James L. Sutter on the Art of Role Playing and Defining His Bisexuality
Author: Gabrielle Harbowy
November 21, 2017
Author, editor, publisher, and game designer James L. Sutter is stepping down from Paizo Publishing, a leading publisher of the Pathfinder and Starfinder role playing games and related novels, after thirteen years, to pursue writing full time.
As an editor, I acquired a short story of James’ (in the anthology When the Hero Comes Home 2, published by Dragon Moon Press) and James, as managing editor at Paizo, offered me my very first book contract (for the queer adventure tale Gears of Faith, a stand-alone tie-in novel set in the popular Pathfinder role playing universe).
I talked to James about life after Paizo, defining his sexuality, and steering a role playing universe.
Can you tell us a little about Pathfinder’s beginnings?
Pathfinder was really born of necessity. Paizo had been making the classic Dragon and Dungeon magazines under license from their owner, Wizards of the Coast. Wizards of the Coast decided to bring them back in house and put them online. So suddenly we were a magazine company with no magazines, and we looked around and asked, “Well, what are we best at?” And the answer was making adventures for Dungeons & Dragons, so we launched the Pathfinder Adventure Path, which was us making adventures and creating a new campaign setting of our own that was all compatible with the D&D rules (which were open source at the time). Shortly thereafter, Wizards released a new version of the rules that wasn’t open source in the same way, and so in order to keep publishing we took the old rules, made some changes we’d always wanted to see, and released them under the new name “Pathfinder.” And to our surprise and delight, a ton of the fans who had been reading Dragon and Dungeon stuck by us and catapulted us almost overnight from being a licensor of D&D to its largest competitor.
Paizo was a much smaller company back then, so there were only a handful of us who were involved in the actual creation of Pathfinder. As a writer, editor, and developer, I was most focused on helping to create the campaign setting, building a world the fans could really get invested in. (After all, in the beginning the rules were basically just D&D with some updates, so the world and the adventures were the place where we could really plant a flag and show what made us different.) For the next decade or so, I was one of the main creative leads on the game, including running the Pathfinder novel line as Executive Editor, before switching to Creative Director for the launch of Starfinder, Paizo’s new roleplaying game which is basically a science-fantasy version of Pathfinder, with spaceships and laser guns as well as spells and monsters.
Was diversity part of the vision from the beginning?
Yes and no. While we made some choices that I’m really proud of, especially with regard to our iconic characters—making our paladin a black woman, having Kyra the cleric’s attire be heavily inspired by real-world Muslim attire—the truth is that it was 2006 and, with the exception of Art Director Sarah Robinson, pretty much the entire team was cis white guys (who wouldn’t even have had any idea what “cis” meant at that point). While we always had a degree of focus on LGBTQ+ issues, thanks to co-creator F. Wesley Schneider, we grew and learned a lot over the ensuing decade, both individually and as a staff, and it took a while for the idea of diversity and social progress to really become part of the game’s mission.
For me, one of the most important advancement points was when we hired Managing Editor Judy Bauer. She’s really the person who helped me to understand a lot of our industry’s problems with representation, and I have tremendous respect for the way she kindly but firmly pulled our heads out of the sand. For instance, one of the first things she did after being hired was start keeping a list for each product of the gender of named characters. At the end of her edit pass, she’d show it to the developers, and we’d realize that while we thought we were being inclusive, the ratios of men to women were still atrocious. That kind of thing. I’m hugely grateful to her for helping make me a better writer, and I’ve really tried to learn from her combination of empathy and persistent pressure as a means of getting through to folks inclined toward defensiveness.
So that’s Pathfinder. For Starfinder, however, we absolutely went at it with diversity as a primary design goal! And for me as Creative Director, the number one place I wanted to make sure that happened was in the art. It doesn’t matter how progressive your text is—if folks open up your book and don’t see anyone who looks like them, they’re going to put it down again. So in writing out the art orders with Starfinder’s Art Director Sarah Robinson, we really took pains to make sure that this wasn’t a book full of white dudes. There’s a lot I’m proud of about the game, but one aspect I can point to immediately is the fact that when you flip to the “humans” entry in the races section, the two representative illustrations of what a human looks like are a black female starfighter pilot and a Native American space cop. It’s my hope that choices like that throughout the game will help welcome folks from demographics who’ve previously felt frozen out of the tabletop RPG industry.
