Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sean Williams Interview

I’m an active member over at wotmania OF message board, and was asked to do a couple of interviews. I sent out a two requests, one didn’t go anywhere, and the second turned out to be a resounding success. So, the interview below is posted here and there. A big thanks to Sean Williams for making this such an interesting interview.


>Let’s get things started with the standard introduction: Who is Sean Williams?

I've been accused of writing boring bios in the past, so I approach this question with some trepidation.

My life for the last sixteen years has revolved around writing, and that hasn't left much time for anything else. Seriously. I've had over sixty short stories published since 1991, and there are 21 novels on bookshelves somewhere out there in the world (some of them in languages sufficiently foreign to me that I can't recognize my own name on the cover). I've written a stage play, some haikus, and fiddled with a few other writing-related areas, like reviews, columns and manuscript assessment. I'm heavily involved in community organizations, such as the SA Writers' Centre (the oldest in Australia) and the Writers of the Future Contest. I specialize these days in space opera and slightly askew fantasy, but I've also written SF thrillers and would like to write a straight crime novel one day.

That's about it on the writing front. Now I'm beginning to bore myself. :-)

> Why Science Fiction/Fantasy? How did you get where you are today as a writer?

I've been reading SF/F most of my life, ever since my mother handed me a children's edition of Sinbad. The love affair was instantaneous and shows no sign of passing. I find mainstream and capital-L literary fiction much more introverted than its more speculative cousin, which is not to suggest that's a bad thing, or that I don't read and enjoy mainstream fiction. Realist fiction strives for wonder in smaller, more difficult ways, and I just find it doesn't often push my buttons the same way. Naturally, when I write, I pursue stories that reflect the way I prefer to read, since in a very real way I'm my own first reader. So SF/F it is.

(For more info on this topic visit Sean's
livejournal.)

As far as the direction my writing has taken down the years, it's been a fairly long and winding journey in search of a clearly-defined goal. I wanted to be a novelist from a very early age, and apart from an ill-advised stint at uni back in the 1980's, that's pretty much what I was working towards. In 1990, I decided to give my dream a good, solid bash, so started writing short stories with a view to learning the basics and building up a profile, then moved into novels a few years later. Now, I have my dream job, and life is good.

Looking back over that paragraph, I sound almost glib about the process of getting from then to now. Make the decision; start writing shorts; sell a book or two--easy! In fact, as with every writer I know, it was incredibly difficult. There were lots of dead-ends and disappointments. I've had hundreds and hundreds of rejections. But I do have a lot to be thankful for, and I wouldn't give it up for anything. I honestly don't think I'm qualified for anything else.

> You have co-authored a number of books with Shane Dix, how did this collaboration come about? Are there plans for future collaborations?

Shane and I met through each other's writing, specifically the short stories we'd had published in Australian fanzines in the early 1990s. I'd barely met a single other writer when he got my address from one of our mutual editors and wrote me a letter suggesting me got together for a coffee. (That's my current version of events, anyway. Shane gets to give his here
.) We became firm friends, bonding over pizza, computer games, and the number 23. Collaboration was an obvious next step.

We've written 12 books together, if you count The Unknown Soldier as a separate entity to Evergence: The Prodigal Sun. A lot of single authors don't manage that, and I am amazed every time I think of it. Collaboration may be just as much work as a solo project, for half the money, but neither of us would've had it any other way. To be described as "the new Niven and Pournelle for the 21st Century", as we were once by Paul di Filippo, is an incredible buzz.

We would definitely like to write more, but are on hiatus at the moment while we recharge our batteries and get busy with solo projects. I have a ton of things going on at the moment, as does Shane. We'll get it together when the time is right, perhaps for that sequel to Evergence we've been talking about for, like, ever...

>Wow, 12 books is a huge number to write with another author – I’ll bet you two bicker like an old married couple ;-). How do you guys go about making it work so well?

