Interview: Ed Greenwood & Elminster


greenwood-elminsterEd Greenwood is a god in a world of his own design.

Beneath his glasses and graying beard is a gaming machine, one of the first in fact. Around 1967, Ed created the Forgotten Realms campaign, which was eventually acquired and included as a setting within the Dungeons & Dragons role playing game. Gaming has never been the same. Since that time, the ‘Realms’ has gone on to produce some of the most well-known characters in fantasy, most notably Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden and Greenwood’s own Elminster.

Ed has returned to his signature character after years of working on other projects. Elminster is a powerful wizard featured in many Realms novels. Similar in appearance to Merlin, Gandalf, and Odin, Elminster was one of the first characters Ed created for the Forgotten Realms, making Ed the definitive answer for all things Elminster. The books previously published by Ed include Elminster: The Making of a Mage, Elminster in Myth Drannor, The Temptation of Elminster, Elminster in Hell, and Elminster’s Daughter.

Now, in the newly published Elminster Must Die, Ed tackles the character again.

Here is an interview with Ed Greenwood:

Shawn Speakman: Elminster Must Die, your new novel, hit stores August 3rd. What can you tell us about it and its origins?

Ed Greenwood: It starts in the spring of the Year of the Ageless One (yes, the time of the 4th edition Realms game books), and takes place largely in Suzail, the capital of Cormyr. Elminster, assisted by Storm, is stealing magic to try to make his beloved, The Simbul, sane again – and the War Wizards of Cormyr are fed up with this and decide it’s high time to destroy him. Elminster, Storm, and The Simbul are no longer Chosen of Mystra, because Mystra is gone (and as she is the Weave, it’s gone with her). Elminster is old and tired, and can only stay sane when he casts spells if Storm (who has lost almost all her magic) is there to anchor him; The Simbul is shrieking mad most of the time. Elminster is desperate to find someone else to carry on his life work of “saving the Realms” (from all tyrants, that is, by spreading magic everywhere, so everyone has it and can use it – not just a few who then become powerful and use it to oppress). And some old enemies are eager to find Elminster, and take deadly revenge on him.

This book grew out of a shared desire (shared by myself and my superb editor, Susan Morris) to take a good look at the “new Realms,” and to examine the struggles of a weaker, older Elminster to deal with foes and problems that seem stronger than ever. Some things have changed a lot, and some things (like treason, and dastardly nobles contemplating it) seem not to have changed at all . . .

SS: Out of all the characters you’ve created, Ed, I can’t help but think that Elminster is a lot like you — a cornerstone of the Realms. If that’s true, is Ed Greenwood also “desperate to find someone else to carry on his life work of saving the Realms?” Or is Wizards of the Coast entirely and completely that entity now, come what may?

EG: Desperate? Oh, no. :}

I love the Realms, and I’ll probably never finish puttering away on it, even if only for my “home” D&D campaign. But the Realms is like a child of mine, in one way: it’s out in the world with a life of its own, now, alive in thousands of D&D campaigns and in the minds of millions of readers of Realms novels. Cornerstone, yes, I’ll grant you that (and some days, I feel very much like a weathered stone, sitting in the teeth of the elements . . . ), but the Realms is a shared world, in good hands; it doesn’t need “saving.”

For me, the strength of the Realms now is all of the new voices who’ve joined me in bringing the Realms to life, down the years, from staff game designers like Jeff Grubb and Steven Schend and Julia Martin to freelancers like Eric Boyd and George Krashos and Brian Cortijo and now the James brothers, to the novelists like Bob Salvatore (and now Geno, too!) and Elaine Cunningham and Erik Scott de Bie (and, again, Jeff Grubb with his wife Kate Novak, and Steven Schend, again, too!) and Jaleigh Johnson and Paul Kemp and Richard Lee Byers and Rosemary Jones and . . . the list is long, and that’s the point: the Realms isn’t just me, anymore, and hasn’t been, for a long time.

And these new voices have given me a real payoff: they’ve made it possible for my world to surprise me. Which it certainly couldn’t do when I was its sole creator and chronicler.

