by Christopher Paul Carey
“Assist the new without sacrificing the old.” This line from Thomas Mann is something I feel in my bones as I write, and I think every writer has to come to terms with the notion, whether it’s confronted consciously or it squirms up unrecognized from beneath the surface. For some, the word “tradition” can connote tired and worn stodginess, but for me it’s the living root that taps the well of creativity, a sort of metaphysical channel to my long-gone peers from the past.
When I was completing The Song of Kwasin—the concluding novel in a historical fantasy trilogy started by Philip José Farmer back in the 1970s—I had some big decisions to make. One of the most important was whether to write in a more modern style and to avoid many of the literary conventions common to novels of the mid-1970s that have since fallen into disuse. I weighed both sides, since at the time I didn’t know whether the novel would sell as a standalone volume or as part of an omnibus of the series. I knew many twenty-first-century publishers wouldn’t grok a book written in the style of 1976 that also unapologetically drew on styles over a hundred years old.
But I stuck with the feeling in my gut: that to respect the work I was about to undertake, I needed to revel in what had gone before. I knew all too well the literary roots of the Khokarsa trilogy. At a young age Phil Farmer had come to love the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard, and so had I. These two authors were the primary inspirations for Hadon of Ancient Opar, Flight to Opar, and the outline and partial manuscript Phil had provided me with so that I could complete The Song of Kwasin. Phil, I knew, had adopted his own gritty, more realistic style in the first two novels, and yet still somehow managed to capture the essence—the fun and wonder—of the pulp tropes employed in the adventure tales of Burroughs and Haggard. Moreover, Phil’s approach subtly mixed SFnal elements with the fantasy of these authors, but did so in an artful way that did not overbear the traditions that inspired the Khokarsa series. So while I worked on the novel, I knew I not only had to account for the pulp tradition, but also for Phil’s New Wave SFF innovations with it. To do this I looked to the body of Phil’s work, in particular themes and sentiments he had used throughout his literary career. I explored how Phil had already laid the groundwork to interplay these elements with the traditions established by Burroughs and Haggard, sowing them into The Song of Kwasin where it seemed most likely they’d organically take root.
Of course, my own innovations grow alongside Phil’s in the book. I don’t know if the modern reader (or even I) can see them, since we’re often blind to the conventions and styles of our own times. But I know they’re there, and that a future reader some thirty-five or forty years from now will be able to see them plainly. Writing is a dialogue that takes place over centuries. As the conversation turns, new topics and feelings and questions and insights arise, all of which are born out of what has gone before. Move the conversation forward, but don’t forget what’s been said.
That’s one of the things that inspires me most when I write: the opportunity to converse with the literary giants of the past, and the potential to carry on the conversation they started into new realms. Who knows how long our species might carry on such a dialogue, or where it might lead? I honestly don’t know. But meanwhile I’m having a grand old time chatting.
About the Guest Author
Christopher Paul Carey
Christopher Paul Carey is the coauthor with Philip José Farmer of Gods of Opar: Tales of Lost Khokarsa, and the author of Exiles of Kho, a prelude to the Khokarsa series. His short fiction may be found in such anthologies as Tales of the Shadowmen, The Worlds of Philip José Farmer, and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files. He is an editor with Paizo Publishing on the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. Chris and his wife Laura live in Seattle, Washington.