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September 23, 2014 | Interview

Realism Seems So Much Harder: A Conversation with James Sutter

Matthew Simmons (@matthewjsimmons)

Realism Seems So Much Harder: A Conversation with James Sutter photo

A few months back, I got the opportunity to (once again) indulge the teenage role-playing geek inside me when I got a short-term contract job editing game materials for Paizo, the company responsible for Pathfinder, a fantasy role-playing game of the old school, tabletop, pen-and-paper-and-dice variety. While I was there, I discovered that the Managing Editor happened to have a connection to this fine journal. He, James Sutter, also had a second novel coming out—The Redemption Engine, which hit bookshelves in April of this year—and some really interesting things to say about the craft of writing with active, exciting plots and enormous, deeply imagined settings as the focus. 

I must admit: I write small. And often, I write quiet. I have an enormous curiousity about how one builds a planet from origin through history to its now. Or how one lights the fuse in the first moments of a story and then paces events while that fuse burns and burns until the bomb goes off. So I asked James Sutter if he'd mind talking a little about how he came to game creation, fantasy writing, and approaching his storytelling the way he does.

 
Not to force you to do your own intro here, but you had a piece on Hobart in, what, 2006? Tell us a little bit about what you've been up to since.
 
My first published short story, a bit of magical realism called "The Weight of Wings," came out in Hobart Pulp in 2003, when I was 19 and still an undergrad creative writing student at the University of Washington. It was the first time I'd ever sent a story out, and the editor snagged it quickly, which gave me a huge wave of confidence that helped carry me through the subsequent piles of rejections that are every writer's birthright. So it's deeply satisfying to be back here doing an interview!
 
After that, I went on to edit Dungeon, one of the official Dungeons & Dragons magazines, for Paizo Publishing, which in turn led to me being a co-creator of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, currently the best-selling tabletop RPG in the world. I work as the Managing Editor for Paizo, overseeing the editorial pit, and am the acquiring editor for the Pathfinder novel line, but I've done a little bit of everything for the company over the years. In addition to a bunch of award-winning game books fleshing out the campaign setting, I've also written two Pathfinder novels, Death's Heretic (2011) and The Redemption Engine (2014), the former of which was #3 on Barnes & Noble's Best Fantasy Releases of 2011, as well as a finalist for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel. My short fiction has appeared in venues like Escape PodApex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the #1 Amazon best-seller Machine of Death (which Glenn Beck publicly railed against as an example of the "liberal culture of death"). Last but not least, I also edited the anthology Before They Were Giants, which presents the first published short stories from speculative fiction luminaries like William Gibson, Nicola Griffith, China Miéville, and Joe Haldeman, along with new interviews in which the authors critique their early work and offer advice to new authors.
 
I've also played in several metal bands—my most recent one, Brides of the Lizard God, just released our first EP, A Different Kind of Terror. I live in a big house in Seattle's Central District with my wife, 6–9 roommates, Zefram the Warp Corgi, and a fully functional death ray. If people want to know more, I've got a website at jameslsutter.com, and also compulsively check my Twitter (@jameslsutter).
 
How did you end up at Paizo? Were you a role-player who got into writer? A fantasy fan who found folks with similar interests in the world of gaming? A little of both?
 
In college, I was really into journalism, because college journalism is all sex and rock and roll (or at least it was for me). I interviewed my favorite bands and went on gonzo adventures in order to write about them, like being a [clothed, scenery-only] extra in a porn shoot, or a contestant on Wheel of Fortune [Sadly, I could not find a youtube clip of this.—m] , etc. The problem was, once I got out of college, those gigs were hard to line up, and I ended up doing more and more work for sleepy suburban newspapers. I quickly realized that while I loved writing, I hated *reporting*, so I went looking for a job where I could write or edit more creatively.
 
To my surprise and delight, Paizo—which at the time ran Amazing Stories in addition to Dungeon and Dragon—was just outside of Seattle. I cold-called them and got an interview, and though they didn't have any editorial positions open, they decided to throw me what bones they could. Which is how I, a 20-year-old recent graduate, ended up sourcing images to populate the newly launched Paizo web store at a nickel a jpg while teaching SAT-prep classes at night and slowly burning through my Wheel of Fortune winnings. Pretty glamorous, no?
 
Anyway, I'd been a gamer all through childhood, and only really dropped it when I went to college and no longer had a group, so I was more than happy to pick up the dice again once it offered career prospects. Writing for games seemed like the closest I could get to writing speculative fiction while still getting paid, so I learned everything I could from my coworkers and worked my way up from website monkey to editorial intern to customer service to assistant editor, and so on, until now, almost 10 years later, I find myself one of the most senior people in the company.
 
As far as whether I'm more of a fiction or gaming guy... I'd say I'm really just into world-building, in whatever form that takes. Whenever I finish a novel, I get excited to work on a game book, and vice versa. They use different writing muscles, so it's nice to be able to trade off and rest parts of my brain. (For instance, in a setting book, I don't have to worry about character or pacing, but I also have to have a much higher density of ideas and imagination-hooks.)
 
