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Interview: October 15, 2004

October 15, 2004's contributing writer Cindy Lynn Speer interviewed Stephen R. Donaldson, author of six previous books in "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" series and THE RUNES OF THE EARTH, the first of four new "Covenant" novels. Donaldson talks about his decision to return to the world of Thomas Covenant following a 21-year hiatus, the current state of the fantasy genre, and the strong influence that his childhood in India had on his writing abilities. Did you always plan to return to the world of Thomas Covenant? What convinced you that you finally were ready to make this journey after 21 years?

Stephen R. Donaldson: When the ideas for "The Second Chronicles" came to me, all the essential components of "The Last Chronicles" arrived along with them. It was a case of, "I've already done x (the original "Covenant" trilogy), so what I should do next is y. But if I do y, then I'll also have to do z." So yes, I've planned to return to Covenant ever since I began thinking about "The Second Chronicles."

I'm not a person who ever actually feels "ready." But I'm getting older, and I probably won't live forever. So a few years ago I decided that completing the "Covenant" saga was more important than feeling "ready."

BRC: Do you feel that the intervening years have brought anything different to your writing?

SRD: If they haven't, I've been wasting my time. With every new project I've tackled, I've raised my sights. And I've pushed myself in unfamiliar directions, even when the effort has been acutely uncomfortable. If I haven't made myself a better writer, I should probably pack up my tents and go home.

BRC: We already know to expect four books for the series. What made you limit it to four? Have you already plotted them, or do you just know what should happen in each? How much is written?

SRD: I can't write at all unless I know two things about the story in front of me: where I'm going (the eventual climax of the story, my reason for telling it), and the general shape of the path to that destination. I haven't plotted every facet of the story in detail, but I know beyond question that "The Last Chronicles" will require four volumes, no more, no less. If I felt any doubt on that point, I wouldn't have been able to start writing THE RUNES OF THE EARTH. I can't explain this: it's just part of how my mind works.

As it happens, RUNES was published very quickly. I finished rewriting it in mid-April, and the book appeared on October 14th --- a mere six months after "delivery and acceptance." Because of this, every stage of the process (e.g., copyediting, proofreading, preparing maps, writing interviews like this one) has been a scramble. As a result, I'm not as far along with Book Two as I would prefer to be. But worry not! I know what I'm doing. And I have stacks of notes.

BRC: The book opens with a succinct yet descriptive recap of what has gone on before in the series. Readers leaping in here can choose to just read this quick catch-up or to step back and read the other books. Is the transition between the earlier work and this seamless?

SRD: That depends on what you mean by "seamless." Between the first "Covenant" trilogy and "The Second Chronicles," ten years pass in Covenant's "real" world, so naturally ten more years pass between "The Second Chronicles" and "The Last Chronicles." Given that gap, however, I've done everything in my power to make the transition as seamless as possible. "The Second Chronicles" ends with Linden Avery; "The Last Chronicles" begins with her. And I believe that the transition of style, theme, and character is quite seamless.

BRC: The fantasy genre has received so much attention in the past decade with a new legion of fans sprouting up as the Tolkien books have been made into movies and Harry Potter has become a phenomenon. How do you feel when you see these new readers embracing this genre?

SRD: I'm not entirely sure that the LOTR and Harry Potter films have brought new readers into the genre. I know a number of people who loved the LOTR movies and have no intention of reading those books --- or any other fantasy books, for that matter. I have no doubt that the best writers in the field --- Patricia A. McKillip, Tim Powers, and Steven Erikson, to name just three --- deserve entire legions of new fans. Their books will stand the test of time, not as fantasy, but as literature. But I haven't personally seen "new readers embracing this genre."

BRC: Do you intend to return to any of your other universes?

SRD: I can't predict what ideas will come to me in the future. All I can tell you is that at present I have no ideas what would take me back to, say, "Mordant's Need" or the GAP sequence. And I'm entirely dependent on ideas. I don't decide to write a story and then go looking for an idea. I only write a story because I have an idea.

BRC: You departed from Fantasy a few times to write books in the Mick Axbrewder/Ginny Fistoulari series. Why did you make this departure? And why did you originally publish them under the name Reed Stephens?

