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An hour-long conversation with California-based fantasy superstar Tad Williams, whose genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide, and whose writing has strongly influenced a generation of writers. with a focus on the Osten Ard series that began with the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower) and is now continuing with The Last King of Osten Ard (The Witchwood Crown and the forthcoming Empire of Grass and The Navigator’s Children).
Robert Paul “Tad” Williams was born in San Jose, California, and grew up in Palo Alto, the town that grew up around Stanford University. His mother gave him the nickname “Tad” after the young characters in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo.
Before becoming a full time fiction author Tad held many jobs, including delivering newspapers, food service, shoe sales, branch manager of a financial institution, and drawing military manuals.
In his mid-twenties, he turned to writing and submitted the manuscript of his novel Tailchaser’s Song to DAW Books. DAW Books liked it and published it, and DAW continues to be Tad’s American publisher.. Tad continued working various jobs for a few more years, including three years from 1987 to 1990 as a technical writer at Apple Computer’s Knowledge Engineering Department, taking problem-solving field material from engineers and turning it into research articles, before making fiction writing his full-time career.
Since then, his books have sold tens of millions worldwide. He is married to Deborah Beale, a former publisher who is also a writer, and he and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in, to quote his website, a “suitably strange and beautiful house.”
The Lightly Edited Transcript
Hi, Tad, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hello. Good to be here.
I’m very glad to have you. Now, I always like to figure out the connections I have with people and of course, in our case, we share our publisher, DAW Books, and we have met at a few of the famous DAW family dinners over the years as well, at least twice that I know of.
Now, the focus of the podcast is on the creative process, but before we get to that specifically, I always like to take my guests back into the dim, receding mists of time, and find out how they got started. So, how did you become interested in writing, and in particular, how did you become interested in writing the kind of stuff that we both write, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, actually it was a bit of a roundabout path in the sense that I’ve always been a reader, and starting quite young I was always very interested in the fantastical. I was raised on a lot of the classic English and early American fantasy fiction for kids, things like The Wind in the Willows, the Oz books, you know, the the E. Nesbit books, all kinds of things like that when I was young. Including The Lord of the Rings, which I think I probably read for the first time when I was about eleven and actually read before I read The Hobbit. So, I was kind of predisposed.
But when I was in my teens and even my early 20s, I was much more interested in other creative things that I was doing than writing. As I said, I was always a reader, but I was an artist and a cartoonist and I played music and I did theatre and radio in my early 20s. So, there were a number of other kinds of things that I was involved in creatively, trying to make one of them work, and writing only really came about when I got frustrated with always having to work with other people, who weren’t always as serious about this stuff, or at least not as punctual. You know, when you’re playing in a band and the drummer breaks up with his girlfriend and just doesn’t show up for rehearsal and, you know, that that kind of stuff that just drove me absolutely nuts. So, I kind of began to focus more on things that I could do in my own time and control my time and, you know, do it myself.
So, somewhere along in that process I decided to try writing a book. I was probably about 24 or 25 at the time, and I had played around with an idea about cats and kind of making up a mythology and folklore for cats, mostly to amuse myself, because my now-ex-wife, who I had moved in with, had cats and I’d never lived with them. So, I was kind of taken aback by the whole thing. The cat/human bargain was sort of beyond me. So I was just playing with that idea, and then when I decided to try writing a book, that was my first idea, “Oh, I could write a novel from the point of view of cats,” and because I was already interested in fantasy, I thought, “OK, well, I’ll make it a fantasy novel.”
And that was pretty much what happened. I spent a couple of years working other jobs and writing at night on my kitchen table and that was my first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, which I was lucky enough to be able to sell. And once my publishers, you know, asked me if I had some more stuff I wanted to do, I just continued on from there until it became pretty clear to me that this was going to be a career if I kept working at it, or had the chance to be a career. So that’s how I went.
Well, what were some of the other jobs that you were working on,before you became a full-time writer?
You mean, as opposed to the creative stuff?
I mean, every kind of godawful job you can imagine, Ed. I mean, you know, I folded burritos, I sold insurance, I sold shoes, I did a lot of retail management, I worked and managed in a Savings and Loan Company, almost you-name-it sort of thing, because I had not gone to college directly after high school, I was very interested in pursuing my creative stuff. So, although I did eventually go back and do some college, that wasn’t my area of interest, so I was I was not working career-type jobs, I was working whatever jobs I could get, sometimes using my creative side, like, you know, I worked doing technical art and things like that.
You actually did some technical writing, turning engineers’ writing into research articles, which caught my attention because I’m married to an engineer.
Yeah, the last normal job I had was in the late 1980s at Apple, and that’s where I did that, and started out doing purely tech writing, which was exactly what you said, it was taking the engineers in the field and turning what they were doing into technical information like, you know, researchable stuff. But then I got very interested in other things, too, including what was then called multimedia or interactive multimedia and, in fact, later on, that’s where my Otherlaand books came from, was that period of being very deeply interested in interactive multimedia.
Well, just because my wife is an engineer, I have to ask you: Did you find when you were working with engineers that they can spell?
Some of them could. Some of them obviously thought it was not part of their job description. My dad is a chemical engineer, so I had kind of a familiarity with this particular type, anyway, and I always got the feeling it wasn’t that they couldn’t spell, it was more like it was boring and that wasn’t what they were really interested.
