Polygon is proud to present one of the most unique interview opportunities of its journalistic history: a conversation with Ser Varric Tethras*, one of the most prolific luminaries of the Dragon Age. Ser Tethras has adventured across the four corners of Thedas — as an operative of the Inquisition and, notoriously, as an ally of the Champion of Kirkwall. He is also the sitting viscount of Kirkwall, after being forcibly elected to the position by the rest of the city’s nobles.
*[Actually, this is an interview with BioWare’s Mary Kirby, Varric’s character writer, but she’s writing her answers as Varric.]
And despite those achievements, what he’s best known for is his books. And his biggest literary success, Hard in Hightown, is on the verge of the release of a new, expanded edition, available in bookstores everywhere.
On the eve of Hightown’s new edition — and following a complicated series of negotiations with Dark Horse Books, BioWare Studios and members of Ser Tethras’ administrative staff — Polygon sat down with the infamous dwarf of all trades to talk about his fame, his rule and, of course, his writing.
Polygon: Thank you so much for finding the time in your busy schedule for us; it’s truly an honor! And why don’t we just jump off from there: You’re an adventurer, known for your exploits alongside both the Champion of Kirkwall and the Inquisitor — you’re a best-selling writer — and you’re the Viscount of Kirkwall, a major trade city in the Free Marches with plenty of its own problems. How do you find time for it all?
Ser Varric Tethras: It’s not finding time that’s the challenge. The real obstacle is Seneschal Bran. Adventures don’t follow schedules, and neither do… well, any of Kirkwall’s problems, to be honest. Every time there’s a dragon, or a heist, or some other weird shit that messes with the carefully crafted itinerary he’s given me, Bran goes on about it for hours. Sometimes days. As for writing, I do a lot of my best work when I’m supposed to be answering my mail. It’s very calming.
Polygon: That explains a lot of our scheduling difficulties ... But of course, we’re here to talk about Hard in Hightown, your breakout novel, which has outsold even Genitivi’s ubiquitous Travels of a Chantry Scholar. It’s not your only blockbuster hit, alongside The Tale of the Champion [an account of the life of Kirkwall’s controversial Champion] and All This Shit is Weird [a record of Ser Tethras’ travels with the Inquisition], both works of non-fiction. What does it mean to you that you may be remembered for Hightown more than those others?
VT: I’ve never thought fiction and non-fiction were all that far apart, really. Stories matter. True? False? Doesn’t make a difference. All that matters is that you tell them right. But I’m glad that Hard in Hightown seems to be my most popular book. Maybe it means people like searching for justice, whether they find it or not? Or maybe they just like to see city guards get the shit kicked out of them in print. Who knows? It annoys Aveline either way.
Polygon: A new edition is often a time for authors to improve, even if slightly, to their material. Does this new edition of Hard in Hightown contain any new material or editorial changes?
VT: There’s a fair amount of new material. I got… extremely detailed complaints from the proprietor of the Blooming Rose that I didn’t mention her establishment in the original print run. I also got a lot of feedback from merchants in Lowtown about, “slanderous descriptions of hard-working local businesses,” which I take to mean that they were accurate. I fixed a few bits and pieces that never worked quite right, but that’s a dangerous road to go down. Start trying to fix a story, and you’ll never stop.
Polygon: More Hightown is probably good news for your fans, and these days we would be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t read it, even among those one might least expect. Who is your favorite unexpected Hard in Hightown fan?
VT: I was in Antiva City when this little human kid tried to pick my pocket. Do you have any idea how gutsy it is to pick a dwarf’s pocket? You need to have no sense of self preservation, be real close to the ground, or both. She had both. Anyway, she tried the classic stumble-and-grab, pulled a letter from the Merchant Guild out of my duster, and shouted, “You’re Varric Tethras? What happened to Donnen?” got all embarrassed, and asked for an autograph. That was my favorite fan. The most unexpected was a fade spirit, and I doubt you’d believe that story if I told it.
Polygon: For this new edition you’ve been working with a human collaborator, Mary Kirby. What has that arrangement been like for you?
VT: Kirby? She’s all right, I guess. She makes sure I meet my deadlines and stays out of the way, usually. Most of her notes are things like, “Stop writing chapters that only say, ‘Well, Shit.’” And, “Don’t let Isabela describe any more ships for the rest of the book.” I’ve worked with worse.
Polygon: What’s it like to be a dwarf in a human-dominated profession like book publishing? [Laughs] But seriously, you capture human voices so well — have you always felt a connection to the human perspective, or have you found it to be a learned skill?
VT: Nah, it’s easy to write humans. They’re pretty much dwarves, but with simpler politics. [Laughs] I’m kidding. Mostly. People just aren’t as different as they like to think they are. Humans, qunari, elves, dwarves? They all do the same shit for the same reasons. Or make variations on the same bad decisions. They just need different sized hats.
Polygon: On a less literary note, you’ve taken Kirkwall from a city of chaos to a city of commerce. What do you see as the challenges that lie ahead in your tenure as Viscount? How will Kirkwall overcome?
VT: You want a speech? [Laughs] What Kirkwall will need in the future is the same thing it’s always needed. We have to do the work. We have whole ages of trying to ignore problems inside and outside the city, hoping they’ll just go away, or living with them because they’ve always been there. That didn’t work when Tevinter ran the place, and it won’t work now. We all have to show up, fix what’s broken, and quit having so many damned meetings. Maybe I can get that engraved over the keep doors….
Polygon: Ah, I’m being told we’re running out of time, [to Viscount Tethras’ seneschal] do we have time for just one more? […] Excellent. Ser Tethras, several employees in the Polygon offices who will remain nameless must know: Do you expect to return to the Swords and Shields series?
VT: You know, I think I have to ask the Divine for permission now? There was an incident… and it’s complicated.
Hard in Hightown, from Dark Horse Books, is a real book written by BioWare’s Mary Kirby, Varric’s character writer for Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition, as an expansion of the fictional book that appears within Dragon Age: Inquisition.
It “follows the adventures of Donnen Brennokovic, a weathered and weary city guardsman who finds himself paired a fresh-faced recruit. When the mismatched pair discover a dead magistrate bleeding out on the flagstones, they’re caught up in a clash between a shadowy organization known only as the Executors and a secretive group of Chantry agents — all over some ancient artifact.”
The hardcover edition hits real world shelves on July 31, 2018.