Liz Williams interview
chronicles: Knowing that your father was a stage magician and your mother a gothic novelist, it’s easy to recognize the magical part of your background in, say, the conjuring scenes in EMPIRE OF BONES, or to catch overtones of gothic romance in POISON MASTER — but were there any early influences or interests that might surprise your readers?
Liz Williams: I always cite Jack Vance as an influence, because he was one of the first SF writers I read and I loved his books. The exotic-ness of them was always presented in such an offhand, matter-of-fact way. His protagonists used to meet the most bizarre people and these people would appear only for a paragraph or so, and then never re-appear.
Other influences – more for my fantasy than my SF – were people like Alan Garner and Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and L M Boston. I was brought up with Welsh legends like the stories in the Mabinogion, and the Victorian literature and British folklore that my mother collected. My father had a great many occult books and I read my way through those, too.
I was influenced much more by books than by media, but there was one television series which affected me and I’m sure this is where a lot of the material in the Night Shade Press books, the SNAKE AGENT series, comes from – and that was the Japanese series ‘Monkey.’ It was completely mad and I’m sure that’s why I liked it so much. I also liked some of the early Sherlock Holmes movies – Basil Rathbone was a hero when I was younger! Well, still is.
chronicles: It seems to be more the exception than the rule when a writer’s child becomes a writer too. Did you start writing stories at an early age? Did your mother encourage you, or give you any valuable advice?
Liz Williams: Both my parents (and also my late partner and my current partner) have been incredibly encouraging. I did start writing when I was young, mainly Lloyd Alexander rip-offs but my mother was fairly hands-off with it and left me to it, feeling, I think, that I was best left to get on with it! What it gave me was her example – that it was normal for women to write, in between doing all the other things that women do.
chronicles: Do you remember much about the first stories you wrote as a child? Characters, plot, etc? Have you or your parents preserved any of your early efforts? Looking back at them, can you recognize the seeds of your later writing — any familiar themes or obsessions beginning to emerge?
Liz Williams: My early stories featured a wilful redheaded heroine and took place in a Celtic fantasy world and bore no resemblance, none, I tell you, to the works of Lloyd Alexander. Eventually the fanfic nature of it embarrassed even my ten year old self and I started writing more original fiction. The world that was to become the world in Ghost Sister came along when I was about 13.
chronicles: You’ve described yourself elsewhere as “a prose junkie,” besides mentioning a number of master stylists among your favorite writers — Bradbury, Lee, Vance, LeGuin. It’s also obvious in your own writing that you choose your words with great care, and with sensitivity to more than just the literal meaning. Can you remember how old you were and what you were reading when you began to realize that words could be more than just a vehicle for the plot?
Liz Williams: I remember the point at which I learned to read silently, without moving my lips – it was in the car going down to Wales. I think the point at which I learned to appreciate language was more with poetry than fiction – my father used to quote Dylan Thomas and it gave me a sense of the way in which words could flow, the way in which they could make you shiver.
I was never particularly good at grammar in school, and I still have significant lapses, but I have a very strong sense of the ‘rightness’ of language, more an instinct than an applied methodology.
chronicles: Genetically altered humans, alien DNA, eugenics, designer species: these themes seem to come up with a fair degree of regularity in your writing, and I would imagine reflect an area of continuing fascination for you, but is this in the nature of a favorite flight of fancy or a recurring nightmare — or both?
Liz Williams: I’m fascinated by the range we could have had, as a species, and which we may have lost – there’s a theory that 3/4 of the human race was wiped out very early on in some volcanic disaster. When you look at how different feline types are from one another, or canine, and humans are so restricted. So I’m fascinated by the possibility of humanoid diversity.
With eugenics, it is more of a nightmare. I always distrust people who want to make things tidy.
chronicles: Do you believe there will really be a time when all of these things become a reality?
