Nerds on Earth
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An Interview with Fantasy Author Howard Andrew Jones

One of my favorite things about Nerds on Earth is that it affords me the opportunity to connect with some of the creators I enjoy and admire. Author Howard Andrew Jones is one of those creators.

So I captured Howard, brought him back to Nerds on Earth HQ, questioned him thoroughly, then released him unharmed.

Clave: What is your origin story for fantasy writing?

Howard: I’ve been telling stories since I was so little I couldn’t even write. I used to draw a series of pictures and have my mother write underneath explaining what was happening in each. I just never stopped – well, I stopped drawing, because I reached my artistic peak at 4 – but I kept on telling stories after I learned how to write on my own.

As for fantasy, my first love was science fiction, although as I grew up in the ‘70s, most of what I read (or watched – I loved the original Star Trek) was adventurish space opera stuff. Believe it or not, it was easy to run out of genre material back then, and when I did, I turned to that other genre on the shelf, fantasy.

The doors were blown off for me when I read the only Lankhmar book I could lay hands on, Swords Against Death, which by accident is probably the best of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collections, and then Roger Zelazny’s first Chronicles of Amber series.

Clave: Wow, I can visualize a series of webcomics featuring art from four-year-old Howard!. I first discovered you in the Pathfinder Tales line. How did you get connected with Paizo and what was the experience of writing in someone else’s world?

Howard: I’d become friendly with James Sutter and Erik Mona over several years while I was reviewing Paizo game products for Black Gate magazine. Erik and I have a shared love of old pulp stories and we all loved sword-and-sorcery.

Right as James was getting ready to launch the Pathfinder Tales book line he got word that I’d signed a two book deal with St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne for a fantasy series of my own, so he asked if I wanted to join their writing pool. Seeing as how I’d always enjoyed our interactions, that I had been enjoying Paizo products for years, and that I was encouraged to give my book a strong sword-and-sorcery vibe, I jumped at the chance.

There’s good and bad to writing in someone else’s world. There are places you can’t go and things you can’t do for fear of altering future plans or treading on someone else’s story. And then I was stuck with certain genre conventions, like Vancian spellcasting (which drives me nuts), readily available resurrection, gods that are real, multiple sentient races with a Tolkien vibe, etcetera.

I’m a long-time gamer and fantasy reader, though, so I knew what was wanted, and James and the rest of the team were tremendously helpful if I had a question about exactly what spell could do which thing I wanted. So that was good, and the other great thing was that any time I had a question about how something worked, or needed to know the backhistory on THAT region over there all I had to do was jot a quick e-mail or pick up the phone and I’d get the answer. Boy, was that a change of pace from writing historical fantasy set in the real world, where I could spend hours pouring through books trying to get an answer to some obscure piece of description.

(This is completely off topic, I know, but James is a fantastic editor and has been an immense pleasure to work with. I’ve been very fortunate in my editors.)

I game a lot, and I usually fudge some of the standard conventions. You can see a little of what I mean in my Pathfinder books. I turn the gritty dial up a little – maybe to around 5 or 6 – make magic items less common, and downplay magical healing and especially resurrection, which I always feel lessens tension in the game. I occasionally saw people wondering why there weren’t more healing spells or clerics in my Pathfinder books, and my answer was that I pretty much wrote the way I gamed. In the two most recent books I loosened up a little with that, but magic items and powerful healing still aren’t as easy to come by as I see in the campaigns of others.

Clave: I loved Beyond the Pool of Stars and Through the Gate in the Sea is in my next-to-read stack. Where did the inspiration from those characters come from?

Howard: I’m pleased you liked it! Funny you should ask. Mirian and Jekka are holdovers from a creator owned novel I was trying to sell before I switched over to the Arabian fantasy characters that finally got me my first book deal. I’d shown James a writing sample that included them early on and he liked it, but wanted something a little less, well, weird, earlier on in the product line, which made perfect sense.

A lot of the second book, Through the Gate in the Sea, is a re-envisioned version of that original novel, now set in Golarion.

