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James Lowder Interview

By Strahd, of the former Domains of Dread web site (Ezra has his soul).

(Being a cool guy, Strahd gave us the permission to host this file when he closed his site.)

About  the author: James Lowder spends his time reading long-forgotten weird fantasy fiction, British colonial history, and modern media criticism. He also watches lots of obscure horror films that creep out his wife and friends, and listens to alterni-surf music that his young son actually seems to enjoy. All these pursuits factor into his fiction in bizarre ways, as you might be able to tell from the various novels and short stories he's published with Random House, DAW, Eden Studios, White Wolf, TSR/WotC, and other, more esoteric markets. As an anthologist, he's helmed collections of stories about superheroes, Camelot, the Forgotten Realms, and zombies. He has also been known to teach college courses on writing and media studies, design and edit roleplaying game material, script comic books, and pen fiction and film criticism for such diverse publications as Amazing Stories and The New England Journal of History.

This interview was conducted between Strahds Library and James Lowder. None of this interview can be used without permission.

The Curator:

In the 'About the Author' section at the back of Spectre it says that you spend your time reading long-forgotten weird fantasy fiction. What kind of fiction is that statement referencing and has it had any influence on characters in your books?

Jim Lowder:

I read a fair amount of late 19th and early 20th century weird fiction, and some of that is pretty obscure. Of the more readily known authors, I am especially fond of Mervyn Peake, William Hope Hodgson, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, E.R. Eddison, certain works of M.P. Shiel and Robert W. Chambers. From there they get more obscure. I'll grab anything I can find by Jean Ray; his novel Malpertuis is astounding. Maldoror by de Lautrémont is essential reading for horror writers. William Beckford's Vathek. Guy Boothby's Dr. Nikola series. Of late I've been reading a lot of the material released by Midnight House and Ash-Tree Press; both presses make rare weird and ghost fiction available in nice hardcovers. They're on the net, so give them a look.

Everything I read impacts my writing, even if it helps me identify ways of telling a story that, while admirable, do not work for me. I try to read a wide variety of material, from ghost stories to economic history to surveys of scientific development. You can never tell where specific ideas will come from. There was a salt mine in Spectre because I happened to be reading something on technology and primitive mining when WotC and I first talked about doing that book. And the giant Nabon--an aspect of the book about which I am very happy--came about because I needed something to power the elevator at the mine. From there I asked myself how he got there, but his presence is due to the tech history book I was reading.

From the older material listed above, I've gained some useful insights into telling an exciting story, something equal parts adventure and horror or weird mystery. I've also learned a lot about the introduction of the mythic into a fantasy world, from Clark Ashton Smith or Dunsany or Ray, and the development of a background world, especially from Peake. These were things that always interested me, but exploring how these elements were developed by these talented authors--most of whom are sadly underappreciated--has helped me to improve my own work. There's a big difference between my first two novels, Crusade and Knight of the Black Rose, and Prince of Lies or Spectre, or the work I'm doing on Ebonacht. And that main difference is the non-linear plotting and the introduction of weird mythic elements.

The Curator:

You also are a fan of obscure horror films. Have any of these films influenced the way you write, and are there any in particular that fit in with gothic horror setting of Ravenloft?

Jim Lowder:

As with what I read, movies do impact how I write. I have developed a very cinematic narrative style and sometimes do ponder how a scene I need to write would play out if it were filmed. My fantasy and horror writing has been influenced most by certain Asian fantasy films--Chinese Ghost Story, Savior of the Soul, anything by Miyazaki--because of the way they incorporate the mythic. I also gravitate toward movies that deal with the interplay of the fantastic or horrific and the mundane--anything by Terry Gilliam, Fellini's 8 1/2, that sort of thing. But I also love film noir and Kurosawa and Godzilla, the Bollywood films of Guru Dutt, Hammer's Quatermass series and British SF flicks like Fiend Without A Face. Notorious and Duck Soup and Zulu--all sorts of things.

