Christopher Paolini recently participated in a two-sided interview and conversation with acclaimed fantasy author Tad Williams (of Shadowmarch and Otherland fame) for Amazon.com, resulting in some very interesting questions and answers! The pair discussed their books, writing, and their writing plans for the future, as well as their take on the fantasy and scifi genres and the ever-growing world of books. The interview/discussion is quite the interesting read, offering a glimpse into the minds of two of our generation’s celebrated fantasy authors. Keep reading for the interview!
Tad: Hi, Christopher. Nice to talk to you, albeit virtually. It was great hanging out with you and your family this summer. Pretty much all of us fell in love with your part of the world, too.
Be warned: this isn’t my best time of the day, so if I start calling you “Herman” and asking what it was about whaling that interested you, please forgive.
The first thing I’d like to ask you as a starter question is: why fantasy? I mean, there’s the obvious answer (which is also true for me) that it was something I loved to read growing up, but I guess I’m curious what is it that still resonates for you. Why do these kind of stories, these kinds of characters, these kinds of worlds, still speak to you?
In a similar vein, do you have another kind of fiction, another genre, that you’d really like to try? If so, why? Any genres you think you’ll never write but wish you could?
Christopher: Hi Tad. Great talking to you as well. We all had a wonderful time when you guys visited. Definitely one of the highlights of the year.
I’m still waking up as well — takes a few cups of tea and a few strips of bacon before the little gray cells start firing properly — so if I sound a bit muddled, that’s why. Still, we can make a stab at coherency, eh?
Hmm. Why do I write fantasy? As you said, it’s because I enjoy reading it, but I enjoy reading it because . . . well, for a number of reasons, I suppose. First of all, fantasy allows for all sorts of dangerous situations, and those can provide a lot of excitement in a story. And excitement is always fun. Also, epic fantasy usually deals with themes and situations that everyone can relate to, such as the challenge of growing up, or how one is supposed to deal with moral quandaries. Fantasy is the oldest form of literature; the very first stories that humans told while crouched around campfires were stories about gods and monsters and tragic mistakes and heroic feats. Even now, those topics still resonate with us on a primal level, which is one reason I think fantasy will remain popular with readers as long as humans are still human. And I love the sense of awe and wonder one can often find in fantastical literature. . . . Fantasy can allow you to see and hear and experience things that have never existed and never *could* exist. To me, that is the closest we come to real magic in this world.
That said, there are a number of other genres I’d like to try my hand at: mystery, thriller, horror, science-fiction, romance, etc. I love stories of all kinds — although mythic ones certainly hold the greatest appeal to me — and I’m very much looking forward to experimenting once I finish the Inheritance cycle. Any genres I think I’ll never write but wish I could? . . . Probably long-form epic poetry or a witty comedy of manners. Poetry is fun, but my grasp on it is rather shaky, and a comedy of manners (while I enjoy them) is so different from my usual life, I’m not sure I could pull it off properly.
And now a question for you: You have just finished your third (large) series. What is it about big epic stories that so fascinates you? Why not write small, intimate books about a fishmonger whose greatest love is his toothpick sculpture of the Brooklyn Bridge?
Tad: You mean you didn’t read my brief but stunning Brian, His Bream, and His Brittle Bridge?
More seriously, I’m actually trying to move away from such large books, not because I don’t keep writing at length for a reason (more about that in a moment) but because it’s like piloting an ocean liner: once you’re underway, turning or both stopping take such a long, long time.
Yes, fantasy definitely resonates at a primal level. Many of my reasons for writing are the same as yours. I think the foremost is that it’s a way to get into the headspace of the Uncharted World, something we haven’t had much of during our lifetimes. In fantasy (or science fiction, for that matter) we can imagine unknown lands and civilizations and people and creatures, and more importantly, the excitement (and sometimes the terror) of discovering them for the first time. It’s hard for us to imagine these days how the world once felt for our ancestors — a tiny, only partially safe and known space surrounded by fearful unknowns.