Liz Williams: Certainly a measure of genetic engineering, but it’s impossible to say how successful it will be. I think there are likely to be significant long-term disasters. We’re tinkering with stuff that we don’t fully understand – but then, the notion of a fully comprehensive science is probably unrealistic. I prefer the notion of continuous paradigm shifts, a la Thomas Kuhn.
chronicles: Regarding what you said about humanoid diversity — do you think some of the familiar mythic races might have been inspired by, say, lingering race memories of exotic mutations that died out in prehistoric times?
Liz Williams: That’s my own personal view – or perhaps they were just the more recent predecessors of our direct ancestors, like the Picts – the little dark people who took to the hills when the foreigners came…
chronicles: I’m intrigued by the way you combine metaphysics with science, when most people living now would see the two as opposites, incapable of reconciliation. A friend of mine, who teaches rhetoric, suggested you may be trying to convey some particular message by combining these ideas, but I thought it was simply a natural offshoot from your study of early science. Is there a message, or are you just pursuing interesting ideas as they come to you?
Liz Williams: Artists often see science and metaphysics as mutually incompatible, but scientists often don’t – a lot of scientists follow one form of religion or another. I think that there is an essential mystery in the heart of life, that what life is will always remain just beyond our grasp, and so will its purpose. It’s a mistake to anthropomorphise it too much, though. But I think that the purpose of science is to investigate, and it’s the best tool we have for doing that. What it has difficulty in doing, however, is to convey meaningfulness: it takes metaphysics for that.
chronicles: I noticed that some of the stories in the collection The Banquet of the Lords of Night portray characters and/or settings that you later reworked and expanded into novels. Did you know when you were writing the original stories that someday you would have more to say about those characters or those settings — or did something happen later that inspired you to go back? Are there any short stories gestating into novels at the moment?
Liz Williams: I usually have an idea whether a short story will be expanded, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I’m writing a series of short fiction – kind of Arthurian fantasy but with a SF basis – at the moment, which might be expanded one day. However, I do like writing short fiction – it’s a completely different animal from the novel form, and I like experimenting.
chronicles: The Arthurian stories sound interesting — are any of them available now?
Liz Williams: One will be coming out in Asimov’s round about November – it’s called ‘”Debatable Lands.’” Another, ‘”Caer Cold,” will be appearing in an anthology, although that one has less reference to Arthur – some are set in the Dark Ages and some in actual Arthurian times. I’m marketing more of them now.
chronicles: Does it ever go the other way, where an idea comes to you later and you end up writing a short story about a person or a setting from one of your novels?
Liz Williams: Yes. The Martian/drowned Earth worlds in BANNER OF SOULS seem to be spawning story ideas at a great rate at the moment.
chronicles: A couple of questions about your writing process, if that is all right: When you write, does it all come out in fits and starts of inspiration, or are you one of those very disciplined writers who turn out a certain number of words on a daily basis?
Liz Williams: If I’m working on a novel, I try and do 2000 words a day, but I don’t always succeed due to life getting in the way. I run a business, I teach, I have a partner and a household as well as elderly relatives, so it all has to be fitted in. I can write a novel in 3 months but it usually takes 5-6. I try to write short fiction in 2-3 shots.
chronicles: How much planning do you do in advance — are you a plan-it-down-to-the-smallest-detail type, are you satisfied with a sketchy outline, or do you begin with only a general idea and write the story to see what will happen?
Liz Williams: I write a sketchy outline but I have to have an outline, otherwise it goes awry. I don’t like smallest-detail planning, because then it feels as though I’ve already written the thing! Geoff Ryman made the very good point that you’ve actually already done the work, so you don’t want to do it again. Some element of the plot always takes me by surprise, however.
chronicles: What is the most important piece of advise you could give to aspiring writers?
