Scott Lynch, author of The Gentlemen Bastards sequence, recently sat down with Hypable at New York Comic Con to discuss his creative process, evil Gandalfs, and the intricate depths of his most recent book, The Republic of Thieves.
Can you tell us about the process of writing The Republic of Thieves?
Well, writing The Republic of Thieves was a short and easy process, and I think… okay, that’s a lie. It was the most arduous literary trek of my life, across five and a half difficult years, some of which were just horribly miserable. This book was bisected by the discover that I enjoy a robust case of clinical depression – go me! Oh yeah, then my wife left, and I got divorced. It was awesome.
So there was lots and lots of big fun that happened in the middle of writing this book, so this book took it’s sweet damn time, let me tell you.
I finished writing a version of it several years ago, and frankly that version STANK. Because that version was written by someone who was sick and didn’t know it, and had lost his ability to pay attention to details and didn’t know it, and I had to sort of re-teach myself how to do everything – read, write, and edit – on the other side.
The only consolation for the fact that it took five and half years to finish is that I think it’s a much stronger book for it. ANd of course I’m gonna say that sort of thing, it’s my job to say that sort of thing – “Oh yes, I think that blah-blah-blah flaws are actually features!” But I really think it’s true in this case. I don’t think the book I would have written before is something I would have been proud of, and I don’t think it’s something that would have pleased as many readers as the book already has.
How was writing The Republic of Thieves different from writing the first two books in the sequence?
It’s a different sort of tension, it’s a different sort of anxiety, but there’s none of that elemental fear that, “Oh my God, I can’t do this, I don’t know how people can possibly do this.” I knew that I could structure and complete a novel, and that it would simply happen, it would eventually be a thing – and that removes a lot of worry. In spite of everything that remained, at least I had that to cling to.
The other thing is that on the other side of the divorce and everything else, when I sort of came out of it and reapplied myself to The Republic of Thieves, it was a more careful writing process. I’m proud of The Lies of Locke Lamora and I’m proud of Red Seas Under Red Skies, but I can spot artifacts of sloppy thinking and construction and wording that I wouldn’t use, and choices that I wouldn’t make these days.
And some of this is just the fact that you naturally age away from your own work – it’s an artifact of who you were and what you were when you wrote it, you can’t escape that. But on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph level, I think it’s a tighter book, and I think that comes of paying a great deal more attention to it. I didn’t really have a choice because paying that painful attention to it was essential to the process of learning how to do this again. So it benefited from the circumstances, again, of me having apply myself, shall we say, extra hard.
We meet Sabetha for the first time in this book. What was it like to finally write her into the story?
It was so much fun! I’ve had so much fun keeping her off the stage, I really have. I’ve enjoyed the tortured response of everybody who has been screaming and begging and saying “Oh my God, what’s the matter with you??”
I’m surprised we got to see her this early!
Well, two books is about what I can push it for a character who really is so important! I’d originally tried to fit her into the first book, to fit her into the prologue, and it was simply imbalancing to have her show up once and then not show up again for two books. I decided I would rather not show her at all than show her for a split second and then take her away.
So we had time to evolve. I hope readers – astute readers that is, of course, you’re all astute readers, I love you all equally! – I hope readers have had the chance to sort of wonder whether or not they’re getting an objective picture of Sabetha. Because the only people we’ve heard about her from are Locke, Jean, Calo, Galdo, individuals who are not removed from the situation and who may have relatively biased points of view. So the Sabetha we’re hearing about before we meet her may not actually be her – or it may, it’s up to you to decide!
But it was good to finally unleash her, it was great to finally have her on the page doing her thing. There were several things I was aching, aching, aching to do in The Republic of Thieves and have her strut her stuff is definitely at the top of that heap.
The magi of Karthain make their first grand-scale appearance as well; what was it like to build up that mysterious part of the world?
They’re fun! They’re ominous. They show up in their usual asshole fashion and they have a lot to say, relative to what they’ve said before. And once again, when all is said and done, it’s going to be left to the reader to decide how much of it was truth and how much of it was bullshit.
Some of it in undeniably truth. I tell you this as the voice of the author – some of what Locke’s told is true, maybe all of it is true, maybe some of it is liiiies. It’s your own ride, you make your own decision.
It’s fun to have these sorts of ominous buttheads popping into scenes to be jerks to people, to really have the evil Gandalf figure who knows all, tells nothing, and shows up to basically just tweak a character’s nose and say “Mwahahaha! Now your life is more difficult!”
It’s also a little easy to get carried away with these characters, so I try to keep them off the stage as often as possible…
[The magi] explain themselves and they get a chance to say, “Hey, look at this from our perspective, and ponder some things you’ve never pondered before.” But once again, there are so many things they’re not talking about, there are so many mysteries still on the table. I got to have it both ways – I got to keep them mysterious, and I got to explain a little bit, and I think it’s a good combination. I think it’s a heady combination.
Worldbuilding obviously is a huge part of your job as a writer. Has it changed now that you’re on book four from writing The Lies of Locke Lamora?
Oh, most definitely. [For] The Lies of Locke Lamora, I built so much scaffolding, I did so much research. The professional term for what you’re supposed to build is the “story bible” or the “concordance,” which is a really fancy way of saying a big fucking pile of paper stuffed into a corner of your desk, covered with post-it notes and mouse droppings and cat scratches. And I did that. I’ve got thousands of pages of research and photocopies – hey, remember photocopies? I’m old! – from books at the library – back in my day, libraries were for books!
The thing is is that I’ve reached a point now where I’ve been in this world for so long that I trust myself not to be, not sloppy, but not need to sit down and research for a day in order to write for a day. You reach a point in worldbuilding that you should be familiar enough with the world and its characters that further research and further worldbuilding essentially becomes a way for you to postpone writing.
And at some point you just have to stop faffing around with the background and get on with the story. And I think it’s safe to say that after the five-year gap before The Republic of Thieves, most readers are probably going to be really, really eager for me to get on with the story.
I think that’s true! So how much of the main story in the present, and the history do you have planned out already?
Ninty-five percent of it. I know where they’re going, I know what happens to them, I know what happens in the end, I know how they feel about it, and I know how it all wraps up.
The thing is, I typically discover that maybe thirty or fourty percent of the way into any big project – I think this is just natural to any writing project, and construction like this… opportunities that you did not previously realize existed will become apparent to you. New paths will open up. New character interactions will be possible. You can’t see all the details at the beginning. So there’s always room in the middle for different paths to be taken and different options to be sorted out, but as for where we end up, I always keep a very firm hand on that and I don’t stray very far from where I intended to.
“What follows will be spoilery.
You have been warned.” ->
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