Interview with Solaris
This interview was conducted by Jean-Louis Trudel, in 1995, for the French language magazine Solaris, published in Quebec. Interview courtesy of Jean-Louis Trudel and Solaris.
On the back of the Quebec translations of your trilogy, the wording seems to suggest you are of Canadian extraction, but no longer Canadian. You are Canadian?
I am, of course, Canadian. I was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. There was a time in my life, after I started writing, when I indulged myself in the thought that I might at least have a chance at being the most famous writer from my hometown, because it was such a small hometown, but then I discovered that W.O. Mitchell was also born in Weyburn so there is still a long way to go.
You have a background in law, but you’ve ended up as a TV producer and scriptwriter, as well as a writer.
My law degree came after my year in England working on The Silmarillion. I was quite young that year and although I knew at that point that I had hopes of being a writer, I was also, I think, pragmatic enough to know that, at that stage, I really didn’t have all that much genuinely distinctive to say yet. And I also knew that it made a great deal of sense to try and find some sort of professional underpinning as a possible way to make a living. I have a pragmatic streak in me that cuts across the fantastical streak sometimes. So, I did my law degree in the late nineteen seventies. At the end of that, after I took my call to the bar, I was invited to join the radio series The Scales of Justice on CBC. That ended up being a ten-year exercise as principal writer and assistant producer, and it was during the production of the radio shows-which normally took us about eight months a year to do a full season, but which left me four months a year to work on books, completely free, completely focused-that I got into the habit of going overseas, to go away where the telephone didn’t ring and simply sit down and do nothing but write.
Obviously, in the Fionavar Tapestry, one sees several of these influences. Several of the characters are law students or in related fields. Also, the Fionavar Tapestry incorporates elements of many fantasy universes, and one would guess, just reading the trilogy, that at the time, if you were overseas, you were perhaps in the British Isles. Is that correct?
No, I didn’t write it there. It’s very much steeped in the traditions of high fantasy: which would be Morris, Lord Dunsany and Tolkien, which would be a British Isles influence. The first volume was written in Greece, and the second was written in New Zealand; I wrote the third volume back here in Toronto. Fionavar was very much a conscious attempt to-the phrase I’ve sometimes used is- ‘throw a gantlet down to the barbarians in the temple.’ I was so irritated by the lazy imitations of Tolkien that had been coming out through the seventies, and into the early parts of the eighties. It seemed to me that the writers of fantasy I respected had abandoned high fantasy, they’d sort of thrown up their hands and said, “Well, this is only going to be for the hacks, doing derivative work!”, and they were writing small precise fantasies, or introducing urban fantasy, the modern urban fantasy tradition, and I felt to some degree that that was abdicating. There was such a long, illustrious tradition to high fantasy that it seemed an abdication to abandon it to people doing nothing but imitative work. So writing the Tapestry was a very conscious effort to say that the elements of high fantasy; the magic weapons, the enchanted jewelry, the races of dwarves and the lios alfar, the equivalent of elves, that all of these things could still, if done right, have some vitality. It’s obviously for the reader to decide if I did it right, if I did bring back that vitality. But it was a conscious effort to use those elements and see if something new could be done with them.
When reading the tapestry, one also sees perhaps more recent elements. I don’t know if we’re talking about coincidences, or common influences, but, for example, there’s the wild magic, the ‘Baelrath’ ring, which reminds one of the Covenant series, by Stephen Donaldson, though I haven’t checked the dates.
I don’t remember the Baelrath as being a specific influence of Donaldson. What Steve Donaldson impressed me with was the introduction of the idea of a complex modern character into a fantastical setting. It’s become fashionable to be critical of Donaldson of late. After the original couple of books, there seemed to be a consensus that he’d gone on with too many books: the second trilogy was mining the vein too far, mixed feelings about the Mordant’s Need books… I’m not one of the Steve Donaldson bashers. I actually think that Donaldson did do something very important for high fantasy. The question of evaluating the ultimate success of the Covenant books, I’ll leave aside for the moment, but I think they are seminal and important, because he made a very deliberate effort to introduce some elements of modern fiction-the idea of the antihero-into an essentially heroic genre. I didn’t follow him into the antiheroic thing, that was his territory. But I did find it significant that he attempted to introduce adult figures into what had been, to some degree, an adolescent genre. In that sense, I would say that Donaldson was both a trailblazer and a beacon for many of us who followed after him. I have a great deal of respect for him.
