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A Conversation With Matthew Woodring Stover
An interview with Gabriel Chouinard
March 2001

Photo © Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover
Matthew Woodring Stover was born in 1962. He graduated in 1983 from Drake University and settled in Chicago. He worked as a bartender in a private sports club as well as spending time as an actor, theatrical producer, playwright, and theatre co-founder. His previous fantasy novels include Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with artist and writer Robyn Fielder.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Blade of Tyshalle
SF Site Review: Heroes Die
SF Site Review: Jericho Moon

Blade of Tyshalle
Heroes Die

Art: Douglas Beckman
Heroes Die
Jericho Moon
Iron Dawn

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So, Matt... you have a new novel coming out in April entitled Blade of Tyshalle. This is not Fist of Caine, which was solicited for Fall of 2000 in the back of the paperback version of Heroes Die. Can you tell us what happened? Is it the same story?
It's the same story. Only more so. This book was originally slated for Summer 1999, but a number of things got in the way -- like a fairly major illness that stopped me from doing productive work on it for nearly a year and a half (though I never stopped trying). And then the story became vastly more complex than I had originally planned. The novel ended up taking three years to write (and rewrite), and about six months to edit, trim and revise.

The Fist of Caine mix-up came about through a series of miscommunications between me, my editor, and the Del Rey production department; by the time we straightened it out, the mass market Heroes Die had already gone to press. Nobody's fault but mine -- I have a hell of a time with titles. My novels generally go through half a dozen apiece. Blade of Tyshalle, at one point or another, has also been called The Blind God, The Hand of Caine, The Mark of Caine, The Caine Vector, and Act of War.

Moral ambiguity plays a strong role in your fiction. In fact, ambiguities of all sorts are threaded throughout your work, which is a far cry from the black-and-white approach of most fantasy. Was that a deliberate choice of yours?
There is no moral ambiguity in my work.

Did everybody hear that? Let me say it again, louder: THERE IS NO MORAL AMBIGUITY IN MY WORK.

It only looks ambiguous if you insist on framing a story's conflict in terms of Good vs. Evil. It's not that simple. Real life does not operate in those terms. Neither does my fiction.

I know it's sometimes hard for people to get their minds around, but the whole concept of the Good/Evil duality was, essentially, invented circa 600 BCE in Persia. You'll discover that evil qua Evil does not even appear in the Old Testament of the Bible until the Prophets -- the books that were written after the Persian Captivity. It doesn't appear in the Illiad, or the Odyssey, or any work by Sophocles, Euripides, or Aeschylus.

People who try to tell you that life is about the struggle between Good and Evil are either 1) fooling themselves, 2) lying to you, or 3) both. As Caine himself put it, "When somebody starts talking about good and evil, better keep one hand on your wallet."

The black-and-white approach of most fantasy is bullshit. It's laziness. By positing a Force of Supernatural Evil, the writer is relieved of the necessity of motivating his antagonists. "The Devil made me do it!" Or his protagonists, for that matter. "Of course they must be destroyed! They're EEEEEvil!"

Yeesh. I don't think I'm the only one who's sick to death of that crap.

Your Caine books aren't easily classified; there is fantasy, science fiction, even touches of horror and 'conspiracy theory'. Though a good third of it is set on a future Earth, Heroes Die is subtitled "A Fantasy Novel". How do you describe your work? Would you consider yourself a "fantasy writer"?
I tell people I'm a fantasy writer -- but then, every novelist is a fantasy writer. All fiction is a subset of fantasy.

Think about it this way: what we now consider "fantasy" is the original whole from which all literature is distilled, starting with the Epic of Gilgamesh, running through the Iliad, and Odyssey, the Bible, Beowulf, the Bhagavad-Ghita -- the list is infinite. Examples are found in every culture. Every other genre (I should say: every sub-genre) is defined by eliminating fantastic elements: by carving away the gods, fate, magic, whatever. "Fantasy" is what we call a novel that partakes of the whole of the human literary heritage.

So, yeah. I'm a fantasy writer. It was good enough for Homer, and it's good enough for me.

That's an interesting view, which I don't think I've heard before. So, how do you contend with people that look down on fantasy and sci-fi authors? You know the ones... "OK, but when are you going to write something serious?"
You mean, like my mother? I tell them that I already write something serious. Everything I write is serious as an Ebola outbreak in downtown Manhattan. It's just not solemn -- it's a sad fact of our society that solemn is so consistently confused with serious, when they're not at all the same thing.

Fritz Leiber once wrote words to the effect that the only way to really teach somebody is to get them laughing so hard they don't notice the lesson.

Who's the biggest driving force in changing the world as we know it? Software designers. Engineers. Research scientists. What do they read? SF and fantasy. Who's the biggest potential driving force for future changes in our new millennium? The kids growing up with big imaginations, high intelligence, and flexible minds. What do they read? You guessed it.

Serious enough, I think.

You seem a bit preoccupied with violence in your work -- violence committed by your characters, violence against your characters, even violent uprisings. Does this appeal to the average reader? What is the appeal to yourself?
I should point out here that the original title of Heroes Die was Act of Violence: that novel is so bone-crunchingly, blood-spurtingly graphic because the realities that underlie violence-as-entertainment form a large part of its thematic structure.

Violence -- whether fantasy, as in books or movies or campfire tales; controlled and ritualized, as in boxing or football; or flat-out ugly, as in gang fights and border skirmishes and ethnic cleansings and all-out wars and the occasional bombing raid on Iraq -- has always been one of the two primary entertainments of humankind... the other being sex. In our current culture, violence is ubiquitous, from cartoon shows to the evening news. Why? Simple: because it's the kind of fun you just can't get anywhere else.

