Lee Gold Interview for Penmore Press
Lee Gold has been involved in writing, Role-Playing Game design, publishing, and music for many years. If you attend SF conventions in California, you are likely to find her and her husband, Barry Gold, ensconced in the Filkers’ Room waiting their turns to “pick, pass, or play” a song. I first met Lee at LosCon, and somehow or other wound up being a beta reader for her first trilogy, which she self-published. That was tremendous fun, but it was her manuscript for Valhalla: Absent Without Leave that really enthralled me. Penmore Press is currently publishing Lee’s Valhalla trilogy. The second book, Valhalla: Into Darkness is a 2022 release, to be followed by Valhalla: Into Brightness. —Chris Wozney
Q: Most writers started out as readers. Is that true of you? What are some of the books you grew up with?
LG: Yes, I love reading books. My parents had hundreds and hundreds of old books on their bookshelves and never told me what to read. I found Rudyard Kipling’s Plain Tales from the Hills, The Jungle Books and Just So Stories, and more. I found Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I found Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo. I found Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I found a children’s version of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I found Hans Christian Andersen. I found a book of Greek myths. I found Shakespeare.
Q: How did you begin writing?
LG: First I wrote poems. When I was in grad school, I wrote a poem about a Greek boy sent to Creteas a sacrifice to the Minotaur—and won a $100 prize for it. Sorry, but I don’t think I’ve got a copy of it anymore.
When I entered SF fandom, I wrote songs to other people’s melodies (these are known as “filksongs”) and published some of them in fanzines. Later, my group came to the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society with our own fanzine, The Third Foundation. And in it was a serialized a novel that I’d written, Doomed Lensmen. It would need permission from the E. E. Smith estate to be openly published, I think, though you can find it on the Web. See http://banilsson.blogspot.com/2012/06/cousin-lens-wonderful-adjective-cellar.html
Doomed Lensmen is for people who loved the Lensmen and Skylark series—and who have a somewhat dark sense of humor. I do have to confess that I started reading the Skylark books with Skylark of Valeron and fell in love with DuQuesne, but hated Smith’s attempt (written years after he’d abandoned the series) to take it up again, when I felt he’d done a horrible injustice to DuQuesne by causing him to break his word of honor.
When I learned Dungeons & Dragons, I became a Dungeon Master, roleplaying the personalities of my “monsters,” the Non-Player Characters. And then I went from there to devising my own cultures, peopled with complex characters. One of my campaigns was Snaefellness, a peninsula of Iceland, in which the Aesir and Loki and Freya occasionally interacted with the characters.
Later on I wrote a trilogy set in an underground habitat, a starship that never got off the planet, embedded deep underground in northern Mexico while a badly contaminated Terra was being re-terraformed—a process that would take centuries. Certain humans are genetically modified and mentally programmed to be living dialysis machines for the ruling class. This was briefly published (with covers that didn’t look like my visualization of my heroine). Someday maybe it may be re-edited and republished.
It was a lot of fun writing the first two Valhalla books, and then working on perfecting the books with Penmore Press editor Chris Wozney. I do sometimes find myself thinking of Robin and Ratatosk and Loki and the other main characters as “player characters” and the other people as “non-player characters”. Forty-five years of role-playing game experience can have that effect on you.
And I should probably mention that back in the Old Days when I went to school nobody had yet invented the current superstition that you shouldn’t start a sentence with “And,” especially when writing on a non-formal level.
In addition to writing, I edit. I was the editor of The Third Foundation. My editing experience was enriched by having read not just Strunk & White but also Fowler’s Modern English Usage. I loved Fowler’s article denouncing “Elegant Variation”
I love books written by good reporters and good historians. Lincoln Steffens’ autobiography. James Thurber’s Life of Ross. Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Arts, and (an even better book) Lives; Rudyard Kipling’s stories and Mark Twain’s books about travel, especially Life on the Mississippi.
I think it was Thurber who told the story of the young reporter who started a news story about a flood with “Tonight God sat brooding over the hills of WestVirginia.” and got back a telegram from his managing editor: “To hell with the flood. Interview God.” I own many collections of Thurber essays and stories, plus his biography of Ross (editor of the New Yorker). In 1960 I saw The Thurber Carnival on Broadway.
I also love Fowler’s article on “Split Infinitives”.
I once told a beginning writer to read Jack Finney’s “Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar” because Finney had his characters “state,” “ejaculate,” “intone,” etc. instead of just “say” or “ask”. At one point I also deleted all the writer’s flowery adjectives and adverbs (handwritten, on lined paper) in his adventure story. This writer (then in high school) is now a respected SF professional writer. No, I won’t give you the writer’s name.
Q: How do you begin a new writing project?
LG: I look at a blank page and think of an interesting sentence, type it down and see what follows.
Ideally the “interesting sentence” implies an interesting person and/or an interesting worldview and/or an interesting problem the person is coping with.
If nothing follows, I start over with another interesting sentence.
I’ll note that this is (or should be) also true for good reporting and good histories.
Q: Do you have clear memories from childhood?
