Infernal Interview

Greg Keyes.jpg

On Tuesday, November 24th, The Infernal City: An Elder Scrolls Novel will be released at bookstores and for digital download. Before the book’s release, Pete sent over questions to the author — New York Times’ bestselling author Greg Keyes.

Check out the interview below…

For those that aren’t familiar with you, can you give us a brief intro on yourself and some of your previous works?
I studied anthropology at Mississippi State and the University of Georgia. I started writing at a young age, but it wasn’t until 1995 that I sold my first novel, The Waterborn. It and its sequel were fantasies that drew on Native American and Central Asian mythologies for inspiration. I next wrote an alternate history fantasy called The Age of Unreason. Set in the eighteenth century, it wondered what the world might have been like if Isaac Newton’s work in alchemy had paid off the way — at one point — he thought it had. My latest series, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, is an epic fantasy in a somewhat more traditional vein. I’ve also worked on other shared universes; I wrote three books for the television show Babylon Five, and three Star Wars novels.


How did you get started in writing fantasy novels?
I pretty much always wanted to write fantasy and science fiction, but I never imagined it was something I could count on for a living. When I started writing seriously I was working two jobs, putting my wife through her undergraduate degree. One of the jobs was a night job, and I took a typewriter with me. I set a goal of writing a novel a year and pretty much kept to that. The first four didn’t sell, but the fifth — The Waterborn – sold very quickly.

What was it about The Elder Scrolls that interested you?
As a game, the sheer freedom of it, the near seamlessness of the experience. I spent a lot of time just running from place to place, enjoying the scenery. As a setting for stories, the amount of lore, while daunting in some ways, also made for very fertile story-telling ground. I also like the fact that — as in the real world — it’s difficult to sort out fact from fiction and myth from reality in the Elder Scrolls world. There are contradictions and conflicts between traditions, and history is told differently by different peoples. I also enjoy the shades of grey, the lack of polarized good and evil that characterizes the milieu.

Folks probably don’t know that what got us interested in having you write some Elder Scrolls novels for us was your Thorn and Bone series which Kurt Kuhlman, Bruce Nesmith, and I read and really enjoyed. Talk about how different or similar a process it is to come up with a completely original world like that one vs. working in an existing universe like The Elder Scrolls.
Well, it’s quite different. In Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, I built the world from the ground up — the languages, cultures,  the very laws of nature were all, as it were, under my control. I didn’t do research so much as I did inspirational reading, and I did a lot of that — mostly old Indo-European epics and literature.  For the Elder Scrolls, I had to do research — which meant playing the games, reading the source materials, and communicating with the designers. Because I’m playing in someone else play pen — with their toys — it’s by nature and necessity a much more collaborative process.

Can you talk about your experience working with our developers?
Early on there was a lot of brainstorming, especially with Kurt Kuhlman and Bruce Nesmith. When working in someone else’s universe, the perfect situation is to be able to pick the brains of those who helped develop it, and that was my enviable situation.

Once writing, I had easy access to the developers, which was a huge bonus. Whenever I had a question about something — or a about something I wanted to do — I could send an email and have my answer usually in a matter of hours. We all had the same goal — to produce a good story — and that actually created a lot of flexibility.

For folks that don’t know much about being an author, how long does it take to write something like The Infernal City, from start to finish, and what is that process like?
It depends. In this case, it went slowly, at first, because writing is to a certain extent a function of confidence, of knowing you’re going in the right direction.  Coming up to speed — and getting everyone on the same page — took a while — the better part of a year. As I became more familiar with material and more easy with what I was doing, my writing speed picked up. The second book, as a result, is going more quickly.

The process started with several short outlines, or story ideas, which were winnowed down by the game developers and my editor at Del Rey until we had one everyone thought was pretty good. That then became a much longer, more detailed outline (thirty pages) which was then revised a few times. Then the writing started, with a good deal of back-and-forth in the process, and finally a few rounds of revisions based on everyone’s thoughts and comments to get a final manuscript. That was then set in type, or galleys, which were then proofed a final time by me and others before at last going to press.

Did you visit any fan communities for inspiration, research, etc.?
I did some lurking, sure. The Imperial Library, specifically, was a very useful resource for lore, although I of course double-checked things through the authorities.

What were your main goals for these two books in terms of setting, characters, etc.?
One thing that everyone wanted with these books was for them to be works of fantasy first, and not “gaming” fantasy. What I got from the developers was to imagine that the world of the Elder Scrolls is real, and that the games are one way of approximating that world. Fiction is another way of approaching it. I forget which one of them said it, but one of them pleaded that we “not hear the dice rolling.” So I treat the characters as people, not collections of stats and items, the way I would in any book I write.

