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DRAGON' ON

The best-selling fantasy writing tag team, Weis and Hickman, are interviewed by fellow sword & sorcery author, Stephen Hunt.


It is rare for two authors to generate such ire and loathing among fantasy's literary mafia. "Even Weis and Hickman do this sort of thing better!!!" Trilled Interzone's Wendy Bradley during a recent book interview, in a tone that left no doubt this was the ultimate insult she thought a writer could attract.

Tracy Hickman"Weis and Hickman?" Stuttered a British Fantasy notable during one of their meetings - looking like somebody had just asked if they could bonk his 17-year old daughter, before launching into an unprintable tirade detailing his grasp of the virtues of these two author's works.

If Weis and Hickman have made any mistake worse than churning out fantasy for the masses, it has been churning out bloody popular fantasy for the masses. Behind every critic's scorn laden insult, there lays that unsaid thought at the end: "But I could have written that!"

Yeah, but likely as not your book would have been kicked back as cliché ridden crap, and you certainly wouldn't be minting money like Her Majesty's Treasury - and that's what really rubs on our erstwhile critic's refined sensibilities.

With fantasy and SF books that have been translated into German, Japanese, Danish, Finnish, Spanish, French, Italian, Hebrew and Portuguese, as well as selling out across American, the UK and Australia, the fantasy duo have proved that success is the best form of revenge they can extract from their detractors.

But how did the two-some come to explode almost unheard of upon the world fantasy scene?

Tracy Hickman's story starts following a period of unemployment, with the Dungeon & Dragons game company TSR offering Hickman a job as a fantasy game creator after seeing some adventure modules he had submitted.

Having previously concentrated more on Dungeons, TSR decided our Tracy was just the boy designer to put the Dragons back into D&D - a project which later evolved into the DragonLance world. The full marketing spectrum was to be blitzed: adventure modules, board games, lead figures, and a totally new idea for the time - supporting novels based around TSR'S gameworld.

Meanwhile, Margaret Weis had been sucked into TSR to edit these new novels, bringing a traditional publishing background along with her. An English graduate who had worked as a proof reader, advertising manager, and then editor for a sleepy Kansas City publishing house - with credits that included her own biography of Jesse James.

Tactfully - forgetting names - she remembers the difficulties the duo experienced after originally hiring a famous mainstream author to pen the DragonLance series.

"I worked with Tracy, and the more we worked with the project, the more it became obvious to us that we were the people to write the books - mainly because we loved the game while this other author didn't - plus the fact he wasn't doing a very good job. So we got together one weekend and wrote the prologue for the first five chapters of DragonLance.

When we turned it in, TSR liked it so much they fired this other author and got us to do the series, despite the fact we were unknowns and nobody had ever heard of us.

All we got were people continually telling us it would fail, so in the end TSR only wanted to print 30,000 copies - but the minimum print run the could do was 50,000, and they had to settle for the larger run.

A self-satisfied smile rises to twitch at the corner of Hickman's mouth as she recalled what was to follow. "The novels came out in November, and by September TSR were already going back to press maybe once a week - and this was without any promotion by the company, purely word of mouth."

Does she feel they might have been taking advantage of their positions by writing DragonLance themselves, hogging the action as it were by not shipping in any heavy hitters from the SF world.

Not as she explained. "TSR wanted to get some real big names in Science Fiction Fantasy, but they couldn't afford it for one, and for two none of the really big people wanted to write books and characters they didn't have the copyright on - TSR still own all the rights to our Dragonlance books."

Mr Hickman on the other hand, is surprisingly humble about his previous lack of 'form' when it came to writing.

"Up to Dragonlance all of my writing experience had been in fantasy games, which is very much technical writing. You deal with sequence, you deal with clarity of of instruction, you deal with process. It is a very formal type of writing with its own discipline."

He moves on with a grin and a hint of sarcasm to skirt his own early difficulties. "In fact, when I started with TSR I was so bad - not like I am now of course - that every sentence began with a prepositional phrase. It made dreadfully boring reading, all my sentences were passive, there was no variation in the sentence structure at all - let alone my ability to organise my thoughts on a larger scale."

The Groucho Club mob might sneer that nothing much has changed, but the down-to earth- Tracy has an explanation for what it was that was to alter his course. "I had a very good editor who taught me to diagram my text and break down each sentence into subject and word, then rebuild it into more cohesive English.

Fortunately I was able to get through that time."

This could come as news to their critics, whom we suspect drop anything bearing their names into a concentration camp for Middle Earth refugees."

In contrast to Weis - for whom writing was always her dream career - Hickman restlessly drifted into fantasy through a far more roundabout route: having worked in a grocery store; flown as a glider pilot; played in a restaurant singing folk songs; operated a cinema projector; collected theatre tickets, then preached a s a missionary on Java for two years (Dragonlance's spells are half Indonesian); slaved as a double paned insulated glass worker; driven a school bus; operated a drill press; served as a darkroom technician; run a game store; not to mention having been a production assistant for his fellow mormons the squeaky clean Osmonds as well as working on the Bob Hope Show.

We don't want to raise Back Brain Recluses hopes falsely, but Hickman may still not have settled into the career of SF author, as both he and Weis continued to drop mysterious hints about another project they are working on together. "The gaming people gave us a lot and we would like to give something back," Weis said evasively. "We'd like to become involved with the next step in gaming. It's still in the top secret stage, but being very mechanical it's right up Tracy's ally."

