SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Author/Editor Erin M. Evans (+ Giveaway!)
Erin M. Evans has a degree in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis, but knowing that much about anthropods led her to stick it in box and become a writer and editor instead. Using her inside knowledge, she’s a master of RPGs, using that knowledge of bones, mythology, and social constructions to flesh out fantasy worlds. A mother and wife, she also edited Forgotten Realms and other books for Wizards of The Coast for years and now she writers them. Her books include: The God Catcher, Brimstone Angels, and Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils. She lives in Washington State and can be found online at her website: http://slushlush.com or on Facebook and Twitter as @erinmevans.
SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy come from?
Erin M. Evans: It’s something I’ve always had affection for. I can’t say I remember a particular event or book that did it—I grew up with parents who watched Dr. Who and Star Trek, who delighted in making us believe in magic. It just seems right that I ended up loving it myself.
EME: I think Patricia C. Wrede was probably the first author whose work clearly inspired me. Connie Willis and Ellen Kushner are the ones I go back and read when I’m feeling stuck—I especially love To Say Nothing of the Dog and The Privilege of the Sword. N.K. Jemisin is my newest favorite—I’m just in awe of her stories. And of course, I have this big ol’ shelf of Forgotten Realms sourcebooks to nudge me along!
SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?
EME: From the time I was a kid, I was anxious. I suffered from pretty intense insomnia—I was just too scared to sleep some nights. I shared a room with a sister who had no such troubles, so reading late at night wasn’t an option. So I’d lie awake and tell myself these elaborate stories to keep myself calm. In the daytime, I’d draw the same stories. My mother was convinced (from a preposterously early age) that I would be a writer, but I was not.
I started writing when I was fourteen and I’d picked up a book that I just really hated. I loved the concept and the elements, but the author’s decisions on how to use them really stuck in my craw. I rage-quit the book and sat down to write my own. And then I wrote another. And some more. And eventually I started learning what the hell I was doing and started making sense.
SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?
EME: A little of each. When I finally started writing, I was just winging it. I didn’t know anything about arcs or structure or plot. I had internalized some of those things by just reading piles of books, and managed to recreate it by accident. In college, I took a minor’s worth of writing classes, and got a little better—especially at letting other people read my works in progress. But I think the most progress I made was just through writing and reading, considering what I was trying to do and how I was doing it.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels, screenplays? How long before you made your first sale?
EME: I jumped right in with novels. I tend to write long—it’s only recently that I’ve managed a few pieces under 5,000 words, and that takes a lot of careful planning. My first sale was a tie-in novel, The God Catcher, in 2010, which was about three years after I started submitting, and fifteen years from that first “novelish thing.”
SFFWRTCHT: You also worked as an editor on the Forgotten Realms line at Wizards Of The Coast? How did you wind up doing that?
EME: I moved to Seattle with my now-husband in 2004. I had a day job that was making me crazy, and a mostly unpaid internship at a small press, Per Aspera, that I loved but that couldn’t cover my student loans. I knew all I wanted to do was work with books, and one day, when I just couldn’t do the day job anymore, I found an ad for an editorial assistant at Wizards of the Coast—simple as that, really. I got the job, and since I had experience working in publishing, they moved me to assistant editor and I started working on the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Mirrorstone lines.
SFFWRTCHT: What was it like being on the other end working with editors?
EME: It’s a little nerve-wracking! Every author wants their editor to like what they do, but there’s an added layer of tension when that editor is also your colleague. When I was still working there, I knew when my editor was reading a draft or an outline, and it was hard not to sit there, listening for stray reaction sounds. Fortunately, the editors I’ve worked with at Wizards of the Coast are unfailingly professional and not afraid to tell me plainly what they want.
SFFWRTCHT: How has that informed your writing?
EME: It’s made me very flexible and understanding of my editor’s end of the process. Sometimes wrenches get thrown in the works, sometimes timelines get skewed. I’ve been on both sides, and I know it’s not always something your editor can do anything about.
SFFWRTCHT: What kind of freedom vs. influence do editors play in FR tie-ins compared to author’s roles?
