Rene Sears-I'm excited to see more of dragons in Wrath-Bearing Tree. In what ways was it a challenge (or in what ways was it fun!) to write from a quintessentially non-human perspective?
James Enge: I feel about dragons sort of the way I feel about unicorns: they've become so familiar that they're somewhat domesticated and G-rated. I like some of these versions, actually. I thought How to Train Your Dragon was fun, and there's a very old series of kid's books by Ruth Gannett starting with My Father's Dragon, which is a lot of fun. But in This Crooked Way and A Guile of Dragons, I was trying to reclaim the wildness and dangerousness and the evil, in fact, of dragons. But you can't be evil without making a moral choice. (I know some people might disagree, but they can write their own damn books.) Even as I was writing Guile, I was wondering to myself, "What about the dragon, or proto-dragon, who chooses not to be evil? Do they still become a dragon? Do they become something else?" That was where the Gray Folk and their empty temple came from.
Having said this much, I wonder if the dragon-viewpoint is a nonhuman perspective at all. Maybe it's more of a scaly mirror for humankind.
RS-The gods of Morlock's world are meddling and active rather than aloofly looking down from on high, and they seem to differ from locality to locality. What inspired your gods?
JE- One thing many people in the modern world don't seem to get about the premodern world is the localness and weirdness and diversity of religious belief. For an an ancient Greek, God was as nearby as sunshine, or your last cup of wine, or a stray sexual urge. Like Elvis in the old Mojo Nixon song, he (or she) was everywhere. ("Elvis is in your ma!") And the same god looked different in different cities--different enough to be a different god if you wanted to look at it that way. The pantheon wasn't a peaceful eternal monarchy ruled by Zeus--more like a chaotic crime family, with internal gang wars constantly breaking out. That sort of thing makes for more storytelling possibilities, too. So I guess the bristling weirdness of ancient polytheism was one of the inspirations for the gods of Kaen.
Another thing: fantasy isn't really about the past, any more than science fiction is about the future. If the Wardlands are an idealized, utopian version of the country I live in, the cities of Kaen are a nightmare version--an unreal America where people are eaten by the ideas they worship. The perfect setting for a love story, really.
RS-Younger Morlock and older Morlock are very different in outlook. Have you ever felt constrained by something you've already written, or has his character arc remained pretty much unchanged?
JE-Young Morlock is sort of an epic-fantasy hero. Older Morlock is a sword-and-sorcery hero--an outcast, someone who has lost or given up on nearly everything, but is still no one to be trifled with. What lies between them isn't an arc so much as a cataclysm. Everything that young Morlock has is everything older Morlock has lost--except for who he really is. You know the old line from Fight Club: "You are not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet." Morlock is about to find that out by losing all that stuff he thought was him. But that's the subject of the third novel in this trilogy, The Wide World's End.
RS-What have you read recently?
JE- I just finished a binge of Napoleonic War history--Robert Harvey's A War Like No Other, and his biography of Lord Cochrane (one of the brilliant captains whose adventures were fictionalized by Patrick O'Brian, among others), and a biography of Sir Sidney Smith, who probably did more than any other one person to defeat Napoleon, but whom almost no one has heard of these days.
Now I'm reading King's The Stand (expanded version) and The Gunslinger. Which, as an American fantasist I guess I should have been doing about thirty years ago. If you're looking for the American Tolkien, it's obviously Stephen King. No disrespect intended toward George R.R. Martin (an amazing writer whose work I have been reading for 30 years--more like 35). But no one takes the matter of America and turns it into myth like King does.
Many thanks to James for joining us!