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Alchemical Marriages And Alien Bureaucrats
An Interview With Liz Williams
by Nick Gevers
December 2002

© Liz Williams
Liz Williams
Liz Williams
Liz Williams has spent most of her life in academic philosophy. She did a doctorate in epistemology of science at Cambridge. Today, she works in the field of educational consultancy, bringing students from Central Asia to study in Britain.

Liz Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Ghost Sister

The Poison Master
Empire of Bones
The Ghost Sister

Liz Williams is one of Britain's finest newer SF writers; her deft mixing of philosophy, arcane magic, rich exotic scene-setting, taut adventure plotting, and sympathetic characterisation has assured a ready audience both for her novels -- to date published only in the US, but with UK editions on the way -- and her many short stories. Her first, anthropological SF novel, The Ghost Sister, appeared from Bantam Spectra in 2001; near-future South Asian first contact political thriller Empire of Bones followed in 2002; and January 2003 sees release of The Poison Master, a metaphysical romance intriguingly combining SF with hermetic fantasy. Involved in the communal life of SF at many levels -- in writers' workshops, in the running of the fantasy magazine Scheherazade, in the wider Brighton SF scene (home to Interzone) -- Liz Williams is something of an emerging paragon of genre writing.

I interviewed Liz by e-mail in December 2002.

Your parents are respectively "a stage magician and a Gothic novelist". Would it be fair to say that those vocations are united in Liz Williams, the SF writer?
Yes, it would. Because my mother was a writer, I was brought up with the idea that this was what women naturally did, and so it seemed natural for me to emulate her. My Dad worked in a bank for much of the time -- he wanted to be a professional magician, but the Second World War intervened and it became necessary for him to make a living. But he always kept up his interest in conjuring and is still a member of the Magic Circle in Britain. The house in which I grew up was full of magic wands, mysterious contraptions and so forth, so from an early age I knew how stage magic was done and there wasn't a lot of mystery in it for me. I was interested in real magic, and I found that in literature: Joan Aiken, Lloyd Alexander, Ursula K. Le Guin... Later, because Dad had a lot of books on the occult (Dee included), I read my way through those as well -- and also things like Graves's White Goddess and Eric Von Daniken -- what my mother still refers to as the "fruitless speculation" section of the bookcase! Well, it was the 70s... But yes, the two vocations are definitely united in me.

You have a Ph.D. from Cambridge, have been a Tarot reader on Brighton pier, and are involved in teaching projects in ex-Soviet Central Asia. Are you innately restless, as an individual and as a creative artist?
No, I think I'm boringly predictable as an individual. I do have a strong sense that we've only got one life (we may not, but just in case...) and it is therefore best not to waste it. I always had a kind of recurring waking nightmare in which I'd drift into working for an insurance company in Swindon, or something equally dire, and wake up one morning and discover that half my life had passed by. So I have taken somewhat drastic steps to avoid this fate! I'm relieved to have taken this approach. In the last couple of weeks, my partner had to have emergency neurosurgery and almost died, so I'm glad we've done a great many interesting things. Also, if you look at my life, there are a lot of common threads: travel, magic, writing and philosophy. It all ties up -- just in a rather obscure manner.

How far back did you start reading SF and fantasy, and what was the catalyst that led you to start writing them?
I've been reading fantasy for as long as I can remember, and there were some excellent books around when I was a child. As for the SF, my mother brought Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series back from the library when I was 11, and that was that -- I was hooked. I read the unfortunately named Servants of the Wankh from cover to cover, then went straight back and read it again.

Do you see yourself as a member of a particular movement in British SF?
I would love to see myself as a member of a particular movement, but I'm not sure if I am! My rampant ego likes the idea of someone looking back on my work in about 100 years' time and pronouncing "Of course, Williams was part of the Brighton Eclectics...", like one of the more obscure art movements.

I'm secretary of the Milford SF workshop at the moment, and I would really love to see Milford as one of the powerhouses of contemporary British SF (we do have American and European participants, too). With alumni like Rob Holdstock, Chris Priest and latterly Al Reynolds -- I'm almost too modest to add this, but what the hell -- and me, I think Milford has a good chance. But there are some excellent new people writing in the field at the moment -- China [Miéville], Justina [Robson], Neal Asher, John Meaney -- and I would like to be regarded as being in that stable, yes. I get a bit irritated with writers who write SF and then pretend that they don't, and that they really should be turning up their noses at conventions and hanging out in the Groucho Club.

