Glen Cook Interview -- September 25th, 2005

Glen Cook has been writing fantasy and science fiction for longer than most fans have been alive. I think it's safe to call him one of the field's grand masters, with a long string of successful series and stand-alones, from the "Dread Empire" to the indestructible Black Company and the singular and popular Garret, P.I. I've long been an admirer of his work, and was just blown away by The Tyranny of the Night, so of course, when the opportunity arose to interview him, I was seized by total panic -- not only was it the first of his books I'd read in about fifteen years, it had also been about fifteen years since I had interviewed anyone for publication. I had some refreshing of memory and catching up to do, which turned out to be just as enjoyable as reading all those books the first time. Fortunately, although it's far from my favorite way of conducting an interview, we did it via e-mail, so I had space in between batches of questions to do some of that catching up.

When did you start writing?

Wrote my first story, "The Hawk," while out of school sick with what seemed every known childhood disease, during 7th grade. It was a Civil War/western told from the viewpoint of a hawk witnessing an encounter between Federals and Confederates in New Mexico. Following that I wrote a short sf novel, the title of which I don't recall, which involved an alien intervention in a war between Ramses I(?) and the Hittites. I did several short stories, sf, for the school literary mag while I was in high school.

What was your first published book? How would you characterize it?

First published book was The Swap Academy, as Greg Stevens. A different breed of fantasy. First in the field was The Heirs of Babylon, Signet, 1972, post-apocalyptic sf.

Why science fiction and fantasy? Why not westerns or war stories or mysteries?

SF/Fantasy is what I enjoyed most, but even a glance at what I've written will tell you I also write war fiction and detective fiction. All of it together, sometimes. There's even an espionage element and some western stuff in A Matter of Time.

I've talked to writers who start with a character, a story line, a scene, or just an image. How do your stories start? I don't mean where do ideas come from -- any writer is wading hip-deep in ideas, but what's the kernel?

The question doesn't have an answer I can articulate. There are stories I need to tell.

The series has become almost an assumption in fantasy, and you have done several. Do you have specific reasons to work in series?

I work in series because I can't tell a story in one book, usually. There's always more to tell. A series allows you to tell a larger story, certainly. I enjoy world building. I invested mega hours in developing the world of the Dread Empire. Of course, I had the intention of doing a huge series with that, from the beginning.

It seems to be a problem with open-ended series that they just sort of peter out into nothing much, and I've read one opinion along those lines about the Black Company. (Having just read Water Sleeps, I don't think I agree.) Do you worry about the Black Company becoming one of those series that doesn't live up to the first volumes?

Actually, I do, yes. But each book in the series is a bit different from the last, going off at a slight angle. Most people who don't like the later BC books seem to object to the fact that they aren't just the same thing over and over again.

You mentioned spending "mega hours" in building the universe for Dread Empire. Do you habitually spend a lot of time in universe-building? How important is that to your story?

Not anymore. It's much more of an organic process, with a whole hell of a lot more of the world inside my head than inside my story. Though not always so; in many of my stories the physical has a huge influence on what's going on. Shadowline would be a good example, as would the "Darkwar" Trilogy, and now "The Instrumentalities of the Night."

You seem to have some definite ideas about how seriously readers should take your work. Just how seriously is that?

Only this seriously: try to have a good time. No writer should be taken as seriously as the parasites want to put on. Especially where the writers think so themselves.

What about the idea that writers have certain ideas to which they return again and again and which color their work, although they may not be consciously using them as "themes." Do you see that in your own books?

Definitely so in mine. I seem to have certain hidden archetypes. I've been reading some of my older books lately and find very similar characters over and over. Characters shaped by the same or similar traumas. I didn't become conscious of that till I was about a third of the way through the current book when I realized that a child who had become attached to my main character was a dead ringer for the White Rose. Without the power.

One theme, if you don't object to my calling it that, that seems to run through your books, particularly, or perhaps just most obviously, the "Black Company" novels and now The Tyranny of the Night, is moral compromise. Both Croaker and Else quite openly acknowledge a moral standard that they don't seem to be able to follow with any degree of regularity. Why portray this?

That's life. We all face it every day. And most of us don't live up to the talk we talk. How much more so when the stakes are life or death? My guys are just less inclined to lie about it. Even to themselves.

What about "speculative fiction" in general (meaning science fiction, fantasy, and their hybrids)? Although it's usually been viewed as escapism, many see it as a legitimate mode for social criticism and satire. Do you agree with that?

I agree with neither viewpoint. If you're writing social criticism you're churning out boring and generally unbelievable crap. Chances are at least fifty-fifty that you're talking out your ass. Probably you're that humorless kind of dick whose mission is to save the rest of us from ourselves -- at gunpoint, if need be. But neither should "spec-fic" be dismissed. All fiction has value for someone, sometime. I'm not out to do anything but entertain -- myself, mainly -- but I've gotten a few pieces of fan mail suggesting I've managed to change a few lives for the better. I have to confess, that's a good feeling.

