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James Lowder on Knight of the Black Rose

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.

tremaine:

In the prologue what possessed the elven women to poison lord soth's mind on his quest to save Krynn from the cataclysm?

James Lowder:

That's part of the existing DL lore. Their personal motivations would have been linked to the disgrace Soth had heaped about his elfmaid bride--the abuse and so on. But I have always imagined they were agents of the evil gods of Krynn, the same way that Soth had the potential to be an agent of Paladine. Their story would be an interesting one to see formalized.

tremaine:

It was cool to see Soth encounter with Tanis

James Lowder:

Those scenes, with the existing DL material from Soth's point of view, were some of the most fun to write. A lot of people comment on Soth's swipe at Tanis; the emnity between them is natural, given how much Tanis wavers and questions his identity in the initial DL books, while Soth never questioned who or what he is. The two characters couldn't be more unlike. As for Soth's powers, he uses many of the various powers he should have as an uber-death knight, based upon the notes I'd compiled from all the existing DL fiction and game material at the time. I did a lot of research into what he might be able to do.

tremaine:

Very nice description of Caradoc travelling in the abyss with his clothes getting muddy even if he is a ghost.

James Lowder:

I like how Caradoc turned out; like Magda later in the book, he is intended to give the readers a character without Soth's (and Strahd's) godlike powers to root for, or at least understand. I added him to the Soth mythos, and he was my wife's favorite character in Knight.

tremaine:

One of my Favourite scene was where the banshees sing to him in Dargaard Keep which are meant to torment him only for them to bore him instead with their singing

James Lowder:

Which foreshadows the start of Spectre of the Black Rose. Being a character so certain of himself means that paralyzing boredom, and stasis, is always a danger for Soth.

Chaosmosis:

Of my re-reading KotBR, Lowder's description of the Abyss (or more specifically, Pazunia), is one of the most accurate that I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

James Lowder:

Thanks. Again, a lot of research went into that section. I'm glad it shows!

Malarick:

As we have recently read Vampire of the Mists, I was thinking that how much of a companion piece this book is. It is the tone, and the atmosphere that you get whilst reading it. Barovia feels the same.

James Lowder:

The two books were intended to establish the tone and feel of the Ravenloft series, and both featured Strahd and Barovia as hallmarks of the world. Also, as you correctly note, I edited Christie's novel and worked with her a lot on getting just the right feel for the series. In fact, I was writing the first part of Knight even as I was editing the later drafts of Christie's book. Together I think we forged a very nice introduction to the world, and a solid kick-off for the fiction line.

Malarick:

James Lowder seems to have a strange affection for Zombies, and I was pleased to see them make an appearance here.

James Lowder:

Ha ha. I'd forgotten about the zombies in Knight. Yes, even then I really liked writing zombies, and would go on to include some in my next Realms book, The Ring of Winter, too. All this years before I would edit all those zombie fiction anthologies for Eden or write the zombie-heavy short stories for the anthologies Truth Until Paradox or The Repentant.

JoŽl of the Fraternity:

My question: that was the second novel with Strahd. What kind of directions were you given on this impossible to circumvent Ravenloft character? Was a psycho portrait given? Same question for Soth? I'm asking because it seems to me that he got a sense of humor in Ravenloft!

James Lowder:

For both characters, the only starting portraits given were the ones in the existing game products (for Strahd) and the first six DL novels (for Soth). In both cases, it was not a terribly huge amount--more history than psychological portrait. Christie Golden did a lot of great work to develop Strahd's character, so I had the fairly easy task of writing Strahd in Knight after working with Christie on the early drafts of Vampire. The Strahd in Knight is older and even more worldly, since he's had a long time to mature between books. But with the foundation of the original game modules and Vampire, that character was not really hard to create.

I always saw Soth as a bit sarcastic, in that Darth Vader "I find your lack of faith . . . disturbing" sort of way. And because I have Soth "on stage" so much more than he appears in all the DL novels before Knight, I got a chance to develop that facet.

Malarick:

Not to throw this topic off too much, but I am just going to mention something about Zombies. Just wondered, James have you seen the film Shaun of the Dead? Very funny Zombie film, and as a Brit I thought it was great!l

James Lowder:

Great film. I loved all the in-jokes. If you like comics, you might also enjoy The Goon, published by Dark Horse. He has regular run-ins with "slack-jaws", too.

The Wanderer:

Since it has been mentioned, what exactly is it that attracts you to zombies? I'm glad though that they are used as more than just sword-fodder.

