The Adventures of Lizard Boy: a.k.a. The Steven Brust Interview

A column article by: Park Cooper

When I was younger, I read Steven Brust's Jhereg series. This fantasy series of books (with genetics and aliens and psychic powers... or is it science-fiction with tall, slim, pointy-eared people, dragons, daggers and witchcraft? Hmm. The dragons and swords are a lot more prominent...) features Vlad Taltos, a human assassin trapped in a world he never made -- specifically, the tall, slim, pointy-eared folks made it.

I have long enjoyed Vlad's books. Vlad is funny. Most of the books are narrated first-person by Vlad, who narrates a bit like Philip Marlowe. Vlad is funny. The books are funny.

Much later, I wrote a funny fantasy novel which is almost entirely narrated by a funny man.

John Rozum enjoyed it:

"Picaresque will charm you with itswift pace and levity, its sense of adventure,  and especially the colorful band of misfits who inhabit its pages. It put a smile on my face right away and kept it there all the way to the end."     --John Rozum, author of DC Comics' MIDNIGHT, MASS and XOMBI

Well, last weekend, I saw Steven Brust on Twitter tweeting his enjoyment of every Firefly episode, one at a time. Amused, I asked him for an interview. He said yes.

But there was one more thing: S.B. wished to draw attention to an auction that is going on to benefit Terri Windling.

From that site:

"Terri is the creator of groundbreaking fantasy and mythic art and literature over the past several decades, ranging from the influential urban fantasy series Bordertown to the online Journal of Mythic Arts. . . . Terri Windling and her family have been coping with health and legal issues that have drained her financial resources at a critical time. Due to the serious nature of these issues, and privacy concerns for individual family members, we can't be more specific than that, but Terri is in need of our support. As a friend, a colleague and an inspiration, Terri has touched many, many lives over the years. She has been supremely generous in donating her own work and art to support friends and colleagues in crisis. Now, Terri is in need of some serious help from her community. Who better than her colleagues and fans to rise up to make some magick for her? . . . Through the next 18 days, we'll be posting personal offerings from the likes of Neil Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, Wendy & Brian Froud, and many more!"

Steven talks about this near the end of my interview with him, but it was of a length that I wished to break it up into two parts. But because the auction only lasts 18 days, I told him I'd stick this part here, too.

Final thing: if you haven't read the Jhereg books, I recommend them. But if you haven't, be aware that this interview contains a spoiler about a supporting character that won't exactly make sense now but could spoil things for you halfway to the plot point in question (which still wouldn't be for several books).

Okay--here, then, is the start of the interview.

Park Cooper: So: how are ya? Aside from enjoying Firefly?

Steven Brust: Doing well; getting work done.

Cooper: Vlad/Jhereg work?

Brust: Yeah, a new Vlad novel.

Cooper: When you think of the series, do you think "the Vlad series" or "Vlad's books" or "Jhereg" collectively or what? The Shelf Monster? The Big Long Thing?

Brust: I think I've been calling them Vlad novels. What is it you look for in deciding whom to interview.

PC: Heh. I'm a big fan, read all the books, and Brokedown Palace, and...

Brust: Do you like to have a prepared list of questions, or do you enjoy just making it up on the fly?

Cooper: I'd even say you're an influence, though my book is silly/funny--

Brust: That's very flattering; thanks.

Cooper: -- well, funny being more of the reason for being... Vlad is damn funny. I do enjoy making it up on the fly, one thing leading into another, but I have a few things in the back of my mind this evening… but I'm happy to throw them out if we get into talking about other things --

Brust: Cool. What was one of the really fun experiences you've had doing an interview?

Cooper: ...One interesting thing was a young woman I was interviewing about comics -- I consciously didn't want to nudge her into having to talk about sexism in comics and darned if she didn't go there all by herself with zero help from me...

Brust: So, then, you have a strong background in comics?

Cooper: I do. My wife and I wrote them before we got more strongly into prose. I still do, a little. Now, are you aware that you're currently interviewing me? Because it's fun and funny and all, but if you're not aware, I'm happy to inform you of it...

Brust: Hee hee.

Cooper: I just don't want you to feel that I don't care about you and your answers... Yeah I let it go for a while, but I thought I'd mention it--

Brust: I wondered how long I could get away with it.

Cooper: As long as you like. I'm truly honored to be interviewed by you. But if you wondered how long before I noticed-- pretty much right away...

