Just a few short years ago, Scott Lynch became one of our top five favorite authors overnight. The book that put him there was his absolutely breathtaking debut, The Lies Of Locke Lamora. Described as the first of “The Gentleman Bastard Sequence”, Lynch then defied the fabled “sophomore slump” and produced a sequel that proved Lamora was no fluke, the gripping pirate adventure, Red Seas Under Red Skies. Lynch is currently at work on the third adventure of the Gentleman Bastard, which will be titled The Republic of Thieves. We’re exceptionally grateful that Lynch was willing take some time to speak with us today, and he gave us some fascinating insights into his work.
Threat Or Menace: Hi Scott, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. We’re both fans of the Gentleman Bastard Sequence, but for folks who are new to the books, could you give us an ‘elevator pitch’ for The Lies of Locke Lamora?
Scott Lynch: Oh, goody. Time to play High Concept Brain Hockey…
It’s like an orgasm meets Christmas! It’s like a winning lottery ticket meets the Super Bowl on top of Mount Everest!
What it actually is, I’d say, is one part sword-and-sorcery, one part con game caper, one part revenge tragedy. It’s a low-magic, high-grit story about a character who’s a con artist in a world where that style of crime is relatively new and unknown.
TOM: Locke is easily one of the most memorable characters is recent history and he seems to have echoes of Edmund Dantes, Scaramouche, D’Artagnan, Percy Blakeney and Tom Jones while remaining indivisibly unique and original. Could you tell us where the character came from? Did you build him or did he just spring forth?
Scott Lynch: He was originally conceived for, believe it or not, a Star Wars roleplaying game, using the “force adept” class that Wizards put into its d20 version of the game. The backstory was that there was this tiny, out-of-the-way, somewhat idyllic planet that kept itself out of galactic turmoil generation after generation through the efforts of a small corps of Force-sensitive special envoys. They were diplomats, spies, saboteurs. They juggled political crises and bribed officials and arranged quiet coincidences to keep deflecting harm from their homeworld.
Locke was one of those guys, sent out with a bunch of standard-issue tramp freighter yahoos on some mission. The game was sadly quite short, but I enjoyed the character concept enough to keep toying with it. Eventually, I became passionately certain that the character in the book shouldn’t have any supernatural powers, and once I tore them out he became sort of recognizable as the Locke we now have on the page.
TOM: Locke is very much of the trickster archetype, and many of the plot obstacles he comes across came about directly because of him or his decisions. What are the challenges of writing such a flawed anti-hero? Locke is unquestionably sympathetic, but what did you have to do to make that stick?
Scott Lynch: I wanted Locke to be recognizably human… nobody is one particular characteristic all the time. We all have what you might call moments of weakness and moments of strength. Locke is clever, audacious, loyal, and funny… he’s also vacillating, selfish, self-pitying, and shortsighted. When he’s heroic he inspires awe in those around him, and when he’s morose or self-absorbed they want to kick him in the head.
Locke isn’t meant to be sympathetic because of his flaws, but rather because he sometimes manages to fight back and rise above them. He’s not a plaster saint or an Author Message Character (god help us), unless the message is “nobody’s perfect, or has to be.”
TOM: Jean and Locke are a great pair, and we hope their partnership can continue for a good while longer in your books — and one could compare them favorably to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, both in terms of their dynamic, and their potential for lasting, iconic appeal. How did their chemistry evolve in the writing process? Was Jean always intended to be such an important part of Locke’s life, or did that happen later on as you planned out the book?
Scott Lynch: The relationship has definitely deepened as I’ve worked on it through the books… at first they were clearly complementary partners, but I didn’t really begin to grasp their psychological need for one another until I’d had them in the limelight for a few hundred pages. These needs are both positive and negative. As Sabetha expresses it in the third novel, Locke has allowed himself to lag behind her in several respects because he takes it for granted that Jean will always have his back. There’s some justice in her claim.
Locke relies on Jean to provide stability in his life, even more than he relies on him for physical protection. Jean, in turn, gets to live a little vicariously through Locke… Locke liberates him from his rather simple and honest upbringing. Jean has supreme self-confidence born from a very realistic understanding of his abilities… Locke frequently displays many times more balls than brains. Locke is the ego, Jean the super-ego.
TOM: We both love the rich detail of the settings you’ve created. When you’re working out these places, what details do you feel are important to establish? What makes a setting come alive for you?
Scott Lynch: I think it’s the sense that people actually live in these places… that they make messes and clean them up, that they piss in the alleys, that they decorate their homes, that they evolve traditions and festivals and don’t come straight out of Fantasy 101 Stock Casting. I consider a setting alive if I don’t get the impression that it all just vanishes into mist once the main characters walk off the page.
I also think it’s important that things not make too much sense… some streets should be crooked, some names should be hard to figure out, some traditions should be unfathomable. The deliberately insane Therin calendar in my books is another part of this design goal… think of all the weird and objectively senseless things we’ve kept in our society from years, decades, even centuries past. Humans don’t build perfectly neat and logical societies, and I think trying to make everything too pat and orderly really dulls down a would-be fictional culture.
TOM: Camorr can be read as either a Gormenghast-style fantasy setting, or you could interpret it to be a Darkover-style science fantasy. Even the fantastic elements can be seen as low-fantasy magic or high powered psionics. We, for instance, are absolutely convinced that Locke and Jean’s world is an alien one, a lost colony settled by humans after the disappearance of the native race. That ambiguity is fun and interesting, was it something you set out to convey and make that mystery a feature of the setting, or are you surprised that people don’t have the same vision of the world you have in mind?
