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The Instrumentalities of the Night: An Interview with Glen Cook
conducted by Jeff VanderMeer

© Greg Parmentier
Glen Cook
Glen Cook
Glen Cook was born in New York in 1944. He grew up in northern California and served in the U.S. Navy, spending time with the Force Recon unit of the 3rd Marine Recon Battalion. He attended the University of Missouri and the Clarion Writers' Workshop. His only job has been with General Motors. Recently, he retired and is devoting more time to his writing.

ISFDB Bibliography

The Tyranny of the Night
Passage at Arms
The Heirs of Babylon
The Black Company
Shadows Linger
The White Rose
The Silver Spike
Shadow Games
Dreams of Steel
Whispering Nickel Idols
Petty Pewter Gods
A Shadow of Night Falling
October's Baby
Glen Cook has carved out a place for himself among the preeminent fantasy writers of the last twenty-five years with classics such as the Dread Empire trilogy and The Black Company novels. His work is unrelentingly real, complex, and honest. The sense of place that permeates his narrative and his characters gives his "fantasies" more gravitas and grit than most novels that feature contemporary settings.

Cook's new series, The Instrumentalities of the Night, is a sprawling and fascinating mélange of political, religious, and magical intrigue. It promises to be at least as important as his previous work, and shows that Cook is not interested in coasting on his previous successes.

If Cook is sometimes overlooked on the role call of great fantasists, it may be because the genre is currently overshadowed by the over-emphasis on cross-genre work and new "movements" like New Weird. But Cook has always created cross-genre fiction, on his own terms. The Black Company novels, for example, combine the intensity of Viet Nam-era war fiction with the classic quest of heroic fantasy, while his Garrett detective series combines magic and noir mystery to excellent comic effect.

Of The Black Company novels, Steven Erickson wrote, "The thing about Glen Cook is that he single-handedly changed the field of fantasy -- something a lot of people didn't notice and maybe still don't. He brought the story down to a human level, dispensing with the clichés and archetypes of princes, kings, and evil sorcerers. Reading his stuff was like reading Viet Nam war fiction on peyote."

For my own part, the Dread Empire trilogy was an important influence in both the complexity of its history and the grim reality of the situations. It taught me a lot about how to inject reality into the fantastical. Ever since, I have found Cook's novels not only entertaining and exciting, but often moving and complex.

In addition to his better-known works, readers should seek out novels like Passage at Arms, one of the best evocations of life in close quarters onboard a spaceship that I can recall reading -- the Das Boot of SF.

Cook in interview is as blunt, direct, and honest as his books. I interviewed him via email in mid-September 2005.

What is your writing process?
I write whenever I feel like it. When it's coming slowly I do first draft with a pen and paper. Only after ten years of using a computer am I beginning to be able to do first draft there.

Do you have a favorite among your own stand-alone books or series?

A Matter of Time and The Tower of Fear, maybe. [But] I love them all. Though I get to hating them when I'm writing them.

You seem to eschew maps for your books. Why?

Maps set boundaries. And people complain about how bad they are.

You have successfully written fantasy, SF, and a mixture of genres. Do you find any one genre harder to write in than another?

SF, now, because I just don't have any grasp on modern physics.

Has any particular novel been more difficult for you to write than others?

Whatever I happen to be working on at the moment is the hardest goddamn thing I've ever wrestled with. I grow to hate it. I know it sucks. And, usually, when I read it after I've had a chance to forget it, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Your books have often been described as "gritty and realistic." How do you achieve that?

You just write stuff the way it is instead wishful thinking.

Your depictions of the soldier's life seem very realistic; have you ever been in the military? Have you seen combat?

I was in the navy. I spent part of that time attached to a Marine Force Recon outfit. Only practice combat. I left active duty a month before the guys headed out for Viet Nam.

Your new series, Instrumentalities of the Night, is extremely complex. Reading the first fifty pages of the first installment, The Tyranny of the Night, I was hard-pressed to keep track of all of the characters, the politics, religion, and other aspects that you throw at the reader. I admire the impulse to just toss the reader into the fray, so to speak, and think it works. But I wonder how you kept track of it all. There's no way you juggled all that in your head, is there? What did you do to keep it all straight?

I do keep most of it in my head. I do, however, have a sort of bible in which characters, geography, things, and so forth are recorded. As much so I can go see how their names are supposed to be spelled as anything. And I don't think Tyranny is all that complicated. Certainly no more than a real life.

Else, who might be termed the protagonist of The Tyranny of the Night, is another of your flawed heroes. When you create characters like this, how much do they remind you of people in real life? And do you ever fashion characters after people you know?

The only characters I've made to resemble real people have been grotesques. Guys like Barking Dog Amato in one of the Garrett books. I try to make all my characters like real live people, though.

The Dread Empire trilogy is one of my favorites. I read it at a time when the only models for heroic fantasy seemed to be The Lord of the Rings, Moorcock's Elric series, and, to a lesser extent, the Narnia books. Your books had a level of realism that those books seemed to lack. How much research on politics and other topics did you do for those books? Was there any particular real-world histories that influenced the setting?

No research. Other than just a lifetime of reading and observation. Real-world histories did sort of provide a framework on which minor historical stuff hinged. One of the battles in Kavelin started out to be Poitiers but the guys in the French hats didn't cooperate. There's a battle in the book that would have followed An Ill Fate Marshalling (manuscript and almost all associated papers stolen about 15 years ago) that resembled Hastings. Usually I draw more setting from the real world. Castles and towns and whatnot.

I heard a rumor that The Dread Empire trilogy might be reissued by Night Shade Books. Is this true?

