Curled Up With a Good Book author interview
October 2001 interview with author Matthew Woodring Stover Curled Up With a Good Book is proud to present our interview with Matthew Woodring Stover, author of Iron Dawn, Jericho Moon, Heroes Die and its sequel, Blade of Tyshalle.

Fantasy these days seems to be marked by a strong Good-vs.-Evil (caps intended) element. Do you think it's important for genre publishers to take a harder look at fiction featuring anti-heroes like Caine?

I'm uncomfortable with applying the word "anti-hero" to Caine; when I hear Anti-hero I think of Holden Caulfield. To my mind, Caine IS a Hero (in the full mythological sense of the word), even though he inverts the traditional morality we commonly associate with literary heroes.

The overwhelming preponderance of Good-vs.-Evil in modern genre publishing -- not just fantasy, but SF, mystery/detective, espionage, romance, you name it -- comes from laziness. Lazy writers, lazy publishers . . . but mostly lazy readers: readers who want nothing more out of a book than a $6.99 vacation, and who often actually RESENT being asked to think.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not slamming anybody for that. I have immense admiration for well-crafted entertainment, and there are plenty of nights when all I'm really after is a tall Scotch and a good episode of Farscape or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I work very, very hard to make my own books enjoyable on that level; my goal is always to engage my readers' senses, emotions and imaginations to the point that they forget they're reading a book, and they start to live the story right along with the characters.

But for me, verisimilitude requires complexity. Value-questions in the real world are never simple, and nothing ever happens quite the way you expect it to. To make my stories FEEL real, I follow a couple of what I call Caine's Laws:

  • Caine's First Law: Everything is always more complicated than you think.
  • Caine's Second Law: People who tell you things are simple are trying to sell you something.
That's why Caine is quoted in Blade of Tyshalle as saying: "When someone starts talking about Good and Evil, I keep one hand on my wallet."

Which is all a roundabout way of saying: Yes. Not instead of, but in addition to well-crafted entertainments, it's important for publishers to feature books that challenge Traditional Values and Received Wisdom -- or sometimes, even, to specifically DEFEND those values against the kinds of challenges that have become fashionable. It's more than important. It's VITAL.

Because if a story doesn't nudge you, seduce you, shake you up a little --challenge the way you look at the world -- it just ain't art.

Because fantasy is the root of all literature, and should be its crown as well. But fantasy as it is commonly produced today sheds readers in massive clumps as they grow up enough to reject simple answers: as they realize that the World Just Doesn't Work That Way. Nothing wrong with the umpty-seventh Quest Against the Dark Lord -- but fantasy should have something to offer grown-ups, too.

"Fantasy is a tool; like any other tool, it may be used poorly, or well. At its best, Fantasy reveals truths that cannot be shown any other way."

Where do you place your own writing on the SF/F spectrum?

I am moderately notorious for loudly declaiming -- at con panels and in the occasional bar, with volume proportional to my blood-alcohol level -- that despite its use of magic, Heroes Die is not only science fiction, but HARD science fiction.

Quit snickering, dammit. I'm serious.

Hard SF, by definition, involves solving an external problem (in this case, to rescue Pallas Ril and defeat her enemies) by the creative use of speculative technology (in this case, the thoughtmitter and the Winston Transfer) that is both a prominent feature of the future society which forms the context of the story, and is central to the plot. The cultures of both Hari's Earth and Overworld are profoundly affected by the technologies in question, and it is precisely those two speculative technologies that Caine uses to save Pallas Ril and defeat their enemies.

Heroes Die is hard SF. Quod erat demonstrandum.

That being said, however, I have to say that these days I am primarily a fantasist: I am less concerned with solutions to external problems than I am with the psychological journeys of my characters -- and that is precisely what Fantasy is all about. In fantasy (I should say, in good fantasy) the external world operates as a metaphor for, or comment upon, the psyche. The ultimate exemplum of this is Donaldson's "Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever" (the first trilogy) -- where the Land is so explicitly a reflection of Convenant's psychic state that it takes him three long books to figure out whether or not he's dreaming.

Blade of Tyshalle is pure fantasy. In simple terms, what Caine goes through physically, mirrors what he's going through psychologically. Much the same can be said of each of the book's other three protagonists. Though the book's too complex to be easily summed up (see Caine's First Law above), there is one level on which it can profitably be described as a meditation on death and rebirth -- hence the name, Tyshalle being an Overworld God of Death. Each major character (and several of the more important minor ones) goes through a metaphoric cycle of life and death. The individual ways this cycle affects each of them is one of the book's major themes.

