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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author/Editor Robin Wayne Bailey

Robin Wayne Bailey is the bestselling fantasy author of books including the Frost  and Dragonkin trilogies, Nightwatch, Shadowdance, Night’s Angel, Swords Against The Shadowland, named one of the seven best fantasy novels of 1998 by the Science Fiction Chronicle. A former president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s of America, his short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Amazing, Fantastic, Science Fiction: The Best of 2001, Far Frontiers, Xmen: Legends, Guardsmen of Tomorrow and the Thieves World project as well as two collections of his own work, Turn Left To Tomorrow and the forthcoming The Fantastikon: Tales Of Wonder both from Yard Dog Press. As editor, he has edited Through My Glasses Darkly, a short story collection by noted author Frank M. Robinson and Architects of Dreams: The SFWA Author Emeritus Anthology.  He has hosted Nebula Awards events, helped found the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Hall Of Fame, the Kansas City Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, and the Center For The Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. Robin is a former student and instructor of various martial arts as well as writing and lives in Kansas City with his wife Diana. He can be found online on Facebook, on Twitter as @BaileyRobinW and via his website at

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d your interest in SFF come from?

Robin Wayne Bailey: From comic books, probably.  My earliest memories involve comic books.  My father was a railroad engineer, and the yard office out of which he worked was right next to an old paper mill.  In those days, they used to strip comic book covers by tearing off the top one-third of the comic and sending that back to publishers.  The rest of the comic book got thrown away.  My father would rescue armloads of comics and bring them home.  I could read well before kindergarten because of those comic books.  To this day, I still love comic books.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors and books?

RWB: After reading science fiction and fantasy for half a century, it’s tough to narrow down a short list.  Heinlein, of course, and Asimov and Clarke.  Also C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, A Merritt, Fritz Leiber, and A. Bertram Chandler,  Poul Anderson, Gordon Dickson, C.J. Cherryh and Wilson Tucker.  On the fantasy side, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, H. Rider Haggard and James Branch Cabell.  Lots of great old pulp writers like Sax Rohmer.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you develop an interest in writing and how did you pursue that? Classes? Workshops? Learn on your own?

RWB: It’s almost a cliché these days to say “All the way back when I was a little kid…” but in my case, it’s true.  I’ve always been writing little stories and poems.  In the third grade, I wrote a Hiawatha-style poem about Indians.  Pardon me, Native Americans.  My teacher made me recite it at a parent-teacher assembly.  They had such things in those days.  Then my parents made me recite it to relatives at a family gathering.  I discovered writing could get me attention and let me stand out.  I started my first novel in Junior High School, writing in study hall, and had over fifty pages before somebody actually stole it.  Teachers were agog that any student would write over fifty pages on anything.

Through high school and college I took every writing course I could.  I sold a wide variety of poems back when poetry actually paid, and I sold my first short story during my first freshman semester.  It wasn’t genre and it impressed the hell out of my English department.  However, the story was published shortly before my father died, and it hurt him very much.  That was when I realized the real power of language and writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved in Cons or CoSplay as a kid?

RWB: I did a lot of theater and dance in high school and college, so I understood costuming.  However, I never took part in a convention masquerade until 1976.  Kansas City hosted a Star Trek convention and, later, MidAmericon, the world science fiction convention that year.  Diana and I cobbled costumes together for the Star Trek convention, and then went all out for the WorldCon, which hosted a stunningly magnificent masquerade that year.  I still occasionally take part in masquerades, and I’m often asked to judge them.  I enjoy that.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did you write before making your first sale? Did you start with shorts or novels?

RWB: As I mentioned, I sold my first story when I was eighteen during my first semester as a college freshman.  It wasn’t genre.  I also wrote a lot of poetry and even sold some of it throughout college.  For a time after graduate school, I wrote a lot of short stories and made a number of sales to magazines like Amazing and Fantastic.  Then the magazines would die or the editors would change before the stories actually saw print.  That was frustrating.  Alan Dean Foster and I sat on a panel one year at some convention and compared the magazines and editorial careers that we had collectively killed.

SFFWRTCHT: James Gunn claims to have had the same bad timing with magazines a few years before that. Do you usually start with characters or plot?

RWB: It depends.  Everything starts with an idea.  That idea might turn into a character, or it might generate a plot.  However, it all starts with an idea.  A writer’s most important skill lies in learning how to develop an idea into an interesting story.

