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Interview with Novelist & Freelancer, Ari Marmell

Posted on December 1, 2003 by Flames

Ok, so we have to ask: what is a Mouseferatu?

A mouseferatu is a variety of night-stalking rodent that lurks in small, dark places, occasionally leaping out to either suck the blood of passersby, or else hand them writing samples.

Alternatively, it’s a name I came up with when looking for a screen name for the White Wolf forums, way back in 1999. 😉

(Actually, it turns out there’s also a Romanian short film by the name “Mouseferatu,” and I think an online comic as well, but I was aware of neither of them when I came up with the name.)

How did you get into gaming?

Well, I wish I had a really interesting story to tell about this, but I’m afraid it was pretty mundane. I was in elementary school, about nine years old, and a friend of mine asked if I’d heard of this game called Dungeons & Dragons. I said no, he showed me his copy — the old red box Basic edition, with the green dragon on the cover — and the rest was history.

I got into Advanced D&D less than a year after that, and that was the only RPG I played for a while. I knew there were other RPGs out there, and I did play a few — Top Secret, the old FASA Star Trek game — but not many, and never for long. It wasn’t until my wife (well, girlfriend at the time) introduced me to Werewolf and Vampire that I really got into any other games long-term.

This next part isn’t really what you asked, but I still play D&D, various White Wolf games, the occasional Call of Cthulhu, and I’ve just recently — in fact, today — begun playing in my first ever game of Kult.

Hmmm … You know, it just occurred to me, I assumed you meant “how did I start playing RPGs”. But you could have meant how did I start working in the industry …

I’ve been writing since college, mostly fantasy novels, none of which are published (yet). While on my honeymoon in New Orleans, I got an idea for a Vampire supplement detailing a sect of Vodoun-oriented vampires. Well, I was between writing projects, and I was working a job that gave me a lot of free time scattered throughout the day. So I downloaded the White Wolf writer’s guidelines, and I wrote the supplement. Not a proposal, the whole book. And I submitted it.

Justin wasn’t able to use it, since it contradicted other forthcoming material. Heck, he didn’t even have time to read the whole thing, busy as he was (and is). But he liked what he saw enough that he was willing to give me a chance on something else, and it took off from there.

(I should note that Justin has asked that others do not do what I did. He doesn’t want to receive whole books as proposals, because he doesn’t have time to read them. Figured I should mention that, in case someone tries the same thing I got away with.)

What do you think of writing for Justin Achilli (Vampire) and Matt McFarland (Dark Ages)?

Hmm… How to answer this without getting fired… 😉

Okay, seriously. Justin has a widespread reputation for being an acerbic, sarcastic bastard. And it’s true that he doesn’t pull any punches; when he’s got a problem with something you’ve written, he tells you. Truth is, though, he’s not really a bad guy. I’ve enjoyed most of the projects on which I’ve worked for him, and those that I haven’t, it’s usually been due to issues that weren’t really his fault. I’ve also enjoyed the few occasions in which I’ve been able to hang out with him outside of an office setting. Of course, it could just be that I have a soft spot for him since, as I said, he gave me my first shot in this industry. I expect to be working with him on additional projects in the future.

Matt’s got a more laid-back style than Justin. That doesn’t mean he’s any less likely to tell you what’s what; he just puts a different spin on it. Frankly, I think it’s a ruse so his writers won’t notice that he asks for more changes than Justin does. 😉

Seriously, Matt’s great to work with. Only reason I haven’t done more for him is that the Dark Ages line requires a lot more research than the others, and I can only face so many homework-intensive projects in a given timeframe.

What is it like being the one who writes the last fiction for the current line of Vampire: the Masquerade?

Nerve-wracking. I was excited and honored to be asked, not just because it was a major Vampire novel, but because it was to be my first published novel, period. That said, it’s a major responsibility. I know that, with Phil Boulle’s skilled assistance and editing, I’m very happy with the final product. I think a lot of other people will be, too. But I’m realist enough to know that it’s not going to please everyone. Every Vampire fan has a preconceived notion of what Gehenna should be, of which characters should be addressed, of which plot threads should be tied up. Vampire has a dozen years of characters and plots, and no single book — no single series — could possibly cover them all. Some people won’t like the choices we made, or the way Phil and I chose to portray Gehenna, because it won’t be the way they envisioned it. Still, I have high hopes that, when all is said and done, more people will like it than don’t.

