Tad Williams is the bestselling author of the Memory, Sorrow & Thorn series, the Otherland series, and the Shadowmarch series. He has also written several other novels, such as Tailchaser’s Song, The War of the Flowers, and The Dragons of Ordinary Farm, which was co-written with his wife, Deborah Beale. His short fiction has appeared in such venues as Weird Tales, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and in the anthologies Legends and Legends II. A collection of his short work, Rite, was released in 2006. He has also written for D.C. Comics, first with the miniseries The Next, and then doing a stint on Aquaman.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
So tell us about your new book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven. What’s it about?
The initial idea was about the similar nature between the standard version of heaven versus hell—the classic, Western, Judeo-Christian idea that has developed—and the way that the Cold War was actually run, where the whole thing was sort of happening under the surface and all of the struggle was, to an extent, not noticed by most people most of the time. The main character, Bobby Dollar, is an Earth-bound angel who’s part of the process of Earthly souls being judged after the people die. But then things begin to get stranger, and other odd things happen in the Cold War between heaven and hell, and he winds up in a lot deeper than he had expected. So on one level it’s a fantasy—it’s about angels, it’s about demons, it’s about all that stuff. On another level, it’s also very much, I think, similar to a crime novel in its characters and approach.
When you’re writing a book where the protagonist works for God, if God is all-powerful, is it a challenge then to create problems for your protagonist?
Well, one of the interesting things about the book, I think, is that how the universe really works is not necessarily apparent to the minions down at the bottom end, of which our main character is one. Nobody he knows has ever met God, just as an example. The heavenly bureaucracy is huge and complicated, and the people at the bottom have only the dimmest idea of where their orders are coming from.
I’ve always wondered why the forces of hell would show up at Armageddon if they know they’re going to lose. But in your book, you suggest that they think they’re going to win.
Yeah. I think Bobby actually says something to the effect of that they think that’s all just PR and that they have a perfectly good chance to win, and since they sort of represent the chaos side of things—I don’t know how well you know Michael Moorcock’s cosmology of law and chaos. It wasn’t intentional—though I’m a big Moorcock fan—but the way it worked out as I was thinking these things through is that heaven winds up being sort of like Ultimate Law in Moorcock’s version of things, which is something that doesn’t change. It’s very static. It’s all about the same frequency of reward and existence, and it just keeps going on and on and on and on.
Hell is much more dynamic, because the—and this is the main character’s presumption, I tend not to step in as the narrator in this, because it’s being told by the main character—but the main character’s presumption is that hell has to be varied, otherwise punishment is no longer effective, because it becomes familiar. So hell has to be something where your punishment surprises you, and part of your punishment is that there is no getting used to things because you never know what will happen next. That’s a very simplified version, but that’s one of the main differences. So hell is quite dynamic and changing. It’s very feudal. It’s very much about “whoever has the power makes the rules.” In heaven that’s true also, but you don’t know who made the rules. The rules have all been made and they’re not changing.
I really enjoyed the angel and demon names in the book. To what extent are those drawn from folklore and to what extent did you just make them up?
A lot of them come from traditional folklore—as I’m sure you know, a lot of angel names are in fact the names of religious figures or deities and things like that that were supplanted by Christianity, in most cases. Both the demons and the angels. And then some of them I have in fact made up.
What about the demon names like “Grasswax” and “Howlingfell”?
In a lot of cases I am taking things like that—the names of the common order of demons—I’m sort of inventing a pseudo-medieval sort of name, like the kinds of things that used to come up in witch trials. You know, where the women would admit the devil had sent them a familiar named such and such, and they always had these kind of odd, little, strangely domestic names that didn’t really sound very dramatically devilish, but clearly this had become the common currency at the time for what demon servants would be called.
An example just off the top my head would be, say, Lovecraft’s “Brown Jenkin.” That was probably also based on these medieval stories where they were named things like “Creeper” or “Black Pat,” or just these very prosaic names. So that’s where I got that, but as I said, a lot of the names are actually invented, and I have to do that in part just because I tend to have so many names in even a very short book like this that I work very carefully to keep them from being too similar-sounding.
The book is set where you live, in the vicinity of Stanford University. What are some of the benefits or drawbacks of using that as a setting?
