Each week, 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.
Paul S. Kemp and I first “met” by both writing novellas for The Halls of Stormweather, the anthology that launched the Forgotten Realms Sembia series. How I’d gotten on board is a longish story, but editor Phil Athans discovered Paul, whose character Erevis Cale would go on to become the undisputed phenomenon of the series in Shadow’s Witness. Paul was the first of my fellow Sembians to grant me permission to use his character in the final volume, Lord of Stormweather, for which I remain grateful.
Later, Paul wrote a story or two for me during my magazine years, and we’d occasionally bump into each other at conventions or, more often, online. We share a love of good whisky but part ways on cigars. While conducting legal battle during the day, he somehow remains a prolific author of both his original fantasy novels and some of the most popular Realms novels. Just yesterday Wizards of the Coast released his latest, The Godborn.
1. You and I got cooking on our writing careers within a few years of each other. I look back with mixed feelings, sometimes wincing at what I wrote 20 years ago, sometimes thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t half bad.” What are some ways in which you’ve improved from your earlier self? What are some lessons you didn’t realize you’d learned until you looked back much later?
Well, my earlier self didn’t have adamantium surgically implanted into his skeleton, claws that can cut through anything, and bouts of uncontrollable rage. Now that I have all of those things I suppose I’ve improved—
Oh, you mean with the writing?
It’s funny you mention the bit about looking back. With very rare exceptions (usually just to check this or that reference for the sake of consistency across a series), I never read anything of mine after it’s been published. Mostly that’s because I know I’ll just wince, tear it to bits, go on a drinking binge, sink deeply into one of the aforesaid bouts of rage, and go crazy with the adamantium claws and whatnot. On the whole that just seems ill-advised.
It’s a great question, though, and implicitly recognizes that writing really is a craft, something that always can be improved upon, and never really mastered. That’s one of the things that makes it so damn appealing–and sometimes frustrating. In my case, my prose has improved considerably over the years (and still gets a bit better with each book), as has my plotting. Looking back on some of my very earliest work, I see prose that’s solid but not exceptional, and plots that are much more linear than something I’d write today. I didn’t take as many chances with subject matter and point of view then as I do now.
Though to be fair to myself, I think characterization has been a strong suit of mine from day one, so I take pride in that even when giving the stink eye to other aspects of my old work.
2. We’ve both had occasion to write characters other people created. You and the rest of the Sembia team allowed me to include your characters in the final volume of the series, and you and I both wrote Tamlin Uskevren, created by Clayton Emery. What are some of the ups and downs of writing a character you didn’t create?
Honestly, when I’m writing a character that I didn’t create, they don’t feel entirely mine, so I never feel completely comfortable in their skin (or in their POV). I just don’t know them as well.
When I create my own characters, I try to do a psychological deep-dive into their motivations, drives, insecurities, strengths, the kind of things they may never even recognize in themselves and that may never actually come out in the book, but which have implications for their characterization. When I can’t do that at the outset, there’s a gulf created between me and the character and I can’t ever quite bridge it. I think I can still do good work with a character like that, mind, but it’s not quite the same as creating one from scratch.
I had an experience like this when writing Resurrection, which was the last book in a six book series. In that case each of the six books was written by a different author but featured more or less the same characters. I had a blast writing the book and I’m still proud of the work I did there, but I never felt as at home with those characters as I do with Cale and Riven, or Egil and Nix.
Hmm. Well, I suppose I draw on classic portrayals in books (Leiber, say) and film (every buddy cop movie ever made, and, perhaps more in line with my style, Eastwood and Freeman in Unforgiven). I also draw on my own real-life friendships and (to a lesser degree) the relationship between my two twin sons.
As for the term “bromance”—if we mean brothers-in-arms, and men who’ll fight and die for one another, then yeah, I think it applies. But there’s a lot of room for maneuvering within that kind of relationship (“Buddy fantasy” covers a lot of ground). The relationship can change over time, or start in different places, or be affected by different things. In my Erevis Cale stories, for example, Cale and Riven begin as bitter rivals and enemies, but over the course of the story their relationship changes, first to a kind of grudging respect, and finally to a brotherhood born out of shared trials. Egil and Nix, on the other hand, start out with a relationship as close as that of twin brothers and so far it’s stayed that way, come what may. Their relationship is the bedrock on which the otherwise chaotic events of their lives play out.
4. You’ve brought some of your characters up from mean beginnings to near godlike stature. How do you keep immensely powerful characters grounded in humanity?
I focus on the small stuff. Riven is enormously powerful by the time of The Godborn, but what people love about him is his snide attitude, his sympathy for the downtrodden, and his love of dogs.
Really gods and very high powered people aren’t interesting because they’re gods or high powered people. They’re interesting for the same reason any protagonist is interesting – because of their internal conflicts, because the reader identifies with their likes and dislikes, their motivations and challenges. It’s only when there’s emotional resonance between character and reader that a reader rejoices in a character’s triumphs and despairs over their failures. Whether a character is really powerful or not is, for the most part, window dressing. You just want that resonance.
5. You’re a well-informed lawyer with political opinions, which sometimes you express online. Have you found yourself more or less likely to post your personal views online after feeling pushback from some of your readers?
Candidly, agreement or disagreement has no effect. I’ve been a politics/policy junkie for a long time, much longer than I’ve been a professional writer, so I have strong, longstanding opinions about a whole host of policy-related things and I’m, uh, happy to share them. Besides, too many people today think that policy doesn’t have much effect on their lives, or that (in America) both major political parties are essentially the same, etc. Neither of those things are true and I’m sometimes vocal in trying to say as much.
Keep tabs on Paul’s latest shenanigans at his website.
And don’t forget to enter the Crossing the Streams contest.