Your short fiction appears in an impressive range of markets; when was your first story published, and how influential have different magazine editors -- David Pringle, Gardner Dozois, Shawna McCarthy -- been in your literary development?
My first acceptance ("Voivodoi") was from Terra Incognita, and later appeared in Gardner Dozois's Year's Best collection, but the first actual publication was "A Child of the Dead" in Interzone. I was very proud of that, as Interzone is published in the town in which I live, so it's a local thing. David and Gardner have been extremely supportive, and both insisted early on that I use my actual name, not my initials, so that readers would know I was female (the initials thing was a feeble attempt to make my very dull name more interesting -- I can't face the pseudonymous route). Shawna is my agent, so she has had a huge influence on my writing: she's extremely conscientious and exacting, and made me write The Ghost Sister twice before she took me on as a client. I'm very grateful to her as a result, and I've had several stories accepted for Realms of Fantasy. But she rejects me regularly for Realms as well!

Of your stories to date, which is your favourite? You seem to toss off new fantastic milieux with profligate ease in your short fiction; is there any such imaginary venue you feel tempted to return to, as the basis perhaps for a story cycle?
I do like writing about Monde D'Isle for reasons cited below, and a lot of my stories are set in an alternate world where various forms of paganism are predominant: I like that world a great deal. I'd like to do some novels set in it. My favourite is a story I wrote in a workshop (the only story I've ever written in a workshop, in fact), called "Dancing Day" -- it came out in Storm Constantine's Visionary Tongue and has just been accepted for Realms of Fantasy. I just like the way it's written, which is a somewhat disingenuous thing to say about one's own work, but it's true.

Influences: you've cited Jack Vance as important there, and Ursula K. Le Guin is clearly very significant too. Tanith Lee, perhaps? Why these particular writers? Where, for you, does their especial excellence lie?
Three little words: in their prose. I am a prose junkie. I would much rather read something that is beautifully written than a well-plotted story in clunking prose (though I don't see why you can't have both, of course). Ray Bradbury's another one. Their writing, to me, brings back the sense of magic for which I'm constantly searching.

Your first published novel was The Ghost Sister. Was this the first novel you in fact wrote? How readily did it attract a US publisher's (Bantam's) interest? Of course, British publishers are now picking up your books also...
Yes, The Ghost Sister will be coming out with the small press house Big Engine in the UK next year, and the others will be out with Macmillan. I'm very pleased about that. The Ghost Sister was the first novel I finished, and also the first one I started -- it took me long enough, I began it when I was thirteen and it didn't see the light of day until I was 35, so... It got published in the States because Shawna took me on, and she tried the US publishing houses first. It sold fairly quickly; I was lucky.

The Ghost Sister is an ambitious and entertaining anthropological SF novel, portraying a species alien in key respects but familiar in others, the contiguity of its experience with that of humans readily apparent. Was Le Guin your specific inspiration here? And why anthropological SF, a form last dominant in the 70s?
Er... that would be because I started it in the 70s...! Like I said, it's taken long enough for me to actually write the thing. (I seem to have speeded up since then: I have no ambitions to be Donna Tartt.) Le Guin was definitely an inspiration, because I love her work. And anthropology is a respectable way for a ditsy philosopher like me to put philosophical ideas into a solid context.

How did the people of Monde D'Isle evolve in your imagination? And likewise the intriguing, closely related concept of "quantum anthropology"?
They are the heroes of my thirteen-year old self: they're good looking, angst-ridden, fucked-up. That's the eternal adolescent in me coming out. They haven't evolved a lot since then, really. But several people have got the basic premise of The Ghost Sister, which is that it's really a werewolf novel. They don't change form, but they do change character.

I was very smug about quantum anthropology because I don't think I have many original ideas, but as far as I know that was one of them. More or less, anyway -- it actually comes out of the work of Wittgenstein and sociologists like Peter Winch, who started looking at context and the role of the observer in anthropology.