My wife actually got a T-shirt that says “I’m an enginer…I’m an engineier… engineer misspelled three ways…and they’re all crossed out, and the last line is, “I’m good at maths.”.
Yeah, right, exactly.
The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is…well, I always see parallels with other writers, and in your case, there’s a couple of them, one is that I’m almost exactly the same age as you–I’m a couple of years younger–I think…
You have my sympathy.
But you had this interest in music, which was also something I had. You did some radio and television and I’ve hosted a TV show and I’ve posted radio shows, and you did theater,, as well and particularly, I wanted to ask you about the theater, because I’ve often found in talking to authors who have been involved in the theater, I always like to ask them if they think that some of the skills of being on stage, acting, creating stuff in the theater, if that is very helpful for writing the kind of stuff that you write now. Do you find any carry-over there?
Oh, absolutely. Both the theater and music. I think that whether those specific things are a big part of how I write or whether those are all facets of me that work together in my writing is hard to say. But absolutely. One of the things about doing live theater or live–I also did improvisational comedy–and one of the things about those kinds of pursuits is that, first of all, it’s live, so you’re dealing with actual people in the moment. And one of the only things I don’t like about writing is that you do not have a live audience. So, sometimes you are literally years separated from getting honest reactions to what you’re doing.
But one of the things, for instance, that theater makes you very aware of is holding attention and what kinds of things hold people’s attention. And I’m not just talking about the obvious things, like chase scenes, sex scenes, I’m talking about things like intonation and pacing, which also by the way is stuff that comes up in the music background and I think is also useful for writing. When you’re on stage and you have people out there and you’re kind of hooked into how they’re responding to you, you’re very aware how things like slowing down, getting louder, getting quieter, all of these kinds of things, affect people in a very physical way, and you can bring some of those lessons over to writing. And there’s a number of other things like that, I mean, that’s a simplistic explanation, but, yes, definitely. I think for me, and any writer who’s done it, doing theater or doing radio definitely becomes part of how you work and how you judge your own work.
It seems to me that many of the skills that you bring as an actor to trying to bring a character to life, inhabiting that character, for me, at least, carries over into inhabiting the characters that I create on the page, as well.
Oh, I think so, absolutely, yeah. And that’s also, you know, that’s getting into a slightly smaller, more specific aspect of it. Yes, absolutely, because again you are trying to create an audience identification–not always a positive one, but you’re trying to get the audience connected to a character quickly. And so, there are certain things to do, and only some of those are what they say. Some of them are little visual clues you’re dropping, body language clues, just the same way you would as an actor. You know things about how they stand, how they talk, when they talk, to whom they speak, and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, absolutely.
Yeah, and I often find when I’m looking at…and I do quite a bit of mentoring and stuff like that is that one thing that people sometimes lose track of is the visuals of the scene and their story, and so characters might suddenly pop from one place to another without crossing the intervening space, and having directed plays, you’re always conscious of where people are standing.
Absolutely. Blocking is a big part of writing, as well, because, you know, if you want people to move around, and that’s either in the sort of granular sense of within a scene or in the larger sense of a story, you have to find ways to describe that or signal that, without necessarily telling everybody everything but at the same time giving them enough information that they don’t feel cheated, they don’t feel like the character is, as you said, simply appearing, you know, after having been somewhere else completely. So, yes, that’s all part of the process. And actually, one of the things that I frequently liken my my job to is it’s very much like being a theatrical or film director, but you have all the other jobs too. So you’ve got to write the script and you’ve got a cast of characters and you have to do props and you have to do the backgrounds and all that kind of stuff as well. But it’s very much a case of telling a story with all of these tools to the best of your ability.
You even have to do the special effects.
So, you didn’t really focus on writing until your 20s, but you were writing when you were younger. I was reading an interview somewhere, something about writing a folktale assignment that was supposed to be three pages long and with really, really long…
Like 17, plus another four or five pages of illustrations. No, I mean, I did write, and one of the actual kind of surprising things for me was, some years back, I found one of my old yearbooks. I remember one or two projects I’d done with my my best friend at the time, sort of parodies and stuff that I’d written, but other than that I thought of my high school days as mostly having done drawing and theater and and music, playing in a band. But a lot of people said, you know, “Keep writing,” so I guess I was writing little funny things for people even back then. I just didn’t remember that as being a major part of my my high school, junior high school years.
And you must have been sharing it with people, too, if they remember you.
I guess so. As I said it was kind of a surprise to me but I mean, yeah, I’m sure at some level we were passing things that we found amusing around to share with people.
Now, coming up this May, you have another major release from DAW Books, so, do you wat to explain what that’s going to be?
Sure. Thank you. What I’m in the middle of right now is, after about 30 years, roughly, I have gone back to…I mentioned Tailchaser’s Song, the book about cats…well, the next thing I did in my writing career, back in the late ’80s, was to write a big epic fantasy trilogy, of which the first book was The Dragonbone Chair. Now, I’ve never before intentionally gone back and written a novel based in anything I’d already done before. But for various reasons I’ve decided that I wanted to do that now. So, I’m in the middle of a another multi-volume story like that one, set in the same world but about the same distance after that as had passed in the real world. So, in my world thirty years have passed since I published those books. In the world of Osten Ard, which is where the story takes place, thirty years roughly have also passed. So, the first book of that series–well, actually there was a very short one, called The Heart of What was Lost, and then the first full-sized volume was called The Witchwood Crown, and now the second of three major volumes is coming out, and that’s called Empire of Grass and that’s coming out in May. And then there’ll be a final volume called Navigator’s Children, and some other short fiction in that world that won’t necessarily be part of the main story.
