Garwulf interviewed about Demonsbane
Robert Marks is the author of Demonsbane, a novella set in the world of Sanctuary, around 800 years before the events in Diablo I. The book is an official Blizzard product, written in cooperation with Blizzard and as part of the official canon of the game world history. Demonsbane was published by Pocket Books on October 31, 2000, and has recently been reissued as part of The Diablo Archive, a large paperback that collects Demonsbane and the first three Diablo novels into one volume.
This interview was conducted by Diabloii.net, via email, with Robert Marks, in October 2002.Book Facts
Diabloii.net: The title of the book is now “Demonsbane”, but this wasn’t the original working title. Can you give us some info about how the title was chosen and how it changed over time, and is that sort of thing mostly decided by the publisher?
Robert Marks: There were actually several titles it went through. The title was one of those things that was primarily under the control of Blizzard: I would make the suggestions, and they would pick one. When I made my initial pitch of the story idea, the title was actually Unfinished Business. I then decided I didn’t like that, and changed it to To Touch the Darkness. Unfortunately, while I was rather fond of it, Blizzard wasn’t, and they asked me to send in some more suggestions. My personal favorite was And What Rough Beast…, but we finally settled on Demonsbane.
Diabloii.net: How and when will it be sold? Ebook only, or hardcover and then paperback in stores as well?
Robert Marks: Right now, only as an e-book.
Diabloii.net: What format will the book be presented in? Will there be any artwork or illustrations, or text only?
Robert Marks: Don’t quite know, I’m afraid (e-books are rather new in general). I think there is a standard format that they follow. You’d probably be able to find that information on the Simon and Schuster web page.
Diabloii.net: How long is the book?
Robert Marks: Compared to the average novel, quite short. It is around 25,000 words, which should come out to around 100 pages. From what I’ve heard, that’s actually fairly long for an e-book, though.
Diabloii.net: Do you know anything about distribution of the novel? Will it be sold outside of the US? Also, Diablo II is very popular in many countries, and there are numerous full local conversions (foreign language versions) do you know of any plans to release the novel outside the US, or to do translations?
Robert Marks: I’m fairly sure it will be available in all English-speaking countries; it’s being released on the Internet, after all. Other than that, I really don’t know…it’s in the hands of Pocket Books, not me.
Diabloii.net: How did you get involved in writing this novel? Were you offered it by your publisher, or did you hear about it and campaign to get it?
Robert Marks: It was an incredible fluke. I learned that Blizzard was doing the novels, and decided to investigate. I was directed to Pocket, and managed to impress an editor there with my initiative and writing skill. Shortly afterward, I was asked to pitch some story ideas to Blizzard. Basically, I ended up in the right place at the right time, and was recruited based on some writing samples. If the writing skill hadn’t been there, or if I had been a week earlier or later, I don’t think I’d have gotten it.
Diabloii.net: Can you tell us anything about the plot or characters of the novel?
Robert Marks: Well, it is an epic set in the early years of the Sin War, which puts it around 800 years before the first game. The hero is named Siggard, and he finds himself awakening on the Night of Souls (the Diablo equivalent of Halloween), missing two days from his memory after a battle at Blackmarch. He ends up on this quest not only to discover what happened in those two days since Blackmarch, but also to save his homeland of Entsteig from a Baron of Hell.
Because it’s set in the Sin War, the Prime Evils are very much on the sidelines. There is a Vizjerei character who knows that they exist, but none of the mortal characters even knows their names; all they’ve got is the titles.
It really is a multi-layered work. If you read it, you can find elements of the historical, mythological, theological, and philosophical…all this in addition to the basic story.
Diabloii.net: The initial announcement was of three novels in each Blizzard world: Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. Can you tell us if work is underway on these novels in the Diablo series, and tell us if you are involved with them?
Robert Marks: To be honest, I really don’t know. I know that the three paperback books have been assigned, but I have no idea of what stages they are all at in the creative process (which for licensed material, can be quite long).
The guidelines they gave me consisted of a detailed history of the world, up to and including the end of the Diablo II expansion.
Diabloii.net: How much input into the novel did Blizzard North have? I understand you were given a lengthy list of facts about the world of Sanctuary, its history, mythology, geography, and more. So you knew all about the world, but did Blizzard give you a plot outline, or say which sort of characters they wanted in it, or the monsters they’d battle, etc?
Robert Marks: I suppose you could say that they had power of approval and veto. If I’d done something absolutely horrible with their world, such as having Diablo show up in a tutu, or something like that, they’d have said, “You can’t do that,” and that would be the end of it. But I came up with the plotline, and if it hadn’t been acceptable, they would have sent me back to the drawing board until I came up with something worthwhile. Happily, my work was quite acceptable.
