A Conversation With Eric Van Lustbader

by Claire E. White

Bestselling author Eric Van Lustbader was born and raised in Greenwich Village. He is the author
Photo of Eric Van Lustbader
of more than twenty bestselling novels, including The Ninja, in which he introduced Nicholas Linnear, one of modern fiction's most popular heroes. Other bestselling titles include Black Heart, White Ninja, Shan, Angel Eyes, The Kaisho, Floating City, Second Skin, and Dark Homecoming. His novels have been translated into over twenty languages; his books are New York Times and international bestsellers. The Ninja was sold to 20th Century-Fox's producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown.

He is also the author of a successful and highly regarded series of fantasy novels, The Sunset Warrior Cycle. For the past several years, he has been working on a number of short stories, screenplays and novellas. Three of the short stories appeared in 1999: "Hush," in Off The Beaten Path: Stories of Place (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), "Slow Burn," in Murder And Obsession (Delacourt Press), and "An Exultation of Termagants" in 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense (Avon). A short novel, Art Kills will be published by Carroll & Graf in 2002. Taking a break from shorter fiction, Lustbader has returned to the multi-volume epic with his latest release, The Ring of Five Dragons (HarperCollins), the first in a major new fantasy series entitled The Pearl.

The Ring of Five Dragons is an epic fantasy which centers on the conflict between the V'ornn, a technologically superior, space-faring nomadic race which colonizes a planet, strips it of its resources and culture, then moves on to the next planet, and the Kundalan, a spiritual race which is more advanced than meets the eye. Booklist calls The Ring of Five Dragons, "Enthralling and exciting reading, full of unexpected twists and surprises." Publisher's Weekly speaks of the book's "complex plotting, fluid action writing and vivid descriptive passages," and adds that, "both newcomers to Lustbader and his ardent admirers will champion this novel as a potent portal to fabulous mythic realms."

Eric Van Lustbader is a graduate of Columbia College, with a degree in Sociology. He also holds licenses in elementary and early childhood education. Before turning to writing full time, he enjoyed highly successful careers in the New York City public school system, and in the music business where he worked for Elektra Records and CBS Records, among other companies. He was the first writer in the U.S. to write about Elton John and to predict his success. As a consequence, he, Elton and Elton's lyricist Bernie Taupin became friends. Writing for Cash Box Magazine, he also predicted the successes of such bands as Santana, Roxy Music, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, David Bowie, and The Who, among others.

He serves on the Board of Trustees, the Executive Committee, and is Chair of the Strategic Planning Committee of the City & Country School in Greenwich Village. He also tends his prized collection of Japanese maples and beech trees (which have been written up in The New York Times and Martha Stewart Living). He is a Second-Level master in the discipline of Reiki, a form of healing through the use of natural forces and laying on of hands by the practitioner. He and his wife Victoria have been residents of the South Fork of Long Island for more than fifteen years.

Eric spoke to us about his new fantasy series, the use of themes in his work and what aspiring writers should never, ever do.

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were growing up?

Cover of The Ninja by Eric Van Lustbader
I started out reading fantasy and science fiction, spy novels, when I was a teenager, but I was very much affected by the poetry of Walt Whitman, John Donne. I was particularly taken with Moby Dick, Dracula, and Frankenstein. I also learned a great deal from the ancient Greek playwrights.

Was there anyone who inspired you to write when you were a boy?

I started writing poetry when I was seven or eight. Whitman and Samuel Greenberg were early influences. But I think more than any other, Moby Dick was what made me want to write a novel. That book has haunted me ever since I first read it. It's both brilliant and impenetrable, jam-packed with exhausting digressions. However, what I saw in it was an entire universe, built from the ground up, with its own mythology, religion, sense of law, order, chaos, and justice. It is so huge it's hard to take it all in. Maybe it's impossible and maybe that's why I love it so. It is sort of like life -- the journey is what's important, but if you try to make sense of it, it won't be able to afford you any pleasure, and that would be a great pity, wouldn't it?

How did you get your start as a journalist?

I fell in love with The Beatles. I saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show and flipped. I fast-talked my way into Cash Box magazine, a music biz weekly, and started writing concert reviews for them for free. They loved my work and it wasn't long before they offered me a full time job.

What led up to your first fiction novel being published?

