Today my partner-in-life-and-crime Christopher Rowe's first novel, Sandstorm (Amazon | Indiebound), releases into the wild, as they say. Said novel also happens to be part of the Forgotten Realms universe, a Dungeons & Dragons-related property of gaming publisher Wizards of the Coast. I'm sure a few years ago, I'd have thought I knew what that meant and I might even have been guilty (guilty is definitely the word) of dismissing many media tie-ins without a second thought. But that's because a) lots of people do so unfairly all the time and b) I didn't know anything about how such novels come into being. Suffice to say, it's pretty much like writing any other novel. Blood, sweat, tears. (In Mr. Rowe's case, also a typewriter.) With these, just about everything except the broader world is the creation of the author.
I also didn't realize just how many of my favorite writers have been strongly influenced by these books and gaming more generally. You might be thinking DUH, which I can certainly understand. It's been a great deal of fun to realize that D&D proves the lesson of modern pop culture: Everything geeky is secretly (or not-so-secretly) cool. I decided it would be fun to ask a few of these writer friends (including Christopher) to share some thoughts about this non-guilty pleasure on Sandstorm's release day. They gamely (ha) and immediately signed on to this wacky plan. So, without further ado, behind the cut you'll find geektastic comments from my esteemed panel:
Fabulous new writer Shveta Thakrar (who you'll be hearing a lot more about), and
I hope you'll share stories about your own fantastic geekdom in the comments.
Jedediah Berry (The Manual of Detection)
When asked how I learned to tell stories, the first thing I think of is my family: the fairy tales my grandmother invented, the legends of my uncle’s youthful exploits, my mother’s endlessly digressive yarns of small town strangeness. Next I think of those first works of fiction that lit up my brain. And then, inevitably, I think of the role-playing games my friends and I spent countless hours playing in our teens. Here were sweeping adventures, fell beasts, riddles and mazes and magic, the depths and grandeur of which were limited only by how late we could keep ourselves awake.
Escape from the doldrums of an upstate New York childhood? Maybe. But more than an escape, it was a way to engage in a unique kind of collaborative myth-making. We were building stories together, and expanding a living territory of shared narrative.
Knowing that Christopher Rowe is expanding that territory further makes me feel like the game’s still on. I’ve long been a fan of Christopher’s work (see, for starters, the stories collected in his chapbook Bittersweet Creek). And now his first novel Sandstorm promises a gladiatorial arena, a Circus of Wonders, and a taste of that old magic.
I know the world of the Forgotten Realms is well-trodden by countless gamers, writers, and readers. But it’s grown richer for the company, and I can’t wait to see what Christopher has done with the place. I’ll probably be reading Sandstorm straight through—unless I feel compelled to dig out my bag of dice partway.
Christopher Barzak (The Love We Share Without Knowing, One for Sorrow)
When I was sixteen, I became friends with a group of people who enjoyed playing Dungeons and Dragons. I had had hopelessly “normal” friends prior to this, and it was only after that first session of gaming that I realized how hopelessly normal my other friends were. Instead of being caught up in popular music or the dating scene, the gossip wars of high school, or the regimentation of organized sports, I began accessing my own imagination. It was a beautiful, liberating experience. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could be creative with other people, not just privately. It was through this group of Dungeons and Dragons friends that I began reading novels set in the worlds that TSR (and now Wizards of the Coast) make available for their players to read about, to make them come alive in full-length novel treatments. My favorite world to read about and to play within was always Forgotten Realms. That world was diverse, as opposed to Dragonlance, which seemed like everything there had already been done, and it was huge. There were so many amazingly detailed villages, towns, and cities, so many different types of races and classes of people, so many different ongoing storylines. It felt more like the so-called “real” world is. When I found out my friend Christopher Rowe was writing a novel set in Forgotten Realms, I knew immediately (without having read novels set in that game system for many years) that the Realms were still vigorous, exciting places to be. I can’t wait to read Sandstorm. I even went to my local gaming store, which I haven’t been to in years, to make sure the owner knew this was one book that he and his customers would not want to miss. Who knows? I may want to call up some old friends and get a game together, just to play in the part of the world that Christopher has marked out as his own.