For those who, unimaginably, have not read any of these books..
Shocking, I know, but it could have happened, could you give a brief explanation of the setting and what the stories are about?
Well, I can’t. It’s hard to explain these in a way that makes them sound any different from most other epic fantasy, but, basically, Osten Ard is a very vibrant sort of pre-industrial world. A lot of the action centers around a castle called the Hayholt that was once the the seat of power for the immortal race which has now largely been fractioned and driven out of human habitations, and specifically a young character named Simon who’s a kitchen boy at the time the story starts,, as these kinds of characters often are going right back to mythology. And then, of course, he winds up in the middle of a world-changing war and supernatural forces and all these kinds of things.
So, on the surface, it’s very much like a lot of other epic fantasies. But I wrote it at the time very much with the idea that I wanted to modernize the genre, and explaining that would take a while. So, I’ll hold off on that for a moment. But in part because of that, say, for instanc,e and here I’m going to brag on myself a little bit, that George R.R. Martin decided that epic fantasy, based on reading my stuff…and he’s said this several times, so, I’m not making this up and he’s been very kind about this attribution…that, you know, “Oh, epic fantasy, you can do interesting things in epic fantasy and not just rewrite Tolkien, you know, over and over and over again. So, that my purpose was to kind of drag epic fantasy forward and keep the stuff that we love about it but also try to modernize its approach, examine some of the tropes of that kind of fiction that had become pretty musty and hidebound because people were imitating Tolkien rather than trying to understand what Tolkien had done. So, in a nutshell it’s that kind of big epic fantasy with many different races and peoples, but I think also with very…I don’t want to say human characters because not all of them are human…but with very complex characters who are not just cutouts but they are people of all kinds who have very complicated inner lives and difficult moral decisions and all the stuff that makes fiction interesting no matter whether it’s genre fiction or not.
When you returned to the world after a considerable gap, did you find that you had to do a lot of research into your own world in order to remember what you’d written?
Oh, my God, Ed, I’ve been cursing myself for years. It actually was rather funny because I have been so reliant on some of my best readers, my most constant and faithful readers, because, you know, when I was young, as I said, I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was quite young, I fell in love with it and I read it over and over and over again, as so many of us did, you know, back in that era, but, you know, when I wrote The Dragonbone Chair, and Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, the original series, I hadn’t actually read it again since in those 30 years. So, I was going back to this material, and I realized very quickly there’s like several people out there in the world who know this material far better than I do because they read those books like I read Tolkien, including one of them who actually made an RPG out of my world of Osten Ard, you know, and he was into the geography and, you know, everything. So, I really had to get help from people like that–who fortunately were not only wonderful people but they were already friends due to their being readers of mine–to go forward, because the Osten Ard world is, without a doubt, you know one of the more complex and developed epic-fantasy worlds there is, just be’cause that’s what I like, I like worldbuilding. So, it had a very complete history and, you know, hundreds of characters, and when I was starting these new books, I was suddenly going, “Huh,” and I was so happy that I had someone I could call up and say, “You know, I want to use so-and-so in this new book. Where where was he last?” And they’d go, “You killed him, Tad, you killed him in the second book back there. Can’t use him again.” I’d be like, “Damn! Okay, I’ll have to think of somebody else. Got any suggestions.
So, I was really beholden to these people, specifically two of them, Ilba and Ron, who have been the most help in terms of, you know, just kind of keeping me clear on whether I’m outside of my own canon or not. But, you know, that was the point, obviously, which I did go back and reread the books and reread all my old notes and have reread them at least one times since then, because I think I started this back in like 2015 or something, or 2014, so I’ve had to have a big learning curve of re-learning my own world, because, I don’t know about you, Ed, but I don’t go back and look at my own work and I certainly don’t memorize things I’ve already written because I’m on to something else.
I think a lot of readers don’t realize that for authors, by the time the book has been published, you’ve read it and read it and read it and read it and read it and read it…
…and you can barely stand to read it again, so…
I know. I’m in that process right now. I actually just had a shoulder operation, so my my my wife has been working very, very hard–Deborah Beale, who was a former publisher and is now writing, also, herself, my wife–has been very helpful with, you know, going through the copyedited proofs, but we still have another round of proofs, and of course I read through it like, four or five times during rewrites. So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’ve read a book so many times in the last year that most of us writers don’t ever want to see it again.
It is interesting, I found–and I presume your books have been turned into audio books?
It is interesting to listen to somebody else read your books, I’ve found, although I don’t have anything your length, so I don’t have to sit through as many hours of my own stuff read to me, but…
Well, that’s one of the problems is how much time. That’s one of the things I’ve often expressed to people when they’ve asked me questions about this, like, have I heard such-and-such an audio thing or have I done this or that or have I reread this, I’ve said, “You know, honest to God, you guys have to remember, I’m just like you, I’ve got it I’ve got a home, I’ve got family, you know, what little time I have to read is mostly put into reading, doing research. So, I don’t have a huge amount of free time that I can spend. I don’t commute anywhere, so I don’t have dead car time when I could be listening to audiobooks, even my own audiobooks, so, as with everything at this stage of life, it’s about trying to find time to do anything other than just work and, you know, be a parent or a partner or whatever.