As far as writing long books, a big part of it with me is that I like the size of the canvas. I prefer to work with multiple viewpoints, to take large events and break them down into a kaleidoscope of different (and often clashing) viewpoints, as a compensation for and modernization of the strong narrator more common in earlier generations of fantasy writing. However, because each character then becomes the hero of his or her own small drama, as well as a supporting strut to the lead characters’ story, it takes up a lot more space. Also, because my big books have to be so tightly plotted in some ways, the smaller storylines become a way to keep spontaneity and introduce new ideas into the tale.
But as all writers know, there is fun to be had with many genres and lengths, so 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!
What about you? Do you feel like you want to keep writing epic fantasy at epic length? What parts of writing long work well for you, which aren’t you so happy with? I know I occasionally find the sheer slog of long stories to be fatiguing, since worldbuilding and character invention are probably the most engaging parts of the process (at least until the ending when you get to resolve things, which has a real joy of its own.)
Have you ever worried you wouldn’t have the muscle to finish something? I confess I’ve had a few nights when I wondered if I was ever going to see the top of the hill, let alone get down the other side.
Christopher: I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure of reading that particular work of yours, but I’ll be sure to seek it out now.
I agree with everything you said about writing large, tightly-plotted series. My experience with the Inheritance cycle has been much the same, although, in my case, it’s taken me over a decade to finish, and I’m not quite to the end yet. (I know, I know; I really need to write faster.) There is a great joy to telling a story on such a grand scale, but, I agree, you run the risk of fatigue and burnout. Variety is exciting, and working on the same project for years on end can take its toll.
For that very reason, I don’t think I have the guts to tackle another series. At least not in the immediate future. Even if I live to be a hundred, I’ll never have the time to write all the stories I want to, and going from series to series will drastically reduce the number that I’ll be able to finish. Of course, I may feel differently a few years down the road. Who knows?
Sometimes I think James Patterson has the right idea: spend your time plotting out stories (the fun part) and then farm out the actual writing to someone else. The problem is, I’m far too obsessive and detail-oriented to let anyone else tell my stories for me. I’d spend most of my time tearing out my hair and going, “That’s not right! You’re supposed to do it like *this*.” And then I’d just end up writing the book myself after all.
There have been many, many times over the course of this series when I’ve doubted whether I’d be able to finish it. In fact, until I actually write the final word on the final page, I’m still not going to entirely believe that it’s possible. However, my love for the world and characters has always pulled me through those rough patches.
I don’t want it to sound as if working on the Inheritance cycle has been all misery, though. Far from it. Long form fiction, such as this, offers many rewards to those patient enough to tackle it. By staying with the same characters and locations for a long period of time, you grow to know them in a way you never could if you were only with them for a brief four hundred pages or so. The story starts to take on a life of its own, and you become so wound up in it, it becomes hard to let go. As much as I want to move on from the Inheritance cycle, I could very easily continue to tell stories in Eragon’s world for the rest of my life. In fact, many authors do just that once they’ve created a world that they really enjoy.
A change of topic now: Do you think that aspiring authors ought to attend college and/or writing classes? If so, which would you recommend? I ask because I know many people think that a degree or a certification is going to help them become professional writers. That hasn’t been my experience, but I was wondering if you had a different take on it.
Tad: I absolutely agree that I don’t want to make either the job itself or long stories in particular sound TOO painful. I’ve had a lot of jobs I enjoyed less — a lot — and I can’t think of any I liked as much. The chance to create worlds and to people them, and then to get other people interested in them, must be one of the greatest things anyone can do in this world, and we’ve both been very lucky to get to do that.
I don’t think I could go the Patterson route, for the same reasons you describe. Also, I really like the writing part, trying to get the words just right (although one never, ever fully succeeds — but that keeps life interesting and work a challenge!)
Also, books change as you write them, and that’s a fascinating thing I’d never get to experience if all I did was plot for other writers. The Shadowmarch books really changed as I learned what the story was truly about, and to be honest I didn’t know anywhere near as well in the beginning as I did when the last words of Shadowheart were finally written some nine years later (I’m including the time I was writing the beginning part online.) These big stories like mine and your Inheritance Cycle grow and change — they’re living organisms, in a way, and no short work can ever be quite that alive. (And for that reason can’t be as annoying and demanding, either.)
