Please welcome the authors of The Pithdai Gate, Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick. These two gentlemen (am I using the term loosely?) agreed to be interviewed together, and they do provide quite an entertaining read. I expect you’ll enjoy them as much as myself.
As a young reader, unspoiled by the realities of this world, what stories and authors drove you to delusions of grandeur, expecting to be swept up into a magical tale or a laser battle?
Eric: There’s no way I could name them all. My childhood was a sort of warm bath of Chosen One fantasy – fiction and film alike. Like many kids my age I grew up watching (and obsessed with) Star Wars. The Neverending Story was an extremely awesome movie in which the hero is sent on an epic quest. As far as fiction goes, Lloyd Alexander was a huge early influence – an ordinary boy who grows up into a king. Tolkien certainly played a role, too – less the hobbits (I didn’t really appreciate them until I was older) than Strider, who was another secret king. Chronicles of Narnia had ordinary kids finding themselves flung into a fantasy world where they soon became legendary heroes. The sort of Arthurian literature kids get exposed to at an early age is in there somewhere too.
How did you and Eric meet? (Feel free to embellish embarrassing details.) And how did you two develop the writing duo the world knows you as today?
Matthew: We had a few classes together our freshman year in high school, and teachers like to sit students alphabetically. Eric was always the last chair in the room, and more often than not, I was the chair directly in front of him. You get to talking that way, when you’re sitting near a familiar face a lot. It turned out we were both interested in creating worlds. He had an idea but needed some more motivation, I had no projects but a big motivation. That shifted a lot as we’ve grown up.
For the longest time, we were like a see-saw. On one 10-day family vacation, I busted out 100 pages of a story, while Eric hardly wrote; for most of freshman year of college, Eric polished a complete manuscript, while I ignored Word as best as I could (for the record, both of those stories have been rewritten so often they’re unrecognizable today). One of us working hard tended — it still tends — to motivate the other to work hard, but I’m still a knock-it-all-out-in-a-weekend kind of person.
Eric: As you might guess from my surname, I’m Polish on my father’s side. Moreover, I’m only a few generations away from the old country. My grandmother grew up bilingual, and my great grandmother spoke very little English. As a kid I was fairly proud of that heritage and I endured many a “dumb Pollock” joke as a result. When I decided to do some backpacking in Europe after college it was close to the top of my list of destinations and ended up being the first foreign soil my feet ever touched.
I was woefully unprepared for this journey. I had no phrase book, no hotel reservation, and no local currency. My guidebook (which covered all of Europe) gave me ten words of Polish and a 1-page map of the city center. Had this been France or Germany, it would have been no problem, since English speakers (and foolish American tourists) are common there, but this was Poland about a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, so almost no one over the age of 25 spoke more than a few words of English.
It was terrifying. It was incredible. It was like something straight out of The Hero’s Journey. I was only there for a week, and I have about a hundred stories about complete strangers who helped me or, in one case, took me in for the night. It sounds cheesy, but I learned a lot about the world and my place in it from the experience. The fact that everything still turned out okay in spite of the initial culture shock and some missteps made me more willing to try new things even when I wasn’t sure of the outcome. It also strengthened my faith in humanity, and I think that, more than anything, comes out in my writing.
Matthew: God, put a journalism major with an English major and tell them to write something … I hand him a 70K-word draft and get back a 140K-word epic, and it’s been all I can do to not shred it. I’ve had to learn that yes, adjectives are important. Yes, we need this seemingly irrelevant anecdote — though I try to make it relevant. Adverbs have been fantastically tricky, but sometimes they’re the easiest way to present a concept. Recently, as I work on the sequel to Kingmaker, it’s been fun to let go and add in stuff that may be useless for the next draft.
Oh, but you mean experiences! As I think about it, the biggest impact might be in how people talk about their news. Politicians often don’t sound truthful; cops often sound guarded. A really passionate advocate sounds a little crazy. Reporters and editors sometimes give a bit more background on their sources’ personalities in private, so you can see the difference between the public and private faces. When it comes to making characters, the news is full of them.
As a published author, what non-writing/reading activities would you recommend to aspiring authors?
Eric: Ultimately, everything a writer does becomes grist for the idea mill. If I could pick one that has helped me most, though, I’d have to say tabletop roleplaying games – particularly GMing games. When you run a game well, you’re basically organizing a collaborative storytelling exercise with a small audience. It comes with immediate feedback, as well. If the players aren’t enjoying themselves, boy will you know it! You also learn that you can’t please everyone, which I think is an important lesson for a writer. We all want so badly to be liked, but every book won’t click with every reader just as some styles of game play just aren’t compatible. Being able to listen to your players during and between sessions and find out what’s working and what isn’t – and then to give them more of what they want and less of what they don’t (rather than getting angry at the players for not thinking all your ideas are awesome) – is the mark of a good GM. As writers, Gamemastering teaches storytelling techniques. It teaches the importance of knowing your audience. It is also a fairly inexpensive hobby that involves getting together with friends on a regular basis.
Writing in the fantasy genre, how do you take the standard tropes and turn them sideways? Or even upside down?
Matthew: I’m looking for something that’s not been done. Kingmaker was something I’d never seen before: Kids lose their magic as they grow older. It usually happens the other way. I’ve not had an idea that good before. Eric really ran with that, and in The Pithdai Gate, we got to take if further.
