Gavin Gallot interviews Julian Egelstaff, host of the Kai Monastery website and the man behind the Kaiwisdom mailing list.
G: You mentioned in your short biography on the website that before the Internet movement you used to write to other fans in the club? Are any of those people still in contact with you? What memories do you have of those times?
J: There were only two people that I got in contact with. One was Paul Grey, who lives in the UK. I'm afraid I don't remember the name of the other fellow- we only wrote two or three times. He was from the UK too. Paul had an e-mail address and so we kept in touch on and off for several years. I even got to know his girlfriend via e-mail. But we haven't written for about two years, I guess. Paul was a member of the Kai Wisdom mailing list for a while. I'm not sure if he's still on it.
This all happened through the Lone Wolf Club Newsletter, which had a regular section where readers would have their addresses published, and ask others to write to them. Having recently finished book 20, and then join the club, I thought it might be neat to write to some other fans, see what they liked about Lone Wolf. I was about 20 at the time, I hadn't been really into the books for a few years, and since I had recently discovered the last four books, and finished the series, I was looking for a way to prolong my enjoyment of the series. I knew I was never going to be a fanatical fan like I used to be, so joining the club, and writing to other fans seemed like a good way to branch out and still get some enjoyment out of Magnamund.
At that time, the New Order series was just around the corner. Book 21 was about to be published. There wasn't a great sense of community, I don't think, since there was no forum or exchange of ideas like what we now have online. But I got the sense that there were some things to look forward to in the series. I was interested to see how Joe handled this New Order series that was completely unknown at the time. I was hoping it would concentrate on lower level Kai lords, more like the original five books. I thought that would make for more diverse story telling and more new situations. As it was, the New Order series is kind of like the Grandmaster series over again. Different stories, same kind of gameplay. It's still a lot of fun of course, though.
G: What would you say has been your most memorable moment with Lone Wolf over the last 15 years, since you first got involved?
J: That's a hard one. You've got to understand that I read the first several books, especially the books 1 and 2, over and over and over and over again. I used to read them through from book 1 each time I died. So if I got killed in book 4, back to book 1. It was a ritualistic experience, I would always start with the Story So Far... no matter how many times I'd read it. I'd always re-read the Kai Wisdom section for each book before beginning. I would painstakingly hand draw a new Action Chart for each character on a new sheet of graph paper. For a while, I had book 1 completely memorized, not word for word, but I knew all the possible paths through the story and where they linked up, and most of the section numbers. I still have the Story So Far... memorized. It's just burned in there, it's never coming out.
Eventually, as the series got longer, I started just restarting the book I was currently in when I died, rather than restarting the whole series.
So since I had gone through those first few books (up to about 7) countless times, there's tons of experiences I had with them that were just fantastic at the time. Discovering little places I hadn't been before was always especially thrilling, like new parts of the mines in book 4, or new ways to escape from the palace in the second half of book 5. It's very hard to single out one moment from that period.
Later on, as I got the last books in the Magnakai series, and started getting the Grandmaster series, the whole experience became a little more "intellectual". I'd almost have to say that in the beginning, I had a physical response to reading the books. Like I said, it was ritualistic. Later it slowly, but irresistibly slid towards being nostalgic. I suspect that to a greater or lesser extent, that's probably true for all of us. In those days, discovering a new book, learning more of the story of Lone Wolf, that was the memorable thing, rather than the experiences that I had in the books themselves.
Once the whole online community emerged, it's been a real thrill seeing how it's taken off and what other fans have done with their sites and what they've been interested in on the Kai Wisdom mailing list. I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of that since I helped start it. I don't delude myself into thinking that without me there wouldn't be a community online; someone else would have obviously started something if I hadn't. But as it happened, I did start it so I enjoy seeing the results of those early efforts, both as a contribution to the Lone Wolf community, but also as a fantastic example of what the 'net is capable of. This whole Lone Wolf community is honestly a shining example of what people mean when they say "the Internet changes everything."
Maybe that sense of things, of us and our place in the 'net, doesn't resonate with many people, especially the latecomers I imagine, but for those of us who were online in 1994 and earlier, when there were only a few hundred thousand pages on the World Wide Web, forging this community out of that was a true lesson in virtual communication and connection. I mean, people write books about how to do the kind of things we did and are doing to this day. Making online communities that work is something that a lot of today's hot Internet IPOs are desperately trying to figure out. It's really cool to have seen that happen out of the pure will of a bunch of people in their spare time.
The Internet "changes everything" partly because all it takes are a few people with the right tools and ideas to pull off what we did. Unfortunately, that's less and less true as time goes on, but I don't think it's entirely for the reasons people suggest. The standard line now is that the "commercialization" of the Internet is leading to few, monolithic websites that drown out the real dynamism that was present on the 'net a few years ago. The fear seems to be that all these really popular, flashy websites will become the only places people go online in the future. That's not totally true I don't think. Our sites, for instance, are not going to disappear, not even if Microsoft buys AOL-Time Warner! The technology and tools of the 'net are still available to all, just as they were when we first came online. The danger of these huge corporate sites is that new people coming online will only go to them.
