Some authors manage to grasp you by the collar and never let go, and Scott Lynch is one of those. With his stories often described as “Ocean’s Eleven, but fantasy,” Lynch has proved to be top-notch at writing exemplary characters, as well as fantastic plots and plot twists. When his name appeared on the WorldCon 75 guest list, we knew that we couldn’t let the week go by without having a few words with him.
For those sensitive to swear words, we advise caution reading onward from here.
First of all and unrelated to the rest of my questions, but congratulations on getting married and moving.
Thank you! Moving was the bigger problem.
How’s everything going these days?
Everything seems to be going pretty well, except for… I’m constantly at science fiction conventions when I should really be working on my next book.
Getting the obligatory question that no one wants to answer out of the way then, how is the book coming along?
Everything with my fourth book, The Thorn of Emberlain, is coming along really well. I’m only being slightly facetious when I’m saying that I should be at home working on it [laughs] rather than here in Sweden and Finland traveling between conventions, but some of these things are unavoidable; as strange as it seems to look at this as a professional commitment, I suppose it really is.
My wife and I will have an uninterrupted 2 month period after we go home, during which I basically hope to get the book turned in, and then we can begin setting a firmer schedule for its publication. For the most part I’m very pleased with it. I’m pretty sure that I can fix the stuff that I’m not pleased about in the next 8 weeks or so.
Great! Now for example, George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss get a whole lot of crap from people about being late with their novels...
[sighs] They do, yes, it’s kind of ridiculous sometimes. Pat gets a tremendous amount of vituperation, online in particular. I mean, George gets it, but George is also kind of above it. George doesn’t really give a shit; George is big enough to not give a shit, and Pat is still, relatively speaking, a little bit closer to his readers and does not quite have a Scrooge McDuck money-bin to dive into just yet. I mean, he doesn’t do badly for himself, but Pat gets, I think, the most vicious of all the online comments, and I just don’t understand it. We are human beings, we are human artists, we produce at the rate we produce, and telling us that you really want our work, but that you fucking hate us and that we should nail ourselves to our desks and produce until it’s finished… it doesn’t make any sense. You can’t have both. "You’re a lazy bastard! Now give me that thing that I really want that’s beautiful, that only you do!" [laughter]
Do you feel like you get a piece of that crap pie, or have you been avoiding it?
I’ve just begun; it’s just started in the last, let’s say 2 months especially, because there was a lot of stuff that I wanted to be able to talk about, a lot of developments not just related to my books but to various other things, which have to stay under badge for the time being. As it turns out, I have not been able to talk about any of them at all. And that, for a change, is not entirely my fault. So it’s just one of the ways in which the wheels of publishing and the industry just grind very slowly. What I expected to be a gigantic series of announcements has actually been a long, stupid summer of silence. Possibly we can fix that soon-ish, but still…
It’s one of those things where my wife and I both discovered, as we’ve become more involved in our careers, that the travel and publicity aspect of it is very valuable and it’s wonderful to meet readers. It’s good to get out of the house and take vacations, meet editors and agents and so forth in other countries, but no work gets done while we’re doing this. A little bit here and there, and a lot of research, a lot of useful stuff, but no actual production of the next book. So I’m looking forward to finally nailing that son of a bitch.
In that vein, is there anything that you wish people knew about writing that people clearly don’t understand?
Inherent in producing anything, basically - and very few people realize, or think about it - is that something you consume in hours or minutes takes months or years for someone to actually make. A 20-page comic book or a portion of a graphic novel... it takes a writer and an artist a month to make. It takes you 20 minutes to read it. So as far as you’re concerned, it’s 20 minutes of emotional investment.
With regard to writing itself, how long would you say your compositing period is before you even actually start writing? That phase where you’re just thinking things through.
For The Thorn of Emberlain, it’s different because this is the book that I set out to write originally back in about 2000-2001, so I’ve had 15-odd years to think about this one, and that’s not usual.
Ordinarily, I would say that the lead I process to any given novel - which usually involves the writing of the previous novel - is a year or two, and ideally the writing of it would be a year or two. That’s how it went with my first two novels, but things have been a little more difficult since. I would like to get back to that point where the actual writing of a novel is a 6-8 month affair, rather than a long, drawn-out, anxiety-filled 4-year process.
Again, if someone’s going to read it, it’s going to take them 8-12 hours, and it took me 4 years to make it. The discrepancy in the emotional involvement, I think some people just don’t think about it.
Related to what you just said there, I’ve read that the seven book series was meant to have the first three as the introduction to the world and characters, with the four later books being the actual starting-point of the story. Is that true?
