In The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange, Mark Barrowcliffe describes a life most of us can understand. In this funny and endearing memoir, Barrowcliffe details his life-consuming obsession with the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons.
As a child, the writer was a socially awkward, self-described “nerd.” Attending an all-boys school, growing up surrounded by male siblings, and possessing only dudes as pals, Barrowcliffe felt completely ignorant of anything involving girls and distanced from the lives the cool kids lived. He scurried around the streets in Coventry, England, hoping to avoid the tough kids who picked on him. Barrowcliffe provides, in hilarious and humiliating detail, just how uncool he was as a child.
But some of the charm of The Elfish Gene lies in the fact that, to a certain degree, everyone feels awkward and nerdy as an adolescent. Presumably there are a few rare egomaniacal individuals who never felt weird from time to time during junior high and high school.
For most people, however, there’s a clumsiness as we progress through adolescence. And we often seek comfort in some form of obsession during this challenging time. For Barrowcliffe, it was Dungeons and Dragons. I certainly did my time in a D&D cell, but my obsession ultimately transferred over to guitars and books. Hell, I recently read an interview with guitar virtuoso Steve Vai where he said he was so neurotic as a teenager that he practiced scales while sitting on the toilet. We all had something to retreat to.
Which makes it easy to relate to Barrowcliffe’s tale in The Elfish Gene. A few short-sighted readers have criticised his depiction of gamers, but they’re claiming a level of confidence and maturity they almost certainly did not possess as a young teenager. Ultimately, the book reveals a hilarious life and the challenges in growing up and interacting with people. Dungeons and Dragons was just the escape Barrowcliffe chose. But the pressures and humiliations were common for most of us.
In the following interview, Barrowcliffe spoke to me about the characteristics of a writer, about hurting people’s feelings, and about writing as an impediment to your life.
Slushpile: Prior to writing The Elfish Gene, you authored three novels. What prompted you to write a nonfiction account of your Dungeons & Dragons years?
Barrowcliffe: I was asked to. A publisher was looking for writers to do a D&D memoir and my agent put me up for the job because she knew I’d been obsessed by the game. The editor was very pleased with my proposal but the management didn’t think the book was for them. You don’t just have to get stuff past editors nowadays – sales, marketing and senior management all get involved. In the end, we went with a different publisher to the one who expressed the initial interest. I have to thank the original editor for the idea, it wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise that anyone was interested in a book like this. As soon as it was suggested, though, I desperately wanted to write it. Despite what the occasional reviewer has said, I love the game and it’s a tremendous honour to be its first chronicler in this way.
Slushpile: After writing fiction, what did you find most challenging about doing nonfiction? How did you overcome this challenge?
Barrowcliffe: Having to wonder about hurting people’s feelings. That was a really good push for the writing, though, and made me try to see myself through other people’s eyes. I think that’s why the book has a self-deprecating tone. For most of my childhood it wasn’t me who was doing the deprecating! Also, the story requires a narrative, which real lives tend not to have, not in the sense you’d get in a novel. Things just stop for no reason, characters don’t necessarily change and grow. Seeing the narrative in your own life can be very hard but it’s incredibly worthwhile. I don’t think I’d ever acknowledged just how hurt I was by losing the D&Der Billy as a friend until I wrote the book.
Having said that, I loved writing the book and found it flowed easily. When I finished it, I was pleased just to have written it, no matter what it’s success and I think I got the book I would have wanted when I set out. That’s not always the case in writing. I’m very proud of it, so that makes three out of my five books I feel like that about. It’s my favourite, along with Lucky Dog.
Slushpile: A lot of kids have vague and general fantasies. Let’s say they’re pretending to be a superhero, they might picture a red cape, the ability to fly, and that’s the extent of their daydream. But the gamers I knew could vividly describe the stitching on their imaginary boots, the grain of leather on their scabbard, and the folded metal of their sword. Was your experience like this as well? And did gaming influence/challenge/grow your imagination at all?
Barrowcliffe: Yes. I did wear a cape and was annoyed that my girlfriend made it for me in nylon rather than Shadowcat fur. Gaming shrank my imagination, if anything. To tie yourself to just one milieu – heroic fantasy – is very limiting. It’s inventive to come up with fantastic beasts and epic plots but more so to imagine stories of everyday life. Small things are more difficult to picture than big ones. Observation is important for a writer and, for my entire adolescence, I observed nothing but the inside of my own head.
Slushpile: As a follow-up in that same vein, how do your years playing Dungeons & Dragons influence your writing style today?
Barrowcliffe: To be honest, only as a “what not to do.” I loved very flowery language when I was a child and couldn’t bear any element of humour in fantasy stories. Many fantasy novelists are not particularly good stylists. There are exceptions of course – Ursula Le Guinn, CS Lewis and even, in a weird way, Tolkien. I took much more from reading PG Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad than I ever did Michael Moorcock and Andre Norton, as much as I enjoyed – and still enjoy – their books.
D&D, however, did get me into the habit of writing, which is more important than style. You can have the best style in the world but it won’t do you much good unless you sit down at your desk.
