I hope you enjoyed last week’s interview! Or if you haven’t read it yet, check out part one here. Today is for all the nerds out there–the true story behind the Myst trilogy: How it was written, who wrote it and why, and how it all came to an end.
Your publisher contacted you to ask you to write with/for the Miller brothers, correct? What were your initial thoughts on the project? Did you have any reservations about co-writing for a video game?
It wasn’t actually my publisher, but my first editor at Dell, Brian DeFiore, who contacted me. Brian – a native of the Bronx – had overseen the launch of the whole CHUNG KUO project in the States, championing it and getting the work major coverage, but then, after volume three, THE WHITE MOUNTAIN, he had moved on to another publisher. But Brian and I had kept in touch and whenever he was in the UK, he was under strict instructions to phone me and meet up to share a beer or two. Likewise when I was in New York, he’d take me out, to the Waldorf on Third Avenue. So when the call came and I heard Brian’s cheery voice on the phone, I naturally assumed that he was calling to arrange to have a beer. Only Brian wasn’t in the UK. Brian was sat at his desk in Hyperion’s offices in New York.
“You got a moment, Dave? You see, I have this problem…”
The problem was that Brian had done a deal – a million dollar deal – to publish three MYST spin-off books, and the first manuscript he’d had back from CYAN – the Myst guys – just didn’t cut it. And deadline day, to get a finished book to the printers, was looming fast and… well, how was I placed, time-wise, to write something?
As it happened, I was very close to finishing Book Seven of the CHUNG KUO series, DAYS OF BITTER STRENGTH. I was due to deliver it to my publishers on the following Wednesday. That news delighted Brian.
To put it simply, Brian was asking if I could produce a new first draft, from scratch, in ten weeks, and then, after meeting the Myst guys for an edit, get the re-write done for a couple of weeks after that.
I hesitated a moment. Could I write a 120,000 word novel – twice! – within the time limitations?
I reckoned I could.
That phone call was on Thursday 9th February, 1995. The first book had to be on the shelves, nation-wide, in early August.
And then Brian mentioned that if this one went well, there were two more books to be written.
“I’ll speak to Ellen, your agent, straight away,” Brian said at the close. “Then I’ll ship a copy of THE MIDDLE KINGDOM to the Miller brothers and we’ll get cracking. All you’ve got to do, Dave, is go out, buy MYST, play it for a few days, and we’ll talk Monday.”
And so it was that, after a long weekend immersing myself in MYST, I got a call. The Miller brothers – Rand and Robyn – had read and both loved THE MIDDLE KINGDOM. They had only to consult with their main games-plotter before we proceeded.
And my first task? To re-work Cyan’s plot outline for the first book before flying over to see them in Spokane at the beginning of the next week.
Two days later DAYS OF BITTER STRENGTH was finished and delivered.
Immediately ahead of us lay the whole business of negotiating terms – up-front money, royalty share, foreign editions share, etc., but in essence it all boiled down to me delivering the first book by early June, with a second in January 96 and a third in January 97.
The plan was that I flew over to New York to link up with Brian on the 27th or 28th of the month. We’d spend a day together, talking things through, then fly out to Washington on the West Coast the next day and spend a couple of days with the Miller brothers at Myst HQ in Spokane.
My own personal plan was to have roughly fifty pages of the total 350 ready before then – to show them just how good this thing could be. It would mean five days of solid writing, from eight in the morning ‘til two the following morning, day after day, but it ought to give me a flying start. It was also my intention to demonstrate to the Miller brothers that they’d hired the right guy. A real professional.
By the following Monday (the 20th February) we had a deal. Or thought we did, because the haggling went on for a whole week after that. And then, on the 27th everything was finally agreed. We were to fly out to Spokane on the 8th March.
And so, my fifty pages done, the Millers’ synopsis re-vamped, and full of a genuinely joyful enthusiasm, I flew out to Spokane for the first of many times and met the Myst guys at Cyan headquarters, for what was to be one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had.