On one level, the 'net is a tool like any other. People use tools when they need to do something. Or, some folks do things backwards and discover the tool and realize some cool new uses to which it can be put. Those people generally get called names like Engineer, Artist, Subversive, Freak. The majority of the world is not online yet, and the majority has no need for the tool yet. They will slowly come online, when they realize they can get a good deal on a new car online, or when they realize they can trade stocks online, or when they figure out that some other service offered by some major e-commerce site is of value to them. Some of those people will stick around and discover chat rooms or newsgroups or fansites that talk about things they're interested in, and they will become part of the social side of the 'net.
But the vast majority of people online in 2010 will have zero interest in creating their own series of fansites for that old TV show called The X-files. Partly that will be because there will probably still be a ton of X-files stuff online in 2010, but it's also because that majority isn't online to do what we did. As a whole, the newcomers will not behave online the same way the originators did. That will mean that overall, the dynamism of the 'net will diminish, it will just never have the same flavour it used to.
It all comes down to network effects. The sheer value of the Internet, just like any group of people who are connected, can be judged by the number of interconnections between the members of the network. Jacob Nielson, the web usability guru, has a great article about this on his website. The more people there are in the network, the more valuable the network is, and many people suspect the value increases geometrically with the addition of new members, not linearly. So, in the "good old days", when most people online were there to make something cool, for themselves or others, the network of innovators was huge, as a proportion of all Internet users. In the future, the network of innovators will be small as a proportion of all Internet users. Therefore, that sense of boundless optimism and innovation which characterized the early 'net just won't exist, even though there may be twice as many innovators as before.
Basically, all the boring people crashed the party, and the cool kids took their toys and went somewhere else. Jamie Zawinski, employee number 20 at Netscape (now a nightclub owner in San Francisco), has a wonderfully succinct explanation of this in one of his essays on his cool website. Here's the excerpt:
The fate of Netscape awaits the overall online experience of all users, as AOL-Time Warner attracts more and more people online who are not interested in adding to the 'net, just in consuming it (kind of ironic, since AOL bought Netscape a while back too).
So yes, the onset of the "commercial" Internet means that there will be less innovation like we had in "the good old days", but that doesn't mean the innovation will stop, just that it will become more of a "counter-culture" type of thing. It all comes down to the fact that in the future, projects/communities like ours will attract a slimmer and slimmer slice of all those people coming online, since most people will be online because they saw an ad in Time magazine for a website about a joint venture by Ford and GE to make an electric car, or something like that.
The Aon Project is a fantastic turn of events. Yes, it's kind of sad in the sense it really is the death knell for future paper published versions of Lone Wolf- it's the end of an era. But like I say at the history page of the Kai Monastery, Lone Wolf is the paramount example of the gamebook variety of interactive story telling, and now it will literally live on forever. That's a wonderful thing. And the work the people at the core of it have put in, it's incredible. The online statskeeper system is so cool. The look and feel of the site, the whole project is just a very, very good piece of work all round.
G: Obviously getting the dedication was a huge honour, tell us about how you first found out about this and how you felt?
J: I first found out about it because someone on Kai Wisdom mentioned it. I couldn't believe it at first, I hadn't received any notice or anything. But other people replied to the first person and confirmed it, so I figured it had to be true. When I received that book from Senator Books overseas delivery service, Joe had hand signed it, as he did with all orders through Senator, but he added below his signature, "This one's for you!" It was a really heart-warming feeling, opening the book and seeing that the first time. I felt incredibly happy and satisfied.
G: What books do you have in your collection? Which ones are you missing?
J: Gee, let me see...
I also have a copy of the White Warlord, one of the Combat Heroes books Joe wrote in the early 90s.
It's just a coincidence that I'm missing the last book in the two gamebook series. I never happened to find a copy of Grey Star 4 way back when, and I was a little frustrated with the series at the time since I didn't like the rule that said you only got one bonus magic power for book 3, regardless of whether you had completed one or two books. I just wasn't as drawn into that series as the Lone Wolf books, though thinking back on them now, they were incredible stories, some of the best stories in all the Lone Wolf books. Such a variety of characters and locations, just fantastic.
I haven't got book 28 because, well, by that time we all knew what the score was, and I just kept putting off ordering it, my interest had truly waned. I'm not sure if I can get it now, it might be out of print already.
G: I often get asked, "How do I find the books now that they are out of print", by new fans. What advice would you give?
J: I get asked that too. I used to say, post in fantasy role-playing related newsgroups asking if anyone has any Lone Wolf books they want to unload. I don't know how viable that is anymore though, since I'm sure many people have tried it by now and the regulars to those groups are no doubt annoyed with persistent requests from newbies. I suppose these days I'd tell people to help out with the Aon Project, since that's the best way to get the books now.
G: What would be your most favorite book, passage and characters of all the series?
J: Oh, this is kind of like what's your most memorable moment. Ugh.
I thought about what my favourite book might be when I considered what one I wanted to do for the Aon Project. I settled on Book 5, but not because it's my favourite really. It's just a really cool book, it's got so much variety in it, and a great story. I can tell you my favourites, plural: 1, 5, 7. I'm just not as attached to the later books, especially the Grandmaster series. I just don't have enough of a knowledge of them to compare them to the earlier books. I mean, I've only read books 17 through 20 about twice each. Most of the New Order series even less.
