This week’s interview brings us writer Clarion West graduate, spec fiction author, and game writer Arinn Dembo. She’s been a writing pro for quite a while, but even before she got her first big sale (if memory serves, an amazing and high profile review of a favorite book by a favorite author), she’s been a creative force of nature. Bonus trivia, it was Arrin’s early encouragement that convinced me to get serious about writing over a decade ago, and she continues to be a source of inspiration. As an added bonus, she’s a writer for the video game The Pit which is currently kickstarting what looks to be an incredible tabletop game. Get on that! And now, on with the interview.
You’ve carved out a long career writing for the game industry. What was it that led you to that specialized field?
There’s a long answer and a short answer to this one.
Long Answer: the potential was always there. I developed a serious interest in video games as a kid in the 1970’s. My cousins were the sons of a NASA aerospace engineer, and my uncle loved collecting the latest and greatest home gadgets. My cousins Jimmy and Stevie were the first people I knew who owned Pong, and Atari personal computers, and early PC games. I was fascinated by them whenever I had the rare opportunity to play.
I never had a home computer or a game device myself as a youngster, but I blew a lot of quarters on arcade machines in the 1980’s, particularly Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, Centipede and Galaga. I can still recognize the mechanics of my old favorites in the SHMUP games of today. I’ve been playing Sky Force lately, just for research into popular mobile designs–I definitely see the mechanics they’ve lifted from Galaga and Defender.
Tabletop gaming was something I really didn’t try until around the age of 18-19, when I first moved to Seattle. My early favorite rpg was Call of Cthulu, and the first fiction I did for a game franchise was in the early 1990’s, a novella for Delta Green called “Suicide Watch”.
So far as my entry into the computer gaming industry as a pro? I started working in the industry as a reviewer of light strategy and adventure games. My first reviews appeared in Computer Gaming World magazine in my early 20’s. Moved over to CNET Gamecenter for a few years when the website was a start-up, then wrote some reviews for Entertainment Tomorrow and Electric Playground. I had switched over to being a full time freelance developer within five years.
My writing partner and I started out working for Sierra On-Line, doing freelance narrative design on games like Homeworld, Ground Control and Arcanum. It was much less common in those days for a team to hire a full-time writer or narrative designer for their projects and franchise direction, because people simply didn’t understand the need to have a professional at the helm for continuity and world-building.
Martin and I wrote in those days under a joint pseudonym, Marcus Skyler. On any given project, he’d do most of the campaign and mission design, and he’d hammer out the rough draft of the voice-acting scripts. I did a lot of the world-building design and background fiction for various projects, and that is still the bulk of what I do in the gaming industry.
Short answer would be: I did it all for love! I’ve never had a serious relationship with a man who was not a gamer to one degree or another, and I enjoy working alongside my life partner on some projects.
Is there a medium you’ve never worked in that you’d love the freedom to play around in for a bit?
Comics, most definitely! And live action television, or feature-length films.
How have your own life experiences and personal interests shaped the writing you do?
Example: my most famous work to date is in space opera settings, particularly in designing factions and civilizations. Everything I write or create in that vein is informed by my life-long love affair with anthropology. Even if I’m hammering out an entire race of the most black-hearted villains imaginable, I will tend to ground their actions and attitudes in cultural values and traditions that make perfect sense to them. Even if they don’t work out so well to people on the receiving side of those “traditional values”.
My grounding in archaeology tends to crop up in quirky ways, as well, especially in settings that involve an archaeological excavation. But I think I come by that love of archaeology honestly, as a comics/sci-fi nerd. I was only eleven when the first Indian Jones movie came out, and even in older books and films it was clear that archaeology was a pretty big and magical adventure. (Speaking as someone who pursued it to the grad student level, I would say that archaeology really IS an amazing adventure.)
Who would you consider your strongest creative influences?
Advances in science and the beauty of nature continue to inspire me every day.
So far as speculative and weird fiction goes–my influences would be a mix of ancient ancestors, Golden and Silver Age dudes and dudettes, and some modern authors. I almost don’t bother to mention the authors that everyone has read, nowadays, like Poe, Wells, Burroughs, Asimov, Lovecraft, Howard, Bloch, Matheson, King, etc.. I got a lot of mileage out of Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and Shirley Jackson, and I liked Anne Rice a lot as a teen. I learned a great deal from my instructors at Clarion West, particularly Gene Wolfe, Pat Murphy, Karen Joy Fowler, and Vonda McIntyre.
Beyond that, I take in a lot of creative influence from other media than writing. Fine art, film, music, food and culture. Folktales and fairy tales from various cultures around the world. Indigenous artists and storytellers throughout the ages. African and African diaspora music like jazz, blues, reggae, morna, fado, etc.. Japanese art, folktales, film and animation–trying to get more into Japanese horror manga in the last year or so, but some of this material is so insanely powerful that I find it difficult to consume much of it at a time. I still haven’t been able to read more than two or three shorter collections by Junji Ito–his ideas and images are very intense.
Mexican and Chicano writers and artists have influenced me since my childhood. I started to dial it in and engage more intelligently when I was a teenager, beginning with an early love of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but moving forward through modern novelists like Rudolfo Anaya and the post-modern authors and poets I try to support today, including Silvia Moreno-Garcia and David Bowles. I also try to continue to engage with Mexican and Chicano artists in other media, painters like John Picacio or film makers like Guillermo Del Toro. The immensity of what some of these creators have to give really humbles me.
Is there anyone with whom you’d particularly love to collaborate on a project?
Well, I really miss indie film maker Andrew Shearer! I’d love to see what he and his Gonzoriffic crew are doing nowadays, even if he doesn’t have a role for me in any of the new movies he’s making.
