I had the privilege of sitting down with Robert Jackson Bennett to ask him about his immanent book, City of Blades. We also discussed his previous books—and writing—and Batman.
Christina Ladd: First and most obvious question: where does City of Blades come from? How did you begin to follow up City of Stairs, which turns me into a rabid fangirl, for which I apologize?
Robert Jackson Bennett: It’s a little weird, since I wrote City of Stairs and it was meant to be a stand-alone. I never meant to write sequels. But it was a success, and my editor asked me what I wanted to write next. I had this literary science fiction book in my head that I pitched, and he was like “Yeahhhh…you know people are going to want a sequel, right?” I felt…not great about that because in the first book, Shara’s story is pretty much over.
When I think of a person’s story, I think about questions you’re forced to ask yourself. And once you’ve found the answer or not found the answer—once the questions are no longer relevant, your story is over. But I could tell in my head that the way I wanted it to go was that Shara would be in a position of power, and people in positions of power are not that interesting in real life. They go to meetings, there’s a lot of words. But if I wanted to be true to the world, her life would become hard and boring.
So I was sitting around thinking, “how am I going to do this? I don’t want to follow this through!” So I came up with something I completely pulled out of my ear, set in the middle of nowhere on the Continent, and it would star a new character I had made up. I wanted to have a few of the old characters come in, and one of them was General Mulaghesh. When she came in, I was excited to write her stuff. I wondered, why don’t I make her the main character? So I took a step back and I wrote the whole synopsis with her, and it made sense. It worked really well. Because in the first book, I was talking about trying to change—whether we want to accept what’s happened to us and try to change. And the answer is: yes, let’s try.
In the second book, it’s five years later and they’re trying to change. But we needed to have a perspective on the ground of someone from the past who is not as new as Shara or as idealistic as Shara trying to execute those changes and struggling, and wondering if we can be better and remake ourselves. And it made sense to have the star of that story be someone who wanted to remake themselves, so for that reason Mulaghesh was a good choice. And it worked out quite well.
By this point in the books’ history, Saypur is still very into the war and taking care of all the military stuff. It makes sense to have someone from the military there wondering, “do I want to keep doing this? Do I want to be this person? Can I be someone new, is that even possible?”
It looks like I planned this, but I totally didn’t! The first one stars Shara, the second one stars Mulaghesh, and the third will star Sigrud. A lot of people asked, “why not skip to Sigrud [the explosively awesome Viking-like warrior]?” To which I replied, “shut up!”
But really, at that point in the books, he’s still pretty much unbreakable. He’s not fazed by things. He can take a huge beating, sure, but he’s not troubled by the things around him. He doesn’t have a lot of doubt. And a hero is not interesting unless they have doubt—about the world or about themselves. If they’re competent, capable super-dudes, they’re boring. So he’s in the second book, but he’s not the star.
CL: What about the original star, is he or she still in there?
RJB: Yeah, they’re gone. I had a lot of characters in City of Blades that I cut. There are a lot of people that I cut. Mulaghesh had a lot of helpers, like a gang, and I cut all of those, too, people I wanted to do stuff with, but I figured eh, this book is long enough. It was way too long. I had to cut 40,000 words in the middle of it. It was kind of ugly.
CL: That is the most painful. What was the most heart-wrenching thing to cut?
RJB: I had a character who was kind of the mayor of Voortyashtan, and she was going to be a woman who tried to meld the past with the present. She would dress in traditional garb, but would be extremely aware that they needed things like an economy and a tax base. She would have had a history with Signe, and she was fun to write, but she was also just kind of…there. I merged a lot of her actions with Signe, which was ironic, since they kind of hated each other. And I miss her, but what can you do.
CL: Do you think Signe is better for it?
RJB: Yes, but she’s still the same character.
CL: She was my personal favorite in terms of her disposition and her storyline. How did you come up with it?
RJB: I think those who really want to change things are targeted. If you’re trying to change the status quo, the status quo reacts, usually quite brutally. In the first book you have Vohannes, in the second book you have Signe, and in the third book…I’m not going to tell you who it is. I really wanted have the sense that it’s really hard to change things, that the past is not going away that easily. And it was brutal. Originally I thought she was going to be like a young Sigrud, she was tough and didn’t speak that well, but I was bored and it wasn’t that new. That was a few years ago, right around the time of the gigafactory and Elon Musk. And I thought, why not make her like him? And it was a lot of fun! She was a visionary engineer who’s changing everything, and all the barriers seem to melt in front of me—but then the past comes crashing down.
CL: Fascinating! Was it just that he was in the news?
RJB: I’m really into clean tech myself, I’m kind of a geeky wonk about that. He was all over every headline, and that was attractive to me—he seems like a futuristic innovator, all his ideas seem to work, yada yada. Plus I really liked the contrast between Sigrud and his daughter, this scarred old Viking dude, and his daughter who’s light years ahead of him and trying to make his way of life moot. What do they talk about? That was a lot of fun. Before that, I wasn’t sure what their relationship would be, but when I realized she was this bold engineer type, it was awesome. Because he wasn’t going to get that at all. And she didn’t want to get him at all.
