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Stephen R. Donaldson: Coming Back to Covenant September 2004

Stephen R. Donaldson lived in India from ages four to 16, where his father, a medical missionary, worked with lepers. He went to college in Ohio, earning a Masters in English, but dropped out of a PhD program to write three fantasy novels, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever", a dark story about a despairing man afflicted with leprosy who slips into a medieval world. The first book was rejected by 47 publishers before the trilogy was accepted by Lester del Rey for the then new SF and fantasy imprint, Del Rey Books. Lord Foul's Bane (1977), named the British Fantasy Society's Best Novel of the Year, was followed by The Illearth War and The Power that Preserves the same year, and in 1979 Donaldson won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer.

A second "Chronicles" followed, The Wounded Land (1980), The One Tree (1982), and White Gold Wielder (1983). Later novels included the "Mordant's Need" series, The Mirror of Her Dreams (1986) and A Man Rides Through (1987);
Photo by Beth Gwinn
four mysteries under the name Reed Stephens, and the high-tech SF "Gap" sequence, beginning with The Gap into Conflict: The Real Story (1991) and ending with The Gap into Ruin: This Day All Gods Die (1996). After a significant break from writing, he's returned to complete the "Covenant" saga with a new series, beginning with The Runes of the Earth, due out in October. Stephen R. Donaldson lives in New Mexico.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I have always said that I would get back to Thomas Covenant eventually. Well, 'eventually' is now.

“I have never been what I would call a fecund writer. I don't get a lot of ideas. But for all of my 20-plus professional years, there has been what I call a 'story shelf' in my head. The ideas that I do get wait there until I’m ready for them, and I figure the longer an idea sits there without falling off, the better an idea it is. Generally, I'll take one down, take another down, and the next time I look up there some new ones have appeared.

“But now that pattern has changed. I've had ‘The Last Chronicles’ in my head for more than 20 years -- on the shelf all this time, gathering dust. Meanwhile, I've used up absolutely everything else, and nothing new has appeared on the shelf. Finally, I realized what's happening. This idea has gotten tired of waiting for its turn, and it intends to block me from getting any more ideas until I do something about it!”


“The 'Gap' books, my last really big project, had only human or human-scaled characters. There was no archetypal Evil, just aliens who were going to have a destructive effect on human life, and humans who had a destructive effect on the people around them. Returning now to epic fantasy is complicated by the fact that my readers have a right to expect me to deal in archetypes. But because my priorities have shifted, in ‘The Last Chronicles' I will probably spend more time than any reader has ever expected on the motivation of the bad guy. When I wrote Lord Foul's Bane, Lord Foul the Despiser was explicitly archetypal, a sort of undying and unmotivated force for darkness. But now I believe that he too has reasons for what he does, and, more than ever before, I care about what those reasons might be. For example, I’m aware now, as I was not 20 years ago, that what this being feels is despair. He wants to hurt so many other people because he needs an outlet for his pain. He has a story, and he deserves dignity.

"Going back to the 'Covenant' series has affected me in both negative and positive ways. On one side, I don't feel that I can actually compete with my younger self. The energy of language and imagination that I had 20 and 25 years ago doesn't exist for me any more. On the other, I do believe that I have something new to offer.”


“Writing is work that suits my abilities and personality, but it is not a process of enjoyment for me; it is a process of struggle. I write not just slowly but arduously. That's one reason I don't correspond with people. It takes me 45 minutes to write a ten-sentence email. As I say, I write what I know. My internal life has always been a struggle, writing has always been a struggle, and I write about characters who struggle.

“That doesn't mean struggle is all I know. And it certainly doesn't mean I don't get pleasure from my work -- although very often I get the pleasure in retrospect. For example, I get a real glow when I look back at the 'Gap' books, at the way they fit together. I feel good. But I sure didn't feel that good writing them. Angst is my life! (I've always told people that the 'R' in Stephen R. Donaldson stands for 'strrress.') People complain, 'Donaldson's characters, they're all so unhappy,' blah blah blah, and 'Why does he do it?' But the fact remains that I have a significant readership because people can relate to what I’m doing. They struggle themselves. It's pain, it's hanging from the cliff -- internally, of course -- it's gnashing of teeth, wishing life were different, and occasionally it's self-pity. I'm writing what I know.”


“I believe that as a group we sf/f writers are saner than mainstream writers. We concentrate on storytelling, and I believe that storytelling is actually good for us. In addition, in this field the storytelling tends to be about small people who become bigger instead of about small people who become smaller, which is usually the case in mainstream fiction. Our kind of storytelling relieves internal pressure. And we seem to feel that it’s possible to have constructive endings instead of destructive ones. As a result, I find that my peers are (very broadly speaking) nicer and happier people than the mainstream writers I know.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the September 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

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