Sean Williams: Science fiction and fantasy author

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image-seanwilliams200Sean Williams has written over 27 science fiction and fantasy books. He has won over 11 awards for his books. His latest award was the 2007 Ditmar Award for Best Novel for his book Saturn Returns.

His latest book is book two of the Broken Land series called The Dust Devils which continues the adventures of Ros in the Broken Land and how he needs to learn how to trust again.

Sean has completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Adelaide University in 2005 and is currently a PhD candidate at the same institution. He is very involved with literature having been a chair of several literary organisations and he is a judge for the Aurealis Awards.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.42

The Dust Devils

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
Thanks for joining us today, Sean.

Sean:
My pleasure, it’s nice to be here.

Valerie:
Tell us how did you get into writing about science fiction and fantasy. What was it that drew you to that genre?

Sean:
Well sometimes I blame my mother because when I was a kid, a very young kid, she gave me a kid’s edition of The Adventures of Sinbad, the Sailor. He was a character that wandered through fantastic lands meeting all sorts of fantastic creatures who dealt with them using his brains rather than magically waving a wand like Harry Potter. So I’ve always been interested in the fantastic and I’ve always been interested in characters that use their intelligence, use their naked abilities to negotiate those landscapes. It may have started there.

Sometimes I blame Dr. Who as well. Dr. Who was very big when I was younger and then there was Star Wars that came out when I was ten. I read all the Dr. Who novels, and read all the Star Wars books and saw the movies, of course.

So I think it was a combination of those two things that initially got me into reading and watching science fiction. From there it’s a fairly short step to wanting to tell my own stories in those kinds of modes.

Valerie:
When did you know that you wanted to tell your own stories, were you making your own worlds up in your head and wanted to convey them to other people? How did that sort of evolve?

Sean:
I’ve got my very earliest creative writing books from grade 3, 4, 5 and they all have stories about ghosts and giant ants and all sorts of fantastical kinds of stuff also in these stories. I think from an early age I wanting to tell stories like the ones that I was seeing and I started writing reasonable substantial works in primary school and wrote several novels through high school. That was where I was directing a lot of my creative energy.

When I went to high school I convinced myself that writing wasn’t a sensible thing to do because you couldn’t make much money from it cause it is a hard road to take. I compared the things like accountancy and stuff which I tried to do but at some point I decided that really what I wanted to do was write these stories up. I had been doing it all my life.

As long as I have been able to write I’ve been writing these stories. Whether it was ingrained in me or whether it grew from a very small seed to a very large obsession, I don’t know. But it’s always been there and it was a very difficult decision to make to go down that path, to decide that I was definitely going to pursue a life as a writer. But at the same time its very easy because I love it. It doesn’t really feel like work sometimes.

Valerie:
But when did you make that decision because I believe that you gave yourself like a self-imposed deadline, ten years to have a book published and become a full-time writer. What happened during that ten years or how did you get there?

Sean:
It was ’89, ’90 and that’s when I decided that I would drop out of uni and I would make every possibility to be a full-time writer. That’s 20 years ago now, almost. That’s a bit terrifying.

It was something that I really, really wanted to do but that’s not enough, you know. Sitting at home and doing stuff that you enjoy doing isn’t enough to get over all the hurdles in an area like this. You need to really be goaded and really be driven to do it. I don’t want instead of just being able to do what I want to do, I should add the fear of failure into that mix as well and say, “This isn’t something that I am going to pursue for the rest of my life. At some point I have to decide that I’m actually not good enough to be a writer and I should try something else.”

One of the other things that I liked doing, because I do believe that we have various paths that we can pursue through life and it’s a matter of choosing the right one at the right time to pursue. I picked ten years because it was a good round number and it seemed like a decent length of time to really pursue something.

I always hoped that the first novel that I wrote would be a massive New York Times bestseller. But I figured that it probably wouldn’t be the case and that it would take some time to get there and ten years seemed like long enough to have several stabs at it and then fail. In that ten years, I just worked and worked and worked.

Valerie:
What did you do in terms of earning an income in that ten years?

Sean:
When I dropped out of uni I got stuck with part-time jobs. I worked in a CD shop, I worked at a petrol station, I worked in a recording studio, I worked at a theatre. There was a period there where I had four part-time jobs and writing full-time on top of both of those so I worked very, very hard for a while there.

