Journey with Walter Jon Williams

Posted on February 8, 2011 by

Walter Jon Williams and I have been shuffling around the same parts of the Internet for awhile and have probably crossed paths at conventions, but I only truly met him for the first time last spring at the Locus Awards. kelly-yoyoKelly knows him better… she attended the fabulous Taos Toolbox workshop with Walter and Connie Willis in 2007, and will happily tell you that it was a fantastic and thoroughly useful master class.

What this means is I have no juicy gossip or hilarious escapades to relate about him, unless I resort to making up lies. I will tell you he was the most camera-aware author at the Locus Awards, and caught me zooming in for a candid while everyone else was distracted, understandably enough, by Connie.

In this particular interview, Walter does not mention a couple works that are among my favorites of his: The stunning U.S. disaster novel The Rift, and a complex and delicious space opera, in three parts, called Dread Empire’s Fall. Do please check out the new books he talks about in this interview–as he says, Deep State might as well be a current news story! But all Walter’s books are terrific, and I cannot recommend them enough.

WalterItty

I was born in Minnesota, and now I live on an old Spanish land grant in rural New Mexico with my wife Kathy and our cat. The landscape is blissfully beautiful, and at this season cranes fly overhead at sunrise and sunset. A few miles to the North is the Isleta Pueblo, where people have been following the same way of life for nearly a thousand years. A few miles South is Trinity, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. Ancient traditions, cutting-edge science, inspiring landscapes, Third World government. You might say it’s a country of contrasts.

Orbit has just released my new novel Deep State, which is amazingly timely for its depiction of a people-power revolution in a Middle Eastern country organized by social media. (The timing on this one is kinda phenomenal.) Deep State is the sequel to This Is Not a Game, which is a near-future thriller in which an online game begins a disturbing creep into reality. (You can read the books independently.)

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I’ve just finished the third book in the series, currently titled Mister Baby Head. The publisher doesn’t seem to care for the title, so by the time it appears— a year or so from now— it may have another one.

In addition, I’ll be teaching Taos Toolbox this summer. Toolbox is a master class for fantasy and SF writers, two weeks in the mountains above Taos learning Super Secret Master Material with me, Nancy Kress, and Jack Skillingstead. If you think you might want to write this stuff, you might want to check this out.

To steal an old Harlan Ellison joke, I probably left stories scrawled on my mother’s womb. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was maybe four years old. Before I knew how to read and write, anyway, because I’d dictate stories to my parents, which I would then illustrate (badly) with crayons.


The first science fiction novel read, when I was in second grade, was Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It’s still my favorite Heinlein.

Later on, I was swept away by the Sixties Wave: Delany, Zelazny, Russ, Silverberg, Disch, Wilhelm, Moorcock. I still think of that period as a golden age. Fortunately SF has had many golden ages.

I always took myself seriously, which was probably necessary, because nobody else did. “This time it’s for publication!” I would say to myself, age 13, as I wrote a 450-page hideously derivative fantasy novel.

I was compelled to write ceaselessly for several decades there, and then one day I woke up and— hey, no compulsion! I don’t know where the compulsion came from, I don’t know why it went away. It’s not like I’d written myself out, or anything. There’s still a lot I’d like to say.

But yes, I could quit now, but I don’t know what else I’d do with my day. Writing gives me focus. And as for getting a different job— well, I’m a middle-aged man with no work history. I’m not even qualified to flip patties at Burger King.

So it looks like science fiction will be stuck with me for a while.

My first sales were historical fiction— I wrote five sea-adventure novels in the genre of CS Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Then the market for historical fiction disappeared, and at that moment my first SF sale happened.

With me, story comes first. So when I start working up the story, I try to do enough research to justify the story I want to tell. The research goes on as the story is being written. I’m very intense when it comes to research, and I’m deeply grateful that the Internet now exists, and that I don’t have to quite so much time digging through obscure volumes in university libraries.

I never had a full-time day job. I taught freshman English at a university for a while, and after that I had the usual run of part-time jobs while I worked at the writing— remember, I was working under an irresistible compulsion which did not allow for rational planning, food, or sleep. When I first sold, I was able to earn enough to support me in a far-from-posh lifestyle. In time the lifestyle grew a little more comfortable. I’ve been supporting myself through writing for thirty years now.

Dream projects: there’s a novel about Ben Franklin for which I’ve written 150 pages, but it doesn’t fit into any existing category so I can’t seem to interest publishers in it. If I get enough free time on my hands, I’m going to write it, sell it for a fortune, and THEN THEY’LL ALL BE SORRY! THEY WILL!

For the most part I’m self-taught. I took a couple writing courses in college, but all they did was make me want to avoid college writing courses. In my struggling days I couldn’t afford Clarion or any other workshop. I knew a few writers, but they had somewhat different goals. So I just kept hurling myself against the barriers until they broke. It was the least intelligent way to go about it— but as I’ve said, I was compelled. I had no real choice in the matter.

During my apprenticeship, I wrote two novels that have not sold to this day. (Now I know why they’re unsellable.) But when I finally sold something, I sold big— it was a three-book historical series. I was 25 years old, and completely over the moon.

If you’re a working writer, you have artistic breakthroughs every week, if not every day. But there was one big sea-change around 1983, when suddenly a whole lot of things fell into place. I wrote Hardwired, which was my biggest novel, and I figured out how to finish Voice Of The Whirlwind, which I’d started three or four years earlier, and I plotted the next four or five books and a lot of short fiction . . . I spent a lot of years just writing everything I’d worked out in that one six-month period. I’ve had bursts of creativity since, but nothing like that.

The best surprise ever, in all of galactic history till now, was that I’ve been able to keep this up for thirty years, and that people are still reading and enjoying my work.

The bad surprises had to do with the field of publishing, and how publishers so often work against their own and their writers’ best interests. Why do they pay lots of money for a new book and then do nothing to sell it? Why do they invest in a new series by an exciting new author and then let the completed books sit on a desk for years, until momentum has completely passed? I could go on and on, but the examples would grow more and more depressing.

Most days I still feel like a young punk, kicking over the traces and trying to think of something outrageous to do. Other days I manage to feel like an Elder Statesman. I can pronounce on topics and have younger writers take me seriously— or at least they pretend they do.

Maybe that’s what’s brought out the urge to teach, after all this time. At any rate, I’m very much enjoying doing Taos Toolbox, and a surprising number of graduates have started selling novels, and that’s always gratifying.

I’m hardly ever bored. There’s always something interesting to do, or read, or look at, or dream about. I haven’t stopped the dreaming, and I don’t plan to.

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