Tad Williams

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Tad Williams
Born (1957-03-14) March 14, 1957 (age 66)
San Jose, California
Occupation Storyteller,[1] novelist, short story writer, comics writer and essayist
Nationality American
Genre Post-modernism;[2] Fantasy, High Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Science Fiction, horror
Notable works Tailchaser's Song, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (epic fantasy series), Otherland (science fiction/fantasy series), Shadowmarch (epic fantasy series), and The Bobby Dollar Books (urban noir fantasy series)
Spouse Deborah Beale

Robert Paul "Tad" Williams (born 14 March 1957 in San Jose, California) is an American writer. He is the international bestselling fantasy and science fiction author of the multivolume Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series, Otherland series, and Shadowmarch series as well as the standalone novels Tailchaser's Song, The War of the Flowers, Caliban's Hour, and Child of an Ancient City. Most recently, Williams published The Bobby Dollar series. His short fiction and essays have been published in anthologies and collected in Rite: Short Work and A Stark and Wormy Knight. Cumulatively, over 17 million copies of Williams' works have been sold.[3]

Williams’ work in comics includes a six issue mini-series for DC Comics called The Next. He also wrote Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis for DC starting with issue #50 and ending with issue #57. Other comic work includes Mirrorworld: Rain and The Helmet of Fate: Ibis the Invincible #1 (DC).

Williams is collaborating on a series of young-adult books with his wife, Deborah Beale, called The Ordinary Farm Adventures. The first two books in the series are The Dragons of Ordinary Farm and The Secrets of Ordinary Farm. The third installment is currently being written. He also announced via his blog a new trilogy The Last King of Osten Ard, which is a sequel trilogy to his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series. It takes place 30 years after the original trilogy.[4]

Early life and career

Robert Paul “Tad” Williams was born in San Jose, California on March 14, 1957.[5] He grew up in Palo Alto, the town that grew up around Stanford University. He attended Palo Alto Senior High School.[6] His family was close, and he and his brothers were always encouraged in their creativity.[7] His mother gave him the nickname “Tad” after the young characters in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo[8] The semi-autobiographical character Pogo Cashman, who appears in some of his stories, is a reference to the nickname.[9]

The author’s bio that appears on Williams’s books says that Tad has “held more jobs than any sane person should admit to.”[7]

“I was in a band, I did theater, I was an artist, I did cartooning and illustration, and, you know, many, many things—radio, I did radio for 10 years. Because all of these things were so very, very financially unsuccessful, I always had to have another job. Unlike everybody else I knew, I did not go to university after school, so I was working many jobs… I delivered newspapers, I folded burritos in a little Mexican fast food place, I sold shoes, I was the branch manager of a financial institution, I drew military manuals on how to properly sweep out a Chinook 47 helicopter, I just did many, many things for about five, six, seven years after I was first out of high school.”[10]

When he was in his mid twenties, he became frustrated and turned to writing as a career.

“Always in the back of my mind, though, I was determined to do something creative that would actually make me money so I could stop doing horrible things for a paycheck. Ambition is like Tinkerbell—when you stop believing, it dies. So I kept at my various projects, with writing becoming a larger and larger focus. When I received the letter from DAW that they were going to buy my novel Tailchaser's Song, I was excited and relieved—somehow, the idea that my published books might totally fail to sell never occurred to me that first day, although it was and always is a possibility.”[7]

Williams took a creative but unorthodox approach to getting his publishers to look at his first manuscript: he spun a story about needing a replacement copy because his had been destroyed. It worked.[11] DAW Books liked it and published it, beginning a long association and friendship that continues to this day. “Tailchaser was my first book, in every possible way—first I ever wrote, first I had published—so it will always be close to my heart. I still marvel sometimes at all the places that imaginary cat has traveled—far more than I’ll ever get to, probably.”[12] Williams continued working various jobs for a few more years, including three years at Apple Computer in the late 80s to early 90s (which led, in part, to the Otherland books), before making writing his full-time career.[10]

Music. “The band was called ‘Idiot’ and I still regret that we fell apart just when we were all finally out of school and might have done something. There was a lot of creativity there, a lot of talent—several of the members are still professionally making music—but most of all, there was no one else like us. We were our own weird animal… We wrote songs about bowling and voles and luxury camper vans and the end of the world. We were a little ahead of our time. It was fun.”[7] Idiot’s band members—Andrew Lawrence Jackson, vocals and rhythm guitar; Rick Cuevas, lead and rhythm guitar; Tom Sanders, Bass; Patrick Coyne, drums; and Tad Williams, vocals—held a Reunion Concert in 1997 that Williams commemorates in “IDIOT: A Brief History of a Band.”[6]

