Raymond E. Feist (2008)
This is the second of two interviews I’ve done with Raymond E. Feist, conducted in late spring 2008 for Death Ray #12. He’s a somewhat bombastic, very talkative man, yet unlike some of the “white male writers with beards” contingent I’ve spoken to, his self-confidence (and he is supremely self-confident) never tips over into offensive arrogance. Further points in his favour are his candour, and his professionalism (as far as one can judge it from outside).
I loved his books as an adolescent, but got bored after five or so of them. Although this is standard for me with most writers, in this case it was part of a wider process of disenchantment with epic fantasy. I abandoned the genre in the late 1980s, not returning to it until I began working on SFX in 1997, and then only under sufferance. A combination of my own developing tastes and my urge to experience new worlds and new writers, I suppose. More frankly, I kept reading book after book that was just awful. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy fantasy, and read more of it now than I did. But unlike science fiction, it’s harder to find fantasy’s gems amid the dreck. For a long while I became exhausted looking for them.
You could point at Feist, with his umpteen books, as the bannerman for the franchisation of the genre and its domination by an industry standard of tediously predictable frolics, but so what? More power to him. He writes stories people enjoy, and is rewarded for it. That’s the way it should be. And he is, let it be said, among the better multi-book fantasy saga writers.
Speaking to Feist is a bit like being hit by a very large wave. Overwhelming but fun. When all’s said and done, he’s very hard not to like.
He’s one of the top-selling fantasy authors on the planet, a powerhouse of prose whose 24-book (and growing) Riftwar cycle dwarfs those of even the most prolific author. A real magician of words, He’s Raymond E. Feist, and he likes to talk.
At twenty four books long, the Riftwar saga is one of the most extensive of all the grand fantasy epics. Written by Californian Raymond E. Feist over a period of more than 30 years, Riftwar began with the smash hit Magician, first published in 1982. Magician is typical of the genre, a huge fat wedge of a book. Beginning with the story of an orphaned boy, Pug, before opening up to cover a decade of interplanetary war. Feist’s books are not art with a capital “A” (his own words), they’re derived from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting he and his friends created while they were at university in San Diego, and contain the full Tolkien menagerie of Elves, Dwarves and so forth. So far, so familiar.
Where they are not typical is in their expert artifice. Feist is a master of fast-paced epic storytelling, his characters are heroic but mortal, struggling through massive wars with enemies both human and monstrous who gain access to his the world of Midkemia via magical “rifts” (we’re talking a wizardly stargate here). Magician is a masterclass in storytelling, a sweeping epic which sees Midkemia plunged into chaos as men from the world of Kelewan invade without warning. Caught up in the decade-long conflict are the boy Pug and his adopted brother Tomas both of whom, by different paths, become powerful men. Feist’s books are set against an intricate backdrop which, though initially it appears to have been drawn from the usual catalogue of fantasylands, is a superior example of the type. On the cover of his latest Wrath of a Mad God, a quote describes his work as “A guilty pleasure”. That this grudging praise comes from The Guardian newspaper says it all – this guy is good at what he does.
Feist’s own quest began while he was at college, and he overheard someone say: “I’m going to hit him from behind with my sword.” Naturally intrigued, he went to investigate and discovered a friend of his involved in a game of Dungeons & Dragons.
“I joined in after a little while, and found it very addictive for a variety of reasons,” says the author. He’s moved literally just this week, and is talking to us from his new home, his voice echoing in an empty room. “It’s a nice fantasy tour de force, you can imagine and actively portray what would be pretty anti-social behaviour in the real world and not be condemned for it. It was an inexpensive way to socialise. We were all starving college students, and you could buy a half case of beer for ten bucks and spend the evening having a lot of fun.”
A big part of the D&D experience is creating adventures for your buddies to play through, and Feist started to do this, adding to their shared world the continent of Novindus, which he was later to use, years later, as the setting of his Serpentwar trilogy. Later, the gaming group opened Midkemia Press, and it in writing modules for the company Feist got his first experience of authorship. Midkemia Press was ostensibly producing generic supplements for all RPGs, though really they were trying to avoid avoid paying license fees to TSR for D&D, which lacked a coherent gaming setting, Feist admits.
