An Interview with Karen Traviss
Frost: How did your experiences with government, with the RN
auxiliary and Territorial Army shape your perspective on Shan Frankland
and on the persona of the reporter Eddie Michallat?
Karen Traviss: I create all the characters
from scratch (real people with the serial numbers filed off aren't fiction,
and they're not fun) but real life incidents and cultural tendencies
do underpin the books. Maybe warped is more accurate than shaped, because
my working past has bent me well out of shape, I can tell you. But it's
more about events than the personas. Eddie doesn't respond like me at
all when I put him in some positions I've been in, and in others he
does. I've found he's been therapy for me in examining what responsible
reporting actually means.
In all my books, including the Star Wars ones, the incidents -- and
the reaction of governments and individuals to them -- have their roots
in real ones. Some really are real. I think it's come as a surprise
to some readers who've managed to avoid the mire of working in that
kind of environment that cock-up is far more common than conspiracy.
Trust me -- and if you do, then you've not been listening carefully
enough -- when I say that I've got a PhD in examining balls-ups, both
to expose them and to stop journalists like me finding out about them.
People in big important jobs do stupid things. Then they try to cover
them up, which is even more stupid. Real Machiavellian planning from
start to stop is rare. More often than not it springs from arse-covering
and panic. Military kit doesn't always work and soldiers die because
some desk-jockey didn't do their job right, even down to not working
out that troops can freeze to death if you don't issue cold weather
kit. And yes, scientists are not all clever, responsible and motivated
by the purity of knowledge. And journalists are often in denial, irresponsible
or blissfully ignorant about the role they play in events: it's what
Eddie Michallat calls "quantum reporting" -- the act of observing changes
What makes this Reign of the Bureau-Morons interesting is when humans
-- whose tendency is to treat knowledge as a currency -- meet cultures
who have a radically different mindset on everything; ownership of knowledge,
sanctity of life, guilt and responsibility, and even the concept of
We do not play well together.
GF: Okay, so you say
"it's more about events than personas." I was on a convention panel
recently with Jack McDevitt and Judith Berman, where the ostensible
topic was "plot-driven vs. character-driven" and we immediately dismantled
this approach as just wrong-headed. Judith approached it by splitting
fiction into "idea stories, where the characters might in effect be
interchangeable -- that is, not essential for the story to happen" and
"character-in-a-situation stories, where the specific character must
be there or the story would not happen." If you take that frame of reference,
then, do you see the wess'har books as the former or the latter?
KT: Ooh, don't start me off on character
v plot. Characters drive plots. If your plot drives your characters,
you need to download Causality Service Pack 2. Plot is what characters
do. If you build your characters right, you need never worry about another
plot ever again. You just let your cast loose and they do the rest.
I think of it as a computer model; once I realised that, and that I
had to take my hands off the steering wheel, it made all the difference.
I might be talking through my hat here, because I don't read -- I've
never made any secret of the fact that I hate reading. Maybe there are
purely plot-driven books that are terrific. All I know is that I don't
know how to write one.
If you like the kind of story that's more events and ideas, fine by
me, but my market research (boring, ain't I?) suggested that readers
keep buying books by an author because they like the characters and
the worldbuilding, and half the time they don't recall the plot detail.
Characters let you immerse in the story.
I'm fanatical about getting into characters' heads -- thinking how
they think and what they think -- even when it's repellent to me or
just plain weird. I get mail from readers who say they find themselves
thinking in the POV of a character and it just hijacks them, and sometimes
it disturbs them because they're thinking thoughts they never wanted
to. (Hey, no refunds, okay?) That's the idea: I want you to really,
really feel what it is to be a cloned soldier or a washed-up mercenary
or a desperately lonely alien or a ruthless bitch or a mediocre officer
out of her depth who's making it up as she goes along. Writing characters
has the same personality-shift effect on me as it does the reader --
I'm not immune. If someone doesn't know what I think as Traviss, K.,
then they won't guess it from my books. That's not what I'm there for.
Like I say, I have one groove, and that's reporting. Everyone has their
right of reply in my books, even people I'd shoot on sight in real life.
See? I can be liberal if I try.
GF: You've blogged
on the way you write and your approach to the business and logistics
of writing does seem a little extreme. Are you trying to scare off aspiring
KT: No, I'm just a loony, and a very
impatient loony at that.
