During the gamebook boom of the 1980s TSR’s Endless Quest series rivaled Choose Your Own Adventure books in both popularity and longevity. I’m very delighted to be talking now with Rose Estes, creator of Endless Quest and author of over 30 books.
Games vs Play: Hello Rose, thank you for talking with Games vs Play all the way from the windswept coast of Oregon! To start things off I wanted to ask about the origins of Endless Quest. I’ve read that the series was created by you in 1982 when you were working in TSR’s Education department in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Could you please tell us more about how this came about?
Rose Estes: The story of how the Endless Quests came to exist is rather strange. Even I have to admit that. I lived in Houston for 20 years and among my friends was a man named Manuel King, the son of a Russian Jew named “Snake King” who was an importer of wild animals, many of whom were used in movies. Snake King married a Mexican woman and Manuel was their son. They and the animals lived in Mexico as well as the U.S. When Manuel was a child he starred in a number of movies as “Bomba, the Jungle Boy“. An interesting life.
Flash forward 20 years to Lake Geneva, WI, where I was a single mom with three children and a very small salary working for TSR. I was a journalist but there were few opportunities to work in my field unless I moved to Chicago or Milwaukee. But life in Lake Geneva was a better place to raise children, so I stayed. I was TSR’s 13th employee and I sort of floated around doing various tasks. There was no education department. What might have qualified for that title was me, trying to explain D&D to the public at large, primarily attempting to ally parents fears that their children were becoming involved with demonology. It was a difficult task. I did not play the game, so my explanations were coming from a regular person, a mom myself and not a gamer. But, it was an uphill battle, especially after a student at the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor, went missing and was said to be in the steam tunnels beneath the school where supposedly D&D was being played. This proved to be false, but still, people, parents were very confused.
About this time, a tent circus came to town and I brought my children to see the show. Much to my surprise, I saw Manuel King and met his wife and their children. They were performers in the show half of the year and the other half was spent in Mexico where they ran their own circus. During the conversation, Manuel, who knew me as a journalist, said, “Why don’t you come along? Travel with us for a while. It will be a great story.” And after thinking about it for a while, I agreed. So I took a leave of absence from TSR and joined the circus. I traveled with them for three weeks and one day we set up in Decorah, Iowa. I took the opportunity to do my laundry at a small laundromat in town. There was a small shelf of paperback books one could read while their laundry was being done. I picked up a book by R.A. Montgomery, a Choose your Own Adventure book. As soon as I got a few pages in, it hit me hard, that this was the perfect vehicle for presenting D&D to children and their parents. So I called a friend and asked her to pick me up and I went back [to TSR] that same day.
After reading the book in its entirety, I went to work and sat down with the Head of Sales [at TSR] and did my best to explain how important I thought the format was. He wasn’t interested. I continued to bring it up in the days/weeks that followed until he said, “If you think this is such a hot idea, go home and write it yourself!”
I had never considered writing it myself, I’d never written fiction, not even a short story, but he made me so angry that I did just that, in long hand on a legal pad. When it was done, I put it on his desk and there it sat, in plain sight to me every day for months. He never even looked at it.
Around the first of the year, 1982, I think, TSR joined Random House at a sales meeting in Puerto Rico. TSR had a number of new game modules to release and somewhere along the line the Sales Manager mentioned my book. Random House was all over that because they knew the success that the [Choose Your Own Adventure] series was enjoying at Bantam. Long story short, he came back, dropped my story on my desk and said, “Write three more, I need them by April.” I was dumbfounded, as you might imagine. But I did it. Return to Brookmere [#4 in the series] was actually the first book, even though Dungeon of Dread is said to be the first. I wrote all four books long hand, also on legal pads and wrecked my right arm in doing so. Instant carpal tunnel! The rest is pretty much history as you know it.
GvP: So, the Education department at TSR wasn’t really about raising literacy or encouraging reluctant readers to pick up books? I’d kind of assumed that was the purpose behind Endless Quest, because this was the original idea behind Choose Your Own Adventure books. [It’s also what’s written on Wizards of the Coast‘s “The History of TSR” page]
RE: I’d like to tell you that the Education department was created to help reluctant readers, but it wasn’t. They hadn’t thought that far ahead. I think it was to educate people as to what the game [D&D] was about, to reassure parents and to get kids into the game in an easy format for the 9-14 market. We did get mail from teachers after a while and it was interesting to learn that kids who were not doing well or had disciplinary problems always chose the wrong path! But I continue to get letters, even now, from those who read my books telling me what a difference it made in their lives. It never occurred to me that it would do so. Despite working full time at TSR, I wasn’t well paid and was on welfare (my husband skipped out and never paid child support) until the books began to do well and TSR realized that they had to give me a raise.
