Go to Homepage   Robert S. Stone: The Road Past Sunset

Robert S. Stone (Photo by Jean Marie Ward)

Unlike most young writers, the 20-year-old Robert S. Stone didn't want to write about himself. So Stone created a disaffected, middle-aged businessman a universe away from the academic world of cultural studies and comparative literature Stone inhabited. Fast forward 15 years or so, and what happens? Readers of Stone's first published novel, Hazard's Price, wonder if there might just be more than a little resemblance between the thirty-something owner of a marketing consulting firm and his central character, industrialist Brandt Karrelian.

Biographical coincidence, Stone insists. Besides, over the course of the next four books in The Chronicles of the Unbinding, Brandt Karrelian will travel hundreds of miles before he finds his journey's end -- an end Stone already knows. But it's too soon to define Stone's own literary road, through the on-ramps seem to have a mind of their own.

Crescent Blues: Could you tell our readers how you came up with the unusual steampunk/fantasy mix that characterizes the Chronicles of the Unbinding?

Book: Robert S. Stone, hazard's priceRobert S. Stone: A very interesting question. It goes back to a very different question: how I chose the main character [Brandt Karrelian/Galantine Hazard]. The genesis for this entire project goes back a long, long time ago, to when I was about 20 years old. After reading my umpteenth Bildungsroman-style teenage protagonist uncovers his secret destiny that has been foretold in the stars and grows into typical epic hero, I was interested in writing something very different. I wanted to write about a character who resembled myself not at all: a middle-aged, going soft around the edges, very well-off person who's jaded, becoming ossified and needs to break out of the strictures that have begun to encapsulate him.

Interestingly, I began to resemble this character very much, biographically, by the time the book hit print, and everybody can now assume, oh, he's just writing about himself. He knows this character inside out. But the character actually came from the time when I was 20, and he was very much different than myself.

Another thing that kept coming up in the process was one of those interesting "What then?" questions. Whenever the epic fantasy ends, and everybody rides off happily into their sunset, what the hell do these people actually do with themselves? Do they become gentlemen farmers? Is that what they're doing? So I chased that thought around a little bit.

I've always been a little bit more of a fan of urban environments, which you see a little bit less of in fantasy. I think the American fantasy novel has picked up where the 19th century American pastoral novel left off, and the pastoral is now a dead form. In a lot of ways, I would say, fantasy has replaced that…which is somewhat off-subject.

But given my first set of parameters, what does a rich, somewhat bored person in a very urban environment find himself doing? That led me to the idea of an industrial magnate. You don't find a lot of those in fantasy.

He pretty much drove himself mad and died a failure.

Crescent Blues: No. You see industrial technology given a science fiction spin in the old TV series and movie The Wild Wild West and, recently, in The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, but you don't see it too often in fantasy novels. That's what intrigued me about the Chronicles.

Robert S. Stone: Very often in fantasy we appropriate a kind of easy medieval milieu, where everybody's cheerful and swinging their broadswords and not necessarily picking up a whole lot about what the actual state of technological development.

Gunpowder was used, repeatedly, as an armament in China by the year 1000 or so, and it started coming along the Silk Road shortly after that. There were all of these rather logical, technological developments that happened congruently in medieval societies starting to verge on the Renaissance. So I thought it might be interesting to try to take a look at a culture where technology and magic are rubbing up against each other with a little more friction than we typically find.

Crescent Blues: The closest fantasy analogy I can find is the anthology Liavek: The Players of Luck, edited by Will Shetterly and Emma Bull in the mid-1980s. But you're coming from a different tradition. Before the tape started, you mentioned someone by the name of Charles Brockden Brown.

Robert S. Stone: I would posit Charles Brockden Brown as the great-granddaddy of American fantasy and horror. He was probably the first person we can recognize who tried to be a professional writer in the United States. That is to say, he abandoned a career as a lawyer and tried to support himself writing. This is in the 1790s. He pretty much drove himself mad and died a failure. [Laughs.] Nevertheless, he was the writer of some well-received, rather popular novels of the time and a clear precursor to people like Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who were drawing on his tradition.

The novels are completely forgotten now. Very bizarre, very interesting work. Wieland and Edgar Huntly are among his better books.

Crescent Blues: Since they are off the beaten track, would you mind giving our readers an idea of what Wieland and Edgar Huntly are about?

Robert S. Stone: They're very much like Poe's tales of the supernatural, where odd things are happening. Gothic horror is where it would be situated in the canon. What's interesting about it is that Brown's writing is situated very clearly in America, which was the first time an American writer did that. There were aspects of the American landscape and Native American culture that filtered into what Brown wrote that really give it a distinctively American feel.

Exactly who are they? Are they "savages?"

Brown's work also participated in this kind of discourse with American physiognomists like Thomas Jefferson and J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, who were positing that American virtue was actually instilled in the land. By virtue of being Americans on this pure soil -- that whole "City on the Hill" thing -- we imbibed that virtue naturally, and as a result, we were going to be this prosperous, virtuous people in this wonderful Puritan world. And here is Charles Brockden Brown saying, no, no, no. That's not exactly the case. This is a scary land, and if you're going to imbibe the character of the land, you're going to have some people going crazy and people dying in some very strange ways.

