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Playing Symphonic Fantasy Metal in Golarion: James L. Sutter on Writing Pathfinder Fiction

Posted on May 11, 2012 by Flames

In the sands of Thuvia, the atheist Salim Ghadafar must find the stolen soul of a murdered merchant. His search for souls extends throughout the planes and tests his strength to the breaking point. Death’s Heretic by James L. Sutter is a grand tour of the Outer Planes… a tour that balances large-scale awe and wonder with intimate character development.

Indeed, Death’s Heretic is more than “a book about tracking down kidnapped souls and killing monsters.” It’s a novel shot through with mystery, mayhem, and romping good adventure, sure, but it also asks some weighty questions… while killing monsters.

“If we really understood immortality,” asks Sutter, “would we still want it?”

There’s more, of course. What are the power dynamics of faith? The true nature of honor? Of heroism? What lurks within the complexities of human ambivalence? The resulting novel blends intimate knowledge of the Pathfinder setting with compelling characters and a plot that packs the energy of a Byzantine naphtha bomb.

Sutter is an editor, writer, game designer, and vagabond musician. His creator-owned stories have appeared Escape Pod, Starship Sofa, Apex Magazine, and Black Gate. He edited the anthology Before They Were Giants for the Planet Stories line. Perhaps most pertinent our conversation below is the fact that Sutter worked on the team that created the Pathfinder Campaign Setting before becoming the Pathfinder Fiction Editor. In other words, he knows Golarion inside and out… which can be both a blessing and a curse.

Below, Sutter and I talk about writing, editing, and playing “symphonic European fantasy metal” in Golarion.

How did you come to write a Pathfinder Tales novel?

    As one of the architects of the Pathfinder campaign setting, I’ve had a wonderful chance to help steer the world into its current form. Yet as Paizo’s Fiction Editor, I thought I’d never write a Pathfinder Tales novel–it felt too weird to assign myself a book. That changed one day when Paizo Publisher Erik Mona walked past with a short story we’d published in one of the Kingmaker Adventure Path volumes. There was no name on it, but he really enjoyed it and thought I should give the author a novel. I informed him that in fact I had written the story, and he said, “Okay, then you should write a novel.” When I raised my concerns about nepotism, he pointed out that he was my boss, and that he was in fact telling me to write a novel. At which point I saluted gratefully and got to work.

    What’s the coolest thing about the Pathfinder world that isn’t in Death’s Heretic or one of your short stories?

      Aw, geez. I know a lot of people give the “it’s like choosing children” answer, but I’ve been working on the Pathfinder campaign setting for as long as there’s been a Pathfinder campaign setting, so I really am pretty close to it. Sometimes too close. But as for a part that fascinates me and doesn’t show up anywhere in my fiction (yet), I’d have to go with the solar system surrounding Golarion (the planet that the setting focuses on).

      I love science fiction just as much as fantasy, and multiple planets allow you a ton of flexibility for different levels of technology, interesting real-world astronomical phenomena, and strangeness on an even grander scale than you can achieve on a single planet. I’ve had the honor of setting most of the ground work for Golarion’s solar system, so it’s very near and dear to my heart.

      Where does a novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, event, somewhere else altogether? Where’d Death’s Heretic start? And how’d you develop the novel from there?

        Since Death’s Heretic is my first novel, I can really only speak to that one. For most of the short stories I write, they start with either a “what if?” idea–often with regards to the setting, as I’m a huge fan of world-building–or a single scene, which I then have to build a story to justify. For Death’s Heretic, it started as a collision of two things:

        1) The realization that the Outer Planes (places like Heaven and Hell and the weirder portions of the afterlife) are the coolest part of our setting, and that I needed a reason to go there.

        2) The question of how you deal with atheism in a fantasy world where the gods are objectively real.

        Once those came together, I found Salim starting to take shape, along with the kernel of the plot that would drive the book.

        What makes Salim tick?

          Salim is a big ol’ cauldron of contradictions and self-loathing. He’s a staunch atheist–one who doesn’t deny the gods’ existence, but rather sees worship as a form of indentured servitude, and thus offensive to his independent sensibilities. At the same time, through a series of bad decisions, he’s wound up working for the goddess of death as a problem-solver, going into places where the formal church perhaps couldn’t and getting things done. He’s an honorable man, but a stiff one, and not too good at making friends. He’s also a total badass who specializes in killing undead things. He was very much inspired by folks like Spawn, Constantine, Batman, and Deckard from Blade Runner.

          Strange as it may sound for a book about tracking down kidnapped souls and killing monsters, for me this book is primarily about Salim and his emotional development (or lack thereof). He’s a really conflicted character, and the slow revelation of why he is the way he is really feels like the heart of the story to me. So I can’t really talk too much about what he learns without spoilers.

