Q&A with Lawrence Watt-Evans: The Misenchanted Interview
It’s not every day that we get to enjoy seeing author Lawrence Watt-Evans chime in on fantasy fiction and more, so let’s do this, with relish.
Q: The Misenchanted Sword became available on audiobook earlier this year. What was that experience like for you (seeing such a beloved novel of yours become a proper audiobook)?
LWE: Honestly, it’s no big deal. I like the added money (not that it’s really that much, but any new income is welcome), but I’m not a big fan of audiobooks – I don’t spend enough time in the car to play them there, which seems to be the most common use, and I vastly prefer controlling my own pace, rather than relying on a reader’s interpretation.
So I’m glad they’re out there, for people who DO like audiobooks, but it’s nothing special.
Q: What do you suppose the tale’s protagonist (Valder, Scout first class, with the Western Command under General Gor) is doing in Ethshar right now?
LWE: Tending bar, of course.
Q: Tending bar, you say? At which establishment?
LWE: Either at the Inn at the Bridge (which was known for a time as the Thief’s Skull, but has gone back to its original name) or the Crimson Wolf. The Inn at the Bridge is a day’s travel north of Ethshar of the Spices (formerly Azrad’s Ethshar), and the Crimson Wolf is in the Passes, between the Baronies of Sardiron and the valley of Tazmor.
Q: What was your inspiration for Ethshar?
LWE: It accumulated from several sources, over a period of years. I drew the original map in a boring high school geometry class – the placement of the cities was based on pinholes left by a compass in a piece of scrap paper. The place-names got added little by little over a period of several years, derived from various linguistic curiosities – the name “Ethshar” came about because I wondered why the “thsh” combination never occurs in English, even though it’s not hard to pronounce. Other names came from a supplement in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language about Proto-Indo-European, or from obscure Biblical names, or any number of other places.
The Great War happened because of things I had put on the map just because I thought they looked cool.
But it didn’t really become a world until I started playing D&D (the original version, the three books in a box). I thought the distinction between the two kinds of magic, clerical and whatever they called the other one, was interesting, but why limit it to two?
And then there was a heavy influence from L. Sprague de Camp‘s fantasy novels, and from my studies in Roman history (I seriously considered a classics major in college), and I cannibalized other earlier projects of my own…
I drew that map in 1968 or ’69, but the magical system only started to develop in 1977, and I didn’t have the rest of it thought out until 1980 or later.
Q: What was the D&D hobby like for you during the 1970s?
LWE: That’s a tricky question. Remember, this was the original edition of D&D before AD&D; it was much looser and less standardized than the later versions, and there were no pre-planned adventures. I had heard about it and seen a copy, but I hadn’t actually bought one, and then friends of mine in college started playing, and I joined in without having really read the rules. There was a lot of improvisation involved. Our DM had loosely based his initial campaign on Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom, with bits from Larry Niven‘s “Known Space” thrown in, rather than going with the Tolkienian fantasy the rules were designed for.
If you’ve ever tried to use the original rules, you know they were buggy as hell. There’s a reason the game didn’t really catch on until Advanced D&D came out. Add in our DM’s customization and we were effectively play-testing a beta version. Like most beta versions, it crashed — I don’t know exactly what went wrong, but apparently we broke the game, doing something we weren’t supposed to. Keith (the DM) said he needed to shut down for a while so he could fix some of the problems.
We all went into withdrawal. We had about half a dozen players desperate to get back to role-playing, and Keith seemed to be taking forever, so a couple of us began throwing together quick-‘n’-dirty little adventures. I cobbled together a dungeon called Dagharra that lifted a lot of material from stories I’d written, none of which were published yet, though some were later rewritten as The Lure of the Basilisk. I introduced overmen as NPCs, just to have something the players hadn’t seen before.
The thing is, I still hadn’t read the rules, and still didn’t have a copy (Keith wouldn’t loan me his, as he was using them), so I mostly made up my own. I did have partial copies of the official rules for magic-users and clerics, but my combat tables bore no resemblance to the official ones. It was playable, though.