Some of the Hammer films are the best at capturing the overall mood of Gothic horror that is so vital to Ravenloft, with Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter likely being the best (despite the wooden acting of the lead). The film made of Jan Potocki's The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is also brilliant at portraying a haunted landscape, though it may be too odd for some viewers used to traditional Hollywood narratives. (The novel is terrific, too, though even more daunting than the film.)

The Curator:

You wrote the 2nd book in the Ravenloft series, Knight of the Black Rose. How did you get involved in that project?

Jim Lowder:

Another author had originally been contracted to write Knight, but after his initial proposal was accepted, he had serious problems following through on the project. The book department looked around for a replacement, even commissioned several plot outlines from various writers, but could not find anyone who had the right take on Soth. Everyone wanted to change the character in ways that we--and I say "we" here because I was the Ravenloft fiction line editor at the time--thought would be problematic. The head of the book department, who had edited my first novel, Crusade, eventually asked me to take on the project. Because I was also the editor for the Ravenloft fiction line, I had a clear idea of what the book was supposed to achieve.

The Curator:

How much did you have to research on the character of Lord Soth in the Dragonlance setting before writing your book?

Jim Lowder:

I read all of the published Dragonlance material containing Soth. In fact, he does not appear very often in the early material, and there are several contradictory facts in those limited references, but I was diligent in tracking down all the references in both the fiction and the RPG material, and making a solid continuity for them. In fact, I eventually passed on all my notes on Soth's history to Margaret Weis, in case she might find them useful for the Dragonlance d20 material she's putting out from Sovereign.

The Curator:

There has been some controversy about having Lord Soth in Ravenloft, even though he is one of the settings favorite characters. What do you think of Tracy Hickman's views that Lord Soth was never in Ravenloft?

Jim Lowder:

I can understand why he might not agree with what was done. Most authors who create characters for a shared world find that someone who develops those characters later does things he or she would not necessarily choose to do. It's happened with characters I've created, so I am sympathetic.

However, that's the nature of writing in a shared world. You sign a work-for-hire contract and you should expect such things to happen. And it's not like Tracy or Margaret were excluded from participating in the project at the very earliest stages. They were specifically invited to offer input on Knight. (I know this to be a fact because I made the calls.) They weren't interested.

In the end, I think if Tracy looked at what was done with Soth in Knight and Spectre, he would see that the character was shown the greatest respect. Soth's character is explored, but left unchanged. His motivations are not undermined or altered. His history is built upon the material from the original six books, and some of the original RPG material. In fact, he is eventually expelled from Ravenloft because he will -not- change. That was my intent from the start--to depict Soth in a way that would keep him intact for later use in Dragonlance. There really is no reason now to claim he was never in Ravenloft, since he left the place as he entered it.

The Curator:

Was Soth written out of Ravenloft due to the clashes with Dragonlance?

Jim Lowder:

The timing for the release of Spectre was prompted by the fact that Margaret and Tracy wanted to use the character in the War of Souls series. However, it was always my intent--and the intent of the Ravenloft design team back when Soth was first moved to the Dark Domain--that Soth should one day leave Ravenloft and go back to Krynn. The "escape" he makes in Spectre is built into the plot for Knight; the foundation for his departure is laid in the final chapters of Knight. And he was supposed to return to Krynn intact. That was part of the reason why we had such a hard time getting an author for Knight; everyone wanted to make Soth heroic or to remake the central concepts of his character. I ended up writing the book, in part, because I was adamant about -not- screwing around with the character.

The Curator:

You wrote the last book in the Ravenloft series, Spectre of the Black Rose, alongside Voronica Whitney-Robinson. How was this achieved? Did you write certain aspects and Voronica others?

Jim Lowder:

I had fully plotted Spectre and was about a quarter of the way through the first draft when I learned that my father had terminal cancer. The time I needed to spend back home on the East Coast put me way behind on my deadlines, and Wizards was not in a position where they would change the book's release date. So I asked Voronica to help me out. She wrote specific chapters from my very detailed outline, mostly the material with Inza, and I then went over her draft to make certain the book's prose as a whole was seamless. We'd talk every night, and I'd help her choreograph scenes where she needed more guidance than my outline offered. The collaboration worked well, and the final book is quite close to what I had originally envisioned.