As to your question about what education is appropriate for a writer, well, my answer is pretty simple: you need to do whatever will educate you to write. For most of us, that starts with reading a ton of other kinds of writing — different genres of fiction, great books from the past, non-fiction, even things like technical writing to understand clarity and concision. Also, the broader the repertoire of influences, the broader the personal voice that a writer develops. Next, the writer has to learn how to write, and you do that by writing, writing, and more writing, then reassessing, and writing again, and by useful criticism and technical feedback.
Do you have to have a college degree to do that? Gee, I hope not, because I dropped out of Berkeley a long time ago without even sniffing a diploma. But can that be a good way to go for some people? Absolutely. But remember, folks, the world is full of gifted failures and entitled mediocrities, but interestingly there seem to be far fewer ambitious, hard-working failures. That doesn’t mean hard work is a guarantee of success any more than a literature degree would be, but if you’re going to do anything as hard, challenging, and competitive as commercial fiction, you’d better know in advance that there are people who have just as much innate talent as you have but who are already planning to outwork you.
What would you tell someone about your work as a writer, or the I. Cycle as a piece of work, that you don’t think gets enough attention?
Christopher: You’re right; watching a story evolve as you tell it is one of the most fascinating and rewarding aspects of the process. Even though the general outline of my series has remained the same since I started, many of the specifics have gone in a completely different direction than I originally imagined. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as that moment when — after years of thinking about “X” in a certain manner — your vision shifts a bit, and you suddenly realize that “X” should actually be “Y”, and you feel all the little gears in your head snap together, and the story suddenly seems much more coherent and powerful. In order for that to happen, though, you have to be willing to let go of your preconceived notions about the world/characters, which can oftentimes be difficult.
I was a bit too rigid with my last question, I suppose. Writing classes certainly *can* help improve someone’s technical skills, but they can’t teach the desire to write, nor can they teach you what your prose is supposed to sound like, nor what you ought to be writing about in the first place. Those are things people have to find out on their own.
I think there are two things that maybe get overlooked when people talk about the Inheritance cycle. One, my love of science. Even though I’m writing fantasy, I try very hard to make sure that everything within my world is internally consistent. The only real impossibility I have in the books is people’s ability to manipulate energy with their minds: aka magic. Other than that, everything is governed by the rules of physics. And two, how much my writing has changed since my first book, Eragon, I’ve tried very hard to better myself as an author from book to book. Readers may disagree about whether or not I’ve succeeded, but even the harshest of critics would have to acknowledge that, for better or worse, I’m not the same writer I was when I began.
How about you? What aspect of your work do you think deserves more attention?
And, since you’ve just wrapped up the Shadowmarch books, what do you think the heart of the series is? That is, what is it about that story that inspired you to write it?
Tad: Oh, I don’t think you were rigid with the question at all, Christopher. I think as largely self-taught writers you and I are going to have trouble pushing the “get a degree” side of the argument very forcefully. Certainly I’ve seen too many people who think that writing is giving back what a teacher wants you to do, as if the craft could be learned like multiplication tables. You can teach people the rudiments of writing until you’re blue in the face but if they don’t have the drive and skill to express themselves, or at least the drive to improve their methods of expression, a degree is nothing more than something that’s going to hang on your wall.
Your love of science is another way in which you and I are much alike, I think. I have always thought of myself as a “hard fantasist” — this is an expansion of the well-recognized science fiction term, “hard SF”, meaning scientifically rigorous, or at least internally consistent. In fact, sometimes it almost becomes a limitation for me, because I have trouble creating things that don’t feel realistic to me. In the ORDINARY FARM all-ages books I’m writing with my wife Deborah, I’m constantly compelled to come up with reasons to explain how dragons can fly (I bet you know that one!) and why unicorns have horns, etc. It leads me down some very strange tracks…
As to me, hmmmm. I think the 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. Besides all the SF and Fantasy authors I admired growing up, I also loved people like S J Perelman and Robert Benchley and Wodehouse, and later Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon, and all that creeps into my work. It’s especially visible in the OTHERLAND books, but there’s a healthy dose in Shadowheart and my other epic fantasy as well.
