Interview with Max Gladstone

I sent Max Gladstone a list of interview questions a little over a month ago for his blog tour. Now here we are with his answers!

First: Happy Birthday!!!

Hey, thanks, Max! It’s a pretty good way to celebrate.

1. How do you like to balance secondary world inventions with historical cultural references in your worldbuilding?

Cirque de Soliel style, that is, on the shoulders of a broad buff dude who’s himself standing on a board on top of a piece of PVP pipe on top of a beach ball.
Seriously though, I try to be honest with myself about how much my conceptual apparatus draws off history and text. If characters in my books use something like scientific reasoning, something like science probably exists in their world; modern writers tend to assume people have used the scientific method from time immemorial, and it just ain’t necessarily so. If one of my characters discusses Proustian memory, madelines and such, someone like Proust probably worked in the world of the books. I don’t tend to make a big deal of these textual references, but I try to flag them in passing, enough that someone who catches the reference will know the easter egg was planted intentionally.
The larger cultural-structure stuff balances in other ways. In research I lean into mythology, religion, and ritual, and try to envision how different material conditions would affect the myths, and vice versa.

2. What are some of your favorite inspirations outside the field of speculative fiction? Nonfiction, other art forms, etc.?

Nonfiction, definitely—I love academic writing for its power to dig beneath gross generalizations, though sometimes it ends up building other gross generalizations along the way. Sociology and anthropology, especially, have been vital resources, opening new conceptual directions; James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State (I love James C Scott–M) and Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America have been particularly important, though I also draw heavily off primary source reading. In terms of just raw linguistic inspiration I find poetry invaluable.

Outside of that, I draw a lot of inspiration from movement—I have a martial arts background, so I connect with that approach to tempo, distance, and power more immediately than I do with the approach of, say, choreographed dance, but in recent years I’ve become more interested in dance through fight choreography, which really is a form of dance, and through partner dancing, which uses many of the same principles as sparring from another direction. In general, there are few more breathtaking and inspiring experiences than watching a master move, whether she’s climbing a wall or running a mile or lunging an epee or kicking somebody in the face. Or lofting a ball over a goalie’s head from the half line to score a hat trick in the first fifteen minutes of a Women’s World Cup final. For example.

3. As of writing these questions, I haven’t gotten a chance to read Last First Snow (hint hint, Tor Publicity) (later note: as you all now know, they came through! yay!). I know from the blurb that it features characters from earlier books but is set earlier in the world’s chronology than anything else. What were some of the pitfalls and opportunities in writing characters as their younger selves?

The potential pitfall of dramatizing backstory, I think, is that I, the writer, will embrace the sense of inevitability the character’s memory lends to their own traumas and bad decisions. If your readers think, well, of course, it had to be this way—there was no other option—then what use is the story? Where’s the drama?

But that pitfall is also an enormous opportunity! I wanted to revisit some of my favorite characters earlier in their lives and break them open. When we meet Elayne Kevarian in Three Parts Dead, or Temoc in Two Serpents Rise, for example, they’ve made a lot of hard choices, and in order to live with themselves, they’ve constructed narratives that lead inevitably to those hard choices. In memory, we seldom force ourselves to consider that our lives could have gone differently. Writing this book gave me a chance to belie that—to show the choice structures and turning points, the moments of akrasia and revelation that set characters on their paths.

4. Was there anything in writing _Last First Snow_ that made you ridiculous with excitement, or was it a pretty even-keel book for you?

Everything about this book was exciting. Seeing Elayne! Seeing the King in Red! Seeing Elayne argue with the King in Red about negotiation practices! Temoc! Temoc and Caleb! Actually meeting Mina, Caleb’s mother, who’s been off camera thus far! Discovering the Skittersill Rising, and digging into how it was misrepresented by orthodox Dresediel Lex history! And then, god, the ending, when [REDACTED]! That was the most exciting of all.

My synopsis for this book would contain a lot of exclamation marks.

5. You’re answering these questions before your epic book tour with James Cambias, Elizabeth Bear, and Brian Stavely. Do you have some predictions for that tour, which wraps up today? Whose Pathfinder character will leave the largest swath of destruction behind them? Who will find the best maple-syrup-related food product in Vermont? Who will have the snappiest tag line for signing their book?

