Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

Author Spotlight — Arinn Dembo, Woman of Many Genres

Written By: Tracy - Jul• 26•11

Arinn Dembo is one of those writers who defies classification. She participated in the Clarion Workshop and shortly made her first sale. since then, Her work has ranged from gaming to fantasy to poetry.

Her personal interests and activities are just as wide ranging. She’s been a photographer and an actor in several movies, participated in archaeological digs and gotten multiple degrees while raising two children. Her most recent work, Sword of the Stars 2:  Lords of Winter is an interactive fantasy game that will be released from Paradox Interactive this September.

She did slow down recently long enough to answer a few questions for me, including how she finds the time to write with such a busy lifestyle.

How did you become involved with the Clarion workshop? How did you benefit most from working with Clarion?

When I was a teen, I was lucky enough to meet Vonda MacIntyre (http://www.vondanmcintyre.com/ ) when she came to my tiny hometown of Durango, Colorado. She was one of the honoured guests of the annual Southwest Literature Conference (the other two guests were Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, so needless to say as an SF-loving teen I was in heaven during that whole weekend).

At the time I knew MacIntyre mainly as the author of Dreamsnake, Superluminal, and a few franchise tie-in novels for Star Trek, although obviously she’s written much more since then. She was kind and approachable enough that when I moved to Seattle a year later, I didn’t feel like a complete fool looking her up in the phonebook and calling her. I wanted to ask if I could come to the monthly Vanguard party, a gathering of Seattle’s science fiction community, both writers and fans, which was held at her home. She said yes, and fortunately for us both I did not turn out to be a stalker!

It was through the social network at Vanguard that I heard about Clarion, and thought it would be a good idea to submit my work and see if I could get in.

So far as the benefits of working with Clarion—these are too numerous to count, really. The workshop was a major shock to my system as a person and a writer. I was a 20-year-old nobody sitting next to Gene Wolfe for a week; if you take genre fiction at all seriously as literature, you know that this experience alone would have been worth the price of admission. But I got a lot more.

David G. Hartwell was also one of my instructors that year. He published my first review in The New York Review of Science Fiction several months later. I did not realize on the first day I met him in class that he was one of the top ten science fiction editors of all time, of course. He asked us to fill out a questionnaire listing the science fiction writers/novels we considered the Top Five. It was actually funny to find out after the fact that three of my selections were writers or even specific books that he had edited over the years.

As an instructor he was positive, encouraging, and understood that a story could entertain—and thus sell—in a lot of ways. There was no possible way that I could learn everything he had to teach me, or any other writer, in a single week. But I pursued his work in the months and years to come, and made an effort to read the stories and writers that he believed in. It was a worthwhile education.

I should also say from the feminist perspective that I had three female instructors at Clarion, all of whom were important and accomplished writers of science fiction and fantasy in their own right. Vonda MacIntyre was actually one of my teachers that year. So were Karen Joy Fowler (http://www.karenjoyfowler.com/) and Pat Murphy (http://www.brazenhussies.net/murphy/). All three of them were extremely inspiring figures, both as writers and as women. They helped me as much as they could with both my writing and my career, albeit in different ways.

Sometimes the best way to inspire a younger woman is by proving the hard way that her love of science, science fiction and writing is not a joke—it’s a viable way of life. And from the pragmatic side, sometimes a cover letter from an established professional can really help a struggling author get clear of the slush pile. The editors in our genre are extremely overworked and overloaded, at the helm of any magazine and at all the major publishing houses.

As a personal aside, I also met my partner and the father of my children through Clarion. So you could say I maxxed out the benefits!

Your work has ranged from poetry to gaming to erotica. Do you have to change your mindset when you change up the genre that you work in? What is the “headwork” like to switch from genre to genre?

Interesting question, but I don’t have to switch into all those gears too often. Poetry is a rare indulgence for me, for example. I much prefer to read it than to write it. When I do write a poem it tends to come over me like a fit. I scribble it down, try to see if there is any way that it can be made not to suck, and then either send it out into the world or bury it in shame.

