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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Author Tad Williams

Tad Williams has held more jobs than any sane person should admit to. From singing to selling shoes, managing a financial co., newspaper delivery, designing military manuals, to radio host. He has taught grade school and college and cofounded an interactive tv company, written comics and film and tv scripts. His fantasy debut was Tailchaser´s Song in 1985. He followed that with Memory Sorrow & Thorn in 1988, Other series include The Otherland and Shadowmarch trilogies and several more standalone novels as well as short stories. Tad, Deborah, & their kids, live in the San Francisco with more cats, dogs, turtles, pet ants and banana slugs than they can count. Tad can be found online as @tadwilliams on Twitter, on Facebook, and at his website at

SFFWRTCHT: Where´d your interest in SFF come from?

Tad Williams: My interest in science fiction and fantasy goes back to books I was read as a child, later read to myself—Nesbit, WitWILLOWS, and when I was eleven, Tolkien.  I chose SFF because I thought it was my best chance to judge whether I was any good or not, because it ran in me like blood.

SFFWRTCHT: Awesome influences. I can definitely see it in your work. Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft? Any writing rituals beyond butt in chair?

TW:  I was a college drop-out, but have always been a huge reader. That and perspective I think are the two main needs for writers. Craft is mainly a process of building muscle and learning from others. Outside perspective helps, too. It’s like exercise—repetition builds reflex. But once you make a reflex, challenge yourself with new stuff. Most important: finishing things. Second-most—read extensively out of genre.

SFFWRTCHT: Were you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?

TW: My version of fandom was theater. I didn’t discover cons until I was a pro. But it’s basically the same nurturing, funny group.

SFFWRTCHT: Where´d the idea for Fritti Tailchaser come from? Do you have a long history with cats?

TW: The idea for Tailchaser came from living with cats for the first time. A film is in preproduction, hooray!  It’s still early but they have been very open to input from me and have solicited all along.

SFFWRTCHT: And now there’s an Otherland film or films in the works. What role will you play in the process? Do you get to be a producer? Have any input? Or are you just the guy whose world they’re having their way with?

TW: I have no idea yet whether they’re going to want any input from me at all.  I think the whole thing derived from a script, so I’m assuming they’ve figured out something about the direction they want to take already.  I’ll be happy to contribute if they ask me, of course— I’m very interested not just in my own property but in the whole process. If I hadn’t gone into writing I probably would have gone into film.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have a similar role in the Tailchasers animated film?

TW: Tailchaser, to this point, has been a smaller production so they’ve been very willing to run things past me and get my input.  I don’t know if the Otherland production will be the same, at least as far as soliciting my input.  I’m not the kind of writer who freaks out about changes— obviously when you’re dealing with a story this large, some things will have to change.  Tailchaser is probably going to stick closer to the book, but that’s just a guess in my part.

SFFWRTCHT: You’re far more a fantasy than a science fiction writer. So what prompted you to write the Otherland Quartet?

TW: I’m really only considered a fantasy writer because I write such long books that people sometimes don’t see the bigger picture, which is that I’m actually trying different things fairly regularly. But, when I take five or six years to finish a story, it seems like that’s what I always do. Really, I think I’m both kinds of writer.

SFFWRTCHT: Otherland was written before the real explosion of social media but really was prophetic were you into tech early?

TW: I worked at Apple in the late 1980s and got fascinated with the future of multimedia, which led directly to Otherland.  I very consciously made Otherland a New School Epic Fantasy—more modern subject matter, characters, locales, and philosophy.

SFFWRTCHT: Give us please a brief elevator pitch of what Otherlands is about?

TW: The Otherland story is about a time in the near-future when the rich and powerful have built themselves the ultimate virtual universe—a place where they can leave their aging, unhealthy bodies behind and live like immortal gods.  But the Otherland network is having a bad effect on children all over the world, putting them in comas, and when a group of unrelated folk are drawn together to investigate they find themselves trapped inside this ultimate network, traveling from world to invented world — everything from history to literature to complete craziness — trying to solve the mystery of Otherland.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve been involved in screenwriting yourself, so you’re familiar with the process. When an author sells rights, what kinds of changes should they typically expect to happen in adapting a novel for the screen?

TW: I think there’s probably a different set of challenges with every single book.  Obviously books with a lot of narrative presence are probably going to lose that onscreen, unless the film is aimed at children.  With something like Otherland, there are literally dozens and dozens of characters and subplots that wouldn’t make it to the screen even if they adapted it into four separate films to match the number of volumes.  The main thing is to keep your mind and your eyes open and contribute when it’s useful.  I’d love to help the Hollywood folk figure out which parts of Otherland can be dispensed with for a screen adaptation.