Hickman cut in: "This is the first project I have really felt impassioned about for a long time - in fact I am really ready to go out and crusade now."

Sorry to rain on your parade kiddos, but the fact that Larry Niven's Dream Park concept is now being touted as a real possibility is not the best kept secret in Science Fictiondom. It's an idea as least as old as WestWorld, FutureWorld, and all those other robot amusement park films.

Interviewing Weis and Hickman without probing into their split with TSR would be like an audience with Samantha Fox where no-one raises the subject of breasty dumplings, so here's the dirty laundry Weis had to bring to light on the matter.

"TSR has a theory there will be now stars. It's not like we felt that suddenly we had become such a wonderful success that they should treat us well. It was simply that with all their writers and artists, they had a pool of many wonderful creative people they could have promoted for the company's benefit.

But instead they took great pleasure in beating you down and constantly telling you that anybody could have done this, that TSR could have picked up anybody off the street and got them to write the same book or paint an almost identical cover." {There goes the next editor of Interzone. Ed)

For Weis and Hickman, their decision to quit was accelerated by the toil their families were taking, working eight hours a day for TSR then coming back home to try and write their novels in the evening and over weekends.

When TSR turned down the Darksword series and the duo saw all their hard work sinking down the drain, the straw on the camel's back finally snapped and they offered the manuscript to Bantam Books.

The editor of Bantam's Spectre line had the manuscript on his desk for only 20 minutes when he called Weis and Hickman's agent back to poach both of them - offering the duo enough money to quit TSR's clutches and write fulltime.

Success for the couple obviously didn't come easy, even when they were shifting novels, and Hickman suspects their popular appeal owes much to the human elements in their tales. "Ultimately, when we do reach the stars, it will be far more important who we are when we get there than how we got there.

And that's always been the philosophy in terms of both our works. It's why I stopped reading Arthur C. Clarke even though I enjoyed him when I was younger. I read his Songs of Distant Earth, and while the technology was very interesting and well described the plot was essentially they came - they stayed - they left. His main characters experienced no growth and no conflict whatsoever, it's a non-story."

Weis piped in: "Right. We are getting a bit fed up with the hard SF writers putting us down. I think our type of fantasy has as much right to exist and be published as theirs."

But their unquestioned success is also carefully measured, dare we say even commercial. Not for Weis and Hickman the joys and freedom of making up a sword and sorcery epic as they go along. The duo work to a complete outline - the book's placed with a published before they start it - any envisage what their readers want when they write. This combination of business sense and high adventure is the slap in the face many of the art for art's sake critics have risen to.

In their working relationship Hickman is the details man and world creator, the cosmic mechanic of their universe. Weis is the literary force, bringing form to the raw plotlines and sculpting Hickman's ideas. When one of them feels dried out, they ring the other up and fire ideas off their partner in furious brainstorming sessions.

Hickman recognises this. "We have separate sets of skill which complement each other very well, which is why I think our fantasy books have been so well accepted. But as individuals we also need to grown and develop, which is why we both decide to write a couple of books solo."

Bantam books were very concerned that Weis and Hickman doing individual books world be perceived as a rift between their star team. To cut short such speculation, both authors agreed to write the introduction to the other's book.

Weis was almost falling over herself to describe her new - as yet unpublished - solo series. "I have just finished the third book in the series, and you could almost say it is based on the English civil war - the evil democracy which comes in and drives out the monarchy.

The democrats have won and the democracy just isn't working - but there is the Prince who was a bay at the time of the revolution, and he has been spirited away by the monarchist faction which have been hiding him away all this time."

Hickman on the other hand, has even got to the stage where he has a working title for his solo effort (working, because Bantam invariably insists on changing tiles before publication.)

"My working title is Requiem of Stars," he noted before going on, and the tag line for it is going to be "Their Empire was a hundred millennia dead, their invasion fleet was unexpected."

An entire despotic galactic empire moves itself forward in time, to search for a cure to its own ills. Generations, which have since ensued with an entirely new society, are, of course, not that keen on seeing them come back. One of the problems I am dealing with is size, it's incredibly big in terms of the galactic scale, and equally big in terms of how the current civilisation works. It's so large it's a problem keeping hold of it all."

Large concepts, large books, large readerships, and large royalty cheques. Americans have always been stereotyped as thinking big, and in the case of these two fantasy authors their success has grown to match their ambitions.

Lucky bastards, or shrewd writers with a talent for the fantastic? Make your own mind up, but SFcrowsnest sure as hell didn't spend two hours interviewing Gonzo and Ginzo the Circus Clowns


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Chatback


Lee. 01/02/2002
Weis and Hickman write books that you can enjoy in your teenage years, but when you hit 25+, your taste matures into wanting something with a little more weight.

Evil Frodo. 01/02/2002
Isn't that the entire fantasy genre? SF is blessed with a range of works that suits all ages - fantasy seems stuck serving the teen market.

Toni. 20/02/2002
Reply to Evil Frodo. Fantasy isn't meant only for teens! I've read many fantasy books that are meant for all ages, and some which aren't meant for teens. Fantasy is just one genre, you can find books for everyone from it!

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