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Interview: Phyllis Eisenstein on “The Desert of Vanished Dreams”

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

“The Desert of Vanished Dreams” is a story I’ve been planning for a very long time, but I had to bring Alaric to a point in his life where he was ready to confront what he finds there and make the hard decision I felt was the right one for him. Anyone who has read the whole series, or at least the last half-dozen stories, has probably realized that the world Alaric lives in is not a traditional fantasy world. There have been hints along the way of what it really is, perhaps the most obvious of them the creation myth of the people of the North, and this story is intended to clarify the truth of that myth. And to demonstrate that the series is really science fiction, or at least science fantasy, and not the kind of heroic fantasy that, for example, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (or, in more modern terms, A Game of Thrones) represent.


Your first story of Alaric the Bard, “Born to Exile,” appeared in F&SF forty five years ago.  After such a long time, what keeps drawing you back to this character?

Alaric and I first met when we were both fifteen (he has aged a lot less than I have). A couple of years earlier, I had read Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination,” which became and remains my favorite science fiction novel, and after that I had been playing around with the idea of teleportation. Not in a future world where it would be both acceptable and highly useful, but in a world of superstition, where it would be terrifying to ordinary people and therefore dangerous to its possessor. I finally started a story in which Alaric was in his thirties, but about halfway through I realized that I was starting much too late in his life, not to mention that I just wasn’t a good enough writer, yet, to do it justice, so I put it aside. It took me a number of years to find the story I wanted to tell first, as well as to develop the skill to write it. Now, after living with Alaric for so long, I see him as an old friend, and there’s no way I can resist visiting him now and then to find out how he’s doing, as well as to reveal more about his world. The biggest secret is now out, with “The Desert of Vanished Dreams,” but I still haven’t written that story about him in his thirties, so there are more Alaric adventures waiting for me to get to them.


You have had a long career in science fiction and fantasy: you’ve written several novels and many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught the writing of science fiction as well.  Any thoughts or opinions on writing or publishing that you would care to share, as it was then or now, given your experience?

I’m convinced that you learn to write by writing and by reading not just the kind of prose you want to write but all kinds of other things. I’m grateful to my teachers for making me read so many of those other things, including writers from Shakespeare to Hemingway; to my parents for having that gigantic fairy tale book (including Grimm, Perrault, and a lot of others) and all those historical novels in the house; to my brother for giving me permission to read his science fiction collection; to all the people who let me read their books and magazines, from Oz to Galaxy and Robinson Crusoe to A Tale of Two Cities; and to the librarians at our local branch, who thought it was okay for a twelve-year-old to borrow books from the grown-up shelves. Yes, I was an eclectic reader, and I recommend it to anyone else who has that internal imperative that makes a writer. Reading published work teaches structure, characterization, description, and dialogue as well as any teacher can, if you pay enough attention. For twenty years, I taught writing at Columbia College of Chicago, and I’ll never forget the student who said he didn’t need to read anything. I didn’t tell him he was a fool, but I sure thought it.


What are you working on now?

My current project is a big one, an epic fantasy trilogy with the overall title of The Masks of Power. First volume, which is finished and searching for a publisher for the threesome (via my agent), is called The Walker Between Worlds. Second volume, which I am working on now, may be titled The Lady of Masks (or I might change it if I can think of a better one). Among its many inspirations was the first hundred and fifty pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, which he gave me for my feedback when it was all that existed of that first book. As many people know, I told him to put the dragons in, which resulted in the third book being dedicated to me, which I thought was pretty cool. For me, though, the real result was that I liked the idea of multiple and co-equal viewpoints, each in a chapter named after its viewpoint character, so I decided to use that form for this project. I think it’s working out well.


Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s great to be back in F&SF, and that inspires me to write more stories, though I can’t guarantee they will all be about Alaric.


“The Desert of Vanished Dreams” appears in the July/August 2016 issue of F&SF.

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One Response to “Interview: Phyllis Eisenstein on “The Desert of Vanished Dreams””

  1. Black Gate » Articles » Alaric’s Biggest Secret: “The Desert of Vanished Dreams” by Phyllis Eisenstein on August 22nd, 2016

    […] Read the complete interview here. […]

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