Dungeon Crawls to Hyperspace – Paul S. Kemp Interview

While not involved in publishing, I’m a fan who has been able to do this type of thing for some time now and have had the privilege of chatting it up with several writers who either raised me or continue the traditions of works that did. I kind of feel like Paul S. Kemp has made a profession utilizing that kind of sentiment, just finding joy working and creating, passing on that enthusiasm that he not only knows the value of, but hasn’t forgotten. It doesn’t get much more real, much more fundamental to the second generation Spec Fic fan than PnP and Star Wars. Kemp is the creator of Erevis Cale, a character that has two trilogies, Erevis Cale and Twilight War, and whose story is the foundation of a future trio of books. He is also the author of the New York Times-bestselling, R. A. Salvatore-presented, Resurrection. Earlier this year it was announced that he would be writing a forthcoming Star Wars novel entitled Crosscurrent (January 2010), that will feature Jaden Korr.

I want to welcome Paul to Tor.com where our talk will include concepts from the Great Man theory to vibroblades.

Jay Tomio – You got your start at Wizards of the Coast in 1999 by sending them an unrelated-to-Realms chapter sample. This got you into the Halls of Stormweather anthology. I was wondering if we’ve seen more from this novel in any of your work since, or if it may have some life of its own later?

Paul S. Kemp – Elements of it have appeared in some of my most recent work. Characters from that novel inspired/influenced the presentation of two characters in The Twilight War—Elyril Hraven, the drug-addicted, half-mad priestess of the nihilistic goddess Shar; and Abelar Corrinthal, the holy warrior in service to Lathander. In fact, Abelar is pretty close to his analogous character from that unpublished novel. It was a chapter featuring the Abelar-analog that won me the gig in Stormweather.

For the record, my working title for that novel was Seeds of the Shadow. See! Even then I had “shadow” or some related word in all my titles. I cannot decide if that is sad or cool. In any event, I think that will probably be all anyone ever experiences of SoS. I suppose I could try to salvage it, but it would take so much work I’d be better served just starting anew.

Jay Tomio – You are principally known in Forgotten Realms for being the creator of the character Erevis Cale. Can you tell readers about Erevis, and what influences molded him?

Paul S. Kemp – I’m not clear on whether you mean what in-world factors influenced the character, or what real-world factors influenced me in creating the character. So what the Hell, let’s do both.

In world—Erevis Cale is tall, gaunt, and carries the weight of a dark past in his eyes. Drawn from an orphanage by a notorious assassins’ guild, he was a trained killer before his twentieth winter. His intellect marked him for more than wetwork, and he received training in multiple languages, alphabets, and forgery, becoming, in the process a skilled “letters man.” Eventually, the emptiness of the work led to an emptiness in his soul. Wanting to escape, he betrayed the guild and fled to another city. There, with no prospects, he fell back into old habits and took up with another guild, and it was for this guild that he began to spy on what would later become his adopted family. Over time, he grew close to his marks (surprising himself), and tried, with increasing difficulty, to keep the guild at bay while still acting in the best interest of his family. Accordingly, Cale is a man in constant tension: tension between his past and the present he wishes to create, tension between the man he was and the man he wishes to be. Later, this tension leads him in the direction of faith, but rather than providing an answer, the tension is displaced into another form—determinism versus choice. All of these forces have created a fairly introspective character, ruthless in a way, but still capable of gentleness. Some things in his life are his guiding stars, primarily his few friends and his family, and he protects them with zeal. He has suffered many losses over the course of his life, and this has created in him an unspoken (and unacknowledged) fatalism.

Out of world, in terms of what inspired me—I’m just drawn to the broken characters who live in the twilight, the characters who have made bad choices in the past but are trying like Hell to find redemption in the present. I’m thinking here of characters like Will Munny in the movie Unforgiven, Elric of Melnibone, and so on.

Jay Tomio – You were slotted a previously-organized slot of a “butler” to debut your story and Erevis. Do you remember your pitch, and was there another slot that you seriously considered (I believe the other choices were mother, daughter, and maid)?

Paul S. Kemp – There wasn’t. We were invited to submit for as many slots as we liked, but I was taken with the notion of a spy and assassin posing as a butler who became attached to the family that he was supposed to betray. The conflict, internal and external, pretty much wrote itself after that.

Jay Tomio – I guess it sounds like it would be obvious, but can you tell me what a Realm Shaking Event is in the official sense? I was wondering if you could share with us some events in the setting that would qualify to you and why?

