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A Conversation With Walter Jon Williams
An interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke

© Larry Gutierrez
Walter Jon Williams
Walter J. Williams
Walter J. Williams (aka Walter Jon Williams) is the author of Knight Moves (1985), Hardwired (1986), Days of Atonement (1991), the Nebula nominee Metropolitan (1995) and its sequel, City on Fire, and the Drake Maijstral Series (The Crown Jewels, 1987, House of Shards, 1988, and Rock of Ages, 1995) among other books. At his site you'll find a complete bibliography and sample chapters.

Walter J. Williams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Rift
SF Site Review: Metropolitan

The Rift
Frankensteins and Foreign Devils
City On Fire
The Rift

Since 1981 Walter Jon Williams has published 19 novels and a pair of collections, running the gamut from cyberpunk and hard science fiction to fantasy and historical adventure. His short fiction is in high demand, with his 1996 Martian-invasion piece, "Foreign Devils," winning the Sidewise Award for alternate history. His most recent works are the epic disaster novel The Rift and the collection Frankensteins and Foreign Devils. A black belt in the martial art discipline of kenpo, Williams makes his home in New Mexico.

Metropolitan and City on Fire generated a lot of popular and critical acclaim for you. Those books were very labour-intensive and time-consuming to write, City on Fire in particular. Why were they so involved for you?

Because the books feature a type of fantasy world that really hadn't been done before, I was compelled to invent almost everything from the ground up. As well as the fantastic elements, I had to decide what simple objects like telephones and automobiles looked like, and how they functioned and what powered them. That's wearying. I couldn't rely on 75 years of science fiction tradition the way I can if I design a space colony or a spaceship.

Plus, the project simply had more words in it than I anticipated. I started with one book -- Metropolitan, and when I finished it I realized there was much more story. I hoped that City On Fire would tell that story, but many more stories kept appearing as I was writing, and I found myself with a thousand manuscript pages and -- once again -- a story I hadn't finished. It's a very complex story.

Were there any pitfalls you had to avoid when you decided to revisit the world of Metropolitan for City on Fire?
City on Fire isn't really a sequel -- it's a continuing story in another volume, and there will be a third volume in this series that will complete the story. So the difficulty was not so much in continuing the world as to find a self-contained story to tell in each volume, out of the many stories that are actually going on.

You consider these books fantasy, but there's some debate among readers. Many people view them as science fiction.
At first I didn't understand this, but George R.R. Martin explained to me that it was purely a matter of what he calls the furniture. Furniture, in George's perception, trumps category. If a book has dragons in it, then it's fantasy, even if these are Anne McCaffrey's dragons who are supposed to be carefully-worked-out SF constructs. If a book has flying cars and computers in it, then it's SF, and it doesn't matter that it's City on Fire, where something called "magic" is going on, performed by people who call themselves "mages" -- people will just ignore all that and read it as SF.

None of this occurred to me when I set about writing what I thought was going to be a high-fantasy novel about an apprentice magician and her master. Because I thought that the classic high fantasy background was getting a little stale, at least to me -- other people might have something new and exciting to say about ogres and castles, but I certainly don't -- I thought I'd set it against a different sort of world.

So my idea was to think really hard about what magic was, and what it would mean, and then build the world from that point. And what I decided magic was, was the overthrow of the laws of nature by an act of human will. That definition stripped it to its essence. So that's how plasm works in the books -- it's sort of concentrated, malleable chaos, capable of redefining nature when controlled by a human being.

The other element that entered into my calculations was the sub-genre called "urban fantasy" -- which I realized wasn't particularly urban. All the fantastic elements in urban fantasy are the traditional fantasy elements of northern Europe -- elves and whatnot -- displaced to a modern setting. So I wondered what would happen if the fantastic elements were entirely derived from the urban setting, if their proper environment wasn't dark forests and tall mountains, but skyscrapers, power conduits, sewer lines, elevators, and subways.

These were the two lines of thought that produced the Metropolitan series. But since I also included SF tropes like flying cars and computers, most readers seem to have approached the books with SF reading protocols, and were (perhaps) faintly disappointed. The action doesn't resolve as it would in an SF story. But if you ignore the SF furniture and read the books with fantasy reading protocols, I think you'll find that they work.

Even though they are closely related, the blending of science fiction and fantasy hasn't been done successfully very often. What does it take to pull that off?
I think you just have to think harder about it. Among the examples I considered was the entire body of the works of Gene Wolfe. All his works are very rigorously thought out, but none of the architecture is visible on the surface, and what you see are seemingly disparate science fiction and fantasy elements lurking in the background. They seem disparate, but they're not -- you have to look closely at it to realize that.

The general setting of these books is a 1920s-30s technological world with magic. That's an uncommon era for either SF or fantasy -- what drew you to that?
The books were about magic, so I didn't want the technology to dominate, and I restricted the tech to what you might find in a somewhat more scientifictional 1945 -- 1945 with a few advances, like the flying cars. Plus, 40s tech -- all the iron and rivets and bakelite -- is so much more visual than the more efficient, less intrusive technology we have now, and was able to lend itself to some very nice descriptions.