My initial thoughts? I was excited. Oh, they were paying me well – wonderfully well – only that wasn’t why I was excited. This was a challenge, and I loved challenges. I knew that if I was going to do this I’d have to learn how to write in a very different fashion. Because the key, as I saw it, was to produce the literary equivalent of MYST, the game. To give the work that same mysterious atmosphere. The same architectural richness. Could I do that? I thought I could. And as for reservations, no, I didn’t have any. Because my attitude, from the word go, was that this wasn’t going to be your normal game spin-off. I wanted to persuade them – if I could – to put as much care into the book as they put into creating their wonderful worlds. To do any less would be cheap. Un-artistic. And I sensed that when it came down to it, they wanted what I wanted. And that’s why I insisted my name was going to go on the cover, alongside Rand and Robyn’s. Because, creatively, I was going to give a large part of me to this new project. And because I wasn‘t just a hired gun.
Did you play Myst prior to writing Book of Atrus?
No. But for a long time before Brian’s offer arrived, I had been fascinated by it. I’d seen it endless times in endless shops, and it really was – back then – a one-off. Nothing else looked like it, or had its atmosphere, and the thought of peopling that world with flesh-and-blood characters was something that filled me with genuine delight. But, practicalities being of the essence, and with a ten week deadline facing me – I went straight out after that phone call to Forbidden Planet in central London, and bought whatever I could find that was pertinent to the game, the ‘walk through’ being the chief thing. Then, back home, I summoned my own small helper and computer expert, Amy, then aged eight, who, patiently and with an understanding beyond her years, helped me walk through the world of Myst – through the Mechanical Age and the Stoneship Age, the Channelwood Age and the Selenite Age – all for the first time, solving all the puzzles one by one and, as she did, filling my head with ideas I could hopefully use.
Who came up with the plot for the books? Was it collaborative? Was it mostly you, or mostly Rand? Robyn Miller is also credited on the books—what was his role in writing them?
Writing MYST was perhaps the most intensely collaborative thing I’ve ever experienced. Our methodology was for me to fly out to Spokane, to Cyan HQ, linking up with Brian DeFiore on the way. Once there, we’d meet up with the Myst guys and, seated around a big table, that first time in a large garage-like building – we would work through the script line by line, any corrections, changes or new additions being written down in red by me on what I guess you’d call the master script, the notes and new lines sometimes written on the back of the sheets. That would take, what…? Days? It seemed like forever at times, because we did, quite literally, work through it sentence by sentence, working until late and then picking it up again in the morning, all of it fuelled by endless jugs of coffee.
Who came up with the plots? Now that’s a difficult one to answer. First time out I’d say it was the Myst guys – there were four of them at times; Rand and Robyn Miller, Richard Vander Wende and Chris Brandkamp – who were trying to get across to me what it was that they wanted, and I was taking that and trying to see how it might work as story. You see, I was used to writing CHUNG KUO, which was story-rich. But MYST wasn’t like that. MYST was atmosphere-rich. So we had to come up with some kind of middle ground. Some way of keeping the reader’s interest story-wise, while at the same time creating for them the sense of being within the world of MYST.
I mean, if you want an example of that, just look at those opening three pages of THE BOOK OF ATRUS. All of that prose is mine. I chose the words, the way the thing is set up. But the idea was Rand and Robyn’s. They knew where it started. Knew what elements should be there, down by the volcano. But I was the one who knew how it had to sound. How each sentence was balanced. Which is not to say that they didn’t contribute to the text in that way – they did – but most of their input was concerned with the fine detail of each scene.
Which was actually quite wonderful.
Only we had one major problem. At that first meeting particularly, there was a real feeling of stags locking horns. That this was their world and that they didn’t want me trampling all over it. They had spent a great deal of care and a lot of time getting MYST the game right, and they didn’t want to see the novelization spoiled in any way. The resistance, in that regard, was mainly from Richard – who’d worked at Disney – and Robyn. Rand, at that first meeting, was quite definitely the peacemaker. He was the one who very often acted as arbiter. What Rand said went. And a lot of that first session was taken up in the search for a way for us to work together. I’m not usually hard-nosed, but I felt, for once, that it was very necessary for me to establish why I was there and what I was doing. They had hired me, after all, and were paying me well, so oughtn’t they to trust me? That first session we had to learn to let go of any ego. To work towards what we all wanted, which was the best book we could produce. But that was difficult – very difficult – trying to earn their trust, to make them see that I wanted exactly what they wanted. Also I had to convince them of the value of my experience as a writer. That when it came to turning MYST into its literary form, I knew better than they did.
