On the Origins of Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

In the wake of the ten volume, three million word Malazan Book of the Fallen, I was running on empty. That was a strange feeling: no desire to write, no raging flames of creative passion. And though I had signed for two more trilogies and still had four or five Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas ahead of me, I just pissed around for like, two weeks.

Sure, you can laugh, but for me two weeks was long. Almost alarming. I considered, during that wretched absence of anything, crawling off to die in some weed-snarled hole in the ground. After all, I’d done what I set out to do, for good or ill, and to the best of my ability. Really, what reason to even go on? Besides, there’s such a thing as writing yourself dry. Permanently. Two weeks of nothing. Could be I was screwed.

Now, I’d begun foreshadowing the new Kharkanas trilogy a few books back, beginning with some flashback scenes in Toll the Hounds. And I had the titles: Forge of Darkness, Fall of Light, and Walk in Shadow. It looked cozy, manageable: straightforward in the way that only prequels can be. Thing is, with the Malazan Book of the Fallen, I’d kinda torn up the borders – the series sprawled, the breadth of the world-building (in conjunction with co-creator Ian C. Esslemont) was, well, insane. Even we knew that. It made us laugh (okay, an evil laugh).

Epic Fantasy is the tree-top connected to a single trunk and that trunk has its roots in the beginnings of literature. All literature. Everything started with Epic Fantasy (Iliad, Gilgamesh, etc), and all the other genres that have since sprung out, making branches, twigs and whatnot, draw their strength from that single core – whether acknowleged or not. There’s even a few branches out there that have forgotten they’re part of a tree. Well, whatever. I just found myself thinking that Epic Fantasy wasn’t getting the credit it warranted. Accordingly, with two whole miserable weeks of shell-shock, there followed angst.

Shit, you’d think I’d be too old for angst. That belonged to my youth, those days (and nights) at university, when I realised that I was doomed to be in my twenties (for, like, a fucking decade), and that yes, the world out there really is a cynical, rotten mess and those class corbies over in Business School were actually going to inherit fucking everything. To this day, I still recall waking up one morning and knowing that I was wide-eyed stupid –

Never mind. Old water, older bridge. Give those boys another year-end bonus, won’t you?

The angst took its time wearing off.

It would’ve been easy to plunge into the Kharkanas trilogy using the same style, the same voice, the same everything, as I’d used in the Malazan series. I’d mapped those ruts down to the molecular level. But that was the problem. What’s the point of creative resurrection if it’s the same old thing? When discussing the Malazan series, I talked here and there about ambition, railing against the notion of the word being an effing pejorative. Good enough. But I’m too old for that kind of ambition, or at least that’s how it felt. If the Malazan series sprawled outward, why not take the Kharkanas trilogy inward? Scale it right down, as close to claustrophobic as I could make it.

For that, I realised that I would need a different voice, a different style. The way I figure it, if you’re going to seek inspiration, why not look for the best stuff that’s out there? And by that I don’t mean what everybody’s salivating over this month, or this year. I mean, the best stuff ever. For the Malazan series, I found inspiration in the Iliad. Gods and mortals crapping all over each other, and all that. For the Kharkanas trilogy, which now loomed in my mind as some whirlpool, a devouring spiral to some dark, unlit core, I went and re-read the collected plays of Shakespeare. Took me three weeks (and what a glorious three weeks that was: no deadlines, no pressure to get in my four hours a day of writing. Just reading. Bliss). Now for me, inspiration’s a strange thing. It doesn’t like details, or specifics. It’s not into copying, or even riffing. It doesn’t even like obvious echoes, literary allusions – that old wink of the author’s eye to some exclusive, knowing subset of the readership. Instead, it arrives like a tapeworm, munching away somewhere in my gut. For me, it’s all about absorbing cadences, style and structure. With Shakespeare, it was all about declamation. Which, presumably, is born of the stage, going back to the Ancient Greeks and, before them, to high priests and high priestesses, warlords and the like. I fell in love with declamation, and sentence structures dictated by breath-length. All the stuff we don’t really do any more.

In other words, I was fucked. Forge of Darkness is a throwback. Even more alarming, for me the voice and style is confoundingly seductive – once I’m into it, it just feeds on itself, and pulling back out (to the modern world and all those modern sensibilities, and all those green literary tics that keep flaring up in literature, with everyone getting all frothy about them) has proved very difficult indeed.

Well, this isn’t much of a sales pitch, is it? That’s fine. I’m even worse at writing the spiel on the back of my books. Writing Forge of Darkness was like a slow-burning fever. That fever persists, and I’m coming to realise that it is what has taken the place of whatever used to drive my writing, and that I’d better learn to just live with it. I guess I have re-fuelled, but what’s in the tank these days seems to be a deadlier brew. I can only hope it’s to someone’s taste.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen divided readers into camps of love and camps of hate. I didn’t set out with that in mind. The Kharkanas trilogy may well do the same. All I can say is, it’s not deliberate. Mea culpa.

Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson
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