Crescent Blues: OK, this is where the interviewer shows her ignorance. Could you, please, give a thumbnail bio of Crevecoeur and explain what you mean by "physiognomist" in this context. My brain keeps seeing that word in terms of someone who reads your personality from your face.

Robert S. Stone: Crevecoeur was a Frenchman who emigrated to the United States and wrote Letters From an American Farmer in the mid-18th century. Physiognomy was a kind of philosophy of the 18th century -- maybe even going back a little earlier into the 17 century -- which held that the nature of people was communicated to them or in some way imparted to them by the nature of the land or the actual place that they lived upon. This became a part of an on-going debate about the different characters of the European and the American, because, clearly, the landscapes were so different. It also figured into public discourse about what to do about Native Americans. Exactly who are they? Are they "savages?"

This is way off the topic. This is all coming out of my background -- American cultural studies and comparative literature.

Crescent Blues: It may be off the beaten track, but it's interesting because the background for the Chronicles is so involved. Now let's approach the books from a different angle. How did your professional background in marketing research play into the creation of the Chronicles of the Unbinding? Did you study what people wanted before crafting the world of the Chronicles?

Robert S. Stone: The genesis of the project happened when I was 20, before I ever had a glimmer of a thought that I would be running a technology consulting company or become a corporate marketing professional. It took me a long time to get to the actual writing of this, but I knew where I wanted to go with it 15 years ago.

There was only one real marketing decision that went into the Chronicles. Regarding some of the earlier things that I wrote and sent to editors and agents, I had several people tell me I needed to dumb things down. I had a lot of people tell me that I tend to write way too long -- somehow programmed into my genes is the idea that a novel is 185,000 words. Every time I sit down to write something without absolutely keeping in mind how long it needs to be, it winds up within two or three thousand words of that length. Which is kind of scary -- it's just a natural length to me, but that's not what you can get away with as a first-time writer.

In so many cases, evil and good become racialized, because you can categorize a whole different species as evil.

So when I went back to do the initial rewrite of Hazard's Price -- which originally was 185,000 words long -- the one really market-driven decision I made was that I knew I had to make it distinctly shorter. Otherwise, I think the only real effect of my doing a lot of marketing in the daytime, as it were, is that I've got a very healthy respect for my publisher. When Susan [Allison, editor in chief of Ace Books] says, I think it would be a good idea to do this with the cover or to do that, or whatever recommendation she makes, I think I kick back a little bit less. She is the professional in this field.

Crescent Blues: Speaking of covers, your assassin -- your bad guy -- is the featured player on the cover of Hazard's Price, not your hero.

Robert S. Stone: I've had so many people come up to me and say, "Who on earth is that?" Clearly, he's bald, so it looks like that would be Hain (the assassin). But there are a few details out of place, like the hawk descending to his hand, which doesn't appear anywhere.

Crescent Blues: The birds descend to Madh, the sorcerer who employs Hain.

Robert S. Stone: Although they're not exactly birds. They're a little bit more than birds, which I had been thinking would be a natural, but then you don't get the assassin on the cover. In a lot of ways, that assassin is the most easily recognizable type in the book -- your less complicated representation of evil, which is one of the things I'll be going to discuss in my panel tomorrow night [Aug. 31].

I'm looking forward to talking about villainy, because the way evil gets represented is an interesting thing. I think we often don't do as much as we could or go as far as we can -- which is not necessarily to make everybody more bestial and evil in appearance, but to understand that villainy is not a very simple thing.

Book: Robert S. Stone, Dark WatersCrescent Blues: How are you going to bring that out? In Hazard's Price, you've got good guys and bad guys. The bad guys want to bring about the Unbinding, which will release the catastrophic forces of magic into a world that's not equipped to handle them. They're using a really not nice person (Hain) to assist them in doing this, because they couldn't get the higher priced spread they wanted (Galantine Hazard). The evil in it is pretty straightforward. The person who isn't terribly straightforward is Barr Aston, who commits evil acts in the name of good.

Robert S. Stone: Hopefully by the end of Hazard's Price and even more by the end of the second book, Dark Waters, people will be looking at Madh as a reasonably complicated character. The very first time we see Madh, in the prologue to Hazard's Price, he's crashing a party. Here he is -- the ostensible villain -- but his bow tie is a little bit crooked. He feels distinctly uncomfortable in this social situation, which is not, particularly, the way we tend to represent villains in fantasy series. A lot of villains don't have any interior life whatsoever. Evil often tends to be presented in exceptionally uncomplicated ways, and I think that the field, as a whole, has a lot of crutches that makes an uncomplicated presentation a very easy out.

In so many cases, evil and good become racialized, because you can categorize a whole different species as evil. For example, orcs are evil -- although I certainly don't want to taint Tolkien with this brush. Tolkien, I think, is an exception to the norm. He had a very fine and subtle understanding of the degree to which evil lies within his human characters, as well as his non-human ones. But for a lot of fantasy works, it's very easy to create these lurking, archetypal epitomes of evil, where you can't even find a single little grain of anything redeemable, recognizable or identifiable. I think it's useful to have a couple of elements of evil like that around in a book, but you shouldn't allow it to be your prime source.

Crescent Blues: It would be very hard to sustain that kind of evil over a five-book series…or is it possible that the series might extend longer?

Robert S. Stone - Continued