Robert Jackson Bennett first came to our attention in 2010 with his Depression-era dark fantasy Mr. Shivers. He won the Shirley Jackson Award for that book. He has since published The Company Man (which won an Edgar Award and a special citation from the Philip K. Dick award), The Troupe and American Elsewhere, which garnered him another Shirley Jackson Award. The first book in his breath-taking DIVINE CITIES trilogy, City of Stairs, came out in 2014, followed by City of Blades in 2016 and finishing up with City of Miracles.
Bennett was born in Baton Rouge and currently lives in Texas with his family.
Bill, Kate and Marion peppered Bennett with questions recently, and he spent some time discussing THE DIVINE CITIES, happy endings, and the explosion of change happening in the world.
THREE lucky random commenters, with USA or Canadian mailing addresses will win a copy of City of Miracles. Enjoy the interview.
Marion Deeds: Congratulations, first of all, for City of Miracles, which brings this engaging, original and important trilogy to a brilliant close. As you know, we here at FanLit loved it. So, of course I’m going to ask, “What is your current project?”
Robert Jackson Bennett: I’m not totally sure I can tell you yet, since I’m not sure if PRH has announced it anywhere – but I will say that, much like how the CITIES books were essentially spy novels dressed up like fantasy novels (or perhaps fantasy novels dressed up like spy novels), this next series will be cyberpunk dressed up as late medieval fantasy. If that makes any sense. Early Venice meets Ghost in the Shell, in a way.
MD: “Early Venice meets “Ghost in the Shell?” I’m in.
On Twitter, you have used the term “gerontocracy,” (governance by elders) to describe our current situation, and the idea of elders sacrificing children for short-term gain is definitely part of THE DIVINE CITIES. Please explain this model, and what you see as the dangers, a little more for us.
When I use it on twitter, I use it semi-facetiously. But I think that as technology progresses and the gulf between generations grows ever wider, it’s going to be a real issue. Because my life is very different from my dad’s life – but my son’s life will be unimaginably different from my own.
The human species, in the aggregate sense, is pretty good at change, but individual humans are not. People get a fixed sense of the world in their 20s and 30s that they carry forward into middle and upper age, even as the world changes around them.
The kicker is that as you advance into middle and upper age, your power advances greatly. The people who sit on boards, who run for office, who become CEOs, who become judges – these are the people who have the most influence in shaping the world.
For thousands of years, this has been a problem occasionally, but it hasn’t been a catastrophe. But right now, it’s shaping up to be a catastrophe, because the world is changing faster than ever before. 10 years ago might as well be last century, almost. So we have politicians, business leaders, and major figures who are desperately trying to protect and maintain a world that is, as of now, more or less already gone.
And the ugly truth is that these leaders are going to spend less time in this changing world than their children are. And, increasingly, the efforts of these leaders to maintain a passed world is detrimental to the lives and fortunes of their children, who will spend much, much more time in it – unless the world gets so jacked up that they have much shorter lives as a result of their efforts.
Bill Capossere: At the end of City of Stairs, the first book, the hero, Shara Komayd, is ascendant and plans to make big changes in the world (bigger than she already has). In your essay for Unbound Worlds you said this about Shara: “I knew she would largely fail, and fall from grace, and no one would think much of her for years and years until they slowly realized that, although they hadn’t noticed it at the time, she had actually changed everything.” That said, did you ever consider a “happy” ending for her?
I would say it is largely a satisfactory ending for her. But I don’t think Shara went into this expecting to wind up happy. Shara is smart and a student of history, so I think she was wise enough to know that those who make the most changes to the world are not often rewarded with happiness. In America, we’ve gotten off easy – the Founding Fathers usually just wound up old and bitter rather than dying young and miserable, like Simon Bolivar. Lincoln wound up getting shot. Teddy Roosevelt almost died exploring South America and his son committed suicide. The world is very punitive to legends.
I think she also is wise enough to know that all time is fleeting: just because you got what you wanted now, things can change. Nothing lasts forever. When you get a happy ending, what you are really doing is buying a couple more hours of peace. Eventually, inevitably, that peace will end. But that’s another story.
Kate Lechler: As a broader follow-up to that, characters in your books often achieve some of their goals (if not all) but they face devastating losses along the way, and, as you noted, reaching their goals does not bring happiness. Much fantasy has an element of wish-fulfillment; characters do struggle but they find happiness at the end. Have you ever considered writing a story with a conventional happy ending?
[BC, KL and MD explode into laughter.]
BC: Okay, then.
We noted in our review/discussion of City of Miracles that Sigurd’s storyline was in many ways a questioning/rejection of the standard wounded male hero plot — man loses lover/daughter/son, seeks closure via killing lots of folks in the name of vengeance. Was that trope something you were actively looking to hold up for examination and if so, can you talk about that a bit?
Yeah, I think Sigrud’s story was a bit of an interrogation of a lot of angsty male antiheroes. His conclusion at the end of the story really was that all of his angst and violence was fundamentally worthless. It’s a bit of a compromised resolution of course, since his angst and violence allowed him to save the day frequently in the stories – but I think his revelation is sort of the deeper revelation of the series, in that any power that draws from trauma is as damaging to you as it is to those you seek to injure, if not more so. I think that, at the end of the story, he realizes he would have rather spent a life full of small loves than one full of grand, violent victories.
