Author Ryan Schneider asks me his famous 10 questions, directed at my writing process, the Oxford Comma, and my novel Days of Atonement.
One-hour audio interview. (2015)
I am interviewed on the JohnMac Radio Show. (2014)
Interview with Stephen C Ormsby (2013)
A chat with Fran Wilde about writing and food. (2013)
The Fourth Wall on the Big Idea (2012)
Interview with Emily Mah at the Black Gate (2012)
I essay about writing and gaming.
Audio file of a double interview with Nancy Kress about Taos Toolbox and the craft of writing.
Lengthy interview with Chris Moriarty in Lightspeed (2011)
Interview about writing and martial arts in Clarksworkd Magazine (2011).
Interview at Writer Underground (2011)
Interview with Alyx Dellamonica (2011)
Deep State at The Big Idea (2011)
Interview with the Bibliophile Stalker (2008)
Speaking uncannily good French, I am interviewed at Le Cafard Cosmique.
I am interviewed at The Zone (2003)
Talking about my Star Wars book at theForce.net. (2002)
More chat about the Star Wars novel (2002).
Interview with Jayme Lynn Blaschke (2000)
Transcription of an interview on Hour of the Wolf (1997)
An Interview with Walter Jon Williams
Conducted by Dwight Brown and Lawrence Person inside the San Francisco Grill at ConDiablo in El Paso, July 5, 1996.
The following is an excerpt from the interview in NOVA EXPRESS, (Volume 4, Number 2). The full interview, which deals at greater length with books, biography, martial arts, Hong Kong films, Villainous Publishing Scum, and other subjects of ilk, may be obtained from NOVA EXPRESS, P.O. Box 27231, Austin, Texas, 78755. Postpaid, single copies of NOVA EXPRESS are $5.00. Subscriptions are $10 for 4 issues domestic, $14 Canada and Mexico, and $20 for the rest of the world. These subscription rates are good until December 31, 1996, after which they will go up to $12, $16, and $22 (respectively).
The contents of the current issue are as follows:
Walter Jon Williams Interview and Bibliography
Walter Jon Williams and the staff review Hong Kong films
“Why Lovecraft Still Matters: The Magic Power of Transformative Fiction” – Article by Don Webb
Review of John Clute’s LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE by Howard Waldrop
Two reviews of Bradley Denton’s LUNATICS
Plus reviews of Michael Bishop’s BRITTLE INNINGS, Bruce Sterling’s HOLY FIRE, J. G. Ballard’s A USER’S GUIDE TO THE MILLENNIUM, Octavia Butler’s BLOODCHILD AND OTHER STORIES, Patrick O’Leary’s DOOR NUMBER THREE, William Browning Spencer’s ZOD WALLOP, Sean Stewart’s RESURRECTION MAN, and David Prill’s THE UNNATURAL
Bruce Sterling Bibliography Addendum by Patrick Clark
Art by Cathy Buburuz, GAK, and John P. Harrington
Queries may be addressed to Lawrence Person at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence Person: I understand you’ve finished up City on Fire, the second Metropolitan book.
Walter Jon Williams: I have essentially finished it. A couple more days’ work is required. It’s the longest book I’ve ever written. I’ve been complaining a lot about how long science fiction books have become, and now I’ve gone and written a monster! <laughs>
LP: So it’s about twice the size of Metropolitan?
WJW: Not quite, but on that order. Probably 80% longer. And I discovered while writing this that there will be a third volume. So, Lord help me, I am writing a fat fantasy trilogy.
LP: What things did you want to cover in City on Fire that you didn’t touch on in Metropolitan?
WJW: Well, much of the book concerns what happens after the revolution. There are a lot of revolutions and governmental restorations and so on going on in science fiction and fantasy, and it usually ends there. You overthrow the tyranny, or restore the lost king, and then everyone gets married and it’s a happy ending. No one ever has to deal with actually running a country that has been devastated, first by a hideously inefficient tyranny that’s sucking up all the available wealth, and secondly by a civil war. So that’s a lot of City on Fire’s concerns, simply coping with what is essentially a Third World economy and trying to vault it over into something better while maintaining a minimum of your political idealism along the way.
LP: So you’re trying to deal with some of the issues of power you dealt with in Aristoi?
