The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Rob Edwards

I’m so excited to be able to talk about D&D with author Rob Edwards today! Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!

Will you tell me a little bit about your book, The Ascension Machine?

It’s a science fiction superhero novel, in which a young grifter impersonates a guy and in the process winds up enrolled at a college for alien superheroes. Grey, as he starts calling himself, stays for the novelty, but despite himself finds friends, and a place he belongs. It’s all based on his lie, so to stay at the Justice Academy Grey has to keep lying, even to his new friends. Things escalate, the team end up fighting gangsters and aliens, and investigate strange goings on. It’s an adventure romp with a large cast of characters all dealing with the difficult adjustment of starting college… with super powers.

How about your history with ttrpgs? When did you first start playing, and what drew you to it?

In 1983 I was about 12 or 13, and I came across an advert in some comic books which I became kind of obsessed with. A party of adventurers explore a dungeon, battle a monster then encounter some green slime. I cannot tell you for why, but when the elf rogue shouts “Look out, it’s dripping!” I knew I had to play this game.

I got the “Red Box” Basic set for my next birthday, and never looked back. I’ve played or run every edition of D&D since, as well as many many other systems. 

Here’s the list of some of the games I’ve played in the order of them occurring to me: GURPS, DC Heroes, TORG, Amber Diceless, Golden Heroes, Marvel, Mutants and Masterminds, Hero, Star Wars d6, Star Wars d20, Star Wars Edge of Empire, Ghostbusters, Pathfinder, Starfinder, Spycraft, Fantasycraft, Tunnels and Trolls, MERP, Doctor Who, Song of Ice and Fire, Babylon Project, Wheel of Time, Call of Cthulhu, Arcanis, Seventh Sea, Shadowrun, Twilight 2000, Top Secret SI, Judge Dredd, TMNT… plus a few more for one shots that I’m probably forgetting).

Oh, my greatest Geek pride (as it says in my bio): back when Wizards of the Coast had the Star Wars license and were running the Living Force campaign for convention play, I got to write seven modules for the campaign, meaning someone somewhere at Lucasfilm (probably an intern) read something I wrote in the Star Wars universe and said “OK”. Meaning that, until Disney bought Star Wars, I was briefly, obscurely, canon. 

Anyway, this answer is far too long. Suffice to say I’m almost always the DM these days, which I love, but my rare chances to play are solid gold for me.

That sounds like my husband. He always ends up being a DM. After a less-than -successful attempt on my part several years ago ( I failed to communicate to my players exactly what kind of campaign I was trying to run, which did not go well), I’m still working up my courage to try again. I might give it another go in a decade or so. 

As DM, do you feel like your writing affects how you tell the story? Did your experience with gaming play into your writing at all?

Interesting question. Firstly, I think over time I’ve come to realise that my writing and my DMing, at least for home brew things, come from a very similar place, creatively. I’ve found the more I’m writing, the less I have in the tank for coming up with my own worlds and plotlines for games. And vice versa. As a result, since taking my writing more seriously, I’ve tended to stick to prewritten adventures. Perhaps not as engaging as creating my own world, but still a lot of fun.

I’d say my experience gaming has absolutely everything to do with my writing. I’ve always been a writer, always been a storyteller, for as long as I can remember, but for the best part of four decades, I honed my skills as a storyteller on all my many players. Sometimes triumphantly, sometimes not. When I started writing professionally, I had all of that foundation to build on. A sense of how much foreshadowing is too much. A sense of when the story needs a kick from an action beat. Why world building is important and how too much can be a distraction and suck the pace out of a scene. All of my instinct for that comes from my gaming. (Also reading so very very much in my youth).

That said, I have a D&D campaign world that I’ve run different groups in for…. Wow, is it twenty years now? … There’s a story to be told there, there’s a novel, possibly a trilogy in it. But actually writing the book of the campaign(s)… I’ve tried starting a few times but so far it has totally stumped me.

Wow, twenty years is a huge accomplishment! I bet the world development for that campaign is incredible. Do the characters being played change as the players do, or does each player bring a new facet to the same characters?

Most of the active world building happened for the first campaign — that was a lot — and the original sequel campaign. Those campaigns had the same players, playing different characters two decades apart in the campaign timeline. Since then, I’ve run three variations on the original campaign, always with different characters, always bringing new wrinkles to the way the world works. New characters bring new focus, it’s interesting to see NPCs (non-player characters) who were hugely significant in the original run fading into the background or  taking very different actions and suffering very different fates in later playthroughs. By the same token, NPCs who barely got a name in the original version get the spotlight in later runs.

The most recent version of the campaign fell apart at about the time the pandemic hit. I’ve since decided it’s time to retire that campaign world and start something fresh. Though in this campaign, I’m trying to be a little more improvisational about it all, because I don’t want it to suck the energy out of my writing.

If anyone is super interested, you can get a hint of what some of the setting was like in my short story Virtue’s Blade in the Inklings Press anthology Tales of Magic and Destiny. It’s a new story not taken directly from any specific adventure in that world, but does give a flavour of some of the world building for that campaign. (Or listen to me read it on my podcast here: Episode 39: Virtue’s Pirate · StorycastRob (spotify.com))

You mentioned using your time as DM (Dungeon Master, for those who aren’t familiar with the lingo) to hone your storytelling skills, and how that helped with pacing and foreshadowing. One thing I really enjoyed about The Ascension Machine was that the pacing was never too rushed, nor was it too slow. Your practice definitely made perfect!

I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but Grey was an interesting character in that, while he was conning everyone, at his heart he had a strong moral compass. Is that sort of “alignment” your go-to when gaming? And dovetailing off of that, do you have a favorite character class? Or do you prefer to shake things up when creating your own character (obviously, prewritten adventures are a little different)?

Oh yeah. I know people can get very excited by evil campaigns or characters, but they don’t really interest me. I’m always the good guy in games as a player, if I ever feel the urge to be evil, I have my DMing for that!

As for character classes, I like my characters to be skilled and versatile. They don’t need to be The Best, but I do prefer competence. In pursuit of it, I’ve dabbled in just about every class over the years, but my big go-tos are Sorcerer, Fighter, Bard. My least travelled are probably Druid and Cleric. My current obsession is Artificer, and I think I might actually get to play one soon.

Grey in The Ascension Machine could absolutely be one of my characters in a game. I’ve played plenty of rogues, swindlers and con artists in all sorts of settings, from Jack “Ace” King, a gambler in a Wild West game, to Agent Duchess, my Spycraft “Face” character. In The Ascension Machine, Grey’s plan on Bantus (no details, read the book!) was basically something I pulled in-character for a D&D game one time. 

 I am almost obsessively honest in the real world, so these characters are pure escapism!

Ah, you claim you’re obsessively honest. Perhaps that is what a dishonest person would say? 😉 I must say, I’ve never played an artificer. I bet it would be a blast, though. What would you say to someone who is curious about playing ttrpgs, but has never played before?

Give it a go! The hobby isn’t for everyone, but the only way to find out if it’s for you is to try it for yourself. Oh there are plenty of YouTube shows and let’s plays out there that you can watch to get a sense of how things work (Including our own DragonLance play, right Jodie?) but really you have to play it to be sure. Just, try and find a good DM, they really do make all the difference. If someone is asking me, I might well offer to run a session, if we can find some more players.

But if you’re asking how would I describe ttrpgs to somebody…? The grand description is that it’s cooperative improvised storytelling (with dice). It’s “Let’s Pretend” for grown-ups and kids  (with dice).

Any other description can be contradicted (and even the dice thing, one of my favourite games is Amber, a diceless system based on Roger Zelazny’s books). 

Because, yes, it can be an epic tale of heroes battling monsters, saving the world and getting loot (with dice), if that’s the story your group wants to tell. But it could equally be a disturbing tale of standing against unspeakable horrors where only madness and death awaits (with dice), or a political intrigue with backstabbing (and dice), or… whatever else you need it to be.

It is such a versatile hobby. As long as you can find a group of people who want to tell the same kind of story you do, it can be whatever you want it to be. Usually with dice.

About the author:

Rob Edwards is a British born writer and content creator, living in Finland. His podcast, StorycastRob, features readings from his short stories and extracts from longer work. He writes about coffee, despite not drinking it, spaceships, despite being down-to-earth, and superheroes, despite everything

His debut novel, The Ascension Machine was published in 2020. His short stories can be found in anthologies from Inklings Press and Rivenstone Press.

A life-long gamer and self-professed geek, he is proud of his entry on wookieepedia, the result of writing several Star Wars RPG scenarios in his youth.

Links

Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StorycastRob

Check out his Podcast: http://storycastrob.co.uk/

Or YouTube: Rob Edwards

The D&D Connection: Authors and TTRPGs- Geoff Habiger

This week on Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub I’m talking about the connection between table top role playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, and great authors. Today I’m happy to feature some thoughts on the subject from author Geoff Habiger.

When Jodie mentioned she was looking for authors to share their experiences with gaming and writing I jumped at the chance because gaming – especially TTRPG gaming – has been a big part of my life and an influence for my writing since I was in the 5th grade (many, many yahren ago). In that time, I have played innumerable RPG starting with D&D from the days of the Big Red Box up through 4th edition (I’ve not played 5th ed. yet). Other RPGs I have played include: Rolemaster, Pathfinder, Paranoia, Timemaster, GURPs, Traveller, Star Wars (West End Games version), Mutants and Masterminds, and several home brew systems. RPGs allowed me to spend time with my friends, explore new worlds, and helped fuel my imagination and creativity. I’d spend hours (days sometimes) creating dungeons, making characters, and building new worlds to play in. Based on this background it seems only natural that I became a writer.

