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A Conversation With Tad Williams
An interview with Victoria Strauss
August 1999

Tad Williams
Tad Williams
Tad Williams has held more jobs than any sane person should admit to -- singing in a band, selling shoes, managing a financial institution, throwing newspapers, and designing military manuals, to name just a few. He also hosted a syndicated radio show for 10 years, worked in theatre and television production, taught both grade-school and college classes, and worked in multimedia for a major computer firm. He is co-founder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.

His novels include Tailchaser's Song, the bestselling Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn epic fantasy trilogy, the stand-alone fantasy Caliban's Hour, and most recently, the four-volume Otherland science fiction series: City of Golden Shadow, River of Blue Fire, Mountain of Black Glass, and Sea of Silver Light (still to be released).

Tad and his wife live in London and the San Francisco Bay Area. They spend their occasional microseconds of leisure time engineering world peace and making sarcastic remarks about their pets.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 2: River of Blue Fire
SF Site Review:Otherland Vol. 1: City of Golden Shadow
Tad Williams' Website
Tad Williams' Other Website
Tad Williams Fan Page

Mountain of Black Glass
River of Blue Fire
City of Golden Shadow
To Green Angel Tower 2
To Green Angel Tower 1
Stone of Farewell
Dragonbone Chair
Tailchaser's Song
Caliban's Hour
Child of an Ancient City

Tailchaser's Song, and then Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, established you strongly in the epic fantasy field. Otherland has a lot of fantastical elements, but basically it's science fiction. Did you make a conscious decision to switch genres, or was it the story idea that chose the genre for you?
Both. I've always been a reader of science fiction and fantasy, and most of my favourite writers in the genre -- Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, just to name a few -- have crossed back and forth over the boundary without even considering it particularly. I think it's only in these latter days of marketing-driven fiction that the distinction has begun to seem important to people. So I felt perfectly comfortable writing science fiction, especially focused on a subject I knew something about -- computers, multimedia, virtual reality. Basically, though, it was the story idea that grabbed me, and when I was thinking about how to put it all together, VR seemed like the obvious way to make it work.

Do you find it very different writing science fiction as opposed to fantasy?
Well, not as much as many fantasy writers might, because I tend to write what you might call hard fantasy. My epic fantasy has endless background and invented history and so on. So in that sense I was prepared for the genre switch. But I think the need for rigor is stronger in science fiction. There's a need to keep things plausible. You can do what I did, which is to invent a single plot device which allows you to get away with almost anything, but there's still a requirement to have at least a pseudo-scientific explanation for it all. So in that sense science fiction is a bit more rigorous. But it's also more challenging that way. Otherland was a nice thing for me to do as a next project, because it forced me to notch up the level of attention and time I used in working on the story.

What pulled you into writing speculative fiction in the first place?
It's something I've read since I was young. My favourite early books were all on the outskirts of fantasy -- talking animal stories and so on. And I read Lord of the Rings very early, and Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles as well. So when I first started thinking about being a writer -- which happened in my 20s; writing really wasn't something I'd done since I was a child, not in any serious way -- it seemed obvious to choose speculative fiction, because I felt I knew the conventions of the genre and was familiar with the larger body of work. As I kept doing it, I realized that the nice thing about the genre is that it's as capable of being literary as anything else. It's mostly a question of whether you can keep people turning pages. So in a way it's even more of a challenge, I think.

In Otherland, one of the central images is the river that links the various Otherland domains. Where did that idea come from?
Well, that actually was the inspiration for the entire story. I was listening to Norman McLean being interviewed on NPR, and he was talking about his book A River Runs Through It. As I was driving along I began thinking about how wonderful rivers are as metaphors, and how many great novels, such as Huckleberry Finn and Heart of Darkness, are built around rivers. It's been used in science fiction to great effect as well -- Philip José Farmer's Riverworld books, for instance, and Dan Simmons's Hyperion series.

So I was trying to come up with a different way of approaching the river as metaphor, kind of as a mental exercise, and I thought, "What if the river wasn't just a metaphor, but was literally metaphorical? What would a metaphorical river be?" And once I figured out a solution, which of course was to make the river a virtual river, I realized that anything anyone could conceive of could be built along the banks, and a set of travellers forced to make a journey on this river could be exposed to almost anything a writer could come up with -- ancient Troy, Alice's Wonderland, or something completely original. Once that idea came to me, it was hard to resist. Otherland wasn't the project I'd planned to write next, but it quickly became the thing that was foremost in my mind.