The Curator:

I can remember back in the day opening the cover of a Ravenloft novel and looking to see what was coming out. I noticed a certain, oft-mentioned, Ebonacht Trilogy. How much of the trilogy did you manage to complete before Ravenloft was scrapped?

Jim Lowder:

The first book of the trilogy, The Screaming Tower, was completed in first draft. A short story set on Thran, the island domain I had created for the trilogy, was also partially completed; that was intended to be my contribution to Tales of Ravenloft. When I withdrew Ebonacht from consideration by TSR, I ended up writing a Soth short story, "The Rigor of the Game," for Tales of Ravenloft.

The Ebonacht material was tied up in legal limbo for several years. Eventually WotC bought TSR, and the ever-gracious Peter Adkison released it all back to me--minus any specific Ravenloft references, of course. The Ebonacht-related short story originally intended for Tales of Ravenloft, "The Unquiet Dreams of Cingris the Stout," was published last year in Gaming Frontiers #2, and I am shopping the novels around in New York. Selected parts of The Screaming Tower were reworked into the short story "Heresies and Superstitions" that ran in the magazine The Leading Edge a couple years ago. The protagonist from the Ebonacht material, Janus, continues to show up in my work, most recently the novella "The Night Chicago Died" in Eden's Pulp Zombies, for the All Flesh Must Be Eaten RPG. He's become something of an "eternal champion" character for me, so I continue to be very happy that I fought for him.

The Curator:

There was rumour that there was a section missing from Spectre of the Black Rose. What was that section? Will we ever be able to see it?

Jim Lowder:

The section you're mentioning is a chapter I had plotted and written in early draft form, in which Soth reviews his history. It was a first-person version of his story, intended to appear near the close of the book and show just how fixed he was in his perspective. It would demonstrate how little he'd changed from his original Dragonlance appearances. But the shift from the third-person narration utilized in the rest of the book and the first-person used in that chapter was too radical, and the editors and I decided it should be cut. It will likely never see publication.

The Curator:

A lot of GM's prefer the way you described Sithicus to that in 3rd Edition Ravenloft. Do you have any information on Sithicus of that time? Specifically how many elves lived in Sithicus and roughly how many survived after the Night of the Screaming Shadows?

Jim Lowder:

I have a huge amount of respect for the design team behind the current Ravenloft products. I wrote up entries on the Wanderers, from Spectre, for Heroes of Light. And I am on board, along with Voronica Whitney-Robinson, to write the Sithicus entry for the fourth Ravenloft Gazetteer. That write-up will be based upon my notes for the domain post-Spectre.

I never dealt with the elves, but they were always there. When you look at the numbers, they are a serious presence in Sithicus, but they don't interact with the rest of the population much. So a GM could run a Sithicus campaign (or an author write a novel) with little interaction with the elves, if he wanted to let them remain a background force.

By the by, I had plotted and started a short story set pre-Spectre, specifically dealing with the Sithican elves: "All the Colors of Sorrow." It was going to run in Dragon, but when WotC dropped the Ravenloft line, the story was no longer of interest to Dragon and I stopped working on it. I'm hoping that one will eventually get finished, when I find the time. The Bloody Cobbler shows up in it, and I really enjoy writing him.

The Curator:

The Bloody Cobbler was an absolutely amazing character. Can you tell us a little about the creation of that character, and is there a certain direction you would have liked to take that character?

Jim Lowder:

The Cobbler did everything I had originally intended him to do. He, like the Whispering Beast, was intended to be manifestations of Soth's failings as a Rose Knight. Soth knew his path, his destiny, and purposefully walked away from it; he swore these grand intellectual and philosophical oaths and broke them, in part, because of his gross nature as a physical being. On a bare bones plot level, because Soth wouldn't own up to these failings, the sins manifested and forced him to confront them--and dared him to accept them, to take responsibility for them. I don't want to "give away" the book's ending here, but that's why the Cobbler and the Beast tie into the story of Soth's child with the elfmaid.