WJW: Yes, except from the point of view of people who aren’t superhuman, which makes the issues a lot tougher.
LP: Will we see the issue of the Shield finally dealt with directly?
WJW: Well, people have been nagging me about the Shield a lot, OK? You see, I’ve always felt that Metropolitan and its sequels are high fantasy, despite taking place in a superficially modern world with technology. And I thought that the Shield was part of the high fantasy background, it was included in the terms of the world. It was sort of like “The mountains that cannot be crossed” or “The infinite desert.”
LP: “The Trackless Wastes.”
WJW: I was just trying to explain why no one ever got off this planet, so I put something in the way to keep them from getting off. Unfortunately, people were reading this book with science fiction protocols, and in science fiction you have to explain everything <laughs>, and obstacles exist only to be overcome. There are glimpses of what’s on the other side of the Shield in City on Fire. But, because people have been nagging me about the Shield, I will reveal the actual transcendent basis of the universe in the third book, and the characters will spend a lot of time on the other side of the Shield.
LP: Touching back on the fantasy/science fiction issue, Locus and others labeled Metropolitan science fiction rather than fantasy. Do you have any idea why they did that, and why that reaction seems so common?
WJW: Because no one’s ever written a fantasy like this before. It takes place in a fully technological world. Although it deals explicitly with magic and the people who do it are referred to as mages, it is rationalized in a sort of pseudoscientific way. It refers to magical science and Plasm science and so on, and the magic is a metered public utility that runs through pipes, and if you use a lot of the magical substance you get a bill from the government that asks you to pay for it.
LP: How did you get the idea to base the geometries of buildings (and destroyed buildings and building substrates) as the mechanism by which magic is accumulated?
WJW: I wanted the basis of the magic itself to be urban. One of the things that motivated my writing Metropolitan was the thought that the genre or subgenre known as “Urban Fantasy” is essentially misnamed. Because although it takes place in punk rock clubs in Minneapolis or wherever, the magic itself and the magical beings you encounter are sort of sylvan artifacts from the forests of old Europe. They’re elves, they’re dwarves, they’re ice princesses, or whatever.
LP: Orcs on motorcycles.
WJW: Yeah. So I thought I would devise magic and magical beings that come from the urban cityscape itself, and that have to do with pumps and sewer lines, and electricity and steel skeletal buildings, and outrageous forms of architecture is used to generate all this stuff. And I already had a rationale, there’s feng shui, the Chinese science of geomancy, which attempts to analyze architecture along more or less the same principles.
LP: Did you feel that because it was fantasy it gave you greater latitude not to have to explain why, for example, the level of technology seems to remain fairly static over hundreds and hundreds of years?
WJW: I set the technology in the late 1940s, with a few exceptions, but I set it that way simply because I didn’t want the books to be about technology, I wanted the books to be about a magical world in which the magic is important. So I assumed the technology has stayed the same because thousands of years ago someone made it that way and now it’s too expensive to change it. <laughs> There are hundreds of billions of people on this planet, and-
LP: Hundreds of millions or hundreds of billions?
WJW: Hundreds of billions. Essentially the planet has the population density of downtown Tokyo. <laughs again>
LP: Which is another thing I wanted to ask you. As long we’re going to go rudely poking into the superstructure of the novel, how do they manage to grow food for this enormous population?
WJW: It’s magic! They grow it in vats! And they use magic to develop a lot of their material sciences.
LP: Vats being another science fiction trope to confuse the readers.
<WAIT comes back with more trays. Many clattering noises. Pause for food.>
LP: You mentioned why people think Metropolitan is SF rather than fantasy. Do you think fantasy has gotten into such a rut that anything that’s not neo-Celtic gets pushed out of the genre?
WJW: Well, that’s one of the things that I’m hoping Metropolitan will help to correct. Because I think fantasy is potentially one of the most imaginative genres. But it seems that it’s just come to be dominated by Tolkein clones and Dungeons and Dragons rip-off. I actually think that Dungeons and Dragons was the worst thing to happen to fantasy in its short history, because Dungeons and Dragons took every fantasy tradition and mashed them together with some rules, and the last thing you want in fantasy is rules, let alone the bashing together of contradictory fantasy traditions.
