An Interview with Ellen Kushner on Riverside’s Scholars, Swordsmen, and Neil Gaiman Presents

If I was going to pick an audiobook that I listened to last year as my favorite listen, regardless of when it came out, I’m pretty sure my choice would be Ellen Kushner’s The Privilege of the Sword (Review). It was thrilling, fun, and had so much to think about regarding gender roles in society. And the performances were a pure delight. I can’t wait to listen to it again! Kushner is the author of three novels in the Riverside world: Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, and The Fall of the Kings, all of them in audio thanks to the wonderful Neil Gaiman Presents. Kushner was gracious enough to let me interview her about all things Riverside, Neil Gaiman Presents, and more! I hope you enjoy reading it!

Dave Thompson: First off, you know I live very close to Riverside, right? It’s unfortunately not quite like the Riverside in your books!

Ellen Kushner: Riverside, California?  To be honest, first I heard of it was a few years ago, when a fan sent me a photo of a T-shirt from there that said:  HOMICIDE SUICIDE RIVERSIDE – thought it was pretty applicable for Swordspoint, too!  So then someone actually made one that said HOMICIDE SUICIDE REGICIDE – RIVERSIDE!  for The Fall of the Kings.

In 1987, Swordspoint came out. About 25 years later, Neil Gaiman picked it up for his audiobook line Neil Gaiman Presents, and it seems like a pretty resounding second success. Can you talk a little bit about the trip from there to here, and particularly the success and reception of the audiobook?

It all started with Sue Zizza of SueMedia productions, who directed and produced our musical radio drama The Witches of Lublin for public radio in 2011.  She asked if my books were on audio, and when I said no, she invited me to read them myself!  Sue is a world-renowned radio drama producer, and we determined to throw in some of those values as well.  Gaiman & Audible/ACX had just announced the NGP line, and we went to them to ask if they’d be interested.  Neil is an old friend, as well as a fan of the books, and he was delighted to get us on board for the initial series launch.

I was plunged headfirst into a whole new world:  Audiobooks are very different from stage acting, and even from radio.  They require a certain kind of vocal – and focal – stamina that was new for me.  When Sue started bringing in friends of hers who also happened to be huge award-winning Audie talents, I got to see how it’s really done.  And I was deeply involved in the post-production choices we made, as well; Sue and engineer David Shinn really bent over backwards to try to bring my aural “vision” to life in each book.

I was very fortunate to have Neil Gaiman telling the world that the Swordspoint audiobook existed!  I know that made a huge difference in its reception as we celebrated the book’s 25th Anniversary.  The buzz around that brought me many new readers.  And I worked really hard to get the word out to the existing fans.  I mean:  Who doesn’t want to hear the author read her own work, when she promises you that it’s as close as she can come to replicating the voices in her head?  But also, it’s always been underground cult classic – and this gave people who already knew about it a chance to tell their friends, “See?  This is what I’m talking about!”

So Swordspoint sold very well – but when it won an Audie, to my surprise it was TPOTS sales that went through the roof:  I  guess people who liked the first book went and found the sequel had come out by then.  That was kind of hilarious – in a good way.

It took you a while to come back to Riverside. The Fall of the Kings was first published in 2002. Why the delay, and what was it like to revisit Riverside?

When I first published Swordspoint, I swore I would never write a sequel to it. I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed; and I had other interests besides homicidal urban swordsmen. The next novel I wrote was Thomas the Rhymer, which called on my love of folklore and music (both of which are singularly absent in Swordspoint!).

But, as I wrote in my Afterword to the second edition, I missed my “mad bad boys” – and my city, as well.  So I wrote some short stories – including “The Swordsman whose Name was not Death”- and started the novel that later became The Privilege of the Sword (aka TPOTS).  Then I put that in a drawer, as my public radio career started heating up at WGBH in Boston.  I figured, hey – when I become a national star like Garrison Keillor, my books will sell like crazy!

Of course, what happened was that right at the time that my big national series, Sound & Spirit premiered in 1996, my books started going out of print.

At the time, Delia Sherman & I had recently published the short story “The Fall of the Kings,” and she was in a lull on the book that would become The Freedom Maze (which won the 2011 Andre Norton Award–and was an Audie nominee for 2012, read by the great Robin Miles!) . . . so I suggested that we put back in some of the scenes we’d had to delete for word count, and turn out a new novel together.

