Saturday, November 29, 2008

Neal Stephenson

James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of the Barnes & Noble Review, interviewed Neal Stephenson about his latest book, Anathem. A couple of their exchanges:

JM: I found the first 100 pages or so of Anathem a little difficult -- not unpleasant, but I was conscious of struggling to keep all the elements of your invented world straight in my mind as I was reading. Then everything seemed to snap into place and I was happily lost in the book.

NS: That's a remarkably universal remark -- almost everyone says, "The first hundred pages were heavy sledding, and then it started happening for me." It's interesting how consistent that response has been.

JM: The book takes place largely on the planet Arbre, a good part of it in Erasmus's "concent," or cloister, of Saunt Edhar. How complete were the worlds of Arbre and Edhar in your head? Did you have elaborate geographies and architectural plans and the like?

NS: No. Earlier in my writing career, I really wanted to write fantasy and science fiction novels. I actually wrote one that never got published that had an extremely elaborate, carefully thought-out map, as well as timelines and histories and cultures -- the whole bit. I enjoy making that kind of material up, and I've got a mind that's geared that way. I did it even back in the days when I had to do it all with a typewriter and 3-by-5 cards. So working today with computers and 3D graphics and all of the tools at one's disposal, I could see myself diving into such a project, and not emerging until ten years later, when I had complete topographic maps of the entire world, and all of that. But at this point in my life I know myself well enough to fear that outcome -- and to fear the twelve-volume series of enormous novels that would fall out of that kind of project. [LAUGHS] So I made up my mind almost immediately with this one that I would refrain from coming up with a really detailed geography for Arbre, and refrain from filling in those 3,700 years of history that followed the planet's "Terrible Events" with specific incidents and nations and wars and religions and all that.

The approach I just described is consistent with how the avout are going to see that world. To them, all of the detailed history is in a way boring and repetitive. They know it, they study it, they've got it written down in books. But it's all kind of beside the point to them. It's part of their expectation that the so-called Saeculum -- the world of non-book-reading, aliterate people -- is naturally going to have this kind of numbingly repetitive history, filled with the same mistakes being made over and over again, because, in the view of the avout, the Saecular people have no way to advance.

So I wanted to avoid the detailed history, and writing it from the point of view of the avout gave me the excuse to not have that history to hand. As a result, rather than beginning with a lengthy world-building process, I really just plunged in, and only rendered those parts of the geography and the history that were absolutely necessary to get the story told.
Read the complete interview.

--Marshal Zeringue