- Nov 1, 2004
SCIENCE, METAPHYSICS, AND THAT CURIOUS INCIDENT AT GLASTONBURY ABBEY ...
An interview with Liz Williams, by Teresa Edgerton for The Chronicles Network
Special thanks to Mark Robson and Carolyn Hill
With many writers, some of the details in their biographies end up sounding more colorful on paper than they actually were in real life, but in the case of Liz Williams it’s all been so diverse and interesting (and includes so much travel to exotic places), one can’t help believing it was just as exciting as it sounds.
The daughter of a gothic-romance novelist and a part-time magician, Williams started reading science fiction at the age of ten. Favorite writers include, Jack Vance, Ursula Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Mary Gentle, George R. R. Martin, C. J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
With a background in History and Philosophy of Science (she completed degrees in philosophy and artificial intelligence at the universities of Manchester and Sussex, and a doctorate at Cambridge) before she settled down to write full-time she worked at a truly eclectic variety of jobs, including tarot reader on Brighton pier, administrator for an education program in Kazakhstan, and a year running an IT program at Brighton Women's Centre. Now she helps to run a witch’s supply shop located near legendary Glastonbury Abbey. Not surprisingly, with this background, there is a metaphysical element in much of her science fiction, and a scientific/technological element in her recent occult thrillers, but she is primarily known as a science fiction writer on both sides of the Atlantic.
I was able to interview her this summer, in an exchange of emails. Naturally, I would have loved to get a glimpse of that shop at Glastonbury(!) but I’m sufficiently grateful that the internet allows such free communication between California and the UK.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Knowing that your father was a stage magician and your mother a gothic novelist, it’s easy to recognize the magical part of your background in, say, the conjuring scenes in EMPIRE OF BONES, or to catch overtones of gothic romance in POISON MASTER -- but were there any early influences or interests that might surprise your readers?
LIZ WILLIAMS: I always cite Jack Vance as an influence, because he was one of the first SF writers I read and I loved his books. The exotic-ness of them was always presented in such an offhand, matter-of-fact way. His protagonists used to meet the most bizarre people and these people would appear only for a paragraph or so, and then never re-appear.
Other influences - more for my fantasy than my SF - were people like Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and L M Boston. I was brought up with Welsh legends like the stories in the Mabinogion, and the Victorian literature and British folklore that my mother collected. My father had a great many occult books and I read my way through those, too.
I was influenced much more by books than by media, but there was one television series which affected me and I'm sure this is where a lot of the material in the Night Shade Press books, the SNAKE AGENT series, comes from - and that was the Japanese series 'Monkey.' It was completely mad and I'm sure that's why I liked it so much. I also liked some of the early Sherlock Holmes movies - Basil Rathbone was a hero when I was younger! Well, still is.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: It seems to be more the exception than the rule when a writer’s child becomes a writer too. Did you start writing stories at an early age? Did your mother encourage you, or give you any valuable advice?
LIZ WILLIAMS: Both my parents (and also my late partner and my current partner) have been incredibly encouraging. I did start writing when I was young, mainly Lloyd Alexander rip-offs but my mother was fairly hands-off with it and left me to it, feeling, I think, that I was best left to get on with it! What it gave me was her example - that it was normal for women to write, in between doing all the other things that women do.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Do you remember much about the first stories you wrote as a child? Characters, plot, etc? Have you or your parents preserved any of your early efforts? Looking back at them, can you recognize the seeds of your later writing -- any familiar themes or obsessions beginning to emerge?
LIZ WILLIAMS: My early stories featured a wilful redheaded heroine and took place in a Celtic fantasy world and bore no resemblance, none, I tell you, to the works of Lloyd Alexander. Eventually the fanfic nature of it embarrassed even my ten year old self and I started writing more original fiction. The world that was to become the world in Ghost Sister came along when I was about 13.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: You’ve described yourself elsewhere as “a prose junkie,” besides mentioning a number of master stylists among your favorite writers -- Bradbury, Lee, Vance, LeGuin. It’s also obvious in your own writing that you choose your words with great care, and with sensitivity to more than just the literal meaning. Can you remember how old you were and what you were reading when you began to realize that words could be more than just a vehicle for the plot?
LIZ WILLIAMS: I remember the point at which I learned to read silently, without moving my lips - it was in the car going down to Wales. I think the point at which I learned to appreciate language was more with poetry than fiction - my father used to quote Dylan Thomas and it gave me a sense of the way in which words could flow, the way in which they could make you shiver.