Though it wasn’t as natural as you’d think. My path to being a writer took a detour through writing for RPGs. Around the time that Wizards released the 3rd edition of D&D and the open gaming license was created, my best friend (and now co-author, Coy Kissee) and I decided to start our own game company and create material for the D&D OGL system. Thus, Tangent Games was born and the creation of our Ados: Land of Strife campaign setting. For several years we created a new world to explore, our own monster manual (Brixbrix’s Field Guide to the Creatures of Ados), rules for a new religion (out of 20+ in the pantheon) (Jute: Faith of Creation), and an adventure module (Temple of the Forgotten God). Not to mention a ton of game supplements. We created alternate rules for using languages in D&D (Ars Lingua) and rules for creating detailed descriptions of gemstones (Gemerator), and we created supplements to get more mileage from alchemy (Better Damage Through Alchemistry) and how to harness magic from gems (Mineral Magic series) plus several others. 

All of this experience in RPG writing gave me a good foundation to move into writing fiction. There are many similarities between the two, and a few differences. The biggest difference being that most RPG writing is instructional – you are writing the rules for playing the game. Your writing must be clear and concise and must convey the rules to the reader so that they can understand and play (and hopefully enjoy) the game. But that sort of writing doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity. The goal is to explain how to play the game and there is less importance on plot and story, and practically no character development (even when you are rolling up your character!). At the same time, RPG writing does allow plenty of chances for worldbuilding, and when writing an adventure, you do need to understand plot and story, though this process is very different from a traditional novel because you will never understand the actual motives of the main characters you are writing for – the players (and their player characters) that are playing the game. It is like writing an open-ended choose your adventure story where you have no idea who the main character is, what they can do, or even if they are motivated to complete the adventure as you envision it. 

In addition to the foundation from RPGs my experiences as a gamer, game master (GM), and designer helped when I began our actual writing career, especially with our fantasy series the Constable Inspector Lunaria Adventures. As I developed the basic premise for this series – in a world of magic and monsters, how do the police solve crimes – I wondered where to set the story. I knew we wanted a “classic” fantasy setting, reminiscent of the RPG experience I had loved playing in, and I realized that we already had a great setting in our Ados: Land of Strife campaign world. But I didn’t want to write LitRPG so we couldn’t just drop a story into our RPG world. But Ados gave us the world into which we could play with much of the worldbuilding already done. There is a direct line of influence from our RPG experiences to what goes into our stories from how the world functions to how our characters act and react to any given situation. Our RPG experiences dictate our fight scenes, how magic works in our world, and how to pace our stories. It’s even gotten to the point where we make fun of the RPG experience – especially around adventurers – in our stories. (Note for anybody who’s not yet read our books, Reva *hates* adventurers.)

In the end, I don’t know if I would have become a writer if I hadn’t been a gamer first. The characters we played, the worlds we created, and the stories we got to tell during those caffeine-fueled, all-night game sessions, all became the fodder for me to be the writer I am today. 

Where to find us online:

Website: https://www.habigerkissee.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HabigerKisseeAuthors/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/TangentGeoff

Our Books: Wrath of the Fury Blade (book 1) and Joy of the Widow’s Tears (book 2) can be found on our website (https://www.habigerkissee.com/books) where you will find links to buy from indie booksellers or corporate behemoths. Book 3 in our series: Fear the Minister’s Justice, will be out (hopefully) in 2022. 

About the author:

The writing duo of Geoff Habiger and Coy Kissee have been life-long friends since high school in Manhattan, Kansas. (Affectionately known as the Little Apple, which was a much better place to grow up than the Big Apple, in our humble opinion.) We love reading, baseball, cats, role-playing games, comics, and board games (not necessarily in that order and sometimes the cats can be very trying). We’ve spent many hours together over the years (and it’s been many years) basically geeking out and talking about our favorite books, authors, and movies, often discussing what we would do differently to fix a story or make a better script. We eventually turned this passion into something more than just talk and now write the stories that we want to read. 
Coy lives with his wife in Lenexa, Kansas. Geoff lives with his wife and son in Tijeras, New Mexico.

Author Interview: Charles K. Jordan

Ta’Lin’s undead legions threatened to unravel everything until the combined might of Five Kingdoms adjusted to the nature of their foe and rallied to a tenuous stalemate.

Against the backdrop of a deadlocked war, life continues while the embers of well-laid schemes kindle into an inferno that will raze the continent so that it can be reborn.

Gaiaus, a well-connected Maximus of the highly-respected Oliverus family, is offered everything he could have hoped for but can’t help but wonder if promises made will be delivered. Never one to sit back and hope for the best, he bides his time, waiting for more palatable opportunities to present themselves.

Arcanus, the spoiled scion of the waning Dragonsbane family, disagrees with his father’s decision to send him far away to apprentice under a ruthless mentor from an infamous family after the details of his murder came to light.

Kir’Lor’s lavish lifestyle on the Consul of Five comes to an abrupt end when his father strips him of his political duties and reassigns him to the frontlines. Skeptical and unsatisfied with his new role, his options are expanded when a dangerous opportunity arises from an unlikely source.

A continent in crisis holds its collective breath as the threads of fate are woven into a new future.

I recently had the privilege of interviewing Charles K. Jordan, author of Scourge of the Five Kingdoms.

Thank you for chatting with me!

First, will you tell me a little about Scourge of the Five Kingdoms?

To answer this question, I think it would be best to explain what exactly Scourge of the Five Kingdoms is and isn’t. The backdrop of the story is a decade-long war, but it is not a war story. There is a clear threat to the continent from the war, but there is no predestined hero to stop it. There is a lot of political intrigue and maneuvering, but it is not strictly a political thriller. The characters are developed already, so it is not a progression story. These characters have their goals, and many are at the zenith of their prowess. I almost hate to use the term, but it is, in a way, a throwback fantasy in the sense that the story does not focus on a hero, a journey, or an ancient artifact or prophecy. Several sapient races live on the continent in a tenuous peace despite their differences. Because of that, Scourge of the Five Kingdoms has a diverse, large ensemble cast. Also, magic is a common occurrence among the denizens and is treated like any other commodity. 

Scourge of the Five Kingdoms is part one of a six-book series with novellas and further works in the same world coming later. It is a mature series because it does contain content such as violence, alcohol, recreational vices, and non-graphic sexual encounters. If I were to suggest an appropriate age, I would feel comfortable saying 16 years and up would be apt.

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

I enjoyed fantasy as a kid. It started first with RPG games, but what made me a fantasy fan for life was the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. The series got me through some difficult times in my life. As I got older, I realized that getting to know those characters as well as I did, was just as influential for me as the actual story was.

Scourge of the Five Kingdoms seems rife with political maneuvering and backstabbing. What were some challenges to writing these complexities?

Making sure that characters behaved the way they would act and are not just taking actions for the sake of moving the plot. There were many times when I would stop writing and think to myself that this character wouldn’t do what I had plotted, and I would have to work out what moves that character would make. It broke lots of initial plot points while writing, but it made the story feel so much more organic, so it was well worth the trouble.

When working on your book, what came first for you: the plot or the characters?

Definitely the characters because their personal goals and quirks are what drive the plot. I wanted to create a story that was moved by the characters instead of the other way around. Even though, as I said before, they ruined my plans more times than I wish to remember.


What was the hardest part or character to write?

The hardest part of writing this series, especially the first book, was that I wanted a large cast. Keeping track of what characters knew, who they met, what they promised, what they were planning long and short-term was challenging at first. It took a lot of notes to make sure I kept it all on target.

Do you have a favorite character in your novel?

Ah, that is a difficult question. I am going to cheat and pick three characters. One, I enjoy the antics of Arcanus Dragonsbane. He is a tough character to like because he is a scumbag, but he is a great character to watch. He is a man of noble blood who has no understanding of how the world outside of his pampered bubble works and expects to be above the law. He is the mold of how I think nobles of a fantasy world would be. Two, Kir’Lor because his story deals a lot with his relationship with his father, Ang’Lor. I think it is a relatable tale for many. The last is Ta’Lin, the story’s main antagonist, who ties most of the characters together. He has some witty interactions with some characters. He is also the driving force behind the conspiracy threatening the Five Kingdoms. 

I feel the character relationships are so vital that interactions and chemistry between certain characters are characters themselves.

That’s an excellent point regarding character relationships! I often feel like a good interaction between characters can say a lot more about who each character really is than pages of explanation can. How do you go about developing that dialogue and the interactions between your characters?

As the characters feel each other out, you start to see bits of their personalities that you couldn’t plot before those interactions began. Again, I try to let my characters shine. That means not allowing myself to make characters interact in a way they ordinarily wouldn’t for the sake of advancing the plot or making things easier on myself as the writer. I also believe that some people click and some don’t, and trust often needs to be earned, and I try to bring that to life through my characters’ interactions. 

To answer your question more directly when characters meet for the first time, I ask myself several questions. Would these characters click? Why or why not? How comfortable are they around each other? What are their goals at the moment? Do they think the other characters can help their goals? And do they have any other issues such as prejudices, stereotypes, bad experiences with the characters’ backgrounds? And whatever else I feel would make a critical impact on their first impression. It seems like a lot, maybe it is a lot, but I think it produces terrific, natural-feeling interactions between the cast.

Is it easier for you to write a hero or a villainous character? Which is more fun?

One of the main ideas of the series is that almost everyone is a shade of gray. Most of the characters are horrible to some degree, so I would say it is probably easier for me to write a villainous or near-villainous character. There is one character that is the closest to an absolute “hero.” His name is Fortexxt Bynder. He was a challenge to write because he was such a change from the other characters in the world. However, with that being said, writing him was fun to write because of his moral compass.