With more conventional writing, I can pick up or drop the elements of any genre very easily, depending on the needs of the individual story. I suspect I’ve built the skillset through my work in gaming, which constantly forces me to work with a tight focus, quickly and efficiently.

Fiction in the gaming industry is very much structured by the needs of the project and the strengths or weaknesses of the team you work with. Over the years I’ve had to write for three different science fiction franchises, one steampunk role-playing game, and a Zombie Apocalypse universe. And these are just the projects that I’ve actually seen through to the end! There’s no way I could possibly count the creative ideas I’ve had to throw out onto the table at the drop of a hat during pitch meetings, while creating two-page proposals, etc..

In this business, no one has time for me to wring my hands, so I learned not to do it. I try to keep my headwork as a writer just as light and fast as the footwork of a boxer.

Keep it moving. Look for your opportunity. Be ready to jab.

How did you end up working in the gaming industry?

I started writing reviews for Computer Gaming World Magazine back in the early 1990’s, and continued as a reviewer until the late ‘90’s. Then the Dotcom Crash killed the market for paid reviews, and since I had the publishing credits and skills needed to write fiction as well as non-fiction, I got the opportunity to make a lateral move and become a freelance developer. I spent a few years writing for Sierra titles. Eventually I was invited to join the team at Kerberos Productions as Lead Writer, and I’ve been with Kerberos ever since. It’s been over six years.

How is working in the gaming industry different than working with print?

The two are not mutually exclusive. A lot of my work ends up being printed in manuals. Some fans still hold onto those manuals as keepsakes, I’ve discovered, years after the game itself is dead. This is particularly true of the manuals for Homeworld and Arcanum, which were both pretty fiction-intensive. It just goes to show you that a writer is always important to her audience, regardless of the medium—even if they don’t know her name.

In general, however, it requires a more flexible and varied skillset to write for gaming than for print. The same basic task—stringing words together—has to be applied to a huge number of needs in a game. As a writer for Sword of the Stars 2, I have to script the lines that are spoken by voice actors to give feedback on every command and situation, both in strategy and combat–a brutal exercise in simultaneously creating character and conveying solid information to the audience with as few words as possible.

I also have to write descriptions and backgrounds for every race in the game, human and alien, including a fictional history and culture for the species. I have to make a timeline of past and future events for the whole galaxy, and populate that galaxy with wonders and horrors. I have to invent characters that are associated with each faction that you can play. Come up with languages that aliens speak. Write and help storyboard the cinematics that appear both within the game and in marketing and PR channels.

 

Other games offer different challenges. When I was writing for Fort Zombie, the story of the game and its universe was told mainly through its human NPC’s. Every man, woman and child in the game had a little story box, with anything from a few lines to a few paragraphs written from that person’s point of view. They were all carrying a splinter of the Apocalypse inside them. If you saved their lives, you got to find out what they had seen, how they felt.

In addition to all of your writing, you’ve led a busy and interesting life. You’ve raised kids, been in movies, been a photographer and gotten two degrees. How do you find a balance for all of this and still have time to write? Where do you find time to get it all in?

Well…writing is the only skill I’ve ever had which could pay any bills, so I guess I make time for it the way anyone makes time for work that pays the bills. Work dominates the lives of most human beings, and I’m no different.

How do I do all the rest of it? I don’t try to do everything at once. I take things in phases. The longest time period I’ve been able to focus my full attention on photography in my free time was 6-12 months. Getting a degree in anthropology, on the other hand, took really intensive work for three years. The degree in Mediterranean Archaeology took another two years of solid commitment. When I’m in university, I have to dial my writing down to part-time so that I can focus mainly on my studies and commit to learning. Now that I’ve finished both those programs, I’m back to working full time, and I’ll have to work as hard as I can for at least two years before I can really think about pursuing the PhD.

I also don’t try to do it all alone. My children grew up in a house with at least three full-time adults to look after them. When I had to go to Tennessee for three years to get a degree, my kids still had a stable household with two competent adults in it. My life as a writer in gaming is much the same–I’ve worked with the same incredibly hard-working and talented core team at Kerberos for the last six years.

