Author Interview: J. Robert King

2012-Jan-1 -> from the interesting-people department Tags:

This is something I haven't done before, but I thought was a very cool thing that many other bloggers are doing right now. Interviews.

But I don't want to interview just anyone, that would be boring. Instead, I have a full out celebrity amongst Magic: The Gathering geeks and many other gamers out there. The author that brought us the story of Yawgmoth, and shattered Dominaria with Apocalypse. He's worked for TSR, for Wizards of the Coast, and has fantasy novels published with Angry Robot and TOR Fantasy. The one, the only...

J. Robert King!


But seriously, on with the show...

TAK: Hi J. Robert King, and welcome to my interview!

First things first, I'd like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my questions. Being an author myself, I understand how busy you can be, especially with a family and so many other things going on in your life. I really appreciate this.

We all know you're an author, do you do anything else with your spare time?

JK: Yes, actually. I also have done a lot of community theater, specializing in over-the-top farce with plenty of spit takes, prat falls, cross-dressing, and mistaken identities. I enjoy creating crazy characters, probably a result of all the novels I have worked on. In a novel, I have to be all of the characters as well as the writer, the director, the producer, the lighting guy, the composer, the gaffer and best boy (whatever he is) and on and on. In theater, I get to be just a single character-or sometimes more. In The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), I played a dozen characters, including Juliet and Ophelia.

TAK: Your most recent work, The Shadow of Reichenbach Falls, is a sort of spin-off from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic Sherlock Holmes mysteries that takes place after Holmes and Moriarty have their epic battle at the top of the falls. Do you think you captured the same kind of intrigue and elegance that Doyle once did with his masterpieces?

JK: The Shadow of Reichenback Falls was my most recent work when I set up the tag-line on my Web site, and I've been too slow (lazy) to update it. Actually, I've published three novels since then-a Guild Wars 2 tie-in called Edge of Destiny from Pocket Books and two modern thrillers titled Angel of Death and Death's Disciples. I am lining up two more SF thrillers with the same publisher, Angry Robot Books.

Having said all of that, I must say that taking on Doyle's work was a great challenge. I'd just finished three Arthurian novels, which are, themselves, difficult. The great thing about Arthurian lore is how sprawling it is, how many hands have joined to make it. I was just the next in a long line of interpreters. With Holmes, it was quite different. There was only one Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I decided fairly early on that if I tried to be Doyle, I'd only ever be a second-rate Doyle. For me to tell a Sherlockian story, I had to bring my own sensibilities in; otherwise, why tell it? Carnacki helped in that regard. Between Holmes and Carnacki, I had two very different icons of literature, and by bringing them together and adding my touches, I could find space for me in the stories.

TAK: I'm a big fan of Holmes, and am disappointed with the most recent movies spawned from Hollywood that borrow the name. I can't even bring myself to watch them. As an obvious fan yourself, how do you feel about Hollywood's interpretation of these classic stories?

JK: Yes, when I saw the new Holmes movies, my jaw dropped. True, I myself had taken liberties with the Holmes canon because of the introduction of Carnacki. I couldn't do justice to Carnacki unless I included elements of the supernatural-something Holmes wouldn't abide (but Doyle would). I felt that by taking notes from Doyle's later spiritualism, I could justify introducing these supernatural experiences as long as Holmes himself thought it all poppycock in the end.

The latest Holmes movies take many more liberties. They play like a graphic novel, with rapid frames and ferocious camera angles. The fight scenes-which are many-have a muscular vitality. There is more of Holmes as the master of baritzu and the cocaine addict than the Holmes as the gentleman of Baker Street.

Okay, so the movies push things much farther than they have been pushed before, but in some ways I admire their daring. I've been taken to task by Holmes purists for introducing elements of the supernatural into my novel-and rightly so. In the canonical stories, even seemingly supernatural experiences such as the ghost hound of the Baskervilles turn out to be ruses-Scooby Doo style. I'm sorry I've disappointed purists in this regard, but folks who haven't been Sherlockians like the story. They find it compelling and engaging.

