Stephen R. Donaldson is one of our finest writers.
I happen to think his body of work is unparalleled. He has written an intricate and long epic fantasy series with The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – Unbeliever. He has written mysteries with The Man Who. He has traveled to the darkest part of the stars with the science fiction masterpiece The Gap. And who can forget the mirror-magic in the duology Mordant’s Need?
Now, he returns to the epic fantasy genre that he helped define with Seventh Decimate. It is a book I didn’t know could be so good in so few pages. It is smaller than most of Donaldson’s work but it is packed with fantasy, perfect for readers looking for a fast read. And since we know the sequel is quite a bit longer, readers will truly have something special to look forward to next year.
And Prince Bifalt? A great, flawed character. I decided to send Donaldson some questions about his main character, the new series, and how he goes about writing at such an excellent level. Details below!
Unbound Worlds: Seventh Decimate is in fine bookstores now. Tell Unbound Worlds readers a little about the book and how Prince Bifalt came to be?
Stephen R. Donaldson: For a long time now, I’ve wanted to write a book about a vast library, a treasure-house of knowledge; but the idea had no story attached to it. Then, however, I began to think that the story should begin with the quest of an ignorant person who is desperate for knowledge. The prospect of the quest prodded me to consider the kinds of conflicts that occur between the “haves” and the “have nots” of knowledge. And that brought me to Prince Bifalt, whose ignorance is exceeded only by his desperation.
UW: The Decimates are a wonderful magic system. How do you go about creating such a system? Does it grow out of the characters story as you are writing or is it something you have firmly in place before you start writing?
SRD: For this story, I need a kind or system of magic that could function without relying on any particular body of knowledge. It had to be inherent; like any talent, it had to be discovered or awakened; and after that, all it needed was practice. The Decimates fit that requirement nicely. In that sense, devising the Decimates was part of the process of creating Prince Bifalt–and his world.
UW: Prince Bifalt is on the hunt for a legendary library filled with knowledge and one book in particular. Knowledge has been a theme that runs through most of your work. Do you have a large personal library at home? Could it be smaller? Larger? What would you consider the most important book in it for you personally?
SRD: I do have a large personal library. Mostly fiction, I have to admit. I learn a lot more from reading fiction than I do from non-fiction. Physically, it could be a lot larger. But my eyes are going, and publishers are using ever smaller fonts. So now I buy and read ebooks exclusively. If I didn’t, I would need another room to house my expanding library.
“The most important book”? I can’t answer that question. Every book that’s worth reading changes the reader in subtle, even subliminal ways. How could I possibly know which of those changes is the most important? Well…. Perhaps I should say The Bible. The pervasive and unquestioning theology of my parents is so deeply embedded in my cognitive DNA that I refer to it, however obliquely, in virtually everything I write.
UW: One of the things I admire about you is your ability to write in very different types of fiction. From the epic/high fantasy of Covenant to the hard science fiction of the Gap to the mysteries of The Man Who. What is it about switching up what genre you are writing in?
SRD: I can’t explain it; but I feel driven, positively compelled, to tackle only stories that I don’t already know how to write. (Occasionally, I’ve been allowed to make an exception in shorter fiction: never in a novel.) The explanation I give myself is that I need to test myself against challenges that are obviously beyond my abilities. How else can I grow as a writer, or as a person who writes? One consequence, of course, is that I have to live with the fact that I always fail. However, I comfort myself with the knowledge that my failures contain more success than I would have thought possible.
UW: How is work going on the sequel to the Seventh Decimate? Fans will want to know!
SRD: The first draft of Book Two in “The Great God’s War” is now complete. That’s a huge relief. But I hasten to add that I revise/rewrite often–and often obsessively. Revising/rewriting is when I learn the lessons implicit in “challenges that are obviously beyond my abilities.” I’ll do a full second draft before I let my agent or my editor see the book. Then I’ll do at least one more draft to address their concerns.
On this point, I should say that I hope to renegotiate the title of Book Two. That title has already been announced as Knowledge and Evil. But after living with it for a while, I find I don’t like it. My current working title is The War Within. We’ll see what my agent and editor have to say.
Seventh Decimate by Stephen R. Donaldson is in fine bookstores now!
Perfect for that fantasy reader in your life!