There would be something a little creepy about spending all your time sitting in a darkened room listening to somebody read you your own books. That would be just a little odd.
I’m so glad you agree. That’s also the other thing, too, is there’s a limited amount of time I can spend rereading or listening to my own work. For one thing it’s not going to surprise me very much.
Not much suspense left.
No, no. Exactly. So what you tend to do whenever you do that is, you have to spend most of your time trying to avoid worrying about things that you did wrong 20 years ago that, you know, it’s way too late to fix.
But, having but having been forced to read what you had written all those years ago, have you found that your writing style has changed in that time?
I would say a little bit. I would say the main thing that I’ve noticed is I’m probably a little bit less flowery. But you can see that process beginning even in The Dragonbone Chair, where the first 20 or 30 pages of it, which, again this is something that was published back in, I think, 1988, or ’87, anyway, during the first 50 pages it’s more flowery than it is even for the rest of that book. So, I think that what I would call the Ray Bradbury influence has toned down a little bit. And I’m sure that there were some readers who were disappointed by that, but, you know, as I’ve gotten older and written more I’ve also become more interested in telling a story cleanly, and not necessarily stopping to write a beautiful set-piece if it’s not actually necessary. I think it’s like a lot of things in life: you start to say, “What’s the most important thing I can do here?”, rather than, “What’s the thing I can do here that will make everybody say, ‘Ooo, you’re so special!”
Now, we’ll focus on Osten Ard, specifically but in, general…you’ve talked about the theme of it, your take on the Tolkien epic fantasy, but what were the initial ideas that gave rise to it? And is that typical of the way that you start books?
Actually, yeah. Most of my books start with an idea, and oftentimes a kind of a thematic idea rather than a specific character or a specific setting. It tends to be thematic. In the case of the Osten Ard books, I know, when I’d written my first book for my publishers, DAW Books, who are still my American publishers, as we’ve just talked about since we were just at the last DAW dinner together, back then they said, well, you know, “Do you want to write something else in fantasy or science fiction?”
I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a big fantasy.” So that was my only thing that I went into it with the idea already in place, that I want to write a big epic fantasy, not with any specific story idea, but the story that came to me was very loosely based around the idea that both in fiction and in history, in the real world almost all great monarchies or kingdoms or whatever you want to call them have largely collapsed if they were built around a single very well-known and very powerful ruler. And I said, this is both in mythology and in history, it’s both in King Arthur and the actual Charlemagne or Alexander the Great or,, you know any number of other people. King Arthur, in the folklore, you have this great monarch who dies and the kingdom falls apart because it was not that structurally sound without them and their charisma or power or whatever. So, the initial idea I had about this was that something like that would happen in these new books, that there would be a kind of King Arthur or Charlemagne-like figure who would be dying at the beginning of the book, and then the action would be between two of his heirs, and that would be the fundamental thing,the struggle between two of his heirs for the power. And then, of course, I had to start looking for characters to tell this story, because I had already figured out that I wanted to try and tell the story on a more broad basis than just picking a couple of royal characters.
So, one of the first things I did was create this kitchen boy, who would have a whole kind of plotline of his own, but would have an interesting way of looking into the storyline, and very quickly he and some other characters became the actual focal-point characters. So, while there were still the two royal brothers, and they were, you know, important characters, they were no longer who we as readers were seeing the story through their eyes. (That’s a rather complicated, ungrammatical use of prepositions there, but, you know.) I created characters who would be the viewpoint characters and then they rapidly took over the story and became very important on their own, and the story spread, and more and more of it became about the kitchen boy and the daughter of one of the royal brothers, and et cetera, et cetera. And before I knew it it had kind of metastasized into this very broad and complicated plot. But it started out with that thematic idea, great monarch dies, heirs squabbling kingdom falls apart.
And you actually used the name, at least, of a folkloric character, Preston John, that you know, has his own folklore in the real world. Does he not?
Right, right, absolutely.There are still, especially in the first book, there are still some archeological remnants of, when I started the book, I was going to make it happen in an imaginary country but in the real world. So, it was going to share at least some of its history with the history that, you know, that we all know from Western civilization classes and the mythology that we have learned and all that kind of stuff. So, it was actually originally going to be the semi-historical, semi-mythical Preston John, and then that kind of, for various reasons, fell by the wayside, but I liked the name. The first name of the novel was The Sons of Preston John, and, so, it was a long time before I got to the point where I had to decide, well keep it or get rid of it, it’s not about the world you live in anymore and I decide to keep that aspect, because, obviously, there are many parallels with the real world. It’s not our world, but it’s a world very similar to, say, 13th-century Europe. At least the parts we’re exposed to at the beginning are: it gets weirder and stranger as the characters move out from the beginning of the story.
I think not calling it The Sons of Preston John was probably a good choice in the end.