Do you really think that social commentary in fantasy or science fiction must necessarily be boring? I'm thinking particularly of books like Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants, or Edgar Pangborn's Davy, both of which are considered classics of science fiction and both of which are overtly satirical.

It's not necessary, of course. It's just the most common result. I've read both books you mention but don't remember anything about them.

What about the idea that even in cases where satire may not be deliberate, the mere fact of portraying alternatives to the here and now constitutes commentary?

Could be, but I doubt it.

I think I can guess the answer to this, but what is your reaction to the idea of fantasy and science fiction being the subject of college classes in literature?

Fine by me. The parasites might otherwise clutter up the jobs market in the real world.

I ran across a statement, apparently from someone who took it all too seriously, that you single-handedly changed the course of modern fantasy. I assume he was talking about the introduction of that noir detective realism. Do you think that's justified?

That would be Steven Erickson, author of The Malazan Book of the Fallen cycle of novels, just starting to appear here in the States -- upon my lobbying Tom Doherty of Tor somewhat vigorously. First is The Gardens of the Moon. It shows a heavy Black Company influence. The full statement is available on Tor's website, going to the Erickson link. He was speaking of the Black Company, not the Garretts. I did not realize I'd done what he said till I read what he had to say. But I think he's right.

The Tyranny of the Night is the second of your novels that I can recall in which Nordic myth as such has played a major role, the first being Shadowline. What is it about that body of myth that you find useful or particularly appealing? Has Norse mythology been a long-time interest?

The Northern thing is just kind of cool. I like looking at all sorts of folklore and mythology. The Northern thing just fits me better than most.

In relation to that question, while The Tyranny of the Night reflects some of the fatalism generally ascribed to Norse mythology, it also seems to continue and broaden what I've characterized as the "darkness" found in most of your earlier works, meaning simply a kind of world-weary resignation flavored with cynicism. Does Nordic myth provide a particular focus for that feeling?

I don't get that question. I don't get folks all the time talking about the "darkness" in my stuff. I write stories that suffer from "creeping realism." To crib from someone who took it all too seriously.

How do myth and folklore affect your writing?

I borrow a lot from both. Probably because there's a strong undercurrent of universality there. Something that touches people deep down. Plus I just plain enjoy them.

You seem to object to the characterization of your stories as "dark," but you do seem to concentrate on human frailty rather than human virtue. Why not just write stories with noble heroes and clever heroines?

Is that what dark means? Because those people don't exist outside the wishful thinking of folks who've never had to experience the real world. I haven't myself, much. I've led a damned lucky life. But I've lived it among people whose luck wasn't nearly so good -- mostly due to their own character failings.

I've just done a second read of The Tyranny of the Night, and several things stuck in my mind this time that seem revealing not only of this book, but of your work overall. The portrayal of a new god -- in this case, you call him "a rising Instrumentality" -- is one that I've encountered before in fantasy, albeit relatively rarely, even though the idea of gods waxing and waning depending on belief is not at all unusual. I don't recall many instances, however, when a new god has been such a central element in the story. Assuming that Svavar will continue to be a major character, is this question -- the reliance of gods on human belief -- one that you intend to investigate more thoroughly?

Svavar was neither a major character nor a god. He was just passing through and had some shitty luck. He gets murdered in an ambush by one of Else Tage's apprentices in the next book. The belief business is self-evident. None of the Old Ones have much real world power anymore. I don't investigate things when I write. I try to tell stories people will want to read.

Religious hierarchies come under intense and not terribly sympathetic scrutiny. Is this a reflection of current trends in America, or are you looking for a broader examination on the weaknesses of hierarchies in general?

Nor do I examine. Hierarchies take it in the chin because they're organized human activities, and therefore flawed and corrupt.

You've chosen the place The Tyranny of the Night in a milieu that has easily identifiable historical parallels -- essentially, Europe and the Middle East between about 800 and 1200 CE. Two related questions on this: which came first, the story or the setting? And, did you use particular historical events or personalities?

The setting is, loosely, an alternate 12th Century AD. The historical illusion game is about as close to the real past as the geography is. One thing I do is tell lies and play games, hopefully so that the more you think you know what's going on, the wronger you are. If you're the kind of reader who takes it all too seriously.

Whose writing do you take seriously these days?

Like Bill, you'll have to parse that word seriously. In an academic sort of sense of the word, nobody. Wait. Those writers who tell you they're serious. I take them seriously enough to ignore their stuff. There are a few writers I always pick up when they have something new out, though, because I know I'll enjoy what they've written.

Who are they?