As to how the Cobbler came about--that's always hard to pin down precisely, especially from a vantage of several years after the writing of a work. I knew he was going to be a manifestation of Soth's failing to fulfill his destiny, because I came up with the Beast first and knew what he was going to represent. But before I knew he was a cobbler, I saw what he was going to look like. Because of the plague in Sithicus, he was going to have that grotesque mask with the flowers in the beak (that's derived from historical accounts of medieval cities hit with plague). I then came up with the whole "soles of the feet" thing and walking the paths of your destiny, and suddenly he was a cobbler. I had done something similar with a tradesman in The Screaming Tower, where there's a supernatural character called the Grim Tailor, who is involved with closing the eyes of the dead. The Tailor came first, but the Cobbler saw print first, so when Screaming Tower finally does see print, there might be some who mistake him as a variation on the Cobbler. It's really the other way around, as far as coming up with a supernatural use for a mundane tradesman.

Anyway, once I knew what the Cobbler looked like and what he was supposed to do as a force in the book, the scenes where he appeared were quite easy to plot and, eventually, write. He was so fully formed in my mind by that I never really had a question about what he was going to do and why. In every book, there's usually a character or two who "talks" to me, whose voice and motivation is so clear in my mind that I don't have to struggle with dialogue or actions. They sort of take creating themselves upon the page. Cyric was always like that for me in the Realms books, and the wombats in The Ring of Winter. The Cobbler was that character in Spectre--how much so came clear to me when he moves to take his mask off for the very first time. My original intention was to simply describe his face, but as I got to that paragraph, the Cobbler's voice noted in the back of my mind "I don't really have a face, you know." That's why the character sees the Cobbler's face as a blank at first, gets that slight glimpse of the void.

This part of the writing process might sound stranger than it really is. I was already thinking in the Cobbler's voice--just as a matter of technical storytelling, you need to do that to do a good job with dialogue. But it's those moments of less linear creation that make the difference in a book being predictable or not, and make writing fun for me (usually it's hard work). In those moments the story or the characters go in a direction you had not thought, at least consciously. If they work, you'll find later that you had already laid the foundation for that inspired action with all your much less glamorous technical work of plotting and making character notes. But it's always startling in that moment of composition when things don't go quite as you had planned.

The Curator:

If you could write another Ravenloft book, would you?

Jim Lowder:

I am much more interested in doing creator-owned projects these days, but I would certainly consider it. I have the rough outline for a third Sithicus book in mind, Wake of the Black Rose. It would deal with the domain post-Soth. The death knight wouldn't appear directly, but his impact would certainly be felt. The central characters would be Ganelon and Inza, with the Wanderers and Azrael as the main supporting cast.

The Curator:

Would you consider writing any more books for the Forgotten Realms setting?

Jim Lowder:

Again, it would depend upon the project. I'd be interested in doing more with Artus Cimber or the characters Rinda and Gwydion, who I created in Prince of Lies. I'd even be interested in doing more with Cyric or Mask, or the other Realms gods. (I have a rough outline kicking around here somewhere for the sequel I had originally planned for Prince of Lies, which would tell how the "dead" god Bane comes back to the Realms.)

Writing new Realms material seems pretty unlikely at the moment, but the stars could align and a project could come together.

This interview was conducted between Strahds Library and James Lowder in February 2003. None of this interview can be used without permission.

In December 2004, the discussion resumed:

Strahd wrote:

In my contact with some of the RL authors I have found that there are still a few unfinished stories out there that would be just waiting for the right moment. One of these is the Ebonacht trilogy written by James Lowder.

Jim Lowder:

Ebonacht will not be published as Ravenloft fiction, not unless they radically change the contract they use. After I got the rights to the material back, I published several short stories with the main character. I own the copyright for all those stories and would have to sell the rights for them to WotC, too. I can't imagine ever doing that.

