Looking over Ethan Gilsdorf‘s list of credits, it’s clear the man has never met a genre of nonfiction he could not master. He’s a frequent instructor at Boston’s GrubStreet and has published hundreds of articles, but today he’ll be answering a few questions about his book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.
In this interview, you’ll learn:
- How newspaper and magazine articles can launch a book.
- The value of first-hand reporting.
- Tips for promoting your work.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks?
Ethan: My original idea was to write a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and her life. She had succumbed to a debilitating brain injury when I was 12 and she was 38—the same year I began to play Dungeons & Dragons and get sucked into fantasy worlds. That book never happened, but I began to see way I could explore my fascination with fantasy and gaming through the lens of my own life, as well as the cultural changes that had occurred since I was a nerd back in the 1970s and 1980s. My agent helped me shape the idea as a hybrid memoir, stunt journalism narrative, and pop cultural investigation into various subcultures, such as D&D players, Larpers and video gamers, to Harry Potter, cosplay and Lord of the Rings fan communities. How and why had fantasy and gaming gone so mainstream? What did it all mean? Those were my guiding ideas as I delved into researching and writing Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks. In the end, I was able to save one of the chapters from my “mom memoir” project which, seriously revised, became the prologue to FF&GG.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Ethan: In a panic. Seriously, I wish I’d had more of a method to my madness. But here is what happened. To write FF&GG, I first began getting assignments from magazines and newspapers for stand-alone articles; a few of these later became chapters in the book. Once I had a book contract in hand and a small advance, I spent a year doing (simultaneously!) book/internet research, field work/interviews, and immersion journalism projects, as well as investigating my own past, which involved talking to family/old friends and analyzing my own personal archives of high school papers, photos, and old D&D paraphernalia.
I wanted each chapter to focus on a different subculture, so I picked a couple dozen ideas: exemplary events to attend, people to shadow and interview, and activities I could participate in — like dressing up in costume and camping with 12,000 medieval reenactors, for example; or spending a few weeks playing the video game World of Warcraft; or hanging out with Tolkien nerds at a convention in the UK for a weekend.
That said, I tried to — and for space reasons, had to — narrow the focus of my investigation to fantasy and gaming only. That meant skipping things like science fiction (my beloved Star Wars!), or superhero comics, and other nerd cultures. I was also limited by budget, which impacted where I could travel. I went on several trips across the nation, one to the UK and to France. I also decide to splurge on a trip to New Zealand to make a pilgrimage to the Lord of the Rings filming locations and Peter Jackson’s movie production facilities. Sadly, I had to ignore a LOT of ideas and leads, and even after my trips and experiences, and hundreds of pages of notes, much great material ended up on cutting room floor.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Ethan: Badly! I am terribly disorganized. I make lists, and jot down notes, and keep many Word docs laden with ideas, links, other stories. I buy books, I go to the library, and I look on Google a lot. I have lots of things scribbled on post-it notes. At times, it can all feel pretty overwhelming. And I definitely think you can research too much. It can get in the way of your own thinking and your own ideas.
I think I do my best research first-hand, with notebook in hand, and camera around my neck (or in my pocket), in the field, taking notes as I’m talking to people, and recording my observation and ideas. I do this while I’m engaged in some experience, such as mountain biking, or trying to sword fight, or wandering around talking to people at a convention. I learned this skill as a travel writer based in Paris for five years. There is no substitute for first-hand reportage.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Ethan: A research day is different from a writing day is different from book promotion day.
A research day usually has me out in the field somewhere, interviewing someone in person (where possible) or talking to them on the phone, or doing some archival work or Googling around the internet. This is a fun process as I get sucked down multiple rabbit holes.
A writing day, especially when I’m on deadline, is more fraught with stress. As a freelance journalist, usually I am trying to knock out some story or column (or at least the first draft of it) in a good solid 4 to 6 hour stretch (in between being seduced by social media). When I wrote Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, I was able to scale back my freelance work and focus more on my book writing. But I had less than a year from signing the contract to my deadline to do all my research and writing, so I had to become more disciplined than I’d ever been as a writer. I thumb-tacked a calendar to the wall in my office, made firm dates for the trips and travel that was needed for about 9 months of researching. I had to crank out 1 to 2 chapter a month, in and around all the travel. I gave myself deadlines, and tried to stick with my plan. And I did, more or less.
Book promotion is a different muscle. I slip into self-promotion mode. Back when Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks was a new book, a book promotion day might have involved contacting organizers of reading series, college professors, bookstores, potential reviewers, groups that might co-sponsor some promotion or event, or trying to write an op-ed and place it with a media outlet. Or I might have been giving a talk at a college or book fair, doing a radio show, or attending a convention and handing out postcards. I tried all kinds of things. I was a tireless self-promoter! Some of my tips can be found in a chapter I contributed to Chuck Sambuchino’s excellent book Create Your Writer Platform: The Key to Building an Audience, Selling More Books, and Finding Success as an Author.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Ethan: I’m a fan of several books, including Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, a terrific book for those looking for big-picture and micro-level writing issues, and for memoir writers, Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler, and The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts which are both great help for those thinking about writing short or long-length memoir.
On a more practical level, if you’re easily distracted by the internet, I recommend installing these apps on your computer: Freedom and Antisocial are software to block access to the internet or social media only for discreet periods time, so you can increase your own productivity.
Bonus question: Dungeons & Dragons recently turned 40 (How is that possible?). Were you able to use that occasion to generate new publicity for your book?
Ethan: Short answer: yes! Anniversaries are great ways to make your expertise or niche area instantly timely and newsworthy. I wrote probably 10 different stories, op-eds, commentaries, posts and personal essays in 2014 that tied into the 40th anniversary of D&D. Each of these ended with my bio: “Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Salon, BoingBoing, … etc. You can read more about Ethan at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.Contact him at www.ethangilsdorf.com or follow him on Twitter @ethanfreak.” Get your book title and your website and Twitter handle into your boilerplate bio. Which is what I am doing here. Mwwhahahha!