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SFFWRTCHT: A Revealing Interview With Author Stephen R. Donaldson

Born in 1947 in Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen R. Donaldson lived in India(where his father was a medical missionary) until 1963. He graduated from the College of Wooster (Ohio) in 1968, served two years as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, doing hospital work in Akron, then attended Kent State University, where he received his M.A. in English in 1971.After dropping out of his Ph.D. program and moving to New Jersey in order to write fiction, Donaldson made his publishing debut with the first Thomas Covenant trilogy in 1977. That enabled him to move to a healthier climate in New Mexico. He has since authored two more Covenant series, one a trilogy and the other a tetralogy. In addition, he’s authored five novels in his science fiction Gap series, the Mordant’s Need series, three books under the pseudonym Reed Stephens, and numerous short stories. Although his novels have received many awards, he is most proud of two unlikely achievements. In 1993 he received a Doctor of Literature degree from the College of Wooster, and in 1994 he gained a black belt in Shotokan karate from Sensei Mike Heister and Anshin Personal Defense. A frequent attendee of World Fantasy Conventions, he can be found online at his website

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s start with the basics: Where did your interest in Science Fiction and Fantasy come from?

Stephen R. Donaldson:That’s hard to say. Before and after I realized that I wanted to be a writer of fiction, I enjoyed reading SF/F. But I also enjoyed reading other things; and as an English major in college and grad school, I spent the vast majority of my time reading mainstream literature. In fact, I aspired to write fiction in the tradition of Joseph Conrad (and, to a lesser extent, Henry James). However, we all have to discover what our abilities and interests are good for; and after quite a bit of experimentation, I discovered that fantasy was my natural vein.

Strangely, I didn’t become able to write effectively in other veins (mystery novels, science fiction) until after I committed myself to fantasy.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some writers who inspired you as you discovered the genre?

SRD:I’m uncomfortable with the word “inspired” in this context because it means different things to different people. If “inspired” means, “Hey, I want to write like this!” then I was not inspired by any specific SF/F writers. But if “inspired” means, “Hey, this is pretty cool, and I’m especially glad I read it!” then certain writers did inspire me.

In any case, it would be foolish to pretend that I wasn’t profoundly affected by Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s example convinced me that fantasy was worth writing. But in various ways I was also inspired by writers as diverse as Alfred Bester (The Stars My Destination), Robert Heinlein (Glory Road), and Frank Herbert (Dune).

SFFWRTCHT: When did you start writing seriously and how long until your first sale?

SRD:I conceived my ambition to write fiction for a living during Freshman orientation in college. From that moment on, all of my efforts were focused on my (mostly secret) goal. College and grad school were just ways to pursue my private agenda. So if you start counting when I entered college (fall ’64), it was nearly 12 years until I first found a publisher (summer ’76). But if you start counting when I began to write to the exclusion of everything else (January ’72), it was only 4+ years.

However, I can’t resist mentioning that during those 4+ years Lord Foul’s Bane was rejected by every fiction publisher in theUS: a total of 47.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study creative writing at all in school? How’d you learn your craft?

SRD:I strenuously avoided taking any classes or joining any (for lack of a better term) “interest groups” that focused on “creative writing.” I did not want to be guided (never mind evaluated) by people who consider themselves qualified on the subject. Instead I wanted to learn how to write by studying how other writers did it-especially writers whose work I admired. (I did write fiction for what we called “Independent Study” projects in both my Junior and Senior years; but my Junior IS adviser was aMilton scholar, and my Senior IS adviser reveled in Chaucer. They both believed that writing can’t be taught: it can only be learned.) So I happily spent most of my time just being an English major.

However, from the beginning I did not make the mistake of thinking that I knew what I was doing. In fact, I was confident that I did not. So (“on my own time”) I sought out all the feedback I could get from “real” (i.e. non-writing) readers-and I only listened to readers who were willing to tell me why what I’d written didn’t hang together, or wasn’t convincing. Then I revised, and revised, and revised again. I still do. I’m convinced that revising is the only way to learn.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you approach creating monsters/aliens? Do you model them after human cultures? Mix and match or just improvise?