Some 70,000 new words later . . . The Fall of the Kings was published, and my other books were back in print to go with it!  I do think they may have been a bit of a shock to the public radio listeners. 😉

Something I didn’t realize until researching the books a bit was that The Fall of the Kings actually came out several years before The Privilege of the Sword. It’s such a different book from Swordspoint and I’m wondering how the book came together – was part of the attractiveness of it how removed it was from dueling swordsmen, while still taking place in Riverside?

Really, it was two things:  Delia (a former academic) wanted to explore the city’s University, and its mythic history . . . and I wanted to play with the way the city would have changed after a generation or two.

With that in mind, I’m wondering how much of Privilege of the Sword was written before you and Delia Sherman wrote The Fall of the Kings? It seems like certain things – events and characters, family lines and relationships – fit in so well together, there must’ve been a foundation set, or at least a pretty good line as to where you were going. (I’m thinking specifically of Jessica Campion, and Venturus among others – I believe “The Swordsman Whose Name Was Not Death” came out before either of the following novels as well?)

I had a little over 100 pages of TPOTS written (and socked away in a drawer) when Delia & I came up with the idea for The Fall of the Kings.  But the truth is, I think about these people a lot.  I can tell you all sorts of things that aren’t in the books.  That’s why I write the short stories:  because it doesn’t seem fair to know all this stuff, and not write it down for readers to grab hold of!

A few years ago, the great Jo Walton did a wonderful critical review of The Fall of the Kings for, in which she says that what I’m really doing with the Riverside series is writing a Family Saga.  Reading that hit me with the flare of revelation.  Y’know what?  She’s right!  Damn. That woman is smart.

Delia Sherman co-wrote The Fall of the Kings with you, but did not co-author The Privilege of the Sword, though the novel was dedicated to her. Was this a reflection of how much was already written? How did she serve as an inspiration for this book?

Before we were a romantic couple, Delia and I were good friends who talked a lot about our writing, life, and the world in general.  She was very articulate and passionate about issues of feminism and gender – she’s studied a lot more than I have, and was always good at explaining it to me.  A lot of TPOTS was written under the influence of those talks we’d had.  And she likes to remind me that our first kiss was at the end of a long evening that started with us going out to dinner and basically doing nothing but talking about this novel about Alec’s niece that I was trying to write….. Then, when Kings came out and my agent suggested we sell TPOTS next, Delia was there at my side through all the 25 Stages of Novel-Writing Angst . . . Really, I could not have done it without her.  But it was never our intention to write more than one book together.  We each have our own styles, and our own careers.

Let’s talk a little bit about the audiobook production. You’ve recorded much of these narratives yourself, but are supported by “an illuminated cast,” which is not simply “a multicast reading.” How did this idea come about? How do you and Sue Zizza decide which bits the cast reads, and which bits you read?

It was Sue’s idea:  Her heart belongs to radio drama, and she does it brilliantly.  She wanted to bring those production values to the world of audiobooks, and let people see how it could be done, hoping it would give more producers and actors an opportunity to be creative, and for listeners to experience something really special.

Before we record, we have long, long discussions about what should be “illuminated” in each book.  In Swordspoint, it was the crowd scenes, usually, because I’m not a trained actor and I can’t do the 5-10 different voices in rapid succession – but more to the point, it’s just really cool to hear them all!

Something similar applied to The Fall of the Kings:  there are so many scenes with 5-10 male characters all of the same age – either older professors or passionate young university students – that it seemed logical to hand those scenes to actual young men!  It also created something Delia & I have long wanted for that book:  A sense of Basil’s students as an ensemble, almost a single character all their own.  A lot of reviewers were so focused on the Tremontaine family (because of the connection to Swordspoint) that they seemed to miss out on the University plot, and the amazing personal journey of Basil’s students – which to me is one of the great strengths of the book!  I hope you agree that that really comes through in the audiobook.

TPOTS demanded two narrators:  one in the first person voice of Katherine, and the other a third person omnisicient.  I must confess that I cold-bloodedly examined the two choices, and figured out which one had the most scenes I really wanted to read myself!  We could not have asked for a better narrator than Barbara Rosenblat to do the other – it was a providential choice.

