SFFWRTCT: A Chat with PYR Author/Game-Designer Erin Hoffman
Erin Hoffman lives in Northern California and works in video game design. She is the author of Chaos Knight series from Pyr Books, Sword of Fire and Sea, followed by Lance of Earth and Sky in 2012 and Shield of Sea and Space in 2013. Her video game credits include DragonRealms, Shadowbane: The Lost Kingdom, GoPets: Vacation Island, Kung Fu Panda World, and FrontierVille. She writes for the award-winning online magazine The Escapist, and has had her fiction and poetry in Asimov‘s, Electric Velocipede, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and anthologies like Clockwork Phoenix and Beyond The Sun. Erin’s games have won multiple awards and have been played by millions of kids and adults worldwide. She’s multiethnic, with family names including Lee, Asakawa (yonsei), and Drake in addition to Hoffman and can be found online at ErinHoffman.com, on Twitter as @gryphoness and on Facebook. A previous interview with Erin can be found here.
SFFWRTCHT: First, congrats on finishing a trilogy. How does it feel? How much is the final different from what you envisioned?
Erin Hoffman: Exhilarating! Scary! Simultaneously like I could die happy yet still be just getting started — one race ends, another begins. I didn’t see the absolute end to the trilogy until midway through book two — I had a general sense, but not specific.
EH: I can’t make anything that simple…
SFFWRTCHT: So you kind of pantsed it a little up to that point as far as how it might end then?
EH: Right — if it makes sense, I knew how the ending would feel, but I didn’t know exactly how it was going to get there.
SFFWRTCHT: I imagine that’s probably natural to the process of change any novel goes through from concept to outline to completion. Remind us, what is a Chaos Knight?
EH: Well, so far there’s only one, so a chaos knight is a Vidarian. The chaos goddess (Starhunter) doesn’t take knights often/easily.
SFFWRTCHT: A ha! You made that simple. Soooo…Tell us a bit about your hero Vidarian.
EH: A rebel and a loyal son. A heart full of conflict and conviction. A romantic and a pragmatist. Fire and water. Love and ending.
SFFWRTCHT: Then there’s his mate Ariadel And a whole bunch of gryphons, who also talk, fly and telepath, right?
EH: I never thought about “telepath” as a verb, but I rather like it! Verily they think many things at each other.
SFFWRTCHT: It may not be. I could just be having “a moment.”
EH: Ariadel is kind of a mystery, perhaps most to herself. An outer shell of talent and decisiveness beneath which are subtle but deep currents capable of sudden tectonics. My gryphons are as holistic as I can make them — tints of myth but mostly their own creatures, neither lion nor eagle but synthesis.
EH: They’re the Alorean Import Company and are based on who you think they are — princes of capitalism in a fantasy world. I never much understood the omission of business and finance from fantasy worlds — the Company is my answer in a way. Resources and power want plus resources and power — the Company is chasing the game-ending piece, since they already control nations.
SFFWRTCHT: This series started as something you shared with several friends in a writing group then developed over time, right?
EH: It is — much modified, but built on a world I outlined long ago and shared online with a truly tremendous group of (mostly) women.
SFFWRTCHT: How many years did you invest in this?
EH: Well, the world is eighteen (which is nuts!!), but I wasn’t working on it consistently by any stretch. It was always a bit every year. It just wouldn’t go away.
SFFWRTCHT: The world is a bit of science fantasy with airships, automatons and other nontraditional epic fantasy elements. Tell us a bit about some of the more unique aspects. From gods who are tied to the elements to various continents?
EH: Yes — along with the commerce, I’ve always found science culturally fascinating, and I thought reliable magic would inevitably mean reliable magic robots. A lot of the wilder elements are spolierish — but will say lots of shapechangers, and elemental magic takes odd turns. I think you can extrapolate outward from elemental skyships and automata to project a very general sense of where it goes.
SFFWRTCHT: Okay, fair enough. There are lots of unique elements despite the epic fantasy feel still being somewhat traditional. From where did you draw influences for your world, characters, mythology and magic system?
EH: Oh man. Inspirations for the world. Really from everywhere. Greek and Egyptian gryphon legend. Greek mythology. Chinese mythology.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you spend a lot of time researching to find ideas or just pull from stuff you encountered at other times?
EH: I’m kind of addicted to research. I pull from real world odd biology, mythology, ship’s logs, historical figures…The emperor Lirien Aslaire is actually loosely based on Lincoln, and there are other very stealthy historical figures in there. Rhiannon, Ruby’s mother, the West Sea Queen, is based on a real woman who ran away to become a pirate. It’s my game developer impulse to plant easter eggs. There are tons.
EH: Right, well remembered. My dad checked all my terminology. Worked his whole life for the Navy.
SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a routine for balancing research reading with time for fiction reading and writing? Favorite sources?
EH: Oh, favorites, hard to say. I loved poring through the ship’s logs I could find. So fascinating. And Tecumseh. Balancing is tough. I tend to just pile up books everywhere and hope I get to them. I often don’t.
SFFWRTCHT: It wasn’t in the arc, but I understand there’s a map of the world. Is that something you developed with the publisher or on your own?