The main thing that occasioned that is, as I was first approaching the idea of writing something with kind of a noir angle to it—and specifically a noir in the classic mode of being told first person by the protagonist—the more I thought about it, the more I realized that one of the things about noir as a subgenre is it is almost always urban, and that’s because of the anonymity of cities, that’s because of the size of cities, oftentimes because of the impenetrability of cities and their subcultures.
Gaiman does this all the time, he invents these civilizations that exist just under the radar, as it were. It’s very exciting for readers to think that these things are right around the corner, or right underneath a leaf, or just behind the Hogwarts track 9 and 1/2 sign, or anything like that. So very much, for me, I wanted a city. On the other hand, I also wanted to write something where I felt very familiar with the sort of locations. And what’s around Stanford University, which is the general area where I grew up, is a huge suburban area between San Francisco and San Jose—the two capitals of the Silicon Valley/Bay Area, whatever you want to call it. So what I did was make an artificial city—I invented a city that wound up happening instead of San Jose. So I could write local, but I could still write a city.
Why did you choose the name “San Judas”?
Well, partially because everything around here—certainly most of the cities—were named by the Spanish missionaries, Junípero Serra’s people and those after them, so most of the big cities in California—San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Jose, San Francisco—are named after saints. But of course the nature of this particular kind of strange city, this slightly odd, off-kilter, Thomas Pynchonian kind of a place, was such that I wanted to name it differently. So “San Judas” is actually Saint Jude the Obscure, patron saint of lost causes, but people constantly mistake that Judas—you know, you could see the missionaries naming this place after Saint Judas Thaddeus, Saint Jude, but that everyone would assume it was named after Judas Iscariot, the guy who betrayed Christ, so it seemed like a perfect fit.
In an interview from two years back, you said that the book would be called Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. Why’d you decide to change that?
Strictly because as I thought about these three linked books, the first three Bobby Dollar books—I’m hoping to write more, because I really enjoy it—but I certainly knew that these three linked books would have an arc to them, and it seemed to me the more I thought about it that Sleeping Late on Judgment Day was a better name for the last book of the three. I already had Happy Hour in Hell pretty much locked in for the second book, so I just came up with a new name for the first one and moved the other one to being the last. So there will still be a Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. It will just be the last of the three.
The book describes heaven as being a beautiful garden, but my initial reaction to that was that I don’t really care how nice a garden it is, if there’s no internet there I’m not interested.
For me, any book I’m writing is also a chance to get in and research and read and learn things that I maybe only knew a little bit about before. So one of the fascinating things about researching heaven and hell is, of course, the fact that there are so few descriptions of heaven, because most people can’t really explain what it would be like beyond a couple of sentences, whereas hell is quite often personal. It’s usually quite grotesque—I mean, I’m talking about medieval visions, and more recent people’s feelings that they’ve had a vision of hell, and they’re all quite individual. They’re oftentimes quite specific and very odd.
So what I wanted to do was try to come up with a version of heaven that would explain what an eternal reward might be like in terms that we can understand. And I think most of us—as you’re saying, if there’s not internet you don’t want to be there—I think most of us are thinking, “Well, if I just have to keep doing the same things every day, being happy and cheerful and worshiping the Lord, it sounds really frickin’ boring.” But within the books there’s also this aspect that the Blessed, those who have gotten into heaven in the afterlife, are somehow almost, to Bobby’s way of thinking, they’re almost kind of like lotus eaters or hypnotized or whatever. He doesn’t quite understand, but they seem to be on an entirely different wavelength.
Which leaves it open, so some of us will say, “Oh, they’re kept like cattle. They’re kept quiet and cheerful, or it’s like they’ve been drugged or something.” But also the case could be made that Bobby just doesn’t understand, because he’s not happy in that way, he’s not connected into the Lord or whatever. So again, I’m trying to leave it open, and let the readers make up their own minds. I have some ideas, very definitely, but I’m not necessarily certain they’ll ever make it into the books. They might, they might not.
Some of our traditional notions of heaven and hell have these pretty offensive implications, such as the idea that atheists and adherents of other religions are damned. When you’re writing for a wide, contemporary audience, how do you handle issues like that?