Robert B. Parker. Loren Estleman. Elmore Leonard. Jack Vance. Diana Wynne Jones. Terry Pratchett. Others. And a good many who would be on the list if they were still alive.

Anyone you'll admit to as an influence?

Fritz Leiber. Jack Vance. Hammett. Chandler. Stout. Howard and Tolkien, I suppose, though definitely not consciously.

I can see everyone but Tolkien. What did you get from his work?

Depth of character and setting, I'd say.

I've just finished Kate Wilhelm's new book on the Clarion Writers' Workshop, and remembered that you talked with Donald Mead about attending Clarion in 1970. Wilhelm paints a picture of high-pressure workshops and brutal critiques punctuated by outrageous highjinks. What was it like, and what did it do for you?

Funny. I just read that book myself. Actually, I attended twice, 1969 and 1970. The later as Robin Wilson's student assistant/RA/First Sergeant. I got a free ride for my labors. Clarion State still refuses to let me have my credit hours because I didn't pay for them.

It wasn't that high pressure for me. But I was 26, 27 years old when I attended and had been in the service. Even the handful of people who weren't younger had never been in a pressure situation before. The outrageous hijinks definitely were there. Kate mentions only a couple from my era. And I don't remember the one about Russ Bates and fireworks. I do recall a complicated scheme where everyone went out several nights in a row and impaled marshmallows on the antennae of every car in Clarion, then along about Thursday morning of Harlan Elision's week every single workshopper turned in a story entitled The Marshmallow Invasion.

The workshop was useful to me in that it helped me get past a lot of trial and error stuff. And it brought me together with the local PA girl student I've been married to for them last 34 years.

I've noticed several places that you've been described as a collector of books. Is this a "collection" with a certain focus, or do you just hold on to books that appeal to you?

I'm no longer fanatic about it. Up till about ten years ago I tried to collect every English language SF, fantasy, and pre Stephen King era horror paperback ever produced. And I accumulated about 30,000 titles (virtually everything published in US & Canada, plus a majority of British & Australian, and some from a dozen other countries). I also put together complete runs of most all the SF/fantasy magazines, back to 1926. And a lot of related material, like porn by SF authors, and so forth. It's all still around here, making the house tip over.

Why collect a complete historical survey of science fiction and fantasy? Was it just curiosity, or did you actually study it?

I'm a natural-born collector/packrat. If I decide to collect something I end up having to have all of that something. So if I'm going to collect SF paperbacks, I'm going to go after all of them, however trivial or obscure. I've managed to accumulate things even the authors don't know exists.

And of course, the pendant question: Have you read all those books?

No.

I've recently read my first Garrett Files novel, and I've seen many permutations of the "fantasy detective story" by writers all the way from Randall Garrett through Jim Butcher. What interested you about that format?

It's more an accident of the marketplace than anything. Sweet Silver Blues started life as a straight American PI type novel. My agent discouraged me from wasting productive time on a genre that wasn't selling at the time. I could make him a lot more money writing the sort of thing for which I was known. In time, though, the story insisted on being born and the one way it could do so was as a fantasy. It worked well, sparked a series that's gone on 12 books now, and inspired a number of imitators.

How does the market affect what you produce, or do you feel constrained by that at all at this point in your career?

Market has had little influence on what I chose to write. My ideal is, I write something I want to write, send it to my agent, and he sells it. Reality isn't quite that, though. It goes more, I send in something and he sells it and three sequels, to be delivered before the end of the month. But we know it takes time, so, no pressure, take an extra week, guy. If marketability drove me, I'd write nothing but Black Company books, just as fast as I could churn them out. Big advances. Plus guaranteed overseas sales instantly in about 15 languages.

I'm lucky in that I don't have to rely on writing income to pay rent or put beans on my plate. So I'm free to do some like my recent 22 month investment in a serial killer epic, The Butcher's Apprentice, of LOTR proportions, that has been read by just one person besides myself, my agent, who . . . But enough of that.

What's different for you now about writing than when you started?

I'm not as driven to write as once I was. And I've become far too cerebral. My characters spend far more time standing around talking about how to deal with a problem instead of picking up a stick and whacking on it till it goes away.

What's easier for you now? What can you do now that you couldn't do then?

Put stuff down and go do something with real, living people.

You're known mainly as a fantasy writer, but you've done several science fiction novels. What's different about writing sf for you, or is there a difference?

I've always said the difference is whether I use English measure or metric. Really, the difference is cosmetic.

Are you working on anything now besides "Instrumentalities of the Night?" How many projects do you normally have going at once?

Just another Garrett Files book. There's always one of those stumbling along in the background. At some point I'd like to move on into two more Black Company books.

That's all I have. Anything you want to add?

42, but I've forgotten the question. The Meaning of Life?

[Robert M. Tilendis