Cephas has no memories of how he came to fight in the gladiatorial arena of the floating earthmote called the Island of the Free. All he knows of the world beyond, he has gleaned from stories the master of the games reads to his followers while Cephas waits in his cell for the next opponent...
So begins Sandstorm, the latest novel set within the Forgoetten Realms! With release of Sandstorm, we spoke with author Christopher Rowe about his approach to the story and writing in the shared world of the Realms.
Wizards of the Coast: Folks have read the opening chapter to your novel, Sandstorm—in which Cephas attempts to escape Jazeerijah (the Island of the Free) during his fight with a displacer beast. To start with, what brought Cephas to the Island in the first place, and what intentions do Corvus and Mattias have for him?
Christopher Rowe: I don’t want to say a whole lot, as Cephas’s history is revealed over the course of the novel. Suffice it to say that he’s not there under his own will (as evidenced by his escape attempt in the first chapter) and that he’s been there for most of his life. He was raised in captivity, which is one of the reasons Corvus finds it amusing that the people who control the Island of the Free call it that. As for the intentions of Corvus and Mattias, let’s just say that they develop, and that the two of them don’t necessarily share the same plans for our hero.
Wizards of the Coast: Without revealing too much then, where does the story go from there?
C. Rowe: The novel tells the story of Cephas and a host of other characters and has a lot to do with what freedom actually means, and whether or not escaping physical bonds is all someone needs to possess it. As I said a moment ago, the book reveals Cephas’s history, and so the events of the novel will take us closer to his past, which is bound up to Calimport, a city of floating palaces, scheming genies, and gladiatorial arenas. Along the way, more questions are raised about the motivations and allegiances of the people Cephas finds himself traveling with, a troupe of adventurous performers called Nightfeather’s Circus of Wonders.
Wizards of the Coast: So far, we’re presented with a fairly odd array of characters: Cephas the genasi, Corvus Nightfeather the kenku, and Mattias the human (monk, I presume?) Can you introduce us to these characters—and what made you choose these (except for Mattias) uncommon races?
C. Rowe: Well, the easiest answer to part of your question is that Cephas is a genasi because I was asked to write a novel about a genasi. Cephas is the hero and he takes a hero’s journey to understanding and maturity, or at least I hope that’s what readers take away from his story. The others have less clear cut motivations (and morals!). Mattias isn’t a monk, by the way, but a ranger. Interesting that you should guess that given the value he places on self-discipline, though. Now, finally, why is Corvus one of the crow-headed people known as the kenku? There are various reasons, but the biggest is frankly personal. I’ve always been fascinated with crows (take a look at my first name’s initial next to my last name), and in fact, my first published short story was called “Kin to Crows.” Given the opportunity to write in a world where there are “crow men,” I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to write about one.
Wizards of the Coast: Can you take us back to the pitch for Sandstorm. How did it all come together, and what was the process from initial pitch to final manuscript?
C. Rowe: At the time, Wizards was playing with the idea of a series of novels (by different authors) featuring various new races tied to the planes, or otherworldly realms of existence, that were being featured with the launch of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The story of how I was invited to pitch for that line is kind of interesting in and of itself. Among my writer friends, I was fairly infamous for concentrating on short stories to the exclusion of novels despite the fact that that’s not necessarily the smartest career path to take. My wife, Gwenda Bond, and I were vacationing with a bunch of other writers and—this is the short version—one of them, Holly Black, found out about my childhood dream of writing a Forgotten Realms novel. She’d worked with Wizards editorial on an anthology, I believe, and she asked me if I would promise to make a good faith effort to pitch and develop a novel if she could get me on the list of writers asked to submit proposals. From there, it was a matter of following the editorial department’s internal process of pitching, writing an outline for approval, and then doing the various drafts of the novel itself.
Wizards of the Coast: Were there any changes in direction from your original pitch, as the novel progressed? Any requested revisions to the story, guidance or suggestions from your editor?
C. Rowe: The story never actually changed that much from its original conception. I always knew I wanted to write about a set of people learning what it was to be free from the various forms of shackles that held them back. And in a way, the opportunity to write this book lifted some shackles I’d imposed on myself, as well.
There were various details that changed under the wise direction of the acquiring editor, Erin Evans, who’s now writing her own novels in the Forgotten Realms. I wound up cutting over 20,000 words from the manuscript at one point—that should tell you how extensive the revisions were!
Wizards of the Coast: You’ve graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop, held here in Seattle. How was that experience for you—any valuable lessons learned which applied to shared world fiction writing?
C. Rowe: Shared world fiction writing doesn’t seem to be that different from “normal” fiction writing (whatever that is), at least in my experience. So all the lessons I learned at Clarion West about character, pacing, plot, thematic development, and most importantly, professionalism, applied to this novel, just as much as they’ve applied to anything else I’ve written. It’s a highly influential and highly regarded program and I strongly encourage any fantasy or science fiction writers at the beginnings of their careers to seriously consider attending the six week “boot camp.”
Wizards of the Coast: In general, how did you find writing in a shared world—somewhat restrictive (as there are clear rules and backstory to follow), or helpful to have a known framework with which to work?
C. Rowe: Well, I’ve been a fan of the Realms since I was a teenager, so the rules seemed more like handrails to me, means of supporting my story and helping it move along sometimes treacherous pathways. Readers may be interested to know that the “rules” of gaming fiction are considerably different than they are in a lot of other shared world novel lines. I had almost complete freedom to develop my own characters and situations, and even the setting itself was open enough to support personal vision, though of course I was very careful to be mindful of everything that’s gone before in the parts of the Realms I was writing about. I can’t think of any walls I ran up against, really. Like I said, the framework the shared world provided seemed like a springboard to me, not a burden.
Wizards of the Coast: You also teach at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning—without trying to distill things down too much, are there important lessons you commonly give to aspiring writers in the field (especially when it comes to fantasy or genre literature)?
C. Rowe: The most important advice I give is related to the biggest trap I see my students fall into over and over again. And that is this: read, read, read, and read some more. Read especially in the genre or genres you’re working in, but never neglect other forms of fiction and nonfiction. Be aware of who the players are by reading contemporary works, and be aware of what the foundational texts are by reading classics. It astonishes me how resistant to this idea many new writers are—you must be an expert in your field, and that means reading widely and deeply in it.
Wizards of the Coast: On that note, what are you reading these days, or would recommend for future fans of Sandstorm?
C. Rowe: For another project, I’ve been reading a great deal about the Lewis & Clark expedition and about the history of cartography. And about megafauna. That’s probably about all I should say about that. As for fiction, while these books don’t have much in common with Sandstorm, I would recommend to anybody that they pick up Karen Joy Fowler’s latest collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories, and Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of the Night series.
Wizards of the Coast: Finally, what can you tell us about your own gaming experiences?
C. Rowe: I get together with friends about once a month to play Dungeons & Dragons and wish I could game more. We’re looking forward to the Virtual Table, that’s for sure. What I’ve learned about characterization as a writer definitely influences the way I play role-playing games, but so far there hasn’t been much crossover between my gaming and my fictional works. Hmmm, I wonder if my DM would let me play a kenku…
For more on Sandstorrm and other novels, be sure to visit our product catalog. Sandstorm released March 1, 2011.
Bart Carroll has been a part of Wizards of the Coast since 2004, and a D&D player since 1980 (and has fond memories of coloring the illustrations in his 1st Edition Monster Manual). He currently works as producer for the D&D website. You can find him on Twitter (@bart_carroll).