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Interview with Forgotten Realms author Jaleigh Johnson

Posted on September 11, 2008 by Flames

Jaleigh Johnson’s second Forgotten Realms novel, Mistshore, opens with a letter from a grandfather to his infant granddaughter.  “Someday,” the letter concludes, “you will go forth into the world and find your own adventure waiting.  I want this for you, above all things, granddaughter.  The world is spread out before you, and life is meant to be lived.  Be well, and be happy…”

Mistshore tells the story of the granddaughter, Icelin, as she flees into Mistshore, a district of Waterdeep built upon the wreckage of sunken ships, warped planks, and violent crime.  Mistshore is, as Ed Greenwood, the creator of the Forgotten Realms, says in his introduction to the book, “a corner of Waterdeep much whispered about by the fearful, who believe all manner of sinister half-sea-monsters, half-humans lurk in its sagging riggings and rotten cabins.  Creatures with webbed fingers, gills hidden under high-collared robes, and sly, stealthy tentacles waiting to throttle or snatch.”

The second release in a series of standalone novels called “Ed Greenwood Presents Waterdeep,” Mistshore is no mere travelogue through under-explored territory.  As the prologue promises, Mistshore is a book of adventure populated by well-developed characters.  Johnson gives us Cerest the scarred elf, Sull the well-meaning guardian butcher, Ruen the legendary thief, and Icelin, a young woman with a sharp tongue and more backbone than any of the men she meets.

The Howling Delve, Johnson’s debut, merely hinted at the power Johnson would unleash in the Realms with Mistshore.  Delve is good.  Mistshore is stunning. 

Johnson and I spoke last week, a few days after the release of Mistshore.

Jones: The prologue of Mistshore is unexpectedly moving.

Johnson: The prologue probably carries the most weight in the novel, because of what was going on in the Realms and with me personally when I wrote it.

There are two layers–the first, obviously, is plot. The protagonist [Icelin] is introduced through another character’s [her grandfather’s] eyes. The reader is going on the journey with Icelin, and you can just tell by the tone of the letter that she’s going to be something special, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

The second layer was me knowing that I was writing this novel a hundred years in Faerun’s future. At the time I wrote the prologue, no details about 4th Edition or the time jump in the Realms had been announced. The Realms I’d loved for so many years were changing, and most of the characters I’d grown close to would be dead or gone in the new edition. I was sad for that and unsure where to go with this changed world.

I tried to remember what it was like the first time I picked up a Forgotten Realms novel. The book was Spellfire by Ed Greenwood–I’d swiped it from my brother while he was still reading it. I think I latched onto it because there was a young woman on the cover fearlessly facing down a Dracolich. I hadn’t seen too many covers like that in my limited experience.

I fell in love with the world of the Forgotten Realms because of the characters in that book and because I felt like the world was alive in a way I’d never seen before. At the same time I was reading about Shandril’s adventuring party being attacked in the wilderness, I could picture powerful wizards scheming in far off cities, their stories untold. These characters might never meet each other, but to me they were all connected in this vast world.

A hundred years may have passed, but the Realms are still a vast, living world inhabited by characters with untold stories that can capture the imagination.

So the prologue of Mistshore is a letter from grandfather to granddaughter, but it’s also a letter from me to a reader discovering the Realms for the first time. I want them to see the magic of the Realms the way I saw it, and to be swept up the way I was with all the possibilities for stories

Coming to the Realms as someone who’s been a fan for years, my first impulse as a writer is to try to get other readers as hooked on the world as I was when I started out. After I finished Spellfire, I wanted to know everything, every secret about every corner of the world. I want to give that feeling to other people, so I try to make my books as accessible to new readers as possible while being true to the history and lore of the setting.

Jones: How did Icelin grow to be the young woman we meet in the first pages of Mistshore?

Johnson: Icelin is–despite what the novel later reveals–very much an ordinary young woman. I wanted her that way. She doesn’t have the unhappy orphan background. Her great-uncle raised her in a safe, stable environment. She’s not the girl who has grand aspirations to leave home and see the world. She’s just content working in her great-uncle’s shop and remaining unnoticed and sheltered in Waterdeep.

In another story, she would be the faceless shopkeeper’s daughter who waits on the hero when he’s buying a torch and rations. Her gifts force her into the spotlight, a place she doesn’t want to be, but because of that we discover there’s a lot more to her than appearances suggest.

