I’m ten years older than Ari Marmell, author of The Goblin Corps, The Conqueror’s Shadow, a handful of other novels, and 27,492 role-playing game supplements, but we have eerily similar back stories.

We were both born in New York, but moved by our fathers at a young age. Back in the day, people’s fathers were always moving them away for these things called “jobs,” which I understand is something people in America used to have. Anyway, he was moved to Houston, I went to Chicago, and both of us eventually found Dungeons & Dragons and neither of us looked back from there.

We both got college degrees (he, Creative Writing, me, Cinema & Photography) that qualified us for top-flight jobs in the retail and food service industries. Eventually we made our escapes into the world of writing, and writing for Wizards of the Coast at that.

Ari lives with his wife George in Austin, Texas, and his career is moving full speed ahead.

Ari Marmell, author of The Conqueror’s Shadow

Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.

Ari Marmell: Geez, you don’t ask much, do you? Where are all the fluff questions? I was promised a puff piece!

Okay, seriously . . .

Fantasy, in its broadest sense, is any tale in which at least some form of the impossible is, in fact, possible.

(And yes, I do realize that this definition pretty much makes all supernatural horror into a type of fantasy.)

Athans: Please define “science fiction” in 25 words or less.

Marmell: Any tale in which something that’s not possible yet becomes (or proves) possible.

Athans: Do you find yourself going back to a particular source for ideas, such as your own life, current events, mythology, history, etc.?

Marmell: Quite a bit. Mythology and history are both frequent inspirations. Usually not in a broad sense, but in the details. I’ll be reading/watching something, and one specific detail will strike me as really cool or interesting, so I’ll try to work it into a story, or even base a story around it.

I don’t deliberately draw on current events, but sometimes I find myself working them into my books regardless. For instance, the economic and “Guild vs. nobles” conflicts in The Warlord’s Legacy weren’t deliberately based on the economy and politics of the country at the time I was writing it, but I’m quite certain that’s where some of it came from.

The Conqueror’s Shadow

Athans: Both The Conqueror’s Shadow and The Goblin Corps are known for their sense of humor. Humor can be a difficult balancing act for any author. How did you manage to have fun with fantasy clichés and still maintain a healthy respect for the archetypes?

Marmell: In part, it comes naturally. I’m a sarcastic bastard, and unhealthily fond of puns, in real life, so I’m already accustomed to making fun of things even when I take them seriously or respect them.

Honestly, though, it’s a question of fidelity to the material. The trick is to only include humor that actually fits. If it’s not something the characters would say, think, or do, then don’t have them say, think, or do it, no matter how funny it is. (I had to cut a lot of lines from The Conqueror’s Shadow that I really liked, for precisely that reason.)

Ultimately, it’s a question of respect. If you do truly respect the archetypes and source material, and write your humor accordingly—so it’s poking fun without being malicious, and so it’s not making fun of the reader—I think you’re doing okay.

The Goblin Corps

Athans: What one novel should every aspiring fantasy author read?

Marmell: Why, The Goblin Corps or The Conqueror’s Shadow, of course.

Okay, again, a little more seriously . . . It’s a tough question, since there’s so much that’s influenced the development of modern fantasy. I could sit here and list everyone from Tolkien to Howard to Moorcock to Feist to Martin, and I’d still barely scratch the surface.

If I were actually going to be teaching a class, I’d probably recommend one of David Eddings’s books, because they’re perfect as both positive and negative examples. There’s so much great stuff—and I’m a great fan, don’t get me wrong—but there’s also so much that could’ve been done better.

But as just a straightforward recommendation? I think I’d have to go with Steven Brust’s Jhereg. (And many of the following books in the series as well, but the first is still one of the best.) It’s a great example of what you were talking about before, about working in humor while remaining respectful to the source material. It’s brilliantly written, in terms of text and dialogue. It’s a wonderful example of someone actually building the details of a fantasy culture/society. It uses lots of fantasy archetypes, but approaches them from different/interesting directions. And it’s a fantasy novel without the use of the “quest” motif, which is something lots of beginning fantasy writers should familiarize themselves with. (There’s nothing wrong with quest fantasy—it’s a staple of the genre for a reason—but it’s also not the be-all and end-all of fantasy, despite being treated as such by many people.)

Athans: According to your bio you have a BA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. What would you say was the one thing you took from that academic experience that most informs your writing today, and what, if anything, did college fail to prepare you for?

Marmell: Most valuable would definitely be the ability to honestly consider the value of a given piece of criticism, and to take meaning from it when it’s there, without letting it get to you when it’s not. (Not that I’m always successful at doing this, mind—I don’t think any writer is always successful at doing this—but just the necessary knowledge to try was immensely helpful.) Even leaving aside personal attacks or useless rants, being able to tell the difference between “This is something I ought to seriously consider re-examining about my writing” vs. “This is purely an issue of personal taste, and my style was never going to appeal to this particular reviewer” is an incredibly valuable skill to develop, however imperfectly.

