Matthew Woodring Stover is the author of some splendid Star Wars novels, but it is his Acts of Caine sequence that shows the full extent of his genre-bursting and groundbreaking ideas and concepts: The story of Hari Michaelson, who entertains his audience on Earth by hacking and slaying his way on Overworld as Caine, until at the peak of his career his priorities change somewhat.
The Acts of Caine were republished as eBooks this year, but they are not available in German yet. Matthew Stover answered some questions and even asked his fans for us why the publishing houses should move their ass and go for Caine. They came up with the following ideas:
1. For the same reasons that everyone else should: If you don’t get Caine, Caine will get you.
2. My gut tells me Nietzsche should play some part in this discussion- and also, didn’t Caine use a Zeiss monocle in the ‘Retreat’ sequence? Both German products. Appeal to their vanity.
3. Also, because Caine’s German nickname would be BLUTWORST.
More reasons can be found on Facebook.
Bibliotheka Phantastika: You were trained as an actor; Hari Michaelson, the protagonist of the Acts of Caine is an actor; and your novels, especially Heroes Die, address the relation between actor and audience, or, in a broader sense, between story and perception. Did you incorporate techniques of cinematic narration in your writing? What do you owe to film and theater?
Mathew Woodring Stover: There are a number of different techniques used in the training of actors; the one I found most useful was borrowed from film acting, though my training was for the stage. Rather than regard a character as a construction into which I fit my performance, I would start by examining every point of contact between the character’s life and my own. The character is never separate from me; just the opposite. I was, in effect, always playing who I would have been if I’d had that character’s background, goals, abilities and limitations. Once you see the world the way the character sees it, you’re in character; then you can focus on style and timing.
A pivotal moment in my training was playing John Tarleton in Shaw’s Misalliance. The play is probably as close to a sex farce as Shaw ever came – it’s essentially a long series of extremely bright and articulate people engaging in (very funny) debates about gender roles, class and how useful hypocrisy and moral blindness can be in maintaining happy familial relations. The director of that production, the great William S. E. Coleman, gave the entire cast what he considered to be the essential secret to successful performances of Shaw: “Each of you must keep in mind is that only you are right. Everyone else is wrong. You are the star of this play. You are this play’s moral center, and its intellectual hero. And you succeed only if you can make everyone else admit you were right all along.”
What he did there was underline an essential truth of good writing: every character is the hero of his or her personal story. They have to be. Every character I write (even minor ones) is who I might be, if I had their backgrounds, goals, abilities, and limitations – and I write that character as though he or she is the hero.
It does make writing people like Berne and Kollberg a bit unsettling, though.
Probably what I owe most to theatrical narrative is a strong preference for telling my stories as a sequence of sharply defined scenes rather than as a continuous flow. The most difficult thing in writing for me is dramatizing change over time; I prefer to skip ahead to the next good scene, and leave the intervening developments to the readers’ imaginations. And I do like to think of my writing as cinematic. A screenwriter friend of mine once told me that he could create a shooting script of Heroes Die directly from the text of the novel; he said even the camera angles are written into every scene. I took this as a compliment. My books are essentially transcriptions of movies playing in my head.
BP The soliloquy, a kind of voice-over we get to read when Caine is on air, is not coincident with being in his head and listening to his every thought. Is this an advantage? Is omission a tool that gets lost in “deep immersion” characterization?
MWS: I became interested in the narrative uses of esthetic distance when I first read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (at a very advanced age for an American, as I somehow escaped studying it in middle school). The power of fascination Gatsby exerts over Nick – and by extension, the reader – seemed to me to be a direct outgrowth of Gatsby’s opacity. Gatsby is a performance – a character created by Jay Gatz, who is playing at being the man he not only wishes everyone to see him as, but the man he truly wishes he could be. This is why Gatsby is mesmerizing: he was consciously designed as a beautiful mask. A work of art within the art.
I wanted readers to be aware that Caine, too, is a performance. That he is a character created by Hari Michaelson to be who he needs to be: powerful, feared, and free. I hoped – still hope – that this might spark readers’ imaginations about what he’s really thinking under the performance he presents to the Studio audience. And to pay close attention to exactly how and why he uses that performance to sway his audience (and mine). To imaginatively create, that is, their own idea of the man behind the mask. And I hoped it might gradually become clear that Hari Michaelson is a performance as well – the difference being that the audience Hari plays for is himself.
