Tad Williams is one of the most popular and best-selling fantasy writers working in the genre today, and he has built this impressive reputation on only four novels and a co-written novella. David Howe spoke to Tad about his career and about the creative urge which accompanied it.
“When I look at my High School year book, there are lots of references like ‘keep writing’ and stuff like that,” explained Tad when asked about the genesis of his career as a writer. “But I didn't actually start writing seriously until my mid twenties when I had exhausted numerous other modes of creative expression.”
Tad’s life has been punctuated with creative explosions. “I have always been doing at least one major creative thing on top of whatever I was having to do to make a living,” he revealed. “There’s been theatre, music, art and broadcasting. One thing I have always been is a story teller and I think that's the common thread. I wrote songs which told stories; my art always tended to be more pictorial than abstract ... I think I am a story teller by nature.”
The first piece of ‘serious’ writing that Tad completed was a screenplay which is still sitting in a drawer. “It’s got some good bits in it and I always liked the title: The Sad Machines. It was a post-apocalyptic military science fiction film idea, but dreadfully, dreadfully derivative. I look at it now and it’s effectively A Boy And His Dog in the halls of government.”
Tad decided to write a novel simply because he had always enjoyed reading fantastic literature. “Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock were among those writers whose work had the greatest influence on me. My first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, started out as an idea about the nature of cats. My ex-wife had cats, and I had never lived with cats before and they seemed to me to be these bizarre alien parasites - and I now have cats of my own, and I still think of them as bizarre alien parasites. Their attitudes and personalities intrigued me and so I started to think about what the world would be like from their point of view and then about a year later I decided to try writing a novel and used that as my basis.”
Having completed the book, Tad’s next task was to try and get it published, and in this respect he landed on his feet. “I was hideously lucky. I actually only sent the manuscript to two publishers. I sent it to Del Rey first of all because they were the ones currently having the most success with fantasy novels and they sent it back almost immediately. It was probably returned to me on the same day it arrived at their offices, and that's not an exaggeration. I actually wrote a letter saying ‘are you sure anybody actually read this’ and Judy Del Rey wrote back to me saying ‘this has got to be the first time an author has ever complained we've kept their manuscript for too short a time’.
“They basically told me that if this was going to be a best seller then they’d know and they didn’t think it was, so thank you very much for your time. Then I sent it to another publishers, DAW, who kept it for quite a while but eventually bought it. I have been with DAW ever since.
“DAW published it as a hardcover, which they had just started doing, and it came out in the autumn of 1985 as their second hardcover release.”
After selling Tailchaser’s Song, Tad had started work on another novel which he describes as an “Egyptian historical novel”, but when he told DAW that this was what he was working on they recoiled in horror. “‘No, no, no,’ they said. ‘You’re going to write a fantasy novel because that's what's you’re known for now’. I didn't want to write another cat-related book and so I mentioned that I had always wanted to write a big epic fantasy. They said okay, so that’s what I did.
“I had no idea at the time that it would take me eight years to complete. My original schedule was to deliver the final volume in 1988, so I missed that deadline by about four years! Again DAW was splendid because they saw right away that it was much bigger than I thought it was going to be and they encouraged me to do what I had to do - to write it as I wanted.
“Once I realised how big it was going to be - my outline was a hundred and twenty five pages long - my single epic fantasy novel became a trilogy.”
In any epic fantasy, it is hard to single out any particular themes, but Tad felt that his trilogy developed as it was being written. “There are things near and dear to my heart and others that I often talk about like the unreliability of history, the way that cultures absorb each other and the vestigial traces that get left behind. Things about conflict in general both personal and global and about how we are all our own universes and how you can't tell from outside what's going on inside.
“Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, which is the overall title of the trilogy, is very much character-led. There are certain things you have to do in genre fiction. Readers expect a certain amount of excitement, a certain amount of surprise, and to have to do some mental work too. I think genre fiction offers you these particular things. Now that said, I write very character-driven fiction. My ideas tend to be fairly colourful and idiosyncratic but I bolt them into a very firm structure where everything ties together and makes sense. The trick is to find places to let the characters develop and become real within that structure.”
When the first volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Dragonbone Chair, was published, it generated a lot of interest in the UK, something which Tailchaser’s Song had not. The trilogy was finally bought by Century Hutchinson after a hotly contested auction against Penguin. The faith shown by the publishers seems to have paid off with each volume of the trilogy selling more than its predecessor, and the final volume, To Green Angel Tower, making it onto both the New York Times and the Sunday Times best-seller lists.
Tad was not surprised by this steady build in interest. “I always said that I thought these books would sell better as time goes on. I think there are a lot of people like me who love fantasy and have a soft spot for epic fantasy but are frankly tired and depressed by the turgid formula stuff they keep seeing. I figured there will be people who would start the first volume and then put it down because they thought it was a little slow. Six months later a friend would say ‘Oh you didn't finish it? No, no, you just have to get past the first part and then it just really takes off!’ I recently did a signing in Dublin and this guy came up with a new paperback of The Dragonbone Chair - the first book, an old and somewhat battered copy of The Stone of Farewell - the second one, and a hardcover of To Green Angel Tower. And I told him that I could tell exactly how he had come to have all those books. He looked at me and I said that he had borrowed the first one from a friend, liked it enough to go out and buy the second one in paperback and then, realising that he would have to wait forever for the third one, he went back and bought the paperback of the first one himself, re-read them both and, still waiting for the third volume, decided that he couldn't wait and so bought it in hardcover or convinced someone to give it to him as a present. He smiled, leaned over, and opened the cover of To Green Angel Tower. Inside was written: ‘Dear Patrick, love Mom, Merry Christmas’.”
