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WesternSFA
A Chat with Max Gladstone
by Christina Paige
I was fortunate enough to attend Lonestarcon 3, the 2013 World SF Convention in San Antonio.  While most fans were getting their pictures taken in the Game of Thrones sword throne, or waiting in line for hours to get George R. R. Martin’s signature, I visited other authors and had some wonderful conversations. One of the best hours I spent was with a quiet but cheerful-faced young man I’d never heard of before: Max Gladstone. He was a first time author, and as such was being almost entirely ignored by the signature collectors – but that has since changed. His three books, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Full Fathom Five (Click here for review of Full Fathom Five) make for fantastic reading.  A word of explanation: a number of significant characters in these books are lawyers whose clients are gods, the people who worship gods, and sometimes the dead as well as the living. Their skill-set includes manipulations of energy that verge on magic. This is the Craft referred to in the following interview.

CP –  Your first novel, Three Parts Dead, was nominated for the Campbell Award in 2013, and you were one of the featured guests at Lonestarcon. As it turned out, Mur Lafferty, a second-year nominee, got the award instead. I recall you were very philosophical about it. Did you get a "Hugo Loser" pin? How was the after-party?

MG – I did get a Hugo Loser pin! Well, a ribbon to be fair. And I now have a pair of beautiful Campbell nominee throwing stars. I was very happy for Mur last year, and for Sofia this year—they're both great writers, and one of the things about being nominated for the Campbell is that I became part of two very cool coteries of excellent writers at the beginning of what I'm sure will be amazing careers.

The afterparty was excellent. Good drink, good company, plenty of rockets being passed around. I made a number of friends that night with whom I'm still in contact.

 CP – What were some of the high points of that convention?

MG – Oh, gosh, too many high points to name! All the Campbell nominees joined forces to acquire tiaras, which we then wore on the Campbell Awards history panel—and we gave a tiara to Ben Bova too, who was responsible for organizing the very first Campbell Award! The r/fantasy team hosted an excellent party on Saturday night, in which I was initially feeling very much like a wallflower—"How on earth can I hang out with all these cool people?!"—but then Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch introduced themselves and were wonderfully welcoming. That night I also met the other Campbell nominees, who turned out to be a truly amazing crowd of folk. Tiara Club!

CP – Did the Campbell nomination make a difference for you professionally?

MG – Certainly! One of the huge challenges faced by any debut author, especially someone like me who didn't have much of a presence in the field before his first book hit shelves, is: how to get noticed? The Campbell nomination drove a lot of great people to read my first novel, which gained me long term readers, and a number of friends.

 

CP – Are you attending any upcoming conventions?

MG - Plenty! I've been doing the convention rodeo a great deal this year, and I'm excited to continue. I'll be at World Fantasy in November, Arisia in January, Boskone in February, Fourth Street in June, and this year, for the first time, I'll be attending the GenCon Writer's Symposium.

 

CP – Well, if I make it to any of those, I will bring along my copies of your books for autographs.  So, one of the keen delights of reading SF is detecting tributes to an author's favorite books, writers, etc. Whether it's a battle cruiser named DuQuesne, a "Good hunting!" exchanged between characters, or a straight-out homage, the way Larry Niven and Mathew Joseph Harrington channeled Heinlein to write The Goliath Stone, these honors seem to be an integral part of the genre – they’re our secret handshakes. What were your favorite stories and shows, and where are some cameos? (I loved your line: “The King in Red was more partial to deep magic from before the dawn of time than to up-swords-and-sally-forth.”)

