- Nov 1, 2004
CATS, COMICS, AND THE UBIQUITOUS MIDLIFE CRISIS
AN INTERVIEW WITH TAD WILLIAMS FOR THE CHRONICLES NETWORK
by Teresa Edgerton
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)