February 28, 2008
Sword, Sorcery, and Small White Dogs: An Interview with Rosemary Jones
Rosemary Jones (Myspace, Blog) is the author of the Forgotten Realms novel Crypt of the Moaning Diamond as well as several short stories. she answered a few of my questions about shared world fiction, humor in fantasy, and children's books.
GFTW: How would you describe Crypt of the Moaning Diamond to someone who hasnít heard of it before?
Rosemary Jones: An old-fashioned swashbuckling sword-and-sorcery story full of monsters, magic, mayhem, and treasure set in the Forgotten Realms that does not fear to make humorous use of a small dog.
GFTW: Why are music and the ability to sing (or lack thereof) so prevalent throughout your novel?
RJ: Thatís my day job creeping in. I work for an opera company writing press release, program notes, web content, and other items. I love music. But Iím canít sing at all! And Iím surrounded by people who are enormously gifted at music. So I started thinking about what would it be like if you were a child of a great singer, as my heroine is, and you couldnít sing.
GFTW: Since you write in a shared world, I have to ask this question. What is your response to those folks who deride shared worlds as bad fiction?
RJ: I would never make blanket statements about any genre because somebody is going to come along and blow you away with their talent. I think it depends on the writer and the risks that they and their publisher are willing to take. Neil Gaiman took a dopey D.C. comics character, the Sandman, and changed the way people regarded comics and won a World Fantasy Award. J.K. Rowling took the British school series genre, where each book deals with the next year in a boarding school, and turned it into an international phenomenon by tweaking that formula in all sorts of wonderful ways. But in both cases, those writers also worked very hard to make their characters real even though the hero might be an immortal god or a boy wizard. And, quite obviously in both cases, there was somebody at their publishing houses saying ďWell this is different but letís take a chance.Ē
One thing that can be problematic in writing shared world fiction or any type of genre fiction is the idea that you have to sound a certain way, that there is only one ďvoiceĒ as it were for that type of fiction. I think thatís when writers can end up sounding forced or awkward, and readers can be very quick to pick up on that. I tried to keep the facts right (the way that the world works), stay in my own voice to tell the story, and make the characters as real as I could. When a friend read this, the first thing she said, ďIs it really OK to have your adventurers out trying to raise money to repair the barn? Shouldnít they be trying to save the world? Isnít that what they do in fantasy?Ē And I told her that my characters have much smaller and, to them, more pressing problems than saving the world. Luckily, my editor at Wizards was very supportive of what I tried to do with this story. Which meant that the novel that resulted is, for better or worse, definitely Rosemary Jonesís style of storytelling.
GFTW: Why is humor such an important part of a story?
RJ: Thatís just the way I write. And what I like to read. I enjoy fiction where the humor isnít forced, where it comes more out of the relationships of the characters. Pip Granger does this beautifully in a series of mysteries that starts with Not All Tarts are Apple. Life just is a mixture of funny and serious, and it seems natural to write that way.
Terry Pratchett is another master of mixing funny and serious, especially in his later books. Read Jingo or Small Gods or Feet of Clay. Wonderful characters, terrific humor, and some serious thinking about war, religion, and freedom. Making Money, his latest book and yet another fantasy with humorous use of a small dog, is also a pretty good lesson in real-world economics and the types of speculation that is driving the stock market news today. In fact, I was a bit dismayed when I realized a dog was a major part of his latest bookóhis writing is so fantastic, I donít like to go too near a ďPratchett-typeĒ plot or characters. I definitely donít wax as philosophical as he does either.
But as Elaine Cunningham said in a forum, you eventually do cross paths with other writers when you writing in the high fantasy world. Dwarves are dwarves are dwarves, as it were. Again, it becomes a matter of voice and trying to stay as true to yourself as possible.
GFTW: What would you say is the most difficult part of writing a novel?
RJ: Letting go at the end. Iím never totally satisfied. When youíre working on a deadline, you do reach a moment where you have to print out the pages, burn the CD, and ship it off to the editor. Iíve actually ripped open the box to make another note on the page at the post office. This is also true of nonfiction for me. Shipping it off is the hardest part.
