What if it All Goes Wrong? A Conversation with Robert V. S. Redick
Robert V. S. Redick’s The Red Wolf Conspiracy (Del Rey, April 2009) is populated with tarboys, unwilling maidens, mad ship captains, and power hungry sorcerers. Monarchies clash and the lust for power obscures the weighty price of magic. The ocean rages and storm clouds loom. There is conspiracy, treason, and secrecy. Whole empires rest on small choices made by terrified individuals. Set largely aboard the Chathrand, a giant, 600-year old ship, Red Wolf positively reeks of adventure.
All in all, Red Wolf tells the story of characters who, according to Redick, are a bunch of misfits.
“I have a soft spot for misfits, having been one roughly since my diaper years,” Redick wrote in a recent essay at suvudu.com. “Oh, not in any tragic, soul-scarring way: my misfit status has always been more a disposition than a curse . . . Misfits suffer (and cause) far more interesting disasters than those who fit snugly into a culture or a camp.
Redick’s misfits are unforgivably appealing—even his most wretched characters. Each seems to live in the crow’s nest, high above a stormy sea, holding on by fingernails and sheer determination. The jeopardy is constant. The world of Alifros teeters on the edge of collapse—one person at a time.
Redick’s prose is elegant without being florid, rich without being garish. There is much of the New World/Age of Discovery spice to the tale he tells.
In a recent review, Terry Brooks, author of the Shannara novels, praised Red Wolf as “a spirited and exciting journey” and “a throwback to the days of the European adventure story writers--Stevenson, Dumas, Scott and the like—a tale that is a gripping page-turner accessible to all ages.”
Yet, The Red Wolf Conspiracy is also a very humane book--a character driven-novel written from multiple points-of-view. Redick takes on human nature in all its complex glory—from assassins to mermaids, traitors to boy heroes.
After a year of critical acclaim in England, The Red Wolf Conspiracy is finally available in the United States. Redick and I spoke a few days after the novel’s US release on a rare afternoon off from drafting the third book in the Chathrand Voyage series.
Ten years ago, you were a literary writer fascinated with languages and other cultures.
Who’d have thought it’d come to this, eh? Well, I’d like to think I’m still the same guy: still a literary writer obsessed with language and place. You and I have talked before about how the SF and literary worlds fail to engage each other. And since committing to a fantasy novel I’ve thought quite a lot about what personal meaning I attach to the notion of the “literary.”
To me the term indicates a concern with craftsmanship, and with human life as it is intimately experienced: the texture of thought and memory, the interplay of language and consciousness, the self-aware life of the mind—and the interface of these elusive, human phenomena with the larger universe. These happen to be my chief interests; without them I really can’t get too excited about your dragon or your mage.
But come on, my fellow literary types, admit it: you’re genre writers too. Westerns have guns and cows; you have neuroses and unreliable narrators.
Years ago John Updike—who as David Hartwell observes was something of a defender of SF, though he didn’t write it—accused the genre of being so wrapped up in the building of exotic scenarios that it failed to invest in all these “human subtleties.” We should not lightly dismiss that accusation.
But my take on it is a bit different: I’d say that when a work—any work, speculative or mundane—does invest in those subtleties, we collectively push it in the direction of the literary, and see it a bit less as SF/F. Perhaps it began for marketing reasons, but the divide has taken on a life of its own. We are so conditioned to believe in the two spheres that we segregate ourselves.
How often have you been to a craft discussion at a SF/F con and heard anyone invoke Conrad, García Márquez, Michael Ondaatje, or any other non-SF/F master in a discussion of technique? And how often in an MFA program does one encounter a teacher of literary orientation willing to explore the craft innovations with which SFF abounds?
The good news is that I think both camps are getting over their hang-ups, and realizing how much the other side has to offer. It may take another generation, but in time literature in English may indeed let its useless guard down. Latin America managed this back in the 1960s, and the result was the greatest fiction renaissance of the latter half of the twentieth century: the so-called “Boom.”
What do you enjoy most about writing fiction?
Nothing beats those moments of ecstatic discovery, when you first commit material (however rough) to the page. I’ll never forget the joyride of certain first-draft passages: the tiny ixchel fighting to get aboard the Chathrand without being discovered by humans; the fight in the Weather Tower on the emperor’s mountain, the moment Pazel and Neeps are hurled into the depths with orders to plunder a shipwreck or die trying.
And yet your question’s harder than it appears. Those ecstatic moments are the most thrilling, sure, but they can also terrify you and leave you drained. What if it all goes wrong? What if (as R.E.M. has it) “all these fantasies come flaming aground?” There’s a scary image for your novel.
But the image I return to most often is that of working clay on a potter’s wheel, as I’ve done. It’s sensual, and breathtaking at times: The soft, liquid form of the bowl or vase rises like magic under your hands. But it’s so fragile! As long as that wheel’s in motion there’s a chance the whole structure may list over and collapse.
