Author Interview: Jen Williams

Just a couple of weeks ago, I posted an article discussing my most anticipated fantasy debuts of 2014. That article had a fantastic response and I’m so pleased that I am able to introduce these new authors to those of you who hadn’t yet heard about them. One of those new authors is Jen Williams, whose novel The Copper Promise is released in just under a week’s time.

Author Photo

Following that, I’m pleased to report that Jen has kindly agreed to give an interview for Fantasy In Motion! So, without further ado, here is what transpired…

* * *

Hi Jen, thanks for joining us today.

I wanted to start this interview talking about you as a writer. When did you first know you wanted to write fantasy? What inspired you to take that path?

I’ve always leaned towards fantasy. When I was a kid I refused to read books that were set in our world, or involved normal kids doing normal things. My very first stories, always heavily illustrated by me, were about dragons, pirates, and secret treasure – so not a lot has changed. I loved stories set in strange lands, in places that didn’t exist in our world, and as I got older I became more interested in mythology and folklore. When I first started thinking about writing a book I didn’t even question what genre it would be; fantasy has always been the place where anything could happen, and I found that deeply appealing. With The Copper Promise, I had quite suddenly fallen back in love with traditional fantasy, and it occurred to me that I’d never really written anything like that. I wondered what would happen if I embraced the kind of fantasy I’d grown up loving, and the book was the result of that.

Which authors would you say are your biggest inspiration?

Like a lot of people my age, I grew up on a diet of Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman, and I’ve no doubt those three are the foundation of my love of books as well as my love of writing. All three of them create characters that you know intimately within a few pages, and I think that’s why I want everything I do to be primarily character-driven: you have to care about the people you’re travelling with, or you’ll never get to the end of the journey. They were certainly my heroes growing up, and as a writer now there are so many authors I admire hugely; George R.R. Martin and Adrian Tchaikovsky both combine huge sprawling conflicts with characters you care about deeply. China Miéville is an inspiration too – although I could never hope to use language in the way that he does, he was the writer that showed me that fantasy could truly be anything you wanted it to be, and The Scar blew me away. I’m a huge fan of Scott Lynch too, who brought an utterly charming sense of humour to fantasy, and John Connolly’s writing is just beautiful. With regards to The Copper Promise in particular, my big inspiration was Fritz Leiber and his Lankhmar stories. I loved the sense of pure fun, adventure and straight-up weirdness that comes across in those tales, not to mention the hugely likeable pairing of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. Wydrin the Copper Cat and Sir Sebastian Carverson certainly owe a debt to those two.

What is your writing process like when you begin work on a novel? Are you a big planner or a “by the seat of your pants” type writer?

After many years of trial and error, I seem to have settled on a half and half approach. Usually I will plan out the story until I have all the major plot points, with some notes on character development and what the story itself will mean to each main character. Once that’s in place and I can resist fiddling with it, I throw myself into the book itself, and most of the time I follow where it leads. Quite often my original plan goes through several severe rewrites as characters make decisions that surprise me, or I just plain change my mind. I like having room to shift around as I work my way through the first draft, so I don’t feel trapped by my own notes.

What does your writing setup look like? Do you enjoy drafting on a computer or good old fashioned pen and paper?

All of my planning is done with pen and paper, usually across a wide collection of notebooks, scraps of paper, and Post-Its. At some point I will attempt to correlate the whole lot on a pinboard, forming a rough papery story map. It tends to be quite messy. For some reason I can’t even begin to do this process on the computer, it just feels completely wrong. I do use Evernote to keep track of important character and worldbuilding information, and I have to admit that has been ridiculously useful, particularly as I move into writing the second book. Mostly though, planning with pen and paper just feels more organic, not to mention the sheer pleasure I get from collecting notebooks. I am a bit of a notebook addict. Once the book is planned, the actual draft is written on my laptop in Word. Any more bells and whistles than that and I get distracted. I still have my physical notebooks with me at all times though, because even as I draft on the computer I continue to make notes in pen and ink.

Talking about fantasy as a genre, what is it to you? For me, it’s always been about Lord of the Rings and those epic journeys across sweeping landscapes. It’s kind of clichéd, but that’s what I’ve always loved. How about you?

To me, fantasy is speculative fiction that allows you to play with worlds that could never exist. George R.R. Martin said that fantasy is written in the language of dreams, and I agree; we use the short hand of mythology to tell stories that will reverberate with everyone, because we all grow up knowing the hero’s journey, or what happens to you if you cross a witch. The glory of that is that you can go nearly anywhere with it, and there will always be something new happening in the genre as someone takes the path less travelled.

Where do you think fantasy is headed in the next couple of years? Do you think gritty/grimdark fantasy still has more to give or is it time for something fresh?

Well, I’m a bit of a fan of Grimdark myself – particularly Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin, who tend to get tagged with that label – and I think fantasy needed that particular kick up the arse. I suspect that Grimdark was a useful way of moving the genre forward, and I love characters who are morally dubious and not necessarily heroic, because they feel closer to us. Perhaps the focus will move away from the gritty military-based fantasy that has been popular lately, and maybe there will be a resurgence of monsters and magic – I say that entirely selfishly, because The Copper Promise certainly falls into that group – but I honestly don’t feel like it matters too much. Fantasy is such a big genre, and there’s something in there for everyone. Love blood and shouting and devastating battles? We’ve got that covered. Love family sagas and doomed romance and secret assassins? Got that too. Want some magic and doom and dragons in your life? We’re all over that. It really is the best genre.

Speaking of something fresh, let’s talk about your novel, The Copper Promise. As soon as I read the blurb for this novel, I was snagged. Can you tell us a little about the book and the ideas behind it?

The book follows the adventures of two sellswords, Wydrin Threefellows and Sir Sebastian Carverson, and what happens to them when they accept what at first appears to be a straightforward job from the mysterious Lord Frith. It’s true to say that they get a lot more than they bargained for…  I really wanted to write a heroic fantasy book about characters that aren’t naturally heroic. What do you do if you’re only in it for the coin, but the massive, world-ending disaster is technically your fault?

I also wanted to write a book with a female main character who was a character in her own right – that sounds odd, but I was getting very tired of seeing women in fantasy novels who only functioned as a reward or a catalyst for the main character, who was always a bloke. The Copper Promise and its sequel are full of women that aren’t in any way defined by their relationships with men. Having said that, I was also keen to depict a platonic friendship between a man and a woman who were equal partners and very close friends; that’s something else that doesn’t seem to crop up in fantasy books often enough.

Another thing that drew me to The Copper Promise was the cover art. For me (though I hate to admit it), the art is 50% of what leads me to buying a book or not. What are your thoughts on cover art in fantasy?

Oh, I love fantasy art. It’s quite a scary moment, when you get the email with your cover image in it because, let’s face it, I am very fussy, but I was absolutely thrilled with the cover for The Copper Promise. The creative team at Headline have completely nailed that playful, retro air as well as sticking a great big dragon on the front. Cover art is always important, but particularly so in fantasy I think, because often you’re trying to convey the mood of a very specific world.

So what are you working on at the moment? Is the sequel to Promise in the works or are you taking a deserved rest?

I’m hard at work on the follow-up, which is probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. When I started writing The Copper Promise it was simply to please myself, and I had an enormous amount of fun doing it. Now, however, I have a contract to fulfil and all at once there’s an alarming level of pressure involved. However, going back to that world with those characters is a joy, and I’m excited to see where this next adventure takes them.

Thank you very much for speaking to us. Best of luck with the novel this year!

Copper Promise

The Copper Promise is published February 13th 2014 by Headline Books. You can pick it up at Amazon and all good bookshops!

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