I have the honor, of hosting a Q & A with Raymond E. Feist, the bestselling author of more than 30+ books. I have personally been a huge fan ever since i read Magician for the first time over 30 years ago.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on, if any?
I’m not sure I take your meaning. If you mean trip to visit the Hemmingway House in Key West, Florida, or Mark Twain’s in Hartford, Connecticut, none. If you mean a specific destination for story reasons, again none. Rather I pick up ideas everywhere I travel. Not necessarily when I’m there, but at some point a memory will percolate up and find itself embedded in a story.
What is the first book that made you cry?
I’m in my 70s, so damned if I can remember back that far. Seriously I’ve been reading since I was about 6 years old and that’s a lot of stories to recall.
What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
It depends on who you talk to, I guess. I’m so used to how the traditional publishing industry works I take a lot for granted. In general, it’s any practice that holds up the writer getting his or her money. Keeping money on the “float” is a time honored practice where a publisher (or an unethical agent) has money sitting in a bank somewhere generated interest that by rights should go to the writer but doesn’t.
What would you recommend today regarding publishing? The traditional way or go down the self-publishing way?
I have no recommendation. I’m a dinosaur. I sold my first book almost 40 years ago and have zero experience with self-publishing. I know almost nothing about it. I do know a few authors who’ve been very successful with that choice, but how they did it is outside my area of experience.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Both, depending on various things. I’ve had my days of standing up from the computer (or typewriter back in the day) feeling like I’d just gone 12 rounds with an Olympic boxing champion and other days were I felt like dancing around the room. And everything in between. Writing is my job, and there are days that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the best job I’ve ever had.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Entire books on writing cover this stuff. A common notion among writers is the best thing writers do is contrive excuses not to write. Gore Vidal once said, “Writing a novel is like walking from Vladivostok to Paris . . . on your knees. Then when you get to Paris, you’re back in Vladivostok.” Sometimes it’s true. It can be tedious, but if that’s someone’s choice, there’s no excuse: butt in chair, fingers on keyboard and work. The other “truth” is what William Faulkner said, “you must kill your darlings,” which simply means you may amuse the hell out of yourself, be impressed with the brilliant of that one great phrase you turned, but if it doesn’t make sense to the reader, it must go! The object of the exercise of any writing is communications, fiction or non-fiction. Tell the story! Don’t labor over convincing the reader how brilliant you are. Few writers are. Settle for being entertaining.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
If you won’t kill your darlings, absolutely hurts you. On the other hand, there’s a certain vanity to wanting to be a professional writer of fiction. You’re essentially saying, “I have a story to tell and it’s so good good you’re going to pay money for the privilege of reading it.” What you have to understand is, as a friend of mine long ago said, “Everyone rides a different bicycle.” Once I had a fellow travel a very long distance by car to see me give a lecture at the University of Western Australia. He sat in the front row and as soon as I took questions, shot his hand into the air and when I called on him said, “Well, I’ve read your book and I have to say it doesn’t do a thing for me.” My answer? “Well, that’s why they make more than one flavor of ice cream. Next?” The organizer of the lecture told me that fellow always shows up to start an argument with an author and I was the first one ever to shut him down with one sentence. I’ve had people like my work better than my mother liked it, and other people who think there should be a law against me ever writing again. Just write the best story you want to read and get over trying to be anything to other people, and you’ll find your voice.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
So many potential things. Like most writers, I can concoct reasons not to work. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say it’s a constant need to be disciplined and just get to work when I need to. Writing is my job. As I tell people, I’m self-employed so I get no days off because my boss is a jerk. And those darned publishers keep expecting me to produce books they’ve paid for. Unreasonable, if you ask me.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym? And if so have you? And why?