If I understand correctly what you mean by “deep immersion characterization” – that is, giving the reader unfiltered access to the truth of a character – I think it’s a con job. You can never get all the way inside a character unless there’s not much there in the first place. I think that our own character is mostly an imaginative construct: that much of who we think we are is, in truth, a performance we put on for ourselves. Reviewers occasionally remark that I put my characters under extreme psychological pressure; I don’t really see it that way. All I’m trying to do is crack their masks.
BP: Your novels often aim at the knowledge of truth, and truth is often approached through metaphor (or the other way round, as Duncan Michaelson, Hari’s father, would say: A powerful-enough metaphor grows its own truth.) Do you feel that writing/language is powerful enough to show truth in an age where pictures and film seem to be the dominating art form? Is there something you can tell but not show?
MWS: To paraphrase Nietzsche – who had some interesting things to say about narrative art as part of his more famous observations on human nature – truth is revealed by the masks it wears. That’s what art is for. It’s one thing to say to someone that fighting fate will destroy you, it’s another to let that person watch Oedipus Rex.
To avoid delving too deeply into epistemology, let me state simply that the truth that interests me is not a product of fact. It’s not verifiable, measurable, or (strictly speaking) even calculable. The truth my characters pursue is meaning, and is thus inherently subjective – even, one might say, imaginary. You should understand that by imaginary I do not mean nonexistent, or unreal in any sense. Imagination is not only real, it is the root of all human achievement. It’s humanity’s only superpower.
So in answer to your question about words expressing truths that can’t be shown, I’d say no. Of course not. Words are only marks on paper. Vibrations in the air. However, words have a unique power to spark the imagination of those who read or hear them … and that’s where all the magic happens.
BP: Everyone who is frustrated with stereotyped female characters in genre literature is in for a treat when she grabs one of your novels: Whether we look at Barra, the Pictish princess-gone-mercenary from Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon, or at the brutally effective Avery Shanks, fierce granny and Businessman, and at the horse-witch, who is simply the coolest heroine I encountered in fiction so far – they all seem to defy clichés, and even your Princess Leia is known to kick ass. What made you tread a different path than your peers?
MWS: I somehow entirely avoided the “girls are icky” stage of male development. Which has led me, over the years, to the inescapable conclusion that women are people. And that people are people first, and men, women, any combination of the two (or otherwise; I’m open-minded) second. Or maybe fifth. I know it sounds radical, but there it is. However, it is also very clear to me that a woman is not usefully written as a man with tits any more than a man is merely a woman with a cock.
Look: there are things that many women voluntarily do that I, as a man, don’t. For one example, wearing makeup. (And it’s not because I don’t know how; I was an actor. I know a lot about making myself look pretty.) The point is that I have come to understand, despite the inherent handicaps of being born male, heterosexual and American, that when a woman puts on her makeup, she’s not putting on makeup because she’s a woman. She might put on makeup because she’s conforming to a social norm. To enhance her attractiveness, or to suggest what sort of interpersonal interactions she’s open to and what sort she’d rather not be bothered with. To look younger, or older, or simply different. To express personal power, or advertise a willingness to submit, or both. To be noticed, or to blend in. Or it may just be a habit that she doesn’t really think about. Or any of dozens of other reasons, or no reason at all.
Lots of men, by the way, wear makeup for any or all the above reasons – the problem some (usually male) writers seem to have, however, is that when one of their male characters is painting his face, the writer is interested in why, but when a female is painting hers, the writer isn’t really interested at all, because painting her face is just something girls do. Every girl wants to look pretty, right? Right?
Now, it is true that many of the women in my books don’t wear a lot of makeup (though one particular Alderaanian princess does have rather elaborate hair). It’s also true that they are not, as some people have complained, very typical women. Women in my books tend to be smart, daring, resourceful, often ferocious, and damaged in ways that make them singularly dangerous. What those who complain often miss is that the men in my books also tend to be smart, daring, resourceful, often ferocious, and damaged in ways that make them singularly dangerous. This is because typical people tend to be a bit stupid, cautious if not actually timid, unimaginative, pleasant, and healthy enough to be generally safe, and thus aren’t very interesting to write about.
Some of it may also be due to the fact that Barra was initially conceived by my ex-wife (and very dear friend) Robyn Drake, and several other women in my books were inspired by her, and Robyn is herself smart, daring, resourceful, often ferocious, and damaged in ways that make her singularly dangerous.
Perhaps I just write what I know.
BP: Hari/Caine is, even as we meet him for the first time in Heroes Die, not a young man who needs to carve out his place in the world. We encounter his younger self in Caine Black Knife, but you said once that the younger Caine as we see him in retrospective was only interesting for you in contrast to his older version. What possibilities do you see in telling the story of a more mature hero? Can stories like that appeal to readers who are more accustomed to the typical “coming of age”?
