The OF Blog: July 2003

Monday, July 14, 2003

Tad Williams Interview


Tad Williams has held more jobs than any sane person should admit to -- singing in a band, selling shoes, managing a financial institution, throwing newspapers, and designing military manuals, to name just a few.

He also hosted a syndicated radio show for ten years, worked in theatre and television production, taught both grade-school and college classes, and worked in multimedia for a major computer firm. He is cofounder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.

Tad and his wife live in London and the San Francisco Bay Area. They spend their occasional microseconds of leisure time engineering world peace and making sarcastic remarks about their pets.

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The books:

  • City Of Golden Shadow

  • River Of Blue Fire

  • Mountain Of Black Glass

  • Sea Of Silver Light

  • Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn Series.
  • The Dragonbone Chair

  • Stone Of Farewell

  • To Green Angel Tower

  • Other
  • Tailchaser’s Song

  • The War Of The Flowers
  • New!

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    Otherland Review ~ By Nathen Gallagher

    It started in mud, as many things do.

    Otherland, a four-volume stir pot of science fiction and fantasy, begins when Paul Jonas finds himself in a World War I trench, slowly going mad from the mind-numbing monotony of constant mortal danger. He climbs a beanstalk into the sky, where a giant machine rules a castle, and meets a beautiful angel in a cage. When he wakes in the trench with his companions Finch and Mullet, it all seems a dream - until he finds the bright, shining feather in the mud.

    Thus opens a true showcase of imagination, character, and storytelling, a tale that spans not across time and not across space, but across boundaries more wonderful still.

    In South Africa, in the near-future, Renie is trying to balance a job with a little brother and a drunken father, but all of that is shattered when her brother logs onto the Internet (now a full virtual reality playground of ideas and temptations) and doesn't log off. Little Stephen has fallen prey to a mysterious syndrome that seems to put him in a coma while still plugged into the Net. Renie and her student/friend !Xabbu, a bushman, strike out to find the truth.

    Elsewhere on the Internet, young Orlando Gardiner is Thargor the Barbarian in a massive virtual Baldur's Gate style online game, but in reality he's a sickly kid who will die before his twentieth birthday. He and his best friend Sam stumble across a strange picture of a huge golden city, and Orlando becomes obsessed, bending all of his failing energy to finding it somewhere on the Net.

    And at the same time, Paul Jonas has fled his trench, with his two "friends" in angry pursuit, and somehow manages to pierce the line between worlds ... worlds that never existed.

    All of these disparate forces come together in the mind-blowing virtual simulation known as Otherland, a simulation so real it might just be real. A shadowy group of wealthy businessmen, the Grail Brotherhood, has built this world in the ultimate bid for true immortality - and slowly, it seems to be stealing the minds of Earth's children.

    The worlds of Otherland are amazing, and too numerous to name them all here. In what other book can you visit Mars, the Chessboard world from Through the Looking Glass, War of the Worlds Britain, and an Ice Age all in one sitting? How about a Kansas ruled by the tyrannical Cowardly Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man? Visit a giant kitchen where the matchstick Chief Strike-Anywhere journeys to rescue his son; face the Cyclops on an ancient Greek isle; ride a leaf down a river with dragonflies the size of airplanes; hunt the deadly spider-buffaloes across the Old West; storm the gates of Troy at Achilles' side. This series takes imagination to the next level. But beware, for Dread, the sociopath is minion of the Grail Brotherhood and one of the best villains ever, hides unseen in the group and could strike at any moment.

    Some have complained that the entire first book of this series is an 800-page set up for the rest - and I suppose if you think of everything that happens in later books that this could be true - but it's till a great book in its own right, and what it's setting up is not to be missed. I won't kid you: the ending is a little strange. But Tad Williams is my favorite author, and this is, in my opinion, his best work to date. Character, dialogue, description, and story are the most important parts of writing to me, and this series has them all in something more than spades - diamonds, perhaps. The word choice is perfect, and the characters are more than memorable. This series has everything the fantasy genre needs, with an imaginative edge that just might leave you cheering while you force back the tears. Otherland comes with my highest recommendation, and you can get all four books in mass market paperback now.

    And remember - the angel in a cage waits atop a black mountain that pierces the clouds of forever, and those who journey to Otherland may not ever return.

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    First of all, let me say that we at Other Fantasy welcome you and greatly appreciate that you are taking time out of an extremely busy schedule for us. You are an author who we are all greatly interested in hearing from - thank you for giving us this opportunity!