That doesn’t make me any less nervous about it, though. 😉

What kind of advice do you have for the hopeful rpg writers and artists out there?

Keep creating. You learn by doing, pure and simple. Playing the game isn’t enough to qualify you for working on it; you have to create, and create, and create. And you have to be willing and able to accept criticism and learn from it. If you’re the type to get angry at people who point out flaws in what you’ve done, you’re better off working in some other field. Learn to cull the useful feedback from the criticism, and to tune out the stuff that’s just mean or insulting.

When you start submitting to companies, read their submission guidelines and follow them. You don’t have to understand why they want something done the way they do. You don’t have to like their methods. You just have to follow them. Don’t ever assume “Oh, my stuff’s good enough, they’ll just ignore the fact that I didn’t follow procedure.” It’s not. Mine’s not either. When you’re first getting started, nobody’s is. Follow the rules, pure and simple.

Don’t give up. Everybody fails; everybody gets rejected. It’ll happen, and it’ll happen again, and even after you’ve been working in the industry for years, it’ll still happen. It’s part of the business.

Don’t get into this industry looking to get rich, or even to make a living. This industry is piss-poor, for the most part. Most RPG companies barely make enough to get to their next product, and they pay their creative staff and freelancers peanuts. Do this because you love doing it; in the end, it’s the best reason there is — and often the only one.

What do you feel is the biggest issue facing the gaming community today?

Uh-oh. Soapbox time. You all may want to go run to the restroom, maybe grab a popcorn and a soda …

All righty. The biggest issue — in fact, let’s call a spade a spade and say the biggest problem — facing the gaming community, and the RPG industry as a whole, is the market base. The simple fact is, the industry market base isn’t expanding, at least not at anything approaching a viable rate. The market’s aging, too; the age of the average player is higher now than it was, say, 10 years ago.

It’s not easy; RPGs have a lot of competition these days. Computer games, collectible trading card games, “clix” games — all of these are drawing on the potential RPG market, and there’s a surprisingly small degree of overlap. It’s not a hopeless situation, though. It’s true that when Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax created D&D, people (kids especially) didn’t have the range of other entertainment possibilities they do now. Thing is, I really and truly believe RPGs could compete much more effectively than they do. The problem is, the company in the best position to do something about that is Hasbro, and they don’t seem to be interested. (Note that I didn’t say Wizards of the Coast. Despite the fact that Hasbro owns them, they are not the same entity. I’ve met many of the WotC folks, and they’re some of the nicest folks you could meet. More to the point, they’re devoted to the game. I have no doubt that if they were the ones in charge, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Unfortunately, they’re not.)

Where’s the new D&D cartoon? The advertisements? Bridge products between D&D (or D&D-like) online and electronic games and tabletop role-playing? Magic: The Role-playing Game? Hasbro has the resources to expand the RPG market, resources nobody else in the industry does, but they don’t seem to have the inclination to do so.

What’s next for you?

Well, it’s difficult for me to talk about what’s next, since I can’t go into a lot of detail on stuff that hasn’t come out yet. I expect I’ll continue doing work with both White Wolf and various D20 companies. I’ve got a number of contracts and tentative agreements set up, including work on a new line that will (I hope) address at least a few of the issues raised in your question about the problems facing the RPG industry.

I’m also very strongly hoping to get my fiction career moving again. As I mentioned, I’ve got a number of fantasy novels that I’d like to see published, and many more ideas sitting around gathering dust. With the forthcoming publication of the Gehenna novel for White Wolf’s Time of Judgment, I intend to start approaching literary agents who require authors to already have novel publishing credits before they’ll consider them as clients. Of course, even if I do manage to start writing novels, I don’t see myself leaving the RPG industry any time soon. Despite the occasional bump and bruise, and my concerns regarding the market’s current state, I really enjoy working in the field. It’s actually the first job I’ve ever held that I’ve been truly happy with.

To find out more about Ari, visit his website at: http://www.mouseferatu.com.

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