Before I turn today’s blog over to author Matthew Woodring Stover, I need to thank two people. First up, author and SGU creative consultant John Scalzi who recommended Heroes Die as a potential Book of the Month Club selection back in January. I knew absolutely nothing about the novel going in, but trusted in John – and that trust was rewarded with an smart, engaging, wholly entertaining read. So, of course, the second person I need to thank is the book’s author – Matthew Woodring Stover – for, yes, actually writing it in the first place (the life of a writer aint easy!), but also for taking the time to provide us with an informative and highly entertaining Q&A.
Hey, if you haven’t gotten around to reading Heroes Die – seriously, what’s taking you so long?! Or, if you have, might I suggest picking up the second book in the series: The Blade of Tyshalle. And, finally, if you’re intrigued by what Matt has to say about “the artist’s release” or the collaborative relationship between author and reader, why not head on over to his blog for some follow-up discussion: http://www.mattstover.blogspot.com.
Sylvia writes: “Question for Matthew Woodring Stover: Thanks for joining us for the Questions and Answers. By the way, the interview at the end of the book was rather entertaining as well.
1. I hope I did not miss a crucial detail in the book, but I wondered about the change in Hari/Caine to become such a brilliant strategist when he was returned to the Overworld to complete his mission to rescue Shanna and kill Ma’elKoth. He played, very well and nicely, a risky and wicked chess game with the bad guys. What happened to make the change – besides meeting his father?”
MWS: Wellll . . . this is a complicated question. To really answer it we’re gonna have to take the long way ‘round.
A running theme through much of my work (arguably all of it) is the phenomenon known in the performaning arts as “the artist’s release.” Sports people call it “being in the zone.” It’s that moment when you get out of your own way, and let your art speak through you without the intervention of your self-awareness. It’s kind of difficult to describe to people who haven’t experienced it. In the Tao de Ching, Lao-tse calls it wei wu-wei: “Doing not-doing.” Stephen Mitchell, my favorite translator of that particular work, describes it in these terms: “The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance . . . the doer has wholeheartedly vanished into the deed; the fuel has been completely transformed by the flame.”
I have had the misfortune of having experienced exactly that wei wu-wei several times in my life: in the ring, on stage, and while writing one particular novel. I call it a misfortune because, having experienced a few moments like those, you basically spend your life trying to get it back . . . and the trying itself gets in your way.
So, here’s the thing: in that state, you know the punch will land, the three-pointer will drop, the home run will clear the scoreboard. In my experience, you reach that state when your art expresses itself through you, rather than you expressing yourself through your art. It happens, if you’ll excuse a somewhat grandiose metaphor, when you’re doing exactly what the history of the universe has prepared you for.
So: Caine. In the very first scene:
“. . . my knives are useless against them, but hey, that’s all right – I’m deep in it, now.
“The waiting is over. I’m happy again.”
Caine gives himself to violence the way an artist surrenders himself to his art. His transformative moment comes not when he speaks with his father, but in the Palace with Ma’elKoth . . . when he realizes that persuasion (well, okay, ruthless manipulation) can be framed as another form of combat. Call it “fighting without fighting”; that was Bruce Lee’s name for it, and it’s good enough for me.
There is also an element of real acting here – that is, acting as performance, instead of Acting-as-Bloodsport. In the Prologue of Heroes Die, Hari talks about the experience of being Caine: “Caine can do things I can’t . . . he’s faster, stronger, more ruthless, maybe not as bright . . .”
Some of Caine’s limitations are a product of Hari’s image of him – a limitation of the character, instead of the Actor. Hari spends some of the novel discovering that Caine can be more than Hari (or, for that matter, Caine) had ever thought he could.
Artdogspot writes: “For Matthew Woodring Stover: I thought Heroes Die was a great read. It is a pretty remarkable piece of work because it intertwines so many different elements and pulls it off in an entertaining way. It is also incredibly morally ambiguous which makes it very thought provoking. ”
MWS: Well, thanks. I wish I could get you a job at Publisher’s Weekly.
