25 Years of Spectra: THE FALL OF THE KINGS (2002) by Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman


Every time I meet Ellen Kushner, I always walk away happy. She’s just that kind of person. I feel the same way about her books, including Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, and the novel we’re celebrating today, The Fall of the Kings, which was co-written with Delia Sherman.
Below, Ellen and Delia talk about writing The Fall of the Kings, and Anne Groell talks about editing it.

“We had no intention of writing a novel together. After all, we each had our own very separate careers as novelists, editors and short story writers.

But what else do two writers, old friends newly romantically involved, who’ve just moved in together, talk about over dinner and on long car trips? Once you’ve figured out who’s doing the dishes on which night, and whose desk the bills land on, and how to solve all your friends’ problems if only they’d listen to you . . . well, it’s on to your books and your characters.

And so we fell to talking of the people in Ellen’s Swordspoint, of the swordsman Richard St. Vier and Alec, his “boyfriend from hell” (thanks, Michael Swanwick!) and their world.

And we began to play “What if?”

What if the characters from Swordspoint had kids? What would they be like? How would their city have changed? What would happen if the city’s history started leaking into its present?

What was that history, anyway?

As a recovering academic with a degree in Renaissance Studies, Delia took charge of the University (which Alec fled, vowing never to return). All Ellen could tell her was that it wasn’t a British “Oxbridge” sort of place; more like the medieval Paris university of Peter Abelard. (And how weird was it to discover that we had both, as teens on summer trips to London, been taken by our moms to see the same romantic play about Abelard and Heloise?!)

Delia invented Basil St. Cloud and his loyal band of History students, who led her not only through the narrow streets of the University, but into the cozy houses of the Middle City. Ellen created Alec’s son, the troubled young nobleman Theron Campion, who uneasily divides his time between Riverside (still a dive, but slightly gentrified in the 60 years since Swordspoint), the Hill (where the nobles live) and University. Against these backgrounds, with these characters, together we began to explore the history of the city, and even its murky pre-history and legend.

On those car trips and gardening binges, we made up stories . . . .

Then, one day, we realized: We’re writers! If we write all this down, someone will pay us for it!

Basically, we just made stuff up, with each of us directing her own characters. We like to say it was like kids playing ‘Barbies’. Or like Tom & Huck down by the river being pirate kings. We’d talk scenes through, and then one of us would write them down.

We had no intention of writing a novel. We heard of an anthology looking for fantasy, so we began writing a short story about the doomed relationship between Basil and Theron. But there was so much good material we had to cut, to keep it at short story length!

“The Fall of the Kings” (10,000 words exactly) was published in Nicola Griffith & Steve Pagel’s groundbreaking anthology Bending the Landscape: Fantasy (1997). Our story made the World Fantasy Award nominations for Best Novella.

You know… we thought; if we went back to the long version we had to cut down and just added a little more material, we’d have a quick novel to hand! A few extra characters, a subplot or two, a few extra scenes . . . . How hard could it be?

Nearly four years later, we handed the finished manuscript to our agent.

What was our process?

Well, we’d talk through a scene, and then one of us (usually Delia, as Ellen was crunching scripts for her new public radio series, Sound & Spirit at the time) would write it down. There was one period when Ellen would come home at night from the radio station, exhausted, and Delia would set a bowl of spaghetti in front of her and read what she’d written that day. “Great!” Ellen would say. “That’s soooo good! And then in the next chapter, we can . . . .” We’d talk the scene through, and the next day Delia would head out to her favorite cafĂ©, armed with her notes, and write the scene up (adding a few new thoughts of her own), set the spaghetti water on to boil and (wash, rinse, repeat)!

On weekends and holidays we’d each write our own material. And then came the sweetest, most wonderful part of collaboration. You know the moment when you stare at your first draft and realize it’s the lamest, dumbest, most intractable piece of crap that’s ever hit the page?

That’s when we’d hand it to the other saying, “This is horrible. Fix it!”

And the other always would.

So at this point – especially after so long – it’s almost impossible for us to
figure out who wrote what you see on the page. But if it’s a long and beautiful description, chances are it was Delia’s to begin with – and she’s not ashamed to admit that, in certain of her first drafts, was the note: “Clever conversation here. EK write.”

We haven’t written anything much together since The Fall of the Kings – but now, with Delia frantically finishing her next novel (The Freedom Maze, for Big Mouth Press) and Ellen desperately pulling together all the new stories for the anthology Welcome to Bordertown (which she’s editing with Holly Black & Terri Windling for Random House), Spectra has given us the chance to sit for a few minutes together, side by side, arguing about commas and semicolons once again, but absolutely determined, this time, that the ending will be a happy one. Thanks for inviting us to write this post for Unbound Worlds!”

– Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman, June 2010


“I had been a fan of Ellen Kushner’s Riverside since I first read Swordspoint in graduate school. (And in retrospect, perhaps this is not a surprising thing, since I later learned that the novels had been inspired by the same neighborhood that I grew up in. No wonder it felt oddly familiar in its exotic way!) So I was really excited when Ellen’s agent called to say that there was a new Riverside novel in the offing, and did I want to see it. The answer was an emphatic yes, and I bought it, and it was wonderful coming back to a world that I had loved so much–although sixty years in its own future.

I also loved that it was a book about academia. Having earned a post-graduate degree, it was another world that felt wonderfully familiar to me–although, again, with some exotic differences. Ellen and Delia really reignited the Riverside magic perfectly in this one–and from a strictly editorial standpoint, it is lovely to get a chance to play in the sandbox you had only looked at longingly from afar before. (Which really is one of the coolest parts of my job!)”

–Anne Groell, Senior Editor, Spectra


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