Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Katharine Kerr interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 30, 2009

Katharine Kerr is a fantasy writer best known for her Celtic-influenced Deverry novels. Here she talks about what it felt like finishing the final volume in this series, what current writing projects she’s working on, and about a particularly fatal gift a friend gave to her back in 1979.

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Author’s website:

Could you take a minute and explain what The Silver Mage is about?

silver mageNo, actually, because it’s the wrap-up of the entire previous series and would take about 100 minutes. 🙂 In general though I suppose I could say that it continues the themes of the previous volumes and finishes the stories of the main characters of those volumes.

Your first Deverry novel was published in 1986 and since then you have written 15 more. That’s quite a run. Now with the final Deverry novel coming out, do you think you’re going to have a tough time letting go of the world?

I thought I might, but so far I mostly feel relief. I’ve had this particular volume in sight for many years now. It’s just that road got twisty and steep toward the end. I don’t know how I’ll feel in a few years, though. 27 years is a loooong time to invest in something. When I turned in the finished manuscript, I felt what I can only call post-partum depression. It only lasted a few days, though.

Do you have any current writing projects you’d care to talk about?

Yes. I’ve just sold a three volume humorous series of contemporary fantasies to DAW Books. The first, License To Ensorcel, is finished and will be out next year at some point, though I’m not sure when yet. They are about as cross-genre as you can get: mysteries, spoofs on the James Bond style of improbable secret agent, urban fantasy, science fiction elements, a dash of chicklit. They’re also fast-moving entertainments. I need a vacation from Death, Wyrd, Betrayal etc after Deverry. I have a couple of other books in mind for the future, but they are too amorphous to talk about, except to say that one involves Rome under Nero.

In 1979 a friend of yours gave you a “fatal gift.” Would you mind telling us what that was?

The infamous “blue box” Dungeons and Dragons, the one with the incomprehensible directions and opaque rules. It took me days to figure out how to play, but I knew I wanted to. That was the gift. Playing D&D led to writing for Dragon magazine. In one of the issues I read a short story that was, let us say, not my idea of good writing. I said to my husband, “I could write better stories than this!” He agreed and said, “Why don’t you?” That’s the fatal part. One word led to another, and here we are.

If it’s not too much trouble, please give us an overview of your gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)

dungeons & dragonsI’ve always loved games from the time I was three years old and started playing “Snakes and Ladders” with my indulgent grandfather. We moved on early to checkers and other games requiring a little strategy. So I suppose it was only natural, many many years later, that I loved Avalon Hill style wargames when I encountered them. From there I graduated to the hard stuff, ie, pen and pencil RPGs, D&D at first, and then Runequest, which is a superior system in my opinion. I also enjoyed — and contributed to — Chaosium’s “Pendragon” game. I played a little Traveller, too, back in the day, and Tunnels and Trolls. As for computer games, I miss the interaction with other players, though I have played 3 of the “Myst” titles and the much under-rated “Obsidian” as well — still, despite the lovely graphics, they’re not as satisfying as getting together with friends was.

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

No, because I know I’d become addicted instantly. I’m my family’s sole support. If I got involved with World of Warcraft, we’d starve because I’d be playing for most of the day.

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

Well, the Runequest world included a race called “trolls”, who were bad asses of the worst sort. They loved treachery, eating their relatives for dinner, conquest, getting stinking drunk, and the like. They were also matriarchal. We had a player in our group who kept agitating to play an all-troll campaign, but he hadn’t read the rules very carefully. So one day I said sure, I’ll GM an all-troll adventure. When he found out that the society was matriarchal, he dropped out!

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

Yes, not in the writing process but in the necessary preliminary work. I drew out the Deverry maps on hex paper, so I could keep the distances between cities and the travel times accurate and consistent. I planned all the battles on hex paper overlaid with terrain, too, in order to keep track of who was where and what happened, both overall and to the viewpoint characters.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

Hell yes. It’s called “the middle of the first draft”. Openings are fun, because everything’s new and the possibilities seem endless. Endings — you feel like the proverbial horse seeing its stable after a long trek and start galloping home. But those damned middles, which alas are about 2/3s of the book — that’s where the grind comes in. Some writers will tell you they hate revising, but I don’t mind the revision process at all; it’s enjoyable, tinkering with a project and making it work well. The first draft is the grind for me.

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

Holding the printed and bound book in my hands when everything’s done. Getting the check isn’t bad, either.

How do you tend to escape these days?

Watching pro sports on TV.

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

Learn the basics of writing well. That means grammar, spelling, sentence construction, word choice, overall prose rhythm and the like. I am tired of hearing wouldbe writers say “but my story is good so why does all that matter?” Sorry, it does matter, and if you can’t do it correctly, your story isn’t good, no matter what your friends tell you. The best way to learn this kind of craft is to read good fiction, including fiction outside the fantasy and SF genres. Literary writers may tell stories that don’t interest a genre writer, but they tell them very well. We can learn from them.

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

runequestHalf-elven dweomermaster. Half so I could cross the borders without causing comment.

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

Don’t forget the great games of the past, systems like Runequest and its offshoots.

I’ve met a number of young gamers these days who honestly think that Warhammer and AD&D are the only RPGs that have ever been.

Have you ever been in a sword fight with Kate Elliott? If not, who do you think would win?

Kate, easily, every time. She’s got the skill and the training. I am strictly an armchair warrior.

And last but certainly not least, when was the last time you wielded a 20-sided die?

Years ago, too many years. Writing fiction has taken over my life and my time, but I do miss gaming.

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