Icelin turned out to have a lot more spunk than I gave her credit for. Translation–I hated ever writing her as a shrinking violet. I remember rewriting the scene between her and Ruen on Ruen’s raft several times. I was never happy with how scared Icelin was. There was no way Ruen was going to respect someone who wouldn’t stand up to him. So I rewrote the scene again, putting in the line about Icelin losing her virginity to a stable boy who was much handsomer than Ruen. When I was finished, I knew I had Icelin’s voice.

Jones: What is at the heart of a heroic character? Of a villain?

Johnson: I try not to separate the two. To get at the heart of my characters, I take ordinary people and throw them into the hairiest circumstances imaginable and see how they come out on the other side. What is Cerest willing to do to get what he wants? How many people is he willing to hurt? Does he care if he dies in the attempt? What about Sull, a man who barely knows Icelin at the beginning of the novel–why does he care what happens to the faceless shopkeeper’s daughter? All the characters have choices to make, and they have to deal with the consequences of those choices. Their actions reveal who they are. I leave it up to the readers to decide whether that makes them heroes or villains or something in between.

Icelin is essentially a “good” person in that she obeys the law, loves her uncle and treats others with respect. But she also makes choices that are cowardly and impulsive, and puts those close to her in danger because of it.

Cerest is, well, even he is convinced that he’s doing the right thing and sees nothing “bad” in his actions.

In the end, it comes back to choice when I’m developing the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. The bad guys are going to make the selfish choices, almost every time. The good guys can too, and do, in the novel, but they can also recognize where they went wrong and at least try to make things right.

Cerest doesn’t have that ability.

Jones: How would you describe the tone of the Forgotten Realms?

Johnson: I think high fantasy whenever I think of the Realms. The tone has shifted into darker territory over the years, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and there’s still an incredible diversity of story when it comes to individual authors. Look at The Dungeons series for an example. Erik Scott de Bie’s Depths of Madness will take you into the dark and then some, while Rosemary Jones’s Crypt of the Moaning Diamond will make you smile.

Jones: The dialogue in Mistshore sounds genuine, unique to the character speaking, and has a way of pulling the reader forward to see what will be said next.

Johnson: My strategy for writing dialogue is to try to stay in the moment when writing a scene, take it from beginning to end in one session, but also to remember that every line of dialogue has to mean something. It either moves the plot forward or it develops the characters, and it can never ever be boring. If I get bored writing an exchange between characters, it’s time to end scene, backtrack, figure out where I went off the rails. Most of the time, I’ll find that the characters have started discussing something that has no bearing on the plot or on them as people. Out it goes.

Jones: How do you develop a plot from the first idea to the end of the book?

Johnson: For Forgotten Realms, it depends a lot on what the series calls for. The Dungeons, obviously, had to conform to an underground environment, and the Waterdeep series is all about the city. With Mistshore, I started out playing with the setting and the common people who’d lived in the city all their lives. What would it be like to take an ordinary woman from South Ward and throw her into the worst neighborhood in Waterdeep? Better yet, what if she went there by choice?

When I’m plotting a book from scratch, and it doesn’t have to conform to a shared world, I start with character. For the book I’m working on now I knew I wanted to use an older hero, someone at the end of his life (or so he thinks). Once I have a general idea of setting and characters, I move on to conflicts. What does the protagonist want? What does the villain want? What’s standing in the way? Are they going to get what they want, and what’s the cost if they do? Once I answer those questions, I can outline from beginning to end.

Howling Delve taught me that I need to stick to my outline. I wish I was the type of writer who could work without a net–I’ve seen other writers do it, and I envy the heck out of them–but if I veer off the outline too far, inevitably it means more revisions and broken plotlines, more work for the writer who already has a fulltime job. Mistshore followed the outline with little variation, resulting in a cleaner first draft, and overall a more pleasant experience in the writing. The biggest thing Mistshore taught me was to follow my instincts.

Writing in a shared world environment, you’re conscious not only of continuity in the setting, but the expectations of your editor, long-time fans, new fans, and it’s easy to forget that you, the author, have as big a stake in the book. You can never put all that other stuff completely aside, but at some point, you have to let go and tell the story you want to tell, and take time to enjoy the experience. I did that with Mistshore.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about writing in a shared world is that it’s easier somehow, because the setting is already established. Both my proposals for Howling Delve and Mistshore required heavy research before I ever started writing. Then my editor looked at the proposals and asked for more revisions so I didn’t cross wires with other authors working on projects at the same time. It’s a juggling act and I don’t know how the editors and designers do it, but hats off to them.

