I first became aware of Tad Williams upon reading the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series in the early 90s and was engrossed with the characters and the great twist at the end. He’s gone on to write further acclaimed New York Times bestselling novels, comic books, and young adult novels, and I’m pleased and honored to be interviewing him today! His webpage is www.Tadwilliams.com.
MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Tad, you have a varied background with which I can identify. There’s nothing wrong with having worked in radio and been in a band, moving from one job to another and finding out what you want to do with life (I did much the same, although fortunately I never had to work in a shoe store). Was writing always in the background for you, just waiting for the will? When did you say to yourself “This is what I want to do in life”?
TAD WILLIAMS: Creative work was always in the background, but writing was only one of the things I pursued. It just happened to be the one that turned into a possible career. If I’d sold a screenplay or got a gig cartooning I might have gone that way instead.
VENTRELLA: Many aspiring writers say to me that they just can’t seem to find the time to write given that they have jobs to do and real life getting in the way. How did you do it?
WILLIAMS: If you can’t find time to write, you’re not a writer. That’s not to be glib, but some people would rather talk about the reasons they can’t do something than just do it. (My son and his homework spring to mind.) You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.
VENTRELLA: Was TAILCHASER’S SONG the first novel you wrote? How did you grab the attention of editors?
WILLIAMS: Yes, TAILCHASER was my first book. I was a bit naive and didn’t have an agent, but I was fortunate that the book itself caught my editors’ attention. If I had to do it again, I’d be more aware that I was very lucky. I’d probably try to get an agent first.
VENTRELLA: Has the publishing industry changed as dramatically as everyone says since that time?
WILLIAMS: It’s always been a small-margins business, but the advent of electronic media and the internet have really confused things. Nobody knows what publishing’s even going to look like in ten years, but I think it’s likely it will be less vertical — that is, one company buying books, editing books, designing books, printing books, binding books, warehousing books — and more of a collaboration between smaller businesses. Also, electronic media are only going to become a bigger part of the industry.
VENTRELLA: What do you know now about the industry that you wish you had known when you first started out?
WILLIAMS: I wish I had understood the career arc better, and the complexity of the process of publishing a book. I might have paid more attention to deadlines and to thinking long-term about what I wanted to write.
VENTRELLA: Why are the third parts of your books so huge that they have to be released in two volumes? Can’t you stop? (OK, that’s a joke question.)
WILLIAMS: I have an illness, and it’s not nice to make fun of it. Jeez.
VENTRELLA: You currently are working on the SHADOWMARCH series. Do you outline the series completely in advance or prepare something more basic?
WILLIAMS: I like the balance between knowing too much and knowing too little, so I certainly outline, but I leave lots of room for things to change, grow, whatever, as I write the story. That way the story stays fresh, but the fact that there’s structure means it doesn’t meander too badly.
VENTRELLA: Please tell us about SHADOWMARCH!
WILLIAMS: The end is finally in sight for this project, which has moved through three or four media and a couple of decades. It started with a possible tv series or film, then became an internet serial, and I’ve given the story its greatest realization as a series of books, of which I am now writing the ending. It’s a return to epic fantasy, but it also has its own particular twists that separates it from my other books. I’m pleased with what it’s turned into, and think it’s much better and deeper now than it would have been in another medium.
VENTRELLA: Do you see yourself working in other genres in the future?
WILLIAMS: Within reason — I probably won’t be writing any westerns, for instance. But my next set of books will be closer to modern fantasy with a touch of extreme romance (mid-level angel and high-level demon fall painfully in love), so, yeah, I’ll be skipping around like I usually do.
VENTRELLA: How is writing Young Adult series different?
WILLIAMS: Certainly the main difference for me is keeping the complexity down and the action fast-paced. I don’t believe in writing down to an audience, so we haven’t written anything deliberately “young”. The main characters are young, and — as with almost all good YA fiction — they are forced to solve problems the adults should solve but don’t. Other than that, though, it’s a book — all books should be written like something the writer himself or herself would enjoy reading.
VENTRELLA: Since you are using characters created by someone else when writing for comic books, do you feel constrained in any way?
WILLIAMS: I felt very constrained, but most of that was problems in communication with that particular situation. I thought I’d have more leeway than I did, and I thought I’d have more time to try to turn the thing around than I did. That said, when I can afford to do it again I probably will…
VENTRELLA: What are you most proud of? What would you like to be remembered for?
WILLIAMS: I think I’ve always brought something bigger than the genre to my genre fiction — I think of myself as a gateway drug for genre readers, leading them down the slippery slope to real literature. (This doesn’t mean that I don’t think lots of fantasy and science fiction are literature, only that because they’re genres they contain primarily books written for a genre market, ie, tending toward the formulaic.) Of all my books, I think so far the OTHERLAND novels are my signature — the best example of the width of my range.
VENTRELLA: Off topic a bit: What kind of music did you play in your band?
WILLIAMS: The original band was very influenced by folks like Beatles, The Who, the Bonzo Dog Band, David Bowie, Brian Eno, and maybe even the Tubes. (We would have been influenced by They Might Be Giants, but we predated them.)
VENTRELLA: What do you listen to today?
WILLIAMS: I still listen to all that sort of stuff, but also lots of modern stuff, Beck, Radiohead, Sigur Ros, and pretty much anything Damon Albarn does, just to name a few. Robyn Hitchcock. Fountains of Wayne. Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Also some hiphop, some folk, jazz occasionally, lots of classical — you name it, really.
VENTRELLA: You have very good taste in music (because it’s very similar to mine). Add in XTC, Elvis Costello and Sparks and we’d be just fine.
WILLIAMS: I like all those bands very much, Michael. I was caught between “who influenced your band” and “who do you listen to now”, and they all sort of fit into both — well, XTC not so much the former, because we were already writing music when they came out. But Elvis may be my all time favorite artist other than my top three — Beatles, Who, Bowie. (Yes, I love the Stones and the Kinks and Hendrix and a ton of other first-generation guys, but I’d probably have to put Elvis C into the top four.)