Radio and Television. Tad worked for KFJC, a college radio station. As an occasional DJ and station music director, he played whatever music the community working at KFJC thought cool, weird and interesting from the late 1970s to 80s. KFJC—Foothill College radio station—was a home to punk/new wave music, one of the first of its kind in California. From 1979 to 1990, Tad hosted a talk show called “One Step Beyond.”[13] His interests on the show were politics with an emphasis on the covert and clandestine: this was the time of the Iran-Contra scandals/hearings.

“Valley Vision” was a TV series concept, a show about a local TV station.[13] A pilot was shot featuring several people who would go on to become Bay Area acting alumni, including Greg Proops, Mike McShane, Joan Mankin, Marga Gomez and several members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.[14][15]

Theater. For ten years Tad worked in community and professional theatre in the college town of Palo Alto. He began at the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre then progressed to TheatreWorks, Palo Alto’s long-established professional theatre company. Tad acted and sang in many productions, as well as writing and working with make-up and wardrobe.

Apple. Tad worked at Apple from 1987 to 1990, his last job before he took up full-time writing. He worked as a technical writer in Apple’s Knowledge Engineering Department, taking problem-solving field material from engineers and turning it into research articles.[13][16]

Interactive Multi-Media. While at Apple Tad developed an interest in interactive multi-media, and he and his colleague Andrew Harris created a company, Telemorphix, in order to produce it. The result was “M. Jack Steckel's 21st Century Vaudeville,” which was broadcast on San Francisco Bay Area local TV in 1992 and 1993.[17][18][19] People at the station and viewers were asked to provide images of themselves, which were then animated primarily at the mouth: viewers phoned in to the show and could then be these characters. The action was a mix of improvisational performance and storylines which Tad created (along with secondary, non-interactive characters.) M. Jack Steckel himself—the host—was played by Andrew Harris.

Family life

Tad Williams and his wife and partner Deborah Beale live in Northern California with their two children and “far more cats, dogs, turtles, pet ants and banana slugs than they can count.”[7] Their home life daily mixes the personal and the professional, and creativity spills over to their children.

“I lie to them constantly, and have since they were tiny. The first big word our son learned, I think, was ‘sarcastic’ although he said it ‘starcastic’—‘Daddy, you're being starcastic again, aren't you?’ I fabulize, exaggerate, and make up silly songs, just like my mom used to. I make jokes that are so surreal sometimes they just stare at me. And of course Deb and I both live and breathe the creator’s life, so we’re always talking about stories, point-of-view, subtext. Also, we love visual art and I play music, so they’re exposed to a lot of that as well. In fact, there’s so much of it in our house that we’re probably walking the line just this side of turning them off creativity forever.”[16]

Writing and influences

Writing long stories was an early hallmark for Williams. “I remember specifically one ‘folktale’ assignment when I was thirteen that was supposed to be three pages, and I wound up writing a seventeen-page sword-and-sorcery epic with illustrations, etc.”[1] His first attempt at professional writing was “a rather awful science-fiction screenplay called The Sad Machines that I’ve never shown to anyone outside my family, I think. The only interesting thing about it now is that its main character, Ishmael Parks, was a definite precursor to Simon in the Osten Ard books.”[1][12]

Williams traces his interest in the science fiction and fantasy genre back to the books his mother read to him when he was a child, and that he later read to himself: E. Nesbit, The Wind In The Willows, and of course Tolkien.[20]

“The biggest single influence on me was reading The Lord of the Rings when I was about eleven.[21] I think it was the idea of created worlds and imaginary history that grabbed me. I was also very influenced by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s early Marvel Comics and by Dickens. And later, Gravity’s Rainbow knocked my socks off and made me want to be a grown-up writer. Art, theatre and music are a whole different set of influences. Jason and the Argonauts, The Tin Drum, and Performance all got into my brain, just for instance.”[22]