Did playing role-playing games (RPGs) as a kid influence what you write about and the way you write it?
Unquestionably. I was a D&D addict for many years—though I haven’t played it in twenty. It’s juvenile. I mean that with great respect, and would play again in a heartbeat if I could so arrange my life. But again, let’s be honest: a large part of RPGs involves running around, stealing, smashing, crushing and killing things. Not unlike certain sports, except that the actions are literal mental abstractions, rather than symbolic physical ones.
But in every other respect role-playing games are an exquisite form of training for storytellers. The most obvious way is world-building, but that in itself means so much more than choosing details and writing them down. There’s dialogue improvisation, scene building, three-dimensional spatial thinking, imaginary timekeeping, dramatic pacing: it’s all there, and you experience it in the most natural and honest way: in a private huddle with your peers. If those peers actually care about the quality of the experience . . .
Is there a character in the novel (or trilogy) that you most relate to? Or most enjoy writing about?
Well, one man always springs to mind. I love writing from Captain Rose’s point of view, which in Red Wolf is given through letters he writes to his (possibly deceased) father. Rose is a paranoid, deceptive, violent and wounded megalomaniac. But he brings a twisted zeal to everything he does, and that’s compelling for a writer. There is also a fascination with evil, when it’s done in a complex way. Some might argue that it’s because we have more to learn from those who are not like us than those who are. I don’t think that’s the case: good has plenty to teach. It may be that we’re engineered to pay sharp attention to those we sense might threaten us.
But The Red Wolf Conspiracy employs seven or eight points of view. I think the truth is that I relate most with the POV character I’m writing about at a given moment. Sometimes that identification is more pleasant than others. It’s not pleasant to enter the mind of Sandor Ott, the old spymaster responsible for some of the heinous political trouble my world’s thrown into. It doesn’t feel good to inhabit his internal asylum, his padded cell. But it is my job.
Red Wolf seems to be about what happens when differences collide. Is that collision at the heart of the book?
The collision of differences is near the heart of Red Wolf—but it’s more than that, I’d say. The old buzzword, the old cultural goal, used to be tolerance. And there’s nothing wrong with tolerance per se. It is, however, far from the best we can aspire to. Tolerance is rather flimsy: I’ll tolerate you this far, but don’t get out of line.
In the case of Pazel and Thasha and Felthrup and Dri, tolerance certainly won’t keep them alive, or help them defeat Arunis or Sandor Ott. This book is about not just learning to tolerate and comprehend difference, but sometimes to choose it over the familiar. In other words, this is a book about questioning the community you’re born into, and in some cases choosing, building, a new one that reflects the person you’re trying to become.
How has your understanding of the craft changed since you finished Red Wolf?
My understanding of the challenge of telling a story of this scale has changed in the course of doing so. There are dozens of characters, personal histories, national histories, religious and world-view differences across those nations, simultaneous plotlines: and all of these have to be conveyed with immediacy, drama and simplicity.
I try to maintain a beginner’s attitude towards learning and relearning the fundamentals of good writing. There are weaknesses I’m probably more aware of than any critic. Use of the narrative zoom lens is one: when to be close-in, deeply embedded in a scene, when to pull back and allow the pace to quicken, and how to slide with grace between these extremes.
How do you create tension in a world of magic?
In a word, restraint. In my world of Alifros, for example, the use of magic always exacts a heavy price. The animals who wake to human intelligence often go mad. Pazel Pathkendle can learn any language on the face of the earth, but he pays for it with terrifying seizures that make those around him fear that he’s possessed. His mother embraces the study of magic and ends up a distracted wreck who poisons children. And without giving too much away, the greater the power bestowed, the higher the price.
Last January at Vericon (Harvard), Kim Stanley Robinson explained his dislike for most fantasy. As he put it, in a world where anything is possible, nothing is interesting. And I agree. I’ve never been able to enjoy a fantasy novel where anything is possible. Indeed part of the joy of the reading is often the discovery of what is possible and what is not. Without a doubt, you have to keep a tight rein on your miracles.
And this brings us back to role-playing: another lesson I learned early was just how dull it was to play the part of a demigod, or other figure of unlimited power. I tired of that in an afternoon. Then I joined a campaign where magic was scarce; it had to be sought out and won at great price, and so did every reward of the game. And that kept me coming back for more.
If you removed the magic from Red Wolf, would there be a world, a story?
Magic is a fact of the world of Alifros. If it did not exist, Alifros would not exist as I have built it. Consequently the story too would not exist. Another world and another story with many of the same elements could. But their resemblance would be limited at best.
I hasten to add that magic is not all that counts. The politics, global and personal, matter a great deal too. Indeed questions of the human heart always seem to trump the efforts of the mighty to shape the world through force alone. Few are the successful writers who do otherwise. Asimov was as technically-oriented a writer as you’ll ever find, but what do his novels hinge on? A robot decides to show mercy. A woman finds the courage to stand up to a tyrant. Small, private choices with outcomes that shake the world.