How did you get into writing? Was there anyone who inspired you?
I think that writing begins with reading, so the most influential person in my writing would have to be my parents—they are the ones who got me into reading. I can still remember visiting the bookmobile in our neighborhood in Salt Lake City back in 1960. Growing up, I became a fan of science fiction and eventually became a big reader of all kinds of books. I always seemed to have a book in my hands. It got so bad that my parents complained of taking me on a trip to the Grand Canyon and I didn’t see anything except the inside of my own book.
As for how I got into writing, I was always something of a writer—just not always a very good one! I nearly failed my creative writing course at BYU. I had to learn there was a difference between inspiration and craft. I had to learn the latter before the former could come into play.
In 1981, I was out of work in Logan, Utah, with my wife and two little children. Laura and I could not afford church shoes for our children. We had written a pair of Dungeons and Dragons adventures, which we were publishing on our own. In an effort to purchase shoes for our children, we sent those adventure modules to TSR, Inc. (then publishers of D&D), in the hope that they would pay us enough money for us to purchase shoes for our kids that winter. In the end they offered me a job as a game designer.
Tell us about Dragonlance. How did that get started? How did it take off from there?
As my wife, Laura, and I were traveling across country to take our new job at TSR, Inc. (becoming the first people in my family to cross the plains the other way), we spent our time discussing what we might bring to the company that would justify them hiring us. It was there during the long hours in the car crossing the American plains that we came up with Dragonlance.
TSR was still in its fledgling state back then, and had just completed a very expensive study by an independent research firm about their product. The results were: (1) Dungeons and Dragons is your core product; (2) you have lots of Dungeons; and, finally, (3) you need more Dragons.
With this in mind, I took the idea which Laura and I had during our trip eastward and created the basic concept of Dragonlance—a means of telling a fantasy story through a gaming experience. No one had done it before. We proposed the series to the company originally as something of a “stop-gap” measure: it was supposed to be a project to do until the next “big thing” came along. It turned out to be the next big thing.
I like fantasy because it is a moral medium. Fantasy is about ethical and moral choices—the questions of good and evil—and its structure is classic. Fantasy most closely follows the monomythic structure as defined by Joseph Campbell. I believe that this mythic structure goes right to the heart of the human experience and the very processes by which we think and perceive the world and universe around us. Joseph Campbell looks at the mythic cycle and sees Jungian psychology; I look at the mythic cycle and see the Alpha Story—the story of us all on our journey through mortality and our seeking to return home to Christ.
Tell us about getting your first novel published.
Every author’s process of getting published is unique. I once had an agent who said it takes ten years to become an overnight success. That’s ten years of rejection slips, not quitting the day job, and learning the craft. Everyone pays these dues one way or another.
In my own case, I was fortunate to be paid to learn how to write: I wrote game adventure modules, which taught me organization of text and clarity, as well as basic grammar and structure. When we then proposed novels for the Dragonlance games my wife and I had originally envisioned, TSR decided that they needed to find a “real” author to write those books. They even went out and hired an author outside of the company to write the first book. As his chapters started coming in, it was obvious to Margaret Weis, who was the assigned editor for Dragonlance novels, and myself, who had created the story for the project, that this writer did not understand the story or the characters as well as Margaret and I. So one weekend, Margaret and I wrote the prologue and the first five chapters of what would become Dragons of Autumn Twilight, the first book in the series. We turned it in to the senior editor that following Monday and waited to hear what she said. An hour or so later she emerged from her office and said, “This is exactly what we need.” The previous writer’s contract was terminated (and they got to keep their advance), while Margaret and I were then contracted to do the books after that—which is how I got started in writing novels.
Out of all of the projects that you have worked on, what has been your favorite to write and why?
My favorite project has been, interestingly enough, the last one I did with my wife, Eventide. This is the first book in a series of novels we are publishing ourselves through subscriptions online. That means that we print a limited number of books tailored to the number of subscriptions we receive. Each subscriber then gets a signed, numbered book from our personal printing. It has allowed us more freedom in terms of what we want to write, which is uplifting, positive moral fantasy. You can learn more about this project at dragonsbard.com.