LP: Or as someone said, “novels where you can hear the dice rolling.”
LP: Do you think science fiction and fantasy still have the same audience?
WJW: I don’t know who the audience is. I only meet the readers at science fiction conventions, which are a small percentage of the whole, and probably not very representative. I don’t know who reads my stuff, I hardly ever meet anyone who reads my stuff. (laughs) But there seems to be a lot of them out there, so I’m quite grateful to them whoever they are.
LP: Some of your early work, Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind, were definitely within the boundaries of what became to be known as cyberpunk. But you weren’t in Mirrorshades, and weren’t usually mentioned as part of the mirrorshades group (Gibson, Sterling, etc.). Did you feel like you were part of the movement, or feel excluded, or was it not a big issue to you?
WJW: Well, no one ever sent me a membership card or a certificate suitable for framing, which I always thought was all to the good. All these things are in the mind of the beholder anyway. I see a continuum in all of my work which is not necessarily apparent to other people, in part because a lot of the key elements have never been published.
LP: <laughs> Well, that might make it hard, Walter!
WJW: It occurs to me that one of the things cyberpunk best contributed to the field was not guys jacking computers into their head and living in distopias, but a way of thinking about the genre itself, and a way of thinking about the future, not as an antiseptic NASA future, but a future in which people from a wide variety of cultures and lifestyles are all interacting at a frenetic pace, and with technology growing in explosive and indeterminable fashion along side it. That’s pretty much what’s happening in all my books.
LP: So you think cyberpunk has more of a lived-in future, where permanent technological change is a real feature?
WJW: Yes, and a lot of cultures involved with each other through technology and created by technology. So Aristoi, for example, is an example of this with an aristocratic worldview. I am a contrarian, as you may have noticed, and part of my method for writing in this field is looking around finding out what other people aren’t writing and then writing it. Aristoi was one of those, it has a number of ideas that I’ve been thinking about for quite a few of years, but it sort of came together when the Berlin wall came down, and everyone was saying from now on it’s going to be federal republics forever for the rest of the world, for the rest of human history now-
LP: Francis Fukuyama’s fabled “end of history.”
WJW: Yes, so I was trying to deliberately work out a science fiction rationale for why absolute autocracy for all of humanity would be necessary in the future, and I think I came up with a pretty good one: nanotechnology and various other technologies that are so dangerous that only a small elite are qualified to even think about them.
LP: Back to cyberpunk for a moment, you’ve said the two authors you’re most often compared to are William Gibson and Roger Zelazny.
WJW: Though they’re not often compared to one another, we discover.
LP: Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
WJW: As far as it goes. I’m certainly not tired of being compared to Roger Zelazny and William Gibson. I don’t mind being compared to two people who can actually write, and who each turned the field on its head. I think probably Bill and Roger were pretty bemused by it, though.
LP: Did you get to know Zelazny fairly well before he died?
WJW: Yes. I got to know him very well in the last year of his life, which is— I felt both immensely privileged and as if I were involved in a horrible tragedy all at once, because I had just gotten to know the man well enough to be terribly saddened by his death. I had known him for twenty years, first as a fan then as a fellow writer, and I engaged in some quasi-collaborations with him, firstly in Wild Cards, then he allowed me to write a sequel to one of his novellas [“Elegy for Angels and Dogs,” the sequel to Zelazny’s “The Graveyard Heart”], which was very kind of him. But I didn’t hang out with him much, he was a very reclusive and shy individual, and he didn’t really come out of his shell until the last year, and then I was seeing practically every week, just in the course of my ordinary social activities. It was a treasured friendship, and although I knew he was ill I had no idea he was as ill as he was.
LP: New Mexico seems to be a hotbed for science fiction writers. Do you have any idea why?
WJW: I think it’s a combination of factors. It’s an enormously congenial place, it’s very relaxed, and the cost of living is low, which is a not insignificant factor if you’re starting a writing career. There’s also access to a lot of technology in New Mexico, with Los Alamos, and Kirtland [Air Force Base] research projects, and Sandia Corporation, and also a view into alien cultures, with Native American cultures taking a very prominent part in the cultural life of the state.
