Tomorrow is a Tuesday, which means new releases. One of those new releases will be Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead. How convenient you might say, that Staffer’s Book Review is releasing an interview with Max Gladstone just at the perfect moment. Yes, too convenient!
In any case, after writing my review of Three Parts Dead a few weeks ago I felt like there were some things I wanted to know more about. Gladstone was kind enough to agree to the chat and we veered off course a bit. Enjoy!
Justin: Is Max short for Maximilian? If so, would you agree Maximilian Gladstone sounds like a) a member of a law and firm and b) like the manager at Fred and Barney’s rock quarry?
Gladstone: Max isn’t short for anything – my full name is Max Walker Gladstone. As for this mythical Maximilian Gladstone, why can’t he be both? Maybe in-house counsel for the quarry, with a tiny pterodactyl chiseling notes onto a piece of stone in place of a Blackberry…
Justin: You spent some time in the ol’ Zhongguo (that means China). What was your name transliterated into Chinese? Mine is Li Jia Tong(黎贾童).
Gladstone: Oh, Zhongguo! My Chinese name is 高乐石. When my teacher gave me the name I figured that 乐石 (le4shi2, ‘happy rock’) was a translation of my surname and 高 (gao1, ‘tall’) was either phonetic for the initial G or a reference to my height. It took me way too long to realize that Gao => Tall => Big => Max.
Justin: I was a Chinese minor at UC Santa Barbara. I ultimately decided on a different career path, but I was very close to moving to China in the summer of 2003 to continue my language education. What were you up to over there?
Gladstone: I went over a few times for work, once as an in-house translator for a tiny car magazine that I think has folded since (vagaries of Beijing business life in the early oughts), once to intern at the corporate headquarters of a fitness club chain (Club Nirvana Fitness & Spa). My longest stint was as a Yale-China fellow from 2006-2008; the Yale-China Association sends recent Yale grads over to teach at schools–mostly high schools, but some colleges too–in China and Hong Kong. They had just begun working with Xiuning Middle School, a magnet school in rural Anhui province, and sent an inaugural group of two Fellows. I was one of the two. The Xiuning region has developed over the last six years, but at that point it was water buffalo and farms all the way back into the mountains. My partner and I built an oral English curriculum for about 700 students, taught those students, created an English language library for the school, started an intramural basketball tournament, drank an awful lot of tea and 白酒, met wonderful people, and had a truly amazing time. Also, I wrote a few books.
Justin: How many Yao Ming jerseys did you see? It seems like basketball has really become something over there.
Gladstone: Only a few actual jerseys, but Yao Ming came up a *lot*. We had a ton of Rockets fans and Lakers fans. “Do you like… Yaoming?” and “Do you like… Kebe” (Kobe Bryant’s Chinese name) were the two conversation starters for our less English-savvy kids. That’s actually why we started the tournament: at the time, Xiuning had no high school sports culture at all, and we figured it would be cool to give our students who had other interests than English a way to engage with us.
Justin: There’s a real effort going on to start getting more Chinese works translated into English (Guomi Digital Technology). Have you read any Chinese SF in Mandarin?
Gladstone: Not nearly as much as I’d like. I’ve read some of Journey to the West in Chinese, and Jin Yong’s work, but not so much modern SF. Though I do have a copy of 三题 on my shelf — might start reading that next month. I didn’t know any big SF fans in Xiuning, so I didn’t have a guide. I love that website, though! There’s a ton of cool Chinese literature that doesn’t make it over to the West. Tricky language to translate, but very much worth it.
Justin: So Three Parts Dead is an interesting mash-up. It’s not often you get something second world fantasy that functions so much like something from the legal thriller sub genre. Have you always wanted to write a fantasy about a law firm?
Gladstone: Always? No. I came up with the seeds of the idea when talking with my mother-in-law, who’s a lawyer, about the way bankruptcy worked–the Chapter 11 process reminded me an awful lot of necromancy. Later, working with Yale-China, I was struck by the degree to which nonprofits need capital to operate. Money produced by exploitation in one part of the world might be funneled back toward teaching children, or planting trees. That fungibility reminded me of the way magic tends to work in modern fantasy. In myths, power tends to be shaped by its source (I’m thinking here of the Holy Grail–the idea of using the Grail for evil is incoherent in the Arthur stories); in modern fantasy, though, power can lack moral content: good guys and bad guys both use magic, the difference being how they use it. Around the time of the financial collapse in ’08, all these ideas gelled into a single vision, and I started writing Tara’s story.
Justin: In my review I quote Bertrand Russell, is that where the title comes from? Was it merely a cool quote and title or did it the idea for the book germinate there?
Gladstone: You’re right that the title’s from Russell, but I didn’t find the quote until the book was done. I went hunting for a title, something to do with death, and the Russell quote struck me with its rhetorical power and with how well it fit different aspects of the story. There’s the what-it-says-on-the-tin aspect, since the book’s about necromancy. The full quote (“To fear love is to fear life, and those who fear life are already three parts dead”) also captured the characters’ driving concerns : Tara was enraptured with her vision of a life of Craft, but she starts the story disillusioned for very good reasons. Abelard’s god is dead, leaving him out in the cold. Cat’s obsessed with and afraid of granting anything the kind of power over her that love would provide. Raz is ‘three parts dead’ himself in a literal way. The entire world of Craft (magic, in the story), is based on this utter pragmatism and suspicion of idealism, faith, and engagement. The book didn’t spring from the quote, but finding that quote helped me think through what I’d written.
Justin: Tara feels like the novels focus throughout the book. She’s the protagonist, the moral center, and the driving force for the narrative. Yet, toward the novels end I felt like she went out of focus. Is this a factor of the events becoming too big for her, or there just wasn’t room to fully explore her story in the first novel?
Gladstone: Events certainly grow beyond Tara in the final act of the book. That’s often the case with investigations, and magic for that matter (Chinatown and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice share this feature): a character pushes further than she “should,” defying some established order, and the cascade of ensuing events envelops her. Tara’s gradually drawn out of her remove from the world (sort of a subject-object relationship, inspector to inspected), into the lives and concerns of the people of Alt Coulumb, who are subjects in their own right, and who take their own action in response to emerging events. Tara ends up racing to stay one step ahead of the avalanche; sometimes she succeeds, sometimes she fails.Now, without spoiling anything–the ending of Three Parts Dead will take a while to process, for Tara and the city. The story is quite compressed in time: start to finish, I think 48 hours pass from Tara’s arrival in the city, not enough for events’ ramifications to sink in. I didn’t want to give Tara an easy out. She’ll need longer to live through the consequences of this book. I really look forward to revisiting her in the future, to see what progress she’s made, and how far she has yet to come.
Justin: You’ve got a second book under contract in the same world as Three Parts Dead and you’ve also sold another, unrelated, book to Tor as well. Are you writing full-time and cranking out prose at a Brandon Sanderson like pace, or are these manuscripts you’ve had finished waiting for someone to buy?
Gladstone: I have two more books in the same world as Three Parts Dead, and hopefully more after that! And, yes, one unrelated book, which is weird and wonderful in its own way. I wrote Three Parts Dead while struggling to make ends meet back in 2009; I found a job in 2009 and started querying around Christmas. While querying and working full time, I wrote the next book in the sequence. I already had the unrelated book finished before I sold it, though in a more primitive form than the one I finally sent to Tor. So I’ve been working off and on this entire time. I’m about to make the big jump to writing full time, though, and we’ll see what happens next. I’m excited to find out!
Gladstone: Thanks for the questions!