Each week, I’ll pester one of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work and, if I’m feeling wicked, deeply personal issues. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
Howard Andrew Jones and I met at Gen Con, where we were promoting the earliest Pathfinder Tales novels. His first, Plague of Shadows, remains one of my favorites of the line. Soon after reading it, I discovered his excellent Dabir and Asim novels, including The Desert of Souls and the recent Bones of the Old Ones.
We immediately realized we had plenty in common, including our shared love of sword & sorcery, antiheroes, non-European fantasy and adventure, and of course bromance narratives. When he was the only one to laugh at my slightly obscure Star Trek (original series) jokes, I realized we were brothers-in-arms.
Paizo recently published Howard’s second Pathfinder Tales novel, Stalking the Beast.
1. You’re a fellow fan of Roger Zelazny. How has his work inspired your own, both in Pathfinder Tales and in your Dabir and Asim novels?
I marvel over Zelazny’s wonderful unreliable narrator, Corwin, the forward momentum of Zelazny’s plots, his wild, inventive epic settings (never bother taking your characters anywhere dull), and the layers upon layers of secrets and intrigue. Just when you think you know what’s happening in a Zelazny story you realize something there’s something else behind it, and I at least grow eager to find more answers.
As a narrator, my character Asim is completely reliable because he’s so honest, but he was still influenced by Corwin in that his narrative is colored by what he understands. And there are some things Asim just doesn’t perceive about emotions or human behavior because he’s a man of his time and culture and, while no dullard, he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. His misinterpretations lead sometimes to comedy and sometimes to tragedy. He’s a flawed narrator, and I took that from Zelazny.
As for Zelazny’s secrets upon secrets, I loved those so much that I think that particular aspect of Zelazny’s writing is intercalated into whatever I do. I’d like to think that what may seem a straightforward plot is actually complicated with surprises and startling character revelations.
And momentum, well, I think almost all of my favorite writers—with the exceptions of Lord Dunsany and Tanith Lee—are committed to forward momentum, so I’m not sure I can blame all of my fascination with that component of my fiction on Zelazny, but I still study how he does it in a way that is connected both with character arc and the revealing of mystery.
2. As both an editor and an author, how do you see your mental process changing from one task to the other? Are there some ways in which editors are handicapped while writing? Are there ways in which they have an advantage?
At this point the two are so intimately connected for me I can’t really separate them. They aren’t two hats that I take on and then off… but then most of the editing I do now is of my own work. Anymore I don’t just write it once through and then say, “well, time to edit.” I’m using a method where I script out a scene or even an entire chapter, then come back and add in description and punch up the dialogue, then move forward to do the same elsewhere. Though moving forward, I continually circle back, so that bit by bit the work gets fleshed out in greater detail. Right now this procedure is working beautifully. I’ll be curious to see if it’s still working in five years
All the editing for others that I’ve done in the last two years or so has been feedback for other writers (and I’ve been so busy there’s been precious little of that). I guess that sort of editing, at least, requires the wearing of a different hat, because I don’t just drop in to a manuscript and start changing someone else’s prose. I have to be more conscious about the process so that I can say “this character arc needs bolstering, perhaps you need to add a scene that does this” or “this bit here is confusing, you need to add more description” or “you need to drop the three paragraphs here describing the history of Morvock culinary habits and get to the conflict.”
I’ll be completely honest and say that I think someone trained as an editor has a tremendous advantage as a writer. I can’t think of a downside. As a full-time technical book editor I might not have been working with fiction and studying world building, but I was still striving to improve clarity. As a fiction editor first with Flashing Swords e-zine and then Black Gate, I saw masses of problematic fiction (and you can get great lessons on what not to do that way), a smaller number of promising pieces that I guided through revision, and an even smaller number of true gems. That experience, added in with the years I spent scanning, proofing, and otherwise preparing Harold Lamb’s historical fiction for reprint, gave me a real leg up with my own writing.
3. You wrote a non-Pathfinder novel, then Plague of Shadows, another non-Pathfinder novel, then Stalking the Beast. Do you find it difficult or refreshing to switch between settings? What are the perils of keeping two worlds in your head?
Actually, yes, I’ve found it a huge shift, and stepping from one to the other required more weeks than I would have liked to adjust between the different kinds of tone. On the one hand, it’s refreshing. On the other, it’s frustrating.