Beyond that, in the fantasy world where anything is possible? I’d want to create a comic with an artist that I find really inspiring–Mike Kaluta, Sana Takeda, Tim Sale, Emma Ríos, Greg Capullo, etc.. Or get more involved with film-making.
I will freely admit that I love to challenge and stretch myself in game development, as well. I’ll definitely be looking for ways to experiment with new forms and ideas, and more opportunities to contribute fiction and scenarios on a freelance basis in the coming years. I find it fun and invigorating to learn new things, dream new dreams, and stretch myself.
If you were to recommend a creator or two (in any medium) who you feel are slept on/overlooked, who would they be?
I can only speak about the creators who were once overlooked by me.
When I was acquiring influences from childhood to my late 20’s, I had no trouble finding my way to a lot of great female authors who were white: Mary Shelley, Shirley Jackson, James Tiptree, Jr., Joanna Russ, Ursula K. LeGuin, Anne Rice, Megan Lindholm (Robin Hobb), Tanith Lee, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Andre Norton, Susan Cooper., etc..
But I completely missed out on Octavia Butler, who was at the height of her powers during the years when she would have been the most formative influence on me. My love of black women and their art was more focused on music in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I was hugely into old blues and jazz musicians, and I had a lot of the great blues divas like Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle, Koko Taylor, Ida Cox, etc. on constant rotation…
And yet somehow I missed the greatest black female science fiction writer of the 20th century. The irony has not escaped me!
I’m catching up with Octavia Butler now, but I’m extremely sorry that I missed out for so long. Butler in the 1980’s and 1990’s was already doing masterfully SO many things that I have struggled to articulate in my own work for the last thirty years. She would have accelerated my development by decades if I had picked up her books back then, and I can’t think of a single good reason that I didn’t. It pains me to think about it.
Anyway. Upshot of this is that I would strongly recommend that anyone reading in 2018 should NOT miss out on the giants that surround us in the field now. If you are reading Ann Leckie, John Scalzi, Lauren Beukes, Robin Hobb, but you AREN’T reading Nnedi Okorafor, Victor LaValle, NK Jemisin, Ken Liu, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Stephen Graham Jones, Nisi Shawl, Kai Ashante Wilson, Alyssa Wong…don’t do that to yourself. That’s like poking yourself in the eye with a stick.
Of the white male creators of the world…? I can think of almost none that are underrated by anyone except themselves. (A lot of my male friends have this issue. It always saddens me.)
I mean, I used to say that Jack Kirby and Richard Matheson were underrated? But both of them have gotten a huge surge of fan appreciation in recent years, so they’re no longer overlooked.
I still don’t believe that people appreciate Jeffrey Thomas, Theodore Sturgeon, Glen Cook, Alexei Tolstoi and Yevgeny Zamyatin enough, but that might just be a quirky personal thing.
Crunch time! Big project appears on the horizon with a tight deadline. What is your process for success in wrangling the challenge?
Hmm. I find it difficult to answer questions like this without some context. Like, is the Big Project a game? A marketing campaign? A solo project, like a novel?
In the case of solo projects…when the only person you depend on is yourself, you make some pretty unreasonable demands. You just have to accept that there will be a price to pay in terms of your mental and physical health. If you push too hard, or push for too long, especially without a support system that takes care of your physical needs…you’ll eventually have a break-down or a burn-out that will knock you out for a while. Could be hours, days, weeks…but could also be months or years.
You can get a ridiculous amount of work done in a short period of time if you break your Big Project down into the smallest mini projects possible, and just sit down and knock them off systematically. I’ve written a full-length novel in a few weeks, even while I was still taking 15 credit hours in university. I created the Morrigi species for Sword of the Stars while I was committing 70+ hours a week to an archaeological field school in northern Greece. (In the latter case, the dig was providing almost all my meals in any given week, which took a pretty big burden off my shoulders.)
When it comes to Crunch Time in a game or other group project…I try not to be too affirming of that, for professional reasons. Game devs in particular are encouraged to treat Crunch as an inevitable necessity in their line of work. You hear a lot of people spouting a lot of macho crap about pounding down stimulants, eating take-out, and grinding for long hours while the Red Bull cans and the pizza boxes pile up around your desk.
I’m against that kind of thing.
As a producer, I dislike Crunch. When Crunch happens, it usually means that some bad decisions have been made in the planning phases or management of a project. In general, if your developers suddenly have to work more than 10 hours a day, something has gone seriously wrong. You don’t have enough people, you’ve got the wrong people, or you’ve simply saddled your team with an unrealistic production schedule or budget. You can’t make bad plans and expect good results when you need a group of creative folk to work together.
Basically, if you think about the problems you run into with solo crunch–exhaustion, inevitable breakdown, stress, failures of self care–you can clearly see what a bad idea it is to put your whole team into this state at once. A team of people working together will usually have to deal with dependencies, where one person can’t get their work done until someone else finishes a task. The potential for cascade failure when you put everyone into Crunch mode is huge.
If you were given a budget and two years to work on any project you wanted, what would that look like?
I would put together a team and make a new strategy game about the evolution of human societies! Probably using Unity or the Unreal engine.
Sid Meier’s Civilization, Microsoft’s Age of Empires and their various sequels are fun games, but a lot of the time they’re pretty terrible as anthropology. Civilization in particular is often based on ideas in social science that went out of date in the 1940’s at latest.
I think there needs to be a new game about the way that a human groups and social systems can change over time. And I think I’m the woman to helm that project.
What is your dream karaoke song?
I enjoy the challenge of songs I’ve never sung in front of an audience, and I’m always excited when I find something I’ve never seen in a songbook before. Right now I’d be tickled to find Lorde’s “Yellow Flicker Beat”.