Writing fiction is part of the entertainment industry. I don't see
it as art: it's a business, even if I'd rather write than do anything
else. I'm pretty damn sure that if I hadn't treated it as a business
-- five-year plans, workflow, market research, project management --
then I'd still be humming and hawing about starting my first novel now
Writing fiction is the third career I've had, and I'm not getting any
younger. This sounds crazy, but I needed -- in my own head -- to "catch
up" to the point where I would have been if I'd been writing all my
life. If you've had a high-octane job, then starting over from the bottom
in a new field does make you nervous. You want that solidity back, the
sense of having a critical mass of achievement behind you. It wasn't
so bad when I went from news journalism to political spin doctoring,
because all you're doing there is jumping the fence and looking back
at yourself, poacher turned gamekeeper: and I went into that at a management
level, so I had less catching up to do.
But when I drew up my first five year plan for fiction -- I know, it
sounds horribly soviet, but it's an effective tool to focus yourself
-- I had 25 years of not writing to explain away to my ego. How many
books does the average writer churn out? Maybe it's one every two or
three years, allowing for all genres. I did the maths on my fingers.
I'm a fast writer, so I pounded away and I have -- at the time of writing
-- eleven books either on the shelves or due out by 2008: that's been
since 2004. So eleven times two or three years is 22 or 33 -- voila,
instant career! I caught up, at least in my own head. Job done. I feel
satisfied now. I can die happy. My biggest fear was that I left it too
late in life, and fear of running out of time is a powerful motivator.
I write every day, and all day, except when I physically can't manage
to type. (Then I grab a pen.) I mean at least 12 hours a day, often
16 to 20. I usually end up with between 5K and 10K words each day post-deletions;
but I found my physical limit in writing Matriarch, which I changed
so many times in three months that I ended up writing 36,000 words in
48 hours, and feeling like crap afterwards. My shoulders can't take
it. I'm doing the equivalent of four books a year, which should be comfortable
for me if I didn't keep going off on tangential ideas, plus short fiction
and related features. But I've worked out now that my optimum is a 150K
book in five or six weeks. Any longer, and I just keep rewriting it;
any faster and my shoulders give out.
Note that I don't say that tiredness is a problem. Tiredness, I've
found, is my friend. Fatigue strips away my inhibitions and I write
much more vivid and emotional stuff under the influence of exhaustion;
it's the same logic behind interrogating people using sleep deprivation.
I'll tell you anything. So I do it deliberately now. If I feel what
I've just written hasn't got that certain something, I'll delete it
and work through without sleeping until I hit the zone. Yes, I know
this is bad for my health. Yes, I'm stupid. But it works, and I love
it. I'm a lot more tolerant now of people who abuse substances. I can't
help feeling we're both doing the same thing, except I get paid for
Four books a year, 12 hours a day until your shoulders give out on you.
Are you working, then, from extensive outlines made in advance, or are
you outlining in the morning and then writing it in the afternoon...or...well,
just what is your secret?
KT: It's only pain. I'm from Portsmouth!
We're all well 'ard, you see. Seriously, I just write. Apart from the
formal outlines I have to do to get publishers to send me the money,
I don't really outline any longer. I binned the three by five cards
and whiteboards. (Taps head: "Eet eez all up here! In mein arse!") I
just type and I don't stop until I'm finished -- usually in the sequence
of opening scene, end scene, plot pivot scenes and then back to the
start and infill.
Half my problem is that the longer I have to do a book, the more versions
I write, and I don't mean careful revision. I mean ooh-I've-got-a-great-new-idea-let's-rip-up-the-last-version.
I need a time corset to stop me doing that or I'd be blathering on until
My secret is that I'm prepared to accept no life and the impact it
has on my health as the price for doing what I like best and making
up for lost time. Lots of people have to put up with no life and poor
health doing a job they hate, so what have I got to gripe about?
GF: So then what's
the biggest hurdle for you?
KT: My big barrier in writing was letting
go. Journos are trained to detach. Whatever the trend for more subjective
reporting these days, hacks of my generation were conditioned to stand
back. But the worst thing you can do in fiction is detach -- to reach
the reader through the distance of a book, you have to use really vivid
colours when you write and get into characters' heads and feel everything.
