Prime U.S. Beef

David Eddings interviewed by Stan Nicholls

"If I could figure out a way to persuade Barbara Cartland to refer to her books as something else I'd do it," asserts David Eddings. "Because the technically correct term for what I'm writing is romance. My work is a direct outgrowth of medieval romance and I, unlike Tolkien, adore Tennyson, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur."

Eddings, whose Belgariad, Malloreon, Elenium and Tamuli series have gained him international bestseller status, began reading fantasy and sf at around 13. "When I was perhaps 17 I started writing," he says, "but dabbling in fantasy never really occurred to me. Well, I did do one or two short stories in the science-fiction mode in my mid-20s, but didn't like them all that much. They didn't work, maybe because I have no science training whatsoever. I think I know the formula for water and I believe I know Newton's Third Law. That's about as far as it goes. I'm horribly incompetent at anything mechanical, and mathematically I'm inept. Which is why my wife balances the cheque books.

"I was convinced I was going to become an actor. I wasn't bad at it, and in high schools and junior college I was sort of minoring in speech, doing debates and things of this nature. Then I got a scholarship and went to Reed, a rather prestigious college in Oregon. I didn't get on that well with the fellow running the drama department there, and I was a compulsive reader, so I concentrated on English instead. I did fairly well and got a good background in academic English studies."

When he was in graduate school he became enamoured of Middle English. "Maybe that was fate, because I can relate the interest directly to what I'm doing now. I took two or three seminars on Chaucer, and one on Malory. It was getting very close to being a Major, but actually my Major was Modern American Fiction - Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck and that general era. But I spent a great deal of time studying Middle English and got fairly competent in it. Competent enough that, just for fun, I have a speech in the middle of my current novel, The Shining Ones, delivered in Middle English. I checked it carefully against various references and it's very accurate. I can write in Middle English! It could start a trend.

"Anyway, Reed College required a thesis for a Bachelor's degree. Normally a Bachelor's is sort of like being stamped 'Prime US Beef.' They just walk you through, hand out the diplomas and you fill in your name later on. But I wrote a novel for my degree, and I'm very happy I didn't submit that to a publisher. I sympathize with my professors who had to read it. Nevertheless, I wrote a novel; I actually managed to finish the thing, and it was acceptable enough to get me my degree. I wrote also a portion of a novel for my Masters thesis at the University of Washington. Simply becuse I devoted just one semester to it, six months, I only got about half way through. But I think it was a much better book than the one I wrote at Reed."

What kind of novels were they? "Contemporary. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the field for which I am perhaps unjustly famous."

College was followed by a spell in the army. But whether he was conscripted or joined is something Eddings still can't make up his mind about. "That's a moot point. It was at the end of the Korean nonsense and we had the draft at that time. But my draft board was very understanding. They would send me a letter every Fall saying, 'Do you intend to continue your education or are you available for military service?' I'd reply with, 'I'm going back to school this year,' and get a deferment. They'd been so decent about the whole thing that after I finally got my Bachelor of Arts degree I thought, 'Well, they're not really shooting at each other that seriously in Korea right now, let's get this over with.' So I wrote a letter saying, 'I do not intend to return to school this coming year and am available for military service.'

"I made the mistake of telling them I'd done three years in the National Guard, although I was criminally underage to do it, and when they ran out of cadre men [non-commissioned officers] they gave me my very own platoon and said, 'Here are 63 men, try to keep as many of them alive as you possibly can.' That was one of the more harrowing experiences of my life. Weeks went by when I didn't see the inside of my eyelids. But, hey, I did keep them all alive. We lost one, but that was because he ran away, and I still feel a little guilty about that. But one out of 63 isn't a bad average. Fortunately they didn't send me to Korea; they sent me to Germany, and with two years of college German I got along fairly well."

After his discharge from the army he began looking for a job. "Simply to support myself, because my family was not well-off, I went into working in grocery stores. I discovered that a good journeyman grocery clerk can go into any town and probably have a job within 48 hours. I've fallen back on this periodically, although I must say that getting out of the grocery business ranked right up there with getting out of the army as one of the happier experiences of my life. It was good to me but I didn't really care that much for it.

