World Fantasy Convention 2015, Part II: My interview with Charles de Lint

Last week I talked about Guy Gavriel Kay reading from his upcoming historical fantasy Children of the Earth and Sky at the World Fantasy Convention 2015 at Saratoga Springs, NY. This week, I continue my account of the weekend’s events and provide a paraphrase of my interview with Charles de Lint.

First, allow me to talk a little bit more about the events on Friday. I had an engaging conversation in the dealer’s room with Russell B. Farr, an editor for Ticonderoga Publications, which is actually based in Australia, not New England. I bought a Year’s Best anthology of Australian fantasy and horror from his table, but got much more in return in the form of a discussion about Southern Hemisphere fantasy fiction.

I asked if there were any authors employing Maori or Aborigine myths Down Under and Russell talked to me about the anxiety and tension that surrounds issues of cultural appropriation when white authors try to use such cultural motifs in their work. There are other schools of thought that favour white authors who employ indigenous myth, because at least this means the stories get out there. However, for all that, not too many indigenous authors are emerging as fantasy writers, although I should think there are at least a few hidden somewhere. It seems to me a pity that these Pacific myths do not receive wider audiences, but the politics surrounding the “mining” or “exploiting” such myths are significant.

When I asked Russel Farr what made Australian fantasy unique, he gave me an interesting reply. Although these things can be hard to pin down, he claimed that there is less of a tendency to set stories in Australia. Some Aussies employ European myths set in European locales and some write about Aussies living abroad in Japan, London, New York, but comparatively rarely in Melbourne, Sydney, Townsville. This could be explained by the Australian gaze being directed outside of the country because of its geographical isolation from the main centres of Anglophone culture, rather than being focused within itself. I found this discussion highly interesting because my MA thesis will deal with fantasy as a globalized form.

Afterwards I spoke with Janeen Webb, who is an Australian fantasy author with a new book called Death at the Blue Elephant. She has studied fantasy academically and told me about the Australian gaze, how news mostly comes from outside the country, rather than from within, and how this shapes the Australian psyche. This outward gaze blends with an inward gaze, creating a complex self-regard that defines the Australian literary sensibility. Webb directed me to a study she helped edit called Aliens and Savages: Fiction, Politics and Prejudice in Australia that I might look into in order to provide a learned footnote for my thesis.

Steven Erikson in conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson
Steven Erikson in conversation with Stephen R. Donaldson

Another thing that happened Friday was a conversation between two giants of the epic fantasy genre: Steven Erikson (pseudonym of Steve Rune Lundin) and Stephen R. Donaldson. It was entertaining to watch the banter between them and their approaches to certain epic fantasy tropes. Erikson notably wrote one of his novels while subsisting on a Canada Council grant. More recently, a scholar has for the first time looked through his collected papers and notebooks, which must be a strange feeling for an author to first experience! An archaeologist for some time, Erikson has gone on various fieldwork excursions, once getting seriously ill on a Mongolian dig after drinking a poorly-prepared goat’s head soup. He was finishing up his 10-book epic fantasy series Malazan at the time and almost couldn’t finish it because of his illness, he said. When he did complete the series that Wikipedia says is the most significant since Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, he explained to us that he felt like he had accomplished what he had been set on this earth to do and that it was now over. The feeling of completion lasted a mere few weeks…

After this presentation I went to Charles de Lint’s reading of his still in-progress novel The Throwaway Child, a longer adult novel that takes place on a Southwest Indian reserve. After the reading I had the privilege of sitting with Charles de Lint for around 15 minutes next to the fireplace by the registration desk. The following is a paraphrase of that interview.

I asked him my first question: How would you define the social role of the artist, given that so many of your works concern fairies or magical beings interacting with the homeless, the dejected, the marginalized? How do you view your own role in relation to the marginalized? He answered that in his formative years, he was a street kid and that most of the people he knew then were outsiders. He wrote what he knew. Those he knew were musicians and artists, quite like the characters that populate his Newford novels and short stories. He likes to make people realize that everyone has a story.

Having supernatural entities such as fairies, gnomes, ghosts, or pixies interact with marginalized people enables them to have conversations that move the story forward. This is a way around boring the reader with soliloquies. Since these beings are magical, they can appear out of nowhere and such characters can speak to them. It takes the narrative out of these characters’ heads and out into the world.