A long list of authors have influenced and inspired Williams’s work: Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger, William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, Barbara Tuchman, Philip K. Dick, Ruth Rendell, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), Jane Austen, T. S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Patrick O’Brian, Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), A. A. Milne, J. J. Norwich, Steven Jay Gould, John Updike, Thomas Berger, Raymond Chandler, William Shakespeare, and James Thurber.[21][23][24][25][26]

Williams has also had an influence on other authors in his genre. His Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series was one of the things that inspired George R. R. Martin to write A Song of Ice and Fire. “I read Tad and was impressed by him, but the imitators that followed—well, fantasy got a bad rep for being very formulaic and ritual. And I read The Dragonbone Chair and said, ‘My god, they can do something with this form,’ and it's Tad doing it. It’s one of my favorite fantasy series.”[27][28] Martin incorporated a nod to Williams in A Game of Thrones with “House Willum”: The only members of the house mentioned are Lord Willum and his two sons, Josua and Elyas, a reference to the royal brothers in The Dragonbone Chair.[29] In response, Williams wrote, “George is one of the best writers around these days (you notice I don’t say ‘best SF and F writers,’ because that’s too limiting) as well as a good guy, so if I helped him decide to write something, that’s a pleasure and an honor.”[30]

In “Tad Williams: The American Tolkien?” Ash Silverlock observes that “echoes of Williams’s work” can be seen in the works of Robin Hobb, Terry Goodkind and Robert Jordan.[31] Blake Charlton, Christopher Paolini, and Patrick Rothfuss have also indicated they’ve been inspired by Williams.[32][33][34]


Writing style

Genre Fiction. Williams chose the science fiction and fantasy genre for two main reasons: it's what he read growing up, and he likes the flexibility of the genre which gives him the freedom to tell a lot of different stories.[21][24] "All projects are different, and considering I'm known for epic fantasy, I'm pretty wide-ranging even there, with animal fantasy, modern Faerie, science-fiction epics, Shakespeare, and other stuff."[16] While understanding the need for genre and subgenre labels that signal certain segments of the market, Tad's work reaches a more diffuse audience, attracting people who enjoy a good story regardless of category or label.[24][35] "I've changed directions almost every time I've started something new. I generally consider myself to be more in the Zelazny or Sturgeon or Le Guin camp (ie, follow the idea) than strictly a writer of any genre or style."[9]

In a Q&A session with fans in Stuttgart, Tad talked about why he enjoys working in the fantasy genre.

"Genre just means a contract between a writer and a reader, that the writer will deliver a certain amount of expected things. In my particular genre, I can do anything I want, I can be as ambitious as I want, I can be as literary as I want, as long as every 5 or 10 pages something really horrible tries to eat my main character. I enjoy that part of it because it's almost subversive, I can write anything, I can deal with big ideas, I can try to be an ambitious writer in my prose style -- all those things as long as I also do what the reader wants. The readers are very forgiving, they are interested in experiments and ideas, as long as you remember you're writing fantasy."[36]

In a Reddit AMA, Williams said, "The book kind of decides for me, since a story idea takes a while to survive the Hobbesian nightmare of my brain and prove that it has the stuff to survive and be written. If it lasts long enough, and eats enough smaller, weaker ideas, I know it wants to be a book."[37]

Big, Complex Stories. Williams has a reputation for writing long and complex ("doorstop") novels, but unlike most serial novels, Williams views his epic series as "one very, very long novel" told in one big arc over multiple volumes.[2][38][39] "What really happens is that ideas start out more or less equal, but some of them metastasize to the point where it becomes clear that it's a very large story."[40]

Williams's epic fantasy Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a trilogy that became four volumes when it was published in paperback format. While the first two books were long—672 and 589 pages, respectively—the third volume, To Green Angel Tower, weighed in at a massive 1083 pages on hardcover publication. But the paperback would have been 1600 pages—too big to be printed in one volume—so it was split into two separate volumes: To Green Angel Tower, Part 1 and To Green Angel Tower, Part 2. In the UK, the two volumes were titled To Green Angel Tower: Siege and To Green Angel Tower: Storm.

