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Interview: Kevin N. Haw on "Render Unto Caesar"

Kevin N. Haw–author of "Render Unto Caesar," which appears in our April 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story is about a computer character from an online medieval adventure game–specifically, Duchess Willhelmia Bloodfang Elfbane, a seven foot tall female troll–being audited by the IRS for not reporting her income.  "It’s a single scene, but shows her discomfort at dealing with the IRS and eventually arrives at an agreement of mutual benefit to both parties…and to the detriment of most taxpayers," Haw said.

Duchess Willhelmia Bloodfang Elfbane is a seven foot tall, green skinned troll with three inch canine fangs, a "Digital American" who normally lives inside an massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG).  "Her day to day life is pretty simple: stay at the top of Troll Mountain, wait for players (‘meaties’) to come on up, and then scream at the top of her lungs and charge them with her axe swinging, intent on decapitation," Haw said. "Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses.  In any case, she’s resurrected every hour or so, ready to go at it again after taking a break ‘backstage’ with her girlfriends to gossip over chamomile tea and complain about the lack of quality men amongst their coworkers. The hours are lousy and the pay is nonexistent, but she’s good at her job.  She’d better be, since that’s what she was created to do."

Unfortunately, this story finds her out of her element: She’s cast into the Meatie (i.e. nonvirtual, real) world to face a challenge beyond her comprehension: an IRS audit.  "Her favorite axe confiscated by an eight dollar an hour security guard, sitting in an undersized chair, unsure how to act, this poor lady finds herself facing the part of ‘death and taxes’ that she doesn’t understand," Haw said.

The idea came from a news piece quoted at the start of the story that indicates that the IRS is requiring people to report online income. "After a bit of toying with the idea, I expanded the definition of ‘people’ and saw that there was some humor potential there," Haw said. "The ending was inspired by another news piece which indicated the IRS was outsourcing some activities to very aggressive collection agencies."

Another source of inspiration for the story–as you might guess–is a MMORPG Haw played. "Several years ago, I played Everquest.  Not obsessively enough to actually be good at it, but nonetheless I spent far more time running around that virtual world than I would have liked," Haw said. "Throughout the game, though, I was always wondering what all the other players were doing as they zipped past me to run off and hunt monsters for their own adventures.  Did they have a wife or children in the other room or dinner waiting on the table or something else in the real world that was calling them?  It was thoughts like those that eventually led me to quit the game, to reconnect with the real world.  It was kind of like when I quit playing ‘The Sims’–you know things are bad when the computer is telling you that your imaginary people need to go outside, get sunlight, and meet people while you’re sitting in a dimly lit study to set that up."

The most challenging part about writing the story was finding the quotes at the beginning and end of the piece, Haw said. "In my academic work I’m used to putting in any quotes as long as I want and in my fiction I’m used to chopping and rearranging phrases as I see fit," he said. "To put a legitimate quote of the proper length to work as I needed it, though…that was a tall order.  I spent several days digging through lots of stories on Google that said what I wanted, but none summarized them in just a line or two.  For all the talk about the dumbing down of American journalism we hear today, you would be amazed at how tough it is to find a two sentence summary of a complex issue.  Good for our society, but awfully tough for me on this piece."

Haw said he fell in love with Willhelmia and has been thinking about what she”’ be up to next.  "I hinted in the story about her loneliness and lack of a love life, so right now I’m working on that angle," he said. "Speed dating will never be the same again…"

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