If you’re like me you may think you’re well-versed on fantasy literature, but it doesn’t take much to be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Forgotten Realms and Eberron literature out there. It was only recently that I myself was able to take my first jaunt into both universes.
Don Bassingthwaite (kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it…Bassingthwaite) was my first guide into the continent of Khorvaire in the Eberron setting. The author of The Binding Stone (2005) and The Grieving Tree (2006), Bassingthwaite concluded The Dragon Below trilogy this past December with the release of the final novel The Killing Song.
A gripping, action-packed tale about a lone shifter, a cunning wizard/ex-mercenary, and a beautiful kalashtar psychic going up against an ancient evil from the Realm of Madness, The Dragon Below series is as exciting as it is fast-paced. Luckily Mania was able to track down Don at his Toronto home a few nights ago to talk to us about writing, his work with Wizards of the Coast, and his upcoming projects.
Mania: So Don tell us a little bit about yourself; have you always known you wanted to be an author? What kind of education prepared you for writing fiction?
Don Bassingthwaite: Well I wouldn’t say I always wanted to be an author but I knew I wanted to write since high school. Mainly because I got to the point where I’d read a book and I’d think, “Wow I want to read more books like that,” and I couldn’t find other books like that. So I just started writing things myself. In terms of education I started off at university for English in my first year, then I discovered anthropology and switched over to that. I realized that anthropology was an even better set up for writing, because it gives you insight into all sorts of cultures plus a certain amount of history and the whole scope of things. It’s a great background to draw on.
What other books have you written before tackling The Dragon Below series? Is there one that you’re particularly proud of or that has significantly shaped how you write today?
I’d say there are probably two books that fit into that category. The novels of The Dragon Below trilogy are the 10th, 11th, and 12th books I’ve written. I initially started off writing for White Wolf and one of the books I wrote for them is called Pomegranates Full and Fine (1995), and of my early books that’s my favorite. It was structured around the poem "Goblin Market" (1862) by Christina Rossetti, involved fairies and vampires, and let me expand on things on a symbolic and dreamlike level. I had a lot of fun writing that. The other one that was really a good time was The Yellow Silk (2004), which was the first straight-up fantasy novel I wrote for Wizards of the Coast and it let me play with a lot of different ideas in fantasy and martial arts. I took the combination of those fight scenes and mixed them with ideas from British gangster movies. Kind of like in LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS where if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.
What attracted you to the fantasy genre? Have you always been a fan?
I have always been a fantasy reader. One of the first longer books that I remember reading as a kid was a story called Black and Blue Magic (1972), where a boy is given a magic potion that lets him grow wings. So that and a lot of the Narnia books.
What authors inspired (or continue to inspire) you as a writer?
There are authors and series that I certainly strive to emulate. I happen to be staring at my bookshelf right now and most of the books I really like happen to be right at eye level. The author Steve Erikson and his Malazan Book of the Fallen series is probably I’d say my favorite fantasy author writing right now. It’s a great original fantasy with thick, big books you could kill somebody with. It’s got a meaty plot and you have to work at it, which doesn’t sound like great praise for the book, but it’s so engaging and different you really have to think about it as you’re reading.
How did you get involved with Wizards of the Coast? Were you a D&D or Magic fan growing up?
Actually yes I was. I was a role-player growing up and my first game was actually Gamma World and then I discovered the D&D boxed set and poured a lot of money into it and just spent a ton of time playing. But what actually led me to Wizards of the Coast was initially writing for White Wolf. I got into writing fiction for them, tried my own stuff for a while, then found out Wizards of the Coast was going to be doing a new series called Star Drive. I wanted to try writing science fiction so I thought I’d give them a call. That put me in touch with my current editor, Mark Sehestedt, and unfortunately he didn’t have a space for me at the time. A little while later, though, they had an opening on a new series called Dark Matter, which was a very X-Files, conspiracy-based concept so I pitched myself to Mark again on the similarities between Dark Matter and my work with White Wolf. And that’s how I got into Wizards of the Coast.
Despite the daunting task of writing a trilogy in itself, did you have any difficulties penning a tale that was set in such a detailed, pre-established world?
Not really (laughs). Given my experience writing two books within Forgotten Realms… it was a great introduction. My previous writing experience with White Wolf and in the Dark Matter series enabled me to have very strong real world elements so it wasn’t too difficult to jump into that. Writing in Forgotten Realms and Eberron is a little bit different though. Forgotten Realms is very established and there’s a lot of information out there. On the other hand, Eberron, when I initially started writing for it, was still in development. There was a lot of draft material and some of the concepts were fairly filled in but there was a lot of gray space as well. That makes writing a novel in the setting a little more difficult, you don’t want to get too detailed because the game designers have a lot of stuff going on too. You have to walk a little bit of a fine line there.
Out of the main players in your Eberron novels do you have a favorite or one that closely resembles your personality? Is there a character that seems to write itself?
Uhh (laughs), well none of them really resemble me. Your characters are like your kids you know; you don’t want to choose favorites because you know they’ll get upset. I would actually say I really liked one, she was sort of a minor character that entered into the second and third books, and that was Ekhaas the hobgoblin dirge singer. I had a lot of fun with her. She’s got a lot of attitude and she comes from the hobgoblin race which in Eberron has a very ancient history. I enjoyed writing her and I enjoyed her being a bit of a prick to the other characters.
Throughout the first novels of The Dragon Below trilogy, The Binding Stone and The Grieving Tree, we’re taken on a suspenseful journey from the wild forests of the Eldeen Reaches to the wastes of Droaam and the demonic lands of the Shadow Marches. Where does the bulk of The Killing Song take place?