When Memory, Sorrow and Thorn was finally complete, Tad’s next project was a novella called Caliban’s Hour.
“That was a labour of love,” sighs Tad. “Caliban’s Hour was originally commissioned by Century Hutchinson when I was over here touring in 1990. Legend were doing a series of Novellas and I talked with them about this and mentioned that The Tempest was probably my favourite Shakespeare play. I commented that I had always wondered what happened to Caliban as he really got a raw deal in The Tempest and the idea for a Novella was born. I put it aside while I finished the trilogy and by the time I came to write it, the Legend Novellas series had been stopped and my editor had left the company.
“I went ahead and wrote it anyway, and luckily, the new editor still wanted to go with it. I even ended up doing some illustrations for it as well.”
Random House are currently due to publish Caliban’s Hour in October 1994. For the future, Tad is working on another mammoth project.
“I made it clear to my publishers very early on that I am not a series writer in the same way that David Eddings or Terry Brooks are. The fact that my first two books - I tend to view Memory, Sorrow and Thorn as one book - were fantasy was coincidental. They could equally have been written for another genre. As a result I am not going to write another cat book, and now I am not going to write another epic fantasy. What I have in mind is still epic and I'm hoping that my readers who like that quality will come with me. There will be lots of characters, numerous wild ideas, extremely complicated plot strands and some truly bizarre things happening. It takes place within numerous virtual worlds within a computer. The characters are on these various pilgrimages and they can be travelling through literally anything from an exact recreation of the Battle of Nicopolis in the late 14th century to the Cretaceous era or to a cartoon world where the characters sing at you or a place where the kitchen comes to life at night after the family goes to sleep, or anything really. It will be quite fantastical and I think it will have a lot of things in common with my other work.. I'm hoping that people who have not picked up my work before will give this a try. If they like what they see they will then hopefully go back and try my fantasy books as well.”
The new series has the overall title of OTHERLAND and at the moment comprises four novels, tentatively titled City of Amber Light, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass and Ocean of White Forever. Tad is looking forward to working on the books mainly because “the story came to me and I had to write it”, and that is the mark of a true story teller.
With thanks to Tad Williams, Kate Farquhar-Thomson, Deborah Beale and Nicki Bidecant.
For the forthcoming release of Caliban’s Hour, as well as writing the Novella, Tad has also completed eight pencil drawings to illustrate the book. “For a long time, I thought I was going to be a comic artist and then in my late teens and twenties I did some illustration, cartoon and technical art. I worked at a place that made film strips for the military and I was famous as being the only person who could draw hands. People would come running to me with these beautifully designed helicopter rotor assemblies for me to add a hand holding a wrench.
“Although I have done quite a lot of different kinds of art, I haven’t done anything really seriously. In fact I hadn’t drawn anything for ages, and it was real interesting doing the illustrations for Caliban’s Hour.
“I did them in pencil and they’re quite representational. I tried not to show in too much detail what the characters look like and I also tried to allow the reader to project their own impressions on them as well - like, for example, drawing Caliban with his head turned away so that you can’t see his features. For most of them I tried to capture an emotional moment; not necessarily something specific to the plot, but more of Caliban’s feelings and character, as this is one of the central themes of the book.”
Tad Williams Biography
Tad Williams was born in 1957 in the San Francisco Bay area of California. At the time, his mother was a single parent and she married his step-father when Tad was between two and three years old. After finishing High School aged eighteen, Tad decided not to go to college and instead started on a succession of diverse jobs: he sold shoes, worked in a Taco bar, worked for a financial company and handled real estate loans and insurance for people all over the area. Following this he went briefly to the University of California at Berkeley and dropped out almost immediately because he was more interested in following his creative urges. At the time he was playing in a band, and he and some friends were running a no-ID discotheque in Palo Alto. Over the next few years, Tad attended some classes at the junior college at the same time as holding down around fifteen other jobs, including working as a disc-jockey at a local radio station which covered the whole of the San Francisco area. He ended up doing a radio talk show that ran for about twelve years. He then decided to go back to University and study History and possibly Literature as these were his two great loves, and applied to the prestigious Stanford University on the basis that it was geographically closest to him. He told them this and they turned him down. However, by the time that rejection came, Tad had sold his first book, Tailchaser’s Song, which he had been writing at night while working and going to junior college during the day. He decided to try and make a career out of writing and took a number of part-time jobs until he was able to earn a living from writing full time. He separated from, and eventually divorced, his wife and moved to England at the end of 1992. He is currently planning a part-time move back to America at the end of 1994 and is engaged to Deborah Beale, former editorial director at both Random Century and Orion Books. They plan to marry in the autumn.
1985 Tailchaser’s Song
1988 The Dragonbone Chair
1990 Stone of Farewell
1991 Child of an Ancient City (with Nina Kiriki Hoffman)
1993 To Green Angel Tower
1994 Caliban’s Hour (forthcoming)
CHILD OF AN ANCIENT CITY