2011-04-28_1725Steven Press­field is a writer of two worlds.

In one world, he’s the cel­e­brated author of The War of Art — a book that has quickly become the field man­ual for any­one engaged in cre­ative or artis­tic work of any kind, espe­cially entre­pre­neurs and writ­ers. In the other world he’s the king of all mil­i­tary epics and his­tor­i­cal sagas — a think­ing man’s Tom Clancy whose nov­els about The Bat­tle of Ther­mopy­lae, Alexan­der the Great, and The Pelo­pon­ness­ian War are favorites among grunts, gen­er­als, and lit­er­ary crit­ics alike.

war of artUnfor­tu­nately, there’s not nearly enough cross pol­li­na­tion between the two worlds. Few of Steven’s fic­tion fans have read his non-fiction, and even fewer of his non-fiction fans have read his nov­els. And if you’re read­ing this blog, you prob­a­bly fall into the lat­ter cat­e­gory, which means you’re miss­ing out, because the themes and mes­sages that have moved you from The War of Art (and now, Do The Work) res­onate through­out his novels.

But don’t take my word for it, just read the fol­low­ing e-mail inter­view that Steve was gra­cious enough to grant me, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talk­ing about:

Ques­tion 1:
At one point in The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance, the nar­ra­tor, a WWII vet, says of a Baby Boomer med­ical student/intern, Michael:
“… I found myself think­ing of ancient Greece, which had become, for it’s trou­bling par­al­lels with our own time, more and more a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of mine.  The so-called Golden Age lasted only three gen­er­a­tions.  Junah’s was the first gen­er­a­tion, the first of our Amer­i­can Golden Age.  Mine was the sec­ond; Michael’s now the third.  In Athens, Junah’s and mine would have been the gal­lant decades of Aeschy­lus and Sopho­cles, Per­i­cles and Themis­to­cles; ours would have been the glo­ries of Marathon and Ther­mopy­lae, Salamis and Artemi­sium. Michael’s would have been the bit­ter third gen­er­a­tion of Alcib­i­ades, the gen­er­a­tion of plague and empire when painted youth mocked the Mys­ter­ies and fell from the excess of their own brilliance.
This is what I feared for Michael. That his gen­er­a­tion, so strong, so well made, so bright and aware beyond its years, would com­pare itself to us in envy, envy of the clar­ity of our chal­lenges and the brutish obvi­ous­ness of our enemies.”
So the nat­ural ques­tion becomes, how has writ­ing The Pro­fes­sion either strength­ened or changed your obser­va­tion of these parallels?
Great ques­tion, Jeff.  I con­fess I hadn’t even thought about it con­sciously till you asked.  But yes, very def­i­nitely “The Pro­fes­sion” is my state­ment about that Third Age, the age of empire descend­ing.  The dif­fer­ence between an Alcib­i­ades and a Gen. Salter (in “The Pro­fes­sion”) is that the for­mer believed that he could sin­gle­hand­edly res­ur­rect the Golden Age as a reflec­tion of his own bril­liance (he couldn’t), whereas Salter has a much darker view of the arc of empire and har­bors no such illu­sions.  He’s not really a nar­ciss­sist or a mega­lo­ma­niac; he’s a man who sees empire’s rise and fall all too clearly — and con­ceives of him­self as seiz­ing the reins of power as much to pro­tect his coun­try­men from worse men as from any idea of mad ambi­tion or self-aggrandizement.
Ques­tion 2:
Many authors talk about “hear­ing the voice” of a char­ac­ter, and that once they get the voice right, every­thing sort of falls in place.  Did this hap­pen for you with The Pro­fes­sion?  Gent seems to have such an authen­tic voice, prac­ti­cally tak­ing on a life of its own in Chap­ter 3, that it almost seems as if you might have started with that?
That’s exactly right, Jeff.  Gent’s voice is the whole book.  I started with that.  Oddly enough, I met and became great friends with a real-life war­rior (who shall remain name­less for the moment) dur­ing the writ­ing of the book.  He was as close to a real-life Gent as it is pos­si­ble to come, which really helped my con­fi­dence in the char­ac­ter.  You know, it’s not too hard to envi­sion larger-than-life char­ac­ters in fic­tion set a cou­ple of mil­len­nia into the past, but doing the same in the present can be a lit­tle dicey.  So yes, “The Pro­fes­sion” started with Gent’s voice and his voice car­ries the story through all the way.
Ques­tion 3:
Which char­ac­ter formed him­self first in your mind: Salter or Gent?  And how soon after the first did it take for the other to arrive?  Also, can you speak a lit­tle bit of how the dynamic between these two char­ac­ters evolved?
Another great ques­tion.  Gent came first, then Salter right behind.  The one implied the other.  Part of Gent’s “uni­ver­sal sol­dier” ideal was his need for and loy­alty to a great leader.  The way a Mace­don­ian of the pha­lanx needed Alexan­der or a legion­naire needed Cae­sar.  The leader defines the cause for the war­rior and makes him believe in the pos­si­bil­ity of it and of his own great­ness.  But buried within that belief on the warrior’s part is the seed of becom­ing his own leader, of evolv­ing beyond the “loyal trooper” model to real­iz­ing and actu­al­iz­ing his own beliefs and his own code.  That took a long time to evolve in the writ­ing and needed some seri­ous aid from my col­league and friend, Shawn Coyne.  He made me see the char­ac­ter of Gent much more deeply than I had orig­i­nally envi­sioned him.