On reflection, I find it curious that my first two novels break down in a similar fashion to Heroes and Blade: Iron Dawn is entirely concerned with solving external problems in a rather SFnal way, whereas Jericho Moon -- Iron Dawn's sequel, featuring most of the same characters -- is clearly a fantasy, in the sense that the external action serves as a marker for Barra's inner development.

So I lean toward the fantasy side. Which is not to say I won't go back to a Heroes Die straight-ahead whipass-mode in the future. I just try to tell my stories the best I can. I'll let other people worry about where they slot into the sub-genre pigeonholes.

Do you think that Caine and the violence in which he immerses himself in both HEROES DIE and BLADE OF TYSHALLE are visions of where humanity is headed or what it's already come to?

I hope the books make it sufficiently clear that Caine isn't intended to be Everyman. He is not a model of general or generalized Humanity. He is an individual. He is specific.

Caine is an artist whose medium is violence.

Have we reached a point where violence is art? I would contend that it always has been. From the Iliad to the Roman Colisseum -- from Beowulf to the Ultimate Fighting Championships -- The Charge of the Light Brigade, Pickett's Charge, the Alamo, Custer's Last Stand, the Apache Wars, I Will Fight No More Forever -- All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket -- the question is not whether it's art; the question is rather when is it good art, and when is it just crappy Rambo III carnage-for-carnage's sake?

In other interviews, you've said "People who are average don't read SF and fantasy in the first place." What do you think draws exceptional readers to the genre -- and keeps them hungry for more?

Imagination is a muscle.

Like one's skeletal muscles, the exercise of the imagination requires a degree of effort that many people are simply unwilling to make; and, again like one's skeletal muscles, imagination atrophies with disuse. The weaker it gets, the more difficult -- and more painful -- it becomes to train one's imagination back to a useful degree of tonus.

But, also like one's skeletal muscles, there is a profound and indescribable joy in exercising one's imagination to its fullest power and range: a pride of strength, an esthetic thrill of dexterity and grace. That joy draws exceptional readers back even after they've been abused by book after book of the same old chopped-pressed-formed literary chicken-loaf; they keep hoping that the next book, or maybe the one after that, will really stretch their minds out the way the old ones did -- the ones they used to read back in the day when everything was new.

Will there be a return to Caine and Overworld, following BLADE?

Mmm, I hope so. I hope so much, in fact, that I'm already working on an Overworld trilogy to extend the story of the Earth/Overworld duoverse some ten years into the future. The reason I can't give a definite Yes is that I do not yet have a contract for it.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, whenever I'm not using them to type...

In Gabe Chouinard's interview on The SF Site, you singled out authors Greg Keyes and China Miéville as part of the important "Next Wave" in the genre. What is it about their writing that so particularly draws you?

Gabe and I started talking about the Next Wave not long after my editor at Del Rey sent me an advance copy of Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and I had just finished reading the second or third book in Keyes' Age of Unreason series, and I was struck by some common elements that cut across three otherwise very distinct fantasists (that is, those two and me):

  1. Magic is treated as a branch of physics.

    Both Keyes and Miéville were writing about scientists investigating the properties of magic, while mine follow more the classic swords & sorcery concept of the (apparently) unmagical hero pitting resourcefulness and courage against the power of a wizard -- but in all these books, magic operates as an extension of natural law, rather than a violation of it. And magic is morally neutral; any moral element depends primarily on the uses to which its power is put.

    This stands in stark contrast to fairy-tale magic, which is mysterious, unknowable, "supernatural," and often inextricably bound to a moral component: "White" or "Black". You know how it goes: the One Ring gives you dominion over Middle Earth at the cost of your inevitable corruption.

  2. Moral questions are considered, rather than merely stated (or assumed).

    In far too much traditional fantasy, and SF, and -- for that matter -- every branch of literature from detective novels to the latest Oprah Book Club festival of self-affirmation, the moral framework underlying the story is simply a postulate; that is to say, it's given that Some Things Are Evil, and Some Things Are Good. What these Things might be will differ from genre to genre -- and even from story to story -- but one distinction is clear: crap writing of all varieties is crammed with the premise (popularized by C.S. Lewis, who in most other ways behaved as if he were entirely sober) that "Good People simply Know, down deep, the difference between Right and Wrong."

