Exclusive Interview: “The Failures” Author Benjamin Liar


Writer Benjamin Liar is not alone in having an idea gestate for years, or even decades. Or being inspired by things he enjoyed in his 20s and 30s. And he’s not the first to be inspired by Dinotopia, be it James Gurney’s novels or the TV series.

But all three? He’s got me there.

In the following email interview about his cross-genre sci-fi / fantasy novel The Failures (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), the first book in a trilogy called The Wanderlands, Liar explains how this story came together, along with what else influenced it and this series.

Benjamin Liar The Failures The Wanderlands

Photo Credit: Shawn Brewster


To start, what is The Failures about, and what kind of a world is it set in?

The Failures is set in a place called The Wanderlands, and it’s a world that’s been dying for a long time. No one alive — even those who are near immortal — could tell you how long ago the sky broke, the light started to fade, and the power started to leach from the world. They call it The Fall, but no one seems to know why exactly it happened, or how to fix it. Legends hold, however, that the Giant Kindaedystrin was the cause.

Now people cling to what little light is left, in the handful of places that still have it, the only illumination coming from ancient artificial lights that, themselves, are slowly dimming. One of these places is the underground city called The Keep, where no one alive has seen the sky, and things such as trees, stars, and sunshine are just as much a legend as the terrifying Giant who broke the sky in the first place.

The Failures follows a handful of different stories that start in many different places and converge on one spot: The Keep, where legend says that the very same Giant lies bound. Worse, a faded and ailing deity called The Mother is sending dreams to children and fools to gather powerful and forbidden artifacts to The Keep. And those artifacts just happen to be the same tools needed to open the Giant’s prison.

So now a group of failed heroes will have to confront their own pasts and futures to either avoid or enmesh themselves in the plots and plans of the powerful forces of the world…because the artifacts they found can be used for many things, and few of them are good. Doing the right thing will be harder than it seems, however, because in the Wanderlands, nothing is so simple as right or wrong.

Where did you get the idea for The Failures?

This story gestated for something like 30 years, so it might be easier to think of things that didn’t inspire it. Nearly everything I loved and got obsessed with in my 20s and 30s found its way into The Failures in one form or another.

The very first inspiration was when I saw a traveling exhibit of James Gurney’s original Dinotopia paintings at our local natural history museum; I was completely blown away by the depth, texture, and detail of the world that had been created there. I started sketching ideas for The Wanderlands that very night.

There were several flashpoints for the story over the years; it would get set down or abandoned for long stretches at a time until I got some blinding flash of inspiration, usually from a new book or film. Making a list of all of those would take the rest of the interview, however, so I’ll just say that, much like many first books, The Failures is a pastiche of about a million things I loved all at once, and I hope that by cramming them together, some new flavors emerged.

I do think that the first gestation of the idea, taken from Dinotopia, is still core to the story, even though almost everything about it has changed. Dinotopia is unabashedly utopian, and when it started, so was The Failures — but I learned that my utopia was a lot more fun to play around in once I’d broken it.

The Failures is clearly an epic fantasy novel, but it sounds like the world is more advanced than Middle-earth; kind of like the one in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive novels. But on your website you have a quote — I assume from a review — that says it’s a “… blend of apocalyptic sci-fi and epic fantasy.” So now I’m confused. How do you describe The Failures, genre-wise, and why that way?

I always wanted it to feel like an epic fantasy novel, but while I was developing the world I was intensely into a certain kind of sci-fi, like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld and the Ringworld books by Larry Niven. Way back then, there weren’t as many cross-genre books, though Jack Vance and the Dying Earth series arguably invented the genre, and Gene Wolfe perfected it with the Short Sun novels. And it felt quite exciting to tell a grand epic fantasy story with swords and macguffins and giants while trying to ground it in the sort of worldbuilding that I admired from some of those harder sci-fi authors.

