Author Interview – Philip Athans

Monday rolls around yet again and we have another author interview to delight you all. I kept the name for this week’s author secret for a very good reason. That reason was that he is a completely new entrant to Black Library but given his already published works, he is a prominent member of the industry. As you shall all find out now.

Phil Athans is someone that the Dungeons & Dragons fans on the Bolthole should have no problem in recognizing, given all the work he did with TSR and later Wizards of the Coast. Fans of Forgotten Realms and Baldur’s Gate will recognize him from his novels. People who have been interested in, and are, might also recognize him from his how-to book co-written with the great R. A. Salvatore himself – The Guide To Writing Fantasy and Science-Fiction: 6 Steps To Writing and Publishing Your Bestseller.

Without any further ado, for the interview covers a fair amount of his work, I give to you the man himself.

Shadowhawk: You are making your entry to the Warhammer Fantasy world with a short story, The City is Theirs, in the upcoming anthology, Age of Legend. What can you tell us about this project and how it all came together?

Phil: I started trading emails with Black Library editor Christian Dunn some time ago, and honestly I’m not sure I remember how it all came together. I told him how much of a fan I was, especially of 40k (I have a solid Space Ork army I’ve been playing with for years), and he told me about the anthology, asked me if I’d like to write a story, and of course I jumped at the chance to play in either of the brilliant Games Workshop universes.

Shadowhawk: In your experience so far, what is the most evocative detail about the Warhammer Fantasy world that attracts you as both a writer and as a reader?

Phil: Coming from TSR/Wizards of the Coast and the Dungeons & Dragons world, what has always drawn me to Games Workshop in general is the grittiness of both settings. D&D has always worked hard to stay “heroic” and present a more hopeful fantasy setting, but the GW guys like to mix it up—it’s all about bloody conflict and the darkness in all of us. There’s definitely an appeal to that, especially for an old Swords & Sorcery/Conan fan like me.

Shadowhawk: What are the areas of this setting that you would like to explore in the future?

Phil: I think I may have kind of typecast myself when I said I had that big Ork army, but the greenskins are too fun not to play with.

Shadowhawk: Any plans to tackle the Warhammer 40,000 world?

Phil: I’d love to, and I hope the Black Library guys are ready for more pitches from me!

Shadowhawk: You have worked with TSR Books and later with Wizards of the Coast. How was that experience?

Phil: I worked as an editor for the book publishing team first at TSR then WotC for almost fifteen years, and though you can’t stay with any organization that long without experiencing ups and downs, I’m happy to report that it was mostly ups. I treasure my time there, learned a lot, met people who will be friends for life … what can I say? It was a dream job!

Shadowhawk: You wrote some of the early Forgotten Realms novels, particularly for Baldur’s Gate, The Watercourse Trilogy, and the War of the Spider Queens series. How would you introduce new readers to these books?

Phil: The Forgotten Realms line, like Warhammer, can be a little intimidating for someone jumping in for the first time. There are a lot of books and it’s not entirely clear where to jump in, and the complexity of the games can be a bit of a hindrance on that part, too. The thing to keep in mind with both FR and Warhammer is that you don’t have to be an active player, or even ever have tried the game at all, to read the fiction. Go ahead and just enjoy them for what they are: amazingly richly-realized fantasy worlds that have inspired some of the best fantasy writing of the past few decades. Then, if you like the world, try the game.

Shadowhawk: What inspires you to write and how do you go about the process?

Phil: I just love telling stories. It’s really as simple as that. What keeps me going is the fact that no matter the peaks and valleys you experience in your career (this book sold very well, that one didn’t) there’s always another story in you, another fresh chance to find new readers and connect with people out there in the wide world.

The process is a much more complex question, but I’ll offer this advice: Try not to have one.

Writers who regiment their writing tend to end up writing less. The more boundaries you put on yourself, whether it’s a certain place you have to be in to write, a certain time of day, or a certain set number of words, the more you limit your ability to react to those sudden bursts of inspiration, or ride out the dry spells.

Shadowhawk: Who would you credit as having had a major influence on your work, past, present and future?

Phil: I credit literally every author whose work I’ve ever read, whether I liked it or not. But there are a few authors I just adore and would love to one day be nearly as good as: Harlan Ellison and Edgar Rice Burroughs are probably the top two, and for very different reasons. No one can shock you—reach off the page and slap you across the face—the way Harlan Ellison does. And there has never been a more entertaining writer than Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Shadowhawk: Your how-to book, The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, gives advice to aspiring writers with regards to their writing and getting their work published. If there is one piece of advice you would stress above all else from this book, what would it be?

