Do you remember when you first came up with Gaunt and Bone?
I was writing longhand in a coffee place in Menlo Park, California, in the ’90s. I was doing the second of a planned series of stories in a dreamlike fantasy world, taking cues from Dunsany, Lovecraft, and Leiber. (The first one, “The Lions of Karthagar,” eventually appeared in revised form in Black Gate 15.) I wanted a classic Dungeons & Dragons style thief, and played around with names resembling Indiana Jones and Inigo Montoya, coming up with Imago Bone. The inspirations suggested a lot about his character. Next, I needed a reason for him to do something dangerous, so along came his “Goth” girlfriend and her stolen book of poems. Her name, Persimmon Gaunt, was meant to suggest a love of life and a fascination with death. They clicked with me, and when I went on to do a third story in that sequence, they ended up answering the “want ad.” So, I just ran with that and wrote more stories about them.
Chris, you have spent time as a librarian, a job that most people think would be great for an author. Is that true or false and why?
True, especially if your job covers fiction. It helps keep you aware of what’s been written, what’s popular, what people enjoy about certain writers and genres, and what the possibilities are. Meanwhile nonfiction books can spark all kinds of ideas. I mostly handled children’s books and programs, and even though I’m not currently writing for children, there’s a lot of fantasy and science fiction being written for kids. I found all that exuberant storytelling inspiring. One word of caution if you’re interested in public libraries, though—it’s not necessarily a “quiet” job from the librarian’s perspective! There’s a big customer service component. You need to be able to talk to people, and listen, and be patient.
Well, I drew a map, but I’m a terrible artist. If there are any readers who have cartography skills…
If the Aern had pet dogs, what breed would they be?
Akitas. A smart, loyal, capable breed that rarely has to be groomed (beyond the endless brushing when they blow their coat)… Totally the breed of choice for the Aern.
If Grudgebearer were going to be made into a movie, who would you cast in some of the major roles and why?
I’ve gone back and forth in my head about Kholster. Michael Fassbender sticks out in my head because of the predatory smile he can pull off, and he has no trouble being funny and serious, but Chris Hemsworth could also be awesome. Maybe one should play Vander and the other one should be Kholster? Natalie Dormer would make a great Wylant. I think she could manage the fine line Wylant has to tread between warrior and diplomat. Rae’en would be hard to cast… Maybe readers have a few ideas?
Grudgebearer seems to be full of subplots and side stories. Which of these turned out differently than you thought it would?
Kholster and Wylant constantly surprise me. I didn’t realize what a good father Kholster was going to be. I’ll avoid spoiling it completely, but the issues between the Aern and the Warsuits… I didn’t see those coming. This may seem pseudo-schizophrenic, but Kholster saw that coming long before I did. Wylant and Vax are complicated, but there are some wonderful scenes in book two where <spoiler redacted>.
Did you write the entire trilogy at once or are you writing the books one at time?
One at a time. I’m a seat-of-my-pants writer, but with these books, I know how they end and have certain specific events I know will happen along the way, but I’m not always certain how they will connect until the characters figure it out for themselves. Occasionally a character’s reaction will throw a serious kink in my plans, but I work around it, because nothing is worse than realizing a character made a mistake solely for the purposes of the plot—that is not allowed to happen.
What character do you think grows the most over the course of Grudgebearer?
Probably Rae’en. She certainly has the coming of age arc, but General Tsan may give her a run for her money in the next book. I hope Dolvek comes around a little more, but we’ll have to wait and see. Other than those there is another character I would mention, but that would be too spoilery.
I felt like you did a good job of portraying the attitudes of beings that were long-lived and almost immortal. How hard is it to get in the mind of someone who lives for hundreds or even thousands of years?
Getting Kholster right… ug. The temptation to have him make all the right decisions (or even all the wrong decisions) was there in every scene. In the end, I settled on basically making him the most understanding father I could. He has a hard-won knowledge of when it is okay to let the people he loves make mistakes. There are things he will never understand because of the way he is and grudges he can never let go, even though he knows he should… He still has an endless font of rage and depth of emotion, but he can keep a handle on it (most of the time). Hitting that balance between warrior, father, and husband was the source of many a revision.
The oldest character, Torgrimm (the god of birth and death), was actually the easiest. He basically finds something to love about everyone… like the best granddad you could imagine, only getting angry when someone interferes with his grandchildren… and he counts every mortal being under that heading.
Where did you get the idea of incorporating aspects of video games into a fantasy novel?
That came naturally. The fabulous Warsuits, soul-bonded weapons, the physical prowess aren’t what make the Aern so dangerous. Communication is. I was struck by how deadly a group of people who could use a level of communication beyond even what we have today would be in a medieval setting. From a gaming point of view, it’s like the difference between being on a raid in an MMORPG with a bunch of people who all know the fight, know their roles, and are using something like Team Speak versus a pick-up group all typing at each other. It was also just flat-out fun, and led to what, I hope are some of the most amusing moments in the book. (Wouldn’t you like to play a video game based on this series?)
If you were teaching an English class and they were studying Grudgebearer, what themes and symbolism would you focus on?
All the killing and eating people aside, Grudgebearer opens the door to some genuine discussion about slavery and gender equality. One of the hardest things to remember when writing from Wylant’s point of view was to have other Eldrennai react to her as they would. There is perfect gender equality among the Aern, but the Eldrennai are a pretty chauvinist society and at times it was uncomfortable to reflect that. Here is this marvelous general and so many of her peers or superiors dismiss her or condescend to her, even when they know better. But that is what happens far too often even in today’s society.
What can you tell us about the next novel in the series?
It’s awesome! Look forward to finding out more about General Tsan, more about how Vael society works, and more about Kholster’s Overwatches. Kholster mainly talks to Vander, but due to events in the first book, we’ll get to know the other Overwatchers a lot more. I’m particularly looking forward to having readers meet Glayne. He was blinded by Ghaiattri fire and has learned to see through his soul-bonded weaponry.
I have read your bio in the back of your books. What else should readers know about you?
About me? Nothing. I’d rather readers know my characters. There’s a little bit of me in all of them. Hopefully there is more of me in Kholster than in Dolvek (or Eric from my Void City series). If you must have something more: I’ve recently gotten into fountain pens and I’m about halfway to black belt in tae kwon do.
Wolfgang: D&D Next provides a lot of support for “theatre of the mind,” also known as running your game without minis. I’ve found this extremely enjoyable in online games using Google Hangouts. Is that form of online play a design goal?
Mike: I’m not sure if it started as a design goal, but since many of our playtests took place using Hangouts it helped evolve it that way. When you don’t have minis and grids to represent things, it forces you to make sure that your rules don’t require them. So I think a good way to think of it is that if playing via Hangout works, then the game should also work fine if you and your players want to sit on couches in your TV room without a table, or while driving to GenCon, or wherever.