Six Questions: Don Bassingthwaite

I know a lot of interesting people. Some I’ve worked with, some I’ve met while traveling the world, some just owe me money. My name may be on the website, but it seems kind of boring if I’m the only person whose voice is heard here. So I’m bringing some of my friends to the site, as time permits. I’m not a podcasty kind of guy, so I’m just keeping things simple: one guest, six questions.

My second guest is DON BASSINGTHWAITE. He’s the author of seventeen fantasy novels, including The Dragon Below and Legacy of Dhakaan trilogies for Eberron. He’s also written numerous short stories, including “Too Much Is Never Enough” in the cyberpunk compilation Foreshadows: The Ghosts of Zerowhere you’ll also find a story by yours truly!

So, Don—what’s your story?

Do you mean why do I write or who am I overall?

I was born in small-town Ontario, grew up a hugely geeky kid, started my last year of high school preparing to go into science at university, switched to humanities for my first year, then discovered anthropology and switched to that second year because I knew I wanted to channel my geekiness into writing and anthropology is just more inspiring than English. I’m now a hugely geeky adult who gets paid to write (I know!) and work with books in my day job as well (I know!). All my current novels are RPG tie-ins so far, but I still have my eye on finally getting something original published.

Why do I write? Because I enjoy it. Because I like making stories out of things. Because I enjoy submerging myself in imagination.

In both of your Eberron trilogies, you’ve invested a significant amount of energy into developing languages. Why do you feel this is important, and what’s your process as you do it? What’s your favorite Goblin proverb?

Partly it grows out of my background in anthropology. Language is a key aspect of culture so using words and phrases out of another “language” makes a fantasy culture feel more real for me. It can be as small as a throwaway name for a plant or something bigger like abstract concepts. Language can suggest how interactions work between speakers (degrees of formality, for example) or the history between groups (conquest or trading or even just isolation changes languages). Just the sounds a language uses suggests something about its speakers to a reader.

The process pretty much depends on how rigorous I want to be and what I want to accomplish. For The Dragon Below trilogy, I worked out a basic grammar for the savage Bonetree clan because I wanted to be able to emphasize from the beginning that while they were human, they came from a very different, much more isolated background than more civilized characters – I wrote whole (short!) conversations in their language. For Legacy of Dhakaan, I built on previus sources and kept things simpler with just a lexicon of Goblin words and enough general ideas about the language to string pithy proverbs together consistently. With the goblins, I wanted to establish a baseline of familiarity, then blow that up with something startling to say “Hey, remember that these are goblins. They’re monsters.” I actually think the second approach worked better overall.

Favorite Goblin proverb? “Je’shaarat mi paa kotanaa” – A sharp sword hurts less when you fall on it.

If you were Dhakaani, would you be a goblin, hobgoblin, or bugbear? Why?

Goblin. I like the pride of hobgoblins and the brute savagery of bugbears, but there’s something really enjoyably sinister about Dhakaani goblins. In my mind, they thrive on cunning, they’re small and stealthy, and everybody under estimates them. If there was one character from Legacy of Dhakaan I’d love to go back and explore, it would be Chetiin, the old goblin assassin. He’s likable and honorable, but also very ruthless.

How did you develop your original cast for The Binding Stone? Why did you decide to make Geth a shifter, for example?

That’s going back a long way! My character development process is kind of free form but a lot of the choices I made were about picking out the pieces of the Eberron setting (then still under-development) that really appealed to me, then building those into the story. To use Geth as an example: Aside from shifters being more common in the rather wild region where the story began, I liked the duality of control versus savagery that shifters represent, and I felt like I wanted a character who was all action but not necessarily too smart.

That and typical shifter abilities grew into Geth’s style of fighting and his signature weapon (the great-gauntlet that is both weapon and light armor). Then it became a question of where did he get that weapon and why is he still in this wild, somewhat isolated region instead of elsewhere in the world – and that led to his background as a mercenary veteran on the run from his past and that led to the former friend who became one of the other protagonists in the book, Singe, the swordsman/fire wizard who is Geth’s foil because he is smart.

What’s a story that’s inspired you?

You mean stories rather than novels, right? And just one?? Okay, if I restrict myself just to stories and cheat a bit by naming two, I’d say Fritz Leiber’s “Ill Met in Lankhmar” and Tanith Lee’s “Red as Blood.”

“Ill Met in Lankhmar” is brilliant because it expresses both a whole setting (the city of Lankhmar) and a saga (of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser). It stands on its own but it’s the foundation for so much more. Plus it’s got a great solid fantasy feel. It’s real.

“Red as Blood” is almost the opposite because it’s very dreamlike and unreal, and Tanith Lee’s style of writing is so lush and rich. It’s a story that stands completely on its own. For me, I think it was inspiring because it was one of the first examples I read of something that took the familiar (the story of Snow White) and turned it completely around.

What’s next?

I’m not actually sure. I don’t have anything under contract at the moment but I’ve been saying for years that I want to get something original written and now I’m kicking around ideas. It might end up being a break for writing sword and sorcery style fantasy to try something different, or it might not. The problem with writing something original is that there are just so many possibilities, it can be hard to pick one and just work on it!