INTERVIEW: Erin Hoffman on Gaming and ‘Sword of Fire and Sea’
Erin Hoffman was born in San Diego and now lives with her husband, two parrots, and two dogs in northern California. She started an online writing group at age 15, and at 18 started as an assistant game designer for Simutronics on DragonRealms. Her other game credits include Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, GoPets: Vacation Island, Kung Fu Panda World, and FrontierVille. She also serves on the International Game Developers Association’s board of directors, writes for the award-winning online magazine The Escapist, and has had fiction and poetry in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Electric Velocipede, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and more. In 2004 her blog on game industry quality of life, “ea_spouse”, was covered by the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and LA Times, and is now referenced in numerous game history and corporate history studies.
Erin’s first novel, Sword of Fire and Sea, was just published by Pyr.
SF SIGNAL: That’s quite an Curriculum Vitae you have, Erin. I notice that you started off in your teenage years with writing, and then went into the world of game design. Now, with Sword of Fire and Sea, you have returned to writing. What brought you back to the printed word?
ERIN HOFFMAN: Well, I never really left! It’s a classic case of eight(?)-years-to-overnight-success. Writing has always been what I’ve done with “free” time (I always liked it better than television), and I sold my first short story at seventeen. I got my first rejection letter from Marion Zimmer Bradley when I was fifteen, and went to the Odyssey Fantasy Writers Workshop in 2005. It was really after Odyssey that I became a lot more strategic about my writing, but the first part of Sword of Fire and Sea was drafted in 2003-2004.
SFS: So, you said you had drafted Sword of Fire and Sea in 2003, and I see you published a story in the world of Andovar in 2009 (Stormchaser, Stormchaser). So let’s talk about the world of Andovar. When did you start building the world? What were your inspirations?
Ah, it goes back quite a ways. When I was about fifteen (at risk of dating myself) my family got AOL — this was back when they charged by the hour. There were a bunch of fantasy bulletin boards, and roleplaying groups, and I started a new group with a couple of ladies I met on the “Gryphons” message board. I drew the map and wrote up a bunch of world history — our basic concept was really just to have a world where the gryphons were the main characters. It went on for several years — we kind of grew up with it. I put it aside in college, and after college became more “serious” about writing — attending workshops, sending out short stories, etc. I thought of it as “kids’ stuff” in a way — I think we all did by then — but years later realized that there was a core in that world of things that were important to me in fantasy: concepts of science intersecting magic, epic multi-dimensional sweep, and sentient animal life. So when an opportunity came up to submit a novella to an anthology being developed in 2003, I revamped the world — moved the timeline forward, added a bunch of world-changing events, refined the races and developed human-centric civilizations — and wrote what would eventually become the first third of Sword of Fire and Sea. It thus has a kind of odd creation history and timeline, but at the center of it is a lot of heart, and a lot of iteration. I think I counted it up once and my pieces of writing alone amounted to over 300,000 words, to say nothing of the two dozen or so other folk who were involved with the world at one time or another.
SFS: So, as a fellow Gryphonphile, I have to ask: What drew you to Gryphons in particular?
EH: The first “official” fantasy book I ever picked up (not counting classic children’s fantasy like C.S. Lewis or picture books) I grabbed because it had a gryphon on the cover, and a centaur. So I’ve been drawn to them for about as long as I can remember. I seem to recall first learning about them in a Greek mythology unit in the fourth grade or so. Those lessons made a big impact — I loved the myths of the gods, the Nemean Lion, the Stygian Birds, the Gorgons, and, of course, gryphons. I’d like to have a more sophisticated answer for you, maybe wax poetic about the metaphor of the soul with the lion bound to earth and the eagle’s wings flying to heaven, the duality of species reflecting my dual cultural identity, but at the end of the day, they’re half bird and half cat — what’s not to love? For me they were the perfect critter, sort of having your cake and eating it too; they also symbolize truth and loyalty, which are among my favorite virtues. I like dragons just fine, but they’re kind of scaly and angry, more about brute strength. Gryphons are righteous. I should also say that I’ve always unabashedly loved unicorns. I should probably get a tattoo of one, too.
SFS: In addition to mythology (which I started reading as young as I started reading F/SF), I kept seeing Gryphons, myself, in Near Eastern Art (the Metropolitan Museum of Art was just full of the stuff).And it felt like a “secret club” since everyone loved dragons and wrote novels about dragons (which are fine, no problems with dragons here). But Griffins just seemed rarer and more special for it. I was quite surprised to see in the last couple of years that they have seen a bit of a flowering in fantasy novels such as Rachel Neumeier’s trilogy, and well, now your own.
EH: There has been a kind of renaissance lately. Gryphons have been rising on the collective unconscious. I don’t know how much of it’s attributable to Harry Potter (the hippogryph in the third movie was spectacular, then there’s Griffindor itself) and how much of it is their time just coming around again, but I’ll take it regardless! The Chaos Knight is Vidarian’s story, but I hope to write a future Andovar novel that focuses more on the gryphons.
SFS: Let’s drill into Sword of Fire and Sea some more. I read a tweet from Lou Anders that he compared the book to Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion and Avatar: the Last Airbender. Having read the book, I see where he is coming from. What sort of fantasy have you read/consumed, and continue to enjoy? And for that matter, about non-genre fiction or non fiction?
EH: What’s interesting about Lou’s comment is that at the time I had experienced neither Avatar nor Eternal Champion, though of course I was familiar with Moorcock. It was kind of eerie to go seek them out after he said that and see how much we were all playing in the same pools. I think I got a lot of Moorcock’s concepts three or four generations away from where he created them — concepts of order versus chaos that wound up in Dungeons & Dragons, and however those ideas migrated to Japanese RPGs. In later descriptions Lou has added Final Fantasy to the mix to describe what I do, and I think that’s fair (and I’m more directly familiar!).
After the mythology and children’s classics (The Secret Garden, Call of the Wild, Where the Red Fern Grows, Madeline L’Engle — I think you can actually see the influence of these on my work, too, and Shakespeare), I fell deep into the mass market paperback fantasy world of the mid-90s — a lot of Piers Anthony (almost everything he’d written, which was a lot even then), Mercedes Lackey, Anne McCaffrey (also just about everything of hers — I love her breadth as a writer), Marion Zimmer Bradley (the Sword & Sorceress collections, her Fantasy Magazine). Then a smattering of science fiction at the same time, pulled off my dad’s shelves — some Asimov, a ton of Michael Crichton (I have a particular memory of reading Jurassic Park on the couch while my sister was reading Bridges Over Madison County; she had tears streaming down her face and I had a literal white-knuckle grip on the book). As an adult and a writer I’m quite influenced by Philip K. Dick, Michael Swanwick, and Peter Beagle; in popular fiction I’ve enjoyed the Harry Potter books and, though some folk want to set me on fire for this, the Da Vinci Code. Not your usual array for a fantasy writer, I suppose. I like to read widely. If I had to pick a favorite fantasy writer I would have to agonize between Peter Beagle and Robin Hobb.
Outside of fiction, I’ve become something of an Oliver Sacks junkie, and beyond books, I know that video games on the Sega Genesis probably had as much of an effect on me as the reading did when I was a kid, and I read a LOT. The Ecco the Dolphin, Phantasy Star, and Shining Force series all had a particular effect on me. At the moment I’m really enjoying the Glitch beta — the most fun I’ve had in an online world in a long time — it reminds me a bit of this silly little underrated Genesis game called Fantastic Dizzy, a whimsical little exploratory sidescroller about a walking egg. I’m partial to things that are cute or beautiful.
SFS: I saw that Ruby made her debut in a story from a couple of years back. Out of the triumvirate of major characters, Vidarian, Ruby and Ariadel, was Ruby the first one to emerge? We’ve talked about the world; where did these three characters come from?
EH: Vidarian was definitely first, and came from a desire to have a character who was a) a sea captain and b) driven by a sense of obligation to his family legacy. Ariadel came next, since she figures prominently in that first novella; it’s challenging because the story is told exclusively from Vidarian’s perspective, so we’re tightly inside of how he sees both Ariadel and the world, but she has as rich a backstory as he does (and is, at least in my mind, equally as complex a character). I have an outline for a novel that is specifically her story before she meets Vidarian. She’s actually so vivid and her role so important in the second book that I was sorely tempted to jump multi-perspective with it, but ultimately decided that doing so would break reader expectations and continuity too much.
Ruby emerged as an idea about halfway through the first novella as a character from Vidarian’s past, and one around which the second part of what would become Sword of Fire and Sea would focus. In my research about the way that pirate societies function, I did a lot of reading about women from the age of sail, and specifically ones that broke the very strict social norms of the time and went out adventuring. There were actually several, and one in particular I completely fell in love with. She didn’t become Ruby, but rather Rhiannon, Ruby’s mother — so I had her life story based on this template from history, made some adjustments, and then imagined what it would be like to be the daughter of such a woman, which is where we get “Stormchaser, Stormshaper”. The other genesis for that story is a real pair of New Rock boots that I own.
All three of them emerge very directly out of the world and the particular time in which they’re born — a kind of third generation after the Sea Wars that defined the lives of everyone even tangentially involved in them. So they’re a little adrift, a little uncertain — trying to define their own identities in a world whose last change created a society that no longer fits its current challenges. If they have any shared theme, it’s one of family and their relationship to legacy.
SFS: Going to a more metatextual point of view, I was quite surprised that the book was, so compact, so dense with material. To quote a friend of mine, you never hesitate to add ninjas to keep the pot stirred. Reading the 250 odd page Sword of Fire and Sea was like reading an old Ace double or Raymond Chandler rather than a doorstopper, which is far more typical these days for secondary world fantasy. Although I can see how it might turn off some readers, it certainly gives you a unique and distinctive voice. Where did it come from?
EH: It’s funny you mention the Ace doubles, because I love them. I’m trying to collect old editions — a favorite that I have is Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror with Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon. It was such a neat format.
I wanted each chapter in Sword of Fire and Sea to lean into the next. I was going for a book that was difficult to put down. I enjoy a wide range of book styles (I’ll write longer books someday), but the last book that I loved end to end was Rudy Rucker’s Software. His plot goes about eleven times faster than Sword‘s if you can believe it. And I kind of missed the presence of those kinds of books in the market. It’s a tricky dance, and as you point out it has more than one down side, but partly I wanted to try something new (that wasn’t really new), and partly I just genuinely love books like Treasure Island that don’t portend to generations of grandiose sweep, but leave this wonderful lingering sense of an amazing dream in your mind and heart after you read them. I think that the shorter a book is, to some extent the greater its mystery is — if it’s well done. And as Einstein said, there is no experience so beautiful as the mysterious. I think that’s the unifying thread between fiction and games. They’re both about searching for answers, but no one wants answers just dumped on them in a heap. What we really want are just the right questions.
SFS: Well, I want to thank you so much for this interview, Erin. Do you have any parting comments or thoughts for our readers?
EH: Oh, I close with gratitude. Thank you, Paul (and John ) for doing the interview! And SF Signal for running it. I have a profound sense of gratitude for this whole process of getting the novel out into the world. So many folk at Pyr made sure I looked good, Lou made me cry in a business meeting when I got the email that he’d be buying it, my husband Jay has put up with endless neuroticism over the launch and the writing of the sequel. The SF community has been incredibly welcoming, and getting the blessing and insightful advice of some of my favorite authors has both helped me keep my tenuous sanity and been a eucatastrophe itself, an unexpected rescue, when the sudden reality of having a book sailing into the market seemed overwhelming and pulled me out of my skin. The readers have been phenomenal, and I’m grateful for anyone who spends time in Andovar. If I’ve done my job right I hope they’ll have gotten a sense of the wonder and adventure I got from fantasy books as a child (and as an adult). I feel as though I’m part of a lineage, and that was unexpected and amazing.
For anyone who would like to keep up with Andovar, I have a facebook page where I delight in giving away things, and in posting news about the books and events: http://www.facebook.com/andovar.world , and of course my main website, www.erinhoffman.com .
Filed under: Interviews
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