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Exploring Villainy: An Interview with Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

Ari works primarily as a freelancer for Wizards of the Coast, though he still does work for other companies now and again. His second novel, AGENTS OF ARTIFICE, came out from Wizards in February of ‘09, and he’s signed a contract with Random House to publish two original novels over the course of the next couple of years.

John Ottinger: Before publishing your independent novel THE CONQUEROR’S SHADOW, you wrote several books in shared worlds. What to you is the appeal of shared world fiction, and what, if anything, makes it unique?

Ari Marmell: I find it a lot of fun to play in other people’s sandboxes. If a particular character/setting/world appeals to me, that appeal very often comes with story ideas of my own. There’s something both exciting and, at the risk of overstating things, almost humbling about being able to add to the official “canon” of settings that mean so much to so many people.

But more even than that, I find that writing tie-in fiction stretches different creative muscles than original fiction, and that the lessons learned working on one can make you better at the other. Learning to abide by others’ restrictions, or having to accurately portray someone else’s character, makes you better at defining your own.

(If you’ll forgive the plug, I actually just recently wrote a column on this very topic, for my agent’s web site. For readers who want more detail on this than I can go into in an interview, they can check it out at The Swivet.

JO: Having worked in several shared worlds, are there any that you have preferred working, playing, or reading in?

AM: Well, as far as playing in, I’m still a huge fan of Dungeons & Dragons, both the core game and many of its varied settings. I’ve enjoyed reading all manner of tie-in books, but–at least when discussing the lines I’ve also worked in–I’d have to say that my favorite reading comes from the Eberron and Ravenloft settings. And as far as my favorite to work on… Probably Ravenloft, again, which was the setting of both my short story “Before I Wake” and my e-novel Black Crusade.

JO: Some readers/writers would say that now that you are publishing novel of wholly original fiction that you have now “made it” and are really an “author” rather than a “hack”. What is your response to such sneers?

AM: I’d say that it takes just as much talent to write a good tie-in novel as it does a good original novel. While some of the creative challenges differ, it’s just as hard to write tie-in–maybe harder, in some cases. Yes, there’s a lot of bad tie-in fiction out there. There’s a lot of bad original fiction, too. I don’t consider either form to be innately inferior to the other, and I don’t consider tie-in writers to be more or less “hacks” than original writers.

JO: Reading your biography on your website leads me to believe that humor is a large part of your life. What role should humor play in fiction, and what advantages, if any, does it bring to a narrative?

AM: Given that my wife, my family, and my friends have all wanted to beat me with folding chairs for some of my puns, yes, I’d have to say humor is a major part of my life.

I think every piece of fiction, no matter how serious, needs some amount of humor in it. The most obvious use is to break the tension, of course, but you can use humor to set up tension. (I think some of the most effective dark/horrific scenes work best when juxtaposed with humorous ones.) More to the point, it’s real. Sure, there are humorless people out there, but most people–and therefore, most characters–have, and display, some form of sense of humor or another. Books with humor–the right amount for the story, of course–are more effective, more believable, and simply more fun to read.

JO: How is your new novel THE CONQUEROR’s SHADOW different from other epic fantasies? What influences did you draw from in writing the book and where did you depart from reader expectations of traditional epic fantasies?

AM: Well, let me start by saying that TCS ties in heavily to my philosophies regarding fantasy tropes in general. I like using the classical tropes, rather than trying to avoid them–but I prefer doing something different with them, or taking some unexpected turns. For instance, the book introduces the readers to a very traditional “dark warlord” sort of character in the very beginning–and then turns out and presents him, after his “retirement,” as the book’s protagonist.

And I think the main characters are where the book differs from many others. This is not a story of redemption, precisely. Corvis Rebaine is not a “hero trying to atone for his dark past.” When he was a conqueror, and a villain, he committed terrible atrocities for what he believed were the best reasons. Over the bulk of the book, he may be fighting evil, rather than perpetrating it–but he’s doing so primarily for selfish reasons, or at least for very personal ones, rather than out of any sense of “right.” Antiheroes aren’t uncommon, certainly, but I’d like to think that Corvis’s precise combination of morality and hypocrisy, selfishness and selflessness, makes him a character with whom the reader sympathizes even while acknowledging that he is not precisely a good man.

I’d like to think the same is true of Audriss, the book’s main villain. He does horrible things, worse than Corvis at his darkest. But I think, by the end, at least some readers are going to understand why he did what he did, even though they won’t approve of his actions.

By going a little off the beat path and basing the book around a former conqueror, with a nation still (albeit many years later) in the aftermath of his efforts, I think I’ve showcased both the growth and the damage he caused. (Baron Jassion, for instance, is pretty much all rage and frustration–and, as a character, wouldn’t have worked under most other circumstances.)

In fact, I think one could argue that TCS is less “epic fantasy” than it is “sword & sorcery.” Yes, it has some wide-ranging conflicts that fall more into the “epic fantasy” camp, but the precise nature of those conflicts, and certainly of the characters, is, I think, less epic than S&S. (Not that these are hard-and-fast delineations, of course.)