Otherland was planned as a tetralogy from the beginning.[25] "There are practical benefits to writing without artificial closure at the end of each book, with one big arc, instead of a series of little arcs, like molehills. I'm trying to get the length which feels right for the story, but it's not to everybody's taste. Not everybody's interested in the level of detail I like. The fantasy audience almost expects things to be in multiple volumes, whereas some of the science fiction readership have been a bit startled."[2]

Shadowmarch was planned as three volumes, but while writing the final book (Shadowrise) he and his publishers realized it needed to be split into 2 books of about 750 pages each, which led to another four-book "trilogy." Shadowrise was split into two volumes: the third book, Shadowrise, and the fourth and final volume of the series, Shadowheart.[41]

"All my long works have one thing in common -- I set up the biggest chaos orchestra I can manage, then start letting the bits of character and plot interact, pruning and directing where it seems necessary, gradually making choices of what should cause what, until the realistic confusion begins to disgorge emergent order. This is the plan, anyway."[23]

Williams is writing his current series, The Bobby Dollar Books, with an eye for producing shorter, more "standalone" books. "Part of the decision was very practical -- I've been scaring a lot of people away from my work with size and subject matter, so I thought I'd do something different. Also, I don't write well unless I feel challenged by something new. But all my stories are single stories -- the length just varies -- as opposed to true series fiction, so it's mainly a question of just shrinking everything down, the scope, the secondary focal-points, the number of plot-strands."[16] In a conversation with Christopher Paolini, Williams said, "I'd like to try to write slightly shorter and more self-contained works, at least for a while: the big ones (of which I've now done three) take up half a decade or more, and I'd like to try some other things. That's why I'm writing the Angel Doloriel books, which will be more like regular series books -- you won't swoon if you try to pick one up without reading its predecessor. Me being me, though, there will still almost certainly be lots of detail, characters, and continuity stuff to wrestle with!"[33]

Characters and Worldbuilding. One hallmark of Williams's stories is complex worldbuilding with well-developed histories, folklore and mythologies, languages and cultures, religion and politics for the multiple races populating the geography.[42][43] Another hallmark is his large casts of memorable characters. "One of the reasons I've never thought of myself as a pure example of a genre writer is that character is always the most important issue for me, just nosing out worldbuilding/invention."[35] "I tend to write lots and lots of characters… I feel honor-bound to give them all arcs. If you're going to make readers invest in these smaller characters, you have to give them a payoff as well, so instead of having one or two major character arcs I have 25 or 30 character arcs in my books. People are not just spear-carriers. I like to do that, because it gives me a much more kaleidoscopic view of these big, world-changing events."[39] In an interview with Paul Goat Allen for Barnes & Noble, Williams elaborates:

"One of the things that I like best about big books is the chance to create complex worlds. One of the ways that a writer can give depth to a world is to view it through the eyes of many different characters. Having so many characters is also a bit like making a lot of new friends (and enemies) -- you don't always know what's coming next, you meet someone, you don't know how important they'll be to you, then after a while it turns out you're going to be living with them as much as your family. It's strange and interesting."[44]

Humor. "One thing people often miss about my work is how closely humor is woven into it. Even my most serious stuff usually is laced with humor, although obviously not at every moment, and not always in the most noticeable ways. (A lot of my humor is absurdist in nature, so often I just put crazy things in and don't make much out of them, because it seems to reflect the world I live in.) But even the most basic conversations and situations usually have some humorous elements."[33] From Binabik's Qanuc proverbs (The Dragonbone Chair), to faerie creatures who carry cell phones and regularly excuse themselves to go to the bathroom (The War of the Flowers), to the wise-cracking angel advocate Bobby Dollar in The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams's humor adds depth to his characters and worlds. "I don't believe you can write a really good book without any humor at all. That's just my own response to the human condition. Sometimes it may be bleak humor, but there's always humor."[45]


Gray Areas. Williams's stories explore the areas of life where complicated systems come together and adapt to one another with solutions that are not simply black and white.

"For me, personally, those are always the most interesting places for anything. If you look at evolution, biological evolution, most of the interesting things happen where two systems come up against each other and adaptation takes place. And change. And the same is true in politics, the same is true in just day-to-day life -- that it's the interactions, it's the overlap, it's the place where one system hits another and they can't both continue the same way, and they have to change to be able to co-exist. That's what interests me. The gray areas, the edges, the between spaces."[46]

"One of the most ridiculous fallacies we subscribe to in this society is that things are on/off, black/white, that there are sharp dividing lines between things like races and genders and being healthy/unhealthy. It's all a continuum, and we are all incredibly complicated mixtures."[47]

