The Dragon’s Path marks the beginning of a new epic fantasy project for you. What was the impulse behind this project, and how was it different from the other books you’ve written?
Actually, that’s kind of a hard question. The impulse behind a project isn’t something I can really describe. You know apart from saying that it seemed nifty. But I can talk about the approach. That was very different from what I’ve done before.
Well, the last epic fantasy – or second world fantasy or however we want to talk about it – was my first big book, essentially. I wanted to do something different and novel, no pun intended. And I wanted to learn how to write books length fiction. I’d done a lot of short stories, and I felt pretty comfortable with that length, but novels were a different beast.
That’s interesting. We should get back to that, but tell me a little about the novelty? What do you mean by that?
I mean I wanted to do something that people hadn’t seen before. I wanted an epic fantasy without much violence. I wanted to tell a few people’s stories over the span of their whole lives. I wanted to set it someplace that wasn’t a medieval Europe analogue. I wanted to write something that was different. And I did, and I’m proud of it. But part of what I learned is that different is easy in a way I hadn’t expected. And I started getting interested in something else. I started thinking about how to take elements that are maybe more familiar and remake them. That’s not quite right. I don’t mean take out hoary old tropes and shine them up. I mean go to what makes epic fantasy epic fantasy – find the genre’s strength – and really engage with it.
How did you go about that?
Well, back in 2007 I arranged a conversation. A friend of mine has a place just outside Santa Fe with a really nice living room that looks out over the desert, and she let me have kind of a party there. I called it my symposium. We had George RR Martin and S. M. Stirling and Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass and a few others – a lot of the local folks – and basically we sat around all day talking about what epic fantasy is and does. Where it gets its juice. I have something like four or five hours of recordings from that. I took what we said there and I turned it over in my head until I really understood what my opinions were. And that was the start of The Dagger and the Coin.
That sounds like a fascinating day. Was there a consensus? Did everyone there have more or less the same opinion on the subject?
Not exactly, no. But there were points that were pretty widely agreed on. Epic fantasy has a lot to do with nostalgia. There’s that sense of looking back at a golden age, and a lot of the time with a sense of loss. Tolkien came up a lot. Pretty much everything since The Lord of the Rings has been written in imitation of or reaction against The Lord of the Rings. But it also has to do with how the story relates to nature, and whether the world is essentially benign.
The biggest thing that I took away from it, though, is that epic fantasy – and maybe this is true for all literature – but epic fantasy is a conversation. Without Tolkien, you don’t have Terry Brooks, but you also don’t have Stephen Donaldson. Without Donaldson and the rise of the anti-hero in fantasy, you probably don’t have A Song of Ice and Fire. In a way, that gave me permission.
Permission for what, exactly?
Permission to react, I guess. Permission to be part of a greater body of literature than just what I’m doing right here. That sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? How about this, it gave me permission to take the things I love best and use them. So, for instance, I have a real fascination with medieval banking. There’s a book called Medici Money by Tim Parks I’ve read a half dozen times. So I grabbed that. And I thought about Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo books and George’s Ice and Fire books and all the adventure stories I grew up with. By talking about the things that unify the genre, I sort of loosened up about celebrating them. I thought about what it felt like to read David Eddings when I was fourteen, and get back to the things that would do that for me at forty. If that makes sense.
You were talking before about writing novels as being different than short fiction. You’ve written a lot of short stories in your career. How do they differ from the longer work?
Well, the short stories tend to be weirder than the books. They’re very different forms. There are stories that just pop in thirty pages that would lay there like yesterday’s fish at three hundred. I’d say I probably do more experimental, difficult to categorize short stories and then use the books to apply what I learned there.
You have a long history, I understand, of working in writers’ workshops. You attended Clarion West in 1998. You are a frequent participant at the Rio Hondo workshop in Taos. You were in a critique group in New Mexico for almost a decade. How much do you think that kind of experience helps writers?
For as much time as I’ve put in them and as much benefit as I’ve gotten form them, I’m actually still a little leery about them. If you get a good one, it’s invaluable. I have no doubt at all that I came out of Clarion West and Rio Hondo and the local crit group better than when I went in. But there’s the ones you didn’t talk about too. I took a bunch of creative writing classes in college that I don’t think did much. I was in a couple groups before that weren’t much use, and were really probably counterproductive. A workshop depends on the people in it. Good people are great. Lousy people are perhaps less great, right?