Well, one of the things—and I believe Bobby actually says so when he’s talking to the new young angel in town—at one point he says basically, “As far as I know, even atheists get a fair shake, depending on how well they lived their lives. Belief is no obstacle to getting into Heaven.” And I believe he says also that as far as he knows nobody is kept out of Heaven because of any of the standard political issues that come up these days—not because they’re gay, or because they’re from a different religion, or whatever. But he doesn’t know how it all works. So there’s always that caveat with anything he’s saying. He’s saying, “This is what I know, and it may not be all the truth.”
Have you gotten any criticism from the other direction? People who like the traditional views and don’t like the way you’re meddling with it?
I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to see some vigorous responses on that, and I hope that if the book continues to get attention—and it has been so far, I’ve been very lucky—if it continues to get attention, I hope at some point it will provoke some discussions, and may already have that I haven’t found. I mean, I’m not really out there looking for people talking about my book. So I’d welcome it. I think it would be fun. I kind of half-expect people will read the books and jump to the conclusion that I’m either saying, “Heaven is a con job,” or something like that, and some other people may say, “Well, he’s just pushing that same old Judeo-Christian crap down our throats. Why would heaven be that much like what everybody expects?” So I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be upset if any of that happened, because I think the very fact that we use these ideas as reasons to do things in our daily lives, and our political lives, our national life and so on, means that we should actually think about them and try to figure out if they even make sense.
Speaking of hell, do you ever worry that you’ll go to hell for lying to your publisher about losing your first book in a flood?
[laughs] Believe me, if somebody’s keeping score on me, that’s pretty far down the list of hell-worthy things. But, I mean, anybody who knows me knows that I have a spiritual side, but I do not have a religious bone in my body. Largely because I was not born to a family that went to church. But neither were my parents anti-religion. In some ways, that would have pushed me in another direction. My parents were perfectly open-minded about everything. They never tried to convince us of what was true or what wasn’t true in their minds. We were just presented with the information that was around and pretty much allowed—though, I mean, we knew how they felt. We knew they didn’t go to church. So obviously that had an effect.
Do you want to just explain for listeners what the losing the book in the flood story is?
Sure, yeah. When I had submitted my first novel to my eventual publisher, DAW Books, who are still my publisher today many, many years later, I hadn’t heard a response from them for a while. So, hoping to provoke some action without seeming whiny or attention-seeking, I sent them a letter saying, “Because of floods here in California, my basement has been flooded, and you now have the only copy of my manuscript, and could you please copy it and send it back to me. I’ll pay for it.” I was hoping that they would go find the manuscript and look at it while they were copying it, and perhaps notice that they hadn’t responded yet, because this was several months after submission. But I was also hoping like hell that they didn’t know that basically California was in the middle of an eight-year drought, and that there’s almost no such thing as basements in California—I certainly have never had one.
I didn’t find out until years later that it was my dear friend Peter Stampfel, Betsy Wollheim’s husband, who had to go—and this was the days when they didn’t have bin feeders or anything—he had to go and take this 500-page manuscript and copy it page by page by page. As it turned out, I don’t know if that had anything to do with it, they did wind up buying the book, and it’s still in print. That’s Tailchaser’s Song. But it took me years to be able to admit to Peter that it had been a total lie, and to Peter’s great credit, and probably the thing that will keep me out of hell for this one, he immediately forgave me and laughed and thought it was a really good idea when you didn’t know if someone was paying attention to your manuscript or was using it to prop up a short leg on a desk.
Actually, speaking of Tailchaser’s Song, that was your first novel, and it’s about a talking cat. As a writer myself, I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a whole anti-talking cat contingent out there on the internet. I was just wondering if you’ve had any run-ins with any of them?
At this point, I have to somewhat embarrassingly admit that, of course, Tailchaser’s Song was written before there was an internet. So I didn’t notice that at first, if there was such a thing. At this point it’s one of those things that’s been around for so long now—I mean, I bumped into somebody at a convention once and we were talking, and this guy was a furry, and so I was chatting with him about something and he found out my name and said, “Oh my god. You’re a patron saint of the furry movement.” And I said, “Really?” in kind of a startled way, and he goes, “Yeah, you wrote Tailchaser’s Song, right?” and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I did.” So god knows what people think about it. Obviously some people thought it was an important step forward for furry Americans and others of their—excuse the expression—stripe, but I have no idea.
