Sergei Lukyanenko is one of the most popular science fiction writers in Russia. He is best known in America and throughout the world as the creator of the Night Watch/Day Watch universe, in which human beings with supernatural powers maintain an uneasy peace in the modern world. These books became famous globally after two very successful movies, Night Watch and Day Watch, were based on them. They are, however, only a small part of the total output of this prolific author.
I interviewed Sergei in the hotel bar during a whiskey-tasting party at Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention. Translation was provided by Alexei Bezougliy.
ms: I think all that Americans know about you is that you wrote the Night Watch books. So let’s correct that. First of all, how did you get started?
lukyanenko: I started writing when I was eighteen years old, because I couldn’t manage to find the sort of book I wanted to read. So I said to myself, Why not simply write the kind of book I want to read? Then I did.
ms: How long did it take you before you were finally published?
lukyanenko: Maybe six months, maybe a couple of years. I wrote several stories, and then I showed them to my friends. One of them, without telling me, took the manuscript of one of my stories to one of the mainstream magazines. It was published. That was the beginning of my literary career.
ms: How much have you written besides the Night Watch stories?
lukyanenko: Approximately twenty-five novels and maybe several hundred short stories.
ms: Is what you write all fantasy or both science fiction and fantasy or what?
lukyanenko: It has always been very boring for me to work in just one style So I try to write fantasy, then science fiction, then maybe steampunk, cyberpunk.... Whatever seems most interesting to me at the time.
ms: When and why did you begin writing the Watch stories?
lukyanenko: I had just finished writing a space opera and a cyberpunk novel, and I was a bit tired of what I’d been doing. I decided it was high time I wrote something like a fairy tale. My publisher was very upset and tried to persuade me not to do anything like that. He told me, “Fantasy is not yours.” But I convinced him I was entitled to have some rest from space ships and computers and so on.
ms: Did they catch on immediately, or did they take a while for readers to discover them?
lukyanenko: The books were popular before the movie. Night Watch had a print run of a hundred thousand copies. The film magnified that popularity. At present, that book has sold two million copies in Russia. It was an amazing thing to experience.
ms: How did the movies come about?
lukyanenko: It was a kind of producer project. There is a famous TV executive named Konstantin Ernst who is the head of Channel One, our main television channel. He read Night Watch, and he liked it, and he wanted to make a TV series or maybe a feature film of the novels. So he contacted me.
ms: Was a television version ever made?
lukyanenko: No, just movies. There were some hot discussions what to do first. Ernst saw a potential for a television serial, and they even started preparations for one. But they put this idea aside when Timur Bekmambetov started filming.
ms: Will there ever be a third movie?
lukyanenko: Not a movie. But I’ve written scripts for a big TV series. It will be all six novels of the Watch series. They’ll all be televised.
Twentieth Century Fox started preliminary talks about making a film from the series. But nothing has been finalized. So far, it’s all talk and nothing more. Blah blah blah. (Laughs)
ms: You were famous and you were successful, and then the movies came along. Did they change your life?
lukyanenko: Well, certainly, when you suddenly have enough money to fulfill all your dreams and ambitions ... it definitely changes your life. But of course it’s impossible to make a lot of money and have a lot of success and then go to Heaven. I want to do something that will make a change in people. Something that will change people’s souls, their feelings, their lives. It’s a big adventure to create worlds that make people happy. We can’t extend the period of our lives according to our own wishes. But the writer has this amazing thing: the ability to create a new life, a new world, to live within the lives of other people. This is the main thing for me.
ms: I assume that you’re a full-time writer now.
lukyanenko: Yes, of course.
ms: What did you do before you could support yourself writing?
lukyanenko: I was a professional psychiatrist.
ms: How did you feel, leaving that job behind?
lukyanenko: I had mixed feelings. I understood that both professions demand most of your feelings, most of your capacities, and that it was impossible to combine a medical career and a writing career at the same time. I decided that I preferred writing over medicine.
ms: How has the reception been outside of Russia to your books?
lukyanenko: The best reception they’ve received in foreign countries has been in Europe in general, Germany in particular, and Italy not far behind. In the United States, they’ve gotten a kind of average reception. Not great, but not very bad either. So-so. In Britain, they did better. But the American audience doesn’t respond to foreign literature with great enthusiasm. They sold a quarter of a million copies in Great Britain, but a hundred thousand in the United States.
ms: You have six books out in the series…
lukyanenko: Six books so far. But I’ve decided to take a break from them.
[A section of the recording here was, unfortunately, impossible to transcribe.] It is important to show. I believe I’ve succeeded in this.
Quazzi. This is a word that does not exist in Russian.
ms: One last question. Is there anything you’d like to say to your American readers?
lukyanenko: Tell them that I like fantastic literature very much. I consider American science fiction and fantasy to be the very best in the world. It is difficult for me to say this, but it is a fact. I was brought up on science fiction literature and American science fiction in particular. When the Soviet Union still existed, I read Heinlein, Sheckley, Simak, and they were my favorites. When Harry Harrison visited our country, it was my privilege to escort him about. So I hold American science fiction in the highest esteem. But I hope, I think it’s imperative, that sometime in the future Russian science fiction will be in the first place and American science fiction in the second. (Laughs.)
Michael Swanwick would like to thank everybody at Roscon for their kindness and friendship.