Max Gladstone, Author of the Craft Sequence Novels – Exclusive Interview

Max Gladstone Interview

Max Gladstone is known for the Craft Sequence Novels – Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, Full Fathom Five, and coming July 2015, Last First Snow.

JMW: Hello. This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com With me today is Max Gladstone, author of the “Craft Sequence” novels; “Three Parts Dead,” “Two Serpents Rise,” “Full Fathom Five,” and in July of 2015, “Last First Snow.” Welcome back.

Max Gladstone: Thanks for having me.

JMW: Our pleasure. What prompted you to put wizards in three-piece suits?

Max Gladstone: Well, it makes a lot sense, if you think about it. It all kind of ties together. I started writing “Three Parts Dead,” which is the first book in the sequence, back in 2008, around the time of the big financial crises in the United States and I guess around the world soon after that. And I was looking for work at the same time, then my wife was starting law school.

And I had this sense, for one thing, of an immense spiritual catastrophe or catastrophe that occurred on immaterial plane anyway as the financial system was unwinding itself. Trillions of dollars just disappearing overnight and yet you couldn’t point to any physical smoking crater at the time. You couldn’t say, oh yes, this is the giant pit where J.P. Morgan used to be. So it seems like all of this chaos was coming out of a dimension that would be easy to characterize as fantastical term, in this sort of spiritual dimension, or the war of gods.

And at the same time, my wife was starting law school and her professors were disappearing to run off and get involved in trying to save some of these institutions that were exploding or to explode the institutions themselves. And as she worked through her first semester, I started to notice a lot of parallels. You have a profession that is very hierarchical, that works very much on apprenticeship system that relies for its power on arguments conducted partially in dead languages, with reference to obscure tones that no layman can penetrate.

It involves, even at some points, people wandering around in robes if you are at a school where people do wander around in their robes to teach class. And even the names of the law school classes seems to have this wonderful, like “Harry Potter” element to it. You’re not supposed to advance theories in biophysics or something like that. You have a class that was just about remedies, or corpse, or whatever. So these very tight, practical, like this is how you do this sort of classes.

And between this notion of the financial system is this enormous magical system and the sense of lawyers and people who are working on the corporate level and the laws as folks who were making bargains, or enforcing bargains along with these enormous spiritual entities. One thing just kind of led to another. And I had wars among gods, and wizard lawyers running around trying to resurrect the corpses of dead deities, and human beings caught in the middle or on the ground level.

JMW: And bankruptcy as a necromantic ritual.

Max Gladstone: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, if you think about it.

JMW: How so? My brain is on World Fantasy Con so it’s not sparking too well. Give me an explanation here.

Max Gladstone: All right. So this is Chapter 11. This is corporate bankruptcy that we’re talking about. So you take, in a corporate bankruptcy, largely speaking, you have some protections that are put into place around this corporation in trouble that’s, you know, dead or dying. So you protect it. And then you carve it open. And in consultation with the people who work there, and with the people who the corporation owes money, you know, a lot of different factors that play into this performance, you pull out the stuff in the corporation you decide doesn’t work.

JMW: The entrails.

Max Gladstone: Yeah, exactly, the entrails. You know, this organ looks a little grotty. Let’s saw it for you. You plop all those to one side in the waste bin.

JMW: Feed it to the demon.

Max Gladstone: Feed it to the demon, exactly. You wire together everything that’s left. And then once you’re satisfied, you stitch it all back up with copper wire, and you hook it to the lightening generator, and you submit your reconstruction plans to the court. And you can just tell, that you’ve already got cranking on the lightning rods and…

JMW: And you have your zombie.

Max Gladstone: Yeah, you have your zombie, have sort of the zombie of Delta Airlines rising from tail of camera. Lights, large sheep, light. And so it seems very logical as a way to conceive of it.

JMW: I can see it now. I love it. I really do.

Max Gladstone: Excellent. I’m glad.

JMW: But that’s not the only wellspring of the world of Three Parts Dead in the Craft Sequence. I can’t help thinking that your time in China may have had something to do with it. What did living and teaching in the absolute urtext to bureaucracy? What kind of impact did that have on the book?

Max Gladstone: Well, it is very interesting because when I was writing the books, I wasn’t thinking so much about the effects that my time in China had had on their composition because I just come out of the country. I was just sort of living in the States for the first time.

JMW: Yeah.

Max Gladstone: So I wasn’t thinking, oh, now I am going to sit down and write a book that is going to use that China experience into a book. But then it ended up having this sort of indelible imprints. There is a teaching in China… I ran into really crazy amounts of bureaucracy and head shaking amounts of forms that needed to get processed for this and that and the other thing. My favorite runaround was I had two or three months period of trying to get my foreign worker’s permit stamp, which involved meetings to get a clean bill of health from a doctor, but nobody was entirely certain which doctor, and nobody was entirely certain what satisfied their requirements for their clean bill of health, nor was anyone certain what form actually needed to be submitted and who is capable of submitting the form.

So at this point, I kind of came up with a bureaucratic exclusion principle or bureaucratic uncertainty principle at the very least. You either know which form you need to submit, you have another location of the form you need to submit, or you need to know whom you need to submit it to, or you know who you needed to submit it to. The extent at which you would know one mean you cannot possibly know the other. Like momentum and…

JMW: It sounds like a magical spell actually.