Since I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was supposed to just be a fill-in until Keith’s was ready, it was sloppy, and I deliberately built in super-lethal traps, such as a fountain that transmuted elements. I was hoping the players would experiment with it and produce a critical mass of plutonium, causing a nuclear blast — then I could give up being the DM and just be another player again. I swiped other end-the-world traps from the likes of John Brunner (from The Traveler in Black), and threw them in.
No one ever triggered any of them; my players were much more cautious than I had expected.
I also had a Big Boss eight levels down; no one ever got past the fourth level.
But the players loved it. They got obsessive. Out of eight regulars, three flunked out that semester because they were playing D&D instead of studying. (I was careful about my own time management, so I was okay.) I started getting questions about various stunts they wanted to try — could this character train dogs to sniff out traps? Could this spell be combined with that item to do something? I had to introduce the White Death: a plague that would strike down anyone who annoyed the DM. All trained dogs died of the White Death. Anything I’d introduced that turned out to unbalance the game died of the White Death. It was a three-stage disease; most people were bright enough to take Stage One as a hint and leave me alone, but one guy got well into Stage Two (Stage Three being a gruesome and irreversible death) and might have died if two of the other players hadn’t pulled him aside and made him shut up.
It was supposed to be a fill-in until Keith’s adventure was ready. Well, Keith’s adventure was never ready, so Dagharra kept going off and on for years. When I dropped out to get married in 1977, I turned it over to my roommate, who kept it running another couple of years. Lots of improvisation was involved.
I never got to role-play much because I was the DM, and no one else ever got a campaign running for more than a weekend. And, when I finally did get a look at the actual rules, my reaction was, “These are stupid. I like mine better.”
I never played anywhere except my residential college at Princeton — it’s Forbes College now, but back then it was Princeton Inn College. And I never played by the official rules. So it was a strange experience, not like the usual games.
It was only in my last semester at Princeton that I began messing around with other role-playing games (such as Traveller and Metamorphosis Alpha), and adapting D&D elements to my old map of Ethshar.
Q: What can you share with us about that big boss on level 8 of your dungeon?
LWE: That was Koshchei the Deathless, from Slavic folklore. I’d first encountered him in the novels of James Branch Cabell. Koshchei is the being that “made things as they are,” and probably literally (in Cabell’s version, not Slavic myth) more powerful than God. You weren’t going to fight him; if you tried to, you would never have existed. You had to talk to him, and convince him not to wipe you from reality for bothering him. If you did it, you could have anything at all, including becoming a god. In fact, becoming a god was the default outcome if you survived.
Q: What do you enjoy most about writing?
LWE: Creative control. I can take the story anywhere I want to go. It’s immensely satisfying when a plot comes together, with everything falling into place, and I can say, “I did that!”
Q: What juicy tidbit can you share with us about the Domdur Empire that might surprise most readers of your novels?
LWE: About the empire, specifically? Well, the names should be pronounced with a Russian accent, and the world’s geography is loosely based on that of Eurasia, with the Ural Mountains shifted a couple of thousand miles to the east, and the Grebiguata River located about where they are in our world. Seidabar is somewhat northwest of where Moscow would be, and Rishna Gabidell is about where Riga is. Grozerodz would be in northern Ukraine. It’s not necessarily to scale, though.
Q: Which novels have you had the good fortune to enjoy in recent years?
LWE: An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, by Curtis Craddock, has nifty magic and a twisty-turny plot that almost instantly made me get over his use of methods I usually hate in fantasy – specifically, his invented nations are, in culture and language (but definitely not geography), sort of re-worked versions of France, Spain, Italy, etc. Normally I can’t stand that sort of lazy world-building, but I got so caught up in the characters and the magic and the rest of the setting that I didn’t care.
Harry Connolly – I have never read a novel by Harry that’s less than brilliant, though I’ll warn you that he’s much weaker at short stories. Harry’s working title for the Great Way trilogy (starts with The Way into Chaos) was “Epic Fantasy with No Dull Parts,” and it fits.
