On Making Things Up For A Living today I’m very happy to be interviewing Jen Williams. Jen is the author of “The Copper Promise”, which was one of my favourite new reads of 2014. Her latest novel, “The Iron Ghost” is released through Headline on February 26th – read my review of the novel for Fantasy Faction here.
So, it’s over to Jen!
1. Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a fantasy writer from London, where I live with my partner and our small, permanently perplexed cat. I’ve been writing stories for as long as I can remember, and got swept away by writing novels about ten years ago. My heart is happiest when I’m writing secondary world fantasy, but I’ve dabbled in horror and pulp SF too. Outside of writing and books, I love Lego, video games (mostly the ones from Bioware that have Dragon and Age in the title) and I’m a massive cartoon geek.
I actually started writing The Copper Promise as a sort of fun side project to do while I was writing other books. I thought it would be a short, throwaway type of thing I could upload to Amazon as an experiment, but 150,000 words and a book deal later things turned out rather differently… The series is, at its heart, a character-driven adventure story with a big emphasis on magic and monsters, and, well, having fun. The first book follows the fateful meeting of two sellswords, Wydrin Threefellows, the Copper Cat of Crosshaven and Sir Sebastian Carverson, with Lord Aaron Frith, a man who is determined to wield terrible power whatever the cost. In their quest for forbidden magical artefacts they accidentally release a terrible force on the world, and then have to decide if they’re getting paid enough to deal with it. In The Iron Ghost, our heroes have formed an uneasy alliance for the sake of more coin, and maybe even genuine friendship. But they’re never far from trouble, and the ice-locked city of Skaldshollow promises a whole new set of terrors.
3. One of the things I love about your writing is the characters (Wydrin is my number one fantasy girl-crush at the moment!), and how you play with fantasy staples and stereotypes and turn them on their heads. Could you share with us how you develop your characters?
When I started writing the series I knew I wanted to write pulp sword and sorcery, which contains a lot of archetypes – the lovable rogue, the mysterious magic user, the honourable barbarian – and I was keen to utilize these types, because sword and sorcery is a lot of fun. However, I felt it was also important to give them a modern edge; I love old-school pulp fantasy, but as a fantasy fan reading in the 21st century it can have its uncomfortable moments, particularly regarding the depiction of women, people of colour, and LGBT characters. I wanted fun, adventurous fantasy that reflected the diversity of, you know, reality and stuff. So that was my mind-set when I started the book, but in all honestly the three main characters more or less popped into my head fully formed. When I knew that I wanted to write a female rogue who said witty things and made rash decisions, Wydrin was already there waiting for me. When Sebastian turned up, I knew he was gay because it was a part of who he was, and I immediately knew there was a strong, sibling-like bond between the two.
For me, characters are built on dialogue, humour and their backgrounds. When I started figuring out where they’d come from and what they’d experienced – Sebastian’s disastrous early career with the Ynnsmouth Knights, Wydrin’s childhood on the deck of a pirate ship, Lord Frith’s privileged and slightly lonely upbringing – their characters grew from there.
4. What is your favourite part of writing? Which parts do you find easy? Is there any particular aspect of writing that you struggle with, and how have you overcome it?
I love writing dialogue and “character moments” so for me writing heaven is putting my characters in a tavern somewhere and letting them argue (which is why this happens fairly regularly across the series). I also love the sense of exploration you get with the fantasy genre in particular, so I always enjoy creating new places, with their own histories and mythologies. I do find writing action sequences taxing, which is unfortunate because there is a lot of action in The Copper Promise trilogy – it can be hard to keep track of who is thumping who in the chops, whether or not this is physically possible, where did that dagger end up again? Action sequences require quite a bit of forethought and planning, which always makes them trickier to deal with than straight up character interaction, but my rule with the books is always to keep things moving, so with any fights or battles I try to let the reader experience it through the character’s eyes.
