Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire, a novel of the Battle of Thermopylae which has sold more than a million copies. In this interview we discuss the warrior archetype, redemption, the creative process, and his latest novel, A Man at Arms. You can learn more about Steven and his books at www.StevenPressfield.com
Brendan Carr: Telamon of Arcadia is a mercenary in your newest book, A Man at Arms. What are you saying about warriors by making your archetypal warrior into a mercenary?
Steven Pressfield: What I was hoping to do as far as characterizing Telamon was to present him as a guy who exhausted the warrior archetype. He fought under flags that he believed in, fought for commanders he believed in, and had that come to naught. He committed crimes and he committed honorable acts. But he was still a warrior, he was not going to leave that aspect of it and that brought him to become a soldier for hire, a man at arms. He was in it for the fight alone, like a samurai when they no longer fought for a particular noble house but were just freelance guys who were cast out on the road. In other words, it’s a dark place for him to be. I’m not holding that up as an ideal. In my mind, it’s the stage that a warrior or a hero is in when he’s trying to find his way and hasn’t found it yet, a kind of a lost place. That was why I made him a mercenary.
B.C.: You’ve been wanting to write a book about Telamon for a while. What is it that draws you to him?
S.P.: That’s a great question! I feel like he’s a bit of an alter ego for me as a writer. The way he views himself as a soldier, he’s in it for the fight alone. He’s not in it for the money although he’s a mercenary. We don’t know what he does with his money, but he doesn’t have anything except the clothes on his back. It’s not like he’s getting rich; the money is really just an excuse for him. It’s a way to keep a distance between himself and his commander’s ambition. He says, “I’m just doing it for the money,” but he’s in it for the fight alone. I’m kind of in writing for the work alone. So, I think that’s one of the reasons why he appeals to me. He also has a kind of a dark view of life and I do too.
B.C.: And lost characters are often depicted alongside a redemptive character. How did you develop the character of the young girl, Ruth, in your story?
S.P.: I very much did that on purpose with the idea of juxtaposing archetypal characters on my mind. I knew for years that I wanted to do a book that was only about Telamon because I was curious about where he would go after appearing in two other books of mine. He was in The Virtues of War and Tides of War and I was fascinated by his odyssey, but I couldn’t find a story for years. I would take a shot at an outline asking, “What if I set him in Britain in the year 22 or something?” When I finally thought of this character of the young girl, it made a great dynamic of different archetypes. An innocent girl, that’s sort of the virgin archetype, and then this warrior archetype together created a lot of interesting tension and chances for growth on both sides as they interact with each other.
B.C.: What draws you to Carl Jung’s archetypes? And how can writers use them?
S.P.: Let’s talk about the archetypes for a second. The archetypes of the collective unconscious are these super personalities that we’re born with and that are Types, capital T, like the Wise Man, the Warrior, the Virgin, the Divine Child, like Jesus or Krishna. There are many archetypes and I believe that we don’t realize it but we’re being powered by them. Speaking of the Warrior archetype, when a young man and I think a young woman, too, hits the age of 12, 13, 14 they can feel that sort of thing. They’re not aware of it, but a young guy wants to try out for the football team, wants to drive fast, wants to hang out with his homies. We think we’re choosing that but we’re not, we’re being driven by archetypes.
Back to writing, a really interesting way to power a scene is to have a clash of archetypes. I’ve been watching Game of Thrones and last night one of the scenes showed the young girl Arya Stark serving as a cupbearer to her worst enemy, Lord Tywin Lannister. The scene between the two of them is great scene because of the two archetypes. A better thing might be Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker. A young Warrior archetype and the Sage archetype, and there’s a lot of great energy when you do that in a scene. If you look at practically any great movie or book, the characters are almost always archetypes. Think about the major characters of The Godfather and their enemies, the five families, they’re all archetypes. That gives the story its power.
I’m also a big believer in just reading great stuff and watching great movies if you look at them through the lens of the archetypes to educate yourself. For example, with To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch is sort of the archetype of the Knight, the upright and honorable man. The other characters are archetypes too. Try to educate yourself that way. Of course, you want to create nuanced real characters, but I do think that what gives characters power is that sort of archetypal energy.
B.C.: After writing several non-fiction books, you’re returning to the craft of writing historical fiction. How do you make history feel so real in your books?
S.P.: It’s the imagination. It’s trying to imagine yourself back in that world, whatever world it may be. Arthur Golden, a Jewish male writer, wrote this wonderful book Memoirs of a Geisha. It was a bestseller. Basically, he beamed himself in imagination back into the mind of a Japanese geisha female courtesan in the 1930s and when you read it you completely believe everything. So, I think he did a lot of research, he found out all the details of what the true world was like, but then he just used his imagination. In a way, that’s a quality of any storyteller. When we were kids, if we got caught by our mom stealing something or caught by the principal, we would stand in front of the principal and just lie like a son of a bitch, right? So, it’s that quality of imagination, which is a lot of the fun of it. I wish I could get in a time machine and go back to ancient Athens and see what it was like to walk out in the morning and talk to people, but I can’t. So, I do it in my imagination and try to write with that.
B.C.: How do you choose what projects to pursue?
