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Interview with Max Gladstone

I sent Max Gladstone a list of interview questions a little over a month ago for his blog tour. Now here we are with his answers!

First: Happy Birthday!!!

Hey, thanks, Max! It’s a pretty good way to celebrate.

1. How do you like to balance secondary world inventions with historical cultural references in your worldbuilding?

Cirque de Soliel style, that is, on the shoulders of a broad buff dude who’s himself standing on a board on top of a piece of PVP pipe on top of a beach ball.
Seriously though, I try to be honest with myself about how much my conceptual apparatus draws off history and text. If characters in my books use something like scientific reasoning, something like science probably exists in their world; modern writers tend to assume people have used the scientific method from time immemorial, and it just ain’t necessarily so. If one of my characters discusses Proustian memory, madelines and such, someone like Proust probably worked in the world of the books. I don’t tend to make a big deal of these textual references, but I try to flag them in passing, enough that someone who catches the reference will know the easter egg was planted intentionally.
The larger cultural-structure stuff balances in other ways. In research I lean into mythology, religion, and ritual, and try to envision how different material conditions would affect the myths, and vice versa.

2. What are some of your favorite inspirations outside the field of speculative fiction? Nonfiction, other art forms, etc.?

Nonfiction, definitely—I love academic writing for its power to dig beneath gross generalizations, though sometimes it ends up building other gross generalizations along the way. Sociology and anthropology, especially, have been vital resources, opening new conceptual directions; James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State (I love James C Scott–M) and Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America have been particularly important, though I also draw heavily off primary source reading. In terms of just raw linguistic inspiration I find poetry invaluable.

Outside of that, I draw a lot of inspiration from movement—I have a martial arts background, so I connect with that approach to tempo, distance, and power more immediately than I do with the approach of, say, choreographed dance, but in recent years I’ve become more interested in dance through fight choreography, which really is a form of dance, and through partner dancing, which uses many of the same principles as sparring from another direction. In general, there are few more breathtaking and inspiring experiences than watching a master move, whether she’s climbing a wall or running a mile or lunging an epee or kicking somebody in the face. Or lofting a ball over a goalie’s head from the half line to score a hat trick in the first fifteen minutes of a Women’s World Cup final. For example.

3. As of writing these questions, I haven’t gotten a chance to read Last First Snow (hint hint, Tor Publicity) (later note: as you all now know, they came through! yay!). I know from the blurb that it features characters from earlier books but is set earlier in the world’s chronology than anything else. What were some of the pitfalls and opportunities in writing characters as their younger selves?

The potential pitfall of dramatizing backstory, I think, is that I, the writer, will embrace the sense of inevitability the character’s memory lends to their own traumas and bad decisions. If your readers think, well, of course, it had to be this way—there was no other option—then what use is the story? Where’s the drama?

But that pitfall is also an enormous opportunity! I wanted to revisit some of my favorite characters earlier in their lives and break them open. When we meet Elayne Kevarian in Three Parts Dead, or Temoc in Two Serpents Rise, for example, they’ve made a lot of hard choices, and in order to live with themselves, they’ve constructed narratives that lead inevitably to those hard choices. In memory, we seldom force ourselves to consider that our lives could have gone differently. Writing this book gave me a chance to belie that—to show the choice structures and turning points, the moments of akrasia and revelation that set characters on their paths.

4. Was there anything in writing _Last First Snow_ that made you ridiculous with excitement, or was it a pretty even-keel book for you?

Everything about this book was exciting. Seeing Elayne! Seeing the King in Red! Seeing Elayne argue with the King in Red about negotiation practices! Temoc! Temoc and Caleb! Actually meeting Mina, Caleb’s mother, who’s been off camera thus far! Discovering the Skittersill Rising, and digging into how it was misrepresented by orthodox Dresediel Lex history! And then, god, the ending, when [REDACTED]! That was the most exciting of all.

My synopsis for this book would contain a lot of exclamation marks.

5. You’re answering these questions before your epic book tour with James Cambias, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Stavely. Do you have some predictions for that tour, which wraps up today? Whose Pathfinder character will leave the largest swath of destruction behind them? Who will find the best maple-syrup-related food product in Vermont? Who will have the snappiest tag line for signing their book?

Pathfinder Destruction Swath: Bear. No question.

Best Maple Syrup Food Product: Jim will put in a strong initial showing with his discovery of Maple Nachos, but I think Brian will clinch this one with his discovery of Maple Irish Lace. Oh. You said food product. Jim, then. Maple Irish Lace, I mean, you could eat it, but you’d waste all that knitting! It’s hard to spin maple into yarn. Marissa. Hard!

Most likely to club a moose over the head: Probably Brian.

Snappiest tag line: Definitely not me! I tend to freeze up, look at people with deer-in-headlights expressions, and then scribble “Thank you for reading” and my name. Novelists are probably not the best people to seek out for on-the-spot wit. This novelist, anyway.

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