The concept of genre fantasy is not necessarily obvious in non-Anglo-Saxon countries, except insofar as the Anglo-Saxon product has become known. Previously, most incarnations of fantasy-whether that of Lord Dunsany, Cabell or Peake, or the fairy tales of the European tradition-often seemed to operate at least partly on a symbolic, metaphorical or even allegorical level. It seems to me that genre fantasy does away with most of this symbolic freight. The South Americans have magical realism, the North Americans may have realist magic. Tolkien used his Hobbits to counterpoint the heroic dimensions of his fateful struggle with a homely dimension. Often, what I find, is that genre fantasy has been ‘Hobbitized’ to a large degree. Now, starting with the Fionavar Tapestry, your books have tended to emphasize human affairs more and more, over the business of wizards, so to speak. Do you feel this is a natural evolution? Are you (re)telling us a story about the death of magic?
That’s a very good question. In fact, the short answer is that I think you’re right in that there has been a natural progression from Fionavar, through Tigana and [A Song for] Arbonne, to The Lions of Al-Rassan, away from the mythic and the fantastical, and towards the human and the historical. The progression from myth to religion is another way to describe it, not that the books are religious, but that we move away from what, in Fionavar, I’ve sometimes called a Homeric world; the gods intervene in the affairs of men, they have their own squabbles and feuds amongst themselves, and yet they’re physically present, men can sleep with the goddess, men can battle with words with the gods-the gods are present. In Tigana, magic is still there, but, for the most part, magic and its use was employed as a sustained metaphor for the eradication of culture. The major use of magic in the novel Tigana is the elimination of the name of the country Tigana, which for me was very much metaphorical. In A Song for Arbonne, we’re into a story about how religion, the organized religion, the clergy, manipulates the people with their beliefs about gods and goddesses. By the time we get to The Lions of Al-Rassan, it’s mainly about how organized religion takes away the freedom and the breathing spa
ce of individuals. So there is a natural progression, which is not to say that I know where the next book is going, that that progression is necessarily continuing.
It certainly seems however that the religious dimension is not going to disappear; it’s been very strong in the last two books, and certain y The Fionavar Tapestry has, in a sense, a proto-religion at the heart of it. Can you conceive of writing a book which does not have religion as a factor?
Yes, I’m sure I can; I am not a religious man, what I think I am is a person keenly interested in history. When you talk about proto-religion, you’re talking about, as I said, the Homeric idea of gods and goddesses incarnate, and the progression in history away from that. I think that, if I would characterize my interest, it’s very much in the historical and mythical roots of what we have become as cultures. When I say “we”, I mean Western men and women, because that’s the culture that I feel most at home in, it’s the culture that most of us are, to some degree, shaped by. So, in that sense, the four books (treating Fionavar as one) have been incorporating that dimension, but it’s not in any huge sense central to my thinking or my own work.
Does that mean you might write a novel about the Enlightenment, about skepticism coming to the fore?
I think skepticism comes to the fore in the last two books to a great degree. I think that it’s part of the movement from myth to religion. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, one of the reasons the book is a fantasy, rather than a story about medieval Spain, even though it’s very closely modelled on real history, is that I wanted to see what would happen to people’s preconceptions and prejudices about cultures: Christian, Moslem, Jewish, if the names were changed and if the religious beliefs were rendered virtually banal: one religion worships the Sun, another worships the Moon, and another worships the stars. And out of that relatively banal conflict of ideologies, you have crushingly brutal military and psychological conflict. When you speak of skepticism, it seems to me that The Lions of Al-Rassan should be very clear for the readers: the point that underlies the detaching of these religious conflicts from their real underpinnings is that, if we step back a bit, we can start to see how much violence, how much conflict is generated by something that may be no more complex than whether you worship the Sun rising in the morning or the stars beginning to shine at night.
Certainly, differences between the Moslem, Christian and Jewish faiths being rooted in one thinking that a certain person is a prophet, the other thinking he is the Son of God, and the third thinking that he is nobody interesting at all hardly appear as more significant. Could you conceive of societies where religion or the need for religious beliefs would be unimportant, whatever the content?