Slushpile: You write that memories of good times and bad times tend to fade over the years. But embarrassing moments remain vividly etched into your brain. “You tend to remember the lines pretty well once you’ve woken screaming them at midnight a few times.” What’s your most embarrassing moment in terms of your writing career?
Barrowcliffe: Getting very drunk at literary functions where big chain book buyers are present. I don’t drink at all now and haven’t for three years, three months, twenty two days, nine hours, six minutes and five seconds. I was chatting to one buyer for an enormous chain and he said, “You have a very caustic sense of humour in your writing but you couldn’t insult me.” I bet him I could. When his wife appeared I called her a “‘rotten fucking cow,” as I recall, straight out of the blue – not witty, funny or nice but I was plastered. I won my bet. The next morning I awoke frying in my own embarrassment. That sort of incident is why I decided to stop drinking.
Slushpile: Dungeons & Dragons characters accumulate points in several key traits. Their characteristics are Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. If you were putting together a role playing game featuring writers, what traits would the author characters posses?
–Ability to wear a linen suit with Panama hat
–Unpleasantness to girlfriend masquerading as artistic depth
–General unpleasantness masquerading as artistic depth
–Book shop fear factor (saving throw against looking to see if a book of yours you know isn’t on the shelf is on the shelf)
–Resistance to flattery
Slushpile: How would you score yourself in those characteristics?
Barrowcliffe: Out of 18 (3D6) 16, 4, 7, 15, 14, 18, 18 (00), 5
Slushpile: In the original incarnation of Dungeons & Dragons, there were three character classes: fighter, cleric, magic user. What contemporary authors would you place into these three classes?
Barrowcliffe: To be honest, I hardly read contemporary authors. I’m much more a Jane Austen and Conan Doyle sort of man than I am say, er,,,,can’t think of any names. Brett Easton Ellis can be a fighter, because that would be funny. Irvine Welsh is a Magic User (incomprehensible mumblings to occasional startling effect) and Jonathan Frantzen can be a cleric because, like church, he bores the arse off me. If I read one more American novel which begins with a description of mountains or weather I think I’ll go running into the blue hills of Massachusetts where the clouds tumble to the plain like shopping off a fucking cart and drown myself in the muddy waters of the Neponset while the nagging wind pulls like memory at my nuts. Sorry, but I want a novel, not a weather forecast.
You can see the writer at the keyboard: “Hmmm, how to begin? Not really got an idea for a character yet, let’s just doodle about the weather and the scenery for a few pages and call it a hymn to the grandeur of the American landscape.”
Who would be a thief? Best leave that one out, for the sake of the lawyers. I’m more of a Runequest character myself, a wide base of low skills.
Slushpile: In The Elfish Gene, you mention your childhood love of J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Moorcock, and Ursula K. Le Guin. What other writers impressed you?
Barrowcliffe: As I said, I never gave up PG Wodehouse, even at the height of my fantasy mania. The man is a genius and makes me weep with laughter. I love how gentle his world is. It may surprise those who have read my novels to learn that I try to emulate him in everything I write. My second novel, for instance, was intended to be a Wodehousian romp, with larger-than-life characters and a farce of a plot. My third book Lucky Dog was a real attempt to do something as gentle and removed from real life as Wodehouse’s Edwardian fantasy world. I have been accused of – or even complimented for – being “savage” or “nasty” in some of my writing, so God knows what they would say if I actually tried to be.
I liked an English writer called Spike Milligan too – a comedian who did war reminiscences. I’d recommend “Adolf Hitler: His Part in My Downfall.” The bit where the first shots of the war are fired and he runs up and down shouting ‘stop it you fools, someone will get hurt!’ is particularly memorable. It’s also the record of his mental collapse and is moving in places. I read Oscar Wilde very early too – my mum’s influence, along with Wodehouse. Dorian Grey really chilled me, as did Dracula (didn’t like the end). Enid Blyton’s Binkle and Flip (two bad bunnies) made me laugh when I was very young.
I loved HP Lovecraft. Nothing about his writing style is good – apart from the fact that it works. His prose is florid, with sentences running into pages, his dialogue is non existent or useless, his descriptions overblown – and yet it comes together to create this creeping miasma of horror. It’s like Hendrix playing the detuned guitar – all right for him but don’t try it yourself.
Slushpile: In addition to the fantasy books you admired, what nonfiction and memoirs influenced you? Were there any books you used as a sort of role model for The Elfish Gene?
Barrowcliffe: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch showed me you could write about an ordinary life. Edmund White, believe it or not, taught me that honesty is the best policy. Alan Bennett’s style and attention to detail inspired me too.
I don’t really model my writing on anyone, though. This isn’t out of high principle, or a desire to be original, it’s because I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to do the background reading. Less flippantly, I like writing, not research, so I normally just start bashing away and see what comes out. I have contemplated removing that double entendre but thought, in the end, that I’d leave it in. Oh, there I go again.