Paolo Bacigalupi (Ship Breaker, The Windup Girl)
When we say epic fantasy, we always seem to turn to Tolkien as the gold standard. Which is odd, because if I'd been forced to read Lord of the Rings when I was younger, I probably would have just stopped reading.
The place where I got my first dose of multi-volume epic fantasy was DragonLance, courtesy of then TSR. I had to stealth read the books because we were also playing the modules and our DM was threatening to kill us if we read the spoilers in the books. I think I felt more sneaky and guilty about reading DragonLance than I did about the Playboys I hid under my bed.
TSR had a knack for building out these incredible worlds that you wanted to explore, and when you came across a character like Tasslehoff Burrfoot or Raistlin Mejere or Drizzt Do'Urden from Forgotten Realms, you got to ride along on those epic quests, even when you couldn't assemble all your friends for a game. I tend to trace my own storytelling skills directly to the gaming franchises of Forgotten Realms and DragonLance and their related novels because they gave me a sense of what I wanted to infuse into my own adventures when I was the one GM'ing a game. I loved the epic scope, the sense of a few characters fighting against the odds, and I loved the unabashed sense of adventure that they evoked.
Forgotten Realms and DragonLance carried me through the years that I think we now call "YA." Without those epic stories, and specifically their connections back to a gaming universe where I could craft my own adventures, I'm not actually certain that I would have been much of a reader, and I'm pretty certain I wouldn't have gotten the bug to be a writer, either.
Shveta Thakrar ("In Search of Apsaras," "Padmamukhi (the Lotus-Mouthed), Nelumbonaceae nelumbo" in A Field Guide to Surreal Botany)
When I was in eighth grade, I divided my time between the library and home. Okay, sometimes I was out riding my bike, too. But really, my world was made up of books. I made my way through Sweet Valley High and related works, and then one day, I stumbled upon Elfquest. Magic? Other worlds? Elves? I was there.
It didn’t take long to devour the series, and I was left wondering what to read. Then, thanks to the library catalog, I discovered a novel called Pool of Radiance by James M. Ward and Jane Cooper Hong. On a whim, I requested the title, and when it came in, I fell immediately, deeply in love with the mage, the cleric, and the ranger-turned-thief main characters. (I hadn’t yet heard of Dungeons and Dragons, so all of this was new to me.) Fireballs! Purple spells! Cerulean horse familiars! I ate it all up and searched desperately for more. I think I read every book in the Forgotten Realms series the library had, and then some, and even tried a Dragonlance or two.
Looking back on those years, I can see just how much they influenced my own imagination. Writing myself into the world of Faerûn and its neighbors was easy; it filled the need for adventure, for doing something more than being bored in school, for belonging somewhere, even if that place only existed in my head. I wanted to be a woman of power having adventures with other powerful people, something that seemed impossible in the real world. Now, when I write, my own fiction is a response to my treks in the Realms, a desire to build upon and improve them. Even some fifteen years later, I have to say that fantasy, and these books, are still relevant today to any reader's imagination, and for that reason, I can’t wait to read Sandstorm.
Christopher Rowe (Sandstorm, Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories)
When I was in my early teens, I lived in rural Kentucky, which can be a pretty fantastic place. But I also lived in fantasy worlds, because I had a taste for the more literally fantastic. In particular, I played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and read a lot of high fantasy novels. My favorite world to play in or read about was the Forgotten Realms, and a lot of what I know about wonder, action, and scope in fantastic fiction comes from reading those books and playing those games back then. I decided that one day, I would be a writer myself so that I could write a Forgotten Realms book of my own. And despite all the twists and turns my life and my career as a writer have taken since since then, I'm delighted that that day has actually come.
GB: (I promise I didn't even ask these guys to say nice things about Sandstorm.)
If you're local, join us at the Morris Book Shop on Friday, March 11 at 6 p.m. for the launch party. And please do feel free to share your own stories below (or roll your own up at your own site and track back so I catch it). I loved reading these.