I was never particularly good at grammar in school, and I still have significant lapses, but I have a very strong sense of the 'rightness' of language, more an instinct than an applied methodology.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Genetically altered humans, alien DNA, eugenics, designer species: these themes seem to come up with a fair degree of regularity in your writing, and I would imagine reflect an area of continuing fascination for you, but is this in the nature of a favorite flight of fancy or a recurring nightmare -- or both?
LIZ WILLIAMS: I'm fascinated by the range we could have had, as a species, and which we may have lost - there's a theory that 3/4 of the human race was wiped out very early on in some volcanic disaster. When you look at how different feline types are from one another, or canine, and humans are so restricted. So I'm fascinated by the possibility of humanoid diversity.
With eugenics, it is more of a nightmare. I always distrust people who want to make things tidy.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Do you believe there will really be a time when all of these things become a reality?
LIZ WILLIAMS: Certainly a measure of genetic engineering, but it's impossible to say how successful it will be. I think there are likely to be significant long-term disasters. We're tinkering with stuff that we don't fully understand - but then, the notion of a fully comprehensive science is probably unrealistic. I prefer the notion of continuous paradigm shifts, a la Thomas Kuhn.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Regarding what you said about humanoid diversity -- do you think some of the familiar mythic races might have been inspired by, say, lingering race memories of exotic mutations that died out in prehistoric times?
LIZ WILLIAMS: That's my own personal view - or perhaps they were just the more recent predecessors of our direct ancestors, like the Picts - the little dark people who took to the hills when the foreigners came...
CHRONICLES NETWORK: I’m intrigued by the way you combine metaphysics with science, when most people living now would see the two as opposites, incapable of reconciliation. A friend of mine, who teaches rhetoric, suggested you may be trying to convey some particular message by combining these ideas, but I thought it was simply a natural offshoot from your study of early science. Is there a message, or are you just pursuing interesting ideas as they come to you?
LIZ WILLIAMS: Artists often see science and metaphysics as mutually incompatible, but scientists often don't - a lot of scientists follow one form of religion or another. I think that there is an essential mystery in the heart of life, that what life is will always remain just beyond our grasp, and so will its purpose. It's a mistake to anthropomorphise it too much, though. But I think that the purpose of science is to investigate, and it's the best tool we have for doing that. What it has difficulty in doing, however, is to convey meaningfulness: it takes metaphysics for that.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: I noticed that some of the stories in the collection The Banquet of the Lords of Night portray characters and/or settings that you later reworked and expanded into novels. Did you know when you were writing the original stories that someday you would have more to say about those characters or those settings -- or did something happen later that inspired you to go back? Are there any short stories gestating into novels at the moment?
LIZ WILLIAMS: I usually have an idea whether a short story will be expanded, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I'm writing a series of short fiction - kind of Arthurian fantasy but with a SF basis - at the moment, which might be expanded one day. However, I do like writing short fiction - it's a completely different animal from the novel form, and I like experimenting.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: The Arthurian stories sound interesting -- are any of them available now?
LIZ WILLIAMS: One will be coming out in Asimov's round about November - it's called '”Debatable Lands.'” Another, '”Caer Cold,” will be appearing in an anthology, although that one has less reference to Arthur - some are set in the Dark Ages and some in actual Arthurian times. I'm marketing more of them now.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Does it ever go the other way, where an idea comes to you later and you end up writing a short story about a person or a setting from one of your novels?
LIZ WILLIAMS: Yes. The Martian/drowned Earth worlds in BANNER OF SOULS seem to be spawning story ideas at a great rate at the moment.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: A couple of questions about your writing process, if that is all right: When you write, does it all come out in fits and starts of inspiration, or are you one of those very disciplined writers who turn out a certain number of words on a daily basis?
LIZ WILLIAMS: If I'm working on a novel, I try and do 2000 words a day, but I don't always succeed due to life getting in the way. I run a business, I teach, I have a partner and a household as well as elderly relatives, so it all has to be fitted in. I can write a novel in 3 months but it usually takes 5-6. I try to write short fiction in 2-3 shots.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: How much planning do you do in advance -- are you a plan-it-down-to-the-smallest-detail type, are you satisfied with a sketchy outline, or do you begin with only a general idea and write the story to see what will happen?
