Interview with Sean Williams

Sean Williams is one of the brightest Fantasy and Science Fiction writers to emerge from Australia in the last decade or so. His SF with Shane Dix has been on the shelves for a while, now his fantasy saga, The Books of the Cataclysm are reaching US Shores. Rob conducted this interview with Sean, discussing collaboration, writing and genre in general.

Rob Bedford (RB): Your Books of the Cataclysm books brim with mythic resonance, while your Space Opera (at least the Geodescia books with Shane Dix) have a similar feel despite the disparate settings.  How closely do you, as both a writer and reader, see the relationship between the Fantasy and Science Fiction branches of Imaginative Fiction?


Sean Williams (SW): Creation myths tap into the same kind of issues as post-human SF, albeit sometimes turned upside-down: “Where are we going?” instead of “Where did we come from?”  “What does it mean to be human or to play god?”  I find these kind of questions perpetually interesting, so will probably keep coming back to them forever.  The solo space opera books are certainly tapping into the same vein, perhaps more overtly than ever.  This is what comes of being an atheist, perhaps: we think about these things more than most people.  Obsess about them, probably.


That said, I do find that writing SF and fantasy can be very different on both a nuts-and-bolts level and in terms of other fundamental perspectives.  Fantasy is more overtly about character and landscape, while good SF self-consciously uses science and the scientific method to take us places on wings made of metal, not feathers.  There are crossovers, of course: the Star Wars novels felt like fantasy half the time, and I was more strict with The Crooked Letter’s worldbuilding than I am with some of my SF.  I like both approaches to speculative fiction.  It keeps me fresh.    


RB: With the little kerfuffle a couple of months ago about book reviews, sparked by my review of The Crooked Letter, do you feel the Internet has helped you as a writer?


SW: Oh, yes.  Without a doubt.  The old adage, “All publicity is good publicity”, applies doubly for the internet.  Also criticism in general, particularly that which challenges what criticism is for, helps writers in their perpetual quest to work out what they’re doing, why, and who for.  The answers to those questions can change quite radically, so someone needs to be asking them.


RB: That said, how important is maintaining a LiveJournal/Blog to being a writer? Or is it more of a distraction?


SW: I find it distracting, sometimes.  It certainly was at first.  But I find myself becoming more interested in it, the more I pursue it.  Maybe I’m just getting used to the idea of writing something other than fiction and speeches again.  It’s certainly been a while.


As to how important it is to maintain an LJ/Blog presence…that I don’t really know.  I’ve felt pressured to do it in recent years, but by writers not readers, and I’m not sure I can think of a single instance of someone discovering my books via the LJ.  But it sure is a great way to have conversations, and it’s a good repository for stuff that’s going on in my life.  If people are interested in that, then I’m happy to keep doing it.


RB: I don’t know if “holding back” is the right term (but I can’t think of a better one at the moment), but does an idea ever come to you while writing with Shane Dix that you don’t want to let loose for fear of being unable to explore it in your solo fiction?


SW: Hmm.  I guess there are two ways to tackle this question.  The first answer is: never.  As soon as a writer starts holding back, either solo or in collaboration (with other writers, editors and franchises, since I think these are all collaborative relationships), then they risk not doing their best work, and I think we need to tackle our art with everything we’ve got or else we deserve to fail.  That said, the second answer is: always.  There are some projects I really want to work on myself, since I feel they suit me better than the two-mind gestalt that is “Sean Williams and Shane Dix”, so if an idea falls into my head that relates to one of these projects, then naturally I’ll keep it.


At the end of the day, ideas are easy for me.  I figure that if I use one now, another one will come along soon enough, just as good or perhaps even better than the one I’ve just let go.  I therefore don’t see the point in hoarding my creativity just in case it runs out.  And that, for me, is half the fun in writing a novel: seeing what detours arise along the way.  If I followed the freeway from start to finish, I’d never see the scenery.