          One thing he did teach me, though, is how tricky it is to divorce your narrative voice from that of your character when you’re partially in his head. In Death’s Heretic, a powerful merchant purchases a magical immortality elixir, but is killed before he can drink it, and the killers steal his soul from the afterlife, offering to ransom it back in exchange for the elixir. Salim is brought in to recover the soul and sort things out, only to discover that he’s been saddled with the merchant’s stubborn and aristocratic daughter, who demands to come with him and help run the show. The conflict between Salim and the girl (Neila) is one of the primary driving forces of the book, but I don’t switch point of view–you only ever really hear Salim’s thoughts on the subject. Trying to balance his irritation at the girl (and disdain for wealthy nobles in general) with the fact that she might be more competent than he originally gives her credit for was a hard line to walk–it was Salim’s voice carrying the show, but I still needed to show Neila as more than just a collection of Salim’s own prejudices, especially if I wanted his opinion to change over the course of the novel. And let me tell you, Salim is not someone who changes his worldview lightly.

          I cut you off earlier… Once Salim started taking shape in the writing process, then what?

            Then, out of nowhere, I suddenly had the first line of the first chapter and the few last lines of the epilogue, which told me precisely where I wanted things to start and end. That was a true stroke of luck–those parts are always the hardest, and to get them first was a huge relief. After that it was just filling in the blanks.

            For Death’s Heretic, I was very careful to go through exactly the steps I put other Pathfinder Tales authors through, and I’m glad I did so. I outlined the whole thing chapter-by-chapter, which gave me a road map that kept me constantly moving forward instead of running down blind alleys. It also gave me something to show to Paizo Publisher Erik Mona, who played my usual editor role during the process, and made sure that what I came up with was actually cool. Then it was just writing, writing, writing.

            So Erik Mona edited your novel?

              Erik took on a lot of line editing and most of the gatekeeper/Jiminy Cricket roles. (“Sutter, are you sure you want to do _____?”). He did a great job pointing out continuity traps and story issues. Christopher Paul Carey, one of Paizo’s other editors and a novelist himself, also did quite a bit of line editing, and had some really valuable advice. Several other folks around the office also offered tips on the outline and took proofing passes of the final version before it shipped.

              Did the editor James L. Sutter ever get in the way of the writer James L. Sutter?

                Not this time, but only because I’ve learned how to throttle him into submission. You can’t edit while you write–you just can’t. I know so many people that hamstring themselves by reading over what they’ve just written and tinkering in the moment. I used to be one of them, and I did all sorts of things to break the habit: I’d write with my eyes closed, write in the dark, or turn my chair 90 degrees from the keyboard so I couldn’t see the screen. (Why I didn’t think to just turn off the monitor, I’ll never know–it was hardly ergonomic.) There were a lot of typos in those days, but the words got out there. Now I’m used to writing enough that I can keep to my golden rule: unless you’ve been away for a long time, don’t read more than the last few paragraphs you wrote. There’ll be plenty of time to edit once the story’s done, but while you’re writing, write. Until your story has a full draft, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, it doesn’t matter how good it is. I think we all have too many half-finished stories in our drawers to waste time editing incomplete manuscripts.

                Write while your blood’s still up. Edit when it’s cooled.

                You mentioned earlier that you’re a “huge fan of world-building.” How much did you get to do in Death’s Heretic?

                  Quite a bit! That’s part luck and part strategy: the luck part is that I already work on Paizo’s design staff, so world-building for the Pathfinder campaign setting has been part of my day job for the past five years now. The strategy part is that I specifically sought out areas that hadn’t been detailed extensively, and thus needed a bit of filling in. The main city in which things take place, Lamasara, was more or less mine to build as I saw fit, as were several of the extraplanar locations–places like the fey realm called the First World. There were also a number of places that had been sketched out, but not really seen–getting to take locations I’ve always been interested in and then have my characters walk through them was extremely fun. And a little harrowing–after all, anything I didn’t invent was created by my immensely talented friends and coworkers. And if I screwed it up, they know where I live.

                  Were there ever times when your vast knowledge of the Pathfinder world got in the way of the writing?

                    Oh god, yes. Just coming up with an idea for a novel took forever. Living in the Pathfinder campaign setting as a profession, I found that I could easily list fifty things that are ripe for a story–but how do you choose? Fortunately, my love of the Outer Planes eventually decided that issue for me–I knew which planes I wanted to visit even before I knew what the mystery was going to be, or who was behind it. But once I got rolling, the knowledge of the setting was a tremendous asset. With tie-in fiction, readers want to see the world–it’s why they bought a tie-in book rather than an independent fantasy novel. The more a Pathfinder story can feel like it grew organically out of the setting, the better.

                    Where do you find the Pathfinder Tales writers?

                      All over the place! In dumpsters behind the 7-Eleven! Stuck between couch cushions!

