David C. Smith is one of the most well-respected sword and sorcery authors from the ‘70s. He’s also been a friend and supporter of DMR Books since the beginning, when he wrote the introduction for our very first release, Swords of Steel. He has a brand new story in our brand new anthology Warlords, Warlocks & Witches, so I thought this would be a good time to learn more about his career, as well as his current endeavors (which will be covered in part two tomorrow).
You began your career as a writer in the early ’70s. Who were the authors that inspired you to start creating stories of your own? I assume Robert E. Howard was one of them.
Howard, yes, and also Clark Ashton Smith from the pulp era. Jack London was a major influence; I have a full shelf of his work from the days when I haunted the classic old used-book stores. The many, many paperback anthologies of horror stories that were available in the early ’70s. And the movies, certainly. I began collecting silent movies when I was in high school and intended to major in cinema when I went to college. So the visual influence of the cinema, and especially film cutting, shot by shot and moving scenes along in a full dramatic arc, are there.
Throughout the ’70s you wrote a lot of stories that appeared in fanzines. Looking back, how do you feel about these early works of yours? Were there any recurring characters or settings?
They were the best learning experience I could have had. I wrote as many horror stories as I did fantasy stories, although for my first novel, Oron, I wrote an S&S epic inspired by Howard and Homer, and when that sold, I concentrated on S&S and epic fantasy thereafter. There were no recurring characters in the horror stories, and those have all been forgotten by now, anyhow. But eventually it became apparent to me, after I began Oron, that the fantasies all would fit into the Attluma setting I’d created for that novel, so every fantasy story then became part of the ancient island-continent of Attluma. I deliberately created it as an homage to Howard’s Hyborian Age.
Are there any plans to reprint those stories?
Yes. Tales of Attluma will be available by late September, we hope. Pulp Hero Press is releasing it. It includes all of the stories without Oron as a character plus a few others that are still available elsewhere. I’ve reworked all of them, polishing them and, in some cases, recasting them as entirely new stories. They were interesting fanzine stories when I first wrote them, but I can do better now after 40 more years of practice, so each one is now as good as I can do. Some are S&S; some are grotesques, similar to the material Clark Ashton Smith wrote; a few turn on character interaction; a couple are basically horror stories.
In 1977, your first novel, The Witch of the Indies, was released. How did you get the opportunity to write a novel based on Howard’s character Black Vulmea?
Zebra had gotten the rights to many of the Howard characters other than Conan and was releasing pastiches based on some of those characters. Karl Wagner had done a Bran Mak Morn novel but was slow in completing Queen of the Night, the second one, so Kirby McCauley, who represented both of us then, asked me to submit a first chapter and outline for a Bran Mak Morn novel—I assume in case Karl didn’t finish his manuscript. I sent him For the Witch of Mists, but by then it appeared that Karl was going to complete his book, so Kirby sold the idea to Zebra of my writing a Terence Vulmea novel. I wrote the opening chapter and synopsis for that, and it sold. That was The Witch of the Indies. I worked like crazy on it through the winter of 1976-1977 and hadn’t felt so happy in my life, writing an old-fashioned pulp story that I already knew was going to sell. Eventually, when plans for Queen of the Night fell through, Kirby asked me to finish the Bran novel in partnership with Dick Tierney, which we did.
That was followed by more Howard-based books: the Bran Mak Morn novel For the Witch of the Mists and the six-book Red Sonja series, all of which you co-wrote with Richard L. Tierney. What was the collaborative writing process like?
It was very comfortable. Dick and I were friends, and he told me right up front that he’d prefer to have me do the first drafts, and I agreed. His natural habitat was the library, where he could read and do research to his heart’s content. I was most comfortable looking at a blank sheet of paper and putting down whatever scene was there in my imagination at the time. So I did all the first drafts and Dick polished them. Some of them needed a stronger hand from him than others. I recall that he said that he needed to do very little with the fourth one, but I warned him that I wasn’t keen on how the fifth one had turned out—I was going through a divorce at the time I wrote it—so he brought that one up to speed.