I’m always curious: what is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own)?

I would have to say The Great Hunt, again, by Robert Jordan. To me, it is a near-perfect fantasy novel. It has an incredible balance of action and world-building, and even though you know the main heroes are not going to perish, it feels dangerous for them.

But my real hope is that someday, some author will say Scourge of the Five Kingdoms or some other book in the series is their favorite and inspired them to create as other authors inspired me.

Where to purchase Scourge of the Five Kingdoms:
Amazon

About the author:

Charles K. Jordan Bio
Charles K. Jordan was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. He attended
university in his home state, as well, where he studied Information Technology. After
graduating, he decided to move abroad to experience more than what he had seen in
the United States. He found his way to Japan in 2003, and since then, he has called
Japan home.
Charles K. Jordan was always drawn to fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure. When he was a
young child, the first novel he read was Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by
Deborah and James Howe, and from that point, he was hooked. Since then, he has
found inspiration and heroes from various writers in all forms of media. Some of his
heroes include Robert Jordan, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Quentin Tarantino,
Terence Winter, Garth Ennis, and Glen Cook, just to name a few. Ever since that
fateful day that led him to pick up Bunnicula, he knew his calling in life would be to
create and hopefully contribute to someone’s growth and dreams.
Charles K. Jordan vowed to himself that no matter what happened in his life. He
would never stop dreaming, writing, and creating.

Dragonlance Week: Interview with Author Margaret Weis

Logo Credit: Wizards of the Coast
Image Credit: Larry Elmore
Banner Credit: Fantasy Book Nerd

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Margaret Weis, the author/coauthor of DRAGON CORSAIRS, the Darksword trilogy, and the Deathgate Cycle, among other novels. She is also the author/coauthor of many Dragonlance books, including the trilogies that started it all: the Chronicles and the Legends, which I love so very much. You could say that Margaret Weis is a literary hero of mine.

Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub: Hello Ms. Weis (May I call you Margaret?) Before I get to the questions, I want to thank you for being willing to chat a little bit about Dragonlance. I am beyond thrilled!


Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub: I am under the impression that the genesis of Dragonlance involved the idea of a world where dragons play a large role. I would definitely say that Dragonlance fits the bill! Can you give me a little bit of detail about the early days of Dragonlance, and how that concept became the Chronicles?

Margaret Weis: “Dragonlance was created by Tracy and Laura Hickman as they were driving from Utah to Wisconsin to go to work for TSR. They wanted a world where knights rode on dragons and they created the first three characters: Tanis, Laurana and Kitiara. When Tracy came to TSR, he described the concept to management and they put him in charge of creating the game. They wanted novels to go with it. I was hired to edit the novels. When I began working with the team, I fell in love with the world and decided that Tracy and I should write the books.”

W&B: I read somewhere that you wrote most (all?) of the books’ fight scenes. My question here is twofold: is that the case? And how did you and Tracy decide who took point on which parts of the novels?

Margaret Weis: “I do the writing and Tracy does the story telling and world building. And answers my innumerable questions!”

W&S: Are there any characters that are “yours” alone? And do any of the characters share your personality traits in any way?

Margaret Weis: “Raistlin was a character that I knew and understood. Tracy was always a fan of Tanis’s. Par-Salian says there is a little of Raistlin in all of us.:)”

W&S: I credit Raistlin with my ongoing love of morally complicated characters. He could be incredibly cruel (especially to Caramon) but was also capable of extreme compassion (as with Bupu). How did you go about writing such a complex and nuanced character?

Margaret Weis: “I knew Raistlin so well. He was very real to me. I understood him and the co-dependent relationship he had with his brother. As Par-Salian says, there’s a little Raistlin in all of us.”

W&S: One of the many wonderful things about Dragonlance, particularly the earlier books, are the barriers that were broken. Dragons of Autumn Twilight mentions Tanis “recognizing the signs of a dark depression that sometimes overwhelmed the knight”, [Sturm]. Sturm was the first character I read about in the fantasy genre who struggled with mental illness, which was hugely significant to me. There are also many instances of discrimination mentioned throughout. Were these deliberate choices and, if so, what was the reasoning behind them?

Margaret Weis: “We wanted to talk about racial discrimination in a way that would be nonthreatening to our readers. As for Sturm and depression, we wrote about him as we felt he would feel, given everything he had undergone.”

W&S: Many people (myself included) cite Dragonlance as their gateway to fantasy. Its impact hasn’t lessened at all over the years. What do you think it is about Dragonlance and the world of Krynn that continue to draw people in?

Margaret Weis: “I think it’s because the books are about middle-class people, not kings or princes or princesses. Our characters had to work for a living. They are ordinary people, drawn into extraordinary situations.”

W&S: Dovetailing off my previous question a bit: I personally find the characters so well-developed and relatable, that rereading the Dragonlance Chronicles feels a lot like coming home. Throughout the books, especially Dragons of Autumn Twilight, there are examples of events that the companions have experienced together that are mentioned in passing, like shared reminiscences. It really cements that sense of people who know each other very well. Was it difficult to convey that sort of relationship? And did you know going in that many of these mentioned instances would often become storylines in other books as the series grew?

Margaret Weis: “We rather hoped they wouldn’t become storylines! We wanted to leave them mysterious and intriguing. But the books sold so well that fans wanted more.”

W&S: The world-building is astounding. How were you and Tracy able to craft a world that is bigger even than what the reader is shown, as well as hint at places that are visited later on?

Margaret Weis: “The world-building credit goes to the DL design team. They needed a world large enough and detailed enough to accommodate twelve adventure modules.”

W&S: Dragonlance is deservedly beloved. What do you think has contributed to its place among fantasy greats?

Margaret Weis: “I’m not sure. We just wanted to tell a story.:)”

W&S: Did you have a favorite part to write?

Margaret Weis: “No, not really. I love writing!”

W&S: How do you feel about returning to the world of Krynn? Is there anything you’d like to say regarding the upcoming releases?

Margaret Weis: “Wonderful returning. And, no, I’m not permitted to talk about it.”

W&S: Are there any authors that you love or that have influenced you in some way?

Margaret Weis: “So many it’s hard to list them! Charles Dickens (particularly Bleak House), Jane Austen, Chaim Potok, Mary Renault, Rex Stout, Alexander Dumas. The list goes on!”

W&S: Finally, I have a bit of funny question. I was concerned that I would be so star-struck that I would only be able to come up with ridiculous questions, such as “Do you prefer waffles or pancakes?” So, now I have to ask. Are you a waffle or pancake person?

Margaret Weis: “Waffles.:)”

About the author:


Margaret Weis was born and raised in Independence, Missouri. She attended the University of Missouri, Columbia, graduating in 1970 with a BA degree in Literature and Creative Writing. In 1983, she moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to take a job as book editor at TSR, Inc., producers of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® role-playing game. 


At TSR, Weis became part of the DRAGONLANCE® design team. Created by Tracy Hickman, the Dragonlance world has continued to intrigue fans of both the novel and the game for generations. Hickman and Weis wrote the first of many fantasy novels, the DRAGONLANCE CHRONICLES, which are still in print after almost thirty years. The books have sold over twenty-five million copies worldwide. They are thrilled to be writing a new trilogy under the DRAGONLANCE CLASSIC masthead. Watch for the first book in the series to be released in 2022!

Weis is the author/co-author of several other New York Times best-selling series, including DARKSWORD, ROSE OF THE PROHET, STAR OF THE GUARDIANS, THE DEATHGATE CYCLE, and DRAGONSHIPS. Weis and her daughter, Lizz, have written two paranormal romance novels, WARRIOR ANGEL and REBEL ANGEL, published by HarperCollins. She and co-author, Robert Krammes created two trilogies – THE DRAGON BRIGADE and DRAGON CORSAIRS…be sure to check them out! 

Wisconsin is home where Weis lives with her dogs, Tika, Clancy the Hooligan and Joey the Thug. They all enjoy competing in tournaments with their team, the Barkbarians.


Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Dorian Hart

Wrapping up a month full of interviews with some incredible authors of self-published fantasy, I’m excited to be able to interview Dorian Hart, author of The Heroes of Spira. Before diving in, I want to encourage you, Reader, to check out some self-published authors (be they writers of fantasy or another genre). Okay, now on to the interview!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Heroes of Spira?

The Heroes of Spira is hopeful epic fantasy with an ensemble cast and loads of magic. By “hopeful” I mean whatever the opposite of Grimdark is; while bad things happen to my protagonists, and they don’t always get along, they are fundamentally good people I want readers to cheer for. The tone is (mostly) light-hearted, and though the series isn’t comedic fantasy, there’s plenty of humor in it.

Who are the Heroes of Spira? They are:

Dranko Blackhope, a priest-turned-pickpocket, kicked out of his church for excessive pranksterism and his irreverent mouth. Being part goblin does not help his reputation.

Ysabel Horn, an elderly farmer’s widow with a practical streak. She’s understandably confused about being chosen to help save the world.

Ernest Roundhill, a baker’s son sorely lacking in self-confidence. He’s wondering why there’s a hundreds-of-years-old statue of himself buried under his neighbor’s tavern.

Aravia Telmir, a brilliant but arrogant wizard’s apprentice who really misses her cat.

Grey Wolf, a hard-bitten mercenary who’s not very happy about his new role as Chosen Hero.

Morningstar of Ell, a priestess of the goddess of night. She’s not allowed to walk outdoors in daylight, which could complicate her inclusion in this motley group.

Tor Bladebearer, a young nobleman’s son and talented swordsman who thinks being picked to help save Spira is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him.

