Issue 52 – January 2011


Practice for Something Else: Walter Jon Williams

"I don't have an agenda for science fiction," said Walter Jon Williams. "It's the thing that turns me on, both as a reader and a writer, and that's enough for me."

A sense of playfulness and wonder pervades Williams' stories, a sense that he is exploring the whole sandbox, every dimension, every tool, and not just some corner sectioned off for one genre or another.

In the introduction to Green Leopard Plague & Other Stories, novelist Charles Stross praises Williams as a "versatile and elegant writer." Nowhere is Williams' flexibility (and elegance) shown more vividly than in Green Leopard Plague. Williams gives us Wyatt Earp through the eyes of Friedrich Nietzsche, shipwrecks through a diver's mask, imaginary friends, dream-inspired water ballet, and working-class buddies who hit the road against a space opera back-drop.

Over the years, Williams has been compared to Roger Zelazny for his relentless exploration of the genre's possibilities. Williams shies away from the comparison.

"Roger was a nationally recognized poet before he became a science fiction writer, and that shows," said Williams. "His singularly elegant, poetic style was a constant delight. Though I've been flattered by the comparison, I have to admit that I don't think I write at all like Roger. What Roger demonstrated was that you could be unique, you could tackle themes that no one else was doing and write like no one else. That's inspiration for any writer."

A martial artist, scuba diver, and traveler, Williams began his career writing nautical novels in the mode of Patrick O'Brian and C. S. Forester. He switched from historical fiction to science fiction for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the SF genre's versatility.

"When I began writing SF," Williams writes in the afterword to "Lethe" in Green Leopard Plague, "I realized that I could tell practically any story that appealed to me, as long as I set it in a science fiction context, and so I made a list of the sorts of stories I longed to write. The list was as follow:

  1. A future in which everything went right. (This became my novel Knight Moves.)
  2. A future in which everything went wrong. (This became Hardwired.)
  3. A mystery/thriller. (Voices of the Whirlwind)
  4. A first-contact story. (Angel Station)
  5. A Restoration-style comedy of manners. (The Crown Jewels and its sequels)
  6. A hard-boiled mystery. (Days of Atonement)

Williams spent a little more than six months outlining these novels and subsequent years writing them. Each book crackles with complexly crafted worlds, compelling characters, and startlingly effective slipstreaming.

After completing Days of Atonement, Williams worried that he had run out of "creative spark." Fortunately, he hadn't. That was more than a dozen books and nearly two decades ago, and Williams' creative reserves show no signs of being tapped out.

Williams and I spoke recently with the paperback edition of This Is Not a Game just out and the sequel Deep State due in February of 2011. Our conversation was delayed once or twice by deadlines and by his rather adventurous itinerary; therefore, we started off with one of his favorite topics—travel.

Are traveling and scuba diving similar to writing?

Writing is a sedentary profession, and too many writers do little with their lives other than stare at a monitor.

I prefer more of a boots-on-the-ground approach. I travel as much as I can.

When I was writing stories set on sailing ships in the Indies, I got myself on a sailing ship in the Indies—plus other sailing craft in other corners of the world. The details I picked up by being there myself added infinitely to the fictional world I was trying to create.

Insofar as it's chronologically and financially possible, I try to visit the places that I intend to write about. My next book is set largely in Turkey, and over the last few years I've spent as much time there as I could.

Naturally I can't visit the extraterrestrial sites I write about, but I've seen as much of the world and its cultures as I can, and that helps when it comes to building plausible societies that don't look entirely like late 20th Century America.

Travel does broaden the mind, but only if you travel with a certain degree of humility. If you go with the idea that you already know everything worth knowing, you won't learn anything, and you'll probably have a terrible time. Travel wanting to learn, and you'll always find people willing to teach you.

And as for scuba—once you've cruised along a coral reef, you'll never lack for models of alien creatures.

Why did you make the switch from nautical fiction to science fiction?

Though I enjoyed writing sea-adventure novels, I never intended to spend my entire career in that particular niche.

Though the reason I shifted my career had nothing to do with my wishes one way or another. American publishers just stopped buying historical fiction. A once-thriving genre no longer really exists. Writers who once would have written historical fiction are now writing historical romance, alternate-worlds science fiction, and historical mysteries.

The skills I learned writing nautical novels were eerily similar to that required for science fiction: I had to show to the modern reader a world displaced in time, a world whose assumptions are not the same as our own; and I also had to demonstrate an intricate technology, equally displaced in time, in a comprehensible manner.

The disadvantages I found with sea-adventure fiction was that I was constrained by actual history—I couldn't have Washington fight for the British, say—and that my cast was constrained to a couple hundred men on a small boat.

I was deeply grateful to discover the breadth of science fiction that has allowed me to tap so many literary veins, and to let my imagination fly.

For a full time writer, short fiction is a luxury more so than a living. Why do you write short stories? What do you enjoy about them?

My output of short fiction has been slow but consistent. I think my best work is in the shorter forms, which is why I continue to write at shorter lengths despite the probability that every short story costs me money. It would be much more profitable to write nothing but novels.

I agree with others that the novella is probably the ideal length for science fiction. At this length you can engage fully with your ideas, develop your characters, and bring it all to a neat conclusion, all without trying the reader's patience.

Another advantage of a short story is that it can be perfected. Novels are too sprawling to be perfectly crafted, too diffuse in their effects, but a short story can be honed until not a comma is out of place. This appeals to the craftsman in me.

In the Afterward to "Incarnation Day" in Green Leopard Plague & Other Stories you write, "Every story I write is practice for some other story." Can you expand on this some?