GvP: Endless Quest were among my favourite gamebooks when I was growing up in the ’80s. I always thought they had more depth and character than other series. Were you consciously trying to write them differently from other gamebooks?
RE: Aside from the Montgomery book that I found, I’ve never read any others [i.e. gamebooks]. I’m a storyteller, plain and simple. My interest, no matter what I’m reading, fact or fiction, is what the people are about, why they do what they do. For example, I wrote a history of the Chow Chow in America. I wasn’t interested in what dog begat which dog, which is what most breed books are about. I wanted to know who the people were who brought the breed here and what they were all about. The book created quite a stir in doggy circles, because no one had ever done that before. So my characters, then, when I was just beginning my career in fiction, to now when I’m returning to it, are still about having a backstory for the characters. I want to know as their creator, as well as a reader, what motivates them, why they do what they do, otherwise, it’s one-dimensional and just an excuse to get from one action scene to the next.
GvP: Fans of the Endless Quest books point out that the hero is often accompanied by some animal companions. Why did you decide to include this element in the stories?
RE: I had never had a pet until I was in my early teens and having a difficult home life and few friends, my cat became my everything. I felt that he understood me when no one else did. I think putting animals in the stories gave the hero the opportunity to share their thoughts without the writer explaining it. And if they didn’t have another person to give them feedback, it helped to give the animals the gift of speech so there was someone/something to act as a refection of their thoughts. Also, when they were lonely, scared, in danger, it helped them to not be alone. Comfort and unquestioning love, something we all need at any point in our lives. I’m currently writing a new EQ-type book for BJ Hensley and once again there are animal companions, a displacer beast [pictured here] and a blink dog, not a combination one would ordinarily think of putting together.
GvP: Cool, displacer beasts – a classic D&D monster! Fans also note that Endless Quest books featured fully fleshed out main characters with a name and backstory, unlike the generic second person “You” used in most gamebooks. Often the main character was female, again unlike most other gamebooks. What were your reasons for taking this approach?
RE: Why girls, you ask? It always bothered me that the women in D&D were always portrayed as though they had been drawn by Boris Vallejo or old wrinkled crones. Males were not always portrayed as looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger, so why did women have to look like Vargas hotties? Why were boys always the protagonists in adventure stories? It seemed just as likely to me that girls might find themselves in situations where they had to act to survive a dangerous situation. Maybe that’s why I like Arya in Game of Thrones.
GvP: Yeah, Arya is a great character. So, what were some of your influences on writing the Endless Quest series, aside from D&D?
RE: Well, I was a sickly child. I was reading at age two; even though that sounds improbable, it’s well documented. I couldn’t rough and tumble and play with other kids and had long periods of being confined to bed. I spent my entire ninth year in bed. My father didn’t have a grasp of children’s literature so he would just go to the library and bring back a yard of adult fiction. We had worked through to the letter ‘N’ before I re-entered the world. But I was not a popular kid and books were always my best friends. I’d have to say that I was heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling, which seems ironic to me now since both men were anti-Semitic (I’m Jewish). Also, Jack London and Andre Norton. Jules Verne, hugely inspiring. Dickens, source of most of my vulnerable children on the outside, looking in – I related since I was also isolated because of illness and nature, definitely not one of the greater world around me. Because I had no friends as a child and was so lonely, I yearned for the friendship of a companion animal such as those that the hero and heroines had in the novels of Andre Norton.
A small aside … My grandmother lived with us and she had multiple sclerosis and was unable to hold a book in her crippled hands, so it was my job to read to her. (Not a job, I considered it a pleasure). She was highly educated and spoke many languages and the books she chose for me to read to her were often beyond my understanding. She was angry that she had been crippled and resentful toward God (her father was a rabbi). So she had me seek out the sixth and seventh Books of Moses, which are what we know as the Kabbalah. I’m not sure why these books were important to her. I think that possibly she thought she could bring about some sort of dark magic to make herself well. These books were forbidden at the time and were not easy to find. When I was healthy, my father and I visited the old Jewish booksellers on Clark Street in Chicago. They always saved books they thought I should read or would enjoy, I was able to get the books from them after a long hassle and read them to my grandmother. I’m sure that some of that crept into my imagination. And, she often told me Russian/Jewish fairy tales, full of scary creatures like Golems and Baba Yaga. My dad would take me to see Yiddish theater too and frequently they were scary. Do you remember the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye dreamed about his dead wife? That was typical of Yiddish theater. Scary stuff for a young, impressionable kid. All of this happened between the ages of two and nine.
GvP: I’m always interested in how writers go about their craft – and writing gamebooks, with their multiple plotlines and branching narratives, are very different by their very nature from other types of books. How did you go about writing an Endless Quest book?
