Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Walter Jon Willams
TI: Hello, Walter! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions today. I like to start with everyone’s WILD CARDS origin story. You played RPG’s with a group of science fiction authors, including George and Melinda Snodgrass, and were part of Wild Cards from book one. Were you nervous when you were first invited? Did George call you or talk to you separately?
WALTER:First you have to understand that back when we met in 1979, George RR Martin wasn’t GEORGE RR MARTIN THE MOST FAMOUS AUTHOR IN THE WORLD. He was a well-regarded author within the rather small field of science fiction, sure, but he was far from the most famous or celebrated author I’d met.
George was this guy I played RPGs with, and he’d written some great stories that I admired, but there was no reason to feel nervous or intimidated when the invitation came. (I think it came from Melinda Snodgrass, though I can’t swear to it.)
TI: Ahh, I see. How many novels had you written at that point?
WALTER: I’d written and sold seven or eight novels by that point. More than George had, in fact.
TI: Privateers and Gentlemen? Let’s talk a little bit about those novels. What inspired you to put pen to paper in this case? Were you already well versed in the American Revolution and the War of 1812?
WALTER: I’d written two novels that failed to sell. I decided to take advantage of the fact that, as the result of the bicentennial here in the US, there was an upsurge of interest in historical fiction. More than that, I’d always enjoyed nautical fiction of the sort written by C.S. Forester, and I’d noticed that historical sea-adventures had only British heroes. I thought American naval history was both interesting and underserved, and I decided that rather than highlight a single hero, I’d write about three generations of a single nautical family, from the American Revolution through the War of 1812, the Civil War, right up till the First Korean War of 1871, which I bet you never heard of but which was absolutely prototypical of every subsequent American engagement in Southeast Asia.
The brief American interest in historical fiction carried me through five of the ten projected novels in the series, after which the American public lost interest in history. The historical fiction market collapsed, and has never recovered. You may notice that there are big bestselling historical novels, but you’ll also notice they’re all by Brits. American publishers will buy historical fiction if it’s already successful in another country, but few will take the chance on historical fiction written by an American.
TI: My mind is blown—you’re absolutely right. If the American public lost interest in history, what genre diverted their attention do you think?
WALTER:My theory is that Americans never were that interested in history, because America is the place you go to in order to reinvent yourself, and to abandon all the history that’s oppressing you and your family for generations.
This changed in World War II, because countless Americans went overseas, visited foreign places, and got interested in their history. Historical fiction was huge in the 1950s, and both George and I grew up reading it. The historical fiction boom faded through the Sixties, when history seemed to be ending anyway, and then revived around the American Bicentennial in 1976. My books came at the end of that cycle. If you’re an American writer interested in history, you can’t write straight historical fiction anymore, you have to sort of hide it under another genre. You can write historical romance, or historical mysteries, or alternate history SF. Which takes us back to Wild Cards, right?
TI: Indeed—and a tip of the hat for that amazing segue. You’re the creator behind quite a few characters, including all-stars Golden Boy, Black Eagle, and Modular Man. Modular Man came about when you had need of a character who worked and played well with others, unlike the solitary Black Shadow. Black Eagle and Golden Boy were created to be everything HUAC hated.
In the end, Golden Boy faced a moral crisis and failed whereas Black Eagle held firm. This leads me to a question on mistakes, regret, forgiveness, and grace. What Jack Braun did is horrible…he knows it, and the world knows it. For the rest of his “life” (I use quotation marks because Jack Braun doesn’t age) he is referred to as the Judas Ace. In reading the story for the first time I was angry, but then time passed and I began pitying him. I suppose my question is—do you think Jack Braun is deserving of a second chance? If you do, what does that second chance look like? Do you think society is capable of such?
WALTER: Black Eagle forgave him—in advance, as it were—so I probably would have to as well. But would I trust him? Maybe not.
Jack has changed in the last eighty years, and he’s changed for the better, but there’s a fundamental weakness in his center, and he’s capable of being misled into making terrible mistakes. (I’m looking at you, Puppetman!) Still, how much of it matters now we’re in the 21st Century? How many Americans alive today have even heard of the Red Scare? Jack Braun may think of himself as the Judas Ace, but to the contemporary public, he’s a judge on a television reality show.
TI: At the end of the Jumper trilogy, Modular Man flies off into the sunset with his joker girlfriend, Patchwork. Does your refusal to tell us what happened to them still stand? Can you give us one tidbit?
WALTER: I haven’t refused, there just hasn’t been a suitable opportunity to bring that character back in a meaningful, moving way. I could throw him into a situation, sure, like a cameo in someone else’s movie, but unless the situation says “No one but Mod Man would work in this story,” I’m not going to write it. I gave Modular Man a great ending, and I don’t want to bring him back from that ending unless the story absolutely justifies it.
TI: Outside of your own creations and Roger Zelazny’s Croyd Crenson, do you have a favorite character? Is there someone you’d like to write for in the future?
WALTER: I could have fun with Mr. Nobody. And I’ve got an idea for about Chalktalk, but it might destroy the universe, so maybe I’d better not.
TI: You founded the Taos Toolbox, a two-week writer’s workshop for fantasy and science fiction writers, so I’d like to get into a few questions about the craft itself. What are your tips for aspiring writers?
