Interview with Fantasy Legend Lawrence Watt-Evans

Interview with Fantasy Legend Lawrence Watt-Evans

Last updated on August 7th, 2015

Lawrence Watt-Evans is a Massachusetts born science fiction and fantasy author. He began writing at a young age, but decided to pursue a career as a professional writer after leaving Princeton University in 1977. In 1979 he sold his first book (The Lure of the Basilisk) to Del Rey, and never looked back.

In the thirty-four years since, he has written over 40 novels, more than 100 short stories, countless essays and articles, has been nominated for a Nebula, and has won a Hugo award. He was also the president of the Horror Writers Association from 1994 to 1996, served as Eastern Regional Director and Treasurer of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and partnered with screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek; Pirates of the Caribbean) to create Malicious Press, which published Deathrealm magazine from 1987 to 1997.

He’s also a ridiculously nice guy.

I first met LWE a couple years ago when he replied to an email I sent him. I had been a big fan for years. I honestly didn’t even expect a reply, so I was pleasantly surprised to not only receive an email back, but to find out that LWE is amazingly approachable and likable. It’s always refreshing to find someone who appreciates their fans as much as the fans appreciate their work. Watt-Evans is very active on social media (@wattevans), welcomes fan interaction, and is all-around interesting and amiable guy.

In anticipation of his upcoming novel The Sorcerer’s Widow, I asked LWE if I could interview him, and he was happy to oblige. I spoke to him from his home in Takoma Park, Maryland, and he talked about everything from working for CBS, to immortality, playing Dungeons & Dragons, and even James Bond. Oh, and writing – there was a bit about writing in there as well.

JCW: Did you always know that you wanted to be a professional writer, or was it a hobby that turned into a career?

LWE:  When I was seven, I decided I wanted to be a professional writer; my parents tried to talk me out of it.  I decided that okay, maybe it would just be a hobby, but I kept working at it anyway, and when I sold my first novel (I was twenty-four) I said, “Screw this hobby stuff.”  I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

JCW: What were your biggest influences?

LWE:  In literary terms?  It’s hard to say.  Ray Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert W. Chambers were all hugely influential, but ask me another day and you might get a different list.  Probably one that includes Robert Heinlein, but I don’t feel very Heinleinian today.  Oh, and J.R.R. Tolkien has so heavily influenced the entire field of fantasy he’s unavoidable.

JCW: How long did it take for you to feel totally comfortable as a writer?

LWE:  I’ve been a full-time professional writer for thirty-four years, and I’m not totally comfortable yet.  I’ll let you know if I ever get there.

JCW: Does it get easier to finally let go of a project and send it out into the world for consumption?

LWE:  No, it gets harder, because now I can see how much room there still is for improvement.

JCW: How has the internet impacted you as a writer?

LWE:  It’s sped up everything, and provided me with feedback I never had when I was starting out.

JCW: How has the internet and the avenues for self-publishing changed the writing landscape?

LWE:  We don’t know yet; it’s all still in flux.

JCW: If you were starting out today, what would you do differently (if anything)?

LWE:  I don’t even know where to begin.  I have no idea where one would start nowadays.  Back when I was trying to establish myself it was much simpler – not necessarily easier, but simpler.  You bought or borrowed a copy of Writer’s Market and followed the submission instructions in the front.  You didn’t need an agent, self-publishing wasn’t a viable option, and there weren’t any alternative channels worth mentioning.  Now – who knows?

JCW: Your stories tend to defy many tropes and conventions of fantasy writing. Is this a conscious decision?

LWE:  Sometimes.  A lot of my stories have started out with me saying to myself, “You know, the way that’s shown in Novel X is stupid; it’d go more like this…”  Other times, though, I’ve tried to be completely conventional, and it just didn’t happen.  My mind doesn’t work that way.

JCW: How do you feel about high fantasy; 1200 page books equipped with maps, family lineages, and appendixes?

LWE: Any approach can work if it’s done well; any approach can be botched.  Sometimes I want fast-moving adventure, sometimes I’m happy with a thousand pages of innuendo and intrigue where the climax is moving an empty goblet to the next shelf in the cabinet.

JCW: How do you approach the writing process?

LWE:  With trepidation.

More seriously, I generally have an idea I want to play with.  It could be a setting, or a character, or a plot device, but whatever it is I’ll work out the beginning of a story in my head – usually nothing on paper (or phosphors) at all, sometimes a few scribbled notes to remind me what I’d had in mind.  Sometimes two or more of these will connect up in my head, sometimes I just have the one.

