Since the publication of Mr. Shivers in 2010, award winning writer Robert Jackson Bennett has not looked back. He has won the Shirley Jackson award twice, once for Mr. Shivers and once again for American Elsewhere in 2013. His current series is the brilliant second-world fantasy THE DIVINE CITIES. Bennett’s work is wildly imaginative and heart-breakingly human. City of Stairs introduced us to The Continent, a collection of conquered city-states still mourning their fall from glory, and the island nation of Saypur, who rebelled against the slavery imposed by the Continent and became conquerors themselves. In the second book City of Blades, which was released last week, Bennett explores the horror and glory of war, the wounds of history and the seductive power of destruction. Kate and Marion asked him a few questions about one of our favorite books – and a few other things.
One commenter with a USA or Canadian address will win a copy of City of Blades.
Marion Deeds: You blog quite a bit about your son, and I know you have another child on the way. Parenting changes people’s lives; has it changed your philosophy in any way, what you choose to write about, and how you approach issues in your fiction?
Robert Jackson Bennett: It has. There’s a phrase that I’ve used recently for discussing City of Blades and City of Miracles, which is “adult fears.” When I was a kid, I used to fear failure or disgrace a great deal. Now that I’m older, I have fears that feel far, far more real to me – things like, “Am I helping my child learn to be happy?” or “Am I helping to leave behind a world that’s better for my children and those that come after them?” or just “Can I afford dental work and college?”
There’s a great line from the show HANNIBAL where he says that children are the lenses through which we see ourselves leaving this world. I think that’s true. I think when you introduce this weird creature into your life that develops astonishingly rapidly and also has a whole bunch of your personality traits, it changes your perspective of time. When you’re young, you’re playing by a one-to-five year timespan, charting no further than five or so years out. When you have a kid, you realize, “I only have fifteen to twenty years to build the foundation for this entire person’s lifetime,” and that changes the stakes immensely.
In my books, from about The Troupe to City of Miracles you start to see the manifestation of some of these anxieties. The lack of control, the sudden looming mortality. The characters in my books also get more genuinely adult as the books go on, advancing from their forties into their sixties. Maybe it’s helpful to me to imagine what it’d be like to be fifty or sixty years old, and find ways to inhabit that perspective.
MD: The DIVINE CITIES series meets all our “epic fantasy” needs, yet it’s set in the industrial age of its world, rather than in the usual agrarian-feudal period we’re all so used to. What made you choose this level of technology for this setting? What is the most fun about writing an industrial society, and what are the challenges?
RJB: I wanted to look at a world that’s in a lot of change, and technology and change go hand in hand. Changes in an agrarian system take place much, much slower, because resources are much harder to allocate: it takes a lot of work to get water and people and information to where they can best benefit everyone. So I wanted to look at a world in upheaval, a period in which two eras – the ancient and the modern – really begin to clash, and the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a great framing for this story.
The hardest thing is knowing that a lot of our own history happened messily and totally by accident. Some innovations seem inevitable, others are wholly coincidental. So sometimes I’ll write a scene with, say, a telegraph machine, and pause and think, “It’s kind of absurd to imagine that their history will play out in the exact way that ours did and happen to develop this device,” but then I think, eh, screw it, it’s a fun setpiece.
MD: In the first book of the series, we got some hints about the divinities themselves. As the series progresses, will we find out more about their genesis? Or will that always be a mystery?
RJB: You’ll find out more.
Kate Lechler: One of the things that draws me to your books is their interest in the relationship between the human and the divine, and specifically humanity’s role in creating the divine. I see this echoed in Mr. Shivers, one of your earlier novels about the immortal figure of Death. What makes religion so interesting to you? Do you ever read other fantastists who write about religion, like C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie, or others?
RJB: I think religion and myths are our effort to organize and make sense of the world. I grew up reading that exact sort of fiction you describe – Pullman, Lewis, Gaiman, Pratchett – but what’s a bit different in THE DIVINE CITIES is that not only were the gods real, and had total control over reality, but they somewhat acted as the tools of humanity, forced to rearrange reality as their human believers felt they should. They’re instruments of power, in other words, a means by which humans can believe anything is possible and then make that thing possible, which is exceedingly, exceedingly dangerous.
In this regard, they’re very similar to our own systems of power and belief in which we operate every day. When a personage of esteemed importance, relying upon an elaborate system of national or institutional mythology, declares that something is or is not true, there is this instinct to believe them, regardless of whether or not that thing is or is not actually true. With enough support, these important people can reshape our very reality.
