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Interview with Richard Lee Byers

Posted on December 17, 2004 by Flames

How did you get into gaming?

I got involved with RPG gaming back when D&D was still three beige pamphlets in a white cardboard box. I was a lifelong fantasy fan and also liked playing games like chess and Risk, so when I read an article about D&D in a local newspaper, I wanted to try it. I bought the product, found some people to game with, and lo, these many years later, I’m still at it, and making a few bucks off it, too.

From Psychology to Writing… how did your start in the RPG industry happen?

There are actually three phases here: mental health worker, fantasy and horror writer, fantasy and horror writer who produces a lot of RPG-related material.

I wanted to be a fiction writer ever since I was a kid, but had been intimidated by cautionary tales of how hard it is to make a living. Thus, I decided to get a degree in psychology so I’d have a profession to “fall back on.” Which is to say, I was going to work a job and write in my spare time. It didn’t work out. Working on a psychiatric ward took enough out of me that I had no interest in truly working at anything on my own time. Years passed, and I got increasingly burnt out on the mental health biz.

Then I inherited a little money. I decided I’d use it to quit my job and write. It didn’t take me too long to sell a horror story to a small-press magazine. After a couple years, I sold my first horror novel. Soon, I’d made my bones as a horror guy, but had only sold a couple short stories that could be classified as out-and-out fantasy.

Then the market for horror, strong throughout the 80’s, pretty much collapsed except for people named King, Koontz, Barker, or Rice. A couple of editors who’d purchased the bulk of my horror fiction moved on to other positions, gigs where they wouldn’t be dealing in that kind of material, which accentuated the problem for me. I needed new markets and opportunities.

I knew about RPG-based fiction, and since I was a gamer myself, I was confident I could write it. I started sending out queries to the various companies. Perhaps influenced by the fact that I was already a published professional and a horror writer to boot, White Wolf was the first to offer me an assignment, and I was on my way.

What has been your most challenging work in the RPG industry?

That’s a tricky question to answer, because every story poses its own challenges. But I suppose that writing Dissolution was the hardest job I’ve tackled so far, because I was working with so many other people. Launching an epic story line for five other novelists to continue and complete, and working with two editors, is a far more complicated task than telling a whole story all by yourself and striving to satisfy a single editor.

Let me add, though, that I always find it challenging, or at least daunting, to tackle a trilogy. Working at something that long and complex, I always wonder if I’m going to be able to pull all the subplots and what-have-you together at the end. I also find it challenging. or fatiguing, anyway, to write a novel in under three months, which I’ve occasionally had to agree to do if I wanted a particular assignment.

What advice do you have for hopeful authors?

I believe it was Robert A. Heinlein, the great science-fiction writer, who said that you have to write, you have to finish the stories you begin, and you have to submit them to the appropriate markets relentlessly until somebody buys them. In other words, it mainly comes down to perseverance.

To that I would simply add, it needs to be intelligent perseverance. All the dedication in the world won’t help you if you mail off single-spaced manuscripts. No editor will bother to read them. You need to learn acceptable manuscript mechanics. In general, you need to learn to present your work and yourself in a professional manner. You need to learn something about how publishing works.

Fortunately, all this information is readily available in how-to books from Writer’s Digest and other publishers. Read them. Most beginners don’t start out writing at a professional level. You have to hone your skills. If you persevere, you can do it simply through practice, but for many of us, that would be the slow way. I learned a lot about structure, technique, style, etc., from those same how-to books, and I recommend them for that purpose as well.

What can you tell us about your Wraith: the Oblivion fiction?

I did one short story for the initial Wraith anthology, a stand-alone novel called Caravan of Shadows, and an epic trilogy which White Wolf then decided to bring out all in one volume, entitled Dark Kingdoms. I was quite pleased with the way the stories came out, particularly the trilogy. I enjoyed working in the Wraith corner of the World of Darkness. It had some truly eerie, bizarre, and novel elements. Although the fact that each character was a Jekyll-and-Hyde type with a dark persona that could theoretically assume control at any moment was a problem. That concept was tough to work with in the context of fiction. You could show it at work in the protagonist, but you couldn’t have every ghostly character in the story flipflopping between personalities all the time. It would have been too confusing.

What makes for a good Horror story?

That’s another tricky question to answer, because there’s so much diversity in horror. At first glance, The Silence of the Lambs, “The Lottery,” and “The Dunwich Horror” don’t seem to have a great deal in common. But I think most good horror plays to our most basic fears, and to our suspicion that chaos is lurking somewhere nearby, waiting to attack. You show something menacing bursting into ordinary life, either breaking in from outside or welling up from underneath, and you’ve got the makings of a good horror story.

You’ve worked in a variety of RPG settings (Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, Forgotten Realms, Scarred Lands), do you have have a favorite? Why?

I really don’t have a favorite. I’ve enjoyed them all.

What’s next for you?

Wizards of the Coast is currently publishing my Forgotten Realms trilogy “The Year of Rogue Dragons.” The Rage, the first novel, came out in April. The Rite will follow in 2005, and The Ruin will wrap things up in 2006. I have a Forgotten Realms short story in the current issue of Dragon Magazine (320), and they’re running another early next year. I’ve also got stories in Children of the Rune, due out any time now from Malhavoc Press, and an anthology called Fairy Tails, due out by the end of the year, I hope.

I don’t know what novel I’ll write after I finish up “The Year of Rogue Dragons.” I’ve got some ideas for non-franchise work, but I’m not sure which I want to develop first. I guess I’ll figure it out when the time comes.

For more information on Richard Lee Byers, visit his website at http://stonehill.org/rlb.

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