I’ve created other worlds, too, like Castlemourn and Embersea and Falconfar and Aglirta (to name just a few), and I happily write and design in all of them, too – – so I have other outlets and interests, and the Realms is going strong. Different, but strong. I’ll be along for the ride as long as I can, but the Realms has a life of its own, now, and will outlive me.

As I get older and white-bearded, I superficially get more like Elminster (I was, after all, a skinny bespectacled six-year-old when I created him), but he’s not my alter ego, despite what sometimes gets said or written. He’s something akin to a fictional uncle I might have had, if said uncle had been whimsical, outrageously rude, and given to saying and doing the things most of us never dare to. :}


SS: It has been six years since you last wrote an Elminster book, a long time by your standards. Did you find a return to the Sage of Shadowdale challenging or was it like coming home?

EG: It was like coming home, but yes, it was challenging, too. So many of the supporting cast I wanted to tell more stories about were dead and gone, lost to the almost-century of time “jumped” between the 3rd edition Realms and the 4th edition Realms. Elminster was an “old familiar” but then again he wasn’t – because the Spellplague, with the loss of the Weave and Mystra and his powers as a Chosen , must have changed him. A lot.

But how, exactly? That presented a challenge, but was fascinating, too. So I plunged into using the character with fresh interest. Not that he’s stopped being a complex guy – which makes it all the more interesting. How interesting? Well, you’ve got to read this book. No, really! ;}

SS: I think readers only have a fleeting idea of how much work truly goes into these tales and the characters who inhabit them. Does it hurt you from a personal and creative point of view to have characters you’ve worked so hard on suddenly be dead and gone at another’s control?

EG: It hurts a little. On the “Darn it, I wanted to do THIS and THAT with that character!” level, that is. Yet I burned that particular bridge back in 1986, when creative control of the Realms passed to TSR (who were wise enough to keep me around to point out where closets were that might have interesting skeletons lurking in them). So one might say I’ve become used to it, and sometimes (such as when Elaine brought Elaith “the Serpent” to life PERFECTLY, and Bob picked up the Harpell family and made them come alive) delighted by it.

It doesn’t bother me, now, because I just think of the characters as real people, too numerous for me to keep track of every moment in the lives of all of them, and if one (or more, even many more) die or disappear . . . well, that’s like real life. Most of the grownups of my youth are dead and gone, now, or facing their looming graves despite my memories of them as prime-of-life vigorous. Eventually they’ll all be gone. One grieves, and in some cases never forgets, but moves on. I create dozens of new characters every week, and some of them are descendants of vanished favorites, with echoes in their looks and mannerisms and aims of their ancestors. So individuals fall, but the parade goes on.

And yes, it’s a lot of work, but it’s FUN. I don’t mind the work at all, I revel in it. (And of course there ARE established magical means in the game of bringing the occasional character back . . .)

SS: With the Spellplague and its fallout affecting so many characters and books, what are your thoughts on it? Did you ever imagine that such a thing could take place?

EG: Certainly I imagined it; I’ve been discussing it behind the scenes for years now, trying to make sure that if such an upheaval ever took place, it was done right. The Spellplague wasn’t my decision or idea, of course, though it may have been drawn from my original idea of a “Godswar” (see issue 54 of THE DRAGON, as the magazine was then called), that was used to generate the Time of Troubles/Avatar Crisis.

Certainly I imagined it as a writer and as a game designer; we throw around all sorts of crazy “what if?” ideas in private, to see where they lead. There was a very good reason why Jeff Grubb had a firm “Don’t Blow Up The Moon!’ rule about the Realms. It was because all too many designers wanted to!

I’m not entirely happy about it, of course, because I look at the published Realms (at the end of the run of 3rd edition products) and say, “But I wasn’t FINISHED! There were still so many places I wanted to really detail! I wanted to do a Cormyr sourcebook! And the city of Silverymoon , close up! Oh, and Sembia, and the city of Neverwinter , too, and Tashluta and the Tashalar! And, and, and –”

And that’s the problem, right there. I have so many places I still want to detail and characters I still want to write novels about that I would NEVER be done “painting in the neglected corners.” So “time” in the Realms would never advance much . . .

