Author interview conducted in June 2004
(via e-mail) by Aaron Hughes
Eric Van Lustbader photo (left) by Gary Mamay
from book dust jacket
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): Ha! I've stopped counting. As it happens, my paternal grandmother was Dutch, and their family name was "Van Blurkhom," and for whatever reason my parents decided to use part of that name, "Van," as a middle name for me. In Europe I've just given up, because I'm known as "Van Loostbader," and I can't even begin to start telling them no, it's not right, so I just let it go.
FR: Some of your books dropped the "Van" or used a middle initial.
EVL: Yes, that was my publisher's doing, because they were finding that there was some confusion among book store chains as to whether to file me under "L" or under "V" and I guess they got lazy and didn't want to keep after them, so they asked me if I'd shorten it. I said yes, but thought better of it fairly soon, and went back to "Eric Van Lustbader," because that is my given name and I like it. I just have to make sure now that my publicists and everybody else know so that people don't call me "Mr. Van Lustbader."
FR: Although perhaps there's an advantage to taking up two slots on the shelves in the store?
EVL: Well, I just don't like when people go to "L" and don't find me because I'm under "V." They don't file me under both, they do one or the other, but now we've gotten to a point where it's really under control, and almost everywhere now it's under "L."
FR: Let's talk about your current work in progress, the fantasy epic The Pearl Saga.
EVL: One of the things I wanted to say about these fantasy books, I've been doing an author tour for the past month or so, and I'm most often asked: Why is it now that fantasy, which has been around for centuries, really, and always been popular to a lesser or greater degree, has suddenly broken out into the mainstream, with my books and with Harry Potter and with Lord of the Rings.
It's not just that times are really awful and people want to escape into fantasy, because you can escape into thrillers as well. To me it's because if you look at fantasy novels, no matter what the subject matter is or where it's set - whether it's Earth-based like Middle Earth, or Kundala like my books - fantasy is based on four pillars: loyalty, morality, friendship, and love. And I think those - not I think, I know - those qualities are in short supply these days, and they are things that people really respond to. Fantasy creates a whole universe that people can get lost in, and you know that no matter how bad things are in the books, how many bad things happen to your lead characters, that everything's going to wind up OK, because fantasy, these four pillars, make sure that good triumphs over evil.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Is that what brought you back into the fantasy genre, that you wanted to work more within those four pillars?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): No, I think what brought me back in was I had been thinking for several years about the fact that people have been splitting into sort of two camps, between technology and spirituality. There was a growing number of people who had turned neo-Luddites, who were really turning away from the computer and all the de-humanizing, as they call it, factors of computers and e-mail and chat rooms and all of that stuff, where you can go on-line and be faceless and identity-less; and the rise of all kinds of spirituality, like reiki and meditation and Buddhism and all kinds of things like that that happened around the turn of the century. And I wanted to write a story that revolved around the dichotomy between spirituality and technology, because I love technology but also since I wrote about the Orient for so long I have a very spiritual side.
One of the big dichotomies is, in the East, when you want to embrace spirituality, you have to let go of things. That's really the Buddhist philosophy, that you can't control things in the world; things happen to you and you just have to accept things. Whereas in the West, it's entirely the opposite. Westerners want to control everything, and when they can't they get totally nuts. And of course, you can't control everything, it's just not possible. The world doesn't work that way. So people get frustrated, they don't know what to do, because they feel like they're out of control.
So I created a world in which one people (the Kundalans) were spiritual and one people (the V'ornn) were technology-based. In the beginning of the series, in the first book The Ring of Five Dragons, it seems clear, because the V'ornn have invaded Kundala and been there for a hundred years when the series starts, that the Kundalans are good and the V'ornn are evil. But the more you read in the series, the more you start to think, hmm, maybe that's not the case, because as the series goes on there are evil Kundalans and good V'ornn. You start to realize that your preconceived notions that spirituality is good, technology is evil, are not true, that it's actually the people who are using those two things who are good and evil.
I think that's true of the world at large. When you look at, for instance, Islam - Islam is not evil. It's a religion that preaches peace. But it's certain people hiding behind the veil of Islam who are using it as an excuse to kill and bomb and cause terror. I think it's important to understand that, because I think people tend to think in broad strokes and want to tar everyone for the sins of a few people, and you really can't do that.
When I got this idea, it seemed to me too large to be able to do in one mainstream book, so I thought, well, what's the best venue for it, and I came up with fantasy. I started out writing fantasy. I wrote five early fantasies called The Sunset Warrior series, so it seemed like the right way to go.
Plus, at college I was a sociology major, and I'm always fascinated by people and societies. The idea of being able to create an entire universe with people that had religion and language and technology and morality and spirituality and all these things that I could create myself was something that was very powerful and compelling to me to be able to do.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): So if it's fair to see parallels between the Kundalan spiritual outlook and the V'ornn technologically advanced civilization, and clashes in our world between Western culture and the East, does that indicate that some of the themes you're developing in these books actually hearken back to ideas that you explored in your thrillers as well, which frequently involve West vs. East clashes?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): I would say so. You know, one of the things that comes out of the series is that spirituality and technology are really two sides of the same coin, and that one really cannot exist without the other. Both these societies have been damaged before the series starts, and they have to find a way to heal themselves and to integrate spirituality and technology into a whole.