“I was pretty active with those guys throughout college, it was the underpinning of my social life. And so when I got the writing bug, I thought, why am I inventing this whole new world of Crydee when there’s this huge world that I’ve been playing games in for four years? I asked the guys about writing a story set in the world, and they said it sounded cool. So I dropped the Duchy of Crydee out on the west coast of the Kingdom of the Isles.
“Midkemia was always somebody else’s objective world, it wasn’t something that I had created for my own convenience, I was confronted with story issues arising from somebody else’s geography, it was real estate that I didn’t have a part in building. All the politics, all the social conventions, all the background infrastructure were created for me. So in a lot of ways, and I’ve said this many times, I’m writing historical novels about a place that doesn’t exist.”
But despite Midkemia’s detailed history, Feist initially struggled with what to write about. Feist’s friend Steve Abrams suggested he tell the story of how the more powerful Greater Path of magic came to Midkemia, that which came to be practised by Pug, the eponymous magician. Feist set Magician 500 years before the games he and his friends were playing, creating the world of Kelewan, whose mysterious Tsurani inhabitants were hellbent on adding Midkemia to their empire.
“Kelewan was predicated on three other gaming systems that were out there, and there were a couple that were very classically non-western European. One I liked a great deal was Bushido, but the problem with Bushido was that it was clearly historically Japanese, so I decided to make a pastiche world where I borrowed from Aztec, a little bit from Zulu and fair amount from Chinese history. And a little bit from Korean, though the Korean influence became much more pronounced later when I hooked up with Janny Wurts to do the Empire series because Janny had actually spent some time in Korea. Kelewan is a movie-set world. I only created what I needed. But Midkemia’s pretty vast, we put a lot of time and energy into creating it. There are parts of Midkemia that the reader never even heard about, in fact there’s some stuff hapenning in the next book in an area of Great Kesh called the Peaks of the Quor, and that’s been around since 1974, but I’ve never written about it before. Midkemia’s been a gold mine for me, in terms of story ideas.”
Feist is not the only author currently writing to have become engrossed in fantasy through roleplaying games. RPGs were very much part and parcel of the fantasy boom that began in the late 1970s. But today the gaming landscape has changed beyond recognition. Pen and paper RPGs have dwindled to a minority interest, and though online RPGs have become even more popular than their analogue precursors, they present a very different kind of gaming experience. They do not offer the possibility for collective storytelling that D&D and their ilk did. With this sort of narrative pre-school for writers gone, will it affect the future of the genre? Feist, who has played many of these online games, does not think so.
“No matter what the foundation of your own personal experience, once you step across the line into the theatre of literature, to mix a metaphor, you are subject to the same requirements as every writer – you have to tell an entertaining story that other people want to read.”
For Feist, who’s a big fan of Bernard Cornwell and Clive Cussler, this means pacey prose.
“There are writers out there who do wonderful jobs with description, but one person’s colourful is another person’s tedious. I don’t need someone who thinks their job in life is channeling James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t need a 30-page description of a four-wall cabin. I don’t need to know the history of that rifle hanging over the fireplace back to when the grandfather of the character, who’s not in the cabin right now, by the way, bought it. But that was different writing for a different time for a different audience. I’m reading Sir Walter Scott’s Castle Dangerous, which I haven’t read since I was about 14, and while the story is still as I remember it, I’m sitting here 48 years later going ‘My god this is ponderous prose!’ But the guy wrote it in 1830, his readership really expected very detailed images because they had never been on the borderlands between Scotland and England at the time of William Wallace and Edward Longshanks. People even in fairly cosmopolitan times such as early Victorian England, didn’t travel that much. For most people, the writer was their cable television. It’s an entirely different set of tasks to what we do today. Reader expectation differs, though we all have the same job to do. Ask any writer who’s out there with the public you’ll hear the same thing ‘I have this really great idea for a story, if I could just somehow find somebody to help write it down.’ And the answer is, it’s the ‘help me write it down’ part which is the reason I get paid, because everybody’s got an idea, ideas are absolutely, absolutely cheap and easy.”
