To tell you the truth I didn’t know quite what to expect when I found out I was going to be interviewing a Senior Editor of the company that made Dungeons & Dragons a household name. Would he be a condescending geek? An arrogant Magic player packing the original Power Nine in his back pocket?
Even with my impeccable ability to resonate with a true nerd I’m not gonna lie, I was a tad bit nervous. Lucky for me my fears turned out to be completely unfounded. Last week, the morning after Tacoma, Washington’s first real snowstorm, I talked with Mark Sehestedt over the phone and discovered he’s a real classy guy.
Author of the novel Frostfell, Mark made the jump from editor to writer with the release of his first book early last December. The fourth novel in the Forgotten Realms: The Wizards series, Frostfell is a fast-paced ride through the Endless Wastes full of fighting, mythical intrigue, and demonic sorcery.
In between lots of shoveling and getting his kids ready for their first snow day outside Mark was nice enough to sit down and talk with me about Wizards of the Coast, comics, Elven werewolves, and the soon-to-be-released animated Dragonlance film.
Mania: First of all Mark I gotta ask: how does one become an editor, let alone the Senior Editor at Wizards of the Coast Publishing? What’s your story?
Mark Sehestedt: Well I have a kind of unique story, mine was an unusual situation. I went to school at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, NM. I took four and a half years of Latin in college. My professor was a guy named Peter Archer. After he left the university he went to work for TSR. He was working there for a little less than a year when TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast. He went to Wizards’ book department and they were hiring and he thought of me. One thing led to another and that’s how it happened. I was an English major, creative writer, and total science fiction geek so yeah, I’m glad he thought of me!
How long have you been working at Wizards and, might I ask, what exactly does a Senior Editor do there?
I’ve been there for almost ten years. Being an editor at Wizards is pretty different from being an editor at Del Rey or Tor or Simon & Schuster or any of those other publishers because most of what we’ve done up until now is written exclusively within our game settings like Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Star Drive, etc. We don’t really get ideas from authors in the mail for those lines, we actually solicit stuff from authors. We work very closely in conjunction with the game designers and between them, the editors, and input from the authors we come up with various book ideas. The authors do the outlines, we review that, and from that point on it’s pretty much normal. But Wizards is also just beginning to launch a line of independent fiction that isn’t associated with any of the shared-worlds so that’ll change what I’ve pretty much just told you.
So do you guys in the publishing section of Wizards still get to play all the games?
Yea, when we have time (laughs). In that regard we are like the other publishers in that we’re always very busy. But yeah I don’t know anyone who works here who isn’t a gamer or a geek of some sort, even if it’s just video games. The guy who sits in the cube next to me plays GUITAR HERO on his lunch hour every day and there are lots of lunchtime Dungeons & Dragons, MAGIC: THE GATHERING, and other board games going on.
What kind of media has influenced you in your career? Has fantasy always been a passion for you?
Absolutely. When I was, I think about five years old my dad took me to see STAR WARS (laughs) and yeah it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. So yeah I was a geek and my dad was big into sci fi so we used to watch Star Trek, Twilight Zone, really anything sci fi or fantasy or even horror-related. I remember my dad loving it so all of that filtered down to me. But yea I love comic books, I love movies, TV shows, novels, anything sci fi or fantasy. But I’m also really into history, and I’m a complete language geek. I’ve been reading a lot of Westerns, mysteries, and thrillers over the past couple of years. Writers like Elmore Leonard, F. Paul Wilson, Stephen Hunter, and William Kent Krueger.
What is your favorite comic book?
Well I kind of follow the writer more than the publisher or even the line. As far as writers go I’ll always pick up Brian Michael Bendis’ stuff. It’s funny I was really into comic books as a kid and up until junior high, but then high school hit and I discovered girls and rock ‘n’ roll. When I had kids of my own we started watching the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Batman cartoon on TV, and they got me hooked into it. I was like “Hey, this is pretty cool.” On the weekends we would go to the local comic book shop and look around. I picked up some stuff here and there including stuff I liked and stuff I didn’t. When Ultimate Spider-Man #1 came out my son grabbed it because he’d heard from his mom that sometimes #1 issues can be pretty valuable. I read it and was just blown away at how perfect it was. It was everything I wanted in a comic: so well written, so true to the characters. I had to pick up some of Bendis’ other work and I ended up loving that too. Some guys at work got me into Frank Miller and I read Batman: Year One. Reading it as an adult I’m still blown away by it. Other writers I like include J. Michael Stracsynski, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka… those are the big ones. I’m also a big fan of Robert Kirkman’s INVINCIBLE.
