Tad Williams Interview, part 2

Tad Williams kindly accepted my invitation to do an interview to help promote the forthcoming The Witchwood Crown (Canada, USA, Europe) a while back. But renovations, writing the second volume in the new trilogy, and other vagaries of life have gotten in the way.

Hence, considering how busy he's been these last few weeks, we've decided to split the interview into two parts. Here are his answers to the second batch of questions.


- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?

Simply that — I’m a storyteller. My work may not be for every single reader, but I think I’m good at telling stories, plain and simple. I think I do a good job of creating characters that people care about (positively or negatively) and I think I have a pretty busy imagination, which certainly helps when creating fantasy worlds. But I also spend a lot of time reading about science and history, so I like to think my created worlds feel more real than many. And I love language, so I’m always trying to do more than simply tell a tale, I’m trying to make the words sing, to open up new ways of thinking for the reader.

Also, I’m cute as a button. Albeit a very old button.

- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?

If I really knew I’d have fixed them already.

Like all writers I have my own tropes, things that effect me deeply and make their way into my work time and again. That doesn’t always guarantee they’ll have the same effect on readers. Also, I like to take my time with pacing, especially with big stories, and I’m sure that some readers just find me exhausting and too slow. But every time I start to bend in that direction, to be more accessible to those raised on Twitter and internet memes, I also have other readers saying things like, “I could only have loved this more if it were twice as many books.” I guess my compromise is in trying to write in a more compact way without reducing the amount of information — without harming the breadth of the story or the depths of the characters, because I’m convinced those are things my readers like about my books.

- With your wife Deborah, you have an in-house editor perusing everything you write. Then, at Daw Books you have Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert editing your novels. With that many editors having you under the microscope (and I reckon that your British editor also has something to say before anything goes into print), some would think that it could become a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. And yet, this approach obviously works well for you. Why is that?

Well, for one thing, I’m stubborn. As much as I love and respect all those folks, including my overseas editors, ultimately the complaints and/or suggestions have to make sense to me before I’ll make any large changes. I’ve been doing this writing gig for quite a while now and I don’t think you get to the point I have — making a living at it for decades — without trusting your own instincts. So if one person says they don’t like something, I’ll look at it and consider it but won’t necessarily change it unless the complaint strikes a chord for me. However, if all or at least several of them say that such and such a section is boring or confusing or whatever — well, I’m not stupid.

On the other hand, because I have intelligent, skilled readers and editors like the three you mentioned, I also feel I can try new and unusual things and they are all clever enough to understand what I’m trying to do, which gives me a certain sense of freedom combined with the reassuring feeling that if I screw up too badly, they have my back and will help me fix it.

- There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind's irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.

What is your view as to fantasy's function?

I have long thought that the appeal of fantasy fiction is fundamentally escapist, although I don’t think it has so much to do with our brain wiring, as Bakker says, as with the simple fact of living in an unheard-of age of entanglement, surrounded by instant information and a thousand distractions designed to grab our attention. I believe we love to dive deeply into another world not just because it’s fantasy and seems “simpler” — “simple” books don’t generally have long appendices and guides to pronunciation or cover multiple volumes — but because it allows us to escape from the war zone ambience of modernity for a little while and mono-focus on a place that seems almost as real but is less exhausting. (This is also true, though not as strongly, for fiction in general, where — unlike the apparently real world we all live in — all of us know for certain there is a controlling intelligence behind our experience, that we are in someone’s hands and that everything that happens is not simply random and inexplicable.)

- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects, who write novels based on detailed outlines, or gardeners, who have a general idea of where the storylines are going but prefer to watch things grow as they go along. Which type of writer are you and why do you prefer that approach?

Some of both, but mostly an architect. I design and build my books first in broad strokes, but still in quite a bit of detail, and my plots are usually at least mostly imagined before I begin because I like to know the shape of what I’m working on. I leave some things unimagined until I get to them because you can’t think of everything at once, especially with a million-word story, but I like to think carefully about the engineering of my books before I write them, so that I have some sense of the rhythms and the themes from the very first. That said, I don’t want to limit myself to only what I can think of while writing a preliminary outline, so I leave lots of bits open to discovery, including plotlines I haven’t foreseen, characters who just pop up, and twists in the story I hadn’t envisioned when I started. A big, sprawling story is always a bit of a swaying bridge between planning and serendipity, so there’s no complete separation between architect and gardener even for me, but I definitely lean toward the planning-ahead style.

- How has your interaction with fans and critics colored your choices in terms of characterization and plot? Has there ever been anything that you've changed due to such interaction in any of your novels?

Oh, yeah, of course. As I mentioned above, when enough of my readers say something didn’t work for them, I take that seriously. I’ve taken things out for several reasons — needlessly violent, distracting from the main story, not tied in to the plot sufficiently, even occasionally because they were artifacts of an earlier idea that went nowhere. But I probably have done less rewriting during my career than most writers simply because I always used to assemble my first drafts so painstakingly.

We writers all have blind spots, or at least nearsighted spots. Sometimes people have completely different reactions to things than I expect. Even that is only a problem when those responses are overwhelmingly negative for the wrong reasons (in other words, an effect I want to achieve that hasn’t worked). Then I have to fix it, because I don’t want to get in my own way, and sticking to doggedly to something that doesn’t work is exactly that kind of mistake.

- Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?

Not really, although sometimes I’m inordinately pleased with how something turns out. I’m a very conscious writer, so I’ve mostly thought through how and why I want any given scene to work. I will occasionally be favorably surprised by how it’s come out, but I wouldn’t say stunned. I will admit that once or twice I have teared up a bit at my own prose, but truly it’s always at the situation not my prose, and it’s because I have lived with the characters for so long. I felt very affected when Simon finally saw met his pseudo-mother Rachel the Dragon again in the first Osten Ard books. I’m sure there were elements of my own life in that scene, of my close relationships with my mother and grandmothers: I had lived with Simon so long he felt like a part of me, and so that unexpected reunion felt very moving.

- Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they've written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it's always the next book that hasn't been written yet. How about you?

It’s a combination of “current book is the one I care about” and the Parent Syndrome — I love all my books in different ways, regardless of how “successful” they’ve been. I think the most interesting work I’ve done are the Otherland books, for instance, but I am most emotionally attached to the Osten Ard books, for reasons I don’t entirely understand. But Tailchaser’s Song feels more…heroic, almost, because it was my first and because I wrote it in my kitchen late at night (I was working at least two jobs at the time) with no particular expectation of selling it or any knowledge of the industry or the market, just wanting to make something. Other of my books have strong autobiographical elements that make them special, or other features that make them dear to me. But it’s always the book that’s alive in my mind right now that has precedence. One of the reasons I never really thought much about writing sequels is that whatever my current idea has been, it burned so brightly that it threw everything else, especially books I’d already written, into shade.

- Neil Gaiman said of Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, “...It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola.” If THE WITCHWOOD CROWN was a drink, which one would it be? Would you recommend downing it in one shot or sipping it slowly…?

I imagine The Witchwood Crown would be a hearty, complicated, spicy and very alcoholic punch, like the kind served during the holiday season. So much goes into a story like this, so much thought, so many ideas, literally thousands of possibilities that don’t make it into print, that I can’t imagine comparing it to anything less complicated — and, I hope, to anything less convivial and satisfying. Yes, that’s probably it. Build a fire and get it roaring, sing a few songs with your near and dear ones, and have a long draught of the Witchwood Crown. Then go back and fill up your cup again, because there’s plenty.

- Anything else you wish to share with us?

Just my thanks for good questions and years of kind words and support. Thanks, Patrick.

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