Paul S. Kemp – Honestly, the term is relevant mostly as a marketing tool, rather than a descriptor of fictional events and how they relate to the setting. My personal definition for an RSE would be any event or series of linked, temporally close events that profoundly change the entire setting. By that standard, even my most recent series, The Twilight War, wouldn’t quite cross the threshold.

Jay Tomio – Does the concept of a Realm Shaking Event cause any trepidation with you? I characterize you as a writer who could use such a backdrop effectively, but optimally in small, personal, measures in how they effect or motivate quirks in character. Am I selling you short, even via a compliment?

Paul S. Kemp – No, actually you’re describing exactly what I strive to do. I always say that characters must drive plots, never the reverse. Writing about large scale events creates the risk that the scope of the events themselves can overwhelm the characters. I emphatically do not want that. That was the only trepidation I felt when I started The Twilight War.

So, yeah, “backdrop” is exactly the word I’d use to describe how I use the events in the narrative. I want the characters to participate in the events on their own terms, for reasons that are smaller than the events themselves. These aren’t stories about kings trying to save their realms. These are stories about men trying to save their souls while the world changes around them. The lens of the stories is always very personal.

Jay Tomio – You’ve always noted that you’re a writer that is drawn to the gray. Your last trilogy is essentially a battle for supremacy or dominion of gray over each other—even your Paladin is fallen. Is this a conscious decision or does it just come down to something as simple as an element like the Shade Enclave just being damn cool.

Paul S. Kemp – It is a conscious decision. My favorite class as an undergraduate was a political theory class on Justice. Now, “justice” is hardly a self-defining term and much smarter men than I have developed various definitions over the centuries. The class put Plato at one end and Nietzsche at the other, and off we went. In the end, what I was left with was a profound sense of the difficulty of the question and the notion that there is incredible value in seeking an answer, even if an answer isn’t found. That is, the inquiry itself is the reward. My desire to write in the gray areas of morality is an attempt to fictionalize that inquiry, while at the same time acknowledging its essential ambiguity.

Jay Tomio – I’ve seen you credit The Hobbit as the book that initiated your love for Fantasy, and also Moorcock as a professional influence. What do you take away from each that you feel best informs you as a writer?

Paul S. Kemp – For me, the Hobbit is an object lesson in storytelling, both in terms of characterization and story structure. It is an exemplar of storytelling, in that regard. Moorcock was much more than that to me. Moorcock seems to me a fearless writer, and that’s a big thing. He just tells the damn story and tells it well. I read some speculative fiction authors today who seem so caught up in their own self-importance as artists, interrogating this, subverting that, and on and on, that it comes through the page in a kind of overtly self-conscious, constipated writing. Moorcock spent 150 pages (think about that; a mere 150 pages) just spinning great tales, with great characters, and the rest be damned. Or so he reads to me, anyway. I love that about his work and I try to write the same way. It’s joyful writing, notwithstanding his darker subject matter.

Jay Tomio – You have discussed reader perception as it pertains to shared-world settings. I was wondering what you feel informs that perception?

Paul S. Kemp – The perception I usually discuss is that which holds that tie-in/shared world fiction is qualitatively inferior to non-tie-in/shared world fiction.

I don’t want to hit this too hard since I’ve done so often and in other venues, but I’m unconvinced that the perception is informed at all, at least in most cases. I think the perception less to do with the actual quality of tie-in fiction, and more to do with the very human need to arrange things into hierarchies that do credit to the things we like/create/consume, and sneer at the rest. Consider this: My novels have been very favorably reviewed in many of the same venues in which highly regarded non-shared world/tie-in fiction is reviewed. The same reviewer who might think highly of the latest novel by critically acclaimed Spec Fic writer A, also thinks just as highly of my tie-in hack work. I think that alone is a strong counterargument to the notion that tie-in is of a lower quality than non-tie-in.

Jay Tomio – For those that don’t know, you are a lawyer. I was wondering if you feel that your chosen field allows you an even more unique perspective in the settings you write in.

Paul S. Kemp – I’m a transactional lawyer, which involves a lot of negotiation. If nothing else, that’s given me a good eye for human motivation and frequent case studies in peculiar psychological quirks. I think that’s served me fairly well as a writer.

Jay Tomio – When you read different authors in a shared setting, stylistic comparison between them are more likely to come to mind. When I look at a RAS, I see a love for the heroic with that company banter and camaraderie that may be channeled fan of Leiber. With you, I see something a bit different. Are you a horror writer writing in Realms (I may have used a bad example as Leiber was a fine writer of horror as well!)?

Paul S. Kemp – That’s an interesting question. I think my writing is a fairly muscular brand of gritty sword and sorcery, frequently informed by elements of horror/weird (in the Lovecraftian sense; not the VanderMeerian sense). But (like all writers), I pull from all manner of different places. I do love horror, so I’m not surprised that those elements come through strongly in my writing. I guess that makes me not so much a horror writer writing sword and sorcery, as it does a sword and sorcery writer who is an aficionado of horror.

Jay Tomio – I need to ask this for Jeff. How would you describe “VanderMeerian Horror”?

Paul S. Kemp – I actually meant in the VanderMeerian weird rather than horror sense, and in the context of distinguishing his work from HPL’s. I mean it as a compliment. Whereas I find HPL’s horror to arise from his protagonists turning and staring into the face of the alien other, the vastness of time and space and man’s trivial presence in that vastness, VanderMeer’s vibe strikes me as coming more from looking at a slightly exaggerated reality from a slightly skewed perspective, making the everyday weird.

With Lovecraft, you come face to face with the alien, incomprehensible horror of a Shoggoth. With VanderMeer, you catch a rusty pickup passing you by on the highway, the driver leers, waves, and has a fanged mouth in his palm.

Jay TomioCrosscurrent, your forthcoming Star Wars novel, is your first book in that setting. I realize we have to do a bit of dancing around as of yet unreleased Star Wars projects, so bear with me! You aren’t playing with a character with significant canonical history (though I’m sure diehards will disagree!). Tell me something about Jaden Korr that you’ve learned in the process of your writing this novel, perhaps using those transactional lawyer habits?

Paul S. Kemp – Jaden is a complex character. His relationship to the Force is strong, but the nature of the relationship troubles him. His Master, Kyle Katarn, had a view of the Force more in line with the Potentium school (the Force as tool, rather than the morally loaded terms of Dark and Light), but Jaden isn’t so sure. Recent events in the Civil War, and in particular Jaden’s actions in the assault on Centerpoint Station, have made his internal conflict more acute. He’ll be working out that conflict in Crosscurrent.

Jay Tomio – Recently you’ve killed a major character. This isn’t an altogether common occurrence, even though there are notable exceptions. How long did you know this was going to happen, and if there was conflict, what was the best opposing argument?

Paul S. Kemp – I decided I would do it back in 2005, when I wrote Midnight’s Mask. My editors did want me to leave a back door for his return, primarily (I think) for commercial reasons. Nothing wrong with that. For my part, I’d told his story in the way I wanted to tell it. I wanted an end that did the character justice and I wanted to leave my readers satisfied with the end. I think, given the reviews I’ve read, that I accomplished those things for most readers.

Jay Tomio – How long has New Dineen,  the setting of some of your short stories, been in the works? Are there ambitions for novels in New Dineen? Would it be something you’d consider having others write in?

Paul S. Kemp – I’ve noodled it for years, just a little bit here and little bit there. I do have an epic fantasy in mind, but as it takes firmer shape in my mind, New Dineen seems less and less likely as the setting. I think I may just reserve New Dineen as a playground for the gritty fantasy short stories I like to tell.

Jay Tomio – You have several pieces of short fiction out there to read. You are a legitimate cog in the Realms product, have a Star Wars project in the works, have Azazel in the wings, but yet still more than just dabble in short fiction. Historically it’s not a great financial consideration for somebody who has rather regularly scheduled venues for his novels. I have to assume that you just love writing them. You’ve mentioned Lovecraft before, but I was wondering where does the appreciation derive from and what muscles are you flexing with these project?

Paul S. Kemp – I appreciate any writer who can craft a fine story. I find the form difficult (which is one of the reasons I was amazed to see “The Signal,” my short story from Horrors Beyond II, get an Honorable Mention in Grant, Link, and Datlow’s Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror) so I admire those with skill at it. Part of why I dabble the little bit that I do is to experiment with themes, characters, and settings that are outside of my normal comfort zone. I often try to write a short story or two in between novels. I find it useful as a kind of clearing of the creative palate.

Jay Tomio – Your next cycle of books for Forgotten Realms, Cycle of Night, is a continuation of the occurrences and ramifications of Twilight War. Is there a some sense of freshness for you entering the next chapter of a story without your principal character?