I would find it difficult to conceive of a society that did not stem from attempts to understand or explain the world. I think that’s fundamental to the human consciousness. Once you’re beginning, in an evolutionary way, to try and understand why it’s cold in winter and warm in summer, why the crops die and are reborn, why mortals die, once you’re beginning to make attempts at understanding those things, my strong suspicion is that it’s virtually impossible to have a society without some sort of religious belief system. I haven’t addressed this question in any profoundly thoughtful way, but I would find it difficult to conceive of a society that did not have some sort of teleological attempts at explanation. Once you’re doing that, I believe that religion or mythology, as we might call it; some belief system, will follow from that. Then, you add another facet, which is society’s need to avoid a Hobbesian state of anarchy-the nasty, brutish, and short life. Societies need some imposition of a moral code. Very often, the shortest path to setting up that moral code will be an externally imposed code. If I tell you how to behave, you can look me in the eye and tell me: “Why should I listen?” If the Supreme Being that we both worship or, at least, the Supreme Being that our society acknowledges, tells us how to behave, then maybe there’s a likelier chance that that moral code will be followed. That’s remarkably abstract for a discussion of fantasy.
Getting back to fantasy, then… When I picked up the Fionavar Tapestry in French, it had been years since I first read it, and my reading of fantasy had grown more infrequent over the last few years. Therefore, the names you reuse in your book did not always evoke a precise recollection. I believe some are straight borrowings, but that others are modified versions of names that appear elsewhere. Did you expect your readers to identify all the sources easily, or were you trying to convey a sense of the mythic, and suggesting that Tolkien’s creations have entered the “mythic consciousness” of readers on the same level as have Lancelot and Guinevere from the mythos of the Knights of the Round Table? Or was it something else?
I think your second hypothesis is mostly correct. It wasn’t so much the Tolkien creatures, because one has to remember-this has always been a bit of a soapbox issue for me-Tolkien drew upon an enormously lengthy tradition of his own. Tolkien represents the most powerful and significant popularizer in the English language, and probably in the Western culture through his translations, of these traditions, of the enchanted ring, of the dwarves delving under their mountain, I mean that’s the Nibelungenlied, that’s the Norse and Germanic myths that he’s drawing upon. Even his Hobbits have a root and a source in rural folktales of England. The answer to your question, I think, is that I did believe that my readers would not necessarily, in fact probably not pick up on the specific myths and legends I was drawing upon, but my hope was that an ambience, a generally mythic flavour and realm would emerge, so that one reader might know that the ravens I put on the Summer Tree, Thought and Memory, are in fact the ravens of Odin. The Summer Tree is taken from Norse mythology. Hanging for three nights on my Summer Tree is the equivalent of Odin hanging for nine nights on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in Norse myths. I gave the ravens the same names. The Wild Hunt, as you mentioned before, is very much a dimension of Celtic mythology. The Dalrei of the plains are taken from shamanistic traditions of North American Indians and the Russian steppes, of nomadic tribes. A great many mythical traditions worked their way into Fionavar quite deliberately and the underlying purpose was this inchoate floating about of mythic ambience, rather than an expectation that readers would know any specific reference.
I thought you were very clever with names, as with the character called Conary, which might be read as a pun on “Conn Ard Righ”… Conn the High King, in Gaelic.
There were associations with Welsh and Irish names. The people of Brennin are very much linked to the Celtic and Welsh traditions, that was part of that foundation. I wanted the people of Cathal to have a vaguely Eastern or decadent feeling to them. The Dalrei are, as I’ve said already, nomadic people. I try to have the names echo that, to some degree or other. But you know what, I should note that one of the difficulties of talking about Fionavar, of course, is that I wrote it twelve years ago, so that I’m reaching back past three intervening books to try and put answers together. I think one must sometimes take what a writer says about his own works with a certain amount of judiciousness, especially when a writer is talking about books that were written a great many years ago, because so many things have intervened since.
It strikes me that you reuse the same idea in the following books – the idea that the Earth, but also many mythic and fictional worlds, since you use the mythos of Arthur, Guinevere and the Round Tab
le, are only echoes of Fionavar. I’ve sometimes seen, in several first books of writers, that they will play a kind of metafictional game whereby they will almost suggest that the book, the story that is being written, is in fact no more than a story, but that, conversely, the readers themselves are part of the story. It almost appears both as a highly clever discovery of the writer in his or her mind and as something of an excuse.
