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Novels: Phil Athans
Spotlight Interview

With the 25th anniversary of Dragonlance, plus the next R.A. Salvatore Transitions book and Practical Guide coming up, we wanted to speak with Phil Athans, Senior Managing Editor of the Books Publishing Department.

Wizards of the Coast: To start out, would you kindly give us a day in the life of a Senior Managing Editor—how many book titles are currently being shepherded through your department in various stages? What's your role in the overall process, and would you like to introduce the rest of your team?

Phil Athans: A day in the life . . . each day is a little different, but there are a few common occurrences, like reacting to dozens of emails and attending almost as many meeting whose subjects range from “what’s the ‘real’ page count of this book?” to “the author you wanted passed, time to start over from scratch.” The best days are the ones where I have a meeting to talk about cover art sketches or story concepts and have to pinch myself, realizing that, hey, I’m actually getting paid for this!

Because we try to work twenty-months or so ahead, we currently have about 100 books in some stage, from barely the germ of a concept to being proofed in final typeset galley. We’re actually releasing about fifty books a year now in the Wizards of the Coast and Mirrorstone imprints combined.

There are still a few books I’m working on as the principal editor: the Transitions trilogy by R.A. Salvatore, and Paul S. Kemp’s upcoming trilogy Cycle of Night. For the rest of our output, I manage the editing team and our schedules, and work with a “cross-functional” team of people inside Wizards who actually turn our words into books and sell them.

Our editorial staff now is comprised of Nina Hess, Senior Editor for the Mirrorstone imprint, who is our resident expert in the field of fiction for young readers; and the editors Susan Morris, the Forgotten Realms line editor; Fleetwood Robbins, who we lured away from Del Rey to work on Magic: the Gathering and Dark Sun; and Erin Evans, who’s primary responsibility now is Eberron, but who also works on some Forgotten Realms titles, and will be working on some new stuff we’re cooking up for 2011.

Wizards of the Coast: Setting aside the Magic: the Gathering novels for a moment, let's discuss the D&D book lines—specifically, how the D&D novels interact with the D&D RPG rulebooks. How do you manage that continuity (and to what extend do you need to) between the novel storylines and the RPG? Do you keep an extensive story bible for authors to consult, or is there a more organic process between authors and the RPG story team?

Phil: We create formal story bibles for series that demand it, like R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, which had a “bible” that was well over a hundred pages long, or Sembia: Gateway to the Realms—mostly series where different authors will be sharing the same characters. For the D&D worlds, we’re fortunate to have the same world bibles gamers have: the Campaign Guides.

Wizards of the Coast: Are there major events decided upon by the RPG story team that must then be reflected in the novels, do events in the novels find their way into the RPGs, or is there more of a give-and-take? With the Forgotten Realms' Spellplague, for example, how did both teams approach this cataclysmic change in time and events?

Phil: That stream flows both ways. Concepts are introduced in an RPG release that we then pick up and flesh out in a novel, and novels inspire adventure hooks and so on in RPG releases. For bigger events, especially something as big as the 4th Edition FR revision, people are assigned to work on that, and in the case of FR and the Spellplague, I was tapped to work with Rich Baker and Bruce Cordell. The three of us together cooked up the Spellplague, its effects on the world, and the structure upon which the Campaign and Players Guides were written. Part of that plan was mapping out what we called the “transition trilogies” (primarily Lisa Smedman’s Lady Penitent, Paul S. Kemp’s Twilight War, Richard Lee Byers’s The Haunted Lands, Thomas M. Reid’s The Empyrean Odyssey, and of course R.A. Salvatore’s unsubtly titled Transitions) that helped us get the Realms from here to there.

Wizards of the Coast: Have there been any notable or perhaps even humorous breaks in continuity that you needed to address (or that may have slipped by unnoticed until now)?

Phil: Boy, I wish they were humorous! I’m not sure I’ve ever made this public before, but heck, it’s been almost ten years. . . .

When we sat down in a room to map out the story arc and characters for R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen, no one remembered that Drizzt killed Quenthel Baenre toward the end of, I think it was Starless Night? We all thought she was still alive and well and next in line as the Mistress Mother of Arach Tinilith, what would amount to the “Evil Pope” of the Lolth-worshiping drow.