Otherwise it's just writing words, not storytelling. It took me a while
to do that and not feel guilty.
And I wasn't sure I would actually find my own voice. I was used to
writing anything in any style, whatever was called for. Like most journos,
I can mimic any style, fiction or non-fiction. I know how to write in
someone's voice, too, because I wrote presenters' scripts when I was
a TV producer and you have to be able to capture someone's style of
speaking if they're not going to stumble through the autocue as if they're
reading a foreign language.
So the temptation for me was to style-wank, and just indulge in language,
but it felt thin and superficial to me. In the end, I aimed for no style
-- which sounds weird, but if a reader notices my style and not the
story, then I've failed. I want to be invisible as an author, at least
in the book. This is going to sound arrogant, but less really is more,
and you have to know your craft first to be able to strip down your
style to its basics. No frills; just something that pulls the reader
through the story and doesn't distract them.
Most readers get that and by the end of the book they realise why I
did it. I had one Eng lit student think I didn't use big words because
I didn't know any, because they couldn't imagine a writer not using
their whole armoury. But it's about balance -- enough to make the point
and no more.
Okay, I'm new to writing fiction, I know that. But I've been writing
for a living for...er...okay, more than 30 years. You get to know what
GF: I've told students
-- based on a comment of Justin Cronin's -- that if they want to write
good fiction, they should write, solidly, daily, for ten years. And
here you come saying "thirty." I think I'll stick with Cronin.
KT: Well, no, I said thirty years was
the equivalent time I felt I had to make up personally when I changed
careers. I'm saying that you can do the opposite if that's the way you're
wired. Actually, it doesn't matter how long you take to do it; you can
write a book in 20 days or twenty years, and it's got no bearing on
the finished product. Everyone's got their own pace. I'm just telling
folks how I went from my first novel to a full-time career in one year.
You can wait to get lucky and have the block-buster, or you can get
writing. Nobody held a gun to my head and made me do it, but if you
decide on a career, you have to ask how important it is to you and what
you're prepared to give up to get it. I gave up everything: but I got
plenty back, too. I can't complain. Good deal, if you ask me.
GF: The wess'har
wars books were obviously begun as a series -- that is, you deliver
the sense of a long story coming. For someone who might be contemplating
tackling a series, how did you approach the notion of writing a series
vs., say, a single book like a Star Wars book where you know the story
wraps in one volume?
KT: Well, I don't wrap up any book in
one volume, and when I started writing I knew I would want to do series.
I admit I can't face completely ending a book. When I wrote Hard
Contact for Lucasfilm, I decided to set it up for sequels if they
wanted them, and, well, that's just what happened. I'm a journo. A story
is never finished. It's just awaiting a follow-up. I create a huge backstory,
map the characters out from birth to death and -- in the case of Star
Wars -- I even developed a fully-functioning language that fans are
learning. (Now that was wonderful fun. Where else could I get to do
that?) I know I bang on about this technique, but I'm reporting: so
I need to know as much as I can about a universe, in which case it's
not going to be a standalone.
Even my short fiction has sequels. Seriously. I'm not even sure how
to spell THE END. Thank the Lord for spellchecker, eh?
GF: How much did you
sketch out in advance the sequels up the line? How does a writer keep
from discovering in book 4 that she needed to reveal something in book
1, and, oh, damn, it's too late now?
KT: I do a main story arc and accept
that some detail might not work out as I planned, because the characters
run the plot. So my outlines don't resemble the finished novel -- Matriarch,
book 4 of the wess'har wars series, is a perfect example. The
characters were heading a certain way and I thought, "Okay, I'll do
whatever you want, just get on with it..." and abandoned the outline.
I'm lucky that I have an editor who trusts me to do that.
With Star Wars books, the outline has to be agreed by Lucasfilm, because
deviating from it without warning screws up a lot of other people when
you're working in a shared universe. But even then I'm able to call
LFL and Del Rey -- or the other authors if I'm on a joint series --
and say, "Look, this part of the outline -- it just isn't gelling, so
can I change it to this?"
here's another wonderful part of the craft that Star Wars has taught
me -- retcon, retroactive continuity. It's impossible to avoid the need
to do that in a big, complex, shared universe. But by finding work-rounds,
you come up with superb new unexpected twists: my whole Mandalorian
culture and language strand was a result of having to fix something
that came from the movies but didn't work so well in a book. I've now
learned to use that technique in my own universe, which is getting pretty
complex too, and it's given me some of the best plot lines. I love retconning.
