He’s the co-creator of the Malazan world, in which Steven Erikson also writes, yet it’s taken a while for Ian Cameron Esslemont to get into print himself. Now, with Night of Knives being published by Bantam, Ian talks about the book and his work.
SFX: Tell us a little about yourself and Steven co-creating the Malazan world.
Ian Cameron Esslemont: “Steve and I co-created the world a piece at a time as a backdrop for our narrative dialogues in the fantasy genre. They were games, yes, but only in the broadest sense as we had long left behind any formal structures of rules: the emphasis was on theme and mythic depth as played out by characters, some ancient and some just setting out.
“For each continent or sub-continent we took turns fleshing out the setting for the other to come to. Each of us was perhaps trying to outdo the other in invention and in the realisation, or reification [treating something abstract as real], of the themes; and the ‘feel’ or grittiness of a depth of grim realism we felt lacking from the genre – an oxymoron, I suppose, realism in fantasy.
SFX: Can you tell us a little about the book?
ICE: “Night of Knives tells the story of an important night for the history of the Malazan Empire and for the world in general. It is the night of the Ascension of potential new gods – gods of Shadow – but also a night in which small personal choices of all too human characters change the direction of their lives, and ripple out to shape much more.
“It is short but dense, answering a great many questions about the world that readers of Steve’s novels often ask: how Surly/Laseen came to the throne, the fall of Dassem ‘Sword of the Empire’. Yet, the novel was first completed very long ago, perhaps the second Malazan project finished after our co-authored Gardens of the Moon screenplay (if I remember correctly). I think that even back then Steve and I understood that this particular night was worth documenting. The manuscript sat with me for a long time until Steve’s encouragement brought it out to be circulated for consideration.”
SFX: Was there ever any frustration that Steven was published so far ahead of you? Do the two of you stay in touch?
ICE: “Any frustration? As touched on above, gods no! Quite the opposite in fact. Steve’s success has allowed the possibility of the full revealing of our fantasy creation. It’s not a certain thing as well, I must add. What we have done remains very unusual in collaborating creatively in the same world and publishing separately; I can’t think of another instance. Certainly, co-authorship is common enough, but that is usually on one particular novel or series of novels. Some shared-world series do come to mind, but again, often in these cases authors are invited in to add titles rather than having been there from the ground up on everything.
“Do Steve and I keep in touch? Absolutely. The process continues in exchanges on continuity, or on the fate of this or that character, or on how what has been done in one place affects things elsewhere.”
SFX: What did you do before becoming a novelist?
ICE: “Well, after my wife and I returned from living in south-east Asia for four years, we entered graduate school to work on doctorates in literature. We both ended up being Victorianists. She has since finished her PhD. I was in the throes of writing my dissertation when Bantam offered the book deal. For me the choice wasn’t so hard in that creative writing has always been closest to my heart. I’ll pursue the Malaz novels to their completion (if I’m able) and then, hopefully, continue on with further projects.”
SFX: Can you tell us about the sequel to the book?
ICE: “Firstly, it’s not a sequel in any sense of the word. It’s the second in my sequence of five (possibly six) Malazan novels. I’ve just handed a first run-through to Bantam. Its working title is Return of the Crimson Guard, and while it deals with the obvious return of this mercenary company dedicated to the destruction of the Malazan Empire, it also documents much more (of course). The original manuscript for this second novel, like Knives, was actually completed long ago and spends time with characters such as Greymane, Traveller, Blues, and Skinner. I am pleased that many fans of the world have expressed interest in these characters, ones Steve and I marked out long ago for development.
“Briefly, I can say that the mercenary company the Crimson Guard returns the home of the Empire, Quon Tali, where they find the continent torn by a civil war precipitated both by Empress Laseen’s policies and cruel political calculation. Here, the opportunity arises to play kingmakers – but to whom?”
SFX: Tell us a bit about living in Alaska.
ICE: “Well, firstly, I’m from Winnipeg so the weather isn’t all that much of a problem. Sure, 40 degrees below is cold, but I used to walk to school in a corduroy jacket all winter! (man, I can’t believe I used to be that stupid). My wife and I first met here in Fairbanks. Back then we lived the cabin life of no piped water or indoor plumbing. Running to the outhouse all winter long imposes a certain kind of discipline, I tell you. Now, though, with kids, we’ve sold out and have indoor plumbing and a furnace to heat the house. And, other than the dog-teams running through the woods nearby and moose ambling down the streets, it’s like any other North American urban experience. I think there’s a beauty to the cobalt moonlight on snow. I have to say it reminds me of my youth in Winnipeg. Except here, on a good day, we can see the mountains of the Alaska Range and Denali itself (Mt. McKinley).”
Interview by Jonathan Wright. Another version of this interview appears in SFX 157, on sale from Wednesday 9 May.