MG – My favorite SF author is probably Roger Zelazny, who can squeeze more into a sixty thousand word book than most writers can into a thousand pages. Oddly, I can't think of an explicit Zelazny reference in my books, in part because much of my style—the humor, the noir sensibility, the worldbuilding-by-reference—owes a great debt to his inspiration. As for explicit references: I've snuck a Neon Genesis Evangelion reference into every book I've written, somewhere or other. (That damn unfamiliar ceiling...) Three Parts Dead has a gentle tip of the hat to Robert Jordan, which alert fans will catch. There are, of course, plenty of in-line prose callouts—the Lewis you mention, Milton, The Aeneid, famous (or not-so-famous) pieces of performance art, etc. The Shrike, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, is in most of the books. Gomez and Morticia Addams appear briefly in Three Parts Dead. And on, and on, and on... I do love my in-jokes.

 

CP – Readers do too, so keep making them. But maybe you could add an afterward to the next book to drop a few hints…?    

I need to avoid spoilers, so I have to be careful here, but I am profoundly impressed by your use of foreshadowing in all your books. For example, in Three Parts Dead, the description of the student-assistants breathing in time with their supervisor, and the subsequent instances of synchronous breath, were amazingly well done. Is this something your subconscious takes care of, or do you have pre-planning techniques? Do the clues and hints present themselves naturally in the course of narrative, or do you work up to them or go back and seed some of them?

MG – Some of column A and some of column B. I'll often write scenes that have a particularly sinister or subtle bent to them, then spend the rest of the book unpacking their implications—that's what happened in the scene you mention. On the other hand, I'll often get a quarter of the way into a book (or its planning process) only to realize that I've set up 90% of the perfect twist—then the question is, how do I go back through and add that remaining 10%?

I don't do much pre-planning, but I'm trying to do more these days. It saves on the false starts.

 

CP – And the humor! Where does that come from? I laughed sooooo hard at the beginning of Full Fathom Five!

MG – Humor shop. Twenty-five cents a humor. Pretty straightforward!

Honestly, this is the way my brain works. I'd say the humor's shape is equal parts Zelazny, Pratchett, Spy vs. Spy, and those D&D sessions that go horribly, horribly wrong. I think humor's really important, especially when you're trying to work with deep, dark stuff—Pratchett understands this perfectly. The human mind appreciates contrast. If your book's dark dark dark with an extra helping of dark on top, then at a certain point it verges on self-parody. A laugh, a moment of tenderness, a change of tone, makes the deep stuff stick more. Some moments in Pratchett have scared me worse than any Lovecraft story, precisely because I wasn't ready for them.

 

CP –Yeah, I definitely see the Zelazny effect. It’s good to know he has another literary heir.  You’re in excellent company: Kelly McCullough and Steven Brust both name Zelazny as a primary influence as well, and they are two of my favorite authors. You’ve become another.

Two Serpents Rise, your second novel, is actually a prequel with a different set of characters, in part showing why and how the god wars started. In addition to a goddess of Luck, you’ve got the two serpents, Aquel and Achal, who cause massive destruction if they aren’t periodically lulled to sleep with grisly blood sacrifices. That’s a scary concept! Both are female, which is unusual for a duo of deities. Most pairs are either a variation on “the lily-white boys” or a syzygy of male-and-female. Would you comment on this?

MG – I did it precisely because it seemed a little unusual. Why wouldn't a religion take shape this way? Also it let me make a women's sport the most-watched professional game of the Craft Sequence universe, which was a nice side effect.

 

CP – Ha! Yes, that was quite an epic scene of destruction and chaos. What sort of research went into crafting the on-the-verge-of-doom civilization depicted in Two Serpents Rise?

MG – I did a lot of research into various Mesoamerican myth structures, into water rights in the southwestern US, into Enron, and a lot of collected issues. I tried to avoid taking too much from any one cultural source, and I add a lot of my own stuff, in an effort to dissociate the tradition I'm building from real-world traditions, so as to do less harm. It's a tightrope, though—I wanted to avoid the danger of saying "this culture is just like that culture," but then there's a risk of falling into the opposite trap, where a writer from a privileged position takes some stuff he thinks is cool from another culture and just runs with it in a completely different direction. My hope is that the civilization in Two Serpents Rise stands in a similar relationship to Mesoamerican cultures as the Kosite church stands to the Catholic.  

