As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with Paul S. Kemp, The New York Times best-selling novelist and creator of Erevis Cale.
I first encountered Paul Kemp about ten years ago. At that time we had an open submission policy at Wizards of the Coast, and as the “slush pile” started to take over our workspace we started hiring out to editors in other parts of the company to help us read through the submissions and recommend any that showed promise. Then D&D editor Keith Strohm (yes, that’s Keith Francis Strohm, author of Bladesinger and The Tomb of Horrors) spotted a sample chapter he thought we should take a look at.
Keith has a good eye, so I added this as-yet-unpublished young author-in-waiting to a blind call for proposals for the Sembiaseries. I got back several submissions and read them not knowing who wrote which, and the one I liked best, and not just best for that character, was by this Kemp guy.
So he starts with a short story, published in The Halls of Stormweather, which was so good, I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to launch the novel series with the new guy? It was cool. We did that, and the rest is history.
Philip Athans: Define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
Paul S. Kemp: Stories featuring “the never were,” where some rules of the real world do not apply and the deviation from those rules is called “magic.”
Athans: Define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.
Kemp: Stories featuring “the might be,” extrapolations of future technological and social changes where the known rules of the real world apply.
I often regard fantasy as the literary equivalent of theoretical moral science, while sci-fi is applied moral science.
Athans: What was the first fantasy novel you remember reading? Was that the novel that made you want to be a fantasy author yourself? If not, what was the novel that made you want to write fantasy?
Kemp: The first fantasy novel I read was Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I still consider it an exemplar of fantasy storytelling. The Hobbit breaks no new ground at all—in fact it relies on more or less standard tropes throughout—and yet it works, and works well, because the execution is so skillful.
But it was not The Hobbit that made me want to write fantasy. For that, I plead Michael Moorcock, particularly his Elric work. Those stories expanded my conception of fantasy, showed me that it could be more than warm, mostly light-hearted fare, and could, in fact, grapple with profound moral questions through the lens of a story well-told. Ultimately that is what made me want to write, and I think fantasy’s ability to serve as a perfect venue for moral questions is (among a few other things) what gives the genre its enduring strength.
Athans: How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale?
Kemp: The first time I wrote with a notion of getting paid to write was during law school (shows you how much I enjoyed law school, eh?). So I was in my twenties. I sold my first story to a professional market within twelve months of that.
Athans: Do you read your own reviews? If not, why not? And if so, have you ever read a review of your work that you thought made you a better writer? Have you ever read a review of your work that shook your confidence or even made you reconsider your choice of careers?
Kemp: I do. You know, I think most writers are a strange brew of unusually high confidence and extraordinary insecurity. Reading reviews touches both those poles. Too, it gives me a sense of how a particular novel is being received by the readers.
I’ve never read a review that I thought made me a better writer, no. And that’s not to say that the writer of a negative review didn’t have a point. It’s just that my writing process is so internal that external factors play little role. In general, I write what I’m on fire to write and write it in the way I’m on fire to write it. That doesn’t leave much space for the opinions of others to influence the process.
And no, I’ve never read a review that shook my confidence or made me consider giving up writing. If I let a manuscript out of my hands, that’s because, at that moment, it’s the best story I can tell and the best way I can tell it. Once that manuscript becomes a book and gets into the hands of readers, it’s theirs, and they should and do feel free to offer their views of it. But whatever their views (good or bad), it doesn’t change the fact that it was the best book I could write at the moment I wrote it. I’m content with that, irrespective of reviewer sentiment.
Athans: Is there a particular source for ideas you find yourself going back to? Mythology, current events, history, your own life, etc.?
Kemp: I draw from all over. Sometimes the lyrics of a song might inspire a character or even a whole character arc. History provides me with lots of fodder, as do the classics of the sword and sorcery genre. I get asked this question a lot and I’ve never been able to give a satisfactory answer other than to say that inspiration can originate in just about anything. And does.
Athans: At what point do you start to think about length, starting with the decision between a short story and a novel, up to whether the book you’re working on is the first in a trilogy or ongoing series? Does it help to take a “big picture” approach early on, planning on sequels before the first book is even written?
Kemp: Well, I write very little short fiction, so the question of length (broadly speaking) is already answered. Word count is usually a range set by the publisher (say 90,000 to 110,000 words).
As a rule, I always weave threads into my current novel with an eye toward expanding them in a later book, should the opportunity arise. These are tangential notes/characters—just little plot seeds—about which/whom I’ve got ideas for expanding the story.
Of course, I’ve been fortunate in that most of my recent work has been scheduled to be a trilogy from the outset. But the point still holds, in that I’ll sow plot seeds in my current trilogy with an eye toward expanding them in a subsequent book or trilogy.