Kibilhathur Bimson, a shy craftsman who insists his ability to speak with stones isn’t real magic. It’s just something he does.

The five books (three published, the fourth currently in edits, and I’ve begun the first draft of the fifth and final) are in essence one single story. While I think each volume stands on its own just fine, the primary ongoing narrative arc spans all five books, and there are plenty of mysteries, plot threads, and character arcs that stretch across multiple volumes.

In the broadest sense, the stories are about a group of in-over-their-heads would-be heroes saving the world from an ever-escalating and ultimately interconnected series of threats. They explore strange magical locales and contest with all sorts of enemies, human and otherwise, while engaging in plenty of entertaining banter and generally making themselves into a Found Family That Quests Together. It’s classic fantasy, full of wizards, magical artifacts, strange creatures, exploration and quests, gods and prophecies, as well as a villain with a perfect moustache and an unflappable butler with an unexpected secret. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, you can start with The Ventifact Colossus.

Your description of your book as the opposite of Grimdark makes perfect sense to me. There is a pervading sense of optimism throughout. Was it difficult to keep that feel while also maintaining a sense of urgency in the characters’ quest? How did you go about doing that so well?

Well, first, it’s kind of you to imply that I’m succeeding in at least some of what I set out to do! 😊

My natural preference is for optimistic characters, and my writing style lends itself to lighter, humor-laced storytelling. In that sense, I’m sure I’d find it more difficult to write grim and fatalistic heroes in a dark setting. But also, I don’t think there’s a natural separation between optimism and urgency. Quite the opposite, at least for me; pessimistic characters might be inclined to give up or not care about the problems besetting themselves and the world they inhabit. In large part, the characters’ hopefulness lets me steadily raise the stakes without worrying about keeping them motivated!

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

I’ve been writing fiction since I was a wee lad. (The first story I recall writing I scribed when I was 8. It was about two men getting into a series of perilous situations, and who were constantly saved by lucky accidents precipitated by the one who was always drunk. My teacher wrote a note to my parents which (paraphrased) said: “This story is remarkably advanced for a child Dorian’s age, and also we need to have a parent-teacher conference RIGHT NOW about his home life.”)

I’ve been absorbing fantasy books since I was very young, and was inspired most by The Hobbit, Narnia, and the Chronicles of Prydain. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up any time before my 10th birthday, I would have said “A baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies.” But around that time, when my lack of athletic prowess was becoming too obvious to ignore, my answer changed to “A fantasy novelist.” That answer hasn’t changed in 40 years.

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

Characters first. Always characters. If I can’t make my readers care about my heroes, how can I expect them to become invested in the story?


I’m not saying that plot isn’t important. Even the most vivid characters will have trouble carrying a boring plot. But it’s not enough to make readers think: “I want to know what happens next.” They have to think: “I want to know what happens next to these people.

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

As though I would be so cruel to my poor characters!

But, seriously, the answer is mostly no – I’m not that interesting a person! – but I do think my personal desire to solve problems diplomatically probably bleeds over into some of my characters and how they interact with one another.

Also, don’t tell anyone, but I have plans to have a character in a future book who makes puns and dad-jokes. I cannot deny that such behavior would have a solid grounding in the author’s psyche.

I’m going to use this as a non-sequitur-ish segue into a small vignette from my family life. I told my wife about my plans for the dad-joking character recently. I also went on to describe a foil character who would HATE the puns and corny jokes at the beginning, but slowly, slowly come around on them, until by the end of the book they’d be making dad-jokes of their own.

My wife’s reaction to that second character: “That’s why they call it ‘fantasy.’”

Several of your characters have unique traits. Poor Ernest has zero self-confidence. Morningstar has a physical trait that makes it difficult for her to be a part of the group at first. Dranko has goblin ancestry, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a main character. What are some of the challenges of writing characters that have interior obstacles, as well as those that they face together?

I’ve always imagined my band of heroes (who style themselves “Horn’s Company” part way through the first book) going on three parallel journeys.

The most obvious one is the surface plot; they travel, quest, suffer, and triumph as they peel back layers of the Plot Onion™ and fight to save everything they hold dear.

The second journey is the evolution of the group as a whole. They start out disorganized and a bit hapless, as well as mostly doing what they’re told. By the end they’re making decisions with little guidance or assistance, devising plans, and working as a much more cohesive team. It’s by no means a smooth progression—there are plenty of setbacks and bumps on the road—but Horn’s Company has come a long way by the final book.

Finally, each character is on journey of their own, as they’re shaped and pushed by forces external and internal. Morningstar has to deal with her history of ostracism and feelings of isolation in addition to the physical challenge of walking in daylight. Ernest needs to find his confidence and overcome what we think of today as Imposter Syndrome. Dranko has his goblinoid physical appearance to deal with, as well as the constant consequences of his irreverent attitude. Each of the other heroes has some similar arc of growth and change, though that change isn’t always clearly for the better.

When guiding my characters past (or in some cases smashing them into) their interior obstacles, the biggest challenge for me is pacing their arcs across five books and bringing out their nuances in a natural way. Ernest’s journey, for instance, isn’t a matter of him performing a single brave deed and WHAM! he’s Mr. Confident. Different people change in different ways, at different speeds, and in reaction to different pressures.

You have a background in video game designing. Does your background influence your writing? 

I get asked this a lot, and the disappointing answer is “No, not really.”  My career in video games had me working alongside some fantastic writers – Austin Grossman, and later Ken Levine — who were already doing the vast majority of the storytelling. I found my niche as the “numbers guy” who focused on game balance, resource economies, and progression curves. (I was almost a math major in college before I came to my senses and pursued creative writing.)

Far more relevant to my writing is my history with tabletop RPG’s. I learned the craft of GM-ing from Kevin Kulp, an extraordinarily talented writer and TTRPG designer. Inspired by his skill, I designed and ran a 15-year-long D&D campaign, the bones of which form the skeleton of The Heroes of Spira.

I’m sure some of your readers have just had blaring alarms go off in their heads. “Oh, this is just some dude retelling his D&D campaign! I hate that!” To those people, I can offer this balm: While I used my 15 years of world-building as a foundation, I’ve always centered the characters at the heart of these books. I’ve also put a lot of effort into thinking about why RPG campaigns are typically not well suited for novelization, and what it would take to make that transition work. Before I started the first chapter of the first book, I spent months pondering issues of pacing, characters and their motivations, foreshadowing, the artificial feeling of “leveling up” and “character classes,” and the fact that games and books, at a fundamental level, are aimed at different audiences.

I’d like to think that The Heroes of Spira will evoke the feel of spying on a table where a truly epic D&D campaign is playing out, but without the burden and awkwardness of all the surface trappings of TTRPGs.

One of my favorite review quotes thus far has been this: “While some D&D-inspired novels struggle to be anything but a D&D campaign transcript, The Ventifact Colossus rises above the inspiration and proves to be an entertaining, relatively lighthearted, and satisfying story with a whole lot of heart.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

I hope it’s not too spoilery to say that there’s a death scene in a later book that got me a bit choked up to write. One side-effect of writing lovable heroes is that I grow quite attached to them. On top of wanting to make sure I gave them a suitably emotional send-off, I was extremely sad to see them go.


Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

I love writing villains! Maybe it’s because I’m such a harmless, dopey, middle-aged*, dad-joking fellow, but I adore the chapters when I get to write the bad guys, be they cackling moustache-twirlers or urbane banter-maesters. The main villain of the fourth book (“The Infinite Tower”) is a person named Axamand who pursues the heroes through a [SPOILER REDACTED]. He’s confident, talented, outwardly likable, enjoys nature, values his relationship with his partner, likes a good challenge, and can’t stop reminding the reader that he’s also a horrific sadist. He’s been the most fun character to write in the series to date. 

*
Can I still say I’m middle-aged at 51? Even though the AARP is flooding my house with mail like Hogwarts trying to make sure Harry gets his invitation?

Do you have any writing quirks, or a routine that you stick to?

I’m not sure this is a quirk per se, but I do a thing that most authors will say loudly NOT to do, which is edit as I go. I can’t help myself. Even knowing I may later delete whole section or chapters, I still smooth out my sentences. Yes, it results in some wasted effort, but it also means my first drafts are remarkably clean. (Not that I don’t still go back and hack them to pieces!)

As for routine, when I’m in drafting mode, I take great pains to write at least 500 words every day, no matter what else is happening or how late it is when I start. I keep a spreadsheet of progress and word counts, and when I miss a day due to emergency or wilderness vacations, I know exactly how much I need to write to maintain a 500 WPD average.


Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”?

According to my meticulous calculations and overly complicated spreadsheets, I am 83% plotter and 17% pantser.

Before I wrote a single word of the Heroes of Spira, I had outlined all the major plot events and most of the connecting threads for all five books. That has given me a big advantage when it comes to foreshadowing and setting up big scenes in satisfying ways.

I also had character arcs broadly sketched, but I’ve often found my protagonists doing and saying things I hadn’t mapped out. That can lead to some surprising threads that I’ve then had to figure out how to weave into the larger tapestry of the series.

I will say that despite my preference for thorough outlining, sometimes my pants take over. For example (and please excuse the vagueness in the interest of non-spoilage) in one of the books, a character finds himself unexpectedly imprisoned by his enemies. My outline called for a series of conversations between the hero and his captor, along with some thwarted escape attempts, on the way to a pivotal final confrontation. But when I started to write the first scene in that arc, the very first person he encountered was a spy who’d infiltrated the enemy organization, and who promised to help him escape. That person was nowhere in my notes, and literally came into being as I was writing her. It felt perfectly right and proper at the time. I rejiggered that entire sub-arc to accommodate her. And since then, I’ve written that new character into the outline for the final book, where they’ll serve a small but vital role in the story.


