“The Conqueror’s Shadow” Author Ari Marmell on Bad Guys and Good Books

 

Ari_1.jpgAuthor Ari Marmell is a veteran of the fantasy field, having first come to prominence for his work with the Dungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness gaming lines. This week marks the release of his new novel The Conqueror’s Shadow,
which features a retired villain that must return to the land he nearly
conquered in order to protect it from a fiend worse than himself. Ari
was kind enough to take a break from his writing to speak with us here
at Unbound Worlds.com

Ari, I first got to know your work through the
Dungeons & Dragons game, and I know you’ve worked on other game
systems. Are there any particular lessons that you bring from that
world when it comes to writing your fiction? Has there been anything
that you’ve had to unlearn?

It made me extremely deadline
conscious, for one thing. I never have much of a work ethic before I
got into the freelancing–as my mediocre performance in school can
attest–but the RPG writing taught me one.

Creatively, which is
probably more what you were asking about anyway, it taught me a lot
about how to behave in someone else’s sandbox. I’d been doing that
already by playing the games, of course, but that was all
informal. Working in RPGs teaches you how to work within someone else’s
creative parameters. It’s a vital less if you’re writing tie-in, of
course, but it’s good to know how to do regardless. It stretches the
creative muscles.

There’s stuff that… I wouldn’t say I’ve had to unlearn,
exactly, so much as put aside. Novels can’t be nearly as rigid as RPG
material; you can’t write fiction to adhere to as much of a hidden
mechanical system. It gets pretty obvious in the writing if you’re
trying to adhere 100% to the rules of, say, D&D or Vampire.

If you’ll forgive the self-plugging for a moment, I actually wrote two Unbound Worlds columns on these very topics: why up-and-coming writers should play RPGs, and then what they should leave behind in making the transition.

Okay, self-aggrandizement over. For now.


How
did you get your start in the world of fantasy, anyway? What was your
childhood like? Earliest memories of when and how you got the fantasy
bug?

Well, I got the story-telling bug from
various bedtime stories my father told me, about my magical toy horse
that would come to life and fly me to see my favorite characters (Luke
Skywalker, Spider-man, etc.). And I was a huge fan of Star Wars for basically as long as I can remember. So I was already primed and ready for “true” fantasy when I got to it.

I
don’t have any conscious memories of reading fantasy before I got into
D&D, though I’m sure there must have been a bit here and there. (I
was nine years old when I got the Red Box. A friend of mine introduced
me to it, and my dad bought it for me.) From there, I quickly moved into reading fantasy novels. If I recall correctly, I started with Raymond Feist’s Riftwar, and moved from there into Eddings’ The Belgariad and–like pretty much all D&D players at that time–Dragonlance.

I
was a very poor student at that age, as I alluded to above, and I used
the fantasy novels as an escape from homework and studying–or as an
escape from the consequences of escaping homework and studying. So I read even more of them than I otherwise might.

Which may, when you come down to it, explain why writing is the only thing I ever felt really qualified to do.

The Conqueror’s Shadow
concerns a rather unusual situation, especially for an epic fantasy, in
that it begins with a near-conquest of an embattled land in the very
beginning. How did you decide for this as a starting point?

As
almost any writer will tell you, there are two kinds of creative ideas:
There’s the kind where you sit down and say “I need to think of
something,” and you can trace where those come from; and there’s the
kind that just hits you out of the blue, with no clue of where you came
up with it.

This was, at its core, the latter. I
remember precisely when it happened, too, since I’d gone to meet my
wife at her office on our lunch break. We were talking about something,
and the idea just came to me between bites.

It wasn’t complete, obviously. In fact, it was pretty damn vague: Hey,
what about a story where a retired “evil warlord” type comes out of
retirement to stop someone who’s taken up where he left off?
Everything else followed from that one spark–but obviously, using that a basis, I knew I had to begin the book back during his original campaign, if only to establish that, hey, this guy really was a villain back then.

I’m
intrigued by the image of Corvis Rebaine. His description reads as the
classic fantasy bad guy: skull-helmed black armor, ogres, witches and
demons for side-kicks, yet this is a guy who loves his wife and kids,
and wanted Imphallion to be ruled by fairness and honestly. Is this
sort of contradiction fascinating to you? Is it a case of judging a
book by its cover, and if so, have you had that kind of experience
yourself?

Part of the image comes from the
fact that my favorite sorts of fantasy novels–both to write and to
read–are those that take some of the classic tropes, but then do
something unexpected with them. Take at least one sharp left turn, as
it were. I deliberately gave him the “classic fantasy bad guy” motif
for precisely that reason: I wanted to establish that, at least to an
extent, that’s exactly who he was before his campaign fell apart and
Tyannon came along to change his life. He may have believed he was
working for the greater good, but he really was a vicious, merciless
bastard; I wanted to make that clear, and I didn’t want to water it
down, or else the rest of the book would have lost impact.

I
do find conflicted or contradictory characters to be fascinating, yes.
Despite the fact that I’d actually like to see more “true heroes” in
fantasy and sci-fi (as long as they’re well written, of course), I
always seem drawn to darker characters in my own work. Corvis is very
much the sort of anti-hero I most enjoy writing. There are certain
behaviors that I think are absolutely inexcusable in real life, no
matter why they’re committed–but in fantasy, I like exploring
motivations, to see what drives people to do that sort of thing. It’s
not my primary focus in the book–The Conqueror’s Shadow isn’t a character study–but I wanted an element of it in there.