That was also where Audible’s Christina Harcar – Neil’s NGP liaison at Audible – suggested we get Neil to do a cameo in each book!  You can hear him as the Drunken Artist in TPOTS – in our 5-minute demo clip on the Audible page – and he had such fun with that that he himself asked for a bigger part in KINGS.  He gives me shivers there as the Dream Wizard – and I only realized recently how appropriate it was to have Neil playing a character in Dream!

Oh, man. That – I didn’t even think of Gaiman as Dream until you said it! That’s great. Were there any cast members, or performances that surprised you?

Hearing Simon Jones play – what is it, four?? – different characters in the Chartil chapter in Swordspoint (as well as about 5 more characters throughout the book). . . and you wouldn’t know that unless I told you!  The man’s a giant – I feel so lucky to have had him with us in the studio.

Katherine Kellgren just about breaking my heart as Teresa Grey in TPOTS.  The great Felicia Day giving us about 30 minutes of her incredibly busy time to walk into the studio and just nail her cameo of Katherine in TPOTS.

Dion Graham making Richard St Vier even sexier than I already thought he was – which is saying something!

And watching Wilson Bridges grow as an audio actor:  He came to us fresh out of school for Swordspoint to read a few short scenes for Michael Godwin (recommended by my wonderful theater friend & NYU teacher Joel Derfner!), and Sue instructed him in the rudiments of how to work a mike; then, by the time we got to Kings, he was ably playing about 4 different roles, including a truly affecting young Lindley.

I could go on and on . . . . But I mustn’t forget Joe Hurley, everyone’s favorite as the Mad Duke in TPOTS!  described by one reviewer as a burned-out rock star crossed with Jack Sparrow . . . Again, an example of an actor taking what was in my head, and making it even deeper and better.  It’s magic.

Finally:  The thing that has touched and moved me is just how enthusiastic the actors have been about the material.  They really seem to enjoy and respect it – and is that a kick for me!   I’ll tell you a story:   When Nick Sullivan came in to read Lord Ferris in Swordspoint, I didn’t know the guy, and was worried about how he’d handle the huge blocks of speeches at the end of the novel.  But then he said to me, “I love the rhetoric in this!” and I thought:  Rhetoric? You know from rhetoric? because of course that’s exactly what Ferris is doing there – and I knew everything would be fantastic.  And was it ever!

And Nick . . . omg, the chemistry between him and Kellgren in that book!  And the amazing talent of this guy, who can play a 30-year-old villain in Book 1, the same man 15 years later in Book 2 . . . and then the idealistic young hero in Kings . . . !

Oh, and I also love the way these freakin’ actors can imitate accents that I just made up! Seriously:  Riverside IS NOT London!  I deliberately wrote the diction to be sort of 1940s New York, sort of Connecticut sort of lots of things that are not RSC.  And they do it.  These folks can do anything.

OK, I’m done, now.  No, really.

You’ve written three novels set in Riverside, and quite a few short stories – many more short stories than I’d realized! Are there any plans in the future to write more novels set in Riverside, that might come out via Neil Gaiman Presents? Or perhaps a collection of the short stories?

I am, in fact, writing another Riverside novel, that takes place about 15 years after TPOTS. And I’ve got a collection of short stories that I’ll probably schedule to come out when I’ve got the novel done, before it gets published. Don’t hold your breath – it will be a year or two:  publishing is slow.  But it’s all in the works!

What else is happening with Ellen Kushner these days? What can we look forward to?

I’m actually trying to pull back from performing and production so that I can focus on the novel.  Novels take a lot of focus. But I live in NYC, I love theater, and I keep meeting all these interesting people with fascinating projects . . . So we’ll see how long that lasts!

I do keep thinking that the Lucius & Teresa scenes from TPOTS would make a terrific short play – I realized this when I heard the great Katherine Kellgren & Jason Collins read them for the audiobook . . . . If I can get it down to 10 minutes, I want to enter it in the Red Bull Theater’s short-play competition!  Meanwhile, I’m glad it’s been recorded for you to hear.

This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *