Chronicles Interview with Tad Williams

Teresa Edgerton

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CATS, COMICS, AND THE UBIQUITOUS MIDLIFE CRISIS
AN INTERVIEW WITH TAD WILLIAMS FOR THE CHRONICLES NETWORK
by Teresa Edgerton​

By his own account, Tad Williams has held more jobs “than any sane person should admit to.” He has worked as a shoe salesman, sung in a band, managed a financial institution, hosted a syndicated radio show, worked in theater and television production, taught classes at the grade school and college level ... and this is only a sampling. I first met him almost twenty years ago, when I attended one of his seminars on fantasy writing, and at that time he was juggling a full-time writing career with a job in multimedia at Apple -- not to mention a variety of sidelines. Needless to say, his energy is legendary.

Tad is the sort of person I think of when someone says the word “polymath”, but he’s not only witty, articulate, and multi-talented, he has the rare gift of making everyone around him feel as though they, too, have magically become smarter and more interesting than they ever were before. He lives with his wife, the equally brilliant (and even more lovely) Deborah Beale, and their two children, Conner and Devon.

I caught up with Tad this July at WesterCon, where, being the most obliging of men, he readily agreed to an email interview. The result is below.


CHRONICLES NETWORK: To begin with Tailchaser’s Song: Why cats?

TAD WILLIAMS: About that time I had moved in with my someday-to-be-ex-wife, and she had cats. I was amused and horrified by them. I'd never lived with cats before.

CN: As a first-time novelist, were you surprised by Tailchaser’s popularity, here and abroad?

TW: I was astoundingly naive, in some ways. I just wanted to prove I could do it, that first time. The fact that things worked out well was all gravy.

CN: I’ve been asked to demand a full inventory of the pets in the Beale-Williams household.

TW: As of August, 2007: Beagle, poodle, chihuahua, abyssinian cat, oriental short hair cat, unofficial neighborhood cat, red-eared slider (turtle), a zillion sea monkeys. My daughter is campaigning hard for a small snake.

CN: I’ve heard rumors of a new science fiction project, Arjuna Rising, and another project possibly on the horizon, Ministers of Grace.

TW: Arjuna is, at this point, kind of a comic-book space opera, in that it's a science fiction about a time when Earth's colonies are struggling over the rights of the religious versus the non-religious, not unlike the free state/slave state conflict of the 19th century. Because the weapons (and the methods for detecting weapons) are so powerful and sophisticated, the only way a war between these alliances still nominally at peace with each other can be fought is by a kind of guerilla combat carried out by bio-engineered agents. In other words, they're kind of superheroes, fighting a war between "reason" and "faith" (although both sides are much more complicated than that.

And Ministers of Grace is about another cold war, this one between Heaven and Hell, and an operative sent to Earth by Heaven to find out (with some grudging support from Hell) why certain souls aren't ending up in either camp, but are disappearing.

I have no idea when I'll be writing either one of them, but I like a lot of things about both ideas.

CN: At WesterCon, you mentioned that you were working on two YA series with Deborah.

TW: We've sold a series to Brenda Bowen at HarperCollins, and in Europe as well. The first volume is The Dragons of Ordinary Farm. I'm doing a rewrite now. Deb is finishing up the first draft of the other, an animal fantasy about raccoons called Urchin's Luck.

CN: What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of a collaboration?

TW: Collaborating with your spouse is great in some ways, because you're right there and can conference any time. The only downside is that we're having to learn our way through the rough patches together, and the same schedule problems (like travel) often affect both of us. Deb's been great, though. It's my control-freakiness that's the most hard to integrate, but I rationalize that it's what makes me the writer I am, and it's (in part) what my readers expect.

CN: You came to fatherhood relatively late in life. How has becoming a parent changed your writing?

TW: I've become much more efficient about using my time when I have it. My kids like to wander in and out of our work area, and seem to regard writing as being somewhat like watching cartoons -- interrupting is no problem, you can just pause the Tivo and come back to it later. We haven't had much luck educating them. They'll grow out of it in twenty years or so.

CN: You’ve been working in comics for a while now, writing about established characters like Superman and Aquaman, and also your own original characters. What is that like?

TW: Writing comics is kind of my mid-life crisis. Some guys my age get a hair-weave and a sports car, me, I write comics for less money than I could make doing other stuff, because I grew up on comics. It's a second childhood thing.

Originally, I went to DC with a proposal for Captain Marvel. They were doing something else with the character, so that wasn't possible, but my connection with them sprang out of that initial contact.

CN: How does your writing process when you are working on a comic book differ from the process of working on a novel?

TW: Similar. Shorter.

The main difference is that I'm just trying to convey enough information to get the job done, and since the artist is going to do a lot of the work, I have to stay out of his way. (There are female artists, but I haven't worked with one yet.) Also, space is at a premium in comics, as much because of reader expectation as actual limits, so never say in ten words what you can say in five.

Lastly, because I'm working in other people's universes, built up over many years and many, many writers, I have to make sure I know what I'm doing with the characters and have respect for their long (and usually horrifyingly complicated) histories.

CN: I know that your love of comics goes a long way back -- I remember you and Mark Kreighbaum having some very lively discussions on Spider-Man, back in the days of the GEnie SFRT -- but do you remember when and with what characters that love affair began?

TW: I'm sure my first real favorites were Marvel comics of the early sixties, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk. I loved the DC characters too, like Superman and Batman, but when I was first getting into comics they hadn't been "humanized" the way the Marvel characters were -- they didn't have arguments, or self-doubts, or problems at home.

CN: And you’ve been working on some film and television scripts?

TW: I'm not working on any film ideas at the moment, although some other people are doing things with stories of mine. No news at the moment, though.

CN: If you haven’t yet written a script based on any of your books, would you ever consider it? If so, which of your stories would you most like to see adapted for film?

TW: I think Tailchaser’s Song or War of the Flowers are the most likely, since they're single volumes and fairly self-contained.

CN: And how, by the way, do you find time for so many different projects in so many different media?

TW: By doing my best to avoid real work.

CN: Your series Otherland seems to have anticipated by a few years the Massive Multiplayer Online games of today. Do you play any of these games yourself?

TW: No, the gaming craze largely missed me -- perhaps because of age, since both of my younger brothers did a lot of it. I find it's more fun to make my own stuff up, and since I have more outlets for that than most people, that's what I'd rather do.

CN: There’s a wide cast of characters in that series, and some of them quite atypical in terms of SF/F. Could you tell us about the inspiration for some of them? Are any of them based on real people?

TW: I try to avoid basing characters on real people, although I will use aspects of real people as part of a character. I believe that if you stay too close to a real person in the character, it affects your judgement about the character's role in the story.

CN: Someone told me that when you were writing Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn you intended it to be the anti-Tolkien. Is this true, and if so, what did you mean by it?

TW: Not the anti-Tolkien, but an examination (among other things) of Tolkien's tropes and the way other people had picked them up without understanding them, and parroted them on to another generation. For instance, the idea of a Golden Age, which has become a staple in most mainstream epic fantasy. Tolkien, both as a Catholic and an anti-modernist, actually believed (or wanted to believe) in such a better time, in an unFallen world. I don't. So my book was going to reflect that, but in such a way as to draw attention to it -- namely, by pulling in the readers who had become used to taking it for granted.

CN: Religion is a very prominent feature in the setting of that trilogy -- a religion similar in many ways to Christianity. I assume it was important to you, in creating a society analogous to medieval Europe, to include a religion with that sort of flavor and that sort of widespread influence?

TW: I wanted a world that was very similar to our own (Western) pre-industrial world, because I planned to take the main character, young Simon, farther and farther away from those familiar settings in the course of his worldly education. To make a similar world, a place that would feel familiar to readers, I used elements of language and culture that they would half-recognize.

CN: It seems to me that the Shadowmarch books are full of even more dire circumstances than any of your earlier books, and that your characters inhabit a darker and more dangerous place, physically and emotionally.

TW: I think that perception, which I do not dispute, comes from the original plan for the story, which was a bit Gothic.

CN: Twins seem to be quite popular in fantasy lately, especially mixed gender fraternal twins. Do you have any theories as to what might have caused so many writers and readers to simultaneously become interested in that particular subject?

TW: I think we're fascinated by the still-not-fully-understood connections between twins, and also because the bond between them is unlike anything else (although perhaps has a parallel in terms of strength with romantic love.) They make an interesting substitute for a pair of romantic lovers, plus they are a very intense version of family. Since Shadowmarch was a family story, it seemed an easy choice.

CN: Any idea when we can expect the final book in that trilogy?

TW: 2008, but I don't have a date yet. I'm hoping sooner rather than later.

CN: You’re known for writing very long books, but Caliban’s Hour was a notable exception. Did this begin life as the Williams version of a short story, or did you always intend for it to be a short novel?

TW: My wife Deborah, who at the time was my British publisher, solicited it for part of a novella series she was doing at the time for her imprint, Legend (Greg Bear, Michael Swanwick, and others all contributed novellas.) By the time I wrote it, though, she was no longer at Legend and the novella series had ended, and so it was published as a short novel.

CN: What made you decide that that particular character, of all Shakespeare’s creations, was worth further exploration?

TW: I've always been impressed that perhaps the first character representing the New World in Western literature should have been such a sharp critique of colonialism -- before the colonial era had properly begun. His first line is, "This was my island once." And he's a wonderful examination of how Europeans extended the blessings of "civilization" to others, and were shocked when they either didn't feel grateful, or, even worse, began asking for the same rights as the Europeans.


(interview continued in next message)
 
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Teresa Edgerton

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CN: Some of the territory you cover in The War of the Flowers -- both in and out of fairyland -- is based on real places, as well (it would appear) as on aspects of your own life. Have you considered exploring that particular version of fairies and fairyland any further?

TW: I'd love to. If I ever come up with a good story that needs that background, I'd have no problem going back. I really enjoyed playing with those ideas.

CN: The fairies in War of the Flowers, the Qar in Shadowmarch, the Sithi and Norns in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn -- all different from the fairies of tradition and folklore, and from each other. What inspired three such different visions?

TW: What we write, generally, is about voyages in Faerie -- the realm of the fairies, either literally or metaphorically. Thus, it seems to me that fairies should be as diverse as imagination can make them, and so I'm just contributing my little bit. I most enjoy trying to imagine how things look from the fairy side, since we've had hundreds of years of exploring what the experience looks like from the human point of view. However, I find that leaving some mystery makes the folk of Faerie work best. Otherwise we're writing science fiction, and while I love that too, it's a different part of the genre.

CN: And you’ve written about other races like Trolls, Niskies, Dwarrows ... in your treatment of them, they come across as familiar and yet unfamiliar. What are some of the pleasures and challenges of writing about non-human races?

TW: As mentioned above, I really like trying to see things from outside the human point of view. I think that lends that touch of "other-ness" we go to Fantasy to find. It's really fun to introduce readers to a whole new tribe of human-like (or inhuman) creatures, but it's important to remember, as with ethnic groups in real-world fiction, not to make them boringly abstract examples of their kind.

CN: Returning to War of the Flowers,you’re a singer and musician yourself (and I remember a trip to Arizona where you kept the rest of us entertained by serenading us with songs from the sixties) so obviously music is important to you. Do you listen to music on a daily basis, and if so, what and who are you listening to these days?

TW: Oh, yeah. Even more now that I got a Magic Jesus Phone, so I have an Ipod (I'd been putting off buying one). Listening to lots of stuff -- Beck, Wilco, Arcade Fire, CocoRosie, to name a few current folks, plus my old favorites like Elvis Costello, the Who, Bowie, Linda Thompson, you name it. And a lot of classical -- vocal music and quartets and other quiet stuff.

