Ed Greenwood is the legendary creator of the panoramic Forgotten Realms campaign setting, which has spawned hundreds of game products and even more hundreds of novels.
His latest novel, Bury Elminster Deep (sequel to the very accurately named Elminster Must Die) features one of his most beloved, iconic characters, who started the novel, well . . . dead. The great sage sat down with me recently to assess a seemingly dire situation.
So Elminster's dead, right? Kaput? Kicked the bucket? Shuffled off this mortal/immortal coil? Paid the taxes? ... Nah, just kidding. Any hints you can offer as to what's in store for our beloved Old Mage?
Ed: Well, death is not quite the career-killer in the Realms as it is in our real world. Yet it’s not a fun stroll in the park, either, as thousands of rotting, shambling, maniacally-crazed undead in the Realms can attest. Will Elminster become one of them? Is he one already, several times over, and just hides it well? Is this really still Elminster? (Well, If you replace every last piece of a beloved old jalopy, over the years, is it really the same car? If not, when it does it stop being the old jalopy? And just what is left of the Elminster who was a young prince of Athalantar, going up against the Magelords?)
As you can see, these rhetorical queries can serve as extremely frustrating hints. I’ve gotten good at this over the years . . . by watching and listening to Elminster himself. Old bas . . . er, basket-case of a diplomat that he is.
So let's talk Manshoon. What's it like, writing about Elminster and his archenemy (at least in Shoony's own mind)? Will their conflict never end?
Ed: It’s endless fun, writing about them. As for when/if their conflict will ever end, that’s hidden from me in the mists of the future.
Yet to peer into the much nearer mists of BURY ELMINSTER DEEP . . . by now, even casual readers will have noticed that Manshoon is cackling a lot more than usual, talking to himself, missing things . . . yep, he’s crazy. Why? Well, my not-so-subtle hints of manipulation should have piled up into quite a little heap by now. We might not learn much more about that in this book (Manshoon’s schemes and delusions, yes, but that’s a slightly different matter), but in the 2012 Elminster book, something important about Manshoon will be revealed that might start to answer the “Why didn’t someone - - Elminster, Fzoul, SOMEone - - hand this guy his behind in a rather small basket, years back?”
You're known for indulging in a little of the bawdy in your work. Any risque action we can expect in this one?
Ed: The sample chapter already revealed on the Wizards of the Coast website includes a nude scene in which a natural physical reaction is discussed. (I’ll pause for a moment to allow all interested readers to rush to the appropriate link, to read it.)
Back now? Sitting comfortably again? Good.
As far as I can remember (BURY ELMINSTER DEEP being well in the rear-view mirror now, behind its direct sequel), things don’t get much more explicit in the novel than that scene.
Yet, honestly, I have been known to forget which detailed moments of tenderness survived the editing, and which have not. I always write bawdy moments for two reasons: to entertain my editors, and to make sure I am certain where the character interactions are, and are heading. I often take such moments out afterwards, if they don’t fit with the flow of the story and its essential fantasy adventure (not romance or lustier) nature, or my editors tone things down. A past managing editor once promised to publish “Edtime Stories,” and another asked me to actually spice things up a bit, but that doesn’t seem to be the current direction - - and in my Realms novels, I’m aiming to show my characters as real, rounded people rather than to write erotica. I do intend to show a few moments of essential-to-the-plot lovemaking, before this arc of novels is done (perhaps we should pause for another moment now, to listen for the sounds of editors screaming).
Let's talk the Chosen of Mystra for a moment. Their goddess is dead, their powers are broken, and they're spellscarred. How are they different from what they used to be, and how are they the same?
Ed: Awww, that would be telling. Or to be more serious: it’s different for all of them. Some are gone, some are shattered shells of their former selves, we’re watching Elminster go through great changes (and there’s no reason to suspect that other Chosen aren’t changing, too, which would make my answer to this question out of date almost instantly unless I restrict myself to “Well, it depends which Chosen and what time and place . . .”).
The short answer is: during the years immediately preceding the Year of the Ageless One (1479 DR, the “base year” for the Realms in the 4th Edition of the D&D game, in the spring of which ELMINSTER MUST DIE! and BURY ELMINSTER DEEP and the next Elminster book are all set), all of the Chosen of Mystra seem to be “ex-Chosen.” They cannot contact their goddess, and have been forced to conclude that the tales of her death are true. The Weave as they knew it is gone, and although they have their silver fire, almost all of the rest of their “Chosen” powers are either gone or unreliable. They are old and tired, most of them having lost their great powers and their driving reason for living . . . but they have not lost their enemies, or the descendants/successors of their foes. These books explore how some of them deal with that.
You like taking seemingly insignificant/minor characters and propelling them to greatness (Shandril from Spellfire, Narnra from Elminster's Daughter, Amarune from Elminster Must Die), even if that destiny sometimes proves very heavy indeed. What can you tell us about the smaller heroes in this new Elminster series?
Ed: Elminster is looking for successors to pass the torch on to, and some of his descendants would seem to him to be ideal candidates. There’s just two problems with that:
1. Anyone known to be a descendant of Elminster of Shadowdale is walking the Realms with a very large target on their back (and knows or will quickly realize this, making them reluctant indeed to embrace a life like Elminster’s, given that they can see the state he’s in now.
2. Said candidates might very well hate Elminster, or what they’ve heard of him, or hate and fear magic (which, thanks to the Spellplague, doesn’t enjoy a good reputation among those who don’t wield it), or just have very different politics than Elminster (What’s wrong with the Zhentarim, or any similar group? Aren’t those strong, capable seekers after power most apt to bring stability and security into the world? Aren’t meddlers like Elminster the causes of many griefs, major and minor?)
So the smaller heroes in this new series of Elminster books will be those struggling with great responsibilities thrust upon them (like those Elminster wants to recruit as his successors or at least new allies), and my usual “just plain folks” who try to do the right thing in crises, and some old swashbuckling favourites who were magically snatched from the 1370s to the 1470s and now find themselves in a very different Realms, and have to decide what to do with their new lives. I’m not interested in arrogant, all-capable heroes who drawl and yawn and stroll through life. I am interested in the fearful, the reluctant, the timid and incompetent or at least fumbingly untrained, who try to do right by their friends, or their community or country, or a cause. Even if they stumble, or especially if they stumble. Often, those stumbles are the story. Hmmm; this soapbox is getting too comfortable; I’d better climb down now.
Finally (you knew I was going to ask) . . . That last scene in Elminster Must Die, that so many fans have latched onto as a sign of a certain much-loved goddess's return . . . Any hints you can drop?
Ed: Oh, yes. BURY ELMINSTER DEEP is sprinkled with them.
I’ll say a little more here, by reminding readers of two axioms: Assuming too much usually makes an—yes . . .
and: Be careful what you wish for . . .
I promise you’ll learn a lot more about that certain goddess at the end of BURY, and a lot more at the end of its sequel. Yet much, much more will remain for the books beyond that.
Remember that line by Marvell, from “To His Coy Mistress”?
Vaster than empires, and more slow
Well, sometimes matters of the gods happen swiftly and shockingly, from the points of view of mortals in the Realms, but more often they’re like Marvell’s love. (And then, of course, mortal comprehension and interpretation of the doings of deities lags behind the deeds, too.)
The fun of writing Realms books—as with roleplaying, and was with real life—is the journey, not the destination.
I’m having a lot of fun writing these “new” Elminster books, and I hope it shows.