    Section 1 ~ Questions from Dodge

    1. First of all, could you share with us the basics of you and writing; how much do you write on the average day? Do you set yourself a target that you set out to achieve for the day, or the week, or even the year?

    I used to be much more methodical about this stuff than I am now. I'm a bit more freeform these days, partly because I'm trained enough that I can write pretty much whenever I get the chance -- not much ramp-up time needed. The other factor is that we have kids now, which has grossly curtailed my freedom to write. I used to work in the evenings and at night, but that's much harder now.

    Anyway, I try to do something every day. Some days I'll have hours to work and I'll do a commensurate amount -- ten to twenty pages. Other days I'll have to duck in and write three to five in the hour and a half that family and fate hand me.

    The fact that it's my occupation, the thing that puts food on the table and a roof over our heads, keeps me focused quite well: if I need time to work, I'll find it somehow, even if that means going back to the keyboard at midnight (like I'm doing now), or putting the kids in front of a video and disappearing into the office for an hour.

    2. When publishing, a commonly accepted fact is that good editing leads to good results. How much of your writing do you personally edit out after completion, in general? How much and what sort of things does your editor usually edit out?

    In my case, my editors -- and we're talking mostly about my American editors, Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, although I have a very good relationship with my British and German editors as well -- act more as a focus group for me. (President Bush may not like 'em, but I do.) That is, they tell me what it was like to read the manuscript, what was slow, what didn't work. I argue with them a bit -- well, not always, because quite often they're absolutely right -- and then I go back and do my rewrite. But my editors don't ever line-edit me (which means to make actual changes) except during the thrashing final stages of proofing and typesetting, and even then they'll call me and say, "We need another word -- you left the sentence dangling incomplete. I'm going to put 'he walked out the door.' Is that okay?"

    As far as my own editing during writing and rewriting, there's no rule. Some work gets a lot of chopping, some not much at all. (Many would argue that none of my books get chopped sufficiently.) What I mainly try to do is simplify, prune out all the unnecessary explanations and "he said"s, and unnecessary adverbs and like that. In some cases I'll take a machete to a whole chunk, but I write fairly careful first drafts, so I seldom make a lot of large changes during my rewrite.

    3. Many of our readers are aspiring fantasy / Sci-Fi writers. What tips would you give them for submitting a work that's more likely to be accepted?

    Stop reading SF and Fantasy, or at least make it a minority of your reading. Immerse yourself in non-fiction. Be fascinated by science and history. Read a lot of different kinds of fiction when you do read fiction. Have you actually read any Dickens, or do you just tell people you have? Have you ever actually sat down and read Shakespeare or Jane Austen, not to mention more recent writers?

    Here's another tip: forget about the market, or what looks like the market. Write the book you want to write, about things that interest you. That way, if you don't sell it, you haven't spent a year doing something you hate. Also, if you DO love what you're writing about, I believe it comes through.

    Lastly, please finish writing something before you start extensive rewriting. Most beginning writers write and rewrite the beginning of their magnum opus until its more recursive than a Mandelbrot set. Learn ALL the lessons, which includes the lessons of finishing a story or novel so you can see what shape it wants to be. That makes for much more effective rewriting.

    4. Lastly for this section, what advice would you give to a young and aspiring writer?

    Writing is like a sport. If you love it, do it. If you love it and want to make a living at it, go for it. But the chances are frankly very slim and the competition fierce, so you'd better have talent and a huge amount of ambition and get joy out of the pure exercise of writing. If you don't want to work hard at it with little reward, at least at first, or you're only interested in becoming a best-seller, you'd probably be better trying something else like accounting or taking political bribes that has a fairly straightforward career track.

    People actually ask me sometimes, "So if you're a writer, what kind of money do you get when you start?"

    "Nothing," is what I tell them, of course. "And that's all you may get for a long time." Most of the professional writers I know make a few thousand a year -- it's not a self-supporting career. That's why you'd better love it.

    That said, it's something you'll never get tired of, never learn all the ins and outs of, and never get complacent about (if you're smart.) That's a nice thing to have in front of you -- a lifetime's worth of challenges.

    Section 2 ~ Questions from ngallagher

    5. You've commented before that, in your experience, middles are harder to write than beginnings and endings. Yet many of your readers on our web site believe that your middles are the best part of both the series and the stand-alone novels. What accounts for this? Is it extra effort because of the difficulty?

    I think it's more likely just a matter of individual taste: because in those volumes there's less pressure to start things out or finish things out in a certain way, fewer structural necessities, the middle books can be less formulaic in a way. It may also be that I have a better handle on the material and the characters by that point, although I would hope that in general I'm more capable than that, even in a first volume.

