Stephen R. Donaldson: The Believer

My first encounter with the work of Stephen Donaldson occurred during a tenderly transitional time. In 1977, at age twenty-three, I was freshly out of my parent’s home for the first time, midway through a slightly delayed college career. A seasoned reader of fantasy novels since encountering Dr. Seuss at age five, I was enthusiastic about the genre, but had been badly burned by bandwagon publishing’s first wave of egregious Tolkien pastiches. So I picked up with a little trepidation the debut novel by a fellow whom — naturally enough, in those low-hype, pre-Internet days — I had never heard of: Lord Foul’s Bane, by one Stephen Donaldson.

Well, I don’t recall emerging from that book before I finished it. The uniqueness of the lead character, leper Thomas Covenant, and the depth of the Byronic Sturm und Drang, hammered home a  reading experience unlike any other. Self-pitying, unlikable, confused, stubborn, in denial — Thomas Covenant was no one’s Mary Sue. And yet the readers were compelled by his passions and strength of character to follow him like loyal comrades into his various hells. His saga transfixed  my just-barely-out-of-adolescence brain with a viselike grip. When the subsequent two volumes appeared, I dashed through those with equal pleasure.

But then, guess what? The long interval between the First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant undid me. Vaguely aware of the new cycle, I failed to make time to renew my youthful passion. And by the time The Last Chronicles commenced, I felt too out of the loop to dive back in. I suspect I am not alone in this sequence.

The appearance of The Last Dark, the capstone to the whole series, provided impetus enough to amend my lax ways. I started by rereading the first trilogy, finding new depths to the books that had previously eluded me, then raced on through all the other installments. Finishing The Last Dark, which lived masterfully up to my expectations, I was simultaneously ecstatic and sad. Happy for Donaldson and Thomas, sad for me. Like binge TV viewers, I had compressed decades of intense pleasure into too short a span, and now there would be no more.

But somewhere in a corner of my mind are still reserved the original unfaded pleasant memories of my first reading of The First Chronicles, and what it meant to the young fellow I once was. Stephen R. Donaldson joined me in a conversation via email, revisiting the entire series in the light of its grand finale. —Paul Di Filippo

The Barnes & Noble Review: Before we indulge ourselves in a long look backwards at the whole vast saga that is The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, let me just ask how it feels to have finally finished with the project. What kind of emotions, both personal and artistic, are you feeling at this time? Exhaustion, elation, disbelief, trepidation, maybe?  

Stephen R. Donaldson: Exhaustion, certainly. I spent more than twelve years (!) working as hard as I know how on The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. And trepidation, of course. I’ve set my readers up to expect a final book that will justify the whole saga, and I’m naturally worried that they might not feel the kind of satisfaction, or vindication, or pleasure that I wish for them. But I’m simply too tired for elation, disbelief, relief, or joy. Later, maybe….

BNR: You’ve mentioned Tolkien as an early inspiration or guiding light for your own fiction. Perhaps less well publicized is your admiration for C. S. Lewis. The setup you employ, shuttling Thomas Covenant between two worlds, will inevitably remind readers of the Narnia books and other portal fantasies. Also, Covenant’s disparity in his status from one world to the next is similar to the way Lewis’s children are powerless in one venue and powerful in another. But portal fantasies are generally regarded in today’s marketplace as out of favor. What are your thoughts on the continuing uses and advantages of this mode?

SD: The portal structure is simply a technique: it is neither necessary nor unnecessary, except as the writer and the story make it so. In the case of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, it was absolutely necessary to my intentions. I could not otherwise dramatize the essential relevance of magic and monsters, heroism and black evil, to characters whose moral and psychological dilemmas are rooted in the real world. Other than that…well, the biggest disadvantage of the portal structure is that it requires a greater “suspension of disbelief” on the part of the readers than more self-contained fantasies do. The biggest advantage is that it solves a long list of exposition problems. It gives readers a way in.

BNR: You mention your dedication from adolescence to becoming a writer, and your early conception of Thomas Covenant’s sage. Did you ever have a fallback plan, had you failed? What would that alternate-world Stephen Donaldson be doing now?

SD: Sadly, the “alternate-world Stephen Donaldson” would be teaching English at a community college — if he hadn’t already succeeded at drinking himself to death. The life I’m actually leading is probably the only one that could have saved me from myself.

BNR: You’ve stated your admiration for Joseph Conrad. Would you say that you derive your moral vision from his work?

SD: Not in any literal sense. No, what I derived most from Conrad was the knowledge that it’s possible to explore a moral vision within a story which is full of excitement, suspense, and action. Conrad demonstrated that a tale of adventure can serve the highest literary purposes; and his example gave me, well, let’s call it permission to pursue my own vision.

BNR: You’re just the right age to have been influenced by the great series of books from Ballantine, the Adult Fantasy novels, which revived such authors as William Morris, Lord Dunsany, and William Hope Hodgson for a new generation. If indeed you encountered these books, did they shape your fiction in some way, along with Tolkien and Lewis? I seem to detect a William Morris element in your writing, in the variety of venues and in your densely imagined language.