I’ve never do it. There are lots of valid reasons for writers to use a pseudonym. If your parents named you Earnest Hemingway, you might want to go for “Ernie” and your mom’s maiden name of “Jones.” Jim Rigney was Robert Jordan to fantasy readers, but he was Reagan O’Neil to romance readers. Some writer have used as many as a dozen pen names.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Neither. There’s very little “original” around. I wasn’t the first guy to write a story about a kid becoming a magician, or about a quest, or having dragons in it. Each of us has a unique voice. The task is to just tell the best story you can tell. And you can not write to the market; chasing the market is almost certain to be a bad choice. Write the story you want to write the best way you know how, and if you have talent you’ll find readers.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I’ve known writers who get overwhelmed by feelings, who live almost like hermits to avoid being burned out by other people’s “vibes.” And I’ve known writers who have the empathy of a rock. It’s not about what the writer does or doesn’t feel, but what the characters feel, so if the writer can portray that convincingly, that’s all that’s required. So, no, there is no one size fits all rule.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
Over the years, too many to list. Sad to say, some no longer with us. There was never any direct help, in the sense of mentoring me, playing editor, etc. Rather since my childhood—my father was a writer/director/producer in Hollywood—I’ve been surrounded by writers. So it was always a case of my being exposed from a very early age to the entire concept of story telling. To that end, every good writer I’ve read, from Shakespeare to Kierkengaard, the Greeks, Russians, Twain, classics, modern, pulp fiction writers. All good writers were an influence in one away or another.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Well, 30 of my books are part of a long saga, so that is the second case, isn’t it? Even so, within that are what we call “jump-in” books, where you don’t have to have read the one before to get into the story. Magician, of course, but also Shadow of a Dark Queen, Talon of the Silver Hawk, and A Kingdom Besieged can all be places where a reader unfamiliar with the earlier works can become involved. I have a trilogy I co-wrote with Janny Wurts, starting with Daughter of the Empire, which while the “other side of the Riftwar,” is a stand alone series.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
There is no failure; there’s victory and lessons. There were some “setbacks” early in my career where I had no clue at the time just how valuable those lessons were and I look back now and treasure them. For a while I thought my first editor was a tyrant, but in fact he gave me years of writing experience in six months. It’s a long story, so I’ll skip details, but looking back, he made me understand so much about the mechanics of narration. I intuitively knew narration—I think it’s something you have or you don’t—but how to communicate was something I needed to refine.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Not much, actually. Over the years one develops what I call “writer’s muscle memory,” a sort of instinctive set of tools that take me where I want to go faster when I write than when I started. Less time sitting around thinking about which words to use and more time just writing. Writing is re-writing as they say, so I worry less about the perfect choice of words and just get on with it. It saves a lot of time, really. I still make some of the same mistakes, like falling in love with a word subconsciously and using it five times in a paragraph, when five times on a page is too often. That’s what rewriting is for.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Early on, about $5 on Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, the only book a writer in the English language needs on proper usage. A bit later, my first computer, an Apple ][e for a ridiculous amount of money by today’s standards and a bit later my first printer, an even more expensive used letter quality printer. Bad software and slow printing—one page a minute! But I never again had to retype a page, or scribble in margins or do all the things on a typewriter I ever had to do. In short, tools. The best thing a writer can do is find the easiest way to get a story on the page and not have to think about it.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
I honestly can’t think of one, really. I’ve revised a few authors I didn’t care for years before, but still didn’t. The truth is as a youngster I had pretty eclectic tastes in writers and still do. I loved John D. McDonald’s mysteries and crime stories, Louis L’Amore’s westerns, Thomas Costain’s historical novels (and his histories as well), A. Merrit’s pulp adventures, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and too many others to list.
What did you do with your first advance?
Paid bills! I was scraping along between jobs when I sold Magician. It wasn’t until I sold Siverthorn and Darkness that I realized I was now a full time writer. When Darkness at Sethanon hit the New York Times Bestseller list in paperback, then I realized I was now a very successful writer.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I think when I was about 17, and I was talking to two young women in one of my classes over lunch, trying to explain something to them, and realized suddenly there were hanging on every word. I had seen examples of great oration in films and historic documentaries, newsreels, on TV, but it was the first time I had a connection between the concept of world power and felt like I had it too.
What are the most important magazines for writers to subscribe to?
None. Read everything. Read literature, newspapers, magazines, anything that’s about something. Because writers have to write about something. Back in the day, Writer’s Market was an important source of information, as was/is Publisher’s Weekly (here in the US), but these days all the info is on the internet, isn’t it?
