Max Gladstone — besides being a bonafide member of Tiara Club — wrote the really crazy-amazing (cramazing) Three Parts Dead (which at present is ohhh, $2.99 for your Kindlemachine right now). He’s also the guy who wrote this bad-ass dissection of Star Wars, suggesting it’s, erm, about a hive-race instead of human beings. You should be reading Max, is what I’m saying. And here’s one shot among many, for here Herr Doktor Gladstone pops in to answer questions about his newest, Two Serpents Rise:
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF. WHO THE HELL ARE YOU?
I write books. TWO SERPENTS RISE, which came out this week, and my first novel THREE PARTS DEAD, are set in the fantasy world of late-millennial capitalism: gods with shareholder’s meetings and necromancers in pinstriped suits. When I’m not writing, I fence, read, cook, play board games (tabletop RPGs when I can corral enough friends into the same enclosed space), and develop my immunity to iocane powder.
GIVE US THE 140-CHARACTER STORY PITCH FOR TWO SERPENTS RISE.
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Fantasyland.”
A risk manager for a lich king-turned-water baron must stop fallen gods’ followers from poisoning the water of his desert city. With demons.
Congratulations! You’ve killed the tyrannical storm god! Only… who will make it rain now?
WHERE DOES THIS STORY COME FROM?
Back in college I worked summers cleaning houses after the renters moved out—scouring all memory of a person from their place with toxic chemicals. We had a white Jeep and rigged up Hulk Hands on the ladder rack up top so whenever we went over a speed bump the hands would say “HULK SMASH!” One day, Hey Jealousy came on the radio, this Gin Blossoms song about a guy falling apart at his ex’s door, and something about that song clicked in with other ideas I was spinning about fantasy worlds and the downfall of old orders and the rise of new. I had this vision of a guy in his 20s who once would have been a knight or king or Jedi or something like that, but the world’s turned and left him unsure about who he is. Kind of metaphysically stuck outside his ex’s door. And then I piled a whole bunch of soil over that idea and left it to germinate.
The next autumn I met the woman who would become my wife. She’s from Los Angeles, and on my first trip out there to visit her folks I was struck by how different that city looked and felt from anywhere I’d seen before in America. Broad, relatively flat—and thirsty. I grew up in Ohio near Lake Eerie and in middle Tennessee. Droughts were rare. Yet my wife’s always mindful of dripping faucets and running taps and yellowing grass. The more time I spent in L.A. the more its water, and its problems, interested me. The closest city I know of in terms of size and topology and water trouble is Beijing—also big, flat, and thirsty.
When I sat down to write the second book in the Craft Sequence, I wanted to paint a city very different from the vaguely Northeastern metropolis of Alt Coulumb that was the focus of my first book, THREE PARTS DEAD. So I thought of the sort of LA / Beijing metaconstruct. And since the Craft Sequence is about a world stabilizing in the aftermath of global revolution—a world where people overthrew the gods and kicked them out—my Hey Jealousy kid was a good fit for the main character.
So it all goes back to toxic chemical exposure really. Thanks, summer job!
HOW IS THIS A STORY ONLY YOU COULD’VE WRITTEN?
It draws off a weird and eclectic set of influences—ecological and political ideas coming off of my time in China, social network and evolutionary biology from scientist friends, comparative myth, activism, a bunch of book research and chats with people all along the socioeconomic and political spectrum, plus too much time getting smashed in Beijing. The odds of anyone, even me, having exactly that set of experiences are pretty small. You could say that about a ton of books, though!
At the same time, I think most readers will see where I’m coming from in this story: the world’s big and complicated, there are no easy answers, no clear bad guys, and we’re all left trying to figure out how to live, and love, and support one another. Also, demon infestations are bad news.
WHAT WAS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT WRITING TWO SERPENTS RISE?
Probably the part where I was working a day job and planning my wedding at the same time. Max, meet fifteen minutes of writing time each day. I wrote the whole thing on an Alphasmart Neo during my commute, and between the hours of eleven and midnight.
At the end of the first draft I had a 160,000 manuscript written in barely-coherent fifteen minute chunks. Which then I had to edit.
WHAT DID YOU LEARN WRITING TWO SERPENTS RISE?
Before TWO SERPENTS RISE, I edited my books sentence-by-sentence. THREE PARTS DEAD needed very little structural work—just a lot of language polishing. The disconnected way I wrote 2SR left me with a lot more structural work before I felt comfortable showing it to anyone. I added about 20,000 words to the original manuscript—and ended up right around 100,000 words total, which means I cut about half of the original wordcount.
So, yes. I learned to edit sentence-by-sentence while writing THREE PARTS DEAD. TWO SERPENTS RISE forced me to get good and comfy with highlighting ten chapters a time and hitting the ol’ delete key. Then, when I started to write the next book, I decided to try an outline. Messed that up, too, but I keep learning!
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT TWO SERPENTS RISE?
I love the city. Dresediel Lex is sprawling low houses and adobe and neon and a skyline broken by giant pyramids left over from the God Wars—temples turned to offices and shopping malls. Faceless police patrol the city from overhead on feathered serpents. Poker players mingle their souls along with their chips. Also, it’s a sports town.
I’m really excited about the characters in this book, too. I loved writing all of them.
I love the sly Giambattista Vico reference I slid in there.
And then the ending, where [REDACTED]. That part’s so cool.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY NEXT TIME?
In my first draft, I tried for a nice, atmospheric start. I wanted more room for the city and characters to breathe than the plot of THREE PARTS DEAD left me.
That’s fine—character development and worldbuilding are both important. But writing TWO SERPENTS RISE taught me that these things work best after I give readers a reason to care.
And then I had to learn a whole bunch of other stuff for the third book, but we’ll talk about that next summer!
GIVE US YOUR FAVORITE PARAGRAPH FROM THE STORY.
I have somewhere on the order of a thousand children, and you’ve just asked me to choose between them. Curse you, Wendig! Here’s a nice bit:
Three distinct, sharp taps trespassed upon the hush, then three more, then the thud of a bronze-shod staff on stone. The noises repeated. A heavy robe swept over the stone floor.
Caleb held his breath.
The King in Red moved among the cubicles, wreathed in power. The taps were his triple footsteps: the bones of his heel, the ball of his foot, the twiglike toes striking in sequence. “As you were,” he said. No one stirred. Sixty years ago, the King in Red had shattered the sky over Dresediel Lex, and impaled gods on thorns of starlight. The last of his flesh had melted away decades past, leaving smooth bone and a constant grin.
He was a good boss. But who could forget what he had been, and what remained?
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU AS A STORYTELLER?
In the short term, I have an awesome interactive fiction project set in the world of the Craft Sequence. That should debut in December of this year. The fourth Craft Sequence book needs revision, and I have a comics project and another novel (unconnected with the Craft Sequence, though I will return!) on the burner. And the third Craft Sequence book, FULL FATHOM FIVE, comes out in July 2014—watch for it.