Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Interview: Paul S. Kemp

Every Tuesday, I'll have an interview posted.

Paul S. Kemp is a writer of fantasy fiction, most of which is set in the Dungeons & Dragons setting The Forgotten Realms. His latest novel is Shadowrealm.

Thanks for agreeing to do the interview! First off, what made you decide to pursue writing "seriously"?

Well, I started pursuing it seriously in law school, so it may have had something to do with hating the thought of becoming a lawyer. =)

Seriously, there isn’t a particular event that served as the tipping point. I’d toyed with the idea for years (as does virtually everyone who loves books and storytelling), started dabbling as an undergraduate and found that I really enjoyed the creative process. Dabbling expanding into more dabbling and finally into seriousness.

There's a couple of law practitioners-turned-authors (Terry Brooks comes to mind). Is there anything that you learned from day job that you carry with you when writing fiction?

Practicing corporate law involves lots and lots of negotiation, and that requires a good eye for spotting motivations. I think that’s been of use to me in developing my character’s motivations, which I think is one of my strengths as a writer. I also sometimes spot some seriously quirky behavior and that’s sometimes been fodder for this or that side character.

You're mostly known for your novels but you also have some short stories here and there. Have you ever thought of writing more short fiction or is the novel-length format where your passion is?

I enjoy both, but certainly prefer novels. A novel’s length allows for more nuanced characterization and complex plots. Frankly, I don’t write short fiction as well as I write novels (I’m working on it, though), and I admire writers who write great short fiction (Michael Swanwick and Elizabeth Bear, I’m looking at you).

How did you end up writing for Wizards of the Coast and the various Forgotten Realms novels?

WotC used to have an open submissions policy. I sent them a chapter of a fantasy novel I was working on (now and forever after a trunk novel) and they liked it enough to ask me to put together a proposal for a series they were soon to release, called “The Sembia Series.” There were a few open character slots, including one for a butler who served a mercantile lord and was kind of his lord’s “go to guy.”

From that, I developed Erevis Cale, the former assassin and spy who served his lord while ostensibly spying on him for a thieves’ guild. That was the ticket. Cale has taken off from there. He’s evolved a lot since those first stories, but he’s never been able to shake his past as an assassin or his fondness for his former lord.

The War of the Spider Queen series fascinates me on the side of the production. Can you elaborate more on R. A. Salvatore's participation in that series and how you ended up writing the crucial and final book of the series (i.e. did you roll a d20 to see who gets to write it, editorial decision, a mini-tournament among the authors, etc.)?

I actually killed three men with only a single stick a Wrigley’s (Doublemint), a green toothpick, and half a roll of Johnson and Johnson’s cinnamon-flavored dental floss (I call this “murder MacGyver-style, btw). After those three had gurgled their way into the afterlife, the surviving editors chose me unanimously. Go figure.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure how I was chosen. I got a phone call one night from my editor and the then-head of books at WotC and they asked if I was interested. I most certainly was.

As for Bob’s role, he was one of two editors, heavily involved from the beginning of the series right through to the end. In that capacity, he did what editors do – provided feedback and critiques on content, characterization, prose, etc. He did a great job and was easy to work with. Also he wrote the prologue for each novel. WotSQ was a wonderful project in which to participate.

Last year, one of the more controversial news in the gaming industry was the advent of D&D 4th Edition. Several of the new novels reflect the changes in the world. When writing the Twilight of War series, were you informed beforehand of these changes? For your upcoming novel, did you have to adapt to the new changes or is there anything you can tease for 4E Forgotten Realms fans?

I did have advance notice of the changes, or at least those that were relevant to the story I was telling. And no, I didn’t really need to adapt the story of Shadowrealm to 4E.

Of the various Forgotten Realms deities, what is it about Mask that appeals to you (and why you chose him as Erevis Cale's patron)?

I found Mask one of the more interesting deities in the pantheon. He’s a schemer (which sometimes bites him in the ass), and emphatically more gray than black. He’s a great fit for a protagonist who lives his life in the gray.

While we're on the subject of gaming, how did you first get hooked into D&D?

A friend introduced me to the game when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was already into the staples of fantasy literature, so the game really drew me in (I can actually PLAY an elf! Great!).

Are you more of a player, a GM, or both? Is there anything you carry from your RPG experience into writing?

I almost exclusively DM. And sure, there are things that happen in a game that sometimes inspire this or that scene in novel.