EME: When you write tie-in, the process is a bit more collaborative than other media. You don’t own the IP, so the editor is going to have to okay all the things you want to do to it—including how you represent it in your book. Because the books are contracted and then written (and on a firm timeline), this happens throughout the process—but as much as that sounds like someone is dictating the book to you, it’s really not. As the author, I’m responsible for coming up with the story idea, the characters, the plot. Wizards of the Coast might come to me with an element they’d like me to use, but I’ve never been steered more than that in how I come at the setting. There are expectations of the style—I’m not going to be writing any present tense or first person FR novels—and my editor will be quick to point out if I stop sounding like myself or using elements in ways that don’t actually work, but so do most editors. She just starts doing it sooner.
SFFWRTCHT: Outliner or pantser? I’m assuming as with most tie-ins WOTC wants outlines before buying novels?
EME: I have to outline every book I’m contracted for before I get the okay to start writing. Aside from making sure I don’t go off the rails on the tight timelines they have, this also makes sure that none of those story elements get misrepresented before they become critical, entrenched plot elements (if you have to get your characters to the volcano to destroy the ring, that volcano better actually be where you think it is). That’s not to say that my books don’t change in big ways from the initial outline—in Lesser Evils in particular, I added a major villain, changed another’s motives, and restructured the last third of the book from what I’d assumed I would do. For my own work, I used to be a pantser—but after four outlines, I find I can’t go back.
SFFWRTCHT: You first novel for WOTC was The God Catcher for Waterdeep. What is Waterdeep and how does The God Catcher fit in?
EME: Waterdeep is a big, cosmopolitan city in the world of Forgotten Realms, and the series, Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep comprises six stand-alone novels about various locations in the city. The God Catcher is the fifth book, and also the name of an apartment building built out of an enormous statue.
SFFWRTCHT: About a young woman named Tennora who wants to learn wizardry and then encounters a madwoman who is much more than she appears. Where’d the idea for that come from?
EME: Like most ideas, it came in pieces. I was talking with another editor about the spellscarred—people in the Forgotten Realms who have come by strange powers by encountering areas of magical disturbance—and what the limitations needed to be in the novels. These were new to the world with the recent edition change in Dungeons & Dragons and we didn’t want these to turn into unfettered superpowers in the novels. We wanted to see drawbacks equal to the level of power. While debating what types of characters we wanted to consider with spellscars (e.g. general agreement that a dog with a spellscar wasn’t high on the greenlight list), I brought up dragons, and thought of the concept of a dragon trapped in human form. When the opportunity to write The God Catcher came up, it fit perfectly.
The character of Tennora was based on conversations I was having with my younger sister at the time. She’d finished her degree and wasn’t sure what she was going to do next. Tennora wants to become a wizard, but she’s just not good enough at it. At the beginning of the book she’s realizing all the plans she’d made for her life are out the window, and her whole identity is up in the air. And that’s when she meets Nestrix, who insists she’s actually a dragon trapped in a human skin, and she needs Tennora’s help.
SFFWRTCHT: Which comes first for you—character, plot, or setting (location within the larger FR that is)?
EME: After the elements Wizards of the Coast suggests I use (setting in the first two books, and a character element in Lesser Evils), character comes first. If I don’t know and love the characters, I can’t finish the book.
SFFWRTCHT: Your next novel was Brimstone Angels, I believe the Grasping For The Wind reviewer called it the best S&S book he read that year. A FR book about a misfit named Farideh who makes a pact with a devil named Lorcan which winds up with her running for her life. How’d that idea come about?
EME: The story grew out of a character backstory I’d created for a D&D game—I was playing a tiefling warlock with a twin sister, who’d been adopted by dragonborn. But, as I discussed on my blog last year, that story was just an inspiration. I ended up reconsidering every element to make something that works in the context of the novels.