Brust: Okay, fair enough.

Cooper: Thought it might be part of you getting comfortable... How's your health? I ask because I care.

Brust: Well, let's see: given that I smoke like a chimney and don't exercise, my health is remarkably good.  Although I've just today taken some steps to be able to get back to doing some exercise.

Cooper: Oh yes? That sounds good! Hope it stays remarkably good and/or improves. Minnesota agreeing with you?

Brust: It's good to be back around family. I like that.

Cooper: Excellent. And the latest book going well? Er, the currently written one that is.

Brust: You mean Spiked?

Cooper: Whichever one is currently being written.  I have a vested interest in Vlad novels, though, I admit... but we can talk about whatever books you like...

Brust: Er. The question is ambiguous. Let's see. The current Vlad novel is on Chapter 2, and going a bit faster than I expect at this stage. But I've just finished (and sold) a novel called Spiked, co-written with Austin writer Skyler White. I'm more excited about it than anything I've done in years.

Cooper: Why so, SB? (jealous)

Brust: First of all, the process was just amazing. Working with Skyler -- I haven't had so much fun writing since Freedom & Necessity with Emma, and The Gypsy with Megan Lindholm. And I just love the book. I can't stop reading it. The concept is (in my prejudiced opinion) Totally Fucking Cool. And, I don't know, it just feels right. I love reading it. Of course, I've been in this business long enough to know that how much I like a book has little to do with how much the readers will like it. But I also know that the only thing I can control is how much I like it (to the extent I can even control that), so there's no point in worrying about how it'll be received.

Cooper: Some readers I've seen were shirty about Tiassa. I read it, and liked it.

Brust: Shirty?

Cooper: Well, let's try: snotty. 

Brust: Ah. Well, the last several Vlad books have irritated some number of fans. So I thought I'd do one that irritated them all.

Cooper: Really? Hmm. Tiassa was the loudest grumbling I've heard. Maybe the only, I can't remember for sure.

Brust: The serious side of that is: I honestly can't worry about that or I'll start writing crap. I have to write the book I want to read. If I start guessing what others willl like, chances are I'll write something no one will like.

CooperHey, I'm not scared. I'm not about to tell you how to write your books or your characters -- I wouldn't want anyone trying to tell me... You do what you wanna do. Is it about him and Cawti? Or him and "go back to town dammit!" or what?

Brust: As Vlad changes and grows, some people are going to stay with me, some are not, and some new people are going to come along. That's just how it works. But I have to do stuff that excites me, or else go back to honest work. And I'm too old to go back to honest work.

Cooper: Me, I'm excited. Like for example to see if his weapon's gonna start speaking up to him one of these days.

Brust: It is not impossible that will happen. I will say, the one I'm writing now is definitely moving the story arc forward. Vlad has come up with something that he thinks will get him out of trouble with the Jhereg. When all is said and done, things will be different. I'm curious myself about whether it'll work.

Cooper: I tell my wife Barb about Vlad's saga... to her he's like yet another old friend who updates with long status updates now and then. She was introduced to him as "Lizard Boy." As in "So then Lizard Boy gets a great idea-- he finds ANOTHER flyin' lizard!!" She knows that his name is really Vlad, but I didn't have time to stop and teach her everyone's proper name when I first started burbling about the series.

Brust: Lizard Boy. I like that. Mr. Hoover will like that.

Cooper: She knows Vlad's name, and yours. But Cawti is "Lizard Boy's Wife," Kragar is Lizard Boy's Right Hand Guy, Lady Teldra is The Nice Lady In The Dagger.

Brust: Hee-hee.

Cooper: And yeah, I suspected Vlad was gonna come up with something like that pretty soon.  I saw signs in Tiassa.

Brust: This one feels a bit like writing Taltos. I'm throwing a bunch of balls in the air, and I won't know until I get to the end if I can juggle them all, or if they'll just bounce right off the page. The tension is fun.

Cooper: You big on movies?

Brust: Not really. I'm a horrible snob with movies and TV.

Cooper: Yay, snob! Ooh, that's another question-- do you play music when you write? I know how musical you are, but that doesn't mean you listen to it while you write.

Brust: Never. If there's music on, I have to listen to it, and I can't write.