    All that said as to possible reasons, I try to give readers a sense that something weird and exciting will happen in -any- book of mine, that just because the formal ending or beginning is not included in that volume doesn't mean it will be some kind of also-ran.

    In fact, now that I think of it, a few of my own favorite moments are definitely in my middle books -- I've had three of them now, and am soon to embark on another. Maybe it's just the smell of possibility: I've got room to try things, and I'll worry about making all the plot strands tie together later.

    6. In The War of the Flowers, you portray a traditional fantasy world that is forced to mimic our own world too closely, and in so doing becomes a much less appealing place. Fantasy worlds have often been viewed as far more idyllic than ours - is this book in part a warning that our way of life may corrupt even the beautiful places of our imagination?

    The whole idea of Fairyland as a modern, sort of depressing place -- which I wouldn't dare claim was original to me -- started for me as I was reading the Brothers Grimm or something similar and thinking about the fact that Faerie was always pre-industrial because the stories were created largely by pre-industrial folks in pre-industrial times. (There are exceptions, of course, things like gremlins which came out of wartime aviation.) So it seemed fairly obvious to wonder what would happen if Faerie evolved and became what we would think of as more modern in parallel with our own societies.

    I don't think there's anything in WAR OF THE FLOWERS that I would classify as a warning, although there is a bit of a political subtext, of course. Certainly (as Ray Bradbury has made a focus of his work for decades) we sometimes seem to be involved in a wholesale demystification of the world -- a process that almost seems purposefully designed to numb the imagination -- but it could be that it only seems that way to us because we're in the middle of it: future generations of cultural historians may agree that we simply moved into an entire new kind of public credulousness as vast and creative as any fairytales or myths.

    7. In Flowers, does the continued existence of the Remover indicate that you may one day return to Faerie? Or is it simply your way of saying that the world doesn't cease to be turbulent when no one is writing about it?

    It's certainly a credo of mine that fantastic worlds should give every impression of being set to remain that way even as the writer is stepping away from them. As far as revisiting this story, I've learned never to say "never", but I have not yet written an adult work of fiction with the idea of returning to the world. (The exception for children's fiction, THE DRAGONS OF ORDINARY FARM, is something I'll talk about in another answer.) If I did write another work located in or around the City and its inhabitants, it might very well be that the Remover would show up. But it honestly wasn't something I thought about when deciding his fate. It was just clear to me he wouldn't be that easy to bump off, especially keeping in mind his background.

    8. There seems to be a growing trend in speculative fiction, perhaps led by George R.R. Martin's popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, to kill off major characters to keep interest high. You very seldom kill characters, however, and the biggest death in your writing was, for all intents and purposes, reversed. Do you feel the pressure of this trend at all?

    Actually, I don't think that's strictly true with me. I killed off a major character -- the Gandalf-surrogate, you could say -- quite early in my first multivolume fantasy, and then proceeded to kill dozens more focal-point characters. As for OTHERLAND (I'm assuming that's what you're referring to) I felt I was playing metaphysical (if not metafictional) games with the whole idea of protagonist-survival. "Hey, that character survived!" "No, he actually died -- this is just someone who started out as the same person, but isn't the same as the version you spent all that time with." Or, in the case you're probably alluding to, "Yes, this character survived an apparent death, but he's still really dead. He can never go back to his home. He has to live forever in an environment more artificial than a fish tank. And if there's such a thing as a soul, he hasn't got one. Is that a net plus or a net minus?"

    (By the way, I'm publishing a story in the next LEGENDS anthology that follows directly on the alive/dead/huh? aspects of OTHERLAND, and features that very same living/dead character alluded above.)

    In the larger sense, I don't feel much pressure at all, because THAT'S when you find yourselves doing things that are unnatural. I'm not George and he's not me. If I couldn't BE me, I'd be very happy to be him -- he's a great writer. But the world doesn't need another just like him, because he's handling the job fine as it is. And I promise -- characters will die in my books, and they won't all just be red-velour-shirt guys, either.

    9. This must be a cliché and obligatory question by now, but: which authors have had the largest influence on your writing?

    Tolkien, Bradbury, A. A. Milne, Ernest Shepherd, Barbara Tuchman, Roger Zelazny, Thomas Pynchon, Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Charles Dickens, Theodore Sturgeon, James Tiptree Jr., Russell Hoban, Harlan Ellison, Ursula Leguin, Cordwainer Smith, to name a few (and in no particular order.)