LIZ WILLIAMS: I write a sketchy outline but I have to have an outline, otherwise it goes awry. I don't like smallest-detail planning, because then it feels as though I've already written the thing! Geoff Ryman made the very good point that you've actually already done the work, so you don't want to do it again. Some element of the plot always takes me by surprise, however.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: What is the most important piece of advise you could give to aspiring writers?
LIZ WILLIAMS: Keep writing. Keep reading, because then you'll realise what has and hasn't gone before. Be tenacious, because it's a difficult industry. Think very hard about giving up the day job because even if you are published, you're unlikely to earn enough to live on.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: When you do workshops or classes aimed at new writers, what is the most frequent problem you come across in your students? writings? Do you find it exciting working with fledgling writers?
LIZ WILLIAMS: The most frequent problem is lack of originality. I do find it exciting when someone comes up with someone new and different, which to do them credit, they often do. But it's depressing when you see the same old material from other novels and, worse still, TV shows being recycled.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: Under the heading of things the author probably knows but doesn’t stop to explain (probably for reasons of pacing) : In the future you imagined for BANNER OF SOULS, it’s obvious that males had long since lost their usefulness in terms of reproduction, but how did your societies on Mars and Earth decide to do without them altogether?
LIZ WILLIAMS: At some point, there's been either a virus or a genetically engineered virus, or possibly a type of pollution (like the plastics-induced change of sex in some fish at the moment) which has done away with most of the male population. Women take over, and decide that they don't want to relinquish power. I am strongly feminist but I don't think women are inherently nurturing and nice, by the way. You may have noticed.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: I loved your descriptions of Dreams of War’s armor -- sometimes beautiful, like a dragonfly, sometimes bristling with terrifying weaponry -- but I’d like to know more about how it was supposed to work. The alterations don’t seem to come about mechanically -- does she manipulate the armor mentally, or does it automatically respond to her emotional state, or to changes in her body chemistry?
LIZ WILLIAMS: She's supposed to be in touch with the spirit inhabiting it, and they work together.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: THE POISON MASTER has many of the typical elements of a gothic romance -- the brooding hero, the sequestered heroine (once she takes up residence in his imposing domicile), etc. How did this kind of plot, along with such seemingly unrelated ideas as space travel, cabala, and plant allies first come together in your mind -- or did the story just continue to accumulate unexpected ideas and influences by some sort of magnetic attraction as you went along?
LIZ WILLIAMS: It comes out of a very different short story (“The Banquet of the Lords of Night”) but most of the elements were there from the start - I wanted to write a Gothic novel, I've been interested in the Kabbala and wanted to write a story set in a Kabbalistic universe (one of my occult students pointed out that all universes are Kabbalistic, in his opinion, which made me smile). I'm also very interested in herbalism - I'm about to complete the first stage of a course in medical herbalism - and in the idea of entheogens, or hallucinogenic plant-derived substances which have their own animating spirit. It's something one comes across a lot in modern shamanism.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: The Lords of Night live on extracted essences. Are their cooks alchemists, or magicians?
LIZ WILLIAMS: More alchemists than magicians.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: POISON MASTER can be read on so many different levels, there are so many layers to the story -- historical, science-fictional, mystical, romantic -- and considering the cabalistic influences, should readers be looking for further meanings and levels that aren’t so obvious: anagrams, letter substitutions, acronyms, and so forth?
LIZ WILLIAMS: They should definitely be looking for anagrams but I can't remember what the hell they were. The little between-chapter symbols in the US edition are, IIRC, the alchemical symbol for antimony, which Bantam came up with.
CHRONICLES NETWORK: You’ve cited C. J. Cherryh as one of your favorite writers. I was particularly reminded of Cherryh when I was reading EMPIRE OF BONES -- not because of any similarities in the plot or setting, but because your aliens were so completely satisfyingly inhuman: in their biology, their culture, and their psychology. What do you use as a jumping-off point in imagining alien psychologies? Do you start by exaggerating some human trait or custom (in this case the Indian caste system)? Do you look to other terrestrial species for ideas? Or does it all start with the biological differences and build on that?
LIZ WILLIAMS: With EMPIRE, it started off with the caste system and with the biological differences - I liked the idea of language being used to confuse and obfuscate, rather than to clarify, and the idea of a set of castes which literally could not understand one another. I tend to take a starting point and then extrapolate as far as I can. I never feel that I extrapolate far enough, however.
(This interview continued in next message ...)