RE: How did I write EQs with their multiple endings? It wasn’t hard. I just set up a situation and imagined the various ways that it could go, then wrote those options. The hardest part was trying to figure out how to arrange the page numbers that the options should go to. I remember being so frustrated that I just threw the pages up in the air and then picking them up and whatever order they were picked up was where they wound up. I’m not sure that’s right, but it’s what I remember.
GvP: That’s a great image of all the pages fluttering in the air! So, looking back now, what would be your favourite Endless Quest book, and why?
RE: Hmmm, not sure at this late date. Possibly Revolt of the Dwarves [EQ #5]. Tom Wham (Awful Green Things and other games) and I were partners for 24 years and the dwarves were modeled after him. So either that one or Revenge of the Rainbow Dragons [EQ #6]. I like dragons and have often thought that they’ve gotten a bad rap.
GvP: Have you ever been tempted to write a gamebook for adult readers?
RE: No, I’ve never been tempted to write an EQ type book for adults.
GvP: In addition to Endless Quest you’ve written 30 other books, including fantasy novels set in D&D’s World of Greyhawk. Can you tell us more about your writing career outside of Endless Quest?
RE: Actually, I’ve written 38 books. I was tapped to write the Greyhawk books after Gary Gygax lost the company. I’ve often wished that I had apologized to him for that. I never thought that I had even one book in me and I guess I was lucky to have written for 9-14 year olds before I stretched to adult fiction. The first two, possibly three Greyhawk books were embarrassingly terrible. I wish I could erase them from people’s memory. They and I did get better as I found my adult voice, but it took a long time. I was a journalist in my pre TSR life, so it took a bit for me to wrap my head around fiction. (The circus venture did wind up as a series in many newspapers).
In 1994, I was in a car accident and suffered a blow to the head that killed (are your ready for this?) the part of your brain that retrieves vocabulary. I was writing the second book of a three book series for Berkeley, Troll-taken and Troll-Quest when this happened. I virtually had to relearn my vocabulary. I was probably operating at high school level. It took six months to finish the remainder of the book and the end was very disappointing. I never wrote the third book. Still, those two books and the Lost Lands series, Blood of the Tiger, Brother to the Lion and Spirit of the Hawk are the five books I’m most proud of.
I began to write again in 2004 after moving to Oregon. But I began with nonfiction and have written three books about the evolution and development of three dog breeds. I had regained my vocabulary, but my brain rewired itself differently. I am now a fairly chaotic person and have to work hard at staying on task and I definitely think differently than I did pre-accident.
GvP: Well, reading this interview I think no-one would doubt your ability to tell a story. Literally millions of people around the world have enjoyed reading your books – Endless Quest has sold over 16 million books, and has been translated into 28 languages. Endless Quest was one of my favourite gamebook series, and a real influence on my own path to becoming a writer. Looking back now, what are your feelings about Endless Quest?
RE: Frankly, I thought that everyone had forgotten me until recently. I had never really been a part of the gamers and so when the accident sidelined me and then moving to Oregon, it never occurred to me that I had removed myself from that community and no one knew what had become of me. Plus, I stopped writing for ten years.
Recently, I replied to a comment on Facebook and suddenly, I was deluged with private messages! It was very exciting! So now, I am writing an EQ for BJ Hensley and Hal Greenberg has asked me to be a part of an anthology. I’m extremely happy to be “back.”
GvP: I’m very pleased to hear that too. Thank you Rose, it’s been so great talking with you and hearing out about your story. My last question is, what advice would you give to writers starting out today?
RE: Many people have asked me for advice on writing over the years. The one thing that writers frequently have problems with is making dialogue sound natural. To me, the best thing one can do is to read it out loud. You can hear how it sounds and recognize what’s awkward and needs to be changed. When it flows smoothly, spoken out loud, that’s when it will be most effective. Also, outlines. If anyone had told me back in high school that outlines would one day become important to me, I would not have believed them. But, it’s true. They can be road maps when you get lost, even if you haven’t suffered a brain injury. But the single most important ability for a writer – don’t laugh – is having the ability to touch type. My goal is to have thoughts flow from my mind and appear on the screen before me. I don’t want to be aware of my fingers. I just want it to flow. And of course, write what you’re passionate about.
Oh, most importantly: self publishing. I love it! I don’t like eBooks, I prefer to have a real book I can hold. But, my son is a teacher and he thinks that I should write EQs for grade school kids and that teachers would buy them.
Games vs Play would like to acknowledge TSR and Wizards of the Coast as the original owners of images used in this post. You can also read our article on the history of TSR’s Endless Quest books here.
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