Monday, January 29, 2018

A Conversation with Lawrence Ellsworth

(Photo by Nina Harwick)
BIO: Lawrence Ellsworth is the pen name of Lawrence Schick. He began his career as a writer at TSR Hobbies in the late 1970s, where he wrote, developed, and edited a number of titles for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons. He produced role-playing scenarios and magazine articles throughout the 1980s, culminating in the publication of Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games (Prometheus Books, 1991, as by Lawrence Schick).
When Ellsworth’s father was a young man in the 1930s and ’40s he was a fan of the adventure pulp magazines. When Ellsworth was a boy in the 1960s, publishers were reprinting many of the best pulp tales in inexpensive paperbacks, and his father would buy them, read them, and then pass them on to his son. So Harold Lamb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard enthralled Ellsworth at an early age. Poring through the libraries for any book in which the hero wore a sword soon led him to Dumas, Sabatini, Orczy, Tolkien, H. Rider Haggard, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s historicals. Ellsworth wallowed in swashbucklers.
In the early 1970s, just as he was beginning to think the genre was played out, the Richard Lester / George MacDonald Fraser films The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers proved there were still new ways to approach it. The scripts led Ellsworth to Fraser’s Flashman novels, and that sealed the deal for good and all.
In the early 1990s Ellsworth led a troupe of writers who produced live-action role-playing weekends for 50 to 100 players, specializing in historical productions with romantic themes. While writing and researching The King’s Musketeers for this troupe, he became fascinated with early 17th-century France. This rekindled his interest in swashbuckler fiction, and he has since become a noted collector and authority on the subject.
Ellsworth learned French so he could read Dumas’ novels, and Richelieu’s memoirs, in the original language. In the process he did a translation of The Three Musketeers for fun and practice. He has recently completed a full translation of Alexandre Dumas’ “lost” novel The Red Sphinx.
Ellsworth has attended the Taos Writers’ Workshop (Historical Fiction program) and the Algonkian Writers’ Workshop. He is a member of Washington Independent Writers and the Historical Novel Society, and attended the American HNS Conferences in 2005 and 2007. He has written scripts for comic books, has worked in radio and narrative voiceovers, and is an experienced public speaker. He has three children, Wyatt, Sanderson, and Honor, and lives in northern Maryland near Baltimore.
First, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.  Why Swashbuckling tales?  What got you in to it?

It’s just one of the genres of fiction I grew up on (see Bio). They’re attractive propositions, with heroes who are nearly always fighting injustice, personal or general, but doing so by their own rules and their own codes of honor. And because the heroes are acting outside of orthodox processes and methods, they have to rely on their own wits and cleverness—and I love a smart hero.

Swashbuckling novels were all the rage and for a good long while one of the top fiction genres.  What do you think happened for them to fall out of favor?

They haven’t, they’ve just morphed from historical adventures into history-flavored fantasies. The Game of Thrones is just a grand swashbuckler saga with dragons, and George R.R. Martin’s extended epic bears a lot of similarities to Alexandre Dumas’s multi-volume Musketeers Cycle. Historical adventures themselves are still alive and kicking: look at The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and even Outlander. We just had a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And then there are fantasy role-playing games, on the tabletop, PCs, and consoles. The Assassin’s Creed games are all swashbucklers as well. The DNA of the swashbuckler story is firmly embedded throughout our popular culture’s entertaiment.

If someone said they don't like books of this sort, besides your own work, which ones would you point them to, to change their minds?

Ha! See above. If they like action stories, I’d point them toward the giant bookshelf of novels by Bernard Cornwell; if they prefer duels of wit in drawing-rooms, I’d give them Swordspoint, the first of Ellen Kushner’s elaborate “Tremontaine” series.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is you actually learned French just to better understand and translate some works by Alexandre Dumas.  That is serious passion and dedication. How was that process?

