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Steven Brust: “Writing like Dumas is so infectious!”


Steven Brust is the American author of The Baron of Magister Valley, a novel inspired by The count of Monte Cristo. Brust also wrote The Phoenix Guards trilogy, derived from The three musketeers trilogy. In this interview, the writer talks about these books, his writing style and the influence of Dumas.
(interview done on November 27, 2020)

This is the original version in English of the interview in French.

You may see also the first interview given by Steven Brust to pastichesdumas in 2002.

Thirty years ago, you wrote this huge trilogy derived from The three musketeers, The Phoenix Guards and the sequels, and then much later, you decided to write another book inspired by Dumas’ The count of Monte Cristo. Why that?

Photo David Dyer-Bennet

I can’t help it! It’s just so infectious, the style, writing that way. I just love it so much! There are not enough books written that way, so I kind of have to write my own if I want to read it.

You understand that the weird part of it is that when I talk about “the style”, I do not speak the beautiful French language. So all I have is English translations and I don’t know how accurate that is. The overtly formal writing, how much of that was Dumas’, how much of it was introduced by the translators in the 19th century, I just have no way of knowing. But either way, wherever it’s from, I love it. So I have to write that way periodically.

During all those years, you didn’t contemplate studying French?

I did! I tried… It’s very embarrassing to me. First, Americans are so notorious for refusing to learn any other language. Secondly, my father was a modern language professor. And in fact, French was one of his languages. And yet, I can’t make it. I have tried so hard! I tried to learn German, French, Hungarian… And I just don’t succeed. I don’t know why. There is something in my brain that won’t connect! It’s very frustrating for me.

There are quite a lot of people around the world who are so much in love with Dumas that they learn French just so they can read what he wrote!

That’s a perfectly good reason. When I was trying to study French, that’s exactly why I was.

Let me reverse to my first question: why did you wait for almost thirty years to write your tribute to Monte Cristo?

That’s a tougher one. I can say that for years I said “well, I could do a Monte Cristo” and then one day, right in the middle of writing another book, it went “oh! I know what I can do, I can do Monte Cristo!” I started to get the ideas for it and that was it. I rushed through the first project so I could get to the Monte Cristo one. It means the first project was a sloppy piece of work, but by that time I had a first draft for The Baron of Magister Valley.

At the end of the day, you did Magister Valley the way you wanted to do it?

Oh yes, there was never any question about that. Writing that way is so joyous! It’s so much fun! Well, some people hate it, of course.

Those two books, The Phoenix Guards trilogy and The Baron of Magister Valley, have two common points: there are both inspired by Dumas and they are both supposed to be written by this imaginary writer of yours, Paarfi. Did you use him as the “writer” of some other books?

No, in the sort of background history of my universe, he has written other books but he has not written any other books of mine. 

So, why did you use this imaginary writer as the author of these two books derived from Dumas? Should we understand that Paarfi is Dumas in some way?

Maybe in some way. Frankly, Dumas was a much more interesting person than Paarfi! I don’t think I can give you a reason for why I created him because it was not that conscious. He happened. I remember sitting and starting to write The Phoenix Guards and at a certain point in there, the narrator became a character. And so I just went with it. In a certain sense, the narrator of any novel is of course a character. But the more the style impinges on the story, the more emphatic the narrator is as a character.

So, you say that Paarfi “just happened” when writing The Phoenix Guards, but the fact that you decided thirty years later to use him again to write your second book inspired by Dumas, that did not “just happened”, it was a decision you made, right?

Oh yes! Once he became a character and once he became associated with these historical novels within my world, there was never any question. I mean, he was living his life the same way all of one’s characters are living their lives.

Yes, but you never thought of using him for another novel, one not inspired by Dumas?

No. Not that it couldn’t happen. I could use him for Scaramouche, for instance. But so far, no.

So there is a close connection between Paarfi and Dumas…

Oh, absolutely. It has to do with Dumas’ personal history, his life is fascinating. I got to write the introduction to an edition of The three musketeers published by Tor Books, so I did some studying. What an amazing man he was!

So, is Paarfi in your mind some reflection of Dumas himself?

Absolutely, yes. I mean, you know: fighting duels, arguing with critics, being something of a womanizer, a gourmet… I am definitely reflecting the master. I am not trying to capture him really but it’s a sort of distorted reflection, the way the books, The Phoenix Guards, The Baron of Magister Valley, are a distorted reflection of his books.

On the other hand, Paarfi is also a slightly ridiculous character, he’s got lots of enemies, many people think his work is awful, and so on…

I think that the reason Paarfi has to be a little bit of self-parody is because we no longer live in the 19th century. If I am going to address the style, the approach of a voice from the 19th century, I must let the reader know: “I know I am doing something unusual here, and I am doing it on purpose, so trust me”.