It is far more likely that I will find a publisher for Ebonacht elsewhere. I'm already in discussions with a publisher about a collection of my short fiction--which would include all the stories connected to Ebonacht.

Strahd wrote:

If you have a chance pop by the archives, as you were discussed among the Vampire of the Mists book club, by Christie. She really spoke high of you!

Jim Lowder:

It was a pleasure working with Christie, though she was toiling on the line at a difficult time. There was, as she noted, some pressure from others in TSR mgmt. to push the Ravenloft fiction in a certain direction with which Christie was not comfortable. I agreed with the general idea of making the RL fiction darker, and there were times where Christie and I simply disagreed on how dark the material should be. But in hindsight, I think the whole review process could have been handled more constructively at the company.

Had it been my choice, I would have switched Christie to another line after the second RL book she wrote. I suggested this to both to TSR mgmt and to Christie--that she try to make the jump to the Realms, where her writing style and story inclinations were much more in synch with the world's tone. Hence the two Jander stories I commissioned for the first two Realms anthologies. But before that could happen, mgmt in the book division changed and I soon left the company myself.

Strahd wrote:

"For a work-for-hire situation--those are Trek, Battletech, Star Wars, D&D, Ravenloft types--the writer must write a story to the specifications of the company. They usually contact *hungry* already in-print writers to do such jobs. *Hungry* means they'll work cheap to get a quick check. VERY rarely--as in usually never, ever--will they accept a manuscript sent in on speculation from an unpublished writer. Such jobs are usually arranged by the writer's agent. Things may have changed since, but that was my experience in their world.

Jim Lowder:

Pat sums up the conditions under which a lot--in my opinion, far too many--work for hire books are created, but this is actually not the way a lot of the older TSR titles were done. There were several lines--such as the Harpers in the Realms and even the early RL books--that allowed freelancers to "pitch" ideas. And in cases where the authors were given ideas--such as Vampire of the Mists--they were very, very broad. "A vampire starts in the Realms and ends up in Ravenloft, where he forms a mentor-student relationhip with Strahd." Beyond that, it's largely up to the authors to develop characters and the plot. For books like Dance of the Dead and Heart of Midnight, the authors were not even given that much detail. We wanted writers to care about their work, not people who were desperate to write for a quick check.

So while Pat does accurately describe how many w-f-h books are done, it shouldn't be taken as a blanket description of all w-f-h.

Pat came into the line after I was no longer the RL line editor, and just shortly before I parted ways with the company--in large part because of the poor treatment of authors she alludes to in her note. The place had become incredibly author-unfriendly in a lot of ways. (This was when I pulled Ebonacht from the company....) So I'm not surprised she's so angry about her treatment. She certainly was not the only one pimped over by the company at that time.

Malarick wrote:

It is interesting in what you say about how the authors got to develop more for later books in the series, such as Heart of Midnight, a book which still today remains one of my favorite novels of all time. It was this that made Ravenloft a more unique setting, and not just a carbon copy of classic gothic horror.

Jim Lowder :

The first two books in the RL series had brief, rough guides attached, but from the third book until, I believe, I, Strahd, we had open auditions for RL books, with authors submitting proposals for stories they wanted to tell. I, Strahd was a change in direction, and that happened after I'd left the company as a fulltime employee and was no longer RL line editor.

Malarick wrote:

One thing I always wondered about Ebonacht, is that you must have written part or all way before you worked on the last book in the series, Spectre of the Black Rose.

You say you left the company early in the development of the Ravenloft line, and yet you did a novel further down the line. I take it your parting was an amicable one?

Jim Lowder :

I parted ways with TSR in 1993/1994, in part because of what had happened with Ebonacht. Long, ugly, ugly, ugly story. I had completed the first draft of Book One, The Screaming Tower, when things really went bad. I left the company as a contract/freelance editor and as a writer. Lawyers got involved. I managed to tie up the rights for Ebonacht, so TSR could do nothing with it, but things were incredibly hostile. How hostile? The editor of Dragon at the time was stripped of his duties by management because he ran an article I wrote.