 

CP – Then there’s the King in Red. He is a rather enigmatic character. Would you give some back story on him - and his epithet?

MG – Well, he's a king, you see, and he likes wearing red.

Sorry.

What we know from the books: he was a Craftsman who was initially an activist for reform in traditional Quechal society. His lover was sacrificed, which set him against the gods. He gained immense power in the Wars, raised an army, and killed the gods who hurt him. Then he settled in to rule the city he overthrew. He's one of the most powerful Craftsmen in the New World—a figure of tremendous significance, but also tragedy. That said, he enjoys living up the cackling skeleton monster routine when he has an excuse.

 

CP – I hope we see more of him in future books, or maybe the world through his eyes. It must be quite a view – that, and whatever he sees in the mirror. Besides all that power and danger, there’s a poignancy to him. Really, you handle romance very well in your stories, all aspects of it, from loss, betrayal, and disappointment to discovery and delight. It’s obvious you have experienced and observed love in many manifestations.

Full Fathom Five follows Three Parts Dead, albeit with new protagonists. What was the inception for this story?

MG – Having written a book set in a predominantly religious culture (Three Parts Dead), and one in an aggressively consumerist/atheist culture (Two Serpents Rise), I wanted a book set between the two—a society and a people caught between the world of the gods and the world of Craft. I tried four or five different approaches to the idea before the basic pieces of character, plot, and setting fell into place.

 

CP – Was it hard to write about kids going through some of the horrors you invented? The worst of it is, their experiences aren’t much of a stretch from what actually goes on in so many cultures….

MG – In a way, the kids on Kavekana get off easy—as I think Izza mentions. Since the Penitents are such an effective police force, there's not much of a permanent adult criminal element, which makes the island safer for kids than the mainland would be.

But yes, the street experiences aren't that far off reality. I was very inspired by a story Ursula Vernon linked off Digger several years back, about the development of outsider religion among street kids in Miami. Stories emerge from horror and stress.

CP – The covers for your books are wonderful. Do you get to work closely with the artist, Chris McGrath?

MG – I don't get to work very closely with Chris; I discuss my ideas for covers with my editor, who then passes them on to the art department. I've been phenomenally lucky to work with such a talented artist for my books.

 

CP – Who made the decision to keep the illustrations focused on humans, as opposed to scenes of god wars or cityscapes?

MG – That was Tor's art department. It certainly makes for a bold statement—and it's highlighted the books' diversity, an aspect I think is very important.

 

CP – Yes! I love that the cover art is actually accurate in that regard! It is so aggravating when characters are visually misrepresented! I think marketers fail to understand that SF readers are probably THE most broad-minded set of readers in the world; not the sort to go, “Eeuw! A black (or Asian, or Native American, or…) protagonist! Well, I won’t bother reading that book!” Also, I think they miss an opportunity to appeal to readers who share a protagonist’s race or ethnicity.  I remember how shocking – and appealing – it was to see the rare cover which showed someone I could identify with.  

Do your stories and characters ever surprise you, or do you pretty much know where they’re coming from and what they are going to do? They’ve certainly managed to surprise me on occasion.

MG – My characters regularly surprise me. Sometimes the surprise occurs during the planning phase of a draft, and sometimes it slips out onto the page, but the surprise is there either way.

CP – Lawyers play crucial roles in your novels, as intermediaries between gods and kings and citizens. Deities have contractual obligations to their worshipers, and visa versa. It turns out that a number of rising SF/urban fantasy writers have legal backgrounds – that's an interesting trend. Have you gotten any feedback from lawyers on your books?

MG – The most common response is: "Oh my god, where can I get my hands on that document review system?!"

It doesn't surprise me that a lot of lawyers are drawn to fantasy, and vice versa. Lawyering is basically magic, as we read about it: the manipulation of ground rules and abstract powers to impose effects on the real world.

