Friday, April 15, 2011

Sean Williams - Author Interview Series

Sean Williams' latest book is Troubletwisters, which he co-wrote with Garth Nix. The book is due out in May, published by Allen & Unwin.

What authors/books did you read as a child? When did you first discover your love of books?

I discovered a voracious love for books when I was very young. I would literally read anything that was lying around --trashy old pulps, my mother’s Agatha Christie Novels, even Alex Haley’s Roots (which I remember reading when I was about nine or ten). I also loved Doctor Who, so it wasn’t long before I was reading the novelizations of the show, and I still have my collection after all these years. I even read one of them recently. Other books I still read from those early days are the Le Guin Earthsea trilogy, Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence, and John Christopher’s Tripods novels. My family moved to Darwin when I was 11 or so, and the local library had a terrific collection of Golden Age SF, so it was then that I discovered my great love of the genre. And then, when I was 12, someone gave me The Lord of the Rings. After that point, there was no going back.

When did you first realise you were a writer? What do you hope your readers will take away with them from reading your books?

I started telling stories when I was about nine years old, as my Creative Writing exercise books from that time reveal. They’re not very good, but the desire is there--to take a lead from the stuff I’d been reading and create my own plots, characters, settings, etc. I guess the desire was in me from that moment, to be a writer, and I wrote a bunch of novels in my teens, driven by that desire. But I didn’t decide that I would give it a concerted effort until I was 22 or thereabouts, when I dropped out of uni, got a bunch of part-time jobs, and really went for it. The plan was to sell a novel within ten years, or I’d have to give it up. Such was my desperation not to give up, it took me only five.

I hope that my readers will find my books impossible to put down, and that they will be left with something that changes them--be that an idea they’ve never encountered before, a glimpse into a character who challenges them, or even just an emotional aftertaste--hopefully a positive one.

Do you find it difficult to read purely for pleasure? Does everything you read come under your ‘writer’ microscope?

I’m very critical. Books have to grab me on the first page or I don’t read any further. When books do grab me, I’m a very willing reader, and I love nothing better than to be swept away. Sometimes both the reader and the writer in me gasp in awe, and books that do that are the holy grail. If only there were more of them.

Do you have to avoid reading certain types of fiction while writing your own? Does what you read while writing have an effect on what you write? In what way?

I’m definitely influenced by the books I read--on every level, from word choice to theme--so I’m careful only to read books that contribute to the work I’m trying to produce. It’s not always a direct match--YA novels while writing YA, or SF while writing SF, or whatever. When I wrote The Force Unleashed a few years back, for instance, I was reading nineteenth century Gothic novels. I can’t put my finger on what I was getting out of them, but whatever it was, it was working.

Name five authors or books that have influenced or inspired your own writing in some way?

Larry Niven--for pacing, style, balancing characters against hard SF.
Tim Powers--for magic systems, process, voice.
Patrick O’Brian--for proving that as long as you’re being entertaining and effective, every rule can be broken.
Kevin J Anderson--for early (and ongoing) advice on how to be a professional writer.
Anne McCaffery--for romance, non-fantasy dragons, and graciousness at all times.

I could go on for pages.

If you were travelling and were told you could only take one book with you, what book would it be and why?

I had to come up with a Top Ten recently, and that was hard. Just one is impossible! *reaches for ten-sided dice* A Wizard of Earthsea. I read that book every year. Pure genius.

What makes a book ‘too good to put down’?

Everything: characters, plot, setting, theme, structure, voice, etc. When it’s all working together, all chugging along in perfect sync, it becomes better than the real world. Literally. The real world doesn’t have an author or editor making sure that everything fits; it’s just random, messy, disappointing. Who wouldn’t take a good book over that?

There’s only one thing better than a book that’s too good to put down and that’s a book too good to finish. I’m halfway through O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin sequence, and have been for a while because I just don’t want it to end.

What makes you put down a book without finishing it?

It can be bad science in a book purporting to be take itself seriously. It can be the wrong tone when dealing with a subject I hold dear. It can be overt and uncritical religiosity. It can be graphic sex that feels like it was written by a 12-year old. It can be a grammatical error, or even just a quirk that gets on my nerves. It can be anything, basically, that lifts me out of the book and puts me back into the real world--because that’s not the contract I entered into. I read a book to be transported elsewhere, not to be reminded of myself holding a book that isn’t gripping me.

Do you have a favourite author? Who is it and what is it about their writing that draws you to them?

For a long time, my favourite author was Robert Anton Wilson, because he juggled more or less successfully a whole bunch of things that are very difficult to do individually, let alone all at once--including humour, sex, memorable characters, concision, non-linear narratives, outrageous allegories, scientific rigour, and mind-blowing ideas. His Schrödinger’s Cat books got me through adolescence, and to a large degree made me who I am today. I couldn’t say that he influenced me as a writer--I don’t think I’m brave enough to write the way he did--but without his books I don’t think I would have become a writer in the first place. He taught me that a little craziness is a good thing, and what could be crazier than dropping out of uni to become a writer?

If you had to list them, what would be your ‘top ten’ reads of all time (excluding the classics) and why?

Another hard question. And I guess it depends on what you define as a classic, since the very presence of a book on my list would qualify it as a classic, at least to me. :-) I’d have to go back to my Top Ten Desert Island novels, which are, in order by author:

Soul of a Robot by Barrington J Bailey
A Maze of Death by Philip K Dick
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
The Water-Method Man by John Irving
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin
Ringworld by Larry Niven
The Satanic Mill by Ottfried Preussler
The Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson
The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham

To make it onto this list, I had to have read each book more than once. That I keep coming back to these books, over and over again, makes them timeless for me.

What was your 2010 ‘best read’? What was it that made it number one?

I’d probably put Sarah Waters’
Fingersmith in that spot. It wasn’t published in 2010, but that was when I encountered it. It’s a wonderful modern Gothic exploit, with a beautiful romantic arc as well. Everything’s on fire in this novel. I couldn’t fault a single word.

The other novels I really loved were the two released this year by Lee Child,
61 Hours and Worth Dying For. Jack Reacher is possibly the best male action character ever written. I just devour his books.

What do you think of the non-traditional publishing methods – eBooks etc? Do you think the new technology will encourage more people to read? Do you think there’s a future for print books?

I’ve been waiting for e-books for fifteen years, and I’m so glad they’re finally booming. It seems to me that book sales have to go up, now that books are easier to obtain and store, cheaper to buy, and completely portable. That doesn’t mean it’ll be good news all across the publishing sector, of course. The mass-market paperback seems to be a dead format, and I wouldn’t want to be running a big chain of bookstores right now, but I do think printed books will survive, and so will bookstores. There are markets in which digital isn’t likely to make huge inroads, like books for kids, cookbooks, and of course pop-up books, of which I am a big fan.

Sean Williams writes prolifically across the field of science fiction and fantasy, for adults, young adults and children, and enjoys the odd franchise, too, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who. His work has won awards, debuted at #1 on the New York Times hardback bestseller list, and been translated into numerous languages. He even writes the odd poem. Born in the dry, flat lands of South Australia, he still lives there with his wife and family, and DJs in his spare time.

Find out more about Sean at

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