Robert Jackson Bennett’s new novel City Of Stairs is not an easy read. Not because he uses big words or his grammar is atrocious, it’s because this fantasy novel isn’t easy to classify. It’s a spy novel with a murder mystery, and it doesn’t have a clear enemy, but instead shows both sides as having flaws. But in talking to Mr. Bennett, not being easy this is exactly how he likes it.
credit: Josh Brewster Photography
I always like to start with the basics: What is City Of Stairs about and where did you get the idea?
I’d been reading a spy novel called Dark Star by Alan Furst, which is set in balkanized Eastern Europe before World War II, and it was fascinating to read a story from that era that wasn’t from a Western perspective. Then I was vacuuming and I had an old movie on in the background, a light, satirical story about a British tourist suddenly finding he physically resembles the king of a tiny Eastern European country, with many hijinks ensuing. And I thought, “I’d like to write a story about that, about being a diplomat in this fragmented sort of region.”
And for some reason I immediately imagined the diplomat as being a Southeast Asian woman, because that seemed like it would create the most culture clash within this patriarchal Eastern European culture. But of course, I knew that she couldn’t have it easy, so all of these tiny nations would have to be mad at her for other reasons.
I asked, “Why are all these nations mad at her?”
And my brain immediately said, “Because her people killed all their gods.”
Was there more to Alan Furst’s Dark Star that made you want to write yours?
Well, Furst had created this marvelously rich world, textile and strange. One of the things Furst does so well in that book is that the main character imagines the thoughts of random people based on just glancing at their expressions, and it’s unusually sweet and philosophical. Such as an old man stepping in a puddle in the street, and sighing and raising his hands, and the protagonist imagines him thinking: Even here, fate pursues me!
It’s these little touches that made the cities he describes come alive, and that’s something I wanted to bring into my own work.
In writing City Of Stairs, how often did you catch yourself writing something too much like Furst’s novel and not enough like your own?
Furst’s work is almost more like historical fiction, which leans on all the aggregated knowledge that you, the reader, know about history. A World War II historical novel will presume that you know something about World War II.
With a fantasy novel, there’s no way for me to do this. I am telling you about a history that has never and will never happen. So really, I couldn’t write like Furst, or le Carre, or any of the other great spy novelists. I had to do a lot more lifting and working, explaining — ideally in a subtle, peripheral fashion — what these places were and why they were significant before I could do anything else.
While City Of Stairs is a spy novel, it’s also a murder mystery. Did you ever consider making it more pulpy?
John le Carre’s first book, Call For The Dead, actually uses the same format: it starts with a murder that quickly proves to be a spy story. And I think it works because it’s an easy entry point for the reader.
Let’s look at le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which uses a different entry point: a wayward spy stumbles across a source from the opposition who tells him their entire intelligence agency is compromised, setting off a massive chain of events. What this requires doing, though, is setting up what the intelligence agency is, as well as who the opposition is, and how they managed to compromise the agency, as well as how this wayward spy happened to get in touch with the source, and finally who gets to pursue the action, the next step. And though this might sound simple on paper, it rapidly becomes an issue of mounting backstories: nearly half of all the action of Tinker, if not more, takes place in flashback, establishing a massive stage.
When it comes down to it, spy stories require an unusual preparation for setting the stakes. James Bond and the rest play off of the audience’s knowledge of current international affairs. A secondary-world fantasy doesn’t have that advantage, and trying to set it up an entire global state of affairs would likely prove monstrously boring on the page. A much easier entry point for everyone is to have one specific trigger event — a murder, an explosion, a kidnapping, etc — where the protagonist is in something like the state of the reader, not knowing what’s going on. And in the process of trying to find out what’s going on, they can establish the background of the world stage.
The city of Bulikov is described as surreal. Did you base it at all on a real city?
Nope. I made it all up. I didn’t base it on anything. I had Constantinople in my head, and imagined something like Istanbul around 1915, but when writing this book I quickly realized that since the Divinities have defied reality for 1,000+ years, I couldn’t base the layout of this world on anything we’d find in our own world.
Along the same lines, the hero of City Of Stairs, Shara Thivani, is a woman. Why did you decide to make her a lady instead of a gentleman?
It never occurred to me to have her be male. I wanted her to clash grandly with this very austere, patrician culture, so I thought an intellectual, confident, unmarried woman would do quite well.
What’s fun about intelligence work is that, in many cases, victories occur without being the biggest or the strongest. Oftentimes victory comes from just being exceptionally diligent: you look at everything and talk to everyone and do your paperwork, and then you do it again, ten times over if needed, to get to where you need. Sometimes you get lucky, and something breaks, and other times you find something you missed. Either way, it’s a grind, and frequently it’s more of a spiritual or mental war than it is a war of muscle.
So, really, it can be waged by anyone, man or woman.
Have you gotten any reactions to the fact that Shara Thivani is a woman? Because I personally don’t care what gender someone makes their hero, but as we’ve seen so often, some people have a problem with a woman being the hero.
Mostly people have reacted quite positively to her. I suppose if they have issues with a woman being the protagonist, and not killing people nonstop and all, then they have Sigrud standing right beside her, doing so with terrific enthusiasm.
City Of Stairs has been compared to the works of Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury. But what authors do you see as an influence on how you write? Not what you write about, but your style.
Le Carre is a big influence. Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell are both heroes I’m trying to live up to a lot. They both can establish the framework and feeling of a scene or story without ever taxing the voice of the story. They’re phenomenally good at it.
Another major element of City Of Stairs is the religious persecution of the Continentals by the Saypuris. Which, normally, would make the Saypuris look like the bad guys, except that you make the Contintentals look bad by saying that they were going to hang a formerly woman for dating a man years after her husband died. Which kind of reminded me of the Taliban.
Is that why you decided to make the religious element in City Of Stairs such a complicated one?
I think if you come away with any of my books with more answers than you do questions, I did a bad job. Stories are supposed to make you look at reality harder. Stories mimic reality, but reality is infinitely more complicated and more convoluted than any writer could ever hope to dream up.
One of the things that sparked my interest was a longform essay on Indira Ghandi about ten years ago or so, but when I looked her up I found the issues and influences and controversies that took place in her life totally overwhelming. I could never write anything that could live up to something like that, or any facet of reality. So I had to make a little play version that mimicked it.
In adding this religious element, were you trying to say something about religion in our world, or were you just using it as a plot device, or as a mix of the two…
I would say that City of Stairs is a story about power and privilege. Both the Continentals and Saypur possess, or once possessed, power that allow them to say how the world is going to be: the Continent could literally change reality, and Saypur has the money and military to do something very similar. And it is always worth examining how human beings use and misuse power.
Religion is a tremendous power in our world. It implies that a person or persons has possession of an ultimate truth. This gives them power, even if this truth is very benign. Even if what they are saying is “love they neighbor,” people can still usurp that power by asking, “Well, who’s our neighbor? I don’t think this type of person is my neighbor, so I have no need to show them love or empathy.” It’s a remarkably tricky line to walk.
Lastly, City Of Stairs is not your first novel. If someone read it, and wanted to read something else by you, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why?
Probably The Troupe. It’s a little more fairy tale-ish, but it’s still about people trying their hardest to make reality and themselves into something different than what they are.