Author Jeff LaSala's Eberron novel The Darkwood Mask is now on sale. He recently took some time out of his writing schedule to tell us a few things about himself. Enjoy!
Wizards: How would you describe The Darkwood Mask to a reader thinking about picking it up?
Jeff LaSala: It is an action murder mystery in a world where magic (or other supernatural power) is arrayed against you and is a tool at your disposal. But magic, even in Eberron, is a finite tool; it's not going to solve your case for you. And you can bet the bad guys have more information (and magic!) than you do.
In some way, this is a fish-out-of-water story. A big city detective who is recently lauded with some minor celebrity is suddenly handed a case that brings her, much to her dismay, to a foreign country. And a cold and grim country it is! So while investigating a murder with potentially political ramifications, she must contend with a culture quite unlike her own and work to unravel its mysteries. And the chief suspect? An ex-military agent and criminal malcontent.
Probably the most obvious theme of this book is one of national pride. Can you love your country and still resent some of the decisions made by its government?
Wizards: What was it like writing in Eberron? In what part of the world did you set your story?
Jeff: As one of the many who submitted a campaign setting for Wizard of the Coast's open call back in 2002, I can tell you this: I'm glad Eberron won! It let me tell this story. Eberron inherently excels at turning some of the core D&D ideas on their heads and that makes it fun to write for.
You've got a world full of lower-level magic that accounts for many conveniences that traditional fantasy worlds go without (airships or the lightning rail for mass transportation, speaking stones for long-ranged communication, and so on), which allows a writer to incorporate pseudo-modern elements in a cross-genre sort of way. Sometimes it feels like cheating: I'm still writing fantasy but I get to use tools normally unavailable to fantasy novelists. In short, it's a lot of fun. I especially like the use of chronicles (in other words, newspapers) in this setting.
I chose to set this story in what quickly became my favorite location in all of Eberron: Karrnath and its capital city of Korth. It's Eberron's ultimate gothic locale. Karrnath is a militant nation with a fearsome reputation; it is most infamous for its use of the undead in the century-spanning Last War. Karrnath's own fallen soldiers (and sometimes even enemies) were often raised by the Ministry of the Dead to fight again. I loved exploring what an outsider would think of this macabre culture. And what of its own people? What you generally have is a natural fear of the undead, yet an underlying pride in knowing you can serve your country even after you're dead. How cool -- and utterly disturbing -- is that?
Wizards: So tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up?
Jeff: Well, my father was a military scientist/physics professor (multiclassed) who worked for many years in an underground lab -- the perfect stage for true archvillainy, if you ask me. But in fact my parents are great people, and so my brother and I were only semi-warped kids. Like many Army brats, we grew up under the oft-quoted mantra: Home is where the Army sends you.
So I'd lived on military posts and in civilian towns across the U.S. map and even a couple of European countries before life spat me out on my own. When it did, I came to New York City -- our very own City of Towers -- where I fell in love, got married, and finally got around to the serious writing I'd always just talked about.
Wizards: How did you get involved in writing fantasy?
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Seriously! (Hey, there are some very creative ideas in kids' shows sometimes.) That show, and its corresponding comics and toys, introduced the 6-year-old me to fantasy without my even knowing it. The Hobbit audio cassette and read-along book picked things up from there, as did my father's paraphrasing of The Lord of the Rings to me and my brother before we were old enough to read the trilogy.
Looking back now, I can make sense of what followed: In elementary school, I tore through all the mythology books in the library and anything that had to do with knights. In fifth grade, we were asked to write a "tall tale" for class. My story ended up being about two gargoyles named Tiamat* (which I pronounced TIE-uh-mat) and Miatat who decided to leave their castle wall to go have an adventure. I still feel bad for my teacher, who had to stand awkwardly in the back while I read this long-winded gargoyle story aloud to a classroom full of confused kids. For some reason, I just felt the story needed telling. Worse, I wrote a gruesome sequel to it.
Eventually, I got a hold of some AD&D books years before I could make any sense of the rules. I started writing short, fragmented fiction all the time without a clue that it was the obvious precursor to wanting to do so professionally. It didn't make me any good at the time, but it awakened in me the desire to write more -- and improve.
* Man, what didn't I steal from the original Monster Manual?
Wizards: What are your biggest influences? What inspires you?
Jeff: C.S. Lewis is probably my chief influence and literary idol. I admire his ability to infuse narrative with real spiritual meaning. J.R.R. Tolkien is almost a given, but also classics such as George MacDonald or Bram Stoker. I'd be seriously remiss if I didn't acknowledge the early books of R.A. Salvatore, Margaret Weis, and Tracy Hickman for permanently hooking me into fantasy back in middle school. I was -- and remain -- a serious and unapologetic Drizzt and Raistlin fan.
But that's just literary influences! Not all authors would say this, but music also accounts for a ridiculous percentage of my writing inspiration. Sometimes a single song fuels a story idea. Sometimes it just adds an ambient quality that sets the stage for an already existing idea. I'm even fortunate enough to have some inventive musicians as good friends and even siblings; their music is a permanent part of my writing playlist.
Wizards: What are some of your favorite books/authors? What would you recommend?
Jeff: If we're talking about fantasy, then R.A. Salvatore's Homeland is one of the best. Block out all the zealous hoopla surrounding drow elves and just read this book, if you haven't. Also, the Dragonlance Chronicles and Legends trilogies -- they're amazing. These are all longtime members of my Books to Reread Every Few Years Club. Shared world fiction gets a bad rep, but some of the best stories out there are in this vast subgenre. There are a ton of wonderful contemporary fantasy books to read, but I'd also seriously recommend checking out some of the old-school, pre-Tolkien greats such as George MacDonald's Phantastes, or more contemporary novels such as Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle.
Beyond fantasy? Low-tech science fiction, supernatural mystery, gothic horror, or really anything with witty dialogue. F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack books are a lot of fun (fast-paced urban adventure), and I thank my editor for recommending those to me in the first place. Mark Frost's The List of 7 is one of my all-time favorite re-reads. C.S. Friedman's Coldfire Trilogy is a brilliant blend of sci-fi and fantasy. Also, I can't get enough of parabolic stories and essays such as Lewis's The Great Divorce.
Wizards: This was your first book. Do you feel like you learned much in the process?
Jeff: Absolutely. The first thing you learn when you're writing a full-length novel on a deadline, however short or long, are your own limitations. Discipline is hard to come by, motivation on a day-to-day basis even more so, but in the end writing is a very solitary art and only you can truly hold yourself to it. You learn to spend a lot of time alone in your own head. A scary thing for some, maybe, but I recommend it!
Moreover, I learned I want to keep going and keep improving. Writing is my "night job," but it's truly my defining passion. I'm lucky enough to have encouraging people around me -- in particular, my wife, Marisa, and my brother John. They're my counsel and my critics.
Wizards: What advice would you give to aspiring fantasy authors?
Jeff: Persist. Write and write some more. Get some opinions on it, then keep writing. Refine it. And believe in it. A wise lyricist once wrote: "Courageous convictions will drag the dream into existence."
That said, creative writing classes are excellent resources, but not half as essential as simply reading books. Lots of them. Also, authors are more approachable and accessible than they used to be, so track some of them down and ask them about their experiences. It seems half of them out there already have a website anyway. Like me.
You can read a sample chapter of this novel, plus find out more about it, if you visit the product page for The Darkwood Mask.