking on the other side. Also, the sound of wind that could be thought to be some monstrosity’ rasping breath, NdRufus].

[23:11:34] roberto.rufus: How big is that dog????

[23:11:38] Steven Brust: lol

[23:11:49] Steven Brust: Medium size. A labrador.

[23:12:06] roberto.rufus: From the noise seems you took it from Dragaera…

[23:12:10] Steven Brust: lol

[23:12:11] roberto.rufus: 😀

[23:12:20] roberto.rufus: The last question is sort of obliged: favorite fantasy writers of yours? Both active and of all times?

[23:12:52] Steven Brust: Roger Zelazny.

[23:13:01] roberto.rufus: All Zelazny?

[23:13:20] Steven Brust: I’d say yes, all, or almost all. As for active… hmm… tougher. But still living, well, there are too many.

[23:13:54] roberto.rufus: I liked Amber a lot, in the beginning.

[23:14:14] roberto.rufus: Then It felt something too… soap drama.

[23:14:17] Steven Brust: My favorite is Lord of Light.

[23:14:33] Steven Brust: Yes, Amber fell down after the second book, but was still enjoyable.

[23:14:44] roberto.rufus: Ok.

[23:15:00] roberto.rufus: As for contemporaries, are you not being diplomatic, no?

[23:15:45] Steven Brust: Not really. I mean, so many. Tim Powers, Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean, Skyler White, Jane Yolen, Lois Bujold, Jacqueline Cary, I mean, the list just goes on.

[23:16:03] roberto.rufus: I see what you mean.

[23:16:20] roberto.rufus: But can you tell me something about the future?

[23:16:29] roberto.rufus: Were is fantasy going?

[23:16:37] Steven Brust: God. I have no idea!

[23:16:41] roberto.rufus: What kind of evolution you see?

[23:16:46] roberto.rufus: 😉

[23:16:47] Steven Brust: I don’t. Seriously.

[23:16:51] Steven Brust: No clue.

[23:17:00] Steven Brust: I’m looking forward to being surprised.

[23:17:10] roberto.rufus: 😀

[23:17:11] roberto.rufus: And your projects?

[23:17:32] Steven Brust: A new Incrementalists novel with Skyler White. Hawk will be out in October.

[23:17:45] roberto.rufus: Thank you very much.

[23:17:51] roberto.rufus: It was very pleasant and you very kind.

[23:17:52] Steven Brust: Thank you. This was fun!

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