Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Karl Schroeder

Posted by Randolph Carter on June 5, 2009

Sunless countriesAuthor website:


Could you take a minute and explain what The Sunless Countries is about?

The Sunless Countries is a gothic adventure set in my world Virga. I wanted to evoke a kind of gaslight, 19th-century feel of cobblestone streets and strange monsters lurking in the shadows, but do it in Virga, which is a world with no gravity where people build giant wheel-shaped towns that they live in. Leal Hieronyma Maspeth is an historian living in such a wheel; she’s watching the slow collapse of civil society in her country due to the political ascendency of a religious cult, when her life and that of everybody else is interrupted by the arrival of a monster from Outside. All sorts of plans are hatched to deal with it, but only Leal has the historical perspective and rational outlook to know what will work. So she is forced to act on her own.

What was the process like in getting your first book published?

Well, Cory Doctorow and I wrote an entire book to try to answer that question. It took a number of years, and involved abandoning a lot of preconceptions and myths about how the publishing industry works. I had to stop thinking like an artist and start thinking like a businessman, basically. One big lesson: in many businesses, deals are struck on the golf course. The science-fictional version of a golf course is the SF convention. Going to cons proved to be crucially important to getting published.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Okay, first of all, I never read Heinlein. There! That’s the big admission that usually makes American fans gasp. Who I did read was Andre Norton—and in fact, I still read her on sick days, and have collected many of her books with the intention of trying to interest my daughter in her books when she’s old enough.

And sure, I was a big reader—coming from a household of big readers, where our mother had actually published two novels before I was born. We would all sit around the living room immersed in our books.

Would you mind talking a little bit about your literary influences?

I don’t have influences in the sense of having authors I’d “like to be like.” There are writers I’ve studied for the purposes of learning various techniques. I would list Mervyn Peake, Michael Ondaatje, Joseph Conrad, Samuel R. Delany… there are others, but the point is these are not necessarily writers I’d read for pleasure. I don’t, as a rule, read much fiction for pleasure. I generally read to study.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Well, when I was in my early to mid teens, I got introduced to D&D. At that time, the game consisted of the basic rule book plus Greyhawk. Nobody played it; nobody had ever heard of it, it had never been in the news. My brother and I played a lot of Avalon Hill board games around that time too (my favourite being Third Reich—there’s nothing quite like landing paratroops in London on your first turn when you’re playing Germany).

It’s hard to describe to kids now just how obscure RPG gaming was then. Basically, it didn’t exist. In the same period, I used to hang out at the local University and play Tank on the computer teletype machines; I wrote my first program on punched cards (I think I just copied Hunt the Wumpus). There was no convergence of fandom, computer geekdom, and gaming; I remember that the Star Wars novelization came out before the movie, and I looked at it in the bookstore and thought to myself, “Oh great, another cliché’d SF movie to drive people away from reading serious SF. SF and gaming were utterly marginalized, and utterly disreputable.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

I’ve spent a little time online, in games like Anarchy Online and in Second Life. Basically, online RPGs hold zero attraction to me. It’s partly because I’m playing in somebody else’s universe, and let’s be frank here, my imagination is better than any of the game designers’. It’s also because of the repetitive nature of the game play, which is utterly unlike the freeform experience you get with a DM in charge.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer? Please explain.

There’s a lot of similarity between game-mastering and writing. They’re both story-telling media. Running a traditional RPG is most closely related to what traditional storytellers of the Homeric era did: their stories weren’t written down, they were memorized and performed, with twists and variations for each audience. There was no such thing as “the” story, there were as many versions as there were audiences and storytellers. So doing RPGs taught me that storytelling is a performance artform, even when things appear to be fixed in the page.

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming vernacular referring to something that is rather repetitive or unpleasant that one engages in in order to progress in the game.Would you say there is grinding in the writing process? Please explain.

Ha ha! Writing is all grind, all the time. That’s why so few people actually do it, though everybody talks about it. In general, writers don’t enjoy writing; they enjoy having written. The key is to enjoy having written so much that you’re pushed to go through the grind every day, just to get that feeling. Excellent question, by the way—one of the most perceptive I’ve ever been asked about the writing process.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

There’s a point, not always at the end of the project, where the entire thing comes together in your mind, like a vast, intricate crystal. It’s almost preconscious, and is certainly preverbal. I call that vision, or shape, the dianoia, which is a Greek term that Northrop Frye uses to refer to the entire understanding of a work, not just its words or plot or characters etc. Experiencing the dianoia of Ventus, Lady of Mazes and Queen of Candesce—these have been some of the best moments of my life.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

I’d say perfect your writing now but don’t bother trying to break into publishing at this time. That would be like trying to buy a berth on the Titanic just after it hit the iceberg. Publishing is undergoing a great collapse and rebirth, but right now it’s in the collapse phase, and there’s little value in launching your career in an environment where all but the top three percent of authors are going to still be publishing in two years. Wait. Help evolve the new form that publishing is going to take. But don’t chain your destiny to the traditional business model, because that’s doomed.Ventus

You wake up to a world where your Virga novels have been made into an MMO. What class would you play and why?

In my fantasies, Virga is never made into a movie, but is made into an RPG. If I were playing, I’d have to choose between character classes like Pirate, Revolutionary/Agitator, Spy, Home Guard agent, Airman, Engineer and (to be fair to Leal Maspeth and with a nod to The Mummy) Academic/Librarian. Plus the standard ones of Soldier, Aerial Navigator, etc. I’d travel disguised as an itinerant gravity seller, and get into trouble in wheel-towns with names like Fracas and New Sorrow. Because, to me, it’s the combination of infinite open airs to explore, and labyrinthine political intrigue that gives Virga its potential.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Just this: I designed the world of Virga to be played in, and I wrote the stories to showcase the possibilities for adventurous play. I would be delighted and honoured if you set some scenarios and campaigns in Virga. If you did that, I would know that I had succeeded in my purpose for this series.

One Response to “Reading the text: Karl Schroeder”

  1. […] Karl Schroeder […]

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