Magic. One of the defining characteristics of the fantasy genre is the inclusion of magic in the world of the novel. Tad Williams uses magic sparingly in his books. "The fine line between magic and just the incomprehensibility of the universe is big with me," he says. "I never use a lot of magic in my [writing], because I think it denatures magic, to have it be like hot and cold running water, and I want every time it comes up to be something that's exciting."[48]

Stories and Storytelling. The nature of stories, storytelling, and "a certain skepticism about history" is a recurring theme in Williams's work.[12] In Child of an Ancient City, a caravan of soldiers and diplomats traveling from Baghdad to Armenia are being stalked by a mysterious "vampyr." To avoid being killed, they must entertain the vampyr with stories for the night. "[B]y the time I was redoing [Child of an Ancient City] as an Arabian Nights story... 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."[11]

The examination of story and storytelling is one of the main themes in the Otherland series. In her review of the series, Victoria Strauss points out,

"Throughout the series, Williams has thoughtfully examined the importance of storytelling as a tool by which human beings shape their perceptions of self and world, and the relationships between them. All the invented worlds of Otherland are stories (sometimes literally, for a number of them are novels brought to life), through which the members of the Grail Brotherhood have given shape to their dreams of immortality; and along Paul's and Renie's and the others' difficult journeys, storytelling has helped them retain their connection to the real world and gain perspective on the struggles they undergo."[49]

In The War of the Flowers, Williams examines both the world of fairy tales and the tales the faerie folk tell. When Button the goblin tells a story to a crowd of goblins bent on revolution, we again see the storytelling theme: "I told you that all goblin stories have a hole in the middle -- like all goblin names. It is not for me to tell you what fits in that open place, that well of mystery at the center of Faerie... What is in that empty space? It is not for me to say. The stories of my people do not work that way."[50]

Family and Identity. "[T]he need to learn about oneself, to find out who you are before you can expect to change things in this or any world, is something I still work with all the time, in my books and my life."[12] In Tailchaser's Song, this theme serves as an inner conflict and goal for Fritti and the other cats who must discover their own identities, "their third and most special name, their 'tail name,' by themselves."[51] In Otherland, family connections are behind the inciting incidents for the story: Renie's brother Stephen is one of the children caught up in mysterious comas, while !Xabbu the Bushman is learning about virtual reality in order to preserve the heritage of his people before it completely disappears. Family ties and history are primary motivators for the other characters as well, notably Jongleur, Dread, and even The Other. In The War of the Flowers, the theme is explored in the political power struggle between the seven great families that rule over the land of Faerie, Theo's uncovering of his own family secrets, and the mysterious "terrible child" who represents "the idea of family connection without love... and of course, power without compassion."[45] The theme is developed in greater depth in the Shadowmarch series, where Williams is fascinated by "persistence of family ideas and family identity, for good and bad."[24] "I really liked working with the idea of family -- as a metaphor, but also as a real thing. Family is the cauldron of everything that makes us who we are. It's the place we first learn the myths of humanity. It's the place we develop our ideas of society and also the order of the cosmos. It's what you stand on (or run from) the whole of your life."[45]

First Peoples and Colonialism. In Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Williams develops themes of colonialism and First Peoples with the Sithi who were driven out of Asu'a by the arrival of Man in Osten Ard.[52]

In Caliban’s Hour, Williams revisits Shakespeare's The Tempest from Caliban's point of view. "Shakespeare, brilliant thinker that he was, was pointing out some problems of colonialism before anyone else realized that such a thing as colonialism even existed."[25] "Caliban was one of the first representations of a colonized people in English literature -- the first thing he says is, 'This was my island once.'"[53] "Like all those other folks in the New World who accepted visitors from Europe only to find that those visitors soon became their masters, Caliban is as much a victim of history as he is of Prospero the magician."[54]

In Otherland, Williams illustrates the plight of indigenous people through the protagonist !Xabbu's quest to master virtual reality and preserve the vanishing ways of his people. In the Author's Note to City of Golden Shadow, Williams says, "The Bushmen's old ways are indeed disappearing fast. One of my most dubious bits of truth-manipulation may turn out to be the simple assertion that there will be anyone left pursuing the hunter-gatherer life in the bush by the middle of the twenty-first century."[55]

In the Shadowmarch series, Williams again gives us a First People displaced by the arrival of humans. In his review of Shadowrise, Aidan Moher says, "The real stars of the novel are the Qar. Williams's analogue to the mythological Tuatha Dé Danann, kicked from their ancestral home by ever ambitious humans; their history is melancholy and powerful and I was often left pondering who the true villains of the series are."[56]