The original idea with the Sonjas was that I would send the synopsis of each one first to Roy Thomas for any comments he might have. I remember that in the first one, he nixed my idea of having a Cimmerian warrior show up south of the border. He was right, of course; it was just my idea of trying to sneak in a Conan-type character for a scene or two. After the first couple of books, the process of having Roy approve the synopses went by the wayside. But a problem developed when the editor of the series, Susan Allison, who was then new at Ace, felt that she had to insert herself into the process by line-editing the books. Clearly she didn’t screw them up—they read well to this day, and they sold like crazy—and I don’t recall seeing where she actually did much to them except for the sixth one. She had nothing to do with the first one, but she really disliked the second one for a lot of reasons. She thought a lot of the names of the characters were dumb, and maybe she disliked some of the violence. I don’t know how familiar she was with fantasy fiction at that time, especially heroic fantasy or S&S. Maybe she didn’t like the idea that two guys who’d grown up with it old-school were writing these scripts. Maybe she was the new kid on the block and felt she had to assert herself in her new role as editor. And she was, after all, the editor of the series, so she was the boss. That’s the business. But I recall that she chopped off the ending Dick and I had for the sixth one. It was another quest story, and Sonja at the end is on her horse and she looks back at the forest or swamp that she and the others have had to deal with. She and a young sorcerer had fallen in love, and of course he dies, so we had her experience this melancholy moment at the end, using phrasing and color that brought back the memories of the sorcerer character. Very cinematic and poetic. That all got cut. I remember complaining to Dick that it had been reduced to a scene from an old oater, like “a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do,” and she rides off into the sunset. But all of those original manuscripts are long gone. And the series holds up, as I said. My own feeling is that Dick and I turned in copy that was so good, it would have been difficult to ruin the stories no matter what.
What I am proudest about, regarding the Sonjas, is that I was very aware that we were writing stories about a strong woman character, and I loved that idea. I like strong women; I like intelligent women; those are the types of women who raised me and whom I grew up around, basically country people and working class people, regular folks. They’d been raised during the Great Depression and lived through World War II. My dad and his brothers had fought overseas in wartime. They all knew what the world was made of. This is how I grew up. So I considered Sonja to be the kind of good-looking redhead country woman who could walk into a truck stop, put down as many beers as any guy, beat him at arm wrestling, and kick the ass of any trucker who tried to go too far with her. I still have the letters we were sent by young women in the early eighties thanking Dick and me for writing books with a strong woman character these girls could look up to. There was nothing quite like Sonja out there at the time.
The Red Sonja series is fantastic, although there is one scene in the first book, The Ring of Ikribu, that contains some rather out of place dialogue. When the cultists of Ikribu demand the Ring from Sonja, she calls them “assholes” and tells them to “get fucked.” Why was profanity included in that one scene and nowhere else in the series?
I didn’t write that and neither did Dick. In fact, he found a copy of the book on the racks first, in December 1981, and phoned me in anger to ask how the hell I’d managed to put anachronistic cuss words into those scenes. I ran out and found a copy of the book and saw it for myself. I phoned Kirby, and that led to Susan Allison’s phoning me to explain that she’d had nothing to do with it, that those changes had been inserted into the copy by an angry copyeditor who’d done it because he’d been fired. So, thanks, unknown asshole, whoever you are and wherever you are out there now. She promised it would be corrected for the second printing, but that never happens. And soon after that, she phoned me to complain about the second manuscript. So I have no idea what kind of drama was going on behind the scenes at Ace over the winter of 1981 to 1982. Since then, I’ve put in decades as an editor myself in publishing, and I understand how pathetically easy it would have been for that angry person to insert the cuss words before sending the manuscript to be typeset. On the other hand, maybe he had a legitimate gripe. I’m just sorry he took it out on Dick’s and my book—not that I’d want him to do it to anyone’s book. You know, be a pro.
Many of your novels, particularly those in the Oron series, were published with different titles than you intended. For example, The Sorcerer’s Shadow was supposed to be The Shadow of Sorcery and The Valley of Ogrum should have been Deathwolf. What was the reason for all the changes?
All due to Roberta Grossman, who was the editor at Zebra then and had the power to do it. I complained to Roy Torgeson, my editor there, and all he could say was that it was Roberta’s decision. I think her title changes are lousy. The first one was supposed to be Reign, Sorcery! and the last one, Death in Asakad and Other Stories. The funny thing is that I refer to them by those original titles in the afterword to the last book, and no one at Zebra caught that.