RB: How much do you learn, as a writer, with each book you complete?


SW: I always try to challenge myself, somehow, with every novel.  How is not always visible to the reader (indeed, the challenge shouldn’t be visible at all, just the end results), but it’s there all the same.  Just lately I’ve been learning how to write books for kids, and how to write romance and sex scenes (the latter for adults only, obviously).  I’m also currently trying to write a science fiction novel with no infodumps at all, which is a big ask.  So every book teaches me something, and that’s as often about what I can’t do as what I can.  I have limitations, just like anyone, and the more certain I am of them the less likely I am to commit to something I can’t deliver.


I’ve said elsewhere that if I ever start to assume I know it all, then that’s when I should immediately do something else.  Part of the excitement of art is that there are no rules, that we never know entirely where we’re going.  Without that excitement, art’s just a job we have to do, and I never want my writing to turn into that.


RB: The majority (if not all) of your Fantasy fiction takes place in the same world.  Do you plan on creating a new world, or will all your fantasies tie back to Hadrian and Seth?


SW: The kids’ books I’m working on are set in the same world, so I will keep going there for a while longer.  But I won’t stay there forever.  I’m working on another world at the moment, nudging a place into shape and trying to find the right stories to reveal it.  Again, it won’t be the usual European thing, and I will probably avoid the word “magic” too.  Landscape is so important to fantasy that I doubt I’ll ever be able to write anything that doesn’t tap into an urban or Australian environment, since that’s what I’m familiar with.  That still leaves plenty of room to play, though.  A hundred and twenty years of Australian literature is testimony to that. 🙂


RB: I get the sense, just from reading The Crooked Letter and making my way through The Blood Debt that you wanted to blow-up our world and play with the leftovers.  How much of that is the case with this series of books?


SW: I wanted to show how the world we live in, which we tend to take for granted and assume will be around forever, is just one part of a long history of change and cataclysm.  In this view of the world, many other people have made the same assumptions we make only to have the rug violently pulled out from under them.  There are no guarantees, except for there being no guarantees, so the Books of the Change and the Books of the Cataclysm are stories about the philosophy underpinning the world, as well as what goes on inside it.  I think that sets them apart from a lot of other fantasy novels, which are often about maintaining or returning a proper order, and while I’d never say that this makes my books better for that reason, I do think I’m tapping into a readership that sometimes prefers stories a little different from normal.


RB: After finishing The Blood Debt, I get a feeling you intentionally wrote two “first books in a series;” that is The Blood Debtdoes not alienate new readers. How important is to for each book in a series to be accessible to new readers?  Is this an aim with all of your series books?


SW: The Blood Debt is a tricky one.  It functions as a sequel both to The Crooked Letter and the Books of the Change (which are set five years earlier and featuring characters not seen in The Crooked Letter), so you can read straight from The Crooked Letter or straight on from the Books of the Change without even opening The Crooked Letter, or even on its own, without having read any of the other books.  It was a big ask, that’s for sure, and I hope never to put myself through that again.


In general, I treat my series as one big novel split into two, three or four parts.  Geodesica especially functions that way, and the SF Book Club omnibus edition works well for that reason.  My challenge with Astropolis is to end up with three and a half works that can be read independently, although it would work best if they were approached in order.  I say “half” because I’m working on a novella for MonkeyBrain that will sit between books one and two and give a different perspective on events in that series.


RB: What is the most rewarding part of writing? Seeing the book, hearing feedback or just finishing the darned thing?


SW: I once lived with another writer who wondered why I didn’t celebrate when my books come out.  I considered this question for quite some time.  At first glance, it makes perfect sense, because publication is the moment the project becomes visible to its intended audience.  Why shouldn’t I feel like cracking open a bottle of champagne and celebrating with everyone else?  Maybe because I’ve had advance copies in my hand for a month or two, so the novelty has begun to wear off.


