Every now and then, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Erin Evans and I were presenters on the same panel at the Writers’ Symposium at Gen Con a few years ago. We exchanged pleasantries, but we didn’t get to know each other.
The truth was I was afraid of getting too close.
Erin had just released a Forgotten Realms novel featuring a tiefling protagonist, and I’d recently done the same in the Pathfinder Tales line. You’d think we’d want to talk shop.
It’s hard for me to explain the rest without referring to “Unaccompanied Sonata,” an Orson Scott Card story about a musician who’s raised in isolation from any outside influence interfere with his growth as an artist. While that idea is ultimately silly when applied to the real world, I guess that story stuck with me, especially when I see authors—often writers I like and admire—lifting lines, names, or other elements from the work of others.
Thus, when I discover someone has written something similar to what I’m doing, I get nervous that maybe I’ll steal their ideas, even subconsciously. The only way to be sure (no, it’s not to nuke them from orbit) is not to read their work.
Thus, my conversation with Erin began with ana confession.
1. While tempted by the good reviews, I’ve resisted reading your Farideh novels for fear that I would subconsciously lift your ideas about tieflings. Do you find yourself embracing or resisting reading novels similar to your own work? Or do you seek inspiration in non-fantasy fiction?
Me too: Heard nothing but good things about Radovan and the Count, but it feels so easy to do! (Even though the longer we both go, the more I think we nail down our respective paths, and the less likely we are to veer).
I panic every time I read a novel that has similar elements to one of mine, even if objectively it makes no sense to worry. I mean, once I panicked because The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin had “similar elements” and it’s so brilliantly done. I hovered on despondency. Then my editor pointed out that “soul is fused with a more powerful entity” and “is attracted to dark, dangerous non-human entity” are not exactly, you know, an entire novel. But then I’ve had people tell me titles that remind them of certain parts of my books, and I can’t read those. I’ll save them for later, when I’m onto something else.
2. What first drew you to a devil-blooded character? Which of her human qualities does her infernal heritage most emphasize?
I like tieflings because they’re weird. So often you get fantasy races and they feel like better humans. Tieflings are inarguably alien—especially the devilborn, Asmodean tieflings I work with. They can’t hide who they are and who they are isn’t something most people want to be or be around. They’re like the opposite of elves. But at the same time, deep down, they’re human. They’re just normal people who happen to have big horns and weird eyes and a tail, and so they’re marginalized for it. And because they’re not a homogeneous culture in FR, there’s room to look at how a variety of people would cope with that. Do you throw yourself headlong into the version of you other people respect? Do you fight it and try to change opinions? Do you just grit your teeth and ignore it? Do you hate right back? Do you internalize it and hate what you are?
3. I enjoyed your live tweeting of gaming with your son. How is running a game for him more challenging than playing with adults? How is it just plain better?
So what I actually do is tell an ongoing story to my two-year-old which we call D&D (or as he says, “D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D&D”) The Continuing Saga of Issy the Tiefling Fighter, if you will. There’s no dice, there’s no minis, and it never ever ends. Right now it’s mostly him choosing which inn to stay in—he’s kind of obsessed with what the signs look like, what the bedrooms look like, what’s for breakfast, etc. But we play it because I play D&D once or twice a month, and he gets so upset I’m going without him.
I’ve DMed for adults once. I was terrible because I ran it like a novel: Here is the adventure and so no you cannot try and pick that lock, I want you over here. But that’s not remotely an option with my son. I’ll have a pirate hand him a treasure map to Harpy Island and mention off hand that it’s smelly. And he’ll refuse to take the map because he might want treasure but he doesn’t want to go somewhere smelly. There’s no planning. It’s entirely made up on the spot. It’s a little like writing on a deadline, because if you get stuck, you have no choice but to get unstuck.
4. What was your background in writing and reading before you worked for Wizards of the Coast? Who were some of the authors who first inspired you to write?
I started telling myself stories very young. I had a lot of sleep problems due to anxiety and this was how I occupied my frantic little brain. I was in early high school when I started writing, trying to get these stories down, and by college, I knew it’s what I wanted to do, at least in some fashion. I read voraciously—to the point that I’m never sure who really influenced me. Those years are kind of a blur of books. I still find people suggesting a book to me and about halfway through the description, it’s like the sun dawns. Oh! I’ve read that! But the vast majority was still fantasy and soft science fiction, with a sprinkling of literary/mainstream stuff (I had a serious John Irving kick in high school, followed by an Elmore Leonard phase in college).
But there’s one phase that I think must have made an impact: from the summer of 2003 through the spring of 2004, my now-husband and I drove around the country in an old RV. Up until then, my book habit was largely library-fed, but without a permanent address few libraries will let you borrow books. Our budget was obviously tight, but I found thrift stores were a good source of a book fix. One thing though: they sold paperbacks for 25 cents apiece or 10 for $1. So if you wanted more than three books, you really had to find ten books to buy. So I came to read my first western, my first vampire novel, my first true crime novel, my first chic-lit novel, my first military science fiction, and more. More than anything I think reading that widely made me appreciate what different genres do best. Romance novels are great to study for how to use character headspace. Mystery novels require a really tight structure, and the best ones know how to camouflage it so you don’t see the scaffolding, so to speak. I think Westerns are great for establishing character and setting quickly, but also for seeing how to use the tropes your readers expect without falling into the same story all over again. My writing from this period of my life is choppy and crazy and changing month to month, so fast that you can almost see these lessons synthesizing into a writing style. It’s a mess. But by the time I was invited to submit a story for Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep, everything had settled and I could write a book.
5. What draws you to fantasy as opposed to any other genre? What other genres do you feel you incorporate in your Realms novels?
For me fantasy is a way to make the internal external. Magic and monsters and strange happenings can all be metaphors for something bigger while still being just fun elements. I could probably argue that the Brimstone Angels Saga is an exploration on the anxiety around transitions and the social costs of marginalizing groups and how we handle mental illness—but it’s also about magic and devils. It can be both and it gives readers a way to approach these big, heavy, scary things without having to face them head on. The Adversary is, in a lot of ways, about depression—how it warps us and how we cope with it or don’t. I can’t tell you how many readers have told me that aspect of it spoke to them in a profound way, even though the “depression” is explicit in the big, scary shadow goddess of nihilism and her Chosen, the Nameless One. The way the characters cope with facing these threats in combination with their own demons still provoked a reaction.
And on the other hand, a lot of readers never mention it because they were focused on the Harpers and the prison escape story and all that fun stuff, but I have to believe it makes an impression regardless.