SFFWRTCHT: So, a mad wizard summons the Dark Ones of the Apocalypse and Frost gets charged by a dying angel to guard the Book Of The Last Battle, get to a haunted land named Chondos and there lead an army of sorcerers against an army of demons. To win she has to destroy Heaven and the gods? Sounds pretty simple. Where’d the idea for the Frost Trilogy come from?

RWB: I mentioned the 1976 WorldCon previously.  That was a unique and inspiring event in all sorts of ways.  Instead of one huge convention banquet, MidAmericon featured three separate banquets, each with a specialized theme and an array of speakers.  Diana and I signed up for a banquet that featured a sword-and-sorcery theme and such speakers as Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague DeCamp, and one or two others, along with brand new writer Katherine Kurtz, who had just sold her Dyreni books.  I don’t remember precisely who, but one of the speakers decried the lack of strong female characters in the sub-genre.  In fact, I could recall only one — C.L. Moore’s character, Jirel of Joiry.  I remember grabbing a napkin and scrawling “Frost” on it, and the idea for the first book started coming together from that point.  Of course, as is the way of such things, the field suddenly exploded with female fantasy characters.  These days, if you held such a banquet, some writer would have to stand up and decry the absence of strong male characters.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does a typical novel take you to write?

RWB: It varies.  I wrote my first bestseller, Nightwatch, in just four months.  My personal favorite, Shadowdance, took just over a year of actual writing time.  I’d say most of my novels take about a year of actual writing time.  Planning and development, of course, can add a lot to that.  I usually have at least two, and more likely three or four, novels in various stages of development and production.  At the moment, I have four.

SFFWRTCHT: How much world building do you do in advance and how much as you go?

RWB: I don’t really think of myself as a world builder.  Maybe it’s the theater and dance experience, but I’m more of a “scene-builder.”  Before I start writing, I create as much background as it takes to determine the personalities and motivations of my protagonists.  Once I get underway, I’ll start adding layers of detail to that, but only if those details are necessary and don’t encumber the story.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve told me about your world bibles. How do you make one of those?

RWB: Before I begin a novel, I set aside a blank book or a notebook.  I’ve got one right here beside the computer as I write these answers.  The first chapters of this bible usually include biographies for the major characters, both protagonists and antagonists.  These biographies include things like parentage and upbringing, childhood experiences or memories, areas of expertise, where they were born and maybe where they will eventually die.  All the kinds of stuff that shape and motivate a character.  I’ll also include all the physical details.  Another chapter might include all the secondary characters, all the god or deities or other supernatural entities.  And still another chapter will include geography – the cities or streets, nations or planets.  Any other detail that I think I need to begin the story goes into the bible.  And it’s organic — it grows as the writing progresses.  It becomes a reference book, and a lot of what goes into it never actually makes it into the novel, itself.

SFFWRTCHT: How much of a blessing is it to have a geologist living with you?

RWB: It’s a mixed blessing.  Right now, she’s nagging me to go to dinner while I’m trying to write this.  Seriously, Diana’s a big help in a lot of ways.  She’s a trained scientist, which is always useful.  She’s also something of an expert with herbs and ancient cooking, which is often also useful to me.  Not to mention her background in demolitions and environment.  The smartest thing a writer can do is surround themselves with experts.

SFFWRTCHT: You also have Shadowdance, a personal favorite, which is dark fantasy. Tell us a bit about that story and how it came about?

RWB: That book came from a very dark place at a particularly dark time in my life.  I was struggling with a wide range of life issues: child abuse, molestation, depression and sexual identity, career insecurities, and what I then perceived as an abyss of deep personal failures.  I felt smothered in secrets, not just my own, but secrets that other people had put upon me.  It all bubbled up into the writing of that book.  I’ll never forget my agent calling me up literally in the middle of the night.  “This is the book you were born to write,” he said.  I don’t know if that was true, but it was certainly the book I had to write at that time, and finishing it felt like an exorcism.  It taught me the importance of writing honestly and writing with purpose.

SFFWRTCHT: Around the same period, you did Swords Against The Shadowland, a sequel to Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series? How does one go about taking on such challenge?

