Author Spotlight: Jen Williams
Jen Williams lives in London with her partner and their cat. A fan of pirates and dragons from an early age, these days she writes character-driven fantasy novels with plenty of banter and magic, and in 2015 she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the British Fantasy Awards.
The Copper Cat trilogy consists of The Copper Promise, The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide – all published by Headline in the UK – and the first two books in the trilogy are now available in the US and Canada, published by Angry Robot. Both The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide have also been nominated for British Fantasy Awards, and she is partly responsible for founding the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club, a social group that meets in London to celebrate a love of fantasy.
The Ninth Rain, the first book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy, was published by Headline in February 2017, and the sequel, The Bitter Twins, will appear in March 2018. She is partial to mead, if you’re buying.
Thanks for joining us, Jen. Let’s start small: tell us about a great book you’ve read recently!
I’m currently reading The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, which has probably one of the best, most cheekily brilliant openings of a novel I’ve read in ages. I can already tell it’s the sort of book I would like to last forever.
Okay, time to escalate things: reality warps and you suddenly find yourself leading a D&D-style party through a monster-infested dungeon. What character class are you, and what’s your weapon of choice?
Funnily enough, I’ve recently played my first ever game of D&D, and my character was a rogue from a noble family. However, if I’m leading the party, I would be a warrior, possibly with a massive axe, so I can tank my way through any nonsense. I have learned, largely through falling down holes and being bitten by giant rats, that rogues do not travel at the front of the party, plus when I play RPGs like Dragon Age and Skyrim, my playing style is definitely more ‘set everything on fire, hit everything with a giant hammer’. It’s very telling that I’ve spent a zillion hours in Skyrim and have still totally failed to complete any quests that involve sneaking. I am not a quiet adventurer.
When you’re not trawling through dungeons, do you prefer to type or to hand-write? Why?
I do lots of hand-written planning, usually over a variety of notebooks, notecards and post-its, but I always type my novels (on Word, if people are interested – I’ve never been able to transition to anything else). The simple truth is that I type faster than I hand-write, and a 600-page book takes long enough to write as it is… Plus, think of the paper! The mountain of paper would be visible from space.
And how do you like to work – in silence, with music, or serenaded by the damned souls of a thousand dead shrimps?
I work with music playing in the background, but only ever instrumental stuff – my books would not be improved by me endlessly singing along to Britney Spear’s seminal hit, Toxic. Consequently, I listen to a lot of film and video game soundtracks while I’m writing, such as The Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, The Guest, Tron Legacy, the Westworld TV series, and, uh, The Lego Movie.
Are you an architect or a gardener? A plotter or a pantser? D’you write in your underwear, or in a deep-sea diver’s suit? Tell us something unusual about your writing method!
I’m a character-driven gardener, if that makes sense. So my very first step is figuring out who I’m writing about; with the Copper Cat books I knew I wanted to write about a wise-cracking female rogue, and with The Winnowing Flame trilogy, it started with the idea of a middle-aged scholar woman, and her elf-like bodyguard. From there, I ask myself what I want to know about them, what I want to see them do… and a rough story frame starts to suggest itself. When I start writing the book, generally I have a list of story points to hit and I work towards those, but always with the sense that I can go off road if I want to. And I almost always do.
What are your most significant non-book fantasy influences?
Oh lots of things. Video games like Dragon Age (you will notice I mention it a lot) and Mass Effect, animation like Avatar: The Last Airbender, Cowboy Bebop and lots of films from Studio Ghibli. The Winnowing Flame trilogy in particular owes a great deal to Princess Mononoke, with its unsettling nature spirits, strange things in the forest, and tough and complex female characters. More generally I think that little flurry of strange fantasy films we had in the 80s had a big impact on me; things like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Return to Oz, and Krull have absolutely left their fingerprints on everything I do, and especially Watership Down, the first thing I was obsessed with and also the first thing to suggest to me that it was possible to create your own mythology.
What was the last thing you watched on TV and why did you choose to watch it?
I think technically the last thing I watched was Hard Sun, which is a gritty crime drama with the added bonus of being set just before the world ends. It’s made by Neil Cross, who also created Luther, and both shows do two things that I love – show endless shots of London looking gorgeous, and serve up lashings of extremely dark and unpleasant murder. Lovely. We’re in a bit of a golden period for TV, actually, as recently we’ve also been watching Britannia, which is a bananas take on ancient Britain with loads of stoned druids and raving Romans, and of course Star Trek Discovery, which has my entire heart. I think I would need another entire interview to talk about how much I love Discovery.