The guidelines they gave me consisted of a detailed history of the world, up to and including the end of the Diablo II expansion. I ended up going through the timeline and picking up on the parts that inspired stories. Much to my joy, there was a great deal left undeveloped in the Sin War, so I’ve been able to have some fun.
Diabloii.net: And did Blizzard North have any consultations with you or read rough drafts and say they wanted things to go in a different direction? Or were you left mostly free to do things how you thought best?
Robert Marks: There was some consultation, certainly. Both the initial story idea and the plot synopsis had to be cleared with Blizzard. What it worked out into was that I would create the plotline, and then Blizzard would tell me if they had any problems with it. In the end, I think the only changes they insisted on was that I not kill off one particular character at the very end, a couple of continuity issue, and to cut down on the number of decapitations (I’m a Highlander fan…what can I say?).
Diabloii.net: Can you give us a short bio? Education, writing background, how you got interested in being a writer, how you made the leap to actually being paid for it, etc…
Robert Marks: Well, I’m a Canadian born and raised. I started reading fantasy in high school, when I picked up a copy of Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair, and just became enchanted with the genre. While I was in high school, I also got the opportunity to handle a 600 year-old broadsword at the Royal Ontario Museum, which set my academic course: I fell in love with the Middle Ages.
Around 1993, I got my hands on The Eye of the Hunter, by Dennis L. McKiernan, and my life literally changed. As far as reading material goes, I have a very thick skin, but Dennis managed to get right under it. The end result was that I started writing fantasy, and finished my first novel 2 years later. It was utterly unpublishable, but it was a start.
In university, three things of note happened: First, I honed my skill writing Doctor Who fanfiction for a couple of years, picked up two awards, and decided to try writing professionally. Second, I met George Clark, a professor at Queen’s University who turned me from a military Medievalist into a Beowulf fanatic in under four months. Finally, I came across Dennis McKiernan on a newsgroup, and have had a correspondence going ever since. I graduated from Queen’s in 1999 with a degree in Medieval Studies, and after three years of trying my hardest, I got my break at Pocket this August.
Diabloii.net: Is your writing mostly or exclusively fantasy, or do you do other genres, or non-fiction as well? And are you doing the sort of writing now that you want to do, or would you like to branch out further, to screenplays or historical dramas, or anything else?
Robert Marks: My long fiction so far has been exclusively fantasy, but I have an outline for a science-fiction novel that I am planning to write after I finish my current work-in-progress. My short fiction, on the other hand, has covered science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and historical.
My non-fiction has been across the board. I’ve written film reviews, a computer game review (which was published in Computer Gaming World in April of 1999), non-fiction articles, and even the first part of a science column.
Diabloii.net: Are there any short stories or other materials you’ve written available on the web that we could link to if people wanted to get a look?
Robert Marks: Well, my website does have some materials I’ve written. I also ended up writing a couple of practice stories last year that appeared on Diablo.org (one was a Lovecraft pastiche…I wanted to see if I could do it, and the other was a comic piece that I used as a test run for some humor I’m using in another story).
Diabloii.net: I understand you have some knowledge of historical weaponry and armor and other real life versions of the sorts of things in the fantasy world of Diablo II. How does that knowledge work into the novel, as compared to the game, where most of the items are chosen because they are cool in a game, rather than historically accurate.
Robert Marks: I used historical arms and armor rather than the game terminology in Demonsbane. Part of it was to add to the historical dimension of the book (I want readers to feel as though the world truly is alive), and part of it came from just knowing too much. After learning the source of the word “mail” (Old French and Latin, meaning a mesh of linked rings), I find it almost unbearable to use phrases such as “chainmail” (redundant…the equivalent of “chain chain”) or platemail (an oxymoron). Don’t even get me started on “blood groove” [grin]…
But I think it does add a sort of historical aspect to Demonsbane. The book is set 800 years before the games, so the arms and armor are more primitive. I tried to give the impression that the world of the book would evolve into the world of the game, where you have far more advanced weaponry and coats of plate, etc. But during the Sin War, it really is like the “Dark Ages.”
Diabloii.net:Are you a gamer? Computer games, console, arcade, D&D style pencil and paper gaming, etc?
Robert Marks: You could say that.
Diabloii.net: Have you played much Diablo or Diablo II, either before or after you knew you were writing this novel? If so, can you give us some details on the characters you like best, parts of the game you like best, what you think of the plot and story as presented in the game, etc…
Robert Marks: Both. I suppose my favorite character in the game was Griswold.
