Interview with James Lowder (2010)
Given below is an interview conducted between Eytan Goran for his Israeli D&D website and James Lowder in 2010. This material cannot be reproduced without permission. See also the 2004 Interview with James Lowder page.
Interview with James Lowder
1. Can you tell us on what projects you are working these days?
My most recently published projects have been anthologies: The Best of All Flesh, which is a collection of zombie short stories; Curse of the Full Moon, a werewolf-themed anthology with stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and George R.R. Martin; and Family Games: The 100 Best, which is a collection of essays by 100 different game designers about the best board, card, and roleplaying games for general audiences. I’ve also been editing the comic book series Hack/Slash for Image. As a writer I’m working on a few short stories and revising a creator-owned dark fantasy novel, The Screaming Tower, which I hope to see published soon.
2. I understand from a previous interview that in Prince of Lies you actually choose the cover yourself. Were you involved like that in each book that you wrote? If so, can you tell us how you choose the other covers?
I was involved with determining the art for all my novels for TSR. It isn’t entirely accurate to say I “chose” the covers for any of the books. I worked with the artists, offering suggestions and occasionally art references. For the original Prince of Lies cover, for example, I gave Brom some Gustav Dore illustrations of Dante’s Inferno. At the time, the book department was encouraging all the authors to provide art suggestions for their projects. Sometimes the artists and TSR’s art director adopted those suggestions, sometimes they didn’t. For all of my books, the artists and the art director accepted my suggestions, but the credit for the art belongs to the artists themselves. I was very fortunate to have the work of such incredibly talented artists for my covers.
1. Can you tell us, the readers in Israel, who are not familiar with the events that happened at that time- I understood that Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis were not happy with the fact that Lord Soth moved to Ravenloft, and there was almost a war about this?
Not a war, exactly, but Tracy has made it clear over the years that he was unhappy about both the development of Ravenloft into a campaign setting and the use of Soth in the novels. I can understand why he might not agree with what was done. When you create a location or a character for a company as part of your employment or under a work-for-hire contract, you don’t own the rights to that material. The company does. And that gives them legal control over how those locations and characters are used. Most authors who create material under these terms eventually find their creations used in ways they may not like. It’s happened with characters I’ve created, so I am sympathetic.
However, that’s the nature of writing in a shared world. You sign a work-for-hire contract and you should expect such things to happen. Tracy and Margaret were not excluded from participating in Knight of the Black Rose at the very earliest stages. They were specifically invited to offer input on the book. In fact, had they wanted to write Knight, they could have done so. (I know this to be a fact because I made the calls to Margaret with that offer.) They weren’t interested. They were on bad terms with TSR at the time and decided not to get involved.
If Tracy looked at what was done with Soth in Knight and Spectre, I hope that he would see that the character was shown the greatest respect. Soth’s character is explored, but left unchanged. His motivations are not undermined or altered. His history is built upon the material from the original six books, and some of the original RPG material. In fact, he is eventually expelled from Ravenloft because he will not change. That was my intent from the start--to depict Soth in a way that would keep him intact for later use in Dragonlance. There really is no reason now to claim he never spent time in Ravenloft, since he left the place as he entered it.
In any case, I exchange e-mails with Margaret and Tracy now and then, and we are on good terms. In 2007 Tracy even wrote an essay for a book I edited, Hobby Games: The 100 Best, and I hope to have the chance to work with him and with Margaret again soon.
2. How did you become the author of the Knight of the Black Rose?
Another author had originally been contracted to write Knight. After his initial proposal was accepted, he had serious problems following through on the project. The book department looked around for a replacement, even commissioned several plot outlines from different writers, but could not find anyone who had the right perspective on Soth. Everyone wanted to change the character in ways that we--and I say “we” here because I was the Ravenloft fiction line editor at the time--thought would be problematic. The head of the book department, who had edited my first novel, Crusade, eventually asked me to write the book.
3. I understand that Knight of the Black Rose was supposed to describe the event of Soth’s arrival in Ravenloft (based on the original Ravenloft guide). Why did you choose to add a confrontation with Strahd? Was it related to the Vampire of the Mists?
I thought it would be interesting for two such strong-willed characters to meet. They are equally matched, in terms of their powers, and it was important for Soth to encounter a being who posed a real threat to him. Strahd is the ultimate figure of menace in Ravenloft. Who better to show the death knight that he faced formidable dangers there? Because Strahd had also appeared so prominently in the first book of the series, Vampire of the Mists, his presence in Knight of the Black Rose also gave the Ravenloft book line a little bit of coherence it might not have had otherwise.