Cooper: Yeah Barb's the same way. Heard anything good lately? Or watched anything?  Know of ANYTHING good lately that wasn't novels?

Brust: I like to have voices in the background when I write. So I'll usually have some movie or TV show that isn't good enough to demand attention, but not bad enough to make me crazy. As for stuff I actually like, I've been into Burn Notice lately. And I enjoy House. I liked The West Wing. Firefly, of course. But I can't write with those on; they demand attention. Usually something with horses is good to write to. Oh, I saw the pilot of Hell On Wheels and I was impressed as hell.

Cooper: Okay. Don't think I'm crazy, but... how shall I word this... How much push does Vlad give you? Do you write him and he says "I'll just go do that, then," or does he ever try to say to you "I don't want to do that, I want to do/say THIS" ? Because he seems like the type who would totally wanna do it his way. Or are you of like minds on stuff?  Or is it totally nothing like I'm describing?

Brust: Most of the time, I put him into a situation and he obliges me by telling me what he's doing. Occasionally he'll kick back and say, "No fucking WAY am I doing that." When that happens, I usually listen.

Cooper: YES. TELLING YOU WHAT HE'S DOING. Can you remember a particular time/the last time?  I am so curious. My wife and I have long conversations about characters being tight-lipped about what they think they're gonna do next or otherwise.

Brust: In one of the early books, maybe Milquetoast, Vlad had just met Morrolan and they were walking up the stairs inside Dzur Mountain, and Vlad insisted on insulting Morrolan, and I went, "Fuck. Vlad is about to die. NOW what am I going to do?" But I just went with it, and they managed to work it out. I was relieved.

Cooper: I've noticed him do that from time to time.

Brust: Me too

Cooper: It's the anger with them tall guys. It... but why am I telling you? Well, the anger with the shorter, hairier guys, too, really. All the guys. He pushes it sometimes.

Brust: Yeah.

Cooper: But by this time, I think his dear ones get that, whether they understand it or not. So it's totally... yeah. Now, we all know about your Musketeers-era influences... But what about your more, how shall I say, hard-boiled influences? I'm trying to catch any insights into it that might slip out. Because I dig your narration stuff. So me put it this way: Where did you learn to narrate?

Brust: Well, Raymond Chandler, obviously.

Cooper: Yeah, it's obvious, but I have to make you say these things.

Brust: I stole the narrative voice from Raymond Chandler. I stole the world from Fritz Leiber. I stole the tropes from Michael Moorcock. I stole the general aesthetic from Roger Zelazny.

Cooper:  Ah HA! Yeah that'll do nicely, awesome. Whole teams of brain cells in my head are victory-dancing. Have you read RZ's The Dead Man's Brother?

Brust: In fact, I have. Interesting work.

Cooper: Pages and pages of tough guys with swords and horses and he just up and hands us one with regular old pulp guns and fists. Always wanted to see it, and then that little dream came true for me.

Brust: Yeah; pretty cool.

Cooper: Using "pulp" a little loosely, obviously.

Brust: Right. I miss him terribly.  When Neil wrote American Gods, I missed him even more, because that was very much Neil's work in his honor. And now, with Spiked, it's happening again. I want him to read it. It hurts.

Cooper: Yeah. I hear ya, man. I'm friends with Trent Zelazny, just met him via Facebook a few months ago.

Brust:  Trent has a book out now. I'm going to be reading it in the next couple of days. It's called To Sleep Gently. I'm looking forward to it.

Cooper: Just reviewed To Sleep Gently on Amazon today for Trent's birthday, as a matter of fact. He liked it. Any thoughts on Vlad and other media? Movies? TV? Plays? Anything?

Brust: Uh...I'm for it?

Cooper: Audiobook? Anyone done that yet?

Brust: We're in the process of working on those.

Cooper: No one ever comes and talks to you about Vlad and...?  Wait, all those? Or did you mean just audiobooks?

Brust: Audiobooks.

Cooper: Ah ha. I have Roger Zelazny doing Nine Princes... gonna get him reading more someday... maybe Guns of Avalon for christmas... I heard hem read a bit of The Black Throne at Dallas Fantasy Faire, circa 1990. Amusing...

Brust: None of the other things. No one has expressed any interest.

Cooper:  Haven't they? Gaah! Philistines.

Brust:  It's another thing over which I have no control, so I don't think about it.

Cooper: Now, that's a healthy comment...



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