Liz Williams: Keep writing. Keep reading, because then you’ll realise what has and hasn’t gone before. Be tenacious, because it’s a difficult industry. Think very hard about giving up the day job because even if you are published, you’re unlikely to earn enough to live on.
chronicles: When you do workshops or classes aimed at new writers, what is the most frequent problem you come across in your students? writings? Do you find it exciting working with fledgling writers?
Liz Williams: The most frequent problem is lack of originality. I do find it exciting when someone comes up with someone new and different, which to do them credit, they often do. But it’s depressing when you see the same old material from other novels and, worse still, TV shows being recycled.
chronicles: Under the heading of things the author probably knows but doesn’t stop to explain (probably for reasons of pacing) : In the future you imagined for BANNER OF SOULS, it’s obvious that males had long since lost their usefulness in terms of reproduction, but how did your societies on Mars and Earth decide to do without them altogether?
Liz Williams: At some point, there’s been either a virus or a genetically engineered virus, or possibly a type of pollution (like the plastics-induced change of sex in some fish at the moment) which has done away with most of the male population. Women take over, and decide that they don’t want to relinquish power. I am strongly feminist but I don’t think women are inherently nurturing and nice, by the way. You may have noticed.
chronicles: I loved your descriptions of Dreams of War’s armor — sometimes beautiful, like a dragonfly, sometimes bristling with terrifying weaponry — but I’d like to know more about how it was supposed to work. The alterations don’t seem to come about mechanically — does she manipulate the armor mentally, or does it automatically respond to her emotional state, or to changes in her body chemistry?
Liz Williams: She’s supposed to be in touch with the spirit inhabiting it, and they work together.
chronicles: THE POISON MASTER has many of the typical elements of a gothic romance — the brooding hero, the sequestered heroine (once she takes up residence in his imposing domicile), etc. How did this kind of plot, along with such seemingly unrelated ideas as space travel, cabala, and plant allies first come together in your mind — or did the story just continue to accumulate unexpected ideas and influences by some sort of magnetic attraction as you went along?
Liz Williams: It comes out of a very different short story (“The Banquet of the Lords of Night”) but most of the elements were there from the start – I wanted to write a Gothic novel, I’ve been interested in the Kabbala and wanted to write a story set in a Kabbalistic universe (one of my occult students pointed out that all universes are Kabbalistic, in his opinion, which made me smile). I’m also very interested in herbalism – I’m about to complete the first stage of a course in medical herbalism – and in the idea of entheogens, or hallucinogenic plant-derived substances which have their own animating spirit. It’s something one comes across a lot in modern shamanism.
chronicles: The Lords of Night live on extracted essences. Are their cooks alchemists, or magicians?
Liz Williams: More alchemists than magicians.
chronicles: POISON MASTER can be read on so many different levels, there are so many layers to the story — historical, science-fictional, mystical, romantic — and considering the cabalistic influences, should readers be looking for further meanings and levels that aren’t so obvious: anagrams, letter substitutions, acronyms, and so forth?
Liz Williams: They should definitely be looking for anagrams but I can’t remember what the hell they were. The little between-chapter symbols in the US edition are, IIRC, the alchemical symbol for antimony, which Bantam came up with.
chronicles: You’ve cited C. J. Cherryh as one of your favorite writers. I was particularly reminded of Cherryh when I was reading EMPIRE OF BONES — not because of any similarities in the plot or setting, but because your aliens were so completely satisfyingly inhuman: in their biology, their culture, and their psychology. What do you use as a jumping-off point in imagining alien psychologies? Do you start by exaggerating some human trait or custom (in this case the Indian caste system)? Do you look to other terrestrial species for ideas? Or does it all start with the biological differences and build on that?