I had been in the music business for about 13 years and was getting fed up with the suits taking control of every creative decision. Then, in 1973, I happened to run into an old pal of mine from high school. We were attending an Orson Welles film festival and had a lot in common. It turned out that he was writing a series of westerns for Avon Books. I thought to myself, If he can do it then so can I!

How has your journalistic background affected your work or writing habits as a novelist?

It's given me good work habits. You have to be exceptionally disciplined to write a novel. Also, deadlines never bother me. If you haven't worked on a weekly deadline then, believe me, you don't know what writing pressure is all about!

One of your most popular characters is Nicholas Linnear, the star of the bestselling series which began with The Ninja, and included the bestsellers The Miko, White Ninja, The Kaisho etc. How did you create the character of Nicholas? Is there any of Eric Van Lustbader in him?

He's all me, baby. Except for the martial arts stuff. I'm a lover not a fighter. Just ask my wife.

I'd like to talk about your latest book, The Ring of Five Dragons. What was your inspiration for this book, and for the new series that it launches?

Cover of The Ring of Five Dragons by Eric Van Lustbader
My life had entered a new phase. As an avowed techno-junkie, I was becoming increasingly overwhelmed by information in the forms of video- and audio-streaming over the Net, voicemail, cell phones, email. Like everyone else, I found myself multitasking all day long. I longed for a way to unplug without becoming a neo-Luddite and shunning all technology. I discovered Reiki, which was my way of calming down and getting a glimpse of the spiritual side of life. Then I began to realize that this struggle was epidemic with everyone I knew. That got me to thinking: What if… The two most powerful words a writer can employ.

The book addresses the theme of Spirituality vs. Technology, and the impact that the struggle between the two has on two societies. Do you usually think in themes before you start writing a new book or series?

As a writer who takes his craft (if not himself) seriously,
"I have had a problem with two short stories ...where it seemed to take forever to get the idea right. I never think it's a good idea to force the issue so I go off and do something else, usually physical, like prune my Japanese maples or work out.... I find that if my forebrain is taken up with doing something physical, my unconscious is freed to work on the problem."
I am always trying to improve, change, add to my knowledge and therefore improve my technique. Early on, I don't think I had a theme in mind. For instance, I wrote The Ninja because I was fascinated with the idea of having this agent of chaos and ancient secret knowledge set down in the middle of modern-day Manhattan. That was a positively delicious concept. Nowadays, as you can tell, I do have a theme in mind when I write anything, be it a novel, a screenplay or a short story.

Another theme in the book seems to be the very idea of gender: how gender shapes a person's life and outlook, and the relations between the two sexes -- which is an interesting choice for a sweeping epic fantasy. What prompted you to focus on this issue in the book?

I've always been fascinated by the ways in which males and females misunderstand one another. If you read back over my previous novels, you'll see that thread running through all of them. Here, however, since I was not constrained by the conventions of 21st century society, I could more vividly accentuate the problems I see when males and females fail to communicate.

The book focuses on two very different cultures, the V'ornn and the Kundalan. How did you create the V'ornn? What was your inspiration for them?

I wanted the V'ornn to use technology and science as sorcery.
Cover of Second Skin by Eric Van Lustbader
I closed my eyes one day and tried to picture what a technomage would look like. I figured he'd have to be hooked into his science in every way possible, including the physical, but I did not want him to seem in any way part machine. They needed to be kind of scary -- especially the Gyrgon -- but there needed to be room to be able at some point to show their vulnerable side.

The magical system in The Pearl series is also quite interesting. How do you go about creating the magic and rules for a new fantasy universe?

I can give you a very simple answer: language is magic. I started with the beginning, where the first Ramahan, the Kundalan priests and priestesses, used this root language, Venca, as sorcery. By themselves, the letters mean nothing, but as they shape words and phrases and sentences, the sorcery is conjured up. This is a direct metaphor for how I feel about writing. It's very powerful stuff because as a writer you are in partnership with each and every reader who imagines the world you've built, the characters you've created inside their own heads. That said, the Kundalan are based very loosely on new knowledge we've gotten about the ancient Cretan culture, which was the last of its kind before the great sweep of male-dominated, war-god societies swept across the continents. If you want to know a little more about it, I would recommend a fantastic scholarly book called The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler, which stands the "science" of archeology on its head. I read the book and immediately connected with her theory of ancient civilization. You can see the effect she had on me. I named my heroine after her.

One of the fascinating aspects of The Ring of Five Dragons world is the mix of fantasy elements and SF elements. Did this create any special challenges in the plotting or writing of the novel?