Gradually after two or three years very small amounts of money started to trickle in from writing so I was able to drop the odd job here and there, or drop the odd shift from the CD shop. So after about nine years I think that I was down to one shift at the CD shop a week just one four-hour shift just kind of keeping my toehold on a real job just in case the writing. Then the day that I gave that up after ten years I became a full-time writer and haven’t done anything else but that since.

Valerie:
Great! So you were really committed in just using those part-time jobs to fund this effort to be a full-time writer.

Sean:
That’s right, yes. I mean, I really enjoyed it. My other love is music so working in a CD shop and recording studio really suited me. It gave me an extra interest to pursue when I wasn’t writing because, of course, one of the most unhealthy things that you can do is pursue something like this too obsessively as I learned to my detriment in my early days.

I had sort of a mild social phobia and experience panic attacks and stuff so staying at home and working on writing was very easy to do. But of course it wasn’t very good for my mental health.

Valerie:
You’ve written over 27 science fiction and fantasy books. Tell us about your latest one.

Sean:
That’s a very complicated question because this year I’ve had five books out due to various schedules that have come colliding across several series. There was a period in which I was going to have going to have four books out in one month but luckily we avoided that.

The first book that came out this year was Magic Dirt: The Best of Sean which is a collection sort of combining 15 years of my short stories because when I first started writing I didn’t launch straight into novels. I started writing short stories figuring that would be a good way to explore lots of different genres and get a feeling of completion with each story that I finished rather than having to wait a year to finish a novel which can be a bit depressing. So that was the first book to come out and that was horror, fantasy, science fiction, humour, literary fiction, poetry, all sorts of stuff.

My kid’s series starts this year, The Broken Land series which is a series after Changeling and The Dust Devils came out this year. They are fantasies set in various Australian landscapes.

I also had the second book in my Astropolis far future space opera series which is sort of a gender bending gothic noire exploration of what humanity might be like in a million and a half years from now, which has been a lot of fun.

I also had Star War: The Force Unleashed come out a couple of months ago which is the tie-in novel to the latest Star Wars computer game. The book is based on the story in the computer game and was the first ever tie-in to a computer game today is #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. So that was very exciting. They’re all very different books and all a lot of fun.

Valerie:
How can you be so prolific?

Sean:
One, this is all that I do. I’m not like a lot of writers who have to maintain a day job and that gives me a big advantage. Two, I really love writing. I love the writing process so I know that’s different from a lot of writers who really dislike having to sit down and write new words from scratch. I’m very lucky in that I love that part. And three, is there a three?

I try to work every day so when I’m writing a novel I write 1500 words a day. In fact when I’m in the middle of a novel I get a bit obsessive. Obsessive tendencies come out and I will tend to sit there and write all day, every day producing vast amount of words that would get progressively worse and worse from writing too fast. So I try to write 1500 words.

When you write 1500 words a day, you can write a novel in three months. If you do that two times a year then you have written two novels a year. So I have been writing full-time for ten years and part-time for over ten years before that and that kind of works out to about 27 novels.

Valerie:
Do you have a routine? Can you describe to us when you’re writing your typical working day? Is there something that you need to do in the morning before you sit down at your computer and that kind of thing?

Sean:
I get up in the morning and have a very light breakfast and make a decaf coffee, sit at the computer, check my email and then start writing. When the 1500 hundred words is done I can take the rest of the day off if I want although usually I don’t. Usually there are emails to answer, there’s articles to read, books to read, accounts to be done, bills to be paid, all that sort of stuff.

One thing that I have noticed since I became a full-time writer is that sometimes it seems like there is less time to write because of all this extracurricular material that needs to be done. Because suddenly you go from doing something as a hobby in your spare time to writing as a business, being an exporter and having to do your own accounts and maintain your own tax and all that sort of stuff which can be quite tough. Dealing with agents, dealing with publishers and when you have got five books coming out in one year there’s lots of copy editing to be done, lots of promotional work to be done. It really adds up.

I really like my 1500 words a day schedule when I’m writing a novel, I probably only get to do that for about half the year. The rest of the year is all the extra stuff, touring and things like that.

Valerie:
In the midst of all of that, you need to have the time and space to create your stories and create the worlds around you. Is there somewhere that you go to for inspiration or where to your ideas come from?

Sean:
Ideas come to me from everywhere, all around me. I’m lucky in that my fantasy series are set right here in various South Australian landscapes so if I want to be inspired to write a book like that I just need to get in the car and drive out into the Flinders Ranges or drive to my old family town out at Cowell and just stand there and soak up the amazing landscape. So that’s good.