But as for why
I enjoy writing that sort of character, I couldn’t tell you. I had some
bad times in my life, of course–I think we all have–but none that I
can think of would really qualify as me being in a “book by its cover”
scenario. I guess it just comes from many of the books I’ve enjoyed
reading. (I’m a huge fan, for instance, of Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series, and that’s certainly a character with both light and dark aspects.)

It’s particularly interesting–or at least I thought it was, as the writing; no telling what the audience will think–that TCS is not
necessarily a story of redemption. Corvis isn’t “fighting the good
fight” because he’s necessarily a better person; he’s doing it to
protect the people he loves, and the nation that he was trying to
“improve” by conquering in the first place. There’s character growth
and change, certainly, but I didn’t want to make it as straightforward
as “bad guy turns good.” Whether it reaches that point by the end,
well, I don’t want to spoil anything by saying it does or it doesn’t.
But I certainly tried to make the journey itself less obviously linear.

Did you have any literary or cinematic inspirations when it came to envisioning Corvis?

Well, like I said above, the initial inspiration was a “bolt from the blue” sort of thing. I’m sure that it came subconsciously
from all the books I’d read and movies I’d seen, but I can’t point back
to any in specific. Once I had the concept, I knew he had to be an
older character, which was fine by me. Fantasy tends to focus on
younger protagonists, and I’m glad to have gone in the other direction.
I’ve always preferred writing (or, in D&D, portraying) older
characters than many of my friends or colleagues. Not sure why that is,
honestly. Maybe because, when I was playing Star Wars as a kid, I
always wound up as Han, not Luke, due to the–uh, let’s say strenuous preferences of a particular friend.

Would you enjoy seeing the world you’ve created for The Conqueror’s Shadow adapted into a gaming property? How do you feel about others “playing around” in your world?

It’s
funny. As a fiction writer who got started in, and still does RPG
writing, you’d think I’d be perfect for that sort of conversion. But
the truth is, while I have no inherent objection to TCS (or any
of my other work) serving as the basis for an RPG, I really wouldn’t
want to do it myself. I’d much rather just serve in an oversight
capacity, and let other people do it.

I absolutely have no objection to such a thing happening. And as far as them playing in “my” sandbox, heck, I’d love to see what other people can do with it.

Just so long as we remember that I’m the one who decides what’s “official” and what really happens. 😉

Can you recommend some more novels to readers who enjoyed The Conqueror’s Shadow?

The aforementioned Vlad Taltos books by Steven Brust, certainly. If I had to pick a single author who influenced me more than any other, it’d be him. To a lesser extent, I’d say David Eddings’ Elenium trilogy. He’s most famous for The Belgariad, but I found The Elenium
to be better written, more interesting, and I think it was the first
fantasy I read where the main character (the knight Sparhawk) was an
older guy. My writing tends to go a lot darker than Eddings, with (I
hope) more intricate plotting, but there’s some influence there.

(Actually, Sparhawk may be one of the reasons I prefer older heroes, now that I think back on it. Not a major reason, but certainly contributing.)

I’ve seen multiple reviewers compare TCS
to the work of David Gemmel, in terms of tone. I haven’t read much
Gemmel myself, so I can’t speak to that, but I certainly plan to pick
some of his stuff up and find out.

What’s next for you?

There’s a sequel to TCS, called The Warlord’s Legacy, currently in editing at Spectra. (And it’s a sequel, not a direct continuation. By which I mean, I certainly hope people will like TCS enough to want to read more about Corvis, but TCS
was written so it can stand alone. If you want to pick it up to see
what you think of my work, you won’t be left feeling like you only got
the first part of a story.) That’s coming out early next year.

Later next year, I have a novel coming out from Pyr Books entitled The Goblin Corps. Remember what I said about taking standard tropes and doing something else with them? TGC
is a very traditional fantasy tale–the sort you’d find in a
Tolkien-inspired novel, or even a D&D campaign–but centered on the
bad guys, not the heroes. And I do mean “bad guys.” Corvis, for all his
darker aspects, is an anti-hero (at least by the time of TCS), but the characters in TGC
are true villains. The book goes to some very dark places, but it’s
also exceedingly funny and action-packed. (It’s also gory as hell, and
contains more profanity than the love child of Eddie Murphy and Quentin
Tarantino.) I’ll be interested in seeing how people react to it.

After
that? I guess we’ll see. I’m still doing RPG products here and there.
My agent is currently shopping a (short) “Renaissance urban” fantasy
novel called Household Gods, which I’d love to see find a home
somewhere. I have quite a few other ideas simmering on the back burner,
including other “traditional” fantasies, some semi-modern urban
fantasy, a bit of sci-fi… I’d love to do more tie-in fiction, either
with D&D or a number of non-RPG properties. And there’s certainly
room for more Corvis Rebaine.

As to which of these
various directions I’ll go, that depends on the meeting of the
irresistible force (publishing opportunity) and immovable object (my
own mental state), I guess.

Where can we find you online?

My web site, www.mouseferatu.com,
contains my complete product list, as well as links to my various blogs
and journals, and of course semi-regular updates. And I’m on Twitter at
http://twitter.com/mouseferatu. I’d love to see everyone there.

Want to win a free copy of The Conqueror’s Shadow, signed by Ari?  E-mail spectratwitterfb@gmail.com with the subject line “Signed TCS” by 11:59 PM (EST), Monday, March 1st, 2010 to be entered.