Liz Williams: With EMPIRE, it started off with the caste system and with the biological differences – I liked the idea of language being used to confuse and obfuscate, rather than to clarify, and the idea of a set of castes which literally could not understand one another. I tend to take a starting point and then extrapolate as far as I can. I never feel that I extrapolate far enough, however.
chronicles: Like Dante’s inferno, in SNAKE AGENT you envision a Hell of many different levels, or perhaps more accurately many different dimensions. SNAKE AGENT is primarily concerned with the infernal dimension closest to our own, where existence is not so very different from life on earth: an all-too-plausible afterlife in which the wicked are endlessly tormented by fiendish machinations of diabolical bureaucracies. Will we be visiting some of the lower levels in the two sequels? And if so, what might we see there that could possibly rival the sublime evil of the Ministry of Epidemics?
Liz Williams: I have a Keralan female villain in the next book, DEMON AND THE CITY, who runs a chemical corporation. I am very fond of her. We do see some of the lower levels at some point. It’s all based on actual Chinese mythology, however, which suggests the numerous levels, and which is also very bureaucratic. One reviewer hated the bureaucratic nature of hell and wondered why I’d been so unimaginative – but it is as faithful a reflection of Chinese myth as I can make it.
chronicles: After so many stand-alone books, what was it about the characters in SNAKE AGENT that made you think it was time to do a series? As occult thrillers, the Detective Inspector Chen books are more in the fantasy vein than science fiction; was there any particular reason for changing genres at this particular time?
Liz Williams: SNAKE AGENT was actually written in the late nineties and I got very paranoid about some of the ideas in “Angel,” when that came on TV. DEMON AND THE CITY was written first, with different characters, and then substantially revised. I do enjoy writing in this world and it’s a break from my more serious (I hope) fiction. My short fiction is about evenly distributed between fantasy and SF, and I enjoy writing fantasy – getting it published is difficult, however, because both my US and my UK publishers have me very much in the SF camp.
chronicles: Ghosts turn up fairly often in your work; are you a fan of ghost stories? Have you had any real-life experiences that might be interpreted as encounters with the supernatural?
Liz Williams: I love ghost stories, both folklore and fictional. I’ve never seen a ghost per se. Many years ago, in the middle of the afternoon, my late partner and I saw a very odd cloud of winged things (about the size of bats) on Glastonbury Tor. I’ve been a bit wary of talking about this as they sound (and looked) too much like fairies, which in their current incarnations I consider embarrassingly twee. I don’t think I could live down seeing a bunch of fairies. I won’t even sell them (I run a witchcraft supply shop).
I don’t know what the hell they were, but I know what I (and several other people) saw and none of us were on any kind of drug. The shop which I co-run (I’m sitting in it at the moment) is built on the old burial ground of Glastonbury Abbey, and we had to cleanse it (not exorcise, because we don’t really do that) before we opened: there was a rather peculiar atmosphere.
chronicles: When you began writing SNAKE AGENT, did you already expect that elegant and fascinating demon vice-officer, Zhu Irzh, to play a much larger part than the minor role he was originally given in “Adventures in the Ghost Trade” — or was he simply one of those characters you invite in for a visit, who decide to move into your story bag and baggage?
Liz Williams: No, Zhu Irzh was always there, large as life and twice as unnatural. I seem to write him with worrying ease. He’s probably my animus or something.
chronicles: To me, there is something of the old-time swashbuckling hero about him. And you mentioned that you’re a fan of Basil Rathbone, who was rather a dashing blade in some of his pictures (albeit as the villain) … Is there a bit of Guy of Gisbourne or the dastardly Ravenhurst in your demon seneschal?
Liz Williams: I’m not sure where Zhu Irzh comes from – I suspect he’s an amalgamation of people, but he came more or less fully formed. He’s very similar to a lot of screen anti-heroes, however.
chronicles: All of us who read Snake Agent were particularly fascinated by the setting of this one. What started your interest in Chinese mythology and what sort of research did you do for SA and its sequels?
Liz Williams: I’ve always been interested in Chinese mythology but what really started SA off was a visit to Hong Kong in the early 90s. A friend of mine is a reporter for the South China Morning Post and at the time, she was writing two books about the colony, one on murder and the other on sex, and she was briefly going out with a cop on the HK vice squad. So there was plenty ot material to draw on!
chronicles: With such wonderful characters and such an intriguing back story, are you likely to write a prequel telling us how Chen and Inari first met and fell in love? We’d all like to know more.
