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New Fantasy & Science Fiction

Interview with Sean Russell

Here is our complete interview with Sean Russell. It also appears in Challenging Destiny Number 21.

interview by James Schellenberg & David M. Switzer

CD: How did you get started writing?

SR: It seems to me that I've always been writing. I decided quite young that this was what I wanted to do with my life. Through my teens and twenties I wrote a lot of poetry and didn't really start writing fiction until I was almost thirty.

CD: Are there particular authors you think are influences on your writing?

SR: I find that a hard question to answer because my own writing is so unlike most of the authors I admire. I would say that Tolstoy was an influence: the great depth of detail combined with impressive breadth. I'm also a great fan of Mark Twain, and always admired how deceptively simple his story telling was.

CD: What do you like about writing mysteries versus writing fantasy?

SR: Mysteries are much simpler, and you don't have to create a whole world from scratch.

CD: What are you working on now?

SR: I'm writing an historical set at the beginning of the Wars of the French Revolution. It's great fun. Tons of research, which I love.

CD: Are there any fantasy elements in the new book? Could you give us more of an idea of what it's about?

SR: There are no fantasy elements in the current book; it's a straight historical novel. It's set at the beginning of the War of the French Revolution -- 1793. The main character is a lieutenant in the British Navy whose father was English but whose mother was French. He's also a bit of a radical sympathizer. When the French overthrew Louis many people in England thought this was a good thing (a lot of what we would call "liberal thinkers" sympathized with the Americans during the revolution as well). I wanted to explore this aspect of the era, and the mutinies that happened in the British Navy. Quite a bit of the book is about the thinking at the time, the works of Tom Paine, etc. It's a lot of fun.

CD: Have you received any interesting responses from readers of your books?

SR: Many. For the most part I have very thoughtful readers and they write me the kindest letters. I've had a lot of requests for another book set in the world of The Initiate Brother.

CD: Is there anything you'd like to see happen in the fantasy genre that isn't happening?

SR: Well, I wish that people would stop paying for the garbage. Actually, I think the field is very healthy, extremely diverse and broad. When you have writers like Jeff Ford, Sean Stewart, Pat McKillip, Stephen R. Donaldson, Guy Kay and Steven Erikson all working at the same time it seems like a bit of a Golden Age for the Genre.

CD: How does the process of starting a new novel or series work for you?

SR: I keep files on the various ideas I have for books, and as I think of things I add them into the file in no particular order -- it's a kind of brainstorming, I guess. As an idea develops I begin to do some research to see if it is valid. I might start collecting research material -- mainly books -- if the concept shows some promise. The file of thoughts and research grows. I often write questions in the file and then slowly try to answer them (over months or years). I might start with a question about a character and then list all the possible answers I can think of. A storyline starts to form, though it can change radically during the process, and then again if I write the book. Eventually I decide which of the many ideas I will make into the next book, and I do further work on the idea file before I start to write. At this point I reread all the research material and track down any additional material I think I need. Before I can begin, I need to know an ending, though the end often changes as I work -- I still need to know what I'm working toward or I find it hard to begin. Once the writing process starts I really rely on my instincts, and the book can go off in many unexpected directions, but the basis of research I've done over the years allows this to happen.

CD: The Shadow Roads, the title for your latest book, is taken from a great scene where some characters are trying to sneak across the countryside. What made you pick this title? How does it fit with the themes you were trying to write about in the book?

SR: I hate to tell you the truth about titles. I think my original working title has actually ended up on the cover of the book twice (World Without End, and Compass of the Soul). I often don't even bother to have a working title anymore because I know the publisher won't like it. The file name for Shadow Roads on my computer was "The Third Kingdom." I made a list of possible titles for my publisher and the one they liked was The Shadow Roads (although my suggestion had been The Shadow Road). One of the common elements of fantasy morphology is a journey through darkness (think the mines of Moria) so the title had some resonance beyond the book I was writing. It also is a good metaphor for life. We'll all travel some dark roads at some time whether it's illness, depression, self-doubt, grief. All the characters had to pass down their own darkened road to reach the book's end so the title worked well in many ways.

CD: Some of the characters in The Shadow Roads were desperately trying to avoid war, rather than fight on one side or the other. Were you trying to break from epic fantasy tradition?

SR: There is always a bit of subversion in my books. In the Farrland books, which started with World Without End and finished with Compass of the Soul, I had good characters doing evil, or at least characters who believed they were good and doing things for the best reasons. I was trying to break from the "Evil Lord" trope. In some senses I like my fantasies to be believable (fantasy mixed carefully with realism), and in almost any war there is a peace faction -- some group desperately trying to avoid war and all the bloodshed that will result. I don't like books where the characters are all "warriors" looking forward to heroics. Even Lord Nelson was often apalled by the carnage of war at sea, though he believed it a necessary cost.

CD: You say on your web site that you've always been intrigued by the idea of writing a high fantasy. What intrigued you about this? Did you accomplish what you set out to accomplish with The Swans' War?