Now, I know some gamers prefer less detail, and that’s fine, but MY players always wanted this much detail, and I always thought that if you were paying for a game product instead of making it up for yourself, you were paying for someone else doing MORE work than you needed or would have time for, so you really got your money’s worth, and could pick and choose what details and plot elements and such that you wanted to use, and still have lots left over to use elsewhere and elsewhen. Yes, the Realms grew terribly complicated, but that was its strength and beauty.

However, the Realms is now a shared world. My wants and needs aren’t paramount, and haven’t been for a long time. The Realms belongs to all of us, and the helm is in the hands of the skilled folks at Wizards of the Coast. I know squat about running a game company or making money (heck, even balancing a budget!), so if a 4th edition is what they see in the cards, who am I to decry it? They can reach out and talk to more gamers than I can ever reach, so they are the experts in this. I know I would sit right down in the middle of the Realms happily designing and writing novels until old age took me away . . . but I have no idea how many folks would sit down with me, and for how long. (Pssst! Ever wanted to know Waterdeep’s darkest secret? How about the hidden traitor at the heart of the Zhentarim? Or the Sleeping God who will someday awaken and REALLY ruin a particular queen’s day?)

SS: RA Salvatore, who I know well, has spoken freely and often of the respect he holds for you. Who in the Forgotten Realms setting do you admire and enjoy reading? Conversely, what about outside of the Realms?

EG: I admire almost everyone connected with the Realms creatively, from Bob Salvatore and Elaine Cunningham and Jeff Grubb and his wife Kate Novak, to the newer writers like Paul Kemp and Erik Scott de Bie and Rosemary Jones and Jaleigh Johnson; to the game designers like Jeff Grubb (again), Steven Schend (as a Realms novelist, too!), and Julia Martin on staff; and Eric Boyd, George Krashos, Brian Cortijo, the James brothers, and other talented freelancers; and the in-house editors past and present like Peter Archer and Jim Lowder and Phil Athans and Erin Evans and the long-suffering Susan Morris . . . oh, the catalogue of the deserving is long.

I admire all of these people because they are better than I am at so many things, and because they have worked on “my baby” with love, sharing my delight in it, and because we have become friends.

I read voraciously as a fan and collector and librarian, and admire and enjoy reading many, many writers in lots of genres (my house is crammed with over 80,000 books).

Here are just a few favourites, from the ranks of the living and the dead. Living: Guy Gavriel Kay, Spider Robinson, Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Caroline Stevermer, Jack Vance, Dana Stabenow, and Terry Pratchett.

Dead: Roger Zelazny, Rudyard Kipling, P.G. Wodehouse, Kyril Bonfiglioli, John Dickson Carr, Lord Dunsany, Fritz Leiber, C. L. Moore, Ellis Peters, Leslie Charteris, Jon Bellairs.

SS: Some of the non-Realms authors you’ve just listed as well as others have told me they couldn’t work in a shared-world setting because, as one says humorously, “My report card in school read ‘Doesn’t play well with others.'” What personality type do you think is required to write in an environment that is so expressly dependent on others?

EG: The flippant answer is: A team player, of course. :}

More seriously, someone who is a natural at, or has learned to, work creatively with others. It requires kindness, understanding, unselfishness, generosity, the ability to value the ideas of others as equal to or superior to your own, and the willingness to compromise and collaborate. Not to mention the grace to yield authority swiftly, often, and without conflict.

Now, committees can turn out dreck on occasion, and lone agents can certainly pursue a focused vision more ably than a group, but skilled and talented collaborators, working as a team, can readily turn out work that’s superior to a loner, purely because they bring more skills to the table, and different viewpoints (allowing them to see flaws, weak spots, and blind spots in an idea or design more readily than the lone thinker or designer).

Or to put it another way, the reason so many D&D groups have “house rules” peculiar to their campaign is because of the playing styles and preferences of the individuals in particular groups; it takes more viewpoints from more people to craft rules that work more widely, applying to more styles and preferences.