It wasn’t until well into the writing of I think as far as the third book that the death of Quenthel was brought to my horrified attention. But Lolth protects the foolhardy, and as luck would have it, Elaine Cunningham was currently hard at work on the long-awaited third installment in her Starlight & Shadows trilogy, Windwalker.

I knew Windwalker was set back in time about fourteen years from War of the Spider Queen and involved at least one character going to Lolth’s realm in the Abyss and returning to Menzoberranzan, so I appealed to Elaine to have Quenthel sent back, too.

A few deep breaths later, and we have Quenthel back in the world of the living with plenty of time to re-establish herself in Arach Tinilth and press on with the War of the Spider Queen, and not only that but it actually made her involvement in the quest for the silent Lolth that much more compelling: Why was she sent back from the dead if not to complete that epic destiny?

So, all’s well that ends well, but I know how lucky we all were on that one, so we continue to do our best not to make those sorts of continuity gaffs—they really aren’t funny!

Wizards of the Coast: Taking a look at some of the specific book series… R.A. Salvatore's The Pirate King releases in paperback this month. As the second book in the (as you mention, aptly named) Transitions series (following The Orc King), when can we expect the third book? Any hints or impressions you'd care to share about it?

Phil: The third Transitions book, The Ghost King, will be in stores, in hardcover, this October. It’s just gone off to the printer, and I can tell you that by the end of this one there won’t be a dry eye in all of Drizzt fandom. It’s a hugely powerful book, and best enjoyed if you’ve also read The Cleric Quintet, which we’ve been re-releasing this year in freshly-edited editions.

The best part of my job is being the first person every year to read the new Salvatore Drizzt novel. I still get a few months to keep it to myself, so I’ll leave it at that and keep soaking in it!

Wizards of the Coast: R.A. and his son Geno also have The Stowaway coming out in paperback at the end of July. The first book in the Stone of Tymora series, what can you reveal about the next book featuring young Maimum on the run?

Phil: Coincidently, I just finished reading the final text of Stone of Tymora, Book II: Shadowmask, which was edited by Nina Hess. It’s fantastic, and really takes young Maimun (who you’ll see all grown up in The Pirate King) into some dangerous territory. Icebergs, a killer walrus, the dusty sprawl of Calimport, and cameos from Legend of Drizzt characters like Sali Dalib and Dondon Tiggerwillies. It’s all good!

Oh, yeah, and speaking of continuity errors, in A Reader’s Guide to R.A. Salvatore’s The Legend of Drizzt, I said that Sali Dalib lives in Calimport. But he lives in Memnon. My mistake, and it’s not funny. Sorry!

Wizards of the Coast: In addition, 2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Dragonlance, with Dragons of the Hourglass Mage releasing this August (just in time for Gen Con). What can we expect from this story, and how does it conclude The Lost Chronicles series?

Phil: Dragonlance fans are going to have a lot to love in Dragons of the Hourglass Mage. The Lost Chronicles trilogy is more than just “deleted scenes” from the original Chronicles, it provides new depth to the story and characters, and has become essential reading for Dragonlance fans around the world.

How does it conclude the story? No spoilers from me—you’ll have to read it and find out!

Wizards of the Coast: And for the younger readers (or, our future novel readers), there's the Practical Guide series. Practical Guide to Faeries came out earlier this year. What nefarious species will be the subject of the next guide coming out, and what else in the D&D/fantasy world would you like to see this series cover?

Phil: A Practical Guide to Vampires will be flying into bookstores in the guise of a bat this August. Vampire fans of all ages will love this book. It’s creepy and fun.

We’re always looking for ways to make all of our series better, and A Practical Guide is no exception. I think young readers are going to like what we have in store for them in the next couple years, including books with a more interactive approach, games and activities, and secrets they can cook up in their own wizard’s laboratories, or bedrooms, whichever the case may be.

Wizards of the Coast: Getting back to the novels as they relate to the RPG, why might you recommend the novel lines for gamers—that is, beyond their story value alone, how might they influence or inspire their games? Any particular books you might recommend for current gamers/new readers? And we hear tell you run a campaign of your own; how long has it been going on, and what's the current plotline your players are facing?