SRD:I really don’t know how to answer, except by saying that I try to create what the story needs. I know that sounds like a non-explanation; but what else can I say? Since I always know the story before I start to write, I usually have a pretty clear nothing of what the story’s requirements (and rules) are. Then I just cudgel my brain until I come up with something that fits.

If I could explain how my imagination-or how any imagination-works, I would be a whole smarter than I actually am.

SFFWRTCHT: How much effort do you put into world-building before you sit down to write? Or do you just throw it together as it’s needed?

SRD:I’m not a Tolkien-esque world builder. I’m not interested in worlds for their own sake: I’m only interested in stories/characters (and in worlds to the extent that they make my stories/characters possible). I like to say that I’m an “efficient” writer in the sense that I only create what I need for the specific story I want to tell. Of course, one of the things I need is a context (for the story) that seems real; and one way to evoke the sensation that the context is real is to create-or at least to suggest-a wider world beyond the story (different lands, different peoples, different histories, etc.). But all I do is suggest that wider world (unless I discover a need for more detail during the course of the story). This approach has the advantage of, well, keeping my options open. The disadvantage, of course, is that if/when my thinking changes, I run the risk of producing internal inconsistencies.

However, the planning stages of the first Covenant trilogy were somewhat different than my usual procedures. At that time, writing fantasy was terra incognita for me, and I felt a need to prepare for my expedition as meticulously as I could. So my second order of business was to design the map in considerable detail. (My first order of business was then, and is now, to design the story-which I do backward. I start at the ending I want to reach-my reason for telling the story-and I reverse-engineer both the plot and the characters to enable that ending.) But even under those circumstances, I only created what I needed: since I already knew the story, I devised the landscapes and the “world” of the Land (including its history) to fulfill the story’s requirements-and only to fulfill those requirements.

Nowadays my normal methods might look like “winging it” to an outsider. But since I revise obsessively, I don’t hesitate to create some aspect of my context, then throw it out, and create something else to take its place, until I achieve a result which seems harmonious (and consistent) to me.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you define epic fantasy and what are its core elements to your mind?

SRD: “Epic”: large in scale, both in action and in thematic content. The biggest themes require the biggest stories. “Fantasy”: an approach to storytelling that relies on magic and monsters as metaphors to communicate its themes. Fantasy enables writers to address aspects of the human condition which are-at best-very difficult to discuss without those metaphors. I like to point out that the oldest and most enduring stories in all cultures on the planet are epics. It’s no accident that those stories are also fantasies.

SFFWRTCHT: You have written two trilogies and a tetralogy in the Thomas Covenant Saga now. The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is four books, not three. Did you envision the series continuing to capture your interest this long? Did you have those concepts in mind all along?

SRD: While I was working on the first Covenant trilogy, and for some time afterward, I had absolutely no intention of writing any more stories with the same character(s) and setting. I had-and have-no interest in repeating myself. But I had an editor at the time (Lester del Rey) who believed in fungible fiction: create something worthwhile and then repeat the same thing forever-or until it stops selling, whichever comes first. He refused to accept my complete disinterest, so he bombarded me with plots for the books he wanted next: plots which were all either trite or ludicrous or both. Eventually he sent me a suggestion so bad that I thought, “This is absurd. What I really ought to do is….” And before I could stop myself, I had come up with the ideas for both The Second Chronicles and The Last Chronicles.

At that point, I still didn’t want to write more Covenant. But these news ideas were both impeccably logical (they grew organically out of the first trilogy) and impervious to the dangers of repeating myself (neither the characters nor the events covered old ground); and they quickly took on a life of their own. Soon I felt compelled to tackle them.