Their plan is to do four books including all The Dread Empire novels in three omnibuses, plus a collection of all the published short fiction set in the same world. The Book Club wants to pick them up. If ever my agent gets his act together and finishes getting the rights back. The third omnibus would have included The Wrath of Kings, sequel to An Ill Fate Marshalling, but someone stole the manuscript box that had the manuscript and all developmental material in it, evidently sometime in the late 80s. I've found only pages 141-143 of the first draft, misfiled with another contemporary manuscript. (At about that time many things disappeared from my house, including dozens of scarce books, my only copy of my porn novel, and the mention manuscript. That was when we stopped letting fans come over and hang out. The culprit has never been identified.)

Did you write any books before The Dread Empire trilogy? What were they about, if so?

Only two that were published. While The Swap Academy isn't something that embarrasses me, it's not germane. The Heirs of Babylon was a post-apocalyptic war novel published by Signet in 1972. It was about a world caught in a downward techno-spiral of ritual wars. When I think about it now, the few things I remember are things that turn up in almost all my stuff.

Passage at Arms (1985) is one of your lesser-known books, but another favorite of mine. Although set in the future on a spaceship, it has the claustrophic intensity of World War II novels set on submarines. What sparked the idea for that novel and are you still fond of the book?

It really is a submarine novel on a spaceship. I don't recall what got it going. I couldn't tell you where most of my stuff came from. There's just a story that wants telling.

When you first wrote about the Black Company, did you envision it as a series of books or just a stand-alone?

A series, but only three books. But there was always more story to tell. There's still more story to tell.

Have you read Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, and, if so, did it influence The Black Company at all?

Yes. I actually lived with Fritz briefly after his wife Jonquil died. Fafhrd & Mouser had little impact on Black Company but plenty on Dread Empire and even more so on a very early attempt at writing, The Sword Called Precious Pearl, which was an unlikely mix of an E.R.R. Eddison setting and plot with Leiberesque characters written in the style of Clark Ashton Smith.

Are you finished with The Black Company do you think, or do you plan on writing more books in that milieu?

Should I live long enough there will be at least two more Black Company novels, A Pitiless Rain and Port of Shadows.

When you set out to be a writer, did you ever think you'd be as popular as you have been? Did you see it as something you could make a living at?

Popular? If I am, it's gotten past me. And make a living? No. Even in my best years of the first thirty it was never more than hobby money. The last maybe five I've made enough to support myself in genteel poverty. Certainly not enough to support a family and put three sons through college.

What has most surprised you about the business of writing?

That it really is a business.

Do you enjoy receiving correspondence from readers? What do readers most seem to like about your books?

Sometimes. But almost always I wonder whose books they've been reading. And what the hell difference it makes if One-Eye had a toenail fungus? Why can't you just enjoy the ride, then go fire up the X-Box?

What are your interests outside of writing?

Books. Collecting and selling. I collect stamps. I've got kids who took up a lot of time when they were younger. I've only got one left at home now and he's over sixteen, so we don't see much of him.

If you weren't a writer, what profession would you choose for yourself?

I'm not a writer by profession. It's something I do when I run out of excuses to waste time. Most of my adult life I worked for GM in various capacities, at various facilities. I'm retired now. At one time I wanted to be a fighter pilot. I was in love with the F-4 Phantom. But I didn't have the Right Stuff.

Do you have any advice for beginning writers?

This is the easiest answer of all. Write. Don't talk about writing. Don't tell me about your wonderful story ideas. Don't give me a bunch of "somedays." Plant your ass and scribble, type, keyboard. If you have any talent at all, it will leak out despite your failure to pay attention in English. And if you didn't pay attention, learn. A carpenter needs to know how to use a hammer, level, saw, and so forth. You need to know how to use the tools of writing. Because, no, the editor won't fix it up. S/he will just chunk your thing in the shit heap and go on to somebody who can put together an English sentence with an appropriate sprinkle of punctuation marks.

You don't have a day job any more. Do you miss it at all? Did it in any way help the novel writing?

Not in the least. Like the song says. "Ain't missing you at all." One thing working there did do, especially early on, was allow me to come in daily contact with the kind of people who actually do the world's work instead of the sort who spend their whole lives inside academe and don't have a clue.

Any movie deals ever come up for any of his work? Are there any he'd like to see "on the big screen"?

Sony once expressed an interest in the Garrett Files books. Nothing ever came of it. And once upon a time friends and I were going to do a Black Company-based video with a local all-girls metal band, Little Sister, but the thing fell through simply because we needed dozens of people to coordinate volunteer time. 

What do you read for pleasure?

Difficult question. everything, really. Whatever the latest book may be by certain favorite authors, history, random dips into odd fiction genres. At the moment I'm working on several books about Elizabeth I, the Albigensian Crusade, a Gunter Grass trilogy, and a book about Edward I's wars in Wales, based on the surviving logistical and pay records. The contrast between fantasy and real medieval war making is stark. Recently finished books included a romance novel about a TV anchor in NY, my own first three Garretts in the Book Club edition, not looked at in 20 years, new Harry Potter, new Diana Wynne Jones, a book about castles, a couple of Philip Pullman children's books and the new Terry Pratchett.

Besides writing, what do you really enjoy doing?

Watching Cardinals baseball, playing with my stamp collection, (believe it or not) shooting bull with people who don't think I'm something special. And, I expect, come Monday, adoring my brand new twin granddaughters as my wife and I drop in on the 1st Armored Div in Germany to see them and my son. Who was promoted Captain the same day the girls were born.

Congratulations! And thanks very much for your time.

Copyright © 2005 Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeer's reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The New York Review of SF, Nova Express, and many others. Prime will release his non-fiction collection Why Should I Cut Your Throat? in April 2003.

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