SWB: Carefully and with humility.  I had met Leiber a handful of times, and he was a sort of God of Fantasy to me.  He was tall and gaunt and had such an aura of mystery about him, a kind of charisma, and yet he was approachable and fun.  When I decided that I was going to write fantasy, he was one of the writers I studied, and I mean “studied” with all the skills I’d used in graduate school with any other major writer.  Leiber and I shared the same agent, and when I was invited to take up the mantel of Lankhmar under Leiber’s guidance, I was stunned.  Daunted is perhaps a better word.  Unfortunately, Fritz Leiber died before the ink was dry on our contract, so the collaborative experience I’d hoped for wasn’t possible.  I didn’t have ego enough to imagine I could tell any story just the way  Leiber would tell it, so I taped a note to my brain: honor — don’t imitate.  While working in his world with his characters, I still had to bring my own concerns and themes, my own voice, to the work.  A lot of people liked the result; some didn’t.  That’s life.  I’m forever grateful that Leiber trusted me.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you a huge Lieber fan?

RWB: What do you mean “were?”  (laughs)  Yes, I was and remain a huge fan of Leiber’s work.  I’ve got all his work still easily at hand on my book shelves, including some rarities like his small poetry chapbook, Sonnets from the Jonquil.  When he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, I had the honor of presenting the induction speech.  I embarrassed myself by crying.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you capture the feel of another author or did you even try?

RWB: I learned a lot by writing the Lankhmar book, but what served me well was that little note taped to my brain: honor — don’t imitate.  I kept that note at hand later when I wrote The Lake Of Fire, which was the fourth book in Philip Jose Farmer’s series, The Dungeon.  And as I indicated in the previous question, it really helps, not just to read the author whose work you’re taking on, but to study them.

SFFWRTCHT: And then you also have a YA series the Dragonkin Trilogy. Tell us a bit about the plot of those please?

RWB: I had a particular purpose in mind when I wrote those books: I wanted to write something that adults could read out loud to their children, and particularly, books that would work on at least two levels, that children might see in one way while adults saw something more.  Much like the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, which kids see as just cartoons and which seem far more subversive to adults.  So, the Dragonkin books revolve around a place called Wyvernwood where the last remaining mythological creatures in the world have retreated — the dragons, griffins, the last unicorn, harpies, and others.  But Wyvernwood rests along the borders of two warring human kingdoms, and the conflicts of Man inevitably spill over into Wyvernwood.  Dragonkin is the story, essentially, of three young dragons, triplet brothers and sisters, upon whom the fate of Wyvernwood hinges.  It’s a tale of hopes and jealousies, war and coming of age, sometimes tragic, often humorous, always magical.  I had a totally joyous blast writing it.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve helped name ConQuesT the local Con, served as President of SFWA twice and now help pilot a plane to transport patients to medical facilities. Is community service a typical part of the writer ethos? What inspires your dedication to service?

RWB: I don’t know if it’s part of the “Writer ethos.”  It’s just something I have to do.  At every step in my career as a writer, another writer has offered a hand to help me along.  Wilson Tucker stepped in as a father figure after my real father died; he encouraged me, advised me, made introductions when they were helpful, and became the most important man in my life.  When Frost was rejected by Ballantine Books, Judy-Lynn Del Rey sent it back, not with a form slip, but with a ten page detailed letter.  Carolyn Cherryh, hearing about the rejection, offered to read the manuscript and provided massive advice that helped me sell the novel the very next time I sent it out.  Of course, other writers have helped, and I hope I’ve provided some help.  We pay it forward — and we pay it backward.  We help each other.

I lost a lot of very dear friends to AIDS, and during the worst of that epidemic, I felt compelled to help in every way I could.  I volunteered to help get the first Kansas City assistance program, the Good Samaritan Project, off the ground.  I raised funds as a musician and singer and even as an aerobics instructor for that cause.  I did what I could as long as I could.  Later, during my own cancer year, local science fiction fans pitched in to help in every way they could, and readers and writers from all around the world sent cards and letters and encouragement.  I don’t think I could have survived without that help and the hope it provided.

Now, my involvement with Angel Flight is an extension of that.  I know the value of help and hope.  Angel Flight provides free transportation around the country to people, kids or adults, in need of medical services they might not otherwise be able to afford.  It’s a great organization.  However, before you give me too much credit, remember that the real hero here is Ron Davis, my “third half.”  Ron owns the plane, and Ron pays the fuel.  Angel Flight pilots are not reimbursed for any part of the travel.  It’s all out of their pockets and out of their hearts.  I merely fly right-seat, co-pilot and luggage handler and funny guy when necessary.  We try to fly at least one flight a week, and sometimes Ron flies alone or with another co-pilot.  I fly along as often as I can and as time allows. And it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world.