CP – So now that you have a following, what is your favorite response you’ve gotten from any reader?

MG – I've received a lot of great responses from people who've seen themselves in these books—a writer sought me out at a convention party and pulled me out in to the hall so she could enthuse about how great it felt to see a woman who looked like her on the cover of Three Parts Dead. I've received a few reactions to Kai's gender identity in Full Fathom Five that have brought tears to my eyes. These are brief signs that maybe, just maybe, I'm doing something good with these books.

Also, a bankruptcy judge read Three Parts Dead and told me "Yeah, it basically works like that." Which gets more unsettling the more I think about it.

 

CP – Besides writing, what do you do? What are your hobbies and side lines? Is there any martial arts you practice? You write about pain and fights and endurance as if you knew something about these.

MG – At the moment I write full-time; before this I worked in marketing and market research, studied Chinese internet policy, taught in China, and did a bunch of other weird things. I've done some form of martial arts off and on since I was nine, with brief hiatuses. Hiatii? Running and I flirt from time to time, but it's never been serious between us. Currently I fence and boulder; my martial arts experience ranges from very hard to very soft, from tournament-focused to more self-defense oriented. I'm one of those kids who had to learn to fight because bullies exist. I never had to do a lot of it, thank God, but it stays with you. (Or, it stayed with me.)

CP – What cultural/historical tale twitches behind the name Max Gladstone? Where was your family from?

MG – The name was born of quotas. My great-great grandfather had a more recognizably Jewish last name, and couldn't get into medical school despite perfect board scores. So he came home and told his brothers, "We are Gladstones now." He went to Columbia, became a respected physician, and the rest is history!

 

CP –How did your family contribute to your eventual career path?

MG – I was born while my folks were in divinity school, so I grew up talking about religion, faith, and philosophy, all of which have become pivotal elements in my fiction. Through them I discovered myths and stories that have become huge parts of my life. My parents have always been very supportive of my stories, from my first attempts back before kindergarten to this day.

 

CP – You’re married, and your wife is a lawyer, if I recall correctly. Do you mind telling how you met?

MG – We met the day I joined my college choir! I'd seen her around campus before, but hadn't worked up the nerve to approach her.

CP – Do you hash out details and plot twists together?

MG – Not really. I prefer to have something cool to show her that's finished—or close to it. I do ask her opinion about particularly abstruse points of theory, though, and if I'm stuck on procedural next steps I'll ask her opinion.

 

CP – Do you ever see any synchronicity between your stories and what happens in the world? Or to put it another way, does poetry still have power to transform the way things are?

MG – The next book, Last First Snow, which I wrote in mid-2013, focuses on a protest movement in Dresediel Lex, and it has echoed disturbingly through the news in the last year. I was inspired by historical events, I guess, and history repeats itself—even (especially) the horrible parts of history.

On a more abstract level—poetry can transform the world, but rarely in the way writers imagine. (Sinclair wanted The Jungle to spark a socialist movement in the US, not the creation of food and workplace safety standards.) That said, fiction can change the battleground on which wars of identity creation are fought—which in turn gives people who want to go forth and change the world the strength to do just that.

 

CP – Poetry is one force for change; technology is another. Are there any particular innovations or recent discoveries that truly impress you?

MG – I'm excited by recent advances in thermal solar and photovoltaic price-efficiency, though I wish we were seeing more about less glamorous, but nonetheless essential, grid-scale storage technology, which will be the real backbone of any large-scale shift to renewable power. I'd be more excited about the hypothetical quantum virtual plasma impulse drive, or the Lockheed-Martin high beta fusion reactor, if we had more information about either; at the moment they're cool possibilities, but that's all.

CP – And what is next?

MG – For me? Last First Snow hits shelves in July 2015, and I should have another Choice of Game released in May. It'll be a big year!

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