Grasping for the Wind Rotating Header Image

[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author Paul S. Kemp

Paul S. Kemp is a mild-mannered corporate lawyer by day, but goes out at night fighting for justice and the American way. He’s the author of three Star Wars tie-in books from Del Rey Spectra and twice that many Forgotten Realms books. His latest book, The Hammer & The Blade, is an original adventure fantasy from Angry Robot Books, starring Nix and Egil. He lives up near Detroit with his wife, twin sons and a daughter. And his stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Dragon and Sails and Sorcery.  You can find Paul online via Facebook, his website and @paulskemp on Twitter.

Paul S. Kemp: Queue BOOM, puff of smoke, and The Final Countdown blaring from unseen speakers. Hey, thanks for having me. Great to be back.

SFFWRTCHT: Paul’s previous #sffwrtcht interview can be found at Ok we did talk about your favorite book and author influences last time, but I feel like we have to at least revisit that here because you cite Leiber, Howard, Moorcock and Brackett all as influences on your idea for and writing of this book. Lifelong fan?

PSK: So much so that I re-read Leiber and Howard (and the Thieves’ World anthologies) yearly. They feel fresh every time. They have a magic to them, a sense of wonder that I love. Storytelling is vibrant, characters are colorful, pacing is quick.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you going for that “old fashioned” sword and sorcery feel then?

PSK: I really just wanted to tell a ripping yarn that made readers grin or grimace by turn. If that’s old fashioned, then yes, that’s what I was going for.  Fafhrd and Gray Mouser: they’re my favorite stories of all time, followed closely by Howard’s Conan tales. Hammer is my homage. (Read the GFTW review.)

SFFWRTCHT: Yes, that’s why I love that era’s stories too, very much. If you could name one Leiber story those who haven’t yet read him should read after reading The Hammer and The Blade, which one would it be?

PSK: I’d say “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Classic, classic, classic.

SFFWRTCHT: Is adventure fantasy necessarily much different today than it was when Howard, Brackett, Moorcock & Leiber wrote those tales?

PSK: The core elements are the same: great characters, rapid pacing, propulsive dialog. Angry Robot pitches HAMMER as old school but with modern sensibilities. And I guess that’s true. I think my prose and subject matter is “modern,” in a sense. While the rest is throwback.

SFFWRTCHT: Which came first-plot or characters? Theme? World?

PSK: Always characters first for me. Always. If someone is talking about plot/theme/world, before characters, I failed.

SFFWRTCHT: What constitutes “a great character” for you?

PSK: One with lots of internal conflict, a compelling arc, and an interesting voice.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you create Egil and Nix for this story or have they previously appeared in shorts?

PSK: I created them for this series of novels. Came easy though. I feel made for these two.

SFFWRTCHT: You use humorous banter to add both to the tension and character building particularly of Egil and Nix. How hard was it to find their voices?

PSK: Strangely, not hard at all. After I established some basics of the characters, their voices just emerged. Easiest and most clear characters I’ve ever written. Just a blast to write.

SFFWRTCHT: After character then, what’s next? Plot? World? Theme?

PSK: For me? Pacing. Then plot, then world, but they’re all crammed together.

SFFWRTCHT: Was it more difficult to write a novel in your own world, than the Forgotten Realms/Star Wars worlds?

PSK: Easier, to be honest. Keeping everything straight in shared worlds can be a challenge because they’re so detailed.

SFFWRTCHT: Any tricks you can suggest for making humor and banter work well? At bars, take notes on drunk people, do the opposite?

PSK: You know, I think you can write humor or you can’t. It’s a bit like a sense of pacing in that regard. I think you either have it or you don’t. Hard thing to “train” yourself on.

SFFWRTCHT: Nix is a poor boy turned grave robber/con man/swordsmith. Tell us about him.

PSK: Nix is the guy that strikes everyone as cocksure, quick with the right word at just the right moment. His secret is that he’s horribly insecure (as so many like him are). His empathy and emotions run deep, but he tries hard (and often fails) to float on their surface.

SFFWRTCHT: Egil is an interesting mix-priest/thief/scoundrel. You write priest characters a lot i.e. Erevis Cale. Why? Tell us about Egil.

PSK: Very, very fun character to write. The Hammer refers to Egil’s weapons, The Blade to Nix’s. It’s about grave robbers who get kidnapped for killing a demon, when that threatens a sorcerer’s power and family future. It’s very much old school sword and sorcery, but with (I hope) modern prose and subject matter.  It is (I daresay) enormously fun, in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but with some intellectual heft. Egil is the stoic of the duo. He’s been both hardened and softened by a personal tragedy. He turned to religion (a weird religion at that) as a result of what he regards as his greatest failure. But he didn’t turn to it for solace or forgiveness, oh no. He did it because tragedy changed him, and the particular religion he espoused fit him after his change. Religion and faith offer such rich storytelling opportunities, so I often have religious characters in my stories.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you base the characters at all on characters you liked from the early S&S tales youd read and enjoyed?

PSK: Not direclty, but definitely, definitely drew inspiration from Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. I went with archetypes that appealed to me then turned them a little sidewise for fun.

SFFWRTCHT:  Do you do character sketches, backgrounds etc as well? Do you incorporate research into outlines? Keep a world bible?