Did game design ever crossed your mind?

Not at all. I’m interested in telling stories through the eyes of characters. I don’t think I could get that in game design.

Shared-world authors and settings get a lot of flack and criticism. What are some of the changes you'd like to see when it comes to the perception of shared-world fiction? What's one "myth" you'd like to debunk?

I’ll debunk two as they apply to Forgotten Realms fiction (I can’t speak to other tie-in lines, because I haven’t read them).

First, that the quality in general is somehow less than quality in general of non-tie-in fantasy fiction. I’m just not buying it. Many folks who think that way either accept the conventional wisdom about tie-ins (which has been incredibly difficult to dislodge) or generalize from a small sample of bad experiences with tie-in. It’s been interesting to watch, but in recent years I believe the conventional wisdom has started to crack. I sure hope so. I simply want my work evaluated on the basis of, you know, my work. And I’ll put my money where my mouth is on this. Download the first five chapters of Shadowbred here. If a reader dislikes it, that’s fine, but dislike it on the basis of actually having read it: http://home.earthlink.net/~paulskemp/paulskempshomepage/id23.html

Second, that writing in the Realms is a less-creative endeavor than writing non-tie-in. This is just a goofy notion. Writers in the Realms create their own characters, their own plots, engage in city and nation-building (if not worldbuilding). The process is the same for non-tie-in writers.

Can you tell us more about your New Dineen setting? How did you first conceive of it?

New Dineen is the setting for some of my dark fantasy short stories. It’s a bleak, unsavory setting suffering through the political, cultural, and magical churn associated with the recent fall of the continent-spanning Imperial Magocracy. My short story, "The Spinner," which appeared in Sails and Sorcery: Tales of Nautical Fantasy, from Fantasist Enterprises, and “Confession,” which appeared in Worlds of Their Own, from Paizo Publishing, are both set in the world of New Dineen.

I began to develop it when I wrote “Confession” and I’ve been plugging away at it a bit since then. It fits my fiction quite well, being a dark and dangerous world.

In the future, do you see yourself writing more Forgotten Realms fiction or you do hope to focus more on your own setting?

I take issue with your disjunct, sir, and counter with a conjunct! =)

In other words, I don’t see the one precluding the other. True, time is limited, but I’m able to do a couple novels a year, so I see myself writing in the Realms and focusing on my own setting(s). I really enjoy the Realms work and don’t have any desire to leave it behind, at least not at the moment (in fact, I’m under contract to write another trilogy in the Realms after The Twilight War concludes). I also enjoy writing short stories set in New Dineen and continuing work on my dark, modern fantasy novel.

Have you ever thought of writing a novel outside of the genre?

I actually got an offer to do that at GenCon this year. After thinking about it – no, I don’t have a desire to step away from fantasy (in all its permutations). Fantasy is an ideal venue for exploring moral questions and that’s what I enjoy doing with my work. So I’ll stay right where I am.

How do you balance work, writing, and family?

I’ve used cloning technology and time-travel, but both have their downsides.

Honestly, I just try to stay organized and diligent. We make time for things we must do and things we love. I must work, so I do. I love spending time with my family and writing, so I do that, too.

In other interviews, you've mentioned the influences of authors like Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock. Who are some of the other authors--not restricted to the genre--that you enjoy reading?

Michael Chabon and Don DeLilo are two favorites. Chabon’s prose is a marvel. DeLilo’s prose isn’t at that level, but carries enormous emotional weight.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Have your eyes wide open. Read, read, read, then learn, learn, learn. It is unlikely that you are a genius whose writing must needs soon take the world by storm. It’s more likely that you (like me and most of us) have a lot yet to learn. Writing is a craft and, like all crafts, it is impossible to master and requires for improvement constant practice and attention. Give it that attention and practice.

Understand that the business side of writing (not to mention just breaking in the first place) is often frustrating, so enjoy the creative side. If writing’s in your blood, that’s why you’re doing it anyway.

Finally, realize that very, very few writers make much money with their writing. There are obvious exceptions, but the likelihood is that you won’t be one of them. Be aware of that going in.

Anything else you want to plug?

Just want to let folks know that I keep a livejournal here and invite everyone to visit: http://paulskemp.livejournal.com/

I’ll also add that anyone who might want to try my Erevis Cale stories should start with either Shadowbred or Twilight Falling. Either is a good starting point.

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