Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Matthew Sturges

Posted by Randolph Carter on July 24, 2009

midwinterAuthor website:

Could you take a minute and explain what Midwinter is about?

The high concept is “The Dirty Dozen with Elves,” but that’s really just the setup. In the world of Faerie, a group of prisoners is released in order to perform a secret mission for Queen Titania. Their leader is a man named Mauritane, who was once the Captain of the Queen’s Royal Guard, but who was arrested for treason and imprisoned for life. Our heroes travel the breadth of Faerie, braving the Contested Lands, a wild place full of ancient magic and Shifting Places, and subsequently find themselves in the middle of a war upon which depends the survival of the Seelie Kingdom. There are also some talking trees, and some really nasty villains. And magic. Tons of magic.

This may have been your first novel, but it appears you’re no stranger to writing. Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your writing career?

My writing career started about ten years ago, when I was one of the founders of the Clockwork Storybook writer’s collective, which also included comics writer Bill Willingham, novelist Chris Roberson, and noted Robert E. Howard biographer Mark Finn. I wrote a book of short stories during those years, as well as the first draft of Midwinter. I stopped writing for several years, and then started pitching comics series about five years ago. Jack of Fables, with Bill Willingham, was my first published comics work, and since then my comics career has taken off fairly well. And now the finished version of Midwinter is out in the wild, and I’m currently writing a sequel.

So, did you find making the transition from writing comics to novels challenging?

It’s funny — when I first wrote Midwinter — long before I started writing comics — it was pretty easy. I didn’t really think too much about it, I just kind of WROTE it. It was challenging, but fun and there was no deadline so I could take all of the time in the world to write it. In those days I had a day job as a web developer, so writing was pure escape for me. Now that I’m writing the sequel, a number of years later, and after having been a full-time writer for a couple of years, I find it much more of a challenge to write prose. Maybe it’s because I have higher standards for myself as a writer; maybe it’s because I’m used to thinking in comic book terms. Probably a bit of both. It’s still fun, though.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’ve got a lot going on at the moment, which is just how I like it. Like I said, I’m working on the sequel to Midwinter, and I’ve also got a number of ongoing comic book projects. I’m still doing Jack of Fables — I just turned in the script for issue 41 last week. It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing it for almost four years. I have another ongoing Vertigo comics series called House of Mystery, which is a revival of sorts of the popular horror anthology from the 60s and 70s. It consists of a rather involved framing story that typically takes up about two-thirds of the book, about a group of people who are trapped in this mysterious house, and who have turned it into a bar of sorts, providing food and drink for those travelers who can come and go as they please, in exchange for their stories. The balance of each issue is a short story illustrated by a different artist each month. It’s great fun.

My other love, though, is superhero comics. I’m currently writing Justice Society of America with Bill Willingham, and I just finished a miniseries called Final Crisis Aftermath: RUN, about a douchebag villain named Human Flame, who’s fleeing from justice. All that, and a ten-page Blue Beetle co-feature in the pages of Booster Gold. I keep pretty busy.

What was the process like in first getting published?

Long and painful, which I think is the norm. I pitched comic book series for years before I finally got on with Bill Willingham on Jack of Fables, and I must have written at least a hundred short stories before I finally got one published. It was basically just a process of writing a lot, pitching a lot, and being very, very patient.

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

I’ve been a voracious reader for as long as I can remember. I think that’s one of the standard attributes of the writer. My favorite books have always been fantasy and science fiction. I cut my teeth on the Narnia books at a very young age, read a lot of Douglas Adams and things like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books, Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinke in Time books, basically anything I could get my hands on that had a fantasy bent to it. I think the first thing I ever tried to write was a sort of Douglas Adams pastiche about a post apocalyptic world. I seem to recall that the main character lived in the ruins of a talk show set. But I think it was Frank Herbert’s Dune books that really defined the kind of reader I became as an adult; I’ve always since sought out books with complex and deeply thought-out worlds, heavy characterization; the kind of things that draw you in and convey that sense of wonder, which to me is the best thing that fiction can deliver.

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.)?

I’ve always loved playing games, and I did get heavily into AD&D back in the early 80s. I lived in a small town in West Virginia in those days, and there really wasn’t much else to do. I spent many, many evenings in middle school drinking root beer, eating Doritos, and slaying orcs.

I got my first computer in 1981, or thereabouts. It was a Commodore 64, and there were magazines that would let you enter games into the computer in Basic by just dumping bytes into memory one at a time with POKE commands. You’d spend hours and hours typing numbers, and then pray that you typed it all right. Every now and again you’d succeed and you’d spend about fifteen minutes playing a Q*Bert clone, or something like that. Being a nerdy kid in the early 80s, gaming was kind of inevitable. There wasn’t really an Internet for us to waste all of our time on, so we had to waste our time with 20-sided dice and rulebooks.