“1. For me, this story was a great vehicle for describing slavery and manipulation (personal and social) on so many different levels. Hari/Caine’s obvious slavery as a “gladiator” to the Studio System with the rest of his world’s population essentially slaves inside a very structured caste system imposed by corporate interests. While at the same time these very corporate entities provide the main means of escapism – “ultra-violent” entertainment which seems like an opiate for members at every caste level. Fairly obvious social commentary on our own world, I think. Since you wrote this book over ten years ago, do you think our society has come closer to that of Hari’s in certain ways?”
MWS: I actually framed the story – developed Hari’s future Earth – while Ronald Reagan was our President, and the country was going through a frenzy of corporate deregulation. The Studio was not (believe it or not) conceived as a reality TV thing; when I wrote the original version, there was no such thing as reality TV. The premise was an attempt to SFnalize the experience of playing a fantasy RPG.
So, in the meantime, we’ve had Survivor. And The Colony. And The Ultimate Fighter. (And I’ll leave off commentary on American politics and corporate culture, because that’ll just start a fight. Anybody who wants to argue with me is welcome to do so over at my blog).
I wasn’t really commenting on American society so much as I was on . . . well, human nature. What I thought was human nature. In view of the intervening years, I may have been too optimistic.
“2. I kept feeling hints and references in both worlds to Greek and Roman mythology – with Eastern philosophies thrown in as well. The concept of social castes and the Flow (Eastern); the use of aktirs who were more or less “gladiators” (Roman) and the Leisure families, who reminded me more of the Olympian Gods than anything else. (Hari’s visit to Leisure family Dole’s home seemed like Hercules making a trip to Olympus.) Were these references something you were intentionally tapping into or was it just your own personal knowledge base just unconsciously kicking in?”
MWS: I don’t do allegory; it gets in the way of storytelling. I have a pretty good grounding in what college kids these days call Dead White Guy Lit, which means my head is crowded with an assload of allusions from Homer to John D. MacDonald. I try to frame each scene in terms of how the POV character would see it. If Hari’s view of Kauai put you in mind of Olympus . . . well, that’s not far off, from his point of view.
“Flow” was not intended to have an Eastern tinge, despite its echoes of the Tao (and, for that matter, of the Force). When I was working on the original version, I got interested in Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth. While I don’t buy everything the guy wrote (there’s a section in Creative Mythology about pig-symbolism in the Odyssey that must be read to be believed), he was particularly persuasive when writing about early Hinduism and Buddhism, and his way of re-contextualizing certain broad mythic tropes really caught my fancy (people who move on to Heroes Die’s sequel, Blade of Tyshalle, will see this fancy played out in a more explicit way). I was also reading Castaneda and Jung, as well as some Rosicrucian texts about “cosmic consciousness.” And when I got involved with the Fabulous Robyn (who is now my beloved wife), she introduced me to the study of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Aleister Crowley (by “study” I mean: to read all their work before trying to decide which of it makes sense).
Although Crowley defeated me (I defy anyone to figure out, for example, which parts of 777 he actually meant, and which were just jokes on idiots who would believe anything they read), I got a lot out of it – Crowley was, for example, my introduction to the Tao te Ching. The way magick works in Heroes Die is kind of an extended riff on Crowley’s concept of magick (which is why, in fact, it’s spelled with a ‘k’; this was Crowley’s formulation – pronounced MAY-jik – to separate his ritual practice from stage magic). I mention him together with Nietzsche because despite being polar opposites in world-view, they share some philosophical echoes of each other, including the idea of lying in order to tell the truth . . . which is, after all, what fiction is.
Anyway, there was a whole mess o’ mystic traditions colliding in my head in those days, which is why some folks might get a sort of Cuisinart-ed feeling from the allusions.
“3. I liked the fact that most of the characters were always working within a “grey” moral area which seems more human and realistic than traditional heroes within a Good vs Evil context. Is this a trend in SF Fantasy these days?”