I love that your book has that “classic fantasy feel” to it. Do you have any inspirations in the genre, or authors you look up to?

The full list of authors I admire and from whom I derive inspiration would be prohibitively long for this format, but I’m happy to share a few.

Michael J. Sullivan, author of the “Riyria Revelations” and its many prequels, is probably my closest “comp” among writers. Not that I can match his skill, of course, but he writes character-centered adventure stories with a similar “planned arc” feel to Heroes of Spira. (I’ve had two separate reviewers make that connection, so it’s not entirely my imagination!)

Mike Shel is a fellow self-published author who I think is absolutely brilliant. His Iconoclasts series is a great take on D&D-ish storytelling, though his books are much darker and more atmospheric than mine.

Josiah Bancroft inspires me not only with his amazing prose, but also because he’s such a genuine, kind, and helpful person on social media. (I assume he’s that way in real life, too!) I hope if I ever achieve half his success, I can comport myself with such humility and grace.

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

Oh, goodness. My answer to this question depends on my mood and changes often enough that I’ll give you a half-dozen of my favorites.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov is a playful puzzle box of a novel that showcases Nabokov’s gorgeous prose without the subject-matter discomfort of Lolita.

Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R.Tolkien is beautiful and atmospheric, a seminal work in the genre, and my sentimental favorite. Who else can get away with starting so many sentences with “And lo!” and have it not seem corny?!

The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft is a masterpiece, and its author a true maestro of the perfect simile. (Note that this is the third book in his Books of Babel series, and the author is currently working on the fourth and final volume.) I don’t think I’ve ever been more eager for a book release!

West with the Night is the memoir of Beryl Markham, the first aviator to cross the Atlantic east to west. Utterly gripping, with prose so crackling it’s probably dangerous to read in the bathtub. (The author is one of the few that the famously cantankerous Ernest Hemingway is on record as heaping praise upon.)

The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow. I’m a sucker for elegant prose, and this book delivers the wordsmithing goods in a lovely tale about magic doors and the power of stories.

The Scar, by China Mieville. If you’re ever in the mood for something mind-bendingly weird, often terrifying, and fantastically written, first read Perdido Street Station, and then read this.


Author Bio:

Dorian Hart is the author of the Heroes of Spira epic fantasy series, which currently includes The Ventifact Colossus, The Crosser’s Maze, and The Greatwood Portal. He also wrote the interactive science fiction novella Choice of the Star Captain for Choice of Games.

In a bygone century, Dorian graduated from Wesleyan University with a degree in creative writing. This led circuitously to a 20-year career as a video game designer, where he contributed to many award-winning titles including Thief, System Shock, System Shock 2, and BioShock.

Now he writes books in his Boston-area study, serves as the stay-at-home dad for his two teenage daughters, and happily allows his wife to drag him off on various wilderness adventures.

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an interview with Luke Tarzian

I’m fortunate to be able to hear from Luke Tarzian, author of dark fantasy. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about Vultures? 

VULTURES is…dark. Some people have said it’s the darkest fantasy they’ve ever read (I’m especially chuffed to have been told by one reviewer that it was more brutal than Joe Abercrombie). VULTURES is very much a story about love, loss, grief, and mental illness through the eyes of reluctant heroes. It takes place in a very phantasmagoric landscape full of demons, in a land where dreams are sometimes more than dreams and everyone—I mean everyone—is broken. Think some amalgamation of Edgar Allan Poe, The Licanius Trilogy, and a David Lynch film.”


What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy? 

“Reading Harry Potter and wanting to create my own worlds. I’ve been in love with the fantastic since I was a child and Harry Potter was kind of the final push I need to say “Hey—I’m gonna write my own stuff.” I write fantasy for escapism and the ability to self-examine through a fictional lens. I deal with a lot of depression and anxiety, and being able to filter that into my characters and take them on a journey helps me figure out my own issues.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot? 

“Characters one-hundred percent.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way? 

“Oh god, only way too much. A lot of the grief and loss and depression and anxiety and anger issues yada yada yada that the characters in VULTURES are subjected to are very much manifestations of my own struggles. For me, writing those into my characters a) helps make my characters that much more relatable and b) is stupidly and completely cathartic.”

What was the hardest character or part to write? 

“There is a moment in a scene very late in the book, probably in the third to last chapter, that was, in a sense, very real to write as it was heavily, heavily influenced by my mother’s death and her state in the final days before she passed. It was extremely cathartic to write, but it also fucked me up for a few days.”

I see your book is described as featuring anxiety and depression. I am always appreciative of any author who includes mental health representation in their work. Was it difficult to write about those things? 

“Yes and no. Yes because it’s always scary examining yourself, especially to that degree. But no, for the exact same reason, if that makes sense. Once you take a hard look at yourself and realize you have some issues you need to deal with (at least in my case), it becomes that much easier to address your issues through a fictional lens. A lot of the stuff I write I do so because I have a story to tell, but the way it comes out is absolutely related to what’s going on in my head.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Honestly, it really depends on the character. I consider myself an exceptionally strong character writer so, at the very least, any character I write is going to be fun. I think the bigger question is what character is the hardest to write, and, for me, it’s any character who is on the precipice of absolute good or absolute evil—because most people are somewhere in between (I think).”

Would you consider yourself more of a “pantser” or a plotter?

“I’d say I’m somewhere in between. I like to have a brief idea of where I’m going—the simplest of roadmaps. But, for the most part, my writing is very exploratory, very instinctive.”

How do you get “in the zone” when writing?

“Coffee and white noise, preferably rain. I don’t really write chronologically either, so I like to pick something I’m especially excited about to start with when I sit down to write as it helps build momentum.”


Luke Tarzian is…
Fantasy Author. Long Doggo Enthusiast. Snoot Booper. Shouter of Profanities. Drinker of Whiskey. These are all titles. I’m the Khaleesi nobody wanted and the one they certainly didn’t deserve, but here we are.

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an Interview with Marcus Lee

I’m so excited to be joined by Marcus Lee, author of Kings and Daemons. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me!

First, why don’t you tell everyone a little bit about Kings and Daemons?

“Well, Kings and Daemons is my first published book. It is also the first in a trilogy called ‘The gifted and the cursed.’

It seems that for different people it is many different things, for some, it is dark fantasy, for others high fantasy, or even fantasy romance.

I have tried to craft a story in a genre that is littered with magic and powers without limits, whereby those who are gifted by the gods are also cursed, and thus it adds balance. There are no omnipotent characters, and I’d like to think everyone is fallible, vulnerable and torn about many of the choices they have to make that are often forced upon them. We see guilt, love, jealousy, betrayal, greed, ambition, sacrifice, and so much more from many different characters.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for possible readers. Yet, if someone wants more flesh added to the bones, I can only point them to your own review, or that of many other amazing bloggers who wrote novellas singing praises of the plot. These can be found linked to my review page on the website http://www.marcusleebooks.com.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“I grew up reading fantasy from an early age. Anyone who knows me or followed the recent blog tour will likely be familiar with my tales of reading Homer the Illiad and Oddysey around the age of seven. Thereafter it was tales of greek heroes, mythology, then moving into mainstream fantasy was a mere step away. Being such an avid reader (I did branch into sci-fi here and there) it was only natural that if I were to write, it would be fantasy through and through. Saying that, I a half-finished sci-fi standalone book that I might go back to one day… so never say never.

I’ve written so many short stories and poetry throughout the years, but a beautiful woman who had a hugely positive impact on my life was the main inspiration for me picking up a quill and putting it to parchment. My son was also an important reason, for I wanted to leave him a legacy that lived on, and we have agreed to start a family tradition whereby every father writes a book or books for their children.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“For me, the characters come first. I so wanted people to love every character I created or loved to hate them. If you can get readers to invest emotion in the characters, then the plot follows easily, and it matters less what the characters do, as long as it is them doing it. Of course, I wanted the plot to keep readers on the edge of the seat, constantly pulling them along, wanting to read ‘just one more chapter’ so don’t think I ignored that at all.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“All the handsome, witty ones! … if only. Seriously though, many of the characters and a lot of the emotions are from personal experience or from people I know. I would like to think I am a warrior without peer like Kalas, or a bit of a rogue like Taran, but I think I would be doing their characters a disservice if they were supposed to be like me… However, Taran is a bit of a romantic.. and I can’t help but admit to being one myself.. so perhaps him, if any.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“I think for me some of the most enjoyable, but difficult parts to write, were the backstories of the characters, both primary and secondary without it being an info dump or burdensome on the reader. For me, these were important parts of the worldbuilding, and gave readers an understanding into the motives behind actions, or to help the reader understand how they became, who they became. People in this world are not born evil, events shaped them, and I wanted the reader to not be treated as a fool with just glib portrayals. What I have liked about so many reviews is that readers had so many favourite characters based a lot on understanding their historic journeys.”

Your book took a darker tone, without crossing the line into completely hopeless. How were you able to write positivity into a negative world?

“If you think book one took a darker tone, sadly (spoiler alert) there is much more to come. Yet, life and writing is about finding balance. For me, Maya’s gift was the key, showing that spark of hope on the darkest of nights. Sometimes that is all it takes, one small spark to start a fire that burns with a brightness that can be seen from the heavens.”


Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“That’s a tough question, especially as in my books I try and have the propensity for both good and heinous deeds in every character, with the exception of perhaps Maya. I enjoyed writing the stories for all my characters equally, even crafting backstories for the secondary characters was a joy irrespective of their leaning toward light or darkness. So, I’ll sit on the fence on this one.”