There's a sense of revelation and excitement about making things fit,
and you can still do it by letting the characters have their heads.
I was taught to do it by Ryan Kaufman, the continuity minder at LucasArts
when I was writing Hard Contact, and I hope he never bills me
for it. It was a priceless lesson.
Now, I'd like all those who still think that tie-ins are a waste of
my time to raise their hands...
GF: You're now known
for being very active with fans and readers -- two blogs and a string
of forums -- and they have to shoot you to stop you doing panels at
cons. Relentless PR? Or what?
KT: On my planet, readers and fans are
known as customers. The deal is that I write, they buy what I write,
and then I eat. I think it's part of my job to interact with them: not
only that, I love doing it. They're interesting, kind, funny, supportive
and generous. I know most writers don't spend that much time with readers,
and many can't, and I respect their reasons; it's a massive time commitment,
and once you start, it's hard to stop without crashing expectation.
I respond to every letter or e-mail I receive. If I choose to write
under my own name, and I like the attention and the money, then how
can I complain about the admin workload? Fans have been fantastically
kind to me. Some have become very good friends. That's not to say I
kiss arse, because if anyone abuses me over perceived heresies -- only
about ten have in all, so let's get it in perspective -- folks see the
less charming side of my personality. But 99.9999% of fans -- and that's
a genuine number, not comic exaggeration for once -- make my life worthwhile.
I owe them.
The bottom line is that I'm a storyteller. I need an audience. I want
them to join in around the campfire and debate and speculate with me.
This is what humans have done since the year dot: we need a tribal storyteller
to entertain us and myths to help us make sense of the world. And I
need to tell stories. That storytelling dynamic works equally powerfully
I think this is why I'm so hard on the philosophy of authors producing
a piece of work that's self-contained and independent of the reader,
like the proverbial tree falling in the forest and possibly not being
heard but still certain it's a tree making a noise. The reader may gaze
upon the opus in awe but not interpret it any way but the way the author
intended. That to me suggests that it's not about communication, which
is a two-way process. It can, of course, lead to the comment I hear
occasionally: "Readers just didn't get my book." Well, mate, here's
the bad news: as an author, it's your job to communicate, not the readers'
job to work out what you mean or else fail your exam. They might also
understand something you didn't even see when you wrote it; I've had
that happen, and it's a good reminder for any writer.
Yeah, I'm very pro-reader. But then I also encourage fanfic, because
as long as it isn't dicking with my copyright or taking bread out of
my mouth, I love seeing everyone join in and write. Writing is the most
joyous thing I can imagine, so the more people who try it, the better.
Like I said, nobody held a gun to my head and made me write. It's not
exactly an essential occupation; if all the novelists in the world were
wiped out by a strange virus, life on this planet would struggle on
somehow, I'm sure. It'd be obscene to suggest that the work I do is
as important socially or as hard as that of the armed forces, the police,
transport workers, health care staff and all the other people who do
dirty, dangerous, thankless work that might not exactly be their first
choice. I've been able to do the jobs I love and get well paid for them;
if I can help people with real, heavy jobs to enjoy their leisure and
get through the week, then I've served some genuinely useful purpose.
So readers validate me, and I don't forget that. The best reward is
the mail I get from troops. If I do right by them, and make their off-duty
hours a bit brighter, then I feel I'm not wasting oxygen that a more
useful person could be breathing. That's why I try not to indulge in
angsty self-analysis and navel-gazing and all that shite: this job is
a privilege. Nothing it throws at you can possibly be as hard as the
crap other folk face in their work each day.
GF: One of the things
most upsetting for me about your series (spoiler alert) is that
the bastard Mohan Rayat wasn't dead and dismembered by the end of book
KT: I know people who like Rayat,
and I can see why. He's not a snivelling coward. He believes in what
he does. He's tough. Maybe he's as tough as Shan. We'll see. Actually,
I like Rayat. (It's that whiny bitch Lindsay I can't stand.) The point
about real people who do bad things (or bad according to our societal
norms) is that they don't wander around twirling their mustaches, cackling
evilly and thinking what evil people they are. Not even serial killers.
