TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery!
James: Thanks, Sally! Glad to be here!
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
James: It's really a toss-up. On the one hand, I do a lot of my writing naked. The theory goes that if I'm naked, I'm much less likely to get out of bed (which is where I do most of my writing) and go wander around the house or get distracted by my roommates. On the other hand, I used to have a habit of writing in the dark, closing my eyes, or turning my head away from the computer while I wrote. Since my day job is editing for Paizo Publishing, it's really easy for me to get swept up in revising what's already on the page rather than writing new words. Not looking at what I was writing was a good way to ensure that my head stayed in the story, rather than switching into editing mode. That said, trying to type at a 90-degree angle from the computer results in a lot of typos, so I ultimately had to learn to write without using those tricks. Mostly.
TQ: Who are some of your favorite writers? Who do you feel has influenced your writing?
James: I'm a diehard Dan Simmons fan--the Hyperion series is my favorite science fiction ever, and while I personally wish he'd stick to SF, I have a deep and abiding admiration for the way he bounces between whatever genres he feels like rather than getting boxed in. His worldbuilding is also some of the best I've seen, and made me realize that setting is by far my favorite part of science fiction and fantasy.
Other authors that I love include China Mieville, Joel Rosenberg (the Guardians of the Flame guy, not the other one), Mike Carey, Clive Barker, Gordon Dickson, Peter F. Hamilton, Nick Harkaway (a newcomer who's blowing my mind), Justin Cronin, Stephen King, and so on. But I'm also deeply inspired by a lot of the writers I work with every day as an editor--folks like Tim Pratt, Dave Gross, and Liane Merciel--as well as my colleagues on the creative team for the Pathfinder RPG. Guys like Wes Schneider, Erik Mona, and James Jacobs taught me everything I know about worldbuilding for roleplaying games--which, it turns out, is everything you need to know about worldbuilding.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
James: Plotter, all the way. I feel like when I try to write by the seat of my pants, things wander all over the place, and require a lot more revision to give the story a sense of purpose and speed. That said, I'm a relatively loose plotter--I know all the beats of the novel (or all the scenes of a story), but details are usually very sketchy. Thus, I may have a note that just says "They go talk to the protean in the Maelstrom," and that expands into a 5000-word chapter. Finding those details during the actual writing is fun, and satisfies my need to explore, but I can rest easy knowing that what comes next has already been decided.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
James: Making myself sit down and do it. An author at rest tends to remain at rest, and that's particularly true of me--as much as I want to write, I'll find myself doing just about anything to get out of it. The first few paragraphs of each writing section are the hardest--once that vein is opened, things flow, and I'm inevitably happy with at least part of what I've produced. You'd think that knowing that would make the inertia easy to overcome, but it never does. My solution is the same for writing as for exercise: creating routines. If I can remove the element of choice and convince my subconscious that it's time to write because we always write in the morning, then it's much easier--by the time I realize what I'm doing, the hard part is behind me.
Writing is terrifying, but it's like jumping off the high dive--you just have to hold your nose and step off.
TQ: Would you please tell us a bit about Pathfinder in general.
James: Pathfinder is a roleplaying game--by many accounts the best-selling one at the moment. It's based on the 3.5 Dungeons & Dragons rules system, but with some updates and fixes in there. The short history is that once upon a time, Paizo licensed the magazines Dungeon and Dragon from Wizards of the Coast, who owns the D&D brand. When they pulled the magazines back in-house and made the switch to 4th edition rules, which were quite different, we decided to split off and cater to the audience that still wanted to be able to use all their 3.5-edition D&D books. Turns out, that was a much bigger segment of the population than we expected, and over the last 5 years we've been fortunate enough to expand a lot. In addition to the rules, we also publish a whole campaign setting, adventure modules, player supplements, gaming accessories, and so on.
As for the Pathfinder campaign setting--which is my favorite part of what we do--it's very much designed to be inclusive, a world where you can play any type of fantasy game you want. Love gothic horror? We've got a nation for that (Ustalav). Big fan of extraplanar adventures? We've got those too. Want to get out of European fantasy and into places inspired by Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and so on? Check. Whether you want mutants with guns or vikings versus Narnia, we've really tried to build a world where there'll always be a place that caters to your tastes.
TQ: What inspired you to write your first novel, Death's Heretic (Pathfinder Tales)?
James: It's sort of a funny story, actually. As the editor of the Pathfinder Tales novel line, I always presumed I'd never write a novel for us--it seemed too much like feathering my own nest. At the same time, though, I'd been selling a bunch of short stories, both to Paizo and to other places. So one day I printed a story manuscript on the office printer--one without my name on it--and forgot to pick it up. The publisher, Erik Mona, walked by and started idly reading it, then stopped by my desk and said "Hey, you should get this guy to write a book for us!"
I explained that it was mine, and he said, "Okay, then you should write a book for us."
"Isn't that nepotism?" I asked.
"I'm your boss," he pointed out. "If I tell you to do it, it's not really your decision, is it?"
To which I of course promptly saluted and began working on a novel pitch.
As far as the actual inspiration for the novel's content goes, though--I struggled with it for quite some time, as I was too close to the setting as a whole to pick out just one area to play with. Ultimately, however, I knew that I wanted to do something with atheism. I'm fascinated by the idea of faith (or its lack) in a world where the gods are objectively real and can easily be communicated with--what does it mean to be an atheist in that context? In the case of Salim, the main character, it's not that he thinks the gods aren't real, but rather that he doesn't think they're worthy of worship. As far as he's concerned, they're no different from kings, merchants, monsters, or any other powerful entities. You might fear them, or even obey them, but you don't worship them. To him, religion is indentured servitude.
