And we’re back, with the third interview of the week, and probably the last for a little while. Don’t worry, more interviews will be forthcoming, as soon as I can find anyone willing to sit still long enough for me to bombard them with questions. As I’ve mentioned before, this interview is actually the first one I had scheduled, but was delayed due to the need to get the other interviews published while the related Kickstarter campaign still had plenty of run time. That’s out-of-the-way now, so it’s finally time.
After I reviewed Wendy N. Wagner’s first novel, Skinwalkers, I decided on a whim to send an email to Wendy asking if she would be interested in being my first interviewee for the blog. I’d been vaguely thinking about starting to try to interview various authors, designers and so on for a little while, and it seemed like an opportune time to start, since I was curious about the differences between writing short fiction and writing a novel, as well as the process of writing for an established setting like Pathfinder. Email sent, I figured it’d be a while before I heard back, and was pleasantly surprised to get a reply from Wendy within the next day, agreeing to the interview. So I whipped up some questions, fired them off, and am now ready to share the responses.
Now, before we get started, if you haven’t read my review of the novel Skinwalkers yet, I recommend doing so first. It might help give some context. You can find the review here: Review – Pathfinder Tales: Skinwalkers.
Interview with Wendy N. Wagner, author of Skinwalkers (and much more)
First of all, I’d like to thank Wendy for taking the time out of her undoubtedly busy schedule to answer my questions. Not only is Wendy the author of many short stories and Pathfinder Tales: Skinwalkers, she ‘s also the Managing/Associate Editor for both Lightspeed Magazine and Nightmare Magazine, and a regular blogger on Inkpunks. So I really appreciate the effort she put into this. Seriously, thanks a bunch. Now, let’s see what there is to see…
The Grassy Gnoll: The About page on your website mentions that you grew up in a very small town, and that your love of reading was influenced by that. Did your interest in Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror begin at that early age, or was it a later development?
Wendy Wagner: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love fantastical fiction! I can remember being a very little kid and my sister and my mother reading Alice in Wonderland and Watership Down out loud to me. They were the first books I remember loving. I was reading Robert Heinlein and Stephen King by the time I was nine.
TGG: How did you get your start as a writer? Was it something that you always wanted to do with yourself?
WW: I remember reading Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce–I was probably about 8 years old–which was the first story I ever read that featured multiple point of view characters. It blew my mind. For the first time, I really got to thinking about the fact that someone chose to write the story that way. Before that, I don’t think I really understood that stories didn’t just happen, that they were written by a particular person. But that was when I realized I wanted to be a writer.
I was lucky, because at a very early age my teachers recognized that I was good at writing. So in elementary school, I was going to youth writing workshops and things like that. I was always writing something. But I didn’t get serious about writing until about ten years ago. I finally finished a novel and in the process of revising it, I started writing short stories and trying to really learn the craft. I sold my first story in 2009.
TGG: I know it’s a loaded question, but if you had to name a few of your favourite stories, what would your instinctive responses be? Let’s say one each from Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Horror. If that’s too hard to narrow down, how about favourite authors?
WW: Favorite short stories? Well, my very favorite is a science fiction piece called “The People of Sand and Slag,” by Paolo Bacigalupi. It was in his collection Pump Six, but it was also anthologized in John Joseph Adams’s The Wastelands. It’s just incredibly, incredibly well-written and tremendously heart-wrenching.
Horror, my favorite short story is probably still “The Raft,” by Stephen King. I haven’t read it in a billion years, but it was the first King I ever read, and it was so tremendously horrifying. It’s one of those stories where there’s not only no escape from the monster, but the humans become increasingly monstrous as well. I love it.
In short fiction, I tend to prefer SF or horror; I don’t know why. But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the story “The World Is Cruel, My Daughter” (read it HERE), a retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale by Cory Skerry that we ran in Fantasy Magazine while I was the assistant editor. It is really beautiful and very sad. And creepy! Which I love.
Favorite authors? Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Suzy McKee Charnas, James Ellroy, H. P. Lovecraft, David James Duncan, Norman MacLean, Barbara Vine, and Molly Gloss.
TGG: Are there any sub-genres of fiction that you’re particularly passionate about? For example, while I enjoy fantasy in general, my favourite genre by far is Urban Fantasy, especially British Urban Fantasy.
WW: I really love space opera and supernatural horror, but I am incredibly crazy about historical fiction and both thrillers and cozy mysteries.
TGG: In recent years, series like Twilight have sparked craze for Paranormal Romance. I know those series weren’t the originators of the genre, since I was reading the Anita Blake and Sookie Stackhouse back in my early teens, but they certainly seem to have sparked the fire. Being a horror fan, what are your thoughts on the way that horror/fantasy stables like vampires and werewolves are being portrayed in these series, and their adaptations? Do you have any concerns regarding this trend?
