An Interview with Michael A. Stackpole: from a Galaxy, Far, Far Away to Conan the Barbarian


conan the barbarian stackpoleMichael A. Stackpole is a well-known figure in science fiction and fantasy literature, with a number of hit Star Wars novel and comic books to his credit. His latest book is an adaptation of the new film Conan the Barbarian. Stackpole has been a fan of Robert E. Howard’s most celebrated hero since high school, and we recently spoke about his history with Conan, the benefits of writing franchise fiction and whether he would ever return to the Star Wars universe.

First and foremost, I’d like to thank you for the research piece you did so many years ago to contradict the claims of Patricia Pulling’s Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons that gaming led to suicide and homicide. As a gamer growing up in the eighties, it was nice to hear some good news for once. The younger guys I know can hardly believe that such an innocuous pastime was once the subject of so much fear. I’d like to think that the acceptance and even celebration of geek culture has helped the careers of authors like yourself. Is that true? Are more people buying science fiction and fantasy?

You’re welcome. I didn’t think it was fair for games to be treated badly by people using flawed logic and deceit, so I fought back.

I don’t really know if the growing acceptance of geek culture is leading to more folks buying SF/fantasy BOOKS, as much as indulging in other entertainments that fall under SF/F. If you watch book sales, they’ve been dropping off steadily since the 1980s and even before. There are a variety of factors for that, but certainly have other outlets, like movies and TV, for getting your geek on may have cut into book sales. On the other hand, the internet and digital sales are so changing the business, that the acceptance of SF/F that geek culture brings may well make it much easier for authors to make a living writing these kinds of stories.

I understand that your public career began with the Battletech tie-in novels – This was certainly where I first encountered your work – and later transitioned into work on the rightfully celebrated X-Wing: Rogue Squadron novels. All the time you were writing your own original fiction as well. Was there a learning curve with writing fiction set in someone else’s universe, maybe with balancing creativity with respecting canon? If so, how did you overcome it? Also, did writing tie-in fiction later help you with writing your own original novels? Did you learn anything from this process?

There is a common misconception that writing in a canon is restrictive. It’s not. Even when an author is writing in a universe of his own creation, he’s hemmed in by design choices he’s made previously. So, whether it’s in the DragonCrown War universe, or Star Wars, it really boils down to the same thing: tell a good story and make sure it ties into the universe where it is being told. You can’t have Star Wars without acknowledging the existence of the Force, for example; or without embracing the history. If a writer fails in that capacity, they’ve failed to do the job for which they were hired.

Working in a franchise universe does give you a chance at identifying elements that intrigue readers, simply because you hear about those elements for fans. If you will, a franchise universe has already been playtested for you. If you analyze what people enjoy, figure out WHY they like it, and then provide them a story that hits similar highs and lows, you’re good to go. Unfortunately a number of authors refuse to do that sort of analysis in depth, so their stories are all window-dressing and no substance. The fans, quite rightly, complain.

That in-depth analysis, when turned on your own work, really helps a writer identify themes, characters, situations and elements that resonate with the audience. Once you know what those are, you can tailor stories to provide those sorts of experience. Doing that is how a writer actually develops a career.

You’ve had an SF fan’s dream career. You’ve worked in comic books, role-playing games, computer games, and written novels for some of the world’s best loved SF properties. Was this part of a deliberate career path, or did you just do the work as it became available? What would you tell someone else looking to start a career like yours?

At the risk of making things sound far more important than they are, I’m a mercenary. I go where the bullets are flying and folks are willing to pay me. Gaming was then and is even now an easy place to break in. You can get work, get feedback, get opportunities to do fiction and work in other areas like computer games, so it’s not a bad place to start at all. The novels were always a goal and comics were an opportunity that grew out of doing the Star Wars work.

In terms of anyone trying to structure a career based on mine, my advice would be not to do it. Circumstances have so changed in the last thirty years, and will be changing so quickly in the next three, that what I did would be impossible to duplicate. Heck, digital publishing is so changing things that even I’m starting over. Always plan your career for the business environment NOW, and revise that plan often. That’s the way to succeed.

You have a degree in history, and your latest original fiction seems to make good use of this background. Would you mind telling me a little bit about The Crown Colonies series?

Thanks for asking. The Crown Colonies books are set in a world with the same political dynamics as the American Colonial period. I didn’t choose to write a historical novel because a) that would have been tough for me to sell since I have no track record there and b) I like magick and dragons. So, I added those elements in. I’ve jokingly called the series “Lord of the Mohicans.” Nations have been renamed to protect the innocent, and events have been altered to be in keeping with the demands of a world where magick works and dragons exist. That said, however, anyone familiar with the Colonial period, or who has watched Last of the Mohicans, will find the books easy to get into.

