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Interview with Robert Jackson Bennett

Robert-Jackson-BennettI’m rather excited today, because I get to bring you an interview with Robert Jackson Bennett. For those who are unfamiliar with Robert’s work or fancy a bit of a recap, RJB is an American author who had his first novel – Mr Shivers – published at the age of 25. Despite his youth (still only 32), Robert’s novels have been praised extensively for their tackling of the big issues that surround the human experience:  memory, legacy, warfare, suppression, religion, life and death. Far from being ‘preachy’, each of Robert’s novels works as a thought-experiment, with the fantastical elements challenging the reader to look at issues through multiple distorted lenses that offer the potential of a new perspective.

Two years ago, Robert published his fifth novel: City of Stairs. It was his first secondary-world fantasy novel and saw junior diplomat Shara Thivani arrive in the city of Bulikov, conquered by her people, to investigate the murder of a former mentor. Within days of arriving, Shara has learned about people who seemingly have the ability to vanish and with that comes the realisation that perhaps the long-dead gods that once oppressed her people aren’t quite as dead as everyone believes…

This interview will focus on the sequel to that book, City of Blades, and was conducted less than 24 hours following Robert’s return from ConFusion in Michigan. Anyone who has been to an SFF convention before will take this ability to work through a Con-hangover as evidence that RJB is some kind of superhuman!

It’s interesting that you chose the older, past her prime General Turyin Mulaghesh as your protagonist for City of Blades. Don’t get me wrong, from the first chapter of Blades, you prove it to be a great decision – it’s one of the most enjoyable openings to a novel I’ve read! However, the fan reaction to Dreyling Sigrud, following Stairs, would have made him the obvious choice for many. Why did you pick Mulaghesh? 

I tend to think of books and characters in terms of big questions. In City of Stairs, the big questions the book asks, I think, are, “Do we want to try and change? Can we accept the past and move on? Is it worth trying to do that even if it’s dangerous?” And I picked a protagonist that would serve as a good platform for these questions: someone who’s part of the ruling establishment in the story, but is just enough on the edge that she can question and wonder if what she’s doing is really right.

So that was Shara’s story – and the questions were raised and answered for her. I knew at the end of Stairs that she was no longer a person who would have a lot of doubt about what she needed to do now. And doubt is crucial to a main character. Someone competent and confident at all times is not interesting to watch.

Which is why I realized that Sigrud would not be an interesting character at this point in the series. He is not driven or plagued by doubt. He’s almost literally unbreakable, or it seems like he is. And he also wasn’t a good fit for the questions I knew I wanted to ask in the second book.

If the first book is about initiating change, the second one needed to be about following through on change and committing to it. It’s far harder to sustain a new nation after a revolution than it is to start a revolution. Shara doesn’t quite start a revolution, but she gets close – and that has a lot of people upset at this point in the story. So it just made sense to explore this story from the point of view of a veteran of the establishment, someone who’s not quite sure that idealism can win out. Someone who isn’t just sure about whether her country can change, but whether she herself can change: General Mulaghesh.

Whereas Shara was an ‘eager beaver’ whose natural desire to research, understand and get to the bottom of everything made her the perfect ‘Holmes’ for a mystery story, Mulaghesh is… a bit more reluctant. This does make the novel fell a bit more somber in places – the location adds to this too – and yet it never loses its momentum. Was keeping the pace ever a challenge? How did you manage it?

Mulaghesh isn’t a born investigator, but I think she’s far more morally committed to individual soldiers than Shara is. Shara’s very much big picture, but Mulaghesh counts the individual lives lost and spent in their country’s wars. So it helped tremendously to frame the story around a missing solider, someone they’d sent to the ends of the earth in service to their country, and then lost. Mulaghesh would absolutely tear through barriers and break rules to try and track that person down. Whereas Shara got through obstacles by cleverness and an encyclopedia-like memory, Mulaghesh does so using grit and sheer bloody-mindedness. That was tremendously fun to write.

You’ve never written a sequel to a novel before, right? Beyond the success of the first novel, what is it about The Divine Cities that allowed for further exploration?

Nope, I haven’t written a sequel before. I think people just knew there was more story there. More gods unexplored, more changes to come. They knew it was there and they wanted it.

Did writing within a familiar world that you had already spent time building and explaining to readers change the writing process for you at all? Did you miss or appreciate certain anything about it?

GatesProbably the hardest part was that I knew I wanted to move beyond Bulikov. I wanted to focus on a city that had a much more troubling history than even Bulikov, so I focused it on Voortyashtan, the heart of the ancient Continental war machine. Mulaghesh is a career soldier, so going to this place, which fueled so much sorrow for her people, causes her to wonder a lot about forgiveness – about whether she can forgive this city for what it was, as well as if she can forgive herself for taking part in warfare that’s not too dissimilar form what the Continentals did.

But to do that, it meant a whole new history. I didn’t want to cover the same ground twice. So it meant focusing it on something new – the goddess of warfare – and then expanding that subject. So I couldn’t rest on my laurels and say, “Here’s some stuff you all know already.” It’s all news to you.