They’re similar in that my work for Pathfinder and for Arabian fantasy is still about the unveiling of mystery, forward momentum, action, and character. And both require an inordinate amount of research, albeit different kinds. When I’m writing Pathfinder I have to know an area of the world, the capabilities of classes, the ecology and habits of any kind of creatures that the heroes meet, etc. The Dabir and Asim stories have elements of fantasy, but they are set in a real time and place in our world. Not only do I have to be familiar with the people and environments that existed, I have to know the cultures and mores so that I can write of them not just with authority, but with the respect they deserve.
Asim’s tone is so different from the third person feel of Elyana and her crew I don’t get confused over tone—I’m never writing a scene narrated by Asim and accidentally have him say something Elyana would have said, for instance. But jumping from one to the other quickly proved impossible until just recently. I’d like to think I’m getting to be a little more fluid as a writer.
4. In choosing the locations for your Pathfinder novels, what first appeals to you about a particular location? What made you choose the settings for Plague of Shadows and Stalking the Beast?
I remember reading one speculation on a Paizo forum, early on, that I must have been assigned remote locations because I wasn’t a known game writer and couldn’t be trusted with important places. But James Sutter doesn’t work that way, and I’m sure that if I’d come up with a concept we both liked smack dab in the middle of, say, Absalom, he’d have been more than happy to let me go for it.
I like out-of-the-way places because I don’t like feeling hemmed in. Maybe it’s because while writing in historical lands for my Arabian fantasy series I fret constantly about getting some feature of the culture or area wrong. When I’m writing in the Pathfinder world I prefer to be some place where I’m not as dependent upon someone else’s vision. Well, sure, I have to know the races and countries of Golarion and the spell effects and capabilities of classes, but I want to be able to come up with the people and customs and land features of an area on my own and just… invent a little. I’m the same way with monsters, and James has been quite patient with me in that regard. I use some standard monsters, but in both books I’ve made a few things up for the good guys to fight because I love inventing weird monsters and effects. I guess that doubles back to my love of Zelazny.
So, more directly, I wanted Plague of Shadows on the periphery of a kingdom, close to several borders, and near to a totalitarian state that could furnish some great villains—Galt. And for Stalking the Beast, I created a small River Kingdom settlement that could be under threat. I debated using some of the existing places but none of them quite fit what I had in mind, or were quite close enough to the other places I needed my heroes to go.
5. Can you tell us a little about one of your favorite literary subjects, Harold Lamb? Which of his books would you recommend as a starting place for new readers?
Harold Lamb is the unsung grandfather of all sword-and-sorcery. Unlike a lot of genre progenitors, though, when you go back and read him you don’t feel like you’re slogging, or that “oh, this is of great historical interest, perhaps I shall write a paper.” You still get caught up in the story. He started writing his best work in 1917, but, swear to God, it still feels pretty modern. His pace is cinematic, and his plots complex, unpredictable, and crammed with action. He’s also remarkably unprejudiced, and routinely wrote about non-western heroes. Anyone who’s read other fiction of the period will understand just how astounding that truly is.
Sure, he wrote historical fiction, but he set it in times and places so unfamiliar to modern westerners that he might as well have been writing of fantasy lands, which is why fans of secondary world fantasy shouldn’t say “not my cup of tea” and turn away. His chief heroes are Cossacks wandering the Asian wilderness in the 17th century, or Crusaders struggling to survive the shifting alliances of the border kingdoms they created, or even adventuring with the invading Mongol tribes.
If you’ve read and loved Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, then you’ve read some of Lamb’s influence. He wrote grand, grand adventure. If you want Crusaders, head for Swords from the West. The prose is perhaps more polished than you’ll find in Lamb’s earlier work, but that collection has only a few interconnected tales. Wolf of the Steppes is the first of Lamb’s Cossack series featuring an aging, wily swordsman. The first one or two short stories are just okay, but Lamb learned so fast that by the third or fourth tale in the collection he was writing adventure masterpieces that could stand proudly beside genre classics like “Tower of the Elephant.” You’ll find lost tombs, the vengeance of emperors (living and dead). There are loyal comrades, implacable foes, powerful but foolish kings, secret societies, fabulous kingdoms, dark “wizards,” and forbidden secrets. It’s just fantastic stuff, and it’s criminal the work was neglected for so long and criminal still that most people who love fantasy have never read him.
Howard keeps a lively blog on writing and other matters at his website.