For the second time in less than a year, I have had the good fortune to be able to conduct an interview with an author whose work I admire and respect. Earlier it was with Ashok Banker, author of the modern Ramayana. Now it’s Robert Scott, co-author of The Hickory Staff with his late father-in-law, Jay Gordon.
The Hickory Staff is the first book in a trilogy entitled The Eldarn Sequence, named for the world on which it is partially set. We also spend a good deal of time with the characters in the exotic local of Idaho Springs, Colorado. As I had said in my review of the novel, what made this work so special was that they managed to breath new life into a familiar genre: the ‘stranger in a strange land’ theme.
It was this, their characterizations and something about the freshness of their writing that captured my imagination and made me appreciate the book so much. When I wrote them to tell them I had written an unsolicited review of their book, and to request an interview, it was Robert who wrote back.
It turned out that Jay Gordon was in the last stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and by this time could no longer type. Jay passed away on November 18th of 2005, having seen the first book published, the second on the way for final proof, and the third about to enter editing.
We had initially planned this interview when Jay was alive, but the disease had other plans and the end, to my regret, came quicker than I could get it together to send off the questions. In this interview Robert talks about the genesis of this series, the way in which he and Jay worked together, a little about Jay himself, and of course some of the nitty gritty behind the creation of the work.
I conducted the interview via email, sending Robert a list of questions to which he responded. As I discovered with Ashok Banker’s interview, authors don’t need much encouragement to write, and Robert supplied bountiful answers for all my questions.
So sit back and enjoy reading a storyteller telling the story of his creation , The Eldarn Sequence.
Q: Well, let’s start with the usual biographical details.
The first time I met Jay Gordon was in Boston. I was dating his daughter (now my wife), and Jay drove up from New Jersey to help her move into a new apartment. As a guitarist, I was always worried that something I lifted or carried would cut one of my fingers or crack one of my nails. I had a performance the following weekend and was gingerly lugging books, furniture and various sundry items – all the time hoping I would come through the day unscathed.
For some reason, there was a moment when Jay and I found ourselves alone in the back of the moving truck. The silence was awkward; so, I took advantage of the opportunity to spot check my hands. Blushing, I confessed that I was a bit overzealous about my fingers and that I often felt like a character from a series of novels I had read back in high school. At that, Jay interrupted. Obviously relieved – we had something to discuss, after all – he said, ‘Thomas Covenant, Steven Donaldson’s hero.’ And so it began; we had known each other for about two hours at the time.
Jay was a fascinating guy. A technology specialist from the early days of the personal computer and corporate network avalanche, Jay was a consultant who seemed to enjoy many things more than he ever enjoyed going to work. One of his most ardent passions was for epic fantasy, science fiction and horror stories. He had read everything and would troll through the bookstore every couple weeks to see if the next volume in any one of eight or nine different series had hit the shelves.
We joked often about writing an epic fantasy series but never got around to it. When he became ill in 2001, it was apparent that we needed to get started. He had gone to scores of doctors and had entertained almost as many diagnoses. Things were not going well. The Hickory Staff emerged as something enjoyable that he could do, something to engage his imagination even as his body was breaking down beneath him. Jay never said as much, but I think he was thrilled to have helped tell this story. In the end, it was definitely about the journey. The fact that the book was picked up for publication was a wonderful, but unexpected windfall.
Q: Why this genre of fantasy, what is it that attracted you to the displaced person(s) idea?
There was never any question that we would write a traditional epic fantasy piece. It was Jay’s favourite genre, and he especially loved the stranger-in-a-strange-land stories he had been reading for decades. I liked the idea of working with malleable characters. At some point early in the process, I came up with the idea of creating people (and places) trapped between who they had been and who they would eventually become. In turn, the town of Idaho Springs, Colorado became a perfect starting block.
The old mining town is nestled in Clear Creek Canyon, boxed in by the mountains with no room to grow. With Denver in the east and a scattering of posh ski resorts in the west, Idaho Springs is perfect. It’s not a city, not a resort and no longer a mining hub. Crafting Steven Taylor’s character, it made sense to begin in such a place. While this theme doesn’t apply to every Eldarni character, creature, city or village, it is the lens through which we tried to view the story every time we stepped back to ask, ‘How are we doing?’