Which is where I see the recent Holmes films fitting. They may disappoint longtime fans, but they will also open the stories to a much wider audience who will go back to read the source material and discover Holmes for themselves. So I'm quite tolerant of these movies, especially because Robert Downey Jr. is always interesting to watch.

TAK: Much of your work is derived from characters and settings that were already highly developed before you took the reins (I'm thinking Planescape, DragonLance, Forgotten Realms, and Magic: The Gathering). What is it like working with this type of setting? Is it hard to stay consistent with everything else that's been written before you?

JK: Yes, I've done a great deal of work in shared worlds. Writing Arthurian and Sherlockian novels is not that different. The great thing about a shared world is that someone else can plan the sewer system. Someone else can lay the roads and do all the civil engineering. Someone else can put gods in the heavens and monsters in the hollows, and I can just find a really interesting person with an interesting problem and tell a story. The other good thing about working in these environments is that people seek the world first and the author second.

I've now written two other novels set in my own world-which happens to be modern Chicago with a helluva lot of metaphysical stuff going on. So even though these novels weren't based on other people's worlds, they were based on a real city. It's pretty much still a shared world.

Yes, it's tough to keep up with continuity, whether I'm writing in a shared world or in the real world. In one scene of a recent novel, I had a plane land at Meigs Field, even though it's been a golf course now for a decade. That's what watchful editors are for.

TAK: Are you ever afraid that a bad novel written in the same setting by another author could affect your work in a negative way?

JK: I'm only afraid that a bad novel written by me could affect my work. I make sure that when a novel is printed, it is my best work. As to whether my best work is good enough-that's the reader's job to decide.

TAK: I've read a number of your books, and I think you're an incredible author. One of my favourite books by you was The Thran. This novel took a step back in time in the Magic: The Gathering series and explored the past of one of the games most notorious characters, Yawgmoth. What was it like writing about this character and his origins?

JK: I loved writing The Thran. I loved writing all of my Magic: The Gathering novels. My friend Jeff Grubb got me turned on to the game, and I auditioned and won a contract to write Time Streams. I wrote a few Magic short stories for Will McDermott at The Duelist, and then got the chance came to write The Thran. I leapt at it.

Time Streams was very carefully controlled, with meetings in Seattle, many outlines, lots of back and forth. Then with The Thran, since it wasn't tied to a card-set release, I was given free rein. The folks at WotC just said, "Tell us how Yawgmoth became Yawgmoth." So I did some research about Hitler and Stalin, trying to figure out how someone without much power could become an ultimate dictator. It was all about using visions of glory to get people's attention, then fear to gain control of them, then laws to sift the populace so that the followers remained and the dissidents were destroyed. That's exactly what Yawgmoth did, using fear of the phthisis-illness caused by overexposure to powerstones-to let him gain total control of Halcyon and create his army of Phyrexians.

TAK: Yawgmoth is a serious bad guy, evil in an unbelievable way. How do you prepare yourself to write about somebody like this?

JK: Well, as I said, part of it was studying the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Part of it was also just tapping into the inner psychopath. All of us have one. All of us are born feeling we are the most important thing that has ever existed. We have to be taught to care for others. We have to be taught to feel empathy. A psychopath is simply a fully functioning adult human who has no empathy. The psychopath walks around in a world of people and sees just objects. The psychopathic would as soon kick a person down a road as kick a stone.

One of my most recent novels, Angel of Death, features just such a psychopath. Much of the novel is written in first-person present-tense narration from the point of view of this person. The really creepy part is that, when you are reading the thoughts of the psychopath, they sound completely reasonable. But when you view the psychopath's actions from the outside, what you see is a monster. That's what Yawgmoth is-a reasonable genius who is, in fact, a monster.

TAK: Writing a novel is hard. I stated this in the acknowledgements section of my book, and I stand by it, no matter what route an author takes to publishing. You're most recent blog post, "I'm on Broadway!: A Publishing Parable", was a great read, though I detected a note of contention towards indie and self publishing. Is this something you feel strongly about?

