Cover of 'Shadowmarch' by Tad Williams ISBN 0756402700 Shaun Farrell interviews Tad Williams
Shaun's Quadrant—October 2006

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Tad Williams has accomplished a difficult task within the fields of speculative fiction. He has written bestselling fantasy AND bestselling science fiction. Refusing to be tied down to genre constraints, Tad challenges his readers and always provides them with the unexpected. The author of the Otherland series and the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books, Tadís newest novel is Shadowmarch. To learn more about Tad and his writing, please visit www.tadwilliams.com. Also visit Tadís publisher, the kind folks of DAW Books.


Shaun Farrell: How long did it take you to get your first book published after you had written it?

Tad Williams: I was actually extremely lucky. I had done a lot of creative things starting back in school, and by the time I was in my mid-twenties I was in a routine of working jobs I didnít like to pay the bills and doing my creative stuff on the side, whether that was art, music, or theatre. Somewhere along the line I added a creative writing project because it was something I could do on my own time. I come from a reading-oriented family, so Iím surprised it took me that long.

I actually wrote one screenplay, which nobody will ever see if theyíre lucky. Then I wrote my first novel, which was The Tailchaserís Song. I sent it off to Del Rey first and got a very quick rejection. I wrote back, and I got a letter from Judy Del Rey saying, ďWe have never had anybody complain that we responded too quickly to their book.Ē But I didnít think anyone had read it.

My second choice was DAW, who is still my publisher. They bought it, and, at least in the technical sense, it was a bestseller. So every time I see the people from Del Rey, I smile and wave. Actually, DAW has worked out extremely well for me because thereís a great deal of built-in consistency. Two people, Betsy Wolheim and Sheila Gilbert, have been the publishers ever since they took over for Dawn Walker. So Iíve had the same publishers in America for 21 years now. I like working with people I get along with and am friends with.

SF: So they publish all of your books?

TW: They publish the American editions of pretty much all my books. There are exceptions and weird contractual cases. Thereís one thing I sold first in England, and the rites went to another American publisher, disastrously. Iím doing a book of short stories now called Rite, and thatís going to be first through Subterranean Press as a limited edition hardcover, and probably DAW will end up doing a paperback.

SF: Letís talk about Shadowmarch a bit, your newest book. It introduces a new fantasy series. How are you approaching this fantasy series differently from the first one that started your career?

TW: This had a very different beginning because it was actually an online serial. Before that it was an idea for a television program, and before that it was an idea for a movie. Years ago, when I first moved back to California from London, I met up with Roger Dean and Mike Caluta, two very well known artists. They were talking about doing a fantasy feature film. I thought the problem with big, epic fantasies is they donít translate well to single films. You wind up with a cast of nine trying to represent an entire culture. One thing people like about fantasy is the big canvas.

SF: That would be a ten hour movie.

TW: Yeah, like The Lord of the Rings. This was pre-Lord of the Rings, of course, and nobody was going to entertain that idea. At the time it was clear that nobody had done an epic fantasy for episodic television. I was thinking that if you had an interesting central locale, you could do the Star Trek/ Babylon 5 thing where a lot of stuff took place in the main location. It would be very character driven. Each episode would present a problem that would push the plot along and also have its own wrap-up. I started putting together Shadowmarch with the idea it could be such a show.

A variety of things happened the next couple of years, including my working up through the levels of hierarchy at a couple different networks. The SciFi channel was one. At a certain point Iíd hit somebody who just did not get fantasy, and theyíd usually end the whole thing right there. Most amusingly there was some executive at the SciFi Channel, who, when it got to him after a year of working its way up, said, ďBut thereís already Xena on television. Why would anyone want to see another fantasy show?Ē This wasnít going to be like Xena, but youíre dealing with people who donít read fantasy and donít understand thereís a big audience. At that point I said the hell with television. Iím happy with what I do.

But I wanted to do something interesting with the idea. I conceived of the fabulously self-defeating plan of doing a website serial. And itís self-defeating because nobody makes money on the internet selling fiction.

SF: Only Stephen King.

TW: Even he vastly undersold what he (normally) sells. So, we made our own website, which is still there. Even though weíre not doing the story on it anymore, we still have a very active community. Thatís kind of become my internet home. We did it as a subscription thing where I put the first five chapters up free, and for a year after that I wrote a new chapter every couple of weeks. It was nice because I would get immediate feedback on it. I tried not to over-think it, so I was literally making decisions on the fly the night before it was supposed to go up.