However, writing The Second Chronicles convinced me that I was simply not a good enough writer to do justice to The Last Chronicles; so I set the project aside while I tried to become a better writer (by the obvious expedient of pushing myself in new directions, writing other stories that had also acquired their own lives, and that required me to learn new skills in order to tell them). Well, I never did become a good enough writer. But after four mystery novels, two short story collections, the two volumes of Mordant’s Need (fantasy), and the five volumes of the Gap sequence (science fiction), I realized that I was running out of life. Eventually The Last Chronicles became a now-or-never proposition, so I summoned up the courage to face my adequacies, and I got to work. Now only Book Four, The Last Dark, remains to be published.

SFFWRTCHT: Where did the idea for Thomas Covenant the leper/Halfhand hero come from?

SRD: I’ve told this story so often that I can’t bear to repeat it in detail. The short version: I had conceived the ambition to write a fantasy novel about a “real” character who rejected the fantasy experience (no doubt partly in an attempt to answer my own questions about why fantasy matters); and it occurred to me one day that if I wanted my character to have any true substance, he would have to be someone with very personal reasons to prefer fantasy (a leper, in this case)-someone for whom integrity is more important than convenience or easy gratification. And, of course, integrity is a journey. We don’t simply have it. First, we have to discover it. Then we have to earn it.

SFFWRTCHT: You made a tough choice with Covenant early in Lord Foul’s Bane where he rapes a young girl. A lot of readers have struggled to overcome that. I think Covenant’s redemption journey is pretty amazing, despite his flaws. But why take such a risk with your hero? As I recall, he was one of my first encounters with an antihero archetype.

SRD: First I have to say that I never thought of Thomas Covenant as an “antihero.” To my way of thinking, he’s an unformed hero, a hero-in-the-making (the journey of integrity). The formation process isn’t always pretty. Maybe it’s never pretty. But the themes are different than those that adhere to the antihero.

Second, I like to observe that there are really only three character archetypes: victim, victimizer (antihero), and rescuer (hero). And since the essence of a good story is that people change (without which there can be no real drama or suspense), it follows naturally that in a good story the archetypes all assume each other’s roles. Well, Covenant begins the story as an unalloyed victim; and I knew that if I wanted him to be taken seriously-as either a potential surrogate or a potential opponent for the Despiser-I had to get him out of his starting role. But recasting him directly as a rescuer seemed entirely unconvincing to me: in my experience, victims are much more likely to become victimizers. To my mind, the rape of Lena was a necessary step along the road of Covenant’s formation; I wrote it without hesitation; and I stand by it.

SFFWRTCHT: You also made the tough choice to let Covenant die in the second series. Another difficult choice. Was there a desire to move on to other characters? Try something new?

SRD: These are not tough choices for me. They fit; and I wouldn’t have a story without them.

Keep in mind that I knew the story for The Last Chronicles before I began work on The Second Chronicles. So I had more than one reason for ending the second trilogy with Covenant’s self-sacrifice/apotheosis. First, I considered that the logical next step in his journey (and I certainly wasn’t going to repeat the kind of victory he achieved in the previous story). And second, it prepared the way for the logical next step for both Covenant and Linden.

In addition, Covenant’s death is consistent with one of the overall themes of The Chronicles: if evil is real, then the costs of standing against evil are also real. Nobody gets out of that struggle unscathed.

SFFWRTCHT: Linden, the hero of this last trilogy (assuming it’s the last), is a woman and a strong one at that. She’s dynamic and interesting. And I love Jeremiah, her adopted disabled son. Where’d the idea for Linden come about? Do you envision further stories with her?

SRD: As I’ve said, to my mind The Second Chronicles grows organically out of the original trilogy. Linden Avery was (and is) necessary to my intentions from the beginning. (Ask yourself how Covenant could continue to develop if he doesn’t take the risk of a relationship. And if he does take that risk, surely he needs someone who deserves that much narrative attention.) But perhaps I should confess that I began with her role in the story rather than with her specific character. Who she was/is as a character was something that I had to discover by trying out various approaches to her role. That process involved at least one notable “false start” which is-thankfully-buried away in an early draft of The Wounded Land. (Another reason that we should all be grateful for revision: without it, theLinden we have now wouldn’t exist.)