Athans: If you could give an aspiring fantasy author one piece of advice on the subject of world-building, what would that be?
Kemp: Don’t get bogged down in it. It’s an endless exercise. At some point, you have to tell a story, not get caught up in an encyclopedic exploration of the setting. Don’t misunderstand, setting is incredibly important, but it’s (with rare exceptions) just where things happen. It’s the things that are happening and the characters caught up in those things that are more likely to enthrall readers.
Athans: Do you take detailed notes before and/or during your writing? When
does the bulk of your “world-building” take place, before you begin writing, or does the world take shape as you go?
Kemp: Consistent with my reply above, most of my world building (or city-building, more often) occurs as I write. I have broad strokes captured in notes, and those guide my decision making when the story requires a more detailed exploration of this or that aspect of the world.
Athans: What comes first, the hero or the villain?
Kemp: Almost always the hero. The hero’s conflict is the primary driver of the story, so I usually need to have a good sense of his/her makeup before I can even move to plotting.
Athans: What is the most important thing to keep in mind when creating a fantasy hero?
Kemp: His/her journey and how it relates to their inner conflict. I’m a firm believer that all characters in a story need a compelling story arc. They start at point A, and their experiences and choices take them through B and finally to C, where they are changed, the conflict is resolved, and their arc is completed.
Athans: What is the most important thing to keep in mind to creating a fantasy villain?
Kemp: Motivation. Villains need nuanced motivations, not “I’m an evil guy and therefore want to do evil things.” Villains must believe they are right and/or justified in their actions and both of those go back to a compelling motivation. Many writers either shortcut their villains (evil for evil’s sake) or work very hard to make their villainy understandable in modern terms (something bad was done to them in childhood and turned them “bad”). Neither works well for me. Instead, I try to set up a situation where the villain has a desire, a reasonable one, that puts him/her in conflict with the hero.
Athans: Give me some general words of encouragement for the aspiring fantasy author.
Kemp: Writing is a blast. Do it.
Now for the downers.
Writing is a hard business to break into and a hard business in which to make a living. Go in with your eyes open. Perseverance is critical. You will almost certainly be rejected, and often. When that happens, you’ll learn if your love for the craft is deep enough to keep you going. And if it does, learn from the rejections.
Note that I used the word “craft” deliberately. No one masters writing. It cannot be done. But if you thoughtfully analyze your own work, read widely (especially outside of genre), take what you can of value from accomplished authors, you’ll improve. And that’s all you can ever do. Endeavor to keep improving and make each book better than the last. I’ve always conceptualized this as re-earning my audience and I have it in the forefront of my mind with every book I write.
Athans: You’ve written high-profile tie-in novels in both the Forgotten Realms and Star Wars lines. Beside the fact that at Wizards of the Coast you work with the most handsome and effervescent editor in the business, what is the biggest difference between those two experiences—and what’s most similar?
Kemp: The differences at this point have been minimal and are more process oriented than anything. With WotC, I work only with my editor (who I understand to be a handsome and effervescent fellow) and as far as I know, he’s the only one who actually reviews the novel for substantive matters prior to publication. In the Star Wars line, in addition the editor there are at least two other sets of eyes on the manuscript. Given that, the dynamic during the rewriting process is a bit different. With WotC, I have very open, candid conversations with my editor because it’s just him and me. With Star Wars, I self-censor my natural candor a bit more because I don’t always have a great feel for all the personalities involved and I don’t want to inadvertently give offense.
The similarities, of course, are multitude. Star Wars feels very much like sword and sorcery in space, with the moral drama taking center stage, rather than the technology or some social-technological question. As a result, it’s very similar in theme to the work I’ve written in the Forgotten Realms world. Too, both lines are set in wonderfully detailed, fully-realized secondary worlds and both have an enormous (and enormously knowledgeable) fan base. In short, I’m right at home in both settings and feel privileged to write in each.
Athans: If it’s possible that anyone reading this hasn’t yet read any of your work, where should they start? I know that could be like asking which of your children you like best, but assume they’ll read and love them all eventually, and get them started!
Kemp: Twilight Falling, Book I of The Erevis Cale Trilogy. It’s a great place to pick up the Cale stories (though not the chronological beginning*) and features the kind of writing I like to tell myself I do well: action-packed sword and sorcery stories undergirded with some interesting philosophical questions.
* We first meet Erevis Cale in the anthology The Halls of Stormweather, then Shadow’s Witness. Follow the links above. After the Erevis Cale Trilogy (Twilight Falling, Dawn of Night, and Midnight’s Mask, which is now available in a three-in-one omnibus that also features two bonus short stories) Cale reappears in The Twilight War (Shadowbred, Shadowstorm, and Shadowrealm).