Tuesday, 1 May 2012

An Interview with Ricardo Pinto

The Chosen
The Standing Dead
The Third God

It's not particularly often that a novice writer has the chance to interview one of their idols. Ricardo Pinto, author of the Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy, may have yet to become a household name, but ever since I first picked up The Chosen in 2001 the series has been a firm favourite of mine.

The Stone Dance is a beautifully, painstakingly rendered fantasy, a feat of worldbuilding to easily rival Martin, Jordan and yes, even Tolkien, and, perhaps most importantly for me, a work of great emotional intelligence and empathy - traits which the vast majority of fantasy writing has sorely lacked. Pinto's writing is sublime, dreamlike and yet at times terribly visceral. For all its alienness, it's the most human fantasy I've ever read, and for that, ranks among the very best.

Ricardo was kind enough to give extensive answers to all of my questions, and so, without further ado, here they are in full.
First of all, you don’t identify yourself as a fantasy writer. This came as something of a surprise to me, as the Stone Dance is an example of painstaking world-building, a technique usually limited to sci-fi and fantasy as traditionally defined. Are you intending to move away from this in your next novel, or will you be reconstructing your historical setting in a similar style?
RP: Actually, I've put my historical fiction project aside for the moment, and am experimenting with a sci-fi project that is something like a John Wyndham.

