Alum to return to NIU as author

By Chris Krapek

Want to find out how a Huskie went from dorms to dragons?

NIU alumnus and science-fiction author E.E. Knight (real name Eric Frisch) will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday in Campus Life Building room 110. Knight graduated from NIU in 1987 with a double major in history and political science. He has since gone on to author numerous works, including his two series “Age of Fire” and “Vampire Earth.” In 2007, he donated a collection of his manuscripts and short stories to the NIU Founder’s Memorial Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections.

The Northern Star recently spoke to Knight about his time in DeKalb, life as a science-fiction writer and trips to Target for baby wipes.

Northern Star: What are some of the memories you have from going to NIU and living in DeKalb?

E.E. Knight: Living at the Honors floor at Douglas Hall. Luckily the floor was co-ed. I grew up with just my brother, so it was eye-opening to rub shoulders with the women before they were showered and coiffed. I enjoyed living with students from all over the world in the hall.

I grew up well outside the Twin Cities in Minnesota, so our ethnic diversity was Scandinavian Catholics and Scandinavian Lutherans with a few Sioux and Ojibwe thrown in. I liked hearing stories about growing up in Turkey or China. Late-night bull-sessions. I have a fun memories of raucous movies and events at the HSC. And lots of late nights at the library. As for off-campus life, I wasn’t much of a bar person. I only hit the strip a few times and for that I had to be dragged out by friends.

I’m both phlegmatic and introverted, so it’s hard to pry me out of my usual holes. My best memories of NIU involve the faces of faculty members. I did a lot of honors program and departmental special projects as an undergrad in my junior and senior years where I worked with different faculty advisers. I’ve been on quite a few campuses since for one reason or another and NIU does a good job with recruiting faculty who have a range of experiences outside academia. They taught me their subjects, sure, but they also taught me how to work, organize, write and present clearly and efficiently.

Most encouraged pursuits outside their subjects — I received some of the best tips on movies, books, plays and music from faculty. While they were specialists, they recognized the need for a broad cultural and intellectual life.

NS: When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

EEK: It’s been a part of my life almost as long as I can remember. I wrote my first story as a tween, it was a piece of fanfic based on “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” My extracurricular activities in high school mostly revolved around writing — I worked on my high school paper and was one of the editors my senior year. Doing a novel “someday” was a goal from pretty early on when I was reading seriously in the genre as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized, belatedly, that my “somedays” were starting to run short. That’s when I started taking novel-writing seriously, and produced a manuscript. The first one was a failure — I wouldn’t even want it published now — but the second started the “Vampire Earth” series.

NS: What is it about fantasy and science-fiction that intrigues you?

EEK: I like that you can be topical in an oblique manner. While you still do a fair amount of research, the workload isn’t what it would be if I were doing a historical or historical fiction narrative.

NS: You’re the author of two series; “Age of Fire” and “Vampire Earth.” What’s the creative process like in writing a new entry every year?

EEK: Well, while I’m in the process of writing one, I’m starting to accumulate ideas and researching for the next book in the other series. When I start to stumble with the vampires, I work on the dragons for a few days or a week and return to the manuscript refreshed.

NS: Is it harder to live in the real world or create a fantasy world?

EEK: I’m not sure I understand that question. Often I’m a little spacey when I finish a session of drafting. It’s like I have to be in a decompression chamber for a little while to return to the real world. And I’m terrible on names. I have so many fictional people in my head, it’s like they crowd out actual people.

If you mean write in the real world, yes, that has its difficulties, because you have to get so much right. As a writer, you often know a little about a lot of different subjects, but no matter how deeply you study a subject, I find there’s always someone out there who is a bigger expert and a more experienced enthusiast than you.

With creating a fantasy world you have to be quite an interdisciplinarian. Geography, history, biology, sociology… you’re dabbling in all these subjects to create an interesting, evocative and palpable world. I’ve found that the harder you work on your fantasy world-building, the easier your plots and characters become, because a well-designed world has built-in problems that have probably been building for a while. Ideally, your character is joining the action in the third season, so to speak.

Ian Fleming used to have a deep base of technical experts he’d call up on whatever subject — gold smuggling, cryptography, Berns-Martin holsters and so on, but he said that while the technical facts may be interesting in and of themselves, they have to be in there in service of the story. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with dragons or extraterrestrial Lovecraftian vampires, your characters are still going to be climbing up Maslow’s hierarchy.

NS: What’s the biggest misconception people have about science-fiction writers?

EEK: Probably either that we’re wealthy or that we spend all our time thinking “deep thoughts” all day, then tossing back brandies at editorial confabs. My wife and I have a toddler and another one on the way; I need to get my writing done and then find time to run out to Target for baby wipes and dog food and figure out just what we’ll cut back on so the property taxes will be paid, just like everyone else.

I talk to my agent a few times a year, unless we’re in the middle of negotiations, and my editor about the same, with the pace suddenly picking up when we’re working over a manuscript, then it slacks off to almost nothing again. There’s a reason so many of us shoot out to cafes to work now and then, most novelists were in the workplace at some point or other, and we miss a little background noise, movement and unfamiliar faces. If you really want to tick me off, you can say something along the lines of, “Well, you don’t work, so it must be easy to…” Writing a novel is work, hard work, though I’m the first to admit it’s nicer work than any other job I’ve ever had.

NS: What will be going on at your event here on the 24th?

EEK: I’m going to try to make it about 60-70 percent of interest to people who want to be paid to write, and 30-40 percent specific talk about my work for readers of the books. I’ll try to keep the “lecture” portion under 50 minutes and have a lot of time for Q&A, signing books and maybe do some one-on-one for people who want to stay late after the event.