I don’t go out of my way, to be honest. If I need a swashbuckler, I’m using one. I’m just putting him in my world, where he’s part of a minority race, he’s a little ADHD, he can turn into a fish, and … well, I’m not going to give it all away. I do like to have simple characters with one or two traits, but Eric will flesh out the lowliest peasant … which can lead to some awesome twists.
Four Moons Press is a collaboration between you and Matthew Schick and is used to publish your fantasy books, all of which have 4 moons. Why 4? And how do you work that in to your various books, some of which are not connected?
Eric: I find that every generation of writers builds on or reacts against the work of previous generations (and quite often both). Almost all the fantasy we read growing up only had one moon just like Earth’s – quite often with the same lunar calendar. A few had an extra moon or two, but aside from a different color or lunar calendar, it looked like…the moon. Don’t ask me why that little bit of slightly lazy world-building drove us crazy, but we decided our world was going to buck that trend. Three, four, and eight were magic numbers early in our collaboration, and so we settled on three visible moons and one “dark moon” that is only visible as a circle of darkness that passes in front of the stars and other moons. We also decided they’d have really weird orbits – one travels across the sky from west to east, one orbits north-south, and the other two go from east to west.
I cannot begin to tell you how many hours of productivity we have lost over the last couple decades to trying to figure out how these bizarre orbits look from the ground, but it’s probably far more than it needed to be. We used to take great pains to mention each moon and used elaborate lunar calendars to make sure we weren’t describing the moons wrong. We really don’t do that anymore. The moons are important in some books because of their mythological or magical significance. They’re Mar gods in Lesson of the Fire. The yellow moon facilitates communication between the Wen in The Pithdai Gate. They’re mentioned here and there throughout our books as part of the scenery whenever you might expect another fantasy novel to mention the presence of the moon. I’d like to think it lends our world a slightly more alien quality. This isn’t Earth. It’s Someplace Else Entirely. It also gives us a chance to describe moons without using the phrases “pale orb” and “silver crescent.” Yay variety!
Have you ever cosplayed any of the characters of your books?
Matthew: Nope. I haven’t found one I’d like to yet.
It is the holiday season, where we are inundated with holiday marketing and music and food until January 2nd. What is your favorite fictional holiday (from books, movies, or tv)?
Eric: I don’t really have a favorite from a book, but the made-up holiday I like think is the niftiest is Marchoween. It started when a friend of mine decided she really wanted to have a costume party but it was March and she wasn’t quite the kind of person to throw a costume party just because. She settled on calling it Marchoween because it fell on the 31st of March. Instead of dressing up as imaginary people, we wore costumes intended to lampoon each other. I stole the sweater she wears all the time, and she borrowed the laptop I carry with me everywhere. Several others did similar swaps, and we went in-character as other people at the party. It was a lot of fun to see the different interpretations, and it gave us a chance to laugh at ourselves. I thought this was particularly fitting for a costume party held on April Fools Day Eve. Maybe I’ll work the concept into a book, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What does your Writer’s Den look like? Neat and tidy or creative mess? can you write anywhere or do you need to be holed up in your author cave?
Matthew: I prefer a neat, empty space with easy access to coffee and Reeses Pieces. The fewer things there are to distract me, the better, and that often means no music. I have a computer with almost no programs on it, and I like to find a place with no Internet, and hash out my rough drafts that way. I keep a list of things I might need to research later.
I see that you have a connection to Onyx Path Publishing, an RPG press. What magic and mayhem have you concocted with the folks of Onyx Path?
Eric: I’ve been doing rather a lot of work for Onyx Path in the last year or so. I wrote the introduction for The God-Machine Chronicle and a short story for its accompanying anthology. I’ve also done a bit of work for the 20th anniversary edition of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – mostly world-building bits, which I can pretty much conjure at will after 20+ years writing fantasy. Most of the work I’m doing now is for the newest Onyx Path game Demon: The Descent, which concerns the cloak-and-dagger lives of biomechanical fallen angels on the run from the God-Machine that created them for its own inscrutable purposes. I hope to be able to do some more work for Mage: The Awakening in the next year, which is still probably my favorite game as a player.
Eric: The big news right now is the 12/20 release of The Pithdai Gate. This book involves characters and a part of the world we’re really excited about. Kingmaker is a bit of a bittersweet coming of age story. Lesson of the Fire features a hero who has fallen from grace and is on a collision course with tragedy. For The Pithdai Gate we decided we wanted to do something light and fun. We took as inspiration old Robin Hood stories, The Three Musketeers, Sherlock Holmes, The A-Team, comic books, and all sorts of other stories about clever, larger-than-life heroes working together to thwart the plans of villains.
Looking into the future, we’ve never had a shortage of ideas for new books. Matt’s currently finishing up the first draft of the sequel to Kingmaker (the first book of our YA-ish series), so I’ll be doing the second draft of that soon. We hope to have that ready to publish in late 2014. After that, maybe a sequel to The Pithdai Gate. I’ve also been slowly working on the first draft of a rather elaborate multi-book project I jokingly call How I Destroyed Civilization. That’s years away from being ready for Matt to revise because there are letters in the first book that are being written by characters during events in the last book, so we can’t write those letters until we know what happens in the last book.
Places to Stalk Eric and Matthew
Gentlemen, thank you so much for venturing into my little corner of the blogosphere. I really like that idea of Marchoween. Maybe I can make it a local holiday! Goodluck in all your endeavors!