Ques­tion 3a: If Salter is an Alcibiades-like char­ac­ter (or Cori­olanus / Alcib­i­ades hybrid), would you char­ac­ter­ize Gent as a Tela­mon – a leader who would be “great” but whose lack of the mon­strous, pre­vents him from tak­ing those fate­ful, mon­strous acts of an Alexan­der or Cae­sar or Salter?
You hit the nail right on the nog­gin, Jeff.  I orig­i­nally con­ceived of Gent as Tela­mon (a recur­ring char­ac­ter in two of my pre­vi­ous books — a mer­ce­nary war­rior of the 5th Cen­tury B.C.) because I’ve always loved him and wanted to give him his own book.  I was curi­ous what he would say and do.  Tela­mon (and Gent) are pure war­riors, in that they fight for the fight alone, not for a flag or a cause.  In fact they despise flags and causes.  They ask, “Why is one flag bet­ter than another, or one cause?”  And of course they aren’t?
Gent/Telamon are ronin Samu­rai.  They’re adher­ents to the dark code of the iso­lated war­rior, for whom all causes and dreams have proved false over cen­turies and who now serve the god of war alone, Ares (or Eris, strife.)  And you’re right, they lack the ele­ment of the mon­strous, to their credit, so they remain grounded and in their own way moral and good.  They’re like the seven samu­rai in the Kuro­sawa movie of the same name, who fight and die only for their broth­ers and the peas­ants whose vil­lage they couldn’t find on a map — and for a bowl of rice if they’re lucky enough to get it.
Ques­tion 4:
Can you talk about the notion, fea­tured in the book, of “the inter­sec­tion of neces­sity and free will”?  The only time I’ve heard any kind of phrase like that before is from C.S. Lewis in describ­ing his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity.  Can you explain how Salter see this and also, if you feel sim­i­larly, how you see it?
Actu­ally I stole that phrase from myself, from “Tides of War,” in which it appears as Alcib­i­ades’ phi­los­o­phy.  Salter under­stands the arc of empire, in the sense that as a nation like the United States recedes from its apogee of great­ness, cer­tain darker polit­i­cal strains will appear, like the polar­iza­tion we’re see­ing today, like the reluc­tance of society’s youth to serve any­thing grander than their own ambi­tion, and so forth.  That’s Neces­sity.  The republic–any republic–is trapped in it.  As empires decline, we see time after time the increased employ­ment of mer­ce­nar­ies, the rise in pop­u­lar­ity of blood sports, a decline in tra­di­tional morals, etc.  So that arc is fixed.  But at the same time, the actions of a great man can, if not deflect this arc, then at least align them­selves with it and ride the tiger.  That’s free will.  Alcib­i­ades believed he could manip­u­late Neces­sity by the use of his will (though he, being Greek, saw it in terms of win­ning the favor and inter­ces­sion of the gods).  Salter knows bet­ter than that.  His view is more Thucy­didean and darker.  He sees human nature as unchange­able.  He’s try­ing to align with the imper­a­tives of his­tory and enact them as best he can — and bet­ter for the nation than other, lesser men might enact them.
Ques­tion 5:
“I fight for money. Why? Because gold purges van­ity and self-importance from the fight. Shall we lay down our lives, you and I, for a flag, a tribe, a notion of the Almighty? I did, once. No more. My gods are now Ares and Eris. Strife. I fight for the fight itself. Pay me. Pay my brother.”
This para­graph, taken from the first chap­ter of the novel, intro­duces us to Gent and the idea of wide­spread use of whole-scale mer­ce­nary armies.  And also gives us Gent’s self-identity as both a mer­ce­nary and a war­rior.  And it also bears an incred­i­bly strong resem­blance to the idea, expressed in The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance and The War of Art and Do The Work, of doing the work as a pure act, purged from hopes, ego, desire for fame, etc.  Doing the work for the work. And yet, this con­cep­tion seems to fail the larger test within the scope of the novel: a fight is always a fight over some­thing larger than the fight itself; in the end, power is exer­cised towards ends.  Can you talk a bit about that?
Another great obser­va­tion, Jeff.  And I didn’t real­ize this myself till I was into the 13th or 14th draft of the book, influ­enced by my friend Shawn.  The rea­son the code of fighting-for-the-fight-alone is so dark is that it’s spawned from despair, the despair of the real­iza­tion that soci­ety as a whole has lost its ideals and the once-noble vision that for­merly sus­tained it.  A fight, as you say, “is always over some­thing.”  That’s the eth­i­cal dimen­sion that Gent comes to embrace in the end and that every artist, if he’s going to be true to his art, has to embrace and embody in his work.  If you think back to “The Seven Samu­rai,” what makes them great in the end is that they gave up their “fight only for the fight” men­tal­ity and really embraced the needs and des­per­a­tion of the vil­lagers who had hired them.  That’s what the Toshiru Mifune char­ac­ter does for the oth­ers.  He’s not a “real” samu­rai (ronin would be the proper word, mean­ing “mas­ter­less samuria” — in other words, dis­pos­sessed war­riors who have lost their orig­i­nal code and had to cob­ble together a sub­sti­tute out of courage, skill, etc. bereft of an over­ar­ch­ing ideal of ser­vice) and so he’s free to really care about the farm­ers and the chil­dren and the wives.  That’s what makes him great and also what kills him.  So yes, you’re absolutely right.  The war­rior code needs to be informed by an ideal of virtue greater than the fight itself.