Religion and Theology. In Shadowmarch, "Williams explores the idea that even religions that share the same root mythologies can often warp and manipulate those tales to fit their political and spiritual needs. It's a very adult approach to religion and offers interesting social commentary by enhancing the plot, rather than getting in the way of proper storytelling."[56]

In The Bobby Dollar Books, Williams uses his depictions of Heaven and Hell as a platform to develop and explore religious themes in greater detail. "I've been very careful with this book not to commit myself too literally to any religious philosophy. As a matter of fact, you could make a case that this could be ordinary science fiction or fantasy and not about the 'truth' of religion at all. But whatever it is, it gives me plenty of chances to play with theology, something I enjoy very much."[35] In a video interview for his German publisher, Klett-Cotta, Williams discusses the use of theology in the books:

"One of the things a writer can do is find a way to focus a lens on something. Just as a photographer captures a moment in time, a writer can take a particular way of looking at things and focus the attention... The idea of forever, of eternity, is something that human beings cannot really understand... What would it be like to be happy forever? Can we really understand that? Would that make us feel good? Or is it actually a little frightening? What is it like to be punished forever, for something you do during a very short period of time living on earth? So as a writer I like to say, 'Okay, these are the ideas, but what would these things really mean if they truly are happening, how would it feel?'"[46]

In an interview with Wired, Williams elaborates:

"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...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."[11]

Literary and cultural references

Tailchaser's Song contains "little nods (and affectionate jabs) toward Tolkien" and The Lord of the Rings. "In Tailchaser, I reserved my Tolkien commentary primarily to a few jokes, like the scene where Fritti meets the Queen of Cats (a fairly obvious Galadriel-parallel), the glorious and exalted Mirmirsor Sunback, and discovers her biting her butt. Which is, of course, a very catlike thing to do."[12] Williams gives another little nod to T. S. Eliot's "The Naming of Cats." Cats are born with three names: their "heart name" (Fritti) which is the name used by family, close friends and lovers; their "face name" (Tailchaser) which is appointed when they come of age and is their commonly used, public name; and their "tail name" which is a secret name each cat must discover for himself.[51]

Williams wrote Memory, Sorrow and Thorn "in part to deal with some of my conflicts about Tolkien's Lord of the Rings."[12]

"I thought I was beginning a dialogue within the SF/Fantasy field about Tolkien and his effect on the contemporary genre. In a lot of ways, the MS&T books are commentary on some of the best-loved (or at least most-copied) tropes in Tolkien, such as the ubiquitous idea of a past Golden Age. But what critics and readers saw was another Tolkien homage, and depending on how they felt about such things, that's how they treated it. I was a little disappointed about the lack of discussion (or even recognition) of the underlying themes, but pleased that at least people read it."[23]

The main character Simon "comes straight out of the Arthurian cycle."[20] "The trip into Jao é-Tinukai'i by Simon (with Aditu) in Stone of Farewell is very Zelazny-influenced. It smacks of Corwin's traveling to Amber."[57]

Caliban's Hour contains echoes of both Beauty and the Beast and Robinson Crusoe.[58] Child Of An Ancient City has echoes of the story of Scheherazade and the Thousand and One Nights.[11]

Inspiration for Otherland drew from several stories about rivers, including Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It,[2] Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness.[23] Many of the virtual worlds in Otherland are either emulations, alternate interpretations, or distortions of worlds from classic literature, fables and pop culture, including: L. Frank Baum's Oz books; Lewis Carroll's Through The Looking Glass; The Iliad and The Odyssey; the Winchester Mystery House; the Kitchen, a cartoon-world homage to the Golden Age of Animation; P. G. Wodehouse's pre- and post-World War I England; H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds; Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet On The Western Front; and fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk, to name just a few.[59] There are shout-outs including the "tears in the rain" speech from Blade Runner given by the dying Scarecrow, and an oblique Star Trek reference from a Treehouse guide referring to the environment as "the net, but not as we know it." Williams packs Otherland full of tropes and has obvious fun deconstructing them throughout the series.[60] He describes the books as his "Kitchen Sink" novel.[40]

