Interview with Tad Williams

This Interview has been provided by Orbit, and is printed with their permission.

Tad Williams answers readers’ questions

Tad Williams, author of the spellbinding Memory, Sorrow and Thorn fantasy sequence, has turned his amazing storytelling powers to something quite different in his new series, Otherland. Volume One, City of Golden Shadow, is available in paperback, and Volume Two, River of Blue Fire, is published in hardback in July. We asked Tad to tell us more about how his ideas for the Otherland books came about (and if you sent in a question for us to put to Tad – they’re all answered below . . .)

Tad Williams writes:

I wish I could tell you how brilliantly original the idea for the Otherland books is – a series of invented worlds linked together by a virtual river – but I’m afraid the concepts have appeared in bits and pieces in lots of other places. However, we already knew there were no completely new stories, didn’t we? Synthesis is all.

The river-story itself is a pretty basic idea, both in and out of science fiction. If you stretch the metaphor ever so slightly to include the episodic sea-voyage, you can take it back as far as the Story of Sinuhe out of ancient Egypt, which is a clear and direct ancestor of the Odyssey, and all other pilgrimage-by-water stories which followed, leading right up to Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness. (That’s one of the reasons I’ve used the Odyssey as a theme in Volume Three, but that’s a tale for another day.)

And of course other science fiction writers have done wonderful things with river journeys – Farmer, Niven, Simmons, just to name a few – all have found ways to reinvigorate one of the oldest of story ideas.

As for me, I have to confess that the river journey itself is mainly of interest to me in terms of the way the idea conveys adventure before you even begin – “We’re going inland, where no one has ever been before. We don’t know what we’ll find. We go where the river takes us!” But the real reason that Otherland got a grip on me and wouldn’t let go was that it allowed me to do all the things that I like to do, but in a completely different way than usual. Those who are new to my work may not realize that I am known predominantly as a fantasy writer. This is not unfair – most of what I’ve published does fit into that genre – but it doesn’t entirely jibe with my image of myself. I’ve always liked both fantasy and science fiction (as well as many other kinds of fiction, too, of course) and have always wanted to do both kinds of writing.

However, whether I’m truly a fantasist or not, I’m certainly not a scientist, so I always wondered what I could bring to the party, science-fictionally. When I first thought of the basic Otherland concept – thousands of invented virtual worlds, computer-created playgrounds for rich and powerful people – I realized that to an extent I could now have my cake and eat it too: I could write science fiction, in an area in which I had at least a little expertise (I worked for a while in multimedia at Apple Computer) but which would allow me to let me fantasy-urges run wild, too. Things could make scientific sense, and I could discuss likely events in our own near future, and at the same time I could write about magic castles, monsters, and supernatural spirits.


Besides my love of both fantasy and science fiction, I’ve been able to bring to the party my interest in really long books. (Okay, it’s kind of a weird thing to be interested in, but everyone needs a hobby.) I realize that multi-volume stories are not for everyone, but I also have come to learn after doing the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books ( a very long epic fantasy) that there are things that happen only when a story is long enough – certain kinds of themes and characters and plot-twists that arise purely because of the complexity.

A writer can do altogether different things in a multi-volume book, like give supporting characters room to develop, and subsidiary plots more time to grow and intertwine with the main story. And although the multi-volume epic has become the norm in fantasy these days – particularly in so-called ‘high fantasy’ – it’s still thought of as being somewhat strange among science-fiction readers, which gives me a chance to show readers new to me something in these four volumes that they may not have expected – that very long books can still be tight, tense, and compelling.

Of course, the main thing that brought me to the Otherland books was that the idea was just so much fun. The day I first thought of it I actually laughed out loud. An artificial universe whose builders could create anything they wanted, from perfect re-enactments of the age of the Caesars in Rome to tales of the Brothers Grimm, or even completely original worlds that nobody could ever anticipate. Now, how much fun to write would that be, I thought. A lot of fun, I guessed. That’s when I laughed.