Jekka remains pretty much the same character he’d always been, but it was James who suggested Mirian’s dual heritage, and I think it really strengthened her character. Her loyalty to her crew and ship has an awful lot to do with the original Captain Kirk’s feelings about the same. I’m not sure where Jekka comes from, though. It’s great fun having someone from “outside” able to see things from a different perspective and comment upon them, so I suppose, in a way, he’s like Spock… but not really in outlook or temperament.

Kalina is based upon one of my wife’s characters, a lizard person she’s played now in two campaigns. Personality wise, she plays Kalina exactly the way she appears in the book — friendly, intensely curious, and new to human customs and culture. While I had designed much of the lizardfolk culture when I created Jekka, my wife came up with the terminology for Kalina’s weapons.

Clave: You write in your own worlds as well. Could you both tell us a little about The Desert of Souls and it how it differs writing in your own world versus Paizo’s sandbox?

Howard: The Desert of Souls is sort of what you might get if you crossed a Sherlock Holmes story with the Arabian Nights. It’s told by a Watson-like narrator, except that Asim is the clever fellow’s bodyguard, and is more integral to the plot than Watson is in the actual Sherlock Holmes stories, and he carries a really sharp sword. There are puzzles to solve, lots of swashbuckling action, and evil magic afoot, even though it’s set in a real time and place. Magic isn’t easily come by, and is rare and dangerous.

The big difference between writing Dabir and Asim and writing in someone else’s sandbox is the amount of freedom I had… except that because I was writing in a real historic time I wanted to get the cultural details right, and even duplicate the “feel” of the magic. I also went for a more formal writing style so that it would read a little like the translation of an older work. And, with a narrator, it’s first person, and Asim is what you’d call a flawed narrator. He doesn’t always see everything even though he thinks he does.

I have to say, I’ve had some weird reactions to his narration. Some people don’t seem to understand that a first person narrator isn’t the author, and ascribe Asim’s opinions to me. I’ve also had some people trot out the strange conceit that you can’t get tension out of a first person narrator because you know he’ll survive. It’s one of my pet peeves. I mean, if that’s true I guess there’s no tension in any Sherlock Holmes stories, right?

As anyone who gave it a little more thought would tell you, tension results in learning HOW the characters get out, or what the solution to the mystery is, or what happens to characters who aren’t the narrator. You don’t ever wonder if James Bond or Indiana Jones are going to survive when you sit down to watch one of their movies, you just wonder HOW they’ll do it.

Clave Oh, absolutely. From idea to finished novel is obviously a very lengthy and complicated journey. But what’s a rough time breakdown of your process?

Howard: I can’t do anything until I have a concept and some characters, and those are usually kicking around in my head for some time before I start work. I’m fortunate in that I have more ideas than I’ll probably ever have time for, so I don’t ever have writer’s block in the traditional sense.

Once I have a story concept and characters it’s time to sit down and draft a loose outline, and then to draft a more solid outline. I hate the blank page, so I usually paste the relevant part of the outline onto it. My friend Eric Knight (author of the Vampire Earth and Age of Fire series) once told me to give myself permission to let the first draft suck, and it’s a good thing, because first drafts usually do.

In the first draft I do all kinds of things to keep it going. Sometimes I’ll switch to first person present. Sometimes I’ll just write the dialogue out in sort of script form, or sketch in something like “they cross through the landscape and see a couple of weird things and talk about backstory” and go back in and add more details later.

Another of my writer friends, Scott Lynch, told me that he continually revises as he goes, and I’ve been doing that more and more. So that while I generally have a sort of complete rough draft (more on that in a moment) after I get through the rough, I don’t go through the entire manuscript straight through a second time and then start at the beginning for the third. As I work on revising, I keep jumping around to polish something here or there, or work on one particular section over and over.

As to that “complete” rough draft, I previously mentioned that some of the sections are very framework-y. If I get to a section that feels like it needs to be different from the outline, then I re-do that part of the outline. And that first draft in some places is just a rough road map. I grant myself permission to change the composition, drop chapters, or add more details anytime I like.