Ha! It was never a too-serious title but, you know…I don’t know about you, but I hate writing outlines, because I’ve never ready. I’m always kind of solving things in outlines that are terrible solutions to the problems. They’re not organic, you know, they’re just like, “Okay, then I have to tell the publishers that this is going to happen, and why is it going to happen? I don’t know, because blah blah blah.” So I hate writing outlines anyway and I hate titling things before I’m ready for it. So, yeah, it was just kind of like, “Okay, that’s my working title.”.
Because that actually reminds me of the old John Wayne movie The Sons of Katie Elder.
Yeah, yeah exactly.
Well, you mentioned outline, and that was actually my next question. Once you’ve got your ideas, what does your planning look like before you actually start writing. How much do you figure out ahead of time and how much happens organically, as you said?
Well, it’s difficult to have a hard-and-fast rule, because as you know, I’m sure, and most of the other writers out there know, you know, these things are literally organic processes. They are very complicated. Some of them happen in your subconscious. Some of them are conscious decisions, but basically…and the other thing with me, as I mentioned, is, I don’t like outlines, because for me, those are artificial. I don’t know how three quarters of the story is going to work. I need to know something about the ending of it even before I start, or at least before I finished the first volume, if it’s a multi-volume story, because my multi-volume stories are really single stories that are just cut up into multiple volumes. So, I need to be able to prefigure, to, you know, drop hints, to put clues in in the first volume that may not pay off until the end of the story, maybe several years later. So, I have to know at least enough that I can do some of that, but other than that, I’m going to discover a lot of this stuff along the way as I’m writing.
I mean, as I mentioned with this book, I had, you know, some very vague ideas about what the story was going to be about. So, especially in the early stages, it’s a combination of both: a lot of thinking–and that’s unfettered thinking, that’s not sitting at the keyboard being impatient with myself thinking–that’s literally just going away and just walking around with the beginnings of the story in my mind and starting to try out different random connections–or not random, but, you know, different connections of what could happen, which character could go where, which characters we might need that don’t exist yet, et cetera et cetera.
At a certain point, though, you have to start putting things down, because that helps to shape the narrative also, because you’ll be sitting down with an idea like, “Okay, I’m gonna introduce this minor character,” and then by the time you’ve written 10 pages with that character you suddenly realize, “Oh, actually this is a much more major character than I thought he or she was going to be, so I’m going to have to incorporate him or her into more stuff here.”
What I always liken it to is kind of a tightrope act between, on the one hand, knowing too much when you begin and being stale when you’re actually writing it, and on the other hand knowing too little and not being able to prefigure, to drop hints and clues, to do all that kind of stuff. But I do spend a very long amount of time away from the keyboard thinking about the world itself and the history of the place and what it’s like at the time the stories taking place and what the general kind of,you know, political, technological, geographical setup is, and then I fill in details as I’m writing.
So you don’t do an outline per se but a lot of notes about these things as you figure them out, so you can refer to it as your writing and try to be consistent?
Yes, I mean, I definitely do when it’s things like languages and stuff and characters’ names and things, just so I can be consistent. I will also occasionally do, like, a little tiny mini-essay on certain aspects of history that I figured out but that aren’t going to show up again for maybe a volume or so,so I don’t lose what I was thinking about. But I actually write, probably, a lot fewer notes than most people. I’ve always found that for me–and this is very personal and it’s not a recommendation to other writers, everybody has to find their own path–for me, it works better to have as little as possible written down in the way of ideas, that I try not to write things down until I’m pretty certain I’m going to go forward with them. And before that, it’s just all kind of carried around in my head so that I can try different possibilities.
I think of it as like playing a game of chess in my head ahead of the moves. Instead of actually touching the pawn and then having to move it, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Well, this could happen, but then the knock-on effect would be this, and I’m not sure I want that to happen so early, so maybe how about this?” So, I do these very complicated thinking-through processes without writing things down. So, I actually have comparatively few notes. I mean, not only does my story diverge from my outline that I have to turn in at the beginning, because that’s what publishers want, but then I don’t make a huge amount of notes along the way. I suspect I’m one of those writers that if I suddenly pitch over dead at my keyboard it’s not going to be all that easy for somebody to pick up my work and finish it. They may finish it, but it wouldn’t necessarily have much to do with what I thought, because a lot of what I’m planning to write is only in my head at this point.
Well, I think you’re the eighteenth author I’ve interviewed for the podcast so far, and, yeah, it’s all over the place. I interviewed Peter V. Brett, and he writes extremely detailed outlines, like 150-page outlines with every detail in it and then other people like you, and me…I write a synopsis because. you know. as you said that’s what the publisher wants to see, and then I usually don’t look at it unless I’m getting into trouble somewhere along the way.
Yeah, exactly, I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and looked at any of my outlines except long after the fact, just to amuse myself. But I don’t actually use them when I’m writing, because by the time I’ve finished an outline, you know, it’s in my head, what the general thing that I want to do is, and I already, in the course of writing it, have already written down things that I look at and go, “I will never put that in the book. That’s crap.” I have to have it in the outline it because explains how they get from Part D to Part E or something, but I don’t, you know, I’m not going to use that. That’s just a crappy solution.