At the same time, I was really interested in doing a novel that jumped around to a bunch of very different worlds--as I mentioned before, I adore books that introduce new settings or alien landscapes, and the more the better. So once I realized that I could combine the atheism angle with a planes-hopping adventure--forcing Salim to work against his will for the goddess of death, traveling around the plains of the afterlife tracking down a kidnapped soul--everything really fell into place. (As I recall, I was watching Blade Runner when it happened, and thought "You know what would make this better? If it took place in Dante's Divine Comedy.")
TQ: Tell us something about Death's Heretic that is not in the book description.
James: One of my favorite characters is a giant extradimensional dragon-snake that talks only in insane riddles, and lives in a plane called the Maelstrom that's constantly reshaping itself at random.
TQ: Since you are the co-creator of the Pathfinder Role Playing game did you need to do any additional research for Death's Heretic?
Yup! If anything, I was particularly diligent, because I knew that if I got something wrong, my coworkers would mock me, and rightly so. The Pathfinder campaign setting is home for me at this point, but let's face facts--there are plenty of aspects of the real world that I know shamefully little about. So there was some research involved, especially in making sure that I got our magic system right. But it was also an excellent opportunity to help flesh out areas of our world that hadn't really been covered yet.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? Hardest and why?
James: The easiest characters were the side characters, particularly the funny ones--Delini the satyr is all about innuendo, of course, and there was a weird little character I called Muffin Hat who wasn't even in the outline, but who was so bizarre and funny that he demanded to be given a scene.
Strangely, the hardest characters were Salim and Neila, the two protagonists. Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, it's because they needed to do the most work, slowly building and changing their relationships and personalities over the course of the novel. But it was also a really delicate situation, because the reader sees everything through Salim's point of view, and at the beginning of the book, he doesn't think much of Neila--he marginalizes her because she's young and noble and inexperienced, and because he doesn't like working with anyone else. Trying to show that viewpoint--and how it changes over time--without making it seem like I was marginalizing her character was a challenge, but one that I hope I succeeded at. By the end, I want it to be clear that Salim was wrong, and that Neila was actually a badass all along.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in Death's Heretic?
James: Oh man, there are a bunch. The point where Salim, Neila, and a giant robot detective get to talk to said insane riddle-snake is fun. There's a fight with a bunch of classic fairies that I think shows how things like nymphs and satyrs can be a lot scarier and more interesting than they're usually presented. There's Salim's backstory, when it's finally revealed, which I'm really happy with. But ultimately, I think the scene I'm most proud of is one in which the protagonists fight demons on a plane called the Abyss, and... well, bad things happen. It's a huge emotional turning point in the story, and I was surprised to find that, even reading it for the third or fourth time, I still felt a sense of tension and emotion, a need to turn the page. That sounds weird to say about your own writing, but I hope that if it could suck me in, hopefully it'll do the same for folks who didn't write the darn thing!
TQ: What's next?
James: Well, right now I'm working on the sequel to Death's Heretic--one that deals with a bunch of souls going missing from Hell, and the havoc that causes--and also doing a lot of non-Pathfinder short stories for science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies (many of which can be found for free in audio or text format at jameslsutter.com). I also relatively recently came out with a game book called Distant Worlds, which is an overview of the whole solar system for the Pathfinder campaign setting, and I've got a new Pathfinder adventure module called The Asylum Stone set in my pet city of Kaer Maga, which is a crazy Mos-Eisley-meets-Perdido-Street-Station sort of place.
If folks want to keep up to date or contact me about anything, they can find me at jameslsutter.com, on Twitter at @jameslsutter, on Facebook or Google+, or just on the paizo.com Messageboards.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
James: Thank you! This has been great!
Paizo Publishing, December 6, 2011
Mass Market Paperback and eBook, 400 pages
Nobody cheats death! A warrior haunted by his past, Salim Ghadafar serves as a problem-solver for a church he hates, bound by the goddess of death to hunt down those who would rob her of her due. Such is the case in the desert nation of Thuvia, where a powerful merchant on the verge of achieving eternal youth via a magical elixir is mysteriously murdered, his soul kidnapped somewhere along its path to the afterlife. The only clue is a magical ransom note, offering to trade the merchant’s successful resurrection for his dose of the fabled potion. But who would have the power to steal a soul from the boneyard of Death herself? Enter Salim, whose keen mind and contacts throughout the multiverse should make solving this mystery a cinch. There's only one problem: The investigation is being financed by Neila Anvanory, the dead merchant's stubborn and aristocratic daughter. And she wants to go with him.
Along with his uninvited passenger, Salim must unravel a web of intrigue that will lead them far from the blistering sands of Thuvia on a grand tour of the Outer Planes, where devils and angels rub shoulders with fey lords and mechanical men, and nothing is as it seems...
Death's Heretic, was ranked #3 on Barnes & Noble's Best Fantasy Releases of 2011 and was a finalist for the 2012 Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has appeared in such venues as Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Podcastle, Starship Sofa, Pseudopod, Geek Love, and the #1 Amazon bestseller Machine of Death. His anthology Before They Were Giants pairs the first published short stories of speculative fiction greats with new anecdotes and instructional critiques by the authors themselves. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three roommates, and a fully functional death ray. For more information, visit www.jameslsutter.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameslsutter.