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P.N. Elrod interview

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: P. N."Pat" Elrod made her professional start in writing with the sale of some gaming modules to Dungeon Adventures and an article for Dragon Magazine. While writing and selling these to TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) she was working on her first novel, Bloodlist. A lifelong fan of vampire stories, gangster films, and pulp magazines, she combined all three into a book which would be the first in her successful supernatural mystery series The Vampire Files.

A dozen years later her novels are still in print, along with over 20 short stories and two other vampire series. She is still working on more toothy titles and branching into the mystery, sci fi, and fantasy genres!

To learn more, check out her site.

This interview was conducted between Strahds Library and P N Elrod in March 2003. None of this interview can be used without permission.

The Curator:

How were you introduced to the character of Strahd Von Zarovich?

P N Elrod:

My agent at that time got a call from TSR, who then owned the character. They wanted a writer to do Strahd’s autobiography, and I was on their short list. Such books are known as “work-for-hire” in the industry. You write in a pre-existing universe like Star Trek, Star Wars, or Buffy, and you usually have to write the storyline given to you. Some of the franchise owners are stricter than others.

There can be good money in it, but you have to put up with a lot of crap, like strangers arbitrarily rewriting your work. If you passionately care about your writing and the characters, you’ll likely take a beating. The really good writers tend to not put up with that sort of thing, so often a contract goes to someone willing to crank out words to get a check. (Or to a good writer who needs the money and is between other projects.) I’ve read, for instance, novelizations of films turned in by absolute hacks. It’s positively dreadful writing, done strictly for the bucks and to get people to part with their money at the bookstand.

At the other end of the scale, you can have some wonderful writing, like Orson Scott Card’s novelization of The Abyss. He was lucky there, because he’d have daily talks with the producers and writers of the script and could shift his writing accordingly. It’s a brilliant novel, a stand-alone. You need not have to have seen the movie to enjoy it.

But MOST work-for-hire books are considered the “fast food” of the writing industry. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes not. They’re a product. If one is better than another, check the cook’s name. You could have a Wolfgang Puck back there flipping the burgers to pay for his rent in between other jobs.

I was interested in the extra readership and potential money it might bring because Ravenloft had a large built-in audience, so I said “maybe” and let my agent get back to them for more information.

The Curator:

Had you any previous knowledge of Ravenloft before writing 'I,Strahd' ?

P N Elrod:

I only ever saw the books on the racks and never dipped into them. I don’t read horror, which is just too depressing for me. If I want to be horrified, I watch the news, and if I want to be grossed out I clean the bottom of my fridge.

The Curator:

Was it your idea to write I,Strahd as a journal of events, or were you simply asked by TSR/Wizards of the Coast to do that?

P N Elrod:

Again, it was TSR running things then (around 1990-2) and they had a specific story line for me to work within and relate it as a personal journal. The full title has “Memoirs of a Vampire” after all. It was up to me to turn in a preliminary outline that would incorporate the main events in Strahd’s life they wanted and do it in such a way as to make a good read. I went into this with the mind set that I was going to write a book that would be just as entertaining to readers who had NEVER heard of Ravenloft as to those who knew it well. This is like writing a Trek novel for people who never heard of the series. I think I did a pretty decent job of it, too.

The Curator:

How did you feel about writing the complete back story of one of the most pivotal characters in the Ravenloft setting?

P N Elrod:

I didn’t think about how pivotal he was; I was more concerned with his internal life and the choices he made and his reactions. I had to make them logical, believable, and even inevitable. That’s not too terribly easy. If you think “Gosh, THIS is real important, I better not goof up” it’ll strangle your creativity.

The Curator:

Were you given much in the way of background for the character?

P N Elrod:

They sent me this HUGE box of gaming books, rules, the other 2 Ravenloft books that were out then, the works. I taped the maps up in my office, and did a complete immersion in the universe, like cramming for a test. They wanted the book in only four months, and up to that point I’d not delivered anything in so short a time span.

The Curator:

How well did you know the material created by Tracy Hickman and even Christie Golden?