Liz Williams: I might do that at some point but it depends on my publishers! Perhaps a novella would be in order…
chronicles: Could you tell us about your latest book, DARKLAND? Although you’ve never avoided risky themes in the past, from the reviews I’ve read, this seems to be your bleakest and most controversial book yet.
Liz Williams: It’s not a barrel of laughs, but then neither was GHOST SISTER, which is in the same universe and one of the same planets. Reviewers have had a problem deciding whether it’s feminist or not: it, and its sequel BLOODMIND, are about female power, the assumption of that power, and its abuse. If anything, it, like BANNER, is a move away from the ‘all-female societies are utopian.’ But neither do I want to see all-female societies as overwhelmingly negative. It’s partly about abuse and collusion in abuse and BLOODMIND covers the same kind of ground.
chronicles: In Darkland your heroine deals with her anger and frustration by cutting herself, and you show an even more extreme version of self-mutilation in the short story “Skindancing.” Does this theme come up elsewhere in your work? It seems very topical with so many teenagers, especially, dealing with their fears and their sense of helplessness in this way.
Liz Williams: I’ve never suffered from this particular thing myself (and thankfully avoided the sadly typical adolescent problems like eating disorders), but psychological impairment interests me. I have done one story in which the heroine was anorectic, but my agent didn’t take to it and it went no further. As far as I can see, cutting is actually a survival tactic as much as an expression of self hatred, but sometimes it goes a very long way and I’m interested in the kinds of pressures that cause someone to take such extreme actions.
chronicles: For readers coming to your work for the first time, which of your books or stories would you recommend as a good place to start, and why?
Liz Williams: Possibly THE POISON MASTER, because it’s a little more accessible than the others. Or SNAKE AGENT, because it’s fun! But most of them are stand alones.
chronicles: Asking which of your characters you like best is a lot like asking a parent which child is dearest — the advantage being that ifyou answer the question no one is going to grow up tramautized and resentful. So … do you have a favorite among all the characters you’ve written about?
Liz Williams: Eleres in GHOST SISTER has been with me a long while. I love writing Zhu Irzh in the SNAKE AGENT series and I’m also fond of Ilya Muromyets in NINE LAYERS OF SKY. Troubled blokes, basically! Although I wouldn’t call Zhu Irzh ‘troubled’ because he doesn’t think all that deeply!
chronicles: What are you reading now, either for entertainment or research?
Liz Williams: I’ve just finished re-reading Zenna Henderson’s ‘People’ series, which I like a great deal. I like her determination to see good in people, and to write stories about it. Despite some of my own writing, and reading, I get very tired of books in which all the characters are bastards, and dreadful things happen relentlessly. I thnk that’s a particular kind of unrealism in fiction.
chronicles: Are there any books or authors (new or old) that you have recently discovered and are especially excited about?
Liz Williams: I’ve really been enjoying Ian McLeod’s THE LIGHT AGES series. Fascinating stuff.
chronicles: Speaking of which, what would you say is the main difference between Science Fiction and more traditional forms of fantasy?
Liz Williams: SF is science based or least makes a nod to scientific principles. Fantasy is based on magic. The two are sometimes interchangeable and you get some extremely interesting cross-overs, like THE LIGHT AGES.
chronicles: What do you think will be our new cultural myths for the 21st century? Do you see any new ones taking form right now?
Liz Williams: I see some new ones, but I’m not sure that they are Western cultural myths. Chinese economic hegemony is one, and an Islamic world order is another. Those aren’t our myths, but they’re compelling to those who believe in them. At the moment, I’m afraid I find Western culture pretty vacuous.
chronicles: Your stint as a Tarot reader on Brighton Pier is mentioned pretty often, and it’s particularly interesting to me because I spent so many years as a professional card-reader myself. What deck do you use? Were you self-taught, or did someone teach you how to read the cards? To what extent have your own interests and/or life experiences changed the way you interpret the symbolic language of the Tarot?
