Depression is a Bastard: How Scott Lynch Faced His Demons and Became a Bestseller-Updated

“I realized that as of this moment I had to be totally honest, or I would be dancing around this question for the rest of my natural life.”

Scott Lynch (third from left) at Tucson Festival of Books. With Beth Cato, Brian Keene and Jeff Marriotte (L-R).

Scott Lynch (third from left) at the Tucson Festival of Books. With Beth Cato, Brian Keene and Jeff Mariotte (L-R).


Scott Lynch is an inspiration. In 2006 he was the hot young voice in fantasy, riding high on the success of his novel The Lies of Locke Lamora. Its sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies seemed to fulfill the promise of the series, about a pair of thieves known as the “Gentlemen Bastards.” But death, divorce and depression derailed his career.

But Lynch didn’t hide his problems — since 2010 he has been forthright with his readers, sharing the harrowing experiences that nearly destroyed his career, and as a result he has become an ambassador for victims of depression. And his triumphant return to fantasy, The Republic of Thieves, became a New York Times bestseller when it was released in 2013.

Recently the cover of his upcoming novel, The Thorn of Emberlain, was revealed, so the buzz is starting to build that Lynch is back for good. I enjoyed a long conversation with him at the Tucson Festival of Books a couple weeks ago where he shared the details of his struggles with depression, the pros and cons of online gaming, and, of course, a few nuggets about Emberlain and some other projects in the works.

Thorn

The cover of Scott Lynch’s upcoming The Thorn of Emberlain. He hopes to have the book in stores by the end of 2015.

So the big question is, of course, what is the latest on Thorn of Emberlain?

We’ve had the cover revealed in the past couple weeks and Gollancz has basically hinted/commited to a 2015 release, so we have our fingers crossed. And unless I get hit by a bus, I’m very confident that it’s going to get a very late 2015 release. Late Autumn. I don’t know if it will be October or November. But late Autumn.

It’s not the one year gap I wanted since Republic of Thieves, but two years compared to five or six? Or seven or eight? I will keep on ratcheting it down and I promise to do better next time.

Well, you’re not in Patrick Rothfuss or George R.R. Martin range…

I’m fairly confident… Pat has outright said on Twitter that he’s not going to be releasing The Doors of Stone in 2015. It’s possible he’s playing a deep game — Pat’s not quite a prankster, but he does have it in him to give people a burst of excited joy. So I wouldn’t be completely surprised. But if we take him at face value it won’t be 2015.

George… I love him dearly, but who knows. I’m fairly confident I’ll beat both of them. So hey, if the two most popular and gigantic fantasy series on planet Earth aren’t out for Christmas, why not go for number 15 or 16?

After the back and forth about Del Rey’s announcement that Winds of Winter wasn’t coming in 2015, I realized the initial announcement was actually kind of weasel-ly. I wouldn’t be surprised by Winds of Winter. I WOULD be surprised by Doors of Stone.

Well when did Dance of Dragons come out? 2011? I remember that it was a surprise… In 2010, I had just started on my anti-depressants and I thought, ‘this will be easy from now on’, because the first couple months were so good, especially considering the depths I was climbing out of — the not sucking, the being able to deal with things was heavenly. Even though in retrospect I was a loosely wrapped package. Not surprising, I was seriously damaged.

There was a point in there where I thought I’d get Republic of Thieves before George R.R. Martin. He beat me though, and it turned out to be another 18 months before I turned it in in 2013.

I had a setback in early 2011 and then was once again feeling better by the end of the year. This time when I was climbing out of the hole it felt more realistic. It’s weird — we’re creeping up on the time frame where another new Elder Scrolls game will come out. New Martin novel, New Elder Scrolls. At that time, Skyrim ate my life, as Oblivion and Morrowind did before. So I’m looking forward to plenty of productivity destruction when Bethesda puts out its next time suck, Fallout 4.

I know I was sucked into Skyrim, although I was unemployed at the time. That is a bad combination.