On the issue of identification as a fantasy writer - I suppose I've somewhat mellowed on that point. Distance (from the Stone Dance) has changed my feeling about that... I generally dislike categories in creative work - it seems to have all to do with some kind of attempt to restrict and classify what - in my opinion - should be left to grow freely in whatever direction it wants to go. At the time I was writing the Stone Dance I was feeling smothered by the category 'fantasy fiction' because my work didn't feel as if it had much in common with much else in the 'genre'... If you had asked me this question then, I would have said something like: my books don't have the comfortable 'black hat/white hat' characters of fantasy fiction. Or: my books don't have any magic in them - so they're almost like historical fiction, except only that I've invented the culture and history I am describing... Now, however, I can't really see what I was getting so agitated about. Now, I have no problems with it being characterised as 'fantasy'.
The Stone Dance was for me much more than 'writing', but an act of self-therapy - thus, perhaps, some of the intensity with which I resisted it being restricted to a genre - it was in some way 'me' - and that restriction felt as if it was being applied to me... Don't get me wrong, I still dislike these genre categories - for one thing, I have desires to write in all kinds of genres, and this is something that the publishing world doesn't seem to like.
As to moving away from painstaking world-building - yes, I think I am. It's been a long time since I had anything published. In the interim I have been working on various projects: some fantasy/sci-fi, some not. The writing of the Stone Dance absorbed 10-12 years of my life - and has not been commercially that rewarding. To some extent, my obsession with 'getting everything' right - of continuing the narrative style I had begun with - has buried the books - they were simply delivered too late and too far apart from each other. I feel as if I no longer wish to dedicate so much time and so much effort to one project. For one thing: I don't have enough time left to live *grin* For another, I am no longer convinced that I am well suited to writing books of 300K words (the Stone Dance as a whole is 700K words?!) - because I am not a fast writer. But, beyond this, I feel now that the future is going to see a renaissance in the short form. One of the problems with working on a single project for a decade is that it forms a dam behind which countless ideas for other projects build up. I am now determined to try and find a way to realize as many of those ideas as I can. Thus I have been developing a much terser, leaner prose style - new ways of organizing and constructing my books - and a much lighter touch when it comes to worldbuilding.
What are your thoughts on the influence of other writers? Do you read more or less fiction while writing a novel, and how does that affect your writing?
RP: In truth, beyond my teens, I have read very little fiction. My influences when it comes to narratives and storytelling are far more influenced by film and tv... When it comes to reading: I read about world affairs and devour non-fiction.
However, I have recently been reading some fiction - because it has occurred to me that I may well have avoided some of the problems I encountered writing the Stone Dance if I had only known how other writers solve their writing problems... This said, it's a bit of a struggle - I prefer to generate all my work from 'inside me' - and so it has little reference to the 'outside world', and thus to other writers.
Are you able to trace your own influences at all? Have you ever consciously sought to emulate a specific writer or style?
RP: Nope. It seems to me that we swim in an ocean of cultural and art influences and that, more and more, the boundaries between 'genres' and between 'media' are being breached... Once all cultural products become digital objects, all of them delivered through the same devices (tablets for example), the boundary between what is a 'book' and what isn't, is going to begin to dissolve.
That's probably moving away from your question too much. My core belief is that I must constantly 'feed' my mind with all manner of stuff, that, once digested, will spontaneously generate my own work. The notion of emulating any other writer is entirely foreign to me... (perhaps to my disadvantage *wry grin*)
You probably get asked about this a lot, but your books have drawn some attention for having a gay protagonist. Some readers have been put off by this, while for others it’s been a positive draw. It seems as though homosexuality (at least, in fantasy literature) still raises discussion. How do you feel about this? Do you consider this a defining characteristic of your books? Did you ever consider exploring attitudes towards homosexuality in the world you had created?
RP: I don't feel that homosexuality is a defining characteristic of my books - not even the Stone Dance where the two main protagonists are 'gay' - though I'm not sure they would see each other as such - you may know that 'gayness' is a relatively modern social construct. I am myself gay and my first (proper) book was naturally going to be autobiographical (as I believe is the case for most first novels) and it would have been strange if I hadn't reflected myself in the books. This said, there are aspects of sexuality that I wanted to explore in the books - specifically the political issue of how women are treated by a culture. In the Stone Dance world, dominion by one person of another is the dominant theme... though, admittedly, I did wish to make the point that, in many pre-Christian societies, homosexuality was accepted as being just part of the spectrum of human sexuality - and the lack of investigation of it in the books - the acceptance of it with hardly a comment - is it's own political statement.
As for the reactions to this: one one level I expected them to be more intense; on another, I was a tad surprised by how 'conservative' so many readers of fantasy turned out to be - a strange paradox for me, since I would have thought that, in choosing to read something fantastical, a reader would be naturally open-minded. To go back to your earlier question about why I didn't want to have the books locked into the fantasy genre: this was one of the reasons - that fantasy seemed to be proving that anything too far away from the norm of the whiter than white heterosexual hero versus blacker than black villains - was not really accepted... I would imagine that, having a gay love story at the centre of the Stone Dance cost me a lot of sales... I naturally have always gravitated to the magician rather than the beefcake warrior who always defeats him - and so I was determined to try and overturn these cliches - not, of course, that I am saying that other writers weren't/aren't doing so too.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in writing a novel? The Stone Dance books are very long – what techniques did you employ to make the writing manageable for yourself?
RP: The biggest challenges with the Stone Dance books were their sheer size - both in words and in the time it took to write them. Everything stems from their size - thus my desire to move towards far briefer ways of realizing my ideas. Apart from all the massive commercial problems (I went way over all my deadlines - so much so that my German translator, Wolfgang Krege died  before he was able to translate The Third God - and this, and the late delivery, led to my German publishers not publishing the 3rd book. Something similar happened with Tor in the US - both a great disappointment to me), there were many others. For one, knowing the 2st book would be in print before I finished the 2nd; the 1st and 2nd before I finished the 3rd - imposed on me a heavy discipline to make sure everything made sense. Worse than that was that, over 10-12 years, one changes a lot - and I did - and so did my writing skill and technique - but I felt unable to apply any of this to the Stone Dance books because of my determination to keep them homogeneous in their style... perhaps this was a constraint that I should not have imposed on myself.
Without preempting too much what I want to say in answer to your next question, this made it essential to have a clear idea of the general shape of the book at an early stage. Further, knowing that, for example, certain aspects of the Osrakum landform were going to play a crucial part in the 3rd book - I had to expend much effort making sure that this would be consistent - so that, by the time I came to write the 3rd book, I would not be confronted by problems that, for their solution, would require substantial changes to be made in the previous books - impossible, of course, since these would already be published.