Does it appeal to the average reader? Christ, I hope not! Screw the average reader -- I want exceptional readers. People who are average don't read SF and fantasy in the first place.

In your concept of Earth and Overworld, you postulate a multitude of realities akin to Michael Moorcock's Multiverse. Are there other worlds out there with other Aktiri, waiting for their own stories to be told?
Wait and see. Beyond this, deponent respondeth not.

Your writing itself reminds me much more of Moorcock than Tolkien. At a time when the Robert Jordans and Terry Goodkinds are burning up the bestseller lists, you've chosen a different route that captures the spirit of the New Wave of sci-fi and twists it on its ear. Did you consciously set out to tell a different type of story?
You better believe it. My first goal was to write a fantasy novel that was NOT the umpty-seventh rehash of a Not Quite Final Battle of Good vs. Evil. Those kinds of fantasies have their place, just like junk food can have its place in a balanced diet. But just because it has its place doesn't mean it's anything but empty calories.

As one character in Blade of Tyshalle puts it:

"You've guessed by now that what you are seeing is a Fantasy -- what humans call 'illusion.' There will be those who will try to tell you that Fantasy is the opposite of reality, that it is the same as lies... that it is a lie because it is a Fantasy. I tell you this is not so.

"It is the greatest gift of my people, that we can bring our dreams to life for other eyes. Fantasy is a tool; like any tool, it may be used poorly, or well. At its best, Fantasy reveals truths that cannot be shown any other way."

I'm not bashing Jordan and Goodkind and their legions of imitators; Jordan especially is very good at what he does, and they've created a huge readership out there. All I'm saying is that there can be more to fantasy than simple escapism. It doesn't have to be empty calories. You can get real food.

But you have to ask for it.

As long as publishers think that the only market is for M&Ms and Doritos, they're not going to spend their money filling shelves with swordfish steaks and roast duckling.

That's what the New Wave did for SF: injected real literary quality -- a concern with character, relevance and plain old-fashioned good writing -- that helped rescue SF from the scrap heap of spacecraft, robots and ray-guns.

The same thing is starting to happen in fantasy: people like Greg Keyes and China Miéville -- and me -- are trying to push the envelope, moving away from the standard models, into darker, grittier, more complex constructions, where issues are blurred in as many shades of gray as real life, where even magic is treated as a branch of physics.

We're the changelings of the New Wave. I'd like to think of what's happening at the dark fringes of fantasy these days as -- if I can borrow a phrase from you -- the Next Wave.

The New Wave writers were looked at with a bit of derision; most of them weren't recognized for what they'd brought to sci-fi for ten or twenty years! Still, I think that media all around is darkening. Look at The Matrix, Buffy on TV, video games... Certainly there has been a trend in the comic book industry that has a postmodern, darker slant. Perhaps now IS the time for the Next Wave to gain some exposure. What do you think? Are readers ready for the Next Wave? Have they had their fill of junk food?
More than ready. There is a HUGE tidal swell of audience -- the kids who have grown up on bubblegum fantasy are starting to look around for something more challenging, and more rewarding. Hell, all those Harry Potter fans aren't going to be satisfied with the crap crowding the bookstore shelves. If they don't find something at least that intelligent, we lose the best of them forever. They become the gray zombies who drift once in a while through the stacks in a bookstore, in bleakly melancholy reminiscence of how much they used to like this stuff...

I can't tell you how much of the fan mail I've gotten for Heroes Die starts out with: "I had pretty much given up on fantasy until I found your book."

That says less about the success of my book than it does about failures of marketing. There is plenty fantasy-for-grown-ups out there, but the publishers haven't quite figured out how to tell people about it. That's in the process of changing, I think. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

You mentioned Greg Keyes and China Miéville. I'm inclined to throw in Michael Swanwick, Tim Powers, and even (to some extent) Tad Williams. Anyone else that belongs on that list? For the readers that want to know where to find these stories... where should they be looking?
Moorcock's still writing. I found James Stoddard's first novel, The High House, pretty impressive. I have considerable affection for Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake books -- no marketing failures there. And anyone who hasn't yet read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is missing one of the finest series of novels ever written in the English language, genre or otherwise.

Paul Witcover's novel Waking Beauty was far and away the most original, brilliantly twisted fantasy of the 90s.

On the SF side, by far the best books I've read lately have been the Continuing Time novels by Daniel Keys Moran.

You also once told me that you thought George R.R. Martin was the only writer now who may save the epic fantasy series. Can you tell me a bit more? What do you see in Martin's work that you don't see in... oh, David Eddings?
First of all, Martin is a brilliant technician; there is not a single scene in Game of Thrones that is slow or superfluous. He is also willing to highlight a lot of the brutality and twisted sexuality that most fantasies leave buried. I admire the way he manipulates the conventions of traditional epic fantasy -- he knows his audience has been reading this stuff for years, so we have certain expectations. He sets up traditional situations, then pays them off in extremely un-traditional ways. He's writing for grown-ups, and setting a high standard -- those books sell a TON, and when they're all gone, his fans are gonna start looking for something that can move them the same way. That's what I mean about saving epic fantasy: teaching the fans to insist on better books.

I'm not going to dis the Eddingses, either -- they're ploughing a different part of the field, that's all. What they seem to be up to is fulfilling the expectations that Martin subverts, and working very hard to do so in satisfying ways. The Eddingses operate more through archetypes -- I believe David E. himself has described the archetype as the "crack cocaine of heroic fantasy." Their stuff is much more in the traditional vein, but they manage to generate a pretty convincing aura of mythic inevitability. To a classicist like myself, that has its own value.

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Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is struggling to become a published author by chucking rocks at windows and hoping someone will notice. He runs a speculative fiction forum at -- go there to rain torments upon him if you wish.

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