Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Interview: Erin Hoffman

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Erin Hoffman is a freelance writer and video game designer living the life nomadic. She is a columnist for The Escapist and a nonfiction contributor for an assortment of magazines including Strange Horizons and Gamasutra. Her poetry has appeared in Electric Velocipede, Not One of Us, Illumen, and elsewhere. Her fantasy and science fiction can be found in Deep Magic, the Enchanted Realms collections, and most recently in Clockwork Phoenix. For more details and her recent publication credits, visit philomathgames.com.

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get acquainted with speculative fiction?

Thanks for thinking of me. :) Hmm. That gets into some interesting definition discussions (does Cave of the Word Wizard count, for instance? -- I was three for that one, and it probably was formative for a couple of reasons), but my first real plunge was in the summer of 4th grade, I think, when a battered copy of Piers Anthony's The Source of Magic jumped out at me from a library spinner shelf. It took me a couple of weeks to make it past the first page, but after that, I read most any fantasy I could get my hands on.

You've had a successful career in game design. What made you decide to try your hand in fiction and poetry?

The fiction and poetry actually came first, but I'd read enough wailing and gnashing of teeth from authors and poets to think it wasn't reasonable to expect a career out of them. My career path went from early web development (mid-90s) to 3D animation to video games. At one time it was equally crazy to expect video games could be one's bread and butter, but we live in interesting times.

What kind of "itch" does fiction and poetry provide for you?

I think all people are inherently creative, but for me the itch to generate participatory vision -- and both books and video games are participatory visions -- is instinctive. Fiction and poetry are my way of making sense of the world, of confirming that I'm alive, of reaching other people in a significant way. The "itch" is a deeply existential one, and a desire for human connection and the connection with meaning.

Why speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction is the only fiction there is. When we put unicorns and spaceships in it we're just expressing truth in advertising. But I have a pretty visually symbolic mind, or maybe I'm just more fixated on symbolism than most, and speculative fiction allows us to be more direct with digging down into how the human mind actually works, not limited by the physical parameters of our environment.

What are the challenges in writing and publishing fiction? How about poetry?

Oh, you used the p-word. :) But the real challenge is writing something of quality, and to do that you first have to learn to read (and recognize) something of quality. Poetry is the most difficult form there is, if it can be classified as one form. Publishing isn't that hard if what you're creating is quality, though human language is so meme-based that quality becomes clouded by trend and the communication and thought-processing elements of the utility of writing. And the human element, people being people. So on top of the plain challenges of sharpening your thinking and language, digging through the communication-oriented layers of cliche we all have stacked up in our brains, when you're talking about publishing you also have the challenge of presenting something relevant to your time and place. It's hard.

Several of your publication credits are from online sources or accepts submissions via email. In your opinion, how has the Internet changed the publishing industry? Do you think you'd have a modest career in the genre if it weren't for technology?

Email is fast and traceable. I like pulp media, in a tactile and aesthetic way, but these days I do most of my reading on a screen, as, I think, most Americans now do. The paper is a luxury. I'm not sure that the internet itself can be separated in how it's changed publishing from how our entire technological existence has changed virtually every industry in our time. I have no idea what I'd be doing without technology. For awhile I wanted to be a veterinarian, I'd probably be doing that. Machines and animals have a lot in common.

How about when it comes to game design, how does it stimulate your creative muscles?

If I were a super-wealthy heiress or something, and the world had no problems, I would probably make single-creator massively multiplayer text-based game worlds. That's a bit of having my cake and eating it too, but the thing to understand about games is that they're simultaneously unique -- like books, they reach into an area of our brains that no other medium reaches -- and have this meta-media existence. A properly made AAA video game incorporates writing, music, video, voice acting, visual art, architecture, and, through the game design itself (which is something separate from the above), virtually any human discipline you could possibly imagine. The potential is immense, and gets us closer than any other creative medium to the full-bore generation of crafted realities. Game design itself is the manipulation of rules, which can be interpreted as rules of world physics, society, culture -- you name it. Another name for 'rules' is 'math', which is a language for understanding existence, and maybe generating new existence. The video game is, so far, the ultimate in creative media. But that doesn't mean I like it better than writing, because this 'ultimate' status makes it a hell of a lot more difficult and complicated. And expensive, which brings in publishers and investors and all sorts of anti-creative nonsense. So the potential is as maddening as it is breathtaking.

For you, how different or how similar is game design compared to writing and poetry?

They're very related. Writing, poetry, game design, and most immersive creative arts are all aimed at generating simulated experiences. Every creative agent has their own guiding principle, but mine is rooted in emotion. Ursula K. LeGuin says something like this, that the perfect short story should aim to capture and evoke one single emotion, whether simple or complex. I think you can approach fiction, poetry, and games the same way, though the roads you'll take to get there are of course different. But good ones will have a unifying concept and a unifying emotion, even if that emotion is very complex and is arrived at in an emergent fashion after a progression through a series of other emotions. Understanding narrative (in a Robert McKee kind of way) is an asset in video games for how it provides insight into how we choreograph emotional progression as a species.

What are the skills that's useful in both areas?

It depends on what kind of each you want to do, but clear thinking is probably the common thread. The odd thing about that is that truly rigorous thinking is one of the most under-taught skills around, these days. But you have to be able to understand how the world operates, not in a Monday morning quarterback sort of way, but being continually inquisitive about how human beings work, how we've gotten to where we are as a species and as an individual culture. Once you understand human thinking, you can move inside it with greater artistic purpose. It's especially important for games, mostly because you can arrive on a happy result more accidentally in fiction, whereas people tend to perceive it right away if you don't know what you're doing in a video game.