LP: Also a lot of Anazi ruins-
WJW: Anasazi. Yeah, they’re naturally all over the place, and of course the Anasazi’s descendants are right there too. But oddly enough it hasn’t produced any sort of unified science fiction movements the same way Austin has.
LP: <laughs> Well, Austin’s unified movement was two people, Bruce and Lew.
WJW: So all I need to do is get one other guy! . . .
LP: The first third of Aristoi immerses the reader deeper and deeper into the intricacies of an aristocratic society that is in many ways radically different from our own. But the last two-thirds largely abandons this initial unfolding strangeness to concentrate on a fairly standard quest-and-revelation plot structure. Was it a conscious decision to structure the novel like that?
WJW: One of the things that the novel was reacting against was the general feeling in science fiction that barbarian societies are good, healthy, wonderful societies, and that we should all live in them and be two-fisted he-men living out there with nothing but a yard of naked steel between us and the savages trying to destroy us. And I think this is a bad idea. I like civilization. I like penicillin. I like the motor car. I like the nice police force to apprehend my enemies for me, so that I don’t have to go out with my yard of naked steel and do it by myself. Oddly enough, the people who really want to go out and be two-fisted barbarians are people who, in any actual barbarian society, would last about two seconds before someone planted a yard of naked steel right in their chests. So I wanted to make a plea on behalf of civilization, and in order to do that I tried to contrast my ultra-civilized, carefree future with one in which the good old primal concerns like disease, poverty, sloth and human misery were the more prominent features.
LP: But by the same token, by the end of Aristoi, the aristocratic society they’ve built is starting to fall apart, and all throughout the journey of the Aristoi across this planet they find themselves creatively inspired in many ways. So it’s more of a mixed message in that way, isn’t it?
WJW: Well, I try not to write simple books. <laughs> Basically, I don’t think anyone can experience barbarism without being brought closer to a whole lot of human truths, and it was a transformative situation for many of the characters. But on the other hand, it enabled them to better protect their society against the people who were wanting to destroy it. Civilization every so often requires a sacrifice, and requires that there be some degree of tragedy.
LP: The tree of liberty has to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants?
WJW: I’m not sure if that was the particular message of this book. But I think one of the things science fiction is not often open to is the possibility of tragedy. I don’t necessarily require that every book that I read be a tragedy in the classical sense, but I have to feel that there can be a tragedy, that tragedy is a possibility, that it’s not just Captain Rocket going off to vanquish the evil, sinister, semi-Mongolian space tyrant with his effortless application of good old American pluck and ingenuity.
LP: There are two elements of Aristoi that are possibly unique in science fiction. One is the creation of separate, quasi-autonomous personalities within the Aristoi’s own psyche, which end up acting as sort of their own digital agents. Where did that idea come from?
WJW: I think I had been thinking a lot about component human personalities, and multiple personality syndrome, which now has a new clinical name which I can no longer remember. But the trick about Multiple Personality Syndrome is that even if you add up all these personalities, you still end up with less than one real person. But I realized that if this could be controlled in some way, it could actually be used as a method of empowerment. I realized that if you were an absolute ruler that was concerned with the just and beneficent rule of millions if not billions of humans, you’d have to develop a lot of aides that you could trust, and the ones that you could best trust would be the ones living within your head. And, quite frankly, a lot of us have different personalities living within our heads.
For example, people tend to display a different personality when they are with their friends than they do when they are with their mothers. It doesn’t mean that they’re not the same person. It just means that they tend to present themselves in different ways, and perhaps even to the point of having different interests and different responses to the same situations.
LP: “And how are you today, Mrs. Cleaver?”
WJW: Yes, and dealing with someone else’s mother is course a another situation. And it occurs to me that one of the things that multiple personality cases have lost is the ability to control this switching from one useful personality for another. Also, perhaps this is a metaphor for my own head. I don’t see a contradiction in the fact that I can write The Crown Jewels, Aristoi, and Hardwired, but a lot of other people seem to think this is odd. I think it’s just my various daimones going out and writing different books, surfacing in my personality in different moments.
LP: The other element in Aristoi I thought was unique was the sort of ideogramic glyphs of power certain characters used to stun others. Where did this idea come out of, martial arts?
