Interview with James Lowder (2004)
Given below is an interview conducted between the Scribes of Candlekeep and James Lowder. Jim is the author of the Forgotten Realms novel from the Avatar Series : Prince of Lies. Jim's work also includes Crusade, Ring of Winter and Knight of the Black Rose (Ravenloft). This interview was carried out in February 2004. This material cannot be reproduced without permission.
Interview with James Lowder – Author of 'Prince of Lies' (The Avatar Series , Book 5)
1. Please if you will tell us what projects you have been working on since leaving TSR/Wizards.
I resigned my position as a full-time book editor and line editor for the Realms and Ravenloft in 1992, but continued for almost two years to edit individual book projects for TSR on a freelance basis. During those two transition years I also worked for a number of other companies as a freelance writer. I wrote short stories for White Wolf and a Tales from the Crypt young adult book, a pick-a-path story about a mad board game designer titled Name Your Nightmare where you get eaten by zombies or go insane if you choose the wrong path. In the mid-90s I began to focus more on creator-owed work. Apart from specific projects like Spectre of the Black Rose , much of what I've done in the past five to ten years has been creator-owned. I've published short stories in anthologies for DAW ( Historical Hauntings , The Repentant ) and Del Rey ( Shadows Over Baker Street ). I've also done a few comic book scripts, some game design for various companies, and a lot of editing. I serve as executive editor for Green Knight Publishing's line of Arthurian fiction and have edited creator-owned anthologies for Green Knight ( The Doom of Camelot and Legends of the Pendragon ), Eden Studios ( The Book of All Flesh and sequels), and Guardians of Order ( Path of the Just and Path of the Bold ). Many of those books include stories by writers I first edited in my days working on the Realms—Elaine Cunningham and Ed Greenwood, most notably.
My big project at the moment is a creator-owned novel set in R.A. Salvatore's Demon Wars universe. It's titled Brotherhood of the Lost and should be out late in 2004. Bob asked me about proposing a book set in Corona specifically because of the content of Prince of Lies . He was intrigued by the way I handled faith and religion, which are also a big part of the Demon Wars setting.
(Comic panel: James is the character with the tape recorder, next to him is Jeff Grubb)
2. For those who are hearing your name for the first time, who may have not read your books yet (And we will torture those few later), could you tell us a little of your background and how you came to work for TSR.
I landed a job as an editorial assistant at TSR in 1988 thanks to a background that included interest in RPGs—I started playing as a teenager in the late 1970s—and some experience with both fiction and publishing. I had an undergrad double major in English and History, and had taught courses in writing and even fantasy literature while working on my Masters. I'd been an editor on my college literary magazine, worked on the local public television magazine, and had even published a few articles, stories, and reviews.
3. Could you tell us about how the Avatar series came to be, and what was your involvement in the project?
I was originally hired as an editorial assistant, which meant I started out doing all the grunt jobs in the Book Department—photocopying manuscripts, mailing out review copies, reading all the unsolicited submissions, and proofreading. But Books was also a small department, and understaffed even after I was hired, so it wasn't long before I got the chance to take on some editorial assignments. I did some proofreading on Spellfire , then moved up to story editing on Azure Bonds , both under the direction of the department's senior editor. Avatar came up around that time, and the senior editor thought I was ready for the responsibility. My gaming background came into play here. Because I understood the RPGs quite well—something that was not true of most of the other book editors—I would be able to liaison with the game designers in the ways Avatar would demand.
Avatar was envisioned at first as a way to explain the changes in the Realms caused by the transition from first edition to second edition AD&D. In the end it strayed from that tightly defined role, but that's why you see all the assassins dying off at one point—there weren't supposed to be assassins in second edition. What everyone soon realized, though, was that a novel could not be aligned one-to-one with the game rules. Things like classes and alignments are not as cut and dry in fiction as in RPGs, not if you want the fiction to avoid sounding like a transcript of a gaming session. So the fetters were shaken off and the story was not constrained by the game rules so harshly in the end. But a few things, like the assassins' demise, remain as clues to the original vision for the project.