What made you choose South Africa as your basic real-world setting for Otherland?
All books are a product of their time, and all science fiction writers are a product of their time; they're not really writing about the future, they're writing about their own present and their own past. One thing I've always reacted to very strongly is the fact that a lot of earlier science fiction writers wrote at a time when it was just assumed that white military males were going to put the universe in order. I grew up when people were rebelling against that, and that's very much a part of my way of looking at things. Particularly after the last 10 years of being involved with VR and the Net and so on, it became clear to me that the future was going to be much, much more complicated than that basic early science fiction paradigm. I wanted to show that in Otherland, since it's set in the near future and is very much an extrapolation of the world we already know.

At the same time, South Africa was interesting to me for a number of reasons. It's a place where a lot of things are happening. I think that most of the people who are likely to be reading these books have wondered at one time or another how the experiment in South Africa is going to turn out -- it's a place we're all interested in, in other words, a place we all have high hopes for and a lot of fears for.

Also, I wanted very much to use an aboriginal character, for a number of reasons, including some that won't be clear until the end of the series. But it's very easy, especially for a white liberal like me, to accidentally -- without really wanting to -- stray off into the "first world culture bad, third world culture good", "white colonizers bad, all non-white indigenous peoples good" attitude. And that's too simplistic for what I want to talk about. One reason I was attracted to the Bushmen is that they were screwed over pretty thoroughly by both whites and blacks. They weren't a people with just one set of enemies, but were basically exploited by all the people who arrived after them, of all colours. So that was another reason South Africa was a good choice for me. Plus, I liked the Bushman mythology, and mythology and storytelling are a huge part of the books.

Well, that was going to be my next question -- what inspired you to choose that particular indigenous culture. What kind of research did you do?
I knew bits and pieces about Bushman culture, because I read pretty widely and I'd picked up some things here and there. But it did take a lot of work. I did a lot of reading, and wrote to the various South African commissions for indigenous peoples, and got hold of every piece of film I could. And then, as usual, you throw out about 90 percent of your research because it's just too much, too academic. But you try and preserve the essence.

As I was doing the book -- and this is reflected in one of the Author's Notes in the first volume -- I realized that there's almost none of the original Bushman lifestyle left. Also, I'm representing a culture that's not my own to people who don't necessarily know anything about it. So I felt a real responsibility, and it was important to me to do the best job I could. I did cheat a bit in the classic fiction writer's manner -- extrapolating here and rearranging things a bit there -- but I've tried to represent the Bushmen as well as I can, short of turning them into noble savages or some other ghastly archetype. I'm not an anthropologist, and I don't pretend that this is exactly what the Bushmen are like, but it was the best I could do within the frame of the story.

The vision of virtual reality in Otherland is one of the most convincing I've encountered in recent fiction. How did you go about developing it?
I was at Apple from 1987 to 1990, and although I wasn't primarily occupied with multimedia, it became my main focus while I was there. As a result, my friend -- who later became my business partner -- and I did all the conferences and met a lot of people and did the circuit of what I used to refer to as the Marin County Virtual Hot Tub Mafia. This triggered off a lot of things, including our own different approach when we did interactive TV for a while, but what it mainly did was to give me interesting things to think about. It seemed to me that VR was the wave of the future -- though it's still a long way away from the real deal, whatever that's going to be.

Mostly, I did what any writer does, especially writing science fiction -- I just extrapolated from contemporary things or historical models of other media or other sociological changes, trying to do the best job I could of saying, "Well, if this does happen, how is it going to work and how are people going to react to it?" I've been online for years -- I was part of a very vigorous SF community on GEnie in the 80s. I've seen these online communities, and they all have the same kinds of structures and the same kinds of social interactions. After a while you realize that there's a certain way people behave in these situations, and it probably won't change much in 50 years, it'll just get more elaborate.

One of the deep underlying themes of the Otherland books -- and this will be developed more in the last volume -- is the disparity between all the toys and gadgets we humans have, and the fact that the brain is still pretty much the same brain it was a million years ago. There's this really odd parallelism between these incredible things we can do and the fact that humans are the same humans they ever were -- give them a really complicated thing and they'll learn a way to whack somebody on the head with it, or seduce someone with it. Basically it's the same behaviour we had 500 years ago, we're just using more sophisticated gadgets.

