Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview with Tad Williams

Tad Williams was the first professional to ever ask me if I'd like a review copy. I was hardly getting started, and was astonished when I received Tad's message. That book was The Dirty Streets of Heaven. I was too green and intimidated to ask for an interview that time around, but after reviewing Happy Hour in Hell, I found I had a lot to say about some of the criticism I read. So I thought, I'd ask for an interview and ask Tad about some of those topics. I was ecstatic when he agreed and then intimidated as I wrote the questions. I've done plenty of interviews, but this one was the first with an author I read as a teenager. Just another awesome perk of screaming my opinions into space. Tad was gracious enough to answer my sometimes rambling questions and I hope you enjoy the results. 

52 Reviews: As I’ve mentioned in my reviews, I’ve only recently returned to reading your work with The Dirty Streets of Heaven. Despite enjoying Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn in high school, I just couldn’t invest myself in the projects that followed. I blame that primarily on my own changing tastes as a reader, more than the quality of the work. Do you find that changing genres or your approach to them has the effect of widening your audience or does it alienate readers? Or is writing more a matter of telling the stories that you want to tell than any attempt to gauge the market or appease your audience?

Tad Williams: My own experience is that trying to gauge the market is almost always a mistake -- it's quickly outdated information at best, anecdotal and untrustworthy at worst.  Ultimately, I find that I write a book I'd like to read, then hope that there are enough other readers like me to keep me solvent.  (This is of course leaving out artistic goals and their effects on my choices of what to write.)

52 Reviews: I’ve read some criticism of Happy Hour in Hell, and was surprised that some readers felt that Bobby spends far too much of the book in unfamiliar haunts and supporting cast and the sheer amount in time spent in Hell robs the sequel of the lighter tone of the first book. While I agree that much of the middle of the book felt heavier and required more effort than the portions of the novel set in the corporeal world, I felt that the sheer weight of Bobby’s experiences in hell were necessary to justify the toll that these experiences would have on his character. Was taking such a risk with the second novel a tough decision to make? Or did the needs of the story simply overtake any concerns that readers may not respond to the detailed depiction of Hell and Bobby’s reaction to it?

Tad Williams:I almost don't read reviews any more.  As I said, I have to write what I feel, and if over time I get a sufficient amount of positive or negative reactions they'll add up and possibly force me to rethink things, but I can't write a novel that way.  As with most writers, I have many goals with my fiction.  Simply telling an entertaining story is always part of it, but even that gets complicated when you're writing for audiences who are surrounded by competing visions of similar material.  The only thing I can do differently is to bring my own particular ideas and strengths to bear.  In HAPPY HOUR I was dealing with some pretty large issues through the eyes of a protagonist who, though angelic, is actually extremely ordinary, so it would have been a waste of time not to talk about the fundamental ideas that Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology presents, especially when large elements of our culture are still based on those ideas.

52 Reviews:  I felt your description of Hell to be very visceral and not at all what I was expecting. I suspect that your depictions of the people and places of Hell was meant for more than simple shock value, and designed to feel simultaneously familiar and strange. Making Hell a place of torment, pain, and fiendish torture would have been simpler and more expected. What inspired you to make Hell more relatable and so much more human?

Tad Williams: There's no such thing as "simple shock value" these days, because the ante is always being raised.  Torture porn movies have replaced slasher films as cultural touchstones.  Machine-gunning zombies, at least virtually, is now an international hobby.  I don't want to compete on that field, and for me it's not what matters anyway.  THE TURN OF THE SCREW still works for me because it still scares me, and there's not a drop of blood in the whole thing.  Which doesn't mean I ignore visceral shocks, just that I can't make them the be-all and end-all, even in Hell.  As I allude to in the book, for me the scariest idea about Hell isn't "torment", it's "forever".

52 Reviews: Another criticism I’ve read for the Bobby Dollar novels is that the pairing of Bobby and Caz is too expected, and plays into established tropes. I personally didn’t mind the romantic subplot at all, though I have to admit that Bobby makes some questionable decisions in relation to Caz. But who of us hasn’t made foolish decisions, especially when we think we are in love? What made you decide to go down such a well worn path, and is there an intention to subvert or invert the trope through the course of the novels?

Tad Williams: Bobby and Caz's relationship is never going to be a simple one, and if I have my way -- which means, I get to keep adding on Bobby Dollar stories over the years -- readers will see it in its full flower of complexity.  It won't always be sunny.  There's nothing happily-ever-after about real relationships, even if they're good ones, and B and C both have a lot of baggage to deal with even without a messed-up partner in the mix.

52 Reviews: I think my favorite aspect of Bobby and Caz’s relationship is the contrast between them. Bobby remembers absolutely nothing about who he was before he joined the ranks of the Heaven, whereas Caz remembers every detail of her time on Earth and her subsequent time in Hell. I’m curious if the intention is to say that in order to serve the Almighty, one must in some way set aside what is most human about them and relinquish identity to become an able servant? What led you to take such an unconventional take on angels? And will reader’s eventually discover more about the man who became Dolorial?