The Twenty Palaces series (start with Child of Fire) is dark urban fantasy/horror that isn’t quite like anything else out there; the narrator is a lowlife car thief who’s gotten caught up in the doings of the society of magicians that secretly rules the world, and which ruthlessly suppresses any attempt by anyone outside their society to use magic. The thing is, they’re right to do so, because magic in the hands of amateurs is absolutely horrifying. These books have very high body counts. I love their bleak but hopeful outlook – Ray Lilly, the narrator, expects to die at any moment and doesn’t think he can ever change the world or do any lasting good, but he never gives up.
A Key, An Egg, An Unfortunate Remark (also by Harry Connolly) is fantasy set in Seattle, but so different from anything else that I can’t put it in any subgenre anyone’s ever identified. Imagine a sorcerer who’s midway between Gandalf and Miss Marple as the world’s magical protector… She’s one of the most delightful fantasy characters I’ve ever encountered.
The Adventures of Jack and Miracle Girl, by Blake Michael Nelson, is a superhero story set in a world where superheroes are celebrities, with fan clubs and gossip mags. Jack is an ordinary guy with no particular interest in superheroes until he runs into the famous and powerful Miracle Girl, who develops a crush on him. The mix of superhero action and awkward romance is charming. Nelson’s written several more novels set in the same world, but I like this first one best.
Q: What will you be writing during the winter months ahead?
LWE: The third Tom Derringer book, Tom Derringer & the Steam-Powered Saurians. I may also get a little done on Charming Sharra, the next in the Ethshar series. Or on Elfshot, a fantasy murder mystery. Or Stormchildren, which isn’t as readily explained.
But mostly Tom Derringer.
Q: Tom Derringer In The Tunnels Of Terror looks like a fun novel. What can you share with us about that novel, without giving too much away?
LWE: It’s the second in “The Adventures of Tom Derringer,” after Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship. (I’m in the middle of writing the third, Tom Derringer and the Steam-Powered Saurians, and there are at least three more are planned after that.)
These stories were inspired by the old “boys’ adventure” stories I read as a kid; mostly cheap hardcovers published from about 1880 until 1930.
Tom Derringer is the son of a well-known adventurer, but his father died (of rheumatic fever) when Tom was very young, so Tom wasn’t initially aware of this. When he found out, he determined to follow in his father’s footsteps.
He lives in a world where adventuring is a recognized profession, because it’s also a world full of lost cities, mad scientists, and the like. Most adventurers sort of stumble into it, but Tom actively trained – which, it turns out, helps make up for the fact that he’s not a natural for the job. He’s too trusting, and doesn’t have the flair for improvisation that a great adventurer should have. But he’s learning.
In the first book he went chasing a mysterious airship across Mexico in 1882, and wound up battling a would-be conqueror.
In Tunnels, he goes searching for someone and finds himself tracking down rumors about Emperor Norton before landing among the Lizard People who live in tunnels beneath Los Angeles…
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned his assistant/sidekick Betsy.
I recommend reading the series in order, so you should start with Aluminum Airship.
Q: Tell us about Betsy?
LWE: Betsy Vanderhart is a girl a few months older than Tom, the daughter of a professor of engineering and applied physics at Rutgers. She’s been helping her father, running his errands and working on his inventions, since she was about eight. When Tom buys an airship from Professor Vanderhart, the professor sends Betsy along to help Tom run it. She’s only supposed to stay a few days, but one thing leads to another, and she winds up accompanying Tom on his adventures.
She’s a sensible girl who doesn’t want anything to do with something as risky as adventuring, but she’s also smart, courageous, sarcastic, curious, and very good with machinery. Tom learns a lot from her.
Q: A professor who sells airships sounds like a fellow we’d love to meet. What are his airships like?
LWE: The Vanderhart Aeronavigator is a major feature in Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship, and it’s for sale because Professor Vanderhart had moved on to other interests. It’s mostly built of doped silk on a bamboo framework, as that was the lightest materials he knew of that were strong enough for the job, but the engine is your basic late-Victorian steam engine, made as light and compact as he could get it. The engine is sufficiently non-standard that initially only Betsy knew how to run it, which is why she’s in the story.