Nowadays, of course — and Sanderson deserves a lot of credit for normalizing this — this sort of hard worldbuilding and magic systems are much more common and have resulted in a wealth of modern masterpieces.

I’ve always loved interstitial things, stuff that’s not quite one thing and not quite another, and I’m happy if there’s some difficulty in pinning the genre of The Failures down.

God, that sounded so pretentious. But it’s true, so I’m leaving it in.

The Failures is your first novel, though I’m guessing it’s not the first thing you’ve written. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on The Failures but not on anything else you’ve written?

Don’t get me started!

Well, you got me started. Ok, I’ll try to keep it to the big ones: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, obviously, especially the original version of The Gunslinger. If Steve ever drives to my house and kicks me in the shin for outright theft, I’ll deserve it.

The Bas-Lag novels by China Meiville were a huge influence, as well. Michael Swanwick’s Stations Of The Tide was a big flashpoint on the style and tone. Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The Long Sun (Yeah! Take that, Short Sun fans) was a really big touchstone on the visual style of the Wanderlands. Tad Williams’ Otherland series was another cross-genre masterpiece, but there’s one section about an endless library that was so influential on parts of my book that I should probably start mailing him dollar bills.

I was also heavily influenced by the big themes blended with kickass action of Dan Simmons Endymion novels (Yeah! Take that, Hyperion fans) and my main character, Sophie, was born when I wondered what Lyra from His Dark Materials would be like if she grew up and became a bitter drunk.

What about non-literary influences; was The Failures influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

Not as much. Or, not as many things spring to mind. Of course Star Wars affected everybody of my generation profoundly, and I’m sure there’s some DNA there. Credit must be given to The Princess Bride, Edward Scissorhands, and The Dark Crystal for some of the feel and tone.

And now that you got me thinking about it, while I was developing the crafting based magic system in the book, I was absolutely obsessed with Minecraft. But that has to be a coincidence.

Speaking of which, when not writing, you’ve been a game designer, as well as a filmmaker and a musician. Why did you decide to write The Failures as a novel as opposed to as a game or a movie or a concept album?

I like to think that every idea has a specific ideal shape it wasn’t to fill, and The Wanderlands has always wanted to be a book.

Unfortunately, the last thing I ever wanted to be was a writer, so it had to endure me trying to stuff it into a lot of uncomfortable shapes over the years. It started as more of a graphic-novel art thing, actually, shamelessly ripping off Dinotopia, I’m sure. But I’ve tried to turn it into a series of concept albums, several different half-finished scripts for TV and movies, and even an ill-conceived video game. It always wanted to be a book, though, and it waited patiently for me to finally settle down and finish writing it. I think book form is the right shape for the story; words are hard for me to wrangle sometimes but they allow for a scope of imagination that this particular story needed.

Now, The Failures is the first book in a series called The Wanderlands. Says so right on the cover. What was it about this story that made you realize it couldn’t be told in just one volume?

Like many young writers, way back then I had more ambition than skill or sense, so I planned for a sprawling series of interconnected works set in this world. So it was always intended to be more than one volume, and in my more ambitious moments I dreamed of a long series of volumes that would make any slender bookshelf quiver in fear. I grew up loving those big old doorstopper fantasy series; Xanth and Wheel Of Time and Thomas Covenant. Fortunately, Sanderson and Malazan (and many others) came along and did the big interconnected thing so much better than I’d even dreamed, and gave me the freedom to narrow the scope a bit.

I’m quite happy with the shape of the story now; sometimes narrowing allows you to go deeper…or it did for me anyways. I think I was able to dig down into the core of the story I wanted to tell.

So, what can you tell us about this series?

Currently the plan is to complete the story in three volumes; that feels like the right shape and length. It definitely won’t be an ongoing series of books; I know where we want to end up and I don’t think there will be much interesting story to tell after that. The structure of the book (no spoilers!) gives me a natural stopping place, and I have no desire to delay getting there. I’ve been waiting to write this ending for more than half my life.