Knowing I wasnít going to make enough money off subscriptions to fund our lifestyle, which is kind of comparable to the last days of Romeó extremely decadent (grinning)ó I wrote War of the Flowers at the same time. I realized at the end of that year that if I really wanted to finish Shadowmarch, which had only just begun its big middle section, I wasnít going to be able to write two books the next year. I couldnít write Shadowmarch and another novel. It was a killing pace. I normally write a book in a year-and-a-half.

SF: But your full length novels are like three novels for most authors.

TW: Exactly. So, I turned it into regular novels. I hadnít done any epic fantasy for awhile.

While writing the second book (Shadowplay), which I pretty much just finished, I found myself in the interesting situation of figuring out how the story was going to end (in the middle of the project instead of at the beginning). I tend to treat my multiple volume books as if they were one long story so I can foreshadow and set things up. So, I converted (Shadowmarch) to a novel, added a new storyline, and had to reconcile the (second book) with what I had already written. Somewhere in the middle of that process I figured out what the whole thing was about. Itís been a completely new way of writing for me, sometimes frustrating, and itís taken a little longer than I like because of that. Iím quite happy with the story. Itís different from the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books, and thatís the most important thing. Itís not a rehash of something Iíve already written.

SF: Because you approached it differently, though, was it energizing because you didnít know what was going to happen, or just frustrating?

TW: One goes with the other. One of the reasons I havenít been somebody who finds a set of characters and writes about them over and over is that I like to do new things. I like to approach new problems. When I get an idea, it usually does not have much to do with what I just finished. When youíre writing stories that may take three to five years to finish, you donít want to write the same thing. The frustration and the excitement of the challenge are inextricably linked.

SF: You say on your website that middle books are frustrating. You like the beginning, you like the end, the middleís frustrating. When you look at some of your contemporaries, like Robert Jordan, can you imagine writing eleven middle books?

TW: Maybe Iím not skilled enough to do it. I donít know what it is, but itís not my particular form of storytelling. Thatís all I can do. I want to know what the arc of a story is when Iím working on it. Iím kind of a detail freak, and I like to add little bits and pieces along the way.

Jordan is someone whoís written a lot of series fiction. He wrote Conan, and he wrote in several different series before he started his Wheel of Time. Heís clearly comfortable with that milieu of starting with a group of characters and pushing them forward each time. Iím just a different kind of writer.

SF: How big are your outlines when youíre planning out these three book sagas?

TW: Theyíve gotten smaller as Iíve gotten further into the business because now I can say to my publishers, ďAnd now a bunch of stuff will happen. Trust me.Ē Nobody wants to write outlines, especially before youíve written the thing. I do very sketchy outlines where I hit the big points. If you try to outline a long story itís terribly flat, because a lot of the stuff you discover along the way. You come up with new ideas because over the course of three or five years you have new experiences that feed into the fiction writing process. I always try to walk the line between (connecting) the first and third book but, at the same time, leaving enough open space so I can have things happen.

SF: How much of fantasy still harkens back to Tolkien, or has the field evolved to the point where it might not be recognizable compared to the roots?

TW: The interesting thing about that is a particular split has been going on in our genre, pretty much forever. There was always a side of the field that was formulaic, and it was based on whatever was successful. Back when you had Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, there was a flood of people, mostly in the pulps, writing imitations of these successful ideas. Tolkien is a special case because there has never been someone who influenced a genre the way (he) has influenced commercial fantasy.

Tolkien established, not by his own choice, that there was a commercial market for pre-industrial, pseudo-medieval/dark ages fantasy with magical characters. All of this existed before, but (The Lord of the Rings) created this hunger to have something like that again.

The funny thing is that one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic fantasy that anyone ever wroteóand at the time nobody could even imagine it getting published, it was so weirdóhas spawned this copy-cat subgenre in the most commercial part of the field. (Tolkien) was kind of horrified by commercialism and the market place, so itís funny. Unfortunately, thatís the only (subgenre) most people know about fantasy. But before Tolkien and after Tolkien, people were writing very interesting, odd, unusual books that are in no way similar to The Lord of the Rings. But they have always been a small part of the field.

Iíve always been a fan of Steve Brustís Vlad Taltos books. Theyíre great fun but also very well written. Heís picked a completely different commercial model, writing noir fiction. His main character is kind of like somebody in a Raymond Chandler book. (The story) is not so much about the great, epic quest as it is about the politics of his particular world. So, there are people writing commercial fiction. Itís just not Tolkienian.

SF: Youíve written the big SF saga. Youíve written the big fantasy saga. Which do you like better?

