An Interview with James Stoddard, November 2004

 

I'm sitting down with James Stoddard, author of two of the best fantasies of the twentieth century, The High House, and its sequel, The False House, and we're conversing while having high tea in the Robert Graves Reading Room of the Green Man library. If you are not already conversant with these novels, please go read our review of them before listening in on this conversation. I will note the first paragraph of that review does a nice job of summing up what Evenmere is: 'Welcome to the House that God built. Evenmere, the High House, that unending ever-changing building which crosses and contains worlds. It is, and represents, all Creation, an enigma, a parable, a mystery. Within its halls and rooms, passages and basements, attics and terraces, are the undreamt worlds, the lands of dream, places like Oz and Innman Tor and Arkalen. The House bridges upon our own world, but is far more than a house. It just Is.'

 

One moment while I toss another log on the fireplace to keep us warm. Like the countryside around Evenmere, we get some typically nasty English-style weather in the Fall, and today's no exception as it's both rainy and quite blustery! But it's rather nice in here.

James, how did the idea of Evenmere come to be? I know that the Author's Note in The High House says 'Besides being a Story of Adventure this book was written as a tribute to Lin Carter and the 'Sign of the Unicorn' fantasy series.' Could you explain what this means?

First, let me thank you for inviting me here, and for the tea. Lovely decor. It looks a bit like the Reading Room in the Mere of Books in Evenmere. Does that armoire bite?

Indeed it does. Only when it's feeling hungry. Or at least I hope that's the only time.

The original idea for Evenmere came from a recurring dream I used to have in college, of wandering an enormous house with endless rooms and secret passages. I wanted to see if I could recreate the feel of the dream. The story grew from that. I tried to write it in my twenties, but realized that it needed to percolate in my brain for a few years -- which turned out to be about 15 years, actually.

I read The Lord of the Rings while in my teens. At that time, in response to the popularity of LOTR, Ballantine Books began a line of fantasy books. The problem was that no one was writing fantasy back then -- it did not exist as a genre. They hired author Lin Carter to edit the series, and he began reprinting the great fantasy works of the past, by writers such as Lord Dunsany, E. R. Eddison, William Morris, Hanes Bok, William Hope Hodgson, and others. Some of the works were difficult reads, but being young, I didn't know the difference, so I read them all.

It was an incredible education in the field of fantasy. The series lasted from 1969 to 1973, and essentially launched the genre as we know it today. I wanted to pay tribute to the series when I wrote The High House, so there are references to it scattered all through the work. A pointless exercise, really -- few people are well-versed enough in the series to recognize many of the references -- but I had a lot of fun doing it. I wrote a tribute to the series, which is posted on a Lin Carter Web site.

Now I'm curious. How did Evenmere exist for those fifteen years? Did you tell pieces of it to folks? Was it a series of written notes? What happened from when you had the dream to when The High House was first written out?

I actually wrote four or five chapters just after college, and then abandoned it, sensing I wasn't ready to write the book at that time. I recently destroyed those originals, as they bore little resemblance to the published story. The only part that was in any way the same was the initial encounter with Jormungand in the attic. But not Jormungand's dialogue, which was done later.

It remained in that condition, just the initial chapters, until 1997, when I decided to begin it afresh. From there, the book took about a year and a half to write. I didn't use notes, but wrote toward discovery to see what would happen. I prefer writing that way. Or, perhaps I should say, I don't seem to be able to write any other way. It would be nice to be able to write and outline before writing a book, but I am, so far, incapable of doing so.

Please talk about the Christian underpinnings of the series. It is the Lord God that Created Evenmere, is it not? Why so? I know Psalm 27:4 says ' One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to enquire in his temple.' Was this what you were basing the idea of Evenmere on?

First, let me say that those who come to The High House looking for a particular 'religious' message will probably be disappointed. There is one one-sentence Christian reference toward the end. The book was originally conceived as a fantasy adventure. Of course, any novel is going to reflect the writer's personal beliefs at some level. The problem I encountered while writing High House was this: if you conceive of a house that is the mechanism that runs the universe, that suggests that it was built by Someone. My characters, especially in The False House, debate about who that Someone is. Likewise, in The False House, Carter suffers a trial of faith -- he knows that the house, Evenmere, is said to 'choose' the Master of the house. He believes God built the house, though others disagree. Thus, he believes he has been chosen by God. And when things go badly, he begins to wonder why.

Of course, the character Enoch, who is in charge of keeping the clocks wound so Time does not cease, is taken straight from the Old Testament, a man who 'walked with God and then was not.' That reference has led to a somewhat unsupported belief that Enoch was taken directly to heaven without dying. I could not resist using the character, a man who had actually walked and talked with God. Yet, in my version, God made him immortal and left him in Evenmere to do an endless job. So he longs for the work to be over, so he can die and finally see his wife and children again. And though he has been changed by meeting God face to face, he really doesn't have much to say about it -- he cannot describe the indescribable. And he's no fount of wisdom -- just an ordinary pre-Abraham Semite who happens to have known God on a personal level.

Sorry if I'm going on and on about this. I hope I've answered the question.

You did. Thank you.

I've read both novels at a half dozen times apiece over the years. Though not explicitly stated, there's an Englishness to them including the butler Brittle, the makes them feel at home with many of the English authors of the past century that wrote fantasy such as Tolkien, Morris, Lewis, and MacDonald. Were you intending for it to feel so English?