Shane and I are both pretty even-tempered so we get along just fine. We knew from the outset that collaborating would mean having to give ground every now and again, otherwise what would be the point of doing it? In general, we agree on the story first, then I go away and write a first draft in a couple of months. When Shane gets it, the ms can be in pretty rough shape, but fixing text is Shane's specialty. When that's done, it comes back to me for a final polish. Technically I'm the one who gets the final say, since there always has to be someone playing that role, but I don't remember ever having to exercise my veto power. As with editors, if one of us doesn't like something in the final book, it's for a reason, and neither of us is the type to hang onto something in the face of good sense.

> As a science fiction writer, you often explore the evolution of human nature in its past, present, and future. Do you ultimately take an optimistic or pessimistic view of human nature and its direction? What makes you feel this way?

I tend towards being optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. The future is going to be a mixture of good and bad, just like the past. Some things will work out; others won't. We may not have got the robot butlers and flying cars we all hoped for, but we didn't get the World War Three either. And there's all the stuff we didn't see coming, like the Internet and global warming. I think it'd be slightly naïve to take a stance either way.

>Sounds like a rather logical and pragmatic approach to me.

I agree! But the lens of logic is just one through which we view the future. Most people, myself included, tend to assume on a gut level that 2046 will be much like 2006, because that's an emotionally safe reaction to a very complex issue. If we spent too much time wondering what the future might actually be like, we'd never get out of bed of a morning.

>Lately, there has been another round of internet debate bemoaning the death of SF and why it appears to be loosing readers. It seems to me that the loudest voices often take a very narrow view of SF as a genre and forget that these complaints are not new. How do you feel about the current state of things?

I think it's understandable that those speaking most stridently about their particular corner of the fuzzy set that is science fiction are those most heavily invested in making their corner the centre, but that doesn't make it right. In a contentious mood, I'd go further and say that it's a very non-collegial or even ungenerous writer who goes around building up his or her work at the expense of anyone else's. Yes, it's important to analyze and attempt to understand the genre and its place in the broader landscape of writing in general, but the moment you start drawing lines and declaring what's IN and what's OUT I reckon you've moved beyond analysis and into much riskier territory. It's like looking at a rainbow and filtering out everything but the blue end of the spectrum. You're not seeing a rainbow any more. So if you're ignoring the media end of SF, say, in your analysis of the genre, then I think you're inevitably going to come to skewed conclusions. Same with "category fantasy" and paranormal romance. Ultimately, I think it hurts writers to function this way.

But then I would say that, since an open, all-inclusive vision of the genre works to my benefit. I'm also a big believer in community. So who knows? I'm just smart enough to admit that I don't. :-)

> Correct me if I’m wrong, but I get the impression that your work with Shane Dix on the Force Heretic series in the New Jedi Order of the Star Wars expanded universe was a big break in your career. Often media tie-ins are looked on with a certain amount of disdain in spite of their economic success. What are your thoughts on this?

Working in the Star Wars universe undoubtedly increased our exposure, both here in Australia and in the US. Sales of our back-catalogue went up eightfold overnight, and that's never a bad thing. Me, I've always been a reader of tie-in novels alongside "real" books, having cut my teeth at a young age on Dr Who novelizations, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries, and books like Treasure Island and Roots. Am I a lesser writer for reading Dr Who? I don't think so. Does writing tie-ins in the current market change the way people think about my "serious" work? Maybe. But honestly, I'm a writer who writes fantasy as well as SF, books for kids and young adults as well as adults, and the market seems to cope with that. I don't expect the readership to cross over all the time, though. That's perhaps asking too much. :-)

>Well, I certainly believe that cross-over occurs – I’ve got two boxes full of my Star Wars books that served as a sort-of gateway for me to get to the really addicting stuff. The general consumer isn’t concerned about tie-ins vs. “serious” work vs. YA fiction – they just want a good book to read. Anyway, as an author that can successfully maneuver through a variety of audiences you must be doing something right.