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Quite a few. I actually have very few “favorites” of anything. I don’t have a favorite wine, piece of music, book, etc. Too many good choices in too many things to try to pick a “best.” One example, if I were to list the best American western films made, I could name 30 or 40 films that might qualify. Over the years, I put John Ford’s film The Searchers at the top of that list, but there are other brilliant films I might want to see before seeing The Searchers again. The greatest film of all time is The Godfather, unless it’s a day I think it’s Citizen Kane, or a day I think it’s Lawrence of Arabia . . . You see how this goes? Rarely is there a “favorite.” Plural, favorites.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
I try not to make any demands on the reader. They bought entertainment, not a graduate studies exam. You take care of the reader by providing the best entertainment you can. It’s pretty simple. That’s all a reader can expect, IMHO, and all the writer should strive for. If it’s non-fiction, even, it should still be entertaining.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
No “one to one, this character is based on that person in real life.” But I do borrow traits, mannerisms, etc. from people I’ve met. Sometimes I cast actors in my head as how I write a character, so that I can keep mannerisms, voice, attitudes, etc. district from other characters. A writer of my acquaintance many years ago read Magician and chided me for because “all your characters sound alike”—which in my opinion is one of that writers most grievous flaws; this is what psychologists call “projection”—but my editor said, “You’re characters all sound so natural, and varied.” One of those two people was paying me, so you can assume whom I listened to. Writing cadence of speech, accent, timber, and describing the mannerisms and habits can be a challenge, but I feel comfortable in my ability to do that without having to “copy” someone’s exact behavior.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
None. Magician was the first thing I tried to write that wasn’t a silly short story for friends. I did maybe three or four of those which are forever lost.
What does literary success look like to you?
Odd, in many ways. If I’m touring or at a book convention, I’m a big deal. People get in line to hear me babble, scribble my name in books, or just chat; some even want to buy me drinks, have lunch, show me their home towns, etc. It’s all very flattering and gratifying, but everywhere else I’m just some guy. I’ve been in bookstores where a clerk has read my name and has no idea I’ve got 34 books on the shelves where he/she works. I’m a “star” in a very narrow slice of mass media. I’ve done this for 35 years and more people watch a rerun of Star Trek on cable than will buy my next book in all editions and languages.
What’s the best way to market your books?
That’s neither something that can be answered easily, nor is there a one-size-fits-all answer. Some writers should be out talking to every potential reader possible, while others should be locked away in a room and never allowed to talk to the public. I know one fairly well known writer who routinely angers booksellers to the point I had one tell me he won’t sell that writer’s books. That writer is no longer as successful as years ago, and has no one to blame but self. Each marketing strategy must be based on who the writer is and what that particular market for that writer’s work is. Beyond that, there is a thing called “hand selling” that goes back to the first printing-press and bookstore. If someone asks a book seller, “What should I read?” you want that bookseller to say your book, not someone else’s. That requires a combination of having a good book, and possessing good people skills. I’ve seen writers go into some function at a convention, bookstore, or media event, and lose sales because he/she had not put ego aside and realized the object of the exercise at that point isn’t to prove how clever your are, but to sell books.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I only research bits I need to. Back in the day when I was doing Magician I realize I knew nothing about sieging a castle, so off to the University of California, San Diego library I went and read just enough to fake it. You don’t need to be an expert, just convincing enough the reader buys what you’re selling. Even then it’s hit or miss. I sailed as a kid for years, and had someone write me a letter complaining I knew nothing about how to sale a small craft. So it goes.
Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Hell no. It’s work. It’s a full time job. It can be a load of fun sometimes, and very rewarding, but it’s not transcendental mediation, reciting prayers, or casting runes. It’s the toughest job I’ve ever had, but it’s also the best job ever. Spiritual? So far no gorgeous muse has appeared to whisper in my ear, the writing elves are still working for that damn cobbler and ignoring me, and no angels are shouting hosannas to encourage my work.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Good question, which is why I recruited Janny Wurts to co-author the Empire Trilogy. I wanted the lead character to be a strong girl/woman, but never having been a teenage girl I felt unequal to the task. Working with Janny taught me a great deal about how to approach women characters. They are not “men in drag.” I’ll leave it to male writers to find their own answers, but I will say this. Women tend to write men better than the revers, mostly because American and British literature are mostly male authors for a couple of hundred years, so women have had many more examples of how to write guys. There are terrific books with great female characters, from Jane Austin to Alice Walker, but they’re still in the minority.
How long were you a part-time writer before you became a full-time one?
From 1977 to 1980. From 1980 to 1982 I was till looking for a full time job, and doing mostly what today is known as “gig work,” filling in for an administrator at the University of San Diego who was on maternity leave, spending a month doing inventory on a business closing down, training volunteers at a non-governmental organization, etc.
How many hours a day do you write?