It also owes a lot to conversations I was having at the time about abusive relationships and the way they’re portrayed in the media. I had a friend who was coming out of a bad marriage and she was really frustrated that she was seeing her experience framed either as something romantic and misunderstood, or really obvious—something she should have seen coming and why was she so stupid to stay with that guy? And in talking to her about her experiences, I realized that a warlock’s pact has a lot of the same potential notes. What I really hope is that you see what Farideh’s doing and understand it. That you might start out going “oh, honey, no,” but by the end you find yourself thinking, “But maybe he’ll change.”
SFFWRTCHT: Lorcan is a cambion? Tell us a bit about that.
EME: A cambion is a half-devil. Lorcan’s mother is an erinyes—a violent female devil—called Exalted Invadiah, who’s in charge of the schemes that the archdevils of the Nine Hells have in place in Neverwinter, a city coming back from the edge of ruin. Devils live in a cutthroat hierarchy in the Nine Hells, where any mistake could get you demoted down to a weaker form, and enough effort could raise you up to something better. But since cambions aren’t full devils, they can’t advance that way—and if they fail, they’ll likely be killed.
At the same time, because they’re half-mortal, cambions have a less strictly evil view of the world. Don’t get me wrong—Lorcan’s still a bad dude—but unlike a true devil, he has the capacity to be generous.
SFFWRTCHT: And what’s a Brimstone angel?
EME: The Brimstone Angel is the nickname of one of the warlocks who originally made a pact with the King of the Hells, Asmodeus, and helped him gain the power to become the god of evil. The devils who collect warlocks the way Lorcan does also use in as a nickname to refer to her descendents—like Farideh and her sister, Havilar.
SFFWRTCHT: Whereas so many fantasy books have traditionally had male heroes, yours are female. Do you find the RPG world particularly open to such? Or is it a challenge to sell to both publishers and audience?
EME: It’s nowhere near the challenge most people suspect. There aren’t a lot of RPG novels, historically, with female protagonists, and I suspect a big part of that is the belief that women aren’t interested in gaming. Even now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are readers who are uncomfortable with what I write.
But Wizards of the Coast has never been hesitant about my books—actually, I’ve heard more than once how glad they are to have these strong female characters in their line-up. And while I hear from plenty of women who appreciate having a female hero to read about, a lot of my fans are men. When I’ve broached this topic before online, those guys are baffled that anyone would avoid a book for having a female protagonist. So while I don’t’ think we can ignore the problems women face in the RPG community, I do think for the majority of the audience Farideh’s just another hero.
SFFWRTCHT: Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils, which is just coming out, is a follow up to Brimstone Angels. Lorcan continues to haunt Farideh. But she discovers a long lost relative, hidden by Lorcan. What can you tell us without spoiling that?
EME: Farideh is the sort of character who feels a strong need to do the right thing, not just sit and wait for it to resolve. So when Lorcan is trapped in the Nine Hells, she’s determined to find a way to get him out. She starts learning ritual magic and gets caught up in the machinations of more than one group of evil-doers. She ends up in the ancient library of a long dead wizard and finds a strange book that gives her clues to who exactly the Brimstone Angel was.
SFFWRTCHT: I think readers may have perceptions about tie-in books, but my experience with the FR books so far is that they are really good adventure fantasy stories. They have elements of the game and setting but stand up fairly well for even those who are not FR players. What are some things you’d like fantasy fans to know about FR books that might buck their expectations?
EME: Forgotten Realms books are just books—there are different authors and different kinds of stories told in this world. Too often I hear from someone that they read one Forgotten Realms book once, long ago, and gave up. But when I ask them what they like to read, it’s pretty clear they picked an author who doesn’t scratch their particular itch. If someone told you they’d read The Silmarillion and decided they didn’t like fantasy because found that one book dense and hard to follow, you’d assume they gave up on the genre a little easily. If they said that all epic fantasy was bad because of that, you’d assume that person was nuts.
Forgotten Realms books are all adventure fantasy—you’re going to get a strong plot here, magic, monsters, and some fight scenes. But some do it dark, some do it funny, some do it introspective. Some do a sword and sorcery version and some go for eldritch horror. I joke that I do “fantasy soap opera” because what I’m most interested in are character relationships, and how magic, monsters, and fighting affect those. My goal with all of my Forgotten Realms books is to craft a story that on the one hand, a diehard fan will love, and on the other, that my grandmother can still follow and enjoy.