I suspect, then, you also don’t do detailed character sheets with every detail about the characters life, and…
No, although again, you know, it’s whatever works for you. Whatever works for you. By the time I’m into one of these long things, you know, it all feels pretty real to me. I mean, not in a hallucinatory sense, but I mean just in the sense that I’ve kind of got these characters…and especially with these new books. because. you know many of them are characters that, you know, I was writing about their younger selves 30 years ago, so they are in my system already. So I don’t really have to have a lot of details. Now, of course I will always, you know, forget people’s eye colors, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have friends around to say, “Actually you did mention that in such-and-such a book and his eyes are brown. But other than that, no, I don’t tend to do that, again because, just for me personally, having lots of flexibility and lots of things being open-ended is just what works best.
What does your actual writing process look like, you know, so many hours a day. Do you do it in an office, do you do it in coffee shops? How do you work?.
I’m actually having to think about this for a moment because I just, not too long ago, had a shoulder operation, and before that I had several months where I couldn’t work at all. I haven’t been able to work until just, literally, the last day or so. So, I’m having to remember now, but generally my process is that I get up in the morning, I do my correspondence, I do whatever social media I’m going to be doing, which I try to keep to a fairly low amount. Then I think about what I want to work on that day in terms of what the specifics are, you know, I want to work on this chapter, and that chapter is probably going to have these characters in it and these characters in it and these characters in it, and, you know, it’s a continuation of such and such a plotline, blah blah blah.
So then I will go away, for usually several hours, and I will literally lie on my back if I can, that’s my preferred position, with some earbuds in and some ambient music or something playing to drown out the sound of all of the young people who live in our household. And then I just think about what I’m going to do. And eventually, you know, 2 or 3 in the afternoon I will get up, and then usually write till dinner. But because I have thought it through ahead of time, there’s very little staring at a blank page. I’ve usually pretty much planned in a general sense what I’m going to do that day, what the scene is going to be about, how it’s going to go, roughly, what important notes I want to hit, what little bits, you know, what I hope will be little gems of dialogue that I want to use or whatever, so that when I’m actually sitting down I’m only sitting down at the computer maybe for two or three hours, but I’m doing, you know, six or seven hours worth of work, because I’ve already thought it all through. And that’s generally how my process works.
How does that translate into how long it takes you to write one of these monsters?
Well, it really depends. I try to do a minimum five pages of manuscript at about three hundred and something words per page. I try to do five to 10 pages per day. Sometimes I do more. Occasionally I do less. A lot of it has to do with what kind of thing I’m writing. Obviously, if I’m writing dialogue it will fill up pages faster, if I’m doing something that requires a great deal of research while I’m doing it, that will go slower. Certain kinds of books, say, for instance, these books, or the Otherland books, which are the big multivolume ones, those are a little slower to write because you’re usually, in the course of writing 10 or 15 pages, you’re usually doing at least two different sets of character interactions, it’s like two different segments, whereas when I was writing what I call the Bobby Dollar books, which are this kind of angel detective series, it’s all first-person, he’s the only character who’s giving information. They’re much faster to write. I could do, like, a chapter a day, like a 15- to 20-page chapter a day with those. So, it really depends. So, you know probably a year per book without, you know, medical problems or something like that getting in the way.
You mentioned research. Do you find that you have to do a lot? I think it sometimes surprises people that people writing fantasy have to do any research because they’re making it all up.
I know, it’s amusing isn’t it? I know, people oftentimes have said that to me, like, kind of in a congratulatory tone. “Aren’t you lucky. You know, you’re writing fantasy, you’re just making stuff up!” And I always say to them, “Well, I kind of think of myself as writing what I would call hard fantasy. I’m trying to create worlds that feel very real. So, if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world–and I’m sure this is true for you to, Ed–if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world I want to understand how that kind of world actually works, how the economies work, how the actual mechanism of people feeding themselves and sheltering themselves work, what the different options are among different cultures in the real world, and pick and choose the things that seem to fit best.
So, yeah, it’s actually impinged on my reading of fiction, because I read so much non-fiction, primarily history and science, and, yeah, I mean, I’m researching all the time. There’s more with some books than with others but, you know, I mean, probably again like you, I’ve got, you know, my office is literally full of books that are research books for me on every bloody nonfiction topic under the sun, because I do want these things to feel authentic and I do want these worlds to feel real and it’s more important, I think, for a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer to have a grip on that stuff, because when you know a person who’s writing a thriller or a mystery novel set in the world that we know says, “And a mail carrier walked up the front path and knocked on the door,” you know, we already know what all of those things probably mean. We know what a mail carrier is, we know the kinds of things they tend to be carrying, we know what a front path probably looks like or at least we can invent one in our heads, e know why people knock on doors in our culture, whereas in a fantasy novel or world none of that is written in stone. None of that is necessarily the same. So you need to have a firm foundation underneath this imagination.
Once you have a draft, what’s your revision process look like? Do you have beta readers or do you do it all yourself, or how does it work for you?