Are you a “pantser” or a “plotter”?

“I knew the plot in my head from start to finish, but never wrote it down, so I guess I am more a pantser (which by the way I had to google) .. I already have my next trilogy in my head, but as I’ll be working on this project for a while yet, who knows maybe I’ll jot some notes down … maybe.”

What do you do to get “in the zone”?

“I really do need ‘peace and quiet’ from others around me and also from other ‘things’ that need attention. So, if I have a must-do list, there would be no point trying to write. Once all those things are out of the way I can turn on some familiar music that suits the mood of what I am trying to write.”

What’s your next goal?

“I have two main goals.

  1. To continue with polishing ‘Tristan’s Folly’ the second book in the series. It was going to be ready for release in August, yet I had some new ideas which involved a ‘little’ rewrite. So it is delayed by about a month, maybe a touch more. ‘The end of dreams’ book three, is already written as well, so it’s just editing, editing, editing, proofreading, beta reading etc. to get them ready.
  2. I also really want to engage with readers who have enjoyed the book. It isn’t just because I want to grow my fanbase, although that would be lovely, it is because of the inspiration positive feedback gives me. Reading a good review, or receiving a message saying someone liked the book, is like a legal drug, I get so high and become enthused and creative. Even negative critique makes me strive to be better, as long as it is delivered nicely.

There’s a reason I am open to DM’s on Twitter and have my email up on my website, so if anyone wants to reach out, I would love them to do so.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favourite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

“In which case, Kings and Daemons! In some ways, anything you put so much time, love and life into, will be so close to your heart that it is hard not to feel that way. Who knows, once more books are out I’ll have another favourite.

However, it would be horribly narcissistic to just say my own and not give credit to others, so, I think it would have to be ‘Lion of Macedon’ by David Gemmel. I love historical fantasy, and greek mythology is my favourite, so it fits perfectly.”

Self-published Fantasy Authors: an Interview with Virginia McClain

Today I have the pleasure of picking author Virginia McClain’s brain (in a nonviolent way). Thanks for chatting with me!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books?

“Because I’m terrible at telling people about my books! Ahem. But I’ll try. 🙂

I have two main series. My Victoria Marmot series, which is humorous urban fantasy with a dash of parody, and my Gensokai series, which is epic fantasy set in a fictional society (on a fictional planet) that draws a lot of inspiration from feudal Japan. Or at least the first two books are epic fantasy. The third book, which I’m working on currently, is more low fantasy adventure than epic fantasy (although it leads into an epic arc so…). I guess it’s complicated. 

The Victoria Marmot series is complete, with five short books in total, and The Chronicles of Gensokai series is ongoing, with two books out already, one coming in Spring of 2021 and many more to come after that. However, so far, each of the Gensokai books can be read as a standalone. There are no cliffhanger endings in the Gensokai series and you don’t have to read the books in the order they were published, although that’s probably the best way to enjoy them in terms of lack of spoilers. The Victoria Marmot series on the other hand is absolutely sequential, full of cliff hangers, and should be read in order or it will probably fail to make sense. (It’s available as a convenient omnibus for that very reason.)”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“There have always been stories in my head. I’ve been reading since I was very little.  My mom read to me a ton as a baby and toddler, and then as soon as I learned to read on my own I disappeared into books as often as I could. But a lot of the stories I read when I was little featured, well, dudes. And, while I enjoyed those stories, I always wanted the main characters to be… well me, at least when I was young. I later realized that I didn’t care if the books featured me or not, but that I wanted them to feature more women in general, but to start with, as a kid, I just wanted to be the main character in all my favorite books.

So, for every book I read and enjoyed my brain would start rewriting the story with ME in it. Then I’d start rewriting the stories to change other things that I thought could be better and… well, the first fantasy stories I wrote featured hedgehogs and dragons and were scribbled in barely legible crayon (so they definitely didn’t feature me yet, but hedgehogs and dragons were my favorite animals at the time, so it was an extension of me, in a way). I still have those (thanks, Mom). 

As to why fantasy? I think I’ve always been drawn to fantasy because I have always wanted very strongly to believe in magic despite being a firm believer in science. I do subscribe to the idea that sufficiently advanced science is basically magic to those who don’t know how to explain it, and thus sci/fi and fantasy have always been where my imagination takes me. I also love how sci/fi and fantasy allow us to explore some of the hardest philosophical questions through digestible fiction and make us think far outside our own experiences. “

Do your books change a lot between their inception and the final draft?

“Yes and no. It really varies from project to project. Blade’s Edge, which was the first book I published, was the fourth draft of the third book I ever wrote. The original draft was about 120,000 words long and, while the final draft was 110,000 words or so, the percentage of words in the final draft that were also in the first draft was probably around 10%. That said, the overall arc was pretty much the same. There were just a number of characters who were added or removed or consolidated and a few subplots that got completely wiped out, and one or two that merged and… you get the idea. 

I often rewrite an entire scene from scratch when it comes to my final draft, even if I’m not changing anything major in the scene. For example, if I read over a scene from the first draft that feels clunky, instead of trying to rearrange it to make it flow, I often prefer to just start from scratch. The end result may be as much as 50% the same as the first draft, but I won’t have kept anything because I was feeling precious about it, but rather because it was good enough that I wrote it twice. 

In terms of projects that didn’t change as much, I didn’t have to make nearly as many changes through the five books of the Victoria Marmot series, and those books wound up being much closer to their first drafts. Probably around 75% of the first draft of each of those wound up in the final draft. I’ll be interested to see how this latest book I’m writing goes, because my process seems to be different for every book and I am not particularly good at predicting how much things will change until I’m actually in the revision stage. 

I will say, I generally consider first drafts as my opportunity to tell myself the bare bones of the story, figure out my characters and world, and get familiar with the voice and pacing. Once my first draft is done, I take some time to think about the story as a whole, in order to figure out what needs to be tightened up, and what needs to be cut to make sure that I don’t have any repeat scenes, redundant characters, or events that don’t really move the plot forward. From there I cut, add, and rearrange as necessary, and at the same time, I go through each scene and make sure that I actually describe the setting and characters at the start of every scene change. (I have a strong tendency to completely skip scene settings and character descriptions in first drafts–I know what everyone looks like and where everything is! Why take time to describe everything?–Um, maybe because it’s your damned job to make sure that people reading the book know what the heck is going on, Virginia?)”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“Hate to sound like a broken record, but it depends on the project! Victoria Marmot absolutely the started with a character and specific scene and I developed the rest out from there. Blade’s Edge, on the other hand, started with a world and a magic system. Then I added an oppressive regime and finally, after that, the MCs. That’s a big part of why so much was cut from the first draft to the final draft in that book. I did a ton of world building and character development on the page instead of in my notes! That is not the right place for that kind of thing. No reader needs to know every detail of all the secondary characters’ backstories etc, even if I do. However, that draft was an exercise in detailed world building (it was only my third book!) and I wasn’t organized enough to make separate notes so it all just came out in the story. Which was fine, that’s what first drafts are for. To save myself time, I have learned to do detailed world building and character notes FIRST, and then start writing the story after that. I guess the one thing that is consistent is that I tend to discover the details of the plot by actually writing the book, even if I outline the broad strokes first (beginning, middle, end). So far, I’ve either started with a world or a set of characters, and so I want to say that’s my normal. But it’s absolutely possible that for some future story I will come up with a plot first and the world and characters after. Never say never.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Mostly not. Usually, I give my main characters one trait/hobby/interest that I share with them, because it gives me a nice point of connection with them. However, that’s generally the limit. 

That said, the closest I’ve come to basing a character on myself is that I gave Victoria Marmot my voice, and my sexuality, both of which are pretty personal. She speaks a lot like I did in high school, and she’s bisexual, as I am. However, I also tried to modernize her a bit (it’s been a decade or two since I was 17 after all), and I also gave her a number of personality traits that we don’t share because, when all is said and done, she is NOT me. But, one of the tropes I play with in that whole series is the self-insert nature of a lot of urban fantasy. The series is written in first person and, as part of my voice, I gave Vic my sense of humor and tendency to joke when nervous. So, I’ve had a lot of people who know me personally tell me she reminds them of me. I also gave her my initials, just to be cheeky. But again, she’s not me, and she’s not even based on me, she just shares more of my traits than any of my other characters.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Any time my characters die. I hate writing deaths of characters I’ve spent so many months/years getting to know and love. Also, scene and character descriptions. I think I mentioned earlier how I forget them most of the time in the first draft and have to go back and add them later? I am terrible at them. Which is to say, I work very hard to make them ok in revisions, and then feel like a fraud when anyone compliments my writing for them.”

You have a large amount of the fantastical in your world. How do you come up with so many unique creatures?

“I borrow a lot from popular fantasy games and movies, as well as various mythologies, but I usually put my own twist on them. Mostly, I just let my characters describe what they’re seeing and write it down. Sounds a bit hands-off, but honestly, it’s rare that I design a fantasy creature in advance, it’s usually just “Oooh, look at that. WTF is that?” and then I write it down.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Both are fun, but villains are often more fun. That said, they are also often harder to write than heroes simply because every time I try to give a villain a complicated backstory, I wind up struggling to keep from making them a secret hero. Whoops!”

Lastly, I’m always curious: What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)?

“I absolutely cannot pick a single favorite book. However, I can give you a handful of favorites. Graceling by Kristen Cashore is one of my favorites of all time. Also, Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World series) by Rebecca Roanhorse, and the Shades of Magic series by V.E. Schwab. Also, during the pandemic I have been reading a lot of T. Kingfisher’s fantasy romance books, because they are pretty lighthearted and fun, and they are a nice stress free distraction from a world of chaos.”