When I asked what tradition Charles de Lint saw himself as a part of, he talked about the attempts of editors to label his work. He indicated that when his novel Someplace to be Flying came out, he and his editor Terri Windling decided to label it before the markets did, as ‘mythic fiction.’ I was aware of this label from other interviews, but it was interesting to note the relationship between de Lint and Windling, because, as I discovered upon arriving home, her art helped to inspire Dreams Underfoot. I can only imagine the full impact her visual arts have had on de Lint’s fiction.

Talking more about where he would position his own work, and of how he tends to write the endings of his novels, de Lint said that his story arcs don’t tend to follow the arcs of other fantasies. He points to Seanan McGuire as another author who refashions urban myths, of the ‘serial-killer at Make-Out Point’ and ‘suspicious hitchhiker’ variety. Also, he mentioned Alex Bledsoe, whose stories tend to take place in the Appalachians, and the Silver John stories by Manly Wade Wellman. He said he grew up on William Morris, Lord Dunsany, E.R. Eddison, James Branch Caball, and J.R.R. Tolkien–through what I presume included the Ballantine adult fantasy series, which republished many early works of fantasy, as Brian Attebery told me at MythCon this year. Every one of these authors gave me a sense of wonder in a different way, de Lint explained. I could sense in de Lint the younger author, searching among these examples for his own voice and the angle he would adopt on the wondrous, a distinct style he has certainly found in himself.

I then asked a more particular question: what prompted you to include the Mafia subplot in Greenmantle? If you read my review of this book, you might have a sense of the incongruity of the scenes that seem excerpted from Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather or Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas appearing next to a plot that involves a sequel to Lord Dunsany’s classic novel The Blessing of Pan. De Lint replied that he was trying to represent the perception of the Mafia, the mythology of the mob, rather than the real Mafia, who are thugs with no code of honour. He thought the Mafia as mythologized resembled elves–an ‘underground’ culture who you have do favours for and who might act benign or malicious depending on their whim. He liked the idea of having ‘elves’ on one hand and then using the myth of Pan on the other. The interesting story here is that his publisher ACE asked him to take the Mafia subplot out of the book. But Charles de Lint stood by his guns and the scenes involving Tony Valenti and the men coming to kill him were included.

My last question was whether Charles de Lint’s literary agent ever influenced the form of any of his novels. Russ Galen is Charles de Lint’s agent and although he had no amusing stories about him, he did mention that for the Wildings series, Galen made a suggestion to target a YA rather than adult audience. Good agents won’t lay heavy hands over your manuscript, after all. However, de Lint’s answer opens the possibility that this suggestion may have (perhaps) influenced the style of the novel in certain ways, so as to better target a younger audience. I think the relationship between agents and authors is frequently an under-examined one that may present many surprises about the way books are written and marketed.

Charles de Lint and I
Charles de Lint and I

This concludes the second week of my report on World Fantasy 2015. Next week, I’ll be finishing with a discussion of the fantasy canon and Sunday’s awards ceremony.

 

Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson

lord foul's baneBeware! Leper unclean! shout the crowds.

Don’t touch me! responds Thomas Covenant, the antihero of Stephen R. Donaldson’s memorable epic fantasy trilogy. In this exchange, which Convenant repeats in his mind like a mantra for his sanity, Donaldson summarizes the conflict of his protagonist. Despite being unlikeable, Covenant tends to garner your empathy. He’s a man whose marriage to his wife and his writing career crashes on the day he discovers he has been infected with a rare disease that makes him a cripple and a social outcast.

And that was before he was brought, against his will, to the Land.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane is the first novel in Donaldson’s signature trilogy, and a book that made experiments in the epic fantasy genre. Published 1977, around the time of the epic fantasy surge that saw the rise of Terry Brooks and other Tolkienistas, Thomas Covenant broke a rule by turning a leprous antihero into a protagonist and implying that the fantasy world he travels through is only a dream.

What a phenomenal idea, as original today as it must have been forty years ago.  This is a book well worth rediscovering.