I was actually in Greece on an archaeological dig when it was time to work on one of our game expansions, A Murder of Crows. I created the Morrigi race on a lap top while I was excavating, washing potsherds, and tromping around Greece. If the rest of the team hadn’t been working full time at the office in Vancouver without me, that wouldn’t have been possible.

I also make sure that it isn’t all work and no play. Being in movies like “Cannibal Sisters” and “Jesus H. Zombie” was nothing but fun. And I jumped at the chance to support people and art that I believe in. I’m all about independence in the arts: I work for an independent development studio, I publish stories with small independent presses, and I make cameos in indie films.

Besides, what horror fan doesn’t want to be on the set when they do a spectacular chest-ripper special effect? Who doesn’t want to be made-up into a realistic movie zombie? I would recommend being horribly killed and/or zombified in a movie to any horror writer. Very therapeutic.

Anyway. Pursuing photography and degrees in science has taken up a lot more of my time and energy, but the rewards are also pretty amazing. My studies in archaeology and anthropology have made my life an adventure in ways that gaming and writing really couldn’t. In Denmark I rowed at the oars of a real Viking longship. In Athens I sat on the exact slab of stone where Socrates stood 2400 years ago, on the day he was indicted for impiety and corruption of youth. These experiences charge me up and fire my imagination. Not too hard to make time for that.

What is your most recent project? What project has been your favorite?

My most recent project is Sword of the Stars 2: Lords of Winter. Due for release in September from Paradox Interactive. It’s a science fiction strategy wargame in the “4X” genre—the 4 X’s are “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”. The first novel I wrote for the Sword of the Stars franchise, The Deacon’s Tale, is also due to be released before Christmas, although the firm date isn’t set.

Of all the work I’ve done, the Sword of the Stars universe has probably been my favorite. Certainly it is the project which has made me work the hardest, and the setting is the one which I’ve been able to craft the most lovingly over time. I’ve had six years to build this universe, in various media. And I have a tremendous amount of creative input and control, which is very rare in my industry—doubly so for women.

Where can readers find you and your work online?

Lots of places! I keep a little website with information and a free archive of my old essays, reviews and art photos at http://arinndembo.com/ . I work at Kerberos Productions, and you can talk to me on the company forums any time at www.kerberos-productions.com . I write a very occasional blog on Gamasutra, the professional web portal for the video gaming industry, to express my POV as a woman in gaming—I call it Gamazon. (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/author/ArinnDembo/3741/) You can connect with me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/ArinnDembo) and Twitter (http://twitter.com/#!/Erinys).

So far as supporting my work goes? You can buy my current games from Gamer’s Gate. The Sword of the Stars Complete Collection can be downloaded for a very nice price; the package includes the original Sword of the Stars and all of its expansions in one bundle. http://www.gamersgate.com/DD-SOTSCC/sword-of-the-stars-complete-collection

Fort Zombie, our experimental horror title, is even cheaper if you want to try it. http://www.gamersgate.com/DD-FZ/fort-zombie

Two of my older games, which are out of print in the conventional market, can be acquired for super cheap at Good Old Games, www.gog.com.

Arcanum: http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/arcanum_of_steamworks_and_magick_obscura

Ground Control: http://www.gog.com/en/gamecard/ground_control_expansion

Three of my stories are out in anthologies which are still for sale on Amazon, so anyone who would care to support the small independent publishers I’ve chosen to work with is much appreciated:

http://www.amazon.com/Arinn-Dembo/e/B004G2D4LU/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_3

Sword of the Stars 2 should be released in September, and preorders are available in the usual places. My science fiction novel The Deacon’s Tale and a short story collection should also be out in both print and e-book editions soon, but there are no links or firm dates for that yet.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for helping me see how writing applies to gaming. Maybe it is all a continuum with emphasis and deletions. I can see how an anthropology degree might help, too. I was always interested in that, myself, but settled for creating a character (Ranar of Rire) who is the anthropologist.