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The Steven Brust Interview

The Quantum Muse staff, largely through the ingenuity of the Web Goddess, managed to wrangle an interview with Steven Brust. He was very kind, and never once threatened to call the authorities or asked us to sit further away and stop spilling beer on him.

Go buy his books at once. If you haven't already. I mean, they're brilliant on their own merit and all, but he deserves some good karma for enduring this interview.


Quantum Muse: We'd like to thank you for allowing us to interview you by e-mail, even though you grumble about it. We've had trouble crossing state lines so it's difficult for us to do interviews in person, especially since the "interview using a blunt object" incident.

Steven K Zoltan Brust: Speaking of blunt objects, I'm depending on you to correct my spelling errors and typos. If this thing goes out as I write it, I will...mmm...be sad.

QM: Steven, which of your works is your favorite? Don't give us that silly answer that they are like your children and you can't pick one over the other.

SKZB: Those who say that, mean it. It isn't silly. But it isn't true for me. My favorite is The Phoenix Guards, or perhaps the combination The Phoenix Guards and 500 Years After.

QM: You've been a writer for quite a few years now. Does your family still hope you'll grow up and get a real job?

SKZB: Oh, lord, no. The supported me from day 1.

QM: What are you working on now?

SKZB: The Viscount of Adrilankha.

QM: As that rounds out the direct parallel to Dumas' Musketeer trilogy, do you plan to stop there, or is this something you might play with from time to time?

SKZB: I don't know. I'll just have to see what comes up and bites me, so to speak, as wanting to be written.

QM: In a genre where many authors seem to hit on a formula and crank out a dozen repetitive volumes in a series, you defy stereotyping. You have written on vastly different subjects, from the revolt of the angels to the tale of an assassin, to a vampire story to a story about a group of artists. Even the Vlad Taltos series uses varied viewpoints and styles, and your writing seems to take a different tack with each book. How much of an effort is this? Do you need to struggle to stay fresh or are you following your natural desire to stretch you abilities and grow with each work? Or do you suffer from some kind of multiple personality disorder?

SKZB: It isn't that complicated. I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it, and no one else had written it. To the extent that I have a formula, that's it. Once I've written a book, I don't need to write it again, so I write a different one I wish someone else had written.

QM: That's a simple but profound way to put it. I think the biggest reason that I posed the question (and the biggest reason I recommend you to other readers) is that you seem to be the exception in Fantasy. Many authors seem like one trick ponies, or that they are trying to milk a series for ever. I find your approach refreshing. Probably the only other Fantasy writer who I think was similarly versatile was Zelazny.

SKZB: Well, you certainly aren't going to make me an enemy by comparing me to Zelazny. As for there being a lot of one-trick ponies, you are missing something: Many of the writers who do the most interesting stuff aren't the ones who get a lot of coverage or a lot of sales, because having a series is damned near necessary of commercial success. Sad, but true. I didn't know that when I started doing the series, and I've never consciously made a decision to do anything for commercial success, but it seems to be the case. What I do that is, ,perhaps, different from some, is that I'm using mysteries as a model. That is, the idea of completely independent adventures involving re-occurring characters has been going on in the mystery field at least since Arthur Connan Doyle. That my characters change and grow, and that events in the past have effects that carry forward, just tells you which sort of mysteries I like.

QM: Having tried many approaches, do you have a favorite? Do you prefer first
person or third, or the letters format in Freedom... or what?

SKZB: Depends on the book, of course. I mean, that's the whole point. Part of the fun of this stuff is finding the right way to tell a story, and watching how the story and the way the story is told bounce off each other and change each other. Certainly, first person is more natural to me, but I could never have written, say, Brokedown Palace that way.

QM: Have your publisher and agent been supportive of your experimentation, or do
you have some blackmail photos?

SKZB: My agent and both publishers, Ace and Tor, have supported me in this. Especially Tor. In fact, Tor, through Patrick Neilsen Hayden have been pushing me to stretch my limits more. I think this is a good thing.

