Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sean Williams talks Shop

Sean Williams (courtesy Cat Sparks)

Sean is a prolific speculative fiction Australian writer, with 16 Aurealis Award nominations and 8 wins, a Phillip K Dick Award nomination, four New York Times best seller lists, including one that debuted at #1, plus he’s an all round nice guy.

A few years ago when I was running the EnVision workshop I asked Sean to come along to talk to the aspiring writers about what it means to be a professional writer. And he told a story I’ve never forgotten …

Sean: It was ten years ago, or thereabouts. I'd just sold my first fantasy series to Harper Collins and received a major Australia Council grant to write it. The three books were due across a two-and-a-half-year period, which didn't seem too onerous. Having just quit my day job, I knew I'd have time to spare. Easy.

At about the same time I managed to interest Ace in a new space opera trilogy, co-written with Shane Dix, with delivery dates spanning those same two and a half years. That made six books, giving me around five months per draft. That was a slighter brisker pace, but as half of them would be collaborative novels, I figured that would still be doable. (Anyone who's collaborated knows that such work nets half the money and takes twice the time, but we'll gloss over that to get to the meat of the story.)

Six books, signed for but not delivered. Then my agent called in the middle of the night to say that Shane and I had been offered the chance to write for Star Wars. And not just one novel, either. A whole trilogy.

My agent said, "Oh, in the next couple of years or so, I think." I said, "That makes nine books in two and a half years. I don't know if I can write that fast."

He said, "Do you know you can't write that fast?" I said I didn't.

He said, "Well, let's just sign the contract and see what happens. If you fall to pieces, we'll work something out."

I did the maths. I added up the number of books and divided it by the number of days. That came to about 1375 words per day, every day, for 30-odd months. That was daunting, but not too daunting. After all, I'd already proven that I could write fast when I had to. Furthermore, if I aimed for 1500 words, that'd give me a small sanity-break between books.

Next I mapped out the due dates on a calendar. Three books of these nine were due the same month, but it was possible to stagger the drafts and get them all in on time, even when including the time Shane needed to work on six of the books. Some would even be ready early.

So I said yes. And started writing. To some people 1500 words a day may sound like a lot, but it isn't for everyone, once you get into the swing of it. Especially if that's all you're doing, every day. What I hadn't counted on was that it wasn't remotely all that I was doing every day. I hadn't counted on publicity, writers' festivals, interviews, all the mail from Star Wars fans, and three sets of page proofs, say, all turning up in the same week. And so on. The last six of those thirty months were

pretty hellish, but I did get it done. By taking the challenge, I learned what I was capable of.

I usually stop the story here, even though it isn't quite finished yet. My major concern was not with getting the words down: it was that I would drop the ball and release a crappy book. I don't regard myself as a book factory, you see. Being a writer who can work fast isn't enough, because being a writer at all means not just maintaining a baseline quality, but challenging yourself as well. The three series I wrote in those thirty months were very different to each other, and each of those nine books was a challenge in some way. I'm proud to say that, even as the pressure mounted, the quality of the writing went up too. The nine books earned two awards, seven nominations, and three New York Times bestseller listings. One of the last of the nine was recommended by Locus in the same category as Neil Gaiman and Isabel Allende. That's what really makes me proud.

Q: You have 8 book series published or due to be published as well as four independent novels. Some of your books are for adults, some for young adults, some are fantasy, some space opera, some near future noir. And you’ll have had 75 short stories published by the end of this year. If you had to describe yourself as a writer, how would you phrase it? (Other than busy!)

Sean's latest anthology.

Sean: I'm almost as eclectic in my writing as I am in my reading, but that isn't a particularly helpful response to your question. Given that I'm about to move into thrillers and crime fiction as well, I really have no idea how to categorise myself. I just write what I'm most passionate about, and I hope that the market will find a way to accommodate it. Writing under a pseudonym has always appealed to me, so maybe I'll explore this possibility in times to come.

For all my genre-hopping, though, there are themes and ways of storytelling I constantly return to. Speculation, sure--hence all the SF. Australian landscape--overflowing from my fantasy. The blurring of identity--hence crime fiction. Definitions of humanity and the limits of physics--space opera's the perfect vehicle for both of these. People of all shapes and ages--should go without saying for any writer.

Q: You have a long history of collaboration behind you--ten novels with Shane Dix, several short stories with Simon Brown--but just lately you've been concentrating on solo work. Was the transition hard to make? Do you have any plans to collaborate again?

Sean: I do enjoy collaboration, and that's one of the reasons I keep coming back to the Star Wars universe. No, it's not just about the money and the sales, or even clinging to the dreams of my faraway youth. It's working on part of a much larger story, with dozens of other authors, in a universe that is always expanding, always surprising. That's one of the key delights/terrors of collaboration: you can never be entirely sure what's going to happen next. Given that authors traditionally work in a garret with no feedback at all until the book reaches the editor, it's quite a jump into the unknown. I think it's a good thing for writers to take that jump every now and again.

