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A Conversation With Sean Russell
An interview with Rodger Turner
March 2001


Photo © Don Deese
Sean Russell
Sean Russell
Sean Russell is a fantasy writer living on Vancouver Island. His previous novels are The Initiate Brother (DAW 1991) and its sequel, Gatherer of Clouds (DAW 1992), and the two books of Moontide and Magic Rise -- World Without End (DAW 1995) and Sea Without a Shore (DAW 1996).

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The One Kingdom
SF Site Review: The Compass of the Soul
SF Site Review: Beneath the Vaulted Hills
SF Site Review: World Without End

The One Kingdom
The One Kingdom
Beneath the Vaulted Hills
The Compass of the Soul
World Without End
Sea Without a Shore
The Initiate Brother
Gatherer of Clouds

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Your readers know you best for writing duologies. Some think they aren't much more than one fat book sliced in two by a publisher. Now with The One Kingdom, you've written the first volume of a trilogy, a more traditional format. What was there about this story that made you decide to do a trilogy?
It's true, to some degree, that my earlier books are really single stories divided into two books, though as single volumes they would have been over 1000 pages which is exceeding the practical limit for the glued bindings of paperbacks.

The occasional reader complains about multi-volume series but they don't seem to realize that an author gets paid per book -- the size of that book is not taken into account. Which is to say that I can make as much money writing a 100,000 word book as I can writing a 250,000 word book, yet the 250,000 word book takes at least two and half times as long to complete. When publishers split a book into multi-volumes the writer has the potential to make a little more money. It's really fair to the writer, who probably isn't making a lot of money anyway.

The project I'm working on now, The Swans' War, just seemed in conception to be longer than my previous works, thus the dreaded trilogy. I've made a lot of effort to give each book a complete story arc so that there is satisfaction to be had in reading each volume.

A large amount of recent high fantasy is steeped in gore yet most of yours happens off-screen. Was it a conscious decision to do this?
No, I don't think it was conscious. I just happen not to like graphic violence unless it's absolutely justified. I don't read fantasy to get drenched in blood -- I can get that from the movies -- I read fantasy for different reasons.

There is little magic in your previous books; I guess they would fall more under the banner of "near-history" that most other fantasy novels. More magic is evident in the The One Kingdom but it still plays only a secondary role. When starting a book, do you decide on what relevance such devices as magic will play or do they surface by chance?
I do think about magic and its place in the books. I don't really like what I think of as the D&D approach to magic -- almost everyone can perform magic all the time. Magic becomes just another special effect. It loses its impact; for me, anyway.

I'm really a great admirer of Tolkien, and one of the things about the Lord of the Rings is that there is very little overt magic in it. Sit down and make a list of all the times magic is used in Lord of the Rings and you'll see that Tolkien employed it very sparingly. The practitioners of magic were not all-powerful and they used their abilities only in certain situations. I liked that approach. Yet Middle Earth seems charged with magic all the same. Magic should be kept mysterious -- that's what I think. Let the world you create be infused with magic and wonder. That's one of the challenges of the genre.

One of the most fascinating elements in The One Kingdom is the river. The tributaries that open only to some but not others and may not be of the story's world is setting device I don't recall another author using. Where did it come from?
It's a variation on what my friend Sean Stewart calls "secret geography." The Tales of Narnia are an example -- you pass through a gate (or wardrobe in the case of the Narnia books) and you're in another land. There are any number of such books. I used this device before in the Farrland books (World Without End, Sea Without a Shore, Beneath the Vaulted Hills, Compass of the Soul). Only in that case the stories were set in the other world -- and characters passed through into that world from our own. It was never stated, but that's what was happening -- characters were accidentally passing through into this 18th/19th century world and taking science with them, but it was not told from their point of view. The story unfolded from the point of view of the characters born into that other world. A secret geography story from the other side, so to speak.

The idea for the river with its hidden but more or less parallel branches was really a throw-away idea in the first draft. One of the characters says that people have gone down the river, assuming they'd take three days to go from point A to point B but take two weeks and see sections of river they've never seen before. It was a way to make the river seem mysterious and a bit threatening. By the time I got to the end of the first draft I realized that this had to happen to my characters. I sent the first draft to my editor to read and she said the same thing. I rewrote the river sections of the book seven times to get them right, so I'm glad you think they worked.

We've spoken often of the role of agents. Yours is one of the best. Do you think it important for a writer to have an agent?
I think it is. For one thing, I believe writers should concentrate on writing, not on selling books and reading contracts. It's a lot of work when you add in foreign sales, etc. I can't imagine any writer is as good at all this as a really good agent can be. The best agents keep their finger on the pulse of the industry, and they have negotiating skills that few of us will ever master. One of the other benefits of having an agent is that my relationship with my editor is completely editorial -- we never talk about money or contracts. We never have any of the bad feelings between us that can sometimes be left over after a particularly tough negotiation.