What made Diablo special to me, though, was the multiplayer. It was simply the best multiplayer experience I had ever had, bar none. I met one of my better friends through a multiplayer LAN game.
I thought the plot was pretty much nonexistent in the first game, and fairly well done in the second. Not that either is a liability. Diablo is a great game because of details: interesting magic items, balanced play, good graphics, and each game does something new that nobody’s seen before. And, there is this beautiful backstory that gives writers like me an opportunity to play around.
Diabloii.net: Have you ever considered getting into working in the gaming industry? Working on plots or game concepts or dialogue, or is writing things set in gaming worlds as close as you are likely to get to it?
Robert Marks: Absolutely. I’ve applied to a couple of places as a consultant or designer, but so far I haven’t had any bites.
Diabloii.net: Have you played other games that you could see writing a novel or short story set in that world, or one you thought the plot of the game could translate into a full stand-alone novel? (Other than Diablo II here, of course.
Robert Marks: Honestly, so far no other games have really grabbed me in that way. Not even Warcraft.
Diabloii.net: Conversely, have you read or written anything that you thought would transfer well to a game?
Robert Marks: Difficult to say. What works in literature does not necessarily work in games or film. So far, the best games I’ve seen have been conceived of as games. Even Raymond E. Feist’s Betrayal at Krondor was a game before it was a book (and that book had one or two problems in the adaptation).
Diabloii.net: Many things that are necessary for the game to be fun aren’t very “realistic”, such as healing potions, town portals, instant resurrection, etc. These things don’t work well in stories, since characters who heal instantly or have no need to worry about death aren’t very interesting. Can you give us some insight into how you changed things in the novel from how they are in the game?
Robert Marks: [Chuckle] I think you said it quite well in the question.
One of the things I was very careful about was distinguishing between game constructs and world background. Some good examples are resurrect scrolls, town portals, potions, elixirs, and most of the magic items (which are focused around increasing or decreasing attributes).
Once I had separated the game constructs from the world background, I literally tossed the game constructs out the window. Then I used the background as the setting for the story.
For the most part, I just made the monsters more frightening. I also added one or two new kinds of my own. The exception to the rule, though, is skeletons.
Your average Diablo skeleton, particularly in the first game, will fall apart if somebody looks at it menacingly. They’re used as starter monsters to build up a character. However, in literature the walking dead produce a knee-jerk reaction with readers; they really are quite frightening. So when skeletons do appear in my book, they appear as this menacing, indomitable force, and the only way the heroes survive the encounter is by not angering them.
Diabloii.net: What is your personal preference in writing? Are you more into action stories, or working a romance in, or massive sprawling epics, or plot twists, or does it just depend on the work?
Robert Marks: To some degree, it depends on the work. The novel my agent is currently trying to sell, Magus Draconum, can best be described as a “biographical apocalyptic mythical fantasy”, so it is very character based. The work-in-progress is a fantasy war epic, so it is very plot based.
I try to have my characters come out as strong and interesting as possible, regardless of if the book is plot or character oriented. I also try to wrap everything up in one volume; partly because I find that most of these multi-book series a la Robert Jordan are not worth it, at least to me, and partly because I don’t really want to spend more than two years working on a single writing project (it takes me between a year and a year-and-a-half to crank out a novel).
Diabloii.net: Can you name some authors and stories that were influential on your writing, or ones that are your favorites? In the fantasy genre and elsewhere.
Robert Marks: Well, the influences are many and widespread. The two authors who have influenced me the most are J.R.R. Tolkien and Dennis McKiernan, both of whom pushed me over the edge and got me writing fantasy. But my writing has also been influenced by Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, Tad Williams, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, and Frank Herbert. No doubt there are a great many more who just haven’t come to mind immediately.
Diabloii.net: Any well-known novels or worlds that you think are over-rated or that you don’t care for, or any popular trends in writing that you despise?
Robert Marks: Hmm…I’m certainly no fan of Terry Goodkind; I find his work immature and generally poorly written.
I guess the trend that really gets me is trilogies, or quintets, or whatever. These huge, multi-volume stories that require you to wait anxiously for the next installment while filling your shelves with the print equivalent of paperweights. There are one or two authors, such as Tad Williams, or George R.R. Martin, who can do it well, but for the most part they are bloated crap, and just about everybody is writing them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted to throw my hands into the air in frustration while browsing in a bookstore because of this. People like Dennis McKiernan, or David Gemmell, who actually write standalone novels, are the authors I prefer to read, and they are in very short supply.
Thanks to Robert for taking the time to answer our questions. See an excerpt from Demonsbane on his home page. You can buy the ebook of Demonsbane online, or see it as part of the The Diablo Archive.