MWS: I dunno. I do know that some younger writers (and some older ones, like GRRM) have been going that way. I honestly don’t pay attention to trends – if I did, I would have waited six or seven years to bring out Heroes Die, because at the time, it was a very, very lonely book. My publisher had no idea how to market it; they were thinking I was trying to be the next David Eddings or the next Terry Brooks . . . which they shortly realized was not going to be the case. It’s also probably how Heroes Die got that pulp-looking cover, because the most direct antecedents of that book are what’s now called Sword & Sorcery stories, from the old pulps (mostly Weird Tales) by people like Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber. Both of those guys were notable for producing very (sometimes extremely) violent fantasy adventure stories in which their heroes were not trying to be Good Guys, and if they ended up battling evil, it was more-or-less by accident . . . they’re just trying to get what they want (usually treasure and babes).
I got started in this business trying to prove that you can write good fiction that is also good fantasy, and that you can write good fantasy that is not about the Final Battle Against the Dark Lord. There are a number of novelists out there these days who are proving exactly that, bless ‘em. I hope they keep doing it. Our genre needs them.
One more thing, though: I don’t see my characters as operating in a grey moral area; each of them has their own inner sense of right and wrong, and for the most part they stay true to them – it’s just that these inner senses don’t happen to agree with each other. You might say each of them carries around in the back of their heads an imaginary model of what sort of person they want to be; really the only character in Heroes Die who violates his own inner vision of himself is Caine. Faced with the choice between his principles (such as they are) and the life of the woman he loves, his principles don’t have a chance.
“4. Bad guys – there were some nasty players in this story. Berne and Kollberg seemed like two sides of the same coin. Kollberg was sort of a clean, non-violent, metaphorically stab-you-in-the-back kind of sociopath and Berne – he was an all out blood-thirsty sociopath. Because of the moral ambiguities in Hari’s/Caine’s character, did you feel you had to make the bad guys that much more heinous to draw distinctions?”
MWS: Nope. Berne is Berne for the same reason Caine is Caine . . . and Kollberg is Kollberg, for that matter. Because it seemed like the story needed them to be that way.
I don’t see Kollberg as a sociopath, by the way; he is a nasty piece of business to be sure, but he does what he does in a morally righteous (to him) attempt to support the social order. And if we’re going to throw around current psychiatric buzzwords, I think Berne would be most properly described as a malignant narcissist. His moral compass is straightforward: I Get My Way and People Admire and Fear Me = Good; Anything Else = Evil.
It’s worth pointing out, though, that I don’t think in these terms when I’m writing a character. There is no note somewhere that says, “Okay, let’s make Berne a malignant narcissist.” To me, Berne is just Berne.
I also don’t see Caine as being morally ambiguous; to him, morality is irrelevant. He’s described by a character in Blade of Tyshalle as a “. . . nuts and guts man. No conversation could hold his attention that wasn’t about something he could bite, or that could bite him.” He is capable of playing on other people’s morality (and, for that matter, other people’s moral judgments of him) to accomplish his goals, but that’s not the same thing.
Duncan quotes Nietzsche: “Whatever is done out of love takes place beyond good and evil.”
“It was harder for me to place Ma’elKoth within a spectrum of good/bad. But a guy that uses a “human juicer” to gain power, well, that sort of sends up red flags for me. What was your intent with his character? Lamorak was easily a “rat” for me – with or without Studio directives.”
MWS: When I originally delivered the manuscript, my agent read it; his only criticism (outside of “too relentlessly violent”) was, “Even at the end, I wasn’t sure what I should think of Ma’elKoth.” I said, “That means I got it right.”
Lamorak I don’t have a lot of sympathy for; his frustrations are familiar to me, not only due to my former career as an actor, but also as a mid-list novelist hanging onto my career with toenails and teeth. But my characters are not (at least, I hope they are not) defined by the bad things that happen to them; I believe, in fiction and in life, that people are defined by what they do when bad things happen to them – and, for that matter, to others.
“5. Pallas’ ability to tap into the power of old gods did seem a little like a deus ex-machina or a get-out-of-jail-free-card, why was it that Ma’elKoth couldn’t tap into this power nor other magical types in Overworld while she could?”