    One of the great uses of literature in general is to clue people in to the simple fact that this "Down-Deep Knowing" is only prejudice -- and that if you do believe in such imaginary abilities, it inevitably follows that everyone who disagrees with you (no matter how sincere and potent their own "Down-Deep Knowing") must be:

        a) evil and must be destroyed;
        b) deceived and must be enlightened;
        c) liars whose hypocrisy must be exposed.

    I don't think anyone in this country these days needs to be reminded just how pernicious such attitudes are.

    One of the things I find appealing about Greg's and China's writing is that their protagonists don't instinctively know black-and-white answers: they struggle with shades of grey, just the way we do.

  3. Our stories are about the STORY, not about the author.

    I am so FUCKING TIRED of the Pynchonizing of modern SF. When I pick up yet another Next Great NYT Bestselling Work of Genius and find -- instead of a story -- an author babbling away in infinite digression, jerking himself off over How Clever He Is, I throw the goddamn book across the room. If I want to read third-rate Pynchon, I'll buy a Tom Robbins novel. It seems some people have decided that what's really worthwhile about literature is watching the author's mind at work: an attitude promoted by people from Umberto Eco to Salman Rushdie to all the critics who creamed their jeans over House of Leaves.

    Listen: fiction should be a window. All that critic's-darling "playfulness of language" and "postmodern storytelling" and "literary gamesmanship" is just shit smeared on the glass.

    And finally:

  4. I think they're both going to be Big Names in the genre, and I want to catch a ride on their coattails.

    If fans start saying to each other "If you like Greg Keyes (or China Miéville, or Michael Swanwick or Daniel Keys Moran or . . .), you should give Matthew Woodring Stover a try," it'll make me a happy man -- and a more successful author. Does that make me mercenary? Okay. So what? I'm thinking: here are guys who are Really Trying, really doing their level best to write something interesting and worth reading (and re-reading). We're all after the same audience: the people who are looking for Something Different.

    I've said it before: good writers are not my competition. They're my allies. In promoting them, I'm promoting myself. Good writing creates an appetite for more good writing. Our competition is the cookie-cutter hackwork that gives our whole field a bad name.

Anyone who's ever read one of your interviews can find themselves humbled by the depth and breadth of your reading. You obviously have a palate for great literature. Can you point to a single book that changed your outlook forever? What did you read that made you say to yourself, "I'm going to grow up to be a writer -- and not just some damn hack, either?"

My taste for great literature is a late development. Other than plays -- my university background in theatre exposed me to the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Pirandello, Shaw and all that gang -- my real interest in great fiction began when I discovered in my own writing a certain poverty of expression, probably born of too much TV and pulp SF as a child. I reasoned that if I ever wanted to write stuff that was Really Good, I should read the greats: to store up a psychic fund of Great Writing. One of the things I discovered is that a lot of the canonical authors (the ones we are told, over and over, are what Literature Is Supposed To Be) were really just windy bags of victimhood, whining about how cruel the world is and how nobody really understands them. On the other hand, some of them -- Tolstoy, Hemingway, some Conrad, and (occasionally) Kipling spring immediately to mind -- could do things in fiction that literally take my breath away.

What do my favorites have in common? Their fiction owes nothing to James Joyce.

Which is just another way of saying: "It's about the STORY, dummy." It's about interesting people doing interesting things. Even, say, Nabokov -- who certainly indulged in more than his share of "literary gamesmanship" -- used his playfulness in service to the story, rather than a substitute for it.

If I had to pick a single work that made me say to myself, "Okay. This writing thing, I'm gonna have to give it a serious try," it would be Roger Zelazny's A Rose for Ecclesiastes.

I think I was maybe thirteen, and it absolutely blew my mind. I had no idea that SF could swing that kind of emotional weight. I have not re-read it for more than twenty years, and I can still summarize the story. I can still see the scene where Gallinger faces off against the Fist of Malann, and vividly recall how the story ends.

That's what what Really Good Writing is.

As far as "not being a damn hack" goes, I want to state here for the record that I WANTED to be a damn hack. That's what I was TRYING to be; I just wanted to be a SUCCESSFUL hack. But the harder I worked on producing saleable fiction, the more determined I became to produce something that was actually worth working that hard on. Does that make sense? It seems to me that it's just as much work to write a crappy book as a good one, so I might as well go ahead and do the best I can.

This desire to write Really Good Books is a goddamn disease. It's an addiction -- an increase of appetite that grows by what it feeds on. This is what I tell people who, like me, manifest what victimologists and whiners like to call "addictive personalities": you can choose your addiction. Addictyourself to something that's GOOD for you.

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