Sometimes the leap has to go the other way. Certainly, working with Shane was a lot of fun and became a very familiar way to write space opera. I'd already begun the process of weaning myself from the collaboration with the Geodesica books, but he was still there to hold my hand. Astropolis was where I finally walked off into that big, bad universe on my own, with no one but myself to blame or give credit to when the book came out. That was terrifying in a whole new way, and just as invigorating.

Future collaborations are not impossible. Shane and I would like to write a fourth Evergence novel one day (The Roche Limit) and I'm working with a couple of people on film projects. Whether they come of anything, time will tell.

Q: You’ve support the writing community by serving on the management committee of the South Australian Writers Centre and now you have nominated for the management committee of the Australian Society of Authors. You’re a busy, successful writer, why do you take time out from your career, to serve the community? Do you have personal goals you would like to see? Eg. Genre writing achieving more respect?

Sean: I do spend a lot of time on committees, these days. I'm also a founding board member of the Big Book Club Inc. and I'm just finishing up a term as Chair of the Arts SA literature advisory panel. I judge for competitions like Writers of the Future and Somerset, and I teach as well. Why?

I guess it's because in the past I've been helped quite profoundly by other writers filling similar roles, in their own time. The late Peter McNamara was a great role model in this regard. He was a publisher, writer and an editor, and passionately committed to improving the lot for every other publisher, writer and editor in the wider community. Not just SF. Not just South Australia. Everywhere he could reach. He did things I could never do. But he did demonstrate how important even the attempt was. I don't think it's saying too much that the cohesion we currently enjoy in the Australian SF scene owes a large part to his efforts, and the example he set. So every time I'm invited to be involved in a large or small way in the betterment of other writers, I can't help but ask what Peter would have done, and to remember what a difference it made to be on the receiving end of such efforts.

Garnering respect for the genre is something I do rail about, but that I suspect is a battle that can't be won by anything other than writing good books. Humanity's natural desire to speculate about the other is gradually overtaking the critics, academics and readers who regard our field with disdain, and that's why we see it creeping more and more into the mainstream. I do worry that SF is becoming a "genre of the gaps"--turning its back on everything that becomes popular or is widely accepted, like Star Wars or The Time Traveler's Wife, simply because these works don't conform to some idea of what the genre should be--but that's not really a matter for such committees. I mainly want to make sure that good books reach a wide audience, and that good writers are rewarded by being paid.

Q: You’ve tutored at Clarion South several times now. (Clarion South is based on the US Clarions. It’s a 6 week boot camp for writers of spec fic. Each tutor comes in for one week). This must be incredibly exhausting but also inspiring. Can you share some insights with us?

Sean: I frequently harangue my students with m "10-and-a-half Commandments".

That's what I call them, but they aren't really commandments as such. They're more like first principles, along the lines of "If you want be a writer, here are some guidelines that will work for everyone." I've bounced them off dozens of people until I feel like I know them by heart.

When I rattled off the list to a group of wonderful writers in Melbourne last year, I was absolutely floored when one of them put up her hand and suggested that all of these first principles rest on one that was even more fundamental. I was stunned. A Zeroth Commandment, one I'd never even considered! It was a revelation.

That's why I like to teach. It forces me to examine anew everything I take for granted, each time I stand up to say something, and it forces me into contact with people possessing their own ideas, their own insights. I learn as much from my students as they learn from me, be they first-timers or practically hacks in their own right, like the WOTF or Clarion crowds. What I get out of the process is more than balanced by what I put into it.

The Zeroth Commandment, btw, was commitment. If you're not committed to being a writer, if you aren't absolutely sure that this is what you want to do, then no amount of first principles will help you. You might as well give up now and get a real job (as Charles Brown of Locus once advised me, way back when), and save you and everyone around you a whole lot of grief.

Q: I notice you write for YA and adult, plus you write across spec fic genres. Some might argue that this dilutes your readership. Based on experience, would you agree or disagree?

Sean: My experience doesn't reveal anything about this question, to be honest. The readers seem to work it out. Having good covers help, of course. There's no mistaking The Grand Conjunction for The Scarecrow, for instance. The difference is obvious just by looking.

One always hopes, of course, that the vast audience for Star Wars will drift across to original books by the same author, and to a certain extent that is true. But there's not a huge crossover. I have a Star Wars audience, a SF audience, and a fantasy audience. That's how I tend to think of it. And now, I guess, I have a fantasy audience that's split into kid, YA and adult age-groups, if those distinctions really mean anything. I basically count myself as fortunate to have any at all audience for the stories I love to write.

