Author interview: Stephen Donaldson

Stephen Donaldson ’s Thomas Covenant book Fatal Revenant forms part of a fantasy series that began with the publication of Lord Foul’s Bane back in 1977. We were fortunate enough to meet the author, and we chatted about all his books. Some of what we discussed will appear in a future magazine article about the author’s inspirations and working life, but here is a brief Q&A about his writing...

SFX : You have planned four books in the Last Chronicles whereas the others have all been trilogies. Why is that?

Stephen Donaldson:"Aside from The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I have never deliberately written a trilogy. The Second Chronicles became a trilogy because my editor made it that way. If you look at the books, you will see that the stories are actually structured in eight parts which they published three, three and two - but which I had intended to be published two, two, two, and two! I thought it was going to be a tetralogy. I am writing a tetralogy now."

"You can see The Gap Books - although there are five volumes, the first one was very short! - as a tetralogy. The Mordant's Need books - two very fat books but if you look how they are structured, each one is divided right down the middle with a cliff-hanger. It's a four-movement structure. I have absolutely no idea why my imagination wants four movements but it does. Nobody would be asking me these questions except that Lester Del Ray believed that fantasy readers would not buy a tetralogy. 'They will only buy trilogies so you have to publish a trilogy.' Lester wasn't asking me to change any of the words or anything, so I didn't feel like I had any recourse. But he made it a trilogy, and it was not designed to be a trilogy."

SFX: What do you think the passage of time has done to your own writing?

Stephen Donaldson:"Well, I am not young as I once was. When I re-read the first Thomas Covenant books there is a clarity and exuberance in the narrative prose that enjoy reading, but I can't really emulate it anymore. I have worked hard to be consistent in tone in the new books but the sheer relish of the language has been reduced by time and experience."

"On the other hand, I have learned a lot over the course of the years, in particular from my Gap books, about narrative timing. So I feel that I do have some sophistication to compensate for the somewhat less exuberant enthusiasm of the new stories - certainly I feel I am better today at storytelling. When I go back and re-read the first six books, the weakness that always strike me is one of story structure. It's different in each of the two trilogies but I keep thinking there has got to be a better way to do that than the way I did it! I feel now that I do know what those better ways are, and so I feel that from a design point of view I am operating on a higher level than I did in the previous books."

SFX: Looking at the Land and the world of the Thomas Covenant books, do you see yourself as an environmentalist?

Stephen Donaldson:"Certainly as an individual. But I did not intend my work as polemics. I believe that as a story teller, it's my job to serve the story. It's not the story’s job to serve me. My personal views are very liberal and very environmental, but I really do not want my personal views to colour what I write. They had an influence, of course, because the work is coming out of who I am! But I trick myself that this is unconscious."

"So I am very aware of the kind of environment and religion which originally exists in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and that it's corrupted by the actions of the 'dark side of the Force.' During the later course of the story I’m certainly more sensitive to that: but it's not there because I want to preach. It's there because it fits the story."

SFX: So things like the Sunbane; they're not climate change metaphors or anything like that?

Stephen Donaldson:"No. I started out with the dilemma of suffering from leprosy. It's a dilemma with profound psychological or spiritual aspects, but it's a physical illness. When I created the fantasy world I was simply looking for the 'opposite' of leprosy. So I wanted a world where all of the things that are denied lepers are enhanced in a physical way. So I was not trying to create this beautiful world which is going to make people care about global warming, I just want a world that would be a foil for Thomas Covenant in his moral dilemma, and which would place as much stress as possible on the belief system that he uses to survive through the illness. I wanted a reality that violates his rules, so he’d struggle."

"After that, it’s all a logical extension – how else are you going to try to damage the world? Well you can try to corrode the vast order which is what gave this place its beauty in the first place. Years later, people say to me, 'That is about garbage dumping! That is about global warming!' But, like Tolkien, I say that they might see such things but that’s not what I was writing..."

SFX: Thomas Covenant wields the white gold ring, of course. What made you settle on white gold? Do you wear a white gold wedding ring?

Stephen Donaldson:"I liked white gold at first because I was told it's an alloy, and because the idea of gold is precious, but I did not actually like the colour! So the idea of a gold that would look like silver was totally visceral. In my first marriage, we chose white gold rings. When I started writing that book, I felt the need to anchor myself in the familiar, so the white gold wedding ring played a part there. For instance, in the first Chronicles, what matters is that it's a wedding ring, not that it's an alloy. The composition did not become significant until the second Chronicles by which point I had plenty of time to work with it."

"And the place that Thomas Covenant lives is a farm - I was living in a place called Anchorage Farm which was the spitting image of his farm. I wrote the first Chronicles, honest to God, in a little farm house that is identical to the house that Covenant was in. There were the woods, the trees, and the little shack he has in the woods. I knew the town and the street: all of that was literal because I got started with a familiar place. If I was starting today I would not feel the need to do that because I am confident with my abilities. But in those days, it was all new."

SFX: What about the characters in your fantasy stories, like Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery, are they inspired by anyone you know or people from your past?

Stephen Donaldson:"Well, I disavow the actions of my unconscious mind! I am utterly dependent on it but it does what it does without necessarily telling me. Consciously I can't write about true life - I am making it all up. That includes the characters. For me, as soon as I know the person, it becomes too true to write about. I can describe them but I can't recreate them so that they live on paper. I can write you a letter to describe what so-and-so is like, but they wouldn't come to life in the way that a character I think I have invented will. It's also important for me that none of them are me. They are not mouthpieces for me. They are not exemplars or parts of my personality. They are themselves."

"This applies in every area, like if I am making up a landscape or terrain now. I have written a few mystery novels which are putatively 'realistic'. But I had to invent cities! Secretly, they are fantasy novels. They just do not have magic and monsters in them. If I can't tell where the buildings are or where the streets go, if I can't choose the terrain, I don't know how to write."

SFX: Without giving too much of it away, what do you think that our readers should know about your new book? Why should they look forward to reading it?

Stephen Donaldson:"Well, there is a pattern that was also true of my Gap books as well - my intentions for the story are very complex, and I believe that if the story does not have a really solid foundation it can't support the weight of the structure of the book. The effect of this from a narrative point of view is that I have to build the foundation. So book one of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant was the foundation. I have had many readers say, 'We are very glad to be back in this world but we don't understand what the story is for!' Well, what they can look forward to in the next book is that the actual building is going to start to take shape. Or using a completely different analogy - I have been building a launch pad, and the rocket is about to take off!"

"You will start to see very clearly what the first book was for, now we're in the second book - I had to deploy all of these resources in order to make it possible, and now we can go. For The Gap Books, I was halfway through the third book before I finished laying out the foundation! There was the prologue, and Forbidden Knowledge… and people were still wondering, 'What is the story for?' But in the third book, suddenly the light went on and people start to see. That is the way it's here, I hope the light will go on in the second book of the Last Chronicles."

Thanks Stephen! You can visit his official site here . Remember folks, you can read more book reviews and author interviews every month in SFX, and look out for article about Stephen Donaldson in a forthcoming issue of the magazine.