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Krondor Confidential - Part IX
A Room With a View
Only a few months after my grandmother Flora Hallford passed away in 1976, my much-loved Uncle J.L. did something so utterly heinous, I almost never forgave him for it. At the unbelievably ancient age of fifty-two years old, utterly without asking my permission, he married my Aunt Marianna.
Ten-year-old me was incensed beyond belief. He’d broken a basic uncle/nephew contract that the party of the first part wasn’t supposed to go and change things for the party of the second part. He was supposed to know this. I was used to him in a very certain way, in a specific set of circumstances. His purpose in life was to be my father’s wise older brother who lived with my grandmother and looked out after her in their little place in Stilwell, Oklahoma. He told jokes. He told stories. He related shenanigans that he and my father got up to when they were both young bucks. He wasn’t supposed to go out and have relationships, or fall in love, or cavort with women for God’s sake! I was scandalized beyond belief. I thought that was the worst he could do...and then he went one step further. He announced that he’d be selling my grandmother’s quaint little house on Chestnut Street in order to move into a new house he was building for his new bride. It was the first time I’d become acquainted with the idea that someone could sell off a part of your soul.
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At first, I didn’t even want to walk into J.L. and Marianna’s new house, feeling in some sense that it was a betrayal of my grandmother’s memory, but once I got inside, I could appreciate what they’d done. The interior was big and bright, and appointed with all the modern conveniences of the late 1970s including the retro-cool swag lamps and ceiling fans. A long hall radiating away from the living room led to the bedrooms, one of which was the place where the Atari 2600 was kept, and where I’d soon have my first encounters both with Pong and Dungeons & Dragons. The most important part of the house, at least to me, was almost like a secret, semi-hidden away next to a secondary bathroom and a laundry room that were down a step from the dining room. In a dark corner next to a washing machine, was a door that was often closed, but which led into a place that for me was my equivalent of Narnia. It was my uncle’s holy of holies, his inner sanctum.
There are moments in your life that are formative, that stick with you for the rest of your life. The moment I pushed through that door and stepped into J.L.’s study seered itself into my brain, and created expectations that are with me still. His office was a simple room lined with bookcases, all of which were overflowing with tomes on science, and religion, and history, and classic works of literature. At the far end of the room, from a single, gauzy-curtained window, the light of god was radiating down on his typewriter and a freshly varnished desk. Though it might have been my uncle’s room, I’ve always felt that it had been created just to give me that moment of inspiration. Although it would be a few years more before I accepted the idea I was destined to be a writer, it was definitely here that I’d first formed the idea of what a writer’s life should look like.
By the start of 1993, a lot of changes had happened within Dynamix. Jeff Tunnell -- co-founder of the company and the person who’d been the original brainchild behind acquiring the Riftwar license -- had departed in order to start Jeff Tunnell Productions. Almost immediately following his exit, Dynamix had undergone a series of rapid-fire administrative shuffles that John Cutter and I had referred to as the “company hierarchy of the month.” We often joked that the management diagram of who reported to whom was being decided upon by a robotic corporate slot machine hidden somewhere in a basement in Oakhurst. For John this meant growing frustration over trying to establish a proper line of communication with upper management while I was left with more and more responsibility within the team. Fortunately for Krondor, we were both pulling in the same direction.
While the circus of management changes had been a point of consternation to some, another decision was to prove slightly more controversial. After years of doing business at the Atrium building in downtown Eugene, it was decided that the company would be relocating to the larger and nicer Riverfront Research Park that was going up near the University of Oregon. Although it was clear we were growing fast enough that space was needed for new bodies, many employees were used to the convenience of the Atrium. There was a restaurant downstairs, and we had easy access to a gym. A bus stopped in front of our building. Within a few minutes easy walk there were restaurants, bookstores, banks, the city park, and even the city’s civic center. Everything was right there for just about anything you wanted to do. Moving to more spacious digs would mean giving many of those conveniences up, so it was a painful choice for some. For me, however, the choice was not so difficult. I’d seen the cramped conditions that had developed at the “Sierra Bunker” when they’d grown beyond reasonable capacity and had no desire to see the same thing happen at Dynamix. It was even closer to my apartment. Better still for me, it was an opportunity to relocate to a better space for myself. I was being offered an office all to myself. My deliverance was nigh. Finally, I was going to have a door.