Pathfinder Destruction Swath: Bear. No question.

Best Maple Syrup Food Product: Jim will put in a strong initial showing with his discovery of Maple Nachos, but I think Brian will clinch this one with his discovery of Maple Irish Lace. Oh. You said food product. Jim, then. Maple Irish Lace, I mean, you could eat it, but you’d waste all that knitting! It’s hard to spin maple into yarn. Marissa. Hard!

Most likely to club a moose over the head: Probably Brian.

Snappiest tag line: Definitely not me! I tend to freeze up, look at people with deer-in-headlights expressions, and then scribble “Thank you for reading” and my name. Novelists are probably not the best people to seek out for on-the-spot wit. This novelist, anyway.

Translation, regionalism, colloquialism

A few weeks ago now I read this New Yorker essay about Camus, specifically about the first line of The Stranger. And around the same time, I was reading Kazuki Sakuraba’s Red Girls, translated from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. And I ended up with thoughts.

The thing about the Camus essay is that it doesn’t really go into why “Mom” feels like a wrong translation of “Maman” to the author. It does, I agree, but my theory is that as far as I know (and my French is not that great), “Maman” is casual, familiar, intimate…but not regional. I have been in Montreal, and I have been in Paris, and I have been in Normandy, and I have heard small children shouting, “Maman!” in all of them. Whereas “Mom” is…American. And “Mum” is Commonwealth. (Canada, in my experience of Canadians, is a maternal middle ground where you’ll hear both depending on the person or family.)

Translating from non-regional to regional vocabulary is tricky; going from regional to regional is, if anything, more fraught. In several anime–Azumanga Daioh, for example–a character with a regional accent in Japanese is given a corresponding regional accent in English. Osaka in Azumanga Daioh has a southern accent in the translation I heard; in some apparently she is given a Brooklyn accent. While her accent is a non-trivial part of the character and needs some equivalent to be translated, the fact that translators couldn’t agree on which of two extremes of American English she should speak seems pretty indicative of how difficult this choice is.

Allen, the translator of Red Girls, used a lot of word choice to indicate regional and informal dialect in the original. This is a book where you see a lot of “nothin'” and “uh huh” and similar word choice. Unfortunately, it ended up reading to me like she had chosen a High West American dialect (think Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) and then gotten some details of it wrong. It ended up being somewhat jarring, especially because the language used by the older generation who hadn’t been much exposed to mass media when forming their accents and speech patterns was very, very similar to that used by a young generation who had turned to gangs (or, more accurately, started them). It was one of the main things that I complained about while reading the book–and okay, yes, I am a translation nerd, I am likely to snag on things like that. But my point is not that Allen did a bad job, it’s that she had an incredibly hard job to do at all.

And it’s worth doing, because otherwise…otherwise we are only translating things we read as “standard” in one language into things we read as standard in another, and a lot of richness is lost, a lot of books whose content and ideas simply do not meet that description. The ones that do have a homogeneity to them that doesn’t reflect human life.

How much you want to give the accurate feel of the original vs. giving an accurate feel of things like characterization can also be hard. There’s paragraph length, which varies from language to language as well as from person to person. And then there are details that would be telling details if applied to someone from one culture that are just cultural norms in another. Two examples: how often does someone grunt in conversation? You can describe someone as grunting and give a very vivid picture of them in English, just by how often they do it. (I am currently rereading the Dalziel and Pascoe mysteries, and Dalziel, for example, is a grunter.) But then listen to your Cantonese-speaking friends. Possibly, you might think, I am just mistaking foreign words for grunts. Okay, then listen to your friends who speak other Chinese languages make fun of your Cantonese-speaking friends. Whether it’s linguistically or culturally, grunting is very much expected in Cantonese speech. In translation, should you portray that every time it happens? Should you leave in enough to give the “feel” of that difference without overwhelming the Anglophone reader? Hard call, dependent on each circumstance. Or take for example endearments. So far as I can tell from Danish TV, there is only one endearment in Danish, and that is “elsker” (approx. “love”). Everyone is “elsker” every time you would have wanted an endearment. Waitress offering a refill on your coffee? Elsker. Your mother having a heart-to-heart with you? Elsker. Your mother having a special moment with your father? Elsker. This is fine when you’re translating from English to Danish, but if you pick an endearment to map to elsker–whether it’s “love” or “hon” or what, it’s going to read repetitive to the Anglophone audience. Which would be great if “elsker” was a weird word that only people from Aarhus used, actually–you could pick something like “petal” that you see regionally on Vera and go to town with it. How regional is the Danish of Aarhus vs. the Danish of Copenhagen? How do you measure regionality from outside?