How long does it take? Too danged long. But I’m getting better. Am I getting faster? I think so. I know I’ve gotten much faster at short story writing. I’m still not as fast as I want to be. I’ve got a lot I want to write, still!

If you want more details on the hard lessons I’ve learned so that maybe you can avoid them yourself, I talk about the craft of writing with some frequency over at my blog.

Clave: Can you give us a little teaser as to what might be coming next from you?

Howard: You bet. I’ve been working on a new series for a couple of years now. I took a break from it to draft my most recent two Pathfinder novels. This one is pure secondary world fantasy, so I was freed up a little bit from having to do a lot of historical research.

The Altenerai are an elite cadre of warriors and sorcerers, sworn to protect a divided realm from the dangerous creatures and storms spawned in the nightmarish land beyond their borders. When one of them stumbles upon a seemingly innocuous mystery (a famed sword on display in their great hall is a fake) everything the main characters thought they knew starts to unravel, and pretty soon a young aspirant and a veteran are framed for murder and on the run, pursued by the champions of the realm.

At first they’re just determined to avenge the murder and clear their names, but it soon becomes clear that something much more sinister is at work, that the queen herself may be a traitor to the realm, and that their very understanding of their world and reality may be fatally flawed.

It’s due out next year from St. Martin’s, and the first one is titled For the Killing of Kings. I haven’t settled on the series title yet, and even though I’m in the midst of the second draft of book 2, I haven’t found a title I’m in love with for that, either.

Clave: In addition to new fiction, you also love the classics! What first drew you to Harold Lamb’s writing that compelled you to collect his works for others to discover?

In high school I read a great biography of Hannibal of Carthage, penned by none other than Harold Lamb, who turned from fiction to writing history books later in his life. I loved that book, in part because Hannibal was brilliant and fascinating and clever (and no, he has nothing to do with mass murdering gourmets – this is the great general), but in part because the book was so well written.

I picked up another book by Lamb titled The Curved Saber, a collection of historical adventures about a Cossack wandering in the most exotic places imaginable in the late 16th and early 17th century. They amazed me. By that point I’d read the short stories of Leiber, of course, and that was the closest comparison I had. Each story was full of swashbuckling action, great twists, exotic color and amazing places. It wasn’t fantasy, but it might as well have been.

Anyway, I loved that book so much I kept checking it out and re-reading it. This was in the days before the Internet, believe it or not, so I wasn’t aware that there were even more stories about the character in another collection, and from an introduction in THAT book I learned that there were even more stories by Lamb that had never been reprinted from old magazines. Given that I’d loved these so well I was determined to read the others.

The only way to do that was to track down the old pulps, and did THAT take some doing. Over the years I accidentally became an expert on Lamb’s work. And I also saw that he was consistently good to great and that other people really needed to be able to access these stories. He was just too good to be forgotten. You can see his influence on all sorts of authors who followed him, beginning with Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, etc.

Clave: Where do you go for inspiration for your writing?

Howard: That’s hard to answer. I’m always taking in more stories, and sometimes I read something or see something, and ask, hey, what if people had done this instead. Sometimes I read some history and I wonder how something similar might play out in a fantasy setting, or how my characters might react to it. And then of course there’s daily life and its lessons, which always impacts what I’m doing.

Clave:  We do lists of 7 here at Nerds on Earth. Could you share with us 7 of your favorite books?

Howard: I’m going to cheat, because one of my very favorite “books” is a series, albeit it one with five books that are probably as large as one modern doorstop fantasy.

That’s Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. The first series, not the second. And I can tell you why it’s great if you want to follow a link…

I’m going to cheat again and list the Cossack stories of Harold Lamb. They’re really over several books, and the easiest way to get them is to try out the books I edited, starting with Wolf of the Steppes. The first, very short story is only mildly interesting, but they get much better very, very fast, and by the third tale in the collection he’s writing some of the finest swashbuckling stories every put to paper. Seriously, if you love sword-and-sorcery, this guy is its unsung grandfather.