So this isn't something that would've translated very well if you'd put it in, like say, the 70s?
Well, nobody wants to remember the 70s! I mean, if I had to put bell-bottoms and Afros on those characters as well as loading them down with everything else, it would've been pretty dreadful.

You say you've got the third book in the works...
It's not in the works yet. My editor was fired and his whole line canceled, so that will occasion some delay.

So have you given any thought to the fact that this would give you a fantasy trilogy?
Yes, that's a cause of despair. Endless despair, not to mention anguish and angst.

But I've always thought that the best trilogies are the involuntary ones. Tolkien did not set out to write three books, it was just an accident of wartime paper shortages that they were published that way. E.R. Eddison ended writing a trilogy because he died during the third book and couldn't write a fourth. Not that this would stop him now, of course -- E.R. Eddison™ would just carry on in his place.

You've been closely associated with cyberpunk. So now that the sub-genre has been declared dead many times over, what's your perception of cyberpunk's future?
I think cyberpunk has reinvented itself for the 21st century, and has found new ruling metaphors and techniques that will carry it forward. Part of the problem with the original perception of cyberpunk was that Neuromancer was such a critical, commercial and artistic success that all other writers were viewed in light of that one work. So cyberpunk was thought to be exclusively about dystopian futures involving the underclass and technology, where I thought it was just thinking a lot harder about the future and emerging technologies and what they all mean. Books like Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire and Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age and (all modesty aside) my own Aristoi, I think demonstrate new ways of combining newly emerging technologies in interesting and plausible futures, though all of them demonstrate what I like to think of as cyberpunk thought, none of them are in any way stereotypical cyberpunk.

You study martial arts quite seriously.
I have a fourth-degree black belt in Kenpo, which is a Chinese martial art that came to the states via Okinawa and Hawaii, giving it an interesting mixture of Chinese and Japanese elements. It was one of the first -- possibly the first -- karate style to be taught in the United States. And as a consequence, has evolved considerably since its arrival.

What drew you to this particular form?
I had a friend who was doing it, and who got me involved. It turned out to be quite an intellectually satisfying art. There's quite a bit in it more than kicking and punching. And it's been influential in a lot of my work -- Aristoi in particular.

How's that?
One of the things that a movement art will do for you is make you more aware of the interface between your mind and your body, and how that works, and how the one can program the other. And I realized that through doing Kenpo, my mind was being reprogrammed through my body. The people who devised this art were very intelligent people who had very particular points of view, which they reflected in their movements. By doing these movements, you can absorb the thoughts and attitudes of generations of martial artists.

I thought that expanding this idea into a kind of universal kinesic technology for Aristoi would be valuable, a way of creating a body language more universal than spoken language.

A purely "physical" racial memory?
A physical means of communication with deep psychological effect.

There seems to be a disproportionate number of fantasy and science fiction writers who are practitioners of martial arts.
Possibly it's because writing science fiction is very sedentary and we all need an exercise form. And because so many of us are intellectual, we need an exercise form that isn't boring. Martial arts aren't dull -- you're trying to keep someone from knocking your head off!

But I've noticed that some particular martial arts tend to attract writers. Aikido is one. Off the top of my lead I can name about half a dozen Aikido black belts in science fiction, some of whom I've worked with. Whereas Pat Murphy, Richard Kadrey, and I are the Kenpo cadre.

Before you were associated with cyberpunk or even science fiction, you wrote historical novels. How did you get from historical novels to what you're doing now?
When I was trying to break in, I shipped proposals off in practically any area of fiction I enjoyed reading. I wrote mystery proposals, I wrote science fiction proposals, I wrote proposals for literary fiction. And for historical fiction, and as it happened, the historical fiction was the first that sold.

I subsequently wrote five books in a series under the rather transparent pseudonym "Jon Williams," a name chosen for me by my publisher. But the market for historical fiction utterly collapsed. I can almost date it to July 1983, when suddenly I was without an occupation or an income.

At that time, a science fiction proposal that had been around for years sold. Fortunately, it was the right coincidence at the right time, as I think I ended up in the right place.

So did you enjoy writing historical adventures?
I enjoyed them, certainly. There's a certain amount of overlap between the skills necessary to write SF and historical fiction, which is the ability to convey a world that is not the world of the present. As I was also writing adventure novels that took place on ships, I was also able to hone the ability to convey the intricacies of an alien technology -- in this case, square-rigged sailing ships of war -- to the reader without overly burdening them with exposition.

Now that you've established your career in SF, is there any temptation to go back and try historicals again?
Yes, there are some historical books I'd like to write. But unfortunately... Let me put it this way. One of the blessings and curses of my career is that I've always had to make a living at it. I've never had a day job, I've never taught, and until very recently I didn't have a spouse to support my artistic pretensions.