Word are hard. I think that’s my grand conclusion. Words are hard.

Last First Snow, by Max Gladstone

Review copy provided by Tor. Also, Max is someone I know and like from Fourth Street.

I have been waiting impatiently for this book ever since I heard it was about Elayne and Temoc. Basically that’s my review for those who have read the rest of this series: it really is, it’s about Elayne and Temoc and it has BARRICADES go read it BARRICADES I’m not kidding. (Some people will be there for the magically fighting skeletal dragon weapon. But for me, barricades. They are like Mrisnip.)

For those who have not read the rest of the series: this is the chronologically first book, and I think it would be a perfectly good place to start, although the resonances and implications would be quite different than if you started in publication order. (Which you should! They’re in print, they’re good, there’s no reason you shouldn’t read them in publication order. Now is the time! Collect ’em all! But if you get handed Last First Snow, do not hand it back because you haven’t read the others.) This is a world in which the gods were slain not very long ago (forty years as of this volume), a world in which soul stuff is traded on markets and regrown, a world in which magic can allow someone to live indefinitely as an animate skeleton when their body gives out.

This is also a world where people disagree about important things without any of them–even the animate skeleton–being hand-rubbingly evil. People want things that are quite reasonable things to want–safety for their families, safety for their city in a number of ways, preservation of valued things about their community, a relationship with the divine, crazy magic power–in ways that rub up against each other and strike sparks. People want things that do not match. Even people who like each other. Even people who love each other. This is not a book of easy choices, and it is so very much more fun thereby.

The relationship a community has with itself, with the outside, with its lost gods and its living leaders–there’s enough for a dozen books in here, but it never feels overcrowded. Definitely recommended. So very very glad to have this.

Please consider using our affiliate link to buy Last First Snow from Amazon.

Dystopias Are Made Of People.

So some people have read my new story, “It Brought Us All Together,” and even talked about it, which is always great. (Hurray, readers!) One of the things they’ve said is that a few people have described it as dystopian. And I am not opposed to people thinking of it as dystopian, but it doesn’t strike me that way personally, and I was trying to figure out why.

(Note that “fight about exact genre boundaries” is one of the most boring kinds of fight in the world, yes? So what I am doing is descriptive, not prescriptive. I am describing my idea of dystopia to you rather than telling you it should be yours. If you have completely other ideas, fabulous, would love to hear about them. Clear? Okay good.)

For me a dystopia is about human relationships. It can have bad government or bad lack of government, but the dominant relationship between people on average in this society needs to be exploitative, destructive, or otherwise negative. If not, I don’t see it as a dystopia.

This leads to me sounding really hard-core, saying things like, “Oh, sure, it’s about a fungus-ravaged landscape, but I just don’t see that as dystopian.” But I don’t. It’s not about fungal plagues not being bad enough, it’s that they’re on a different axis of bad than dystopic/utopic/non -topic society. I could write a utopia set in a crashed spaceship inside a volcano–if the people in that culture were on average good to each other.* I could write a completely depressing dystopia in a green and pleasant land.** Because the challenges the universe hands you feel different to me than the challenges other people give you gratuitously.

And “gratuitously” is important, because “hey, my family is dying of fungus in their lungs” is an other-people challenge! It really is about dealing with other people. It’s just…dystopia is if the government infected your family with this lung fungus on purpose. Or if an evil corporation controls so much of the world that it can withhold cures for the fungal plague that is ravaging the landscape. The bit where people just flail around and don’t entirely know what they’re doing and some of them are jerks but most of them are at least okayish…that’s not dystopia, for me. That’s life.

*Actually…if half a dozen of you want that, I’ll make a good go at it.
**This one not so much.