CL: Again it comes back to that old versus new. But Signe also seems to want to triumph over him, she’s very bitterly obsessed with him and his way of life—as a way of tearing it down.
RJB: Well at some point, he could have come home, and he chose not to. And she had to basically raise her whole family herself, and thought he was basically screwing around on the Continent while she was a goatherd. She had to be the dad and take care of everyone and provide. And then he comes back, and he hasn’t done anything, but just by virtue of showing up he gets to start a revolution. And she’s like “…damnit.” She’s done everything, and he gets all the glory.
But she has this idea of him as some who just doesn’t care about his family—but he does, he just doesn’t know how to do it anymore. He doesn’t know how to act like a normal human being anymore, and he’s quite anxious about it. So it’s very hard for them. And it takes half the city falling down…
CL: That seems to be a theme for you. All of the cities in your books get destroyed or are just profoundly weird and broken and creepy. Do you hate living in Austin?
RJB: No! [chuckles] I like living in cities. It’s really interesting how they grow and how they work. But at the same time, they’re really good set pieces to knock down. And that’s the only excuse I can give you. If you want some pyrotechnics, you need to destroy them. But cities don’t really get destroyed in the third one. You’ll see the two largest cities, Ahanashtan and Ghaladesh.
CL: Oh, we’ll get to see Saypur! Finally!
RJB: Yes, and you get to see Shara’s family estate and things like that. It takes place a lot later, too. The gap between the first and the second book is five years; the gap between the second and the third is thirteen years.
CL: [NOTE: Here is the point at which the internet decided to briefly destroy my life] So—to get things rolling again—what did you think of Star Wars?
RJB: I think the word is remix. Or maybe throat-clearing. It was like, “I’m about to do something cool, but I need to get some crap out of the way first. Or announcing that hey, we’re going to do some new stuff, but here’s some old stuff you already like.” But I liked that they said right at the start that they were going to be all about the family drama. Because that’s why you watch Star Wars, for the family drama.
CL: So to tie it back to you, a lot of your stories feature these kind of broken, makeshift families that erupt from the most horrible circumstances. Do you intend to work with these themes or characters particularly?
RJB: Well, it’s fun and easy to write a story about family, and about how you both love them and have problems with them, and how you want to be something for them and want them to be something for you, and how it doesn’t always work that way. There’s nothing more complex than the parent dynamic or the sibling the dynamic—or, God bless you, both at the same time. And those relationships affect you the most, and make you do crazy stupid things. So it’s really good for plot.
Also, I think it’s really interesting that, if you think of the family as a microcosm of reality, where you’re born and experience life, and it seems perfect and then it gets marred and you have to readjust—that is really how all life works.
The first two books have a lot of groundwork, and the third book is really going to be about these relationships, the parents and the children. It’s really my most adult fear book. Oh, there are monsters, but an adult fear is really “what kind of world am I going to leave for my kids? Am I a good parent, a good sibling?” It’s much more emotionally fraught.
CL: Do you enjoy the evolution of the types of antagonism? Was it harder for you to write this than the monsters?
RJB: Yeah. Yeah, the third book was really hard to write. It was brutal. It was depressing, so I had to throw in a couple more explosions for it to sell.
CL: A lot of the stuff you write seems to be really hard to write—in that sense and also as an author wondering how to write about a former war hero, an older woman, an amputee—it’s quite impressive. Do you set out to write these characters? Do you let them tell you organically who they are and what they’re doing?
RJB: I think of plots, characters, and books in terms of questions. So for someone who’s a warrior and older, the question I set to ask about Mulaghesh is: am I still a whole person? Literally and figuratively. Well, she’s not that concerned about her arm. But this sense of pain and loss stays with her, and the sense that she deserved to lose her arm—and more. So I like to think about her and the book in terms of whether she can change, and if she can move past the past, which is something I think we all fear. We all feel that we’re getting older and past our prime, and that we’ve made mistakes. I used that as a way in.
I remember that I had the idea for her back story when I was cleaning the house like I usually do, and the soundtrack for the Ken Burns Civil War came on. I wanted it to have that kind of feel. So I wondered if she had done something like in that. And from there it flowed quite naturally.
I think she’s an interesting contrast to Shara at this point because Shara is someone who has high ideals, and is willing to compromise herself and those around her to see those ideals carried out. I think she’s willing to see people get hurt and killed so she can do what’s right. For her, the ends are more important than the means, probably because she was raised to be a spy. Whereas with Mulaghesh, she’s seen what happens when you value the ends too much. She’s all about the means. If she wants to do something, she wants to do it right, and she doesn’t want to break the rules. And of course, they both contrast with Sigrud, who is in a position of power and doesn’t know what the hell to do with it. He just wants to be alone all the time. And he’s there with Mulaghesh, and you see the contrast: she wants to change, and he doesn’t understand why she doesn’t want to be the same.
CL: The career warrior versus the career soldier is really interesting. When you were conceptualizing the book, were you thinking about that contrast, or the one between children and adults, children and mothers specifically?