Their world view makes sense to them. So it has to make sense to your
fictional antagonist too. But I don't actually have protagonists and
antagonists in my stuff. I don't set out to write them because I can't
manage it. I think the one personal angle I can't strip out of my writing
is the need for psychology to make sense to me in real-world terms.
I always want to hear the other bloke's viewpoint, the guy nobody ever
asks. I was the kid who got upset for the monster in Frankenstein,
and wanted to see the shark clamp on a few more legs in Jaws.
(Am I the only person who watched those films yelling, "Well, stay out
of the frigging water, then, dickhead!") I've never found a real-life
nice guy who didn't have a black side, and I've never met a nasty piece
of work who didn't have at least one redeeming feature. This isn't some
touchy-feely view of human decency; I just think the assessment of character
traits is highly subjective and I don't always agree with what most
people think is a good person anyway. I like to show each character
from a number of angles -- the way they see themselves, and the way
others see them, which end up being very different. The reader gets
So Rayat, bless him, has his good points. Is he really that much different
to Shan Frankland? Maybe readers like Shan because they see her inner
logic, her thoughts, the way she sees the world. What if you never saw
her internal POV? How would she look then? She looks judgemental, humourless,
violent, and self-righteous from the outside. And she's a bent copper,
for Chrissakes. Aras is a war criminal by human standards, but people
pity him because they see that inner torment. I find that fascinating
in the light of one of my previous incarnations -- making politicians
look credible. Of course, you haven't seen Mohan Rayat's POV yet. When
you see Shan or Aras, you see their motivation too, but you don't see
Rayat's. Like the wess'har say, humans are too hung up on motivation.
It doesn't change outcomes.
It's exactly the same with Ghez Hokan in Hard Contact. If there's
anywhere a writer could have fun with a really bad bastard, an irredeemable
villain, it's in archetype-oriented fiction like Star Wars. And yet
I still couldn't do it. Hokan meets a sticky end, yes, but it's the
bit of him that believes in Mandalorian honour that causes it. I liked
him. I understood why he did what he did. His motives made sense to
But then I see Vader as a tragic character who's been betrayed by everyone,
and I can't help thinking of the Jedi as self-serving unelected elitist
spoon-benders making whoopee on Republic taxpayers' credits. It's an
iconoclastic journo world-view. Believe me, Order 66 was long overdue.
I have a couple of Jedi that I don't want to shoot on sight, but they're
my own creations, so I could make them a little humbler and more aware
of the consequences they create for others.
Yeah, I like Rayat. No, I am not a Marxist. No, I don't fantasize about
having a real lightsaber, but I'm looking forward to getting my suit
of stormie armour and having a ball with the fans in the 501st.
I note that you've been a tad outspoken on Amazon about Republic
Commando: Triple Zero being your favourite book. Not many authors
would rate their tie-in books above novels that have been nominated
for serious awards. Or if they did, they'd never say so in public.
KT: Well, I'm not ungrateful for the
attention the award juries gave City of Pearl; I just treat all
my books the same when I write them, and I felt Triple Zero was
my best effort. Readers might not agree, because there's nothing to
say that the book you like writing is one they'll like reading.
But thank you, it's high time I did some book plugs here. I've got
a fair few coming out in the next two years and I have to eat. Triple
Zero is out on February 28 in the US. I loved it. I loved every
single second spent on it. I put all my internal organs into it and
a large chunk of my eternal soul, which is pretty tattered these days.
One of my first readers commented that it was a ferociously emotional
book and a lot better than my wess'har stuff. It's a war story. Okay,
all my books are, but this is more uncomfortable than anything in
City of Pearl. It saddens me that there are people out there who'll
read my other stuff but not the Star Wars books simply because it's
tie-in work. Like I say, SW forces me to explore ideas I would otherwise
have avoided or missed completely. When I checked the galley proofs
of Triple Zero a few weeks ago, I'd finished two other books
in the interim, and so I looked at it cold. It really took me by surprise.
If you want to explore extreme ideas about the politics of identity,
totalitarianism, commercial corruption and human delusional behaviour,
then Star Wars is the perfect universe in which to do it. And if you
want to see political delusion and arrogance, take a look at Legacy
of the Force: Bloodlines, out in September. I don't base characters
on real people at all, but I couldn't ignore the real-life political
examples I have to draw upon. Star Wars really stretches me.
