Having worked in the law, journalism and numismatics, K.J. Parker now writes and makes things out of wood and metal. Although we can't vouch for the wood and metal, the writing part seems to be going awfully well. Parker's books are simply spectacular: complex, clever, funny and dark.
As long-time (and slightly lunatic) fans, we were delighted to have the opportunity to interview K.J. Parker.
Pornokitsch: Your new book, Sharps, has a lot of breath-taking fencing, but the most intimidating fights are those that involve the iconic 'messer'. How did you plan the fight scenes with this weapon? Is that move actually possible? Do you still have all your fingers?
K.J. Parker: I made a couple of messers (they were supposed to be something else, but that’s what they turned into – at the forge where I play at blacksmithing, we can’t harden and temper blades longer than 22”, which partly explains the preponderance of short swords in the works of K. J. Parker); and when I’d done striking them off and sharpening them, I looked at them and they looked at me, and there, more or less, was the idea for the book.
There’s actually quite a literature on messer combat, including a handbook by Albrecht Durer, and a quite terrifying section in Talhofer, so plotting the moves didn’t require much imagination. The move you have in mind isn’t recorded with the messer in any of the sources I’ve read; it’s well documented in 15th century longsword, where it’s shown as a standard business proposition (though it’s more common to catch the other guy’s blade single-handed; the forte of a longsword would be moving at something around 70mph, faster than a messer because the blade’s longer. Eeek.)
I still have my full complement of fingers; all twelve of them.
PK: In “The Life and Sad Times of the Western Sword” you describe that, as a “99% pacifist”, swords are your weapon of choice, for “the duellists who died on the points of rapiers... were at least willing participants in their own undoing.” In Sharps, the duellists are all distinctly unwilling, and the volunteers (e.g. Tzimisces) are the ones with dubious motivations. Why should we be suspicious of the un-reluctant?
KJP: I write a lot about conflict, violence and combat because people are more interesting, and usually more themselves, when they’re doing all that stuff. The fencers in Sharps have a conscious, cerebral objection to what they’re made to do, but none of them have motives that would stand too much scrutiny.
I take the view that glorifying violence is the worst kind of pornography. That said, I agree with Arthur Wise that violence is a form of communication; if we can’t or won’t understand what it’s trying to say, we’ll never be rid of it. By the same token, learning the enemy’s language doesn’t mean you start to think like him. A pacifist should be fluent in most major dialects of violence.
PK: You’ve mentioned that many of your novels start with single images (for example, The Company began with a mental picture of a man in a military greatcoat). Did Sharps? And if so, what?
KJP: Sharps began with the two messers, combined with a bit on the radio about Cold War era ping-pong diplomacy. Since I know rather more about fencing than table-tennis, I thought I’d go with my strengths. Also, the character of Addo was sort of handed to me on a plate when my daughter acquired a new boyfriend.
PK: One of the best things about your books – and something that’s on full display in Sharps – is that the characters are all genuinely smart. This challenges the reader, and breaks with the fantasy tradition of nice, straightforward linear quests. Why take this approach? Are you ever worried about leaving the reader behind?
KJP: I think it was the late Townsend Whelen who said, “only accurate rifles are interesting” – meaning, I guess, that if you can’t hit anything with it, it’s no fun. I take the same sort of line with characters. Smart characters are more fun. You can do more with them, and to them. They tend to be articulate enough to say stuff that needs saying (so I don’t have to); they’ve got the ingenuity and resourcefulness to get things done; they get themselves into better and deeper scrapes. As a writer, I have the tremendous privilege of being able to design the people I work with from the ground up (I can also kill them when they annoy me, a privilege limited to authors and people who work for the US Post Office). Smart people are easier to work with. And, of course, to work for, which is why I make it a rule never to underestimate my readers.
PK: There have been tiny inferences in previous books that hint that your novels are all in a connected world. But Sharps starts gluing the land together more overtly. Why? And why now? Given the intricate planning on display in your books, it is hard not to suspect that you’re building up to something...
KJP: Hm. There’s a very small element of that, maybe. Occasionally (mostly in short stories) I like to throw out suggestions that such and such a story is set somewhere we’ve been before, but a long time afterwards; history is a bit like a frequently-redecorated room, and from time to time when the wallpaper frays you see glimpses of the superceded layers underneath. Subliminal hints like that give a sort of depth-in-time to synthetic worlds (contrast the recurring echoes of Numenor in Lord of The Rings with Terry Pratchett’s Strata; authenticity comes from also faking the bits the eye doesn’t see). Also, I’m too idle to make up new names.
PK: Continuing my conspiratorial speculation - are your books being published in the order you write them?
KJP: Sorry, yes.