QM: Hungarian folklore plays a large part in many of your stories. Where and when did you become interested in it? Was it a prominent part of your upbringing?

SKZB: Well, I'm of Hungarian extraction, so I gradually began to acquire more and more Hungarian things: A vest, a small wine collection, a Hungarian dog, and so on. The interest in the folktales was part of that.

QM: Have you been to Hungary? If so, was it before or after the breakup of the old Cold War status quo in Eastern Europe? What did you think of it? Forgive me, I was a History major before I was an editor.

SKZB: I've been there twice, but not since end of the Stalinist regime.

QM: "Phoenix Guards" and "Five Hundred Years After" are extremely fun homages to Dumas. Is he a favorite author, or did some other reason motivate you to work in that style?

SKZB: He is one of my very favorites. And The Phoenix Guards was a classic case of what I mentioned earlier: writing a book I wanted to read.

QM: Although it seems to fall outside the conventional boundaries of fantasy, The Sun, the Moon and the Stars is a very enjoyable look at the creative process and at the relationships in a group of friends and colleagues. Could you talk to us about your reasons for writing it? How did you enjoy the experience?

SKZB: Thanks. It was easier than I thought it would be. The book tells the story of writing the book. At some point, if you're writing, you are going to find yourself wondering why you are doing this, what you hope to achieve. Being who I am, I made the question the theme of a book and wrote the book to explore it. I guess I figured some stuff out.

QM: Which authors influenced you most?

SKZB: Zelazny, Twain, Dumas, Robert B. Parker

QM: Who or what in your own life influenced your writing?

SKZB: Well, certainly my writers group: Nate Bucklin, Emma Bull, Kara Dalkey, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, Pat Wrede. All have been very helpful in training the editor who lives in the back of my head. The guy's still pretty weak, and needs more work, but he's improving.

QM: You were involved in the internet in its early stages back in the eighties. We at Quantum Muse like to see the Internet as empowering the masses.

SKZB: Have you ever considered what a horrid word, "empowering" is?

QM: With shame and regret, yes I do. I look at that sentence now and am embarrassed. This is what comes of writing and reading editorials when I should be busy with fiction, lovemaking and heavy drinking. I will make every effort to correct this unfortunate lapse.

SKZB: Excellent, grasshopper.

QM: The rhetoric in some of our early editorials borders on that of a Marxist rally. How do you see the Internet? Do you think the cheap, broad access to markets, e-books and Print on Demand are good for writers, readers and literature, or do you feel that the threats to copyright make it a danger? Don't you appreciate
it when we give you such evenhanded, unbiased questions with no indication of where our sympathies lie?

SKZB: Heh. For me, it's a tool, an amusement, a resource. But if I had to answer, then I'd say anything that makes communication easier across cultural boundaries, and anything that makes human knowledge more accessible to more people, is a good thing.

QM: Ok, so we're a bit revolutionary. Fine. And I know they pay you and all, but don't you think it's time we assaulted the ivory towers of the Industry that let The Chronicles of Amber fall out of print so I can't replace my dog-eared copy of Guns of Avalon when they could offer it forever with POD technology and still make a profit, the bastards?

SKZB: The stupidities of the publishing industry sometimes astonish me. A classic case of what Marx called, "The anarchy of capitalism."

QM: Apart from writing, you are also a musician. How does one influence the other? Is the experience similar? Who are your favorite musical influences?

SKZB: I was raised on 30s and 40s jazz, and folk music, like Woody Guthrie and the Weavers. I'm an unabashed Deadhead. I love Dave Van Ronk and Greg Brown. And, really, I don't think the music has much effect on the writing. I use music to relax. It doesn't feed into the writing in any way that I'm aware of.

QM: I'm surprised. Music seems to play a large part in the stories themselves, or at least the characters' tastes in music tend to tell a lot about them.