The world shifts, and you find yourself with an extra day on your hands during which you’re not allowed to write or otherwise do any work. How do you choose to spend the day?
READING. Honestly, I regularly wish for an entire extra day just to read. There are so many books I need to read, so many, and I have practically bugger all free time. Other than that, I would like to say something that makes me look like a reasonable functioning adult, like going for brisk walks and doing gentle exercise, but the truth is I’d probably spend it playing video games. Or down the pub. Can I play video games down the pub?
If you could choose one punctuation mark to be made illegal, which would it be and why?
Oh, now, I tend to love all punctuation. I love it too much in fact, as my copy edits often involve going through 600 pages and removing around 8,000 semicolons and around 20,000 instances of the em dash. So I’m not sure I’d get rid of any of them. If anything, I’d like to invent a few more.
In no more than three sentences, tell us a little something about your current work in progress!
My current WIP is The Poison Song, the third and final book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy. In it, our central heroes must gather their forces and make a final stand against the invading Jure’lia – but even as they work to get stronger, the game is changing, and soon they may find that even the might of the Eboran war-beasts won’t be enough. Plus, there are more giant bats in this book than in the previous two combined!
If you could co-write or co-create a series (like The Expanse, or the Malazan Book of the Fallen), who would you choose to work with and why?
I am a control freak and not a natural co-writer, if I’m honest, so I think what I would prefer to do is work with an artist or a director to create a comic or a film together. So, for example, a dream collaboration would be with Guillermo del Toro, Hayao Miyazaki or Dave McKean. And by dream I mean I would probably just drop dead with the excitement of it all.
What’s the most (and/or least) helpful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
I think the best writing advice tends to be very straightforward, because ultimately, you need to do the work – there’s no getting around that bit. So genuinely, just getting your bum in the seat every day is a great piece of advice, because even on your worst day, there’s a good chance you’ll get some words out, and those are all words you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t put your bum in the seat. In Stephen King’s On Writing, there is a particular quote I always keep in mind: ‘Do not come lightly to the page’. I might not take myself very seriously, but I sure as fuck take my work seriously.
The worst writing advice tends to give you strict rules to follow, which is always a bit daft. All writers need to find the method that works for them, and if you get good enough, you can break as many rules as you like.
If you could visit any country at any point in history, where/when would you go, and why?
I would love to see London at the time of the Tudors, partly because of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, and partly because I love London and its history in general. If I were brave enough to venture outside of my home town, then I imagine seeing China during the Song dynasty would be extraordinary – I’d hang around long enough to see Kublai Khan, perhaps, and then sod off.
Every writer encounters stumbling blocks, be it a difficult chapter, challenging subject matter or just starting a new project. How do you motivate yourself on days when you don’t want to write?
Being under contract and having a deadline is usually a great motivator… Generally, I just keep in mind that writing books is exactly what I’ve always wanted to do, and I am very lucky that I get to do it at all. Plus, it’s always useful to remember that everyone has bad days. They pass eventually.
Tell us about a book that’s excellent, but underappreciated or obscure.
The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle isn’t really underappreciated or obscure, but it has been out of print for ages, which is outrageous.
Finally, would you be so kind as to dazzle us with what we like to call a ‘shark elevator pitch’? (It’s exactly the same as an elevator pitch, but with sharks.) (Well, one shark. Which, by the way, is currently picking between its rows of teeth to try and dislodge the remains of the last author who stepped onto its elevator.)
Ahem. So: why should readers check out your work? A shark elevator pitch of your own book(s) in no more than three sentences – go!
I will give you the pitch for The Ninth Rain, since it sets up the series and won’t spoil The Bitter Twins:
The sprawling lands of Sarn were once protected by the Eboran warriors of legend, riding into battle on their extraordinary mythical beasts. But the great Eboran god died in the last war, and the sad remnants of their people, ill and desperate, cling to survival… When the terrible insectoid Jure’lia invade once more, who will protect those who are left?
Jen Williams is the author of the Copper Cat trilogy, as well as The Ninth Rain and The Bitter Twins – out NOW!