It’s a very good description and I was thinking the same thing. I think you’re right, that sometimes some writers at the beginning of their career may feel a need to explain why they are the ones who have this material. In fact, it happened to Tolkien and it happened to him all through his career. He spent the last decade of his life in what I think was a very sad exercise in attempting to explain how Ronald Tolkien, Oxford don, obtained the story of the elves, how it came down from the First Age to the Second and Third Ages, and found its way to the hands of a monk in the Middle Ages of our world, and ended up somehow in the possession of Ronald Tolkien of Oxford. It was virtually a long, convoluted attempt to explain or excuse how this ordinary man was the fountain source of the truth of our past. There’s a similar thing in science fiction. Late in many writers’ careers-Isaac Asimov is an obvious example-there’s this grand attempt at synthesis, [with] the books that were written without any real purpose being linked together, part of a vast cosmos. Late in life, the writer looks back at all these pieces and says: “If I’m clever enough, if I get into a crossword puzzle-solving mode, I might be able to write one or two books that stitch it all together” I think it’s very sad, because I think it’s an attempt to impose post-hoc order on individual pieces. I don’t think, I hope-shoot me if I do!-that I’m not going to be trying to create a grand synthesis. What I have done is something more-I’ll use a risky word-poetic, which is that I’ve made glancing references to Fionaver in the books that have followed it. I almost regret that I did it, because some readers have seized upon these throwaway references, in nursery songs or little bits of folklore that I put into the later books, as a hint that what I’m going to do is one of these grand, pulling-all-the-worlds-together-in-one-vast-cosmos move. And I’m not. My mind works rather more associationally and metaphorically. I found that, once I set up the notion of Fionavar as the First World, it simply offered a lovely little chance at a grace note, as we say in English, a small little note that, for the reader who had read the earlier books, might make them smile or hear a little echo in the distance. It’s never been my purpose that this would be a foreshadowing or a building block towards some large cosmic creation.
I read it as, essentially, taking advantage of this marvellous conceit that Fionavar is at the center of all possible worlds, real or fictional.
That’s right. It’s exactly what you say. It’s virtually a conceit. It’s making a small use of the notion that the myths we know are distorted versions of the myths from Fionavar, that all other worlds are echoes and mirrors, and I do not want to do more than that small little grace note with it.
We were talking earlier about the epic, Homeric, operatic even, mode of many parts of the Fionavar Tapestry. Yet, from the Fionavar Tapestry to Tigana, there is quite a transition in modes, from the providential to the well-delineated plot, from the weight of the past to the impact of a present, by which I mean things that have happened within the lifetime of characters as opposed to the distant, historical past.
The big shift in my writing is from Fionavar to Tigana. The largest jump in modes of fiction was Fionavar-to-Tigana. A Song for Arbonne and now The Lions of Al-Rassan have been consolidations and evolutions from that move that Tigana represented, but the biggest jump was from the distant mythic, Homeric, purely fantastical mode of Fionavar to a much more human-scaled, historically rooted story. Tigana is grounded in the ambience of Renaissance Italy and it is about, thematically, the emergence of Eastern Europe today. I was writing the story of Tigana during the beginning stages of the emancipation of Eastern European countries from the Soviet Union and I was thinking about what had happened over the course of seventy or eighty years to the names of countries, to their cultural identities. I had a very clear image in my mind of two photographs that I had once seen. One showed a number of Communist functionaries in Czechoslovakia just before the Prague Spring and there were eight men in the photograph and, just after the Prague Spring, in the same photograph, there were seven men and a potted plant. They had not only killed the eighth man, and executed him, but they had written him out of history. They had rendered it so that he had never, never existed. He was not just dead, he never was, and that was a starting point for the image and idea of what Brandon does to Tigana. He not only conquers it and kills its inhabitants, but he renders it as if it never was. The theme was very much tied to extremely contemporary motifs. The same thing happened with A Song for Arbonne and now The Lions of Al-Rassan. That is a long way from the mythic dimension of high fantasy.
In the movement from Tigana to The Lions of Al-Rassan, it seems to me that you are also sticking more and more closely to actual history. The models from Renaissance Italy are fairly clear in Tigana, the model of the history of Provence is also fairly clear in A Song for Arbonne, but the outcomes and the characters in the books match more and more closely the ones from history as you go along. Are you, at some point, going to write a historical novel?