I loved that when I pitched a story for Pathfinder Tales about two same-gender characters in a long-term, established romantic relationship, having adventures with their dog, no one in the entire company seemed to bat an eye. It’s been personally inspiring to me to see queer characters in the game material and the accompanying fiction, and to see them receive such a welcome among both the creative staff and the fan base.
You were a part of Lightspeed Magazine‘s: Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue in June 2015, so I think it’s safe to say you’re out at work… Has your experience at Paizo affected your experience with your own orientation and identity?
I started at Paizo when I was 20 years old, having graduated early from college, at which point my relationship with my own sexuality was pretty confused. I still considered myself straight, despite my newfound interest in flirting with guys. Shortly after joining the company, I became close friends with F. Wesley Schneider, another Paizo developer who was only a few years older than me. At the time, Wes had only been out as gay for maybe a year, but had already really paved the way in the company for queer representation in both the books and the office culture. When maybe a year later I had my first romantic/sexual experience with a guy, he was the first one on the scene (metaphorically–he wasn’t the guy in question) to help walk me through that process of figuring myself out. (Which pretty much consisted of “All right, you’re queer now, let’s get you some jeans that fit your ass and hit the Pride Parade.” God bless you, Wes Schneider.)
That said, while Paizo’s a very accepting company, and I’ve pushed hard to help make it that way, for most of my tenure I was much less “out” at work than you’d think. As I wrote about in that QDSF essay, “Halfway in the Pool,” bisexual men occupy a really weird place in our society. You’re too queer for the straights, too straight for the gays. Either a closet case or a metrosexual hipster. (I remember one particular conversation in a gay bar where a number of gay men—very sympathetically—insisted that bi men weren’t a real thing. When they’d finally talked to me enough to be convinced I was indeed such a specimen, they excitedly called all their friends over, yelling “HOLY SHIT! WE FOUND ONE!”)
All of which means that while I quickly felt comfortable with my actual sexuality, I still get anxious whenever I call myself queer—especially now that I’m married to a woman. Because at some level, it doesn’t feel like I’ve earned it. Nobody’s trying to remove my marriage rights. Nobody’s attacking me physically. Outside of some internal awkwardness, I’ve never suffered for my sexuality. But therein lies the rub, because if I don’t claim that B in LGBTQ+, I’m just furthering the myth that bisexuals don’t exist. And writing that essay really opened my eyes, because as soon as Lightspeed published it, I got flooded with emails from people who’d been struggling with the same issue. So in recent years, while continuing to try to write plenty of LGBTQ+ representation into both my Paizo and creator-owned work, I’ve been trying to be more public about my own sexuality. And my colleagues at Paizo and elsewhere in the industry have been really supportive of that.
Speaking of your creator-owned (that is, not game/franchise tie-in) work, tell me more about that? You’ve got a bunch of short stories out there, and some novels in the works?
Yeah, on the creator-owned side, I’ve published a number of short stories in places like the Escape Artist podcasts (Podcastle, Pseudopod, Escape Pod), Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Machine of Death (which had the distinction of bumping Glenn Beck out of the #1 spot on Amazon, leading to a deeply satisfying public freakout on his part). My most recent short work was “Bonded Men,” in the 2014 Shattered Shields anthology from Baen, which took a lot of influence from the real-world Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite military unit composed of married gay warriors. It’s a concept I’ve come back to several times in different stories—how much more effective would you be on the battlefield if you knew the soldier next to you as well as you know your spouse? How much harder would you fight to protect them?
These days, however, with tie-in game books and comics gobbling up a lot of my writing time, I’m really trying to spend the rest on novels. After 13 years at Paizo, I recently left in order to write full-time. I’m currently shopping a book that’s a young adult romance about two teenage ballerinas who get sucked through a portal into an uninhabited fantasy world where human willpower can shape reality—think Sartre’s No Exit done as a queer teen love story.
It’s admittedly a pretty huge departure from the sort of sword-and-sorcery I’ve built my career on, but that was the point—I wanted to stretch different muscles and do a book that focused entirely on the interactions of just three main characters. But as I said, it’s only now being shopped, so we’ll see if I pulled it off!
Okay, that is quite a departure! How did you end up at ballerinas?
