Interview with Eric Nylund, Author of Mortal Coils

January 27th, 2009

In addition to being a great writer, Eric Nylund is an old friend of mine.   I first met him and became a fan of his at the Clarion West Writing Workshop back in the 1990s.   Eric has written original science fiction and fantasy for well over a decade now, and more recently has hit the best-seller list with his Halo video game novelizations (which I think have been some of the best genre military science fiction written in recent years and shouldn’t be limited to only fans of the game).   Eric has a background in physical science and his fantasy work is nicely self-consistent with rigorous and interesting magic systems.   I’ve read all of his books, including an advance copy of his brand new novel Mortal Coils, which I discussed here last month, with favorable comparisons to Harry Potter and Neil Gaiman.

Given that I know Eric well, and he asked for it, we’re going beyond some of the usual stock questions I usually use.   He looks ready for them…

Mike: What writing opportunities have opened to you as a result of working in the gaming industry?

Well, there’s the obvious thing of being in the right place time when someone walks down the hall and asks you to write Halo novel (those are really once-in-a-lifetime occurrences!).

But really that’s the tip of the iceberg.  

I’ve gotten to meet so many brilliant people while working in the video game industry – and not just other video games people, but and the best and brightest in literary field, Hollywood, comics… you name it, everything that’s cool today.

Probably the best thing about working at Microsoft Game Studios, though, is the education I’ve gotten on how to make, promote, and perpetuate mass-market, billion-dollar, blockbuster intellectual properties (little things like that come in handy when you’re trying to build your own literary empire).

Mike: Is it true you get video games for free, and the ones that aren’t free are tax deductible?

True.   I get all Microsoft games for free.   In fact, it’s part of my job to play those games as they’re being developed.   My recent favorite is Halo Wars, btw.  

It’s also required to play our competitors games to get idea of what they’re doing.   It’s fun but still a lot of work (akin, I guess, to working at Disneyland and getting to see all the ugly exposed machinery of your favorite rides).

Mike: Do you consider yourself a “sell-out” for writing Halo novelizations? Some writers consider media tie-ins a threat.


*laughs a little more*  

Oh yeah, I’m a sell out for contributing to the successes of one of the biggest intellectual properties on the planet…and winning myself about a million fans in the process.

Okay, seriously, I’d only consider myself a “sell out” if I wrote something that I couldn’t make my own.    

I could imagine a scenario where someone came up to me and said, “Hey, we need a Halo novel written and there has to be three Spartans and one of them is a girl and they have to befriend a little kid and a dog, rescue a bunch of slaves, blow up the Death Star, and then get promoted admirals of their respective fleets—oh, and by the way, we need one of the Spartans to be a midget.”

But in all the media tie-in novels I’ve written I’ve gotten to tell the stories I want to tell and make them mine.   For example, in the first Halo novel I knew I had to come up with the story about why these super soldiers were around, and somehow get the Master Chief’s story to dovetail to the beginning of the first Halo game.   I was given lots of room to create that story and I consider it mine (on a personal level; mind you, Microsoft owns the intellectual property and copyright).

I know, however, some writers consider media tie-ins a threat—or the worst thing that ever happened to literature—or both.   Honestly?   Media tie-ins come with a huge built-in advantage of already having a mass-market audience.   It’s hard for your average midlist novelist (if such a thing as a midlist novelist even exists today in this market) to compete with or feel good about that.

Mike: Which Halo book is your favorite?

The Fall of Reach.  
Runner-up would be Ghosts of Onyx.

Mike: If the Halo books have been doing so well (I mean, bestseller lists, what kind of genre writer are you?), why go back to writing original concepts?

The Halo books are great, but there are two reasons I’m also writing original fiction.   First, in order for me to do a Halo book there has to be one under contract with a publisher (currently there’s not yet…to the best of my knowledge), it somehow has to build and expand upon the existing Halo intellectual property (not just retell some story within the universe), and it has to be a story where they give me enough rope to either spin a great story… or hang myself.