Ques­tion 1: At one point in The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance, the nar­ra­tor, a WWII vet, says of a Baby Boomer med­ical student/intern, Michael:

… I found myself think­ing of ancient Greece, which had become, for it’s trou­bling par­al­lels with our own time, more and more a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of mine.  The so-called Golden Age lasted only three gen­er­a­tions.  Junah’s was the first gen­er­a­tion, the first of our Amer­i­can Golden Age.  Mine was the sec­ond; Michael’s now the third.  In Athens, Junah’s and mine would have been the gal­lant decades of Aeschy­lus and Sopho­cles, Per­i­cles and Themis­to­cles; ours would have been the glo­ries of Marathon and Ther­mopy­lae, Salamis and Artemi­sium. Michael’s would have been the bit­ter third gen­er­a­tion of Alcib­i­ades, the gen­er­a­tion of plague and empire when painted youth mocked the Mys­ter­ies and fell from the excess of their own brilliance.

This is what I feared for Michael. That his gen­er­a­tion, so strong, so well made, so bright and aware beyond its years, would com­pare itself to us in envy, envy of the clar­ity of our chal­lenges and the brutish obvi­ous­ness of our enemies.”

Also, on your blog and in your book, Do The Work, you have been very open about ini­tially set­ting The Pro­fes­sion much closer to current-day times than it ended up.  That, in fact, mov­ing the story fur­ther out to the future was nec­es­sary to keep read­ers from feel­ing the par­al­lels too keenly to main­tain their “will­ing sus­pen­sion of disbelief.”

So the nat­ural ques­tion becomes, how has writ­ing The Pro­fes­sion either strength­ened or changed your obser­va­tion of these parallels?

