Andrzej Sapkowski is one of the most important fantasy writers in the world. His The Witcher have revolutionized pop culture entering the collective imagination.
Andrzej Sapkowski, Polish writer, maker of the one of the most renown character in the modern fantasy literature, is a nice, sharp and talkative man.
He wrote short tales and novels about the witcher Geralt of Rivia and the world he created is dangerous, dark, violent and full of blood. Geralt is a good and a righteous man in that world, and that’s the reason why he is loved by millions of readers and gamers of the incredible videogames based on his stories.
Sugarpulp Worldwide has the huge honour to have the chance to interview Mr. Sapkowski, a cornerstone of the fantasy genre in Europe and worldwide. Let’s immediately start with the questions.
Interview with Andrzej Sapkowski by Daniele Cutali
In the Geralf of Riva saga the change in the point of view is particularly brilliant: in The Last Wish Geralt’s story is interspersed with the backbone of The Voice of Reason, which makes it a narrative masterpiece rich in characterisation.
For instance, in the first story The Hexer you used the figure of the monster to condemn incest – but Geralt isn’t exactly the purest of characters. How did you manage to concile the two aspects before reaching the final catharsis?
Let it be clear: I am not condemning anything nor anyone. I am a writer, not a preacher nor social commentator. The story The Witcher was conceived as a retelling of the Polish fairy tale. In this fairy tale the royal daughter turned to monster because of the incest of the parents, as punishment for the incest – I simply re-used the idea.
Which, if you remember, the witcher in the story declared not true – the incest was not the real cause of the transformation. And the other things you mentioned and called brilliant? Well, simply effect of hard work… and talent.
The story The Last Wtich also is a long metaphor of the teaching “be careful what you wish for”. The road to reach the fulfilment of all of Geralt’s desires seems paved with dangerous djinns – mercilessness.
And in this story we also meet for the first time the witch that will change his life forever: Yennefer of Vengerberg, who knows exactly how dangerous she can be. They fall in love with each other, but don’t you think that it’s too dangerous for Geralt wanting a woman that we know he can’t really trust?
Ha, ha, and that’s what makes the story interesting, don’t you think? Being an avid fantasy reader I was sometimes really bored and disgusted with the stories in which the hero could easily have sex with any woman he wished because every woman was willing and eager to have sex with him.
In such stories the woman was the prize of the hero, a spoil of a warrior – and as such had nothing to say, could only moan and faint in the hero’s powerful embrace. I am aware of the fact that only in contact with the opposite sex – be it attraction, affectuation, confrontation or opposition – can a literary hero be fully grown.
Creating the character of Yennefer I wanted Geralt to be fully grown – but I decided to complicate things a little. I created a woman character who simply refuses to be a fantasy cliché. And all that to please the reader.
In Sword of Destiny we find out that in Geralt’s world, like in all the best fantasy stories, there are dragons. The teaching behind this story is that there’s a limit to everything, even for powerful magic creatures such as dragons.
Why, in your world, are dragons such noble creatures that strigas can’t kill them without breaking their moral code?
First, as you can read in The Last Witch, there is no “witcher’s moral code”, at least not official nor legally binding. Geralt has created his own moral code. To avoid doing something he himself considers wrong, unethical and ignoble instead of straightforwardly refusing he uses diplomatics, saying: “My witcher’s code forbids it”.
And dragons? That’s classic fantasy: dragons are noble creatures, they are rational beings, they are unique and rare – in my books near extinction. Geralt considers killing them as wrong and does not accept such contracts, period.
Elves have always been hunted and persecuted, by all the Peoples from the North – so they strike an alliance with the Nilfgaard Empire when it starts its invasion.
Aen Seidhe and Scoia’tel, however, remain independent and refuse to submit to humans. What is the reason for this alliance, then? Is it only thirst for revenge, or is there some racism in them?
In my books elves consider themselves better than humans, physically as well as intellectually. They consider their culture and tradition more developed and complex, in their eyes humans are primitive barbarians.
Themselves not being products of the evolution, elves despise humans as “originated from animals”. You may call it racism, yes. But their alliance with Nilfgaard is mainly politics – they band together with the stronger and victorious ally and hope to gain from such alliance. The younger elves – the ones around 100 years old – are however violent hotheads believing in armed resistance, guerilla war and terrorism.
Ciri is a central figure in Il sangue degli elfi (Krew elfów) and in Time of Contempt : her story changes dramatically Geralt’s life.
Could the witcher’s obsession about the child, the wish to make her like him helping her develop her magic power, be reflecting the witcher’s wish to become a father, as we know they are sterile due to the poisons and potions they have to drink?
Of course it was the one and only reason to introduce the character of Ciri into the storyline. The whole plot has been based on an universally known fairy tale in which some monster (or sorcerer) saves somebody’s life and then demands payment: “You’ll give me what you find at home yet don’t expect”.
On this the story “Kwestia ceny” (“Una questione di prezzo”) was based, later the story “Miecz przeznaczenia” (“La spada del destino”) and later the whole Witcher series. A girl promised by destiny and fate, surrogate daughter of sterile witcher and sterile lady magician, changes the lives of both, is lost, becomes a “damsel in distress”, must be found (like Graal) and saved. Storyline as good as any other, don’t you think?
In Chrzest ognia, Geralt and Ciri end up being divided, and the girl becomes an assassin. How is it possible that her mind – and what she learned from Gerlat, Triss and Vesemir – is so weak that she could be turned so fast and so easily?
