UNDERCUTTING THE CONVENTIONS OF FANTASY - Dragon Magazine #222 - October 1995

Thu Apr 7 18:10:54 PDT 2005


“I write stuff that I think is cool.”

“I think everyone who stops changing is evil”

“Vlad was my alter ego, who you didn’t necessarily like, but had to respect”

Steven Brust’s work ranges from the strange and evocative The Sun, the Moon, 
and the Stars to the daring epic To Reign in Hell, and from his science 
fiction adventure Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille to the moody vampire 
novel Agyar. Among gamers, Brust is most famous for his Vlad Taltos novels, 
including Jhereg, Yendi, Taltos, Teckla, Phoenix, Athyra, and the upcoming 
Orca. (See DRAGON Magazine issue #219 for Vlad’s AD&D game statistics.) More 
recently, he has written about the history of Vlad’s world in the novels The 
Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years After, written in homage of Alexander 
Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After.
We met Steven Brust at the Fourth Street Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis, 
where we hoped he could start off by answering a common rumor about his most 
popular books.


DRAGON: Are the Vlad books based on your gaming experiences?
STEVEN BRUST: Yeah, definitely. Adrian Charles Morgan created a world called 
Piara, and a whole lot of what become Dragaera was simply lifted from that. 
Adrian did a really good job. A lot of what he did involved turning us loose 
in an undeveloped world and saying, “Here’s your piece of it. Go make it 

DRAGON: What sort of character did you play?

DRAGON: Were there Dragaerans and the rest in Piara?
STEVEN BRUST: No, it was different. It was a game, and games don’t translate 
to fiction.

DRAGON: Why not?
STEVEN BRUST: Because games are built around plot, and fiction around 

DRAGON: Why do you like immortal characters, like the long-lived Dragaerans?
STEVEN BRUST: I hadn’t actually noticed. I’d noticed it about Roger 
[Zelazny], but never about me. I remember somebody asked Roger that, and he 
said, “Well, because then the guys have hung around long enough to be 
I thought that was kind of coo’. For me I’d never thought about it.
But I don’t know that I do that. Vlad certainly isn’t immortal. He’s 
surrounded by long-lived people, and even they’re not immortal. And that’s 
just because it’s fun to play with, the psychology of someone who’s going to 
do whatever he’s going to do in his life in a big hurry compared to everyone 
around him.
I think the difference between being long-lived and being immortal is 
actually really huge. You’re going to die at a certain point. I mean, you 
know that. But then psychologically I don’t think there’s that much 
difference unless you have something to compare it to.
As far as the Dragaerans are concerned, they are immortal.

DRAGON: Is that why you introduced Morganti daggers, to give your 
near-immortals something to fear?
STEVEN BRUST: No, that wasn’t it. .A lot of what I’m doing is playing off of 
and undercutting fantasy conventions. So what you’ve got is Moorcock 
obviously, with Stormbringer, and it goes further back than that, with Norse 
mythology you have the sword that drinks souls. It’s become kind of a cliché 
of fantasy. So I said, “Okay, if they’ve become generic, well make a generic 
term for them.” It was a kind of playing [the fantasy convention].
Take the line in Jhereg, in which Vlad has to cast a spell. He says, “I 
pulled out an enchanted dagger. It was a cheap, over-the-counter enchanted 
dagger.” It’s that same kind of taking the fantasy convention and 
undercutting it.

DRAGON: During a panel this afternoon you said you’d like sometime to start 
a novel by pandering to the audience and then switching gears to tell an 
important story, when someone in the audience said that’s exactly what 
you’ve already done.
STEVEN BRUST: I hadn’t realized that I done that, but it’s true. It didn’t 
start as pandering. [Jhereg] started out as straight wish-fulfillment 
fantasy, and that’s okay. But it got old real fast, so it developed. It 
became more intense. I was keeping myself interested, because I liked the 
character. I’ve been fascinated with the character all along.