SD: In fact, I did read some of those books — but only after I was already committed to both the story and the style of The Chronicles. I certainly did not derive any of my intentions — or my methods — from those novels. Of the authors published under Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy logo, only Evangeline Walton “spoke” to me.

BNR: The marketplace for fantasy books in 1977, when your first trilogy appeared, was vastly different than the massive, overstuffed bazaar of today. Do you feel your books benefitted from the extra attention they received in such a sparse literary landscape?

SD: Absolutely! For a variety of reasons, my books struck the marketplace like a thunderclap; and one of those reasons was that there were so few alternatives available. Readers who loved Tolkien, and who were not satisfied by Terry Brooks, had nowhere else to turn.

BNR: Having engineered a ten-year gap in Covenant’s adventures, you next inserted a 4,000-year leap between first and second trilogies. Was part of the reason for that because you did not want to write about the peaceful paradise of the restored Land, but rather to focus on times of trouble again? Could Thomas Covenant ever be happy, say by having lived out his life during this utopic period in the Land? Or was he doomed to struggle and sacrifice?

SD: I engineered that gap in part because Covenant’s story wasn’t done; but, like most people, he needed time to consolidate his gains from the first story before he became both ready and able to confront deeper issues. However, I also engineered that gap so that circumstances in the Land would have enough time to change radically. On a personal level, I was (and am) highly motivated to avoid the trap of telling essentially the same story over again. I did not (and do not) want to spend my time repeating myself. And in terms of the overall story (Covenant against Despite in the arena of the Land), the “deeper issues” I had in mind could not be confronted without deeper challenges. Naturally deeper challenges required a dramatic alteration in the terms of the conflict.

So why could Covenant not have “lived out his life during this utopic period in the Land?” Well, aside from the obvious fact that no one is ever done with striving for growth — or with struggling against decline — I believe that letting Covenant rest in Utopia for the rest of his life would falsify all of the issues that he brought with him from his real life. There was simply no reason for him to wrestle with his Unbelief if he was never going back to the real world.

In any case, one of my core convictions about storytelling is that stories should happen to people who need them. And since I could see that Covenant was still in need….

BNR: If Thomas was indeed fated only for an inordinate share of grief, is this a reflection of your own take on life?  Or just the necessity of dramatic storytelling?

SD: What constitutes “an inordinate share of grief?” Don’t we all have pain?  Don’t we all experience loss? And isn’t it true that the most interesting people are the ones who feel their pains and losses most acutely — and who still find ways to respond to their hurts constructively? Isn’t it true that the Joans of the world — like the Conans of the world — are actually rather boring?

BNR: Did you ever have the sense that you would have liked to “retcon” things from the First Chronicle, during the composition of the Second?  Little or big items that seemed inutile in retrospect, and might have interfered with later storytelling?

SD: The simple answer is no. While I was writing the first trilogy, I had no intention of writing more about Covenant and the Land; so I made no effort to prepare the way for future stories. This had the unexpected benefit of leaving the field wide open for whatever I decided to do in The Second Chronicles. As a result, I didn’t start to encounter “retroactive consistency” problems until I went to work on The Last Chronicles, in part because of my ambition to tell a story which would unify and crown the entire saga, and in part because I was trying to “prepare the way” in the second trilogy.

BNR: There followed a twenty-year interregnum between the Second and Last Chronicles, until you said the nagging to tell the story became insistent. How hard was it to return to that fictional universe?

SD: As writing, it was dead easy: I like working in that style and in that world, and I knew the central characters well. But on a personal level, it was extraordinarily difficult because I was so afraid. Afraid of? Well, afraid of not being a good enough writer to tell the most demanding story I had ever attempted. And by extension, afraid of disappointing my readers — after making them wait all these years to see how the story turns out.

BNR: The Runes of the Earth, the first book in the final quartet, opens with an extended sequence set on our Earth, the longest such set piece since Lord Foul’s Bane. Did you envision this as a strengthening of the intimacy between the two realms, and a reflection of the organic unity of their joint creation?

SD: In practical terms, the “real world” chapters at the beginning of each story serve to establish the central characters, to make their personalities, needs, and dilemmas (from which the themes of what follows derive) as substantial as possible. So of course those chapters also serve to establish the relevance of subsequent events, not just to the real world characters, but also to their (our?) real world. Those real world chapters provide the foundation of meaning for everything else.

Looking at it in those terms: the real world chapters at the beginning of The Runes of the Earth are longer than any comparable sequence in The Chronicles as a whole because, first, the needs, dilemmas, and themes are more complex, and, second, there are more real world characters who require attention (Linden, Jeremiah, Joan, Roger, and even Lytton).