I wasn't in on the first meeting or two about Avatar—the idea for the trilogy was cooked up by Mary Kirchoff, who was the senior book editor and was in the process of being promoted to department head, and Jeff Grubb, who was the in-house Realms game guru. I was told that Ed Greenwood was involved in those planning meetings, but I've since heard from Ed that he wasn't. In any case, Mary and Jeff decided on the general direction—the plot would involve four characters representing the four character classes, gods would die, some of the heroes might replace the fallen gods in the end. They didn't have a rigidly structured plot in mind, more like a lot of disparate story elements. The tag line that was most spoken in the halls of TSR to describe the project was “The Gods Walk the Realms,” to which someone would invariably add, “And wouldn't it be great if they brought beer…”
Mary Kirchoff hired three authors to write the three books, and I was brought in as the trilogy's editor. That role would grow significantly over the course of the Avatar project, which lasted well over a year and came to include RPG products, comics, and various other tie-ins. I eventually became the coordinator for all Avatar-related material in Books and Games and even some licenses—the traffic cop and go-to resource on the subject—largely because everyone else ran screaming from the room when the topic came up. It really was an incredibly complicated and time-consuming project. I had a warning poster up on my office door for much of the time I was editing the series. Jeff Grubb had drawn a picture of a stick-figure Jim Lowder at the bottom of “the Avatar Vortex” with something like “abandon all hope” written under it. That summed it up nicely.
The vortex nature of the project became most telling for me with Tantras . Partway through the writing phase of that book, we ended up firing the author who had originally been hired. He was a nice guy and quite talented, but he had a hard time sticking to the plot outline I had worked up with him; that was creating nightmares for everyone. All three novels were being written at the same time, by three different authors, in three different parts of the country. And if the published books were to make any sense, the characters and plot needed to develop smoothly over the course of the three individual books. The original Tantras author just couldn't seem to get in synch with Scott Ciencin, who was writing Shadowdale , and Troy Denning, who was writing Waterdeep , or with me, who was charged with making the three books work together. When he was fired, there was no time to hire a replacement, no time to possibly get anyone up to speed on the whole Avatar storyline, so I wrote a very detailed plot outline, from which Scott Ciencin started writing a first draft the moment he was done with the final revision of Shadowdale . When he was done with his first draft, I revised the book, including rewriting a couple of chapters, and got it into editing.
The Avatar Trilogy was my first assignments as a full editor, the first books where I worked with the authors from outline stage to finished product. Given how complex and work-intensive the project turned out to be, it looks in hindsight like being entered in the Boston Marathon after showing your trainer you could sprint around the block at a good clip and not pass out.
4. Could you tell us about the decision to not credit the authors on the original release of the Avatar series?
It was purely a marketing decision. At the time, there weren't many Realms books in stores, and the ones that had been released were often shelved in the bookstores by author name—Salvatore, Niles, Greenwood. They hadn't yet been given their own section by the chains. TSR was concerned that the individual Avatar books would be shelved in different places if they didn't have the same author name on them—and the release schedule was far too tight to have one author write all three, so three authors were necessary. Enter “Richard Awlinson.” I think the name was Jim Ward's idea: Awlinson was a derived from “all in one.” The surname had to start with an A so that it would be shelved at the start of the SF section.
I was never a fan of the house name, and pushed to let the authors include their actual names and bios in the back, which is why they show up there, even with the house name on the old covers. Now that the Realms books are shelved together as a series in most stores, there's no need for the house name, which would explain, in part, why Wizards removed it for the new releases.
5. At what point was it decided that you were going to write a novel which was a follow up to the Avatar Trilogy?
I talked with Scott Ciencin and Troy Denning shortly after we had finished up the first trilogy about a possible follow-up trilogy, which would have been titled the Godswar Trilogy. Each of us would have taken our favourite character from the original books and written a loosely linked stand-alone book, along the lines of the structure Troy, David Cook, and I ended up using for the Empires Trilogy. But it took a couple years to get the Avatar sequel onto the schedule, and by the time TSR was willing to consider it, Scott was off doing novels for various other publishers and Troy had begun to work on another big project, the initial five-book Dark Sun series, I believe. So I was the only one who could participate. The Godswar Trilogy became a single book, Prince of Lies , which was the title I had proposed originally for my Godswar book. Prince covered the ground I had wanted to cover in the first place with my Godswar book—a lot of the Cyric material in the original trilogy has my fingerprints on it, particularly in Tantras ; I always found him the most interesting character by far—so it all worked out in the end.
6. How much material did you have on the Gods of Faerun previously to working on the series?
I had access to the official game material. When I got the assignment and started working with the authors to put together the more detailed plot for the trilogy, I worked with Jeff Grubb on which gods would be impacted. The actual personalities of the gods were largely undefined—though Jeff provided some rough guides where he could, from his discussions with Ed—so we tried our best in Avatar and in Prince to extrapolate full personalities from those guides and what clues were scattered throughout the official Realms material.
7. At times when reading the book, my mind was taken back to the tales of the ancient Greek gods sat upon Mount Olympus deciding the fate of humanity. Did you get inspiration from any of these tales?
Certainly. Norse mythology, too. But I also tried to depict the pantheon as a rules-bound bureaucracy, where the status quo is maintained by the various agreements, spoken and unspoken, between the greater powers. I started from the premise that there has to be a reason the gods are not constantly messing with daily life in the Realms, in major, major ways. Why things like Avatar were not happening all the time. Cyric sees the limitations the other gods have agreed to place on themselves and uses those limitations, the webs of alliances and enmities, against them.