When I’m writing in my own world, it’s pure research. I get to the actual writing a lot faster, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to blow up anything.

Jones: What are the differences between writing short fiction and novels?

Johnson: With a novel, I feel like I can build the characters from the ground up. Anything is fair game: childhood tragedy, sociopathic tendencies, daddy issues, mommy issues, forbidden love, forced love, etc. You’re spending three hundred plus pages with a character, so a lot of dirty laundry is going to get aired.

A short story is a snapshot of who a character is and how he or she got to this point. So much is left up to reader interpretation and imagination, I find myself focusing on plot first, and then character, which is usually the opposite of how I work. Once I have the basic plot, I start building the characters, developing them the same way I would for a novel, but I let the trials they go through, the plot give the readers hints about who they are. That’s the hardest balancing act for me, trying to decide how much background to reveal about the character in a short story and what the reader will figure out on his own.

I’ve been cited both for giving too much information and not enough, so it’s an imperfect, ongoing process. That’s something else I love about writing: you never figure everything out. You always have something new to learn, and you can always be surprised.

Jones: What the best part about writing?

Johnson: Days like today, actually. I had the day off from work, it was raining outside, so I put on some music and edited a scene from the novel I’m working on. In it, a seventy-two year old man discovers magic for the first time, and I found myself wondering what it must be like for this character to have lived all the years of his life, to be certain, absolutely certain, that nothing else can surprise him, then along comes this burst of wonder that turns his world upside down. And I knew exactly how I needed to write the scene. I wish the writing always came so easy, or maybe I just need more of those quiet, rainy afternoons.

Jones: Can you tell me more about the novel in progress?

Johnson: I’ve had [this project] in the works on and off for almost a year now. It’s not under contract, so I’m taking my time with it. It’s probably bigger in scope than anything I’ve written before, but roughly, it’s a modern-day fantasy set in an alternate version of Venice, Italy.

On the surface, everything looks the same, but there are wizards living in ancient palazzi, and dragons swimming in the Grand Canal, fun stuff like that. There are darker things, too, evil things hiding in buried layers of the city, and my protagonist, an old man who wants nothing to do with any of that nonsense, is plunged headfirst into this world, along with the reader. The story itself has been a blast to write, but the research into Venice and its history is probably the most rewarding part of all.

I’ve wanted to write about Venice for a long time, and Andre, my protagonist, had been banging around in my head, but I didn’t have the right story for him. I put the two together and the basic plot followed pretty quickly. The hardest part was building Venice into the city I needed it to be.

I read an interesting book, The World of Venice, by Jan Morris, which was written in 1960, before the flood that brought Venice’s peril to the eyes of the world, before organizations like Save Venice came on the scene to help preserve the city. I started thinking, this was the Venice I wanted in my book, not the beautiful, fragile tourist destination it is today.

To get to that, I thought, what if Venice had never come to the attention of the world the way it did? What if instead of being rescued by preservationists and public awareness, wizards came on the scene and offered their services to protect and restore the city? What price might they exact in return?

Using those questions, I created a Venice that is as beautiful as it ever was, but now it’s a wizard haven, its tourism carefully controlled, a city slowly being taken over by magic and forgotten by the rest of the world. For me, everything about character creation, world building, plot, etc. starts with the “What if” questions.

Jones: After writing two novels in the Realms, do you see more possibilities or fewer?

Johnson: I always see more possibilities for stories. Given the chance, I’d love to write a sequel to Mistshore, but ultimately that decision lies with Wizards of the Coast. But as long as they keep letting me, I’ll keep writing in the Realms. It’s a great place to be.

Ed Greenwood taught me that if writing–whether in the Realms or in my own world–is what I truly want to do, I should never give up, never stop trying to make myself a better storyteller. The greatest gift he ever gave me was his world. The Realms were the doorway to my first published novel. I’ll never forget that.

Interview by Jeremy Jones

Visit Jaleigh Johnson’s Blog for more information on her writing and other projects.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Forgotten Realms author Jaleigh Johnson”

  1. Meaghan says:

    I’m only on page 214 of Mistshore but I’m in love with the characters and the plot. Of all the books I’ve read, none have had this effect on me like Mistshore has. I’ve been reading nonstop since I picked the book up.

    I hope that Jaleigh Johnson will continue the storyline with a sequel and I plan on reading more of her work!

    Reply

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