So that theme runs all through the books, personified in the Grail Brotherhood and the people in the Circle. It's the contrast between the old-fashioned spiritual approach that says we're just not supposed to know some things, that humans are the centre of the universe, versus the more scientific sense that says that we may not be the centre of the universe but we're going to use everything we can for the benefit of humanity, even if it's our own selfish benefit. The question is, are these approaches really so different, and where do they come together? And that's one of the things that's developing in the story.

Most science fiction and fantasy writers build a single world for their books, but Otherland contains multiple worlds -- in River of Blue Fire I think I counted 11, in addition to the real-world setting, all of them developed in detail. Could you say something about your world-building techniques? How much do you plan in advance? Do you outline?
Yes, I do, but it was a much smaller outline for the Otherland books than for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. I think the whole Otherland outline was only about 20 pages. I use an outline really just to focus myself, and also to convince my publishers that I'll actually finish the project and that it does have an ending. The spine of the story is there, and I know what the ending is going to be, but most of the detail arises out of the complexity of the situations. You just have to keep that story beat constantly going in the background, to make sure you're always moving forward.

I knew from the start that some of the worlds were going to be there. I always knew there was going to be a cartoon world, for instance. It was just something I really wanted to do. It wasn't going to be kitchen originally -- I had a more vague idea when I started out, with a kind of desktop feel to it; the characters were going to chased by a stapler 'gator at one point. I also knew I was going to use Egypt, because I love ancient Egypt; I almost wrote an Egyptian historical novel once, and I've always wanted to work that stuff in somewhere. But most of the worlds arose just out of me thinking about where to go next. I needed worlds where certain kinds of things could happen, where the characters could have certain kinds of experiences, and so on.

As far as world-building goes, how much I do in advance depends on things like how much time the characters spend there and whether I know ahead of time that I'll be doing that particular world. The house in the third book, for instance (not giving too much away here, for the people who haven't read the book yet) is something I'd thought about before in other contexts. I'd never really fleshed it out, but I'd put some consideration into how it might work, and how people living in it might feel, and what the social structures might be. Other worlds were much more spontaneous. I didn't think about the Iliad and Odyssey stuff until near the end of the second book, when I suddenly realized that it would be an interesting thing to have Paul Jonas go through the Odyssey backward. I had to go back and do the research at that point, on the spur of the moment.

So a lot of it develops in context.
Yes, a lot of it does. One of the reasons I'll probably write another of these multi-volume books someday -- as much as it drains me to do it, and as frustrating as it is to have to wait 4 or 5 years for people to see the ending -- is that just out of the sheer complexity of the work, because you've got so many characters interacting and so many situations, things just come up. It's like chaos theory: you begin to see patterns you hadn't yourself planned. That's an exciting thing for a writer. So though I'll do single volumes as well, I'll probably do another multi-volume novel somewhere up the road, if I can come up with a suitable idea.

How do you feel about returning to worlds you've already explored? Will there be more Otherland or Osten Ard novels?
I may be being reductionist, but to me it feels like that there's one of two ways you can go as a writer these days, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genre. You can find something that sells and keep doing it, or you can keep trying to come up with new ideas. Now if you're happy doing the same thing and exploring it and deepening it, that's great -- but for me personally, if I'd gone back and written another epic fantasy set in the same world, even with different characters, it would have felt like work to me. It would have felt like I was doing the same thing over again because it made money. Whereas if I can stay within the general area of speculative fiction, I can find enough new ideas so that I can always be in love with the thing I'm working on. That's really important to me. I mean, when you're writing thousands and thousands of pages, you really have to be interested in it, because otherwise it's just a job, and it's one of the worst jobs you can imagine. You gotta love it.

What's the biggest challenge of keeping such a long story going?
Well, there are some critics who've suggested that I'm in fact not keeping the story going! [...laughs...] Seriously, though -- keeping focused, keeping the story in mind, trying to keep people feeling that things are moving forward, even when you're advancing along a very broad front. With so many characters and so many plotlines, you tend to have to inch forward a little bit at a time. That's probably the hardest part.

Everything else is really fun, in the sense of getting to go back to other characters and take up other situations and so on. That's why I like the big books -- because it's a juggling act, and being able to do something like that is pleasing to me. After the first big long epic fantasy, I said to myself, "Well, I'll never do that again," and I told my friends that if I ever started a big series again to please shoot me. My joke since then is that either I don't have very good friends or they aren't very good shots, because here I am in the middle of another one!

