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A Conversation with Ricardo Pinto
An interview with Victoria Strauss
February 2003

© Richard Cross
Ricardo Pinto
Ricardo Pinto
Ricardo Pinto was born in Lisbon, Portugal. When he was six, his family moved first to London and then Dundee, Scotland. He received a degree in mathematics at Dundee University, and in 1983 moved to London without a job and bluffed his way into writing computer games for a local firm. Some time later, a friend whose company produced tabletop wargames asked Pinto to design a world. This led to the self-publication of his first book, Kryomek. Further work in gaming, that allowed him to continue writing, finally led to the sale of the three-volume epic The Stone Dance of the Chameleon, the first volume of which, The Chosen, was published in 1999.

Ricardo Pinto Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Standing Dead
SF Site Excerpt: The Standing Dead
SF Site Review: The Standing Dead

The Standing Dead
The Chosen

Art: Jim Burns
The Standing Dead

You've said that you don't read much fantasy. And certainly your books, while epic in scope, don't reflect a lot of the concerns of "typical" epic fantasy. What drew you to work in a fantastic mode?
My books are only classified as fantasy because that's the shelf that my publishers decided would be the most appropriate for them to be on in a bookshop. The idea that "fantasy" should have typical concerns alarms me. All stories are an act of imagination on which it seems to me counter-productive to impose limits...

More precisely then -- what interests, thematic concerns and/or preferences made you want to write in a setting you made up from scratch, as opposed to a "real world" historical setting?
There are so many reasons. On one level, I suppose it comes down to control. I probably will write historical fiction, but such work would be, naturally, constrained by what is known about the period. I wanted to work with perfect freedom. Aspects of the Roman emperors fascinate me, for example, and these (among others), seen through a "fairy tale lens" have become my Masters. In an invented world, one can apply the exaggerated blacks and whites of chiaroscuro not only to the interpretation of a character, a people -- but by means of invention -- one can dramatically sculpt their entire world. By this means, greater clarity, greater power can be achieved. In short, every aspect of the work can become finely tuned to one's themes...

I'm curious about how you went about creating the world of The Stone Dance of the Chameleon (I'm especially fascinated by the drawings and models on your website), and also how much of the world building pre-dated the writing of the book. Could you elaborate?
Initially my work was very heavy on creative research. This was the only way I could think of fighting off the fear of arbitrariness -- which is one aspect of the tyranny of the blank page which plagued me. In the process, I generated enough material that writing became an act of exploration.

At first the Three Lands were merely a setting for me to illustrate. Then, when I gave up designing computer games, I carried that discipline's world-building paradigm into my writing. The world and the books evolved slowly together. As I have become more experienced, I have become, thankfully, lighter on my feet...

You produced the first version of The Stone Dance in the early 80s, and it went through several incarnations along the road to publication. Could you describe that journey?
One summer while I was doing my degree, I typed up a 600-page manuscript which contained a first, vague impression of The Stone Dance. It was complete rubbish. Computer games kept me busy for 10 years. Then I spent two years unemployed teaching myself to write -- producing a first draft of the second and half of the third volumes. Very little of this work survives in the published books. By the time that reading what I had written no longer sickened me, I was lucky to find an excellent, budding agent called Victoria Hobbs. She liked what I had to show her and together we worked this up into a 100 page submission which she was able to sell to Transworld on its first outing. It still took me a couple of years from there to finish The Chosen...

Were you aware at the time of how unusual it is for a new writer to sell a series on the basis of a partial? And did you find that having sold the book mostly unwritten put extra pressure on you as an author?
This is the first time that I have even considered this. [grins..] I seem to have been very fortunate with my publishers -- all of whom have been extremely patient with me as I have drifted far over contractual deadlines. Clearly there is pressure, but the worst is that which I inflict upon myself -- though my primary concerns are always with the contents and the quality of the books themselves...

What's the process you go through to actually write a book -- do you outline? Synopsize? Do character sketches? How much revision do you do?
Each of my three books has been written using a progressively revised technique. Currently, I have spent more than a year working on an outline -- I have not written a single word of the final book. This outline consists of a central document which I call "tapestry" into which I weave the "threads" for each character and theme. As for revisions, if the previous two books are anything to go by, I can do as many as six complete run-throughs... This is not neurotic perfectionism. My readers will, eventually, become aware of just how complex, how finely crafted the books have had to be...

Looking back on the first book from the vantage point of the third, is there anything you'd change or do differently?
Please don't start me on this... The answer is yes and a short reason for this would be that the first book was driven by the setting; the third by its characters. This indicates the transition that I have had to make from designing computer games to writing novels...

You've created a setting that's not only rich and fascinating, but genuinely alien -- it's clear that you've drawn inspiration from numerous cultures but the total picture is unlike anything in real-world history. Did you consciously set out to accomplish this, or was it something that emerged as part of the creation process?
We have all lived through a period of transition from a Eurocentric, chauvinist view of the world to a more equitable one. I am a product of my time, and have found enduring fascination in other cultures and other times. Limiting my vision to Medieval Europe was never a possibility for me.

Though, like everyone else, I borrow much from what is or has been, my borrowings have been ground down in my mind into such small pieces that they are unrecognizable in the mosaic of my books.

Especially in The Standing Dead, the details of flora and fauna suggest a prehistoric world; for me at least this suggests that the action is taking place on this earth, in a distant period of our own prehistory. Was this your intent, and if so, why?
[grins] What you have noticed is a large survival from my 80s idea. Then I had the conceit that the Three Lands were Late Cretaceous Antarctica -- that my world could be there, hidden beneath the ice. Like many people, I have an abiding fascination with dinosaurs. There are many other consequences that flow from this original premise. For example, the 396 day year (396.145, to be more precise) and a day of 23.63 hours -- which came as a result of calculations I made of the Earth's faster spin and wider orbit in the Cretaceous.