WALTER:I’ll start with two:
1. Network. The Internet gives unprecedented opportunities to meet other new writers, learn what editors and agents want, put workshops together, and learn your craft. When I started, I had to find my own way, usually by running head-first into one brick wall after another. Now it’s easier.
2. Don’t stop writing. If you finish a piece, don’t sit around waiting for it to sell, start the next project. And while you’re working on one piece, start thinking about the next, so you’ll have an idea where to go with it.
TI: Outside of WILD CARDS, you’ve written for comics, the screen, for television, and have worked in the gaming field. Do you prefer one over the other?
WALTER:I like a mix that will keep me from going stale on any one thing. But I’ll always return to fiction, because that’s where my heart is, and where I’m at my best.
TI: Do you write seven days a week?
WALTER: I write every day that I’m at home, and I’ll write on the road if deadlines are near. I’m not a fast writer, but I’m persistent.
TI: Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
WALTER: I’ve never had writer’s block for more than two or three days. It’s the way my subconscious tells me that I’m taking a wrong turn with the story. Once I go back and fix the problem, the words start flowing again.
TI: What did you read growing up?
WALTER:I read more or less continuously when I was growing up. I read SF, the little fantasy that was available then, mysteries, historical fiction—anything that stretched my imagination and took me into lands unknown.
TI Favorite authors?
WALTER:Favorite authors included Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Tolkien, Le Guin, ER Eddison, Heinlein, and Moorcock.
Shakespeare, I think, more than anybody.
TI: Did you know when you were a kid that you wanted to be a writer?
WALTER: I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I knew what a writer was. I wanted to be a writer before I could read or write, and would dictate stories to my parents and then illustrate them with crayons.
TI: That’s adorable. Do you still have them?
WALTER: I sort of hope not. I doubt they will show a brilliant, precocious mind at work.
TI: What did your parents do for a living? Did they encourage your writing?
WALTER: My father was an accountant turned executive, and my mom was a retired schoolteacher. They were supportive of anything I chose to do, but they weren’t from an arts background and knew less about the business of writing than I did, which is really saying something. My mom made me learn to type, something for which I’ve always been grateful.
TI: GRRM has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you attend conventions?
WALTER: I regularly attend conventions, and enjoy meeting my readers. (This year, 2019, I’ll be at the Worldcon in Dublin, Bubonicon in Albuquerque, and World Fantasy Con in Los Angeles. Come up and say hi!)
TI: Reading or watching anything interesting right now?
WALTER: I’ve been a big fan of The Expanse, both the books and the TV series.
I’m very excited that three of my Taos Toolbox students, Kelly Robson, Simone Heller, and Saladin Ahmed were nominated this year for the Hugo Award. Check them out, they’re well worth the search. Lately, I’ve enjoyed Plum Rainsby Andromeda Romano-Lee, and A Memory Called Empireby Arkady Martine.
TI:You were born in Minnesota but graduated from the University of New Mexico. That’s quite a move. What prompted it/how did that come about?
WALTER: My family moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen. They didn’t give me a choice. New Mexico has been lucky for me, because it’s a good environment for creatives. There’s great natural beauty, national laboratories full of scientists who like to talk about their work, an interesting ethnic mix, a tolerant and friendly culture, and a low cost of living that’s enabled me to live on what a writer actually makes.
TI: Tell me about your hobbies outside of writing.
WALTER:I’m a scuba diver and a 5th degree black belt in Kenpo Karate. That probably makes me seem macho, but I assure you that the bravest thing I’ve ever done was send the first novel to an editor.
TI: Whoa. Ever broken any bones in Karate? Ever fought off a would-be evil-doer?
WALTER: Evildoers seem to have the good sense to avoid me. I think I’ve broken five or six bones in karate, but then I’m prone to breaking bones. I’ve broken bones walking across a parking lot or climbing stairs. No evildoers were involved, so far as I know.
TI: Where do you dive?
Walter: I’ve dived all over the world. The Caribbean, Hawaii, Truk, Palau, the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea, and Indonesia all come to mind.
TI: Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
Walter: I’m working on two series. One is the far-future Praxisseries, beginning with (duh) The Praxis. The latest, The Accidental War, came out late in 2018. bI think the series is pretty good, but you don’t have to take my word for it. “Space opera the way it ought to be […] Bujold and Weber, bend the knee; interstellar adventure has a new king, and his name is Walter Jon Williams.” — George R.R. Martin The other series is Quillifer, fantasy about a young man seeking his fortune and instead finding pirates, bandits, scheming aristocrats, and a beautiful, powerful, and extremely jealous goddess. The second book, Quillifer the Knight, will be out in October. Of Quillifer, Paul di Filippo wrote, “…chockful of derring-do, blood and thunder, swashbuckling, and other good stuff evocative of Rafael Sabatini, Sir Walter Scott, and the penny-bloods: venomous and dangerous court politesse, reversals, betrayals, cowardice, heroism, illicit sex, allegorical theatrical productions, dangerous hunting expeditions, privateering and, at last, open warfare…it’s not precisely a tale of Swords and Sorcery. Rather, you might dub it Rogues and Rogering.”
TI: Thanks so much for your time today, Walter. One last question before we go… Who would win in a fight—Modular Man or Data?
WALTER: Data might win if he had his starship with him, otherwise it’s Mod Man all the way. Who has radar tracking, shoulder-mounted machine and laser guns, and can fly? My guy. That’s who.