The bulk of The Killing Song actually takes place in two areas because the main characters are split up. One set of characters goes off to Sharn, the city of towers, which is the largest urban area in Eberron. It’s a fantastical city with towers that are supported by magic and soar far up into the sky and have roots in ancient ruins deep below it. The other set of characters go back to the Shadow Marches, which again has an ancient history but it’s much wilder, more connected to the conflict between the forces of madness and the forces of nature… which is one of the big underlying themes in Eberron.
Is there a particular place in the Eberron continent of Khorvaire that you didn’t get a chance to touch on but would love to write about?
(Laughs) umm, let me see. There is one area that in my initial proposal for the trilogy I had the characters going to a country called Aundair, which is a very magical, magic and education-oriented city. There were a few sequences involving a university. I would have liked to go back and work on that. But for my next trilogy set in Eberron that I have coming up I’m going to another area of the continent that I’m very excited to start writing for. So I get to explore that a bit.
How do you keep up to date on all the happenings of the Forgotten Realms universe? I know you’ve mentioned before that one of Keith Baker’s characters, a dubious goblin by the name of Rhazala, makes an appearance in The Killing Song. Do you read all of the work from your fellow Eberron writers?
I try to. Initially it was very easy but now there’s a new novel coming out almost every month. The other authors and I chat back in forth on forums and when one of them has something that overlaps with something in my book I look into that. And certainly one of Keith Baker’s novel, The City of Towers (2005), took place in Sharn so I’ve definitely been able to read that.
I hear you’re a big fan of European cities with a lot of history such as Edinburgh and Bath. Is that true?
(Laughs) Who told you that? Yeah, probably five or six years ago I actually did get over to Europe for the first time and went to London, took a day trip to Bath, and then got up to Edinburgh. And I gotta admit for someone from North America and used to North American cities, just having that history right there was fantastic. And certainly of the three, Edinburgh was probably my favorite just because it’s a city that’s so much shaped by its geography. The niches and nooks that just came out of nowhere, well it was fascinating stuff. Just walking along the royal mile from Edinbrugh Castle to Holyrood Palace was fascinating. We did one of those ghost walks and went down beneath one of the arches that were built under the bridges, and it was amazing to find out that once there had been people living down there!
Do these areas with robust architectural histories help you write the fictitious cities in your novels?
Yeah I would say so. The city of Sharn, for example, has a maze of towers at different levels. Some of the distinctive elements of Edinburgh architecture, where there are people that are living in the arches and the way that buildings have multiple levels with the top floor opening onto a street up high and the bottom floor opening onto a street down low, definitely gave me an insight into how Sharn might look.
Although you don’t focus on writing paragraphs upon paragraphs of detail, you sketch out surprisingly rich landscapes. I know this is a part of your “clean, fast-paced” mentality when it comes to writing. Can you tell us a little bit about this strategy and the motive behind it?
Well basically I write what I want to read and that sort of focuses it. And I suppose on that level of detail you want to get across the important things plus a little bit more —you want to get just the right things to build the rest of the picture in someone else’s mind. Going back to Sharn again as an example, one of the small details is how it rains in the city. Early on the characters are caught in a brief downpour as they go into the upper level of the city yet a little later some of the characters go into a lower level and it’s still raining because the water’s still funneling down. I just wanted to put in a few details so you could say, “Oh I can see that.”
I’ve just finished The Killing Song and I must say you’ve left me wanting more. Please say this isn’t your last foray into the lives of Singe, Geth, Dandra, and the gang.
No it’s not.
Not all of the characters are coming back in the next trilogy though, I wanted to change things up a bit but there will still be things in there that you’ll definitely be familiar with. The trilogy is called Legacy of the Empire and the first book will be The Doom of Kings. The area I get to explore is Darguun, the hobgoblin nation, so I’m looking forward to that. In this trilogy I get to do a continuity event, which in Forgotten Realms you might call it something like a RSE or Realms-shaking event. This isn’t on that level—no destroying cities, no killing off gods, no massive changes—but it will be something that will influence the game continuity. So I’m kind of proud to be able to do that.
Yea that must be kind of a trip going from someone that played the game to someone who’s creating it as they write.
Yeah it really is. Or just from someone who’s been writing the novels and like I said when you’re writing the fiction you have to tread kind of carefully. But in this case I get to tread a little more heavily upon the world.
Beyond writing within the Eberron universe, do you have any ideas for other novels on the horizon?
I do actually. It’s just a question of finding time to be able to do it. I’ve got a couple ideas. I initially got in touch with Wizards of the Coast because I wanted to try and do some science fiction, so I’ve got an idea for a space opera book. And I've got at least one other idea for an original fantasy novel. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll win the lottery so I can quit my job and write full time.
Okay last question Don: There’s a part at the very end of The Binding Stone and at the very beginning of The Grieving Tree involving an ancient evil taking on the form of a black heron. As I was reading those sections I thought to myself, “This would make one hell of a creepy scene in a movie!” With the success of so many fantasy films these past few years have you ever given any thought to translating your work onto the big screen?
You know I’d love to see it. Of course, it's not up to me—writing work for hire takes the rights out of my hands, so if my books go onto the big screen it’s up to Wizards of the Coast. Still I would love to be able to tackle writing the screenplay because I’ve never really done anything like that and it would be a challenge to adapt it. But I’d love to do it if given the opportunity.
Alright well that does it, on behalf of myself and mania.com thanks a lot Don for speaking with us.
No problem Pat, I enjoyed it a lot.