In your opinion what has been the best comic book adaptation to the silver screen in the past few years?
I’d probably have to say the SPIDER-MAN films with the X-MEN flicks running close. But the best film based on the whole comic book genre… I guess I was one of the few people who really liked M. Night Shyamalan’s UNBREAKABLE. I thought that was exactly what, as an adult, I wanted to see in the whole superhero theme and genre. It realistically asked the questions of what would happen if you woke up and realized you had all these super powers. You know, instead of having him run down the street and buying a pair of leotards. It was a comic book movie for adults. On the other end of the spectrum though I absolutely love Pixar’s THE INCREDIBLES.
Following that up what’s your most anticipated movie of 2007?
I feel like recently I’ve kind of fallen out of touch with movies. Now that I have kids it’s kind of hard even getting to them (laughs). To tell you the truth I think some of the best stuff is coming out on TV. Between LOST, THE WIRE, THE SOPRANOS, and VERONICA MARS… I think all the great writing and storytelling going on right now is happening on the small screen. Why go to the movies when there’s so much good TV on? But okay the simple answer to your question, SPIDER-MAN 3.
Okay back to business. Late last year you took a pretty momentous step going from editor to author after completing your first novel, correct?
Yeah, my first novel Frostfell just came out in early December.
Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Well another editor that I work with was looking for ideas for the Forgotten Realms: The Wizards series. The books had to be set in the Forgotten Realms world and the only premise was that they had to feature wizards as the main character, either good or bad. Beyond that we were pretty much able to do whatever we wanted. So I put in my bid. I wanted to explore an area that hadn’t already been completely covered again and again. My editor gave me a list of places and I immediately was attracted to the Endless Wastes. Last year I read a book called Shaman’s Coat (2002) by Anna Reid. It was about all these indigenous peoples of Siberia and their interactions with the Chinese and the Russians. It’s a great book and it gave me a lot of ideas for the setting out in the Wastes. I felt it fit since that particular stretch of the Realms is based very heavily on Mongol culture. I pitched it and my editors liked the original kernel so we just moved on from there.
Yeah. You still got all the creativity and all the brainstorming and leniency with the storytelling, but you’ve also got all the research. A lot of this stuff you could just make up but then again you are writing a shared-world fiction novel. The magic, for example, I couldn’t just make up since it functions in a very specific way in the Forgotten Realms. I pored through several of the Realms books, asked the editors and authors a lot of questions, and even got in touch with Ed Greenwood who created Forgotten Realms and he answered a bunch of questions for me. So it’s very heavy research writing in a shared world. I think that’s true writing in any universe like Dragonlance, Eberron, Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. You have to do your homework or the fans will know it. If you don’t they’ll spear you on the message boards (laughs)!
After proofing and editing other people’s work for so long how did it feel to have your own stuff under such intense scrutiny?
It’s a lot of fun actually. Editing and writing are definitely two different disciplines; they’re both crafts but very different things. Editing I guess you have to have a fair amount of skills and training to better help the author tell the story that they want to tell. You’re really the ultimate first critic to see their work so you have to let them know what’s wrong with it. When you’re writing you’re much more the sculptor. You do use a lot of the same skills as an editor: how to tell a story, plotting, pacing, etc. Writing is definitely a lot more intensive.
Do you have a favorite scene in the book or one that you’re particularly proud of?
Probably my favorite scene, the one I had the most fun writing, occurs around the middle of the book. Amira goes to talk to this sort of ancient oracle and I didn’t want it to be like the Lady of Delphi telling the future type of thing but rather a very shamanic, dark, and scary scene. Yeah if I had to pick a favorite that’d be it.
Mark I definitely know what scene you’re talking about and I really thought that was one of the stand-out sequences in the novel. I know you touched on this a little bit before but aside from drawing on the rich texture already inherent to the Forgotten Realms world, what other influences shaped some of the cultures in your novel?
As far as the pacing of the novel and the character interaction, I modeled it very much on a Western. The main character is very much the stranger in the strange land trying to get back one of her family members, and she teams up with a fellow exile and his companion. The exile and the “noble savage” companion have a long tradition in literature, be it Hawkeye and Chingachgook, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Han Solo and Chewbacca.