"Then I got employment with Boeing in the aerospace industry in Seattle. I wound up being what was quaintly called a missile bum. I got married at that time and we sort of bounced around the country emplacing Minuteman missiles, finally settling for a while in New Orleans, where I worked on the Saturn project as a buyer. I spent more taxpayers' money than I'll ever be able to replace. Everything we were doing, simply because of the size of this monster we were building, had never been done before. I was buying very exotic things, none of which I understood. I'd take the specs to the engineers and say, 'Does this make any sense? Keeping in mind the fact that I'm committed to spending about five million dollars.' They'd look it over and say, 'Oh, yeah, that seems all right.' But I was never sure I believed them.

"So there we were in New Orleans. But my wife, Leigh, was an asthmatic, and asthma is a fatal disease in New Orleans due to the climate. I remember getting her to the hospital one night just in time. I figured we had to get above that Mississippi delta. Boeing was unsympathetic, so I parted company with them and we went to the upper mid-West, which is drier if nothing else. I taught English in a business college for about a year. Then I taught in a small teacher's college for three or four years, at which point all the administrators got a pay raise and the teaching faculty didn't. They got my back up about that and I told them to take their job and do whatever they wanted with it. And, good heavens, abandoned tenure in the process. I could still be there, teaching Dostoevsky or something."

That seemed as good a time as any to try his hand at professional writing. "Having saved a few dollars, we lived frugally for a year and I wrote what was to be my first published novel, High Hunt. Then we moved to Denver, I went back to the grocery business and in my spare time hammered out all the kinks built into the book. I finally sent it off, and rather surprisingly - well, it was astonishing to me - Putnam took it and published it in 1973." High Hunt, which appeared in the UK for the first time in 1993, is a tough outdoor adventure. It centres around a group of men on a deer hunt in the mountainous region of Washington State. Away from their urban environment, violent tensions and rivalries surface. "It did very well, and there was even some talk about a film. But it came out at almost exactly the same time as Deliverance and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, which were kind of similar subjects.

"Another bit of bad timing as far as my position on the bestseller lists was concerned was that it also came out simultaneously with Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. And the bird knocked me out.

"We left Denver and moved to Spokane [Washington State], where I was born, incidentally. I always wondered why my family left so soon after my birth, but when we got there I realized my father was a great deal smarter than I thought he was. It is a terribly, terribly boring town. There is nothing to do in Spokane. If you've read my novel The Losers, which I wrote during that period, you'll see it says a number of nasty things about Spokane, most of which are probably true."

The Losers remained unpublished until 1992. Its protagonist, promising student and athlete Raphael Taylor, loses a leg in a car accident when drunk. He falls through the safety net and finds himself living in a run-down neighbourhood of Spokane, surrounded by outcasts and insensitive social workers. Eddings' desire to write the novel dated from his days in the grocery trade. "The grocery store in The Losers where Raphael works has almost a floor plan for one of the stores in which I worked," he explains. "Many of the characters - those poor, broken-down, pathetic people - I used to wait on. Most of them were on welfare, and they'd come in to redeem pop bottles so they could scrape together enough money to buy food."

Why the down on social workers? "Experience. I developed an antipathy for them while I was there, and I used the social worker in The Losers as the Devil's mouthpiece. Any time I wanted to say something outrageous I'd put it in her mouth. Here's a girl who's gone through some upstate college, majored in boyfriends, had the obligatory abortion in her teenage years and came out with a minimal degree in social work with a C-minus average. Then they give her a caseload of 40 or 50 people over whom she has absolute power. Absolute power. And this incompetent, who knows nothing whatsoever about what life on the streets is all about, makes decisions that affect their entire lives. All social workers want is to get everyone involved in a programme. Because a programme provides full employment for three generations of social workers. And they mess up. I saw it. I saw these poor people, their clients, continually having battles with the Department of Social Services. There was nothing you could do for them except offer sympathy. I suppose The Losers was my attempt at offering blanket sympathy to those people.