Sure, I write and design more quickly by myself. I often think the results are great. I wholly understand and respect creators who feel they MUST work alone, and refuse to collaborate. Yet I love the constant challenges of working with others, so as long as I have outlets for “just me, doing my thing” I’m happy to work on different teams for different projects (and every single D&D module, in the old days, and sourcebooks, since, that I’ve done has been as part of a different team, as in-house personnel changed and the mix of fellow freelance collaborators did, too.

None of this means I’m a saint, or for that matter a human resources consultant. This is just what I’ve learned, working on well over a hundred collaborations, now (and in almost as many different ways of collaborating, too).

I think I said it best years ago, at an sf convention.

John Brunner concluded a point on a panel by saying emphatically, “When I finish a book, I can hold it up like this table, and say with pride: “I made this table, and this table is MINE.”

When the moderator turned to me next, and asked me if I thought the same way, I replied: “No. I’m more like a shy little kid. I sit behind the table and say: “Hi. I made this table. I hope you’ll sit down at it with me, and like it, because in life, you can never find too many tables you like. Pleased to meet you.”

SS: What lies in store for Elminster after Elminster Must Die?

EG: Elminster got quite a surprise at the end of Elminster Must Die – and by extension, so did his three companions, who are now staring at the about-to-happen Council of the Dragon, a gathering that could easily end in rebellion and civil war across Cormyr. With them caught in the thick of it.

For what actually happens, of course, you’ll have to read Bury Elminster Deep, which will appear about a year from now . . .

SS: With Bury Elminster Deep coming out next year, how many books do you foresee in this set?

EG: Six and three.

That is, like Bob, I have a contract for six books (Drizzt books for him, mine involving Elminster).

As I make this reply, my third book and the ones after it aren’t plotted out, and I don’t know what tales they’ll end up telling, what they’ll be called, and even when they’ll be published.

However, I have notions about all of those things, all right, and once Bury Elminster Deep is done in final draft, a month or so from now, I’ll sit down and outline that third book. Which MIGHT end with most of the surviving major characters feeling they must leave Cormyr . . . or might not.

We’ll talk about it, my editor Susan Morris (and through her, the Realms team) and me, agree on things, and eventually you’ll read the results. Elminster Must Die ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, but I prefer to tell satisfyingly finished stories in my novels, so a reader WANTS more but doesn’t feel cheated.

And unlike some writers who craft a STORY, first and foremost, standing back to consider how they’re manipulating the reader and what effects they’re creating, I prefer, when writing about the Realms, to treat it as a real, living world with countless lives and subplots unfolding constantly, and myself as a sort of invisible, float-into-peoples’ heads journalist flitting here and there following a few lives that interest me, that are intersecting in an interesting way that tells a tale.

So perhaps events in Cormyr will unfold in a way that wipes out that “feeling they must leave” I mentioned above, and takes things in another direction. In the Realms, I follow interesting characters, and they unfold a story for me; I don’t bend characters to fit a story.

SS: Thanks, Ed, for this opportunity! Any famous last words you’d like to share with your fans?

EG: And thank you for this opportunity! My famous last words won’t be uttered for at least another fifty years, I hope, but just in case, here are some early offerings:

The Realms belongs to all of us, now, and will never die. It lives in all the games Realms fans play in “their” Realms, the Realms novels you read, the ideas you conceive of and discuss online and design adventures for and try to get published as part of the “official” Realms, and the feedback you give me and the other Realms authors, editors, and designers. Please, let us know what you like, and don’t like, and what you want more of!

For my part, tell me if Elminster Must Die grabbed you, or didn’t, and what you’d like to see more of, from me? Is it time to unveil the slavering werebeholder? Or bring on the Cinammon Dragon at last? Unravel the secret of Hesperdan? Peek inside Elminster’s bedchamber? Tell me! I need to know! (One of my players, The Hooded One, fields questions for me in the Chamber of Sages in the Candlekeep forums: )

Along with the release of Elminster Must Die, Wizards of the Coast is also running a Twitter contest! Should Elminster really die? Should he live? Have a Twitter account? Tweet your case (in 140 characters or less) for a chance to win a trip for two to Gen Con Indy 2011. Entry form, complete details, and official rules at:!

Elminster Must Die is in bookstores now!