To address specific techniques: for one, I made sure that the Stone Dance world was 'real' - in the belief that, if it was 'real' then, like the real world, it would not suddenly come apart when two fanciful creations led to implications that led, eventually, to contradictions... I also had a very large body of notes - and needed to keep track of these with a master index - and this became crucial as I returned, often years later, to something that, otherwise, would have been hopelessly lost in my mass of notebooks.
Do you plan the structure of your novels from the outset? If so, how far do you take this? Did you write the entire Stone Dance in chronological order?
RP: Even if it had not been the case that the way the Stone Dance was written insisted on it being planned in advance, I naturally would have done so - that is the way I work. I have tried to work without such a master plan - but things quickly go awry. My books are not like water running down a river - rather they form a mechanism - the functioning of which depends on its many components meshing together with some precision. This may have something to do with confidence - a way of negotiating a way through the terror of the mass of blank pages. Aesthetically, it feels right to me: the Stone Dance is sort of fractal in its form - all kinds of aspects repeating themselves at different scales - both of time and space... I believe that this approach more closely mimics the 'reality' we inhabit - and so it creates a world that feels as 'real'... I could say a lot more about this - about, for example, how I believe that, for full immersion in an invented world, it must remain consistent - any consistency causing the 'dreamer to awake' and the illusion to be broken. However, with the Stone Dance as a result of my insecurities, and that I had come from designing 3D simulating computer games - I overdid it... If, like an architect, there was some wisdom in carefully measuring up the ground upon which I was going to build, the scaffolding was, in itself, far more massive than the thing being erected within its grip. The scaffolding itself took much more time than writing the book itself... I have been trying to develop a much lighter form of scaffolding - I call it 'silk scaffolding'.
On recent books, I have tried to keep the world creation far more closely aligned to the story I am writing. In contrast, the world creation for the Stone Dance was (is) complete enough to build a MMORPG... clearly = overkill! Also, not finding software that could help me at the time, for the Stone Dance I constructed a 'system' employing some of the more obscure features of Word. I have thankfully abandoned Word altogether and now use Scrivener and Tinderbox to construct much looser structures.
You stated in your SFF World interview that you once believed video games to be important to the future of storytelling, but have since turned your back on them “because I find their capacity for narrative sadly limited”. With the recent success of the Elder Scrolls series, many seem to be re-evaluating the video game as way of telling stories. Are you still involved in this world at all (even as a gamer)? Do you think there’s hope for video games yet? Do you still care, at this point?
RP: In 1983, when promoting a computer game I had recently designed and had programmed with some colleagues, I stated, in a magazine interview (perhaps a tad pretentiously)  that I thought that computer games would play the same role in 21st century that film played in the 20th... I still somewhat stand by that - but I have been disappointed. As in so much of the rest of our culture, we have focused on the 'easy' thing - the ever widening and increasing power of effects and graphical techniques at the expense of the 'core' - the storytelling... Most computer games I'm aware of are far more akin to sport than they are to film... it's all about performance... The key problem seems to be the failure of AI to appear as was expected by so many people - without it, the only way to have anything like another human in a computer game, is by having that character actually controlled by another human - the MMORPGs - but these - as so much else in our culture are collaborative affairs - not the product of a single mind that is the novel par excellence... Not that I have anything against collaborative works: I am currently engaged in a couple of graphic novel projects with an artist friend of mine - but the book is a uniquely individual pursuit - with all the failings and strengths that implies... I never really played games - even when I was designing them (in the same way that I don't really read fiction) - and have lost interest in them for the reasons I give above.
I think it goes without saying that I'm immensely grateful to Ricardo for taking the time to share all this.

Ricardo Pinto is originally from Portugal, but has lived most of his life in Scotland. He's currently working on several projects, including a sci-fi novel and novella, two graphic novels, and a historical novel set in ancient Persia. 

His website and blog can be found at: http://www.ricardopinto.com

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