Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Victor Milán

Posted by Randolph Carter on July 20, 2009

rending of falconsAuthor website:

If possible, would you be able to explain what the Wild Cards series of books are about and what your involvement with them has been?

The Wild Cards books are about an alien virus accidentally released over New York city in 1946. It rewrote the genetic code of those affected. Ninety percent died horribly – in Wild Cards parlance, they drew the Black Queen. Nine percent survived but with some physical deformity, ranging from minor to horrific: the Jokers. And one percent drew an Ace – becoming, in effect, superheroes. Not always with comfortable, convenient, or even useful powers; but super withal.

That’s the short form. The long form (get comfortably seated): the Sunday night of a con back in the early 1980s I found myself in a hotel room listening to George RR Martin and Ken Keller discuss their lifelong love of comic books. I believe Roger Zelazny was there too – a hell of a detail to be fuzzy on, I admit; it was a long time ago. Of course Roger became a member of the Wild Cards consortium, to our everlasting benefit.

Anyway I was deeply impressed by the passion these guys showed for comics. Back home in NM George frequently played RPGs with Melinda Snodgrass, Walter Jon Williams, John and Gail Miller, Chip Wideman, and me. So when Chaosium – publisher of our fave game Call of Cthulu – came out with a game called Superworld, and GRRM had an imminent birthday, well, my course was obvious. I gave him a copy.

Thus began a shared obsession that’s spanned, holy cats, nigh onto thirty years.

Most of us in the group were established professional writers. Some were semi-pro or even professional actors – Walter and I in the first category, Melinda in the second. So our Superworld sessions became free-form improv theater as much as *games.*

They also *ate our lives.*

Eventually George realized he was spending all his time concocting plots and rolling numbnuts (our sensitive New Age name for NPCs.) He needed to find a way to make money off of this madness or sink beneath the waves. So he called first upon Melinda (who was also a recovering attorney) and then the rest of us, and the Wild Cards universe was born.

So my role was, basically: it’s my fault. And I have the honor of being an Original Wild Cards Mafioso, of which I am highly proud.


Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in first getting published?

You really want to know? From the time I was a kid I knew I wanted to be a professional writer. Specifically of science fiction and fantasy: but most important of all, a *writer.* I’d do anything to get published.

So I did. A local, relatively new, SF author (whom I suspect would prefer to remain nameless, and so shall) was making a living writing, ahem, porn novels. I liked to talk writing with him. Then after a bunch of us Albuquerque fans attended Milehicon in Denver, I concocted an idea for a porn novel set at an SF convention. I told my writer pal, who was favorably impressed enough to say that if I was willing to co-write it with him, he would pitch it to his publisher. To which my response was, “Hell, yeah!”

It sold. And so, in 1974, I became a pro. I was too young to go in the store and buy it when it came out.

I started selling porn novels regularly and soon was making my living that way. In fairly short order I sold a hardcover Western novel to Doubleday and an SF short story to the short-lived Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine. And was on my way.

And to date how many novels have you had published?

Including the naughty ones, somewhere upward of 90.

Where do you happen to find inspiration for all of this?

SF writers sometimes sneer at this question. It strikes me that it’s as valid as any other (although it may be when it’s phrased, “”Where do you get those crazy ideas?” that hackles rise.)

The truth is, they just come to me. Not helpful, I know, but true.

As far as to what triggers I’d have to say, first, life in general. Then reading: especially history, which is a lifelong passion of mine. And entertainment: oftentimes I’ll read or watch something, and think of a different – or, I’ll be honest here, sometimes better, especially in the latter case – way to handle certain ideas and concepts. And the ideas grow from those.

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

Oh, yes. I don’t know that I’ve ever met an author, particularly an SF/F author, who didn’t read voluminously from childhood on. Reading was my sanctuary – along with the tales I made up to exalt and entertain myself.