Books read, early July

Matt Christopher, Ice Magic. So…we have a Little Free Library in our next door neighbors’ yard, and Tim mentioned that it had a hockey fantasy in it. That is my wheelhouse! But, he continued, it was a Matt Christopher book. Well. No harm no foul, I could just take it and put it back when I was done. Lordy. LORDY. I had forgotten how TERRIBLE Matt Christopher books are. They are proof that short books are not necessarily lean, taut prose, because there are random things like the protagonist greeting a squirrel that are completely pointless. The magic plot evaporates on the last page for no reason except that the world must be normal or something. I love hockey fantasy, but…seriously, do not read this book.

Wesley Chu, Time Salvager. Discussed elsewhere.

E.K. Johnston, The Story of Owen, Dragon Slayer of Trondheim. LOVE THIS SO MUCH. It’s the story of a dragon slayer in modern small-town/rural Ontario. The alternate history bits are endearing and lovely. (Buddy Holly! The Red Wings logo! Non-American politician references!) The kids’ relationships with each other are so great and do not descend to love triangles and mean girls and other cliches. I cannot WAIT for the sequel SO GOOD SO GOOD SO GOOD. (Tim wishes to add that this book post is three days late because he had difficulty putting The Story of Owen down long enough to put the links in.)

Michael Pye, The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. You know how I often say of nonfiction that it does what it says on the tin? This does not in any way do what it says on the tin. It is about the North Atlantic and the Baltic at least as much as it is the North Sea, and it includes not one but at least five transformations of Europe. That said, as a book about interesting stuff that happened in the north of Europe, it’s golden, lovely, very much recommended. Somewhat random! But recommended.

Kazuki Sakuraba, Red Girls: The Legend of the Akakuchibas. This has won murder mystery awards in its original Japanese, but to me it is no more a murder mystery than a randomly selected novel with a romantic relationship is a genre romance. Instead it’s a personal account of young women’s culture and cultural change in (non-Tokyo) Japan. I have all sorts of thoughts about the translator’s choices, to the point where I am saving them for another post, but it’s basically Japanese magical realism about the above themes, so it’s not something you’re going to be reading and thinking, “Oh yes, another of these.”

Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. Shorto really doesn’t understand the what happened with the English Parliament in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, and he doesn’t go into the Hansa or Beguines or several other really cool things like that. Also he starts with Amsterdam being knowably Amsterdam, so I am still missing a good source on early Frisians. (WHY WILL NO ONE GIVE ME SOLID FRISIANS WHY.) But it’s still a charming and interesting book, and he gives props to both Spinoza and Jonathan Israel, so good on him.

Dana Simpson, Unicorn on a Roll. Second volume of the series (the first was Phoebe and Her Unicorn), and I liked it better. Partly I think that Simpson has hit a stride, and partly I think it’s expectation management: telling me that something is the next Calvin and Hobbes is the best way to get me to say, “Huh, sez you!”, whereas I knew this was not, it’s its own thing, and it’s a fun and funny own thing to be. (Also my goddaughter Lillian lent me this book because she thought of me and thought I would like it. And because she is SO GROWN-UP OH WOW.)

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Guns of the Dawn. Stand-alone military fantasy novel. A few class-based things made me wince, but for the most part it was worth the leisurely pacing, an enjoyable read throughout–and interesting to see what Tchaikovsky does when he’s not doing a ten-book series.

Jen Williams, The Copper Promise. This book was a very weird mix of grimdark and lighthearted fantasy romp. It was in a very epic fantasy setting, with some gods still around and others dead. It’s more of an “if you like that sort of thing” than an “everyone, everyone! Go read!”, but I still found it quite readable.

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather. Second Maisie Dobbs mystery. Lacking the flashback structure of the first, and I think this is all to the best. Gentle 1930s British setting. I’m glad the library has a bunch of these.

Cumulative, repetitive

One of the things that came up with the Fourth Street writers’ seminar is that some people have taken it multiple times. It’s intended to be a beginners’ seminar, but it covers different things each year, and also people “begin” at different rates, so there’s no rule against doing so. And I think that in general this is a good thing, that people are themselves the best judges of what continues to be useful for them, possibly with some nudges from friends and family who know them well.