As far as the new cultures and languages and stuff I invented, all that was very influenced by various Native American cultures. Growing up in New Mexico you get a lot of that. When I was a kid I saw the movie LITTLE BIG MAN and that had a big effect on me. From that point onward, whenever we’d play cowboys and Indians, I was ALWAYS the Indian, always. In Frostfell, creating this new culture of Elven werewolves out in the Wastes, I based it on a mixture of Apache, Comanche, and Lakota ideas, stuff I’d read about in The Shaman’s Coat and some other books that Don Bassingthwaite had sent me.
After reading and thoroughly enjoying Frostfell I am very interested in how the book ended. I felt that there is a lot of potential with the character group of Lendri, Gyaidun, and Amira. Will we ever see the trio again or at the least see Amira confront the rest of House Hiloar back in Cormyr?
I’d love to. A lot of that though really depends on how well the book sells. As long as the publishers and the editors see that people like it then yeah I’m sure they’d want more. I’d definitely like to do more but right now it’s really out of my hands. I have lots of ideas for all three characters since it’s kind of the middle chapter in all of their lives. But yeah if they asked me to do more I would love to do them. All three of the heroes had lots of adventures before Frostfell opens and they’ve got a big one on the horizon as the novel closes — even if it’s only in my head at this point.
And I’d definitely like to read them. With Hollywood snatching up any established fantasy or superhero source material they can find I can’t imagine that they’ve never made a pass at Wizards of the Coast. Have you ever had any tantalizing studio offers for some of your property?
Oh yeah there’s actually a funny story with that. Not long after I started working at Wizards one of the editors who used to work with us came back from lunch one day and checked her voicemail. Immediately afterwards she came into our office and was like, “Guys, I just got a message from Sharon Stone on my voicemail.” She put it on speaker phone and within the hour she had half the company listening to her voicemail. And it was definitely Sharon Stone. So yeah there’s been lots of interest. I don’t think it’s a secret anymore so I can tell you that one company is actually doing an animated film based on the Dragonlance Chronicles. I don’t know if there’s been specific interest in any of the other worlds, I’m sure there has been and there’s been offers but that’s all been handled through the licensing department so by the time I hear about it it’s a little ways down the line.
Can you tell us anything more about the animated film based on the Dragonlance Chronicles?
You know I haven’t seen any footage yet, but the authors got to see a bit of the animation and they were definitely impressed with it. I don’t actually know though if it’s going to be traditional animation or a combination with CGI elements. Some of the voice actors will definitely be recognized by science fiction fans and TV viewers. Kiefer Sutherland is playing Raistlin. Michael Rosenbaum (SMALLVILLE’s Lex Luthor) is playing Tanis. Lucy Lawless is Goldmoon. The official site is at http://www.dragonlance-movie
I know this is a bit like asking you to pick a favorite child, but what specific work or works under the Wizards Publishing label do you think would translate the best onto the big screen? Besides your novel of course.
(Laughs) Well yeah besides me… I would probably say R.A. Salvatore’s The Dark Elf Trilogy. The whole action hero, dark hero theme I think would be perfect for the big screen or even the TV screen. Again going back to what we started talking about earlier if I were a movie executive I would be looking at The Dark Elf Trilogy as an extended TV mini-series. Having it on the big screen would be really ambitious because you’d only have around three hours tops. And it just simply can’t be done in that short of time. I’ve become such a fan of the TV series, I think it’s a great way to tell extended stories.
Yeah and it’s been quite a while since anyone’s put a lot of effort into a fantasy mini-series. The last one I can really think of was the MERLIN two-parter with Sam Neill back in ‘98. Well thanks for bearing with me Mark, I’ll let you go after this final question: Is there any soon-to-be-released work of your own or your fellow authors at Wizards we Maniacs should know about?
Well, I’m hard at work on my next novel. I can’t really say anything about it until it has been officially announced in the catalogue. I think I can get away with saying that it is another Forgotten Realms book. Beyond that, I’m continuing to work on my own personal novel. It’s a mega-epic fantasy. I was about halfway done with the first book when Frostfell landed in my lap. There’s lots of cool Eberron stuff coming out, both from veteran authors and new blood. Wizards of the Coast is launching a new line of independent fiction. I’ve had the privilege of reading a few of the releases. Awesome stuff!
Well that does it, on behalf of myself and mania.com thank you very much Mark for talking with us.
Thank you Pat.
Okay ladies and gents that does it for this interview. If you’re interested in Mark Sehestedt’s new book check out the full review posted a few weeks back in Mania’s Books section. For all the latest Wizards of the Coast Publishing news check out their website directly at www.wizards.com/books.