Yeah, that’s still pretty true. I was originally dead set on starting the story with what will be book 4 in the sequence, The Thorn of Emberlain, and I realized about two chapters into trying to write it that I did not feel that I knew the characters involved well enough. It just did not feel right. So I went back and essentially wrote three prequels to it. That cheapens the other novels, you know, in memory - that’s not entirely what I mean to do to them - but I wondered how my readers could feel involved in a setting and these characters if I myself did not feel sufficiently involved in them.
So yes, there will be a major structural difference in the first half of the sequence and the second half, in that the first half was location change, location change, location change, and the second half will be a lot more anchored in place. We will see some new locations, but we’re always going to be returning to Emberlain and the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows, as returning scene settings.
Is there anything you’re allowed or willing to tell us about The Thorn of Emberlain and what to expect, such as who we might be reading about, or is it still very hush-hush? [ed: for those who want to avoid any and all story spoilers, skip down to the next question]
It’s not entirely hush-hush. I can reaffirm stuff I’ve already said and try hard not to spoil anything. It does follow about 6 months after the end of The Republic of Thieves. It picks up on the northwest coast of the continent Locke lives on, in the city-state of Emberlain. It does focus on the actual civil war in the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows.
Every book has had a thematic shift and a plot shift. The first book was essentially the revenge tale, the second book was a heist novel, the third book was politics and romance, and this book is war. Locke and Jean will engage in a scheme that brings them into direct contact with an unfolding civil war and their efforts to profit from it are going to complicate their lives forever.
We’re also going to meet a new cast of recurring characters, who are going to be in total political opposition to everything Locke and Jean want to accomplish, and that is Anton Strata and his family. He’s a teenager who finds himself essentially fighting in a suddenly very vicious portion of the civil war to stay alive, let alone claim his eventual succession to the throne.
Locke and Jean, in previous books, have used the rumored threat of a civil war in the Kingdom of the Seven Marrows to make money as part of a scam, and now it’s actually happened and it’s going to severely fuck the world up, pardon my French.
So it is the biggest of the Gentleman Bastards sequence thus far in terms of scale. We’re going to see actual battles. There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve not previously seen and it’s going to be the biggest challenge and the most complicated infiltration scheme that Locke has ever run.
I’m looking very forward to reading it! Republic of Thieves ended in a very unexpected way, both for the readers and for the characters. The series feels like it took a complete turn into a different direction from there. Can you talk a bit about those endings, and did they shock you or did you already know the books were building up to that?
For the most part I knew. I work from a very elaborate and anal-retentive plan. I graph everything out, draw little lines to a lot of preliminary work - I’m an outliner. Everything was proceeding firmly according to plan, although there was one gigantic twist at the end of the third book, and those who have read it will know what happens in the last scene and who returns from a previous novel. Originally that was not going to happen. Originally we were never going to see that person again. Once that scene sort of popped into my head, once I saw what they were doing, I couldn’t un-see it. I just had to. So the story has taken one significant shift and that would be it. Everything else is still basically exactly where it was.
You’ve already mentioned that you plot your stories out a lot beforehand. Do you let much of anything just happen as you go?
I’m fascinated by that notion - it seems so romantic to me - but I have a lot of difficulty with actually doing so. Although, typically… what I’ve often said before is that I write a strict plan, I get about 30-40% of the way into the work, but by the time I’ve spent that much time with the characters, I’ve gotten to know them a little better. It’s not that they take over; I don’t believe in that sort of anthropomorphisation - I think that’s a little bit precious - but you’ve spent more time with them and angles and opportunities that may not have been previously obvious suddenly become obvious, because you have a better mental model of what the characters might do. They might take paths that you did not previously conceive of as possible. You can still get to the ending point you wanted, but the path becomes a little more meandering. So that’s about as far as I go toward just getting lost in my own story.
I consider you one of the top worldbuilders, or at least I love your world-
Oh yeah! [laughter]
…what do you like best and worst about creating new worlds, and what do you think is the base requirement for a world to feel organic and real?
I obviously love doing it. The difficulty is… there are two major points of difficulty. First off, giving yourself permission not to tell every damn thing. It’s a very difficult skill to acquire. It takes years to basically decide, how much can I get away with? The real question in worldbuilding is not how much can I dump on the page, but how much can I get away with not actually telling people? Because the alternative is to get this inelegant info-dumpy writing style, in which everyone who is meeting everyone else is taking extra time in their dialogue to explain what they’re doing.
“As an author, I find that doing these interviews, which my publisher helps arrange with newspapers, which you guys work for...”