There are scenes in both City of Stairs and City of Blades that are rather uncomfortable to read. I’m not talking the gore, but rather real, pure pain and hatred related to suppression, loss and the theme of the past versus present. Do you find yourself affected emotionally during/after writing these kinds of scenes and how extensively are you drawing upon personal views/experiences?

Yes. I think if I didn’t find those scenes emotionally difficult or hard to write, they wouldn’t have been worth writing. There was a great line that Tom Waits said a while ago when talking about war, which was (and here I’m rephrasing from memory), “If you sent your child away to this war, and if they died in it, you should be able to say that this war was worth it. If you don’t feel that way at the start of that war, then you shouldn’t be starting it.” It was an interesting way to look at warfare, measuring the individual blood that’s spilled and considering the consequences before you jump in.

And that’s the question that’s put to a lot of characters in Blades. There are a series of parent/child relationships that get tested here. A lot of people get interrogated about what sort of consequences they’re willing to bear.

So much of your writing tackles such important areas of the human condition: life, death, gods, war, industry, Governments. Do you ever get tempted to write a book about… I dunno… a dog who wields a shotgun and hunts evil faeries or something?

I thought I was writing a fun little swashbuckly book when I sat down to write Stairs, but then I went and got all that genocide in it.

Having read your blog posts, ‘The Genre Fountain‘ and ‘Some advice to aspiring writers…‘, I get the impression you write for a greater reason than to make a living selling books (which would probably have seen you try write more within a specific genre that bookshops could more easily shelve). If this is the case, do you know why writing is so appealing to you, personally?

I’m pretty disinterested in working inside a system. Not that I’m contemptuous of it – I just don’t think about it.

I think Neil Gaiman’s line works best here: I write to find out what I think about things. My books are thought experiments I run on my own brain.

Has it ever crossed your mind to write for the market, in a specific genre, or to adopt a pen-name when writing closer to one particular genre than usual? Have you ever been advised to do so?

Yes. I’ve tried writing really commercial fiction. And every time I tried it, it was really, really bad.

You trained for a long time as a classical violist with the intent to one day become a professional. Do you feel that this training contributed to your development as an author?

Probably. Musical training is about being alone in a room and focusing on doing one thing better and better. The difference is that, in music, you’re working on someone else’s art. Odds are, you didn’t write what you’re playing. That might be one reason why I prefer writing.

I know from reading your blog that you’ve a young son due to start Pre-Kindergarten soon. Has becoming a father altered your writing in anyway?

Yes. I worry a lot more now. I worry about death, and change, and what sort of world we’ll have in twenty, thirty, or forty years. These things all show up in my books, because that’s what my brain is obsessed with.

One word that crops up a lot with your novels is ‘unique’, so I guess it’s hard to read novels like your own! When you find time to read novels (between writing and looking after your son) are there certain things your look for? 

I’ve actually stopped reading a lot of fiction recently. I was talking about this with Brian McClellan, and a few other people, and was relieved that I’m not alone in this phenomenon. Fiction has stopped doing the things to my brain that I want it to do. I focus a lot more on history and nonfiction books now, because I want to know more about real world things.

Is there a particular speculative theme/trope in the fantasy genre that you feel is overused to the extent that if we did away with it, novels would be more diverse?

YounYoung people. All the books seem to be about young people. I can see why – we innately sympathize with them, since we were all there once, and it’s also an easy vehicle, as young people are more likely to not know what’s going on and have to get things explained to them a lot, which is the exact same position as the reader. But at the end of the day, we’re still writing a huge amount of fiction focusing on maybe 1/4 to 1/5 of your life, if not less. A valuable piece of advice for kids is, “Your teen years are only a sliver of your life, so don’t spent too much time worrying about them,” but if you look at fiction and pop culture, those teen years are absolutely dominant. You would think the human spent half their life being a teenager.

I’m told you are holding a Social Media Workshop at ConFusion this weekend. Sadly, I won’t be able to make it, but I’m wondering if you could give us the cliff notes version in addition to your thoughts on Tweeting.

Basically I yelled a lot of nonsense at people for twenty six minutes. Brian McClellan was a flower and google is where you go to find out how human womens smell. That about sums it up.

Twitter is its own thing, and I actually don’t think it has a lot in common with my writing. Every once in a while I’ll tweet about Real Stuff, but mostly I tweet about which celebrities need to knife fight and/or kiss, and whether turtles as a species are really worth it. It’s its own weirdo art form.

Finally, I read that you’ve just finished City of Miracles, which will be the final book in ‘The Divine Cities’ trilogy. What’s next for RJB?

Man, I hope it’s a nap.

CoBCity of Blades
The Divine Cities #2
by Robert Jackson Bennett

The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

Click here to order: City of Blades: The Divine Cities Book 2 (UK)
Click here to order: City of Blades: The Divine Cities Book 2 (USA)

Fantasy-Faction would like to say a huge thank you to Robert Jackson Bennett for answering our questions and to his UK publishers Jo Fletcher Books for helping arrange this interview. You can visit Robert’s website to check out his awesome blog and follow him on Twitter (NSFW, NSFW, NSFW, NSFW!).

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