And, I’m pleased to say, I was absolutely right. I only hope readers enjoy it half as much as I have.

Otherland explores the development of a virtual-reality world. What implications do you see VR having for the human race?

I think in day-to-day, practical terms it will not make a great deal of difference. However, it will have a much more profound effect on our metaphysical outlook, I think. When most of the world’s communication is done through electronic media, and you can no longer tell whether the person you are speaking to is real or not, then people are going to find themselves living in a literal world of Maya, the Buddhist concept of the ‘snares of illusion’.

Do you spend much time exploring the Internet yourself?

Less time than I could, more time than I should. It does interest me, although I agree that the current commercial potential has been exaggerated. But it’s early days still, not unlike the American West a hundred years ago. You might have walked into a frontier town then and noticed that they only had one store, one doctor, one bar, and that all of the buildings looked pretty shabby, and all that would have been true. But you might also have noticed a vitality and freedom to that town, and a sense of change on the wind, even new myths beginning to form, and that would have been just as true.

Do you think that books as we know them now have a future in an electronic age?

Text is not going anywhere for a long time. It’s the densest and most interactive form of information storage we have outside of pure mathematics. The forms in which text is delivered is another story. There may indeed come a day when people download books onto a small portable unit, like a pad, or smart paper. But a paperback book is quite a useful piece of technology as well, and hard to replace. What other kind of storage system is so easy to access, so easy to transport, and so cheap to replace if you leave it somewhere by accident?

What kind of preparation goes into creating your vividly imagined fantasy/SF worlds?

Everything you can imagine. The problem is, there’s no formula. (If there were, it would be much easier.) One thing leads me to another, and another, and the main skill is knowing when to stop – that is, when the sensation of depth and realism would not be improved enough to warrant more effort in a particular area.

Is the world you created for Otherland a representation of what you believe will come to pass in the future, or is it created purely as a setting for Otherland?(Question supplied by a visitor to the Orbit web-site)

I think certain elements are fairly realistic and even likely, but I’ve manipulated things for the benefit of my story, so I’ve actually made the world more like it is now than it probably will be in seventy years, just so I don’t have to spend too much time explaining things outside the central story. (For one thing, it’s possible that something like genetic research or quantum jumps in computer speed could literally turn human life in a hundred different directions.) But I think the ubiquity of the VR interface is likely, and I think the transparency of the technology is almost certain.

Do you find it easier to create purely fictional worlds such as Osten Ard where you had complete creative freedom, or worlds based on the present Earth where you are constrained by the dictates of history? (Question supplied by a visitor to the Orbit web-site)

In some ways it’s more work to make up an entire world, of course. On the other hand, I never had to worry about whether I was completely mislocating something in Osten Ard so gruesomely that someone who had actually been there would laugh at me in public and say, ‘What a fool!’ So, I guess it’s easier writing completely made-up worlds.

What influence/involvement do you have with the production of cover art for your books? Also, what do you think of the cover art used on fantasy books in general? (Questions supplied by a visitor to the Orbit web-site)

I have more say than most authors, in that my publishers and I talk about it quite a bit, I have a veto power that’s never been tested, and I have a background in art myself. That said, I’ve been so happy with most of my covers – there ARE exceptions, but I won’t go into that here – that there hasn’t been much to say, except about general layout and design issues.

As for fantasy covers in general, I don’t actually LIKE representative covers much – that is, covers which are actual illustrations of characters or scenes from the story. I think it takes away from readers’ ability to visualize, and also has an unfortunate connotation of ‘deep genre’, on a par with romance novels and other next-to-the-cash-register types of books. However, since that’s what people put on fantasy novels these days, thank God for Michael Whelan and a few others in his general league, who can turn a representative cover into high art.

Why did you choose fantasy fiction as a starting point for your writing?