CN: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? If so, what are some of the pieces, groups, or composers?

TW: As mentioned above, mostly classical stuff, because things with recognizable English lyrics tend to influence my writing too much. (Once you get a few Elvis Costello sprung rhythms in your head, they're stuck there for a while.) So I like madrigals and lieders and string quartets and things like that -- stuff that's not too loud and stormy.

CN: How about food -- is there any particular food or snack that fuels your creative engine?

TW: I'd like to say it was all crudites and salad, but I'm one of those people who swings schizophrenically between sweet and savory late at night, so I have to make sure the snacks aren't TOO awful, because I'll eat whatever's there. I try to keep nuts and olives and dried fruit around, but if there's something like chips or chocolate, it will be eaten. If lovin' them is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

CN: And what would you say are your principle literary influences?

TW: In my own field, the big, wide-canvas fantasy writers like Tolkien, Eddison, Pratt, Le Guin, and the flakier writers of shorter fiction like Bradbury, Sturgeon, Tiptree, Lieber, Ellison, Zelazny, and Moorcock (although he's kind of between the two.) Funny writers like Thurber and Wodehouse. Pynchon and Dickens and other purveyors of the circumlocutious.

CN: Whether they influenced you or not, who are some of your favorite authors, in or out of the SF/F genre?

TW: Even having done the lists above, there are zillions more. To name a few:

Barbara Tuchman
Iain Banks
Paul Fussell
Kurt Vonnegut
Mary Renault
China Mieville
Alan Moore
Neal Gaiman
Grant Morrison
Mike Carey
Stan Lee (esp. with Jack Kirby)
Steven Brust
Ruth Rendell
Peter Ackroyd
Barbara Hambly
Tom Robbins
Dan Simmons
Greg Bear
Lindsey Davis
Robert Nye
Lynda Barry
Neal Stephenson
Dennis Potter
George R. R. Martin
Gail Simone
Robert Silverberg
S. J. Perelman
Robert Benchley
E. B. White
Hunter S. Thompson

And I keep thinking of more. Jeez, I could go on for days...

CN: I know it’s like asking a parent which is a favorite child, but is there any one of your books or series that is your personal favorite, or of which you feel the proudest?

TW: I think the Otherland books are the most "me", in the sense that they show the widest amount of what interests me as a writer, and are the biggest exposition of what I amusingly refer to as my "skills" -- a better expression might be "crotchets and bad habits." But I think it was a genuine attempt to do something different within the world of epic fantasy, and I'm proud of it.

CN: Even though you put the characters in all your books into some very serious and dangerous circumstances, there’s often a dry sense of humor at work. Do you think about this as you write, or does the humor just arise unexpectedly out of particular situations and personalities.

TW: It's so nice to hear my sense of humor called "dry." Some people have termed it "annoying," which I find much less satisfying. I would say the humor arises from my amusement at life, whether the real stuff or our fictive versions. How can you not laugh at things? It beats the heck out of continual weeping. It's a great anti-entropic force -- perhaps, along with love, the only two truly effective counters to entropy.

CN: Still, you seem to be quite ruthless in terms of killing off sympathetic characters. Obviously, these deaths are plot-driven, but when the time comes, do you ever find it hard to kill favorite characters?

TW: Not as hard as some writers. I'm more interested in my characters than I am attached to them. And the difference is, in some cases I knew they were born to die, as it were, so the readers are surprised, but I'm not.

CN: Are there any of your surviving characters that you’ve considered spinning-off into other books?

TW: Oh, I could definitely see writing a novel based around Orlando Gardiner from Otherland. That became clear when I wrote the “Happiest Dead Boy in the World” short story.

CN: If you could live in any of the imaginary places you’ve created, which would it be?

TW: The Otherland network, without a doubt, or possibly the Fairy world in War of the Flowers. But Otherland is really sort of a Tad-paradise -- an Ipod for experiences, as it were, where you can really get into something historical or factual or imaginary in as much depth as you want, or just go random and always have new experiences.