TW: There is so much love and time and energy wrapped up in them thatís itís really hard to separate them. I think, in the long run, I will be most proud of the Otherland books because their derivation is less obvious. Itís not my version of epic fantasy. I donít know what Otherland is my version of; itís just this strange thing. Itís kind of an epic fantasy set in the near future in virtual reality. I feel like I will be remembered more (for those because) theyíre interesting and different.

SF: Was Otherland inspired by William Gibson and cyberpunk?

TW: I realized the other day it was more inspired by Disneyland. When I was a kid I fell in love with the fairy tale boat ride. You get on the boat, and theyíve got a girl in a Snow White costume and sheís saying, ďOver there, itís Sleeping Beautyís castle!Ē When I was six years old that was powerful.

SF: Youíre on the river.

TW: Exactly! The idea came from an interview I heard of Norman MacLean who wrote A River Runs Through It. I was thinking about rivers as metaphors and wondered about the river really (being) metaphorical and not (existing). I began to think about ways that could be true. One of the most obvious (reasons) was a cyberriver. If that were the case, virtually anything could be on either bank (of the river). If I had to (point out) influences, maybe Philip Jose Farmerís To Your Scattered Bodies Go, or John Myers Myersí Silverlock. All of those things affected me, and Iím sure Gibson did too. Heís a wonderful writer.

SF: The Otherland books seem like they must have been so much fun to write because you can do anything you want.

TW: Thereís actually a joke about that built into the book. People would say to me, ďYou must be having a great time writing those books. You can put in anything but the kitchen sink.Ē So, I built a world where (the characters) essentially enter through the kitchen sink. I was amusing myselfóthereís the bloody kitchen sink!

SF: I can see you at your computer laughing as you wrote that.

TW: Snickering to myself, probably.

SF: Do you think youíll ever revisit Otherland?

TW: Anythingís possible. I would have said no until a few years ago because I had (this rule to not revisit worlds.) But Robert Silverberg got me to write a Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn story for the first Legends, and I wrote an Otherland story for the second Legends. I realized that under the right circumstances this can be fun to do. My rule now is I wonít revisit a world unless the story idea comes first.

SF: Unless Robert Silverberg calls you.

TW: (laughing) Yeah, unless Silverberg calls me. Those are fun anthologies to do because I have tremendous admiration for Silverberg, and the people in it are all really good. But if an idea comes to me and thatís the world it wants to be in, thatís fine. Short stories are different because youíre not franchising in the same way as when youíre writing a novel and going, ďNow itís Playgrounds of Dune, and the Burgers of Dune, and Overtime Parking of Dune.Ē Iím not blaming Herbert. Thatís a different story. Thereís a man who wrote brilliant stuff all through his career and finally hit it big. He was near retirement age and (the publishers) said, ďWeíll give you 500 bucks for a non-Dune novel, or weíll give you 15,000 bucks for a Dune-related novel.Ē But, I havenít been in that situation.

SF: Talking about shorter fiction, it seems that your big books do better than your smaller works. Is that true?

TW: Itís hard to say. Tailchaserís Song is still in print, and that was the shortest novel Iíve ever written as a novel. Iíve had other books, like Calibanís Hour, written originally as a novella for a series my British publisher was doing and was published on its own.

SF: That you co-wrote, right?

TW: Thatís Child of an Ancient City that I co-wrote with Nina Hoffman. That was originally written to be an expansion of a short story of mine. But Tailchaserís Song has never gone out of print. None of my real books have ever gone out of print.

Weíre in (a market) where the publishers and the bookstores feel more and more pressure to deliver to people exactly what they want. Itís no longer just mysteries. There are historical mysteries, and you have 25 different medieval historical mystery writers, and 8 people writing mysteries set in ancient Egypt and theyíre fighting over which dynasty they get. In this increasingly specialized market readers often donít try new writers or different things. In some cases, I have completely different readerships with people who read Otherland but have never read anything else of mine because itís not like Otherland. And some people who loved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn wouldnít go near Otherland because they heard itís science fiction. For me, when I had a writer I loved, I was fascinated to see them do something different. Now, maybe the book didnít work, but I would read it. Some people do that still, but more and more people want to walk to a particular section in the bookstore and see exactly the type of books they want to read. Thatís the idea these days.

When you have a consumer driven society, forces are operating from both ends. The consumers are getting spoiled, but the purveyors are also unwilling to put much effort behind something that doesnít have a readymade audience. Itís unfortunate. On the other hand, Iím making a living and quite happy with it.