I have no idea. One of the hardest questions for me to ever answer-perhaps the hardest – is, “What is the next book?” Especially when I’ve just finished a book, I go through a very uneasy period. It tends to last six months for me. I produce books relatively slowly. One reason is that they’re big books. Another reason is that I’m not one of those writers who have half a dozen ideas between waking up and having breakfast. I get two or three ideas every two or three years. They tend to be on a large scale, but they don’t come swiftly: they’re the product usually of a great deal of reading first, I go into a reading phase: the rest of 1995 will be reading. Out of that, something emerges. So as we sit here, I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you, what the next book will be. I agree that it looks as if I’m sneaking up on history, virtually. You’re quite right that The Lions of Al-Rassan is by far most closely tied to historical reality than the other two have been. But I’ve never felt this as an inevitable progression. It’s felt right for each story to tell it in a certain way and when I came to do The Lions of Al-Rassan, it wasn’t a conscious, formal decision that this book would have no magic. In fact, my notebooks are full of various thoughts and musings about what might fit. Finally, I realized that the theme of the book was so much about the structure of religion, the story of the book was about a clash of fundamentalist beliefs, of two religions clashing, that to introduce magic into a story that’s about institutional religion would undercut that particular theme and point. And so I didn’t! Now, for my next book I might find a theme, as in Tigana, where magic would have an integral way of augmenting the story. It’s not necessarily a linear progression, it looks that way to this point. I agree with your point, but I don’t think the next book can be predicted in a series because of that.
Now, speaking of the genesis and origins of your books, Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, we find that all three are very geographically situated. I believe the first may have been born of a s
tay in Italy, but what about the last one?
What happened really was this: I had developed a very expensive habit of finding that I wrote best when I went away. I wrote in Greece twice, on the island of Crete, and then Laura and I went to New Zealand to stay with friends on a farm there where I wrote The Wandering Fire. By the time I came to do Tigana, the genesis of the book, the origin of it, was my usual research and reading. When I started thinking about going away to write it, a fairly obvious thought occurred to me, which is that both Laura and I were interested in Tuscany and a chance to spend some time there. It occurred to me that since the book was based on that period, it might be useful to be there as well; in other words, we were going to go away somewhere and it seemed to make sense to do that. Once I got to Tuscany, I sort of began beating myself about the head with the stupidity of having taken so long to think of something so obvious, which is that if you’re attempting to evoke an Italianate landscape, it was much easier, much more vivid for me to be amongst those landscapes. The image of Avalle of the Towers, in Tigana, was directly inspired by the fact that the towers of San Gimignano were visible from the backyard of the house we rented near Certaldo. We could see in the distance the towers of San Gimignano. So small elements like that clearly began to help me in my work. When I started the gestation of A Song for Arbonne, again, it seemed obvious that it would be both enjoyable and useful to base ourselves in Provence, because it was based on the Albigensian Crusade, the history of Provence and its relationship with France. By the time I came to write The Lions of Al-Rassan, a slight shift had occurred by virtue of the simple fact that we had fallen in love with France, and Provence, and had been there twice already, once for a research trip and once for a writing trip, for extended stays. So, I actually wrote The Lions of Al-Rassan in Provence. I spent some time in Spain earlier, seeing some of the settings and sights I was interested in, that was a number of years ago: I was taking notes, just in a generalized way, but the actual writing was once more in Provence, though, I suppose I could say that you’re still dealing with the Mediterranean landscape and flavour, but in fact the Spanish landscape and the Provençal are not identical; certainly, the Moorish influence in Spain was something that I took from earlier trips and careful scrutiny of books on architecture and art, but the thing that happened to me is that the comfort level of going back to Provence is so high now, where we have friends, where we’ve put down some roots, that I doubt if I decided to do a book based on Icelandic myths, that I would look for a house in Iceland.
You are based in Provence itself?
In Provence. We’ve rented different houses each time, but they’ve all been within 10 km of Aix-en-Provence.
Now, after geography, a second question would be language. Having stayed in Provence, are you fluent in some of the languages of the countries where you’ve stayed?
No, I’m not. I work with difficulty in French, I can’t work at all in Spanish. My Italian consists of having worked through Dante in Italian, a long time ago, with the dictionary beside me-the Inferno not all three books-because I wanted to have, even in a cumbersome way, a sense of what the rhythms in Italian were, thanks to a facing translation in English. The interesting thing about being in Provence while I was working on A Song for Arbonne, was that it consolidated for me some ideas of the complexity of cultural identity, because, of course, you’ll frequently see street signs or city signs in both French and Provençal. The South of France labours under a sense of being patronized by the North, by Paris specifically. The cultural re-emergence of Provençal as a language is a strong, to some degree radical image in the South. It parallels similar dealings, say, in Wales, where the rebirth of Cymraeg, of Welsh, is emerging, as a way of asserting ethnic or cultural autonomy within a larger whole. I think there are both good and potentially dangerous aspects to this. I say dangerous as when you look at the former Yugoslavia, and the conflicts that have emerged there, or Macedonia and Greece, where segments of the populace that have been merged into a larger one want to retain some of their own identity: that can be both a benign and a deeply destabilizing phenomenon, and of course it’s one at the nucleus of my fiction.