BNR: With the introduction of time travel into your scenario, I felt the series acquired a kind of science-fictional tone. You’ve written your share of SF of course. Did you intentionally strive for a  hybrid feel in The Last Chronicles?

SD: I think I know what you mean. The kinds of explanations and the styles of reasoning that are required to both acknowledge and avoid the dreaded “time-travel paradox” certainly tend to have an SF “feel.” But in The Last Chronicles that “feel” is a side-effect: it was not intentional. My intention was simply to “play fair” with a concept which thwarts linear comprehension: an attack on the structure of time. Well, I had to find some way to write about that attack, despite the limitations of my own “linear comprehension.” From my perspective, the fact that I succeeded in writing about it at all is more significant than any inadvertent SF “feel.”

BNR: Likewise, the ultimate menace embodied in the Worm of the World’s End feels very much like an allegory for entropy, that ultimate doom that science predicts for our universe. Was this symbolism your intention?

SD: No, I’m still writing about the inevitability of loss — and about the human necessity of grief. Of course, the concept is universal. Everything dies, from the smallest blade of grass to the biggest galaxy. But my intentions are focused on the personal meaning of ruin to my specific characters; and, by extension, on the challenge we all face when we try to lead worthwhile lives in spite of the eventual futility of everything we do.

BNR: The opening paragraphs of Against All Things Ending have a kind of John Milton or William Blake feel about them. Were you striving for a kind of cosmic, biblical ramping up of Covenant’s saga as it neared its climax?

SD: Not particularly. As I see it, the “cosmic, biblical ramping up” has been implicit from the beginning of Lord Foul’s Bane. I could hardly have announced my “cosmic, biblical” intentions more explicitly than by calling my personification of evil “Lord Foul the Despiser”; and ever since I’ve been more and more trusting my implicit purposes to speak for themselves. No, at the beginning of Against All Things Ending I was simply trying to wrap my mind around the sheer scale of what Covenant has known — and of what he has lost by being resurrected.

BNR: In The Last Dark, Covenant and Avery are on separate quests during the first half of the book. This separation allows for a very resonant moment at the center of the novel when they finally reunite. Did you have this pivotal moment planned from the time Avery first made her appearance several installments ago?

SD: No. I regret to say that I’m not that smart. However, I am smart enough to recognize opportunities as they take shape. In fact, I’m smart enough to profit from the “taking shape” even when it occurs several books before the actual opportunity arrives. So I did not foresee the scene you describe when I started work on The Wounded Land. But I began to foresee it when I started work on The Runes of the Earth.

BNR: Our Earth recedes into insignificance in The Last Chronicles, and seems necessarily abandoned by our transcendent heroes. Do you feel that they had to shed their mortal identities entirely for the story’s sake, or could there have been some balancing of those accounts as well?

SD: I don’t know how to answer this question. From my perspective, I created a story whose internal logic, themes, and emotions permitted no other outcome. This outcome became inevitable as soon as I committed myself to The Wounded Land. Every necessary resolution has already occurred. And I don’t need to bring it all back to the “real world” because…well, because that’s what telling the story is for.

BNR: With the success of Game of Thrones, it seems not totally unlikely that Hollywood’s attention could turn to the Covenant books. Has there been any media interest in the Covenant cycle?     

SD: Hollywood’s attention turned to The Chronicles in a big way ten or twelve years ago. And then gradually that attention frayed away to nothing. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. I’m no expert; but I consider The Chronicles un-filmable. Too much of their narrative power arises from what’s inside the characters; and any screen (big or little) can only show what’s outside.

BNR: It seems to me that the Covenant books have been a subtle inspiration to a small number of subsequent fantasies. I’m thinking of darker, more complex work with a deep sense of morality, such as various series by Daniel Abraham, Patrick Ness, Patrick Rothfuss, and John Wright. Do you see your books reflected in a new generation of fantasy writers? Ultimately, what would you like your legacy to be?

SD: I’m not qualified to comment on whatever has or has not influenced writers who are younger than I am. In any case, if a writer has nothing more to offer than a sum of influences, then he or she is probably not worth reading. However, on this subject I can speak for Steven Erikson — but only because I’ve heard him speak for himself. I’ve often said that Tolkien made my work possible: he opened a door that I could walk through. Well, Erikson says the same about my books: they made his possible. For that I am both proud and grateful.

Asking me about the legacy I desire for myself is rather like asking me to remove all my clothes in front of a crowd of strangers. How much intimate exposure can I stand? Well, as it happens, I can stand quite a lot. So I’ll say this: the legacy I crave for myself is to break down the absolutely artificial and arbitrary barricade which has been erected to separate “fantasy” from “literature.” After all, all of the oldest and most enduring literature in every language on the planet is fantasy. That can’t be an accident. And it can’t be because our ancestors (however distant) were stupid: they were not. Why, then, is it considered somehow less than admirable or worthwhile — or necessary — for an ambitious modern man or woman to write fantasy?

–November 6, 2013

  • Megan

    Wow, great interview!