Short Bio:

Virginia McClain is an author who masqueraded as a language teacher for a decade or so. When she’s not reading or writing she can generally be found playing outside with her four legged adventure buddy and the tiny human she helped to build from scratch. She enjoys climbing to the top of tall rocks, running through deserts, mountains, and woodlands, and carrying a foldable home on her back whenever she gets a chance. She’s also fond of word games, and writing descriptions of herself that are needlessly vague.

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with T.K.P. Sternberg

I’m excited to talk to T.K.P. Sternberg, author of The Singing Gold, today. Thanks for taking time to answer my questions!

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Singing Gold?

“The Singing Gold is the first in a series of maybe four or five novels following the reluctant adventures and tribulations of a poor family living on the very borders of a deep, wild forest. As a fantasy novel, I am sure it is not very typical. My heroes get pulled into something complicated and dangerous not from some urge to save the world or because they are fated to. They are much more already in a precarious situation, which makes it hard for them to say no or to back off when trouble comes knocking. It was important to me that my characters felt like real human beings living in a very real world, fantastic as it is. I love both fantasy and history with a passion, and with a highly critical mind.

            When I started writing, the one thing I wanted to avoid was tropes and stereotypes. As a matter of fact, I am quiet the stereotypical hater of stereotypes. This goes for the motivations and emotional life of my characters, for the world they inhabit, and for the events and accidents turning their everyday existence fraught enough to validate writing a book about them. If I would guess, I would say that The Singing Gold will be best enjoyed by people who have read a lot of speculative fiction and who wish for something a bit refreshing. For readers new to the genre, I admit that I might not be the best start, as I do my best to withhold at least the cheap and easy rewards that the genre promises.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“I’m a Swede who grew up in the 80’s loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at that time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream, labelling SFF as just for kids or as trash, and sometimes even as dangerous. But I loved my roleplaying games. I usually ended up being the DM, and after a few years I realized that one of the greatest joys was in the actual writing of the adventures and worlds I prepared for our sessions. I guess that is when I started writing. Whatever the format, be it trying your hand at fiction, bantering and gossiping with friends, or making up a scenario for a game, the urge for telling stories is age old and probably in our genes. I was lucky enough to discover it early on, but unfortunate enough to allow myself to be swayed from what I had started with so much playfulness and joy.

            As I slowly emerged from my teenage years and started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. Since I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me an endless amount of giving and receiving criticism, of thinking constructively about art, of writing and discussing. Goldsmith’s was above all a place where you learned to think as an artist, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.

            So now I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I live in Berlin since about a decade now, enjoying the closest thing you get to the Paris of la belle Epoque in this globalized hyper-economy of ours. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back on it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout detour to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“I only start thinking seriously about a story when I get a good idea for a premiss. These come a bit as and when they want to. I am one of those people who could have vouched for the existence of the Muses had I not been such a thorough non-believer in anything. They do speak to me however, and when and what they want to.

            Next comes some of the characters, the main people this premiss revolves around, and a few basic plotlines. I then slowly digest the main ingredients for a while, working on something entirely different and preferably for quite some time. If they survive this ordeal and come out the other side, they are worth taking a closer look at. And surprisingly enough, they always seem to have gained in weight by then. By this stage I start taking notes, still while working on something different. I very seldom sit down and plot. Instead, I wait for the story to whisper to me while my frontal cortex is occupied with something ‘important’, and thus forgets to intervene and mess everything up. When I feel that I have a good first look at the main characters, and know roughly where they are standing and in what direction I want to send them off, I simply start writing. I never have more than at the tops a quarter of the story ready in my head before I start. But I also wouldn’t start with just a cool character and a setting.

            I am very much a believer in letting the characters and the world guide you along. My job is to throw things in the way of the characters and then observe how they deal with it. This all sounds a bit esoteric, but is in fact the opposite. If I would give a rational explanation to it, it would run something like so:

            Anything can happen in a story as long as it is consistent with the story itself. When the story starts out, few things are set down, so the freedom but also the insecurity is great. As you go along and write what happens and what your characters do, you get more and more materials to reference your new ideas against. When you think of a way for your protagonist to get past an obstacle, you can check this against what you already know. Would Stig punch the guy and push past? Hardly. As I have written him up to now, he is much to careful for that and would find another way. Merely what you have written down is not enough to make these judgement calls, of course. You have to temper it with your own experience of the world, with what you know and feel about how people act and think. If you lack empathy, you will never be able to write great character driven stories. Also, if you lack curiosity, you will find it hard to describe anyone outside of your own narrow life. But there is always research where experience fails.

            I follow my own rule about internal consistency and honesty to my characters and world with stubborn determination. There are many examples of where my story took a completely different turn than I had thought, simply because I learned some new facts that threw off my plans. This is a good thing. Accepting outer borders and limits helps creativity push further, not the other way around (as I would have thought as a younger man, before all my years in the Arts). I will mention just one instance, to give a feeling of what it can concretely mean while writing.

            At one point fairly early on in the story, a physically weak character sees the threat of a much stronger one approaching. She is holding something small and valuable in her hand which she fears might be taken from her. In the spur of the moment she feeds it to a cow she is herding. I thought this a rather nifty idea for protecting your valuables. The potential bully would now have to drag the whole cow along would he want to get her treasure. And she would only have to keep an eye on the cow’s droppings for a while to get it back. Then I quickly researched how the innards of cows function, to get a good guess of how long my heroine would had to wait, and… Well, anyone with farming expertise will be smiling now. Others will have to read the book to find out. Anyhow, this is an example of how I am more than happy to be forced to rewrite my entire story as long as this makes it more true. Forcing through an idea you just had, no matter how brilliant it is, against the will of your own writing is never a good thing. Listening to where your characters and world wants you to take them is the key to deep and believable writing.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“I drew on a lot of my own experiences to create the main character Stig. He is not necessarily like me in that he is much more shy and hesitant, but in other respects he is. Stig is under constant pressure to provide for his family. As an often struggling artist, this is something I know a lot about. I wanted to integrate the boring part of poverty, that incessant weight of never being able to relax, of never having a backup or a surplus, into how my characters navigate the world. It was important to me that the main motivation be not how to achieve some lofty goals of incredible powers or of fulfilling your destiny, but rather the mundane and very common of making ends meet in a hostile environment. Admittedly, I have turned up the stress level some notches to make for a more dramatic story, but the basic focus is not of achieving but of making do.

            In a way, Stig is the least colourful of the characters in the book. I feel that this is right since he is very much a pair of eyes we can experience the world through. Given his extraordinary abilities of observation, tagging along gives us access to much more than simply the medieval everyday. He is also very calm and balanced, even if he makes some rash decisions. These don’t stem from his personality, however, but much more from the dire circumstances he finds himself in.”

What was the hardest character or part to write?

” It was tricky to flesh out the whole family as distinct and unique characters, as the trouble hitting them pushed in the same direction. The eldest daughter Klara was easy enough, since she embarks on her own escapades early on, but the mother and younger kids simply didn’t get enough specific resistance from the plot do emerge as fully drawn personalities yet. I plan for this to change in the second instalment, as much of the story focus will shift to Liv and how she will have to deal with the fallout of Stig’s failure. As I write almost no backstory, I need things to happen to my protagonists for them to emerge from the fog and become clear.”

I felt immediately drawn into the setting. What did it take to make it seem so complete and rich in historical detail?

“The Singing Gold is written against a very detailed background. The premise for my world is to take the real medieval Europe instead of inventing a quasi-Europe with vaguely disguised countries and regions. But to then populate it with all the beasts and beings from  my favourite mythologies, and the magic and mystery too. And to make it all work in a consistent and believable way.

            Writing within a historically realistic setting and being strict about it is a way for me to set up a framework against which I can bounce my creativity. If I know the world my characters inhabit, it is easier for me to figure out how they should act to solve their problems. Of course it means that I can’t often fall back on the first idea I get, but instead the result feels more solid. I hope. My protagonists didn’t move about on a blank piece of paper slowly filling it out to become a map as they trundled along, but rather started in the middle (not in the lower corner near the coast, as Diana Wynne-Jones so poignantly remark) of one that was there waiting for them.

            This goes for all the small details as well. Meaning, Stig never pulls something from his pockets, since they didn’t have pockets in the 13th century, and Klara ties her tunic together with a string, since neither did they have buttons. And none of the houses is made of huge blocks of stone, since even the king of Svitjod lived in a log house (or rather, in log houses) and only churches had started being built in stone. And no rich lord thunders past in his elaborately decorated coach with liveried servants hanging on to its back, since there were no roads around decent enough that one could drive such a carriage on, at least not in Svitjod. Which despite the perhaps initial doubt made it easier to write and not harder.

            To reach this kind of certainty in my story world, I had to do an inordinate amount of research. Or rather, I did, even if it might not have been all that necessary. Partly it was a way to delay the inevitability of having to start writing, I have to admit, but partly it was to give me a very secure base to stand on. As I continue writing, I am sure I will be more precise and economical with my research, but for The Singing Gold I went a bit overboard.

            It’s also amazing just how much you are able to research when you use the real world for your story. Not only Google Maps is available for you to zoom in on every topographic detail you want, but other resources are even more astonishing. I have to mention here ‘Fornsök’ on the website of Riksantikvarieämbetet (raa.se), the Swedish Archiver General. It has a clickable and zoomable map of Sweden with every single archaeological find marked out. You can search and filter for a number of different categories, or simply get very, very close to the area your protagonists are about to enter to see if there is something interesting there to include in the story. Clicking on the small icons on the map gives you access to photographs and notations done by the field archaeologist responsible for investigating that particular find. That’s how I got the beginning of the anecdote on Vendela and her mound. Vendela’s mound is really there by the way. As is Ottar’s mound, and all the old boat graves around the church. I never visited Vendel in person, but the majestic seven mounds next to the church of Old Upsala, I managed to see.