S.P.: I’m a believer in the Muse. I believe that it inspires from some other dimension of reality and I never really know what the next project is going to be. I tune into the cosmic radio station and receive my assignment. I’m always looking for something that’s going to make me stretch a little bit, something I haven’t done before. I certainly don’t want to repeat myself, but usually when an idea comes, it’s a surprise. That’s why I’ve been bouncing back and forth between things that are about the creative process like The War of Art and novels like A Man at Arms. I never know what’s coming next, but I know when I look back over the progression it all makes sense in some crazy way. Look at the whole through line in Bruce Springsteen’s albums and there’s definitely an evolution. It’s the same theme he’s obviously obsessed with. He’s evolving and treating them in deeper and more nuanced ways.
B.C.: When you are writing, what does that process look like?
S.P.: I have two ways of approaching it. One is a very blue-collar way, I have a saying, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be,” which means you sit at the keyboard and just show up every day. The other half is that I’m definitely a believer in the Muse and that you get inspiration and that when you’re working well you don’t even know what you’re doing. You go into another state of mind and you’re channeling stuff. What I’m trying to do as a writer when I’m actually sitting down at the keys is to get out of my own way, get my ego out of it completely, and even get my identity out of it. I’m in a state of imagination and in a very real sense I think you start to see the story that you’re telling and you’re guided by your own instincts. From my experience in the Marine Corps, I have a sense of what men are like in the field, what the humor is like and how everything goes wrong. It’s kind of a mysterious thing, getting into a state where you partly surrender your own control over to what’s going to come out on the page, but at the same time you’re bouncing between your right brain and left brain. You’re trying to control it a little and if the scene starts going in the wrong direction you try to rein it back a little bit and remember where you want it to go. I know it’s kind of a vague answer.
B.C.: Interpreting the Muse is obviously a big part of your process. How do you discern what’s coming to you?
S.P.: I always keep a file I call “new ideas.” Let’s say I’m working on A Man at Arms, I’m constantly looking out in my head for what’s next. I’ll have a bunch of candidates in my “new ideas” file, maybe a movie that I want to do, or a small book I want to try, or a video series, or a collaboration. I’ll put all those things down and check in with them from time to time and ask myself, “Does this make sense? Could I do two years of my life on this particular project?” At times I’ve found that at first an idea leaves me cold, but sometimes it takes quite a while for things to sink in. Actually, the next project that I’m going to do is an autobiographical project. But here’s the interesting thing, my girlfriend Diana urged me to do this and I’ve been resisting it for months. But little by little I recognized that as my own Resistance with a capital R, meaning that it’s a good idea and I’m afraid of it. I’m putting up this self-sabotage in my mind. It took me six months, but I finally bought into the idea and I am going to do it. This might be a bomb. I might spend two or three years and it might just totally lay there, but I’m at the stage where I’m willing to take that chance. It’s a challenge and I want to give it a shot. I ask myself, “Do I really want to work on this thing for another day?” I recognize my own Resistance there because I’ve seen it enough in my 50 years in this racket. So, I say to myself, “Okay, let me push through it.”
Another big thing for me is dreams. I’m a big believer in paying attention to your dreams because it’s coming from your unconscious. It’s coming from that deep source that knows you better than you know yourself. Paying attention to your dreams is an amazing practice that people don’t necessarily pick up very often. I’m a child of the 60s, and certainly a number of different friends have sat me down and given me the talk about paying attention to your dreams. I’ve tried it enough in my own life and it’s worked a bunch of times. Dreams have steadied me on a course, but when I was doubtful a dream would tell me to keep going too. It’s worked for me.
B.C.: What advice do you have for writers contemplating big projects, such as a work of historical fiction?
S.P.: In my book The War of Art I talk about this concept of Resistance with a capital R. Resistance in my definition is that negative voice we hear in our heads that tells us we shouldn’t do this project. As I plan my next book, I’m getting this voice in my head saying, “This is a dumb idea. Nobody’s gonna care about this. It’s been done a million times. You’re going to look like an idiot.” That’s the voice of Resistance and one of the laws of Resistance that I have found over the years is that the more Resistance we feel to a project the more important that project is to the evolution of our soul. So, big Resistance equals big idea. In other words, if you’re feeling a lot of Resistance to something, that’s a good sign. The analogy I make is to think of a dream that we have for a project as a tree in the middle of a meadow on a sunny day. As soon as that tree goes up the tree is going to cast a shadow. That shadow is Resistance, but there would be no shadow if there wasn’t a tree first. So, Resistance always comes second. When we’re feeling big Resistance it’s because there’s a big dream. In the project I’m working on I’m using that to encourage myself, because I say, “Oh, if I’m feeling that much Resistance this project must be important to me.” There’s really no substitute in this case for willpower and whatever it takes for each of us to find his or her way to work through something like that. Some of us hit it head on, some use kind of a jiu-jitsu method, but somehow, we’ve got to find a way to get through that Resistance and keep working.
So, if you’re feeling big resistance, that’s a good sign. If you’re very much afraid of something, that’s a good sign.
CHEST Magazine reviewed Pressfield’s A Man At Arms here.