Q: I have a hard enough time dealing with myself when writing, how did you work with two people? Did one create a scenario, another write it and then the two of you critique it, or is it the old five word story game where you start and finish each other’s sentences, but here the key is to make comprehensible? What was the process?
When we started, neither Jay nor I knew anything about the publishing industry. We’d never written a query letter; we didn’t know how or where to find credible agents, and apart from visiting Stephen King’s house on Halloween (well, the street in front of his house, anyway), neither of us had spent much time with writers. We kidded one another about it, but we didn’t truly expect that we would get the manuscript read, never mind edited and in print. I was living in Denver at the time; so, I would write a chapter, email it to Jay and then wait for his notes, questions and critiques. That system worked well until Jay’s ALS progressed to the point where he was unable to type. He had lost much of the dexterity in his hands; so, we tapped his knowledge and ideas in marathon planning and research sessions. Jay was in a wheelchair at the time, and I think he welcomed opportunities to get out of the house, especially to the library or the diner where we’d sit all day, making notes and discussing characters.
Our initial goal was to write the story and to keep it going until Jay passed away (thus the size of the damned thing). He was telling the tale of Hannah Sorensen and the Pragan Resistance, while I worked with Steven Taylor and the crew from Rona. The story lines rarely overlapped; so, early on, there was a great deal of planning but not many disagreements about what happened and to whom. When it became apparent that we would be sending bits and chapters out for consideration, we had to figure a way to turn two writing styles into one.
This didn’t feel especially exigent – again, since we were expecting nothing but rejection slips. However, when we realized the entire manuscript was heading to London and that a honest-to-goodness editor was going to peruse it, we had to get serious about cleaning it up. The rewriting fell to me, but Jay was involved all along. Unable to type his ideas, he would read sections, mark places that needed to be addressed and then share his ideas during our sessions.
I think we managed to avoid most disagreements, because we rarely wrote about the same characters at the same time. When we did, one of us was usually more invested in that group of players; so, the other generally (not always, by any means) gave in. Our writing styles and work habits were different, and we learned early in the process that working simultaneously on the same paragraph or – God forbid – the same sentence was the kiss of death.
Q: You have your characters deal with some very serious personal issues. Stephen has never been motivated or resolute enough to do things, and now is forced to, and Garec is forced to come to terms with his skill as a killer. It’s obvious you wanted this to be more than just an action/adventure series. Any specific reasons for the internal conflicts, aside from motivating the characters?
Writing a traditional fantasy story, Jay and I needed to come up with a few things – hopefully subtle things – that would make the Eldarn books a fresh experience for fantasy readers. Our characters and their personal struggles were favourite drawing boards, ones we revisited often, especially when the draft copy felt like something we had both read dozens of times. With the project nearly complete, the richness of the characters and their development is one of the critical things on which Jay and I hung our hats. There is passion, mysticism, magic, conflict, and plenty of action; however, I believe the Eldarn books live or die based on the reader’s connection with our characters.
When we started, neither Jay nor I had written much fiction. We established some rules that seemed to work, and we stuck by them, no matter what. I was surprised at how frequently one character’s evolution dictated what needed to happen in the plot. (I had read about those things happening but never experienced it firsthand.) Versen’s death (without spoiling too much) is a key moment, because without his murder, Brexan’s character would have continued to exist in his shadow. Brexan is a significant character in Lessek’s Key and The Larion Senators. Yet, she would not have emerged as a varsity player in these books had Versen lived. The same holds true for Garec, Hannah, Mark and Hoyt. They are all characters who evolve slowly but – hopefully – into memorable participants in an albeit, traditional, story.
Q: All of your characters have depth to them, even the ones who are dead before we know them for long. What did you use for references for them? Anyone you know show up in the pages, or are they all just figments of your imagination?
Jay and I wanted to craft characters who were interesting people first and heroes (or villains) second. They each needed to have something on their minds, some personal, non-plot issue plaguing them while they tried to keep their eye on the ball. The litmus test we used was to ask ourselves whether these people would seem two dimensional if we met them outside the pages of the book. And while we didn’t mould any characters from people we know, there are snippets of characters: physical features, idiosyncrasies, gestures and colloquialisms that – in hindsight – remind me of certain friends or family members. It was rarely deliberate, though. Well, okay, not often deliberate, anyway.
