The Divine Cities – An Interview With Robert J Bennett

Recently I had the pleasure to read the fantastic novel City of Blades by Robert J Bennett. The review can be found here but the short story is that the book managed to surpass expectations and live up to the quality established by the first novel in the trilogy, City of Stairs. In the wake of finishing the book, I managed to corner Robert J Bennett and ask him some questions both about the series as a whole, City of Blades, and the upcoming final book City of Miracles. While City of Miracles is awhile off, our discussion only served to raise my anticipation. Enjoy!

It seemed like just about every character in City of Blade were living examples of different ways people can respond to experiencing trauma. Some of the characters seemed to pick better or worse methods to deal with their pain but no one seemed particularly healthy. Do you have a character who you think handled it best without giving away too many spoilers?

Not really. I think the success of dealing with trauma is one of those things that is tremendously hard to quantify or qualify. I’m not a psychologist or a psychiatrist in any way, nor do I have any background in mental health of any kind, but for the world of THE DIVINE CITIES, trauma is ever-present and undeniable both for the people and the cultures. It’s almost a physical part of the landscape, in some ways.

So I don’t think that, for these stories, there’s any approach you can take that can just make the historical trauma go away, or offset it, or negate it. For these people and these places, this trauma will always be there. I think the hard part is accepting that it is trauma, that it is pain – that the things that happened to them actually happened. These people will always have their pain be a part of them. The question is whether they will allow it to define them. They can grow to be something more than their pain and their scars. But that pain is not going away.

It seems as if technology is continuing to progress at a rather rapid pace both in Saypur and on the Continent. Do you plan to continue with this pace of development in City of Miracles, or do we have a good sense for where the technology of the times is at the end of City of Blades?

Yes. The next book, City of Miracles, takes place 13 years after City of Blades, so quite a bit has changed in that period. The entire series takes place over the course of about twenty years, so to put it in a more familiar context, the characters are going from a culture with the technologies of 1910 and advancing to those of about 1930 or so. This is part of an ongoing theme in the story: the idea of cultures in flux, and how cultures deal with huge shifts in power – which technology, or dead gods, tend to bring about.

Not many fantasy authors choose an older, retired, amputee as their main character. What made you decide to focus on Mulaghesh in City of Blades, and how do we get other authors to see the light?

When I wrote her for the first time in City of Stairs she was just a ton of fun, and when it came time to write the next installment in this world, it seemed inevitable that it’d be her. She, Sigrud, and Shara all form something of a triad in City of Stairs, so we get to follow them throughout the world’s evolution. Mulaghesh was the right character for this one, because while Shara intends to propose change in Stairs, it would be Mulaghesh who would be the executor of that change.

But it was also just an interesting idea for me. The older I get, the less interested I am in youth. I wanted to write someone upper-middle aged – the period at which a person tends to have the most influence – and look at someone with a lot of experiences and a lot of regrets, someone who’d believed things and had those beliefs get challenged and was still trying to figure it all out. It’s something of a John le Carre trope – the melancholy romanticism of the aging field operative. Old enough to have learned a sort of desperate compassion, but not quite so old that it’s been ground out of them. Except he usually writes about men, not women.

What was your inspiration for the books, or more specifically what inspired you to write a tale about the aftermath of oppressor’s becoming the oppressed by their former colonies, and the guilt that comes from both sides?

I was vacuuming at the house one day – I tend to have my best ideas when cleaning house – and Prisoner of Zenda was on the TV on TCM. It’s a fun adventure tale about a British man who goes on vacation to the fictional European country of Ruritania, where he happens to have a strong resemblance to the king, and hijinks ensue. Anyway, I was vacuuming, and I thought, “I bet it’d be very difficult to be an ambassador to a balkanized, fractured place like that, where every region has their own rules” – and that made me think.

So I thought, “Okay. So we have an ambassador to this country – Eastern European, maybe, very male, very macho, very stark, very dour, lots of furs and horns on the walls and so on. What sort of ambassador would most clash with them? Who would be the most out of place, as an ambassador?” And I just thought, “Well, naturally, a highly educated, Southeast Asian woman.” And I don’t really know why, but that just seemed to work.

But then I thought, “Okay. So. These fictional nations. They don’t like this ambassador. They can’t like her, of course, because that’s boring. But they can’t just dislike her because of who or what she is. What greater reason can there be?”

And the answer came back, right away, “Because her country killed all their gods.”

And that was that.

You touch on a wide variety of topics on twitter. I’ve noticed over time that these occasionally find their way into your books. Are there any topics you are yet to explore in depth that you’d like to?

Almost all of the wonkish things that I really want to talk about in conversation are naturally the things that get cut in my books. I touch on it very occasionally, but only when it’s plot-relevant, which, to be frank, it rarely is. I’d love to describe in detail how an at-large electoral system can lead to wild inequality, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t produce any cinematic explosions.

We’ve heard so much about Saypur through characters reminiscing, but have seen very little of it so far. Will we get a chance to see Saypur “in person” so to speak?

Yep. In City of Miracles, Sigrud gets to swing by Ghaladesh, as well as Shara’s ancestral estate. It does not go well.

Your original creatures are incredible and a highlight for me in your novels. Is there anything that influences their creation or do you just pull them from thin air?

I just make ’em up. Usually I try to make it so that their nature or behavior is thematically appropriate – the appearance of the sentinels, for example, accentuates that their entire being is now devoted to hostility.

When writing The Divine Cities series, did you plan out the entire story at the start or have you been writing them as they come? You have mentioned that this is the last book in the trilogy, but is it the last book in the world? Do you know what you are doing next yet?

It’s probably the last book in the world, for the foreseeable future. Most of this has been unplanned. Blades and Miracles were planned side by side much closer than either was to Stairs. I sort of think of it as having one child, then waiting about five years or so, and then having twins. They are all related, but two of them are much more entangled.

At the same time, though, Miracles is proving to really be more in conversation with the first two books than I’d anticipated. A lot of minor characters from Stairs become major characters in this one.

What other fantasy writers, if any. have been influential on your work? What are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the book that most influenced Stairs: this idea of a lost era, wherein the impossible was possible, only no one really understands how it worked anymore – that was a real influence on me. Beyond that, I have a few fantasy novels that I’ve loved as a young person, but when I revisit them, I’ve found them somewhat wanting. I’d rather leave my good memories intact rather than spoil them.

The concept of personal choice and responsibility comes up time and time again in your novels. Along those lines, if you could have one superpower what would it be?

I bet I could get a lot of crucial legislation passed if I had mind control powers, or something similar to what Kilgrave had in Jessica Jones. Only instead of, like, raping women, I would use it to get a carbon tax.

4 thoughts on “The Divine Cities – An Interview With Robert J Bennett

  1. Great interview! I’ve loved the first two books in the series and can’t wait for the next one. Sad to hear it might be the last in this world for the conceivable future. 🙁

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