Phil: I’d repeat that advice about not having any rituals to limit how, where, when, or why you write. Buy a laptop! Be able to write when it’s noisy, and whether it’s daytime or night. Write with music playing, the TV on, at a coffee shop, at the library, on an airplane (I can’t do that last one, yet, but I’m still trying)—write wherever and whenever you can. Writing is a skill you get better at with practice.

Shadowhawk: What is the most challenging aspect of your work as a writer?

Phil: Paying the bills. Living full time as a freelancer is hard. But beyond that practical aspect, the hard part is being open to criticism, and I don’t mean random flames from annonymous internet bullies, but from professionals like agents and editors. I can sometimes get defensive and have to remind myself not to do that, that there’s still an awful lot I have to learn. You always have a lot to learn!

Shadowhawk: How does the writer in you come to terms with your inner editor?

Phil: It’s funny but the two of them have never met. As a writer I make all the mistakes and have all the little self-indulgent tweaks that really frustrate me as an editor. It’s not possible to edit your own work, which is the best reason not to let yourself get defensive or ever think you’ve “mastered it.” No one has ever mastered creative writing.

Shadowhawk: eBooks as a format is gaining steam very quickly and has already had a very noticeable impact on the industry. What are your thoughts on it and how do you see the publishing world being affected in the next ten years?

Phil: No one can possibly predict the next ten years, as fast as technological development is accelerating, but it’s clear that e-books will be the dominant format for books (passing 80%) by the end of 2014, if not earlier. The fact is that e-books are so good for everyone in the publishing business except the retail book stores (and Amazon and Barnes & Noble were smart enough to see that coming and have adapted accordingly) that it’s impossible to stop them. When you strip out the cost of printing and shipping books, eliminate the high cost of returns, fuel surcharges, and so on, publishing suddenly becomes a profitable enterprise, even for very small, niche publishers. The economics of it are absolutely unstoppable.

Shadowhawk: What can you tell us about The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff, the first novel in the Arron of the Black Forest series that you are writing with Mel Odom?

Phil: Mel came to me with the idea of collaborating on a character-based Swords & Sorcery series, in the tradition of Conan, and I didn’t hesitate. Writing that book was an absolute delight. I’d been feeling a little pressured with writing at that point, had let it become too much about the dollars and cents, but that book gave me permission to love writing again, and I think that sheer delight comes through in the story. The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff combines two of my great fan loves: the sword & sorcery of Conan-creator Robert E. Howard, and the moody horror of H.P. Lovecraft. It’s a barbarian-in-a-haunted-house story.

Shadowhawk: You are currently part of Athans & Associates, a creative consulting firm. What can you tell us about it?

Phil: Athans & Associates is helping to bring the sort of internal publishing program that’s been a great success at TSR/WotC and Games Workshop to other game studios—especially video games. Years ago, when TSR first started publishing novels, it was a natural evolution from their book-based RPGs. Now that the e-book has taken firm hold of the fiction marketplace, digital game companies are now suddenly in the same place, except instead of bringing their contacts and infrastructure in traditional paper publishing to bear, they’re able to leverage their unique experience and infrastructure in the digital world.

Shadowhawk: What is your favourite past time when you are not reading or writing?

Phil: I’m a TV junkie, and though I go through times where I try to limit my TV time, I keep getting sucked in by great stuff like Survivor, Dr. Who, Breaking Bad … the list goes on. I’ve also been spending a lot more time with my PS3, lately!

Shadowhawk: What can you tell us about your upcoming projects for 2012?

Phil: Building outward from the Arron of the Black Forest idea, I set up a new shared world property with some author friends including Mike Resnick and Jay Lake. The first book is an anthology of short stories called Tales From The Fathomless Abyss. After that, we’ll break off and each write a book in the Fathomless Abyss setting. I’m having as much fun with that as I am with Arron, and I think people are going to LOVE this bizarre new world.

Shadowhawk: What are you looking to most for the coming year?

Phil: I can’t wait to expand on both Arron of the Black Forest and The Fathomless Abyss. I also have some really exciting things coming up on the consulting front, which I can’t really talk about yet, and a new book coming in May from Adams Media that will be a bit of a departure for me—a funny, fun book I’m still in the editing stages on.

Shadowhawk: Anything else you would like to tell our readers?

Phil: Just that you can always catch up with me at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and follow me on Twitter @PhilAthans. Cheers!

For those of you wanting a slice of the Phil Athans action, then you need look no further than Amazon to get a copy of his various novels and anthologies.

For the Black Library fans, Age of Legend goes up for general sale next month, but in the meantime you can pre-order the anthology here.

Here are some other links from Phil himself –

Tales From The Fathomless Abyss

Tales From The Fathomless Abyss (Nook)

Arron of the Black Forest, Book I: The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff

Arron of the Black Forest, Book I: The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff (Nook)

Athans & Associates

Next week, we will have an interview with Graham McNeill, so stay tuned for that one.

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