I have just for these last set of books, these, again, what I call Osten Ard books, which is the new series, The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass, and the previous series, The Dragonbone Chair, etc., because that’s the place they take place, Osten Ard. With the Osten Ard books, for the first time I’ve actually done a much, what I would call a dirtier, or a more basic, first draft because, especially, with the first one of the new books, I wanted to get a reaction from some of my most faithful readers of the old books, since it’s been 30 years. I wanted to make sure that people felt like, “Yes, this is the same world. Yes, the writer is approaching it in the same way, no, there’s not a huge disconnect in terms of, like, ‘Oh God, this feels totally different than the old books,'” because one of the shocking realizations I had when I decided to do a sequel was how invested, you know, a lot of readers were in the original set of books, which was a little daunting, to be honest. I realized, like, “Hey, if I screw this book up, I’m not just screwing this book up but I’m screwing up the books that have been a major part of my career.” You know, people will be forever change in their view of those books by, like, “Ah, and then he wrote that horrible sequel,” much like, say, for instance, George Lucas now has to carry the burden of The Phantom Menace around on top of all the affection people had for Star Wars.
So, because of that, with these new Osten Ard books I actually wrote a more basic first draft and sent it out so that people could give me reactions to it. Normally, I do a very complete, quite close to finalized first draft. Then I got them back and I did another kind of a clean first draft and then, you know, that went off to my publishers. We had a, you know, an editorial conference. Unlike most DAW authors, I actually get edited by both editors, both Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, so they double-team me. And then I will do, usually, two more drafts. In the old days, I would simply do one very complete first draft, send it to Betsy and Sheila, my agent, my wife, Deborah, who is, as I mentioned, a publisher herself, and then do two fairly quick rewrites because I’d spent so much time…and I still do spend a lot of time… in the first draft because the plots are so complex and there’s so many characters I have to fit them together carefully because they’re not easy to pull apart and fix if something’s drastically wrong.
What sorts of things do you find yourself fixing after you’ve had the feedback?
One of the things is that oftentimes, as a writer, especially a writer of, you know, where you’ve been working on a book for a year or two years or something, sometimes you put in more of something than you really need simply because for you it’s been three months since you last wrote that particular plotline. So, as you go back into it you’ll kind of wind up hitting a lot of notes again that are part of that plotline. I remember, for instance, when I was writing the Otherland books, which are near-future science fiction (but you don’t need to know anything about them to understand this), one of the characters was trying to give up smoking. She was one of the main characters, if not the main character. And so, during the course of, almost every time she showed up, because we’d be a couple of weeks between her parts of the plot for me,, there would be some mention of that again. Well that was fine, because I was essentially sort of reminding myself that that was an ongoing struggle for her. But then when I actually sent the first draft out to my publishers, they went, “Jesus God, every nine seconds she’s talking about how much she wants cigarette,” and I realized, “Oh, Okay.” So, there are issues like that that you look out for where an outside eye will say to you either, “You’re doing too much of that,” or, “This character doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” and you’ll say, “Oh, well I didn’t want it to come off that way. OK. That’s interesting.” You know, you’ll get feedback on things that you probably missed, that you thought, you know, “Oh, this is obvious, and no it wasn’t as obvious as you thought it was, or stuff like that.”
Because I did the first draft faster, there’s been a little more rewriting involved with these books, but generally, I think, compared to a lot of writers, I tend to write a pretty complete first draft, again, just because it’s easier than trying to strip stuff out after the fact.
All right, well, we’re getting closer to the end here…obviously we’re getting closer to the end, we wouldn’t be getting further from the end…so I’ll get to the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, why do you think any of us write, and more specifically, why do we write fantasy and science fiction? What’s with that?
Well, I always like fantasy and science fiction, first of all because, starting in childhood, the idea of these other places and other experiences that were not available to most of us in our ordinary lives was very intriguing and exciting for me. I mentioned Nesbit. obviously C.S. Lewis. there is a whole kind of tradition in fantasy fiction for kids of this idea that the magic is just on the other side of the door, the walls, the wardrobe, whatever. You find some magic object, blah blah blah, and everything changes. Obviously this was a big part of what made the Harry Potter book so appealing to people, was this idea that, you know, if you go to the King’s Cross Station there’s a track 9 1/2, or whatever it was, that nobody else can get to, but it’ll take you to this crazy magical school, you know, and all these kinds of things. So, that was the first level on which this stuff appealed to me, that right next to us all these exciting things could be happening and we just don’t know about it.
Then, the other thing that really worked for me when I was young in things like The Lord of the Rings was the completeness of the worldbuilding, the idea that this is a very real, real place that has a history independent of the story that we’re currently following. That, for some reason, was really appealing to me, also. I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved knowing the story behind things.
And then, last, but I think also very critical to me in terms of loving fantasy and science fiction, is I’ve always loved the fact that you can walk the line. You’re sort of making a bargain when you write genre fiction with readers, and that bargain is, as I jokingly say sometimes, it’s like, “I can make it as artistic as I want it to be or as literary as I want it to be, as long as every five pages or so something tries to meet the main characters.” And in a sense, I kind of think was a writing genre fiction a being a bit like any other formalized artistic expression, like, say, ballet. Now, in modern dance you can do virtually anything. And that’s great. That’s absolutely fine. In ballet, you have to observe certain kinds of expected things. In fiction, we call them tropes, in ballet they’re called, you know, positions, and, you know, certain kinds of expressions, and all this kind of stuff. But if you observe those things, you’re still allowed to be as artistic as you want to be, to be as abstract as you want to be. But it sets a certain framework on what you’re doing that you then have to work with, but you also get to play with the expectations of people who like that framework. So, I’ve always loved genre fiction because it allows you to do that, to work with a framework but also to exploit and sometimes even explode a framework. So, all of those things appealed to me.