CN: In terms of starting a new story, for you, where does it usually begin: the plot, the setting, or the characters?

TW: Usually it's kind of an idea. Had one the other day: a war between the dead and the living. Ghosts against the living. Why? What would they possibly want? What threat could they be to us? It starts like that, then it begins to expand and agglomerate.

CN: How intensive is your world-building in the early stages? Is everything down before a word is written, or does the setting organically evolve as the story unfolds?

TW: I do some of each. I have to have enough world to feel comfortable writing the beginning of the story, but I can't think it all up at the beginning -- some has to come from discovery along the route.

CN: A certain well-known SF writer (who I won’t name here) has recently made some rather disparaging remarks about books that feature an extensive amount of worldbuilding, equating it with “nerdism” and (apparently) bad writing. Do you have an answer to that?

TW: I'm certain there are lots of bad books featuring worldbuilding. I'm also certain there are lots of bad books written in the style that author most reveres. There are no bad genres, only bad books, or at least bad writing. Any other position is basically not a lot different from saying, "I like it, thus it is good. I don't like it, thus it is bad." I can show you some of the most dreadful crap written in the sparse, literary style this author probably likes, or in the deadpan, no-wasted-time style that many SF writers emulate. I can show you some beautiful work with heavy worldbuilding. I get bored with people attempting to make themselves feel better by belittling things they don't like. I used to have the same arguments about music when I was young -- "Eeew, how can you like that?* I can prove SCIENTIFICALLY that it's CRAP!" I'm too old for that @#&% now.

CN: This is sort of a stock question, but I’m very interested to hear what you have to say on the subject. What do you think is behind the current popularity of fantasy?

TW: I think that not only do we live in somewhat disturbing times, we live in times when it's hard to feel disconnected from the whole and responsible for your own destiny. Fantasy fiction tends to make that an icon of the genre -- making one's own destiny. We celebrate the victors, but we also blame the losers, because most of them (in average fantasy books, anyway) seem to have chosen their own path to un-good-ness. That's a powerful lure in this disaffected, confused age.

CN: If you were walking down a familiar street and discovered a little, hole-in-the-wall bookstore operated by a small, gnome-like proprietor -- a store you had never seen before, and strongly suspected would no longer be there the next time you passed -- and you learned that it was full of rare and unusual books from every country and every period of history, what would you hope to find there?

TW: A copy of Shakespeare's Cardenio, which was based on a contemporary translation of Don Quixote. That alone would be worth the trip, obviously.

CN: Are you a fan of any current SF or Fantasy programs on television? Of any recent movies in the genre?

TW: I think my favorite SF movie of all time is Groundhog Day, because not only is it just plain good -- thoughtful and funny and entertaining -- but it's also good SF: it never sells out its principle idea, and works the whole thing through with due Gernsbackian rigor.

I know there's lots of good stuff on these days, but I haven't seen most of it. The downside of having young, attention-demanding children. The rallying cry of my generation: "I'll catch up when the DVD comes out...!"

CN: Chronicles members are always looking for book recommendations. Are there any books that you’ve read recently -- in or out of the genre -- that you were particularly excited about?

TW: I enjoyed Patrick Rothfuss' first book very much. Mark Ferrarri's The Book of Joby was lovely. I really enjoyed Mike Carey's The Devil You Know, and I'm also enjoying Pynchon's new one, Against the Day, but the bugger writes really heavy books so I can only read them when I can rest them on a table. Who would write such long, heavy books? I ask you!
 
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Culhwch

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Yes, great job, Teresa. A very insightful interview. Certainly sounds like a good bloke to sit around and have a chat with.
 

Grimward

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A well-after-the-fact thank you from me, too, Teresa. Wasn't a Chrons member when you conducted the interview, but I enjoy Tad's books, and it's great to hear more about him.
 

Handsome John

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I know this is YEARS old but thanks! I've never read an interview with Tad Williams before so I found it fascinating.
 
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