People ask me how much research I did for this series. One of the things I did was to base the Kundalan society on ancient Crete society, which was the last of what archeologists call the "collaborative societies," where men and women ruled equally. It wasn't a patriarchal society; it wasn't a matriarchal society. Women and men did everything equally. To me that's a fascinating idea. We have no modern analogue today.
I wanted to create that kind of society, but when you meet the Kundalans they're not like that. They've been corrupted, and the men have created a cabal that tried to overthrow the women because of this one artifact, the Pearl. They were unsuccessful so they were thrown out, but the Pearl was lost, and because the Pearl was lost and because the Kundalans turned away from their collaborative roots, they were overwhelmed and defeated by the V'ornn, who have enslaved them for a hundred years. And the whole idea is that they cannot find themselves unless they become whole again. The V'ornn are also the same way. They've turned against their own spirituality and have become a damaged society.
In the coming books - when I finished Mistress of the Pearl, I really wanted to create a very satisfactory conclusion, like a midpoint, so that people could read the three books The Ring of Five Dragons, The Veil of a Thousand Tears, and Mistress of the Pearl as a trilogy and feel satisfied, because I'm working on some other projects now and I don't know when I'm going to get back to the next three books, there are three other books in the series. But these three books are very satisfying in and of themselves and create a whole, which is what I wanted.
But the overarching story - we come to see in the third book, there's a third species called the Centophennni, who in a way created the V'ornn as they are now because they destroyed the V'ornn homeworld and turned them into nomads. The Centophennni are trying to find the V'ornn to destroy them.
FR: So when you come back to the next three books can we expect to see the Centophennni onstage?
EVL: Oh, yes, there will be a climactic showdown, because that's what all this is about. The V'ornn have to understand that they cannot defeat the Centophennni alone. The Kundalans are vital to the V'ornn in their fight against the Centophennni. Without them, they won't survive.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I want to go back to something you talked about in one of your earlier answers. You talked about the different traditions between the mythic and spiritual in fantasy and technology in science fiction. In reading Mistress of the Pearl, there are long stretches of it that read more like a science fiction novel than a fantasy novel. It sounds like that was by design on your part?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): Yes, absolutely. If you asked me what template I might have used for creating this world, it would be Frank Herbert's Dune. One of the things that I loved about Dune was that it was an amalgam of fantasy and science fiction, and he used the best of both of those genres to create something new. One of the things that endlessly fascinated me about Dune was the political and religious machinations that Frank created in that world.
I wanted to create a world like that. I wanted to have a world that combines both fantasy and science fiction, but in a way that was very believable. Most of the science fiction elements are really very subdued. There are no spaceships, they're talked about every once in a while but we don't see people flying off into space or anything like that. It's really a world-based series.
FR: That kind of science fantasy style combining two genres used to be much more common than it is now, and I'm very pleased to see you and a couple of others trying to bring that back.
EVL: I think that people, like in every field, they become specialists in a very narrow framework, and I think writers get afraid to move away from that. So if you say, well, I'm writing epic fantasy, hmm, can't do any kind of science fiction elements in there, because readers won't like that. But the fact is readers are smarter than that, and they get really good books. If you have novels that have really good story lines and wonderful characters, then they're going to respond to that no matter what they feel about whether this is in one genre or another.
FR: I think that's right, and there certainly used to be authors who did that successfully. I think of Jack Vance, Samuel Delany, Gene Wolfe, it used to be much more common.
EVL: Exactly. As I say, it's not any more, because authors, like everyone else, have become more specialized.
FR: Let me ask you about the V'ornn language. When you look at it on the page, at first it looks a little like gibberish, but then I practiced using the pronunciation guide and it comes out quite beautiful when you speak it out loud, so I'm curious how you went about creating that language.
EVL: That goes back to, I have a fascination with language the way Tolkien did. But I was faced with a more daunting task, because the Lord of the Rings trilogy was Earth-based, so he could call people Ted and Fred and Bob and Harry; I couldn't because Kundala is not Earth-based. So I had to tread a fine line between something that sounded alien without it sounding too crazy. In this one regard, I don't know whether I succeeded or failed, because a number of readers have said they found it a little difficult and hadn't found the pronunciation guide at the back of the book the way you did, and they didn't find it until they went on-line to my web site and found it there.
Once you understand it, the way everything is pronounced is very carefully worked out, so that it's not random like it is … well, in English. It's very difficult for people for whom English is not their first language to really understand English because so many things are spelled one way and pronounced a different way, and there's no rhyme or reason, there are no rules. Whereas in the V'ornn language there are rules that are adhered to, and they're the same in every instance. I just worked it out because I love language, and I created sounds that I found pleasing to me.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): So you didn't draw on any existing languages?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): No. Well, a little bit in the second book, I used Arabic as the language for the peoples of the Korrush. Everything of their language, their names and whatever, it's based on Arabic. But otherwise, no, I didn't.