MWS: Some of that is due to the metaphysics of Overworld, which is a bit more central to the sequels. As far as Pallas Ril’s apotheosis being a deus ex machina, all I can say is “Well, no shit.”
For those of you who aren’t into literary and theater history, “deus ex machina” is Greek for “god from the machine,” which, during the ancient Festival of Dionysios performances of the plays of the Greek poets, was often a precisely literal term. The theater had an actual machine – a type of crane, basically – which would lower an actor playing one of their gods to the stage at the ends of certain plays. Usually, the god shows up because the humans have their situation so screwed up that only a divine intervention can restore order. My favorite Greek dramatist, Euripides, was notorious for mocking the deus ex machina by making even an appearance by the gods insufficient to actually resolve the protagonists’ problems.
Which might remind you, I hope, of a particular event in Heroes Die.
“6. Given the title, Heroes Die, I was always trying to guess who would survive in the end. There were so few classic heroes in this story. I knew that Talann, most like a hero, was probably not gonna make it. But I also thought Pallas was a hero – Caine even describes her that way. Yet she survived – why?”
MWS: I think you may be missing the point a little – you seem to be attaching a a moral judgment to the word “hero.” ThoughI may be wrong, here – I often am – you seem to be suggesting that the defining feature of a Hero is his or her moral character. I’m less interested in “classic heroes” than I am in Classical Heroes; that is, heroes in the vein of Achilles and Odysseus, Diomedes and Hektor. Homer, who knew a bit about heroes, lived and died before there really was a popular concept of the “Good vs. Evil” duality. Berne, for example – despite being a malignant narcissist and a sexual predator, and by any definition a profoundly evil bastard and a blight upon humanity – is in fact a hero by the original conception: he is brave, and fierce, loyal to his friends and a terror to his enemies, and he lays down his life (at least arguably) in the service of what he sees as a greater cause: the triumph of Ma’elKoth and the survival of the Ankhanan Empire.
To say more than this would involve spoilers for Blade of Tyshalle, and spoilers give me a rash.
“7. Hari evolves into a superb duplicitous puppeteer towards the end of this book. He starts thinking differently from Caine which seems to be the goal on his personal journey. He learns to do all these things in order to save Shanna’s life. Are we supposed to feel good about this accomplishment or is your point to make us squirm a little with his success?”
MWS: You’re supposed to feel about it however you feel about it.
I know that sounds like I’m evading the question, but this an important concept. I believe (yes, I really, really do) that the real story in a book is the one you see in your head as you read it. A novel, after all, is just a bunch of black marks on white paper (or, these days, a string of binary numbers in machine language). In other words, my intention is functionally irrelevant to your experience, unless I’ve screwed up somehow, because what I’m trying to do, as an author, is tease your imagination into collaborating with me on a story I think you’ll enjoy. My main intention is to stay the hell out of your way, so that I’m not blocking your view; my fondest hope as a novelist is that you’ll entirely forget you’re reading a novel, and you’ll just experience the story without too much authorial intervention.
One critic’s description of one of the Acts of Caine contained something along the lines of “a steadfast refusal to hold the reader’s hand.” I’m happy to show you how things look to me – but what you think of what you see is up to you.
“And at the very end, the puppet becomes the puppetteer. I’m hoping he does a better job than Kollberg. Can’t imagine how- but I suppose Ma’elKoth would make a great Aktir in another alternate reality.”
MWS: Like I said, spoilers give me a rash. It’s worth noting, though, that Blade of Tyshalle is a completely different animal from Heroes Die. People who read Blade expecting it to be “Heroes Die Bigger, Faster & Louder” are in for a bit of a shock.
KellyK writes: “Questions for the author: 1. In addition to writing science fiction and fantasy, are you a reader of either genre? And if so, do you have any particular favorites, perhaps any that influenced your own writing?”
