I am delighted to bring you another interview here at Smash Dragons. This week, I had the amazing opportunity to chat with Jen Williams!
For those of you who live in a cave, Jen is a fantasy writer from London who spends much of her time frowning at notebooks in cafes and fiddling with maps of imaginary places. She writes chunky, character-driven fantasy, and is partial to mead, if you're buying. The first two novels in the Copper Cat trilogy, The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost, are available now.
Jen Williams, welcome to Smash Dragons!
First up, tell is a bit about yourself, and why you became a writer.
I’m never sure what people would like to hear on this bit, so here are some randomly chosen facts: I’m from south-east London, I live with my partner who writes funny audio stuff, we have a black and white cat called Pyra who was abandoned by the side of a motorway in a cardboard box. I collect Lego, particularly the Lego where the mini-figs tend to come with swords, I am very partial to mead and I have a degree in illustration (those things aren’t related). I very deliberately wear odd socks, I have freckles, and an enormous aversion to broccoli and Adam Sandler films. I think that covers all the important things.
Why did I become a writer? This is a very mysterious question. I wanted to write stories very early on (the first birthday presents I remember asking for were a typewriter and a desk) and much of the time I was just happier when I was making things up in my head. This urge came out in a number of ways – it’s why I studied illustration, I think, since that is largely to do with telling stories with pictures – and eventually in my early twenties I started to write a book to cheer myself up. It was whilst writing my third book I realised that this was what I should have been doing all along, and I abandoned myself to my fate.
How did The Copper Promise come about? What led you to write that particular story?
Originally it was supposed to have been a fun side project while I took a break from writing other books, which is why the book was split into four parts – I quite liked the idea of publishing it as a serial, something fun and breezy to get my writing out into the world, but it grew into something much bigger than that.
You initially self published the first part of The Copper Promise before it was picked up by Headline. What made you take this path, and how did it help you later on when Headline came on board?
I self published the first section as an experiment. I didn’t know an awful lot about the process, but it seemed like an interesting thing to do while I was between writing other books. When Headline picked up the full manuscript, they decided to publish ebook versions of the four original novellas, which meant I did get to see it happen as a serial.
Take me through a day of writing with Jen Williams. Are you an architect or gardener? Do you have a particular place you like to write?
I write mostly in the evenings after work, and in big chunks at the weekends. I have a small writing desk in the corner of our bedroom that is liberally festooned with various toys, books, notebooks, post-its, chocolate bar wrappers, Lego figures, and quite often, a cat. It’s a good place to write (when I can find space on the desk) because it’s out of the way and right next to a window, which is useful for the all-important “hopelessly staring at nothing for hours” that writing requires.
When it comes to my approach to writing, I am a mixture of gardener and architect. I usually start out with two things at the beginning of a book: a very vague plan, and very detailed notes on the main characters. The plan is there for me to keep half an eye on, but usually it will change drastically as I write the first draft; this is because I write character-driven books, and I try to let their personalities guide the direction it’s going in. It’s a bit of cliché to say that they sometimes surprise me, but often the path I had planned for a character will turn out to be wildly inaccurate once I start seeing their voice on the page.
What is your worst writing habit?
Being longwinded. Editing for me usually means removing a lot of stuff that was fun to write but doesn’t necessarily do anything useful for the story. I like to keep the Copper Cat books moving at a pretty speedy pace, so it’s important that I don’t fill up the book with endless fantasy feasts with meticulously described food, as much as I would enjoy writing that.
Your work has a really fun and enthralling tone to it. Was this something you set out to achieve on purpose, or is it just your natural way of telling a story?
When I started writing The Copper Promise, fantasy as a genre was in quite a serious place – lots of political intrigue, military campaigns, bad things happening to bad people (and good people). I enjoy those sorts of books, but I wanted to write something that had a completely different atmosphere, something that had the heart of a golden age of sword and sorcery story, but written with modern sensibilities. I wanted to read more books with rogues, and monsters, and magic, so that’s exactly what I wrote. Don’t get me wrong, some dreadful things happen in the books – the very first chapter of The Copper Promise sees a man being tortured after his entire family have been murdered – but I hope there is a sense of hope and optimism, and a few funny lines too.
The Iron Ghost is the much-awaited sequel to The Copper Promise. In 100 words or less can you tell us about it?
It’s cheating slightly but I’ll give you the blurb:
Wydrin of Crosshaven, Sir Sebastian and Lord Aaron Frith are experienced in the perils of stirring up the old gods. They are also familiar with defeating them, and the heroes of Baneswatch are now enjoying the perks of suddenly being very much in demand for their services.
When a job comes up in the distant city of Skaldshollow, it looks like easy coin – retrieve a stolen item, admire the views, get paid. But in a place twisted and haunted by ancient magic, with the most infamous mage of them all, Joah Demonsworn, making a reappearance, our heroes soon find themselves threatened by enemies on all sides, old and new. And in the frozen mountains, the stones are walking…
What challenges did you face in writing The Iron Ghost when compared to The Copper Promise?
The first book I wrote purely to please myself, at my own pace, in between other things. I had a few short stories out in the world, but otherwise my writing was an unknown factor. By the time I came to write The Iron Ghost, I had an agent, an editor, a contract, a deadline, and a number of people who had read The Copper Promise and rather liked it. All of these things added a pressure that simply wasn’t there when I wrote the first one. Believe me, it’s the best kind of pressure – my book is out in the world and some people are enjoying it – but there is a particular kind of terror that comes with realising you have expectations to meet. Consequently, The Iron Ghost was a more gruelling experience – I fretted more, I started again more than once, I agonized over structure and pacing. In the end though, writing a book is never easy, and it was completely worth the misery, the agony and the lumps chewed out of my desk.