Not to me. But that may be because I see science and sorcery as two sides of the same coin. As long as I do that, the two are not only compatible but complementary to one another.

A compelling character in the book is Giyan, the Ramahan priestess who is taken into slavery by the V'ornn, but eventually rises to have quite a bit of behind the scenes influence on events that will shape the entire world. How did you create the character of Giyan?

I have no idea. She wrote herself. Well, actually, she's the mom we always wanted, isn't she? Frankly, I wish she was real; I know many, many readers who agree with me.

The Gyrgon technomages are another fascinating group, especially Nith Sahor. So far, at least, their origins are somewhat murky. Will we find out more about them in future books? And even though they are technomages, their structure and power certainly have religious overtones. Was that intentional?

Cover of French Kiss by Eric Van Lustbader
The religious overtones are very much intentional, and you will find out much more about the Gyrgon in the second volume of The Pearl, The Veil of One Thousand Tears, which will be out in May, 2002.

When you set out to create an entirely new society, such as that of the V'ornn, what factors do you consider before you start creating?

Well, as a Sociology major in college, this was one of the most exciting aspects of writing this series. I started at bedrock, with what the V'ornn believed as far as religion and myth were concerned. Then I asked myself what drove them, what obsessed them, and why? From this base, I created the philosophy, science, caste system, etc. It's like building an onion from the inside out.

Would you tell us a bit about the next book in the series?

I've already mentioned that you'll learn much more about the Gyrgon in The Veil of One Thousand Tears. But you'll also begin to see an unfolding of a much larger canvas. You'll meet daemons and archdaemons. Much of the book is set in The Korrush, a vast steppe that is only talked about in Ring. What else? Oh, yes. Some very nasty things happen to characters we love right from the beginning. It's like a roller-coaster ride.

I'd like to talk about the actual writing process itself. Would you describe a typical writing day for you? (e.g., what are your surroundings, do you keep a set schedule, do you listen to music for inspiration etc.)

"I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do know this. In order to be a writer you have to write what's in your heart. The moment you try to write about a topic that's currently hot or what you think others believe you ought to do, you're sunk."
I have an office, which has some of my favorite things in it. I get up early, around six or so and start writing. I go out, work in my garden, see friends, around midday, then often get back to work late in the afternoon. That part is something new for me, I must say. I do listen to music much of the time. These days, I'm listening to a lot of "Buddha Bar" trance music. I love the Middle Eastern melodies which inspire my writing about The Korrush, which has a decidedly "Arabian Nights" slant.

Have you ever encountered writer's block? If so, how did you deal with it?

Happily, I've never been in a position of not knowing what to write next. I have had a problem with two short stories (one currently, as a matter of fact), where it seemed to take forever to get the idea right. I never think it's a good idea to force the issue so I go off and do something else, usually physical, like prune my Japanese maples or work out to a "Tae Bo" tape, which is the best overall workout I've ever found. I find that if my forebrain is taken up with doing something physical, my unconscious is freed to work on the problem. It's like trying to remember something. The harder you try the farther away it seems to get. It's only when you turn your mind to something completely different that you remember.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

I get asked this question all the time. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I do know this. In order to be a writer you have to write what's in your heart. The moment you try to write about a topic that's currently hot or what you think others believe you ought to do, you're sunk.

I understand that you are a second level Reiki master. How did you get interested in Reiki? What have you gotten out of your training?

Cover of Angel Eyes by Eric Van Lustbader
The Reiki actually happened purely by accident. I happened to be visiting a writer friend of mine. At that time, I had a chronic pain in my right shoulder and when I told her about it she put her hands on me for about five minutes and the pain went away. I asked her what she'd done and as she began to describe it, I knew I wanted to learn how to do it. Reiki has been a great calming influence for me. It's not for everyone, and it's often not taught correctly. But it can be wonderful.

When you're not working, what are your favorite ways to relax?

Read. Watch The Sopranos and Sex in the City. I'm kidding; I do watch other things as well. Prune my trees. Go out with my wife. Travel. Go into New York City. I'm on the Board of Trustees of City & Country, a private elementary school in the Village, where I went. About a year ago the Board asked me to Chair the Strategic Planning Committee. In February, we delivered the final plan and it was approved. It was a lot of work but, believe it or not, for me, it was relaxation as well as a great pleasure. In sum, getting different points of view, seeing different aspects of life. That's the way to build knowledge and increase your enjoyment of everything you do.

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