Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Thomas Harlan

Posted by Randolph Carter on July 2, 2009

land of the deadAuthor website:


Could you take a minute and explain what your latest novel Land of the Dead is about?

Our three main characters in Land of the Dead are Gretchen Anderssen (an ex-xenoarchaeologist working as a technical college sysadmin), Susan Kosho (a newly-minted Imperial Fleet captain with her first command), and Mitsuharu Hadeishi (Kosho’s last commander, now on the beach after losing his light cruiser in House of Reeds).

Willingly or not, they are all drafted into a plot to secure a recently discovered alien weapon in a disputed and uncharted region of space known as the kuub, by an Imperial Judge (or nauallis) known as Green Hummingbird. Of course, things aren’t quite so simple as “grab the artifact and run.” Many powers – human and non-human – are moving, with the ‘artifact’ as the fulcrum of their efforts to deceive and destroy one another.

The first glimpse of a perilous future for humanity is revealed to Gretchen, forcing her to choose between two wildly different paths for her entire species.

And many, many things go boom.

What has your gaming experience been like (pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

Started out back in the day eyeballing the D&D basic edition (blue cover) and a John Carter of Mars RPG from Heritage(?) games – didn’t have the money to buy either the basic edition or the original three book set – so I made my own (ESCAPE FROM THANGORODRIM) which was map-oriented with borrowed minatures and beating the opposing monster’s dice roll for combat. This was influenced by a copy of STARWEB (a PBM from Flying Buffalo) that I’d gotten a copy of at a convention – not realizing that you could not play it yourself… very puzzling. Did eventually get a copy of D&D and played it off and on for years. Wandered into GURPS, PENDRAGON and SPACE OPERA from time to time. Finally settled down (jeez, more than ten years ago) with a home-brew mix of GURPS, PENDRAGON and D&D for a series of historical fantasy campaigns (Byzantine Armenia in the AD 700’s, The Holy Land in 1100 or so).

The last of those campaigns, “Crusader Earth” became a module in DUNGEON and a series of short stories in DRAGON magazine, having started life as a single-day convention tournament scenario.

It appears you are also a game designer. Would you care to discuss this as well?

As noted above, I’ve always designed games – starting with pen and paper, then some card-based boardgames, then found a spot that worked really well for me in play-by-mail games – most notably LORDS OF THE EARTH, which has been running for over twenty years now, which was nominated for a GAMA Best PBM of the Year award (but did not win) a couple years ago.

house of reedsLORDS is a historical game, usually starting in 1000AD, and runs for as long as the GM can stand it. Campaign One (the original campaign, which I still run (technically…) has advanced from 1000 AD to 1770AD.

Campaign One also serves as the backstory/history for my In The Time of the Sixth Sun novels – so yes, there is a tie-in.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? What has that experience been like?

I’ve worked with two different online words – The Sims Online, and Vanguard, from Sigil. Unfortunately my participation in both of those MMORPG’s never saw the light of day, though it was interesting.

Would you mind elaborating on your involvement with Sigil?

As it happened, Keith Parkinson (the original art director for Sigil) and I share an agent. Sigil wanted to kick off a line of novels to lead up to the release of Vanguard and my name came up as someone with a gaming background, and a fantasy novelist. So we worked up a book series proposal that filled in the pre-history of Vanguard and kind of explained to the players how the world they were playing in had come about. Vanguard is filled with ruins, so I wanted to show what those places had been like a millennium before, when they had been living, breathing cities, etc. Also, as long as the world physics were respected and we wound up where the storyline needed to be for the *game*, I had a pretty free hand… unfortunately, Keith became quite ill with lymphoma and then passed away. Without him championing the books inside Sigil – and in the publishing industry at large – nothing ever came of it.

Would you care to share an amusing and/or interesting anecdote from your gaming days?

I’ve stolen most of the best ones for bits in my books… one that comes to mind now came from a period when I was running a D20 Call of Cthulhu campaign in Vancouver, BC, with some dudes I’d never played with before. I’ve run a fair amount of CoC, but they really hadn’t *ever* done a Lovecraftian campaign – so it was a real treat – but there was a great response when one of the players had his original character horribly done in (Mi-Go sporulates exploding from every orifice) – I gave him about 10 minutes to let it settle in that his carefully constructed dilettante was history (no Raise Dead here, sonny! At least, not that leaves you with a playable character) and then slipped him a new, complete character sheet for a courier zeppelin pilot they had recently encountered… he stared at the sheet, stared at me, and said “I’ve never had a character replaced so smoothly before!”

