Acclaimed fantasy author talks worldbuilding, his new tale of revenge, and who he’d be in the world of Midkemia.
YOU think writing a fantasy trilogy is challenging? Try writing a 30-book saga.
Over the past 30 years, American author Raymond E. Feist has been writing the Riftwar Cycle, an epic fantasy in the truest sense of the word.
A spellbinding story of magicians, warriors, and cultural clashes, the series chronicles the Rift Wars of Midkemia, a fantasy world created as part of a role-playing group Feist was active in during college.
The acclaimed saga, which began with Magician in 1982, came to a conclusion last year with the fittingly titled Magician’s End.
“Oh, the world is still there,” Feist, 69, quips, when asked if he ever misses Midkemia.
“Any time I get misty-eyed, I can always go back and pull a book off the shelf or open a file on my computer, and there it is.
“Actually, I was just revisiting Midkemia last Saturday, so to speak. We had a reunion game with some of the people I went to college with. And some of their kids, who are now grown adults, were there also!”
Feist’s books have been translated into multiple languages, and sold over 15 million copies worldwide. He is that rare writer who hit gold with his first novel, allowing him to become a full-time author just a few years after finishing a degree in Communication Arts at the University of California in 1977.
The Riftwar Cycle, by far his best known work, is divided into several sub-series of two to four books each, beginning with The Riftwar Saga (comprising Magician, Silverthorn, and A Darkness At Sethanon) and concluding with the Chaoswar Saga (A Kingdom Besieged, A Crown Imperiled, and Magician’s End).
Each sub-series of the Riftwar Cycle features different characters and protagonists, the most prominent being Pug, an orphan who becomes a great magician.
Feist has also published three other novels, including Faerie Tale (1988), a dark fantasy set in modern-day New York, as well as short stories in compilations of fantasy fiction.
His works have also been the subject of computer games, such as 1993’s acclaimed Betrayal At Krondor, and its 1998 sequel, Return To Krondor.
The “E” in his name, by the way, stands for Elias, he tells us.
The author, who lives with his two children in San Diego, California, was one of the guests at the Singapore Writer’s Festival held earlier this month.
In a telephone interview from there, Feist is amiable and chatty, joking as he talks about his current and future works.
“I’d have to be a king, it’s the only chance I’d have to survive!” Feist says, when asked who he’d be in the world of Midkemia.
“Alien races are trying to kill you just because you’re human. You’d better have a huge army or a powerful magician at your side!”
Is there any chance of seeing the world of Midkemia in a movie, or a television series, such as with George R.R. Martin’s Game Of Thrones?
“It’s a very straightforward thing from my point of view. I’ve been talking to Hollywood and television networks and studios in London for 30 years, ever since Magician came out,” Feist says. “Trust me, I can do an hour of telling you how to field calls from wannabe producers.”
Most of the actors Feist imagined as the cast of Magician back in 1982 are too old to play the parts now, unfortunately.
“Back when I wrote Magician, the classic model for someone to play Lord Borric would have been Sean Connery. But that was 30 years ago! He could play Lord Borric’s dead grandfather now,” the author laughs.
According to online reports, he’s holding out for the right offer and circumstances to OK a screen adaptation – he must have really high expectations if he hasn’t found them in three decades!
Currently, however, Feist says he is really enjoying the process of exploring worlds other than Midkemia.
“I say without a lot of uncertainty, there’s a lot about Midkemia that I haven’t told. It’s just that Pug’s story came to a logical conclusion.
“And there are a lot of things I want to try before I get too old to type on the keyboard.
“There are a couple of stories I have been sitting on literally for years,” Feist says.
“There’s no rule that says I’ll never go back to Midkemia. I’ll never say never about anything. I have no ambitions at this moment to continue writing in that universe, though. And I hope that my fans enjoy the new material as much as they do what I’ve written over the last 30 years.”
One of the author’s current projects is a trilogy called The War Of The Five Crowns, which Feist says will be structured like a three-act play. The series will comprise King Of Ashes (due May 2016), followed by King Of Embers, and King Of Flames.
“It’s primarily a very straight action adventure, with the theme of revenge.
“There are two characters in the book, both of whom are motivated by revenge but for entirely different reasons,” Feist explains.
One character’s desire comes from a personal, very deeply scarring event in his/her life, the author says, while the other is motivated by honour and duty, akin to values held by ancient samurai, or a member of the modern-day Mafia.
“Many ancient cultures have this incredible sense of the duty of revenge. Look at the Turks, the Armenians, the Sicilians,” says Feist, professing to be a history junkie since he was a kid.
When he is finished with that series, the author says he hopes to work on a project he calls “Elder Gods”.
“It’s a little bit like Faerie Tale, as it starts off in a contemporary setting. It’s about these elder gods who return to a world that’s changed. It’s a story about how the survivors of the onslaught conspire to figure out how they got rid of these guys 10,000 years ago, because they need to do it again,” Feist says.
“I want people to understand though, that I am not writing any sequels to Lovecraft. His Elder Gods and mine are entirely different!”
(American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, 1890-1937, created the Cthulhu Mythos, which has grown into a shared fictional universe that has given rise to, among other beings, the Elder Gods.)
On his new work, Feist quips that he has almost forgotten how difficult the process of worldbuilding is.
“Thirty-two years ago, the world of Midkemia was half-developed already. It was a game environment, so it was very well-fleshed out, very detailed. The last world I built from scratch was Kelewan,” he says, referring to one of the worlds in his Riftwar saga.
“The problem with War Of The Five Crowns is that I had the story, but I suddenly realised I didn’t know what that world looks like! There’s a lot about worldbuilding that you don’t understand until you sit down and do it.”
Despite the challenges, however, the author says he is enjoying the process of starting again on a fresh canvas.
“With a new project, there’s a sense of relief.
“When I’m doing it, I don’t have to worry about going back and doing the old characters in a new set of clothes. These are all new characters. And that’s the most fun about all this!” Feist says.
Raymond Feist shares his writing tips
You learn by doing, says the master fantasist.
Your readers have to care about your characters.
“I learnt this from my stepfather (film and television director Felix E. Feist). You have to give them something to root for.”
However, don’t get too attached to them.
“In the final analysis, a character is there to motivate the story.
“He is a tool of the narration, there to do certain things in the storytelling process.
“If I do my job right, readers get emotionally attached to characters. Writers shouldn’t.
“Because that makes them precious, and one bit of advice you hear in a lot of writing classes is you have to be willing to kill your precious.”
Get rid of your inner editor when writing.
“I meet too many people who get hung up trying to write that perfect first sentence or that perfect first paragraph.
“Writing is rewriting. Just get the doggone story told, then go back and get your editor back in your head and then start rewriting.”
Know when to show and when to tell.
“My stepfather also said another thing that stuck with me: If you’re not writing action, you’re writing talking heads. And if you are, they better be saying something important.
“Now important can mean a lot of different things. Describing the character’s motivations, talking about furthering the plot, explaining certain things from the characters’ point of view that you don’t want to in narration, or whatever.
“But you have to understand that stuff. You have to root it in your DNA. When to show and when to tell.”
Ultimately, just sit down and write.
“There is no substitution for that.
“Writing is a skill that no one can teach you. There are people who can help you, but you have to learn it.
“I know wannabe writers who spend 10 years doing nothing but taking college lit courses and going to writer’s workshops.
“I go to lectures, and I know the first two rows are going to be full of writers looking at me as if I’m going to open this magic box and give them the secret of writing.
“But the only secret is to get your butt on the chair and your fingers on the keyboard and keep writing until you get what you want.
“You can’t learn by picking up a book on how to write. You learn by doing.”