DRAGON: Some think that Vlad has more than a little of Steven Brust in him.
STEVEN BRUST: How do I put this?
Most people are either liked or respected by their peers. Not that many 
achieve both. Most people get at least one. At a certain formative period of 
my life, I was liked but not respected. Therefore, what was important to me, 
of course, was to be respected. Who cares about being liked? The one you 
want is always the one you don’t have.
So Vlad was my alter ego, who you didn’t necessarily like, but had to 
respect. He inspired respect. He inspired fear. He was tough. He was all of 
the things I’m not.
That’s a good way to start, but you can’t just leave a character there or 
he’s going to get boring fast.

DRAGON: Do you think Vlad started out as an evil character?
STEVEN BRUST: I think he would have been evil if he hadn’t charged. In a 
certain sense I think he’s still evil if he doesn’t change, because I think 
everyone who stops changing is evil.
You have to keep growing. Stasis is bad. Degeneration is bad. Only progress 
is good.
What’s important is your ability to do something, to make something that 
makes the world better.
Vlad began to change at the first Fourth Street convention, nine years ago. 
I put the convention together in order to answer my own questions about 
writing. So I got all these people together to get my questions answered. 
Among the things I thought about coming out of that convention was what I 
was doing with that character. I had a character who was a hit man.
I had a friend who was killed by a hit man long before I wrote Jhereg. But I 
never really connected it until that time. I said, “Whoa, time to take a 
look at what you’re doing, Bucko.” And that was when Vlad started to change. 
He would have changed anyway, though how he would have changed I can’t say. 
He would have either changed or stopped. I couldn’t have written him past 
Yendi if he hadn’t changed.
In a lot of ways, I never should have written Yendi. There’s no growth in 
it. It’s a repetition of Jhereg. It’s got a slightly different plot and 
hints of interesting things, but it doesn’t go anywhere, like Jhereg did. I 
think it’s my weakest book.

DRAGON: What’s your strongest?
STEVEN BRUST: The new one, Orca.
I’m very pleased with Phoenix. There are a lot of things about it that I 
like. I’m really happy with Taltos in a lot of ways, because structurally it 
did some cool things and got away with them.
0rca is the book I wanted Yendi to be. It’s a really plot-driven book with a 
neat story and some interesting character development and some revelations. 
It’s just a straight-up, kick- your-heels-back, good time yarn. I don’t mind 
those. I like those. I approve of doing them. And I was trying to with 
Yendi, and I failed. Because there just wasn’t enough to it.

DRAGON: What of the fans who love Yendi?
STEVEN BRUST: I’m glad [they like it]. I know what I had in mind, what I 
wanted to do. They only know what I did. The goal of getting better, the 
reason you keep working on your craft is so that when you’re having an off 
day and you’re not turning out your best work and things aren’t coming 
together, you’re still good enough to pull it off. If they like it, it means 
that when I wasn’t doing my best work, it was still good enough to please 
people. That’s excellent. That’s what I want.

DRAGON: You do most of your experimenting outside of the Taltos books.
STEVEN BRUST: Except for Taltos. Taltos and Yendi a certain way. Yendi was 
an experiment. I was trying to learn how to draw characters quickly. That’s 
one of the reasons there are too many characters in it. I was trying to 
train myself to be able to just quickly and precisely sketch different 
people and make them distinctive and memorable. I didn’t completely succeed 
in that book, but I learned a lot.
If I have new character, he’s going to say something. What he says tells me 
who he is, and I won’t know until that point. I’m very heavily influenced by 
dialogue. To me, that’s what drives a book.

DRAGON: Are you more influenced by dialogue in the Phoenix Guards books than 
in the Vlad series?
STEVEN BRUST: No. Because there, and in the Vlad books, too, the narration 
is part of the dialogue. So maybe the answer is yes. Voice is important both 
in the Vlad books and the Phoenix Guards books, the Khaavren Romances. 
That’s maybe a question of definition. If you include voice as a part of 
dialogue, then yes.

DRAGON: Isn’t there a big difference between Vlad as a narrator, since he’s 
also the protagonist, and Parfi of Roundwood, who doesn’t actually appear in 
the story he narrates?
STEVEN BRUST: But Parfi is still a major character in the books. That’s 
whose eyes you’re seeing it through. That’s whose interpretation you’re 
getting. He’s the one lying to you about all the history.

