A cold wind is blowing through the pale green willows around Lake Michigan on this day in early spring. We're in Milwaukee with bestselling author Margaret Weis, about to enter a posh bistro to meet Weis's daughter, Lizz, as well as Patrick McGilligan, editor of the Dragonlance high fantasy series that has made Weis, along with her frequent collaborator Tracy Hickman, rich and famous. Inside, we will begin an interview that will linger over dinner, then continue the next day in Lake Geneva, Wisc., about 60 miles to the southwest, at Weis's lovely tri-level home, a converted 100-year-old barn crammed with objets d'art, books and roiling with four clamoring dogs and three curious cats.
Weis at 56 is, we note, a slender woman of youthful, minimalist style with short white hair, expressive hands and bright eyes. Her next novel, The Dragon's Son, the second installment of her Dragonvarld trilogy, is due from Tor Books in July. In August, Wizards of the Coast will issue another new Weis novel, Amber & Ashes, launching the Dark Disciples trilogy, part of Wizards' 20th anniversary celebration of the immensely successful game-playing and novel-spawning property Dragonlance. And in a rare move, Tor and Wizards are coordinating and in some ways combining their respective publicity plans for the two titles.
McGilligan arrives at the bistro, sporting neat black glasses that lend him a Harry Potter-at-middle-age air, and we are soon joined by Weis's honey-haired daughter, dressed in sharp business attire but eager to unwind. We ask them about Weis's significance to the SF/Fantasy field. McGilligan says that it's major but adds that Weis remains modest about the role she played with Hickman in making literature out of gaming-inspired plots and characters. Weis winces and shakes her head. "We were just writing books about a game, a role-playing game, in rural Wisconsin."
From Games to Books to Games
"I really wanted to be an artist," Weis continues. Instead, growing up in Independence, Mo., as the daughter of an oil executive and a homemaker mom, she went on to earn a B.A. in creative writing at the University of Missouri. In 1970, Weis married and quickly had two children—Lizz, and David, a suicide in 2002 from substance abuse . Weis also quickly landed a proofreading job with Independence's Herald Publishing House, a small press connected to the Church of the Latter-day Saints. After several years there, Weis, using the pseudonym Margaret Baldwin, published her first book, Frank and Jesse James, the Real Story (Simon & Schuster, 1981), which was soon followed by several other young adult nonfiction titles. But by the early '80s, Weis, by then editorial director of the company's trade book division, was a young divorced mother with a desperate longing to start a new life with her children. "I'd gone as far as I could go working for this little publishing house, so I started watching the ads and there was an ad for a games editor placed by TSR" (a game playing publisher whose initials stand for Tactical Studies Rules and which was founded in 1972 as an outgrowth of the International Federation of Wargamers).
"It was an amazing time. At TSR we were in r&d in the top part of an old warehouse. There were no windows. We all had cubicles. I went from being one of the youngest people at Herald House to being one of the oldest at TSR; these guys were so young. I was the first book editor to work with a game committee and there was Tracy [Hickman, then a game designer]. It was like nothing I'd done before. I was getting to spend my entire day having fun, being part of a creative team. And we knew we had something really, really cool with Dragonlance." (In 1974, TSR published the template for fantasy game-playing, Dungeons & Dragons; the Dragonlance saga was released by TSR in 1984 after two years of development, and made TSR one of the most successful publishers of fantasy and SF in the country. Wizards bought TSR in 1997, and Hasbro bought Wizards in 2000.)
"When I came along, TSR had downsized," McGilligan remembers. By then, in the late '80s, Weis and Hickman, whose first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, was published in 1984, had left the company to pursue in tandem the writing of several (non-Dragonlance) bestselling series, including Darksword and Death Gate. McGilligan found himself working in a dark office full of empty cubicles; then he got a call from a Washington Post reporter inquiring about Weis and Hickman. Inspired, McGilligan suggested to the pair that they write more Dragonlance sagas. "You couldn't ignore the numbers," he says. "The number of readers was just astonishing for the first two trilogies." The Dragonlance titles are all still in print, and Weis has stopped counting how many books she's either authored, collaborated or edited—close to 100, judging from the lists on Weis's Web site (www.margaretweis.com).
We ask Weis why her books struck such a chord with readers. "I think because it was fantasy with a kind of common touch," she says. "We deliberately tried to make the characters not so much larger-than-life but ordinary people dealing with larger-than-life situations and trying to cope not only with saving the world but with their own inner turmoil, and resolving those issues. So people can see themselves in these characters."
After dinner, we drive through the gathering darkness, reaching the wilds of Lake Geneva while chatting about Weis's grief over her son's shocking death in 2002; about her relatively recent divorce from her second husband (and co-writer and business partner), Don Perrin; about her charity work with Fellow Mortals, a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Lake Geneva; about her beloved pets. As we watch the moon rise, the talk turns to Hickman, with whom Weis has written more than 40 books. The pair's work has made over 20 trips to the bestseller lists, with sales totaling over 22 million. Hickman created Dragonlance, the role-playing game that, with characters equally adaptable to games and adult tie-in novels, revolutionized the role-playing industry. The two have stopped writing together; Hickman now lives in Utah and writes with his wife. But although there are no plans for another Hickman/Weis collaboration, Weis reports that "Tracy is going to be doing some game products for Sovereign Press," the game-playing company that Weis runs.