My ex-wife and I, we played World of Warcraft for years. It coincided with the height— I’d always been moody, flaky, weird, the standard artistic types — and I’d have episodes, which in hindsight are all related, but the bad stuff didn’t start until 2008. And what my family was going through, my paternal grandfather was dying very slowly of liver cancer, and it was consuming the whole family with his care and upkeep and so forth. It was really easy to hang that up as an excuse for what was going on — oh, we’re all miserable because of what’s happening to Grandpa. Once that’s concluded everything will go back to normal. Well, he died in 2009 and things only got worse and worse and worse. Culminating in my wife leaving me in 2010.

Scott Lynch will meet fans and talk about his

Scott Lynch.

I don’t blame World of Warcraft for that. WoW provided structure, WoW was the reason not to lie in bed shivering and biting my nails all day. In its own way it didn’t help, but at the same time it was the only ambitious thing I did. I was writing gibberish and not showing anyone, I was becoming increasingly dysfunctional, WoW was the only thing I could apply myself to, a comforting realm of numbers and progress.

I’m still a gamer, it’s just the pattern in which I play has changed. I know this will sound rude, but I wanted to participate in “World of Having a Career-Craft”. And I can’t be beholden to the schedules of a guild – I can’t plan my life around 25-person and 40-person raids. I need games I can say, “Whoop, gotta go!” and click. Not something where I look back and say, I haven’t accomplished anything for several days… but look at all these really developed Skyrim characters!

Yeah, I really got tired of the “It’s 5:30 p.m., gotta get on for the 6 p.m. Kara run” routine.

The social aspect of raiding aside, just the support you have to do, when you aren’t raiding you need to be farming and crafting, doing the dailies and making the consumables for the next raid. Do your part for the guild. It becomes not just a part-time job, but a second full-time job.

Yeah, when my life was at its worst, WoW and my guildies were almost the only structure I had. And once I started putting everything back together, then all of a sudden there wasn’t the time, or the inclination to play anymore.

My ex-wife and I started playing in 2007, it was my reward for finishing Red Seas Under Red Skies, actually. I’d been interested in it for a while, so I created my character and started in Elwynn Forest and then we spent four years playing. There were an awkward few months after my wife left me where it was kind of “how do we approach this?” But I was too broken at that point to care. And after the divorce was final I started playing again for a little while, I played most of the way through Cataclysm, then I put the kibosh on the whole thing. That’s when the anti-depressants really started to kick in and I really started to reconceive ambitions outside of the game.

I miss my toons — I had a little back story about how they were connected and I’m thinking of getting some art commissioned of them. A couple of them will show up in stories here and there as well.

Have any of your toons appeared in the “Gentlemen Bastards” books?

lies of locke lamora

Scott Lynch’s debut, The Lies of Locke Lamora.

As in jokes. Morgante, the God of cities and order, is the name of a character I played in a LARP many years ago. And it’s an incidental homage to Steven Brust’s work, which features supernatural weapons called “Morganti Blades”. I thought it was a cool, elegant, badass name so I appropriated it and finessed it and turned it into Morgante. And Morgante was also one of my WoW characters long after that LARP ended.

Nara, the Mistress of Plagues, was my ex-wife’s character in that LARP. It was not meant as a dig, though, it was an homage. She wanted to be a biologist and had a deep and abiding interest in pathogens of all sorts.

There’s almost certain to be cameo appearances and maybe even a major appearance from my druid healer. I’ll point that one out when it happens though, I don’t want to spring that surprise quite yet!

And I’ve even thrown characters from my guild in as minor characters since the beginning. At that point I was still new enough and inexperienced enough that I was telling people in the game that I was a fantasist — I was giving people my real identity. This was something I stopped after three or four months of running a guild and shut up about, because you go through a lot of people in a guild. You kick them for various reasons and the last thing I want as a professional is someone, 10-15 years down the road saying, “Scott Lynch? That bastard! He was in my WoW guild and kicked me! I’ll never buy his books!”