I also realized at a certain point that this was something I could do, and do pretty well. And it's kind of silly, when I'm already telling myself I'm not going to mine the same fictional territory over and over again, to entirely throw out the very long book as part of what I do. As I said, if I come up with a suitable idea I won't hesitate to do another multi-volume story one day. But I think I'm going to take a little rest from it with the next couple of books.

The Otherland books seem to be coming out at intervals of about a year. Are you a fast writer? Do you feel any time pressure?
I'm writing them at a pace of about one per year -- pretty fast, actually. I'm certainly faster than I used to be. If I didn't have to travel and tour and so on, I could probably write a book in about 6 months. I've been writing for about 15 years now, and writing is like anything else: if you do something long enough, it becomes easier. You spend less time with the mechanics, and more time getting to the important stuff.

When I sit down I'm usually ready to write. I'm prepared; I know generally what I'm going to be writing about. Writing itself is so familiar to me now that I'm more than a page in before I realize what I'm doing. I had the same trouble writing a 5-page paper in school that anybody else did, and now 5 pages is basically just like exhaling.

What are you reading these days? Is there any science fiction or fantasy you've read recently that especially impressed you?
There's a lot of good stuff out there, though I'm probably not one of the best people to ask. We have a two-and-a-half year old, and another child on the way -- I've had to rearrange a lot of my schedule to find writing time and still be able to spend family time, and my reading time has suffered as a result. Also, as you can guess, the Otherland books are very research-intensive, and that sucks up a lot of time as well. Last but not least, probably only about 20 percent of my reading is science fiction and fantasy. So on the one hand I continue to read people like Iain Banks and Steve Brust and Mike Moorcock and George Martin and others whose names aren't coming to me right now, and on the other hand I'm following other interests. I'm starting Thomas Pynchon's Mason Dixon, and I just read one of John Updike's more recent books, Toward the End of Time. Basically, my reading is all over the place.

I've heard you're working on a film script. Can you say anything about that?
Yes, I did write a script, though whether it'll ever come to anything is still to be seen. I took a couple of weeks off from the fourth Otherland book to do it. I mentioned that Otherland wasn't the book I'd planned to write next -- originally, I was going to write a horror novel. I've had this idea for several years and I really like it, but I realized I'd probably never get it written as a novel, and if I didn't do it as a screenplay or something it'd probably never get written. I just sent it off to my agent. I figure they're screaming for horror scripts in Hollywood right now, but we'll see what happens.

Can you say anything about what you'll be working on once Otherland is done?
I wrote a short Osten Ard story for an anthology, and much to my surprise, I found that as long as I wasn't writing about the same characters and the same time period, I enjoyed going back to that world. So though I don't want to write another multi-volume novel or even a novel set in that world, what I think I might do as one of my next two projects is to see if I can come up with a collection of Osten Ard stories with an interesting linking concept that will make it something other than a standard book of short stories. It's been 5 or 6 years, and I'm far enough away from it now, I think, and it's uncommercial enough to write a book of short stories that I can live with myself it I do it. [...laughs...]

The other thing that I'm probably going to do next is a fantasy -- but not an epic, and set at least in the beginning in the real world in present time. I don't want to say it's going to be autobiographical, because it's not going to be about me, but it's definitely going to be more about people like me. Kind of a dark fantasy, although not so much on the horror side. It'll be a single novel, but still a very Tad book, with way too many subplots and lots of scary stuff -- a very long stand-alone book. At this point it's tentatively titled Goodnight Nobody, which if you've ever read Goodnight Moon, you'd know comes from having kids. These are the things that are in my brain at the moment -- Dr Seuss stories, endless Kindermusic songs....

There's certainly a lot about children and children's fantasy worlds in Otherland.
Absolutely, that's one of the big themes. It's kind of funny, I've had very little of normal adulthood in my writing. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was really about becoming an adult, and then I jumped immediately into books that dealt with mortality, which is what Otherland is about -- coming to grips with mortality, or not coming to grips with it and fighting against it. From a chronological point of view, I think the next book will be what should have come between those two: a book about adulthood in the normal sense, with mortality only being a part of adulthood, and also being a parent and looking back on your youth and trying to make sense of it.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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