There's a lot of wonder and strangeness in your books -- but no magic. I'm curious as to why you made this choice. Did you deliberately exclude magic, or was it just that your world didn't need it?
Though fascinated by the idea of magic, my world excludes it because ours does -- and this is another consequence of having that early notion of setting it in Earth's remote past...

Themes of domination and oppression are prominent in the books -- the brutal oppression of subject peoples by an arrogant elite, but also the way that the dominated will themselves try to dominate, if they're given the chance. What real-life concerns of yours does this reflect?
I believe that, sadly, this reflects reality. To be contentious: have the people that were the chief victims of the Holocaust not then gone on to become oppressors in their own right? My concern is with exploitation. Particularly, the exploitation that we in the West have visited upon the rest of the world -- which continues to this day. My Masters in their paradise within its Sacred Wall are not that unlike the West that similarly profits from those outside its enclaves of prosperity, while at the same time choosing not see the poverty they help to support...

Is this an intentional parallel, then -- do you mean to make a political statement in the books?
Initially, this parallel -- along with many others that The Stone Dance contains that relate to our common past, the present and a possible future -- welled up from my subconscious. Later these aspects became a core and conscious part of what the books are about. So yes, The Stone Dance expresses my most deeply held political beliefs...

Two of the three races in your books (the Chosen and the Maruli) incorporate extraordinary cruelty into their cultures. What drew you to create such brutal societies?
Are the cruelties in my books really so extraordinary? During the time I have been writing Rwanda happened. Just because the cruelty in our world rarely happens on our side of the TV screen does not mean that it is not real...

Yes, but such atrocities, while perhaps not extraordinary in terms of overall human history, are extraordinary cultural events -- obviously they rise from hatreds, prejudices and tensions in the culture, but they're unusual, rather than common, expressions of them. What's interesting about your cultures is that the cruelty isn't a sudden catastrophic outburst but a normal part of the social fabric.
I believe, and I feel I could justify these beliefs, that our entire civilization is built on extraordinary cruelty. That this cruelty is hidden from our eyes, mirrors that way that my Masters cannot see the world outside their Sacred Wall. Even when they move outside it -- as Aurum, Jaspar and Vennel do in The Chosen -- they move like extremely rich tourists through a Third World country -- in which they believe that the poverty they see is just the way things have to be. Admittedly, they do perpetrate acts of cruelty, but not more so than the Nazis did, or Stalin....Like Hitler, they deny others compassion through believing them to be sub-human. One of the core things that my book is about is exploring societies of this type...

For the most part, religion is a very dark thing in the books -- especially the religion of the Maruli, who worship what they fear and hate most. What drew you to this?
I believe that there are those who have made of religion a very dark force. For many, religion brings certainty, and certainty breeds contempt for other points of view. There is nothing happening in my books so brutal that I could not find examples in our world that are worse...

I'm sure you're sick of answering this kind of question... but building a book around gay characters, while not controversial in the way it used to be, is still a somewhat risky choice. Do you feel this has made a difference in the books' reception by readers, reviewers and/or publishing people?
I would have felt a coward, if at least in my first book I had not written about my own life experience. I feared this choice might be disastrous commercially, but it would have been dishonourable to do otherwise. There have been voices raised in protest, but I have been delighted by how few of these there have been, and never, as far as I am aware, among the publishing community... It seems there is some hope in the world after all. [grins]

You mention on your web site that you originally used Quya throughout the books, but later decided to render characters' names and other terms in English as a way to make things easier for readers. How do you go about maintaining the balance between the need for narrative clarity and the need to convincingly present your very complicated setting -- and are there other changes/concessions you've made (or have been asked to make) to render your setting more accessible?
I can make no excuse for lack of narrative clarity except for the inability that came from inexperience. I chose to write about my complicated world and so it is up to me to let my readers into it without forcing them to read technical treatises. From my current vantage point, I realize that I could have written The Chosen, in particular, more leanly -- however, not as much so as some have said -- as I hope will become apparent when The Stone Dance is complete...

You've said (elsewhere) that your books are meant to be read twice -- once for exploration and again for understanding. Is this a literary stance (do you feel that all fantasy should unfold itself to the reader this way), or is it a function of your books in particular?
I will not lecture anyone else on how they should write their books. When it is finished, The Stone Dance will have taken up ten years of my life. I have no doubt that it was an absurdly ambitious undertaking, but having committed myself to it, I will pursue it doggedly to the end. As a consequence of this ambition, however, its structure is extremely complex, far more so than might appear on the surface. One of the many aspects of The Stone Dance is that it will be a completely different experience if it is read a second time...

You have a terrific web site that offers fascinating information about the books' background and setting. What do you want to accomplish with the site, and how will you expand it in future?
My website is intended to be an information resource to accompany the books. It will not only serve to amplify the text but show some of my thinking and decisions as I wrote them. It allows my readers to contact me as well as influence how the site develops. There is currently lots of material on the language Quya as well as the glyphs with which it is written. Soon there will be spoken Quya as well as some music which a friend of mine has composed. I hope perhaps one day, as the technology develops, to embed the books themselves, thus allowing them to be dynamically hyperlinked to the support material...

Can you give some hints as to what the final installment of the trilogy will include?
I'm afraid not. All I can say is that there will be many revelations and surprises... and, if I can pull it off, a most satisfying closure where not a single thread will be left loose...

What are your plans once you've finished? Any thoughts on what you'll write next?
Ideas have been piling up over the years that I have been building The Stone Dance. Currently I have plans for more than a dozen novels. As to which one of these I write next, or perhaps something that I have not even imagined yet, I am looking forward to having the freedom to decide....

Copyright © 2003 Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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