SFFWRTCHT: And you know I really admire you for that work. You’ve helped me as a writer and encouraged me and the Angel Flight thing is the kind of things I put time into. It’s wonderful that you’re giving back. Your latest release, debuting at ConQuesT, is a short story collection, tell us about that and some of the stories included. (genre, where they’ve appeared, a few summary plot details, etc.)

RWB: The collection is called The Fantastikon: Tales Of Wonder, and it contains stories that span the entirety of my 30 years as a professional writer, including “Child of Orcus,” which first appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s very first Sword and Sorceress anthology in 1983 to my most recent story, “Killing Stars,” which appeared, coincidentally, in Sword and Sorceress 25.  It’s a very scatter-shot collection, featuring a little bit of everything from sword-and-sorcery to urban horror, really dark fiction and some really funny work.  It’s sort of a companion volume to my earlier collection, Turn Left To Tomorrow, which featured only science fiction stories.

SFFWRTCHT: And both collections are published by Yard Dog Press. Did Yard Dog approach you about the collection? Who’s idea was it?

RWB: Actually, I think Diana gets the credit.  We’ve known Selina Rosen and Lynn Stranathan, the ladies behind Yard Dog Books, for a long time.  I think Diana first approached them about the idea of gathering my science fiction stories together in Turn Left To Tomorrow.  Most people know me as a fantasy writer and aren’t aware of how much short-form science fiction I’ve written.  After that, this fantasy collection was kind of logical.

SFFWRTCHT: Are any of your short stories related to the worlds of your novels?

RWB: Only a couple.  Over the years, I’ve revisited the Frost character twice.  Eleven years after the last novel, Bloodsongs, during my cancer battle, I wrote a story called “The Woman Who Loved Death.”  It appeared in Martin Greenberg’s Spell Fantastic.  Then, eleven years after that, I wrote another Frost story, “Killing Stars.”  Both stories will appear in The Fantastikon: Tales Of Wonder, and, in fact, I think they form the end pieces for the new collection.  Occasionally now, I think I’ll continue to write additional Frost stories, when or for whom, I don’t know, but the opportunities will present themselves.

SFFWRTCHT: Just a few more craft questions to finish up. Do you outline or pants it?

RWB: Life is short – why choose?  That seems to be my foremost motto these days.  I do it both ways.  Come to think of it, maybe that’s my foremost motto.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use Scrivener or other “writing software tools”? Write to music? Any rituals?

RWB: I don’t even know what Scrivener is.  It’s impossible to keep up with software or social media these days, especially if you value a social life.  Sometimes, I do write to music, but as often as not, that’s the music of silence.  I have all sorts of rituals, most too kinky to go into here.  But I do meditate regularly at any point in the writing process.  And I lift weights if I get stuck or need a short break.  I have a full weight arrangement with free weights and benches at the far end of my office, and rather than leave the room entirely, I’ll retreat for some sets of heavy lifting.  In fact, my office smells rather like a gym.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like—specific block? Write til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

RWB: That depends on the project.  When I’m working on my primary novel, I need a block of uninterrupted time.  I keep that project on my primary desktop computer on my main desk.  I have a second desk back-to-back with that upon which a second computer rests, and it contains another couple of novels that get attention in smaller bits.  Finally, my netbook goes everywhere I go and usually contains a short story or two that gets worked on when time allows.  I just finished a short story that’s taken two years, just two or three lines at a time, maybe a paragraph, often in the plane or on a park bench, but whenever I had a spare moment.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

RWB: I’m asking myself that same question. There is the upcoming Fantastikon, of course.  For the past four years, I’ve taken a break from writing novels to focus on short fiction and to do a little bit of teaching at a local college.  It was rewarding in all sorts of ways, but now I’m back to novels again.  I’ve got a children’s book in progress on my primary computer and the first third of another novel in progress on the desk behind me.  Two other novels are in lesser stages of progress, but each well underway at more than one hundred pages.  This isn’t uncommon for me; I usually have various works in various stages of progress.  Still, I’ve been mostly invisible in the bookstores for that four-year period, so it’s a legitimate concern to ask if any of these books will find a market?  Time will tell.  I haven’t left writing behind, and I hope that writing hasn’t left me behind.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.