The next day, Weis takes us down a winding lake drive the locals call the Snake. Spectacular homes circle the lake in this venerable resort community; parts of the Wrigley estate flash by. The day is sunny and warm as we go down a quaint main street lined with cafés and boutiques. We arrive at Sovereign Press, located in a small building with offices decorated with large posters, full bookshelves, a long gaming table and computers. The press is operated by Weis and three employees, the married Chambers (Jamie is vice-president of production; Renae is the art/marketing director) and Sean Everett, market specialist and managing editor. Weis notes, "We have the license to do the Dragonlance role-playing games from Hasbro. We write, manufacture—we do everything in-house, except we hire freelance writers and artists." Weis adds that "in order to survive in the role-playing game industry, it's best to not put all your dragon eggs in one basket. I'd like to expand into other role-playing games, and other types of games." To that end, she is developing a Dragonvarld role-playing game that her company plans to market in the first quarter of 2005.
Several days later, back home, PW gets in touch with Tor Books and Wizards of the Coast about their synergistic burst of publishing and marketing creativity that will launch the two Weis novels this summer. The publishers have scheduled a BEA appearance for Weis, tour dates in eight to 10 cities and a media blitz that will include a promotional fan event at GenCon, the huge gaming convention, to be held in Indianapolis this August.
Tom Doherty, founder and publisher of Tor Books, shares with us his perspective on the innovative, co-marketing venture.
"It's a special situation within Holtzbrinck," explains Doherty. "We're Wizards' national distributor. This was a win-win kind of a thing. Anyone who reads Margaret is going to want more Margaret. I think by doing the two books the way we're doing them, there will be more spent promoting her name and touring her; the expense can be borne by both books."
We ask Doherty if he thinks fantasy like Weis's will continue to outsell science fiction. "For the foreseeable future, yes. First, when you look at our customer base, a lot more women are reading fantasy than are reading science fiction. And women buy more books than men. Second, a lot of good science fiction is still science-based and requires you to be not only a good storyteller but to have a basic knowledge of the sciences. When you give the author two requirements instead of one you have less liberty in creating a world. So you have more freedom in fantasy to build a world that will address the special interests you're trying to address in your story."
From the Wizards offices in Renton, Wash., Peter Archer, the house's director of publishing, explains how the joint marketing idea grew out of talks with Holtzbrinck last summer in New York. "The first book of the Dragonvarld Trilogy was called Mistress of Dragons. Margaret has been associated with dragons for 20 years now. I remember thinking what a cool idea it would be to co-promote her that way. It seemed sort of logical, a general statement about her that could publicize both the Dragonvarld trilogy and the Dark Disciple trilogy."
Why, we ask, are so many fantasy readers obsessed with dragons? "Every time we put a dragon on the cover or use the word 'dragon' on the cover," Archer says, "we see a bump in sales." I think it's because dragons are one of the oldest mythological creatures. Almost every society seems to have some version of them. Dragons are creatures who are immensely wise, immensely old and potentially either immensely good or immensely evil. They're completely alien from human beings and are lots of fun to play around with."
Weis is represented by the Jonathon Lazear Agency (with offices in the Twin Cities and New York), which also handles Al Franken, Jane Goodall, Jeff Corwin (Animal Planet) and a number of NPR personalities. Weis's Lazear agent, Christi Cardenas, when contacted at her Hudson, Wisc., office, notes that Weis "never takes her readers for granted and works extremely hard to provide them with tales and characters." Weis, Cardenas adds, is "raising the bar for other authors in this category." We ask Cardenas if she thinks the intriguing collaborative marketing strategy Tor and Wizards of the Coast developed for Weis is a marketing trend. "My feeling is that it has more to do with the contribution Margaret has made to the genre and her skills as a writer."
As our visit with Weis winds to a close, we play with the author's dogs and tour her home's spacious grounds, now bursting into bloom. Weis seems to love her animal companions with a fierce tenderness. These animals and her work with Fellow Mortals, keep her grounded. Her daughter, Lizz, and her 13-year-old granddaughter, Natalie, keep her hopeful for the future. Spirit is what keeps her going. Weis defines herself as a tentative agnostic who still seeks God. "I've always been fascinated by religion. It's such a central part of the human existence. Particularly in fantasy, where you're dealing with the battle between good and evil. Everything I've done is a quest for the understanding and meaning of God and what God does in our lives."
Weis accompanies us outside for a snapshot while two of the dogs hover just inside the door, barking and jumping, wanting to play some more. As we exchange farewells, the author brings us to mind of Draconas, one of her great characters from the Dragonvarld trilogy, a dragon who walks the world in human form. Throughout our visit Weis has referred to herself first and foremost as a storyteller. "Writing is what I love to do," she tells us. "I love to go into another world, to go visit another place in my mind and to try and think up all these characters, to play with words, to tell stories." As we part, one of her long arms rises and waves goodbye, like a saluting wing.