    10. I'm an admitted sucker for an emotional charge, but only twice have I almost cried while reading a book, and one of those was near the end of Mountain of Black Glass, my favorite of your novels. So many story relationships are rushed or unbelievable when examined, but Orlando and Sam's development is perhaps the most patient and convincing I've ever seen. Is writing love a fine line to walk?

    Thanks. Writing about love is a challenge because it's such a powerful (and common) emotion that it's easy to portray it badly and still get results -- the famously clichéd "love-montages" in films being an example: running together on the beach, making funny faces in the photo booth, blah blah blah = True Love. In other words, just as with death, it's easy to get a cheap thrill. (Why do you think most really juvenile songwriters focus on love songs and death songs? And I know, because I've been there: almost all the songs I wrote when I was a teenage rocker were about tragedy and death and people being eaten by mutants.)

    So you have this incredibly powerful thing and thus, as a writer, a responsibility to treat it respectfully. I think one of the main reasons I like writing long stories is NOT, as many probably think, because I love the sound of my own authorial voice, or can't edit myself, but because I like the freedom to develop people and relationships over time. You don't have to telegraph things with a couple of symbolism-fraught moments, you can actually show a kid growing up or two people finding each other in naturalistic increments.

    11. While we're on Otherland, Dread has to be the most disturbing villian you've ever created (though the Terrible Child comes close, I'll admit). As a writer, you generally have to get in your characters' heads to make them convincing. As per Dread ... what was it like in there?

    Disturbing, needless to say. I think in order to write any character in depth, you have to find at least some small part of yourself in that character. I have no urge to kill anyone and I really like women (alive), so I had to extrapolate from some not strictly serial-killerish parts of my personality. I looked into my need for control, among other things. In my case it has to do with wanting to be the one driving or planning everything rather than tying people up and tormenting them, but I think there are places where the compulsions overlap. Anyway, you try to find those connections, but you also try really, really hard to imagine how the character feels and thinks, no matter how alien and disturbing. After that, you just do your best.

    12. The last Otherland question, I promise: given the marvelous diversity of worlds in this series, which were your favorite to conceive and write? And remember, if you say "All of them" I'll have to plot a gruesome revenge.

    I would say the Endless House was probably my favorite because it was the most my own, and had the most scope for invention. (I could see myself writing some stories set there, no problem. Maybe I'll get around to that one day.) Almost all of them were fun, though, and the historical recreations and the literary reinterpretations had their own charms. House first, I guess, with Egypt and Oz and Eight Squared tied for second -- at least those are what jump to mind. (I liked historical Venice and Bugworld, too, now that I dredge my memory a bit. It's been nearly ten years since I wrote some of them, which is weird to think about.)

    13. Do you keep up with what other authors in the genre you are putting out, or do you tend to read material from outside of the genre on your own time? Are there any authors that you are particularly fond of at the moment? What are the last 3 books you have read?

    Yes and yes. I read lots of other authors in my own field, although somewhat selectively these days. I'm sure there are lots of good, new folk I'm not reading, but there's only so much time. I can't remember the last three I've finished, but at the moment I'm reading Gene Wolfe's new one The Knight (in galley form), Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and Lord Kinross' book about the Ottoman Empire, Alan Bennett's The Laying On Of Hands, and Joseph Ellis' Founding Brothers (Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and that lot.)

    Other authors in the field I keep up with regularly that weren't mentioned under "Influences" above -- these are just the few that pop into my mind tonight, there are dozens altogether -- are the aforementioned Mr. Martin, William Gibson, Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, Alan Moore, Dan Simmons, Greg Bear, Scott Card, Connie Willis, and Steven Brust. Again, just off the top of my head.

    In mysteries I like Ruth Rendell, Lindsey Davis, Ian Rankin among others.

    I read a lot of non-fiction, as mentioned -- history, and Science For Dummies Like Me (Gould, Diamond, Stephen Levy, Dawkins, and suchlike.)

    In mainstream or literary fiction, as far as people still publishing, I keep coming back to Updike, Pynchon, Roth, and Thomas Berger.

    I'm certain I'm leaving out half a hundred of my favorites...

    14. Caliban's Hour is one of the finest short novels I've ever read, with its eloquent focus on language and humanity, but it's received sadly little attention, especially compared to your larger works. Are there any plans to re-release it or otherwise get it into the hands of more people?

    I think eventually it would be nice if it was obtained and re-released by my main American publishers, because I think they'd repackage it and keep it on the shelves, allowing it to find new readers. It was a book that got orphaned in some irritating ways having to do with the deal, the times in publishing, and a number of other factors. Also, I think people who read short literary-type works don't tend to think, "Hooray, a Tad Williams book!", and people who read my longer works and things like them are not always certain they want a literary-length swiftie based on a play they may or may not know very well.

