Ari Marmell: The Terribleminds Interview

Ari and I go way back. We once fought dinosaurs in the Caveman War of the Ninth Glacial Epoch. We once surfed the rings of Saturn. And once upon a time, we worked freelance in the roleplaying game industry. Since then, Ari’s star has gone supernova and now he’s a Big Time Fantasy Writer, but thankfully, I was able to dose his drink with questionable veterinary drugs and convince him to submit to an interview here. His newest is Thief’s Covenant. Seek out his website — — or stalk him on Twitter (@mouseferatu).

EDIT: I’m told that it’s Ari’s birthday. GO BUY HIS BOOKS. He rules. Do so now.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Once upon a time, in a distant land, there lived a young prince named Bernard. Now, Bernard had no real renown of his own, but he did run in some fairly famous circles. For Bernard, as it happened, was one of several suitors to that most illustrious, tower-dwelling princess: Rapunzel, she of the lengthy locks.

One day, worried that Rapunzel might choose one of the other princes vying for her attention, Bernard set out to pay her a surprise visit. To prove his love and devotion, he brought with him a gold and ivory comb, an heirloom that had been in his family for seven generations. The prince dropped from his noble steed, approached the base of the stone, weather-worn tower, and called up.

“Rapunzel! It is I, Prince Bernard! Let down your hair!”

After several long and uncomfortable moments, the princess’s melodious voice came drifting back down. “You ought to let a girl know when you’re planning to show up! I’ve only just gotten out of the bath!”

“Oh.” Bernard scowled, kicking at a clump of soil. “If you’d rather I come back later…”

“No, no, come on up.”

As in his many previous visits, a long coil of hair rolled from the upper window to dangle before him, providing a means of climbing the wall. Unlike those past times, however, this particular braid was loose and haphazard, scarcely braided at all. Worse, it was barely half the width of her normal rope of hair.

“Ah, Rapunzel? This seems… a bit flimsy, doesn’t it?”

“Nothing for it!” she called down. “I’m still busy brushing my other braids. Could be hours before I’m done. Surely,” she added, her voice teasing, “a young man as athletic as you should be able to climb what’s available safely enough! Or have all your claims just been empty boasts?”

Well, Bernard certainly wasn’t about to appear weak or cowardly! Straightening his back, he stepped forward and took an experimental tug on the princess’s lone and lonely braid.

It really didn’t feel all that secure.

When Rapunzel shouted again, her pout was obvious in her voice. “Don’t you love me enough to even try?”

Bernard began climbing immediately, of course. His grip was a bit precarious at first, but he swiftly got the hang of climbing the smaller rope.

Thinks I don’t love her enough, does she? I’ll show her!

Even as he climbed, Bernard removed the comb he’d brought to offer his beloved, and began to work out the knots and tangles of the haphazard braid. Not only would he climb up to visit, but he’d save her a bit of effort and show her just how good his gift actually was!

All of which might have seemed like a great idea, until–mere feet from the top–Prince Bernard lost his grip.

Had the braid been thicker, he might never have slipped. Had he not been so careful to comb out Rapunzel’s hair on his way, he might have had a knot on which to grab. Alas, the slender and smooth locks flowed through his fingers, providing no purchase at all, and Bernard perished in a heap of broken bones at the base of Rapunzel’s tower.

And so, as we come to the end of our tragic story, we can take consolation only in the wisdom imparted by our tale’s twin morals:

“A braid in the hand is worth two in the brush,” and “A man’s comb is his hassle.”

Why do you tell stories?

In part, I don’t really have a choice. The story ideas and characters come to me, and I really want to do something with them. As a kid, I was able to get that out of my system by running D&D games, but it’s just not enough anymore.

And also, I pretty much suck at everything else.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Don’t let worries over what’s currently popular keep you from writing whatever sort of story you love (or are driven) to tell.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

Well, being able to set my own hours is pretty cool. But really, the best thing is talking to people who have gotten real enjoyment (or even found deeper meaning, on occasion) from something I’ve created. The creation itself is wonderful, but seeing how that creation affects others is amazing.

As for what sucks? The fact that income varies so dramatically and that the job has no benefits causes some problems, certainly. And since so much of my enjoyment is based on others’ reactions, it also means–much as I try not to let it bug me–that negative reactions to my work sometimes bum me out.

Also, when you work from home and have turned your hobby into your job? You never really get a lot of time off. Even when you take a day away from writing, your brain’s still noodling away at whatever project you’ve got going, or forthcoming, or developing. (And yes, writers have all of that going at once. If your average writer was twice as prolific as Stephen King, he still wouldn’t be able to actually use more than a fraction of his ideas.)

Oh, the fact that people sometimes assume that what I do isn’t real work, and that if I’m home during the day it must mean I have time to run errands for them, is an occasional pain.

Okay, so I have to ask: how do you deal with negative fan/reader reaction?

Hard liqueur and thugs with baseball bats.

Honestly, it depends on the kind of negative reaction. If it’s screaming vitriol, I briefly bitch about it (to myself, my wife, or a friend), and then ignore it. Nothing you can do with that. But if it’s a reasonably or politely written critique, I find that my best bet is to consider whether I feel like they may be on to something. I’ve made a few improvements by listening to concerns that came in from more than one source. Obviously, in many cases, I won’t agree, and won’t change accordingly, but it’s worth looking at.

And then there are the ones you just laugh at, such as when somebody claimed The Conqueror’s Shadow was so bad it “literally kills babies.” It’s always nice when people make it easy for you to figure out that they deserve to land soundly in the “ignore” pile.

What did gaming (tabletop in particular) teach you about storytelling?

Well, a lot of the very basics — how to build a plot, for instance — came, in part, from my early gaming days. It certainly taught me about telling stories in someone else’s setting, which has served me well in my tie-in work.