So what else are you working on? Your novella “A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” from the Rogues anthology has gotten some attention.

rogues

“A Year and a Day in Old Theradane” is a highlight of George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois’s anthology, Rogues.

We’re definitely going to hear more from the ladies in that world, Amarelle Parathis’s crew. They don’t have a snazzy title like “Gentlemen Bastards”, although sometimes when I’m feeling snarky I refer to them as my “Genderflip Bastards”.

I did not say, “Alright, I’m going to write the Gentlemen Bastards again, only this time they are going to be female.” That’s just how it ended up. There are more stories in there — it was too much fun to write and it was too well received. And those are the two sides of the coin— you want to have enough fun to write more and you want people to enjoy it enough that they want to read more.

Any other projects in the works?

fearsome journeysThere’s a whole sequence of short stories.

The “Red Hats” story I did for Jonathan Strahan’s Fearsome Journeys, “The Effigy Engine,” was intended from the beginning to be an episodic journal of life in a magical mercenary company. Mercenary sorcerers and fixers. Not quite a riff on Glen Cook’s Black Company, but in that vein. The second story is called “Cash Poor, Temple Rich” and Strahan wants it but I don’t know where he will put it. He says he’ll find a home though, so somewhere, sometime in the future you will see that in a Strahan anthology. And there will be more “Red Hats” tales.

There might or might not be a follow-up to the other short story I wrote, called “He Built the Wall to Knock It Down.” Which is set in the “Far West” gaming universe, I did that for a friend. But I don’t own that so I don’t know if there will be anything there unless the stars align properly.

swords and dark magicThe first short story I sold was “In the Stacks” for Strahan and Lou Anders’ “Swords and Dark Magic”. I don’t know if I will write a sequel for that one, I’m not as definite about it as the others, but maybe? I’d say 50/50.

I also have a serial on my website called “Queen of the Iron Sands,” I started this story as a serial project, but also as a self-medication attempt to deal with my depression and anxieties about showing my work in public. And the fact that it’s been sitting on seven episodes for like two years now is evidence that that didn’t work out.

But I do want to get back to it and rewrite pieces to bring it up to my current standards because I have that story completely mapped out. I want to continue it as an online serial, but I’ve had some nibbles from publishers about placing it in a magazine. It may end up as something else.

That’s a steady stream of short stories, any longer works in the pipeline?

red seas

Red Seas Under Red Skies follows Jean and Locke on a seafaring adventure with pirate queen Zamira Drakasha.

There’s two novellas I’ve owed Subterranean Press for ages and ages. They’re Locke and Jean stories that will fit in between Republic of Thieves and Thorn of Emberlain. There’s another untitled novella, which, if Subterranean goes for it, is a Zamira Drakasha story. I’ve known I wanted to do one, but I didn’t have an idea to go on until a couple months ago it sprang into my head.

And there’s another novel called Untitled Lynch #1 that no one gets to know about. I read a bit of it at ReaderCon 2012 and swore everyone who heard to secrecy, but that’s as close as I’ve come to talking about it. That will be the next project after Thorn of Emberlain is handed in. Otherwise it is all Thorn of Emberlain all the time.

So there’s a whole lot of stuff in the works. I’m still screwed up in a lot of ways mentally and emotionally, but I’m a lot better than I was. To go from five years of silence and inability to hand in anything at all, to the baby steps of progress I’ve had, it can only get better.

Hearing you talk so openly about your struggles is so refreshing. A lot of people suffering from depression have that feeling of being alone. And there’s such a social stigma to the disease.

It’s so unfortunate how we as a society have that attitude. It’s getting better, but there’s still that idea that “It’s all in your head. Keep it to yourself.” Equating being strong with not telling anyone about it and that leads to the sensation that you describe. “I’m all alone. Everyone else is normal and I’m the weak one.” That’s what it feels like.

It took me two months of seeing my therapist to tell my editor, after not answering calls for six months. This was in late 2009, I wasn’t answering e-mails, I wasn’t picking up the phone for six weeks.