At what point in their writing career do you think a writer should hire one?
As soon as possible, would be my answer, though it's tough to get a good agent, if you haven't published. If a writer has an offer on their first novel, they can always call up a good agency and ask them if they'd negotiate the price and the contract -- after all, much of the hard work of selling a first novel has been done. The agency will usually say yes, and then might take you on as a client.

When an author switches publishers like you've done recently, their books are often orphaned by the other publisher. I suppose it is to encourage loyalty in authors. What's going to happen with your other books?
DAW has just re-released my backlist to coincide with the publication of The One Kingdom. DAW has always done a great job on their backlist, and I'm still on good terms with them.

A unique way of writing I read about recently is an author who writes a quick draft on computer, a slower one on writing pads and then a third in journals with a fountain pen. Could you tell us about how you go about the process of writing?
If I had to go back to writing by hand I think I'd take up a new profession! In my case, every book is a little different. A couple of books I've written in one draft and a polish. Other books, like The One Kingdom, were torn apart and stitched back together and rewritten and rewritten and then torn apart again, etc. It often depends on how valid your original concept was. I often find better material than my original ideas as I'm working and this means throwing a lot of sections out and replacing them. How you write a book isn't important -- it's the finished product that counts.

If you do it well, the reader will never be able to see where you've cut ten chapters out and sewn the narrative back together with a whole new plot line. You do whatever you need to do to make it the best book you can. That's the only thing that matters. When you're done the book should be the best you could write at that time.

Writing is one of the more reclusive avocations. Some writers are more interesting through their work than in person. They may be shy or socially inept or they may struggle in dealing with those in society they find less interesting than them self. You are not but I suspect you know some who are. What is it about writing that attracts such folks?
Hey, what are you saying about writers? Actually, most of the writers I know personally are pretty sophisticated people and don't really fit into that stereotype. There are writers who fit your description, I'm sure. One thing about publishing is you're valued for what you can do. It isn't like corporate culture where you have to fit into the company and work with other people on a daily basis. Wearing the right suit and tie just isn't critical to your success as an author -- the reviewers will savage you anyway. Authors sit in rooms by themselves and don't have to interact with anyone until they send the book off to their editors. A writer can get away with being a little reclusive or eccentric. There's some license for this. The wonder is probably that most of us are pretty normal.

In science fiction and fantasy, many writers follow a journeyman's path of learning their craft by writing short fiction, getting published in the magazines then the more prestigious digests, finally submitting a novel to one of the major publishing houses. When you began, did you consider this route?
I've never actually written a short story. Well, maybe I wrote one in high school but not since. It always seemed to me that many writers who started out writing short fiction had trouble making the leap to the novel. Their first books were often very episodic, as though they were just a series of short stories cobbled together. I went right into writing full length books. Having said that, I've agreed to write a short story for the next World Fantasy Convention collection. I didn't tell them I'd never done it before. There might be some advantages to learning your craft on short fiction -- after all you're working with smaller more manageable units -- but it's a different discipline in many ways. When you finish writing short fiction you still have to learn to write a novel. It's not a natural step for many.

I've read a lot of books over the years. But if I were a writer and could pick a title by somebody else but it would be credited to me, I think it would be Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein. Is there a novel like this for you?
I wish I'd written Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, my favourite books as a child. Anna Karanina and Lord of the Rings for obvious reasons.

Which contemporary writers do you admire?
Well, I think there are some very fine writers working in our genre. I always find it disheartening how little serious attention is given to fantasy. The New York Times or The Globe and Mail will review crime fiction -- most of which is abominably written -- yet they allot almost no space to our genre. But look at the people working in fantasy: Ursula K. Le Guin, Pat McKillip, Robert Holdstock, Stephen R. Donaldson, Jeffrey Ford, Patrick O'Leary, Sean Stewart. That's only the beginning of the list. Some of these people write as well as anyone in the mainstream.

Outside the genre: I really liked Pat Barker's three World War I books which started with Regeneration. I liked many things about The English Patient. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon was great. There's a writer with an imagination! Sean Stewart's Galveston is brilliant. Gardens of the Moon (Steven Erickson) is impressive. Kate Elliott is underrated, I think.

Copyright © 2001 Rodger Turner

Rodger has read a lot of science fiction and fantasy in forty years. He can only shake his head and say, "So many books, so little time."


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