An Interview With K.J. Parker on Devices and Desires
Without giving too much away, can you give us some background to The Engineer Trilogy?
Basically, it’s a love story; which is why tens of thousands die, cities are torched, nations overthrown and everybody betrays everybody else at least once. It’s also a story about a very ordinary man who’s forced, through no real fault of his own, to do extraordinary things in order to achieve a very simple, everyday objective. Furthermore, it’s an exploration of the nature of manufacture, artifice and fabrication – the things we make, the reasons we make them, the ambivalence of everything we create, and the consequences of what we make on other people. Ambitious, or what?
Your protagonist in Devices and Desires, Ziani Vaatzes, is not a typical fantasy hero in the traditional sense, is he? Was it a deliberate attempt to distance yourself from the default post-Tolkien fantasy formula that led you to choose an engineer rather than, say, a soldier?
I don’t think so. Vaatzes couldn’t be a traditional fantasy hero, because his motivation is completely mundane and unheroic; it’s the lengths he has to go to in order to achieve it that both give him extraordinary stature and rob him of his humanity. I chose an engineer because I needed a catalyst figure; someone who sets in motion a mechanism that involves everybody around him. The man who designs and builds a space shuttle, or a nuclear warhead, isn’t primarily an explorer, or a mass murderer; he’s an engineer. It’s the use to which his artefact is put, usually by other people, that makes the difference. Vaatzes is both the maker of the machine and the man who uses it; and yet he’s just a very ordinary man who’s caught up in other mechanisms, not of his own making, that he couldn’t control.
There seems to be a recurring theme in your work of a single warrior taking on a whole group of attackers at one go. Are you a secret martial arts film fan?
Martial arts films, no. Ever since I was too young to play with dangerous sharp objects, I’ve studied combat and war, in roughly the same way a doctor studies a disease she’d one day like to cure. In the course of my researches, I’ve learned the basics of the European medieval and renaissance martial arts (which, I guiltily confess, was a whole lot of fun) as well as reading every authentic account of duels and personal combats that I’ve been able to lay my paws on (most of my fight sequences are rehashes of accounts of genuine duels or encounters, at least as far as the moves are concerned; I believe that nothing gives that authentic feel quite as much as the genuine article with the serial numbers filed off) The overwhelming leitmotiv that comes through all such accounts is that fights are lost, through misjudgement, incompetence or sheer bad luck, rather than won by courage, skill, or Secret Ninja Combat Arts, and I hope this comes through in my descriptions.
How extensively do you plot your novels before you start writing them? Do you plot the entire trilogy/series before you start writing or do you prefer to let the story roam where it will?
I try to have the whole thing plotted out in some detail before I start. Sometimes the characters take over and lead me astray – in fact, they’d be pretty poor characters if they didn’t – but usually a judicious combination of carrots and sticks gets them back in line before things get out of hand.
Some authors talk of their characters ‘surprising’ them by their actions; is this something that has happened to you?
Not really, because I try to map out their actions well in advance. The interesting bit, in which they often surprise me, is their *re*actions, to the unpleasant experiences I put them through. Gorgas Loredan, for instance, completely won me over by the end of the Fencer books; and I must admit I can’t wait to see how Valens handles the truly horrible stuff I have lined up for him in Book 2.
Do you see any particular trends in recent Fantasy?
I confess I don’t follow the genre closely enough to make an informed comment (and I’d like my pontifications in reply to question 10 below to be interpreted accordingly…) This is because of the chameleon effect; if I admire a writer’s work, subconsciously I’m tempted to indulge in the sincerest form of flattery.
Do you have any particular favourite authors who have influenced your work?
I have favourite authors, and I have authors who’ve influenced my work. For example, I don’t much enjoy reading Iain M. Banks, simply because his world-view and mine don’t coincide much; but I’ve learned an enormous amount from his masterful use of structure and language. Ditto J.K. Rowling, and her exquisite skill in developing an extended storyline and designing characters who can go the distance.
Devices and Desires is the beginning of your third fantasy trilogy. Have you ever been tempted to write a longer series, George R.R. Martin or Robert Jordan style?
Temptation is always with us; but, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, the difference between luck and a Land Rover is that luck doesn’t work better if you push it. I’d like one day to acquire sufficient technical skill to write, say, a seven-part series. I’d also like to be president of the United States, but that’s equally unlikely.
Finally, do have a personal theory on why Fantasy is so popular these days?
Evelyn Waugh said of P.G. Wodehouse (who was also, in his way, a writer of fantasy) “He has made a world for us to live in and delight in. He will continue to release future generations from a captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” (Quoted from memory; something to that effect.) That’s a large part of it, I guess. Because modern Western society is such a mess, we have a longing for simpler, better worlds – not necessarily places where everything is perfect, like Tolkien’s Shire; but places where the problems we have to confront in our daily lives are at least soluble – by, for example, defeating an evil overlord or throwing a ring into a volcano. The solution may be horrendously dangerous and strenuous, but it’s straightforward; we can at least understand it, whereas real life in the 21st century is largely incomprehensible, and we feel powerless to do anything about it. In fantasy, we can believe in good and evil, whereas in real life both those concepts are increasingly nebulous.
By these criteria, of course, I don’t write fantasy… I prefer to create imaginary analogies to the bewildering, inescapable forces that govern real life, as a way of examining the ways in which we try and cope with them. Likewise I don’t have heroes and villains for the same reason I don’t have dragons and goblins; I believe that all four species are equally mythical. Which brings me kicking and screaming back to the question, I guess. Fantasy is popular because, since heroes and villains don’t exist, it’s absolutely necessary to our survival as a species to invent them.