May 2004

Adrienne Martini

features

An Interview with Steven Brust









For what itís worth, writer Steven Brust is my huckleberry. He could be your huckleberry, too. Brustís two dozen books are pedestal-type examples of what modern fantasy is. In his books, there are no grouchy dwarves, no predictable quests and no talking cats. All of the trappings that have made this subgenre the pussy on the speculative fiction playground donít appear in Brustís creations. But thatís not what makes his work, well, work. Whatís crucial to his fantastic tales is the story itself, which gallops through the characters like a runaway stampede. Above all else, Brust is a storyteller, even though his stories frequently involve otherwordly elements like floating castles in imaginary lands.

Which isnít to say that his characters donít pull their weight as well. The best known may be Vlad the Assassin, whose introduction in Jhereg has led to a series of stories -- nine so far with each more nuanced and resonant than the last. But there are others, like The Phoenix Guards's Paarfi or Cowboy Fengís Space Bar and Grilleís Billy or To Reign in Hellís Lucifer. These are the sorts of creations that stick with you, long after the book is back on the shelf.

While some are drawn in by Brustís laser-like attention to detailĖand, indeed, have constructed online ledgers to accounting for the same -- most are sucked in by the story, by the skill with which Brust makes you care and keeps you entertained. April will see the release of Sethra Lavode, the third (and last) installment in the The Viscount of Adrilankha story. For some, the mere whisper of the word ďthree-volume storyĒ calls to mind bloated explorations of no more than the writerís ego. But the Viscount books are lean without being sparse (despite the narratorís leanings toward hyperbole) and amusing without being puffy or twee. In short, they are just good yarns.

ďIíve wanted to make other people feel like I felt when I read Lord of Light,Ē Brust says. ďHave I accomplished that? God, no.Ē His readers may disagree with that assessment, of course.

Brust, who now lives in Las Vegas, took a quick break from writing the next Vlad tale so that we could chat about his work, his life and his poker by phone, which he answered with a hoarse, ďIím your huckleberry.Ē

So why work in Vegas?

I needed to get away from home -- home is Minnesota -- and my social life was getting to the point where it was actually interfering with work. I was just spending too much time being social with other people. In Vegas, not only donít I know anyone but thereís nothing to do here -- nothing that interests me, with the exception of the occasional poker game. Itís a really good place for me to work if I can deal with all of the financial issues. I would like to move back to Minnesota at some point. But that was the main reason.

I mentioned the move to a friend of mine and he said, ďOK, let me get this straight -- you moved to Las Vegas to get away from temptation?Ē Itís true, though. All of those things that I like to do pretty much donít exist here.

I like Vegas. Itís actually a much nicer place to live than youíd imagine. You get away from the Strip -- Iím only like 2 and a half miles from the Strip -- and itís a southwestern town. I live in a neighborhood surrounded by Mormons. Theyíre very quiet. And they like me because Iím quiet. I got a couple of remarks about the Darwin sticker on my car but no one took offense. Theyíre very pleasant people.

What do you like to do?

I like to sit around cool places and talk to readers. There are very few readers here. I have had the fortune to discover a few here and that takes up some time.

Has talking to people ever changed your approach to the book youíre working on?

I hope not. On the Dragera list, somebody, unfortunately, just came up with an idea that was exactly what I had already planned -- and that has made me seriously consider changing it. But I donít know if I will or not.

What are you working on now?

Another Vlad novel. The plan originally was 19 of them or until I get tired of them or until I die. And so far that is the plan. I havenít gotten tired of him yet. I still like hanging out with Vlad, checking in with him to see what heís up to. He keeps me entertained. Iíve always wondered and still wonder -- or always since I realized I was writing a series, anyway -- Iíve wondered what I would do if I got tired of him and they waved some money at me. I still donít know what I would do. I would happily live the rest of my life never knowing what I would do.

As the series has progressed, Vlad has gotten more complexÖ

Öotherwise heíd get really boring. I donít want to read the same story over and over.

Do you think that reflects your growing up as well?

I would image. You get older and your interests change. One hopes they deepen. And youíll drag some people along with you as you go through that and lose others -- but it strikes me as a pretty bad thing to worry about that.

How old are your kids now?

I think itís 19, 21, 21 and 28.

Did you ever see yourself having a 28 year old?

No -- and I still donít. Iím only 30... in hex.

What do they think about what you do?

I still remember one occasion when -- Iím exaggerating the story a little -- when my band Cats Laughing was in an Xcalibur comic book and a certain of my children thought that was far more exciting than the fact that I had written some books. They do seem to be proud of me as a writer, which I like, because they sure as hell have no reason to be proud of me as a father. So at least they get something out of the deal.

Whatís the one question that everyone always asks you?

"Where do you get your ideas?" is a popular one. I also get a lot of "when is the next book coming out?", which seems fair.

Has the publishing world been everything youíd thought it would be?

I was fortunate enough not to enter with any particular conceptions one way or another.

Was the Viscount series always envisioned as three volumes?

It wasnít envisioned at first. The Phoenix Guards was a book I wrote with no expectation of publishing it. I wrote it purely because I wanted to read it.

What did folks at Tor say when you said you wanted to publish a three-volume work?

They said ďOKĒ Theyíve always been pretty much ďOK.Ē

Complete fannish question next: what is on your desk?

Other than the computer? Itís a PC -- itís very cute and has a particularly attractive blue light. Above that Iíve got a hologram -- itís a telescope and you look through it and see a planet that looks like Saturn and a spaceship. Itís very happening. Iíve got a picture of Roger Zelazny. A quote from a poem by Jane Yolen: It is all true,/ it is not true. /The more I tell you,/ The more I shall lie. /What is story/ But jesting Pilotís cry?/ I am not paid to tell you the truth. And a quote from Alexander Dumas: "Prefer rogues to idiots, they sometimes take a rest." Iíve got a painting by my friend Kathy Marshall of Vlad with Loiosh at Castle Black. Letís see... Iíve got the usual collection of writerly type books that I keep at hand. Iíve got the OED behind me. Itís the whole lower shelf of the bookcase behind me. Itís the 1974 edition, not the two-volume thing but the multi-volume thing. Sometimes, I pick it up and cuddle it. A picture of my sister and my kids. A disorganized massive pile of DVDs, that I put in for background because I canít stand background music but I like to have voices.

Which are best for writing?

Just about anything with horses in it. War movies are good. Midway, Kellyís Heroes. Pirates of the Carribean turned out to be pretty good to write to. And Casablanca. You stop in the middle when one of the lines comes up, then you go back to work. Iíve got a nice piece of artwork by Terri Windling. Itís a nude -- but very graceful, not particularly erotic but very, very attractive. Next to that is a bulletin board on which I try to control the universe.

Your charactersí universe or your personal universe?

My universe. Iím trying to hire a personal assistant, which would be easier if I could afford to pay. Minimum wage doesnít seem to grab too many.

Whatís the question that you wished you got asked?

I wish people would ask if I was a good poker player.

Are you?

No. Iím terrible. Absolutely terrible. Come on over. Weíll get a game going.