James Lowder:

I personally find zombies to be very unsettling, the most unsettling of the monster archetypes. Perhaps it's because they embody conformity, or reduction of humans to their baser/mindless selves. They're also maleable and can be used in a lot of situations, a lot of different ways, with meaning added to them by context much more easily than others sorts of monsters.

tremaine:

Can anybody learn how to Shadow play like Magda performs in front of Soth or is it only unique to the Vistani?

James Lowder:

I originally conceived of the shadow play as something specific to Vistani of Kulchek's bloodline, but it may have been expanded in the game material after the book to include all Vistani or other visitors to the Dark Domain.

tremaine:

Does writing about villainous characters like Soth,Strahd and Azrael and thinking up unpleasant acts for them to do in novels like Strahd turning Magda brother into an undead violin player give you nightmares?

James Lowder:

Nah. It does creep out my family and friends now and then, though. ("How can you think up stuff like that?!?") After Knight of the Black Rose came out, I got a letter from someone in prison who praised the content of the book and said I wrote the scenes where Soth and the rest kill people really well, so well that he wondered if I had ever killed anyone myself. (He did not mention what he was in for, though the implication was there.) The truth is, writers make things up. Yes, they draw on life experience and people they know and things they've experienced, but a lot of what they write is based on research or, more often, upon a process of asking themselves questions and coming up with creative answers. How would a smart guy like Strahd torture a creature that could regenerate? With a device that made the power of regeneration part of the torture. From there it was a matter of coming up with the specifics.

Malarick:

As I move into this section of the book, I feel like the story finally takes on a life of it's own. By that I mean, we have moved on from what we know of Soth in Dragonlance, and the story definitely becomes a Ravenloft tale.

James Lowder:

Because we wanted the book to appeal to Dragonlance readers, that transition from the DL setting to RL was important, and it does take a while to get Soth moving into the Dark Domains. It was also important to show Soth's power and the ease of movement experienced by him and his minion on Krynn and the planes so that the restrictions placed on him in Ravenloft would have more impact. Well spotted with the Vistani, too. They are indeed very useful for a storyteller, for revealing information about the Dark Domains. Their knowledge, in fact, gives them a great deal of power--enough sometimes to contend with the darklords (as we see with Magda).

strahd:

One of the parts I enjoyed was in chapter six, which is where we see into the thoughs of Soth while he is the carriage journeying to the castle.

James Lowder:

A lot of Soth's story is told in the DL material, not shown, so this scene was important to include in the book. Because Soth is so frozen in time--caught at the moment of the Cataclysm, really--these events continue to be fresh motivation for him.

Malarick:

What an amazing section of the book. Chapter eight was just the action packed, tense piece of storytelling to end the tale of Lord Soths visit to Castle Ravenloft.

James Lowder:

Having lost characters playing through the Ravenloft modules, it was nice to direct a character through the place who could deal with the threats. Magda's flight is quite different, to highlight the terror of the place to someone whose main weapon is her intellect, not a death knight's godlike powers.

Malarick:

The start of this section of the book made me feel like I was reading an anthology of Soth short stories. Here we were taking back in memory to the feast of Strahd and the elfmaid Isolde. It was another one of those glimpses into his character that we would probably not have seen elsewhere in Dragonlance.

James Lowder:

Exactly. These are scenes that are based upon specific mentions in the DL material, but ones fleshed out so that readers can get a better understanding of Soth as a character.

Malarick:

I liked how even the knights of Solamnia had so much honour, in that they stopped the siege for the duration of the wedding celebrations, and only to start up again immediately as the guests had left and the drawbridge creaked back up!

James Lowder:

Thanks! Those are the touches in storytelling that are hard to plan. They usually just sort of hit a writer during the writing.

Malarick:

Then together they find the entrance to the portal. I love how they were ensnared by the guardian which held them enthralled by memories (not necessarily their own) while it makes it way to devour them.

James Lowder:

The ensnaring potential of memories is something of a theme in the book, so it was natural to give the guardian that power here.

Malarick:

One thing I will add here, is that again we are treated to another snippet of Soths past. This time a younger knight, fighting against the goblins. I think that James Lowder has done more for Soth in one book, than Hickman & Weis have done over the past 20 years.

James Lowder:

Thanks for the kind words, but I had the easier task of developing the character and fleshing out the existing story.