That actually brings up an interesting point. We were talking earlier about the historical parallels in your fiction, but there is also something else to be said about them. It seems to me that in Tigana and A Song for Arbonne you were a writing a sort of revenge fantasy with respect to history. I’ve been to Montségur and I’ve stood near the Champ des Cramats. Your stories tend to end a bit better, though, in the last one, that’s not quite the case. Does it reflect a darker view brought about by such conflicts as Yugoslavia?
I’ll resist any attempt to try to define an overarching pattern through six books, because I do see them as autonomous books, or even the last three. There is no question that in A Song for Arbonne, part of what I did was reverse the results of the Albigensian Crusade; the land-grab by France under the guise of a holy crusade was really nothing more than a naked searching for territory and dominion, using the Church as a cloak for that. I’ve reversed the results of that crusade. You might note-I mean, it’s been pointed out by some scholars-that I also reversed the results of the Arthurian triangle in the Fionavar tapestry, so there might be some element there of my wanting to offer the mirror images of certain darker patterns in history. With The Lions of Al-Rassan, just as it is closer to history in other ways, so it cuts closer to history in terms of the resolution of the story, but, as I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily see that as a linear progression in one direction. I do agree with your comment, that A Song for Arbonne flips the historical record, and that The Lions of Al-Rassan pursues it.
Now, there is an interesting story to be told about the origin of the name of Tigana…
The word itself? No, the word simply emerged for me. There was no arcane or occult or intricate historical source. That was one of those names or words that came to me, bang in the middle of one night, and felt absolutely right.
I seem to recall you saying at a convention that, in Italy, the name of the book had to be changed because Tigana is the name of a football player.
Oh, that story! Well, yes, in the Italian translation they changed the name to Tigane. There is a French soccer… well, football player named Jean Tigana who, I believe, was Central-African in origin, but played in France. When the Italian edition came out, the Italians, being of course the most football-mad people on the planet, were compelled, they felt, to change the title because of the association of a book called Tigana: everyone there would think it was the biography of the celebrated football player. I remembered, when they told me this, that I had seen that name, because he was on the French World Cup team twelve or sixteen years previously, some long way back, the team that was captained by Michel Platini. Obviously, somewhere along the line, the name “Tigana” settled in my subconscious until the time came for it to emerge. I’m sure that happens all through my fiction and other people’s as well, that there are names that appear to have been coined which, in fact, have somehow and in some way sat there since you were seven years old and first read a billboard advertisement or something. You know, memory and imagination have such an intricate inter-relationship.
One interesting dimension of The
Lions of Al-Rassan is the research you obviously did to get the medicine more or less right for the times, though I suspect that some people might say that the book definitely has to be classified as fantasy since a doctor gets a pioneering operation right the first time… twice, with no previous trials killing the patients.
The interesting thing about those… It’s funny you should mention that, since the medicine was carefully researched. What I did with the Caesarean birth was allow him something that in fact was not recorded for several hundred years afterward. I hadn’t known this, but there is no record in history of a successful Caesarean birth where the mother survived until sometime in the eighteenth or nineteeth century. I allowed my physician that. More intriguingly, I think, the trephining, the trephination, done by a blind physician, later in the book, was one that I checked with three doctors who told me that, with assistance at hand, such a procedure for a cracked skull could be done by hand. If there were assistants beside him, monitoring the blood flow and so forth, then that could be done by an experienced physician by feel. So, what looks like the most fantastical, imaginary thing-a blind surgeon-was in fact something that could, according to physicians, be done. I know from my father, who was a surgeon, that, at a certain level in operations that you’ve done many, many times, the hands are operating almost autonomously, that the incision, the weight… there’s something similar for sportsmen: a golfer or tennis player does certain things purely by muscle memory-that can happen in medicine as well.
I was referring more to the survival of the patient and to the fact that the doctor had presumably not done the operation before. That’s the fantasy part…
It is a fantasy, though, it is a fantasy, in a number of ways!