But there are people who won't give my SW books a chance whatever I
say, and that's okay because a few hundred thousand other folks will,
but it still saddens me. All I'm saying is that if you like my writing,
you'll like the SW books as much if not more. If you don't like my writing
-- then who you lookin' at, pal?
World Before, the third book in the six-book City of Pearl
arc, has been on the shelves for a few months. Spoiler alert: if you
didn't like Rayat in the first two books, I suspect you won't learn
to love him in the third. But you might admire his guts. I daren't say
any more. I had a letter from a reader who was going through a harrowing
time in their life when they read it, and they said it helped them enormously.
Now, everyone knows by now that I ain't exactly Patience Strong. I don't
do uplifting and inspirational. But the Ade Bennett character hit them
hard, and whatever they got from seeing him cope helped them. That's
a good feeling. (Yes, even for a sour old hack like me.) Book four,
Matriarch, is out this autumn. Task Force, book five,
comes out in the summer of 2007 and the final book is autumn 2007. I
haven't settled on a title yet.
I suppose if I'm worried about anything, it's the reaction to my Star
Wars Legacy of the Force books that scares me. I've got three
in that nine-book run, starting with Bloodlines, and I'll be
treading on the sensitive areas -- Luke and Han and Leia. I swear to
God I haven't made Luke a crack dealer. But I didn't cause civil war
with my take on Vader in earlier stories, so with any luck fans won't
stone me in the streets for what I've done with the other characters
from the movies. I can only call 'em as I see 'em. Boba Fett was sheer
bloody joy to write, of course; my Mando boys never let me down. Getting
into Jedi heads was that much harder. But I swore I could get into the
most repellent characters' heads and see them as they see themselves,
so I had to. I still wouldn't trust the Jedi Council with my wallet,
let alone with running my country, but you won't spot that in the books.
I keep my spoonbenderist views to myself.
GF: I hear you gave
a talk to the British Science Fiction Association and a member of the
audience asked you if there was anything you wouldn't write for money.
You didn't exactly dispel the "Have Gun, Will Travel-Wire Paladin" image.
KT: True. I was asked that question,
and I said there wasn't much in non-fiction, and nothing in fiction:
as long as it isn't outside my personal bounds of morality (I do have
some) I'd do it. I'm a jobbing writer, and that means that if I want
to eat I might have to do things that wouldn't be my first choice, even
though I'll go hell for leather to make the best job of them.
But right now I have the perfect deal. I get to write what I want.
I can write my own stuff, I can write Star Wars exactly as I see it,
I can have fun with fiction-related features, and I can write short
fiction when I feel like it. That might not last. I'll make the most
of it while I can and make sure I'm the kind of writer that editors
want to work with and that readers want to read for as long as I can.
When I finished City of Pearl, I thought that was it and that
I'd peaked. Then I finished the next book, and the next, and I found
I hadn't plummeted down the cliff. (Cue my mother: "I bloody well
told you so. Everyone learns more as they go along.") When you get
to my age, you've been through that can-I-can't-I curve many, many times
before and you know that if you can do it once, you can do it again
and again -- all you have to do is be aware of how you did it the first
time. I also remind myself that I can learn to do new things even though
I'm older than Yoda, so I'm not actually afraid of failure now. I'm
just aware, in a pragmatic and detached way, that things change, and
markets change, and if I see the waterline rising in the bilges I'll
be the first off the ship and pushing the rats out of the way. Journos
are like that.
GF: So, you're writing
12, 16, 20 hours a day AND you're carrying on extensive conversations
on LiveJournal...so, is it me or are you messing about with the laws
KT: Just watch me warp the space-time
continuum, folks. I wouldn't recommend this way of working to anyone
with a life and functioning brain cells. It causes arguments in my family
and it has a high personal price.
But remember you're a long time dead. This is the only life you get
and it's not a dress rehearsal. I've had the kind of life and experiences
that no kid from my background could ever have dreamed of, and by God
I'm going to cram in as much as I can before they nail the lid down.
I go balls-out for everything (I had to borrow someone's balls, but
he didn't seem to be using them anyway) and whatever befalls me, at
least I haven't sat around on my arse waiting for something wonderful
to happen. Just do it. To excess.
© Gregory Frost 2006.
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