FR: The heroine of much of The Pearl Saga, Riane, seems at first glance a very different kind of protagonist than Nicholas Linnear of your thrillers. I'm wondering if you view them that way, or if there are hidden similarities?
EVL: Well, one of the things about Nicholas is that he's tortured. He's half Western and half Eastern, and he struggles against his violent side that keeps cropping up. I think there's a very direct similarity with Riane, once Annon's personality gets imprinted on her, because he's, as a V'ornn, quite violent. I think the integration of their personalities, the way his quick-tempered violence really gets tempered by her personality, what's left of her personality, is one of the interesting things about the series. It's a prelude to how things are going to end up between the V'ornn and the Kundalans, and the way in which they will be able to defeat the Centophennni.
FR: One thing that recurs in the story is characters falling for the enemy. You have that happening in instances where is seems healthy, such as Eleana's love for Annon, and other instances where it is unhealthy, like Kurgan's lust for Eleana. Why do you think you come back to this theme of people being attracted to folks on the other side of the conflict?
EVL: Well, you say that they're the enemy, but the question is, are they really the enemy? I think that this is one of the, as I've said to you, pillars of fantasy, all the aspects of love.
Particularly in Mistress of the Pearl the sub-theme of love is explored. Halfway through the book, my father, who was always my best friend, got sick and died. In the aftermath of that, I started thinking about all the different kinds or aspects of love, not just romantic love, but love of a child for its father or mother, the love of siblings, which happens with Krystren and her brother.
I think that one of the prime aspects of love is, it's very Eastern, because in order to love somebody, you let go. It's uncontrollable. Why you love somebody, why another person loves you, is a total mystery. So that's why people, sometimes they fall in love with the right person, sometimes they fall in love with the wrong person. There isn't anybody on Earth who hasn't had an awful experience with love, falling in love with the wrong person, or getting hurt because somebody you love doesn't love you. Love doesn't always end up in a good place. I think all the aspects of love are explored in Mistress of the Pearl. That's one of the main sub-themes of that book.
FR: Your newest book is a new entry in Robert Ludlum's Bourne sequence, which you've aptly titled The Bourne Legacy.
EVL: That's right.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): How did you land that gig?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): Bob and I knew each other. We were very good friends, and we had a mutual admiration society going. And the executor of Bob's estate, who I know, called me, and we had lunch one day and he asked me. He said, "Look, I know you love the Bourne books, and I know you love Jason Bourne as a character. The first film has done so well that they're doing a second film with all the same people, coming out next July. I got this idea of putting out a new Bourne book in conjunction with the film. Would you be interested in doing it?"
I thought it was a fantastic idea, and I said I'd be interested in it, as long as I don't have to do it Bob's style, and he said, "No, we want you to do it in your own style, we want you to have your name on the book, and we want you to do whatever you want."
So that's what I've done. Bob did three books, The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy - that's the second film that'll be out on July 23 with Matt Damon, and The Bourne Ultimatum. So I've taken a number of characters from those books and killed them off in the first ten pages - ha! - so I can create a bridge between the old and the new. There are so many fans of Bob's books, and I wanted them to be able to have read the third book and go on to the fourth book and say, "Hey, this isn't totally new." But on the other hand it really is a new beginning for Bourne, which is why it's called The Bourne Legacy.
FR: So is it exciting or intimidating to try to meet all those fans' expectations?
EVL: Oh, I found it incredibly exciting. As it happens, for whatever reason, I know Bourne inside and out, I know what makes him tick. So it was very easy for me to write about him, and tremendous fun. I've had the most fun writing this book since I wrote The Ninja. I think it's the best thriller I've ever written, by far. I just love it. So they're already talking about me doing another one.
FR: Great! Now, I've got to confess I wasn't familiar with the Sunset Warrior series before I started doing research for this interview. But what I've learned is that those books have some very devoted fans out there.
EVL: Tremendous, yes. About three or four years ago I was asked to be a guest at the DragonCon down in Atlanta, and I was stunned by the number of fans who came in with shopping bags full of the Sunset Warrior books for me to sign.
I said there were five books, but only four of them have been published in this country. The fifth one, Dragons on the Sea of Night, was published overseas, but we didn't have a publisher here then and we've held onto it. So we're negotiating with another publishing company to put out the whole series again including the fifth book, so we're very excited about that possibility.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I noticed in Mistress of the Pearl, and I know it's true in some of your others, you have some decidedly nasty characters, and I wonder if you ever find yourself disturbed at your own ability to create such thoroughly despicable people?
Eric Van Lustbader (EVL): Ha! If you ask any author, they'll tell you that invariably the most fun characters to write are the despicable ones. The real challenge is creating a hero who is interesting to write about, because someone who is really good isn't all that interesting. That's why all my heroes and heroines have a basic conflict inside of them. If they didn't, you'd be bored to tears to read about them, there wouldn't be any kind of interest in them. I love creating villains, the more evil the better. What I shy away from is creating characters who are pure evil, because I want every character to have some internal conflict.
FR: Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.EVL: It was my pleasure!