PSK: I tend to do very deep dives into character psychology, even in outlines. Honestly, I think (to be immodest) that characterization and character arcs are something I do about as well as anyone. I’m much looser with the world. No bible, though I do keep notes. Character yes — big time psychological sketch.

SFFWRTCHT: Are women objects-of-quest in your book like Howard’s, or real people?

PSK: Great question. Hammer could be subtitled, The Education of Egil and Nix. And gender roles are the subject matter. I try to take a standard trope of Sword & Sorcery and turn it on its head.  In my Star Wars novel, Deceived, Aryn Leneer is a Jedi Knight and the protagonist. It’s been interesting watching responses to Hammer. Readers seem to have a lot of fun with it. But I wonder at times if the amount of fun, and the fact that it’s S&S, encourage missing the theme.

SFFWRTCHT: Do your characters ever surprise you?

PSK: They do in the sense that in the midst of scene I’ll think: Oh, crap, he/she wouldn’t do this. He’d do that.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think Egil and Nix are more or less tied to their home city as Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are to Lankhmar?

PSK: Nix, maybe. Not Egil. Egil can’t sit still. Memories haunt him so he’s always moving/running.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a standard set of questions aka worksheet you refer to when sketching characters?

PSK: I don’t. It’s really more organic than that. I want some foundational traits, internal conflict, and off I go.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you ever had backstory you hadn’t thought of come to you as you write and made big changes accordingly?

PSK: Oh, definitely. I don’t want to give the impression I’ve got it all worked out at the outset. Things change, new things appear, inspiration strikes for a character. But I do like to have a solid psychological foundation from get go. We’re all driven so much by our insecurities and self-perceived strengths, knowing those in a character really helps when writing their scenes.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the setting. I found myself longing for a map. Its a Forgotten Realms-like/traditional fantasy setting, right? Do you have any plans for a map in later books?

PSK: You know, that’s more a publisher decision. This gets at setting in S&S which is a tricky thing. Most S&S has less gazeteer/tour guide worldbuilding (like epic fantasy) and more an implied setting. Think Lankhmar, Sanctuary, the Young Kingdoms, Hyboria. None are fleshed out in encyclopedic fashion. Instead, there are some evocative set pieces, some touchstones, and the rest is implied. I love that. Keeps the wondrousness of the setting. Makes it feel magical. I tried to do the same with Ellerth in Hammer. I do sketch maps when necessary, though.

SFFWRTCHT: How long did the book take to write?

PSK: I don’t remember exactly, but think it was about my usual. Four to five months. I’ve written some faster than that. Many slower. This once came pretty easy (as I mentioned). Just fun.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you sell the book as a standalone, part of a series? How many Nix and Egil adventures are planned?

PSK: Sold two books (the next is A Discourse In Steel) and am in talks to do more.  In early stages on book 2. It’ll release in July next year.

SFFWRTCHT: I will say that The Hammer And The Blade is a fast read and a lot of fun. Good escapism, nice humor and action/character. How’d you wind up at Angry Robot?

PSK: I sent them an outline and a couple chapters, they dug it, and off we went. I feel lucky to have landed there. They have an outsized genre footprint for a non-Big-6 publisher.

SFFWRTCHT: Let’s talk a little about outlining. Do you write detailed, novella length outlines or just sketches?

PSK: I write outlines that are single spaced and usually come in around 15-20 pages. They’ll have snippets of dialog, character arcs, etc. I deviate all the time, of course, but I find it enormously helpful to have outline.

SFFWRTCHT: Did your approach to writing this change at all this time? You told us last time that you tend to skip around.

PSK: Nope. Still skipped around. I always outline, so I work from there. Thinking about it now, though, I may have done less skipping around with this book.  I’ve found it helps a lot, though. Don’t feel like writing this today? Write that. Works well.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you outline less in depth than the usual required for tie-ins?

PSK: You know, my tie-in experience has been pretty loose, so this outline was about the same. I think some tie-in properties have really Byzantine approval processes. Not Forgotten Realms and Star Wars, at least in my experience.

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

PSK: I tend to write when I can (mostly at night and lunch). I’ll block off time, too.

SFFWRTCHT: I think you told me a while back you were working on more SW and FR books. Any updates? When’s the next book out?

PSK: The next Cale book, Godborn, is coming in the Realms, the next Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse In Steel, and a Star Wars duology. I love doing the tie-in work. It’s been a true pleasure. Loved doing Hammer as well. Best of both worlds.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

PSK: Ha! “Write what you love” is the best. “Write what you know” is the worst.

SFFWRTCHT: Are there recurring motifs or thematic links in all your books?

PSK: Man’s relationship to faith shows up a lot. The burdens of faith. The weight of past sins. Means v. ends.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you read much new fantasy? If so, fav authors/books?

PSK: Not as much as I should. Like Mieville, enjoyed Vandermeer’s Finch, reading The Weird now.

SFFWRTCHT: I can’t remember. Do you use scrivener? Any special tools? I know you said you often write to rock music last time.

PSK: I do write to music all the time (Pandora radio mostly). I don’t use Scrivener. Probably should. I’ve got a Florence and the Machine station in Pandora and a Dave Matthews station. I have developed crushes on all women with British accents. I blame Florence, Lily Allen, and Dr. Who’s companions.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012). He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Comments are closed.