GFTW: You write both short stories and novels. How do you approach writing novels versus writing short fiction?
RJ: Much more detailed outlines. Short stories tend to flow out of a single sentence, the opening or the closing line. Crypt also started with one idea: how would sappers operate in the Forgotten Realms? And that idea really started with me reading about medieval sappers, i.e. the men who had the job of breaking down the walls of a besieged castle. Then a lot of other things from life got layered into the outline, like not being able to get out the door without spilling my breakfast down my shirt or wondering why everyone that I see wandering outside in Seattle is walking a small dog or how family members donít always look like each other but definitely are similar in underlying ways. My outline for a short story might be just one or two sentences jotted in a notebook. My outline for Crypt was 35 pages!
GFTW: To what extent are you constrained by the pre-existing world of FaerŻn in your writing and how and when are you able to forge new territory in the Forgotten Realms setting?
RJ: What constraint? I had a whole huge world to play in and somebody else had already drawn the maps! I find owning complete encyclopedias explaining where stuff is and how it works is a terrific safety net and a great source of ideas. Some shared worlds might be harder to write in, but FaerŻn seems to act more like historical fiction. If youíre writing about the Napoleonic wars, you have to put Waterloo in the right place on the right day. But if youíre writing about whatís happening in a corner of Denmark on the same day as Waterloo, you donít need to worry so much about ďthe facts that everyone knows.Ē My story takes place in a year, 1276 DR, and a corner of FaerŻn, the ruins of Tsurlagol, that nobody else had written about much. So the story and the characters are all mine but I hope the novel makes sense to somebody who likes this setting as well as to somebody who knows nothing about the Forgotten Realms.
As it was, the constraints came more out of the perimeters I set on myself: the action would all happen underground since the theme of this series was Dungeons and the time period would be less than two days in my charactersí lives. But the constraints also led to some creative solutions (I think) that made it a more interesting story.
GFTW: You have mentioned that you used to play role playing games quite often. What is your favorite role playing game memory?
RJ: In college, I was in one of those long-running D&D campaigns fueled by chips and dip. The kind where everything seems sensible and heroic at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning. I wanted to get that rushed, light-headed feeling into the action of this book. And another friend, who works in the gaming industry, was my sounding board. He contributed several ideas based on his campaigns and even the title treasure!
GFTW: Your characters create a great deal of humor through their interpersonal relationships. Are any of these based on personal experiences?
RJ: Partially that college D&D campaign. We were a very creative and slightly silly group. We used to drive our DM nuts because we wouldnít always act the way that he thought we should. And we were very lucky in our dice rolls. So, more than once, when we really should have been dead, we beat the odds and got out. So I had the idea in the back of my head that the luck would play an important role in this book.
RJ: A longtime passion is early 20th-century illustrated childrenís books. I love the work of illustrators like Kay Nielsen or Edmund Dulac. Thatís what I collect. But I also read and acquire a lot of fantasy and science fiction written for children or young adults. Both new books, like Kenneth Oppel or Philip Reeve, and older works, like Alexander Key or Andre Norton or E. Nesbit. As far as fantasy and science fiction are concerned, I find that the line between childrenís books and adult books blurs quite quickly. Jules Verne, another favorite author, sold to both audiences from the beginning and his works attract great illustrators. Look at the illustrations that N.C. Wyeth created for Mysterious Island in 1918 or what the Dillons drew for a more recent version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, youíll see a wonderful blend of art and fiction.
GFTW: Any plans for a novel or series outside of the Forgotten Realms?
RJ: Right now, Iím playing around with a novel based on Greek mythology. Itís my ten-year project; as in every time Iím between projects, I go back and tweak the ideas or write another scene for a writerís group that Iím in. And Iíve been fiddling with a short story idea that keeps growing longer and longer about a guy trapped in a rocket in an asteroid field. The latter may turn into a novel outline if Iím not careful.
GFTW: Any parting thoughts for your readers or those who might be considering delving into the Realms?
RJ: Buy a big bookcase! There are a lot of great books out there. And very many different voices. If my style doesnít suit your tastes, try someone else. Donít ever judge the whole series like this based on just one author.