If ideas are so easy to come by, why do fantasy authors tend to stick to the same universe? Feist, to date, has only written one novel set outside the Riftwar series, the contemporary fantasy Faerie Tale (1988).
“I think it is an appetite for the familiar on the part of the reader, but I think it’s an odd question. No-one ever asks Stephen King why he’s written 40-books set on Earth, or more to the point why he’s written 40 books set in New England. But the setting’s not the point, the writer’s working on the essence of the human experience. The Shawshank Redemption could have been set in South Carolina, it didn’t have to be a prison in Maine, but Stephen lives in Maine and he know the environment like the back of his hand. You don’t have to struggle with settings. John Grisham is writing mostly about the south, it’s the reason why Hogwarts is a British Public School rather than an eastern American Prep school.”
Fantasy also tends to revisit a lineage of characters, like Feist does, picking up the story with the descendants of his characters, but he points out that this is not the sole preserve of fantasy, either.
“I remember reading science fiction as a kid. Heinlein certainly did a lot of that with Methusalah’s children, and when he got into the Lazarus Long stuff, he brought that character back several times. I think part of it is simply is what a storyteller feels best serves his needs.”
Unlike some writers, however, Feist doesn’t shy away from killing off popular characters. Something he insists is necessary in telling stories.
“I don’t like killing off fun characters any more than the next guy, but if you’re dealing with human frailty and human vulnerability, there has to be a price attached to certain choices, also people get old. The only writer I knew who had a cavalier disregard for that was Marion Zimmer Bradley. In her Darkover series she would have a character who was the grandson of character A and character A’s best buddy is character B, who is now the grandson’s best buddy, and he hasn’t aged significantly. When Marianne was asked about that once she basically said ‘I just don’t care, and if it’s a good character and a good story you really shouldn’t care either’. Marianne would occasionally bring up a kind of damn-your-eyes arrogance to her choices, and her readership loved it.
“It was very very clear to me that if it was going to annoy the hell out of me, it was going to annoy the hell out of my reader. My first task in making those decisions was not to do things to annoy myself. Because If I’m annoyed, god help my reader.”
Though Feist is obviously assured of his own ability and status as one of the world’s best-selling fantasists, he is remarkably unegotistical. His collaborative instincts are still in evidence to this day, and he does a lot of co-authoring. It’s only a select band of authors who are willing to come out of their garrets and share.
“I get a couple of things out of it,” he says. “First of all, Midkemia’s other voices, I didn’t create the world so it’s always been in my mind to a very large degree a collaborative undertaking in terms of the creative side of things; the storytelling side of things is mine, I’m sitting alone there most of the time. What collaboration does for me is that it allows me to look inside the creative processes of another a writer. This has been different with every writer I’ve collaborated with. I’ll be going, ‘I never would have thought of that, that’s cool.’”
So far he’s collaborated with four other writers. The first was Janny Wurts, with whom he wrote the Empire series, an entire trilogy. “The most work, because we did three together and they were big concept books, but it was also the richest experience because it was adding weight and heft to Kelewan, which had been a two-dimensional pocket universe,” he says.
He proceeds to be charmingly frank about the other three authors he’s worked with. These were more guest writers, who lent a hand on one book each in his Legends of the Riftwar series – Steve Stirling, who worked on Jimmy the Hand, about Feist’s popular boy thief. “He was the most annoying because he went off on a tangent and did nothing that we’d agreed on, handed me a book that wasn’t the one we’d talked about but it had its interesting stuff in it, and created some challenges for me.” Joel Rosenburg co-wrote Murder in Lamut “When I asked him to clone three characters I didn’t think that he was going to literally yank them out of his book and drop them in my universe, but I’m kind of glad he did.” And William Forstchen, who helped on Honoured Enemy, where a Midkemian patrol are forced to team up with a band of Tsurani when they are attacked by Dark Elves. “The most fun. I wanted to do Sharpe’s Rifles, and he wanted to do Xenophon, so we did.”
As you might have gathered, most of Feist’s work is rooted in war, another core concept of fantasy. It is arguable that if SF is the literature of ideas, that fantasy is that of emotion. Bitter partings, treacherous friends, heroic deaths, hidden pasts, trials of character, these are the engines of fantasy.