SF: Iím with you. If I have a writer I really enjoy, I donít care what the book is. I go get it. My novel career hasnít taken off yet, hopefully it will, but I donít want to have to write the same kind of books for 25 years.

TW: No.

SF: I want to able to write anything I want, and I see thatís a hard thing to do.

TW: When I was telling my wife my plans about Otherland, she said, ďAs your friend and companion, that sounds like a great idea. Iím sure youíll write a wonderful story. I hope you realize that you would probably sell five to ten times more books if you write another big, epic fantasy similar to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.Ē And I said I understand that, but I think I can do well enough to be happy writing things that are different, and I want my readers to get used to the idea that if you want to read books by Tad, youíre going to have to try some different things. I wanted to establish that (early). Stephen Donaldson is a case in point. He wrote the first set of Thomas Covenant books, and didnít want to do another set (but) was talked into it. He wrote all of those, and heís had trouble since with everything heís written because itís not Thomas Covenant. The hardcore people wanted more Thomas Covenant and the people who (thought) thatís all he writes stopped picking him up. Iíd rather have a slightly smaller audience who will follow me than a Robert Jordan size audience who will demand more of the same with tiny, incremental changes.

SF: To me, that would get boring.

TW: Exactly. I have to fall in love with what Iím writing every time, because itís a hell of a lot of work. Itís a long process if youíre writing a multiple volume series. Youíre in that damn thing for years, you know? And sometimes itís just a job, and if itís just a job it damn well better be interesting and not like, ďGod, Iíve done this before and hate these characters.Ē At that point Iíd drop out and do something else. If you canít be a professional writer and love what youíre doing, you should probably shoot yourself. There you are with a dream job! Itís like being a professional athlete and hating the game youíre playing. Then get out because youíre taking the place of someone who would love it. You have to sit back at some point and say, ďThis is so cool. I canít believe I do this for a living instead of all that crap I did earlier in my life.Ē

Iíll give you my one depressing secret about making it in the commercial arts: talent is great, and everyone needs some talent, but itís the people who work the hardest and who really want it that tend to make it. A part of me wishes that werenít true. I never dreamed of working my way up through anything. I always dreamed of someone saying, ďDamn, youíre fabulously talented. Hereís a lot of money! Weíre going to pay you money to be just cool as hell!Ē The older I get the more I realize there are a lot of talented people out there, but the ones who really want it make it.

SF: There is also an element, from my observations, of doing it the right way. In a field this small you have to present yourself in the right way.

TW: Absolutely. There are two reasons for that. If people remember you fondly, theyíre more likely to remember you in general. But then thereís the karmic side of it. If someone is standing in line for an hour to get a signed book from me they are paying me a tremendous compliment. They are taking their time because they like what I do and they want to meet me. I owe it to that person to say thank you. You and people like you are the reason I have this great life. Iím not going to forget that. And I get asked the same questions over and over. Thatís the nature of the beast. You do panels and readings and get asked the same questions again and again. But that is the only time THAT person gets to ask that question. That person has taken an evening to come see you and they should feel it was worth it.

I genuinely think about that. I think about all the crap jobs Iíve had in life compared to what Iím doing now. Thank you to all of you people who are buying books and for allowing me to do what I do.

SF: Since I started interviewing authors Iíve been surprised by how kind everyone is. I donít know if other genres are like that.

TW: Itís a very nice genre because itís always been interlaced with the readers. Most of the writers are readers themselves, and they had favorite writers and were thrilled when they first met them. And science fiction is one of those places where everyone feels like they fit in. You donít have to be one of the cute, well-connected ones before anyone will be your friend.

SF: We see beyond those things.

TW: I hope so.

SF: I have one last question for you. If you could collaborate with anyone on a novel, who would it be?

TW: Ohh. There are probably some people who would be great to collaborate with and the whole process would be really fun. But I donít know them because I donít collaborate much. I really like the way Allan Mooreís brain works, the comic book writer. He did Watchman.

SF: Then you should contact him and do a graphic novel together.

TW: Heís got so many people who want his work that heíll never have to go looking. Iíd like to do something with Brust. Heís a friend of mine. His sense of humor and mine would meld well. There are people outside of the field and it would be fun to drag them in and see what they do with it. Like John Updike. He has such a wonderful mind, and it would be fun to get him out of the present day and do something totally weird.

SF: Whenís the next book?

TW: Sometime between January and March. The second Shadowmarch to be called Shadowplay.

SF: Cool, well thanks.

TW: My pleasure.

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Copyright © 2006 by Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.