Not to box you in, but do you see yourself more as a game designer, a writer, or a poet?

Oh no, a box! I'm actually not sure. I get paid more for the game design, but that isn't really a measure of identity. I think about writing all the time. "World builder", for good and ill, is probably what fits me best. It captures that common Venn diagram space between fiction and game design.

Is it easy for you switching between your game designer "hat" and your fiction "hat" (or poetry hat?)?

I kind of have all hats on at the same time, though the game design hat is possibly most distinct just because when it's really ramped up it's very mathematical in nature. (And go figure, I thought I hated math until I found game design.) But my writer brain is rarely "off". I tend to wander around with all receptors on all the time, and I collect bits and pieces -- an image, a sound, an idea. I sort them into boxes, and when I have enough that I think I know where an idea is going, I start working on it.

Is there any aspect of being a game designer that makes you a better writer/poet? How about the reverse?

I think it's too early in my careers to say definitively one way or the other. The symbolic thinking probably helps, but it's hard to know in what direction that flows. Game design is very helpful in that it encourages you to project how an audience will experience a piece of art given very sparse symbolic cues. Poetry is absolutely helpful in generating precise language and understanding how words and ideas fit together. Writing is helpful in keeping me sane.

What projects are you currently working on now, fiction/poetry-wise?

I just returned from TNEO (The Never-Ending Odyssey), a kind of one-week intensive writing refresher, so I'm wrapping up my notes and thoughts from that before heading full-bore into novel-land. Jeanne Cavelos, the founder of Odyssey (and a fabulous mentor and human being), wanted me to finish this novel when I first graduated from Odyssey, but I took some time away from it to work on short fiction and launch the poetry thing. I'm glad that I did, but I think the time is right for the novel now.

You've had a big impact in the games industry as EA Spouse. How has that part of your life affected your career?

People have a tendency to treat me like a comic book character the first time they meet me, if they know about the EA Spouse thing, and I'm continually surprised by the number of people that do. I think my friends get more benefit out of it than I do. They seem to take perverse pleasure in "outing" me to people they introduce me to. I'm sure it's had a pretty profound impact on my game dev career, at least -- I have a few interesting stories -- but it simultaneously opens and closes so many doors that the specific impact isn't really traceable. The mainstream media still finds the whole industry peculiar enough that I get called up for an interview every once in awhile, especially when it's in vogue to talk about unionizing.

If you could go back in time half a decade ago, what advice would you give yourself?

I'm pretty happy with where I am right now, and knowing my own tendency to overthink things I'd probably avoid doing anything to contaminate my 2004 self with things to overthink. But I'd say never to park on the corner of 8th and Jacob in Troy.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write early and write often. It's okay to write only for oneself, but if you do, realize that you're playing a different game than those who are compelled to write for an audience and compete in the market. Avoid self-indulgence, and adverbs. Understand why you do what you do. If you want to be published, be relentless about self-improvement; don't flinch from criticism, but seek it, and learn to understand the language of critique, professional and otherwise. Never delude yourself into thinking you're already good enough and it's the market that fails to realize your genius; you (probably) aren't. Read outside your genre. Remember that making it is about tenacity more than talent, mainly because tenacity is rarer. Find better advice than I can give. :)

Aspiring poets?

Read widely, but start at the top. Seek the critique of professional poets, and observe how they critique poetry other than yours, but don't get sucked into the professional poet community vortex unless you intend not to come out again. Realize that poetry communities of any kind are nepotistic as hell, and do not let praise lull you into a false sense of craft plateau, but neither let dismissal faze you. Understand that poetry is a pretty fundamental human drive, but that doesn't mean some aren't better at it than others.

Aspiring game designers?

Ask yourself deeply why you want to design games. If it's because you love to play games, you probably don't really want to be a game designer, but you can be a good game player, and that's just as valuable. The rules are essentially the same for game designers as for writers: you are a writer if you write; you are a game designer if you make games. You are a professional writer or a professional game designer if the public will hand over their hard-earned luxury time and money for your product, enough to sustain you. Respect their attention. You are a game designer if you can't help it: if you make, study, and test games even if you're not being paid to do so. Some of the happiest game designers I know aren't paid for their product -- but the most skilled ones are. Play widely, comprehend widely. There is gold in them thar hills, but it can eat your soul if you let it. Strive to find and identify people of genuine quality, and work hard to work with them when you can; successful games are very rarely the product of an individual's success. The industry is still small, and if you fuck people over, or if you suck, word will get around faster than you think. Think hard. Try not to suck.

Anything else you want to plug?

Of course! Those who made it this far, or those who scrolled, should check out The Homeless Moon and our second annual chapbook, "Imaginary Places": http://homelessmoon.joskinandlob.com/?p=1237 . My esteemed colleagues Scott Andrews, Michael J. DeLuca, Justin Howe, and Jason S. Ridler (and myself) put together this second chapbook using descriptions of ancient fantasy landscapes from Manguel & Guadalupi's fabulous Dictionary of Imaginary Places.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I heard what you said how that if you only like to play games, that you don't necessarily want to design them. I'm starting to see your point, but I have the originality to live off of for this. At 14, I'm already designing the beginning scenario and the character dynamics. Would you approve of me focusing on sprites, as in Nintendo DS, or Polygons as in PS3? This will determine the basis of combat, maps, and character appearance. Please input your opinion to my Mom's Email, for my password has been lost.