SKZB: Well, yeah; I'm mean, that's just a kind of cheat, but one I like. In fact, one of the fun things in writing is finding interesting ways to reveal character. I still recall with a certain smugness a scene in Brokedown Palace where I described each character sitting down, and used that to give clues as to personality. Stuff like that is fun. I need to do it more.

QM: It is obvious from your writing that you are familiar with fencing. Will you tell the world (and my buddy Larry) that epee is for tall skinny wimps and real men fence sabre?

SKZB: Epee is for tall skinny men and women--not wimps. Sorry. Sabre is for guys like me, who are short, wish they were quick, and really enjoy being flashy and showy. I loved sabre. Also rapier, which I studied in stage combat in college--epee target, point and edge, no right-of way. Fun!

QM: You collaborated with Emma Bull on Freedom and Necessity, and with Megan Lindholm on The Gypsy. How did you find the experience compared to working alone? Don't worry, we won't tell them what you say. And neither will any of our eight readers.

SKZB: The thing is, with any book, you have fun parts to write, and difficult parts. With those books, I just wrote the fun parts, then stopped and let my collaborator go. They were both high points of my writing career to date. I loved them.

QM: Some genre writers also work in mainstream literature. Are you contemplating such a move yourself as a way of making real money?

SKZB: What is does "mainstream" mean? In any case, I'll write something that isn't sf or fantasy as soon as I feel a desire to read a particular story that hasn't been written that isn't SF or fantasy. It could happen at any time, or not at all.

QM: Do you have a favorite place to write?

SKZB: Uh...at my computer?

QM: Where do you see the S/F and Fantasy world heading? Should we worry?

SKZB: Frankly, I have no idea. I don't keep in touch with that sort of thing. It would be very nice if I could continue to make a living at this, because I love what I do. But I have to say I have no idea.

QM: If you had 20 millions dollars, would you spend it on a trip to the space station, or would you just waste it?

SKZB: I would not waste it. I would make good, solid investments in drugs and hookers.

Actually, I think I'd build a paddlewheeler on the Mississippi. I'd like that. I could be very happy on my own paddlewheeler on the Mississippi.

QM: Would you like to be the Chief Financial Officer for Quantum Muse? Those are both more fun than anything we planned.

SKZB: How long will it take me scam twenty million dollars?

QM: Did you ever have a real job? What's it like?

SKZB: I've had many. I prefer this.

QM: Do you go to high school reunions just to flaunt the fact that you are a writer and way cooler than your classmates?

SKZB: Naturally.

QM: What's your best advice to beginning writers? Other than start running now and don't look back.

SKZB: When in doubt, always ask yourself, "If I were reading this, what would I like to see next?"

QM: Does most of the S/F and Fantasy world take itself too seriously or not seriously enough?

SKZB: How seriously you take yourself, at least as a writer, is exactly how seriously you have to take yourself in order to turn out your best book. Some need to believe they are writing literature for the ages, or else they get sloppy. Others need to believe they are writing throw-away crap, otherwise they freeze up and can't do the work. As for the fans, well, I once heard an interviewer ask Jerry Garcia how he felt about all of these Deadheads putting all of their time, energy, and money into the Grateful Dead. He said, "Where do you think my time, energy, and money goes?" That's about how I feel. I put a lot of effort into this stuff, and it would be really small and silly of me to be upset or contemptuous because other people put effort into digging out what I've put in there. It is very gratifying. It pleases the hell out of me.

QM: How would your describe your agreeing to be interviewed by Quantum Muse:
(a) A kindness to a struggling on-line publication.
(b) The low point of a night of binge drinking.
( c) Quantum Muse who? I thought this was Rolling Stone

SKZB: Oh, I dunno. I just suck at saying, "no."

QM:A weakness that underhanded editorial types like myself will continue to exploit. Thanks again.

SKZB: You're welcome.

QM: Would you mind buying the next round?

SKZB: If you'll pay for the hookers.

Here is a selection of novels by Steven Brust:

To Reign in Hell
Brokedown Palace
The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars
The Phoenix Guards
Five Hundred Years After
The Gypsy
Freedom and Necessity

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