MWS: In the genre? Robert E. Howard. Fritz Leiber. Roger Zelazny. Philip K. Dick. Robert A. Heinlein. Algis Budrys. John W Campbell. Fred Pohl. Poul Anderson. Stephen R. Donaldson. Jack Vance. Keith Laumer. JRR Tolkien. CS Lewis. Harlan Ellison. Ray Bradbury. Homer. Ovid. Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Christopher Marlowe. William Shakespeare. Lots of others – these are the ones that popped up in the first 30 seconds of thinking about it. If I spend any longer, that list will start looking like a phone book.
“2. How does your approach to a Star Wars novel differ to that of a completely original work? Or does it at all?”
MWS: They’re really very similar, since my original projects are always centered around characters that I hope to show to advantage (that is, so that my readers are interested enough in what will happen to these people that they’ll keep turning the pages). There are lots of restrictions on the content of a Star Wars novel, but they don’t really get in my way. If anything, having established ground rules is an advantage, when it comes to developing a story; sometimes the hardest part of writing a novel is deciding what to not do.
“3. You’re casting the Heroes Die movie! Who are you casting as Caine? Berne?”
MWS: In a perfect world, with an unlimited budget and some way to mind-control the actors into taking part . . .? At that point, I might have an answer for you. Until then, my opinion doesn’t count for much.
Tell you what: if you find a producer who wants to put this book on film, have them ask me. Privately. Because I don’t want to dis anybody who might be interested. If it were to happen, whoever ends up taking the part will be officially my pick, you follow?
Guy writes: “I have questions for Matt Stover: Character creation is fascinating for me. Focusing on Kierendal, where did she come from? Where did her environment come from? Was she meant to fill a particular theme you wanted to explore?”
MWS: Kierendal is an interesting case. For me, anyway. She was initially conceived to serve two fairly straightfoward purposes:
1.) to be a viewpoint character for Caine on Overworld (that is, to give the reader a perspective on what people on Overworld think of him, and how they feel when forced to interact with him on unfriendly terms), and
2.) to show that My Elves Are Different.
I wanted Heroes Die to have all the traditional elements of popcorn fantasy – a Magic Sword, Dark Mystic Peril, a Damsel in Distress, a Legendary Swordsman, a Crafty Courtier, a Canny Street-Wise Sidekick, a World-Beater Dark Lord type for the antagonist . . . you know the drill. If I could have found a way to include a fluffy unicorn and a sarcastic dragon, please believe I would have.
Of course, my fluffy unicorn would have turned out to be a drug addict who robs drunks at horn-point, and my sarcastic dragon would have gotten his head blown off in the first action sequence . . . but it’s the thought that counts.
Since there’s a clear undercurrent of human-centric racism in Ankhanan culture, I felt like there should be a least one non-human character. I also, in the interest of avoiding the standard accusation of gender bias, wanted to have at least one strong female character who neither
1.) needs to be rescued, nor
How, exactly, I got from “one non-human character” to “lesbian elf mistress of a cross-species whorehouse, opium den and crooked gambling hall, whose lover is Tinkerbell with a switchblade, and who runs the Tolkien-critter Mafia in Ankhana” well . . .
Seriously. She just turned out that way. The more interested I got in her, the more interesting she became, as though increase of desire had gained by what it fed on (as Hamlet might say). I like her. I think she’s fun, and a little bit scary, and somehow she’s become a pretty damned significant side-player. If I were the OSC eats-his-own-young kind of writer, Kierendal could star in her own book, paralleling the Acts of Caine.
Sparrow_hawk writes: “As for questions, I would just echo artdogspot’s question: Hari learns to use (relatively) non-violent manipulation of people instead of overt violence to “inch toward success” as his father advised him, in order to rescue Shanna. Hari/Caine goes through a transition from honest but violent thug to a man who lies to and manipulates friend and enemy alike with no (apparent) qualms or regrets to achieve his ends. Did you intend for us to feel good about this change in his character or to feel regret for or at least ambivalence about it? (I guess from the way I phrased the question my own feelings are painfully obvious but I really am interested in knowing the author’s intentions in taking the character in this direction.)”
MWS: Sorry. You’re asking basically the same question, and you’re getting basically the same answer. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain . . .
Is ruthless violence less objectionable than ruthless manipulation? If so, why? If not, why not? And if you don’t really care, that’s okay too – I don’t really care either. I don’t see the world, or my fiction, in terms of where things fall on a good/evil axis..