Slushpile: On your blog, you mention that the urge to indulge in role playing games is back upon you. What are your latest activities? Gotten into any good campaigns? Developed any cool characters?
Barrowcliffe: I’m developing a game that – like my latest novel – is set in the Viking age. Looking for artists if anyone’s interested. I have an innovative combat system. If I was still single I might use that as a chat up line. “Hello, you look nice. I have an innovative combat system, would you like to see it?”
I’ve just got a three book deal to write some fantasy novels. The characters in that are cool, I hope, but will have to remain under wraps for a time.
Slushpile: How is your experience with role playing games different now, in comparison to your years spent playing as an adolescent?
Barrowcliffe: Well I don’t really play them, although I’m scheduled to. I haven’t the time, that’s the main thing. As an adolescent I had vast wastes of the stuff, in fact time is virtually all I had. Now I very often don’t get time to eat. I collect games. Now I have the money to buy them, that’s a big difference from when I was young.
Slushpile: How long did it take you to write The Elfish Gene?
Barrowcliffe: I can’t really remember. About two months for the first draft, a bit longer on rewrites, I think. It was easy to write, I recall that.
Slushpile: What was the hardest part of the book to write?
Barrowcliffe: About the people I still, despite myself, hate. I wrote a huge section about a character called Chigger, who beat me up over a D&D dispute when I was 12. He was 17. We met up by chance when I was 23 – by which time I was 6’1” and 220lbs – and his comment was, “Fuck me, you’ve grown.”
I didn’t like him at all and the section I wrote was too venomous. I just binned it in the end. No one’s interested in that, not even him I suspect.
Slushpile: Once the book was released, what did you do to market it? There’s a cool website with a character creator, but did you reach out to any gaming groups? Did you attend any gaming conventions?
Barrowcliffe: No gaming conventions. Lots of radio and press interviews. I don’t think web groups welcome spam but I have an interview on NPR and another one with WBAA public radio. I also did an interview with Yog Sothoth radio and some online chats with people. Maybe I’ll do more when the paperback comes out.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Barrowcliffe: Drop the adverbs in dialogue attribution, he said forcefully and wryly.
Actually, a better one is this: If you find it difficult to write, if you tidy the garden, drink coffee, research and walk the dog rather than begin then there are two explanations. The first is that you’re writing the wrong thing. The second is that you’re not a writer. This is no big deal. Writers have an enormous effect on people’s lives but if I had to live without them or plumbers, I know which one I’d choose. There’s no book can bring you the joy of a functioning lavatory. You should only write if it’s an impediment to your life not to.
One third, single-best tip. Be honest. That means really looking at who you are, where you come from, what really affects you in your life. I started off trying to be a cross between Martin Amis and Kafka and I produced some real dross. When I realized I was a fat working class smart ass who could do a reasonable trade in one liners then my writing transformed. If you don’t have very deep or meaningful thoughts, what’s the point in trying to write like you do? When I wrote my first book, I was a man obsessed with getting a girlfriend, so I wrote about a man obsessed with getting a girlfriend. Build up to writing about Medici nuns. Write what you know, was what I was trying to say. And write. Just write, every day and for as long as you can.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Barrowcliffe: I haven’t really got one because I was very lucky when I first started. Write something, I suppose. I was picked up by an agent after she read a magazine article I’d written. This sounds arrogant but it echoes something the pop impresario Tony Wilson once said to someone who asked him how to make it in the music industry. “If you’re good enough, it’s inevitable. It will happen, no question.” You stick at it, you send your stuff to agents, if you’re lucky enough to get comments on your work then you take them very seriously and you’re prepared to rewrite. If you have the talent plus the application then you will get published. If you’re really good it won’t take long. To continue the music business analogy, The Smiths were signed on their fourth gig. My band has been going 25 years and has yet to trouble the record industry contract lawyers. What does this tell me?
The bad news is that getting a contract is just the first step. Unfortunately it’s not a winning line you cross and everything you ever do after is snapped up. Public taste is fickle and more elements than your writing are at play – cover design, marketing, sales force, whether the PR people are on the ball, if – as happened to me in the UK – you have a bit of bad luck.
We didn’t see that Tolkien’s Children of Hurin was published in the same week as The Elfish Gene. Tolkien ate my reviews – no books editor wants that much fantasy in the section. Luckily that didn’t happen in the US and we got good coverage. I say we because it really is a team effort. Writing alone will not put you in the bestseller list.
If you do get rejected, don’t take it too hard. Everyone gets rejected, everyone, sooner or later – if not by the agents then the publishers, if not by them then the critics or the buying public.
That said, try to get honest responses to your work because, if you’re actually rubbish at it, then it’s an awful waste of time to keep going. If someone tells you you’re no good, thank them. They’re doing you a favour. They might be wrong of course, but if you have three years of rejection letters, give up or change tack. It can be the hardest thing in the world to judge your own writing.
I’ve digressed, haven’t I?
For more information about The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing Up Strange by Mark Barrowcliffe, check out the book’s website which includes a blog by the author.
Photo by Claire Lachlan