I think, ultimately, that the moment on which I most feel like celebrating is when the first draft is completed.  Not when the contract is signed or the cheque arrives (although they are also pretty cool moments).  When the last word is on the page, that’s when it really starts to feel real.  I can relax, then; if I die, it won’t be a work in progress.  But there’s still an awareness of the work left to do: I know in my gut it’s not perfect, that it’ll need at least two more thorough drafts before it’s ready to show anyone–and even then I have to hope my editor(s) will like it.  By the time the production process is finished and the book’s on the shelf, I’m over it and working on something else.


Every now and again, though, I just raise a glass and toast my good fortune.  In general, and irrespective of deadlines, I reckon I have the best job ever.

RB: As an Australian writer, how do you view the US marketplace for FSF publishing and do you feel it was important for you to reach this audience?


SW: It was very important.  I read a lot of Australian fiction now, but earlier, when I was first dreaming of and trying to be a pro, the US was the market that really mattered.  That marketplace is a lot more crowded, and it can be difficult to get yourself noticed, particularly back in the pre-Internet days for someone living on the other side of the planet, but it’s not impossible.  I’m proof of that.


The market is really interesting at the moment.  As a writer, I have a lot off different options open to me.  I can produce mass-market novels through Ace that sell quite respectably and reach a lot of people, while at the same time I can be published by terrific new houses like Pyr and Monkeybrain, whose audiences are smaller but have an incredible energy and vigor.  I’m eagerly awaiting the e-book revolution to see what else emerges.  It’ll be an exciting time for everyone–and it is coming, without a doubt.


RB: How much of a role did Shane Dix have in the Geodesica compared to your other collaborations, as I’ve notice his credit appears as “with Shane Dix” rather than “and Shane Dix.”


SW: The ratio of collaboration is a flexible thing with all our books.  Some have been clear-cut 50/50 works, while others have been projects that I’ve had more investment in.  Geodesica was always my baby, right from the start.  The story of Melilah Awad and Dominic Eogan mirrored my own in several key emotional ways, and I was loath to let go of it too much.  That said, I was still keen for Shane to have some editorial input into the duology, so we decided to do it as a “with” instead of an “and”, with the ratio shifting to about 80/20.  The writing, the ideas, the characters, the plot, are all mine, but his input helped make them better books.  My next space opera, Saturn Returns, will be my first purely on my own (although Shane will still appear within the pages, in the dedication).


RB: Between the Fantasy and Science Fiction genre cousins, which do you prefer writing and reading?  That is, is it more fun to imagine a future with humanity travels and lives among the stars or a strange world where humans encounter monsters and magic?


SW: I think it’s fun to read and imagine both.  My reading tastes are pretty diverse.  In fact, this year I’ve read much more mainstream fiction than speculative, so judging by titles alone you’d have to wonder what I’m doing writing in this genre.  That can happen, though.  One year, when I was facing a series of tough deadlines and felt a bit spec-ficced out, I read almost nothing but crime; another, during which I was trying to find new ways to write fantasy, I devoured everything by Tim Powers in no time flat.  So it depends on what I’m doing and where I’m at as to what the reader in me will crave.


RB: With the positive response you’ve been getting on your Cataclysm books, is there a chance The Books of Change will be on U.S. shelves soon?


SW: I certainly hope so, but there’s nothing inked yet.  I get a lot of mail about that, and I’m looking forward to giving people a definite answer soon.


RB: What books, from your youth, put you on the path to writing, and specifically writing in genre?