I ended up at ballerinas in 2014, when you and I were both at the Launchpad Astronomy Workshop (for your readers: it’s this amazing free workshop for science fiction writers where a group of very fun and generous professors cram as much science into your brain in a week as they can, in the hopes that you’ll stop making the same basic mistakes in your books/films/comics, and thus raise the general science education of the audience as a whole). One of the other writers there was Meg Howrey, an amazing literary fiction author who also happens to be a former professional ballet dancer.
Meg is fantastic. She and I stayed up all night at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory (WIRO) one evening at Launchpad, collecting binary star data together and talking about what would become her book The Wanderers (which is a beautifully literary work of hard science fiction).
Yeah! So, one night she was talking about this boarding school for dancers she’d gone to as a child, which was housed inside an old hotel and had a creepy abandoned library on one of the unused floors. The girls would dare each other to sneak down to the supposedly haunted library and bring back a book to prove they’d been there. When she finished, I told her, “You know, that’s the perfect setup for a young adult fantasy. What if the library really was haunted? What if one day you took the elevator down to that floor, and when you came back up, you found you’d fallen through into an alternate dimension—a world behind the world?” She felt that she couldn’t write about it because she was too close to the material, but she graciously gave me permission to take that seed and run with it. I still might not have written the book, however, if I hadn’t then happened to read her novel The Cranes Dance, all about professional ballet dancers in New York. Up to that point, I had zero interest in ballet, but she brought the subculture to life with a voice that totally captivated me. Throw in the fact that I’d just discovered a love of young adult romance books, and it all kind of fell together. But I absolutely owe the book—which I’m calling Ghostland Girls—to Meg’s inspiration!
People always ask where we get ideas from, as writers, and I always think, “Where DON’T we get ideas?” I mean, you went home from an astronomy workshop totally inspired to write a portal fantasy about ballerinas (in addition to all the other things Launchpad inspired you to write).
What’s up next?
At the moment, I’m working on a dystopian science fiction thriller—essentially a young adult mash-up of Judge Dredd and Minority Report. I’m not going to lie: after all those quiet emotions, it’s a relief to be writing straight-up fight scenes again!
Before we go, I’d like to change tracks to talk about the novels you’ve written that are already out: Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine, in the Pathfinder Tales line. Want to tell us a little about Salim and his story?
Death’s Heretic and The Redemption Engine are both fantasy novels about an atheist inquisitor who, through some bad decisions, ends up traveling across the multiverse tracking down missing souls for the death goddess. Think of them as Blade Runner meets Dante’s Inferno. Like all the Pathfinder Tales novels, they’re set in the same world as Pathfinder, but you don’t need to know anything about the game to enjoy them.
One of the things I love about fantasy and science fiction is the ability to explore philosophical questions through a different lens, and these books definitely follow that route. The main character, Salim Ghadafar, is an atheist in a world where gods are objectively real, where any priest on the street can call down miracles on command. So the first book, Death’s Heretic, was really about what it would mean to be an atheist in that world. In Salim’s case, he and the people of his nation don’t deny that the gods exist, they simply refuse to worship them—they see pledging your immortal soul in exchange for magic as a form of indentured servitude, and are fiercely proud of their independence. Of course, the rest of the world thinks they’re crazy. The plot of the book may be sword-swinging adventure with fey and robots and riddle-singing chaos snakes, but the heart to me is really Salim wrestling with his own self-loathing for indenturing himself to a goddess.
In The Redemption Engine, Salim gets called in when a bunch of souls bound for Hell go missing, and the death goddess—being a deity of perfect balance and accounting—assigns Salim to go find the missing sinners and bring them back to their rightful punishment. Again, we’ve got all sorts of crazy adventures through Heaven and Hell, but at the book’s heart is the question of consent and its role in morality. If you could magically turn an evil person good against their will, should you? Is that a miracle, or a terrible injustice? Is it even possible to be good or evil if you don’t have free will? I had a lot of fun exploring those issues, and I also really adored writing Salim’s two sidekicks, Bors and Roshad.
Remember when I said earlier that I spent a while fixated on married gay warrior teams? Well, Bors and Roshad were my chance to do a whole book of them—they’re members of the Iridian Fold, a mysterious warrior cult in which two men seek to become so close that they literally share a consciousness, acting as a single unit in battle. They stole my heart so much that I actually later published the story of how they met, which is totally not Aladdin slashfic. Not at all. You can’t prove it.