Tad Williams: Yes, I plan to spend a lot more time looking into Bobby's past in future stories.  As for what identity means in the afterlife, I have drawn a sort of blanket over the most intimate workings of Heaven in part because I don't want to give it all away, and also because I think that's some of the most philosophically interesting material. Bobby and the readers will both have to grow into it with the ongoing story.

52 Reviews: Your portrayal of Heaven is also quite unusual. It feels much more like Jonestown than the reward for virtuous living. What led to your choice to create a Heaven that is so detached and antiseptic? And is Bobby’s backhand questioning of his place in the celestial plan, meant as a mirror for the self-doubt that accompanies so many men and women of faith?

Tad Williams: Yes, of course people of faith often feel doubt.  And Bobby's questioning of it is in part due to who he is and was, but also because he's a sort of Everyman in these stories -- nominally a heavenly -other-, but really pretty much a normal guy in abnormal circumstances.  He can be -in- Heaven but not of it.  However, due to the complexity of the Heavenly set-up and the experience of the Saved or whatever you want to call them, I didn't want to lay the whole thing out at the beginning, like an Asimov short story.

Also, printed words even at the best of times can't translate Eternal Bliss into an actual human experience very well, so I'm wrestling with it as a concept to be described.  Is it even possible for anything remotely human to remain happy and still hold onto any shreds of humanity?  You can't write about eternity without trying to get to grips with that.  I'm getting to grips with it, but it's still early days.

52 Reviews: Another aspect of the world building in the Bobby Dollar novels that I find particularly appealing is that there is a contingent of angels and demons that seek to break the system and create a third version of the Afterlife. Did aspects of your own religious and spiritual experience lead to this plot point? Or is this simply an outgrowth of the story?

Tad Williams: Both.  I'm a facilitator by nature, someone who is cursed or blessed by seeing both sides of most issues, although I usually have my own personal take on things that may or may not agree with either conflicting argument.  But if angels (and demons) have free will, this kind of stuff is inevitable.  And if they don't, then the idea of an afterlife as survival of the human spirit becomes very different.  If you are one eternal droplet in an eternal waterfall, no different than any other droplet, harboring no individual ideas or designs, is that really Heaven or is it just a lump of undistinguished bliss, no different than being plants in a greenhouse?  My answers (invented ones, of course -- I'm no prophet) will not be simple, and neither will Bobby's responses.  So, yes, it mirrors the worries of people of faith, but also of good-hearted people without faith.

52 Reviews:  I find your choices for secondary characters to be inspired in their variety and sheer oddity. What goes into the creation of characters such as Fatback, Clarence, and the rest? Do you draw your inspiration from your real life friends and acquaintances, or do these characters come to you in some other way?

Tad Williams: One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing anything for me is the character-creation part of world building.  I love to come up with strange, interesting folks, whether they're scary or entertaining or sometimes both.  I love quirky people and weird situations, and they are always a part of my work.  Very few of them are ever based on real people I know -- I think I've done that two or three times in all my books total -- although some of the denizens of Hell (Nero is obvious, but there are quite a few) are based on real historical people, which was intentional, to solidify the feeling of Hell as a real place.

52 Reviews:  Stepping away from the adventures of Bobby Dollar and Company for the end of the interview, I like to ask for some writing advice for those of my readers who have aspirations of word slinging. As an author with a career that spans decades, what is the one piece of advice you wish you’d been given in your pre-published days?

Tad Williams: There are a lot of good writers out there.  What every writer has is what's personal -- something he or she knows better or cares about more than others do, and that's a place any writer can distinguish him- or herself.  And hard work and relentless ambition will help a lot, too.  Strangely, the most successful career writers seem often to be the hardest working writers.  Every good writer I know is still learning, still trying to improve.  But almost all of them are also driven to share their work with others.

52 Reviews:  I’ve been told that each story or novel written teaches a lesson, not only to the reader but the author as well. What lesson did Happy Hour in Hell teach you? And what lesson is Sleeping Late on Judgement Day likely to impart?

Tad Williams: HAPPY HOUR forced me to think about many of the same issues as Bobby thinks about, but as a writer, it forced me mostly to think about Bobby.  What is he really like inside?  Is he an ordinary guy, or does he have the seed of something greater in him?  Where's he going to go as a character?  It also forced me to think a lot about what I have to do to engage readers with these kinds of questions -- how much entertainment, how much seriousness.  JUDGEMENT DAY, so far (I'm in rewrite) is also about what kind of angel Bobby's going to be in the future, and whether I can write him in such a way to keep him interesting and entertaining in many other situations, from the mundane to the cosmos-shaking.  But of course it's also about trying to wrap up all the major plot lines in the first three books, which adds to the difficulty factor.

What can I say?  It's all fun, even when it's hard work.

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