Swords Against Death – I recently re-read this one and blogged about it with my friend Bill Ward, and while it may not completely blow the doors off for me any more, this was a huge gateway read for me and still contains some wonderful stories. I advise any who want to try the famed Lankhmar stories of Fritz Leiber to begin here rather than the “first” book in the series, actually written much later. A lot of people get bogged down with that one, which, in my humble opinion, isn’t nearly as good.

Sword Woman by Robert E. Howard – speaking of some great historical fiction, the best of Robert E. Howard is hard to beat. It was my privilege to write the afterword to this volume!

The Coming of Conan – speaking of great sword-and-sorcery, Robert E. Howard is, as I said, hard to beat, and some of the best Conan stories are in this particular book. I can point you to a re-read blog on this one, too:

Over the last few years I’ve been reading less and less fantasy and venturing into realms undreamed of. At least by me. I’d long since discovered that a good historical was just as good as a good fantasy novel, but I’d steered clear of mystery or westerns. Who needed ‘em, right? Turns out that I did. Even though I own horses myself I’ve leaned pretty heavily on the way a good western writer depicts the way to use a horse. And I’ve found some great prose and plots. And then I realized that most stories have a fair amount of mystery at their base, and that got me to thinking maybe I ought to read some of the famous mystery writers…

Raymond Chandler – Farewell, My Lovely is just a damned fine book, a riveting mystery told with stunning prose. Phillip Marlowe is a battered knight in the trench coat and fedora, just trying to do the right thing in a crummy world. My pal Chris Hocking and I did our best to touch on the virtues of his writing, and if you don’t believe us, you can find out more from just about anybody else…

Wade Miller was actually two guys with one by-line and boy, did they deliver the hardboiled goods with a whole slew of standalone novels and one great detective series. They’re finally available again as e-books, starting with Guilty Bystander. Whatever you do, DON’T dig up information on them, because a lot of idiots out there actually give the plots away while they’re discussing them. And a Wade Miller mystery isn’t like a lot of mysteries where you can tell what’s going to happen and you just want to see it play out, they’re actually complicated and clever and anyone who gives the ending away is doing the story a real disservice.

Clave: What else are you nerding out on?

Howard: I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore, which probably sounds weird, because it’s so much better than it used to be. But I do a lot of gaming. There’s the aforementioned fantasy campaign, for which we’re currently and happily using the Castles & Crusades system, and playing about every other week. I’ve used any number of other systems over the years, including the obvious ones, and other favorites like Savage Worlds and FASA’s Star Trek: The Role-Playing Game.

The newest games for my family are the Sherlock Holmes board games currently in print through Asterion Press/Space Cowboys. Right now only volume 3, Jack the Ripper and West End adventures is available, but volume 1 should be in print again next month. Instead of playing the games as intended, I reconfigure the mysteries and run them as multi-part roleplaying adventures for my wife and son, who’s home from college this summer. We’re all having a blast, especially because my wife’s a Sherlock Holmes fan from way back, and because the mysteries themselves are so evocative and challenging.

Every once in a while we pull out Iron Dragon or Martian Rails, two of the so-called crayon rail games. We don’t play that often because my brilliant wife routinely kicks our butts, which gets a little tiresome for the rest of us.

I do, however, play a lot of solitaire board games. I blog a lot about that both at my own site and over at Black Gate. I’m so busy that for a while it felt like I was collecting more than playing the games, but I’ve been trying to carve out time every Sunday morning to sit down for two or three hours to play. A lot of people now know that we’re in the midst of a sort of board game renaissance, but many may not realize how many excellent solitaire board games there are.

Clave: Oh, I shout that from the rooftops. I call them solos though.

Howard: I was fortunate enough to get involved in playtesting one, B-17 Leader from DVG games. I had little to no interest in the topic, but the design (by Dean Brown) was so excellent I quickly got hooked.

Clave: That’s great. Thank you so much! I really enjoyed this.

Here are all of Howard’s books, whether his own Desert of Souls, Pathfinder Tales, or collected works of Harold Lamb.

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