Jean: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for “Buzzy Magazine.” With me today is R.R. Virdi, the multi-award-nominated author of “The Grave Report” and “The Books of Winter.” Welcome, Ronnie.
Ronnie: Hi, nice to be here.
Jean: Glad to have you. The three, soon to be four books of “The Grave Report” series have been described as Harry Dresden meets “Quantum Leap.” Was that what you set out to do when you created Vincent Graves and his world or was it something you realized later?
Ronnie: I knew pretty much from the inception, that’s what I wanted. So part of my particular story is when “Ghost Story” came out from Jim Butcher, it was the first chance I would ever have to meet him and he’s always been a lifelong literary hero. I was raised with “Dresden Files” and then the books themselves helped me through a lot of hard times in my life, dealing with depression and stuff like that, and seeing everything Harry Dresden goes through.
During the meeting with Jim, I was very fortunate enough to talk to him about some of the stuff that happened in my life, and he had put aside some time during the signing where there were other people waiting to talk to me and he gave me a lot of hope and encouragement about following my dreams as a writer and told me one day, that if I stuck with this, I could be like him, sit where he’s sitting signing books and even panel with him, which is happening this Dragon Con for the first time.
Ronnie: So I’d always started writing urban fantasy, but it had never gone anywhere. And I started “The Grave Report” sort of as a love letter to everything I loved about Dresden, the noir mystery tropes, how versatile urban fantasy can be with mythology. And I needed a gimmick for my main character, and I didn’t want to do someone who’s a magically-powered protagonist the way Harry was.
And my best friend had brought up that he’d recently restarted watching “Quantum Leap,” which was a big show when we were kids in the ’90s, always on reruns. And I thought that would be the perfect thing to mix up because I love that show. It allowed different bodies, so different stories to be told in, like, a standalone investigator-type story and all I had to do was find a paranormal application for it. So instead of body-hopping with science, I was doing it as a soul going into different bodies.
Jean: The series is composed of four standalone novels that work together to form a cohesive story arc. How has that larger arc changed since you began writing the series or has it?
Ronnie: So when I started, I’m known as a pantser. So I was going book by book, but I did have the end in mind. I’ve always known the end of every novel before I start and I know the end of what I want to accomplish with the series, but I’ve left everything open to how I get there because another one of my inspirations has been the TV show “Supernatural,” and I love the monsters of the week aspect they did, how they could tackle very individual stories and still get to an overall series end and then a season end.
So that’s the way I’m developing. I do know where I’m going, but as I’ve introduced new characters who I thought might be good, they’ve sort of invented their own subplots that I realized I can develop this character and add more heart or more suffering later and, like, really hurt the audience or build them up depending when I get there. And I think it’s growing more by the people, less by the plot as I add more people into the series.
Jean: Oh, that’s very cool. I love it when characters decide that they are their own entity and start telling you, “Hey, we’re gonna do this now.”
Ronnie: Yeah. That can be both a problem and a good thing.
Jean: Yeah. A double-edged sword there. New York City plays a big role in both “The Grave Report” and your other Dragon Award-nominated series, “The Books of Winter.” I happen to think New York is a mythic place myself, but I wonder, was there a deeper reason you chose it as a key setting for both works?
Ronnie.: Yeah. So I have family in New York and I’m based in DC. It’s, so, definitely an East Coast love, but the first time I went there, it was as a kid visiting my uncle who had just moved into Staten Island. And I was kind of just taken away with how, like, impressive physically it was. As a kid, I just felt like there was always this vibe in the air, like all the people going by, there was this, like, physical pressure.
When I first saw Central Park, even though, you know, I’ve seen nature all my life, seeing that level of, like, just manicured beauty within the city felt really magical and I kinda just ran away with the idea of stories. And I think that stayed with me when I first started writing urban fantasy, that for a, really, place that’s like a concrete jungle, there’s a lot of magic hidden within it. And historically there’s such great love and history of immigrants coming over and bringing their culture, their mythology and it all just forms in this melting pot of New York, I couldn’t have thought of, like, a better place to do it in.
Jean: You would have had to invent it if it didn’t exist.
Ronnie: Yeah. And when New York’s there, why not? I mean, it’s already home to superheroes.
Jean: Absolutely. Absolutely. As if those two series weren’t enough to keep you busy, you recently published the first two books of the “Monster Hunter Online LitRPG” series. Since LitRPG is a very new genre, could you explain what sets it apart from the more traditional science fiction and fantasy stories?
Ronnie: Sure. So LitRPG stands for, like, literature role playing game. The aspect that takes most from tabletop RPGs is the tangible metrics of progression. Normally readers will see things like a character progressing in a skill or a statistic, kind of like if you had your D&D character sheet with you. In fact, a lot of LitRPGs do rely on the D&D model. You’ll see the same stat scores of strength, intelligent, characters leveling up, and getting modifiers.
