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Greg Keyes arrived on the fantasy scene with The Waterborn. Published under the name, J. Gregory Keyes, this was first in his Chosen of the Changeling duology soon followed by the concluding volume, The Blackgod. Greg then moved on to the critically acclaimed and Locus best-selling Age of Unreason saga. The fourth and final volume, The Shadows of God was published last October in mass-market paperback by Del Rey books. Greg has also contributed to the Babylon 5 universe as well as the sprawling Star Wars: New Jedi Order saga. Coming out this January is his most powerful, ambitious, and perhaps defining work yet, The Briar King. This is the first of the four-volume saga, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone and tells the story of a Kingdom on the verge of upheaval. Greg and I spoke about the new book, The Age of Unreason working in the Star Wars universe, writing in general and French Science Fiction & Fantasy, amongst other things.
Rob Bedford: The Briar King opens explosively in the midst of both a battle and storm, which immediately grips the reader, both visually and viscerally. How important, and difficult was it deciding on this important, and effective opening scene?
Greg Keyes: (laughs) It was actually a subject of much debate, when I originally wrote the book the opening scene was Aspar in the Tavern. I finished the book and sort of looked it over and discussed it with Steve Saffell, my editor. We both thought there needed to be something a little more powerful that anchored the rest of the story more firmly to that past era and sort of lay down the idea that there was something bad that could be catching up with everyone. So, it was something I thought about a great deal, and didnít really add that chapter until fairly late in the game. Interestingly enough, after I added it, the initial reaction were all positive, some of the fans of my other books read it and the chapter with the girls, and said they were glad I added that second chapter because that first one didnít sound like me. Like a different kind of writer all together which made a couple of people nervous. But in the end, I thought it was still a good way to start the book.
RB: I thought it was really effective, the initial battle sets the tone for the overall series and the scene with the two girls sets the tone for the book.
GK: Thanks, good, thatís what I was hoping for.
RB: This novel has an epic feel, from the span of time in the opening of the prologue to the "current" time of Everon, basically there is a lot going on. How much planning, research/reading, and outlining do you put into a book before you actually start crafting the story?
GK: I did a good bit. For one thing, I sold this book on outlines. I sold the idea of the book more than I sold the book. In order to do that, the outlines had to be fairly detailed and fairly convincing, so I outlined all four books. But the funny thing about that is...once I have an outline I rarely follow it very closely, I tend to do my best thinking when I am writing not when I am reading. In the original outline, Aspar role was very minor, he shows up in the very beginning of the book, sees the Briar King, sees some bad things happening and really doesnít do much more than that. Winna didnít exist at all, a lot of the secondary characters I ended up liking a lot werenít in the original outline at all. Some of the storylines werenít there either. You know, I outline pretty thoroughly, but then I feel free not to follow that outline, if I think of something better while I am writing.
In terms of research, I pretty read constantly when I was writing these books. I read everything I can get my hands on, or that I have time to read. European mythology for the most part, books like Spenserís The Fairy Queen, Shakespeare and that kind of thing, mostly just for inspiration and motifs to work on.
RB: I really like Aspar, he really fits the mold of the hardened guys with a softer interior, but with a lot of the other characters you came across really fresh.
GK: I think thatís the only way to go about it. If you are working in a genre that is well established as Fantasy, itís a genre I like, I grew up reading it and I have a lot of affection for it, thatís why I wanted to do it. I was hoping I could bring something new to it.
RB: Do surf the web at all for any SF stuff, check on Locusmag.com?
GK: I used to have a subscription to Locus, but I let it lapse, I check in there once in a while to see whatís going on. I donít surf a lot to see whatís going on in the genre just because I donít have that much time. I go to conventions and that kind of thing. Professionally, I like to think I know whatís going on, but it such a big field and there is a lot going on, its impossible. I really donít spend a lot of time on the internet since it takes time away from writing. If I do go on the internet, it is just to check a quick question I can find somewhere out , rather than having to go to the library or order a book. Mostly I e-mail.
RB: Yeah it can really eat away your time. I guess part of the reason I ask is related to you citing Michael Moorcock as a writer that influenced you. As he is associated with the New Wave taking the genre and making it fresh and reinventing it. Online SF Fans, and online critics like Gabe Chouinard have placed your work along with writers such as Matthew Stover, John Marco and China Mieville as part of a sort of Next Wave and doing what Moorcock and the other New Wave writers did. How familiar are you with these writers?
GK: Some of them yeah, but I am not sure if I am familiar with that particular critique, even though I did read something where Stover was saying he and I were "throwing rocks at the glass towers" or something like that. I think he was more referring to my earlier series, The Age of Unreason. I have read some of the authors and I agree. Even though thereís a missing step, I think between the Next Wave and whatever it is thatís going on now, there was this movement in the 80s where there was this vast entrada of female writers in the field who brought character to the fore, as opposed to plot or magical devices, but rather a concentration on character. Itís not soley but I think there was a good deal of that in the 80s and it was an important step in the evolution of the genre. At least for me because I certainly pay more attention to character, at least I like to think I do, than writers in 60s and 40s who were mostly interested in...
RB: Big ideas....
GK: ...big ideas plot. Slightly outside fantasy, I very much admire Asimov, but his interesting characters didnít matter. His plot and ideas are put together well enough that you are interested anyway. I was recently talking to my French Editor and he recently went back and read the Foundation books and realized they were only one or two conversations. Most of his books were just conversations between 2 or 3 people. You donít realize this because it seems like all kinds of things are going on, big battles or what have you. In fact it just a couple of people talking, which is really interesting when I looked back at it.
I certainly feel the genre has to have something new done to it, especially every 10 or 15 years. A lot of that has to do with paying attention to very basic things...how do people really act, whatís a new way to look at a situation or a storytelling.
RB: It seems that there are a lot of writers on the best seller lists, that while they are best sellers, they arenít bringing an air of freshness that you and the other authors I mentioned. Itís not terrible stuff...
GK: Obviously somebody likes it this stuff has a place, a big place in fact. Iíd like try to do something a little new with the whole thing personally
RB: There is a place for that stuff. If it gets people from the authorís current book on bestseller shelves to the fantasy shelves to get the backlist titles from the best-selling authors and they pick up your stuff, then thatís good.
GK: In fact, I never really...writers are a sensitive lot, generally speaking...an egotistical lot. Thereís a lot of bruised feelings and jealousy and tough talking...amongst writers. Iíve never begrudged anybody like Jordan any of his success or Terry Brooks. Theyíve brought the exposure of Fantasy to completely new levels, whether we think itís everything it could be, theyíve certainly opened up the market. I canít think of this as a bad thing.