Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Walter Jon Williams
by Lawrence M. Schoen
Walter Jon Williams writes what he wants, refusing to stay in one place for long, the very
definition of what Mike Ford referred to as "subgenre-busting." Regardless of whether he's
writing interstellar intrigue or Elvis-celebrating farce, near-future political thriller or geomantic
fantasy disguised as SF, the common trait in all his work is storytelling. Not for nothing has he
been referred to as the Master of Plot, a talent and skill that he generously shares with no
shortage of eager acolytes who have climbed the mountain (sometimes quite literally) to learn
from a writer who has repeatedly reinvented himself to survive more than three decades in this
Schoen: Back in '96 you did an interview in which you mentioned that you were just finishing
up City on Fire, your sequel to Metropolitan. At that time, you made several references to an
unwritten third book to round out the series. Sometime after that, reality intervened and you
parted ways with Harper Collins, and one of the cruel realities of publishing is that a new
publisher is rarely going to want to buy the third book in a series when someone else is still
holding on to the rights to the first two. But that was 20 years ago and both the internet and
crowdfunding have added to the options on the publishing landscape. You've recently been
bringing your backlist into the world of ebooks, which has me wondering if there's a chance that
you might run a Kickstarter or similar campaign to generate the cash necessary to make writing
the third book in the Metropolitan trilogy a possibility.
Williams: It's definitely something I want to write, but other work always intervenes. I'd always
figured I'd end up in one of two places: hugely successful, in which case I could write what I
wanted when I wanted; or with my career completely on the rocks, in which case I could write
what I wanted when I wanted, because what did I have to lose?
Instead I keep cruising along in the mid-list, which means I have to pay a certain amount of
attention to what publishers want and are willing to pay for.
Right now, I have to deliver five novels to two separate publishers before I could consider going
back to the Metropolitan series. It must be admitted that this is very much a First World problem,
and that many writers will envy me this dilemma.
That said, I have every intention of continuing the Metropolitan series, and it may come down to
Kickstarter yet. Though I have received expressions of interest from a major publisher, in which
Schoen: Let's shift gears a bit. Your novel Deep State not only predicted the Arab Spring, but
was released in the same week the Egyptian protesters occupied Tahrir Square. It's been argued
that you served up a blueprint for how it all might be done. And yet the world (and most of the
SF community) seems ignorant of your prognosticative powers. Were you disappointed with that
outcome, amazed to be vindicated, or chuffed at your own role in the power of SF to summon the
future? And should we be looking for details from your more recent works to start playing out on
the world stage?
Williams: I was both excited and appalled by what I seemed to have brought into being. I knew
that something like the Arab Spring would happen, but I'd thought it would be eight or nine years
out. The annoyance came with the publisher's apparent lack of support for the work. Even SF
book dealers didn't know it existed.
I'm sincerely hoping that my next work doesn't come true, because I've returned to my Praxis
universe, in which Earth is conquered by a group of brutal aliens.
Schoen: You've stated in past interviews that every story serves as practice for the next story, yet
at the same time you're noted for writing wildly different stories, which suggests one couldn't
really lead to the next. How do you account for this apparent contradiction?
Williams: I think what I meant was that everything is practice for something else, not necessarily
for the very next story in line. My career is not linear, and if it were ever diagrammed, it would
probably resemble one of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings.
It should also be said the progression of my writing is not at all clear to outside observers, insofar
as works are often published in a different order from my writing them, and there are some key
works that were never published, but were crucial to my development as a writer, foreshadowing
themes, ideas, and characters that appeared in altered form later on, or that represent complete
dead ends, because the work never sold.
Schoen: Your novel Hardwired is often credited as helping to launch cyberpunk. As one of the
subgenre's pioneers do you have any thoughts on the course it's run? Has the shrinking gap
between this type of fiction and technological reality rendered it moot, or do you see a resurgence
on the horizon?
Williams: Cyberpunk evolved, just as it was supposed to. The world changes, and so do writers.
As far as I'm concerned, cyberpunk wasn't about dystopia, it was about a different vision of the
future. The future wasn't going to be monocultural, it was going to be a lot of cultures and sub-cultures all wired together in some way, and different levels and societies were going to use
technology in different and interesting ways. If that was what cyberpunk was, then there's still a
lot of cyberpunk out there.
But I can't go back to the cyberpunk dystopia of Hardwired because we're living in it. We're
living in the media-saturated, balkanized, post-Cold War oligarchy I warned about back in the
1980s, and if I wrote that sort of thing now, it wouldn't be science fiction, it would be grim
Schoen: Back in 2006 you started a writers' workshop, the Taos Toolbox master class,
ostensibly because you'd been reading fiction that was fine, as long as you didn't expect plot or
pacing. Since then, with more than a hundred graduates of the two-week course, it could be
argued that you've done more to "pay it forward" and improve the quality of storytelling in
fantasy and science fiction than any of your contemporaries. Past attendees have gone on to be
nominated and win the Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as Andre Norton, Compton Crook,
Cóyotl, Sidewise and still other awards. That's quite a legacy. Now, looking back on more than a
decade of it, has it all worked out as you'd intended or is there something you'd wished you'd
done differently with it? And, can you reflect a bit on how teaching at this level (and altitude!)
has affected your own process?
Williams: Teaching made me think more systematically about what I do as a writer. I've always
worked very intuitively, and in order to teach what I do, I had to think about it and break it down
into a series of teachable lessons, and I had to teach those lessons to myself first. I think teaching
has probably improved my writing, insofar as I now have a better grasp of my own process.