It's quite a compliment that you would read the novels that many times. As I consider it, the English fantasy writers you mentioned, plus Lord Dunsany, have probably influenced me the most, so that may be part of it. But I wanted Evenmere to be a Victorian manor, and there are no Victorian manors like those in England. And America has little tradition for servants, which I wanted within the house. Yet, I intentionally avoided saying that Evenmere is in England, since it's actually in a lot of places at once.

Of course, when the English edition of the book came out, I was petrified the British would see right through me. 'Ah, the American chap, thinks he can write like one of us! Guffaw.' It was quite a relief when I received a letter from the English SF writer John Whitbourn, telling me how amazed he was that the work had not been written by an Englishman. I consider that high praise. John has written some tremendous work, himself, by the way.

On a related note, much of the decoration and architecture of Evenmere seems to pay homage to William Morris, the genius who created the English Arts & Crafts Movement. Was that what you were intending?

It just seemed natural. William Morris more or less invented the modern fantasy novel in the last six or seven years of his life. I think Tolkien came up with the name for his Black Riders from a few lines in one of Morris' books. And William Morris furniture, tapestries and wallpaper are still manufactured today.

I read The High House years before SoulWave sent me their edition of the second volume, The False House, so I read it without knowing how the tale of Evenmere, the Anderson family, and the struggle for the Universe continued. The novels appear to be two halves of a whole. Was this your intention? And should indeed both be read in order to fully appreciated what you've created?

I think they need to be read in order, just because I didn't spend a lot of time explaining what had gone on previously when I wrote The False House. But no, when I wrote The High House I intended for it to stand alone. It was only after I found my agent that the question of a sequel arose. I mentioned I might be able to do one. He took me at my word, and when he sold The High House to Warner, he did so as a two-book deal, which actually rather took me by surprise. I'm glad the novels seem to work together for you, but that wasn't the original conception.

Tell me about the short stories in the Evenmere series? I've read only the one you sent me, 'The Star Watch', but I understand that there are others. That tale does a very nice job of adding to the Evenmere mythos. Are the stories intended to flesh out the Universe?

Whoops. Actually, I may have led you astray at some time. 'The Star Watch' is the only short story I've written in the Evenmere universe. I would like to write others, as time permits, but I teach full-time and am always working on some novel or another, so it's hard to squeeze the short stories in.

Will there be a third Evenmere novel? If so, does it continue the story of the Anderson family?

I have plans for another Evenmere novel, although I'm working on other things at this time. I don't like to rush Evenmere. It's so much fun to write, but the writing style is one that takes more time to get right, and I can't say right now when I'll have the chance to get one done. But I'm always thinking about it and making notes. And it will be about Carter and Company. I like the characters too much not to include them.

I too like the characters a lot. I know some reviewers, poor sods that they are, think the characters are a bit stiff, more archetypes than living folk. I on the other hand found them quite believable. Did they come out of the plot, or were characters such as Brittle in your mind from the very beginning? And which characters do you like the most?

I'm not sure that any particular character is my favorite. Jormungand, of course, because he is so fun to write. Unlike some of the work I'm doing now, with Evenmere I used parts of my own personality to form those of the heroes and heroines. (Not Lizbeth, though, who is a composite of various people I've known.) Perhaps that's why it hurts a bit when people call my characters lifeless and stiff.

Seriously, I have been surprised at the polarized reactions. Some, like yourself, find the characters interesting, others take the exact opposite view. They are somewhat archetypal, and the writing, especially in the first book, takes a camera lens view of the characters, something Ursula LeGuin or Roger Zelazny did in some of their work You learn about the characters only from what you see, rather than listening in on their thoughts. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, the main disadvantage being a certain amount of distancing. I think some readers don't know quite how to handle that. But perhaps I'm only trying to excuse my lack of skill.

I do know that although it's much in vogue to have characters displaying horrible angst and doing dreadful things to one another, one of the things I enjoy about writing Evenmere is that the characters are basically good people trying to do the right thing, sometimes against terrible odds. Perhaps that makes them a trifle dull. I hope not. I do get incredible letters from people, thanking me for the characters and the work. And that makes it all worthwhile.

You did a recording of the first chapter of The High House. Are you pleased with it? And I understand that you wrote and performed the music in it as well?

Yes, it was an excerpt from the first chapter, done as a way to advertise the book. I played it a couple times at conventions as well, to give something more than just the traditional reading. Music is my other passion in life, so it was fun to do something like that. The difficult thing about it is that the music has to be much softer than the voice, so a bit of it gets lost. I would probably do a few things different, given more time, but I thought it turned out pretty well.

I was lucky enough to have SoulWave send me, per your request, their limited edition publications of The High House and The False House. How did these come to be? They certainly are class acts!

I was extremely pleased with them as well. I was contacted by Tom McGee, who is one of the publishers. He had read The High House and felt strongly about the book, so he wanted to put out a limited edition of two hundred numbered and twenty-six lettered editions, the latter leather-bound. He flew me out to Nashville to sign and number all the copies, and really gave me the royal treatment. On the second trip, to sign The False House, I had the opportunity to meet the artist, Nancy Hall, who is a fascinating person. It was a great experience.

Thank you for your time this afternoon. Is there anything I didn't ask you that I should have?

I prefer to let the interviewer come up with the questions; it makes it less likely that I will put my foot in my mouth. However, if you happened to ask me: 'What is the best fantasy novel that no one ever reads?' I would say Red Moon, Black Mountain by Joy Chant. Long out of print, it is an absolute jewel, one I have read almost as many times as the Lord of the Rings. It's much shorter however.

I appreciate you having me over, and for the tea. Nice cozy place.

[Cat Eldridge]