WJW: This came out of martial arts. I began to be very conscious of the way my mind was being manipulated through my body. Martial arts were developed by some very smart people who had a definite point of view, and they were attempting to get this across through motion. It’s a movement science in the same way that dance is a movement science. And because the mind and body are connected in very complex ways, you can program the mind through the body. Through constant repetition of certain movements, through repetition of stances that have emotional and intellectual content. And so I developed this a little farther. I assumed this entire culture was based on certain mental and physical constants, in which they were all drilled from early childhood, to the point where it could be manipulated, at least temporarily, by someone who was on top of the system. And one of the ways in which you can program people is through constant repetition and reinforcement. So when someone makes a speech, the stance they take mirrors the content of the speech. They make hand formations which stand for certain concepts, mudras I call them, from Buddhist religion, which mirror the stances which mirror the concepts that they’re projecting. And they’ve developed a set of ideograms based on Chinese writing, which can also mirror a lot of these concepts, by concentrating a lot of this textual information into one character.
LP: Speaking of martial arts, what martial arts are you studying and how did you first get into it?
WJW: I’m studying kenpo karate, otherwise known as kenpo chu’an fa of the Chinese system. That’s Ch’uan, C-H-apostrophe-U, with an umlaut, A-N fa. Which I started because I wanted an exercise form that wasn’t boring. And I found that and a lot more. Just a month ago, I got my third degree black belt, and plan to continue.
LP: So third degree, that’s the one where you’re a certified bad ass, right?
WJW: Yeah, I can walk down these publishing mean streets and fear nothing…
LP: You’ve been faulted for writing your light Crown Jewels series. Did you just want to try your hand at comedy?
WJW: No, I did those because I couldn’t sell anything else. Basically, I had written and sold Hardwired and Voice of the Whirlwind to Tor, but these had not been published yet. They were unwilling to commit the financial and publishing resources to doing another large novel, which left me with nothing to do and no source of income. So I thought I could produce a quickie paperback trilogy in order to tide over the time between then and when Hardwired would be actually published. Hardwired was delayed at Tor a year or more after I delivered it, due to a number of those accidents that happens all too often to those of us involved in publishing. And it set back my career for a couple of years, and then having to write the Maijstral books set it back even further.
I am, however, very proud of those books. I think they do what they do very well. It is not a style of comedy that is often seen in science fiction. Once again I looked about and saw what other people were not writing. Nobody was doing a comedy of manners in SF, and hadn’t been for a long time, and what comedy was being done in SF was farce, so I made a point of avoiding farce.
LP: Discounting the occasional Wodehouse-influenced Sterling or Shirley story.
WJW: Well, Wodehouse was an influence on those books. I devoured a whole lot of Wodehouse in my teens, in those formative years when I was devouring a lot of Delany and Zelazny and Robert Heinlein. I eventually gave up on Wodehouse because I realized that all the Jeeves stories had the same plot. I’ve come back to them since becoming a full-time writer because I’ve realized exactly how hard it is to write 90 books with exactly the same plot, and it is not a skill to be sneezed at.
LP: Where do you think your fiction is going to be going in the next ten to twenty years.
WJW: Unfortunately, we’re all subject to the various accidents that occur within the publishing industry. My entire publishing history is a series of accidents, practically. So I think there’s essentially too much chaos in the system to predict weather the butterfly wing being waved in New Mexico is actually going to cause a typhoon in New York or not. I have sold my next book. I realized I had not written a disaster novel yet, so I thought I would, so I sold The Rift for a staggering amount of money to HarperCollins again, in which I just basically pound a part of the planet down to bedrock.
LP: So is this in a Greg Bear mode, or John Wyndham?
WJW: I think it’s less high tech than that. Perhaps John Wyndham. But I’m looking forward to it after the complexities of writing the two Metropolitan books. Just something simple and basic-survival, destruction, and the end of civilization.
LP: So how does civilization end? Or would that be spoiling things?
WJW: That would be spoiling things, unfortunately…
+ An online interview at Scifi.com, at which I discuss at some length the genesis of Metropolitan and City on Fire.
+ Didn’t know I could speak such good Italian, did you? An interview for the Italian magazine Delos, conducted by Franco Forte.
+ An interview on SF Site, conducted by Jayme Lynn Blaschke in 2000.
+ Here I am, in 2004, in an interview for Le Cafard Cosmique, in English.