But then, he hadn’t played a lot of CoC now had he?

How would you say your gaming experience has influenced you as a writer?

It’s provided me with a lot of experience with plotting story-flow, describing things, pacing battles and action… one of the reviews of Wasteland of Flint mentioned that the characters were “well defined” and attributed that to my game design background. This has a bad connotation for non-gaming writers I guess, implying that their characters are not well defined. Doesn’t seem at all correct to me…

Were there ever times when you felt like your gaming got in the way of your writing?

I had to stop gaming, basically, because time constraints in my life boiled everything down to: you can either game, or you can write.

Also, near the end of the period where I did both, I found that if I invested a lot of energy in the gaming, I had less creative juice for the writing. Not a good combination.

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

No TV in the house when I was growing up, so it was reading or playing with sticks in the dirt. Favorite authors/books growing up would be:

JRR Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), Frank Herbert (Dune), James Schmitz (Witches of Karres), H. Beam Piper (Lord Kalvan or Fuzzy Sapiens), Herge (Tintin), Goscinny and Uderzo (Asterix the Gaul), Zena Henderson (Stories of the People), Leigh Brackett (Mars short stories or Eric John Stark), Kenneth Bulmer (Dray Prescot series)… I can think of more, I’m sure!

Grind is a term used frequently in gaming (especially MMO)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.

There’s grinding in terms of actually sitting down and writing every day (if you want to, you know, actually get a book done). But if you’re writing, and it feels like a grind, then you’re in *trouble* because the prose will read the same way. You do not want those words in your book, or those chapters, or whatever… because the reader *can* tell and will put down the book and go hit up some WOW or something instead.

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

The interviews.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

Not a one. That whole real life (family, a regular job…) is really harshing the writing gig. I would love to be working on – another Sixth Sun book (River of Ash), another set of Oath of Empire books (which was my first series, an epic historical fantasy), a new series called Gods In Twilight which is very, very cool..putting my Crusader Earth stories into a novel (Beyond Jerusalem would be the working title), and so on.

So, how does that work for someone in your current situation? Do you have a contract with Tor for X number of books and do they set deadlines for you?

What happened to *me* (and it will be different for other writers of course) is that I signed the contract for Land of the Dead approximately a week before finding out that my wife was pregnant with our first child. So I worked as fast as I could on getting the book done before the baby arrived – and did not succeed. It was maybe a third done, and then the next four years vanished in a haze of sleeplessness, diapers and having to go back to work full time so we’d have health insurance coverage. It was easy to knock out a big book a year when I was consulting, or even just writing full time. Baby plus job plus (for a year) an extra job = no writing at all.

Finally my editor, who had been very very supportive, had to say “we need a book now, Tom”. Luckily, and despite a second child coming along, I was able to take two weeks off from work and then we completely rearranged our lives to get me two free hours a day so I could finish the book. Even so, it was a grind.

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

If you don’t write the damned book, you cannot sell the damned book and no one can read it.

You wake up to a world where your In the Time of the Sixth Sun series has been made into an MMO. What race and class would you play and why?

Um, I’m not sure I would wish that fate on anyone I know… the Sixth Sun universe is grim, brutal and filled with an endless number of ways to die messily. However, because it’s my universe I guess I would want to play a Kroomakh Explorer – they are a triceratopsian race of warm-blooded reptiles who have a brawly and expansionist empire to coreward of the human/Mexica empire – and like to use dreadnoughts as scout ships.

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

Buy my books? Buy three copies each!

Actually, gamers that read my books tend to really like them. Or so they tell me…

3 Responses to “Reading the text: Thomas Harlan”

  1. Annita Harlan said

    Very lively interview.

    I’m excited about the projects ahead.

    Want a babysitter?

  2. Charles Hurst said

    I really enjoyed every one of his books! I’ve also had the fun of playing a number of turns in his Lords of the Earth campaign while it was more active. He’s not kidding about his worlds being grim in places! But its a very fun kind of grim as long as its not happening to you.

    He should list John Carter of Mars or some other early pulp sci fi space opera as another influence given some of what has happened in the campaign. It would be fun to read more of the back history as a series of novels that might fill in between our campaign and his alternative future.

    Its hard as one of his fans to know which to root for – another Lords One turn or a new book. Ah, well, kids tend to grow up and move out after 18 years or so. So I’ll take the long term perspective that in another 14 years or so maybe I’ll enjoy one or even both of those! One can dream.

  3. Martin Helsdon said

    Kroomâkh information added to the ‘Sixth Sun’ wiki:

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