Also, in a sense, you could read it as fantasy insofar as it makes you wonder since you could read it as a miracle, as an intervention of the gods, which could bring us back to Fionavar, in a very distant way. I’m not sure what you had in mind, however.
I don’t think there’s anything miraculous in that sense, if we’re speaking of the surgery. I prefer to see that as the apotheosis, the apex of a particularly gifted figure’s art. It’s seen by some people as miraculous, but frankly so is brilliant medicine to this day. You know, if somebody separates Siamese twins today, if they both survive, it’s seen as a miraculous exercise, or that little girl in Saskatchewan who was frozen. Remember the story a year and a half ago: she locked herself out of the house in the dead of winter, and the physician saved her life. That’s miraculous but it’s also simply the essence of human skill working at its best.
I assume you know that trephining has been done for thousands of years.
Thousands of years… And there were primitive cultures where it was done with a sharp-edged rock and I know, since my research took me through this too, that it was usually done for entirely the wrong reasons, to release evil spirits from the brain, and it usually killed the person who was trying to be relieved of evil spirits. It was done in some primitive cultures to relieve exactly the dilemma that surfaces in The Lions of Al-Rassan, which is a blow to the skull creating a brain fragment. We even know, since we’ve examined skulls of primitive people, that there were different incision methods: the circular, the square… so I found that useful. What I did was simply introduce a religious taboo upon doing it, in the culture. This is mentioned when Jehane’s father does the procedure. One of the reasons it’s mentioned as not having been done is, if you re-read the passage, that all three religions had tabooed this particular process. The pagan societies might have done them, but the introduction of these three formal religions would have coincided with the taboo, which is not uncommon. Many, many things that were done in earlier societies, which worked to the betterment of people, became forbidden by religions later. Sometimes, the things forbidden were useful, like the dietary laws of Jews and Moslems which saved many people’s lives. In other instances, the tabooed things might have caused damage to human life.
Any final things you would like to say?
One of the things that’s interested me since we’re talking in the context of translation into French of The Fionavar Tapestry and now A Song for Arbonne is the whole question of which books have been translated where and what cultures seem to have found something in my work, and it crystallized for me a little bit earlier this year  when we received an offer and sold the translation rights to Tigana into Croatian. I became quite intrigued by the offer and asked the Eastern European agent who was handling this to pursue an inquiry as to, “Why this book?”, because this was the only one they asked for, and it emerged, consistenly with what I together with some colleagues had been surmising, that, as you talked a little bit before about the North American or Anglo tradition of fantasy, and the Latin-American or European one being so different, the Eastern European market, the Croatian one in this case specifically, had no difficulty whatsoever perceiving the metaphorical relevance to the present day of a book that was cast as a page-turning heroic historical fantasy. I’d been intrigued, and sometimes frustrated, by the Anglo, and particularly the North American, tendency to see any book that is defined as a fantasy in terms of sword and sorcery, and to evaluate it purely in terms of a page-turning piece of distraction on a beach. The European traditions are so much more imbued with a sense of the literary potential of fantasy, of the capacity of science fiction or fantasy. In Eastern Europe, I learned this from some Polish editors a couple of years ago; when censorship was functioning so powerfully to prohibit contemporary fiction that addressed political or social realities, many of the best writers in these countries turned to fantasy or science fiction as a screen or mask to make observations about the contemporary world, and Tigana is very much in that tradition. I didn’t feel any sense of censorship, but I felt intuitively the potential of telling a story in a fantastical setting that might serve to sharpen observations about the contemporary world, and that’s been very much, for the last three books in particular, one of the things I’ve wanted to do: to use fantasy not to offer easy escape, but to offer something else, which Douglas Barbour, the poet and critic, once very generously said of my work, that it’s the kind of escape that brings you home. He’s a poet, he has a felicitous, wonderful turn of phrase, but that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do.
Have any Canadian critics offered Canadian readings of your works?
Not in any literal, germane-to-Canada sense. And I think that would probably be stretching if you tried to tie it to a specific country. I think there have been a number of critics and readers who have noted the contemporary themes that underlie the books. Not always… even today, the most recent review in The Globe and Mail this week is by someone who resolutely chose to read The Lions of Al-Rassan in terms of whether or not it was a swashbuckling page-turner, without any attempt, or perhaps even capacity, to evaluate the point of the book, the themes of the book. This may be a remnant, I’m optimistic-for all of us who work seriously in fantasy or science fiction-that it’s a dwindling remnant of a resistance in the North American mainstream media to seeing the legitimate potential for doing literature in science fiction or fantasy. I think it’s eroding, I think it’s disappearing, but every once in a while, you read a review or you hear an observation that makes you realize that these things don’t vanish instantly.