As far as failing to prepare . . . There was absolutely zero instruction on how to navigate the industry. The classes are focused on critiquing storytelling and developing writing style, and that’s fine to an extent, but there was no real-world application. The courses never even touched on how to deal with publishers, how to approach an agent, how to read a contract . . . None of it. And for anyone who actually wants to try writing professionally, that’s a huge oversight.

Coming in February, 2012


Athans: You have two young adult novels, Thieves Covenant and Witch Hunt, on the horizon. Can you describe the difference in your approach to adult and YA in terms of both storytelling (the art) and writing (the craft)?

Marmell: First, just to clarify, the name Witch Hunt will be changing. The final novel wound up not being as good a fit for that title as the original concept.

But that aside . . .

There’s actually very little difference, to be honest. In fact, the first draft of Thief’s Covenant wasn’t even written as YA; it was tweaked to make it YA in a later draft.

That’s not to say there’s no difference, obviously. I toned down—not to the point of eliminating, mind—some of the profanity and gore. I made the protagonist younger, with more of the desires/motivations of a teenager. And the stories are maybe a little simpler, in some respects, but not by any dramatic degree.

It’s important to clarify that I consider it inappropriate to assume that YA readers are looking for any less mature subject matter than adult readers. Most fantasy fans I know (myself included) were reading fantasy from their early teens, or even before, and were reading “adult” novels pretty much from that point. To me, the best YA fiction is more easily accessible to younger readers, without in any way talking down to them. So the difference between my YA writing and my adult writing is purely one of degree, not of nature.

Athans: Since I was never actually your editor at Wizards of the Coast, this isn’t a cheap attempt to fish for compliments . . . You’ve worked with a few editors in your career, what has the best of those editors brought to your development as an author, and how important is it for an author to form a close relationship with an editor?

Marmell: Vitally important, at least if you intend to work with any given publisher more than once. Getting to know an editor makes communication about a bajillion times easier. (Yes, that is so a number. I looked it up.) The process of editing is a give-and-take, and it’s one in which the author has to put ego aside—at least as much as any author can do so. The editor’s not always right, mind, but the better you know the person with whom you’re working, the better you can judge what points are worth debating and which ones aren’t.

That said, I don’t mean to imply that every point should be debated. The best editors with whom I’ve worked have absolutely made my books better—not just with specific suggestions for “change X” or “rewrite Y,” but in a much more general level. Some of the comments made by my editor on The Conqueror’s Shadow didn’t just improve that book, but gave me a new perspective on my writing that’s carried over into future books.

In fact, I think that’s probably the best place to draw the line between a great editor and a merely adequate one. An adequate editor points out ways to make the book better. A great editor points out ways to make the writer better—often without even deliberately doing so.

Athans: Like me, you have a background as a role-playing gamer. What does playing RPGs do for or to an author? Is having that community storytelling experience mostly good, or mostly bad for an aspiring author?

Marmell: Definitely a good thing, as long as you have the self-awareness to take only the right lessons from the experience. I think it’s very helpful in terms of teaching a writer how to design a setting, how to contemplate multiple possible outcomes for a story, how to handle the unexpected, and the like. I know, for instance, that when I’m outlining a novel, I’ll often include details on characters getting into a bad situation, but not how they get out of it. That, I often leave until I’m writing the scene, and try to think my way out of the situation as the character would.

On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to take the wrong lessons from role-playing. RPG games include lots of combat and action scenes just for the sake of combat and action, rather than because they advance the story; you don’t want to do that in most fiction. Similarly, while the rules of a fictional world should be consistent—if magic can’t do X, you should stick with that, for instance—you don’t always have to define every detail of a setting in advance. With RPGs, you need to have a lot more spelled out beforehand. In fiction, you want to have the basics, but you don’t necessarily have to paint yourself into the same corners that a concrete set of rules would require. (And of course, you never want your fictional characters—even when writing tie-in fiction—to feel like they’re acting within the confines of game rules.)

Athans: The world wants to know . . . will there be more Corvis Rebaine in the future?

Marmell: Yeah, I’d like to know that, too. I’m certainly happy to write more Corvis, and I have various ideas in mind, but ultimately it’s a question of demand and publisher interest. If I have the chance to write more about him, great. If not, well, I’m certainly not lacking for other ideas . . .


And we can’t wait to see where the future takes you—thanks, Ari!


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

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 Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Jared Hunt says:

    Your comment about writing your characters into a situation during outlining so that you can let them think their own way out during the draft is fantastic. So many new authors seem to fear outlining as some sort of creativity-killer. This tip could make a real difference in my teaching. Thanks!

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