SW: Many, many novels brought me here.  I’ve gone through phases of loving all the usual name-checks: Anne McCaffery, Larry Niven, Greg Bear, Tim Powers, Stephen Donaldson, J.R.R.Tolkien, Ursula K Le Guin, Philip K Dick, Iain Banks, Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, etc etc.  But there were other writers, less well-known or purely mainstream, who played a big role too: Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Alan Dean Foster, Robert Anton Wilson, Terrance Dicks (particularly his Doctor Who novelizations), Agatha Christie, Barrington J Bailey, James Morrow, Brian Stableford, Ian Watson, and Peter Lovesey.  These are just the ones who come immediately to mind, and I myself struggle to see a connection between them all.  Maybe their diversity is a key to my own output: kids, YA and adult; SF and fantasy, with thrillers and hopefully a crime novel on the way too.  We are what we eat.


RB: What writer, living or dead, would you feel most honored to have read your book?


SW: I was absolutely gobsmacked recently when I learned that Anne McCaffery was reading my books.  I’m still not sure how to assimilate that news. 🙂


RB: With the Books of the Cataclysm complete (or near completion) on the writing end, what kinds of relief are you feeling.


SW: I am relieved that Sal and Shilly’s story is finished at last.  Eight hundred thousand words is a lot to devote to one relationship, and I really feel now that my role in it is done.  Whatever happens next, it’s not up to me.  Of course, that won’t stop me exploring around the edges if the urge takes me.  What will happen in the next generation is particularly interesting to me at the moment, but we’ll see.  Time, as always, will tell.


RB: Can you give a brief synopsis of Astropolis? 


SW: The year is 900,000 AD.  Former mercenary Imre Bergamasc wakes up in a woman’s body, recreated from a faulty back-up recorded thousands of years earlier–a back-up recently and deliberately destroyed by persons unknown.  During his “absence”, the galaxy’s ruling intelligences have been destroyed.  Chaos and panic are spreading, encouraged by mysterious saboteurs.  Bergamasc’s initial quest, to connect with his former allies and to find out who tried to erase him, expands to find out who effectively beheaded the galaxy and how he himself might have been involved.


SW: These books are something different for me because they’re self-consciously gothic in all but style: you’ll find all the tropes buried in the very SFnal setting, plus quotes from Robert Charles Maturin, author of Melmoth the Wanderer, the structure of which I found very inspiring.  It’s also much sexier than my earlier work, since it has that gender-bending kink in the background.  All in all, I’ve loved writing it, and I think that comes out in the finished book.


RB: Some authors say they have little input on their cover art/design, but with Greg Bridges, Chris Moore and Stephan Martiniere, you’ve really lucked out with these recent books. Did you have any input on these covers or was it just a combination of luck and great art direction from the publishers?


SW: Greg and Stephan were my first choices for those projects; Chris Moore was an unexpected and very welcome surprise.  I have been extraordinarily fortunate, yes, particularly when you add John Picacio and Shaun Tan to the list.  The amount of input I have in the process varies greatly from publisher to publisher and series to series.  There have been times when I’ve been unhappy with finished covers or designs, but at the moment I am over the moon. 


Greg Bridges has been wonderful to work with.  His work graced the cover of my first novel, Metal Fatigue, and the original artwork currently hangs on my study wall.  It’s my most-prized “souvenir” of my career so far.  I’d love to buy all the originals of all my covers, but sadly there just wouldn’t be room…


RB: After your experience in the Star Wars Universe, would you write media tie-in fiction again, and if so, is there a property/character you would want to write?


SW: I’d definitely do it again.  (Watch this space.)  I hope I’m not breaking any protocols by saying that in recent years I’ve actually been offered deals in both new and old Battlestar Galacticas, but for one reason or another it hasn’t panned out.  (For the record, I’d love to work on the new one.)  And I’ve just written a Dr Who short story for editor Steven Savile.  That was a wonderful experience, one I’d love to repeat soon.


RB: How difficult was it saying no to BSG, which is probably the most visible, entertaining and respected SF franchise right now?


SW: More difficult than you can possibly imagine!  I am hopeful that the timing will work out better next time.  If there is a next time.


RB: Sean Williams writing BSG?  Sounds like a nice pairing.  Thanks for the time Sean!

2006 Rob H. Bedford & Sean Williams

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