Phil: Here’s an example I think is fun:

This is Cadderly, using the cleric powers consecrated ground and lance of faith in R.A. Salvatore’s The Ghost King:

One creature tried to scramble into a side room and Danica started for it. But Cadderly beat her, throwing forth a pointing finger and crying out another prayer. A shaft of light, a lance of divine energy, shot out and skewered the beast, which howled and crashed into the doorjamb as Danica neared.

The crawler survived the spearlike energy, but it sparkled and glowed, making it all the easier for the expert Danica to line up her blows and quickly dispatch it.

By the time a group of five bloodied and battered priests arrived on the landing of the stairs to support the couple, that wing of the fourth floor had been swept clear of monsters. Cadderly still maintained the circle of power flowing about the floor around him, and had found as a secondary benefit that his wounds were magically mending.

This is kind of an easy one, intentionally specific to make it clear that Cadderly had made the jump from the previous edition of the game, but this kind of thing for me is the primary utility of novels for D&D game-play: seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting the effect of a spell, the wound from a weapon, or the result of a skill check.

This is something we make a concerted effort, along with our authors, to inject into every one of our novels, both for D&D and Magic: the Gathering. Ari Marmell captured the Magic gestalt beautifully in his novel Agents of Artifice. Authors who are also gamers, and even game designers, like Richard Baker, Lisa Smedman, or Bruce Cordell are particularly adept at bringing the mechanics to life.

My weekly Forgotten Realms campaign will mark its one-year anniversary on July 21! I’m lovin’ the current rules set, especially the way monsters are described so clearly and with such cool powers. So far we’ve learned that a shadowy wizard from the Empire of Netheril is collecting magic items for some nefarious purpose, they’ve defeated a priestess of Beshaba who was setting up a temple with purloined riches gathered by a gang of bandits in her employ, but most of all we know that you should not mess with a dire bear. If you see a dire bear in the distance, run. Fast.

Wizards of the Coast: Many gamers are also interested in contributing fiction to the novel line. While submissions are currently closed, what advice might you have for potential authors, particularly those interested in writing for Wizards' shared worlds? Is it more important to know the game, to craft a story, or equal measures of each? And are there any submissions you've seen over the years that while they weren't (or couldn't have been) turned into a novel nevertheless stood out in your mind?

Phil: The best advice I can give to aspiring authors of any sort of tie-in fiction is just don’t ever, ever, write a full-length novel “on spec.” We just aren’t permitted to read someone’s FR novel, Dragonlance novel, or anything else based on one of our games. And since we’re the only people who can publish something based on our trademarked properties, if we can’t read it, no one can read it, so just don’t waste your creative energy.

As the publishing business gets a little tougher, and we’re getting more selective in the number of books we publish, we’re relying more and more on experienced authors, so opportunities to break in are getting fewer and farther between. I don’t love that that’s happening, by the way. One of my favorite parts of this job over the years has been discovering new authors, and nothing brings me greater joy than that phone call to an aspiring author that tells them they aren’t aspiring anymore, they’re going to be published. But reality has crept in and made things a bit tighter.

Now that having been said, I would still advise aspiring authors to keep an eye on our website. We’ve held open calls for novel submissions in the past and may well again, though admittedly not in the next few months at least.

In an attempt to answer the rest of the question: no one should ever try to write a tie-in novel that ties in to something you’re not a fan of. If you’ve never played D&D and try to write a D&D novel, we’ll know, and so will the readers, and it won’t be a happy experience for anyone. Writing tie-in fiction is in many ways harder than just exploring your own fantasy world. You have to be ready to do research and if you don’t love the world you’re researching, well, that would have to just be a painful process.

Wizards of the Coast: Finally, beyond Wizards' own books of course, what else are you reading?

Phil: I just finished The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll be Dead by David Shields, which I found alternately fascinating and depressing, especially with my 45th birthday just around the corner.

I’ve also been working my way through Simon R. Green’s Deathstalker series, having recently finished Deathstalker Legacy. I’m a sucker for real, old school space opera, and that series is full-on old school space opera, and then some.

And I’ve just started in on Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago, which is at least at first making me wonder why I keep reading books with the words death or dead in the title. Is this a form of midlife crisis?

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