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The New Face of Wizards: Paul S. Kemp
By Pat Ferrara
August 24, 2007
"Shadowstorm" from The Twilight War series by Paul S. Kemp.
© Wizards of the Coast
With the much anticipated release of Shadowstorm hitting bookshelves this Tuesday, New York Times best-selling author Paul S. Kemp has officially barreled into dark fantasy with a quick wit, incomparable style, and an unabashed desire to portray the human psyche in all of its horrific and uplifting glory.
A lawyer from Michigan and father of two twin boys, Paul submitted a writing sample to Wizards of the Coast back in 1999 and has rapidly climbed to the highest echelon of Wizards’ elite writers. One of only a select few given the greenlight for tackling an RSE (Realms-shaking event), Paul continues the saga of anti-hero Erevis Cale in The Twilight War series.
After finishing Shadowbred (the first installment of the trilogy) a couple weeks ago I can assure you Maniac readers that this is one series you won’t want to miss out on. If you’re not familiar with Kemp’s work stay tuned for a full review of Shadowbred early next week. In the meantime let’s talk to Paul about his new series, the nature of Erevis Cale, and his aspirations in the fantasy genre.
Mania: So first of all Paul tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you hooked on fantasy?
Paul Kemp: Well, I grew up in Michigan, attended the University of Michigan-Dearborn as an undergrad, then the University of Michigan Law School. I practice corporate law in a suburb of Detroit. My wife has tolerated me for fifteen years and we have two incredible sons, twin three year old boys named Roarke and Riordan.
As for what got me hooked on Fantasy, that’s easy – My fifth grade teacher. He gave me a copy of The Hobbit. After that, my parents got me a Lord of the Rings boxed set for my birthday and I was off and running. I stay hooked because fantasy fiction fires the imagination. You’re never too old for that.
Have you had any formal training or education in writing fiction? How does a lawyer find time to even write one book, let alone entire series?
No formal education, as such. I was a political science and history major. While that requires an inordinate amount of writing, it’s hardly a series of creative writing classes. The closest I got to literature in college was with my history honors thesis, which was on Shakespeare and Elizabethan-era women.
I learned to write by reading a lot, by listening to and reading other writers when they spoke/wrote about the craft of writing, and by actually writing. Most of my early stuff stunk, but that’s the nature of the beast. I learned from it, stunk less, learned more, stunk still less, and eventually started to publish professionally.
What other authors have most influenced your writing style?
Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories are a huge influence, both in tone and substance. Elric embodies the anti-hero and has many parallels with my signature character, Erevis Cale. Cale is not quite the utilitarian Elric is, but both characters operate in the gray area between good and evil, both are fiercely loyal to their friends, both struggle to shape their own destiny in the face of divine manipulation and seemingly preordained fates.
Leiber, too, is an enormous influence on me. I love the camaraderie of Fafhrd and the Mouser, the sense of adventure and fun that leaks from every page of their stories. I try hard to capture as much of that in my writing as my talent allows.
Was it a daunting task writing your first fantasy novels in a shared-fiction universe?
Honestly, it was not. I had a lot of support from my editor (Phil Athans, a great guy) and fellow authors. Plus, I tend to have an over-inflated view of my own abilities. What? Write a story in the most well-known fantasy setting outside of Middle Earth, with hundreds of thousands of fans who love the setting and will beat you senseless about the head and shoulders if you don’t do it justice?
Sure, sign me up! I can do that! No worries! (Laughs)
What attracted you to the Forgotten Realms setting and the land of Faerûn?
You know, the Realms sometimes gets knocked as a “kitchen sink” setting (meaning, it’s got everything in it, including the kitchen sink), but that’s its appeal for me.
As an author, I’ve found the setting broad enough to feature just about any kind of story I wanted to tell. That’s wonderful stuff and speaks well of the world. My arguably darker tales sit side-by-side with Ed Greenwood’s more high-magic tales, with Bob Salvatore’s heroic Drizz’t tales, with a host of other stories that, while sometimes differing in tone, still manage to have that “Realmsian feel” at their core.
How does your legal career impact upon your writing? Are they outlets for each other? Could one say your day job and your writing profession embody the dichotomy of that which is Paul Kemp?
Actually, the dichotomy that is Paul Kemp is embodied best by the well known peanut butter-mayonnaise-marmalade trifurcation. Go ahead and ponder that. I’ll wait.
Back? Okay. :-)
You know, I keep the two careers more or less separate. I think the practice of law makes me think about problems in a certain way and that is sometimes helpful when evaluating/creating plots, but otherwise the one does not dramatically affect the other.
Tell us about Shadowbred and Erevis Cale.
Erevis Cale is a former assassin and spy who tries to leave his past behind him. Unfortunately it catches up with him more times than not. He is at war with himself almost constantly (see principle v. expediency in the last question below). Friends are his compass, and, lately, faith. He’s done noble deeds and ignoble deeds. He’s a complicated character. Fun, but complicated.