DRAGON: Vlad and Khaavren are both distinctive characters. How are they 
STEVEN BRUST: To me they are more different than similar. Khaavren is nicer.

DRAGON: Yet he regularly kills people for what we’d consider trivial 
Khaavren does not go out looking for people to kill, if you know what I 
mean. He isn’t cold about it. Vlad is cold about it.
Khaavren’s a young brash kid, at least in the first book. He’s very much 
d’Artagnan. Consciously. Deliberately. With malice of forethought - that’s 
who he is. Through the strainer of my imagination.
In fact, he came from friends who’d sit around with me and we’d talk about 
mutual acquaintances. Among ourselves, we’d assign people to Dragaeran 
houses based on their personalities. At one point someone said, “So-and-so 
is a Lyorn.” At this point, I knew very well what the Lyorns were, but none 
of the others did, because I’d deliberately misrepresented them so I could 
come back later and smack ‘em.
The Vlad books are from Vlad’s ideal, and Vlad has a very distorted view. 
He’s said things in these books which are just dead wrong because he just 
doesn’t know any better. Other things he’s said are wrong because he’s seen 
them from his viewpoint, and that’s skewed.
So when I explained the houses to my friends, I said, “The perfect example 
of a Lyorn is Athos, from The Three Musketeers. Come to think of it, Porthos 
is a Dzur. Aramis is the classic Yendi. And d’Artagnan is a Tiassa” And then 
I thought, “Hey, that’s kinda cool.”
I’ve always adored Dumas’ style and have been sorry that people don’t write 
that way anymore. So I thought, “I can write that way. I can do my own Three 
Musketeers.” I didn’t expect it [Phoenix Guards] to sell. That was a book 
written to entertain myself.

DRAGON: You once said you liked to write about cloaks and swords because 
they are cool. Is that why you write fantasy adventure?
STEVEN BRUST: What I do is write stuff that I think is cool, which is what 
every good writer does. A hack will write what he thinks will sell. A good 
writer will write stuff that he thinks is cool, to the best of his ability. 
There are a lot of things I think are cool. And cloaks and swords - rapiers 
in particular - are definitely on the list. That doesn’t mean every book has 
them, but that’s what I gravitate toward.
Also really clever word play is cool. An elegantly turned metaphor is cool. 
A neat form, a shape to the novel, where things wrap in on themselves in 
just the right way, is cool. It’s a lot of different things.

DRAGON: Other than your two series, your novels are all very different from 
each other. What are your favorites? And are there any you consider not to 
be successes?
STEVEN BRUST: I mentioned Yendi. The other failure is Cowboy Feng. My 
favorite book is probably Phoenix Guards or Five Hundred Years After, 
probably the latter. My best book is Aygar. I was attempting something 
difficult and pulled it off to my satisfaction. It came out the way I wanted 
it to, and it wasn’t easy.

DRAGON: But you made it look easy.
STEVEN BRUST: That was part of the goal. If it looks forced, it fails. That 
was one of the problems with Cowboy Feng. It doesn’t look easy enough. There 
are a lot of problems with Cowboy Feng.
If you’re going to shoot for a surprise ending, there are two things you 
want to accomplish. One, you don’t want people to have seen it all along. 
Two, you want people to think, when it hits, “Oh yeah, he did plant the 
clues for that.” The reaction I got was that people saw it coming all along 
and yet I hadn’t set it up right, it wasn’t justified. That was one problem.
The main problem is that I was trying to explore some things that are 
important to me, some serious things, and simultaneously tell a light, flip, 
and amusing tale and make it seamless. And I didn’t. Those things clashed. 
And the goal of the book was to make those things happen as part of the same 
It’s another one that a lot of people like anyway, and I’m delighted, If I 
do something that isn’t up to what I want it to be and it still pleases 
people, that’s all you can ask for.

(Dragon Magazine #222 - October 1995)