"World building" seems like an intimidating concept. I mean, all writers begin with a blank page, but, say, a "realist" writer at least can look out the window and say, "Well, at least I have this available to me." Where do you begin? Do you take the world as is and decide which parts to jettison and which parts to keep? Or do you start small and build?
 
Oh man, realism seems so much harder! I mean, everybody's been to the grocery store or felt awkward before—I think it takes immense talent to make that familiar world seem new and interesting again. I'm not bold enough for that. I say "Okay, maybe you've felt awkward, but have you ever felt it while talking to an insane chaos-snake in a floating tower?" I have no idea if my characters are going to properly convey the emotions I want, but by god, at least the scenery behind them will be amazing!
 
In terms of where I start with world building... I honestly have no master plan, but I do have some tricks. The first is intersection: take two halfway decent ideas and smash them together, then see where that leads you. 
 
Let's say you're trying to create a fantasy village. Maybe it's always threatened by orcs. Maybe it grows some sort of valuable drug--let's call it the dream lotus. Either of those is fine, but not very original. So let's combine them: how do the two ideas intersect? Maybe the townsfolk have been supplying the orc drug trade for years, and now they're holding out for a better deal. Maybe the dream lotuses are sacred to the orcs, or part of their mating rituals. Maybe the orcs are actually prohibitionists, crusading against the human drugs that have ravaged their people. Or maybe the drugs emphasize humans' latent psychic talents, combining them telepathically into a single mono-mind while they sleep, and this subconscious entity is threatening to rip a hole in reality and let the creatures of the dream-world through—a fate which only the dream-immune orcs can stop. See how quickly that got interesting?
 
One of my other favorite approaches is justification. I draw out a random map and put a bunch of dots on it, or else make a big list of interesting-sounding names, and then try to justify their existence. What's that dot? Well, it's on the edge of a lake, so it's probably a fishing town... but maybe it's actually in the lake, built on five ancient pillars that reach up out of the water like fingers. Or let's say I'm looking at a list of names—Rashka-tor, Sech Nevali, The Broken Shore, Seraph's Ladder—all of which I pulled out of thin air because they had a nice fantasy ring to them. Maybe I take Seraph's Ladder and say, "Okay, that clearly sounds like something that ascends, so maybe it's a staircase... an ancient freestanding staircase in the middle of an open field. But it should probably be magical, so maybe as you walk up it, you get younger, but as you come back down, you age again. Except what happens if you get to the top?"
 
So if I had to try to explain my process as a unified whole, I guess I'd point to oysters: I start from little grains of ideas that aren't themselves that interesting and use them as the irritant that causes my brain to secrete layer after layer of explanation until I hopefully wind up with something fun.
 
Another important tool in your writer's toolbox is plot. Do you have a philosophy of plot? What it is and where to find it in the worlds you build?
 
If there's anything that working in the gaming industry has taught me, it's that plot is key. The average fantasy reader doesn't have a lot of patience for slice-of-life, even if it's slice-of-life in the magical unicorn kingdom. You've got to keep the action coming.
 
That said, for me, plot is often an excuse to show off the parts of the world I'm excited about. I'm not going to lie—both of my novels started off as me grabbing all my favorite toys out of the box and then trying to justify how, say, GI Joe and Voltron could end up working together. That's why both Death's Heretic and The Redemption Engine deal so much with the planes of the afterlife and other dimensions: because it allowed me to have angels and devils and robot people and fairy lords and chaos worms and all the crazy shit at once. For Death's Heretic, I literally said to myself, "Okay, James.... what plot could possibly weave all these different elements together?" And eventually I realized that tracking a kidnapped soul through the various planes of the afterlife would give me exactly the sort of travelogue I was looking for.
 
That may sound like a kludge, but really, I think that "Find the story that allows you to focus on the parts of your world you're excited to write about, and leave out all the parts that bore you" is sound advice. If you're not excited about a romance element, or political intrigue, leave those part out. As a reader, I know I gravitate toward travelogues (like Dan Simmons' Hyperion, or China Miéville's Bas-Lag books), so that's what I write. And as expected, it appeals to some readers and not others—I can't tell you how many reviews I've seen saying "The extraplanar stuff was pointless," followed immediately by reviews saying "The extraplanar stuff was my favorite part!" Ultimately, you've got to entertain yourself if you want to entertain anyone else.
 
One last question:
 
What's your favorite monster? Why?
 
(Okay, two last questions.)
 
Angels and devils, especially when they have alien physiology and a healthy dose of moral ambiguity. If I had to pick one in particular, it would be the Angel of Death from Hellboy 2. It's only on screen for a few seconds, but Guillermo del Toro's creature design always kicks me right in the teeth, and everything about his eyeless angel speaks to me. In many ways, it inspired both my own Caulborn (from The Redemption Engine and various sourcebooks) and every angel or devil I've written since. 

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