Then when it’s ready – or I’m ready, you can look at it either way – I’ll sit down and start typing.

Sometimes I just keep going until I reach the end, even if I didn’t know what or where the end was until I got there – “The Final Folly of Captain Dancy,” for example, had absolutely no outline, and I didn’t know where it was going, or whether it was going to be a short story or a novel or a whole damn trilogy.  I just kept figuring out what happened next, and then what happened after that, until I got to the conclusion.  (It wound up a novella.)

Usually, though, after I’ve written a few pages, enough to introduce the characters and the situation, I’ll stop and work out an outline of the whole story.  My working outlines typically run six to ten pages, but have been as short as a single page and as long as thirty (double-spaced).

Actually, thinking about it, they used to run six to ten pages; they’ve gotten shorter in the last decade or so.  They’re probably down to four to six as the norm. I can keep more of the details in my head than I used to.  Also, editors generally accepted that I knew what I was doing and didn’t need as much detail.

Anyway, once I have the outline, I write the story straight through – I’m not one of those writers who jumps around.  The first draft tends to be fairly bare-bones, just getting through the story; then in subsequent drafts I’ll flesh it out, filling in description, adding details, etc. until I’m happy with it.

JCW: I once mentioned to you that I have noticed you having a bit of a fascination with the concept of immortality. You said that you had noticed it as well, but that you weren’t conscious of it for the first 20 years or so. Would you mind elaborating a bit on this?

LWE: I think it’s pretty much explained right there.  A lot of my stories involve immortals of one sort or another; I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of living for centuries, or forever.  For a long time I didn’t realize, though, just how many of my stories involve immortality of one sort or another, or at least extreme longevity.  Then one day I was looking back at my work, and it sank in that I did that a lot.

I briefly wondered if this was maybe a bad thing.  But then I decided, why not?  Plenty of writers have recurring themes and motifs.  That’s one of mine.  So I don’t worry about it.  Yeah, a lot of my stories involve people who live a very long time.  A lot of them involve swords and dragons, too.

JCW: The Obsidian Chronicles is my favorite fantasy trilogy of all time. I have probably bought the trilogy 3 or 4 times because I keep giving copies to my friends. Is it true that the impetus for Dragon Weather (the 1st book in the trilogy) was you thinking about The Count of Monte Cristo as being told from a fantasy perspective?

** SPOILER ALERT! The following answer contains spoilers for certain events that take place in Dragon Weather, and the 2nd book in the trilogy, Dragon Society. If you plan on reading The Obsidian Chronicles (You REALLY should), you may want to avoid this portion of the interview, and skip down to the question about The Misenchanted Sword.

LWE: Partly.

The thing is, I had already plotted a story called “Dragon Weather,” not the one I eventually wrote.  And I had also come up with the basic image of the climactic final fight between Arlian and Enziet, though I didn’t know their names or who they were yet, and I hadn’t realized it was part of the same story.

Then I was reading something about Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (British title, Tyger! Tyger!) that mentioned it was a science-fictional retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo – which is obvious, and I’d known for years – and I stopped and wondered whether anyone had done a fantasy version, because really, Dumas’ original has much the feel of a great fantasy story, with sword-fights and dungeons and bandits and elaborate revenge and so on.  I couldn’t think of anyone who’d done that, so obviously I could, and what’s more – here’s the real moment of inspiration – I could combine it with “Dragon Weather,” which was already sort of planned as a revenge story, and I could use that fight scene idea for the climax…

The original plan for “Dragon Weather” had Arlian as the sole survivor of a dragon attack who swears to avenge his people by destroying the dragons, and it had the whole notion of dragons that only appear when the weather is right, but it did not have Lord Dragon, or spending time as a mine-slave, or becoming fabulously wealthy, or the step-by-step vengeance against everyone who wronged him – that all came from The Count of Monte Cristo.

So Dumas’ story wasn’t so much the original inspiration, but it was essential to making the story into what I eventually wrote.

JCW: Did you always know that Dragon Weather would kick off a trilogy?

LWE:  Actually, I thought it might be four or five books.  I knew there was no way for Arlian to defeat all his enemies in a single volume, but I wasn’t sure just how long it would take.  At one time I had it plotted out as Dragon WeatherThe Dragon SocietyDragonheart, and Dragon Venom, with the possibility of a fifth volume (which didn’t have a title) in there somewhere, but then I was able to fit it all in three, so Dragonheart got cut.