8. There was so much going on in ‘Prince of Lies'. So many amazing plot devices, twists and turns and revelations. Do you wish that it could have been spread over more stories, or do you feel that everything was concluded to your satisfaction in ‘Crucible: The Trial of Cyric the Mad'?
I had no involvement in Crucible , so I'm afraid I don't really have an opinion on this.
9. The inquisitors were such a nice touch. Reading it reminded me of the parallels between that and the ‘Spanish' Inquisition, namely the mass genocide of so called heretics for the gain of power. Did this influence the story at all?
Absolutely. Cyric was interested in forcing everyone to conform to his vision of faith and of reality, so I looked to historical analogues like the Inquisition when drafting the plot. I read quite a lot of history. Various aspects of my first Realms novel, Crusade , were inspired by the Hundred Years War. For Prince , the supporting characters in Zhentil Keep and the conditions in which they live are informed by reading I've done on the Regency Underworld. There are historical resonances in most things I write; hopefully I integrate them with the settings well enough that they're interesting, if not invisible.
10. Did you have any particular favorite characters in the series, that you would have liked to write about again?
Artus Cimber—from The Ring of Winter and some of the short stories I wrote—is the Realms character I'd be most interested in revisiting, though Cyric is a close second. I also have notes scribbled somewhere about where I various other characters from my Realms tales were heading: Gwydion and Rinda from Prince ; Ironlord Torg, the dwarflord from Crusade ; and Vrakk, the orc from Crusade and Prince. They'd all be fun to write again.
11. Because the books deal with faiths and pantheons, it opens the reader up to ponder about our own creation, and whether there is a “God” or “Gods”. What are your views on the subject?
I believe in a higher power or force or whatever you want to call it, but my own beliefs can't really be summed up too easily. I'm a classic lapsed Irish Catholic, in some ways. I had a Philosophy minor in college and took a fair number of Theology classes, too; I attended Marquette, which is a Jesuit university. In one Theology course, I was declared “class heretic” at the semester's end. The professor noted several times during the course that some of my views would have got me burned at the stake at various times throughout history.
12. I know there has been a lot of talk on the forums about the return of certain gods. Would you like to come back and do a further story?
I'd consider it, but a lot would depend upon what the project was and schedule and so on. As I've noted in some of those same message board discussions, the original sequel I had in mind for Prince of Lies would have involved the return of Bane. And having spent several years working on the line, both as a writer and editor, I have a great fondness for the Realms.
13. What do you think to the new Avatar Series novel covers by Brom?
I like the graphic design for the series, and I think the covers are an improvement over the original trilogy's covers, in terms of accuracy of the artwork to content. The covers for the first three books were fine, but they were painted as the books were being written, so they aren't tied to the content as tightly as some would like. Tantras , in particular, caused some consternation with its original cover. That's supposed to be Mourngrym on there, and if you've seen the cover, the ominous figure flanked by girls in chain mail bikinis doesn't quite match up with Mourngrym we all know from the official material.
Around the office we used to joke about the subject of that cover being “Mourngrym, Lord of the Slave Chicks.” I recall Jeff Grubb even having Mourngrym's wife make a joke about the painting in one of his novels or in the Forgotten Realms comic books he wrote. Those comics are well worth hunting down, if you haven't yet read them. (A bit of trivia about the FR comics: Jeff had artist Rags Morales draw both of us into a panel in the final issue, being lecturing on Realmsian pottery by Elminster.)
I have to admit that I like Brom's original cover for Prince of Lies better than the new one. The new one is good, but the original was exactly what I had requested. For the original, Brom and I went over Gustave Doré's illustrations for The Divine Comedy to come up with the look and feel for the piece. The resulting art was really spectacular.
14. I noticed some similarities to your Ravenloft novel ‘Knight of the Black Rose', inasmuch of the very powerful, tortured if you like, bad guy being served by a seneschal in a castle, in a somewhat dark domain. Do you think that any of your experience on this book rubbed off on your later writings?
That particular similarity speaks more to the historical research I do. Seneschals were a part of manor life in medieval settings, and important people had them around to do specific tasks. But there are certain themes that come up in my work time and again, connections that can be drawn between characters or themes or plots. The price of power is one of them, and can be seen as a common element in Crusade with Azoun, in the Ravenloft books with Soth, and in Prince of Lies with Cyric. That theme would define the aspect of Artus Cimber's character I would explore next, too: How does possession of an awesome artifact like the Ring of Winter, and the power that gives him, distance him from humanity? What price does he pay for that power? Perhaps that story will be told some day.
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