Steve’s Answer:

Great ques­tion, Jeff.  I con­fess I hadn’t even thought about it con­sciously till you asked.  But yes, very def­i­nitely “The Pro­fes­sion” is my state­ment about that Third Age, the age of empire descend­ing.  The dif­fer­ence between an Alcib­i­ades and a Gen. Salter (in “The Pro­fes­sion”) is that the for­mer believed that he could sin­gle­hand­edly res­ur­rect the Golden Age as a reflec­tion of his own bril­liance (he couldn’t), whereas Salter has a much darker view of the arc of empire and har­bors no such illu­sions.  He’s not really a nar­ciss­sist or a mega­lo­ma­niac; he’s a man who sees empire’s rise and fall all too clearly — and con­ceives of him­self as seiz­ing the reins of power as much to pro­tect his coun­try­men from worse men as from any idea of mad ambi­tion or self-aggrandizement.

Ques­tion 2: Many authors talk about “hear­ing the voice” of a char­ac­ter, and that once they get the voice right, every­thing sort of falls in place. Did this hap­pen for you with The Pro­fes­sion?  Gent seems to have such an authen­tic voice, prac­ti­cally tak­ing on a life of its own in Chap­ter 3, that it almost seems as if you might have started with that?

Steve’s Answer:

That’s exactly right, Jeff.  Gent’s voice is the whole book.  I started with that.  Oddly enough, I met and became great friends with a real-life war­rior (who shall remain name­less for the moment) dur­ing the writ­ing of the book.  He was as close to a real-life Gent as it is pos­si­ble to come, which really helped my con­fi­dence in the char­ac­ter.  You know, it’s not too hard to envi­sion larger-than-life char­ac­ters in fic­tion set a cou­ple of mil­len­nia into the past, but doing the same in the present can be a lit­tle dicey.  So yes, “The Pro­fes­sion” started with Gent’s voice and his voice car­ries the story through all the way.

Ques­tion 3: Which char­ac­ter formed him­self first in your mind: Salter or Gent?  And how soon after the first did it take for the other to arrive?  Also, can you speak a lit­tle bit of how the dynamic between these two char­ac­ters evolved?

Another great ques­tion.  Gent came first, then Salter right behind.  The one implied the other.  Part of Gent’s “uni­ver­sal sol­dier” ideal was his need for and loy­alty to a great leader.  The way a Mace­don­ian of the pha­lanx needed Alexan­der or a legion­naire needed Cae­sar.  The leader defines the cause for the war­rior and makes him believe in the pos­si­bil­ity of it and of his own great­ness.  But buried within that belief on the warrior’s part is the seed of becom­ing his own leader, of evolv­ing beyond the “loyal trooper” model to real­iz­ing and actu­al­iz­ing his own beliefs and his own code.  That took a long time to evolve in the writ­ing and needed some seri­ous aid from my col­league and friend, Shawn Coyne.  He made me see the char­ac­ter of Gent much more deeply than I had orig­i­nally envi­sioned him.

Ques­tion 3a: If Salter is an Alcib­i­ades–like char­ac­ter (or Cori­olanus / Alcib­i­ades hybrid), would you char­ac­ter­ize Gent as a Tela­mon – a leader who would be “great” but whose lack of the mon­strous pre­vents him from tak­ing those fate­ful, mon­strous acts of an Alexan­der or Cae­sar or Salter?

Steve’s Answer:

You hit the nail right on the nog­gin, Jeff.  I orig­i­nally con­ceived of Gent as Tela­mon (a recur­ring char­ac­ter in two of my pre­vi­ous books — a mer­ce­nary war­rior of the 5th Cen­tury B.C.) because I’ve always loved him and wanted to give him his own book.  I was curi­ous what he would say and do.  Tela­mon (and Gent) are pure war­riors, in that they fight for the fight alone, not for a flag or a cause.  In fact they despise flags and causes.  They ask, “Why is one flag bet­ter than another, or one cause?”  And of course they aren’t?

Gent/Telamon are ronin Samu­rai.  They’re adher­ents to the dark code of the iso­lated war­rior, for whom all causes and dreams have proved false over cen­turies and who now serve the god of war alone, Ares (or Eris, strife.)  And you’re right, they lack the ele­ment of the mon­strous, to their credit, so they remain grounded and in their own way moral and good.  They’re like the seven samu­rai in the Kuro­sawa movie of the same name, who fight and die only for their broth­ers and the peas­ants whose vil­lage they couldn’t find on a map — and for a bowl of rice if they’re lucky enough to get it.