Scott Lynch: The question of the Eldren is very much intended to be an audience participation sort of thing… whatever you prefer to read into it is almost certainly going to be cooler than anything I could make explicit. I myself really -love- hints and ambiguity, and tend to be disappointed at those times when (in, say, movies or TV series) monsters cease to be half-glimpsed in shadow and have to come out into the light. With the background of Locke’s world, I’m trying to make it all mystery, all the time, and permanently postpone that strange feeling of loss when something nebulous becomes concrete.
TOM: It’s well known that you’re a fan of Final Fantasy VI, to the point that you named Locke for a certain Thief…er, “Treasure Hunter.” What other Final Fantasy games, or any other games for that matter, have you also enjoyed or been inspired by?
Scott Lynch: On the SNES, I played the American II and III (which were of course actually IV and VI). I later played a translated version of V on an emulator. I played VII and was blown away (as I had been by all the ones I’ve named so far). I played a bit of the first Tactics, and I got very deep into VIII before my game was accidentally erased, and I couldn’t muster the will to continue. VIII is where the series lost me… the excessively whiny characters, the seemingly endless reams of make-work and padding. The big attempted assassination sequence against Edea, where every major character had to suddenly turn incompetent or unbearably emo in order to fail– that was where I realized I no longer felt in control of heroic adventurers. I felt like all of my pleasure, along with character consistency, had been demoted as priorities in the game’s design by several orders of magnitude. Alas.
TOM: Besides the fantasy/crime stories of the Gentleman Bastards, and the science fantasy/pulp of Queen of the Iron Sands, what other genres would you like to work with in the future? Do you have any plans in the works that you can talk about?
Scott Lynch: Definitely more blendings of fantasy/crime and fantasy/detection. Joe Abercrombie, in his very kind introduction to Gollancz’s special edition of Lies, said that the book seems to fuse the low and gritty approach of sword-and-sorcery with the scope of contemporary epic fantasy, and that’s a pretty good indicator of where my interest lies. Sword-and-sorcery is ripe for reinvigoration, and the sky’s the limit in every style of fantasy. I feel pretty confident that readers are eager to see us run all over the sandbox, these days, rather than sticking to fussy little corners of it. We’re in an age of happy genre alchemy.
TOM: There is a trend in fantasy at the moment for the ‘low-fantasy’ novel. While The Gentleman Bastard Sequence arguably qualifies, and even though things get serious and even deadly very quickly in both novels, your works seem to lack that dystopian cynicism and weariness that plagues a lot of fantasy over the last ten years.
Scott Lynch: Christ, if you want dystopian cynicism and weariness, the newspaper’s got plenty of that. I guess I don’t believe in writing a novel as an exercise in angst-porn and hitting the reader over the head with expressions of misery they should well be able to apprehend for themselves in real life. I hope it’s pretty clear, if you read my work, that I think life is worth living and the fights are worth fighting… I just don’t believe in a dishonestly Polyanna-ish view of the world. The world is ugly, brutal, harsh, and unfair. Love is worth enduring it anyway. People can be heroic anyway.
TOM: Do you consider the Gentleman Bastard Sequence to be low fantasy? And do you find it challenging to write a setting in which the supernatural is explicit but not common enough to be a crutch?
Scott Lynch: “Low fantasy” certainly works as well as several other labels. The existence of the gods is never, ever made explicit in the text, and along with that all questions of higher fate and destiny are left up in the air. What you might call the celestial mechanisms of plot aren’t turning above Locke & Co.; there are no chosen ones, no quests for grand maguffins, no prophecies guiding events.
And no, god, I don’t think it’s challenging as a result… I think it’s incredibly liberating. I’m free to hint at all kinds of neat and creepy things, and because of the general ignorance of the population in Locke’s world, I don’t have to explain it, justify it, or slide it into any ecosystem. Supernatural dangers in his world get to retain some of their mythic weight. It’s made pretty explicit in the text that there -are- monsters in the wilds, strange and hostile forces haunting certain places, and other nasty secrets that can be tripped over. Once you creep out past the walls and lights of civilization, all bets are off. Locke’s world is not a terribly peaceful place… it’s turned up a notch from our own.
TOM: Can you tell us what’s next in store for Jean and Locke?
Scott Lynch: The Republic of Thieves, followed by The Thorn of Emberlain, follows them as they continue their journey up from ‘mere’ crime and into the realms of politics, espionage, and war.
TOM: As gamers, we have to ask: How would you stat out the Gentleman Bastards and related characters, and in what system? Is there any chance we could see a licensed game in the future, for that matter?
Scott Lynch: Oh dear. Heh. Well, back in the day I experimented with statting some of them out in GURPS, FUDGE, and d20… I suppose that’s a universal habit of gamers. I guess I was a bit curious as to whether my visions for the characters would fit into the standard creation templates of those systems (for example, would Locke make a decent 100-point GURPS character or would he have to be some tarted-out 300-point monstrosity?).
As the years have passed I’ve become less enthusiastic about ‘officially’ statting my boys out, simply because I don’t want to conflict with anyone’s private vision of what the events on the page would take. Suppose I offered Locke as a 2nd level rogue with a Charisma of 16… some would cry “there’s no way he could pull off what he does!” Further suppose I offered him up as an 18th level rogue with a Charisma of 29… suddenly he’s a yawn-inducing DM’s Darling who can never be defeated. Either way it’s a distraction from each reader’s vision.
I mean, do we really need to know that Luke Skywalker has a starfighter repair skill of… whatever? 8d+1? 13d+2? (God bless you, West End Games’ d6 system…). How are we supposed to use this information? What tangible good does it bring us? Are we really gonna kill the guy and take his stuff? I dunno, maybe I’m an old man yelling at kids to get off his lawn when it comes to this.