JK: First of all, I commend you for understanding the parable. I've actually had people write to me to say that they searched the Internet to find out when I would be performing on Broadway but found no information.

I do not disparage indie publishing and self-publishing. They are most likely the wave of the future. What my parable indicates is that self-publishing doesn't work for me. I'm not a marketer. I'm not a money guy. I don't have a warehouse, and I don't want to track orders. There's one part of the book business that I do well, and that's writing novels. Twenty-four published novels isn't a fluke. But there are many parts of the book business that I do not do well. I need the people who have these skills to show up and help out. I can't do it on my own.

That doesn't mean that others can't. Some people can do it all. They can be the ticket taker and the popcorn maker and the usher and the theater owner, but I can't. Within a novel, I take on many roles, as I said before, but that's enough work. If I have to do all those things within the novel and then turn around to do all those other things outside the novel, well, I'm doomed.

TAK: Do you see writing as a solitary profession, or do you prefer a more community based approach?

JK: When I left TSR to raise the first of three sons and to launch a full-time writing career, I also set up a group of writers called the Alliterates. I knew that once a month I needed to get together with other writers to talk about what we were working on. My first-born son is sixteen, now, and so are the Alliterates. This community of writers that I started here in Wisconsin now also has a group meeting in Seattle and another in Dixie. I needed this group because I was going to be isolated with younglings to raise. A lot of other writers have needed this group because writing is so solitary.

Dancers dance in front of mirrors to see what they look like. Writers write in closets. They don't know what they look like. They can only know if they have readers-someone else who honestly and supportively provides feedback. I've come to realize that an idea I love in a manuscript is probably one that won't survive revision. The reason is that I have lost all objectivity about the idea, and I need other writers and readers to rein me in and say, "That's a cool thought, but it has no place in this story."

TAK: You currently have over twenty full-length published novels, and a number of short stories. Do you consider yourself a success? How do you personally measure success as an author?

JK: No. That's a pretty blunt answer, but no.

It's not enough to write a brilliant novel that nobody reads.

It's not enough to write a bestseller that everybody reads and forgets.

You've got to write a brilliant novel that everybody reads and remembers.

That's tough. Every novel I've written has been the best I could do at the time, given the conditions, but I have never written a perfect novel. Some, I think, are really strong, but they go out into the real world with real readers and they don't take off. It doesn't matter how beautiful the boat is-it matters how well it sails.

Or here's a more practical way to put it: the novelist who thinks he is a success has already written his best novel. I'm a total failure. I hope my best novel is ahead of me.

TAK: Is it ever enough?

JK: No.

TAK: You've been most gracious with your time. I'd like to thank you, once more, for answering my questions. My final question before I go is this: When I read your work, I can see that you are a master of getting into the mind of the truly evil characters. You have a talent for bringing them to life in a way that most authors could only dream of. I have a blog event coming up titled "29 Days of Fantasy" in which I am hosting 29 guest bloggers in the month of February. Would you consider sharing some of your insight into the workings of evil and how to bring it to life, and write a guest blog for this event?

JK: I would love to shine my darkness onto the topic of bringing evil characters to life.

TAK: It's been an honour having you on my blog, and I look forward to reading any coming announcements you might have.

JK: Thanks so much for this opportunity, Thomas!

So there you have it, my very first interview. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you'll come back for more. Here are some exciting things I have in the works for this coming year:

  • Starting on February 1, 2012, I have 29 Days of Fantasy. 29 guest blog posts, by 29 fantasy authors. You don't want to miss a single day of this!
  • FeedStorm: An experiment in blogging. This is something new. Entirely new. And hopefully, every blogger and blog follower in the world will want to be a part of it.
  • HydraForge: A discussion forum geared towards role playing, allowing structured campaigns, free-form role playing, and normal discussion to happen all in the same place.
  • More interviews! Some time in January, I will have an interview with a super-gamer. This guy is amazing, you definitely don't want to miss this.
  • And much, much more!

If you don't want to miss any of this, either Contact Me and sign up for my mailing list, or Subscribe by email to my blog posts.

Thanks again for reading!

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.

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