It varies. From zero to ten hours. Back in the day I would get so wrapped up in something I’d start off with a pot of coffee on the stove when I started then realize it was dark outside, I had a scotch instead of a cup of coffee and I was starving for dinner because I’d worked straight though lunch. My longest days were probably fourteen, fifteen hours. That stopped when I got married and started a family. Now that my kids are grown and moved out, I still haven’t gone back to those all day long binges.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
My life? Not at all. My lead character tend to be kids or young adults, mostly because that was a constant in the stuff I read growing up. Robert A. Heinline convinced me there was such a thing as a competent teenage hero, so who am I to argue. My life history has little to do with my narrative choices, really.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I’m not sure of the context of that question. If you mean differently in how I write it, many things over many years. If you mean how effective fiction can be, not from reading, but from the stories people have told me how a piece of fiction changed their lives.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Off the top of my head mostly. Once in a while I’ll consult a telephone directory, simply because most major American cities have incredibly diverse populations with people from many cultures.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I’m 72. I’d be retired. If you ask me what I would have done before retirement, probably work in marketing.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I ignore them. My father once said to me, “If you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones. Don’t believe any of them.” So, I rarely see a review unless someone forwards it to me, and if I know it’s a review, I delete it, and if I read it blu accident, I either laugh or grumble for a minute, then forget it.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
What the computer/film folk call “Easter eggs?” Nope.
What was your hardest scene to write?
In Faerie Tale two, actually. The scene where the Shinning Man disguises himself as a blacksmith and seduces Gabby was a bitch. Trying to paint the picture of a woman aroused by magic while at the same time her conscious mind feels it’s rape was one I had to rewrite maybe a dozen times. Janny and I had started preliminary work on Daughter o the Empire, so she read every draft and after the last one, said, “Now it’s frightening to a woman. And the scene where the Bad Thing comes into the boys room. I rewrote that maybe a half-dozen times before I felt it was scary. I’ve had other tough scenes, but those two stand out in my memory.
Do you Google yourself?
Only to find out who’s selling/giving away my books illegally. Other than that, I’m active on Facebook, a bit less on twitter, and ignore the rest of my presence on the internet. There’s a certain narcissistic quality about seeing what’s what about yourself on the internet, I think.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Can’t think of a thing. There is no magic, just hard work, so I’m trying to become a better writer every time I sit down to write. It’s not like there’s anything I’m aware of that’s keeping me from being a better writer. Or as one very smart lady I knew said, “Don’t ask me to explain my self-sabotaging behavior.” If I’m screwing up, I’m blind to it.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I haven’t read a literary journal . . . in 30 years? I read political science, psychology, history, social commentary, but about literature? Nope. You have to writer about things, not about writing—unless you’re writing a book on writing.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Tough one. Had many favorites as a kid. Probably a toss up between Winnie The Poo and everything Dr. Seuss books wrote when I was a kid. To this day I remember the first time my mom read me his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. I was perhaps 5 or 6. And I did have a soft spot for Ruth Stiles Garnnet’s books, My Father’s Dragon, Elmer And The Dragon, and The Dragons of Blue Island.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Sitting down and getting to work. After that it’s knowing when I’m off on the wrong tangent, backing up and heading off in the right direction. Other than that, it’s mostly under control.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
Today that doesn’t apply. Back in the day, my father was deceased, but my mother was completely supportive. She was a whiz typist and retyped Magician after I’d hammered out pages and scribble all over them, so I could submit a clean looking copy for publication. Today, I’m divorced and my kids are grown. I was a New York Times and Times (London) bestseller when I met my wife, so no “support” was needed until we had kids, and then it was “let daddy work, please.”
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
Nothing. My history as a kid is complex and there are painful things about it I do not care to share, but in short everything I ever read, saw, did, or heard about contributed to my ability to write as an adult. I would not wish to mess with that.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
There is no average. I’ve had books take more than a year and less than three months. It depends on too many variables to list.
Can you tell us anything about your next book?
King of Ashes is the first book in a new series, The Firemane Saga. It’s set on a new world with different magic, no elves, dwarves, or dragons. It’s very different in some ways from everything before, most significantly that it’s structured much more like a three act play rather than a classic literary trilogy. If you think of it as “Act One,” when you read it, it’ll make a bit more sense than expecting it to resolve. Two young man grow up after a massive war changed the political landscape of the world around them. One is the hidden lone surviving child of a dead king and the other a gifted blacksmith who’s life does not follow the course he chose. A young woman of remarkable talents is part of their lives and she holds both their fates in her hands, without knowing it. I hope fans embrace it as they did my Midemian stories.
I would like to thank Mr. Feist for his time and I personally cant wait for the King of Ashes.