Thomas Covenant fights a losing battle for his health. He is missing three fingers and his wedding ring is the only sign he carries of a relatively happy past life. A social pariah in small-town America when we first see him, his great rebellion consists of a journey to personally pay his bill at the Bell Telephone Company. A woman has taken the liberty of paying his bills for him, because they just don’t want a leper walking through town. In an effort to reclaim his humanity and connection to the community, he makes his epic quest to town.

On the way, he gets knocked over by a police car.

When he awakes, he is in the Land, surrounded by darkness as Lord Foul, the incarnation of Despite, gives him a quest. He must deliver a message to the council of Lords that Drool Rockworm, a Cavewight has the Staff of Law. This, Foul promises, is cause for despair. All life in the land will be obliterated soon if Covenant does nothing. Still quite ignorant of his situation, hethen finds himself high upon Kevin’s Watch, a pinnacle in a mountain range where he first surveys the Land.

A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape
A Pre-Raphaelite Landscape

The Land is sublime in all its Pre-Raphaelite glory: rolling green hills, vast mountain ranges, mighty rivers. It exudes an aura of health, the vitality of all its living things. Rather like New Zealand, where the Lord of the Rings movies were filmed, it is a source of beauty and goodness.

Soon Covenant makes the acquaintance of the Stonedownor, a tribe of squarely-built, rock-solid humans who specialize in stone-lore. And his quest begins. Men, women, and giants are drawn to him, thinking that he is the incarnation of the hero Berek Halfhand–who lost half his hand from an axe during an epic battle against Lord Foul aeons ago. But Covenant cannot comprehend this lore, doubting even that the Land exists, preferring it as a dream: that his half-hand is the result of leprosy, not prophesy.

He must journey to Revelstone, the seat of the Lords, who are the most powerful magicians in the Land, although their strength is much diminished from the Lords of old. Protectors of the Land’s health, the Lords will do everything in their power to defeat Lord Foul at his game. But all the while, Thomas Covenant doubts.

His wedding ring has become a powerful source of wild magic, perhaps the most useful weapon with which to fight Drool, if he can master it. However, he has no wish to. Because to buy into the reality of that magic and the very existence of the Land would be to sacrifice his sanity.

As a leper, Covenant’s priority is survival. Every day, he tests his nerves by shaving with a straight razor and checks his extremities for signs that his disease is spreading. Meanwhile, “dis-ease” is spreading across the Land in the form of Drool’s bane. As wrongness spreads and reality itself thins, Covenant must at once resist the Land’s seductions while finding a way to get back home.

Thomas Covenant’s tale is existential, filled with the conflict between hope and despair, survival and death, madness and sanity. In a wonderful, if cheeky, move, Donaldson actually provides a reading guide to his own book in the world of the story. A wizard hobo in Covenant’s hometown gives him a slip of paper on the “fundamental question of ethics”:  is it noble to fight for a heroic, moral cause if the world we believe in is an illusion, or is it more courageous to rebel against that world, which we know to be a lie?

In one option, we buy into a lie, but can perform good deeds within that lie. The other option has us resist that lie, holding out in the hope for a more accurate reality, at the expense of neglecting the world. This is how we come to admire Covenant, even as it is the same reason we hate him.  If the Land is an illusion, it means he doesn’t have to be good. Yet though his rebellion against the Land seems cowardly, we still see his courage in his attempts to master his sanity.

Another less philosophical  but more academic reason to read this book is that it fully develops the four-part structure of the fantasy novel outlined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy. (I discuss this a little more in depth here.) This structure consists of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing. Wrongness is mentioned explicitly as part of the disease that afflicts the Land, while a strange phenomenon of thinning happens in the presence of some forms of evil magic. The well-being of the Land itself can be restored through healing. And, in the end, Thomas Covenant does have a severe recognition in which he recognizes that he is in a story crafted by a brilliant but cruel hand with an eye for paradox and irony.

Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever will compel many readers to become seduced by the Land, even though it is Covenant’s mantra to resist it.

Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant
Stephen R. Donaldson, author of Thomas Covenant

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Image Credits:

Stephen R. Donaldson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson

Cover: http://sfbook.com/lord-fouls-bane.htm

landscape: http://2hpencil.com/tag/pre-raphaelite-brotherhood/