"Right after The Losers I wrote several other, monumentally unpublishable, books, and was beginning to think maybe I should give some thought to a career in poetry or something. I was struggling along and making half-hearted attempts to get back into teaching. But the market for unemployed English teachers wasn't very great.

He would have carried on trying to make his mark as a mainstream novelist if it hadn't been for a chance discovery in a book shop. "I was heading toward the back of the store, where they kept the serious fiction," he recalls, "and walked past the sf rack. Down on the bottom shelf was a copy of The Two Towers, the second volume of The Lord of the Rings. I looked at it and thought, 'Is this old turkey still kicking around?' I picked it up and saw it was published by Ballantine. Now Ballantine, unlike many other American publishers, lists printing histories. I turned the title page and saw this book was in its 73rd printing. This gave me pause for thought.

"I was supposed to be working on a book at the time, and it was boring me to tears. This is terrible, when a writer is bored by his own work, but it was a real bomb and had reached the point where I couldn't even stand to look at it any more. I'd got into the habit of goofing-off this book by doodling, and I'd started to draw a map of an imaginary world, which I eventually put aside and forgot about. After I'd seen the 73rd printing of the second book of Lord of the Rings, I went back and pulled that map out again. I made some changes; putting in different names for some of the kingdoms, that sort of thing. Then I began thinking about the people who lived in those places and wrote in that this race is like the people of Poland in the 8th century, or this one is like the Romans of the third century BC, and so forth. Finally I came up with a complete mythology, various theologies, and a serious bad guy, who turned out to be a sort of renegade god. That led to inventing various other characters. What I was doing was generating preliminary studies for what became the Belgariad and Malloreon series. It took me about a year and ran for 230-something pages."

There was no doubt in his mind that he wanted his fantasies to be in series. "None whatsoever. Because, you see, my original perception of how you did these things was based almost entirely on The Lord of the Rings. Being completely innocent, I thought it was standard practice to write these books as trilogies. At that time I was unaware that Poppa Tolkien wanted to do the whole of Lord of the Rings as one solid volume, and was really, really upset when his publisher, Unwin, said they were going to break it up. But I believed that if you were going to write a long fantasy it was supposed to be in three books, so I proposed Belgariad as a trilogy to Ballantine. I didn't even know Del Rey Books existed; I simply sent my letter of enquiry to Ballantine because they were Tolkien's publisher. I figured I'd start at the top and work my way down and wind up with Pocket Books, Ace, Baen or whatever it might be.

"The postal service contributed greatly to my career as a fantasy author by losing that letter of enquiry. I wrote a sniffy note and ultimately got a response from Lester Del Rey himself. I should say that I grew to love Lester dearly but he and I fought continuously. We used to scream at each other over the telephone, burning up the wires, and his wife, bless her, would try to step in and make peace between the two of us. But he gave me a very quick education on the realities, which is to say the economics, of publishing here in the States. The market is dominated by two major booksellers, B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, and they have certain rules about genre fiction. In those days one of those rules was that the cover price of paperbacks could not be over three dollars. This has modified as the result of economic changes, of course, but we're talking about 1978, 1979 or thereabouts. Lester said, 'What you're proposing is a trilogy that's probably going to run between 1500 and 1800 pages long. If you break it into three you're going to have 600-page books. There is no way these booksellers will accept them in that format.' Then he made a famous statement. 'This is what we are going to do,' he said. 'We're going to break it up into five books.' 'We' meaning me.

"I wasn't very happy about that. I had absolutely perfect climaxes for each of the three volumes, all laid out, ready to go. And here he was proposing major violence to the story to make it come out in a way that pleased the booksellers. I was terribly offended. But since I'd already signed a contract I didn't have too much choice and had to go along with him. He did point out that I'd receive advances for five books as opposed to advances for three books, which was going to net me a significant additional amount of money, and that sort of softened the blow. So I floundered around for a month and finally came up with a plan which kind of worked. I still think it might have been better had Belgariad been presented in three books as opposed to five. But it's been around for so long that if I tried to change it now I'm sure the howls of protest would be heard as far as the moon."

