Saturday, March 26, 2011

Christopher Rowe Interview

As I mentioned in my review of the novel Sandstorm last Thursday, author Christopher Rowe is a friend. He's also one of the most interesting guys I know when it comes to talking about books, especially fantasy and science fiction. His knowledge is deep and broad, and if you ever have a chance to go hear him read, he's fantastic. After conducting the interview, though, I realized I never knew just how much thought he as an author has put into figuring out what the books he read as a teen still mean to him and for him today.

So, first of all, for anyone familiar with your writing, this seems like quite a departure. Your short stories have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards. Sandstorm, your new book, is a D&D novel set in the Forgotten Realms. You've commented on this elsewhere, but I'm fascinated by several aspects of this that I'd like your perspective on:

-First, where do you think the stigma of "shared world" books comes from? I mean, I remember reading the Thieve's World series of books years ago and loving them, and they're both "shared world" and gaming fiction. How much gaming fiction have you read, and do you think the stigma is deserved?

I'd be hesitant to identify a source (or sources) for the stigma because I haven't really done any research or even systematic thinking about the subject. Obviously it exists, though in these days of Halo novels on the NYT lists I wonder if it's as prevalent as it used to be. At bottom, it's probably simple snobbishness more than anything else.

As for how much gaming fiction I've read, the answer is a great deal when I was teenager and probably more than most genre readers these days. When I was younger I read books set in the Forgotten Realms (obviously), and also Dragonlance, BattleTech, and Shadow Run.

Your example of Thieves' World is an interesting one because those books are shared world fiction without being gaming fiction, sort of like George R. R. Martin's superhero books, the Wild Cards series, which themselves have their origin in a role-playing game that George and some of his friends played, I believe.

-Second, one of the things I think stands out in your short stories is your "world-building" craft--your stories establish strange, incredible worlds on their own terms, all while telling great stories. When the world is already established, do you still have to do this? Is the process different? And how do you bring to life the statistics and game rules that are used to make the world work for role-playing?

Thanks for the compliment on my world-building. Yes, it is something I pay a lot of attention to in my short stories (and in my own "non tie-in" novel in progress). In answer to your question, sure, I have to pay attention to worldbuilding, both in acknowledging what other writers have done before in the particular setting I'm working in but also in building up new material. The Forgotten Realms setting recently underwent a hundred year time-jump as a way of changing the way continuity influenced newer works set there, so I had a lot of freedom to make up new stuff. Making up new stuff is one of the main reasons I write.

As for bringing gaming stats to life in the book, I didn't really think that closely about it in those terms. I knew what the individual characters and creatures should be capable of, and I was careful not to present anyone as either too powerful or not powerful enough, but mostly I let the demands of the story dictate what characters could and couldn't do, while remaining true to the spirit of the gaming rules.

-Third, how is writing a novel in the Forgotten Realms different from gaming in the Forgotten Realms? Do you have leeway to bend the rules? Are you more constricted?

Interesting question! If the readers of Guys Lit Wire know what this means, it depends on the DM, by which I mean that it depends on the way that the person running a particular game set in the Realms runs it, with strict adherence to rules and canon or a more laissez faire attitude. In the book, I had a lot of leeway, though I didn't necessarily always take it. I like Dungeons & Dragons, so I enjoyed "following the rules" whenever it made sense to do so.

You've also spoken here and there about your process, specifically that you wrote a draft of Sandstorm on a typewriter. Why? What does that do for your writing and editing process?

I write on a manual typewriter built in the early 1960s, at least in first drafts. I do it because I like to feel like I'm physically making something--a manuscript--when I'm writing a story or novel. People have asked me if it makes me deliberate a little more before I set down a phrase or sentence, since there's no backspace key or easy way to cut and delete and copy and paste, but that's actually not a factor for me at all. I'm a fairly free-form writer in early drafts and I happily rattle away past typos and inelegant phrases all the time, knowing I'll burnish those off in subsequent drafts, which I do on a computer.

Your short stories are not traditional fantasy or science fiction, but instead fit into that "speculative fiction" category. What does that mean to you? What kinds of genre concerns do you consider when you write a story, or when you were writing Sandstorm?

I actually don't really agree with the supposition. I flatter myself that I'm a fairly "core" science fiction and fantasy writer in terms of generic elements, or "the furniture" as some people call it. I've written stories with spaceships and stories with dragons, more or less. I think that when I put a peculiar spin on such things is when people start using terms like "speculative fiction," which I personally just use as a catch all to encompass both sf and fantasy, when I use the term at all.

My main concern as a writer is to tell a provocative and interesting story. More specifically as a genre writer, I want to evoke wonder.

Now, all that said, wonder can be evoked in "mainstream" or "mimetic" fiction, too, and obviously genre writers borrow from the tool kits of so-called literary fiction writers all the time, just as, more and more often, the borrowing goes the other direction. As a reader, I cast a very broad net and that can't help but influence my writing, which, yes, has been described as "literary."

Finally, guyslitwire is a website aimed at good reads for teen guys-- name two books published in the last ten years you wish had been out when you were a teenager, and then name two books that, no matter how old or out of print they may be, if a young guy came to you and asked for a good F/SF book, you would do your damndest to put in their hand.

Okay, the second pair first, books that came out "whenever." I think I would have been absolutely blown away as a teenager (as I was as an adult) by Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash on the sf side and by Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon on the fantasy side. I believe those both came out in the nineties, though the Erikson book is much newer.

As for the last ten years, I want to recommend books by a couple of friends of mine. For fantasy, Holly Black's White Cat is a great contemporary work featuring con artists and curse-workers. For sf, Paolo Bacigalupi's Shipbreaker, a dystopian near-future novel that just won the Printz award. Read 'em all!

My thanks to Christopher Rowe for taking time out to answer my questions. His new book Sandstorm came out this month.

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