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

For some reason, being in online places like MMOs always makes me feel antisocial. I spent most of my time in World of Warcraft questing on my own, and only teamed up with others when I was in a situation I couldn’t handle on my own. I’m a fairly introverted person, and being an anonymous Tauren Hunter doesn’t blunt that much for me.

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

Probably the first complete thing I ever wrote was a D&D module. It was bad — I mean really, really bad, and my friends revolted and refused to play it before it was even halfway over, but I think I wasn’t a very good dungeon master. I wanted everyone to do everything exactly according to the script laid out in my head. Writing stories is much more rewarding in that regard!

As a computer gamer, one thing that I absolutely have to have in a game to keep me interested is a compelling story. The only FPS I’ve ever played all the way through is Half-Life 2. The gameplay is very good, of course, but it’s the narrative elements that really sell it. It’s that need to feel IMMERSED IN THE WORLD and the need to know WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? That’s something every writer, regardless of medium, needs to understand, and that’s something that a very well-written game can teach you as much as any book can. In a good game, there’s always something at stake. If you’re just killing things to get to the next level, who cares?

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.

The day I knew I had to quit playing World of Warcraft was the day I spent four hours of my actual real time teaching my Undead Warlock how to fish. It was a real moment of clarity. What was I DOING with my life? I haven’t played since.

It’s true that in order to raise your stats as a writer, you have to work very hard, and it’s not always interesting or fun, but you always hope that your efforts aren’t going to JUST pay off in the long run, but that you might also produce something of quality along the way. Even when I had no idea what I was doing as a writer, I still produced a few halfway decent short stories, a few diamonds in the rough. In college I wrote a story called “Conscience and the Letter Q,” which wasn’t great by any means, but it was imaginative enough and pretentious enough to get published in the University of Texas literary journal. It was a featured entry, and I got paid fifty bucks. The reason I mention this is that another writer who made it into that issue of the journal was Owen C. Wilson, who may be a movie star but who did NOT get paid fifty bucks for HIS story. So I’ll always have that over him.

But yes, certainly there are times when you feel like you’re just typing in order to get to the end, and that can get pretty dull, especially when that’s paired with the sinking feeling that what you’re working on might actually be a total piece of crap as well.

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

There are two things. One is when you have one of those rare “great days,” where your fingers fly over the keyboard and you feel confident and sure; you know what you’re writing is good. You get in the zone and the hours just fly by. That’s probably the best part. There’s also the part about not having a real job and not having to wear pants to work. And there is certainly the thrill of seeing your book on a bookstore shelf. That never gets old. It’s nice to hold the book in your hand and think, “I wrote this.” It’s something that no one can ever take away from you. My great-grandkids could read that book and they’d know a little something about me and what was important to me.

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

The only advice that’s worth anything is Heinlein’s advice: Keep your ass in your chair. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. It’s just that simple. There’s tons of books about writing and getting published and all that stuff, but if you’re not willing to spend many, many hours at your desk typing away with no certainty that anyone but your mom will ever read it, you’re not going to get very far.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Watching TV shows on DVD is my favorite escape. I don’t actually watch much TV, but I’ll find a show that I really like, like The Wire or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and just pump the DVDs into my computer one after the other when I want to relax. The skills that make a good tv writer are to a large degree the same ones that make a good comic book writer, so I can even pretend that I’m doing “research.”

You wake up to a world where Midwinter has been made into an MMO. What race and class would you play and why?

I’d probably want to be a research thaumaturge, with the Gifts of Elements and Insight. If you have those two, you can accomplish a lot in that world. There are twelve magical gifts, and depending on which ones you’ve got, you can do different things. I’m not saying that I have character sheets written out for my main characters, but I’m not expicitly denying it, either.

When all is said and done, would you like to be more remembered for your novels or the comics you have written?

I joke sometimes that the main reason that I write novels is so that I can refer to myself as a “novelist,” which sounds more impressive than the lowly “comic book writer,” but to me it’s really all the same. I doubt I’ll ever write anything that cjack of fableshanges anyone’s life, the way that mine was changed by, say, Kurt Vonnegut, but as long as I’ve succeeded in letting someone forget their cares for a few hours, I call that a pretty great success, regardless of the medium.

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

Only that I think you have to respect the gamers and the readers out there. There are plenty of utterly passive ways to entertain yourself. But gaming — especially role-playing — is a creative act in and of itself. Anything that engages your imagination is worthwhile in the long run. If I had my choice between spending a day watching TV or a day immersing myself in the world of an enthralling game, I’d take the game every time. Likewise, when you’re reading, you’re entering into a creative partnership with the author to co-create a world and the people in it. It’s one of the great sublime joys in life to participate in an act of creation, and we should take the opportunity to do it whenever we can.

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