You can almost track a character’s growth with numerical representation versus, maybe in fantasy, you see a character learn a new spell or they just come into their own power, but there’s no way to chart what that number would be. LitRPG prides itself on finding different ways to chart that metric. Other ways, some people do experience points, which is very familiar in video games, other people might follow, you learn a new skill and you continue gaining skills that are represented by very video game-tropey names, for example.
And LitRPG isn’t necessarily bound into any one genre. People have done horror LitRPGs, sci-fi, fantasy. You don’t even have to have the video game element. When the genre was first being created, a lot of people had the story where it’s a portal fantasy and you go into a game, but now there’s this weird boom in growth happening where you can just go into a fantasy world, but for whatever reasons that that author decides, there’s ways to follow the progression of the character. So it feels very at home and familiar, I guess, for people who play tabletop RPGs and video games that there’s some metric you get to visually see that the character is always evolving and growing and you can chart that with numbers.
Jean: Chart that with numbers, but in the context of a traditionally written story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Jean: And yes. Okay, cool. So how is writing it, though, different from writing your more traditional series, like “The Books of Winter” or “The Grave Report”?
Ronnie.: It’s a lot more math. There are now varying schools within it called heart and life, depending on how much numerical stats and backup you do, including displaying all of that. I tried to find a happy middle ground because I don’t like math. So, a lot of…
Jean: That’s why you’re a writer, right?
Ronnie: Yeah. Exactly. And my progression is very based on acquiring new skills, which are just written as words. I don’t have to add a math multiplier to it, but it’s still been hard for me because I feel like it breaks up the narration, which is what I’m used to from being, like, an old-school fantasy mystery and urban fantasy writer that you keep the prose going. You keep the action going.
And it was a bit jarring at first to have breaks, to narrate that a character had acquired something or leveled up and then visually display it. I felt like for me, it was sort of breaking tension and pacing and it sort of had to have me retrain myself on when to now include those scenes, when is it acceptable to show this, how much of this do I have to show? And I still have to keep all the progression in check because it just becomes another point of a plot hole if I mess something up like he was this strong there, and now I’ve said, he’s this strong, but it doesn’t add up. He’s either weaker than what I’ve listed before, or he’s too much stronger and I didn’t chart for that.
Jean: Oh, dear. It sounds like trying to integrate description in the middle of a mad battle scene.
Ronnie: Yeah, actually. And I have had to juggle that, I did that twice in the first book and there was mixed receptions on it. Some people, they accepted it because it’s part of the genre and they felt like that’s where it belonged. Other people who are more professionals and more established in that particular niche of writing kind of recommended later on maybe doing it after the chapter as like an after-battle synopsis of, “Oh, he learned these things.” They weren’t relevant in the middle of his scene.
Jean: Okay. Now we’re going to go completely sideways. You make no secret of the fact you’re a big fan of fine automobiles. If the universe granted you ownership of any car you wanted, but only one, which one would you choose and why?
Ronnie: That’s so easy, but an original ’60s E-Type Jaguar. I’ve always admired everything about them from how physically beautiful they looked. I loved the handmade craftsmanship that went into it. The fact that it was just a bunch of people who wanted to create this gorgeous roadster, this whole, you know, beautiful British heritage-type racer, that it came in British racing green, everything’s hand-hammered. There’s just something visually appealing about every aspect of it from the interior to the hand-coated leather, the V12, just everything. [crosstalk 00:09:31].
Jean: And the fact that the villains always drive Jaguars.
Ronnie: And every British movie villain drives a Jaguar, even though I don’t have a villainy bone in me, I like to pretend I do and I think that car would add to that.
Jean: Wonderful. We’re coming up on the end of the interview. What are you working on now?
Ronnie: Oh, so right now, I have…because I started my career with a love letter to Dresden, I’m trying to write a very Asian Silk Road fantasy love letter to “Name of the Wind” and “Kingkiller” by Patrick Rothfuss because I’ve always, always loved how beautiful and musical his prose was. I love the fact that he wrote, like, this wandering picaresque and, like, love letter to frame narratives. And it just, it’s always evoked stuff like 1,001 nights in the desert for me, Ali Baba, Sinbad, Beowulf. It just felt like it was this compilation of epics and other epics inside that and a love letter to all of them. So I want to try my hand at writing one of those and I’m about 70,000 words into mine.
Jean: Okay, cool. Is that the “Tales of Tremaine”?
Ronnie: That’s “Tales of Tremaine,” yep.
Jean: You’ve got the cover image on your Facebook page. Very cool.
Ronnie: Thank you.
Jean: Before we close, is there anything you’d like to add?
Ronnie: Oh, no, I can’t think of anything right now.
Jean: Well, we’re so glad we had you here.
Ronnie: Thank you. Likewise.
Jean: Thank you, Ronnie, and thank you for “Buzzy Magazine.”