In retrospect my life and career were being destroyed by depression and my inability to confront it. Finally I got a call from my editor saying “Scott, I can only conclude that you don’t want to talk to me and you don’t trust my judgment. We can have any relationship as artistic and business collaborators that you want, but we can’t if you aren’t willing to trust me with the work you are doing.”

This hit me in a way nothing else had. So I broke down and called my editor and told him, and basically the first thing he said was, “No shit!”

Then the second thing he said was “Do you think you’re the first author I’ve had tell me they have depression issues? Do you think you’re the tenth? I am a serious depressive. I’m an editor — half of us in the publishing industry have some form of depression.”

And he said, “I’m not happy that you’re having problems and I want you to get better. That’s what we need to know. Now we have a basis of communication and if you’re having health issues, we can work around this.”

And that saved your career.

I had that phase leading up till 2009 where Lies and Red Seas came out and everything was more or less on schedule. Then there were the years that I vanished. And the books continued to sell in my absence — I’ve been blessed in that regard, the books acquired a new level of readership while I was checked out.

And when I finally released a new one it came at the right time — right on the cusp of excitement for a new book and disbelief that I would actually continue the series. The surprise and delight of people saying, “Oh my God! He’s not dead!”

Now I’m more aware of this thing. The hindsight effect. I see it now that three or four years of my career essentially vanished. I’ve been a professional writer for 10 years, but I’ve only actively been professionally writing for about six.

So since late 2012 I’ve been back in the serious writing business and trying to stay with it. Those intervening years were just stolen from me. I’m a little bitter about it, I can’t get them back, but there’s nothing I can do to change it. Life happens.

How did your family react?

A short time later I told my mom and dad. Our relationship was pretty rocky at that point, and that was the first time I found out that my mom had been on anti-depressants and my grandma, and my brother — there was this whole thread of mental and emotional illness running down one side of my family going back to my great-grandmother. I’m not saying that being forewarned would have made any difference, because my wife and I were doing a bang-up job of ignoring each other’s symptoms and not helping one another. It is once again, as you say, you think you’re alone and you don’t see that it’s all around you. It’s your family. It’s half your friends.

Depression also carries the feeling that no one else notices your problems, yet everyone does.

It’s a difficult step to take to recognize that a friend or relative has a serious problem. And then to call it to their attention without offending them or without destroying your relationship. So I don’t think there would have been an easy way for one of my friends or family to step in and help, and that’s why I didn’t do it for other friends who needed it.

To put a face on it, my divorce. This was not a bilateral decision, it was a big unilateral decision. She left me, quite suddenly. But to be honest, I wasn’t a particularly good husband. I was checked out and really sick. The fact that she wasn’t doing anything to help me was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t doing anything to help her either. Neither of us helped each other in our emotional time of need.

The thing is, I thought it was being done from a mature and considered position of not wanting to interfere with another adult’s life. Not wanting to tell her how to live, not wanting to insist on anything. There’s a balance you need to strike — you can’t intrude in their affairs, but there has to be a safe and healthy point where an intervention is possible.

How has your depression manifested in your books?

republic of thieves

The Republic of Thieves came out in late 2013 after a six year delay.

I like to think that since I’m now a member of that tribe, I’m a little more cognizant about how I portray mental illness. But the depression isn’t reflected in it per se, everything else I frickin’ went through during those years is in that book, though.

Republic turned into a different book from what I started. That was the divorce. One of the most helpful things my mom said was that a divorce is like death. It’s like a third person in your life dies. And when I pulled myself back together and started writing again, I realized the story I was telling was not the one I started.

I’d been with my wife for 12 years. She was my life and I thought I was going to be with her forever. And that was how I structured the book, I then got divorced and discovered that the happy ending does not come without a lot of work.

So the Locke of the later version of Republic is a wiser individual. He’s a guy who has a romantic obsession and learns to deal with it in a fair fashion to the other person involved. The key line that he says to Sabitha in the book is “I understand that the fervor of a desire is irrelevant to its justice.”