But when you’re writing something that’s set say a million years from now like the Astropolis series, that’s a bit more complicated because you can’t visit these places, cogitate quite deeply on things will changed or what possibilities might have emerged for characters and their species as a whole. That happens at several levels, I guess, just sitting there and doing actual hard number crunching kind of research through books or magazines like New Scientist or online.

Then there is letting the ideas just kind of stew in the background. I’m a big believer in passive research where you pour as much information as possible into your brain, into the giant cauldron of my brain and let it just sort of stew there and see what emerges at a time in dreams or insights while you are in the shower. Or while you are focusing on a problem it’s amazing what the brain can produce apparently out of nowhere but actually from that vast cauldron of facts sort of swimming around underneath each other and coming up with strange combinations that may lead to wonderful new ideas.

Valerie:
Did you ever think, because as you said Star Wars came out when you were ten and obviously it had an impact on you, did you ever think that you would end up writing about Star Wars in a sense?

Sean:
I would have loved to. If you had said to me when I was ten, “You’ll be writing these books one day.” I would have just loved that thought and I wouldn’t have believed it because Star Wars was so huge and so far away. Skywalker galaxy really is a galaxy far, far away.

I would have absolutely loved the idea. The stories are not going to win Pulitzer Prizes or anything like that but they are great mythic tales that really tap into stories that seem to be ingrained in us, stories of loss and stories of hope and the archetypal characters with people like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker. They are so resonant in our selves and in our culture that working in this field is immensely exciting. Knowing that there are millions of people out there who will read these books is exciting and terrifying at the same time.

Valerie:
How did you get involved with that, how did that happen?

Sean:
My co-writer and I, Shane Dix, we have wrote several books together. One series was a series very much like Star Wars. In fact we set out to try and write a series that was Star Wars combined with an old BBC TV series from the ‘70’s called Blake’s 7. it was sort of a dark version of Star Wars, space ships and aliens and all that kind of stuff.

It came to the attention to the editors who were publishing Star Wars novels. A gap opened up in their list and they needed some writers to fill in short notice so they got in touch with our agent and asked us if we would be interested. Of course we absolutely were. I remember there were a couple of phone calls about four o’clock in the morning and jumps up and down with glee.

Valerie:
Oh my goodness. Now you have written in lots of different genres as you said horror, literary fiction, kids, adults, do you have to switch brains kind of thing. What do you do to write in a particular way and then in a completely different way?

Sean:
It can be very hard to change gears. I’m just changing gear at the moment to write another kids book and then after that I have to write a thriller, and then after that I have to write a crime novel. It can be difficult changing gears.

I think that I rely heavily on the books that I’m reading at the time that I’m writing to keep my brain on the straight and narrow. Sometimes it goes a bit wrong. When I was writing the first of my gothic space opera novels, which are really inspired by gothic literature from the 19th century, I was unfortunately reading novels by the wonderful thriller writer, Lee Child, who has a very different style to gothic literature and noticed that his style was creeping into my novels and I had to edit it out after the facts. So that’s unfortunate but I do try to chose the books that I’m reading very carefully in order to keep me on the straight and narrow, to keep my focused.

It’s not that I’m stealing ideas from the books but “you are what you eat” in a way. What goes in affects what comes out so I might try to find books that will inspire me to write the way that I want to on a particular topic. So I’ll be reading lots of kid’s books over the next few weeks, I think, just to get that sense of rhythm and pace, not so much topic but just the way the stories are told.

Valerie:
That’s really interesting because some writers actually don’t want to read anything in that genre while they’re writing in that particular genre so you kind of do it the other way around.

Sean:
I don’t always read the same genre. It’s hard to describe because when I’m going into writing a book I know exactly what kind of voice that I want to use. I guess there are subtle mind shifts, mind spaces that you need to kind of inhabit to write different books but I think that is in a way less important than getting the “voice” the tone right, certainly for me at the moment. The kid’s books that I’m about to write are kind of all over the shop, a bit of science fiction, a bit of fantasy, bit of horror.

So I will be changing gears several times in that respect throughout the series but what’s much more important than those small changes of views is getting the character’s voice right, getting that unified thread throughout. Once I’ve got that voice right I can tell any kind of story using that voice if that makes sense.