4. Can you tell us how Tracy Hickman was involved in the creation and development of the Ravenloft world?
Tracy and Laura Hickman created the concept for Ravenloft. It was first published in the 1983 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons module of the same name. I’ve read that Tracy and Laura had actually created Barovia and Strahd in the late 1970s, but you’d have to ask them about that. A sequel to the original module, Ravenloft II: The House of Gryphon Hill, was published in 1986. The Hickmans provided the outline for that adventure, but Tracy left TSR before completing the module, so it ended up being written by a team that included Jeff Grubb, Zeb Cook, Doug Niles, and Harold Johnson. Tracy and Laura’s modules helped inspire the campaign setting released in 1990, but the campaign setting was the work of Bruce Nesmith and Andria Hayday, with William Connors and others--myself included--adding to the world later.
5. Why there is a gap of 8 years between Knight of the Black Rose and Spectre of the Black Rose?
After Knight of the Black Rose I spent several years writing other novels, including Prince of Lies and The Ring of Winter. In 1994 I parted ways with TSR and, because of various creative differences, I didn’t have much interest in writing for them again. After Wizards of the Coast bought the company in 1997, owner Peter Adkison kindly helped me resolve all the old issues and invited me write something new. I started Spectre of the Black Rose shortly thereafter. I plotted the book and had about a quarter of the draft written when my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. In order to meet the deadlines while helping my mother deal with my father’s illness, I invited an old friend to work with me on Spectre. Voronica Whitney-Robinson drafted certain scenes and sequences, based on my detailed outlines and notes; her main contributions were some of the Inza material in the middle of the book. I handled the rest of the book and polished Voronica’s sections so the final prose would read seamlessly. I would have preferred to write the novel alone, but Wizards could not give me a deadline extension. I’m grateful that Voronica could help out, and I think the end result is quite strong.
6. I understand that you planned a third novel in the Ravenloft world--Wake of the Black Rose. Now that Wizards has dropped the Ravenloft book line, and it seems the third book will never be written, can you tell us briefly about the book’s plot?
Spectre of the Black Rose was intended as a relaunch of the Ravenloft book line, and at the time of its release I briefly discussed a third book, which I had tentatively titled Wake of the Black Rose. The story would have centered around Sithicus after Lord Soth’s apparent departure. Ganelon and Azrael would have been major characters, along with Inza, the new darklord. While Soth was gone, his presence would have been felt in rather substantial ways, too. I wrote an article for Dragon #351 a few years back, titled “The Shadow of Sithicus,” which contains some hints about Wake’s potential plot. I also have a partially completed short story, “All the Colors of Sorrow.” It’s set between Knight and Spectre and includes some information about Sithicus that would have been featured more prominently in the third novel.
1. As the editor of the Avatar Trilogy, is it possible to reveal, after 20 years, who was the original author of the Tantras?
John Deakins. He’s mentioned his involvement before in interviews, so I feel it’s acceptable to confirm that now. He wrote a draft of Tantras, but we ended up rejecting it because we couldn’t make it work with the other two books in the series. That should not be seen as a slight to John’s talent. He’s a fine writer, and his creator-owned novel Barrow is worth seeking out. But he had problems with the shared-world aspects of the Realms and with the structure of the Avatar project, which were, I have to admit, far from ideal.
2. I understand that a few chapters of Tantras were written by you. Can you tell us which events were actually described by you in the book?
We were very close to our final deadline when the Deakins draft was rejected. As project editor, I created an entirely new detailed plot for the novel. From that outline, Scott Ciencin wrote a first draft. Finally, Scott and I revised different sections of the draft. Because we were so short on time, this meant Scott handled some sections and I completely rewrote other chapters and sections. I wrote the prologue, for example, and several of the sections with Cyric, such as the scene where he cuts the soldier’s hamstring in order to save himself, then justifies it by saying “You’d do the same to me.”
3. Can you tell us how the Empires Trilogy was written and why there were three writers for one story? Was the series created with the same constraints as the Avatar project?
The Empires Trilogy was originally designed to be a series of three interlocking stories that told a single epic tale from three different cultural perspectives, with different primary protagonists in each novel. Three individual authors could write the books at about the same time, which meant they could be released fairly close together, but the trilogy would avoid some of the major creative pitfalls that had plagued the Avatar Trilogy. All three original Avatar books told a continuous, tightly connected story, with core characters that developed and changed radically over the course of the trilogy. But because of scheduling constraints, the novels in the Avatar Trilogy were written by three different authors, all at roughly the same time. It proved very difficult to keep the characters consistent and to make the story flow smoothly from one book to the next. So difficult that we ended up replacing the original author of Tantras. We sought to avoid those problems with Empires.
4. How did you become the writer of Crusade?
I auditioned to write Crusade. At the time, the book division opened up certain series or individual books for auditions, and Crusade was one of those. The audition process involved writing character descriptions, a complete plot breakdown for the novel, and then the first chapter or two. The auditions were reviewed “blind,” meaning there were no author names on the proposals. This allowed the people reviewing the submissions to focus on the quality of the work, not who had written it. My proposal was selected. I also ended up editing the first two novels in the series, so it proved very easy to keep the continuity straight. It helped, too, that all three authors lived close together, so we could get together for lunch and discuss the books if any problems arose.