“In one way or another, the essence of drama is conflict and suffering,” says Feist. “It’s sort of hard to write a story about a bunch of well-adjusted people who are having a great time. It’s like The Adventures of Ozzy and Harriet, one of the great iconic television shows of my childhood, it’s a comedy for a reason, the biggest conflict is which girl Ricky is asking to the prom. We should all be blessed with lives that uneventful. War’s a great lush background, and it provides you with the opportunity to deal with choices that have very direct one-to-one consequences. If Doctor Who,” Feist is a fan of the Doctor, by the way, “warps into a battlefield, it’s a completely different story experience if he drops the TARDIS in Picadilly and Queen Victoria’s riding by.”
Is he, then then a cruel god to his creations? Having them constantly in a state of armed turmoil?
“Well, I have to be. There’s a line in the last bok, where Pug is talking to one of the gods and the god is being an asshole, absolutely just being arbritary and capricious, and then does something that is comparatively speaking, relatively nice. He says to Pug, ‘I’m a force of nature, but nature sometimes is clement.’ If my people always were bullet proof, if I was 24 books later still writing about Arutha, and Jimmy, and Pug and Liam and Jimmy, and Martin, okay fine, but we’re doing James Bond now.”
It’s this talent for creating compelling characters, and knowing what to pit them against and, crucially, when to let the axe fall that make Feist’s books so compelling. Past the D&D roots and trappings of the world of Midkemia, which are very evident, there’s a mastery of characterisation that puts his work right at the forefront of modern fantasy.
“For my purposes, I think that if I’m to try to break down my own stuff, which is a really risky thing to do, because I believe that you write intuitively. But I give my reader different characters, the big expansive powerful guys like Tomas, and the really insanely gifted people like Jimmy and Arutha. But I get interesting letters about the smaller characters, people like Nakor, and Roo. Roo was a profoundly flawed character who was eventually redeemed, but he was very clever. He may be the most clever character I created, in fact I got a letter from a guy who was a broker on the Chicago board of trade. He said at last somebody’s written a fantasy for commodities brokers, because he just loved the way I had described Roo’s little plots with the wheat futures, and moving cargo around and things like that.
“I asked Julie Schwarz once, the long time editor at DC comics,” Feist is also well connected, we should add here, “who his favourite character to edit was, and he said Batman. Bruce Wayne is a very driven, dark character, with a lot of flaws, who strives to overcome those flaws through rigour and discipline. His least favourite was the Justice League. He said the problem with Justice League is that Superman had to be weaker and dumber in the Justice League than he was in his own book, because if he wasn’t, you’d be watching Batman and Wonder Woman and Flash and the Green Lantern and Aquaman stand around watching Superman solve the problem.”
Feist ran into the same issues early on with Pug. The criminal gangs and bands of marauding goblins some of the other characters have to deal with would present a very small problem to this Feistian Superman, for Pug is awesomely powerful. Despite his affection for the magician, he’s often absent from the events of the later books, or his powers are in some way curtailed.
“I had to resolve that question. So, I don’t care how powerful he is, in a real world, and let’s say for the moment Midkemia is a real world populated by several million people, there is a ripple effect, and like a ripple in a pond, the further away you get from him the less impact his presence has on the environment. He could walk in maybe and take over a country, because he is the big bad magician, he could fry the king and all that, assuming that was his wont, but the reality is beyond a certain point he has to have an army that listens to him and does what he wants them to do. At the end of the day he can only be in so many places at one time.’
Pug, Feist’s first character, comes up a lot as we talk. Though many of Pug’s contemporaries from the earlier books are dead, Pug lives on. And there’s a good reason for this, he was Feist’s first creation and there are undeniable parallels between author and character. Like Feist, Pug was adopted. A lot of the same ethical issues dog Pug that dog Feist, for despite Feist’s avowed laissez faire attitude, love of women younger than he and let the good times roll rhetoric, he is a deeply ethical man. His characters strive to do the right thing, most of them are in happy relationships, most are devoted to their children. Self-sacrifice is high on the agenda for the heroes of Midkemia. Nevertheless he insists, that Pug is not himself.
