Written by Brian Staveley
I was at this party a few months ago, and I got cornered somewhere between the refrigerator and the fire-escape by this guy who could not stop talking about the emerald ash borer. The emerald ash borer, for those of you who don’t go this kind of party, is a nasty little creature that’s trying to destroy our ash trees. I like a good ash tree as much as the next guy, except in this case, where the next guy was this guy, whose concern about Vermont’s ash population seemed… disproportionate, his dismay and impotent rage the sort of thing you expect from characters in movies featuring trench warfare or biological terrorism.
Years ago, faced with this sort of arboreal zeal, my strategy would have been simple: immediate exfiltration. Barring that, I would have rummaged in the fridge for the strongest IPA available, then settled in to politely ignore a lecture on the winter range and mating habits of the emerald ash borer. I’ve found that, with the right beer in hand, I can nod and smile through just about anything.
That was before I started writing.
Writing fantasy full time has done strange things to my brain. Instead of fleeing the Ash Warrior, for instance, I found myself perking up. For one thing, the pest in question is straight out of a fantasy novel—a poetically-named scourge upon the land, a curse capable of leveling entire forests, an evil against which there seems to be no recourse. This is good shit, I found myself thinking, leaning closer to make sure I didn’t miss the bit about the egg-laying cycle. I can totally use this.
Even more than the discussion of ash and its borers, however, I was intrigued by this guy. Fantasy needs scourges, obviously, but good scourges are a dime a dozen. Far more important than any zombie army or orcish horde are the characters at a story’s heart, and it’s hard to write good characters without paying attention to people, without caring about them.
I realized this embarrassingly late in life. I used to try to avoid that woman in the bus station who was muttering sweet imprecations to the vending machine or the salesman on the plane who really wanted me to understand that kelp was the bacon of the future. (For the record, I still don’t think that kelp is the bacon of the future. Bacon is the bacon of the future.) More and more, however, I find myself attracted to the kelp-lauders and vending-machine mutterers of the world.
The trick, of course, is not simply to notice people—making notes of clothing and verbal style is easy—but to try to see the world through their eyes, to understand the cravings, loves, and fears that make them who they are. This can be scary. Once I actually bother to understand why that woman is shouting at her Cheetos (Her kid’s sick and she didn’t sleep all night? She’s had strange attacks of rage ever since getting back from Iraq? She just lost her job?) I probably have to start giving a shit, and giving a shit is not easy. Easy is having another beer while nodding and smiling vacuously. Unfortunately, easy does not write the books.
It’s been strange to discover that writing, at least for me, involves this moral component. I might have been less eager to get involved with fantasy if I’d know it would require, not a retreat from the world and all its varied people, but a more comprehensive engagement. I signed up to write about magicians and ancient gods, and found, belatedly, much to my surprise, that I couldn’t do that very well without spending a long damn time talking to this guy about the emerald ash borer, trying to learn, not just about the creature itself, but why he cared so much.
The Last Mortal Bond, the concluding book of my fantasy trilogy that started with The Emperor’s Blades, comes out in just over a month. I was struck by a strange thing as I worked through this final volume: I found myself caring about the characters, even minor characters, in a way I hadn’t when I started writing fantasy. I could imagine running into them at parties—the starch-stiff Aedolian guardsman, that girl with the plague, the vicious, drug-addled magician—and actually talking to them.
When the ship’s captain pulls out his iPhone to show me about a million photos of his daughter, instead of nodding vaguely and sliding away, I imagine leaning closer, poring over those endless images, trying to see in them whatever it is that he sees. Conversely, when the old man on the barstool starts talking about his sciatica, I’m reminded that he’s more than this moment, that there’s a whole story behind him, an epic, something worth knowing, something that I want be told.