P N Elrod:

Pretty darn well. I had to, knowing that it would be closely scrutinized by experts. As an in-joke, I asked Christie if I could lift her “Strahd-bargains-with-Death” scene wholesale and use only the dialogue. She thought it was a great idea. Read the scenes as we each wrote them. The verbal parries are identical, but Strahd has his own special spin in his first-person version of the deal.

The Curator:

What did you find most attractive about the character of Strahd?

P N Elrod:

His pragmatism and dark humor. He may get blindsided now and then, but recovers and flips the situation to his advantage like any good strategist. And he never gives up.

The Curator:

Ravenloft is back on the scene again. If they were to start a line of novels again would you like to write another Strahd book, and if so what direction would you take him next?

P N Elrod:

It wouldn’t be up to me at all. I’d have to write whatever they told me to, and after the disagreements we had over “The War Against Azalin” I doubt they will ever ask me to do another. They wanted me to write him as a mindless killing machine, I wanted a character you hated, yet cared about. It was a no-win situation (certainly for the readers) and I don’t put up with those.

Thanks to WotC insisting on 5-6 total--and to my mind utterly unnecessary--rewrites, I was put behind schedule on other projects for years afterwards. If that book is good, it’s from my fighting for every single word, and every chance they got they’d try to change something. At one point I was ready to yank my name from it and slap on “Cordwainer Bird.” (I believe that’s the name Harlan Ellison would put on his TV scripts when he thought the rewrites had turned his work into crap.)

For example: The opening scene has Strahd carrying the dead body of his beloved up a mountain cliff during a thunder and sleet storm, the wind whipping all around. There, clutching her cold corpse to his breast, he shrieks against his fate to the cruel, lightning-shot skies before leaping off into a bottomless black abyss….

The editorial staff said “Can you--um--make it *more* Gothic?”

That’s when I started screaming. What did they want? Herds of stampeding wildebeests with Mount Kilimanjaro erupting in the background? An earthquake or two???

Anyway, the bit above was just tip of the iceberg. I’d get 7-8 single spaced pages of changes to make—and they told me I was getting off lucky, because their other writers would get 30-pages of corrections on their stuff.

I don’t know what their problem was since I didn’t have to do ANY rewrites on the first book—which is why I agreed to the second, I thought it’d be great fun. The money was only a fraction of what I got from my other novels, I just REALLY loved the character and wanted to write more for him. They did a wonderfully effective job putting me off further involvement with them.

The Curator:

The War against Azalin was a very different book from the first I, Strahd. How much did you have to do in research before tackling that subject?

P N Elrod:

They sent me the latest box of new stuff that had come out, along with a strict outline to follow. I redid it to make it more interesting and from there turned in the first chapter. They sent it back and said “No, you have to write it THIS way!” It was something of a shock. I had the same editor, same character, more experience as a writer, but suddenly they’re acting like I don’t know where to find the keyboard. Okay, I admit I have an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, but with reason. I happen to be very good at this. That was the start of Round One on the Azalin saga. <G>

And here I must acknowledge the invaluable help Gene DeWeese gave me on this book. As the total expert in all things Azalin, he generously provided a timeline, which was a great help in keeping everything straight, and some great dialogue. In the scene where Strahd and Azalin first meet—all that’s Gene’s dialogue. I knew I couldn’t make it better, so I asked to use it as I’d done earlier with Christie’s stuff. He grinned and said “Sure!”

We also incorporated some continuity between our novels—something WotC forgot to add in—so you’ll find some subtle details meshing. Like Alek Gwilym’s body vanishing from Strahd’s closet in the first novel. That was Azalin doing a bit of body-snatching in one of his books. Strahd never DID figure that one out! Gene is aces with me and I’m glad and honored to have shared the experience with him.

Other details: I have to mention that many readers want to know WHY I didn’t take Strahd and Azalin to Mordentshire. Well, WotC told me NOT to do that. They did not send me any materials covering that particular period, and said to give Strahd amnesia about the whole thing. Since the incident apparently had nothing to do with the “war” I shrugged and moved on with the story, so blame them for the omission, not me!