MD: Early in City of Miracles there is a suspenseful cat-and-mouse scene in a slaughterhouse with Sigrud and a man named Khadse. Halfway through the book we get an over-the-top, almost James-Bond-movie-caliber action sequence on a sky tram. How do you approach writing an action sequence?
That took awhile. The biggest problem with big action sequences is establishing space. Action is fundamentally things bouncing around through a space, and what they bounce into has consequences. You have to work hard to make sure the audience feels positioned and has a sturdy perspective of that space in order for that action to have meaning. A ball falling through an infinite vacuum looks the same as a ball standing still, in other words, if the camera is fixed on it. You have to fill up the vacuum and anchor the audience to what’s going on.
BC: It seems that the last decade or so has seen a lot of fantasy shift away from the old “restoration” type of tale — the status quo (often a monarchy) has been disturbed and our hero’s mission is to set things back to “how it was and ever should/shall be” — to depicting worlds and cultures much more in flux. Depicting for instance the continuous (and often accelerating) impact of new technology, new ways of thinking. What are your thoughts on that theory and how your trilogy fits into that context?
It was definitely something I wanted to explore. That was why I wanted to set it in something beyond the medieval era, because that era, in fantasy fiction, is associated with the eternal. The world of beards and swords and castles exists in perfect stasis for millennia.
I think our current rapid, technological shifts are one reason we’re rejecting that idea of medieval stasis these days. For one thing, we’re aware that things can change, but we’re also starting to realize that these primordial ideas of a past utopia are pretty much bullshit.
That’s an effect of technology too: it’s giving voices to audiences we’ve ignored for years. There’s the Louis CK joke about how a white man could use a time machine and go anywhere and have a great time, but a black man would be reluctant to travel past 1980, and even then he’d have reservations. We’re aware that the 1980s, 50s, and all the other Good Old Days were actually pretty shitty for most people, what with the racial suppression and the legal marital rape and whatnot.
MD: Who do you envision as your ideal reader? Now I’m going to turn that question slightly; who do you think would love your books but haven’t read them yet? And where do you recommend a new reader start with your work?
I suppose my answer is an unpopular one: I don’t really consider my readers when I write. I write things that interest me – I write about complicated problems to find out how I feel about them. My novels are a mental experiment of a sort, in my own mind. Even when I try and write something that I think of as more fun, or more fast paced, or more readable – something more audience-oriented, in other words – at the end of the day, it’s fundamentally going to be what I think would be fun, or fast paced, or readable. I think that if I tried specifically to write to a specific audience, I’d basically be copying someone else, and I tried that before and it just didn’t work for me. You can tell when the writer isn’t having any fun, and it sucks to read.
KL: A recent article in the Daily Beast was titled “If You Want to Write a Book, Write Every Day or Quit Now.” It stirred up a lot of discussion and got some of us thinking of the nature of “advice for writers.” What is your opinion both of the Beast’s edict, and also about writing advice in general?
I didn’t bother to read it. I do think consistent writing is important. I think it’s something you should regularly do. It’s like a muscle – you have to work it frequently to maintain it. The process of articulation is fundamentally the organization of information in a way that can be easily consumed and incites the desired emotional and intellectual reaction of the audience. This is harder than it sounds. Articulation and expression are not easy.
In a way, accounting is essentially articulation: it’s taking the raw stream of figures that an enterprise produces and organizing and arranging it in a fashion so that it expresses a narrative about how that enterprise is performing. It tells a story – and this is not easy. I wouldn’t expect someone who has no engagement with the enterprise and never works with finance to be able to just pop in once a month and be able to do their books, much like how I wouldn’t expect someone who never exercises to just get up off their couch and pound out a marathon.
However, exercise comes in all kinds of ways. We write more than ever these days, in emails and posts and tweets and whatnot. How much thought are you putting into those? Are you tacking complicated issues? Do you ever write an essay just because you’re trying to figure out how you feel about an issue? This is all writing. Once your mental muscle is prepared enough, you can sit down and pound out any number of pages whenever you need.
BC: With the spate of fantasy now appearing on TV and the big-screen, who would you love to see direct this series in a visual medium and why?
I have absolutely no idea. None whatsoever. One thing that I think gets missed a lot is that I do think this series can be funny: the characters do make a lot of jokes, and there are humorous points throughout. If someone can’t figure out funny – which is much harder than drama, I think – I wouldn’t want them near my story.
MD: Tell us about your collaboration with artist Chahn Quach. How did this project come about? And for purely selfish reasons I want to know if some version of this art will be available commercially.
If I recall, she drew some quick sketches of Shara and put it on Twitter, and a friend pointed it out to me. I asked her if she could make some additional art for me, and she agreed, so we worked out a deal. I don’t know if she plans to sell it online, though I can look into it with her. I’m afraid I barely have time to do my work, so selling things online and shipping them feels like a daunting task these days.
RJB: MD: Our final question is one we ask every writer we interview; do you have a favorite beverage you would like to share with our readers?
My cocktail of choice is the sazerac – sweet, savory, and unusual, good on hot or cold occasions. I highly recommend it.
Comment below for your chance to win a copy of City of Miracles! U.S. and Canadian addresses only