One of your popular series is the Otherland series, and apparently it’s very popular in Germany. How’d that come about?
Well, I used to have a contract in Germany that dated back to my earliest days in business—my books had been sold there by my American publishers, and I was getting a fairly small percentage by the time it all got to me. But despite that, my wife realized that we were making a lot of money, so she began to analyze things and figured out that actually I was really popular in Germany, and I hadn’t really found that out yet. So when the Otherland books were ready to go out, we said to the then-current publisher, “You guys are going to have to pay a little more now, because you’ve sold a hundred thousand such and such copies of the last book.” And they looked at the Otherland book and said, “Well, it’s not really what we wanted anyway, and it’s not fantasy, and so we’re not even going to offer on it.”
So we said, “Fine,” and put it up for auction, and wound up with Klett-Cotta, who is my current German publisher. At the time I think they only published two fantasy or science fiction writers at all. One was Tolkien and one was Peter S. Beagle. So once they picked me up, because they are primarily a company known for literary fiction, for philosophy, for history, for some fairly academic high-end stuff, I had a certain legitimacy that lifted me out of the genre in Germany. And then a couple of good things happened very quickly, including, among other things, somebody decided to do it as a radio play, which wound up being the longest radio play in German radio history, and all this other stuff happened and the books really took off there, and I was being reviewed in the mainstream newspapers and magazines, the equivalent of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and Time and Newsweek, stuff that hadn’t happened to me in America, and I quickly became more culturally significant than I had been up to that point in the States or England.
So it was a combination of factors, but it was quite startling how the same exact books that were being reviewed kind of like Star Trek novels or something here in the States were being reviewed by very knowledgeable people who were talking about the future of human civilization and about what the 21st-century was going to be like economically. It was the same books, but they had been moved to a completely different context—namely, “real fiction with important issues being discussed,” which I had always felt they were. It just shows you how much of this stuff is circumstantial, how much of it is context, and where you are, and how fortunate you are in getting into the cultural discussion.
Speaking of Otherland, what’s the current status of the Otherland MMO?
Well, they had to push back release a couple months, but they’re in beta now. It was originally going to be out this month. It has now been pushed back to, I think, very, very early next year. As far as I know, there’s nothing wrong. There’re just technical issues that they’re working on. It’s a big, huge, complicated game. But yeah, to the best of my knowledge, it’s going to be probably very, very early 2013.
Last year we interviewed R. A. Salvatore, and he spent years working on an MMO project called Kingdoms of Amalur, which recently suffered this big collapse. I was just wondering if you had followed that at all.
No, I haven’t, but I’m sorry to hear it. That’s one of the difficult things about anything being done with your material. Deb and I have kind of—Deb being my wife Deborah Beale—Deb and I have kind of developed what I refer to as the “George Harrison’s ‘Taxman’ law.” You may remember that in that song, he says, “There’s one for you, nineteen for me.” And we’ve interpreted that to mean that out of any twenty things that people come to you wanting to do with your material, you’re going to be lucky if one of them comes to fruition, if five percent come to fruition.
Do you follow video games at all? Or have you had any other involvement with the project?
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of involvement. I’ve been over to Singapore quite a few times, I’ve done a lot of consultation, I’ve offered a lot of ideas, I’ve met with the head writer and I’m in communication with him. I’ve been very involved, actually. And one of the things about it in the long run is I’m kind of thinking I want to—that instead of doing a conventional sequel to Otherland someday, that I’d like to try to do a sequel that’s actually part of this interactive game world. In other words, I would create story that would be fitted into the game world, not as an immutable sequence, but as a slightly coercive set of story information that would cause the game participant to have all of these new experiences in the game world. So that’s one of the things I’m playing around with. I’ve been interested in interactive fiction since back in the 1980s.
So, other than the MMO, are there any other adaptations of your work in development?