As long as I’m reading books that give me the right voice they can be any genre at all. I went through a phase. I had a terrible period where I was writing a book every three months for about two and a half years. It was completely insane. I found out they were all science fiction and fantasy, Star Wars, space opera and fantasy. I found that during the second and second and half year I couldn’t bear to read anything in that genre, all I read was crime. I went through a phase a bit like that earlier in the year where I read 20 books in a month and they were all crime novels.

That’s just what I felt like at the time. I wasn’t writing anything like that but that was what I needed to pump into my head to write better.

Valerie:
Do you still workshop your novels or anything like that or is that something that you only did early on in your writing period?

Sean:
You mean workshop with other writers?

Valerie:
Yeah.

Sean:
No, I tend not to. I do believe in talking about my books though. My long-suffering wife who is absolutely wonderful has to put up with me talking about ideas and bouncing ideas off her and her interest as far as reading tend to lie in a different area so it’s interesting to test things against her.

I do believe in a collaborative, for instance I really enjoy talking to other writers about projects that we are both working on or each others projects that we work individually. I think getting those ideas out, kicking them around, is very important, I think in a way.

Even if its sort of with myself, you know, you can write notes on a subject and come back to it three months later and you have forgotten the original ideas and you can look at them with a fresh light. That kind of process is very important too.

Valerie:
So when you co-write with Shane Dix how does that work, how does one co-write a novel, what bits do you do?

Sean:
We play to our strengths. I can write quickly and I enjoy, back in those days I produced these vast rambling first drafts but needed a lot of work, whereas he is a very close editing, finely focused writer who doesn’t write anything until he knows exactly what’s going on. He spends a long time thinking about before he starts writing.

So we decided that I would produce a first draft based on story ideas that we had agreed on and then he would take that first draft away and edit it and rewrite it. We did that many times over.

Which came in really handy for me because every now and again like when we were writing our first three Star Wars novels, I get a point in the third book where I got a bit tired of writing X-wing dogfight scenes so I wrote one of those scenes and I put a little square bracket note saying, “Insert X-wing dogfight scene here.” And then went on to the next chapter which I would normally never do, but I was just exhausted.

It came back from Shane three months later with the scene inserted, and I thought this was great. We didn’t normally write like that but I loved the fact that it’s like writing by magic, you know.

Valerie:
Yes. So with your stories when you start writing a novel do you start with a seed of an idea or have you already plotted the whole thing out in your head?

Sean:
I’ve tried various different methods of doing this. My first novel was plotted out within an inch of its life and three-quarters of the way through I got really bored. I knew what the ending was and I stopped writing which is, of course, not what you want.

With my second novel I did the exact opposite. I hardly knew anything about it and it became a long rambling convoluted affair with lots of dead ends. That didn’t work out. Somewhere in between those two is where I like to sit.

I like to know the beginning, I definitely want to know the end, the final scene if I can refine it that far.

Valerie:
Really?

Sean:
Yeah, yeah, sometimes it may change throughout but I like to know exactly where I’m going, what the flavour of that final scene is. Every now and again there will be a final line there even.

I like to know the structure of the novel and key moments, key beats, to use a film term, along the way that I will be aiming for. So when I get half-way through and I feel completely lost, I know that there is somewhere that I’m trying to get to and I know some kind of stadium post along the way. But there is still room for me to kind of riff on the ideas or to take advantage of new ideas that will occur to me along the way.

Valerie:
So you say that you tend to write quite quickly, and draft out your first draft. But obviously there’s a major revision in it, editing process after that. What would you say, what proportion would that first draft kind of remains and what proportion gets chucked out or changed completely?

Sean:
It depends on the book. I do think that I am getting better at writing first drafts as I go along. I think that being so busy as I was a few years back writing a book every three months teaches you to write pretty good first drafts that are pretty sound and don’t require much work.

But every now and again there’s a book that is a real problem. My novel The Crooked Letter which came out a few years ago was a real nightmare. I couldn’t first bit of it right and it was rewritten nine, ten times and it expanded in length and shrunk in length. It was one of those torturous processes that writers sometimes go through.

And you end up feeling that its never quite right and of course it’s the book that’s won all the awards, so I can’t tell. But every now and again there’s a book like that where whole chunks of the book are missing and will never be seen again.

Valerie:
So tell us a little bit about The Crooked Letter and the kind of research that you did for it.

Sean:
Part of the problem with that book, I think, was it was a book that I had been thinking about most of my adult life. My father trained to be a priest, started training to be a priest when I was about 12. When I was starting high school he was going through seminary college and all that sort of stuff, getting a doctorate in divinity.