MD: There is a lot of discussion about the use of present tense. Did you choose it purposefully, or does it come naturally to you? What benefits do you think it brings your books?
RJB: I don’t think about it too much, really. It just works for these books, imbuing the action with a sense of immediacy and detail that really helps me shape the scenes. You could say that there’s meaning in choosing the present tense in a series obsessed with an inaccessible past – but that’s giving me too much credit.
Maybe in the next books I’ll switch back to past tense. Who knows?
MD and KL: We were struck in both books by the depth of awareness of the impacts of colonialism, and the wounds of war. Your books demonstrate what scientists are confirming, that cultural trauma impacts societies for generations, and not only spiritually but neurologically. Did you intend to take on “cultural post-traumatic stress,” as a theme from the beginning, or did that emerge as you began writing these stories?
RJB: Yes, pretty much. There are scars in reality in THE DIVINE CITIES, and this is similar to the scars in our own cultural psyches, lingering on after war, genocide, and oppression. It’s an interesting aspect to the story, in that so many people want to relive the past in these books, but the only elements of the past that seem to remain are the horrifying parts. We remember the trauma, but the beauty is lost.
KL: Instead of making up wholly non-Earth names for your people and your places, you give us names that evoke familiar civilizations: Sigrud, Bulikov, Ghaladesh, the -stans. What made you choose those specific languages and cultures to pull from, and what were you hoping readers would do with the connections they might make with these places?
RJB: I remember that I picked Eastern European names for the Continent for a couple of reasons: one was that Bulikov was partially inspired by Constantinople, so I wanted it to have a very eastern feeling to it, but I also wanted to add a Cold War sort of intrigue to the books. I had also been reading Dark Star by Alan Furst, which is about a Soviet spy in Germany and Poland in the Second World War, and how Poland was almost medieval at the time and wholly unprepared for this onslaught of totally modern warfare. That was definitely an aspect I wanted to introduce.
For Saypur, I wanted it to feel Southeast Asian because of that region’s extensive and troubled history with colonialism, especially the period of the British Raj. There is an abundance of history with European powers who just moving in and brutally setting up shop all across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, and I found the idea of a sudden inversion of that power relationship to be fascinating.
KL: Your worldbuilding is so immersive, it feels like you must have reams and reams of unpublished material at home where you’ve worked out some of the past of this world. What kind of research did you do for it? And just how low are the chances you’ll put out a world encyclopedia, complete with maps and glossaries, at the end of the series?
RJB: I do somewhat. I have a timeline, and some hand-drawn (or perhaps hand-sketched) maps of the Continent and Bulikov. Mostly I have to write all this down so I don’t screw up the dates later. Almost all of this is just totally made up out of my head.
I’m not sure if I’ll publish it. There’s something thematically appropriate about not publishing the history of a world that has lost so much of its history – isn’t there?
KL: All of your other books have been standalones. Did you have a series in mind when you started writing City of Stairs? If not, at what point did it become a series? And given the pressure from fans and publishing houses that series authors often come under, did you ever fight the idea of continuing the DIVINE CITIES story?
RJB: Nope, I didn’t plan for further books after STAIRS when I wrote it. I didn’t because I knew that the next stages of the story would be messy and difficult, and I didn’t have a firm plan on how that would go. Then I wrote a second book idea for my editor, wholly unrelated to STAIRS, and by this point STAIRS was getting some enthusiastic response, and he basically said, “Look, people are going to want this, and maybe even expect it. Is there any way forward in this world? After all, you’ve already done so much work here.” And I had to think about it for a bit.
Once I started writing BLADES, though, the way ahead became clear, and it almost looks like I planned for this series to go the way it did – with three books starring three different protagonists, all taking part in three different stages of this world’s evolution. I absolutely didn’t, though.
It’s also helped me avoid some of the things I personally dislike about series novels: some of them seem to just arbitrarily stop, like the pages just ran out, and then you have to wait for the next book. It leaves the book feeling shapeless and unstructured, with all the themes and characterizations truncated. I very much wanted each of my books in this series to be complete, satisfying stories. I think it’s worked out somewhat well.
MD and KL: One of the things we loved was that City of Blades did have a different protagonist, and how that changed our view of the earlier characters.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. One question we always ask at FanLit is, “Do you have a favorite beverage?
RJB: Bourbon. Specifically Rebecca Creek if possible, preferably in a glass.
Please comment below! One commentor with a USA or Canadian address will win a copy of City of Blades.
You can read more about Bennett on his blog, and treat yourself by following him on Twitter, @robertjbennett.