WW: I think in Paranormal Romance, these monster creatures tend to fill the same kind of role as The Beast in “Beauty and the Beast.” I don’t read a ton of books in those genres because I find that role tremendously irritating–if a man is a monster, no amount of kindness and love is going to turn him into a decent human being! But I really loved Kate Locke’s Immortal Empire series, where the man and the woman are monsters dealing with their own issues. I just don’t enjoy fiction that models the kinds of stupid, toxic relationships girls find themselves in. Heck, I even fell for a Beastly Mr. Rochester-type, once. He was a big, fat jerk, and I wouldn’t wish him on anyone, even a goblin!
TGG: Are you primarily a reader, or do you enjoy other mediums, such as comics and cinema, as well? If so, what are some of your favourites?
WW: If there’s story involved, I like it! I’m just starting to get into comic books, though. I depend very heavily on the library, and libraries never used to carry comic books. I totally love Hell Boy.
Favorite movie? How does one choose? I definitely love The Shining (the Kubrick one, not King’s mini-series), Moon, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and Lars and the Real Girl. Television-wise, nothing will ever be better than Twin Peaks.
TGG: How do you unwind when you’re not working? Are you a gamer?
WW: We play a lot of tabletop games here. My favorite is probably Arkham Horror, but I also really like Ticket to Ride and St. Petersburg. We also play Pathfinder. We’re working through The Rise of the Runelords series of adventures, and it’s great fun.
I also really like to work in the garden, although you wouldn’t guess it to look at my yard right now!
TGG: Your first novel, Skinwalkers, was published as part of the Pathfinder Tales series in March this year. Prior to that, you were already a prolific writer of short fiction, as shown by your bibliography. I have a couple of questions about this change:
a. Did the change from short fiction to novel cause any noticeable differences to your writing habits? For example, did you find yourself working longer stretches of time?
b. What kind of challenges, if any, did that shift bring to your work? Was it difficult to make that jump from short fiction?
WW: Well, I’ve always written novels. I have five or six terrible ones I can’t bring myself to simply delete, and I have one that’s in revision. So it wasn’t a big change to write Skinwalkers–there was just the pressure of a deadline. The biggest difference is that I had to make sure I wrote at least six days a week, instead of flexing around work and life.
TGG: Now that you’ve had your first novel published, do you have any plans for future ones, or will you go back to short fiction for a while and see where it takes you?
WW: I’m outlining a novel that’s sort of a dream project right now, and I need to get back to revisions on a YA novel I wrote last year–I got a bit stuck on some issues. Of course, I have a lot of short stories due to different anthologies and things, too!
TGG: If you do write further novels, would you prefer to work with new characters, or continue the story of Jendara and her family from where it left off in Skinwalkers?
WW: Yes and yes! Like I said, I’m already working on a couple of other books, and they’re not in the Pathfinder universe. But if I got a chance to write another Jendara piece, I would! She’s like a good friend.
TGG: Pathfinder Tales is the official fiction for the Pathfinder RPG campaign setting, published by Paizo. How exactly did you come to be writing for them? Was it a submission and selection process, or were you approached directly?
WW: James Sutter, who is now Paizo’s Managing Editor, wrote a post for writing/publishing blog I’m involved with (Inkpunks.com). The post was about writing tie-in fiction, and I contacted him via Twitter to let him know how much I liked the post–at the time, I had just submitted an application package to Wizards of the Coast to write D&D tie-in fiction. He was like “Why are you applying for a job with them? Send me a submissions package!” So I sent him a bunch of short stories, and he liked them, and he asked me to write for the Web Fiction line.
TGG: Given that Pathfinder Tales are set within the canon of the campaign setting, you were working within the constraints of an established setting with its own rules and history. Do you feel this made it easier to write, knowing that you had some defined boundaries, or was it more of an uncomfortable, though understandable, restriction? Were there any big challenges or concerns that you had with writing in someone else’s playground, as it were?
WW: Oh, writing in Pathfinder’s playground is fun! It’s really nice to know that I’ve got so much support while I’m working. If I have any questions about anything, I know I can talk to my editors at Paizo, and they’ll do whatever it takes to help me. They’re all so excited about the product. It’s really fun.
The hardest part is coming up with a new idea some other brilliant writer isn’t working on already! There are so many other people working on cool stories all the time.