MWS: I have no interest in innocence. If you’re forgive an indelicate metaphor, there’s no such thing as great sex with a virgin.
I like professionals. I like experts. I like intelligent, creative people. I like to watch intelligent professionals exercise their expertise in creative ways. I am quickly – instantaneously – bored by nearly all varieties of fumbling.
Look, there are any number of great (so I’m told) coming-of-age fantasy adventures. I can’t imagine I have anything useful to add on the subject. As to whether my books can appeal to the Plucky Princess Saves the Kingdom crowd, well, all available evidence suggests they don’t.
BP: Grim & gritty sff stories and cynical heroes have become highly fashionable since you first wrote Heroes Die 15 years ago. But your novels also feature the sublime and ways of consolation. Where does cynicism, for you, come to its limitations or its end?
MWS: Cynicism? Caine’s an idealist (albeit one with an unsentimental view of human nature). He knows we can be better than we are. He doesn’t even mind that we choose not to, as long as we’re not bothering anyone he cares about. Unfortunately, people who are very good at being bad often end up in positions of power and influence, where they could (if they so chose) actually make the world less shitty, but instead they have chosen to contribute more shit instead, and when their shittiness spills over into Caine’s life, well …
I’m only a cynic myself in the classical sense – that is, like Diogenes, I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite louts.
I wrote a story once specifically about the limits of modern-style cynicism (or, under its proper name, nihilism). It’s called “In the Sorrows,” and it features – by no coincidence at all – the young Hari Michaelson, who will one day grow up to be Caine. You can find it here.
It sums up everything I have to say on the subject.
BP: Violence as a theme lies at the core of your novels. Is extreme violence an essential tool for telling good stories? What if it is treated as purely entertaining, as in the “roleplaying” adventures the masses consume in the not-so-far-off future of the Acts of Caine?
MWS: A careful consideration of violence as entertainment is a central theme of Heroes Die. After that, I’m not sure it’s so much a theme as a given feature of the universe, especially when one of the protagonists is as spectacularly violent as Caine tends to be.
I don’t believe that violence is an essential storytelling tool generally … but it does seem to be one for me. I once took a fiction writing class from the noted poet Gary Gildner; his comment on my final project was, verbatim: “You could be a fine writer someday, if only you can get over your obsession with violence, madness and death.” I vividly recall thinking, “Get over violence, madness and death? What else is there?”
There’s also an element of artistic responsibility here. I feel an obligation to be as honest about violence as I can: that it’s always traumatic, often horrific, occasionally life-shattering, but still endlessly fascinating, sometimes cathartic, and once in a while jolly good fun.
BP: With characters like Berne and Kollberg, pure evil is shown with human faces, but also with a divine impetus. Do you think that evil as a human trait (or even a gift sometimes, because the world seems to need its sociopathic hero) requires an institution to unfold? Or is the disposition towards the path of least resistance ultimately more devastating and prone to institutionalization?
MWS: I’m uncomfortable with the word evil in this context. In most contexts, for that matter. It’s too abstract to be useful other than as a term of general disapprobation. Not all evil is created equal.
To be specific:
Berne is what criminal psychologists used to call a malignant narcissist; in his mind, other people exist entirely for his pleasure, from gratifying his basest appetites to merely standing in appropriate awe of the Glory That Is Him. The institutional component in Berne’s evil is a matter of convenience – he could be every bit as happy raping, torturing, and murdering people on his own. His relationship with Ma’elKoth merely allows him to do so with less concern for negative outcomes. Berne’s concept of Right/Wrong is, in practice, Fun/Ma’elKoth Might Get Angry.
Kollberg, on the other hand, is a pure Company Man; he measures his personal worth by how well he serves his institution and his society. He does like to be rewarded for his abilities, but he’ll settle for a warm pat on the head and a sincere “Well done!” He truly aspires to be a great Administrator – to bring credit to his entire caste by maximizing the Studio’s profitability and social influence.
I don’t want to overstate the distinction – after all, Kollberg and Berne are clearly metaphorically linked, as Kollberg comes to serve the Blind God in much the same capacity as Berne serves Ma’elKoth – but the contrast is as significant as the similarities. For example, Ma’elKoth tends to restrain Berne’s worst impulses, where the Blind God unleashes Kollberg’s.
I do suffer from an instinctive dislike and distrust of institutionalization – but only because it seems to make individuals feel less responsible for the institution’s nature and actions. As Caine says, “The Blind God isn’t evil. People are evil. It destroys because we do.”