JCW: Was it the same with The Misenchanted Sword? Did you know that you would revisit Ethshar?

LWE:  Oh, yes.  Ethshar was always intended to be an open-ended series I could write for the rest of my life.  In fact, The Misenchanted Sword wasn’t originally supposed to be the first in the series; I’d started writing three others, and outlining still more.

Originally, I planned for every book in the series to be entitled The Epic Adventures of [X], where [X] would be the protagonist’s name.  I started writing four of them more or less simultaneously – The Epic Adventures of Pender the JewelerThe Epic Adventures of Arl Arl’s SonThe Epic Adventures of Sterren of Semma, and The Epic Adventures of Tobas of Telven.  Pender the Jeweler kind of fizzled out, though I’m now planning to use him as a secondary character in an upcoming story; Tobas of Telven eventually wound up as With A Single Spell; Sterren of Semma became The Unwilling Warlord; but Arl Arl’s son is the important one here.  That was supposed to be the first Ethshar novel.  It was going to start with Arl Arl’s son acquiring a magic sword named Wirikidor – one with a deteriorating spell on it that would turn on its owner after a certain number of drawings, and for Arl the number was down to one.

Except then I decided I needed to work out the backstory for the sword, and that turned out to be more interesting than Arl’s story, so I shifted focus and wrote that, instead.  The original plan was that it would be a prequel and I’d still write about Arl eventually, but that required a crappy ending, so I changed it, and that meant Arl’s story couldn’t happen.

So The Misenchanted Sword wound up as the first in the series, and With A Single Spell was second, and then The Unwilling Warlord.  Pender got postponed indefinitely, and Arl got dropped, but by then I had rough outlines for eleven more…

JCW: Let’s talk a little bit about Mind Candy.

LWE:  I’ve been writing non-fiction… well, if you ignore the newspaper feature articles I wrote back in 1972, I’ve been writing articles and essays off and on since 1983.  In 2002, though, Glenn Yeffeth from BenBella Books invited me to write an essay about Buffy the Vampire Slayer for an upcoming anthology, so I did.  Glenn liked it, so he invited me to write more for other “Smart Pop” anthologies.  Sometimes I said yes, sometimes I said no, but in the end I wrote fourteen essays for BenBella.

And last year it occurred to me that it was a shame they weren’t all available in one place – in fact, some weren’t available anywhere, because not all the Smart Pop anthologies had stayed in print.  So I collected them, filled out the book with other articles and essays, edited and updated some of them, and sold the whole thing to Wildside Press.  (I offered it to BenBella first, of course, but they passed.)

So if anyone wants to see what I had to say about Buffy, or James Bond, or Star Trek, or whatever, it’s all in Mind Candy.

JCW: Speaking of essays, I read the essay you wrote for James Bond in the 21st Century back in 2009. Are you a pretty big Bond fan?

LWE:  I’ve read all of Fleming’s novels, and seen maybe half the movies, but that’s all; I’m not as big a fan as all that.

JCW: Who is your favorite Bond?

LWE:  George Lazenby.  Honestly, no kidding; I thought he was great in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  He played it straight, not smarmy like Roger Moore, and I thought he was more believable than Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan.

But I haven’t yet seen Daniel Craig’s version.

JCW: Have you ever been interested in writing for television or Hollywood? Does the idea of writing for a collaborative effort like a movie or film appeal to you, or do you like having the total creative control that writing a novel offers?

LWE:  I’ve made one sale to Hollywood – a story treatment entitled “Personal Space” sold to the CBS incarnation of “Twilight Zone.”  It never got produced; it was in the production queue, with a script by Martin Pasko, when the series was cancelled.  I’ve also made two sales to radio – “The Drifter,” based on my short story, was produced by a troupe called the Radio Pirates, and an outfit in DC adapted “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers,” but I don’t think it was ever actually produced.

And then I worked for Tekno*Comix, which was run by Hollywood lawyers – Laurie Silvers and Mitch Rubinstein.  I got to work with Leonard Nimoy and Majel Roddenberry there.

The result was that I’m very wary about working with Hollywood.  CBS was fine – they sent me a fat check and left me alone after that.  The Radio Pirates were great, a pleasure to work with.  But the DC radio theater and Tekno*Comix were nightmares – constant meddling, endless pointless rewrites, people who didn’t understand the stories they were buying, and on and on.  After that, I would only be interested in working in Hollywood with people I trust and respect.