Eddings admires Tolkien greatly, as evidenced by his affectionate use of the term "Poppa" in reference to him, but has some reservations about the legacy of Lord of the Rings. "There's no doubt the man's a giant. The thing is that Poppa was such a giant in the 60s that he seems to have established the parameters of what fantasy is. Even to the point that my former editor Lester Del Rey could say, 'Fantasy is the most prissy of all art forms.' He meant that what people will accept in, say, bodice-rippers they find absolutely unacceptable in fantasy. In other words, part of Tolkien's heritage is a certain prudishness. With one or two possible exceptions there aren't any female hobbits, and his heroines end at the neck; you have the beautiful hair and eyes but that's about it. This was like waving a red flag in my face, and I went out of my way to start pushing at the edges. Not to turn my fantasy into pornography or anything of this nature, but just to see if I could get away with taking it a little bit further in that regard. I'm having a great deal of fun pushing against those boundaries of prissiness and inserting an erotic element into my work.

"This ties in with recognizing the fact, and disliking the fact, that people in America are absolutely convinced the melody for Greensleeves is a Christmas hymn. It was composed in praise of a prostitute, of course. Come on, I've read Chaucer, I know there were prostitutes in the Middle Ages. And if I'm dealing realistically with the Middle Ages I'm going to have to have pickpockets, I'm going to have to have thieves, and I'm going to have to have prostitutes. I think the third character who appears in the Elenium is a prostitute, a little streetwalker being rained on. I introduced her to establish that it's a real world, and to establish that, despite its preconceptions theologically, medieval society had probably at least as many prostitutes as it had knights whose strength was as the strength of ten because their hearts were pure."

His fantasy world has its basis in the Middle Ages but everything else, the culture, politics, magical system and so on, was devised from scratch. Isn't this one of the more difficult aspects of being an author in the genre? "It can be very difficult, yes, and you have to be conversant with many, many things. You can have a character say, 'Gee, they bounced one of my cheques' in a contemporary story and everybody will know what they're talking about. But in fantasy you have to invent the entire banking system. You have to invent the theology, sociology and everything else. And when you begin as I did, by dropping three or four aeons of western European culture into a blender - when you throw in peoples who are essentially ancient Romans, French and Spanish noblemen, Vikings and Muslims - when you put all that together and press the 'on' button you get a very strange mix of anachronisms. It gets you thinking about what sort of world it would be with Romans and Arabs living next to each other, for instance."

The temptation to also invent some kind of magical McGuffin to get his hero out of a tight corner is something he works hard to avoid, however. "It's the Superman complex, isn't it? If you're more powerful than a locomotive and can leap tall buildings at a single bound, what do you have to worry about? Take the all-powerful sorcerer. There is nothing he has to fear. The guy is bullet-proof. I spoke with Lester Del Rey about this rather extensively. He said the only way you can get around it is to come up with believable limitations, and you have to be very specific about what those limitations are right at the outset. My gimmick is that magic is tiring. Wizardry poops you out. So doing something with magic is as hard as doing it with your back, it's just that it happens almost instantaneously. I refined the gimmick so that when a character does something with magic it makes a 'noise' other sorcerers can hear. If you're trying to tiptoe through the tulips and sneak your way through the back alleys, using magic, you're going to sound-off burglar alarms all over town. Everybody who is the least bit talented at this sort of thing is going to 'hear' what you're doing, which is a significant factor if stealth is important.

"On the subject of magic, incidentally, the fact that she is a little too specific about her spells is perhaps my one and only argument with Katherine Kurtz. Start telling readers how to do a spell, whether or not it works, and they're going to try it. If you've got some 14 year-old kid with terminal acne who's absolutely convinced that if he recites this particular spell he'll be able to fly, and goes and jumps off a 70-storey building, it's your fault, dammit! I feel a sense of responsibility, so I'm pretty vague when I get to sorcery. I use the gimmick of the will is the word. Which means that when a character wants to use magic they simply say, 'Happen!', 'Let it be so!' or whatever. The more susceptible reader can go ahead and concentrate as hard as they want and I don't think that, like Uri Geller, they can bend a key with only their mind. If they can, they probably have a future in showbiz."

