There are two Conans. One is the Conan of Robert E. Howard’s stories: an adaptable, cunning warrior whose physical prowess and quick wits eventually lead him to the throne of Aquilonia. The other is the Conan of the movies: a hell-bent meat and metal tornado in a loincloth.
Both of these Conans share some common ground (Conan is indeed a reaver and slayer of unparalleled skill and ferocity), but the latter is just a superficial sketch of the former. Howard’s Conan is more than the barbarian stereotype he helped to spawn, and in many ways, his intellectual and physical vigor are both reflections of his creator, Robert E. Howard. Howard was a voracious reader with an insatiable appetite for history who spent his spare time boxing and lifting weights. He was quick-witted and a formidable fighter, just like Conan.
With a new Conan movie just around the corner, interest in Howard’s iconic barbarian is hotter than ever. It remains to be seen how close this new Conan will parallel the Conan of the books. Some deviation isn’t necessarily a bad thing, John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian was an enjoyable fantasy film despite wandering far from the source material, but I’m hoping that more people will take a moment to get to know Robert E. Howard’s Conan, too.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to jump into a series of short stories. While there’s a rough chronology to be found in the Conan stories, it has no connection with when Howard wrote them. The first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, takes place late in Conan’s life. Other stories visit Conan as a young man trying his hand as a pirate, thief or bandit. Conan is literally and figuratively all over the map. Where does a curious reader begin? The answer may be Del Rey’s new collection Conan the Barbarian: the Stories that Inspired the Movie, available July 26.
Conan the Barbarian collects five of Howard’s very best tales, arranged by their order of publication. Readers only familiar with the movies will find this action-packed sampler to be a real eye-opener and a great companion to the new movie.
I recently spoke with Conan the Barbarian associate editor David Pomerico about what he hoped to accomplish with this new book and what it’s like to work with some of the biggest names in speculative fiction.
A lot of people are going to be curious about what you do at Del Rey/Spectra. Could you tell me a little bit about what you do? How did you get involved in publishing, anyway?
I’m an associate editor at Del Rey and Spectra, which means that I read submissions, acquire new projects, and edit novels. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great authors, including David J. Williams, Darin Bradley, CL Anderson, Felix Gilman, Ari Marmell, and Chris Wooding (to name a few). I also help with some of our licensed properties, especially Star Wars, Transformers, and, of course, Robert E. Howard. Finally, I help out with our social media initiatives, particularly Twitter (@DelReySpectra) and Facebook (both for Del Rey Spectra and Star Wars Books), as well as blogging on Unbound Worlds.
As for how I got into publishing: it’s a rather long story, but it basically came down to networking through my alumni association, getting an internship at Bantam Dell, being hired into the Random House Associates Program, and eventually being hired as the editorial assistant for Bantam Spectra. Perhaps the more unique part of my journey is that unlike many other interns or editorial assistants, I didn’t do this straight out of college, but rather started my publishing journey four years after I graduated.
Have you had any experience that made you think “Wow! I can’t believe I get to do this for a living!”?
Pretty much every day. I’m incredibly lucky to wake up each morning and not dread going to work. Having done that for four years before I started here, that’s a big deal to me.
But there have been specific moments that have just blown me away. Chatting about history and science fiction with Connie Willis (not to mention being a second reader on her opus Blackout/All Clear) is definitely a highlight. Seeing the amazing response to George R.R. Martin this year. And, on a slightly more personal accomplishment, seeing Cage Match on Unbound Worlds turn into a force within the SF/F community.
Overall, though, it’s been a blast…and I still can’t believe I get to read for a living.
When and how did you first get exposed to the work of Robert E. Howard? Have you been involved with those great collections that we’ve seen over the past few years?
I had read some of the Conan stories as a kid—and obviously had seen the Governator do his thing in the movies—but when I first started here, another editor was in charge of the Robert E. Howard list. When they asked me to take over about a year and half ago, I was very excited, as I think REH (as we call him here) is one of the forerunners of modern fantasy.
How did you go about picking the handful of stories that are included in Conan the Barbarian? Good job, by the way. I have to say that these are probably among his top works.
We wanted people to get a taste of what Conan really means. While the movies do a great job portraying the action and adventure of Conan, one thing we’ve always felt they missed is the depth of the character—Conan isn’t a brainless, muscle-bound barbarian, but a cunning warrior…who happens to slice people in two with a giant sword.
With that in mind, I reached out to one of the key players in helping us put together our Robert E. Howard library collections, Rusty Burke, for some recommendations in what we should include in this Conan “primer”, and he did a great job (as you point out) putting together a book that really epitomizes why people should read more Conan.
What was your goal in developing this collection? Would this be a good starting point for someone who has never read REH?
Not sure if I answered this already, but if not, the point is to expose people to a side of Conan they may not realize. REH is truly one of the masters of modern fantasy, and not only has he created such beloved characters as Conan, Solomon Kane, and Kull, but his characters and stories are much more than I think people get from the popular culture portrayals of him. I’m not saying those pop-culture moments are bad—far from it—but just that the stories add new elements really make Conan come to life in new and exciting ways. As such, I think this paperback is the perfect entry-point into the world of Conan and the writing of REH, and hopefully after this one, readers will continue to delve into the other collections.
Anything else you want to add?
Just this: happy reading!