I’ve also done novelizations and spin-offs of Hollywood properties, which have mostly been fun, despite occasional bizarre edicts from on high (e.g., in a Mars Attacks! novel, giant sand-fleas are fine, giant moths, giant Japanese beetles, but no giant lobsters; why?  Because We Say So.).

Other sorts of collaboration can be great.  I’ve collaborated on a couple of novels – Split Heirs with Esther Friesner, The Spartacus File with Carl Parlagreco, Spider-Man: Goblin Moon with Kurt Busiek – and a few short stories, and those were fun.  I’ve also worked in comics, and if you exclude Tekno*Comix that’s mostly been… well, fun, but also mildly disappointing, for various reasons.  I’ve never had a chance to work closely with an artist.  I also discovered that I’m not a great comics scripter – I’m adequate, but not as good at it as I thought I would be.

I’d love to try other collaborative arts, if the right opportunity arose, with the right people.

JCW: You are also a Terry Pratchett fan. In 2008 you released The Turtle Moves! (Discworld’s Story Unauthorized). How did that end up happening?

LWE:  I’m always looking for new things to try, and after writing all those essays for BenBella Books I decided I wanted to write an entire non-fiction book.  BenBella was interested in publishing it, if we could agree on a subject, and since I am indeed a great fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, we settled on that.

It turned out to be much more work than I anticipated.  I enjoyed it, and I’m glad I did it, but given the amount of time and energy invested for the financial return, I’m in no hurry to do it again.

JCW: You completed the twelfth Ethshar novel, The Sorcerer’s Widow, last summer. When will it be released, and would you talk a bit about it?

LWE:  It’s scheduled for June – last I checked it said July on Amazon, but the publisher insists it’ll be June.

Back when I was talking about how I work, I mentioned that sometimes I know where a story is going, and sometimes I don’t.  This was one where I didn’t.

It actually started out as a short story.  I’d been invited to contribute to an anthology – I don’t remember which it was, now – and I started writing a story where a couple of not-very-bright would-be con artists find out that a sorcerer has died without ever training an apprentice.  In Ethshar, you see, a magician’s magical equipment, supplies, spells, talismans, and so on aren’t normally inherited by his family, but by his last apprentice.  Anyway, this sorcerer has died, and left a huge quantity of magical stuff behind, with no magically-trained heir.  This pair thinks they can trick his widow into giving them all these goodies.

They discover, however, that just because she’s not a magician herself, that doesn’t mean she’s stupid.

That was all I had worked out when I started writing the short story, and I quickly discovered that it didn’t want to be a short story.  I didn’t know how long it was going to be, but it wasn’t going to be short enough, or finished quickly enough, for the anthology.

For the past eight years, I’ve been serializing novels on the web – Ethshar novels in particular.  That’s how I wrote The Spriggan MirrorThe Vondish Ambassador, and The Unwelcome Warlock.  Last summer I decided I’d serialize The Sorcerer’s Widow.

But the truth is, I still hadn’t worked out the entire plot; I was making it up as I went along.  It wound up shifting focus, and instead of being about how this clever widow turned the tables on a pair of con men, it’s about how one of the con men, Kelder the Blabbermouth, grows up a little.

I’m pretty happy with how it came out.

JCW: There is something I have been dying to know: You’re a fantasy author who started out in the `70s. Did you ever play Dungeons & Dragons?

LWE: Oh, yes, I played D&D in college. Back when the first edition was new — the three booklets in the box. We tended to ignore the official rules and make our own, though. I wound up as my group’s dungeon master; three of our eight players flunked out because they spent their time playing instead of studying. Our dungeon was a mysterious ruin outside the border town of Skelleth (from The Lure of the Basilisk), if that rings any bells.

I should probably make it clear — that was 1975-1977. I wrote the first draft of what would eventually become The Lure of the Basilisk in 1974. The game was based on the story, never the other way around.

JCW: That’s awesome. Alright, just one more question. Quick! You’re trapped on a desert island, and you can only have 3 books with you. What are they?

LWE: Captain Horatio Hornblower, by C.S. Forester; A Treasury of Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher; Kings Full of Aces, by Rex Stout.

JCW: This has been a real pleasure. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

LWE: You’re welcome.

 

Be sure and follow J.C. Wigriff on Facebook and Twitter.

Follow Lawrence Watt-Evans on Twitter, or keep up with his work on his website.

 Original date of publication was 13 April 2013 at

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Writer, guitarist, gamer, alchemist. Editor at Fextralife.com, and host of the INT Spec Podcast. Be sure to follow him on twitter.

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