The necessity of making a living constrains some of my choices. So I have to consider whether I can sell something before I write it, and also the price for which I can sell it. The good part about having to deal with these considerations is that I am always constrained to write something that someone will want to read. So if I were to write historical fiction again -- or anything outside of the science fiction/fantasy genre -- I would have to find some way to get paid for it approximately as much as I'd get for writing a science fiction novel, and preferably more, because I'd have to be compensated for the fact that I'd be leaving my regular career for a year or more while I wrote something else.

I've decided the only way to overcome this is to become a world-renowned best-selling author, in which case I can write any damn thing I want and they'll have to print it. Best-sellers are their own genre, and they write their own rules.

Speaking of which, your latest novel, The Rift, has become your most successful novel to date. In a nutshell, you split the U.S. right down the middle with a huge earthquake. I'm sure most British are unaware of the fact that there's a major system of faults that run, essentially, from New York to Texas.
Well, most Americans are unaware of this too, which is why I thought it would make an interesting story. The New Madrid fault is the most dangerous active fault in the entire world -- the last series of quakes there, in 1811, started out with Richter 8.7 and then just kept going. The very thought that America can have an earthquake that isn't in California, let alone a huge earthquake, would come as a surprise to most people in this country.

What did you set out to accomplish with The Rift -- apart from laying waste to North America?
Some of my motives were purely selfish. I wanted to write a book that would be relatively simple, having just finished Metropolitan and City on Fire, which were very complex books. And so I thought I would write a book set in the contemporary U.S. where mostly what I had to do was knock stuff down.

Both literally and metaphorically.
Yeah. I intended that it would be jolly good fun. The rewards of creation are oft times delayed, but the rewards of destruction are immediate.

The Rift is by Walter J. Williams, where previously we've had books by Walter Jon Williams and Jon Williams. You've quite a little cottage industry going here.
It's never me that decides this, I should point out. It's always the editors who decide they want one name or another.

So what's next in the various Williams' pipelines?
I'm sort of between projects right now. I'm waiting for responses from publishers on the next literary endeavour, and in the meantime I've written a movie for the Chinese director Tsui Hark. It's the world's only all-singing, all-dancing, Chinese Marxist Broadway musical. It's called "Broadway Johnny" and it's based on my story of the same name.

How did adapting "Broadway Johnny" for the screen compare to originally writing it?
Screenplays are so different from fiction that it was essentially a whole secondary creation all over again. I had to discover the bits in my own work that were cinematic and make the most of them.

Plus, characters on screen can never have internal lives -- all that they are has to be visible on screen. My fictional characters tend to have very strong internal lives, so this was a lesson very difficult for me to learn.

You're well known for you short stories. What draws you to the form?
Well, some ideas are short stories when you get them, so that's how they turn out. I enjoy writing short stories. It's a very interesting challenge to try and present something in a compact way. I'm not always successful at it. I tend to write very long short fiction.

I also realize there is no way I will ever make a living writing short stories, so in essence I have to write shorts in my spare time, as kind of a hobby. Therefore it has to be a very strong idea to get me to do all this extra work. That is why I think my best work is probably in the short form, simply because I'm responding to the strength of the idea, or to the emotional content of the idea, and that's what's most likely to get me off my couch and writing in the first place.

Now that you've been at this for a while, do you find your limitations falling away as a writer?
I think my abilities are growing. I try to keep honing my axe and keep doing new things, but that's becoming more and more difficult to do, simply because publishing itself is in such disarray. Publishing has reinvented itself several times since I started, and rarely for the better. There's a lot of narrowcasting going on. If I write one successful book, the tendency is to insist that I write more books along that idea and that theme. So far I've pretty much resisted this. I have been able to develop a readership that sort of expects the next book to be a little bit different -- if not a lot different. If I were beginning over again, I'm not sure that would be at all possible.

So what do your abilities allow you to do now that you couldn't do earlier in your career?
Something like City on Fire, quite frankly.

Plus there are several books I've written that are "Everything Walter has Learned In Life Up To This Point." The first of these was Hardwired. And others were Days of Atonement and Aristoi. The Metropolitan sequence, perhaps in a somewhat narrower way, reflects a lot of my thought in political and philosophical spheres.

Who impresses you?
People impress me who have moral qualities that I do not possess. Nelson Mandela for one. I know that if I were Nelson Mandela, I would've punched some white guy in the nose years ago and blown the whole future of South Africa!

Crazed individuals who run true to a totally irrational vision also impress me in certain ways. Howard Waldrop comes to mind.

Growing up, what were your biggest influences?
I guess from the way I turned out, it would have to have been the science fiction of the 40s, 50s and 60s. People like Heinlein, Zelazny and Delany probably influenced me a great deal more than I know.

So how have these influences made Walter Jon Williams the man he is today?
Let me use the metaphor of the daemones from Aristoi. I have a great many daemones in my head, and each one has its own voices and interest and authorities. And all of them are authors. So if you want to know what influences me, read my books. It's all there, because if it's important, it'll turn up in the fiction sooner or later.

(This interview first appeared in the December 2000 issue of the magazine Interzone.)

Copyright © 2000 by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy short fiction and has several in-progress novels lying around in various stages of decay. His non-fiction articles and interviews have seen publication in the U.S., Britain and Australia. His website can be found at

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