Speaking of The Sorcerer’s Shadow, I read it earlier this year and greatly enjoyed it. It’s the second book in the Oron series, but it takes places hundreds of years after the events of the first book. How do the other three books fit into the series, chronologically?
After I wrote Oron and was initially unable to sell it, I tried my hand at a pulp-style 1920s mystery set in Limehouse, called The Opium Dragon. Very artsy, and completely uncommercial. It’s never been published and never will be; it’s awful; all that’s left are some pages of the third carbon copy, I think, although I used the premise for a much-improved novelette of the same title that Tommy Hancock printed in his Asian Pulp anthology. So I went back to write another big S&S story on my third try, The Shadow of Sorcery. Zebra bought Oron because Kirby had met Roy Torgeson at some party in Manhattan, and Roy was looking for a Conan-type novel. Oron filled the bill; right place, right time. Pure serendipity, which I am convinced is how these things often happen, or at least did in those days.
I set Shadow in the same environment that I used for Oron, the Attluma setting, but several hundred years after Oron, simply for a change of pace. Oron is supposed to be a kind of Homeric sword-and sorcery epic in 24 books or chapters, like the Iliad—a heroic epic. Shadow I pushed in the direction of being a kind of over-the-top opera or a spaghetti-Western sword-and-sorcery story, which is the best way to describe it. The experiment worked; most readers love it, although the one review I saw of it at the time it came out was written by a woman who was appalled by it. When Roy Torgeson bought it, he wished it to be bigger, more the length of Oron, so I padded it slightly by adding the chapter in which Akram is on the pirate ship. Rather than just add a bunch of words, I made that chapter a kind of miniature of the whole novel, that kind of arc. And he wanted Oron mentioned, the character, so I added material that emphasized the idea of the Na-Kha and of Attluma as this brutal staging area for ongoing battles over time between human beings and demonic forces.
Zebra screwed up the marketing of that book, however. Roy’s plan was to have Clyde Caldwell do the cover, as he had done for Oron, featuring Akram, the shadow-haunted barbarian, and Nidyis, the beautiful, wicked sorceress. Roberta Grossman nixed that; they wound up using a cover painting that has nothing whatsoever to do with my story. To this day, I remember Roy telling me over the phone that it was “a painting Vinnie in the art department found in the back.” So welcome, Dave, to the very real world of commercial fiction publishing. Roberta also nixed the idea of having a chapter of the novel appear in an issue of Heavy Metal magazine, which was a big deal at the time. Roy had made an agreement to have the early chapter in which Nidyis does her sexy dance excerpted in Heavy Metal to promote the upcoming release of the book. Roberta killed that plan because she wanted Shadow to come out as soon as possible after Oron so that it would gain sales on the coattails of the first book. Oron’s a good read, but I think the secret to its initial success was the fact of the interior illustrations by Clyde Caldwell—also Roy’s idea. And he wanted them to be printed on glossy stock, too, which would have been a real kick. Roy was the brains of the outfit as far as I’m concerned; Roberta seems almost to have deliberately sabotaged stuff, and to this day I wonder if she was simply inept and out of her depth or just another body that was there to take up space. Who knows? Anyhow, Shadow never did do as well as Oron in sales, and to add insult to injury, Roberta or someone put them together on the same account for the bookkeeping department, meaning that Shadow really was a drag on the sales of Oron.
But Oron was sufficiently successful that Zebra had a standing offer for me to write three more Oron books for them. I balked at first because I was eager to write my big fantasy trilogy, The Fall of the First World. When that went nowhere, I gave some thought to how I could continue to use the Oron character and decided to do prequels featuring his backstory. But almost as soon as I signed the contract to write those books for Zebra, Pinnacle decided to buy the fantasy trilogy. So I spent a long, very intensive stretch writing a script for one publisher, switching over to the other one, back and forth.
But chronologically, in terms of the history of Attluma, if we want to think that way, the series begins with Reign, Sorcery! (ie, Mosutha’s Magic), then Deathwolf (The Valley of Ogrum), followed by Death in Asakad (The Ghost Army), Oron, and The Shadow of Sorcery. And I suppose, after all, that I should be glad that Roberta didn’t insert herself earlier in the series and rename Oron as The Battle Against an Ugly Worm Guy from the Beginning of Time or something just as mindless.