As for favored books growing up, there’s Heinlein: the YA novels, especially Have Space Suit, Will Travel – a true SF great – and also Glory Road. Alan E. Nourse’s Raiders From the Rings and Star Surgeon. Andre Norton, especially Star Guard, The Beast Master, and its sequel Lord of Thunder, as well as her Time Traders series. As I got a little older I got into Jack Vance, who’s now my favorite author, especially his Demon Princes and Planet of Adventure series. And fantasy, heroic and otherwise: Poul Anderson’s Vault of Ages and The High Crusade, Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales, Fritz Leiber’s wonderful stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

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.)?

Why, yes. As I suspect has already become clear.

I started out playing D&D in the 1970s with Walter and Chip. We then got into Call of Cthulhu and my specialty, an after-the-apocalypse game called The Morrow Project.  And, of course, Superworld.

Back in the 1980s I played a lot of Atari games, from Defender to Frogger to more sophisticated games like Ultima. I found I enjoyed computer RPGs as well as pen-and-paper ones. Eventually I migrated to the PC, and hence PC games.

In the mid-1990s or so I started tapering off the pen-and-paper RPGs. Found myself not getting enough writing done, and felt playing those games diverted too many resources I should be using for my craft.

I also tapered off PC games, especially the last few years. But I’m coming back some. I’m playing through the wonderful No One Lives Forever and Neverwinter Nights in a kinda desultory way (I never said I kept *current* on games.) A friend named Ty Franck recently got me playing XBox 360 at his house – my current faves are Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2 and the jaw-dropping Bioshock.

I might even get back to the face-to-face role-playing, if anyone else proves interested in involving me.

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

My only real experience there came several years ago when a friend guided me through a brief tour of City of Heroes. Which was fun. My feelings on MMOs is much the same as Melinda’s: I’m afraid of diving in and never coming out.

Would you mind sharing an interesting and/or amusing story from your gaming past?

Call of Cthulhu. Run, if I recall correctly, by John Miller, currently doing business as John Jos. Miller to distinguish himself from all the other authors named John Miller. He was our stalwart usual CoC game master. Otherwise I think the usual suspects: Melinda, Walter, Chip, me. And George.

As he often did, George played a fairly brash character. This particular campaign he was a reporter who was markedly skeptical of the whole Cthulhu Mythos bit. We found ourselves coming up against a cult led by a most formidable creature indeed.

So we were checked into a hotel suite in some big city where the cult was based. While the rest of us were gathered in a back room we heard George’s character talking on the phone in the living room: “I hear you claim to be a 700 year old vampire. Well, I don’t believe that. Why don’t you come over here right now and show me.”

And he proceeded the give the 700-year-old vampire, who had his own private death cult, our hotel address and room number.

When he came back to where the rest of us were, John told him, “You see an empty room. The window is open and the curtains are still flapping, like something from a Warner Brothers cartoon….”

The rest of us – following, I’m proud to say, my lead – had literally jumped out the window and run away down the street as fast as we could go.

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

*That’s* a leading question. Actually, I think it sharpened a lot of my skills for scenario setting, for tactics, and for character interplay. Again, the particular gaming group I was lucky enough to have no doubt contributed.

It also effected me by leading to a number of book sales: not just the ongoing Wild Cards series (with a new collection, Suicide Kings, due out in December, and yet another anthology called Fort Freak in the process of being written) but the novel Runespear I wrote with Melinda Snodgrass, based on a game I ran set in Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

The research and preparatory material I did for my Morrow Project campaign, which diverged in a lot of ways from the original conception, provided a useful foundation for the post-apocalypse action/adventure series Berkley recruited me to write in the 1980s, The Guardians. Which were a total hoot to do, and which I still get fan mail about, even though I wrote my last book in the series in the early 1990s.

I’ve also done a fair amount of game-oriented fiction – a D&D novel, and a number of novels and stories set in the BattleTech/MechWarrior: Dark Age universe, including a story I just sold to an upcoming anthology.