I was originally offered the chance to write The Flood (the second HALO book), but I turned it down.   Don’t get me the wrong Bill Dietz did a great job of writing that book… a lot better than I could have, in fact, because I would have tried to change the story completely and somehow make it mine.   That wasn’t the purpose of that novel; it was a re-telling (and to Bill’s credits, the embellishment of) the first HALO game.    

Here’s the second reason: I really like writing my own intellectual property.   There’s no built-in audience, but I have ultimate freedom to do whatever the heck I want.   What writer could resist that siren call?

Mike: Which of your original concept books is your favorite?

Mortal Coils.   No kidding.   I’m not just plugging the new book.   This is the biggest and best thing I’ve ever written.

Mike: What was your inspiration for Mortal Coils and can you give us any hints about where the series will go after the first book?

Inspiration?   Geez, I have a family—that’s enough drama to inspire anyone to write a novel where your relatives are gods and fallen angels vying for world domination and you’re a teenager in the center of that warfare just trying to figure out how to talk to the opposite sex.

Isn’t that how everyone feels when they’re a young teen?

Hints… hmmm…. I’m trying to keep everyone’s focus on this first book.   But okay, if you put a gun to my head there four books more after Mortal Coils where the conflict between the Immortals and Infernals come to fruition, a lot of other players get into the game, and no punches are pulled.  

And obviously the last line in Mortal Coils should give you a BIG hint where I’m going.

Mike: You’ve written some comic books now. How did you get into that and how does it compare to writing novels?

Writing a comic book script is a lot closer to writing a screenplay than a novel, at least in format and how I go about thinking about putting it all together.   In a screenplay it’s frowned upon to give specific camera angles to the cinematographer or direction to the actors.   In a comic script you’re required to do those things, so there’s a lot more creative freedom.

How did I get into writing comics?   Now they think of it… the same when I got into writing media tie-in novels.   Someone walked into my office and said they had this writing gig…. (maybe it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime thing!)

Mike: Do you have any suggestions for how people can break into writing for the gaming or comic industries?

Samples.   I know of no one who a will hire you without looking at your work.   For games, this means coming up with a videogame script (and if you don’t know what one looks like, don’t guess).   It’s better to download some easy-to-use engine like the one Bioware has for Neverwinter Nights and make a little scenario.   Record some scratch voiceover.   Show people that you know how to pace a story without getting in the way of the gameplay.   That would be a great way to get your foot in the door.  

Same thing goes for breaking into comics.   You need to know what a comic script looks like and have a couple written and waiting to show people.   Even better, get an artist to do a couple of sample pages for you.

Mike: Who are your favorite writers and what has most influenced your writing?

I like Roger Zelazny and Harlan Ellison, Tim Powers and Ursula K. Le Guin.   Zelazny, though, is the biggie for me.   Somehow he managed to be eloquent without all the literary fluffery that usually goes along with that.   He was great.

Mike: Writers tend to drink a lot. Are you an alcoholic? If not, why not? Don’t you believe in traditional methods?   (This question probably reveals more about me than Eric, by the way.)

I’m not an alcoholic but I very easily could be.   Most of my writer friends have one or more of the following problems: depression, alcoholism, or drugs.   It’d be easy to say that we’re all just a bunch of whiny babies who have no self control.   But I think there’s something more than that to this business.   You do your best, you put your work out for all to see, and people love or hate you…or more common, they love and hate you which contribute both to your delusions of grandeur and your depression (or it makes you bi-polar).  

Every pro-writer says they have thick skins and none of it bothers them, but they’re liars.   All of them.

Why aren’t I alcoholic?   They’re two things from keeping me getting drunk every night: my wife and my five-year-old son.   Every time I take a drink they give me a look that says, we love you, we need you… take it easy on the booze…and take it easy on yourself…we’re here for you.

Mike: If you had access to any property from tv, movies, comics, or video games, what one story would you kill to write?

I would love to do a FALLOUT novel (Fallout is a videogame, for those few don’t know).

I’d also kill to write the video game adaptation of ENDER’S GAME.

Mike: If you could have one weapon from the Halo universe, what would it be and what would you destroy with it?

Cortana.   What couldn’t you do with her?




You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.