    15. When you start a novel, do you know the ending already, or do you let it come naturally from the story as you write?

    I'm a bit too much of a structuralist, and my books a bit too complicated, to start something without having at least some kind of ending in mind. (The exception was my online serial novel, SHADOWMARCH, which I literally wrote week to week without excessive preplanning, and now that I'm fiddling with the first section of it for publication in book form I can see where it wasn't as focused as I'm going to make it, at least at the skeletal level of the overall arc, the big themes. I don't know that the readers would notice, but I do -- I have pretty sensitive antennae.

    16. I was going to ask what the best advice you could give to aspiring writers is, but instead I'll break my no-more-Otherland promise - are !Xabbu's string figures actually possible? Some of those were crazy.

    The aspiring-writers question has had a finger-wagging workout above, so don't feel bad about asking something else. The idea of string-figures as the basis both for storytelling and mathematics -- that is, conceptual purposes far beyond "Here's the cat -- and here's the cradle!" -- is based on real stuff, and the Southern African bushmen do (or at least did) indeed use them quite extensively, to the best of my ability to determine. I magnified and modified, of course. It's fiction, damn it. That means we get to make things up.

    17. If loving Applecore is wrong, do I want to be right?

    Interestingly, the main thing I hear from reviewers and readers (mostly male) is a certain -thang- many of them have for Applecore. What can I say? I like a woman who kicks ass, and Applecore is definitely a first class foot-to-derriere distributor -- as Theo says, she's probably ounce for ounce the nastiest gal you'll ever meet.

    Some people have complained that she didn't turn out to be the romantic interest for the main character, but I've always had lots of female friends and it felt perfectly normal to me. (Not to mention that you might have to have a little bit of the masochist in you to hook up with 'Core on a permanent basis.) Also, I think Poppy is just as strong, but in a different way, from a different background. And she's way taller, which saves someone a lot of cosmetic surgery.

    18. And the question we've all been waiting for ... what's next on your proverbial plate?

    As mentioned elsewhere, I'm turning SHADOWMARCH into a full-length, multi-volume story, because I'd really done a volume's worth in the first year online without being anywhere near the end of the story. I'm working as well (with my wife, Deborah Beale) on a couple of other books, an animal fantasy called URCHIN'S LUCK (the main character is a raccoon with family issues) and a kid's book -- which I hope will be the first of a series -- called THE DRAGONS OF ORDINARY FARM. I've got a couple of other projects on the fire as well, but I always have to fight against the urge to do too much at once so I can't get too interested in them right now.

    Section 3 ~ Questions from CNRedDragon

    19. What have you found to be the most difficult aspect of your books to write? The interpersonal relationships, the characterization, the plot - or something else?

    The most difficult part for me is probably trying to tell a real story about real characters and (if we may be so bold) important themes while delivering what is essentially a genre work -- that is, an action/adventure entertainment, which is basically a contract between book-buyer and writer that every few pages someone's going to get eaten or stuff's going to blow up. Reconciling those contrasting impulses is never easy (although it's one of the challenges that makes writing genre fiction fun) and I'm never ever going to be completely satisfied with the balance, I'm sure.

    20. Can you tell us whether or not the Sithi will be playing a significant role in the upcoming Osten Ard book? Please?

    I can't imagine writing a book about Osten Ard that didn't feature the Sithi in a major way, and in fact when I get around to putting together the book in question, I promise there will be many things revealed (and actual stories set in) the history of the Sithi pre-dating the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books.

    21. Finally, similar to the question regarding Caliban's Hour, are there any plans to raise the publicity level for Child of an Ancient City, another sadly under appreciated work?

    It had much the same kind of muddled inception and publication as CALIBAN, so I'd love to see it get some more attention as well. Then again, since I write such long (and thus such comparatively infrequent) books, there has to be something around which my readers can play Tad Trivia, and for now those two books and a half dozen or so short stories are it. Well, and sound files of my old band. And shocking rumors about my Very Bad Pets and Children.

    Thank you one again for your time and we all wish you the best of luck and success in the future.

    Thanks for the questions -- they were fun. I hope you find the answers mildly informative...or even interesting...



    I’m sure you’ll all join me in thanking CNRedDragon and especially ngallagher for this ‘package’ review and interview deal, and for all the hard work they’ve put in for you guys to make OF a better place.

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