SFFWRTCHT: How much do you credit the popularity of Martin’s Game Of Thrones with reviving interest in fantasy properties from Hollywood?

TW: I’m sure it’s going to have a big effect in the long run, but it’s hard to say.  In Hollywood, you’re only as good as your last movie, and that’s true even if you’re a concept, not an actor or director.  One bad box-office from a major fantasy film and everything will change.  And vice-versa.  It’s good to put yourself in the “I have no control” frame of mind.  Even a good producer will make something different from what the writer imagines, and often they have no choice—it has to be done that way to make a good film.

SFFWRTCHT: When you wrote the first of the Otherland books did you know it’d be a four-book series?

TW: Otherlands was the only one I knew would be four books. All the other times I was just stupidly optimistic.

SFFWRTCHT: Where’d the idea of three swords and Simon the scullion come from in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn?

TW: Simon comes straight out of the Arthurian cycle; Galahad worked in the kitchen. Without spoiling for those who have not read the series, I wanted readers to focus on those swords so I made them big and mythical.

SFFWRTCHT: Do your characters ever surprise you and break from the outline? Do you change as you go sometimes?

TW: Absolutely. Some very minor characters have become crucial, like Cadrach in Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

SFFWRTCHT: Did any of the series start as or spawn short stories?

TW: Short stories come from solicits for me but I like to try new ideas out in short form—see “And Ministers of Grace.

SFFWRTCHT: If you had to pick one series for the Peter Jackson treatment, which would you choose?

TW: That would have to be Memory, Sorrow And Thorn because it’s got lots of monsters.

SFFWRTCHT: When asked, how do you choose projects tied to other universes and properties to write?

TW: If I like the universe – definitely, yes. I’ve written Hellboy, Elric and Sandman stories for just that reason.

SFFWRTCHT: Is the Shadowmarch series done or more coming?

TW: Shadowmarch is finished; unlike some people, I finish my stories. Just kidding.

SFFWRTCHT: Your books are so intricate, do you spend a long time plotting and outlining to make sure all the pieces are there? Do you ever go back and reread your previous books to sort it out?

TW: Simple answer: Yes. Weaving together timelines and plotlines is tough but enjoyable work.  It’s a hard one to explain, but what works for me is actually to keep it in my head. It’s hard to explain but that way it feels live and malleable.  Only occasionally do I reread my books, and mostly for things like eye-color and clothes at last appearance.

SFFWRTCHT: What´s your writing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?

TW: Writing time: think in the morning, write in the afternoon, surrender to children and dogs in the evening.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of the writers who have taught you the most in reading them?

TW: Writers who taught me the most, that’s hard to say. Off the top of my head, I’d say, Sturgeon, Pynchon, LeGuin.

SFFWRTCHT: How long does the typical novel take you to write?

TW: Six months to two years, depending on how complicated it is.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you use any special software or music playlist?

TW: For thinking I use ambient or classical music.

SFFWRTCHT: When you write Fantasy pieces how do you manage the language, the accent of your characters?

TW: Language/accent is very complicated. I try to make things consistent. Liking languages helps.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you move the book once you are finished publishing it?

TW: Here’s what I do: read books, suck up ideas, always, always give and entertain before you sell.

SFFWRTCHT: How do you deal with writer´s block?

TW: I believe writer’s block is just a normal need to go slow and solve something and the block itself is really a failure of confidence. New writers should not be afraid to wait until they are ready to move ahead. Sometimes it just takes a pause.

SFFWRTCHT: Any tips for potential writers who want to make a living with it?

TW: Assuming you have talent you still need to outwork your competition – sell yourself, don’t give up. You need to make a space, and that’s mental as well as physical.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

TW: Urban Fantasy, Bobby Dollar novels, starting 9/12: The Dirty Streets of Heaven/Happy Hour in Hell/Sleeping Late on Judgement Day. Plus I just released a short story collection during the holidays.

A free preview story from William’s collection can be read on the SFFWRTCHT site here.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012 along with his book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing and the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 which he edited for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As  a freelance editor, he’s edited a novel for author Ellen C. Maze (Rabbit: Legacy), a historical book for Leon C. Metz (The Shooters, John Wesley Hardin, The Border), and is now editing Decipher Inc’s WARS tie-in books for Grail Quest Books.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.