Michelle writes: “Questions for Matthew Woodring Stover: 1.Would you put on a helmet and “feel” Hari go on a mission if you had the chance?”
MWS: In a heartbeat.
I don’t suffer from the same moral queasiness that many people feel about violence. It would be disingenuous to pretend that I’m above enjoying such things; I am, after all, an unabashed purveyor of (extremely) violent entertainment – the ironic self-reference at the core of Heroes Die is not anything remotely resembling mitigation. I like violent entertainment for very much the same reasons that most people do. I’m also not in the least uncomfortable with the moral implications of my predilections.
Neitzsche (there he is again!) hypothesized that love of cruelty is the foundation of theater; if you read The Birth of Tragedy, you might decide that’s an idea worth considering – but, y’know, this isn’t a seminar. Your comments (with apologies to John Scalzi) will not be graded.
In fact, one authorial intention that I will share with you: I hope readers who like this kind of stuff will think a little bit about why they like it – what that says about them, their values, and the society we live in. Please believe, however, that I am neither wagging a finger nor tipping a hat. I hope my readers will think. That’s all. What they think is their business.
Some people (My Favorite Fans!) even discover that my books strike them differently after some time has passed. Sometimes they don’t like them as well. Sometimes they like them better. Sometimes they like them for different reasons. All of which are cool with me; as far as I’m concerned, the only thing better than being widely read is being widely re-read.
“2. Do you watch any reality TV? Is it harmless fun, or a sign of the final downfall of our civilization?”
MWS: I generally don’t care for reality TV. The Fabulous Robyn, however, is an aficionado of the Incredible Creativity Under Unbelievable Pressure shows, like Top Chef and Project Runway. Those shows, and shows like them, are (in my never-humble opinion) absolutely brilliant entertainment – they showcase a level of ingenuity and just flat-out Nerves of Steel that we ordinary folk can only hope to emulate.
The rest of the RTV stuff is basically, I suspect, what the Hitchhikers’ Guide said about Earth. Simply because it’s been a major revenue source on TV about ten years now, and our civilization seems to be mostly intact (pace any Tea-Baggers in the audience . . .).
“3. In your mind, how did the Earth of the book end up with the rigid caste system, the corporate domination, the loss of individual rights, etc? Did you extrapolate it from our current state, or was it simply a leap to a possible future?”
MWS: For that story, you’ll have to read Blade of Tyshalle.
Thepi writes: “How did you come up with the sick freak Berne? Based off of anyone you know (dear god I hope not)? And not really question, but….I wish we had a more detailed account of Berne and Caine’s previous encounter, rather than just the broad outlines of what happened.“
MWS: Berne is based on me.
I know that might sound a little pretentious (or decidedly creepy), but you need to understand: I was an actor. My particular training (and my rehearsal and performance style) was not to create a separate character that I sought to impersonate, it was instead to behave as though I have lived the life my character has lived, that I have the goals my character has, and that I am predisposed to use the tactics that my character uses to get what I/he want(s).
That’s how I write, too – I write my major characters how I would be if I were them, if you see what I’m saying. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, I feel their pain. I look at the world through their eyes; once you see the world the way the character does, it’s usually pretty clear what they’re going to do or say next.
That’s the idea, anyway.
The third volume in the Acts of Caine, Caine Black Knife, features recordings from the Adventure that made Caine a star: Retreat from the Boedecken. If continuing to write Caine stories ever starts actually paying for itself, I have an outline for a story that will similarly include some of Race for the Crown of Dal’Kannith, this being the Adventure that began Caine’s blood-feud with Berne.
So I hope you’re patient. Really patient. Because I write slowly.
For any of you who have discovered you love my work so much you’ll read anything with my name on it, I should mention I have two new tie-in projects coming out next year – the novelization of the Sony game God of War, and a player to be named later (I don’t release project news before the publisher does – I guess I’m just superstitious that way).
And the fourth, presumably final, volume of the Acts of Caine is due out in 2011.