Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: James Enge

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 2, 2009

blood of ambroseAuthor’s website:

Could you take a minute and explain what Blood of Ambrose is about?

Blood of Ambrose is about a power struggle in the Ontilian Empire, a civil war with magic weapons, and about the people who get drawn into it, particularly Morlock Ambrosius, a guy who has remarkable talents for making things and trouble (particularly for himself).

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

Well, I’ve been writing forever. I started with the usual multi-volume imitation of Tolkien, got bored with it and moved on. After I finally published some stories in the fantasy magazine Black Gate, I decided it was time to go back and work on a novel, which became Blood of Ambrose. It spent a couple of years moldering in various slush-piles until I got an agent, Michael Kabongo of the OnyxHawke Agency. Then, almost instantly, he sold Blood of Ambrose and a partially-written sequel to Lou Anders of Pyr. Now Blood of Ambrose and the sequel, This Crooked Way, have both been released and I’m working on the third book in the series, tentatively titled The Wolf Age. So I waited a while for things to come together, but in the end they came together with stunning speed.

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 never played D&D or any tabletop roleplaying game… which is weird, in a way. I have and have had friends who do that stuff, and I’ve dated people who did it, and my kids are gamers, but somehow I never got involved. I may not have the social skills for it. But I’ve played a lot of computer games: Diablo, Warcraft, Starcraft, stuff like that, and also the Myst series. On console, I’ve played through most of the Legend of Zelda games. Ocarina of Time is still my favorite, but the latest one, Twilight Princess, had some great stretches. I like the worlds they create for these games, and the freedom players have to roam around in them and explore.

You’ve mentioned your children are deep into gaming. Would you be able to expand on this statement? Do you keep up with what they tend to play?

They had a regular D&D group that met on weekends for years. Now that my son and his friends have been scattered to various colleges, it’s mostly a summer thing when they’re all back in town. They have a great DM with a bizarre and vivid imagination, and all the players work really hard on their characters. It’s fun to eavesdrop on them as they’re playing. But I don’t get directly involved, because I think it’s annoying when parents try to act like their children’s peers.

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

I’m not sure if it is amusing or not, but this made me laugh. I was told by an editor once that they took a long time to make a decision on one of my stories because they were worried it might be plagiarized. Apparently, it was too good to be floating in the slushpile. So they made sure I hadn’t been ripping off someone else before they bought the story.

Would you say there is grind in the writing process?

I think that there is, but I think the reader should never know about it. It can be hard sometimes to get something exactly right–a piece of dialogue or exposition, a first line or a last line, a plot-resolution. A section might have to be rewritten and polished any number of times. But the storyteller’s art should conceal itself: reading the thing shouldn’t be a chore, even if writing it was.

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

I think the pleasure of writing, on the sentence by sentence level, must be something like the pleasure in playing a musical instrument–making it sound/say exactly what you want. (I say “I think” because I can’t play an instrument–my only musical talent is whistling, and I’m a few notes short of an octave.) The pleasure of writing fantasy, in particular, comes from fulfilling wishes to do impossible things: to kill dragons, or fly, or juggle fire with your bare fingers. There are no limits on fantasists except the ones they choose for themselves.

How many other classics professors do you know who tend to moonlight as authors writing sword and sorcery fantasy?

I don’t know of any offhand–but a lot of academics do dabble in writing fiction. A prof at the university where I went to grad school used to write mystery novels in which the murder victtim was invariably modelled on someone who irritated him. And my fellow Black Gate writer, Judith Berman, is an academic who studies myth and writes rich mythic fantasy. And Howard Jones, who writes the Dabir and Asim stories, is teaching English these days. Cthis crooked way.J. Cherryh used to teach Latin, I guess. So there’s some overlap.

Have any of your colleagues or students read your work, and if so, what have they thought of it?

The Dean of my college is a fantasy reader and he recently dropped me a line to say he’d read and liked Blood of Ambrose. I don’t know if any of my peers in the department have read it yet… No one’s asking for my autograph, anyway.

When do you find time to write?

Anytime in the summer–that’s one of the great things about the academic schedule: summer means freedom. It’s like being a kid again. During the school year, I find myself writing early in the morning or late at night, when I don’t seem to be fully awake.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

On the front burner is the third Morlock book. The working title is The Wolf Age, and in it Morlock will become entangled in a city of werewolves in northern Laent. And a good time will be had by all, at least by ‘the people who are still alive’ (as they say in the closing credits of Portal). I have a couple other booklength projects on backburners, and occasionally a shorter piece bites me on the elbow and demands to be written.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Writing itself is a big escape, of course. And reading: I just discovered the work of Karl Schroeder, a crazy-great sf writer. Fantasy I’m finding harder to read with an unprofessional eye, but great fantasy is still one of my favorite things to read. Then, stuff in dead languages, especially Vergil, Ovid and Seneca. And I like cycling while listening to really loud music. I don’t care what anyone says, the iPod is one of the greatest achievements of western civilization.

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

Maybe, ‘Don’t waste the audience’s time.’ There’s a tremendous sensation of power in writing, and some people let this go to their heads and become very self-indulgent, writing things they’d never want to read themselves, if someone else wrote it. If you can get past that–and it took me years to get past it–you can write what you want to write and still reach your audience.

You wake up to a world where Blood of Ambrose has been made into a massively multiplayer role playing game. What race and class would you play and why?

I like to play characters who can fight if they need to, but have some magical ability or deftness. Rogues were my favorite characters in Diablo I; I switched to Paladins in Diablo II. I also like to play nonhuman characters–the Protoss are my favorites in Starcraft. So I might play a Dwarvish maker, or a Khroi elder.”

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

All creativity is a form of play–but I expect most of your audience knows that already.

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