In Shadowmarch, the Rooftoppers are drawn on the great tradition of "Wee Folk" in western folklore. "I used Tom Thumb and Thumbelina, of course, but also The Borrowers -- very well known in the English speaking world, at least -- and many others. I just like the idea of little tiny people, and find them more interesting and heroic if they are not otherwise inherently 'magical.'"[61]

In Williams's short story "The Writer's Child" -- first collected in the short story anthology The Sandman: Book of Dreams edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer -- Lord Byron is depicted as reincarnated as a child's teddy bear.[62]

International response

Germany. Williams's Otherland series has been a cultural phenomenon in German-speaking countries, "in large part due to my change in German publishers to Klett-Cotta, who made me a mainstream writer because of their own reputation as serious publishers."[1]

"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."[11]

Having Klett-Cotta as his publisher meant reviews "in a lot of places that wouldn't normally have been reviewing me, and since the first story that got that treatment (Otherland) had a lot of contemporary issues and ideas in it, it really helped establish me as a writer worth talking about."[63]

"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."[11]

The German radio network Hessischer Rundfunk produced the Otherland radio play in January 2004, and the public premiere was at the International Frankfurt Book Fair in October that year at a club in Frankfurt called the U60311. It was produced as a "24-hours radio play" broadcast on two stations. The play was published by der Hörverlag, Munich, as an audiobook. Walter Adler directed, and also adapted the book for the radio play. The music was composed by Pierre Oser.[64][65]

"I LOVED the radio play, and thought Walter Adler and everyone else involved did a wonderful job. No, it doesn't sound exactly as I'd imagined it, but that's the great thing about collaborative art -- it becomes more than the sum of its parts. I WANTED it to sound different than I expected. That way, I got to enjoy it, too. And I did."[61]

Translations. Williams’s books have been translated into “a couple dozen languages”[63] including:

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On writing


Williams is an ideas-driven author: the idea comes first.[36][37] “Usually for me the trigger is an idea more than a character or a title. The Bobby Dollar book idea was ‘cold war,’ the Otherland idea was ‘river that links different virtual worlds together,’ the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn idea was ‘after a King-Arthur-type Great King dies.’ Then they sort of find their own characters and titles. (Well, I help.)”[9] In an interview with Heiner Wittmann for Klett-Cotta, Williams explains, “Almost every book starts out as maybe one or two or three small ideas and then they kind of go into the mix and I wait. And if they last, if they survive for awhile, they begin to agglomerate with other ideas. They begin to become something more than the sum of its parts.”[46]

Answering a question about the “inspiration or processes” he uses to mesh reality with fantasy, to take his big ideas and fit them into his worlds, Williams said: “I find the words ‘What if…?’ infinitely valuable. But you have to keep re-rolling those particular dice over and over until you get an answer that works for the story. It’s one of the reasons I like quiet: I do most of this in my head, running different simulations, almost, to see which possibilities will lead to the best outcomes.”[16]

Planning and outlining

Long, complex novels invite questions about planning and outlining: whether Williams uses a detailed outline to plot his books in advance or whether he is a “pantser,” making it up as he goes along. “Books like mine take both… I try to plan some (but not all) of the big moments, including a general idea of how things might end, then leave it to discovery to fill in the in-between stuff.”[66] In an interview with Michael A. Ventrella, Williams said, “I like the balance between knowing too much and knowing too little, so I certainly outline, but I leave lots of room for things to change, grow, whatever, as I write the story. That way the story stays fresh, but the fact that there’s structure means it doesn’t meander too badly.”[67] Part of the planning process includes developing maps for his worlds to help develop ideas about the cultures and politics of the setting. “I actually tend to make maps first and then let those inform the geopolitical invention. So most of the interplay between cultures springs from my inventing a history based in part on the invented geography that came first.”[68]


“One of the things that I love about the field of writing that I'm in—science fiction and fantasy—is you spend time researching the weirdest things,” Williams said during a Q&A session in Stuttgart. He gave an example of some of the research he did for the Bobby Dollar books which feature a were-pig character:

“I spent a good portion of a day on agricultural websites, and specifically, because I wanted to get an emotional feeling for pigs—not just a clinical, dry feeling—I also went and researched pig enthusiast websites. I don’t mean the kind of websites you have to hide from your children, I mean there are people in America, probably here too, who own pigs as pets and they write lots of articles about pigs and how pigs feel and what pigs like (besides other pigs)… Off the top of my head, I could not tell you how much a full-grown, male farm pig should weigh. I knew ‘Big,’ but when you’re a writer, you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, so I actually went and spent some time.”[69]

And how long does it take Williams to research one of his books?