Liz Williams: I started off with the Rider-Waite deck and I still use it for readings because it’s so straightforward. For my own use, I prefer an Arthurian deck, which ties in with Celtic imagery, or the Druidcraft tarot, which is one of the new ones and comes directly out of my own Druidic Order. I also use the Motherpeace – it’s very New Age, but I like it.
I went on a brief course, but I’m mainly self-taught. A lot of my reading is intuitive; I pick up on things and run with them. Who knows where that comes from? But I think the tarot has its own animating spirit and one can connect with that. Much of my interpretation comes out of my own esoteric practice, which is mainly Druidic and semi-Wiccan (because my partner is a witch) these days.
chronicles: I will now ask you a question that people used to often ask me — Have you used Tarot cards or Tarot symbolism in any of your stories?
Liz Williams: I haven’t used much, but I suspect that there is a degree of unconscious crossover.
chronicles: Some of the more bizarre human-animal crosses — like the animus — in BANNER OF SOULS reminded me of Paracelsus’s theories about the generation of monsters, and how hybrids might be sometimes created without sexual intercourse between the different species (sperm carried on the wind, or falling into water and being digested by fishes, etc.). With your background in the history of science, was anything like this in your mind when you were writing the book, or was it all based on speculation on where the biological sciences will go from here?
Liz Williams: I’m very interested in Medieval and Renaissance alchemy and magic, to the point that I’m considering doing a MA in the history of Western esotericism. I have a lot of bestiaries, and the ‘magical hybrid’ idea comes from that. I’m about to do a Medieval short story about a hyaena cross – hyaenas come into my fiction a lot, as you’ll see when you read DEMON AND THE CITY!
chronicles: When I was reading BANNER OF SOULS, and came across the concept of haunt-tech, it struck me that there was something vaguely Neoplatonic going on. Could you explain how haunt-tech is supposed to work?
Liz Williams: Haunt-tech is based on the idea of everyday seances, with the power wielded by the dead channelled through gadgets rather than people. I wanted to play with the idea that there is a source of power, usually attained by adepts or magicians, which in this case is achieved through the application of science. I’m not sure how much the people in BANNER understand about their technology, however – I suspect it is mysterious to most people and experimented with by a small group of cognoscenti who almost certainly don’t understand what they’re doing.
chronicles: Do you remember what first inspired the idea, and how it developed?
Liz Williams: It was actually inspired by my partner’s death – just as I’d started to write the book, my partner died rather unexpectedly, and the book became more and more morbid as I worked on it. Which is what writers do, I guess: you take the experience available to you and exploit it ruthlessly.
chronicles: The scene in EMPIRE OF BONES where the future ship is engendered by a fusion of plant and human DNA, reading that, I was reminded of medieval and renaissance spells for creating a homunculus by fertilizing mandrake roots with human sperm, then animating them with human blood. IS the ship-seed supposed to be some kind of homunculus?
Liz Williams: Yes, it is. I never took this idea as far as I wanted to, because a lot of people have used living ships and I couldn’t see a way of doing it that wasn’t cliched. But I’d like to return to that and in fact, you have given me an idea…
chronicles: Final question — do you have any predictions about the future of SF and Fantasy? Any fond hopes, or dire fears?
Liz Williams: My fond hope is that I will continue to be published. My dire fear is that I won’t. The industry is in a bad way right now. My other fond hope is that the smaller press will emerge to fill the gap. When I and the editors of Scheherazade magazine did an anthology some years ago, we called it “Shrew Press” – the idea being that our imprint was the little shrew running around the feet of the dinosaurs, and it would survive when they didn’t.
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