Malarick:

One thing I will say at this stage, and I think I may have said this somewhere before, but I am so pleased at the way the spells (which Soth casts) are described. What I mean by this is in earlier novels you might have a character cast a fireball or a magic missile, and it seemed as easy as saying just that. Here we have Soth build up the spell, control it with his body to the point that it takes a lot of energy from him. It is as if the spell is a tangible thing being molded by the caster. This I love.

James Lowder:

It's a matter of showing magic in its fictional context rather than letting it be tossed about like a game mechanic. That's one of the things writers working in any established world (game, movie, another author's setting) have to be careful about: keeping the established material dramatic, rather than repeating it like an encyclopedia entry or a recipe.

strahd:

I was wondering then, how long had it been since the events which transpired in the novel Vampire of the Mists?

James Lowder:

The novel timeline is suggested in the timeline at the start of the game products. For the main Sithicus material, I have the following in my notes:
  • Knight of the Black Rose takes place in 720 (Barovian calendar).
  • The short story "Rigor of the Game" takes place in 735.
  • The Black Roses Bloom game module takes places in 744.
  • Spectre of the Black Rose is set in 752.
  • Vampire of the Mists takes place many years before Knight of the Black Rose. I don't have the date at hand, but I recall that we set them apart by a goodly gap.

Malarick:

I found it slightly amusing that they had, what I would describe as, cockney accents. They reminded somewhat of the giants in Roald Dahl's BFG. I don't how many of you have heard of that childrens story, but those who have will know what I mean.

James Lowder:

I hadn't read Dahl's BFG at the time I wrote Knight, but have since and really enjoyed it. Even so, the accent was intended to give them a fairy tale quality, which I think dragons and giants in the Dark Domains should have, in the few times they're used.

Malarick:

Well just like one of Soths powerful spells, this novel had me enthralled for a whole day and I just had to finish it! I just want to say to James Lowder, that this book is as amazing today as it was in 1991. Something that stands the test of time so well, is a credit to it's author. I certainly look forward to picking up more of his books in the future.

James Lowder:

Thanks so much, Mal. I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

Malarick:

The fact that they were sent right back to the begininng, Barovia, was pure genius. Again we see how Strahd is such an amazing manipulator, and uses everyone as a tool. I am sure Strahd knew exactly where that portal came out in Vallaki.

James Lowder:

Yeah, Strahd plays Soth pretty well, with the portal and with poor old Caradoc. Soth, of course, underestimates Strahd; the vampire is self-aware enough of his own faults--being trapped by his own memories of lost love--that he can manipulate Soth's faults. Of course, Strahd underestimates Soth, too, in that he surely does not want the death knight to become a darklord. His plan backfires that way.

Malarick:

I absolutely loved the end where Soth comes face to face with himself, and thus forges his own fate...his 'doom' as he describes it in the epilogue. Finally we get to see Soth in Nedragard Keep, and I enjoyed how it described the subtle differences between this place, and his real home on Krynn. Another thing I liked was the fact that Banshees kept missing out parts of the tale, or adding things, which really annoyed Soth.

James Lowder:

In some ways, Soth's quandry with the imperfect tales was a summary of the whole editorial process of bringing Soth to Ravenloft. I was very much aware that bringing Soth to RL was going to annoy some DL purists, especially since Margaret and Tracy had been so vocal about their disapproval. This "imperfect tale" torture is also the specific set up for Soth's escape. Over time, the imperfections will wear on him, threaten to make him an imperfect Soth. When he eventually remembers his own tale perfectly, he can then escape.

Malarick:

It finally ends, setting up Sithicus to be certainly an interesting land. My only wish is that we would have seen more stories in that place between the two Black Rose novels.

James Lowder:

It is too bad that WotC isn't interested in seeing more RL fiction out there. I have one or two stories that take place between the books I'd like to write.

Malarick:

The tale of Azrael in his homeland of Brigalure was very good. It made me wonder if his homeworld had been thought about much prior to the writing of the novel, because even from this small bit of the book it had its own feel to it. I was surprised when we found out that Azrael didn't have a soul. I think he was somewhat taken back by that revelation too.

James Lowder:

That revelation was something of a surprise to the author, I must admit. I was writing that scene and didn't know exactly what was going to happen with Azrael until I hit it. And then it just came to me, along with his rather naturalistic reaction. I had a lot of fun writing Azrael. I hadn't thought about his home or backstory at all before starting the novel, but I am interested in dwarves as characters (I'd previously written some into the Realms novel Crusade) and spent some time detailing Az's background and origin once I started plotting Knight.
 

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