MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Joel Rosenberg today. His first published fiction, “Like the Gentle Rains”, appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1982. The following year, he published his first novel, THE SLEEPING DRAGON which was the first in his long-running Guardians of the Flame series. The “Keepers of the Hidden Ways” trilogy similarly places people from the real world into a fantasy setting, making heavy use of Norse mythology. He’s also written in a number of other genres.
I remember reading THE SLEEPING DRAGON when it was first released, and thinking “Oh, this is interesting; a group of gamers who get sucked into another world where they must actually play their characters for real.” A few years later, I helped to found one of the first major fantasy LARPs in America. Coincidence? I think not.
JOEL ROSENBERG: 🙂
VENTRELLA: Anyway, my question is this: It became clear very soon in THE SLEEPING DRAGON that this was no cute little adventure when (spoiler alert) one of the main characters dies fairly quickly. Further books in the Guardian of the Flame series also had no problem handing death to characters we have followed and loved for years. Was there anything specific you were trying to say by doing this?
ROSENBERG: Yup. What I was trying to say, explicitly, is that innocence is no shield, and that I wasn’t using any Plot Armor on my characters. Two reasons: 1. I think that makes a story more entertaining, and 2. I think it’s an important truth, for real life.
At the moment, we’re wrapping up a horrible experience — in mid-August, my wife, Felicia Herman, was falsely arrested and maliciously charged with domestic abuse of our sixteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, and it wasn’t her utter innocence — and I want to be clear: she didn’t do anything wrong, or unlawful — that caused the charges to be dropped just over a week ago, but damn good lawyering by our attorney, David Gross.
It could, absent David, easily have gone the other way.
VENTRELLA: In retrospect, do you think this willingness to kill your characters off has strengthened the popularity of your books or hurt it?
ROSENBERG: I dunno. If I had to guess, I think it’s probably hurt the popularity, but there’s so many other factors in publishing that it’s hard to say what causes any success … or failure, for that matter.
VENTRELLA: Do you have any interest in ever publishing another book in the Guardian of the Flames series?
ROSENBERG: I have to write one; that’s part of my deal with Walter Slovotsky for his collaboration on the nonfiction book in progress, FAMILY MATTERS II: GREENER’S LAW. (see http://familymattersii.com/.) Whether or not somebody publishes it isn’t my call, but I expect that the next Guardians book will find a publisher. First, though, I’ve got to finish FMII.
VENTRELLA: How were you able to sell your first book?
ROSENBERG: It was pretty straightforward. I got an agent; the agent submitted it all around; Sheila Gilbert (then at NAL) made an offer.
VENTRELLA: It has been a long time since your last published work. What happened? What have you been doing?
ROSENBERG: Firearms instruction, tech writing, political activism — you’ll find a lot about it in fmii. It’s been . . . interesting, in a Chinese Curse sense. Never thought I’d walk into Streichers — a local cop shop — and say, “Wayne, I need you to fit me out with body armor. Now.” But I did. Some of the stuff that’s been happening lately is kind of, well, close to the edge.
VENTRELLA: What clichés do you see in the fantasy genre that you hate? How do you avoid them?
ROSENBERG: I try, really hard, not to see cliches. That said, the society that seems to consist solely of muscular warriors, voluptuous barmaids/peasant girls, and evil minor nobility bugs me, so I try to avoid it.
VENTRELLA: You’ve also written science fiction and mysteries. Is there a genre you enjoy above all others?
ROSENBERG: Nah. There’s books I’ve enjoyed writing more than others — writing HOME FRONT was an utter joy, and both of the Guardians Road books had their moments, although I think they cut too close to the bone, personally.
VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make sure your characters are realistic and believable?
ROSENBERG: Let me give you two honest answers: 1. All of them. 2. Damned if I know. I don’t mean to be flip, although I don’t mind, but I don’t care if my characters are realistic; I care, to the point of pain, that they’re believable.
VENTRELLA: How do you prepare? Do you outline heavily?
ROSENBERG: Nah. From my POV, an outline is something an agent uses to sell a book that hasn’t been written. That’s a noble endeavor, honest, but it has nothing to do with how I write. (Dave Drake, a writer who I respect tremendously, outlines extensively; I’m not knocking the practice at all. So do Pournelle and Niven, when they collaborate.) Feist and I wrote an outline, kinda, for MURDER IN LaMUT, and then when I took my crack at the first draft, I avoided it. Well, no, that’s not true; I more bent it over a table and violated it.
VENTRELLA: A common theme in your work has to do with freedom, and the consequences (good and bad) that can come from it. What is in your background that makes you interested in this theme?
ROSENBERG: Child abuse. Receiving end. Not that that’s a secret to anybody who has read my books and noticed some similarities to, and some obvious attempts to rewrite, my own family history. (When my sister Dale read D’Shai, she wrote me: “I love it. I didn’t even mind the part where I died.”) Truth is, I’m the dog who has been beat too much, and have been, for more than forty years; writing is one of the ways I deal with it. So, for that matter, is the political activism.
Sorry about the answer, but, hey, you asked. 🙂
VENTRELLA: I always liked the idea in the Guardians series that despite the fact the main characters were the “heroes” they still had problems being elected the leaders. Do you find this a fault or a strength of democracy?
ROSENBERG: All in all, I think that a public who elects heroes is looking for trouble, and will find it. Heroes work best as dictators — temporary ones; see Cincinnatus, or, for that matter, Churchill, or Rudy G. — and then it’s best to put them back behind the glass, with the big sign that says, “In case of emergency, break glass”, and make sure that they can’t break the glass from inside.
VENTRELLA: Do you think that being a successful author has more to do with skills that can be taught, or is it more something more intangible?
ROSENBERG: Neither. I think it has to do with skills that can be learned, as opposed to being taught. On the FMII site, I’ve got partial list of my teachers, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all of them.