Q: Did you know when you started out on it that it would be a trilogy? I can barely see past the first page of anything I’m doing, I can’t imagine thinking three books in advance.
No. For years I wondered what marathon runners thought about while trudging along for 26.2 miles. At 35, I decided to run the New York City Marathon (well, jog, crawl, hitchhike and eventually give up and wait for the Med-Evac helicopter). The night before the race, Jay and I heard from Victor Gollancz, our imprint at Orion Books in London. They had read The Hickory Staff and were interested in our plans for the series. Assuring them we had extensive notes for Lessek’s Key and The Larion Senators, I promised to e-mail a pair of outlines the following Monday, a mere thirty-six hours later. It was one of those wonderful stomach flops that even the engineers at the Disney Corporation can’t perfect. We had glimpsed a publishing contract for a story we scribbled over donuts and beer and we were about to lose it, because we didn’t have a goddamned clue what happens next.
The following morning my wife drove me to the starting line. For the next four hours, I irritated marathoners with plot ideas, character flaws, potential paradoxes and bad metaphors. At 78th Street and Central Park West, I met my sister who gave me a hug and handed over my mini tape recorder. I spent about twenty delirious minutes telling the story aloud to the Upper West Side, typed the outlines that night and emailed the pages off with several hours to spare. I like to think that if the books ever do well, I might hear from one of those runners, someone who humoured me through Brooklyn or out along First Avenue. I kept the tape as well; although, it seems to make more sense after a long run.
Q: Who if anyone has inspired your writing?
Jay was a fiction junkie for most of his life. I know he was inspired by Steven Donaldson, Katherine Kurtz, Robert Jordan, Melanie Rawn and Raymond Feist. He is also one of the only people I’ve known to have read the Silmarillion from start to finish. Although he didn’t read Tolkien as much in his later years, Jay had been through the Lord of the Rings enough times to know even the most obscure characters on a first-name basis. He read hundreds of books; he had one with him all time. An avid sports fan, Jay would watch the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NCAA Final Four and all with a book open in his lap. He never minded traffic jams, waits for restaurant tables or long lines at the DMV. Jay was the quintessential escapist reader, and writers of traditional epic fantasy were his inspiration.
For me, writing inspiration comes from a curious place. I started working on The Hickory Staff right after completing my dissertation. An unnecessarily complicated study of school principals and role-related stress, it was a monstrous document with enough bibliography pages to wallpaper my children’s bathroom. All the while I was working on the final draft, I imagined the published manuscript there on the shelves next to the non-fiction works of William Manchester. (Yikes, I’m blushing on the Internet.)
About 100 years ago, I had a chance to travel as a concert soloist. It was a wonderful experience for a young guitarist, but most of the time I was by myself. William Manchester’s works kept me company for years, and I suppose that most days when I sit down to write, I wish I could scribble even a few paragraphs with the skill he would brandish over eight hundred pages. Now that I’m writing fiction every day, I’m still inspired by the sheer volume of his work and the discipline that went into his research. There are thousands of academics out there writing non-fiction, but for me, Manchester made his research read like a novel. His books (and Howard Zinn’s) remain the best history classes I’ve ever had.
Q: Some of the creatures you have invented for the books are quite unique, especially the thing inhabiting Nerak. What did you use as inspiration for these ghoulies?
That’s a tough question to answer without spoiling aspects of Lessek’s Key. However, there is a place near the end of The Hickory Staff where Mark Jenkins is wrestling with deductions about Nerak and Nerak’s abilities. Mark is convinced that most of the demons, monsters and creatures hunting the partisan group have a few key elements in common. He struggles to put his finger on it but by the time the book ends, Mark is certain he’s making headway. He discusses it with Steven and Brynne on the shores of the underground lake, but it continues to bother him throughout his time in Orindale. What those creatures have in common is a critical question that must be answered before the band of freedom fighters can defeat Nerak.