TGG: How did you end up writing Skinwalkers specifically? Was it your choice to focus on a low magic adventure set in the Pathfinder equivalent of Viking society, or were you assigned that particular story outline as part of a plan that the company has for their upcoming fiction?
WW: I pitched a lot of different characters and story ideas for the Web Fiction line, and James liked Jendara, so we wrote “Mother Bears” about her. And the story was really well-received by the fans, so we decided to write a novel about her. When I first envisioned Jendara, I knew she had this traumatic back story, and I always wanted to write something about it, so I told James about it, and he thought it was a good idea.
Funny you should mention that it’s a low magic adventure! When I first started writing “Mother Bears,” I didn’t have a really solid grasp of what magic was like in Pathfinder. I was so afraid of screwing something up! A little of that carries over into Skinwalkers, too. But midway through writing the novel, I started playing the game, so that really helped me get a grip on the magic.
TGG: How much freedom do you have when writing for something like Pathfinder Tales? Obviously there are some restrictions, as your characters and story need to be believable within the setting, so how exactly do they handle this? Are you just handed a setting bible and told to stay within its guidelines, or do you have James Sutter looming like an angry god waiting for a chance to do some smiting if you slip up? Is it a happy medium between those two extremes? I have to admit I find it hard to imagine Sutter doing that, as all of his photos make him look so happy, and his posts on the messageboards are always so friendly. It does get a chuckle out of me though.
WW: Well, before a short story or a book gets written for Pathfinder Tales, it gets fairly rigorously outlined, and the story elements get approved by the editorial committee. So I’ll start out with my own ideas that are designed to work within the confines of the setting bible, but then James (who has been my editor for my novel and all my short stories released so far) goes through those ideas with a fine-toothed comb, making sure I’m not wreaking any havoc on the universe. He’s tremendously helpful!
TGG: I was curious about what you thought about the comments Skinwalkers had received about being too dark and violent in comparison to the rest of the Pathfinder Tales (not that all of the Tales are sunshine and lollipops. There’s some nasty stuff in some of them, like the Joyful Things in Liane Merciel’s Nightglass). Only a couple of reviewers really seemed to have a problem with it, others (like myself) noticed the grimmer than usual tone but thought it worked well. Was the darker tone a deliberate stylistic choice, or was it just the natural outcome of writing a story with the themes that Skinwalkers dealt with?
WW: I didn’t really think Skinwalkers was a very dark take on the Pathfinder universe. I mean, we’re playing Rise of the Runelords, and there are people being chopped up in sawmills and staked out in fields like scarecrows while suffering from serious wounds. I mean, I’ve pretty much lost track of how many goblins my party has murdered. There’s a lot of dark stuff in there!
[Editor’s Note: To give an idea of how dark the game can get at times, the third adventure of Rise of the Runelords, Hook Mountain Massacre, is sometimes described as “Deliverance… With Ogres”]
If there is a grimness to the novel, it probably comes from my own reflections on violence. I think a major theme of Skinwalkers is the main character’s growing discomfort with her own ease in life-taking and violent behavior. She’s really thinking about how immoral her actions have been, and she wants to do better. I think in fantasy adventure, it’s way too easy to just have our characters dishing out the hurt
TGG: What kind of music are you into? Do you listen to music while writing, and if so do you try to find music that goes with what you’re working on, or do you just use it for background noise? Do you have any absolute favourite bands that you’d recommend anyone reading this to have a listen to?
WW: I was actually a music student in college and I spent three years working in sheet music retail! I used to be very, very serious about music. But now I’m much more catch-as-catch-can. When I’m writing, I try to find music that’s either in the right tone for what I’m writing, or I listen to low-key, background-y music. (Beirut, The Shins, and Deathcab for Cutie are totally my go-to background music.)
For the short story I’m working on right now, I’m listening to a lot of Elvis Presley. For my novel-in-progress, I’m really into the soundtrack to The Piano, and this one instrumental track from the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack.
So, there you have it. Once again, a big thank you to Wendy for giving us some insight into her work. As someone who still harbours faint dreams of becoming a published author some day, it was fascinating for me. I’ve included some relevant links below.
The next couple of updates will probably include some film reviews, since I’ve seen Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past recently, and I’m meant to be going to see A Million Ways To Die In The West on Thursday. Other than that, I’ll be writing up the second Laundry RPG session for Roleplaying 101, I have a discussion about social contracts in relation to tabletop gaming planned, and Professor Jimbles said he had something in the works as well.
Written while listening to Birds of Tokyo’s first three albums. Doesn’t matter how much I listen to them, I never get sick of them. I can’t decide which songs are the best to use as examples, so I’d suggest just heading to Youtube and popping their name into a search if you don’t know them already.
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