It appears that many of your books have co-authors. How does the creative process work when it is split between two people?
I personally prefer to write with someone else. I like the exchange of ideas and the new dimensions that it brings to the creative process. Whether her name has been on the cover or not, all of my books are the result of discussions with my wife, who has always been part of my work.
In terms of the books we write together, we laid down some ground rules. The first is that the integrity of the book comes before our egos. The story, its message, and how it is told comes first and foremost.
Tell us about writing with your wife. How is it different from working on other projects?
Well, I have to be honest and say that in many ways I have always written with my wife. I have always run ideas past her in anything that I was doing creatively. We are a partnership and a team. I find it hard to recall any project that I have not involved her with in some way, and usually very extensively. We recently produced a Christmas board game for sale online, which was a result of extensive collaboration between us over several years. We love doing everything together.
But we are also mindful that personal relationships and professional relationships do not always mix well. So, we are always very careful about how we treat one another in both capacities and have very specific rules about who does what in our business collaborations. For example, we always designate one person as the “wordsmith” in a project so that the voice of the text will be consistent. The other is designated as the “guardian” who oversees the integrity of the project and text. We also renegotiate our rules from time to time to make sure that we’re both satisfied with the results.
As an author, how do you deal with criticism from those who read your books?
I believe there will always be people who are going to hate what you write no matter what you produce. That said, I believe that when a writer can no longer improve, then they are at the end. One of the most important things we try to teach people who are learning how to write is a sobering truth: “You have not yet written your best work.” If you can accept that, you can accept criticism, determine if it is valid, learn from it, and grow with your next text.
How do you ensure that your ideas are unique in some way?
I am always looking for that core concept, that unique center that makes a story fun, exciting, and interesting. Once you find that core, everything else flows from it. Fantasy and epic tales have been told since mankind first told stories, and so to a certain extent one might say that there are no truly unique stories, but I try to find new ways to tell old stories. My Drakis series, for example, is in many ways a fantasy version of Spartacus—an old story with a new approach.
Describe your ideal writing environment.
My ideal writing environment can be anywhere where I am into the story with a keyboard under my fingers. I prefer to play music while I write, especially classical music or certain soundtracks, which tend to blend into the background of my thoughts. When I am into the story of the moment, my world becomes a box about two and a half feet on each side with nothing existing beyond my head, my fingers, my keyboard and the text on the screen. My wife will readily attest to that.
What is the nicest thing a fan has ever said to you?
There have been so many wonderful experiences with fans down through the years and all of them are bright in my memory. The one that stands out the most in my mind was our experience at Fort Lewis in Washington a few years ago with a young hero soldier in a wheelchair. It is a very personal story about how his memory of a scene from one of our books gave him the courage to save his entire squad in Afghanistan. That young hero took our words and turned them into actions of true heroism. I think about that soldier every day and feel a new responsibility for what I write and a reverence for our readers who are inspired to act on a higher plane.
How does the gospel affect you as an artist? What place does fantasy literature have in the gospel?
I once said at a BYU conference that the gospel seems to have some pretty fantastical elements! The plan of salvation—where we leave our heavenly home, pass the “portals of power” into mortality, journey through this mortal existence with trials and helpers as we try to obtain the prize of exaltation, must then endure to the end, pass back through the “portals of power” into immortality, and return again changed before our Father in Heaven—all of these elements are part of the basic Campbellian monomyth and every fantasy and classical story ever written. Fantasy, in this light and when properly executed, is a type and a shadow of the great story of us all, of our quest to return to our God as more perfect beings.
The gospel is my life; I write my life; ergo, my writing is a reflection of my faith.
What would you most like to achieve out of your career?
I aspire to Isaiah 52:7. “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” It is my hope that in all that I write I am publishing peace. ❧