It’s not something a writer – outside of Hollywood, that is – usually encounters. And I was facing – across the table – some really highly intelligent and creative people. Genuine artists in their field. In Rand and Robyn they had a phenomenally creative team. A team that had created the world’s best-selling video game. Only they didn’t know how to write books, and I did. Nor was I being a prima donna. I made it clear from the start that I was there to bring their imaginings to life on the page. But they had to trust me to do that. And eventually they did. But at the outset it was a truly grueling process, at the end of which everyone was, I felt, genuinely satisfied at the same time as being totally exhausted. Such that, when I arrived back with the new rewritten version, incorporating all of our changes and suggestions, there was a real sense, in all of us, that we had made great progress. We’d created a book that Rand, in particular, was very proud of. And that I was proud of too – “for accomplishing the impossible” as it says in the acknowledgements. Twelve weeks and there it was. And not in any way a hack novel but a genuinely creative piece of work that both complemented and reflected the video game.
And Robyn’s role in all this? Like the rest of us, he worked from dawn ‘til dusk, in our joint attempt to shape and polish the work. Was there every step of the way. And if he opposed me now and then, I understood why. His care for detail distinguishes Myst from anything else. His music. His creation of Myst’s unique atmosphere. Without Robyn there was none of that, so let me put on record that I was proud to have put breath to his and Rand’s imaginings. To have captured much of that in words.
So that was Book One.
Book Two – THE BOOK OF D’NI – was very different. We had a bit of time. And, as a result, I produced (on my own) a twenty six page bound synopsis (dated October 1995). A work, in itself, of grace and richness. Something which, if they’d have left me alone to get on with it, would have been a very good book indeed. But that was never enough for Cyan. Rand and Robyn wanted changes. Changes here, changes there… continual changes. And, seeing what wonderful results came out of that continual questioning, that continual pushing at the text, I entered the spirit of perfectionism they insisted upon and wrote what I consider some of my best writing. I still have two copies of that original 26-pager, along with a draft version of Book Four, THE BOOK OF MARRIM (which lacks the benefits of those endless bull-sessions we had as a ‘team’).
Do you have a favorite out of your trilogy?
The truth is I like them all, if for different reasons. In THE BOOK OF D’NI I am particularly proud of the quotations from the ‘Korokh Jimah’, which I remember taking days to come up with, and which I think work really wonderfully in adding to the richness of that book. Oh, and there’s one tale I must tell you, regarding THE BOOK OF TI’ANA. At one of the final sessions on that book, when we were finding it hard to keep track with where one of our characters was, I suggested that it might be nice to have a map, to make it easier. And, rather tongue in cheek, I added that it would be all the more impressive if they had all of the markings on the map in the original D’ni. Well, next time I visited Cyan, they presented me with exactly that… the map that is at the front of the hardback copies of BOOK OF TI’ANA. I was wordless with surprise. Who else but the Myst guys would have thought to do that? I think the three books together, as they are in the omnibus edition, shows the essential yet complementary differences between the three books. We didn’t just play the same trick three times out, we made them very different, and that’s a great strength.
Fans have long held out hope for the eventual publication of Book of Marrim, but it never happened. What led to the end of the Myst series? Is there any possibility of more Myst books in the future?
Thanks to everyone who got to the end of this! I really hope you enjoyed it. We started working on this interview in March, and didn’t finish until July. Publication was then delayed while I moved away and started college, making it a full year since I met David in person! Cyan is currently involved in making a brand new game that looks absolutely brilliant, and you can check that out at obduction.com. If you’re interested in more of David’s work I highly recommend the Empire of Time, and even included it in a review of the best time travel novels on the Pandora Society. And if you enjoyed this article, please share it with all of your Myst-fan friends!