SFFWRTCHT: Is there any message to these stories?

SRD: No doubt these stories are full of messages-for readers who choose to think about such things. But I feel a need to say (as I have on many occasions) that I didn’t write them to communicate any particular message(s). I don’t write to promote my personal beliefs (apart from my general conviction that good stories are worth telling for their own sake). In fact, it’s probably fair to say that I’ve learned my own beliefs by writing stories about characters who care enough to have beliefs themselves.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing process like? Specific time set aside to write? Grab it when you can?

SRD: Fortunately, I learned a couple of crucial things about myself before I ever started on Covenant. First, I’m a person who has to concentrate-and concentrate exclusively-in order to accomplish anything. And second, I’m not a “facile” writer: I write slowly, with much sturm-und-drang. So I knew from the start that I can’t afford to just grab time when I can, or to wait for inspiration to strike. I have to make steady progress every day, or I’m doomed. (A music critic named Newman said of Beethoven, “Great composers do not compose because they are inspired. They become inspired because they are composing.” I don’t claim to be a great writer-how would I know?-but that’s one of my mottos.) And soon after I got going on Lord Foul’s Bane, I learned another crucial lesson: I have to pace myself. If I write as much as humanly possible one day, I’ll probably find myself too stunned to write anything the next. So I developed an approach which has served me well ever since: I’m in my office 8 to noon and 1 to 5 five days a week; I always quit at quitting time, no matter how I’m writing; and I never (well, almost never) work in the evenings, or on the weekends, or on holidays, or on vacation. This enables me to keep going day in and day out, week after week, month after month, until the first draft is complete. (Revision presents a different set of challenges, but I approach it in the same way.)

SFFWRTCHT: What role do beta readers play for you in the process?

SRD: I’m entirely dependent on my personal readers, John Eccker and Robyn Butler (may their names be blessed unto the third and fourth generations). Although I strictly avoid people who want to tell me how to write, I have an enormous appetite for what A. J. Budrys called “reader symptomatology” (I like this; I don’t like that; I find this character revolting and/or hot; I took a nap in the middle; I don’t understand what you mean here; I wish you would do something different there). I can only improve as a writer if I have readers who will tell me what my prose actually communicates (which has been known to diverge significantly from what I thought I was communicating).

Long, long ago-in a galaxy far, far away-editors performed this service for writers (and for readers!). Before he published my books, Lester del Rey sent me any number of 20+ page letters excoriating my efforts. (For which I’m more grateful now than I was at the time.) But modern editors are shamefully overworked, and they simply don’t have time to provide the kind of detailed symptomatology I crave. Hence the importance of my personal readers. These days, my editors don’t see my books until my readers and I have been over the text page by page-and sometimes line by line.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use outlines or character sketches? Special software? Music?

SRD: I don’t use outlines or character sketches in any form that an outsider would recognize. But I do keep pages and pages-and pages-of notes, all of which are deliberately fragmentary (they’re intended to jog my memory, not replace it). And of course there’s all that revision I mentioned earlier.

I don’t know what you mean by “special software.” But I’m dependent on music-exclusively classical-which I use to insulate me from the distractions of the outside world. I don’t write to suit what I hear, or choose what I hear to suit what I’m writing: I simply enclose myself in what I call “a cocoon of sound” as an aid to uninterrupted concentration.

SFFWRTCHT: What projects are you working on for the future that we can look forward to?

SRD: I’ve never tried to plan my writing life beyond the story I happen to be working on at the moment. As I’ve suggested, I have a one-track mind: an exclusive focus on the present is essential to how I write. At this moment, that story is The Last Dark. I have no real idea what I’ll do next.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.

2 Comments on SFFWRTCHT: A Revealing Interview With Author Stephen R. Donaldson

  1. Lee Gunter // March 20, 2012 at 1:55 pm //

    Great interview. I love hearing about the writing process, struggles and misadventures from writers who I love to read.

  2. Fantastic interview! Thanks!

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