Any real Dos or Don’ts you had in mind when writing The Infernal City?
Other than those I’ve already mentioned, nothing specific. I always try to do something a little different, a bit fresh.

Give a description of what The Infernal City is about in your own words.
It’s primarily an adventure, or course. Umbriel, a strange flying city shows up from apparently nowhere, destroying life and then raising it from the dead to create an army of walking corpses. Two of the characters quickly end up in the city, experiencing its strangeness and even beauty as they seek a way to stop it. One of them, a young woman named Annaïg, is conscripted into the “kitchens” which produce food but also function as chemical laboratories. She is in communication with crown prince Attrebus, a hero determined to bring Umbriel down, but very early in the book he faces a crippling realization, which he must overcome. He and a mysterious, haunted Dunmer named Sul set out to rescue Annaïg and destroy the island, but they face pretty stiff challenges on the way.

Could you give us a little background on a couple of the main characters in The Infernal City?
Annaïg is a young woman from Lilmoth, in Black Marsh. Her father is a minor Breton nobleman who once owned estates there, but Black Marsh had been independent of the Empire for decades, and Annaïg is part of a minority of non-Argonians who remain — her father is an advisor to the ruling party. Her best friend, Mere-Glim, is an Argonian, and together they’ve had a series of ill-conceived exploits, but in Umbriel they found themselves far out of their league. Annaïg survives initially because she has knowledge of local plants, animals and minerals that the “cooks” of Umbriel do not.

Attrebus is the crown prince, the stuff of legends, and I’m not going to say much more about him, because a secret surrounds him that I would rather not spoil.

Sul is an older Dunmer who has spent decades trapped in Oblivion. Recently returned to Tamriel, he is driven by hatred of the lord of Umbriel and a deep thirst for revenge for his lost love and the destruction of Morrowind.

Finally, there is Colin, a young recruit in the Penitus Oculatus, which is the Emperor’s espionage/black ops organization. He fiercely wants to do the right thing, but finds his moral compass severely compromised. He’s also thrust into the very dangerous secret politics if the court, perhaps before he is ready to deal with them.

Finally, we have to ask, how’s the second book coming along?  :)
Pretty well – everyone is in trouble.

Thanks for your time Greg.
You’re quite welcome.

Reader Comments

  1. Attrebus? Where do I know that name from……could it be that one of the Bethesda forum moderators is leading a double life….

    The books sound excellent! I look forward to reading.

  2. Thanks for the interview – I only read the first Kingdoms … book to check out this author in advance of the ES novels – but now I’m absolutely chomping at the bit for these books; they’re excellent! Seriously, anyone who hasn’t read The Briar King et al really needs to do so. Now.

  3. Great interview. It’s good to become aware of Greg Keyes other novels (other than the Star Wars ones I’d read already). I’m really looking forward to the novel.

    By the way, the link gstaff posted up there: I read through that interview and apparently you guys also have an in-house Cafe. Do you all live there or something? A movie theater, a cafe, what other impossibly lavish things do you have?!

  4. “About a year ago, I had a chance to meet you when you visited the office, can you talk about some of the highlights of your trip to Bethesda HQ?”

    It’s after this question in the interview you posted regarding Attrebus. I swear, it’s starting to sound like your studio rivals the size of the Google’s Googleplex.

  5. oh imma get this on monday hehe hope its good, and you should take pride author and bethesda i dont read books lol but am gonna read this, oh p.s this will only keep me busy for a few days so hurry with the next installment of the games please XD

  6. By the way, the book is a good read. It’s a little short, but I guess I should have expected that – given that this is a book based on a game, who knows how interested the audience will be?

    I think the book could easily stand on it’s own if there was more to it. Perhaps a reprint with both books combined is in order, once the second book is out.

    I hope the series is continued in the future.

  7. I just finished the book. I personally thought it was amazing, though a bit sad considering what happened to Morrowind (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it). Any hardcore Elder Scrolls fan will understand most of it, though I would probably want one of the TES history pages up to clarify a few references. However, if you know nothing of TES, you will probably be confused, as it reads assuming you already have the background knowledge. I just can’t wait for the second one, it cliff hangs big time.

  8. A great book! It really helped me get a better grasp of the Elder Scrolls world. I’m only upset that I have to wait for the second book to be published.

    I was also surprised to read in the back of the book that Greg Keyes is an anthropologist (or at least trained as one)! I’m trying to finish up my anthropology degree now.

  9. Ordered it three weeks ago and just got it about five days ago. it sits on my desk anxiously awaiting me to finish my latest art project so I can read it. Looking very forward to this and the others (wink). Best of luck on the writing of the other works, Greg.