I have to say that Taos Toolbox has been a terrific experience, if often exhausting, and the
number of attendees who have gone on to publish professionally and win awards is very
gratifying. And of course the workshop wouldn't have happened at all if my co-instructors hadn't
offered their own wisdom: Connie Willis, Kelly Link, and most of all Nancy Kress, who has
taught with me for the last eight years. She's a brilliant teacher.
Local writers such as James S.A. Corey, Carrie Vaughn, and George RR Martin have donated
their time and energy as well, and helped to keep the workshop fresh.
I'll be doing Taos Toolbox as long as I can, and as long as we keep getting talented applicants.
Schoen: You've had some very critical things to say about traditional publishing. Considering
that for years you've made much of your livelihood writing novels, this could be seen as
anywhere from ungrateful to tempting fate to outright suicidal. Care to update your position here
in the summer of 2017, as well as expand your thoughts to encompass small presses and the
Williams: I don't think I've said anything so very startling, certainly nothing that wasn't known
by publishing insiders. And if I'm wrong, people can set me straight.
As someone who teaches writing, I feel I have a responsibility to let people know what they're in
for, and that involves all the horrific things that can happen in the business side of writing. If a
new writer's career collapses, they should know that it probably wasn't their fault, it was the fault
of the way publishing is set up. Publishing is based on a mid-20th century business model, and it
has a very difficult time adapting to business environment of the 21st century.
When I broke in, there were twelve or fifteen places I could send my novel. Now there are only
five. How can this be healthy?
Small presses are a vital part of the process because they can showcase writers and their works
outside the mainstream. Paolo Bacigalupi's Windup Girl came from a small press, as does work
by Joan Aiken, China Mieville, John Crowley, Gwyneth Jones, Peter Beagle, Joe Lansdale, Nisi
Shawl and Eleanor Arnason. And of course small presses are essential to preserving the history
of science fiction and fantasy, because they keep so many of the classics in print.
But small presses are small--they can't support a career.
The ebook market has opened a lot of opportunity, though the chances of becoming a big
bestseller is probably about the same as becoming a big bestseller with conventional publishing.
The problem is rising above the noise--my books are on the same virtual bookshelf with works
by twenty million people who can't write their way out of a paper bag. How do I rise out of the
sludge to find the readers who would like my book? That's the crucial question with indiepub.
And the worst of that is that science fiction readers don't follow the same rules as other
readers--what works elsewhere doesn't seem to work with SF.
Schoen: You've designed games, written dozens of books ranging from the high seas to deep
space, mashed and smashed subgenres to produce farce, science fantasy, and postcyberpunk.
You've chatted live with an astronaut living aboard the International Space Station, and this
summer you were the Guest of Honor at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention in Helsinki,
Finland. I'd ask what's next for you, but I already know your novel Quillifer comes out in
October (and IGMS readers can get a peek elsewhere in this issue), as you try your hand at epic
fantasy. But okay, what's next after that? What challenges remain, what goals elude you, what
lingers on your authorial bucket list?
Williams: My bucket floweth over.
Like most writers, I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write in my lifetime. If anyone out
there has a potion for eternal youth, please drop me an email.
Some of my ideas are more precious to me than others. I really do intend to finish the
Metropolitan series. I have a novel about Benjamin Franklin that I began over twenty years ago,
and which I haven't been able to sell. My first readers tell me that it's my best, but it falls between
too many stools. It has elements of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, horror, and mystery, but it's
none of those things. If I were Iain Pears I could sell it, but unfortunately I'm me.
Schoen: I always like to ask authors if there was a moment in their lives when they knew, with
the clarity of a lightning strike, that writing was the career for them. Did you have such a moment
of destiny-defining insight, and if so when did it happen and what, in hindsight, precipitated it?
Williams: I don't know how lightning-like it was, but it happened very early. I knew I wanted to
be a writer from the age of four or five--before I could read or write. I dictated stories to my
parents, who wrote them down for me. Then I worked obsessively for another twenty years, sold
something, and became an overnight success.
Schoen: It's been observed that there are as many ways to break into this business as there are
authors, and too that there's no point trying to do it the way anyone else did owing to that old
aphorism of stepping into the same river twice. And yet, I want to close by returning to the
teaching you've done with the Taos Toolbox and your track record for taking good writers and
helping them to become much better writers. On the assumption that no few IGMS readers are
authors in one stage or another of their careers (or careers to be) and that not everyone's
circumstances necessarily permit them to climb the mountain and attend your course, is there
some piece of instruction or advice you'd like to impart that, while not being a decoder ring or
industry secret handshake, nonetheless is a necessary (though not necessarily sufficient)
foundation for success?
Williams: Network, for god's sake! When I started to become a writer, I was the only writer I
knew. The first writers I met were doing nothing like I wanted to do. I had to work through trial
and error, and that was like repeatedly smashing my head against a brick wall. I finally knocked
the wall down, but all along I had the idea that there might be an easier way.
But now there's the Internet, and while there's a lot of nonsense about publishing online, you can
also find some very reliable writing sites (like sfwa.org) that offer excellent advice, and there are
online workshops and information about workshops like Taos Toolbox and Clarion. You can
find agents, and look on publishers' websites to find out what editors are buying.
But if you want to want to go the old-fashioned way, I'm willing to sell you a decoder ring for
$1000 and proof-of-purchase from a container of Ovaltine.