PK: Universities are often referenced in your books. Have you ever been tempted to write something set entirely within a school? Why is school such a pivotal time for so many of your characters?
KJP: Sorely tempted; but I’m not inclined to create a non-magical Hogwarts. I guess I keep getting drawn back to schools and universities because my own school and college experiences were so very formative, and writing about them (obliquely and non-actionably, since the jerks I was at school and college with are now rich enough to afford the very best lawyers) is a poultice for drawing out the poison. I think more harm is done to one’s character in the course of full-time education than in any other stage in human development. And where there’s harm, of course, there’s drama.
PK: The past few years have seen you experimenting with a variety of formats: stand-alone novels, novellas and short stories. Which do you prefer? Will you ever return to the trilogies?
KJP: Each format has its specific uses, potentials and pitfalls; each format calls for and expedites its own kind of story. Experimenting with form is a good way of stopping myself from getting into a rut, developing a comfort zone. I’m extremely lucky to have been allowed to indulge myself in this fashion, to write string quartets when I’m in that sort of mood, and full-scale symphonies when I have rather more I want to say.
PK: Thanks to your books, I’ve learned about fencing, economics, alchemy, blacksmithing, armor-proofing, bow-making (and fletching, and archery in general...), siege equipment, volcanoes, charcoal and buttons. Have you ever stumbled on something that, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t turn into a metaphor? Or is there a master list somewhere? Turtles, cheese-making, fungus...
KJP: In fiction, I believe that human nature is everything, and everything is human nature. Everything we do reveals something about us; the way we go about things, the techniques with which we impose ourselves on the world. In Chinese mythology they have those mirrors that reveal shape-changing demons and animal spirits in their true form; I think the work people do, the things they make, reveal what and who they are in the same way. It’s not really metaphor or allegory; it’s like a pantograph, or a machine tool, where you operate a lever or a turnwheel and the machine carries out a different but corresponding operation. Thus, the work people do shapes the sort of person they are (farmers, artisans, clerks, soldiers) – which is why, when Bardas Loredan took up making bows, he ended up making that bow; it was, so to speak, in his bones.
PK: Magic appears infrequently in your work, and is invariably accompanied by someone trying to explain it away as something un-magical. Why take this approach to the supernatural? Given how much you accomplish without magic/natural philosophy/weirdness, what leads you to include it when you do?
KJP: I like to have magic in short fiction, and to keep it sidelined in novels. This started off when reviewers complimented me on writing magic-free fantasy (I’ll show them, I thought) but I rather like the distinction, since short-story stories are necessarily quite different from larger-scale narratives. Magic in fantasy literature is a bit like chilli sauce; a little, sparingly used, is great. A whole magic-flavoured novel can be inedible; all you can taste is the chili, not the meat and vegetables.
PK: “I don't have heroes and villains for the same reason I don't have dragons and goblins; I believe that all four species are equally mythical.” It has been seven years since you said this, does it still reflect the way you write? Also, wait - you don’t believe in goblins?
KJP: You bet. Actually, I do believe in goblins (I went to school with a bunch of them; see above). What I don’t believe in is the accepted Western dualistic view of right and wrong, good and evil; if I have a message or an agenda (and I sincerely hope I don’t) that’s probably it. I believe that our notions of good and bad are as synthetic and arbitrary as our names for the days of the week (and equally necessary; days need names, or we couldn’t function as a society; humans need morals, the same way addicts need drugs, and it’s unrealistic to propose that our society go cold turkey at this late stage in its development).
PK: On the basis that I may never get this opportunity again. Who’d win in a game of chess: Addo or Saloninus? And in a swordfight: Suidas or Poldarn?
KJP: Addo would let Saloninus win, out of respect. Even if he didn’t, Saloninus would win. By cheating, naturally.
Suidas would make hamburger out of Poldarn, provided Poldarn wasn’t fencing messer. The real rumble-in-the-jungle would be Suidas against Bardas Loredan. From what I’ve gathered in my researches into the subject1, success at arms is ten per cent skill (but you have to have that ten per cent) and ninety per cent really, really wanting to hurt the other guy; in which case, I think I’d risk a sawbuck on Bardas, somewhere around the beginning of The Proof House.
PK: Thank you very much for your time.
: The poor devils featured in the acknowledgements in Sharps would probably support this view. A solid side-on stance, a reasonable lunge and lots and lots and lots of aggression wins me points against opponents half my age and ten times my level of skill and ability. Nine times out of ten, when I get hit, it’s a counterattack in time when I’m lunging. I care about winning; their agenda is more sophisticated.
Editor's note: Talhofer on messers. And if you want your gore in colour: start on page 238, here. If you need more convincing to read Sharps, try our review. And if you still need convincing, check out this article on Orbit's page about reasons to read K.J. Parker.