I acknowledge that you are another person, that you have needs — that you are not just another prize for me to win. I want you as badly as I did before, so tell me how to proceed and I will listen to you.

That’s not the book that I set out to write in 2008. It adjusted my views on romance and the inevitability of puppy love lasting forever. I don’t think I’m more cynical, just more realistic and I think I have a more mature view.

Lynch in Tucson 2

Scott Lynch (right) discusses writing rogues with (L-R) his girlfriend Elizabeth Bear, Sam Sykes and Gail Carriger at the Tucson Festival of Books.

So what prompted the decision to open up with your fans about your depression?

In late 2010, I was in London doing an audio interview that Gollancz was going to use for promotional material going forward. It was in-depth, done in a sound booth, it was pretty cool.

And the first question the interviewer asked, was “We haven’t heard from you for a few years, where have you been?”

I was staring the question in the face for the first time. I realized that as of this moment I had to be totally honest, or I would be dancing around this question for the rest of my natural life. I didn’t have it in me to spend the next 20 years getting irate at people for asking the question, so it was essentially the laziest and easiest method of self-defense.

And now I think it was the healthiest thing to do, by far. I didn’t wake up one day and decide “I’m going to tell the world about how screwed up I am in my head and my heart.” But now it allows me to say “I am what I am”.

And the e-mails I’ve got over this, hundreds of them, all point by point saying the same thing.

“I thought I was alone. I never thought that my favorite author, or someone I looked up to, would tell me that it’s okay and normal and human.”

Depression’s not a weird thing, it’s a fucking normal thing. It’s by definition not healthy, but it’s healthy to talk about it and admit that it happens.

And it’s important to know that it’s not going to stop your life and it’s not going to stop you.

UPDATE:

Since publication, there has been a lot of speculation about the release date of Thorn of Emberlain. Over the past few months many have questioned this as the book was pulled from preorder on Amazon and Lynch cancelled several Convention appearances.

Sadly, Lynch issued a statement today confirming that the fourth Gentleman Bastards novel will be delayed into 2016 due to his ongoing health issues. I want to wish him Godspeed in getting better and to let him know that his fans are supporting him. Lynch offered hope and support to others suffering from depression and anxiety disorder, and we support him as well.

Get well soon Scott, we understand and we care. Locke and Jean are great, but your heath is more important.

— Michael Senft

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
This entry was posted in Interviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Depression is a Bastard: How Scott Lynch Faced His Demons and Became a Bestseller-Updated

  1. qrparker says:

    This was a really interesting interviewing. I upvoted it on Reddit as well.

    Like

  2. hegesias says:

    Great interview. Thanks. Wish he would have shared which specific meds got him going again.

    Like

  3. hierath says:

    Reblogged this on Joanne Hall and commented:
    Marvellous interview here with the brilliant Scott Lynch talking very candidly about his depression and how it kept him from writing for several years…

    Like

  4. Reblogged this on Sophie E Tallis and commented:
    Thank you to the brilliant Joanne Hall for bringing this to my attention and to Michael Senft for this great interview. What an amazing post and one I really relate to. 🙂

    Like

  5. Reblogged this on A Pair of Tools and commented:
    I’m not Scott’s biggest fan, but this deserves to be read.

    Like

  6. Wonderful interview. Thank you for covering such an important topic, and from one of my favorite authors.

    I do not suffer from depression, but I have a close family member (and fellow fantasy fan) who does. Locke’s story in Republic of Thieves and Scott’s comments on his own experience gave us the opening we needed to start talking about what he was going through. Gentleman Bastard was one of my favorite series anyway, but now it’s gone past that to touch my life. So thank you, Scott Lynch, for your honesty and openness on such a personal topic.

    Like

  7. Andy Cowley says:

    Reblogged this on Infinite Gibbons With Infinite Typewriters and commented:
    Great piece

    Like

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  10. Tanaros says:

    Great piece. Honest and informative.

    Liked by 1 person

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