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.

I don’t think there needs to be. Often there is. What I’ve found grinding – and what from time to time has come close to defeating me – is writing in spite of barriers I throw up for myself in my own mind and emotions.

When I’m writing as I should, it’s a trance-like, near-ecstatic process, as gratifying as anything I’ve ever done. In that state I write fast and without regard to how “good” it is. I leave all such considerations for the rewrite – yet when I write that way my prose usually comes out at its smoothest and most vigorous, my characters most alive.

When I *think* about what I’m doing – struggle to find the “right” word or incident, and most of all, second-guess myself – that’s grinding. And all that agonizing and effort produces prose that often tends to grind.

I’ve spent almost two decades trying to break out of the habit of making writing a grind. In the last year I’ve largely broken through. At last.

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

Power! And the rush of pure creation. I can make *worlds,* man. Or destroy them in an instant.

I love coming up with characters, worlds, settings, schemes. And of course action, which is kind of my specialty. And when they all flow together in a story – when I *let* them flow – there’s nothing to beat the sensation.

When do you find time to write?

Well, the hours are pretty good, given that for almost all the 35 years since my first sale I’ve written full-time. So it’s not so much a matter of finding time to write as getting myself to write. In the face of distractions, as well as the “grind” I dealt with above.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Still waste too much time online.

For real escape I walk the ditches of Albuquerque’s North Valley with Emma, my Black Lab/Shar Pei-cross dog, and socialize with friends, both of which I enjoy hugely. Lately I’ve gotten into square foot gardening, and having both fun and some success with that.

Also instead of the online crap I need to do more things that give me actual pleasure, such as watching movies or, yes, playing games. I’ll get there.

And, as always, I read a ton.

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

Writers write.

That’s the one absolute. Except maybe, one size never fits all. Try anything, use what suits you and discard the rest. But *write.*

While there’s a world of stuff to learn to help you learn the craft of writing (it is, at least for me, a lifelong process) there are no prerequisites. Don’t ask permission. Don’t put it off. Don’t do this or that first. *Write.*

Also: read. If you don’t enjoy reading you might want to reconsider being a writer. It probably won’t suit you.

Otherwise, write! Talent is overrated. Like everything we do, writing is a skill. If you want it bad enough to put in the time and effort to learn it, you will.

Which of your novels would you most like to see made into a massively multiplayer online role playing game?

The one I’m (finally!) about to finish, the epic fantasy The Dinosaur Lords. Which is basically what it sounds like: the Renaissance with dinosaurs, featuring armored knights on gaudy duckbills fighting archers shooting from howdahs strapped to the backs of 10-ton Triceratops.

In this game, what race and class would you play and why?

The only sophonts are humans. No cutesy-pie talking dinos in this one: as Weird Al Yankovic sings, that T. rex thinks you’re dinner, not his friend. And while the 70-ton Brachiosaurus is placid by nature, if he steps on you or whacks you with his tail by accident, you’re just as dead as if Rex had devoured you. So race would be: human.

As for class? Probably a Dinosaur Knight. They’re the ones who get to strap on armor and ride to battle astride a three-ton monster who makes noises like a whole brass section. Although commanding a Triceratops – a living tank with six-foot horns – and crew would rock, as well.

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

Yeah. Games are great. Don’t lose sight of the world outside them. If you start role-playing your life instead of living it, you might want to step away from the table, or the screen. At least for a little while.

You can only share what you have; and you inevitably share what you do have. So seek happiness and pleasure in everything you do, and make the world a brighter place.

And seriously: if you want to be a writer, just start writing. Start *now.*

One Response to “Reading the text: Victor Milán”

  1. […] interview Randolph Carter* of Grinding to Valhalla interviews me on Wild Cards, gaming, and the craft of writing. Results are pretty good, think I. Please give it a look and, should you feel moved, pass it […]

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