As far as influences… I wanted the setting itself to be fairly traditional, fantasy-wise, and to blend into the background, in order to highlight the actions of the characters. So setting-wise, I’d say I drew on all the traditional sources of fantasy. There’s some historical Western Europe, some D&D, a sprinkling of Eddings and Feist. (Though I didn’t want to get too bogged down in the tropes, which is why you won’t find elves or dwarves or any non-monstrous races other than human.) But as far as my writing itself, I’d probably name Steven Brust as my greatest influence, with Eddings again (in terms of humor, not plotting) and Straczynski thrown in as well. (I’ve not read much David Gemmel, but numerous reviews have compared the book to his stuff, so I’m definitely going to pick up some of his books.)

JO: THE CONQUEROR’S SHADOW appears to start where many epic fantasies end, with the party disbanded and every one living in peace. What unique challenges did you face in writing a story that begins at the “ending”?

AM: I’d say the greatest challenge was probably balancing the two aspects of the book and the character–that is, who Corvis is vs. who he was. How much of the horrible person he was can I portray, and still engender sympathy with the reader? How can I tie in the events of seventeen years ago–which are integral to the story–and still write the book so that the reader is primarily following the current plot, not the old one? How can I make the characters believable compared to who they used to be, and how much can I use what happened long ago to justify their current actions?

It’s not really anything that other authors haven’t had to deal with; any book with an intricate background is going to include those questions. But they certainly came to the fore in this instance.

JO: Some readers avoid entering into new epic fantasy series because they don’t see and end in sight. Do you have a planned length for THE CONQUEROR’S SHADOW and its sequels, and what is your opinion of series that, while good and entertaining, seem to drag on forever?

AM: I understand exactly where such readers are coming from. If a series is telling a single long story (like, say, Wheel of Time), I won’t even pick it up until every last book is released and on shelves. For series with more stand-alone stories (such as the Vlad Taltos or Harry Dresden books), I’m willing to pick them up as they come.

And that, actually, shapes my answer to the question as well. I think that single-story series shouldn’t generally run longer than five books, give or take, and I prefer trilogies. If the books more or less stand alone (though I don’t mind a few dangling plot threads), then I don’t mind if they run a lot longer.

As regards the Corvis Rebaine novels specifically… My intent is to make sure that each one more or less ends. That is, I certainly hope people will keep reading them as long as I choose to write them, but I’m trying to avoid much in the way of cliff-hangers. I want each book to stand partly alone; you might have to read what’s come before to get the most out of each one, but each one at least comes to a viable conclusion.

(Heck, when I first wrote TCS, I wrote it entirely as a stand-alone book. I’d never expected it to be a series at all. The folks at Spectra wanted a sequel, and I came up with what I think are some great ideas, but they weren’t part of my very initial conception.)

How many? Well, right now there’s just the two, THE CONQUEROR’S SHADOW and THE WARLORD’S LEGACY (due out roughly next January). I’d love to write more, if the demand is there, but I don’t expect it would drag on indefinitely. Maybe six, give or take, if I had my druthers?

That’s not a promise; don’t hold me to it. 😉

JO: You will also soon have a novel coming out from Pyr books called THE GOBLIN CORPS. How is this work different from your other novels, and what kind of story can we expect to read?

AM: Heh. THE GOBLIN CORPS takes those same fantasy tropes and completely flips them. I’ve created a traditional fantasy world, with the usual ongoing battle between good and evil–and I’ve chosen to follow the villains. This book is about a squad of goblins–an orc, a troll, etc.–in the service of an undead tyrant called the Charnel King. You might say that this is a “behind the scenes” look at what’s really going on in an epic novel where the good guys believe (incorrectly) that they’re in a Tolkien-esque story. 😉

It’s far more sarcastic and far more bloody than TCS, and it’s foul-mouthed enough to make Eddie Murphy or Quentin Tarantino cringe. And these aren’t “antiheroes” like Corvis Rebaine; as I said, they’re villains, and absolutely unapologetic about it. The book’s funny enough that you sometimes forget how nasty these characters are–until they do something to remind you. (Some readers will be bothered by that, and that’s understandable, but I think most will find it a blast to read.)

My previous agent described it once as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS meets INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.” 😉

(BTW, lest you get the wrong idea, I don’t only write about violent bastards. Pyr’s also publishing a YA fantasy of mine, called HOUSEHOLD GODS, in which the protagonist really is actually a good person. And the main character of my current project can be kind of hard at times, but he’s also more or less a good guy at the core.)

JO: You recently sent out a call on your website for a pro or semi-pro cartographer. What is your opinion on the use of maps in epic fantasy, and is there a point at which they can be overdone or are unnecessary at all?

AM: Truth be told, I rarely think they’re necessary. (You’ll note that TCS lacks one, though we are hoping to include one in THE WARLORD’S LEGACY. No promises there, but we’re trying.) I think that they’re nice to have for people who like them, and in a truly sprawling epic, they can add to the world’s verisimilitude, but I rarely do more than glance at them myself.

And I think that any time an author deliberately writes to the map–by which I mean, arranges the story just to show off different parts of his world–then they’ve gotten to be a problem. The map must serve the text, not the other way around.

JO: What projects are you currently working on?

AM: Well, I’m currently doing edits on THE GOBLIN CORPS, and I expect to be editing HOUSEHOLD GODS before too long. Mostly, though, I’m focused on a new novel that’s unrelated to anything I’ve done before, and that I hope could be the start of a series. I’d rather not go into too much detail yet, but I will say that it’s more urban fantasy than traditional fantasy, and yet it’s not quite modern. Think of it as an urban fantasy period piece.

JO: Where can we find you online? (Or; either works)

And thank you so much for the opportunity. :-)