2007 Snapshot Archive: Sean Williams

Interviewed by Ben Payne

First published at ASiF!

Certainly the most prolific and, along with Egan and Broderick, one of our most successful SF writers over the last two decades, Sean Williams has had popular and critical success with both science fiction and fantasy. His latest novel is Saturn Returns.

1. You were in the unique position a year or so ago of finishing two series at around about the same time. Did this allow you to take stock of where you were at, artistically and career-wise? Have you set yourself any specific challenges for the period ahead?

It may seem unique, but it’s actually happened to me before. Way back in 2002, I was in the weird position of wrapping up *three* series at once (Star Wars: Force Heretic, the Books of the Change, and Orphans), so two at once doesn’t feel so weird to me.

On the other hand, simultaneously concluding the Books of the Cataclysm and Geodesica did indeed mark a watershed in my career, for two reasons: (1) the last Book of the Cataclysm, The Devoured Earth, was the final chapter in a series that lasted seven books, including the Books of the Change, so it drew a curtain over the biggest, most ambitious story I’ve ever tried to tell; and (2) Geodesica: Descent was the last book I had slated with Shane Dix’s name on the cover.

So, creatively not hugely challenging, but professionally, and in terms of the directions my career was heading, quite momentous.

Obviously, with respect to my work with Shane, there had been a fair amount of soul-searching going on before that point. With fantasy, I’m still deciding whether that will prove to be my last foray into adult fantasy.

I’m using that universe for kids’ books now, and that’s proving to be lots of fun.

As it happens, early next year, I’ll be wrapping up my Astropolis and Broken Land series at the same time, so I think this kind of thing just happens when you work in lots of different areas at once.

Beyond that point, I’m seriously thinking about what kinds of books I want to write for the next few years. After over 25 SF and F novels for adults, young adults and kids, maybe it’s time for me to step away from the genre and try something a little more in line with my other reading habits. Crime and thrillers are my other love, so that could be fun. I’ve also been thinking about doing a PhD. Maybe it’s time to start slowing down a tad and see where life takes me, rather than the other way around.

2. Space opera seems to have taken off, to some extent, over the last decade, courtesy of some fine and intelligent writing. What’s your opinion of the place of that particular genre at the moment, and what attracts you to writing it?

I think the critical and publishing world has discovered what every reader of SF (and watcher of Star Trek and Star Wars) has always known: that space opera is cool. It doesn’t have to be dumb (but it can be); it doesn’t have to be badly written (but it can be); it can be cutting edge (but doesn’t have to be); it can advance the field, even though its tapping into a literary tradition that has been with is for over fifty years. It is, I reckon, the heart of SF, and it’s to the entire field’s detriment that it was ignored for so long, back when cyberpunk was cool.

Well, maybe I’m overstating things a little, but it does seem odd to me that, while space opera novels were winning Hugo Awards voted by the readers, the industry’s attention (writers, editors, critics) seemed to be entirely elsewhere. There’s such an emphasis on being cutting edge in this field that the “traditional”, or perhaps just “established” sub-genres, tend to be sidelined, looked down on, whatever. So space opera flounders in the 80s and early 90s despite the fact that people love to read it and writers like Iain Banks love to write it. Thank Whoever it’s all turned around since then. When Shane and I pitched Evergence back in 1998, it felt like we were very much in a minority. Now there are dozens of writers in the field, and readers are reaping the benefits.

3. You’re also working on a childrens’ series, set in the world of the Change. What was the impetus for moving into writing for a younger audience, and have you learned anything useful from the experience that you can carry into your adult writing?

I love kids’ books. I was asked to write one by a publisher I’d never worked with before. I was just about to start my Masters in Creative Writing and needed something challenging to work on. Those were the three reasons I started writing the Broken Lands series. The perfect project at the perfect time–and I think it’s resulted in one of the best books I’ve written to date.

Writing for kids has taught me to write more concisely: to pack as much characterization and scene-setting in as short a space as possible. Accordingly, my adult books have become shorter. That’s the main difference I can see, but there may be others I haven’t noticed yet. There’s a certain amount of bleed between concurrent books. It’s something that’s both wonderful and irritating, depending on the particular case.

4. But enough about you. Tell us what other authors are taking turns on the Williams ocular turntable. What books have excited you recently?

I discovered Lee Child while on honeymoon recently, and he has been pushing all the right buttons. Nick Drake’s Nefertiti, a crime novel set in agent Egypt, was another recent favourite. (When I’m busy writing, as I have been lately, I find reading outside the genre a big sanity-saver.) In the last week or two, I read the latest Harry Potter and Peter Watts’ Blindsight. I’m about to launch into the Dozois & Strahan New Space Opera collection, which I expect to be brilliant fun. My to-read stack also contains books by Tobias S Buckell, Joe Hill, Philip Reeve and Emily Bronte, and I’m confident all of them will hit the mark.

5. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you’re given the opportunity to get it on with the fictional character you fancy most. Who’s it gonna be?

If you’d asked me this question when I was 14, it would’ve been Jessica from the Logan’s Run novels. Now…well, it’d probably be someone from an anime series, like Tatiana Wisla of Last Exile, or Boomer from the new Battlestar Galactica. To be honest, I don’t really think about it that much any more.

Reality is so much more excellent!

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