Empire of Bones is set in India and on a decidedly Asiatic alien world. What is most science fictional about Asia as you've experienced the continent? And why did you choose India as the story's locale?
I chose India because I wanted to set a first contact story somewhere other than the West. India is immensely complex, and I thought that this complexity would reflect well on the alien society. Asia is much more of an ancient-modern mix than the West, though it's too huge to generalise about. I know Central Asia well, India a bit, Hong Kong, China and Korea a little. Central Asia's actually the place in which I feel most comfortable, having lived there, and that's a real blend: in Kazakhstan, for instance, a lot of people still live in yurts and herd animals, but at the same time the level of scientific education is tremendously high as it's the home of the Russian space programme.

Of course, Empire of Bones deliberately parallels the career of Phoolan Devi. Does your protagonist, Jaya Nihalani, represent certain potentials unfulfilled in the real-life "Bandit Queen"?
Well, she's alive at the end of the story, for a start -- Phoolan Devi was assassinated last year, unfortunately. I had to tone down Devi's story a lot: she was multiply raped, and some of the stuff that she went through (as well as some of the things she perpetrated) was just too much for one novel.

A fascinating aspect of Empire of Bones is the manner in which the extremely "advanced" alien Rasasatran culture turns out to be as caste-based as India ever was. Are you puncturing conventional genre concepts of wise alien saviours and philosophers, like Le Guin's Hainish?
I wanted to call the novel The Alien Civil Servant but Bantam wouldn't let me. Primarily, I thought it would be fun to have a couple of extremely powerful aliens who were, at the same time, merely self-serving bureaucrats. Again, this mirrors the British in India -- Clive of India was unbelievably dodgy, for example. But I don't really like the idea of wise alien saviours: however altruistic someone's agenda might be, it's still alien...

The Poison Master is a metaphysical SF novel, in which fairly antique notions drawn from the Kabbalah and herbal lore form the ground rules of the universe. What fascinates you about such hermetic mysticism, and why do you thus entwine it with orthodox physics?
I wanted to go back to the kind of preoccupations that Newton had -- he was both a scientist and an alchemist, and I am intrigued by the kind of crossroads mind-set that a lot of people had at the time. As a philosopher of science, I always wondered what would happen if physics had turned out slightly differently, and if science had continued along a more alchemical route. Clearly, that's not possible to explore in the world as it stands, so I removed the characters in this novel to a kind of pocket alchemical universe in which that kind of approach actually works. I am also very interested in hallucinogenics, and this book was a way to explore that interest, too.

The Poison Master is conspicuously a romance of the Jane Austen kind, a love affair maturing decorously amid the action. But is a powerful symbolic marriage also being enacted?
Yes, it's an Alchymical Marriage, combining different personified elements. Ari Ghairen is quintessentially mercurial, for example. But it should remain uncertain in the reader's mind as to whether, once enacted, the romance will actually work: as Alivet Dee says to herself, alchemy can produce lead as well as gold.

The Lords of Night are very Vancean aliens -- I'm reminded of Vance's Pnume, in the Planet of Adventure series. Am I right in detecting a resemblance?
"By God, he's right!" she cried. Yes, and I hadn't realised this until you mentioned it. I thought there was something familiar about them...

All of your novels to date could easily serve as springboards for sequels. Are any in prospect? What else lies ahead?
The next book out with Bantam is called Nine Layers of Sky, and it's set in contemporary Central Asia -- mainly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzia, and in a kind of alternative dimension that the Russians colonised back in the 1920s. It involves an eight-hundred-year-old Russian hero and a woman who has been working on the Soviet space programme, and it's all about dreams -- both modern and ancient.

There will hopefully be a novel set in the Monde D'Isle, but I don't know yet whether it will be a sequel. I am currently writing one set in the far future Far East, which features a time-travelling child and a Martian ice-princess. I think Martian princesses have been shamefully neglected of late...

Copyright © 2003 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers, an editor at Cosmos Books, writes extensively on SF for a wide variety of publications. He produces two monthly columns for Locus, and his reviews and interviews have also recently appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone (the March 2002 issue of which he co-edited), Locus Online, Foundation, and Infinity Plus. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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