SRD: I grew up among missionaries, and missionaries read four things: the Bible, Time magazine, Readers' Digest, and mystery novels. Naturally I read mystery novels throughout my "formative years." But the more of them I read, the more dissatisfied I became. Most of the ones I encountered either didn't play fair (e.g. by withholding necessary information from the reader) or operated on the patently false premise that every human being is equally capable of every crime. So when I got an idea for a mystery of my own, I didn't hesitate to tackle it.

Now mystery novels play a predictable role in the recurring cycles of my writing life. It goes like this: I write a big story (e.g. a "Covenant" trilogy); I collapse from exhaustion; I regain my belief that writing is actually possible by producing a few short stories; then I write a mystery novel; and somehow while I'm writing that mystery novel I become ready to take on another big story. This pattern has held true without exception for more than 25 years now.

The use of a pseudonym was imposed on me by Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. They believed strongly in "category publishing" --- and in keeping the categories entirely separate. So I chose the pseudonym "Reed Stephens" because it was reminiscent of my real name, Stephen Reeder Donaldson. But I never wanted to hide behind a pen name, and I'm very grateful that Tor/Forge is in the process of releasing (or re-releasing) all of my mystery novels under my name.

BRC: We've read that the motion picture rights for THE RUNES OF THE EARTH have been bought. Has the rest of the series been picked up as well? How do you feel about your books being made into films?

SRD: No one has bought the movie rights for THE RUNES OF THE EARTH. Instead, certain people have bought an "option" on LORD FOUL'S BANE. In effect, they're paying me not to sell the movie rights to anyone else while they think about possibly buying those rights themselves. In my case, this option on LORD FOUL'S BANE is, in effect, an option on any "Covenant" book I've ever written, or will ever write.

BRC: How do you think your childhood in India where your father worked as a medical missionary influenced your writing?

SRD: There are so many influences that I can't even begin to cite them all, so I'll just mention one. Going to India when I was four made me a storyteller by the time I was six --- and a self-aware, deliberate manipulator of storytelling techniques (crude ones, admittedly) by the time I was eight. Of course, all of this was internal: no one else knew I was doing it. But private storytelling effectively saved me from the initial shock of going to a world that seemed as alien to me as India did. And before long, storytelling (still internal) had become my primary coping strategy for most of life's stresses and misfortunes. Therefore storytelling, in order to remain effective as a "primary coping strategy," had to be a continuously adjustable mechanism: I had to be able to alter it "on the fly," as it were, so that it could handle whatever dilemma life happened to throw at me. For that reason, I began my study of narrative technique when I was still very young. So I can honestly say that my childhood in India made me the writer I am today.

BRC: What other influences, literary or otherwise, have you drawn upon in your writing?

SRD: I've been deeply influenced by the music of Richard Wagner (especially his "Ring" cycle). And not because most of his operas are fantasy --- although of course they are. No, it is the power of his musical language that has moved and inspired me. As a result, I've been striving ever since I first encountered that musical language (which happened while I was in college: before then, I lived among missionaries, and missionaries listen to two kinds of music, hymns and Broadway show tunes) to develop rhetorical analogues to some of Wagner's techniques. That, I can tell you, has not been easy to do, if for no other reason than because a composer can require almost any number of notes to be played simultaneously, while a writer can only use one word at a time.

BRC: Who and what do you read for pleasure?

SRD: I've already mentioned McKillip, Powers, and Erikson. I might add Sean Russell and China Mieville to that list. But I also read Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Paul Scott, George Meredith, Conrad, Faulkner, Shakespeare, and Henry James for pleasure, and they're all dead. A few titles: OMBRIA IN SHADOW (McKillip), LAST CALL (Powers), IDYLLS OF THE KING (Tennyson), THE RAJ QUARTET (Paul Scott), MODERN LOVE (Meredith), THE SACRED FOUNT (James).

BRC: When you're not writing, what might someone find you doing?

SRD: Paying attention to my children, working on my web site, traveling for pleasure, indulging my fondness for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (the TV show, not the movie), and watching NBA games (but only rarely: I don't get cable).