                      Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but I really do try to cast my nets wide. Even in just the handful of books and stories we’ve published so far, I’ve been able to bring in both game industry tie-in veterans like Dave Gross, Elaine Cunningham, and Robin D. Laws as well as folks from the greater science fiction and fantasy community like Liane Merciel (The River King’s Road), Howard Andrew Jones (Desert of Souls and Black Gate), and Hugo Award-winner Tim Pratt. I really believe that tie-in fiction has as much to offer as independent work, and that it’s important to make our books good standalone novels–the fact that they’re tied into the world should be a bonus, not a crutch. My favorite way to find authors (and this has happened several times) is to contact or be contacted by an excellent author who says “Hey, I’ve been running a Pathfinder game for my friends, and I really love your world!” When an author already knows and enjoys the material, everything flows so much easier–there’s less of a learning curve, and the collaboration’s more fun.

                      It’s like when you go to a show to see two bands you love, and they cover each other’s stuff or team up on a song for a grand finale. That sort of free-spirited collaboration, born out of mutual admiration, epitomizes shared world fiction at its best.

                      What do each of the Pathfinder novelists do well? Or, put differently, if the Pathfinder Tales’ novelist formed a band, what genre would they play and who would play which instrument?

                        I’ll try to keep this short, because they all have a ton of strengths: Dave Gross has an absolute mastery of the rakish hero and snappy detective-story dialogue–his Radovan is still my favorite Pathfinder Tales character. Elaine Cunningham has an excellent sense of place and heritage, drawing on real-world myths and fables. Howard Andrew Jones has speed and flow–his book is just as long as the others, but you’d never know because he whips you through so quickly with his old-fashioned, sword-swinging feats of derring-do. Robin Laws has the ability to paint a huge cast of characters in a few strokes and make them all interesting. Matt Hughes has a great eye for world-building, Liane Merciel innately understands the emotional tone of Pathfinder, and Tim Pratt can make you love even the bad-guy characters, and make you laugh without losing the dramatic tension.

                        And me? The book’s only been out a few months, but I’m looking forward to people’s responses so I can find out…

                        And to be literal for a moment–I’ve actually done a lot of gigging with various bands, in particular a hardcore metal band called Shadow at Morning, and I know several of the other PF Tales authors are musicians, so I’m gonna field this one straight on. I’d say we’d play symphonic European fantasy metal. Elaine’s classically trained, so she’d be the operatic singer. I believe Howard plays guitar, so he can take that. I’m not sure how much Dave knows about stringed instruments, so I’ll put him on bass. (Hey, I’m a bassist, too–there are many amazing bassist out there, but there are even more bands where the bassist is whichever guitarist is the least proficient.) Robin would be drums, because he’s rock-steady all the time, and all that veteran game designer math in his head probably makes him good with time signatures. And I’d be the screamer frontman, both because I’m probably the only one in the group who actually likes screaming music, and because I’m the editor for the line. And editors, much like screamers, aren’t really good for much without some seriously talented artists to give them something to work with.

                        Where do you plan to visit next in the world of Pathfinder?

                          The next thing of mine to hit the streets will be Distant Worlds in February, which is a Pathfinder campaign setting sourcebook which details the worlds of Golarion’s solar system. I’m a huge science fiction fan, and got the chance to lay most of the groundwork for the other planets in the setting several years ago, so it was a joy to get to take an in-depth look at all of them, including some of the weird cultures that live there and the way both magic and real-world science have shaped everything. I wrote a blog post for SF Signal recently that discussed using science to help design settings, and much of that same aesthetic is reflected in Golarion’s own solar system.

                          After that, I’ve written one of the adventures for the upcoming Shattered Star Adventure Path, set in the anarchic city of Kaer Maga (which I designed in the book City of Strangers), and after that… well, it seems right now like a Death’s Heretic sequel might be a possibility. If that pans out, I’d really love to take Salim to Heaven and the other good-aligned planes of our multiverse, and see how he gets along with the generally righteous zealots one might find there. And I won’t deny that there’s something delightful about the idea of taking him to Kaer Maga and letting him meet some familiar faces in that warren of thieves and outcasts… But such ideas are still only just formed, and anything could happen!

                          Any parting words of encouragement, caution, or mischief?

                            If you want to be a professional writer, you need to write things and try to sell them, and continue to do both until such point as someone takes notice. That can take days or decades, but if you ignore either aspect, you’ll never get there. I know a lot of folks with great ideas who spend forever trying to psych themselves up to write, or constantly tweaking their outlines or manuscripts, or making excuses for why they’re not ready yet. The truth is that, much like the old adage about parenting, no one is ever truly ready. You just do the best you can, and hope that nobody notices the fact that you’re faking it. If someone enjoys your stuff–congratulations! As far as that reader is concerned, you’re the real deal.

                            The other big thing is to not let yourself get overwhelmed. Don’t think about the 100,000 words you have left to write–outline those chapters, but when it’s time to write, just focus on the chapter or scene you’re in. Then move on to the next one. Write as much as you can, even when it’s a slog, but also forgive yourself if you need to reduce your output. (For instance, I know that I write less in the summer, when everyone wants to go play outside.) Whether you’re writing a lot or a little, the important thing is to never stop, to constantly keep chipping away at that boulder. Once you stop, it’s hard to start again. But as long as you’re moving forward, you’ll get there.

                            Interview by Jeremy L. C. Jones

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