Professor Vanderhart was actually trying out theories about weight-reduction devices; the airship was just an experiment in that area.
Q: What have you noticed about trends in fantasy fiction?
LWE: Fantasy (like most genres, really) tends to go in waves – someone will do something brilliant and innovative, and lots of people will then imitate it in various ways and to varying degrees. Robert E. Howard invented sword & sorcery (though it wasn’t named that until decades later), and this eventually gave us Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and assorted other sword-wielding adventurers – Kothar, Thongor, et cetera. J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings came out in paperback circa 1965, and the 1970s were dominated by epic fantasy where plucky heroes battled dark lords. Anita Blake provided a template for urban fantasy (a.k.a. “vampire shaggers”) that’s still being imitated – and in that case, I think we got some cross-platform inspiration as well, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV version, not so much the original movie) contributed some tropes.
I’m a little surprised we aren’t being overrun with imitations of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire/”Game of Thrones” – or maybe we are, and I haven’t noticed, as I don’t keep up with the field as much as I probably should.
And that doesn’t address Harry Potter. Notice that these ground-breaking, trend-setting works are coming more often now; I think that’s because fantasy sells well these days. When I was a kid fantasy didn’t even exist as a marketing category; what little fantasy got published before those “The Lord of the Rings” paperbacks mostly had to be either aimed at children, or disguised as science fiction (e.g., Andre Norton‘s Witch World series). But these trends, even if they may last for decades, do all seem to eventually burn out; you see far fewer Tolkien clones these days than you did thirty or forty years ago.
I don’t know what’s coming; I can’t even guess.
Q: What are three (3) qualities that a memorable novel should have?
LWE: Engaging, rich, and satisfying.
Engaging in that the characters should be interesting people, and the setting should be somewhere the reader wants to spend time. The reader’s emotions need to be engaged. We need to care.
Rich in that we want a world, not a stage set. It should feel as if even the minor characters have lives outside the story – families, histories, beliefs, concerns. The world should be complex, and we should never feel as if we know everything about it – there are always more details to discover and mysteries to solve. It should feel real.
Satisfying – we want a story that means something, and that ends in a way that doesn’t leave us frustrated. The heroes should earn their victory – or if they lose (a much harder sell), they must deserve it.
Q: Which authors would you recommend for parents looking to introduce their young children to the world of fantasy fiction?
LWE: My first inclination is to say Terry Pratchett, but kids would miss a lot of the humor and references and depth in most of his work.
C.S. Lewis was a gateway author for lots of kids in my generation, but it doesn’t hold up that well – there’s sexism and racism in the Narnia series that played as harmless and commonplace sixty years ago, but grates now.
I’d say the best place to start would probably be Harry Potter.
Q: Harry Potter books have been translated into nearly 70 languages. That’s astonishing. What do you suppose it is, about the world of Harry Potter, that makes it so accessible for young readers from all across the globe?
LWE: J.K. Rowling is a genius at creating strong and varied characters. Also, her Wizarding World doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense, but it sure is fun. She’s clearly read a great deal, and has taken appealing elements from all over the place and assembled them into one grand story that obeys all the rules for a classic “hero’s journey,” all while grounding it in the familiar and everyday realities of home and school.
I wish I could do that!
Q: If you were leaving tomorrow, on a cruise to the Azores, and you could bring three novels along with you for the voyage, which three novels would accompany you?
LWE: Three I haven’t read. Let’s look at my shelves…
Ravenheart, by David Gemmell – it’s been waiting for my attention for fifteen years.
His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik – told you I hadn’t kept up.
Three I should have read long ago, but haven’t – a cruise to the Azores would be a perfect chance to catch up a little!
Q: You’ll be in the Azores for an entire week too, lucky you! What’ll you be doing whilst you’re there?
LWE: Reading! And lolling on the beach, and writing.