I’ve also gotten feedback about why I didn’t start the actual war sooner or show more of it. Again, I was told to make it a vast chess match, and it takes time to build things up to the final confrontation. This was a personal, one-on-one battle between these guys, each with a different fighting style and weapons. Strahd’s a seasoned, experienced warrior who has no problem wading in with a sword to kick ass. Azalin is a crafty manipulator who gets others to do his dirty work. Without the magic, he wouldn’t last long in a real battle.

Strahd was very aware that he had a limited number of soldiers to send into combat. You don’t waste lives on some grand Waterloo style of fighting when you have that handicap. And here’s Azalin with a LOT of sword-fodder to spare. Strahd’s best strategy is to go for a surprise surgical strike to take out Azalin’s generals. Without effective leaders for the troops, Strahd can hold the upper hand for a generation or two, knowing that Azalin’s insecurities will always prevent him from ever having effective second in commands.

Read history and you’ll see this theme played out with depressing regularity. Every time a psychotic dictator takes a fall, there’s a scramble in the lesser ranks to fill his shoes—but usually no one’s up to the task, because that dictator’s killed them all himself. Hitler was terrified of Rommel taking over. We have it in modern times with Hussein. He’s got a pack of yes-men under him because he’s gotten rid of anyone who could be competition. Same thing for Azalin. Smell the rampant insecurity!

The Curator:

Are there any other Ravenloft characters you know about, besides the ones you wrote about? And if so which ones would you have like to write more about?

P N Elrod:

I’ve not read any of the other books, but am familiar with a few of the names. But hey, after you’ve written for Strahd, all the others are just second string. ;>) (No, Gene, I’m NOT talking about YOU! LOL!)

The Curator:

I have a couple of questions that are not Ravenloft but are questions that I was asked to put to you. What drove you to create a noirish PI like Jack Fleming for the Vampire Files series. Though your books involve vampires on a regular basis, this character seems a step away from the usual context of vampires in literature.

P N Elrod:

Jack came about from a role-playing game and was born when the game master had him getting really, really hungry. So there’s Jack standing in a mucky pen in the Chicago Stockyards thinking, “You mean I have to bite a cow in the leg and drink it’s blood??? YUK!!!!” I just HAD to write a book about a squeamish vampire trying to solve his own murder!
I also wanted to finally get serious about my writing career. I’d sold some small stuff, but it was time to break into the big leagues, finish a book and send it in.

Jack is several steps away from the other fang-gangers, mostly because hardly any writers were doing anything I wanted to read. Fred Saberhagen excepted, of course. His Dracula books are the BEST!

Quite a lot of Jack’s personality meshes with my own, though in the last few years he’s gotten edgier, where I’ve mellowed. This is because he’s leading a WAY different life from me (different time, different sex!). These days I pretty much just take dictation from him and let him go his own way. He’s a peaceable fellow, just don’t push him too far.

The Curator:

Does Nigel Bennett really have that much of his work cut from their collaborations, as there are many stories of such things occurring, especially with Keeper of the King.

P N Elrod:

I don’t know what you mean about having his work “cut.” Perhaps you mean edited? That’s a whole different thing. ALL writers edit their work to polish it and do rewrites make it better. I edit Nigel’s stuff, he edits mine. We work together 50/50 and the word “no” is NOT allowed in the story-storming sessions. When you know your ideas won’t be shot down, it really frees you up to throw them on the table.

I’d love to know where you got your information on his work being cut in “Keeper,” but I was there for every word of it, and everything he wrote made it into the book. We edited, and rearranged things together as partners. He’d send me 10 pages, I’d bring it up to 20, send it back and he’d read and put in more, whatever was needed. What we turned in to Baen made it to the final book that went to print.

Nigel’s a great guy, extremely intelligent, talented, and way better read than yours truly. He used to teach university level history, but thankfully for us went into acting! It’s a pleasure to work with a top professional on so enjoyable a project. I can only hope any future collaborations I might do with other writers will be as much fun and as enriching. I’ve learned a lot from him.


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