EH: This particular map I did myself — I was a pinch hitter, my loyal map artist had a (completely adorable) baby. I also do a thing with the trilogy where the map for each book is progressively zoomed out; Sheild is whole world. My “electronic art” BS degree not in vain…
SFFWRTCHT: How long did the novels take to write?
EH: Well, the first was written eccentrically — I want to say I probably averaged eight months on each.
SFFWRTCHT: Did you outline all three before starting or just work as you went? Well, other than the ending, as discussed above.
EH: I did have a general series outline – knew big things that would begin in book one and end in two, begin in one and end in three, etc. But I often find what happens is I will set down something general and thematic, and the details surprise me. I will often build something in not knowing what it’s for, and I find out later when it manifests. Crazy subconscious.
EH: Aw, thank you. I was trying to do epic the way Treasure Island is epic — and it really is. Just not a doorstopper. Keeping to Vidarian’s point of view became really challenging at points, but I think it lends a certain intensity that I liked.
SFFWRTCHT: When you envisioned this did you have any message or theme in mind? How did that manifest/change across time?
EH: It was a combination knowing ahead and uncovering. I often find if I get stuck it’s because I’ve veered off theme. Sometimes that means there’s a theme that I haven’t yet uncovered that needs to be pulled out and squinted at.
SFFWRTCHT: It’s interesting that the trilogy became in essence Vidarian’s three part character arc despite the world hanging in the balance, so it’s epic but also intimate and small at the same time. A tough trick.
EH: Haha! I blush. And yeah… I felt like I had to follow through with having Vidarian’s POV — I’m enough of a Nietzschean to believe a hero is defined by his end.
SFFWRTCHT: Okay so what have you learned and how have you grown since you started as a writer?
EH: One of the big things I’ve learned is to trust the process. Related to that getting stuck, and why. I also had huge anxiety when the first and second books came out that I don’t have now. But that might be more biz. Since I started… that’s an even bigger question. My style has worked out a lot of its kinks — I can be way too florid. Honestly it’s just pure psych — impostor syndrome. I’m sure it’ll come back but it feels pretty done. I also think it takes several novels to really internalize the structure of how a novel works, so there’s that, too.
SFFWRTCHT: Well, it is done. And it’s a living being you created and out in the world. And you get to watch what happens.
EH: Indeed so. It’s very liberating. And mainly kind of warm and fuzzy. I’m relieved to have pulled it off.
SFFWRTCHT: Tell us a bit about your story for Beyond The Sun, “The Gambrels Of The Sky,” which is scifi from an other POV.
EH: Right, that story, which you kindly picked up, was my messing around with themes from Emily Dickinson in an alien. For each section, I riff on a line from some of her more existential poetry. I always thought she had an alien quality to her.
EH: Right — to me that’s one part of an alien story (since when we talk aliens we’re not talking aliens). Conquered. #sffwrtcht (Thu May 30 01:42:59 +0000 2013)
SFFWRTCHT: Well it’s a nice break from the usually Western colonization perspective. So what now? More writing? More fantasy? More scifi? Or are you just reveling in it for a while?
EH: Oh, I am chiseling away. A new world. Science fantasy. Andovar kind of walks up and peeks over the edge — I figure why not go all the way?
SFFWRTCHT: And in gaming, you’re working with a new company, right? And doing fun stuff? Anything you can tell us?
EH: Oh sure! I’m the Game Design Lead at Glass Lab Games , a division of the Institute Of Play . It’s fantastic. I’ve long admired the Institute of Play, so it’s amazing to be working with them. We’re adding formative assessment to bring the new SimCity to classrooms, funded by Gates & Macarthur Foundations. Our implementation team is quite small, as we work with a host of edu professionals — learning designers, etc. So I’m working with very high level pros from fields adjacent but very different to mine — challenging and super fun.
SFFWRTCHT: So using SimCity as an educational tool? That’s interesting. I do love that game.
EH: Right, yeah. Harder than you might imagine. SimCity is a completely gorgeous game. We’re rebuilding for grade 7.
SFFWRTCHT: What are the top lessons from game design you’ve taken to your writing and vice versa?
EH: Well, I talk about being a ‘ludological writer’ – game structures influence my writing. Pacing, foreshadowing, all games. Writing comes into my game design in raw pragmatics – game design documents – but also in a storyteller heart kind of way.
SFFWRTCHT: So maybe a Chaos Knight game is in the future?
EH: Someday perhaps. Probably more like Andovar games in general.
EH: Gaiman ‘s commencement speech is up there with the best advice. The worst — hmm. I’m sure there was assorted bad advice. And good advice I didn’t listen to.
SFFWRTCHT: What do you tell writers first when they ask for advice? Encouragement or warning?
EH: Both certainly. But mainly that the game is persistence. If you relentlessly improve yourself, you will break in. You have to be careful not to keep trying the same things expecting different results — accepting feedback.
SFFWRTCHT: Good advice. Besides the new novel, what future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?
EH: I just recently had a story accepted for an anthology — other than that, certainly Beyond the Sun just came out.
SFFWRTCHT: So the book’s out there. Are you doing any Cons or appearances where we might see you?
EH: Hm, I signed at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego in May – check out their website for signed books! I’m thinking about WorldCon but haven’t scheduled yet.
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