These were enjoyable monsters to create. The fact that they all had something in common, something to help illuminate one of Nerak’s weaknesses made the journey more fun for Jay and me. Again, our goal early on was not necessarily to send this manuscript off for consideration. We were more engaged with telling the story, manipulating the layers and creating a wild ride for a willing reader.
Having ghouls and critters with a subtle common denominator was something we did on purpose. We didn’t necessarily know when we would use it, but it helped pave the way for Mark’s character to play an important role inLessek’s Key and The Larion Senators. Like Steven’s mathematics knowledge, Mark’s deductions help the partisans decide how and when to bring the fight to Nerak.
Q: Mathematics and engineering have always been weak points for me (same with those types of problems you have Steven loving to solve) the magic in these worlds are based on certain principles. Were any of these principles taken from our sciences that people might recognise? Or have they just come from your fertile imagination?
On that subject, Jay was our expert. He insisted that we have parameters within which Eldarni magic would be confined. And it was about confinement. I remember him saying how much he disliked books in which magic underwent a transformation just at the moment when the protagonist needed something more powerful or more insidious. Why hadn’t it been that powerful all along? How many sidekicks had to die before the square-jawed hero discovered that, in fact, he could level a mountain?
Without spoiling Lessek’s Key, there is more than one mystical force at work in Eldarn. Jay and I were careful to establish specific ceilings for each. At the conclusion of The Hickory Staff, there is some suspicion among the main characters that greater powers have come into play, but we have yet to see the limits of anyone’s abilities, Nerak and the staff included.
We found that the most challenging part about writing different kinds of magic over three volumes was deciding how much to expose and when. We didn’t want readers getting the end of Lessek’s Key and saying, ‘oh, they just added that ability, because they were in deep shit.’ We needed magic to evolve like a character, with glimpses of the future included in the text from early on.
What are those neon signs Mark keeps seeing? Why didn’t the hickory staff shatter when Steven slashed that pine tree in the Blackstone Mountains? Have we seen the sum force of Nerak’s magic, and why didn’t it destroy Gilmour on “The Prince Marek”? How did Steven start that campfire when the staff was out of reach? These are all questions that eventually lead to a broader and more comprehensive understanding of the different forces at work in Eldarn. By the end of Lessek’s Key, most everything will have come into focus. Yet, there are a few threads that are not entirely explained until The Larion Senators. It wouldn’t be any fun to have everything worked out too early.
As for the math, there is more of that to come as well, including an engineering problem that, if I had a massive federal or corporate grant, I would try to solve in my basement. In Eldarn, magic can pinch hit for an electromagnet. Here in Virginia, well, I just don’t make that much money.
Q: Did you have any particular society in mind, cultural, historical period, etc. when you created the world of Eldarn?
Jay and I established a few written-in-blood rules that we followed religiously. One of the most important was that people behave according to what they value. This rule had to hold true for any culture we created, because without it, readers would be less inclined to feel sympathy for the characters.
In turn, I suppose there are aspects of Eldarni culture that are rooted in the most fundamental tenants of our western values, traditions, beliefs, myths and behaviours. Yet, Jay and I didn’t select a particular culture or time period to act as Eldarn’s template. Actually, we were deliberate about jumping around a bit. The architecture, the weaponry, the agriculture, the economics and commerce, and especially the shipping industry are all shadowy reflections of different time periods in western history.
It presupposes the fact that Larion senators had been making trips back and forth for some time, but it also provides for 980 Twinmoons (about 135 years) of Nerak’s personal, dictatorial values to impact Eldarn’s citizens. Steven notices it in Orindale the moment he sees the Malakasian flagship, The Prince Marek. There is an astonishing incongruity between the technologies of war and shipping – two of Nerak’s priorities – and the technologies of Eastland farming or architecture, for example.
980 Twinmoons is enough time for Eldarn to forget many of the innovative technologies and resources the Larion Senate introduced from Sandcliff Palace. It is ample time for Nerak’s military and economic priorities to diffuse through the cultural fabric of the occupied lands. As well, it is ample time for the people of Eldarn to lose sight of what it meant to be free. Steven and Mark notice almost immediately that apart from the Resistance, Eldarn’s people act like a beaten people. Bringing them hope is a charge the partisan group will need to address before the end of the series.