Shadowbred is the first book in The Twilight War, and the fifth involving Cale. In it, Sembia spirals toward civil war as the Shadovar insinuate themselves into advantageous positions within Sembian political structures, readying their forces to take advantage of the chaos. Behind it all lurks the mysterious goals of gods and the looming threat of the Shadowstorm. Cale and his companions find themselves right in the middle of things.
Incidentally, notwithstanding the fact that Shadowbred is the fifth book featuring Cale, it still provides a good entry point for the Cale stories. I’ve heard from many readers who picked up the Cale stories with The Twilight War, then went back to read the earlier novels.
Despite the outlandish settings and fantastical events that take place in your work, it’s clear you convey a profound sense of truth in your writing. Do you agree with the belief that “fiction never lies?”
I believe that art endeavors to show truth through lies. I once read this of the Bible, “One should not read it for facts; one should read it for truth.” I like that and think it applies well to fiction. Great fiction illustrates the truth of the human condition through the lens of a constructed (and false) reality.
Where did the inspiration behind Cale come from? Did he originate from a powerful idea or emotion? I know he has a long history in your fiction with Wizards of the Coast; when did you first nail him down to the page?
Well, the inspiration for Cale came from my fascination with the anti-hero archetype – Elric, Jubal (from Thieves’ World), Will Munny from UNFORGIVEN, Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen from DEADWOOD. Anti-heroes war with themselves constantly over methods, are at once brutal to enemies and loyal (and perhaps even gentle) with friends and loved ones. They stand on the line between light and dark, flirting always with redemption on the one hand, temptation on the other. The anti-hero is not aspirational like the truly heroic character, nor is he a pedagogical negative example like the villain. Instead, he or she is really exploratory, a walk-through of the breadth of the human condition.
Man, that sounds a bit much, doesn’t it? Oh well.
As for the nuts and bolts of how Cale came to be, here’s the story (I get asked this question a lot): In 1999, I submitted a writing sample to Wizards of the Coast. I sent in a chapter of a novel I had written. Wizards liked it and subsequently asked me to participate in a closed call for a new series, "Sembia," which was to feature seven characters in or closely tied to the Uskevren family of Selgaunt (a city in Sembia). You can imagine how exciting this was for me, being such a noob.
The materials Wizards sent to the closed call participants contained a list of the seven characters, listed by their relationship to the family (e.g. daughter, maid, butler, etc.) with a sentence describing each. There were several open slots, but the one that appealed to me was “the butler.” The sentence describing him said: "He is Thamalon's (the patriarch in the series) right hand and gets things done for his Lord." From that, I developed Cale, the conflicted former assassin and now (in his capacity as a butler) spy. I included a detailed background, even some illustrations, and an outline for Cale’s first story. Wizards liked my pitch and awarded me the "butler" spot in Halls of Stormweather(which was recently re-released). Cale was born.
In your online blog you expressed some timidity about reviews of your older works, seeing only the flaws in your previous novels. With Shadowbred do you feel you have grown as a writer? Has the character of Erevis Cale matured along with you?
Absolutely. I wrote in that blog entry that writing is a craft (I used to scoff at that notion, btw, thinking it pretentious nonsense) and it really is. It is nothing a writer can master. There’s always more to learn. Lots more. The jumps in skill are generally more evident across books early in a writer’s career, but the jumps are there even for veteran writers. The key is simply to remain open to learning, improving, etc. I read the blogs of many other authors. I’m always picking up new knowledge that improves my own writing. I’ve always felt that my most recent work is my best. I think that’s a good place to be.
As for Cale, I would not say he’s matured so much as he has changed markedly. He’s gone from assassin, to spy and reluctant major domo, to priest, to something other than human. His constant evolution, I think, is what fans of my work enjoy. And I do, too.
Having devoured Shadowbred last week I can’t help thinking that August 28th can’t come soon enough. What can we expect in the second novel of the trilogy, Shadowstorm?
That’s a tough one to answer without giving too much away. How about this for some high points: The civil war in Sembia takes an unexpected turn; the lives of some of the key characters (Abelar, Tamlin, and Magadon, in particular) get turned on their heads; the true nature of Volumvax is revealed; and Cale finds himself stuck between the God of Shadows and a Lord of Hell (not fun ground to hold). And all of this occurs in the midst of what I hope is compelling dialogue and characterization, breakneck pacing, and a good amount of action.
Okay Paul thanks for bearing with us, last question: You’ve mentioned in another interview that you most enjoy authors who can “explore big ideas through the small lens of interesting characters.” What are these big ideas you try to scrutinize in Shadowbred and the rest of The Twilight War series?
I’d like to think that several big ideas / themes get some time in The Twilight War – principle v. expedience (which is really Cale’s fundamental dilemma in a nutshell), man’s relationship to his god, determinism v. choice, and, perhaps most importantly in this case, the nature of true heroism.
On behalf of myself and Mania.com thank you Paul.
My thanks Pat.
To find out more about The Twilight War series check up on Mania’s book sections in the forthcoming weeks. You can also find out more information on Paul S. Kemp at his online blog here: http://paulskemp.livejournal.com/.