Paarfi’s writing style – or your writing style through Paarfi – is clearly very peculiar. You’ve got these incredibly long sentences, those never ending dialogues…  Is it a way of evoking the 19th century style of writing?

Yes, exactly.

How did your readers react to this highly unusual style?

There are variations. Some people force themselves because they like the story, some just won’t go there, they get frustrated and stop reading. But to my amazement, some of them fall into it. One of my girlfriends got involved with the guy who is now her husband because they both started chatting in the style of Paarfi in sending emails to each other! So, some people find it as infectious as I do. When I wrote it for the first time, I remember all the details, the basement I was working from, the keyboard, and I started writing and I thought “no one is ever going to read this garble, this is for ME, this is because I want to read it, so I have to write it”. So, I am still absolutely amazed, and delighted, that there are people who enjoy it.

Were these books, The Phoenix Guards trilogy and Magister Valley, a big success? More or less successful than your other books?

They’ve done well enough so the publisher is happy to do more, to keep publishing them. They were less successful but not ridiculously less. You can break my career in three sections if you will. There is the main series that I am mostly known for, with the Chandleresque voice, just the opposite of the Paarfi voice, vey clipped, precise. Then there is the Paarfi books. And then there are all the other projects that I do. The Vlad Taltos novels are what keep me eating. The Paarfi novels are sort of a good back up. And the other novels sell about four copies each. I try very hard not to think about that. I’m afraid if I get my head wrapped up in the marketing and how much something is doing, it’s going to start affecting my work.

Coming more precisely to The Baron of Magister Valley, the story is very clearly inspired by Monte Cristo. But there is a big difference between the two halves. The jail part looks very much like Monte Cristo but the second part, the vengeance, is very different.

It’s much simplified. I don’t have Dumas’ mind to create those amazing intricate plots!

Yes, it’s simpler, and weaker, if I may say so…

I can believe that. I sometimes get asked if I take real people and put them in my books. The answer is that more than once I have started to. But inside of a paragraph, it is no longer that real person, it has become its own character. The same thing happens with plots. I can go in and say “I am going to make a plot that is a reflection of Monte Cristo”. But once it has taken hold on me, then it gets its own direction. And if I try to force it out of that, it’s going to feel dishonest and false. And readers notice that. So the plot sort of went where it wanted to go. I recognize that it’s much simpler than the original and if you say it’s weaker, I’ll take your word for it. But it’s what it wanted to be.

There is something that I find slightly puzzling… Thanks to the Magister, the equivalent of abbey Faria in Monte Cristo, your hero Eremit gets superpowers, which is quite interesting because in the original Count of Monte Cristo, Edmond Dantès becomes implicitly something like a superman. So, Ermit gets these amazing superpowers but he does not really use them. Why?

That’s a really interesting question! The degree to which he has superpowers, I think, is primarily a longer life and greater health. Other that that, it is less granting superpowers in any fantastical sense than the result of his training by the Magister. And the result of his training is what allows him to do everything else that he does in the book.

Do your readers feel interested by the fact that your book is inspired by Monte Cristo? Do they ask questions about it? Do they tell you: oh, now I’m going to read The count of Monte Cristo?

I certainly ran into people who go the other way, who are fans of Monte Cristo and then read my book. But yes, some do. Every time some people read The Phoenix Guards or The Baron of Magister Valley and say “I’m going to read some Dumas”, it feels like I won! And then I have to proceed to give them a lecture about finding a good translation if they don’t speak French.

When I interviewed you twenty years ago, you told me something very similar. Then I asked you if Dumas was still popular in the US, if people still read him, and your answer was something like “yes, people love him but mostly through very bad movies”.

People still read him, people still love him… It’s true many people know him through the films but for every thousand people who like one of the movies, one or two of them will pick up the book.

Among your regular fantasy readers, do you meet people who are interested in reading Dumas’ books?

Oh yes. I think he is more appreciated among science fiction and fantasy readers than among general readers. Dumas has the misfortune to be amusing. And there are levels of literary criticism that do not approve of a writer who is amusing. I think that’s incredibly sad. But on the other hand, within SF and fantasy we don’t have that problem, so there is a higher popularity there.

The number of SF and fantasy novels directly inspired by Dumas is actually amazing. How would you explain that?

Because there are things he did that no one else had done, and he did them superbly and he started a trend. Just one example: it is now sort of accepted and common place that when you get to the end of a chapter you put a punch there. He was the first writer to do that, that was his thing. Also, the story that is really about friendship, about people with completely different characters forming close friendships. That’s an irresistible thing and he mastered that, that’s what The three musketeers is. And exploring consequences in Twenty years after and The viscount of Bragelonne. And just the flat out adventure! Look at The three musketeers: you have cloaks, you have rapiers, you have duels, you have excessively polite conversations before and after duels… Anyone who loves that must gravitate to Dumas because he reached the pinnacle of it.

Interview by Patrick de Jacquelot


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