Fast forward to the WotC buyout of TSR. When Peter Adkison looked at the potential roster of fiction titles/authors, he discovered that several authors--most prominently R.A. Salvatore--were openly fighting with the company and the then-head of books. Peter moved to settle all those issues. He and I chatted. Within a couple weeks I had ownership of Ebonacht--minus the few references to existing RL material in the book--and a nice kill fee check.

That settlement--along with the elimination of the staff with whom I had clashed back in '94--paved the way for me to come back and write Spectre. Mary Kirchoff, the new head of books at WotC--who had also been the person who first contracted Ebonacht five-plus years earlier--offered to publish Ebonacht as an RL book, but by that time I had developed the material and used elements in other stories; also, I had fought for 3 1/2 years to get control of the material, so I wasn't about to sign away rights like that again. I'm glad I hung on to it; I've published a number of stories now involving the Ebonacht protagonist.

Malarick wrote:

Did you always intend to do a sequel to Knight of the Black Rose? Or was this just a way to end the product line? Spectre was a fantastic book which have read several times, and continue to enjoy. One last question (sorry) but what was the writing process behind Spectre, how much was written by yourself and how much was Voronica?

Jim Lowder :

Yes, I had always planned to one day finish Soth's tale in RL. If you look carefully at the two books, the things that make the resolution of Spectre possible are there in Knight and the short story "Rigour of the Game." I was originally supposed to write the Black Roses Bloom adventure, which would have also made the overall plot more clear, but that didn't work out because of the various issues I was having with the company at the time.

As for the writing of Spectre: the book had been planned as a single-author project--I still have promotional cover flats with just my name on them around here somewhere. I had the book plotted and was more than a quarter of the way through the first draft when I asked Voronica, someone I'd known since high school, to work on it with me.

I'd fallen behind on the deadlines--I'm a slow writer, but on top of that my father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a dire prognosis; I was shuttling back and forth between Wisconsin, where I live, and Massachusetts, where I grew up, in the last months of his life--right in the middle of the time I was writing the book. WotC could not give me a deadline extension, so I had to find a co-author.

I assigned Voronica some chapters or parts of chapters, which she wrote from my outline and detailed notes. She worked this way on a lot of the scenes involving Inza, not including the finale at the Keep. I then revised and rewrote the chapters as necessary, to make the book read as a uniform, coherent work. It wasn't really a standard co-author structure, because she came into the project so late. But she helped me a lot, and working on the book gave her an audition of sorts for WotC. She's certainly made the most of that audition since then.

Uziel wrote:

I am curious about some of the events in 'Spectre' though. Having spoken to Margaret and Tracy about the Ravenloft novels, and I'm sure you have heard many of their comments (particularly Tracy's) in the past. Did pressure from WoTC book department or the DL folks force the outcome of 'Spectre' or was it planned from the beginning that he would only have a stint in Ravenloft?

Jim Lowder :

It was always my intention to have Soth's stay in Ravenloft a temporary one, and there was no pressure from WotC for me to plot the end of Spectre a certain way. I was on board with the idea of Soth returning to Krynn from the start.

When Knight of the Black Rose was planned, Margaret and Tracy were on bad terms with TSR, not working on anything with the company. As RL fiction line editor, I offered them both the chance to have input on the project, and Tracy the chance to write the book, but they declined. I understand why.

But I made it clear to them at the time Knight was proposed that I would do all I could to make certain Soth was not changed in such a way that he would be undermined when, or if, they came back to TSR to work on the DL line. When I could not find a writer who was capable of writing Knight without monkeying with Soth, the head of the department (Mary Kirchoff again) stepped in and asked me to take the assignment. It was an assignment I accepted somewhat reluctantly, I must admit. But it worked out for the best, I think.

In terms of continuity, I don't think it matters when Soth returns to Krynn in the DL timeline. Time works differently in the Mists, so he could be gone five minutes from Krynn, yet spend decades in the Dark Domains.


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