But it actually highlighted something for me: that one of the important things about trying to get better at writing–and this is definitely a place where writing is like everything else–is distinguishing when you’re doing something that is forming a practice or forming a rut. “Practice” is key for most skills–this is where the truisms about “you have to write a million words of crap” come in, or the idea of ten thousand hours of practice before you get good at something. But some things are better repeated than others. Professional musicians will play scales or chord progressions all their careers–you’ll hear scales in warmups if you go to the symphony before the concert starts. But what you won’t hear is “Hot Cross Buns” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” repeated over and over. Not every repetition is useful repetition.

So…how do we tell the difference between cumulative knowledge/skills and pointless repetition? I think one of the ways to figure it out is to be very specific when we ask ourselves, “How am I improving because of this practice? What skills/knowledge will it bring or sharpen?” Young musicians play scales because their instructors tell them to; more mature musicians play scales because they know that being able to run with quick control through those sequences of notes will be useful in a variety of pieces. (And this is why you don’t see, for example, guitarists who are mostly “rhythm”/chord guitarists playing a lot of scales: because it’s not nearly as valuable for the kinds of chord progressions they’re playing as it would be if they were playing melodies on the guitar.) Be specific and precise. “It will be good for my writing” can easily be cover for “I’m in this habit, and I’m not sure what else to do.”

The other important question, of course, is, “Is this practice getting me the improvement I want to see?” Say that you’ve been attending a particular seminar or discussion with the same set of other writers for years. Is your writing improving as you discuss things with them? Can you point to insights and skills that they’ve helped you with? If so, great! If not, perhaps what you’re getting from them is not “write better descriptions” or “improve pacing” but rather “hang out with friends in atmosphere of camaraderie” or “pass on ideas and skills to people newer than self.” Which are great things to get!–as long as you recognize that you need to do something additional to get the boost you want in description, pacing, etc. Different people learn and improve from all sorts of different input–it’s good to keep tabs on what you’re actually managing to accomplish vs. what you’re trying to do–in writing as in all things.

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

This is a crapsack future full of anti-heroes and Tuckerizations.

So why did I finish it?

Well…uh…it was going really fast, and I wanted to see what happened. I actually really did want to see what happened. And whether the world was going to get less crapsack.

Seriously: this book has already gotten picked up by Hollywood (vague wording because I don’t know the details), and I can honestly say that I can see why. Reading it is incredibly like the experience of watching an action movie. Incredibly like. I see very few details that would even need to be changed to make it filmable–almost everything can just be read from the page and put directly on the screen, assuming sufficient special effects.

Chu walks a great line on the SF exposition in particular, between explanation that is necessary and that which will bog down the pace. The story he’s telling doesn’t depend a lot on the semblance of exact physics. It does depend on humans’ perceptions of that physics, and one of my favorite things about this book is the way that it undermines what the smartest minds of its setting think they have figured out. I also liked the way that time travel was not, as in some books, one future and a ton of past settings, but multiple iterations of future, each with its own problems and mistakes.

This will not be a book for everyone; the grimness of the grim future is awfully grim. But it executes quite well on what it’s aiming at, well enough that I stuck with it even though it’s not my usual sort of thing.

Please consider using our affiliate link to buy Time Salvager from Amazon.

Short stories I have liked since last time I said so

I’m continuing with my earlier-in-the-year decision to post more on Twitter about short stories I have liked, and to collect those here. I don’t make any pretense of reading all of what’s out there–having recommended one story from an issue of a magazine doesn’t even necessarily mean I read the rest and didn’t like them as well–but I still feel pretty strongly that signal-boosting the things I like is a good, good thing. I particularly want to catch up on the magazines I receive in digest form on my Kindle, but in the meantime, here are some things I like.

If there are stories you’ve been enjoying recently, please feel free to share in the comments.

Court Bindings, by Karalynn Lee (BCS)

Wild Things Go to Go Free, by Heather Clitheroe (BCS)

The Deepest Rift, by Ruthanna Emrys (

Meshed, by Rich Larson (Clarkesworld)

Further North, by Kay Chronister (Clarkesworld)

By Degrees and Dilatory Time, by S.L. Huang (Strange Horizons)