LG: I remember a long train trip to visit my father, who was stationed in a Navy base in Hayward, up near San Francisco. I was barely old enough to walk, about a year old, but already thinking in words, just not saying them much. I was playing with the triangle papers you could unfold into cups by the train’s water dispenser, pulling the bottom off a cup and letting the water drip into another cup below it—and thinking, “You could use this to tell time.” I didn’t take another train trip until I 1960 or so, so I’m very sure of the timing of that trip, and I’m proud of independently thinking up the clepsydra.
Some months later, my family moved to a new-bought home near a Southern California naval base in Port Hueneme, renting out our own West Los Angeles home in Cheviot Hills for three years—and the van with our furniture got lost for a day or two. My mother had brought my cot in her car, but she had to sleep on the floor till the van finally found us and delivered the other furniture and clothing.
I remember getting up one morning before sunrise and getting dressed in the dark—I was too short to reach the light switch—and quietly leaving the house to go down to the beach in front of our house and “play with the sea.” I ran down as a wave ebbed out, and I ran back as a wave came in. After a while, I went back to our home, dried off my feet, got back into my nightgown and hung up my clothes and went back to bed—and I never told anyone about what I’d done.
I remember getting a wonderful sweet cocker spaniel puppy when I was seven years old. I remember a couple of years later when he was hit by a car and died. I came to terms then with the fact that everyone I knew was going to die, including me.
I don’t remember crying, but then it was raining outside—so the sky was crying for me.
I also remember deciding that I never wanted to have a dog again until my parents put gates to close off the backyard so the dog would stay safe from cars. And I told my father about my decision when he said he’d take me to the pound and get me another dog.
We didn’t go to the pound till we had the new backyard gates. The gardener came twice a week, and each time I saw him, I went outside and made sure the gates were closed and reminded him that he had to make sure the gates were always closed. I think I was ten or eleven years old then.
Q: Which life experiences have enriched your abilities as a storyteller?
LG: One of my memories from elementary and junior high, starting in the fourth grade or so, is that my fellow students used to gather around me in winter and ask me, “Why does Chanukkah have eight days? Why isn’t it on the same date every year?”
I’d find a place for us to sit down, and I’d tell them the story, answering their questions.
Q: Please say a bit more about your experiences writing and running role-playing adventure games. Does your RPG writing spill over into your novel writing?
LG: A long time ago I wrote a system called Lands of Adventure, but it turned out to use too much mathematics for most people. Nowadays I used a very simple version of it.
When we were in Japan in 1975, I picked up a book of two thousand ideographs. When I want a random suggestion of what might happen next in a game, I like to roll D20 D10 D10 (D2000) and get an ideograph from that book.
I try to minimize game time spent on a fight. I think that a good game should be written so as to let people focus on imagining their characters interacting with the Game Master’s characters.
As a Game Master, I’ve always tried to do my best at roleplaying the non-player characters. I’ve wanted to make them interesting, three-dimensional personalities. I wrote one essay in which I advised GMs to roll up NPCs’ personalities by rolling three six-sided dice for each of the Seven Virtues and each of the Seven Deadly Sins.
I didn’t do this for the PCs and NPCs in the Valhalla books, but I did try to make them complex personalities, because I don’t like writing about boring people (whether they’re boring Good people or boring Evil people). I also tried to let the PCs (urr, I mean “the main characters,”) grow stronger and more complex during the course of the books, because I thought that would be realistic.
Who are “the main characters”? I think that in the end all the oathmates are “main characters”, but I’m only the writer. You’re the reader, and when you read these books they will leave the realm of my imagination to go take place inside the realm of your imagination, so you will get to decide how to answer that question. I hope you enjoy reading these books, and I hope you enjoy answering that question.
Q: For many years now, you have published a song lyrics fanzine called Xenofilkia, which includes filk songs by SF writers as well as SF fan readers. When did you start? And are back issues available?
LG: Xenofilkia comes out six times a year. #202 came out in April, 2022. 202 issues of Xenofilkia at six issues a year (never skipping any) is 34 years. The first issue came out October, 1988. All back issues are available by snailmail or email. There is also Filker Up, which contain what I think are the best of my own songs (plus a few other people’s songs). Filker Up #1 came out in 1986. There are six of them.
Q: Your writing is essentially optimistic in the midst of a grimdark literary zeitgeist. How do you maintain optimism and courage?
LG: I remember when I was nine or ten deciding that the worst life could do was to kill everyone I loved and then kill me, and that I could accept that. So far I’m still alive and I still have some people I love. As long as it’s true, I’ll do what I can with the energy and creativity I’ve still got.
Q: Do you take an interest in humanity’s efforts to explore unknown areas, be they of knowledge or space?
L|G: Yes, I’m interested in space travel. Yes, I’m interested in the advancement of knowledge. I wish I knew enough to be near the front lines of all this stuff.
Q: Of everything you’ve written, is there anything you are especially pleased with or proud of?
LG: The classic writer’s answer here is “I love all my children.” I’ll stick with this.
Thanks very much for talking with us.
—You can find out more about Lee at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Gold