Although fantasy has always been something I liked, starting in childhood, I read lots of kinds of stuff. But I thought I would have a better grasp of the form with fantasy, and a better idea of what I was doing well or not doing well. Then, once you begin to develop a name, you tend to want to keep writing for the same readers, or at least I do.

What led you to make the significant conceptual change of fantasy writing from Memory, Sorrow and Thorn to the Otherland series? (Question supplied by a visitor to the Orbit web-site)

As I’ve mentioned before – a lot of people wonder about this – it doesn’t seem as much of a jump to me, because I grew up reading both fantasy and sf interchangeably. (I read other things too, and some of them come out in my work, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) Most of my favourite writers in my field actually wandered in and out of both genres without caring much – Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin, just to name a few. So to me it just seemed like trying a slightly different palette. And it still seems that way.

In fact, the only real difference as far as I’m concerned, except for the worldbuilding worries mentioned in another answer, is that I have to hold to a higher standard of rigour when I explain things – that is, there can be no ‘magic’ in Otherland that doesn’t have some kind of at least quasi-scientific explanation by the end of the story, although it may look like magic for a long time first.

Do you have a daily routine when you’re writing a novel?

I wish I did. My general routine is to try to get several hours to think, and then a couple of untrammelled hours at night to write in a fairly concentrated fashion, working off the results of the day’s thinking.

One of your novels, Tailchaser’s Song, features cats as its protagonists. Could you tell us a little about the cats you live with – what they are called, what breed they are, what their personalities are like and if any of the cats in Tailchaser’s Song are based upon them. (Question supplied by a visitor to the Orbit web-site)

We currently have three cats, two indoor Abyssinians (kept indoors not by our choice, but due to their own inability to deal with the real world) named Riley and Pandora, who are not unlike spider monkeys except with even tinier brains, and Ralph, a dignified tortoiseshell lady cat stuck with that name by someone other than us, who lives entirely outside, kills a few things just to stay in practice, and makes sure to bag some lap-time whenever any of us actually comes out to the yard.

None of the cats in Tailchaser were based on any of these, and in fact only one of the cats I had in those days is even still alive – I wrote Tailchaser’s Song fifteen years ago – an ancient grey shorthair named Gracie who lives with my parents.

Which SF/fantasy novels have influenced you the most?

This is always a tough one, since it’s hard to draw a line between inspirational/not inspirational – nearly everything I’ve read has affected me. Certainly in the top echelon would be: Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tokien), Dune (Frank Herbert), Lord of Light (Roger Zelazny), Gravity’s Rainbow (not sure it’s SF, but there you go) (Thomas Pynchon), Ubik – or Stigmata, or High Castle (Philip K. Dick), Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury), the Gormenghast books (Mervyn Peake), Once and Future King (T.H. White), the novels or short fiction of Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber and Ursula Le Guin and Theodore Sturgeon and James Tiptree Jr. and Harlan Ellison.

What are you reading at the moment?

Hmmm. As usual, about nineteen different things. New Larry Niven Ringworld book. Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin about ape language experiments. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Re-reading Calasso’s Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. And various books for Otherland research.

If you had to live for one month as a character in a novel, which novel and which character would you choose?

Either as some far-future human like, say, the folks in Walter Jon Williams’ Aristoi, who have almost godlike powers, or perhaps one of the kids from Swiss Family Robinson, just to get away from phones and such for a while. (If I had to bring the pets and the baby with me, though, I don’t think I’d opt for the desert island solution.)

What is your favourite song?

Ooh, that’s as horrible as ‘favourite book’. I don’t know, the narrowest I can get it, I think, is the Beatles single that has ‘Strawberry Fields’ on one side and ‘Penny Lane’ on the other. A true watershed of 20th century popular music. But I could reel off favourite songs for days.

What do you do to relax?

I’ve forgotten. (Playing basketball is a help.)

Copyright© 2002 Orbit. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. The interview has been provided by Orbit and is printed with their permission.

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