So he was studying religion at the same time that I was kind of encountering, trying to work out what my own beliefs were. I found what he was studying very interesting and whereas it shored up his faith it actually started to undermine mine. And I became interested in lots of different religions.

So for a long time, for 15 years I was probably thinking about the ideas that went into The Crooked Letter. I became an atheist in my late teens but I remained intensely interested in religion so when I was coming closer to writing The Crooked Letter I started to think about what kind. If I assumed the supernatural existed, what kind of supernatural cosmology could be out there that would make sense to me as an atheist, so incorporating things that we know operate in the real world like evolution, survival of the fittest, that kind of stuff.

I ended up creating something that I have often been tempted to, a lot of times the world as the kind of the first church of the cataclysm, make my own fake religion and make millions of dollars. But then the difficulty was wrapping a story around that because that’s very different, very difficult, very hard to do. I really struggled with it for a while and I just was never entirely happy with it but a lot of people have liked it.

Valerie:
Well, definitely yes. It’s won the Ditmar Award and the Aurealis Award and yeah, its done well.

Sean:
Yes, it’s done well. It was a very good book to write and I think it really challenged me in lots of ways. I do believe that every book that I write should challenge me in some ways. The Crooked Letter was so ambitious and such a over-reach in some ways but I think because I was reaching so far I developed much more quickly than if I had written a book that I felt very safe in writing.

So with each series, with one series I was challenged to write a romance into the plot which I had kind of avoided before so I concentrate on that in the Astropolis series I was challenging myself to write sex scenes. And writing for kid’s writing and writing for young adults, writing full main stream like with a crime novel, they’re all different challenges and I kind of thrive on them I think.

If I did the same thing every book, book after book, I think that I would get bored very quickly.

Valerie:
Tell us what you are working on now.

Sean:
The kids series, that’s what I’m just about to launch into, a series about a kid who discovers a little wormhole in his front street and ends up in all sorts of different parallel worlds before uncovering a plot that he has to deal with before he can go back home.

The thriller is set in New York about now that seems to be a real interest in kind of end of the world, day after tomorrow kind of stories, and its one that I’ve had floating around for several years. So I will be working on that and then after that a crime novel.

I’m doing a PhD. I just enrolled in a Creative Writing PhD to keep things interesting.

Valerie:
Why would you … Why? Why?

Sean:
Well, you know, I like a challenge and this is an opportunity to write something different. I’ve always loved crime novels. When I was reading Dr. Who novels when I was kid, I was also reading Agatha Christie novels. So I had this other love running through my literary, kind of, history and this is a chance for me to write this book which will be good fun.

It’s also a chance for me to learn how to do academic writing and it’s also an opportunity to get a qualification. because the sad thing is that I can be a New York Times bestselling author, I can have won lots of awards but if ever decide not to be a writer I wouldn’t be qualified for anything else because I dropped out of my BA years ago to pursue this life of writing and didn’t even have that behind me.

A few years back I went back to do my masters and really enjoyed that process and I figure that one day I might want to teach at a tertiary level and having a doctorate will help, lots of good reasons. I’m working with a wonderful supervisor Brian Castro, great Australian writer, so I am going to learn tonnes from him.

Valerie:
You must have really good time management skills.

Sean:
No, I don’t think so. I actually think I’m quite lazy.

Valerie:
Oh, right, I don’t think so.

Finally what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are listening to this?

Sean:
Well, that’s a really difficult question to answer because there is so much advice. I’ve been pondering this question for quite a while because you get asked it a lot. I sat down on day to try and write down the first principles of writing that you could give to somebody in answer to that question.

And I thought things that wouldn’t have to be qualified, like a lot of people say that you should find a writing group, but I’m a writer who had a really bad experience with a writing group. So if you give anybody that advice you kind of have to say, “Well, maybe it won’t work for you but it does work for some people.”

So I was trying to find advice that didn’t need to be qualified in any way at all and I came up with 10-1/2 first principles, “10-1/2 commandments”, I call them. Rating from simple things like, “Read a lot” to “being professional” maintaining a kind of professional attitude at all times.

So when people ask me that question I now say, “Well look up 10-1/2 commandments and you will find them on my website.”

Valerie:
Great, okay and your website is seanwilliams.com

Sean:
That’s right, yes.

Valerie:
Wonderful. Well thank you for your time today, Sean. I really appreciate it.

Sean:
Absolutely my pleasure.

Valerie:
Wonderful.


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