SECOND HOME - Although the offices at the U of O’s Riverfront Research Park were actually the second home for Dynamix, I always associate Krondor’s production most strongly with this complex. It was where I got my first professional office of my own.
The move itself was relatively painless, and thankfully I wasn’t required to do anything more than put labels on my stuff to indicate where things would be going. I also got to requisition a few things for my new domain, so I gleefully requested two bookcases, plus something I’d dearly been wanting since my move to Dynamix -- a pair of wall-sized whiteboards. As documents and files and staplers and paperclips and other things went out in boxes, I made a private list of things I’d need to pick up or bring from my apartment in order to make my office truly my own. A shopping trip was in order.
The chairs we had by default at Dynamix were horrendously uncomfortable, so I popped by an office supply place and dropped $300 (which was ridiculously expensive in 1990s money) on an adjustable leather office chair that remained with me for years thereafter. I also found a pair of matching brass halogen desk lamps that I liked that were very chichi and Scandinavian design -- the hot trend in interior decoration at the time. Target yielded a reasonable desk fan I could run all day without having to worry about it disturbing other people, and I even priced private mini-fridges (but discovered we weren’t allowed to have them in our offices). Zipping by a garden store I snagged a pair of monster-sized philodendrons, a hanging basket of tradescantia zebrina, and some kind of tree-in-a-bucket thing whose species I can’t quite identify. Then too there were the slightly more decorative things from home like my geode collection, a handful of my gargoyles, my replica of Muiredach's High Cross that I’d bought in Ireland when I was sixteen, an Eye of the Storm Plasma Lamp, and a fistful of Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu miniatures.
The supplies for my geek lair at work were coming together nicely, but I still needed a deeper reference library than I’d been working with so far. Certainly, I had a ton of books at home -- my apartment was really a private library where I happened to sleep -- but taking titles to the office meant I wouldn’t have them at home when I needed them, and there were some important topics on which I had virtually no information at all. A bookstore visit was going to be necessary, giving me a valid excuse to make a road trip up to Portland to visit the best bookstore on the West Coast...possibly the best bookstore anywhere in world. It was time for a pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books.
OUTSIDE AMBROSIA - Chris Medinger and I pause for a photo just outside of Ambrosia, a fantastic Italian restaurant in Eugene which was only a couple of blocks away from Dynamix’s original location in the Atrium Building.
My wing-man of choice for this particular expedition to Powell’s was Chris Medinger, a level designer on Betrayal at Krondor who we’d brought up from QA. Chris was a passionate MUDder whose online character Ixacoatl was infamous for his thievery, backstabbing, and murder. In person he was a sweet, super-chill Buddhist with a coal-dark sense of humor and a love for horror anime. Like myself he was a voracious reader, and I’d had the pleasure of spending many hours with him talking about our favorite authors including Glen Cook (to whom I’d introduced him, starting with The Black Company). A trip anywhere with Chris made for interesting conversation, and this excursion was no different.
One recurring topic that came up any time he got into my car was his general disapproval of my music collection, most of which he considered entirely too pedestrian. We had to disagree on Kansas, Boston, Chicago, and Asia -- basically his rule seemed to be that if a band named itself after a place they were immediately disqualified from being any good -- but he seemed okay with my Yes, Rush, and Peter Gabriel. For my edification on this particular trip he brought along a Primus album so that I could be dazzled by a real bass player in action (I’m afraid I failed to be suitably impressed). We followed that up with something I’d had in my car glove compartment for a while -- the audio book version of Marc Okrand’s “The Klingon Dictionary” -- and we spent the rest of the trip trying to wrap our tongues around useful phrases like Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam (”Today is a good day to die”) and majQa’ (”Well done.”)
Strangely enough, the store clerks in Portland were not prepared to serve us in Klingon.
THE CITY OF BOOKS - There’s a reason that Powell’s calls itself the City of Books. It’s one of - if not THE - largest independent bookstore in the world, and they hand you a MAP when you walk in the front door so that you don’t get lost inside its labyrinth.