Why do you think we as humans love stories so much? Not just fantasy stories, but any stories. Why are we driven to to tell stories and to listen to stories?
Well, I think actually that’s a very big question, and I think the answers are are potentially huge. One of the things is that we are human beings. I mean, the fact that, you know, most of how we think about the universe we live are actually constructions that we place on it, you know. Because we die in a hundred years or less most of the time, ee tend to think of the amount of time it takes things to happen on a universal or even a galactic scale is astoundingly long. Well ,that’s our perspective on it, you know, we have this very limited way of looking at things. But at the same time, we, in a sense, because our imagination is what we’re all living in all the time, we’re also creating that reality. We are creating the reality where a billion years is a long time, but a hundred years is only a long time to a single human being. And because we’re creating these realities for ourselves, we’re actually making all of life and all of reality into stories. That’s what human beings do. We recast the universe in our own conception and by our own imagination.
And we’re also applying concepts like beginning, middle, and end onto the universe. The universe doesn’t, as far as we know at this point, we don’t know anything about how the universe began. We only have some very vague ideas about how it might end. We’re in the middle of billions of years of it existing, but that’s not how humans are. So we like to think about beginnings, middles, and ends, and we tend to put those onto things. We make stories out of everything. You ask somebody about the Civil War, the American Civil War, they will tell you a story. It may not be the right story,, it’s the story they know or learn, or feel comfortable with, but it’s a story: you know, it has heroes and villains, it has a beginning, it has an end. And that’s true with everything.
So, human beings like to make things, and we also like to make the universe over into something that we can understand and that we fit into. So all of those are very, very strong driving forces for people who write fiction. We like to have a little more control over that than others. We like to make our own universes, or at least sub-universes. But we’re still doing a very human thing, which is we’re making the universe over in our own image and through our own thoughts and imagination.
Well, that’s one reason this podcast is called The Worldshapers (the other being, of course, that my latest book is called Worldshaper), but, still, it’s a good name for the podcast. What do you hope that readers who come to you work take away from it?
I hope my readers of my books–and fortunately this does happen, I mean, it doesn’t happen with every reader obviously, but it does happen–all I want is, I want readers to have the same feeling of connection with my work that I felt with the people whose work has moved me, has changed me as a person, has given me ways of looking at the universe I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s real. I mean, yes, oh, and the practical things, like, you know, I don’t want my children to starve, you know, all that kind of stuff. But primarily I want to make things and share them with other people, and I hope that the things that I make, in this case books, stories, have the same effect of bringing imagination and pleasure into other people’s lives that my favorite books have had me. And if along the way they do some of the other things that my favorite books have done for me, like help them to look at the world differently, help them to think about things differently than they had before, then that’s a plus. But essentially, I just want to make things and share them with people.
And once…you have the Osten Ard books coming up, but what’s after that for you?
That is a real good question, Ed, and for once in my life I don’t have a specific thing lined up. I’ve got a couple of more smaller Osten Ard projects I’m going to be doing. And then, while I’m doing that, you know, I’m also in the stage where a lot of writers are, which is now I’m not entirely in charge of my own destiny. I can’t…I’m not Stephen King. I’m not J.K. Rowling, I can’t literally write anything at this point and a large number of people will buy it. I have an audience that is wanting me to do fantasy and science fiction. I’d be a fool to turn away from that. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. I have to write whatever idea is the one that’s screaming in my ear that it needs to be written. I’m still a couple of years away from that, probably, and I have no idea what it’ll be. I’m thinking more now than I used to about approaching some of my old material, though. So, for instance, I’ve mentioned Otherland a couple of times. I might do another Otherland book, but I have many, many other ideas that are completely new things as well. I’ll just kind of have to see.
There’s never a shortage of ideas. It goes back to time all the time, doesn’t it?
It certainly does. I mean, almost every writer has had the experience of having someone come up to them at a party or whatever and say like, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story,” you know, but “I’m not a writer” or “I don’t have time to write it” or whatever. “Why don’t I give it to you and we’ll split it halfway?” I always just kind of laugh and say, “You know, I’m sorry, but I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with.” It’s not a lack of ideas. As you said, just now, it’s time. It’s time.
And, for people who would like to find you online, where can they do that?
Well they can find me several places. There is a website that’s embarrassingly all about me, or mostly about, that’s tadwilliams.com.
Well, who else would it be about?
Exactly. Well nobody, but, I mean, we have a very active message board and so, you know, we we learn a lot about the lives of people who are on the message boy, too, and see things that they like to pos,t and sometimes they have their own creative endeavors. So, tadwilliams.com obviously is kind of the best one-stop source of information, but I’m very present on Facebook and I’m also on Twitter, and my wife does a lot of Twitter stuff, including things about my books and writing @MrsTad at Twitter. So any one of those places is a good place to start.
And your Twitter handle is just @TadWilliams, right?
All right, well thanks so much for doing this, Ted. I really appreciate it. It was a great conversation.
My pleasure, Ed. I enjoyed it, too, and I wish you tons and tons of success with your own work and continued good luck.
Thank you very much. And bye for now.
All right. Bye for now.