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Interview: Phyllis Eisenstein on “The City of Lost Desire”

Tell us a bit about “The City of Lost Desire.”

“The City of Lost Desire” is the next adventure in the life of Alaric, the teleporting minstrel, and occurs after “The Desert of Vanished Dreams” (F&SF, July/August 2016). The caravan that Alaric joined as an entertainer has finally completed its desert crossing and arrived at the ancient city that was always its goal, bringing trade goods that include fine furniture, salt from the mines of the desert, and a potent, addictive drug that the rich and royal of the city crave. Alaric is drawn by the mystery of the tower that stands outside the city and by the secrets that seem to pervade the royal palace and its inhabitants. And, as more than once in the past, people seem to want to keep him there for their own purposes.


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

I had spent some months playing with ideas for it, but nothing had actually crystallized, and only a very small piece of it had been sketched
out, when my husband asked if I was working on another Alaric story yet, and I decided to tell him what I had come up with so far. When I tell him about a story, I usually end up being committed to writing it because he will start reminding me (frequently) that I should be working on it. But at the time he asked, I was working on an epic fantasy trilogy, and I kept saying I wasn’t going to write the next Alaric story until I was finished with the trilogy. But trilogies being very long things, I just kept using it as an excuse to put off the next Alaric adventure because I didn’t have a complete story in my head, especially not an ending. Finally, when my husband reminded me yet again that I really ought not to wait another decade before writing it, I thought about it some more, came up with half a dozen titles, showed them to him, and he picked the one he thought worked best. As usual, he was right (he’s good at titles), and I decided to take a month or so off from the trilogy to get a good start on “The City of Lost Desire.” That, of course, inevitably meant I couldn’t resist going on with it until it was finished. So the title became my momentum and also the key to the story’s essence.


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

The most difficult aspect of writing the story was gathering and linking up a lot of elements I had planted in the series over the years. Many of those elements had been intended, eventually, to have more significant meanings than they appeared to have in their original stories, and both the most difficult and the most rewarding aspects of them were what they all conveyed together as the series went on — for example, the drug, the lost city back in “The Desert of Vanished Dreams,” and the tower, among others. The most fun was definitely the tower, because there I was swooping back into science fiction (okay, science fantasy) territory, and I had known for years what belonged there and had looked forward to writing about it.


Why do you write?

I write because I can’t not write. I’ve been a writer since I first learned to use a pencil to print words on paper. I started with Westerns
and Captain Video and tried to create fiction in every genre I read in books or saw on TV or in the movies, including fairy tales, Greek
mythology, Jack London, and my favorite, science fiction. I wrote stories and plays and, until I was well into high school, tried hard to turn most English assignments into fiction, which some of my English teachers tolerated fairly well. My fourth grade teacher even let me produce and direct my plays for class, which resulted in quite a bit of Captain Video being presented there. My fourth-year high school Spanish teacher was also indulgent, letting me recruit classmates to act in my own Twilight Zone episode, as long as it was in Spanish. She was undoubtedly the only person in the audience, besides me, who knew what “La Zona de Crepusculo” meant.  (I always thought the combination of the discovery of Florida by Christopher Columbus and a Cape Canaveral rocket launch worked quite well, even though, in reality, Columbus never got anywhere near Florida.) With all of that behind me, my parents couldn’t resist my pleas for a typewriter, which, many years later, gave way to a series of computers. I had to revert to yellow pads for a couple of decades, when I worked in the advertising industry and only had time to do my own writing on the bus, the elevated train, and the subway on my way to work. But there I was, still writing, because that’s what I do.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Jack Vance has always been a very big influence on my work, but, growing up, I also paid a lot of attention to both the short and long fiction of Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, and L. Sprague de Camp.


What are you working on now?

That epic fantasy trilogy I put on hold to write “The City of Lost Desire.” Its overall title is THE MASKS OF POWER, and the first volume is
THE WALKER BETWEEN WORLDS. It’s about coming of age, love, hate, and jealousy, war and conquest, gods who were once human beings, intelligent dragons who once ruled the world, and a lot of other things that interest me. And the symbol of wisdom is the rich purple amethyst, my birthstone (I couldn’t resist).


“The City of Lost Desire” appears in the January/February 2019 issue of F&SF.

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