Having sold so many books, presumably Eddings' appeal is over quite a wide range. Does he have any idea of his readership profile? "I get fan mail. Do I ever get fan mail. Naturally, because I'm writing in a genre that appeals to adolescents, a heavy percentage of my readership is adolescent, and to use a Nevada income, I don't cut 'em no slack. I've got eight years of college English behind me, and extensive reading in the classics, and I do my level best to stretch my vocabulary and hopefully theirs at the same time. Call it my little gesture toward social conscience, but I like to think I'm teaching a certain number of people to read. Now that sounds pretentious!

"But it isn't only younger readers who write to me. I'm getting the middle range, too, and some of them are naming their children after the characters in these books. I'm also getting people of advanced years. Even more advanced than mine, which is a little hard to accept. Some days I feel like I'm older than dirt.

"Occasionally I get unwelcome attention too, of course. I received some really strange correspondence from an absolute, total nut. This guy was a former Scientologist. He'd been expelled from the Church of Scientology, if you can believe that, largely because he was convinced L. Ron Hubbard was not really dead but being held prisoner by the hierarchy of the Church. And he was writing letters to everybody. I know he sent some to [comedian] George Burns. As a matter of fact they weren't so much letters as packets costing about five dollars each to send through the mail, because they were as big as dictionaries. The import of this mass of material was, 'Let's rescue L. Ron Hubbard.'

"What he wrote made me a little bit nervous. This is when Ronald Reagan was President, and although I had no particular brief for Reagan I don't approve of assassination as a means of political change. And there seemed to be a slightly threatening overtone in these missives. So I called the FBI, and they in turn put me in touch with the secret service. I read them the letter, they checked and said, 'Yeah, we have a file on him. But don't worry, he's harmless.'

"This man identified himself as 'the Son of God.' You'll be happy to know that the Redeemer is alive and well, as far as I know, and living in Scotsdale, Arizona. I got him off my back by something that probably sent him straight to the funny farm. Since he identified himself as the son of God I wrote to him under the letterhead 'From the desk of the Lord God Almighty to His Son.' The letter said, 'Your mother and I are a little concerned about your behaviour. You shouldn't reveal your identity. Remember what happened last time.' I didn't hear from him for about ten years after that. Then a couple of years ago he started writing again and I sent him another one. I haven't heard anything since. It was a rotten thing to do but I didn't need aggravation from this wacko."

After years of almost nomadic wanderings, David and Leigh Eddings may now have settled permanently in Carson City, Nevada. "This sounds almost mercenary, but largely we were encouraged to come here because of a tax law. The government lawyers rummaged through their books and discovered an occupations tax, where if you had income from composition, painting, writing, virtually anything creative, it was taxable in the state of Washington. Frank Herbert was the fellow who unfortunately received the brunt of this discovery when they attempted to tax him for his books. I protested First Amendment rights and a number of other things, and finally decided I didn't want to become another example. That and the fact we were living in Spokane at the time, where we went for 154 days a year with three feet of snow on the ground, sent us south. We checked it out and found that Nevada has the lowest tax rate in the United States, because of the casinos. People from California come over and carry our taxes for us. Many times we'd be happy if they'd just mail the money, but we haven't been able to persuade them to do that yet.

"Carson City is the most peaceful little town you have ever seen, with about 40,000 people spread out over several miles. It's absolutely beautiful if you like to look at sagebrush, and there are probably more mountains in Nevada than there are in any other state in the country. But we don't have a lot of snow on top of them because in the summer the temperature goes up to 110 and that tends to melt it off rather quickly. I'm done moving now. I'm setting down roots. I like this place.