5. When I read Crusade (I did not read the first two books of Empires) I actually felt like it was suppose to be a standalone book. Once you understood that the Tuigan invaded, there was no reliance on what came before. Was that intentional?
Each of the Empires novels is intended to stand alone. The individual books can be read separately. The first book, Horselords, chronicles the formation of the Tuigan army. It’s told from the perspective of the Tuigan. Dragonwall, the second novel, shifts to the Shou empire and chronicles their efforts to repel the Tuigan invaders. Crusade shifts to the West and details Azoun’s mustering of the army and his final confrontation with the Tuigan. Together, the three books tell the epic story of the Tuigan attacks on the East and West, and how those empires saved themselves from annihilation. But each book offers a distinct perspective on those events, with different protagonists, so having three different authors write the books proved to be a strength, not a weakness.
6. Can you explain how the Harpers series was created? What guidelines were given to each writer? Why was the last book cancelled after it was already written? (I am referring the Rise of the Blade.)
The people marketing and selling the Realms novels to bookstores told the TSR book department that it was much easier for them to sell trilogies or series, as opposed to stand-alone books. Not every story can fill three or more books, however. So I proposed the Harpers. The series was intended to be a very loosely connected sequence of individual tales. The only thing that connected the novels was the fact that at least one character was a Harper. It didn’t even have to be a main character. This allowed authors to tell more personal, character-driven stories and to explore parts of the Realms that hadn’t been covered in the larger epics. I edited several of the early Harpers novels, including The Parched Sea, Soldiers of Ice, and Elfshadow.
I had parted ways with TSR long before Rise of the Blade was written or cancelled, so I can’t tell you why that happened. I would guess it had something to do with changes in the direction of the Realms book line after Wizards of the Coast bought TSR. There were several books or series that dropped off the schedule in 1997 and 1998. Sudden cancellations are common when one publisher buys another. New editors come in and they don’t always like the books their predecessors had bought. Or they look at sales figures and decide certain lines or series are not worth continuing. That may have been what caused the cancellation of Rise of the Blade, but you’d have to ask the editors in charge of the line after the Wizards takeover for a definitive answer.
7. How did you become the writer of The Ring of Winter? I assume you were still the editor at that time.
The Harpers series was open to proposals, and I pitched what would become The Ring of Winter through the standard company audition process. I don’t recall for certain, but looking at the original material in my files, it appears that the audition was blind, as Crusade had been, so the managing editor wouldn’t have known the pitch was from me. The working title on the proposal was The Eternal Kingdom. I was still a full-time editor in the book division when I signed the contract in 1991, but by the time I finished writing Ring and the book was released, I had resigned and was working as a full-time freelancer. I was still editing for TSR, but on contract, not as staff. Ring was edited by one of the other editors in the department, Patrick McGilligan. Earlier he’d been my editor on Knight of the Black Rose.
8. Why didn’t we see more of Artus Cimber or the Ring of Winter? Since the Avatar Trilogy we received so many hints on the lost artifact, and now that it was rediscovered, what was going to happen to it and Artus?
In addition to appearing in The Ring of Winter, Artus is also the main character of the shorts stories I wrote for Realms of Valor and Realms of Mystery. My story from Realms of Infamy ties to Ring, too. The villain from Ring even has a cameo in Prince of Lies, as one of the tormented in hell. I’d love to write more about Artus and have pondered several stories over the years. Back in 2001, an executive at Wizards asked me to put together a pitch for both a prequel and a sequel to Ring of Winter, so the original book might be re-released as part of a trilogy. The book department never did anything the proposal, however, and I subsequently asked about the possibility of buying the character back from them, since they weren’t going to reprint the original novel and weren’t considering anything new. That discussion didn’t get far, sadly. Since then Ed Greenwood has mentioned trying to find a way to get me to write more with Artus; he’s said many times that The Ring of Winter is his favorite of my Realms books. If the opportunity arose and the details could be worked out, I’d certainly like to write more about Artus. That seems unlikely, though.
9. Did you ever think of writing a sequel to Prince of Lies? Or was it good enough as you finished it? (Even after Crucible.)
Somewhere in the boxes and boxes of files Wizards got from TSR there’s a proposal I wrote for a sequel to Prince of Lies involving Bane and Mask and several of the characters I created in Prince. I am very happy with how Prince turned out, and the book stands alone well. I would have liked to revisit some of the characters I created, particularly Gwydion and Rinda, but TSR decided to go in a different direction and had Troy Denning write Crucible. So, as with additional Artus Cimber stories, the sequel I had in mind for Prince of Lies is unlikely ever to happen. That’s the way things work out sometimes when you write in a shared world.
10. Do you have any plans to return to the Forgotten Realms world after the cataclysm of the 4th edition?
I have no plans for new any new work for Wizards. I don’t know if I’d have a story I’d want to tell in the new Realms timeline. But I know better than to say “never.” Things could change and there could be a project that both Wizards and I think will be a good fit. That’s highly unlikely, but not impossible.
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