“I think there’s a common fallacy that there’s a character in the book that represents the writer if you just go look hard enough, though it maybe true in some cases,” he says. “I think that there elements of my life experience expressed in every character – the interaction when Jimmy meets Gamina is directly related to when I met my wife. And there’s a lot of aspiration, you know, I wish as talented as Pug, I wish I was as competent as Arutha, I wish I was as steadfast as Martin, I wish as gifted and as much fun as Jimmy. So in the sense that I can look into an aspect of my own personality and then extend it, and use it as a jumping off point. Pug reflects my own life the most directly, in which I will still observe as being really indirectly, but only because he’s my first character, he’s still with me, and a lot of what I’ve gone through I’ve reflected in his life experience.
“In my own life, you know I’m 62 now, I find myself facing some interesting questions when I was 62 that had I faced them at 30 I would have thought you were absolutely mad. I’m divorced, I’m dating a much younger woman, so suddenly at 62, look, most guys my age are thinking about retirement and playing a lot of golf, and I’m standing here looking at the possiblilty of maybe starting a second family. Do I want to? I’m confronting questions that I didn’t anticipate. So I’m taking my own life experience to the fictional realm. Pug and Miranda are over 100 years old now, but they’re still figuring out a lot of stuff, like me. Actually, I was joking wth somebody, saying I have to believe in reincarnation because I hate to the idea that I finally learn this crap and I can’t get to use it!”
It’s a tough question to ask, but the last 12 months have not been a happy time in the world of fantasy. James Rigney (Robert Jordan) passed away, Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with alzheimers, the publication of Gemmell’s final book, finished by his widow, reminds us he is no longer with us. Feist, as he said, is 62. Gemmell was 57, Rigney 58, Pratchett is 60. As with Gemmell, Rigney’s final book will be finished by someone else, Brandon Sanderson. But there’s been a trend over the last few years for authors to pick up the torch of other writers and really run with it. We asked Feist if he’d be happy for Midkemia and Kelewan to continue on into the future in 30 or 40 years time without him behind it.
“Nah,” he says dismissively. “I look at this way, it’s not where the books are set, or not even where the characters are, it’s my voice that is the thing. Yeah, I realise people still buy V.C. Andrews books, you know, silly as that is. And like many people I mourn Jim’s passing. And I am glad Harriet found someone she’s comfortable with to finish the book, and you know, I feel two ways about that. I realise that Jim probably had enough of the story down and enough and of the original writing in place, it’s basically someone going in and fleshing out some things and wrapping it up, so it’s basically Jim’s project. If Harriet decides she wants to franchise out that world, then more power to her, it’s her legacy and it’s her estate. For me, if my son became a writer and he wanted to play in the same sandbox that I did, then I wouldn’t have any objection to that. Brian Herbert was smart enough to recognise his own shortcomings as a write and hook up with Kevin Anderson, who’s a very good writer, and that close collaboration has been very successful, because Kevin’s got a huge opportunity and branding, and Brian gets a really good writer to work with, it’s a really good combination.”
So, would Feist be comfortable becoming Raymond E. Feist™?
“Probably not, I don’t know. There’s so many variables involved. For one thing I’m making a decent living now, and I’m able to afford most of the things in life that I enjoy, and yeah it would be fun to have the executive jet waiting on the tarmac to fly me to Vegas at whim where the Venetian has the highroller suite set aside for me and I’ve got Hugh Hefner’s rejects flocking around me to accompany me to the best restaurants and all that. Yeah, you can go chase stuff, but why? Look, I got my season tickets to my football team, I got a good wine collection, I got a pretty girlfriend, I live in a very nice place with great weather, I got two amazing kids who I adore even when I want to kill them. Life is good. So you know, I have no ambitions about creating any legacy beyond whatever legacy arises from some kid a hundred years from now wandering into a library someplace and finding a musty old volume of Magician and being captivated by it. If the opportunity arises where Spielberg or Lucas want to create a franchise, and there’s a theme park out there someplace, where next to the Indiana Jones ride is the Ride of the Dragon Lords, fine, I’m always open to business, but you know my business decisions tend to be not ego driven. I, and say this with all humility. I don’t like the idea that I’m going to end up being the number one fantasy writer in the world because Jim died and Terry’s got Alzheimer’s. I would be very happy to be number three or number five or number whatever, provided these guys are still around. I liked Jim, Robert Jordan, it was a character he played, and he played it very well, he was full of bombast and he looked like he was channeling Victor Bruno from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. I mean he got fussy about silly shit on the road all the time, but that’s not Jim, that was the character. Jim was a nice guy, a good guy, and Jesus the guy loved history. Terry can be a bite in the ass, anyone who’s partied with him knows, but he can also be the most delightful and charming people around, he’s a bit of a madman, but for that brain… you know my mum is 91 years old, and I’m dealing with that. I kind of expect it in someone who’s 91, I don’t expect it in someone who’s two years younger than me. I love Terry’s optimism, I love it that he’s approaching it with ‘the party’s not over yet, and don’t cry for me Argentina, you know because I’m having a good one still’, but I still hate the thought of losing that madman to the ‘long goodbye’…”
Feist intends to write five more books set in Midkemia, after that not even he’s sure.