"It's very pleasant and quiet almost to the point of boredom, which makes it ideal for a writer. I'm taking advantage of that quietude to write a pair of prequels to Belgariad and Malloreon, so we'll ultimately wind up with a 12-book epic. If it's good enough for Homer it's got to be good enough for me! Now that I know how the story ends I can go back and write the beginning. I'm doing them in conjunction with my wife and she's finally going to get credited. She's suffered through this, and her editorial input has been more valuable than anything I've got from any recognized publishing house. And these two books are going to be noticeably heavier than the others. I've been trying to hold the novels at 600 typed pages, but unfortunately - for the people who have to pay for them, both publishers and readers - these are going to be thick, heavy and consequently a little more expensive."

The modus operandi he's applying to the new books has hardly changed since he established it with High Hunt. "I always start with an outline, which is flexible but very, very detailed. I'm dealing in a world that never was, and if I permit myself to wander off I can disappear into the jungle and never be seen again. I have to know where I'm going. I wouldn't want to say I'm outline-bound, because I'm always open to suggestions, but I do have it laid out. I may stray once in a while, but I stay pretty close to the road map. I tend not to wind up in Australia when I'm heading for Portugal.

"Because I get up at an unholy hour in the morning my work day is completed by the time the sun rises. I have a slightly bad back which has made an enormous contribution to American literature. I can only sleep for a few hours, then I'm going to get up whether I want to or not, and as long as I'm up anyway I may as well go to work. So I go to bed at eight and my morning starts at two. The thing I really appreciate is the quiet. I have the chance to concentrate and I can turn out six hours of fairly good stuff. It's worked rather well for me and I finally acclimatized my wife to the idea that I'm going to get up at two o'clock no matter what time she wants to go to bed. So we're early-to-bed, early-to-rise types. There were times when I was the exact opposite. I didn't start working until midnight and went on to like four o'clock in the morning, then slept till noon. But those days are long gone.

"The unfortunate thing about working for yourself is that you have the worst boss in the world. I work every day of the year except at Christmas, when I work a half day. I think it was the musician Rubinstein who said, 'If I don't practice for one day I notice it. If I miss two days my wife notices it. If I miss three days the audience notices it.' I feel that if I were to take a week off I'd have to go back and learn how to write all over. I don't want to do that. It's also a matter of relying on a routine. You know if you go to the same place, use the same kind of pen, have the same kind of lighting and so on, it becomes an unbreakable habit.

"We have on occasion taken what my wife likes to call a holiday; we go to Reno and stay in a hotel. But I finally reached a point where I couldn't stand it. I can only spend so much time at a blackjack or roulette table because I have this thing nagging at me. Now we get a two-room suite and I take the current manuscript along. I still get up at two o'clock in the morning and go to work like I'm supposed to do! It makes Leigh a bit grumpy but I think she understands. I thank God I have someone who is so supportive, and recognizes the fact that I've made a fair living at this so it's worthwhile. She allows me my little peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. She keeps me productive and gives me enormous amounts of input. I'd be hopelessly incompetent in producing a female character without her assistance. I'm sorry, but no man understands how a woman's mind works. I've got a female parakeet and I can't even understand how her mind works, for crying out loud."

Although he doesn't overrule the possibility of further ventures into mainstream fiction, Eddings thinks he'll be sticking with fantasy. "I went to a convention in Spokane, which is kind of a weird place to hold one, and met F.M. Busby, who was fun. We got into a long discussion comparing the climate of the world at any time when one or the other of the given genres of speculative fiction, fantasy or sf, was most popular. We concluded that if people's general belief was that things were going to go okay, then science fiction, where we look to the future, was very popular. If things were going to hell then everybody wanted to read fantasy, because it took us back to a simpler time when there were verities, when we could believe what our leaders were telling us and they only lied when it was necessary.

"I hesitate to predict whether this theory is true. But if the general opinion of Mankind is optimistic then we're in for a period of extreme popularity for science fiction. If the general opinion is pessimistic, fantasy is going to hold its own.

"I'm enough of a pessimist that I'm going to continue writing fantasy."

This interview, by Stan Nicholls, was originally printed in Interzone magazine;
the HTML version was created and is maintained by Kamion.