Q: In 1984 you won the Young Composer's Award for a theme and three variations for string quartet with flute, oboe and trumpet soloists called "Release of Anger". Its original title was "Cowled they the Rampant Gargoyle Down" which sounds like Angry Young Man music to me but I can’t reconcile this with a string quartet. Do you listen to music as you write? Does each separate book series have a musical album or suite of albums in your mind? And do you ever see yourself getting back into music in a big way?

Sean: I say that I would love nothing more than to have the time to take three months off writing each year and work solely on music. If I'm honest with myself, though, I'm not sure that's such a good idea. Maybe it's been too long. Maybe I only ever dabbled and simply don't have the skills now to do anything of value, so I'd just be wasting my time.

But what is this "value" I speak of? How hard can it be to re-learn the skills? What's wrong with dabbling in the first place?

I think I'd still love the opportunity to see what would happen if I did give it a go. I'm getting more and more ideas for musical projects as time goes on, and I guess that creative energy has to go somewhere eventually.

These days I write almost exclusively to experimental ambient music, cycling through all sorts of artists and sounds (never vocals, rarely structured in a conventional way, never ever boring) but usually coming back to the maste Steve Roach at some point. Quite often one track will stick through a project, triggering the right neural nets in my brain as I sit down every day. Just lately I wrote a novel while listening to a single track by Brisbane muso Deepspace, aptly titled "Another Empty Galaxy". At this very moment I'm listening to a couple of collaborative albums by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto. They'll cycle around until the next ambient space opens up, as required.

Q: What’s inspiring your writing at the moment?

Sean: Apart from music, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey & Maturin opus, which I'm halfway through. Garth Nix and others have been telling me to read these books for years. I can't believe it took me so long to pay attention! When I picked up the first one last year, I was instantly hooked me.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years, and in 15 years?

Sean: Hmm. That's a tricky question. It was much easier in the early days. The goals were more clearly defined, then. "Finish a short story." "Sell a short story." "Finish a novel." "Get a novel published." I mean, is there anything quite as important as that? "Sell a novel overseas"? "Win an award"? "Publish in hardback"? "Be a natcon GOH"? "Write for Star Wars"? "Appear on the New York Times bestseller list"? They're all good things, but I wouldn't count them as goals as such. They're just things that happened along the way.

These days my goals relate to maintaining the career, because if I can't eat, I can't write. Maintaining the career, though, isn't just about keeping the cheques rolling in, whatever it takes. I need to keep learning new skills and conquering new fears. Romance? Check. Sex scenes? Check. Kids? Check. Realist setting? Working on that. Humour? Still far too chicken to try.

So in five years time I expect to be facing challenges I can't imagine now or still dealing with some familiar ones that I haven't conquered. I do hope to be writing more than one book a year only by choice, not because I have to, as is currently the case. I'd like my kids' books to have reached an audience overseas, as is currently not the case, so I can keep on writing them. I'd also like to have finished my PhD and at least dabbled with writing some new music.

In fifteen years, who knows? Maybe I'll have slowed right down, creatively, and taken up teaching as a career path. (Not that teaching isn't creative in its own way. It absolutely should be.) Maybe I'll have sped up. Maybe I'll be working in film or TV (two areas that seem to be creeping back into my life at the moment). I doubt I'll have retired completely, since I enjoy it so much.

Anything's possible, though. I'm fully open to the idea of going back to uni to study maths.

Q: I hear you can make a mean curry. Do you have a favourite recipe you'd like to share with us?

Sean: Ah, curries. I'd eat them every day, given the chance. One of my favourite recipes is a simple but deliciously spicy marinated chicken curry, which you can find in the Women's Weekl y Easy Curry cook book (my secret revealed--gasp!). We have a teenager in the family, Seb, who from the age of two refused to eat anything more complicated than steamed veges or a hot dog. At about 12, though, he started expressing interest in more lively food, and with great nervousness he tasted a teaspoon of this curry. He absolutely loved it, which is a sign of how delicious it is. Don't hold back on the coriander, and it'll taste even better if you have the time to grind the spices yourself. Like all things in life, the more you put into it, the better it'll be.


Dave Freer said...

Sean, I've found myself overcommited with books and deluding myself about how much I can write. You're so right that is not just about wordcount - on a good day I can write 5000 words (which puts me on the low end of very productive. Some people just frighten the hell out of me with their talent and productivity) but I just can't do that every day (tends to go in runs for me). As the actress said to the bishop (I believe you really nove this statement;-)) it's not how long it is but how often you can do it. 30 months is amazing. And I certainly find real life - from kids to moving house chews even more holes into any well planned schedule. Anyway:Great read. Thank you for the interview. I do a fair crab curry - probably not hot enough for you - but hope try it on you someday.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

If we're going to talk curries, we will all have to be in the same city some time and go our to a family Indian restaurant together!

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