Ques­tion 4: Can you talk about the notion, fea­tured in the book, of “the inter­sec­tion of neces­sity and free will”?  The only time I’ve heard any kind of phrase like that before is from C.S. Lewis in describ­ing his con­ver­sion to Chris­tian­ity.  Can you explain how Salter see this and also, if you feel sim­i­larly, how you see it?

Actu­ally I stole that phrase from myself, from “Tides of War,” in which it appears as Alcib­i­ades’ phi­los­o­phy.  Salter under­stands the arc of empire, in the sense that as a nation like the United States recedes from its apogee of great­ness, cer­tain darker polit­i­cal strains will appear, like the polar­iza­tion we’re see­ing today, like the reluc­tance of society’s youth to serve any­thing grander than their own ambi­tion, and so forth.  That’s Neces­sity.  The republic–any republic–is trapped in it.  As empires decline, we see time after time the increased employ­ment of mer­ce­nar­ies, the rise in pop­u­lar­ity of blood sports, a decline in tra­di­tional morals, etc.  So that arc is fixed.  But at the same time, the actions of a great man can, if not deflect this arc, then at least align them­selves with it and ride the tiger.  That’s free will.  Alcib­i­ades believed he could manip­u­late Neces­sity by the use of his will (though he, being Greek, saw it in terms of win­ning the favor and inter­ces­sion of the gods).  Salter knows bet­ter than that.  His view is more Thucy­didean and darker.  He sees human nature as unchange­able.  He’s try­ing to align with the imper­a­tives of his­tory and enact them as best he can — and bet­ter for the nation than other, lesser men might enact them.

Ques­tion 5: “I fight for money. Why? Because gold purges van­ity and self-importance from the fight. Shall we lay down our lives, you and I, for a flag, a tribe, a notion of the Almighty? I did, once. No more. My gods are now Ares and Eris. Strife. I fight for the fight itself. Pay me. Pay my brother.”

This para­graph, taken from the first chap­ter of the novel, intro­duces us to Gent and the idea of wide­spread use of whole-scale mer­ce­nary armies.  And also gives us Gent’s self-identity as both a mer­ce­nary and a war­rior.  And it also bears an incred­i­bly strong resem­blance to the idea, expressed in The Leg­end of Bag­ger Vance and The War of Art and Do The Work, of doing the work as a pure act, purged from hopes, ego, desire for fame, etc.  Doing the work for the work. And yet, this con­cep­tion seems to fail the larger test within the scope of the novel: a fight is always a fight over some­thing larger than the fight itself; in the end, power is exer­cised towards ends.  Can you talk a bit about that?

Another great obser­va­tion, Jeff.  And I didn’t real­ize this myself till I was into the 13th or 14th draft of the book, influ­enced by my friend Shawn.  The rea­son the code of fighting-for-the-fight-alone is so dark is that it’s spawned from despair, the despair of the real­iza­tion that soci­ety as a whole has lost its ideals and the once-noble vision that for­merly sus­tained it.  A fight, as you say, “is always over some­thing.”  That’s the eth­i­cal dimen­sion that Gent comes to embrace in the end and that every artist, if he’s going to be true to his art, has to embrace and embody in his work.  If you think back to “The Seven Samu­rai,” what makes them great in the end is that they gave up their “fight only for the fight” men­tal­ity and really embraced the needs and des­per­a­tion of the vil­lagers who had hired them.  That’s what the Toshiru Mifune char­ac­ter does for the oth­ers.  He’s not a “real” samu­rai (ronin would be the proper word, mean­ing “mas­ter­less samuria” — in other words, dis­pos­sessed war­riors who have lost their orig­i­nal code and had to cob­ble together a sub­sti­tute out of courage, skill, etc. bereft of an over­ar­ch­ing ideal of ser­vice) and so he’s free to really care about the farm­ers and the chil­dren and the wives.  That’s what makes him great and also what kills him.  So yes, you’re absolutely right.  The war­rior code needs to be informed by an ideal of virtue greater than the fight itself.

And that’s it folks.  I leave you with two things:

1) A spe­cial thanks to Steven Press­field for his books and for this inter­view, and

2) This trailer for The Seven Samu­rai:

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