Do you know yet what the other books will be called and when they’ll be out?

The second book is tentatively called The Monsters, and the third book could possibly be called The Killers. Don’t hold me to that, though. Those books aren’t yet completed, but progress is good.

I would hesitate to give release dates quite yet but I don’t think readers will have to wait too awful long for the story to find its ending.

Upon hearing that The Failures is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to hold off reading it until the other books are out, and still others will decide to also read them back-to-back. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait? Or that they should but not binge the series?

Obviously, some readers probably should wait and binge the series if that’s how they like to do things, I think The Wanderlands will hold up to that style of reading fairly well. My argument against doing that is similar to my argument against binging certain types of television series: you lose something when you immediately find out what happens next, and find out the answers to mysteries without having some time to wonder about them. The Wanderlands is chock full o’ mysteries and puzzles, and I think some time between books would let those mysteries steep and grow potent- but that’s how I like to read and watch, and mileage may vary.

This isn’t something everybody can or would want to do, but for myself, I love re-reading books and series before the next one comes out. But then, I’m a fast reader and love re-reading books. I did my best to make The Failures a book that would be rewarding on re-read, and if there are any readers out there who do like re-reading, I think a really fun way to enjoy the series would be to re-read it before each volume.

But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? You can’t trust me on things like that. It’s right there in the name, folks.

Earlier I asked if The Failures had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games, as well as why you didn’t write it as a movie or game. But do you think The Failures — and, by extension, The Wanderlands series — could work as a movie series, a TV show, or a game?

I think that if it were to make its way to a screen, a limited TV series would be a great shape for it, but a series of films would obviously be amazing as well.

As much as I love video games, I don’t think the story of The Failures would work well in that format, though I do have a few ideas for a survival / crafting game set in that world, so we’ll see.

And if someone wanted to adapt The Failures and The Wanderlands series into some movies or a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters, and why them?

Well since in this imaginative exercise I get to cast anyone, I might as well shoot for the stars and say Florence Pugh [Dune: Part Two] and Kristen Stewart [Spencer] have a vulnerable sort of strength that would be perfect for the main character, Sophie. And, like every other filmmaker in the world, I think Zendaya [Challengers] would absolutely slay that part.

For the world-weary, implacable hunter The Deader, I’d love to see Ben Mendelsohn [Ready Player One] or Hiroyuki Sanada [Shogun] chew on that role.

And for the two bumbling, cheerful, unkillable monsters at the heart of the story, I’d take Jack Quaid [The Boys] and Zazie Beets [Deadpool 2] in a second.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about The Failures or The Wanderlands series?

It can be a difficult book to describe concisely. And while I love the way the book has been described by others, it can come across as seeming quite dark and apocalyptic. But I like to think that the story and characters can be quite fun sometimes, too; Hitchhiker’s Guide, The Princess Bride, and the Vorkosigan Saga were just as much of an influence as Stephen King and China Meiville.

Benjamin Liar The Failures The Wanderlands

Finally, if someone enjoys The Failures, what sci-fi / epic fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they check out while waiting for The Monsters or whatever the second book is called?

Oh, you’re going to make me pick just one! That’s tough.

Okay: If you only read one book that I’d love to think is in the same family as The Failures, I’d direct you to China Meiville’s The Scar. It can be read as a stand-alone, the writing is as beautiful and gruesome as anything you can imagine, and there’s more compelling characters and mind-blowing worldbuilding on display than in ten other novels put together. Yeah…read The Scar. Then, if we ever meet, we can go sit in the corner and ignore everybody and talk about it for like an hour.



One reply on “Exclusive Interview: “The Failures” Author Benjamin Liar”

I couldn’t agree more about The Scar. Although my favourite Miéville novel is Embassytown, IMHO the best SF novel ever published (perhaps equalled only by Peter Watt’s Blindsight/Echpraxia duology.

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