I certainly hope so. Of course, there's a risk of spreading oneself too thin, in both creative and marketing senses. I'm nearing a point, I think, when the time to experiment will be over and I'll decided to concentrate on one (or two) particular modes of storytelling. That'll make it easier for my publishers, who are constantly juggling release dates and target audiences. Mind you, variety is the spice of life, and I doubt I'll ever settle on just one particular mode. My writing reflects my reading, and at present mainstream outnumbers genre by 2:1.

>Let’s drop a few names – what are some of those books you’ve been reading lately?

This conversation has made me look more closely than usual at what I've been reading in the last twelve months. The list is definitely more skewed to the mainstream than usual, thanks in part to judging a major literary award down here early this year. In fact, my top five books are all Australian and all marketed as "literary" titles, although one (John Harwood's The Ghost Writer) is overtly gothic in nature. (See here for the full list
.) Maybe that reflects where I am at the moment in terms of my own writing--looking for gothic and literary allusions for the new space opera, learning how to write sparely but evocatively for the kids' books, etc. That said, I have read some very good speculative novels this year, by Tim Powers, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, and Philip Reeve, to name just four, and my to-read shelf is groaning under the backlist. I'll get to it at some point.

> I very much enjoyed The Crooked Letter, the first installment of The Books of the Cataclysm. In particular, I found it to be a fresh approach to some old ideas, including sibling rivalry, religion and mythology. Where were the origins of this series? How much of it was planned vs. taking on a life of its own?

Thanks. I'm always pleased to hear that people have enjoyed The Crooked Letter because it was so difficult to write, perhaps the most difficult project I've undertaken so far. But in lots of ways it was the most rewarding, too. I have a fascination with religion that goes right back to Sunday school, when I persistently queried theological points that didn't make sense to me. When I was in High School, my father had just started studying for the priesthood, so I was exposed to nuts and bolts of theology from a practitioner's perspective, as well as a parishioner. Later, I realized that any faith I had once had in Christianity had evaporated, and I became an atheist, where I've been comfortable ever since--but my fascination with religion has never gone away. There's an awful amount of energy invested in world-building and story-telling behind every religion. It's not so different from science fiction, in that sense, if you look at it long enough. So wanting to devise a natural system that might be the big picture lurking behind all human religions was a perfectly natural step. The world behind the Books of the Cataclysm was the result, in which there is a form of reincarnation as well as an afterlife (in fact there are two afterlives, which reflect the belief of some cultures that we have two souls), and there is an almost-supremely powerful deity ruling over a lesser pantheon. Magic used to work, but does no longer. The world has undergone several apocalyptic changes, and might yet go through another one. As theological world-building goes, this one has everything.

But it needed a story as well, and that's where the twins come in. I went to school with identical twins, and I guess my fascination with the subject stems from that early exposure. We relatively discrete individuals can be fascinated with and unnerved by the existence of identical twins; just look at the debate over cloning, and how threatened it makes some people feel. Mirrors, twins, reflections, doppelgangers...they've been the source of many stories down the years. In a sense I'm tapping into that grand tradition, but I'm also trying to do something uniquely my own too.

The idea that the psychic link some people believe exists between identical twins could link one twin to his dead brother in the afterlife was also too good an idea to let slide. It was optioned some years ago by a film company, but never amounted to anything. I was relieved when the rights reverted so I could tell the story the way I wanted to.

>It’s funny how most of the atheists I know often have given religion much more thought and objective study than the most ardent believers I know.

My best friend's mother, a Christian, delights in telling me that nobody thinks more about the Bible than an atheist. That shocks me, in a way, until I remind myself that thinking about religion is something of an oxymoron for those with faith. That's not to say that those with faith are stupid or anything remotely like that. My father was a very smart man, and so is my best friend's mother. And I too have philosophies or opinions that aren't as considered as I'd like to believe. We can't think about everything all the time, and that applies to the nature of the universe as well as the future. Until we find a way to expand our cognition, we will always think this way.