Max Gladstone: Bureaucracy is magic. And it relates to, in certain ways, that the law is magic. And bureaucracy answers the law. As in magic, you have systems of power that are based on agreements, that are based on knowledge of authorities and the ability to appeal to the authority, that are based off of the ability to satisfy and exploit sometimes loopholes in procedure and practice, which is very much the way we think about magic working in a kind of an old school fairytale sort of way. You have your deal with the devil and the devil is going to find a way to squirrel out of, or you find that your bargain with the fairies who doesn’t take some case into account.

There’s a wonderful Indian story about a monster who could not be killed, who’d manage to get sort of pledges. The beast is not going to be killed by something that was either a god or a man. And so somebody needed to become a half man, half god to… Oh no, I’m sorry. I’m getting the story wrong. I think it was a man or a beast, and somebody needed to become a man-beast in order to successfully beat this monster.

JMW: Werewolf.

Max Gladstone: Or the Balder stories.

JMW: Yeah.

Max Gladstone: Yeah, werewolves, exactly. Or the Balder stories, which are, you know, you go through the world that you get everything to specifically promise that it’s not going to harm Balder, except the one thing that can’t possibly harm Balder, which of course necessarily is the thing that kills Balder.

JMW: Yeah.

Max Gladstone: So over and over in methodology, we run into these bargains that people let down, or obligations that are not satisfied, which then have horrible consequences to them. And this manipulation of bureaucracy and laws seems to be right at the core of what we think of is magic. Which is weird because we want magic to just be this explosion of cool power and it’s neat. But there are rules. It’s about negotiations as part of everything else.

JMW: It also seems to be like it’s gaming, you know, sort of like gaming the system. And I understand that there is a game or several games related to the “Craft Sequence.” Could you tell us a little about that?

Max Gladstone: Yeah. This has been a really fun way for me to expand on the world building and the character’s themes that I am working on in the Craft Sequence. You know, reading a story about somebody else is a great way to gain exposure to decisions and ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise. But if there’s another way that you can really project yourself in, by gaming into a new world. So I have written, for choice of games, a few mobile games, and they’re now on Steam. The first one, “Choice of the Deathless,” is out already and it’s set in the world of the “Craft Sequence.” And you start off as a junior associate at an international necromantic firm or wizard lawyer firm, handling demonic contracts law.

JMW: And already in debt?

Max Gladstone: Oh yeah. Absolutely. The character starts off as something like $200,000 worth of student loan debt. And you get to choose how you are going to allot your absurd firm salary to, how much of it goes to debt, how much of it goes to paying your rent, what kind of apartment you want to live in, what kind of lifestyle you want to have?

JMW: Oh my god. That sounds like real life. That’s terrible.

Max Gladstone: Yeah, I know. Well, I mean it’s real life and then there are demons, which is not probably like real life?

JMW: You’ve never met some of my bosses.

Max Gladstone: Fair enough. I like it being able to put that just little bit of salt of reality. Because in these stories, we have people engaging in magical contest of gods, trying to out-fox skeleton kings, and bureaucratic negotiation, and then playing organizational politics and rising through the ranks and trying to make partner. And the salt of reality helps the horror of the situation come out a little bit.

And in some ways, that’s also what I’m trying to get at by recasting very familiar themes and situations in a fantastical context. You get to see the horror or the weirdness, just the fundamental strangeness of the world that we live in, when you just make a few changes. When you start thinking about, like, what would this look if it were magical? You start to see that some situations that people end up in all the time, being stuck in the this one by overlapping contractual obligations, or being in service to the horrible soul-destroying monsters. And people end up there.

JMW: Oh yeah. We all end up there.

Max Gladstone: You know, we’ve all been there.

JMW: Yeah. What are you working on now?

Max Gladstone: So right now, I’m working with next book in the “Craft Sequence,” which I don’t have a solid title for. I think “Fourth Cause” is the working idea. But that’s going to be returning to a lot of the characters in situations we saw in “Three Parts Dead.” So coming full circle, in a way. And that’s a lot of fun and I’m really excited to see what people think of that book. I’m writing another game for Choice of Games, and I’m working on a number of short stories that are development as well. So very busy time for me right now.

JMW: Like the one you did for Tor.com, which I really enjoyed.

Max Gladstone: Oh, I’m so glad that you liked it.

JMW: Yeah, “A Kiss with Teeth.”

Max Gladstone: Yeah.

JMW: Will you be tackling more vampires anytime soon?

Max Gladstone: I don’t know about vampires. Oh, there are some vampires in the “Craft Sequence,” but that’s kind of a different approach than what I’m doing in the “A Kiss with Teeth.” I have a real soft spot in my heart for the universal monsters, you know, that the old school, you know, like 19th-century Frankenstein, and Dracula, and the Wolfman, and the Invisible Man, and all these really cool, creepy crawlies. And “A Kiss with Teeth” was this attempt to use those things as the metaphor or as a gateway to talk about problems of growing…

JMW: Family?

Max Gladstone: Oh yeah, vampires and families. We’ll talk about growing up, talk about problems of growing up, and problems of being in a relationship that is long term as sort of sacrificing your sense of self for the extent to which you have to do that, and how that negotiation works. And I was really excited to be able to do that, and love to use the other universal monsters as kind of the gate way to talk about different things. It’s pretty much a question of where the inspiration goes. With my books, I have big, long term thematic plans, and plot plans, and stuff. Sure, fiction for me is very much an inspiration game. I’ll get an idea and then I want to present it in a sort of whole unfinished form.

JMW: Cool. That’s wonderful. Well, thank you so much for talking to us today, and thank you for BuzzyMag.com.

Interviewed by Jean Marie Ward

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Jean Marie Ward
Buzzy Mag Reporter & Reviewer

Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.
Jean Marie Ward
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