BP: The fantasy setting of the Acts of Caine, Overworld, is rich in genre tradition, featuring elves, thieves’ guilds, dwarves and so on. But other than most traditional fantasy settings it is also a place to debate surprisingly modern questions and subjects. What are the limitations and possibilities of the fantasy genre, and does it need a lot of “bending” to make best use of it?
MWS: Limitations of the fantasy genre? Are you kidding? It doesn’t have any.
Fantasy isn’t even a genre. All literature is fantasy. Other “genres” of literature are fantasies delimited by restrictions of trope, setting and plot. The only limitations of fantasy as a thing-in-itself are the skills of its creators and the imaginations of its audience.
I came across a review of Blade of Tyshalle in which the reviewer misquoted an interview I gave a long time ago; he suggested I had written, “everything you need to know about life can be found in my books.” That is not what I said. I said, “Everything you need to know about my life can be found in my books.” [Italics added.] I don’t pretend to any deep understanding of reality, or of the meaning of life in this world or any other; I’m just trying to show people what happens to my characters, and how my characters feel about what they experience. I believe it’s not my business to explain to you the “true meaning” of the story or anything in it; my job is to show you the parts I think are significant, and to let you draw your own conclusions. The closest I ever get to explicating deeper truths is to occasionally share what certain characters believe. It’s up to you to decide how right or wrong they may be.
For further reference, see my comments above about art and truth and imagination.
BP: Speaking of Overworld … how much of it have we seen so far? And how much has the audience of Adventures Unlimited seen, the company that sends the Aktiri there “to die in interesting ways”?
MWS: Well, let’s see. We’ve been to Ankhana, Purthin’s Ford, Thorncleft, Mithondion and County Faltane. All of which might be easily squeezed into a chunk of Western Europe. So for the sake of argument, the rest of Overworld can be thought of as “everything that’s not France.”
It’s a big old world out there.
BP: Escapism (in the form of entertainment in an oppressive society, and in a more direct way for Hari) leads to exploitation and worse in the Acts of Caine, although the escape is driven by propensity towards violence, not by the yearning for a safe haven. In recent years, an extra dose of grimness seems to be the answer to the criticism that fantasy is escapist. Is it easier to escape to bleak and cruel worlds today, as opposed to the fairy-tale worlds that dominated the genre in the past?
MWS: Escapism is only rarely driven by yearning for a safe haven. It’s almost always driven by will to power. Grimness and violence in fantasy fiction has never been an answer to the criticism that fantasy is escapist; all fiction is escapist. In fantasy, we at least get to escape to a reality where characters have the power to change their lives for the better. As for “fairy-tale worlds,” well, have you read any Robert E. Howard lately? Or Fritz Leiber? Stephen Donaldson, maybe? Hell, even Middle-Earth is a friggin’ nightmare once you get outside the Shire – and the cheerful country-squire contentment of the Shire is only possible explicitly because Gandalf and the Rangers keep it safe from the rest of the world.
BP: Every Acts of Caine novel (except maybe Caine Black Knife, which is more tightly bound to its successor Caine’s Law) has a satisfying and very definite ending – I for one was so happy with the way Blade of Tyshalle ends that I had some qualms about starting to read Caine Black Knife. Was it hard for you to find new beginnings after the end?
MWS: Well, there’s a reason Caine Black Knife was released seven years after the release of Blade of Tyshalle … and that reason is called Making a Living Writing Star Wars and Some Other Stuff. Finding new stories to tell about Caine will never be difficult for me. Telling them well, however, takes a lot of very serious work, and it doesn’t pay very much.
I never intended to be a series writer. I never intended to make you buy more books to find out how one of my stories ends – the only reason Act of Atonement is in two volumes is that it is actually two different stories that combine to make a larger one (kind of the way the two narratives combine in Caine Black Knife itself), and I couldn’t think of a way to make it all work as a single volume. Not to mention that it would be longer than Blade, and thus be a bit of a handful in paperback
The Acts of Caine are opt-out fiction. People who love Heroes Die don’t have to read Blade; people who love HD and Blade don’t have to read CBK and CL. I hope you’ll want to, of course – my idea of a properly-run universe is one in which everyone in it buys every book I write – but so far, I have tried to let you off the train whenever you want it to stop.
BP: Actually, we’re hoping that the train will be taking us quite a few stations further and lots of people are going to board. Thank you very much!
For the German translation of the interview and the comments section, please visit our original blog post.