>I particularly enjoyed the twin aspect because my father is an identical twin. I’ve asked him in the past about a psychic link or private language between him and his brother (if you knew my father you’d know how awkward a conversation that was ;-). He replied that he didn’t think it was a psychic connection, but that there are plenty of times where they are clearly thinking almost exactly the same thing and that communication becomes unnecessary.

This is an absolutely fascinating area of human experience. Theories of mind and interpersonal communication are stretched to their limits with identical twins. When you can convince yourself by means of a simple optical illusion that an image of your arm in a mirror is actually your arm, how disorienting must it be to confront a living, breathing, independent reflection every moment of every day? Perhaps it's unfair to ascribe a supernatural facet to people who are perfectly ordinary apart from their possession of a genetically near-identical sibling, but the temptation was too strong to resist.

>I’m happy that this one did not go in the movie direction.

I am too, most of the time. Mind you, I'm a big fan of collaboration, and the script-writer hired to work on the project had some truly wonderful ideas. The core conceit is so flexible and potent it could work in almost any genre: crime, romance, supernatural thriller, even comedy. Sometimes I wish I could peer into an alternate universe and see what someone else has done with the same idea.

> I know that music is a big interest in your life and that you even DJ on occasion. How has this influenced your writing, and is there any example you can give that you found particularly enjoyable to write?

My love of music influences the way I think about writing. That's the most obvious way my two loves intersect. I rarely feature music in my books, although I do frequently refer to it, name-dropping the odd composer or song title along the way. I've yet to find a convincing way to convey the "eargasm" you get when a piece of music breaks you out in goosebumps, for instance, or the moment of creation when, as a composer, everything comes together just right. Maybe it is like dancing about architecture, or maybe I just haven't nutted it out yet. Anyway, I'll keep skirting around the edges until inspiration strikes, turning Edgar Allen Poe's poems into song-lyrics and quoting Gary Numan at every possible opportunity.

>So, what music do you typically listen to while writing? How does it change for various characters, settings, etc.? How about right now – what’s the tune of this interview :-) ?

I listen to a lot of ambient electronic music by artists like Maneki Neko, Biosphere, Gas, Susumu Yokota, Global Communications, Anders Ilar, Andrew Thomas, Donnacha Costello, and golden oldies Tangerine Dream. Some light classical and soundtracks, when I need a change; nothing with lyrics, ever; music that is unobtrusive but redolent with its own kind of energy, basically.

My all-time favorite is, without a doubt, Steve Roach [http://www.steveroach.com/], whose Magnificent Void revealed to me (way back when I was reviewing New Age music for a radio show here in Adelaide) that "ambient" doesn't have to mean static or lifeless. Some of his music, in fact, is quite terrifying, and Void must surely be the best album ever for writing New Space Opera to.

At this moment, the soundtrack is Thom Brennan's "Vibrant Water", which I am finding just a little too calming. Daylight savings just kicked in here, on the spring-forward end of the cycle, and I am even keener to get back to bed than usual. :-)

>Well, ignoring the obvious legal and ethical implications, this final question has become a tradition at the wotmania OF community. So…

>If you were to own several monkeys and/or midgets, how many would you own, and what would you name them?

That is, without a doubt, the second strangest question I've ever been asked in an interview. :-) To answer: my favorite number is 23, so that part's easy. I'd pick a mixture of monkeys and midgets, since the monkeys will need someone to look after them. Furthermore, as a tribute to The Crooked Letter and your father, I'd want the monkeys to come in sets of identical twins. As far as names go, I've always named my pets after people involved in or characters from the work of Frank Zappa (another musical reference), so here goes:

Midgets:
Greggery, Jemima, Kenny, Lucille, Punky

Monkeys:
Alfonzo & Aynesley
Beefheart & Bunk
Bobby & Buddy
Chester & Chunga
Eddie & Evelyn
Emma & Erroneous
Flo & Freddie
Nanook & Napoleon
Ronnie & Ruben

Easy!


Related Posts: Review of The Crooked Letter


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