Yeah, there’s a Tailchaser’s Song animated film, which is being done by Animetropolis out of Austin, and they’re already well into the process, and they’re working with a Japanese animation company whose name right now skips my mind, but they are the people who did Cat Shit One, if you ever heard of that, which is a very bizarre Iraq-war-with-rodents kind of thing. It’s very good. So anyway, they’re doing a Tailchaser’s Song adaptation, and at the moment Warner Bros. has an option on Otherland. So those are two things that I can talk about, and there are various other things always floating around, but the George Harrison rule applies there as well.
I really enjoyed your story “Child of an Ancient City,” which recently appeared in John’s vampire anthology By Blood We Live. Could you talk a bit about your process for writing that story?
It’s hard to talk about some of these things without sounding like a complete slut, I have to say. That story started out way back when, probably in the early 1980s, before I was even a professional writer. I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror—she’s my favorite historian—and one of the things that she talks about in that book is the Battle of Nicopolis, where the sultan Bayezid so badly kicked the ass of the Western forces that he basically set up what would eventually become the fall of Constantinople about 100 years later. So this was a crucial battle, but it was also interesting because it was such a rout.
So when I initially got the idea for a vampire tale-telling story, I wanted a reason why these characters were stuck out in the middle of nowhere for so long, and I had them be a bunch of French crusaders who were coming back from Nicopolis and were trying to make it back to Western Europe. Now then, somewhere along the line, somebody—and I suspect it was Byron Price—was doing an Arabian Nights anthology, and said, “Do you have a story?” And I didn’t have one at the time, but I had this unfinished thing, and I said, “I think I can make this into an Arabian Nights story.” At which point I changed the characters from French crusaders into inhabitants of the legendary version of Baghdad, and then when Byron wanted me to increase it into a short novel for a program he was doing at the time, I actually wound up working with Nina Kiriki Hoffman. So the book version is Nina Hoffman and myself, and she did a really good job of mostly adding folk tales to the story.
I think that’s interesting because the story is so reminiscent of Scheherazade, which fits so perfectly with the Arabian Nights theme. Is that just a coincidence?
No, I mean, I definitely bent it that way. I mean, I think it was more of a vampire story and less of a story about storytelling when it was in its early crusaders version, but I never finished that. Whereas by the time I was redoing it as an Arabian Nights story, as you said the whole Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights kind of rose to the surface, and then that became one of the dominant features and, like a lot of my work, storytelling became what the story itself was about.
So back in Episode 8, we interviewed Blake Charlton, and he described how the two of you almost came to blows the first time you met while playing basketball, and I’m just curious to hear your version of that story.
I don’t remember us coming to blows. We’re both very similar guys, although Blake is much younger than I am, but we’re both a bit similar looking and we’re a bit . . . I wouldn’t say “pugnacious,” but we’re certainly not shy about bumping into people when we’re playing a sport. We both have a football background, even though we mostly play basketball now. I’m sure it would make a better story if I had tried to punch him out or something, but as I recall, it was no more than the usual sort of testosterone-fueled jostling and bumping.
The way he told it is, he said, “Who do you think you are?” and you said, “I’m Tad Williams,” and he said, “You’re Tad Williams? You wrote The Dragonbone Chair? Oh my god, I love that book.”
[laughs] Again, I don’t want to undercut Blake’s good story. The only thing I would not say is “I’m Tad Williams,” assuming somebody would know who that was. I’ve had an entire professional lifetime of finding out how few people actually do know what that name means or know anything about what I do for a living. So that’s kind of more like a good version of a story, but I don’t think I would actually say “I’m Tad Williams.” I think I might say, I don’t know, “I’m a writer.” That’s probably more how I would have phrased it. And then if he said, “Well, would I know you?” then I would have said, “Well, I’m Tad Williams. I write fantasy and science fiction,” and then we might have had that conversation.
Are there any other new or upcoming projects you want to mention?
I mentioned I’m doing the second Bobby Dollar book right now, and I’m pretty much finished with it. I’m doing a ton of short stories, including two that I just sent to John Joseph Adams in the last few months, one I just did for Gardner Dozois, and one I’m doing for an online magazine. So I seem to be in one of my patches where I’m doing a lot of short stories all at once, which is kind of fun because it’s a change of pace for me. Other than that, just the usual. People may get tired of hearing from me, but I don’t think I’ll ever run out of things that I want to write about.