Paul S. Kemp – There is. As you mentioned, the Cycle of Night will tie back to the events of the Twilight War, giving it a place in a long story arc for those who’ve been along for the whole ride, but it will feature a new protagonist in a new setting, and thus will require no familiarity with previous material. I’m excited to get into it.

Jay Tomio – Have you seriously considered writing a Realms novel outside of the corner you’ve established for yourself with Erevis, Mask etc? What areas, be it people, deities, or geographic locales interest you?

Paul S. Kemp – I haven’t, but that’s primarily because my process starts and ends with characters. The places and deities and whatnot are incidental to the central drama that takes place in the characters’ heads. So what I’ve done is introduce new characters into the existing story arc as they strike me (Abelar in the Twilight War, for instance; and Magadon in the Erevis Cale Trilogy).

Jay Tomio – When I think of Sword and Sorcery what comes to mind first, both as a reader and seeing something like Heliotrope submissions, is that there isn’t a lot of it that seems to want to explore new ground. That said, the second thing that comes to mind is that like no other sub-genre in fantastic fiction, when they get BIG, they represent a good portion of the true icons in his industry. Conan, Elric, Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, Drizzt—these are names that go beyond the idea of titles and single stories. They are instead Conan books or the next Drizzt book.  Do you have a theory on why S&S seems well represented when it comes to being able to brand characters?

Paul S. Kemp – Man, that’s a big question. I don’t know that I have a good theory, but here goes: I think sword and sorcery is the literary equivalent of the “Great Man theory” in historical scholarship. As such, it illustrates the Campbellian hero and his journey in a uniquely personal way. That, I think, speaks to generation after generation. No one ever outgrows sword and sorcery. They just outgrow their willingness to acknowledge how profoundly it speaks to them.

Jay Tomio – What was the last Sword and Sorcery story that spoke to you?

Paul S. Kemp – You know, I don’t read a lot of genre stuff these days and haven’t for some time, so the last Sword and Sorcery novel that spoke to me was my reread of Moorcock’s Stormbringer. Amazing what the man was able to do with 200 pages.

Jay Tomio – Recently you’ve informed us that what you’ve described as a “supernatural thriller” has found an agent. Are you able to tell us about Azazel, and if not, perhaps discuss what was the creative impetus for the project?

Paul S. Kemp – I should add that Azazel might just as easily be called a dark fantasy as supernatural thriller. The speculative elements are critical to the story, so I think it will appeal to readers of my previous work, notwithstanding the change in subject matter.

Azazel grew out of my desire to write a story that plays on the tension between a Platonic view of Good and Evil (note the caps) and a Niestzschean view of good and evil (note the lack of same). To do that, it looks through the lens of one, and maybe two, madmen, as opposing views of reality clash. I don’t want to go too far into it at this point, but let’s do another interview if it sells to a publisher and talk more then.

Jay Tomio – You are from the pen-and-paper school and here we are at this technological terror Macmillan constructed. I know that you’ve commented on the use of the net in marketing your work, but I was wondering what you have seen, or what interests you about digital/electronic distribution as it pertains to your work?

Paul S. Kemp – This doesn’t pertain to my work in particular (none of which is available digitally, as far as I know; Wizards of the Coast is a bit behind the rest of the publishers when it comes to capitalizing on new media resources) but I think we’re not too far from a kind of “mass adoption event” when large numbers of young readers (much larger than today) start consuming books in digital format on a regular basis. The digital format won’t replace paper novels—at least not on a one-for-one basis—but will instead be supplementary to paper books (look at some of the college campuses today that have digitized textbooks for an example of how that will look). Over time, the sale of digital books will erode sales of the paper versions, but never replace them (or at least won’t in my lifetime). Instead of the 95% to 5% paper to digital sales number we see today, we may see something more like 60%-40% in the next five to eight years.

Jay Tomio – Switching up and talking about important matters, we are both Yankees fans. It has to be asked, A-Rod: Monster season of redemption or buckling?

Paul S. Kemp – Unfortunately, I see buckling. A-Rod does not thrive in difficult situations, hence his rep as a poor clutch hitter. I think we see that same psychology at work when it comes to dealing with the steroid issue. He’ll probably post decent numbers by the standard of most players, but poor by A-Rod’s historical standards. I hope I’m wrong.

Jay Tomio – When we last talked, you told me that you were as of yet not too invested into the Star Wars EU. Could you tell me something that you’ve come across in having to do research for Crosscurrent that either surprised you or came across as something that you didn’t know, but was just pretty damn cool?

Paul S. Kemp – One word, brother. Vibroblades.


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