Passage? Well, that's just about impossible to say. I always had a liking for the historical passages, like the one in book 10 where you learn about the Redeemers and the Elder Magi, when you're at the temple. I also have distinct memories of some of the more gripping parts of the series, like in book 4 when the wardogs are chasing you to the barricade. And there's all kinds of neat little passages I like because they're unique or hard to get to, like the one in the Baga-Darooz where you can use your rope to swing across a deep part of the sewer (but if you do, then you end up avoiding the Limbdeath microbes and therefore you end up in the Palace dungeon instead of being able to break in yourself).
G: I know for myself these days time is short, how often you spend devoted to Lone Wolf these days? Do you often reread the books?
J: I'm afraid just about the only time I spend with Lone Wolf these days is administrative things on the Kai Wisdom mailing list, like unsubscribing addresses that have become defunct, and I'm also working on transcribing all of Book 5 for the Aon Project, using Dragon Naturally speaking voice dictation software. The last time I read one of the books must have been when I read book 6 in preparation for making the page at the Kai Monastery for it.
G: What does the future have in store for Julian Egelstaff and the Kai Monastery?
Oh well, that's a biggie. My wife and I have recently started thinking about moving to Europe or Australia or New Zealand or some other English speaking country and working for a couple years and touring around. We'd like to go to Europe to spend more time in all the wonderful places over there. I'm a bit of a history buff, and my wife just loves to travel. We honeymooned in Norway last year, on a cruise up and down the fjords and we just loved that. If I could find a way to live on the Norwegian coastline and get up every morning to a view of the mountains, well, I'd be there in a second.
Right now I'm working at Cognos Incorporated in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Cognos is a great company (if you like huge hulking software corporations), and it's an easy place to work, low stress, very routine. So that lets me not worry about my job and concentrate on the fun things in life. My wife and I like to have people over for dinner and games, and I play a lot of computer games with my friends, and single-player too. I was working with a couple friends for a while earlier this year on starting a computer game development company, based on an original game design a couple of us had come up with, but that's on hold for now since the two programmers backed out.
I'm also still involved with the local Community Association which myself and few other people formed last year for the new housing subdivision where we live. I used to be involved with the Cognitive Science graduate program at Carleton University where I did my Journalism and Philosophy degree. I took a couple courses in the CogSci Ph.D program, but I haven't pursued anything more with that for a while now. It might become a priority in the future.
My wife has a big series of exams to write in the fall, the Bar Admissions Course, so that she can become a recognized lawyer in Ontario, the province of Canada we live in. Once that's done, well, like I said we're thinking about moving overseas, but we might also move within Ontario too. A lot is up in the air until the Bar is over.
As for the Monastery, I do intend to add pages to it for books 7 through 12 and I have all the images ready to go, I just need to get off my ass and write the damn content. But that's a hard thing for me to do for a couple reasons. First, I'm busy doing a bunch of other things and since the Monastery has always been a hobby, I don't want to force myself into it because then it's not fun anymore. Second, a huge part of my education and training has revolved around language and writing, and paradoxically enough, I find writing well to be a very difficult thing. I think of it like this:
Take the example of my parents. My mother has two degrees in Music History, Theory and Criticism. She has composed music as well as studied more music than I'll ever hear in a lifetime. My father played the clarinet when he was younger, and appreciates a great deal of music, but doesn't have my mother's "trained" ear. So, the two of them could listen to a perfectly good piece of music and he would think it was quite nice, and she would think it was horrible, the pacing would be off, the tempo was all wrong, the harmony this, the melody that, and on and on it goes. She knows so much about music that she practically heard it differently from him.
When I write something, I have years and years of experience writing things sitting there with me, all my background in editing, linguistics, grammar.... So to craft, out of all that, something that I, personally, am happy with, where I can't find some way to improve it or tweak it, where it says exactly what I want it to say, that's hard. I find writing well to be a physically demanding task. Squeezing precision out of something as messy as the English language is tough. And I'm an inherently lazy person, so I don't like to do things that I find so difficult. Writing all these answers is just stream-of-consciousness kind of stuff (although that digression about the future 'net took some composition). But writing the book pages for the Monastery demands a precise vision of what I want to say and how I'm going to say it. And I find that to be hard work.
So I guess this is all a narcissistic excuse for writer's block! : ) (And writer's block is nothing more than pure narcissism anyway.) But whatever, when I feel like it, I am going to put those pages on the Monastery because I want to have the site in a position where I can leave it for a while. I don't want to feel guilty about not updating it for months at a time, so I recently reorganized things with the new look in January, and once the new pages are added, that will be that for a while. I feel I've achieved more than what I set out to achieve with the Monastery, and if I go off to Norway for a year or two, I want to be able to focus on that without worrying about my website.
G: Any other thoughts?
J: Gee, isn't that enough?! : )
G: Thanks for your time Julian
J: No problem.
Lone Wolf © TM Joe Dever 1984-2000.