It was fun! Nobody is more proud of their language than the French, and there is a staggering quantity of resources available to a person who wants to learn, most of it low cost or free. Obviously millions of people speak French, including people you already know, and they’re nearly all eager to help you get it right. The internet has hundreds of tutorials and apps, and hey, Quebec is practically right next door! It helps if you can set yourself some big projects that can be done piecemeal—I did my first translation of The Three Musketeers as a tutorial, chapter by chapter, over a year and a half.

French seems like an especially difficult language to me.  Did you find it difficult or did your passion for the payoff outweigh all?  

It’s not so bad—it’s not like you have to learn a new alphabet, like you do for Russian, which I’ve also studied. The important thing is not to be afraid to consult experts when you’re unsure of something, like an idiomatic phrase. The internet is your friend in that regard.

Do you speak it/understand it well when it's spoken?  I guess I mean, in reading it and writing it to the depth that you had to learn to translate beautifully, does that translate to a better understanding of the spoken word as well?

To be honest, my conversational French is weak until I’ve been in-country and immersed in it for a few days. Once you start to think in it, you’re fine. Listening to the news in French is a great help.

I tried The Count of Monte Cristo at one time and just couldn’t get into it, so I stopped reading it.  Then I picked it up and read it cover-to-cover a few years ago and currently it's my favorite book of all time.  My first and second reading experiences came down to the skills of the translator. I wish I had understood different people translating a book can make all the difference.  I read that you translated The Three Musketeers by Dumas.  That one seems to have been done a lot by many publishers.  Can you tell me what is missing from other translations that you want to bring to it with your understanding of the language and the author?

Most published editions of the novel that you’ll find in bookstores and libraries still use translations that were prepared in the 1840s or 1850s, respectable but creaky adaptations endlessly recycled and reprinted, versions that simply don’t properly convey the energy and tone of Dumas’s original work. Though to be fair, those Victorian-era translators knew their business, and delivered exactly what their readers were looking for: historical dramas at the time were expected to be told in the stiff, elevated diction of writers like Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and the translators saw it as their job to render Dumas’s unconventionally active prose into the more passive style then prevailing. But in doing so these early translations lost much of Dumas’s distinctive voice and tone, that warmth and vibrancy that leaps off the page in the original French. And that’s a real disservice to today’s readers, denying them some of the key virtues of this really quite modern writer. In translating this, one of my favorite works of fiction, I felt my most important task was to identify Dumas’s genuine voice and bring it to current-day readers of English, so they can meet the man on his own terms and really appreciate what he has to offer.

Have you found that the noble characters of many swashbuckling heroes have influenced your personal life in any way beyond mere entertainment?

Well, I did name my daughter Honor!

You also have an interest in swashbuckling films.  What are the top 3 everyone should see?  

That’s a tough one, because I love so many of them—I’m adding a whole section to my website called The Cinema of Swords! I think I’d have to go with the Errol Flynn Adventures of Robin Hood, Richard Lester’s The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers (I know, cheating), and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.

What about the top 3 authentic swashbuckling scenes everyone should see in a movie that perhaps wasn't so great?

“Authentic,” eh? Hmm. The final swordfight between the aging Robin Hood (Sean Connery) and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw) in Robin and Marian, though that whole movie’s great; there are some early scenes of nasty, period piracy that are just spot-on in the first third of 1924’s The Black Pirate (the silent with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.); and the depiction of samurai warfare in Kurosawa’s Kagemusha is unequaled in film.

What other interesting or unusual hobbies do you have?

Between my day job, designing and writing video games as Lawrence Schick, my second career as Lawrence Ellsworth, and the wonderful challenges of being a single parent, that’s about all I have time for! I used to run and play in a lot of live-action role-playing games, but I haven’t done that much lately.

I like to end each of the conversations with advice from the expert on what the reader can do right now to take a step in the direction that you did.  This can be how to grab a little of that swashbuckling panache, to advice on pursuing passion. Anything at all. What can you tell them to get started?

Set your own goals, play by your own rules, and then you’re the one who decides when you’re winning. Set out to be good at something you like, because if you like doing something, being good at it will naturally follow.

Thank you so much for taking the time!  

Readers, for more on Mr. Ellsworth, to purchase his books or to review The Cinema of Swords go to 

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