Now that the last of the Shadowmarch books is finished, I’d say that the series is about family. It’s about what binds us together and what makes us who we are, and how often those are the same things — how we were raised, and who raised us. It interested me, and grew to be more and more important, because fundamentally epic fantasy is often about everything BUT actual family — it’s about pseudo-families (like “quest teams”) and most of the major characters are usually orphans, actually or functionally. How many of us (both you and me, for instance) have started epics by killing off the protagonist’s surrogate parent figure? But I’ve moved into a part of life where I am much more conscious of myself as a part of the stream rather than something riding on top of the stream — humbling but interesting, that change — and it really became a dominant part of the Shadowmarch books.
I don’t know how long we have — Deb and I have a business lunch at 12:45 our time — but I did want to ask you a few more things. Feel free not to answer if it treads on stuff you’d rather keep exclusive a while longer. One is, any plans for things you’d like to work on after Inheritance? (Asking more about types, not specifics, like I’m going to be working in a more Fantasy Angelic Espionage vein next.) And what has been the most fun thing, other than simply getting published, about having had the success you’ve had with your work? Any good stories, revelations, funny letters you’d like to share?
Christopher: “Hard Fantasist”–I like that phrase. I may have to steal that for some other interview if you don’t mind.
Dragons can fly because they use magic, of course. They’re impossible creatures, but they *know* they’re impossible, and they use magic to let them do the things that, normally, they couldn’t. At least, that’s how I’ve always justified it. After all, if it were possible to manipulate energy with your mind, it only follows that certain animals/peoples would have evolved to use that to their advantage.
I’ve always enjoyed the humor in your books. The character of Binabik, from your trilogy Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, is a prime example. He was serious when he had to be, but he had so many great lines that made me laugh or smile. Which reminds me, I really need to re-read that series!
Plans for work after the Inheritance cycle? My next book is probably going to be epic space-opera science-fiction, but I also may be tackling some other, non-book projects. We’ll see. It mainly depends on how I feel once I finish this last book. I have so many stories floating around in my brain right now, it’s hard to pick just one. Science fiction and/or other forms of speculative fiction are the most likely, though.
Let me see: what’s fun about getting published? Well, for one, having the opportunity to talk to authors I admire . . . like you! Just because I’m a writer myself now, doesn’t mean that I’m not still a fan at heart — a fan of your work, and of the genre at large. It’s also fun to go on tour and meet readers in person. During the tour for my last book, one of the stores set up an entire renaissance fair in the parking lot, complete with fire-breathers, sword fighters, and a large hairy man in a centaur costume. Not something you see every day. And then of course, there was the time a woman came up to get her book signed, and she was carrying a sugar-glider that proceeded to gnaw on my hand, drawing blood. Ever since then, I’ve been able to say that I’ve been chewed on by a marsupial. A dubious distinction, perhaps, but one I’m rather proud of.
I’d love to keep asking and answering question, but I know you have to run. So, instead, I’ll sign out by saying how much I’ve enjoyed this, and how much I’m looking forward to finally reading the end of the Shadowmarch series. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can’t wait to read your upcoming fantasy angelic espionage. Sounds fun!
Tad: I have the opposite side of that same pleasure, Christopher — I’m old enough now that sometimes people I admire, like you, tell me that I influenced them. (If they’re really nice, they don’t add, “because I read your books when I was just a kid!”, which is unnecessary and cruel.)
The sugar-glider story is great. I never had that, but my ex-wife WAS bitten by a wombat (named “Chloe” — the wombat, not my ex) in the Sydney zoo when I was on an Australian tour. That should count for something.
Glad to hear you’re still thinking about your SF story. You’ll find a great deal of pressure to write more about Eragon’s world, of course, because so many people love the books. I’m sure whatever you choose you’ll do great things with it.
Thanks for sharing your time with me and whoever else gets to read this. I can tell any readers for a fact that when we last met this is pretty much the way we talked about stuff, and the kinds of things we talked about, too. Yes, people like Christopher and I really think this way. We became writers because we were readers first, lovers of stories and storytelling. It doesn’t take much insight to know that if we’d lived in a different age would have been earning our keep by the campfire or (even better!) in the comparative warmth of a castle, strumming and singing, bringing epic stories (and the occasional joke) to whoever we could convince to sit still long enough to listen.