SFFWRTCHT: How many Brimstone Angels books are planned? Did you pitch/sell it as a series?
EME: I am working on a third book, The Adversary, which will also be the third book in the Sundering series, six novels that will move the Forgotten Realms into D&D Next. Additionally, I’m contracted to write another three books—and I intend for them to also be about Farideh and company.
The original book was pitched as a stand-alone novel, that could lead into a continuing, character-based series. Because the books are linked to the shared-world and the game, I have to stay relatively flexible with what happens. Before I began Lesser Evils, Wizards of the Coast requested I use it to bring the Zhentarim, an evil secretive society, into the story. What I’d been planning up until then would have precluded that, so I shifted the story and that made some of the characters’ wants and goals change. And I certainly couldn’t have anticipated the Sundering! Fortunately, I know and love these characters well enough that they could tear the world apart, and I’d still know what happened next.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like—specific block? Write ‘til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?
EME: I have a toddler, so I have to block out specific time these days. I write from 9-2 four days a week, and whenever he naps.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or does silence reign?
EME: I am a big, big fan of Freedom for Windows. It locks off the internet for a set period of time. That plus Word does the job for me. For each book I make a playlist of songs that spark something, and weed through it as I’m writing.
SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
EME: Best advice: Keep your butt in the chair and just keep writing. If no one had ever convinced me of the truth of this, I would probably pick at the same sentence for hours, trying to make it perfect, and never, ever get anything done. Sometimes you have to power through a bad scene so you can see what’s not working, and get enough perspective to fix it.
Worst advice: Anything that goes “Never use ______.” This sort of advice is good when you’re starting out and wanting to use tools that can go wildly awry. A flashback, for example, in the wrong place or for the wrong character can destroy the flow of a story. But to say “Never use flashbacks” cuts out a lot of good options for storytelling, and it’s just ridiculous. “Don’t use flashbacks to dump backstory on the reader,” okay. “Don’t let your flashbacks be more interesting than your main story or no one will care what’s actually happening,” fine. “No one cares what the shopkeeper thought about his eighth birthday,” absolutely. But I never say never.
SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
EME: Currently, I’m working on my next book, The Adversary, which should release in hardcover in December 2013.
Here is what the book is about:
Mere weeks after escaping Neverwinter, Farideh’s dreams are still haunted by Lorcan, the cambion devil whose power fuels her own. One of only four known descendents of the original Brimstone Angel, Farideh has no regrets about the pact she made with the devil. But no one in the Hells knows that she has a twin—an impulsive eager sister, just waiting to be corrupted. At least as long as Lorcan can keep her secret. Determined to protect her sister, Farideh searches for a ritual that could call Lorcan out of the Hells. But in the midst of her hunt, she’s drawn into an assignment for the secret society the Harpers, an assignment which leads her and a ragtag group of allies to an ancient Netherese library deep underground. While the group combs the site, dodging ghosts and magical traps, Farideh discovers a magical book whose pronouncements throw into question everything she thought she knew about herself and her sister. The more the Book gives up its macabre secrets, the more one thing becomes clear—a traitor lurks among them.
Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:
- Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
- In the subject line, enter ‘Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils‘
- Geographic restrictions: Sorry, this giveaway is only open to residents of the U.S.
- In the email, please provide your mailing address so the books can be mailed as soon as possible. (The winning addresses are forwarded to the publisher who will mail it to you. All other address info is purged once the giveaway ends.)
- Only one entry per person please. Duplicate entries will be handed over to Tiamat and fed to her evil dragon children as ruffage. If you’ve won something from us in the past, please give someone else a chance. (You know who you are! We do, too!)
- The giveaway will end Friday, December 14, 2012 (9:00 PM U.S Central time). The winner will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun for Fairwood Press, headlined by Robert Silverberg, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Mike Resnick and Nancy Kress, a Ray Gun Revival Best Of Collection for Every Day Publishing and World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, all forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.
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