“That’s going to be the end of the entire Riftwar cycle. I sat down down to write the damn thing in 1977, so I’ve been working on this stuff for 31 years now. There’ll be thirty books in the cycle. Not to sound immodest, but that’s a heroic undertaking. If you’d told me 30 at the beginning I would have said ‘Are you daft?’ That covers the five Riftwars, and tells the entire cycle that I wanted to tell. And after that I’ll figure it out. I’ve already talked to talk to Jane Johnson over at Harper Collins about what I might do on the next series, and I thought it might be fun to dabble for a little while in alternate history.”
At this juncture it’s possibly wise to point out that Feist is garrulous, in fact, he’s a talking machine, his conversation unstoppable and damn near unsteerable. We were on the phone for over an hour, during which time he did most of the talking. These little old paragraphs here, that’s just me making sure we’re all aboard the Ray express and know where it’s going. In reality, he just keeps going, seguing from topic to topic, and he’s keen to share concepts as yet unpenned.
“It will be alternate history where magic works, so I might write a story about Elizabethan colonisation of America, and have one of the protagonists be a Puritan witch hunter, and there are real witches out there, so the entire experience is different. The Spanish don’t get over because Montezuma has better magicians. I had an idea that there was this kind of situation where we would arrive at around 1810, where the British have enclaves in places like Manhattan and Pittsburgh, that are on lease deals, like Clive did in India or China did with Macau and Hong Kong. But it’s like the only reason the Kiowa put up with the Europeans is that the Comanches are kicking their ass and they want white allies. That sort of thing. What one has to do first is to set out and delineate the political infrastructure at that time and place, and to do that you’ve got to go back and start saying ‘Okay, how different do I want the world?’ If you go back to Babylon or Sumeria, and say magic works, well at that point, Earth would not be recognisable in 2008. You have to make certain arbitary decisions about what kind of flavour you want, and part of that is just how powerful is magic? Just how important is magic in terms of its change on the ebb and flow of history? One example that springs to mind is that when the soothsayer warns Caesar, ‘Beware of the Ides of March’, Caesar pays attention, because that guy’s got a 90% betting average. Or, he wouldn’t have been so cryptic – ‘There are 31 guys waiting to kill you!’. A big part of that will find itself, but I’ve got five other books to write before I get to that decision.”
There’s a big spoiler coming up in this final paragraph, by the way.
“And I might go in a different direction. I may hear a clamouring, as much as fans clamour, for post-apocalyptic Midkemia – what happened next? After everything we knew for 30 books went ‘pouff!’ I don’t know, I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
Did you know?
Midkemia has appeared in both comic and computer game formats. Two adventure games were released by Sierra On-Line, the critically acclaimed Betrayal at Krondor in 1993, and Return to Krondor, in 1998. Feist wrote three books based on these games, two further books were never published due to copyright wrangles. There’s an old-style text MUD under development from Iron Realms too, and Feist says he’s had a few conversations over the years about a MMORPG. A comic version of the first part of Magician has also been released by Dabel Brothers Publishing in co-operation with Marvel. However, the two companies have since ceased working together.