The response to the first one, At the Queen’s Command, has been great. I just finished up Of Limited Loyalty, and will be starting in on An Ungrateful Rabble come late fall. You can see, by the titles, how things are deteriorating politically. 🙂

One last question before we move on to Conan the Barbarian. Our readers here at Unbound Worlds will kill me if I don’t ask you this: your Star Wars novels remain fan favorites, and no discussion of Star Wars novels passes without at least one reference to your work. Would you ever consider a return to the series?

I love Star Wars. If Del Rey ever decided that having me return and, say, write another X-wing book, or more about Corran Horn, I’d definitely be interested. It would all depend on their needs and our mutual schedules.

Let’s talk Robert E. Howard. How familiar were you with his work before you started on Conan the Barbarian? I see that it was dedicated to his memory. Where did you first encounter his stories?

Heck, I was reading Conan stories in the Lancer books back when I was a freshman in High School (1971). I loved that stuff, and when I got the chance to work in the universe, I jumped at the opportunity. Howard is a writer I respect on multiple levels. Being able to contribute to a body of work that I devoured and enjoyed is a thrill right up there with writing for Star Wars.

You’re a very talented writer with a distinct style all your own, as was Howard. How did you approach handling this iconic literary character?

The key thing is to stay true to Conan as Howard wrote him. As I noted above, when you do some analysis, the ground rules become pretty easily apparent. The story “Rogues in the House,” encapsulates Conan’s emotional range for the most part. Getting Conan right is more than just making sure you use the same words that Howard did. I wanted this to be a true Conan story, so I kept to the elements that Howard emphasized and spent the whole time I was writing doing more reading and analysis. It was a lot of fun and very rewarding.

Having known a few authors who wrote tie-in fiction, I know that they don’t typically get a lot of time to produce a book. I’m always amazed by both the speed and consistent level of quality at which writers like you and Alan Dean Foster can work. Do you have any secrets? is there a method that you use when you’re asked to write a novel.

A lot of people get hung up on speed, which is ridiculous. Every writer is going to be comfortable at a particular speed. With time they may get a bit faster, but it doesn’t matter. Writing is an endurance race, not a sprint. Now, as it so happens, I’m lucky enough to have a fairly high speed. Couple that with the knowledge that only by sitting down and writing do I pile words up, and turning work out quickly becomes possible.

The main key to writing quickly and well for me is to start with as full an outline as I can. I revise as I go, but I need that road map before I take off. Once the first draft is down, I can fine tune the second and subsequent drafts. I don’t worry about perfection on the first pass, I just focus on getting the words down so I can edit them into shape later.

What kind of resources did you have when you wrote Conan the Barbarian? Were you given a synopsis? Script? Outline?

I got sent a copy of the script and then got to watch a rough-cut of the movie before I started. I also got sent a lot of production stills so I could study them for details. What was great about this job was that CPI and I agreed, after I saw the movie, that I wouldn’t so much novelize the script, as I would write the novel from which the movie was clearly taken. (Yeah, I know, a mindbender.) During the process I kept in mind a mythical reader who would read the book, then see the film, and say, “They should have stuck more to the book.” Because movies and novels are different media, changes had to be made. For example, there’s a thrilling chase and combat scene in the movie that would have been death itself to write into an equivalent portion of the book. I truncated it and expanded in other places that the movie couldn’t touch.

What’s it like to get inside Conan’s head? Is it a place that you’d return given the right circumstances?

Given that I’m under contract for at least one more novel for them, yeah, I’ll go back. As for getting in Conan’s head, it’s great. He’s a refreshingly honest and direct character. He’s not stupid, but he’s not a schemer in a grand sense. He’s a strategist and tactician. I like that in a character, especially one who can also reach out and wring someone’s neck.

Knowing what you do about the storyline – and perhaps having seen his work on A Game of Thrones – do you think Jason Momoa will make a good Conan?

I thought Jason was great in the role. I could see him doing another couple films, then the role passing on when Hollywood does a franchise reboot.

Thanks for doing the interview. Do you have anything that you’d like to add?

It was my pleasure. I’d just like to invite folks to come to my website, if they want to read more about what else I’m doing. Writing stories for folks is a pleasure and a privilege, and I’ll keep doing it as long as there are readers who want to support my efforts.

The entire catalog of Bantam and Del Rey Star Wars novels will be available for purchase in all ebook formats on Tuesday, June 28. This of course includes all of Mr. Stackpole’s fantastic Star Wars novels. Look for your favorites in ebook formats next Tuesday!