“As you know, Bob, yes, we are in a room on a planet, which is orbiting the sun.” [laughter]
Like I was saying on a panel earlier, people repeat things. They tell each other the same stories over and over. They use the same tidbits in interviews over and over, wink wink, nudge nudge. We don’t constantly explain, “The chair you’re sitting in was made from wood and plastic, and these things blah, blah, blah,” unless you’re a fucking crazy person. Okay, maybe there are some crazy people out there that do that sort of thing, but it’s not symptomatic of mental health. But that’s what you end up with in a lot of stories, when characters inelegantly - with the best of intentions - explain the world to people who already live in it. There’s a really fine art to providing just enough clues for the reader to get the point without overwhelming the story and the people inside it. That’s what I really enjoy.
The other thing is the realization that everything is worldbuilding. Worldbuilding has this negative connotation as sort of this homework that you have to do beforehand. Like, “If you want to enjoy this book, first here’s the glossary and then here’s the map and then let’s tell you this, and here’s the backstory about who killed such-and-such and who fucked such-and-such and who wanted to kill such-and-such and who wanted to fuck such-and-such, all the way back to the first such-and-such 3 billion years ago.” [laughter]
Everything in a story is worldbuilding in the same way that everything about us is worldbuilding. Every piece of technology we are carrying, every piece of clothing we’re wearing, the passports in our pockets, the contents of our wallets, that weird thing that you’ve got on that strap around your neck and what it does [ed: he is referring to the photographer's camera] and why you’re carrying it and why we’re in this building, the languages on the signs… all of these things are clues as to where we come from, where we are, etc. And so it is with the fictional characters on the page. What they wear, what they eat, what they drink, what they value, what they want, this is all worldbuilding and it goes on until the last page of the story. It’s not all just, “Here’s the map and here’s your 50 pages of fucking background research. Memorize this so you can have fun with the story.” There are ways to make it more elegant and more intrinsic to the story, and I do this because it is more satisfying as a writer. You’ve got to be enjoying yourself while you’re doing this, otherwise you’re just doing hack work.
Have you ever read Gardens of the Moon by Steven Eriksen?
Yes, I’ve read the first of the Malazan books, but I have not [yet] continued the series.
I’m in the same boat, and I’ve noticed that he almost does the exact opposite of what you’ve said: he under-explains everything. You read his book and you think, “Who are they and what are those and where are they and what’s going on?” Yet, it still works.
Yeah, those books have a really high period of… the learning curve to get into them is not gentle.
Most people seem to quit at some point during that first book, but everyone I’ve heard, who has read beyond, says it’s worth it, but you just have to chew through that first confusing book.
They are brilliantly intricate, but it is very daunting to get into. In some ways, the ideal is to sync the reader… the old aphorism about slowly boiling a frog about upping the temperature one degree at a time. Eventually you want to boil your reader, you just don’t want to do it at the beginning of the book.
Exactly. Now, I’ve read that you were heavily influenced by the Final Fantasy game series, or at least Final Fantasy VI...
Oh my God, yes! Final Fantasy, which I played on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy VI, and Final Fantasy VII, and Chrono Trigger… basically all the major Japanese RPGs that would’ve been available in translation in the United States from about 1988-1995 are more or less chewed, swallowed, and digested into my background, yes.
We’re running out of time, so I’ll just ask one last question now: who are some of your favorite authors, or what are some of your favorite books at this moment in time?
Well, I’m always a perpetual nut about Dune by Frank Herbert. I’ve read everything that Frank ever published and I’m late to the party because he died when I was 8, unfortunately, but I was a teenage Frank Herbert obsessive and I’ve never lost a reverence for his work; even the naive and silly stuff is great.
I am a big Margaret Atwood appreciator. She was really important to me when I was a teenager. Matthew Woodring Stover is the guy that… I described him as basically the closest thing I had to a mentor. He’s a criminally underappreciated, brilliant science fiction and fantasy writer. Barbara Hambly - another severely underappreciated fantasy and science fiction writer - did a lot of stuff back in the 80s and has sadly sort of faded from the public eye, and that’s not fair at all.
Jack Vance, C.J. Cherryh, and Poul Anderson… I came to Anderson’s work relatively later in my life, about 10 years ago or so, but everything I’ve read by him has been wonderful and directly formative on a lot of my own work.
C.L. Moore, a female science fiction writer in the 40s and 50s; Leigh Brackett, another groundbreaking planetary romance/sword and sorcery writer from the 40s; Fritz Leiber, who is one of my literary heroes… an absolutely brilliant, funny, whimsical, long-lived man with a very long career [laughs]. I wish I could emulate that part too!
Robert E. Howard - the author of the Conan stories - had a really unmatched passion for the stuff that he really cared about, and that really burns through in the Conan stories.
My wife’s work, Elizabeth Bear. I’ll be nepotistic. We liked each other’s work before we started dating, so thank God for that. We both agree that we would not be in a relationship if we couldn’t stand each other’s work [laughter]. It would be miserable and awkward.
I think that’s a good start.
That’s a very long list! Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us!