If I don't learn something new with every work, the result may be fine with readers but it's a disappointment to me. I'm always trying to stretch and grow in different directions, because the alternative is stagnation.

It's like playing a musical instrument. If you're not practicing, you're not getting better.

When I develop a skill, it's like a shiny new tool in my toolbox, one I can use to help construct future projects. And sometimes I deliberately choose a project because it will allow me to stretch in some desired direction. The novel Hardwired began as a novelette called "Sarah Runs the Weasel," which I wrote as a deliberate experiment to see if I could handle writing the novel.

Did you enjoy compiling The Green Leopard Plague & Other Stories? Where there any stories that didn't make the cut that you wish had? Beyond what you mention in the individual author's notes, did you notice any overall patterns or learn any lessons from looking through all those stories?

Actually I didn't compile Green Leopard. The book was edited by Jonathan Strahan, whose name was unaccountably left off the title page, probably so that it would be alphabetized under my name instead of his. I'm pleased to help restore proper credit.

I only wish that the length of the work had permitted me to include some more novellas, including the Hugo-nominated "Argonautica."

Looking at the collection, I realize how much of my recent writing is based on what I've called the Good News Future—the future in which such perennial misfortunes as death, war, and poverty are more or less eliminated.

What do you have left to write about when there's no bad stuff happening? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

When writing a story or novel, what comes first – character, setting, plot, image, sight, sound, or something else?

Most of my books started with a character I desperately wanted to write about. (Cowboy and Sarah in Hardwired, Steward in Voice of the Whirlwind, Loren in Days of Atonement.) I created other characters to contrast with that first character, and did the world-building in order to put that character under pressure and show what he or she is made of.

Some of my books start with the world (Metropolitan, Aristoi)and I create the character and story to show the reader as much of that world as possible.

On three occasions I've gotten novels from dreams—twice a striking image that I ended up building an entire plot around—but the first 100 pages of Implied Spaces came directly from a dream.

I wish I had more dreams like that, but so far it's just the one.

Your novels seem to get faster and faster as they go along.

One of my translators once remarked that the first 100 pages of one of my novels are very different from the rest. This is very often true.

During the first part of the book I am very carefully setting up the dominos in order, so that when the time comes, the plot can cascade to its conclusion with just a flick of my fingernail.

In the first part of the book I'm showing the bits of the world-building necessary to understand the action, explaining the characters to the reader and to each other, and very possibly creating a vast and threatening menace that hangs over the characters like a dark, ominous cloud.

Once I'm reasonably confident that the reader can navigate in my world, the plot springs into action and races to the finish.

Dagmar Shaw from This Is Not a Game will be returning in the forthcoming Deep State. In terms of character creation, where did Dagmar Shaw come from? Has she surprised you along the way? Been stubborn? Easy to work with?

This Is Not a Game was a delight to write, and Dagmar was a character whose point of view was a pleasure to write from.

One of the things I most enjoyed about Dagmar is that she's not an action heroine. She's intelligent and capable and sometimes devious, but her reaction to violence is to run into the bathroom and lock the door. She makes mistakes. She loves the wrong people. But she's smart and persistent, and she fights her way through.

You've been at this now for thirty years. What changes in the publishing industry have caught you off guard?

I think the most surprising discovery was how little regard publishers have for their own interests. And it's an ongoing discovery, because I keep encountering new ways in which publishers fail, not simply their authors, but their reading public.

For instance:

Paying lots of money for a big, important book and then doing nothing to earn any of the money back. No ads, no review copies, nothing. What is this business model, exactly? Who does it benefit?

Buying a series, publishing the first book to acclaim and success—after which the editor doesn't even bother to read the second book in the series for a couple years, let alone edit and publish it.

Turning editors, whose job is to make books better, into publishing company executives, whose job is to go to meetings.

Never promoting from within the company, which forces editors to find new jobs in order to earn promotion and higher salaries—and forces them to abandon the authors they've nurtured at their old jobs.

I could go on, but the examples would grow increasingly arcane and require more and more knowledge of publishing. Suffice it to say that I've been in this business for thirty years and I've yet to understand why publishing works the way it does

What's next for you?

My next novel, Deep State, will be out in February. It continues the adventures of Dagmar Shaw a few years after the events of This Is Not a Game. In This Is Not a Game, Dagmar accidentally used online gaming and social networking to solve a real-world problem.

In Deep State, it's no accident, she does it deliberately.

After Deep State comes the third Dagmar Shaw thriller, Mister Baby Head.

Lastly, I've got to ask you about the martial arts. You studied Judo as a teenager and Kenpo Karate as an adult. What has the study and practice of martial arts taught you about writing in general and fiction writing in particular?

"A student practices until he gets it right, but a master practices until he can't get it wrong." The slow accumulation of knowledge and skill, developed with incessant practice, results in an unconscious competence that brings mastery to any practice. This isn't to say that a master can't make a mistake, but that he will make it in a masterly way, and that observers may not know that a mistake has been made.

Everything that I write is practice for something else. I am always learning and honing my writing skills, and my accumulated knowledge is applied to the next project. It's not that I can't err, but by now even my errors look awfully damn polished, and sometimes they turn out to be exactly the right thing after all—my unconscious mastery was guiding my conscious awareness in the direction that the project needed to go.

And what has writing taught you about the martial arts?

That practice and diligence will bear fruit. I worked at writing for years before I made a professional sale. This taught me that working toward long-term goals is possible, and in the martial arts necessary.

Author profile

Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the Staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly and He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006. Jones lives in Upstate South Carolina with his wife, daughter, and flying poodle.

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