1. Tell us a little about yourself. Did you set out from an early age to become a writer?
I always loved reading stories, and I was pretty young when I got the notion that I might be able to tell them for a living. But I got sidetracked into the mental health field coming out of college and grad school, and it was a number of years before I actually took a serious stab at professional writing.
2. What kind of training or studies did you do to prepare yourself as an author? Were you an English or creative writing major in college?
I majored in Psychology but took a fair number of literature courses as an undergrad.
When I actually girded up my loins to try to be a professional fiction writer (college was far, far behind me at that point), I read a number of how-to-be-a-writer-type books. I found those written by Lawrence Block to be particularly helpful.
It helped me that I was already a lifelong fan of the types of fiction I wanted to write. I already had a good understanding of the structures, the conventions, and the clichés.
And it helped me that I read and enjoyed other types of fiction, also. I picked up a few tricks from detective fiction and historical fiction that enhanced my fantasy and horror stories.
3. The Haunted Lands trilogy has a dynamic and complex plotline, in which many of the characters undergo dramatic development. How do you sit down and craft a story like that?
With great trepidation and difficulty!
But seriously, the only way I know to do it is to figure out where the story and the major characters are going. You don't have to know every single thing that's going to happen in all three volumes before you tackle Book One, Chapter One, but it does help to know the major beats, what part of the story each volume is supposed to cover, and where the major characters need to be at the end of each section.
4. Your trilogy is set in Thay, and most of the characters are part of that traditionally evil people. Yet I definitely find myself rooting for certain characters, and deciding for myself who is evil and who isn’t. What is the key to writing a book in which the distinctions between good and evil are so blurred?
You have to understand that with very rare exceptions, people don't define themselves as evil, and that even people who are by any objective standard evil have an emotional range that incorporates feeling that are not inherently negative or destructive. They have beliefs that justify the things they do, at least in their own eyes.
Possessed of that understanding, you write about the characters in a way that exposes their inner selves to the reader. And you, as the narrator, don't pass judgment on the characters. You let the readers decide who's worthy of sympathy and who isn't.
This is stuff I learned largely from reading good hardboiled crime fiction and historical fiction, and illustrates the point I made earlier, that reading outside your chosen genre can help you write better stories within it.
5. You wrote the first book in the acclaimed War of the Spider Queen series. I can’t help but notice that Dissolution is also principally about villains. How is writing The Haunted Lands different from working on the War of the Spider Queen?
With The Haunted Lands, I get to tell the whole story, and I have more freedom to write exactly what I want. On the whole, that's a better deal for me, although collaboration has its own charms. Writing can be a lonely business, so working with others on occasion can be a lot of fun. It's interesting to see another writer do something cool with a character or an idea that you created, and enjoyable to run with a notion that intrigues you but that you wouldn't have hit on yourself.
6. There are some really creepy scenes in this book, along with some horrific undead we have never seen before! What inspired you to write Unclean?
I've always loved horror fiction and made my first professional sales writing it, so I guess Unclean reflects that sensibility.
When I writing The Year of Rogue Dragons, it occurred to me that it might be possible to do another trilogy that showcased the undead of the FORGOTTEN REALMS in somewhat of the same way that YoRD showcased dragons. I proposed it, and everyone seemed to think it was a good idea. Phil Athans (if memory serves) suggested that I set the story in Thay and mess with that part of Faerûn, and things evolved from there.
7. Do you have a favorite scene or character in Unclean?
Favorite scene? No one moment is leaping to mind. I guess my favorite characters are Aoth Fezim and Malark Springhill, although I actually like a lot of them.
8. Tammith’s development is in a way representative of the experiences of the Thayan people as a whole. Are there any other characters or relationships that represent more than they appear to?
You know, there kind of are, but I'm not much of a writer if I have to tell people what my themes are and when I'm perpetrating symbolism, so I think I'll leave readers to draw their own conclusions about such things.
9. Malark has a terrifying philosophy—one that mirrors his enemy more than it does his allies. How did you come up with his unique point of view?
I wanted to make Malark interesting (as you want to make every major character interesting) and the plot required him to be something not too far short of Szass Tam's equal when it came to guile and strategic thinking, although not, of course, power. I mulled over what I required of him, and his background and philosophy emerged as the answer. And as readers who know the Realms well will see, I drew inspiration and vital information from a couple of the sourcebooks, so my thanks to the guys who created that material.
10. Your biography says you’re a fencer—does that help you write fight scenes?
Very much. So does the karate training I had when I was in grad school. It's all been so valuable that I would recommend that anyone who aspires to write action-adventure fiction take some lessons in a martial art or martial sport. For purposes of your writing, it won't matter if you're not athletic and never get good. (I'm far from a natural athlete, and I'm never going to be competitive beyond the local level.) You'll still learn a lot of stuff you can turn to good account.
11. So, I hear you’re a devoted GM—do you ever run your players through encounters you plan on putting in your book?
Never. Maybe I'm shortsighted, but it's never seemed to me that it would be helpful. Stories and game scenarios are two different animals. The point of a story is that I control every moment of it to evoke a particular series of emotional responses from the reader. The point of an RPG scenario is to give the players options. They choose what to do and exercise their creativity. If the heavy hand of the GM is forcing them to do precisely what he wants them to do, then it's a crappy game, right?
12. Pretend I'm a voracious reader who has never read a fantasy book. I find out what a talented and successful fantasy author you are, so I ask, "What good fantasy books would you recommend I read?"
Wow, there are so many good ones (and thank God for that). Let me answer by listing authors:
Fritz Leiber (my personal favorite)
Robert E. Howard
Clark Ashton Smith
C. L. Moore
J. R. R. Tolkien
Karl Edward Wagner
L. Sprague de Camp
James Branch Cabell
George R. R. Martin
That should be enough to keep any new fantasy reader busy for a while.
Those who do know fantasy will notice that the majority of my picks are writers who, alas, are no longer with us. I suppose that's largely because it's the books we read when we're young that have the greatest impact on us. Certainly, those are the writers who've influenced my own approach to writing (not that I claim to be anywhere near as good as they were.) But the important thing is that their work truly does stand the test of time, and readers who only read newer stuff are cheating themselves.
13. Any hint of what we have to look forward to, for those fans eagerly awaiting the next installment of The Haunted Lands?
That's tricky to answer without giving away what happens in the first installment, and I'm loath to spoil any of the surprises for those who haven't read it yet. Come to think of it, I'm loath to spoil any of the surprises in the second part, also. But I will say that the crisis that presents itself at the end of Unclean really explodes in the sequel, and that it's at least as huge and horrific as you expect it to be. And all the surviving characters from Unclean return and find themselves in the thick of the craziness.