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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Philip Athans on Shared Worlds and “The Fathomless Abyss”

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the recently-released How to Start Your Own Religion and Devils of the Endless Deep. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.

SF Signal had the opportunity to talk with him about shared worlds and The Fathomless Abyss, a shared world anthology featuring stories from Philip , Mike Resnick, Jay Lake, J.M. McDermott, Mel Odom, Brad Torgersen and Cat Rambo. In The Fathomless Abyss, a bottomless pit opens who-knows-when onto who-knows-where, just long enough for new people from a thousand different worlds and a million different times to fall in and join the fight for survival in a place where the slightest misstep means an everlasting fall into eternity. In this world, the laws of physics work against you, there’s no way out, and time means nothing…

CHARLES TAN: Hi Phil! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did The Fathomless Abyss series start out?

PHILIP ATHANS: I’d been kicking around the idea of a fantasy world set inside a giant, bottomless pit for years, but could never quite work it out. It just sat back there in the dark corners of my mind, sort of brewing. Then my buddy Mel Odom started telling me about the various indie e-book projects he’d been working on and encouraged me to give it a try, too. We went in together on the still-evolving Arron of the Black Forest series, which has been great fun (and I’m really champing at the bit to get started on the next Arron book), but then, being the Go Big or Stay Home kinda guy I am, I started envisioning a more ambitious project, with more authors on board. Once I felt as though I had the tools to create something interesting in the e-pub world, the Fathomless Abyss setting rocketed out of that dim recess and I started bouncing the idea off a small group of author friends. It built from there.

CT: What’s the appeal of the shared world concept for you, whether for this project or in your previous work experience?

PA: Having spent nearly fifteen years as a book editor at TSR then Wizards of the Coast, I spent pretty much all of that time working in the shared world/game tie-in biz. Not only did that allow me to build up a certain skill-set, or more accurately, a set of skill-sets in the creation, development, and management of creative intellectual properties, it really instilled in me a love of creative collaboration. Though I continue to write stuff on my own, and edit non-shared projects, etc., I couldn’t just walk away from that set of skills, or the community of outstanding creative minds that I’d become part of, just because I left Wizards of the Coast.

CT: What was your criteria in selecting the contributors?

PA: I’m happy to report that there was no strict set of criteria. Most of all, this had to be a group of friends doing this first and foremost for the fun of it. There was no up-front money for anyone, and no guarantees of any kind. These are authors who are writing now for the love of the game, and I’m blown away by the team I’ve managed to put together with that big limiting factor at the start.

But at the same time, the Abyss author pool represents a wide array of different voices who are known for writing in different genres, or at least sub-genres. In terms of writing style I tend to have more in common with Mel, but then “grew up” as a writer and editor in the literary world so have a lot still in common with J.M. McDermott. Mike Resnick & Brad R. Torgersen brought a science fiction sensibility to the table, and I couldn’t imagine a setting like this without a steampunk edge—and who better than Jay Lake in that regard? Cat Rambo, the last one in, brought a much-needed female perspective and a great balance between the pulp and literary approaches. All this combines to give the Fathomless Abyss that multi-genre, anything-is-possible quality the infinite setting demands.

CT: What was the collaboration process like?

PA: Thank God for email! Only Cat and I live in the same city (Seattle). The rest of the group is spread all over the country, so the world bible, story ideas, and manuscripts have all crisscrossed the nation via cyberspace, with Word files being built up brick by brick until we felt we had a good starting point. Then at least one of the other authors would volunteer to edit finished drafts, and I do all the “heavy lifting” of actually putting the e-books up for sale.

As we built the world bible, we all spoke up with ideas, informally voted when there was more than one good idea on the table, and passed the file back and forth and back and forth. We also made sure that we didn’t over worldbuild. We needed to have a clear understanding of the basic parameters of the setting, the fantasy physics of the Abyss itself, and we came up with a couple of shared settings and groups within it, but we all needed to have the elbow room to go off and create on our own.

CT: What can you share with us regarding your novella “Devils of the Endless Deep”?

PA: Devils of the Endless Deep is a direct sequel to my short story in the introductory anthology Tales From The Fathomless Abyss. It started out, in my mind, as a revenge story complicated by the sudden appearance of strange alien creatures. During the longer than expected writing process, though, a lot of that revenge story fell away—it just wasn’t working. The strange alien monsters are still there but what had started as a sub-plot really started to take over, and that was the peculiar time travel aspects of the setting.

The Fathomless Abyss opens at random locations, but also at random times, so humans and other species, sentient and otherwise, freely intermingle with fellow humans (or whatever) from either their past or their future. I’ll leave out the specifics to avoid spoilers, but what happens when you leave the Abyss onto Earth in 1986 knowing it will open again on Earth in 2010? Do you wait 24 years and go back in?


Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology.

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