Well, I suppose here my fantasy becomes very real and lifelike. What happened to Ciri happened to hundreds of teenagers, in that number some I knew. Imagining themselves neglected and deserted, feeling rejected or cast out, they – especially if they end in bad company – turn into bad creatures, into sociopaths, into little monsters.
And – last not least – that’s me, the author, who has invented Ciri and her fate, who has invented the whole storyline, and the storyline required of Ciri to become a teenage killer. It was a stage in her rite de passage, the rite of passage.
Your first short story, The Witcher, that origined the whole Geralt saga, was published in 1986 on Fantastyka, the first fantasy magazine in Poland; how did you get to publish on Fantastyka? Have you always been interested in fantasy literature?
Me and fantasy, it was love at first sight. I remember reading Tolkien for the first time, in the sixties – Tolkien was published in Poland in the early sixties, practically at the same time as in the United States.
I was utterly enchanted. Then Ursula Le Guin with Earthsea, Roger Zelazny with Amber, Michael Moorcock with Elric of Melniboné, Jack Vance with Lyonesse, Stephen R. Donaldson with Thomas Covenant, Marion Zimmer Bradley with The Mists of Avalon. In 1985, when “Fantastyka”, then the only Polish SF magazine, announced a literary competition, I decided – till today I don’t know why – to take part and write a short story. A fantasy short story, of course. And so it started.
From that day on, there have been a series of short stories that have later been collected, and then the novels. When and how did you end up signing with the publisher that has released most of your works? When did you become a professional writer?
With my present publisher – which was my second – it was pure accident, a meeting by chance. We met, we talked – and he made me an offer. It was in 1990, if I remember well. And I became professional writer shortly afterwards, in 1995 maybe or something like that.
Geralt of Rivia is such a strong character with such a huge personality that it was obvious that he would become something big. How did you come up with him? Was he born after very precise planning or did he come up naturally to then evolve autonomously, story by story?
It was not so obvious at first. I never planned any writing career. The story The Witcher was conceived as the “one and only”, to be sent for the above mentioned literary competition. In the competition the story finished third, but after it was published it had quite an impact on Polish readers. They wanted more “witcher stories”.
So I revised my attitude and wrote some, one or two yearly, and after four years I was able to publish a collection, and after another two years a second collection. Then, having a firm base to work upon, I decided to write a real big thing, five books long classic fantasy saga, like Amber or Belgariad, something practically not existent in Polish fantasy at that time. Polish publishers at that time firmly believed that in SF and fantasy only Anglo-Saxon authors were worth publishing and guarantee sales and profits, Polish writers were too risky for them. My publisher was the only one to take that risk. Now everybody envies him.
Geralt is a witcher – he is paid to hunt monsters. In a way, he can be compared to a “regular” bounty hunter, but his training included martial artistry and a strong ethic and moral code. Do you think that the inner struggle that is born in him every time he is forced to choose not between good and evil but between right and wrong makes him more realistic more believable?
Surely I do – I have created Geralt to be exactly like that. To evoke questions you just have asked. And to make him interesting for the readers.
How such conflicts, all the shades of grey he faces, make your novels different from everything else in fantasy literature?
Maybe not from everything else – but certainly from some. I am simply of opinion – and I learned from the best – that some deeper thoughts and significant meanings are a trademark of good fantasy novels, it is what distinguishes and separates good fantasy from… Well, from fantasy in which the hero kills orcs. Then kills more orcs. Then fucks a willing female. And then kills more orcs.
Geralt’s world is dangerous and lethal, even when we ignore the monsters that liv in it. How much of our society is in The Witcher universe?
The bestiary you created is nearly alive and manages to create a general suspension of incredulity. How do you create the creatures Geralt faces? Do you take any inspiration from our reality? I can see parallels to griffons and harpies.
Generally speaking, the creatures – monsters etc. – from my writings can be categorized in three groups.
First, creatures that “exist”: in folklores, legends, mythologies or demonologies, literature, even Role Playing Games. They are classical, canonical, have classical names, appearances, habits and habitats etc. A dragon is a dragon, a griffon is a griffon, a harpy is a harpy and an unicorn an unicorn – everybody knows how they look like.
Second group: creatures that are the products of my imagination. I have invented them – but given them the names you can find in nature. Mostly insects names. Insects are horrible and scary – just look at them magnified, on blown up photos!
Third group: creatures that are the products of my imagination fully, name included. Sometimes even only the name exists, I am giving the reader very scarce (if any) information about how the monster looks like and what it does. When it has no importance as far as the storyline is concerned whatsoever, why bother?
Whether it is set in the “future middle ages” or in a remote past, magic is present in every fantasy story.
In your stories, though, it seems closer to the witchcraft for which, historically, women were burned at the stake if they were caught collecting medicinal herbs. What is magic in Geralt’s world, and where does it come from?
I am not giving the reader enough information and certainly no details, but from certain passages in the books the reader may suspect that magic appeared in this universe as the result of some disaster, some huge catastrophe called The Conjunction of the Spheres, which left the universe completely changed – one may say utterly destroyed and then resurrected.
Enough said, both magic and magic users are so important to my books and so detailfully described in them that there is no point to deliberate about it here. Read the books, you who want to know more.
Last question: do you prefer Triss Merigold or Yennefer of Vengerberg?
There is no place for preferences here. Triss and Yennefer are fictitious characters created to serve the storyline. How they look, what they do, what they say and to whom – everything serves the storyline, intertwines and interweaves with the plot.
Both ladies serve the plot and the plot only – they do not serve my preferences. Period.