Have you felt, at a
ny time, the urge to look at Canada in the same way you’ve looked at the history of Italy, Provence or Spain?
I’ve thought about it. Again, it takes me back to the observation I’ve made before: I never quite know what’s going to be next. I’m very drawn to origins and to examination of the middling distant past. The exploration of European themes has seemed to me a perfectly obvious way to illuminate things that happpen in Canada today. The Canadian reality, the Francophone/Anglophone reality, to some degree, is rooted in linguistic and cultural issues that are examined in Tigana just as the Irish/English issue is rooted in those same phenomena. But I don’t think that I’ve ever felt an impulse to, say, look at our 125-year old confederation or 300-year old Anglo-French nation-not even a nation, Anglo-French white discovery-and treat that in the same way as the European ones. I might be more inclined, one day, to examine the interface between the Native peoples and the arriving people from France and England. That’s been done. People have done novels about the indigenous populations and the impact, in the same way that the Aztecs and Cortez, the Conquest issue, does interest me. As a side note, I’m particularly interested in the biological aspect of it: how European diseases, as much as anything else, destroyed the Aztecs. That does intrigue me. Biology is destiny, in that sense.
Now, actually, you talked about your TV and radio work. It often seems to me that you have a flair for drama which appears quite distinctly in your novels. Are the dramatic techniques you use in your novels drawn from your work in TV or radio, or are they more tied to the tradition of fantasy, romance, swashbuckling historical epics?
I think it’s tied to storytelling. For me, the starting point for fiction is a quite traditional emphasis on the idea of telling a story, trying to draw the reader in, and the two elements that seem to me must go hand-in-hand to create a memorable story are narrative and character. It’s banal, it’s a platitude, virtually, but the inter-relationship of these two things is the essence of the difficulty of writing novels, so my preference always-we’ve been talking for the last while about themes and motifs, of the Croatians seizing upon a subtlety of theme, all of these things, I like to be careful with because I don’t want to sound pretentions about these aspects. For me, the best way for the themes and motifs of the book to register is from underneath, to have them slip in, behind or beneath the page-turning narrative flow, the idea of the reader awake at three in the morning, knowing they have a meeting at eight o’clock the next day, but still turning pages because they don’t know what’s going to happen and they care about the people in the book, and they want to know what happens. For me, that’s central, especially if you’re going to write a big book, where you’re asking someone to stay with you for a long time. It’s central for me that the story carry energy and that the characters carry an emotional charge for the reader. My hope is that all of the thematic things we’re talking about emerge quietly and stay after the book is finished. My own image of success is that reader turning pages almost faster than they should, because they want to know what happens, and when they’ve closed the book, thinking for a time after the book is finished, not just “That was an exciting read!” but, perhaps at a certain level, letting the motifs of the story linger. I don’t like books, as a reader, where I feel hammered on the head with the author’s didactic or pedantic point that they’re trying to make. I like books where the point slips in quietly. So I try to write books like that.
On this technical level, my impression has been that, between the Fionavar tapestry to Tigana, there has been quite a distinct jump, at least in your plotting technique, from a trilogy that relied very much perhaps on the providential, on assembling many plot resources to push the story forward, to stories, since I’m talking of Tigana as well as A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan, with excellently woven plots which function efficiently from beginning to ending, while staying with the same number of elements.
It’s hard for the writer to answer that. On one level, I suppose I’ll simply say that one hopes one is getting better, that craft ought to intensify over a period of six books and thirteen years, that if this weren’t so, one might well be in the wrong profession. One of the things that often happens though, and we could both sit here for an hour and enumerate books and writers where this is true, [is that] very often, the first books of many writers carry the most energy and passion; they may not be the most intricately and professionally crafted, but the raw power and energy, the fire of those books carries them through some of the less felicitous plotting elements. I don’t know whether that’s true of my work. It’s very, very hard for an individual writer; I can’t even pick a favorite among my own books. There’s no question that I’d agree with you that I like to think I know what I’m doing, technically, more than I did when I sat down in 1981 or 1982 and began the drafting of The Summer Tree. At this point, six books down the road, certain technical awarenesses have been assimilated.
There could be many more topics to talk about, but we’re running out of time, so I’ll close on that. Thank you.
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