            Standing on top of the largest mound, the one where Illugi performs his improvised spell to alleviate Stig, while looking down on the old stone church was a truly magical moment. The 11th century church is small. It’s what you would expect from a large village perhaps, not from an entire bishopric. And the huge mounds dwarf it in volume if not in height. A moment like this where I could feel history under the soles of my feet helped me get a perspective on all the history I had read. It helped me decide what interpretations of the finds I would go with. For interpret one must. In history there are precious few facts, but an abundance of traces and relics. How one chooses to read the signs is very much up to you, and says a lot about you. This vagueness is fantastical too. It allows for imagination to happen. The traces of our real lived history provides at best a skeleton which I as an author can dress with my own views, ideas and speculation.”

Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?


“I find side characters more fun and easy to write than main characters. Since they don’t have to carry the weight of the story forwards, but most often try to get in its way, it allows for freer creation. As for villain and heroes, I think and hope that I have complicated things a bit more than that. I don’t believe in the simple good vs evil dichotomy in real life, so neither do I want it in my fiction. Sure, there are a lot of people out there with truly vicious and caustic behaviours, opinions and beliefs, but none of them are beyond empathy. If someone is a human being, a good author should be able to imagine how it feels to be that person, to live that life and make those decisions.

            The two parts that were most fun to write in The Singing Gold both were kind of rascals: Illugi and Valgeir. One very sophisticated and arrogant, the other charmingly natural and unabashedly selfish. Giving voice to someone not hampered by social norms and morals can, of course, be such a relief and is probably why so many writers love their ‘villains’. I hope it will be even more fun when we get to the non-human opposition in the next book. When we get to know the dwarves better, and start getting real cosy with the creatures of the forest. Because even beasts can’t be merely one dimensional killing machines. That would be boring.”

Do you have any writing quirks, or a routine that you stick to?

“Writing comes easiest in the morning. For the promise of an undisturbed writing session, I have no trouble getting up at 5. My biggest problem, with a toddler at home and a wife with a busy work-schedule, is finding time to write at all. I am sure this is the boring reality for many writers and other artists. I usually solve this by working frantically at all my other duties until I have a clear slate of a few weeks ahead with at least a couple of free hours each day. That way I can get into writing properly and let it flow, until I have to wrap up for a while and abide the next possible bout.”

Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

“I don’t have any books as my all time favourites. I like or don’t like what I read at the moment. This even goes for the heroes of my youth, maybe because I found Fantasy through roleplaying games and not through, for example, Tolkien. When I read Tolkien the first time, I had already gamed with halflings and dwarves and elves.

            What I really enjoy as an adult are authors who manage to surprise me, and at the same time be in total control of their craft. I am very sensitive to inconsistencies and to when the illusion is broken, for example by a vampire behaving like some insecure high-school kid, or by the squire arguing class-identity with his knight. Some writers I have enjoyed very much recently are Angela Boord, Joe Abercrombie, Octavia Butler, Rob J. Hayes, Naomi Novik… All very different but with a distinct and confident style.”

Author Bio:

I’m a Swedish guy who grew up in the 80’s, loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at the time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream labelling SFF as trash or as just for kids. Sometimes even as dangerous. As I started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. As I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead of continuing to fight orcs and write sagas. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me endless amounts about giving and receiving criticism, thinking constructively about art, writing and discussing… but not much craft. That was never what Goldsmith’s was about. It is not place where you learn to paint or sculpt as an artist, but a place where you learn to think as one, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.

            Since fifteen years, I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I have been living in Berlin for about a decade, enjoying the closest thing to the Paris of la belle Epoque that you get in this globalized hyper-economy of ours, I guess. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back at it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout way back to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.

            I am married and have a three year old daughter. I speak English to my wife, Swedish to my daughter and the family back in Stockholm, and German or English to friends and colleagues. English is very much the Lingua Franca of the art world, but it is often so badly mishandled that I sometimes wonder if it shouldn’t be re-named Globish instead, at least as a dialect.

I can be contacted through my website http://tkpsternberg.com/

and my book can be found on Amazon at  http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07T984K3B

or Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54670943-the-singing-gold

Mental Health in Literature: A Conversation with Author Fiona West

Finishing up my weekly series on mental health and literature is author Fiona West. Thank you so much for contributing!

First, can you tell me a bit about your book?

The Semi-Royal is about a woman who’s under immense pressure, being both a princess third in line to the throne and a widely-renowned doctor. She’s in denial about a lot of things, her attraction to her brother’s best friend being one, and it’s the story of her slowly coming to accept and make peace with herself and her body.

One of things I wanted to explore in this book is the relationship between a woman’s mind and her body. One of the things that frustrates Rhodie is that her body isn’t really under her control…as a doctor, she knows a lot about the body in general, but an event in her past has caused her to lose faith in her body. And I think that’s a connection we don’t talk about enough: a lot of mental suffering is caused by worrying about our bodies and what they look like. I know as someone with a chronic illness, it’s really impacted my relationship with my body. I hated it. I hated that it didn’t do what I wanted it to, I hated that it didn’t do what other people’s bodies did. And over time, I had to learn to see it differently: that a flare wasn’t my body failing me, it was just part of a complicated situation. My body is still keeping me alive, my heart’s still pumping, my lungs are still taking in air. And when I shifted my focus from what my body couldn’t do to what it could, my mental health improved tremendously. I had to learn to re-interpret symptom flares as communication from my body instead of a betrayal. In a word, I had to learn compassion for my own body. I still fail at it plenty, but it’s something I’m working toward, and it’s something I wanted to write about. Mental health is a journey. And even though it’s fiction, Rhodie’s story reflects that. It was a really difficult balance to give her enough progress that we felt her story was resolved and still portray that it was an ongoing struggle for her.

Do your characters go to counseling?

For Rhodie, counseling was necessary. Several members of her family and her boyfriend all try to talk to her about her disordered eating, but she’s so deep in denial that she really can’t believe it until she talks to a professional. She valued his authority. And more than that, I think what she really needed was an outside voice. Someone who wasn’t going to remind her of her royal responsibilities and how this might look to the press. Just someone to come at an issue from another angle, one we can’t get to on our own. In the book, Rhodie likens the experience to one of those paintings that looks like an old woman to some people and a young woman at a mirror to others. That’s what counseling has been to me: just a different perspective on my own life. And it did help her. It gave her a way to move forward in repairing her relationship with her body. It was slow, of course, but so many good things in life are.

Have you had any experience with counseling? How has it affected you?
I still remember when I was about fourteen, I was going through my mother’s planner looking for a phone number (remember when people had paper planners? Good times.). On her calendar, she’d written ‘counseling’ on the month’s agenda. Being helplessly curious, I paged back: she’d been going for months. When I asked her about it, she gently told me that the counselor was helping her and my dad work through some things in their marriage and that it was nothing to worry about. That it was, in fact, proof that they were going to make it. (Spoiler alert: they’re celebrating 45 years in May.)
That’s the shift we need to make as a culture: throwing away the idea that counseling is a busted bucket for a sinking ship and instead see it as the personal flotation device that we keep with us, just in case. When I went on a cruise, we all stood around in the bar, doing the drill about what to do if there’s an emergency. But we didn’t throw our life vests overboard after that. Those devices are good for all kinds of things: kids who can’t swim, snorkeling trips, a cushion for your butt on a hard bench. We kept them in their designated spot in our cabins, close at hand. That’s how I want us to think about counseling: a tool for the right situation. I’ve met with a counselor once: sometimes, once was enough. It got me through that storm, helped me get my boat rightside up again. I’ve met with other counselors for several months: those issues were deeper. Sometimes, a hug from a friend or a listening ear was enough. Sometimes, just a good jungle yell and a cry was enough. But it’s silly that we still talk about counseling in hushed tones instead of getting on the roof and letting everyone know how much it helped. Let me start: it helped me, and while I can’t speak for others, I think it’s something worth trying, even before it’s an “emergency.” Do a drill: try it on and see how it feels.

As a writer, how do you feel about mental health portrayal in literature?

What’s saddest to me in literature is when poor mental health is depicted as some kind of moral failing by a degenerate soul. There are so many factors that go into our mental health, but one of the most poignant ones is the story of leaded gas. In his article, “How Lead Caused America’s Violent Crime Epidemic,” Alex Knapp writes that “every country studied has shown [a] strong correlation between leaded gasoline and violent crime rates. Within the United States, you can see the data at the state level. Where lead concentrations declined quickly, crime declined quickly. Where it declined slowly, crime declined slowly. The data even holds true at the neighborhood level – high lead concentrations correlate so well that you can overlay maps of crime rates over maps of lead concentrations and get an almost perfect fit….decades of research has shown that lead poisoning causes significant and probably irreversible damage to the brain. Not only does lead degrade cognitive abilities and lower intelligence, it also degrades a person’s ability to make decisions by damaging areas of the brain responsible for ‘emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility.’” If we’re demonizing people for needing help or writing them off as “crazy,” we may never help them identify the other underlying causes, such as environmental toxins, that might be affecting their health. This is just one example, but it indisputably shows why we need to think more deeply about it as a culture, which is why I’m grateful to Jodie for starting the conversation here. (You rock, Jodie.)

Fiona West is the author of The Semi-Royal, among other books. Look for her work on Amazon.

Image result for semi-royal by fiona west