SR: Tolkien was a great influence, and the idea of writing a book that would fit into the genre people call "high fantasy" has always intrigued me -- probably because I loved Lord of the Rings so much. I also thought it would be a great challenge to do a book that was recognizable as a high fantasy yet was not a poor imitation of Tolkien. Did I accomplish these things? I feel too close to my own books to judge. I always think they could have been better, but that's a common trait among writers. You have to be a perfectionist to write, but the down side is you always feel you fall short.

CD: Could you tell us what it is about Tolkien that you admire so much?

SR: I read Tolkien in the late sixties before the many books influenced by him appeared. I'd never read anything like it. Middle Earth was created with such attention to detail -- it was like reading a fantastic history rather than a work of fiction. Even at the time I realized that what Tolkien had done was marry the techniques of realism to a fairy story. Perhaps someone had done that before Tolkien but I hadn't encountered it. The experience of reading LOTR was a bit overpowering, really. One of the things I love about the book is the sense of the passing of magic. It gives the book a kind of wistfulness that you find in books like The Tale of Gengi. Or perhaps the kind of regret mixed with love that you find in Karen Blixen's books about Africa (Out of Africa and Shadows on the Grass). Frodo's journey leads from the mundane "present" of the Shire, into the magical past of Middle Earth. As the age of Men dawns all of this magic will pass away. It's both sad and powerful. The whole idea is a lot like growing up. As we age we lose our "magical thinking" -- our view of the world as being wondrous and mysterious. It is sad but inevitable. Or is it? Tolkien believed that reading a book like LOTR might allow us to recover the feelings of wonder we had as children. It would allow us to again see a tree as miraculous. This is a great gift -- to allow us to see the world as we did when we were children.

CD: What do you think of the recent movie adaptations?

SR: I thought the movies were great -- especially the extended DVD versions. I think they made a few mistakes but given the millions of decisions they had to make it seems petty to even bring them up. Peter Jackson deserves a lot of credit for what he accomplished.

CD: A lot of your books are based on research. Do you think now that you should visit a place first, or is it enough to read about it?

SR: It really helps to visit a place, but it's not always possible. Fortunately, for the book I'm working on now, I've been to England and France several times.

CD: What was it like to write the poetry in The Initiate Brother and Gatherer of Clouds?

SR: I wrote poetry fairly seriously through my teens and twenties so when it came time to write the poetry in the book I had some idea of what I was doing. I'd also studied poetry and knew what I was going to use as models. The short poems that the characters write to one another are modelled on the poems in The Tale of Genji, but the longer poems are modelled on T'ang Dynasty poetry. Tu Fu and Li Po are two of my favourite poets, so it was a great deal of fun to write poems influenced by them.

CD: What's your revision process after you write a first draft? How do you get feedback?

SR: There is no set process. I basically rewrite a book until I'm happy with it. Sometimes I get stuck or am having trouble defining the problems so I try to get some people to read it for me. When I lived in Vancouver the owners of White Dwarf Books, Jill and Walter, would read my drafts and offer their opinions, which was great because they're both smart and widely read. Sean Stewart has read several of my books in draft and offered wonderful advice. He has such a different way of approaching fiction that I think my books were really broadened by his input. Steve Donaldson read World Without End in draft and really was a great help in the revision process. He really made me think about the characters. My agent is a very astute reader and articulates his ideas with great precision. Then there is the editor. If I've been working with an editor for a while, and she doesn't mind reading early drafts, I might send it along to her. I write a lot of drafts. I rewrote the river sections of The One Kingdom seven times. I rewrote all the dialogue in the book four times. I often think the difference between published writers and those who are trying to publish is their ability to rewrite. You can't get too attached to your prose or any idea in the book because they might have to be cut to make the book work. I've spent over a year on rewrites, cutting hundreds of pages, rearranging chapters, combining characters, rewriting characters, polishing the writing, moving all the commas, putting back in the bits I just cut out, polishing the writing, taking the bits back out again. It's an endless process. The goal is, in the end, that the reader will not be able to see the stitches where you cut the book apart and sewed it back together again.

CD: The River Into Darkness duology was a prequel to the Moontide and Magic Rise duology. How do you make a prequel fresh and surprising?

SR: After writing these books I vowed never to write another prequel. It's very difficult. In some ways, the reader knows the outcome, so the journey is more explanation than exploration, if you know what I mean. One of the joys of writing fiction is the "accidents" -- the ideas that present themselves as if by magic as you write. When you're working on a prequel many of these can't be used because they would lead away from an ending that can't be altered.

CD: What do you read these days?

SR: I'm drowning in a sea of books about the British Navy and the nineteenth century. Fascinating, really. I read a lot of books about contemporary politics (just finished John Ralston Saul's new book on the end of Globalism). The last book of fiction I read was Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver, which was fantastic.

CD: What's the best thing about living on Vancouver Island?

SR: The sheer physical beauty of the place. Out the window of my study I have a view across the bay to the Beaufort Mountains. I can see them trailing off south all the way to Mount Arrowsmith and beyond. I can see islands, a glacier, and beaches. There's beauty everywhere you look here.

You can find the official Sean Russell web site at

Last modified: August 20, 2005

Copyright © 2005 by Sean Russell.

Crystalline Sphere | Challenging Destiny | Issue #21 | Interviews