How is The Iron Ghost different to The Copper Promise?
I have taken to describing The Iron Ghost as the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, because the tone is noticeably darker, and things are a little bleaker. It’s still chock full of magic, monsters and mayhem, but the stakes have been raised, and the dangers are all a little more personal for my small band of sort-of heroes. It also focuses quite closely on a part of the world they haven’t been to before, with all new dangers and magic.
I honestly think writers should write whatever makes them happy! Sword and sorcery makes me happy – I love magic and mayhem, personally – but I hope that I’ve written those tropes with an eye on the fact that I’m writing in the 21st century. Reading old school sword and sorcery as a modern reader can sometimes be an uncomfortable experience, so I definitely wanted to drag the genre into a world where women, LGBT people, and people of colour exist and get interesting things to do.
As for developing my characters, I’m not sure that I know how that happens myself. Characters arrive, I listen to them, and then I stick them all in a tavern together and see what happens. If I’m lucky, there will be conflict and change, and new bonds will form. One of the conscious things I do, actually, that I can tell you about in a useful way, is to make sure I know where the characters are from. I feel strongly that the character’s background/home/upbringing has a significant impact on who they are.
For example, Wydrin wouldn’t be Wydrin if she hadn’t grown up in Crosshaven, which is essentially a sword and sorcery version of Mos Eisley. And similarly, of course Lord Frith would be a very different and possibly less stiff-necked young man if he hadn’t grown up in a castle.
What it is about fantasy, and in particular sword and sorcery, that you love?
Too many things to list! But really I think it comes down to the sheer range of possibilities open to you when you write fantasy – there are so many completely new places to visit, different types of magic to experience. And with its roots deep in mythology, I believe that fantasy is a language that is universal to us all.
The zombie apocalypse is upon us. You have to assemble a crack team of fellow authors to survive in a now very dangerous world. Who do you pick, and why?
Okay, first of all, Liz de Jager, because she takes no crap from anyone and would be very handy with a blunt instrument. Then Den Patrick, because I suspect that at the end of the world he’s suddenly going to reveal that he’s been a practitioner of the dark arts all along and can probably explode the undead with the power of his mind.
Who are your literary influences? Why?
I can’t vouch for whether my writing shows any obvious signs of this, but certainly the authors who were a big deal to me as a young person, and continue to be inspirational, were Stephen King, Sir Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb. To me they really are the crowned monarchs of this writing lark, and I suspect that a lot of what I’ve learnt (the good stuff, anyway) comes from reading lots of their books. What links them particularly, for me, is an approach to character that gets under your skin – I formed lasting attachments to so many of the characters they introduced us to: Roland of Gilead, Nick Andros, Granny Weather Wax, Nanny Ogg, Death, Fitz, the Fool, Wintrow Vestrit…I could go on forever. These are the books that have my heart because the characters mean the world to me.
What is your take on the state of speculative fiction worldwide? What do we need to see more of?
Oh gosh, there are so many interesting books out there at the moment, but I think we could always do with more varied stuff. I want to see fewer books where woman appear to have been forgotten about, and more where people of all backgrounds and persuasions have starring roles.
Tell me about the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club. This sounds like an awesome initiative!
Super Relaxed Fantasy Club is a monthly gathering in London, where fans of fantasy and speculative fiction get together to be generally relaxed, hang out and listen to some interesting readings from a pair of guests. Everyone is welcome, it’s free, and it’s a really good excuse to get together and have a gossip, uh, I mean have serious discussions about fantasy books.
Craziest thing a fan has ever said to you in relation to your work?
I don’t think I’ve had anything really crazy, although someone did once tell me that they’d like to stab Lord Frith in the eyes, which I thought was harsh. I love Frith very much.
Complete the following sentences:
My favourite book is… IMPOSSIBLE TO NAME. The Liveship Traders trilogy by Robin Hobb is probably my favourite fantasy series ever. In terms of a single book, it swaps back and forth between Lords and Ladies, American Gods, The Last Unicorn, Under Heaven, We Have Always Lived in the Castle… yeah, I’m not very good at choosing.
My literary arch nemesis is… someone I haven’t met yet, I suspect.
My weapon of choice for fighting my arch nemesis in gladiatorial combat would be… Tigra’s bolo whip from Thundercats. I have been watching a lot of Thundercats lately.
What are you working on right now?
The first draft of the third book in the Copper Cat trilogy, The Silver Tide, has been handed back to my editor, so at the moment I’m sketching out a plan for the fantasy series that will come next. This stage is always a lot of fun, because nothing is pinned down yet and it could all go in any direction.
Can we expect you to visit Australia anytime soon?
It certainly isn’t in my near future, but I live in hope!
And finally, best/worst writing advice you have ever received?
The best writing advice for me has always been: ‘just keep writing, and finish the book’. There’s a terrible urge, usually about 60K words into a draft, to abandon the book and start another. This is almost always a terrible idea. Also I think that accepting that writing always takes time – both in the sense of needing to find time for it in your daily life, and in the sense that you will gradually get better over the course of years – is hugely important. Don’t wait around for that magical part of your life where you have loads of free time (it doesn’t exist) and don’t blast out your first book and chuck it straight up onto Amazon for all to see. Determination, and patience, are both essential.
Jen Williams, thank you for talking to Smash Dragons!
Jen's books are available from all good retailers and online outlets. I implore you all, if you like sword and sorcery, or just fantasy in general, then you need to check out The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost. You won't be disappointed!
Until next time peeps... stay frosty... and keep on reading!