But I think my gaming experience has also helped me when it comes to having my characters solve problems creatively. When I’m outlining, I very often describe the peril the characters have gotten into, but not how they get out of it. I wait until I’m actually writing that scene, and then try to get them out with only the resources I’ve already described/given them, rather than planning in advance to give them Tool X to solve Situation Y. It doesn’t always work, and I don’t deal with every challenge that way, but it’s fun when it’s appropriate.

What’s the upside and the downside to writing tie-in fiction?

Well, in every case thus far, I’ve really enjoyed the setting in which I was working. The opportunity to add to the experience of a property that I really like is a fantastic one, and quite possibly one of the single greatest highlights of tie-in. On a more mercenary level, the fact that there’s usually a built-in audience don’t hurt none, neither.

(Every one of my editors just had a coronary.)

Downside… Well, the fact that it is someone else’s world means that your options are limited. I can’t necessarily kill of Character X, or make a change to Setting Detail Y, or even assume that Trope Z holds true. It narrows the scope of what’s possible. Also, there’s the fact that a lot more people have a lot more control over the final product. I’ve been lucky enough to work with more reasonable people than not, but even reasonable people disagree on ideas here and there. It’s frustrating to have not just an editor, but 2d6 other people have a say over every last detail of the book–especially when any one of them can overrule the author.

You write fantasy for the most part — what’s the trick to writing good fantasy? What do you think is missing from most fantasy these days?

Well, leaving aside all of that “interesting characters and plot” nonsense that goes into writing a good anything

Internal consistency. What, on gaming forums, is often called “verisimilitude.” The fact that a book is a fantasy is not license to throw common sense or rational cultural development out the window. “A wizard did it” is not a one-stop solution.

There’s a saying that “It’s easier to believe the impossible than the improbable.” (I’d attribute it, but I don’t actually know who said it first.) I can, for instance, accept a world where dragons and sorcerers are real. I cannot accept a plotline that’s driven too much by sheer coincidence or character stupidity. I cannot accept a culture that makes no sense. It doesn’t have to resemble a real historical culture, but it has to feel like it actually hangs together, not like it was slapped together for no purpose other than to be convenient to the plot.

As to what’s missing in most fantasy? Hmm… This is beginning to change, but secondary worlds based on cultures other than Europe. Where’s the fantasy world that resembles Southern Africa? India? (One of my favorite recent fantasy series is Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, which is set in the Aztec empire. So next, I’d like to see someone create a secondary world somewhat resembling the Aztecs, without actually being historical fantasy.)

Also? I’d really, really, really, really like to see an increase in standalone books (or at least series where each book can stand alone). Not every fantasy tale requires nine books of 800 pages each to tell, people.

Why’d you write Thief’s Covenant? How is it a novel only Ari Marmell could write?

It’s a novel only I could write because I got to it first and it’s copyrighted, damn it.

Okay, more seriously… Most of my fantasy protagonists to date have been antiheroes (or, in the case of The Goblin Corps, outright villains). Widdershins may be a thief, but she’s basically a good person; I wanted to write a hero who was, at least in some respects, actually a hero. I also wanted to play with certain cultural aspects–the combination of the very French Renaissance with a very un-Renaissance belief system, in particular.

But mostly? I wrote it for the same reason I write most of my non-tie-in books: Because the idea came to me, and I liked it enough to haul it out of the stream, rather than let it drift by to the Lake of Unused Concepts. No more real meaning to it than that.

What makes it a “me” book? Partly the combination of humor and horror. Not that I’m the only person to do that–and there’s less of the “near horror” level of violence here than in my other books, though it’s still present–but I like to think this precise style of combining them is mine.

I also feel that–so far as is possible, given that I am not and never have been a teenage girl–that Widdershins is a very Ari character. I’m not sure I can articulate why, to be honest. She just really seems to have sprung Athena-like from my head.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

“Diphthong.” It just looks like it shouldn’t be a word at all, it’s fun to say, and in a pinch you can use it to sound like you’re insulting someone.

Favorite curse word? Hmm… I’ve long felt that if you’re only using one word, you’re not doing it right. But if I have to pick one, I really think the sheer versatility of “fuck”–you can make entire sentences out of nothing but variations–is the reason it remains a beloved classic.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I don’t drink. Yeah, I know, one of those. It’s not any sort of moral objection; I just don’t like the taste of alcohol, and it aggravates certain health conditions I have.

So, favorite non-alcoholic? One of various sorts of mocha frappacino, preferably in either a mint or chocolate-and-cherry variation.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’m gonna go old-school on this. Back in, oh, the early 90s or so, Sierra released a PC game called “Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Father.” (There were two more games in the series that were both pretty good, but the first was best.) It’s obviously a remarkably primitive game by today’s standards, but if you can get hold of it (and your computer will run it), I still recommend it as one of the coolest games–yes, including story–I’ve ever played.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

I encourage teamwork among the survivors.

Specifically, I’m so slow and out of shape that I won’t be too hard to catch. Meaning that nobody has to resort to tripping anyone else in order to survive, thus building a level of trust they would otherwise lack.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Probably something fajita-related. With nachos beforehand, and ice cream after.

Not just because I like such things, but because I’m lactose intolerant. If they’re gonna execute me, they get to deal with the results.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Well, multi-million dollar movie deals, one hopes.

More likely? I have a few things I’m looking forward to diving into, including a near-future YA novel with a premise I actually haven’t seen used before; some additional tie-in work; hopefully some additional installments in the “Widdershins Adventures” YA fantasy series, and (also hopefully) writing sequels to my first urban fantasy, which my agent is shopping around as we speak.

Well, except that we’re not speaking. And she’s not doing it “as I type,” because it’s late.

But you know what I mean.