Five stories tall and occupying a city block in downtown Portland, Powell’s City of Books is to the bibliophile a Gothic cathedral, Tutankhamen's tomb, the lost library of Alexandria, and a Shanghai opium den all rolled into one alluring, irresistible package. Hippy greeters toss you a map upon entering the store, and suddenly you’re regretting that you didn’t pack your fedora and whip because everything about this place screams that you’re on a grand adventure. The air is redolent with a mixture of old paper, fresh ink, coffee beans, jasmine, and just a hint of patchouli oil. The wooden floorboards on the upper levels have been masterfully tuned to creak beneath your feet in exactly the right way to make you think you’re on a pirate vessel about to raid the greatest treasures of mankind. Everywhere you look the bookshelves seem to go on and on and on forever, groaning with the weight of titles on every topic in every language you could ever imagine. Powell’s is a paradise, and when I die, this would be the kind of heaven in which I’d wish to awaken.
Suffice to say, I’m a wee bit fond of the place.
Of course, I didn’t absolutely have to drive all the way up to Portland to find books on medieval and renaissance history. I could just have easily visited the dozens of great bookstores in Eugene and found myself perfectly serviceable reprints of Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, Geoffrey Ashe’s ten thousandth book on the origins of King Arthur, or even rustled up an annotated copy of the The Decameron with extensive footnotes about the relationship of the Black Death and the collapse of feudalism. All of those things would have been fine and good, except for the fact that I already owned the easy-to-find stuff. This time around, I was looking for meat. I wanted facts, and figures, and data that would help me breathe even more authenticity into the Midkemian universe and spur ideas for some of the still unwritten sub-quests. As was usual with every trip to Powell’s, I didn’t leave empty-handed.
My first find had been the massive, ponderously named A Glossary of the Construction, Decoration and Use of Arms and Armor In All Countries And All Times -- Together With Some Closely Related Subjects by George Cameron Stone. Filled with definitions and illustrations of classic weapons down through the ages, the inspiration for many of Krondor’s weapons came from this classic tome published in 1934. (The moredhel lamprey, for example, was based on a serrated edge weapon that originated in India.) War in the Middle Ages by Philippe Contamine and History of the Art of War, Volume III: Medieval Warfare by Hans Delbruck became grist for the mill while thinking about the second siege of Sethanon, and also played a hand in furthering the now notorious subplot about experimentation with gunpowder in Midkemia. The Medieval Underworld was a terrific help in my thinking about crime, the function of the Mockers, and the plots of the Crawler. (And had the official Betrayal at Krondor sequel Thief of Dreams ever been produced, that research would have played an even greater role in the unfolding of events.)
NO PLACE LIKE HOME - During the last stretch of Betrayal at Krondor’s development, I practically lived in my office at the Riverfront Research Park, and it’s as much a home to me as any apartment or house in which I’ve ever resided.
Back in Eugene, the Krondor team began to settle into our new offices on the second floor of the Research Park. As we’d had at the Atrium building, we had an entire curving wing of the building to ourselves, but with far more space. All of the lead and senior team members got offices of our own while the folks we were bringing up from QA got a long, glassed-in room that was probably designed to be a private conference room, but which we called the Fishbowl.
To the doors at either end of the suite we affixed signs warning unwary visitors of our unofficial team motto: HERE THERE BE DRAGONS. It was a warning that was well deserved. We were some of the oddest in the oddball kingdom of Dynamix. Newfangled card reading plates had replaced the swipe slot readers at the Atrium, leading to the competitive creation of a number of new approaches for opening the door without removing cards from wallets or carrying them on lanyards.
Like the rest of my colleagues, I settled into a new routine, often spending my lunchtimes either parked on the trickling stream called The Millrace that ran in front of our building, or sometimes wandering on to the campus of the University of Oregon to have a sandwich with the poetry-writing college girls, and guitar-playing hippies beating out folk ballads from the 1960s.
On the first day in my private office, I shut off the lights, opened the blinds, and took a seat in my ridiculously comfortable chair. Before me lay a wide-open swath of grassland that rippled in the breeze, punctuated by a small construction ditch filled with rainwater. A mallard duck happily paddled around in the middle of it, quacking with contentment in his tiny kingdom. We were both exactly where we needed to be.
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