RJB: Yes, I was. I wanted to think about how we think about war since about 1900. The rise in democracies has led to a huge drop in the number of wars that people start. Because the more power you have as a person, the more you think, “hey, do I really want to do this?” And I also wanted to contrast it with the old way of war. We used to be about taking and conquering, and there were clear borders, and you had to impress yourself upon the landscape and the civilians. Nowadays, that style of war is impossible. We can’t invade a country and say it’s ours now. So I wanted to contrast the old warriors, for whom it’s about glory and power, with the new way of fighting, which is about everyone. We’re very much about the rules. So is Mulaghesh, and she’s the one who says, “this is the way it is now, and we’re not going back.”
CL: You mention 1900—were you inspired by this particular period? What was your research like?
RJB: I was—the first book was a bit like the British Raj, but in reverse. But it also had a Cold War vibe, with all the spying. I think they were realizing that if you spy, you don’t have to fight wars.
For this one, well, I want my books to be pertinent to real life, so I wanted it to feel a bit like our own occupations. I also wanted it to be realistic, so I gave it to a friend of mine in the military. He told me I had to cut a lot of stuff, but he did give me a big compliment with the pension stuff at the beginning. Having Mulaghesh upset and doing everything because of her pension, that worked.
CL: I loved that! Something I really appreciate about your books is that your books are so funny. And that just enlivens everything, because what can you do in certain situations except laugh? Do you do that to break the tension, or does it just bubble up naturally from you being a funny guy?
RJB: I think I’m just a funny guy. [laughs] But no, that’s my favorite thing, to have everyone in a room together and have them all clash. It’s fun. And sometimes I have to really focus and say, okay, there’s stuff we have to accomplish in this scene, we can’t just keep talking.
CL: So I study comparative religion, and if I were a professor I would totally be teaching City of Stairs. But for the sequel, well, most of the gods are dead, and I wondered where the book would go. And it went to exactly the place that it never occurred to me was perfect to go. How did you go from “the gods are dead!” to “I still need to have a theological element to these books!”
RJB: Well, I thought about what would be the most harmed thing if all the gods vanished. And what a lot of people want out of their religion is an afterlife. They want a way to come to terms with death or to create a space for themselves after death. As a kid I was a bit of a skeptic, and one of the first things people would say would be “well, what do you think happens after you die?” That’s such an odd question. How much does that matter? But to some people it matters a lot.
So I figured, how much would it suck that, if after all this crap you had to do in life, to just have your god die. And you’re just stuck. It’s not fair. Nowadays it’s a lot easier to not believe in a god, but it’s a lot harder when that god is down the street, when you see him doing these things. And then what if it all went away? And with the soldiers you also get the sense that it’s not fair, that we didn’t give these kids what we owed.
CL: You write about very heavy stuff and you write a lot. And you have a full-time job and a family. How does you writing fit in with your schedule? What is the best part of using all your free time to be a writer?
RJB: So it’s a bit of an odd question, since when I have free time, I’m doing, like, laundry. One of the best things about being a writer is that I do it a lot in my head, and when I sit down to write I just type. When I have writing time, I do it at lunch at work, or when my wife’s out of town. She works, and we have a kid, so we have about a three-hour window at night to enjoy ourselves with him and each other. When you have free time, you spend it on people. But there are times when you have to get it done. And I’ve never missed a deadline. I’ve had one extended, but other than that I’ve beaten nearly all of them. So it’s worked out.
CL: That’s incredible. What is your advice to writers who want to attain your insane level of output?
RJB: Write. Everything. Because it’s like a muscle, and the more you write, the better you get with really important things. So I’ll write a short essay arguing about political campaigns or whatever, and then I just won’t do anything with it. When I blog or tweet, what I’m really doing is using it as an exercise to construct an argument. The more you do that, the easier it is to sit down and write fiction. It’s all about structure, the right words in the right order. Never stop doing that, and then when you have twenty minutes you can turn it on like a switch—you can pump out 500 or 1,000 words and then just get up and go.
I remember once I freaked out my agent because she asked to see what I’d written so far, so I sent it to her, and she got back to me and said, “this stops mid-sentence.” And I said, “yeah?” She thought that was really weird. And I usually don’t do that, but sometimes it happens. The way I get back into it is that I read the preceding two scenes, and once I’ve gotten the rhythms down I can get back to that half sentence, I can just start again.
CL: We’re almost out of time, so a few last quick questions. Who’s your favorite superhero?
RBJ: Batman. [Note: this is the only correct answer.] That’s easy. But I’m dreading the movie coming out. I want to see Batman in a retro environment, like Agent Carter in the ’40s. Because he’s really not made for the 21st century, he becomes basically this Iron Man figure. The Animated Series is still my favorite Batman.
CL: Ooh—so favorite cartoon?
RJB: Yeah—and the thing that I’m watching now is Gravity Falls, which is just delightful.
CL: Favorite book?
RJB: Pale Fire. He’s so impressive it’s just disgusting.
City of Blades comes out tomorrow, January 26th. (And it’s currently just $10 on Amazon!)