“That’s hard to say because the research is mostly something that is happening while I am writing. There are some cases where I know ahead of time that I’m going to have a lot of research in a particular area, and I will actually start researching before I start writing. But with something like Bobby Dollar where it’s set in the contemporary world, yes, there are many things to be researched including things about Heaven and Hell and people’s ideas and the religious writings about them—but most of that I was doing as I was writing. So in a given day, if I’m spending three hours thinking before I start writing, and two or three hours actually typing, I’m probably going to be spending another hour or so checking things, looking things up, as I go, because I don’t want to try to think too much ahead, I want to be in the scene, in the story… if it takes me six months to write a book, or a year, then I have probably spent a month or two months just doing research.”[70]

Process and routine

Williams’s typical writing day begins with thinking in the morning and continues with writing in the afternoon.[20] His daily output ranges from five to ten pages a day.[9] He listens to ambient or classical music, (“I listen to things without words… because I don’t want the music to inspire me, I want it to isolate me. For me, writing is less about pounding keys and more about the thinking that happens first.”),[66] and he writes on a Mac (“Computers are a huge help with complicated books because you can search so easily… I am a big believer at getting the process out of the way of the thinking, so computers and Tad were a natural fit.”).[16] He does not take long breaks between books: “I haven’t been able to afford to take long stretches off, especially when I was writing big, long books that took more than a year to write. In fact, even if I had time, I’d probably just use it to do other projects and tell other stories. I’m sort of addicted.”[9]


Williams has collaborated on several creative projects. In an interview with Jeff VanderMeer he addressed collaborating and what he finds to be challenging about the process:

“For me, probably trying to slow down and explain my jumps of logic–the sort of thing you don’t have to explain when you’re working by yourself (unless you’re really weird and you don’t trust your own judgment and you argue with yourself). Because all I have to do when I’m writing on my own is feel the ‘ping’ that says, ‘that fits!’ and the problem is solved and I’m on to the next one. But you can’t always convince someone else so quickly that you’re right. (And, to be fair, you might not BE right when someone else’s ideas are taken into account.)”[71]

But the rewards balance the challenges of collaboration. “More importantly though, I get the benefit of the creativity of others, and the work automatically becomes richer for it. I had an early experience with this in theater and music (writing music as part of a band is a great way to learn this lesson) and as much of a control freak as I am (and believe me, I am) I would hate to lose this aspect of creativity. There are some wonderful things that can ONLY come out of collaboration.”[24]

Advice for aspiring writers

Williams is often asked for his advice to aspiring authors. His standard response hits three main points:

1. Read widely, often, and extensively outside their chosen genre. “I tell people… in fact to avoid their genre when they read as often as possible if they want to write genre fiction. (Otherwise you become influenced by other writers and ideas in your own genre and it becomes incestuous and shallow very quickly.) Read broadly, including lots and lots of non-fiction, especially history and science. (Yes, even if you write fantasy. ESPECIALLY if you write fantasy.)”[26]

2. Write regularly. “If you can’t find time to write, you’re not a writer. That’s not to be glib, but some people would rather talk about the reasons they can’t do something than just do it. (My son and his homework spring to mind.) You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer.”[67]

3. Finish things. “Too many writers rewrite from the beginning every time they have a new idea or feel they’ve matured as writers, and as a result sometimes people’s cherished projects turn into a tighter and tighter spiral of trying to make the beginning perfect. Finish it, THEN go back and change it to fit your later conception of yourself as a writer and the story. Learning how to plan, begin, and actually finish a project is a huge part of being a pro.”[16]

What advice does he have about Writer's Block? “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.”[20] Does he ever suffer writer’s block? “I don’t believe in it. Sometimes a story just needs more time, or even a pause. But some writers worry that their talent will dry up, and every dry spot seems like the first knell of approaching doom. I’m not that way so it’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I just have to put something aside, but that’s only because it’s a complicated problem that my subconscious needs to work on. (And my conscious mind may need to take it slow, too.)”[26]


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Further reading

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  3. Lealos, Shawn S. (2011). "Exclusive art released from upcoming 'Tailchaser's Song' animated adaptation".
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External links