5. What made you want to be a writer? What were your favourite books growing up?
One of my earliest memories is of my mum reading me One Hundred and One Dalmatians at bedtime, which I loved (alternated nightly with a picture book called Uncle Scrooge and the Lemonade Factory, which I was obsessed with) and I remember that I just liked stories more than anything else. The first Christmas presents I remember asking for were a desk, and then a couple of years later, a typewriter, and I spent much of my early childhood quite sombrely telling my stuffed toys longwinded stories that made very little sense. These days I think wanting to write is just a thing you have, and even if you ignore it, the urge will come out in unexpected ways – I spent a number of years at art college training to be an illustrator because that is very close to telling stories with pictures, and it was only when I realised that my favourite bit was writing the stories down that I knew I was over complicating things.
My best loved book from my childhood was certainly The Lord of the Rings, which I vividly remember reading during a caravan holiday on the south east coast. I went away with Frodo and Sam, and part of me never came back.
6. It’s always nice to see LGBT characters included in fantasy novels, and something I particularly liked was the fact that the Sebastian’s story wasn’t about his sexuality all that much – he was a character who happened to be gay. So, inevitably and because it’s something that interests me, was this a conscious decision on your part to include LGBT characters? Why do you think LGBT characters are under-represented in Fantasy, and what can we do about it to reach the stage where no-one bats an eyelid at the inclusion of non-straight characters? (because it’s 2015 and we still don’t seem to have reached that point…)
As I briefly mentioned before, although I wanted to write a sword and sorcery book inspired by old school fantasy pulp, I also wanted to write something that was progressive, in its own, mead-soaked sort of way. As a woman I have experienced a lot of media where women only turn up as a token gesture towards acknowledging the female half of the population, where women exist as a prize for the male character, or as a catalyst for the male character to take some action when she is inevitably fridged or raped. Not only is this tiresome and boring to see happening over and over again, it’s also incredibly disheartening; women are people too, every bit as human and interesting as men, but from reading some fantasy books you wouldn’t know it. And the situation with LGBT characters is even worse, in that most of the time they simply don’t exist, which is beyond ridiculous. For me, and for a lot of fantasy readers, the world is simply more interesting and more beautiful with a range of people in it, and more to the point, this is the reality of our world. Making up a secondary fantasy world where everyone is straight, white and male just starts to look really weird after a while. And please don’t get me started on the assumption that fantasy books have to be that way because “that’s what it was like, back in the olden days” because I tend to start chewing lumps out of my desk with rage…
Anyway, sorry, rant over. Why is this still prevalent in fantasy? I’m not really sure. I think there is still a slightly odd perception of fantasy as a genre for young men only, which leads to a swarm of books written to appeal to the supposed desires of that audience. Not only is this blatantly daft – dip half a toe into fantasy fandom and you will find lots of women, thank you very much, lots and lots – it also makes some vaguely worrying assumptions about the interests of said young men. What can we do about it? Read and write good things, I think, and find those inclusive voices and shout about them. There are great stories out there that include LGBT characters, we just don’t see them in the spotlight often enough.
7. You started out publishing The Copper Promise as four novellas in e-book format, which is unusual. What was the thinking behind that? Do you think it helped build anticipation for the full novels?
When I started writing The Copper Promise I thought I would be releasing them in serial form, so I wrote the manuscript split into four parts. Headline thought it would fun to do an ebook release of the book in its original format, and for me personally it was enjoyable to see readers get through a part then get hit with a cliffhanger. Because writers are mean like that.
8. Your cover art for The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost is beautiful, really striking. Who was the artist and did you have any say in what the covers looked like? Are they what you imagined when you started out?
Patrick Insole and the design team at Headline are responsible for the covers, and I adore them! I was asked at the beginning of the process to send over any ideas I had – detailed character descriptions, things I might like to see on the cover, as well as things I really didn’t want to see. I made a board on Pinterest for the book and sent details of that over too, but in the end I suspect my input was largely unneeded, which is as it should be. I love the covers because a) dragons, and b) they feel a tiny bit retro whilst also being very fresh and striking. When I first saw the cover for The Copper Promise, I laughed, then cried, and then ran around my living room. It’s beautiful, if I do say so myself, and a billion times better than anything I could have come up with.
9. Could you tell us about the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club? What’s all that about, and how can a person get involved?
The Super Relaxed Fantasy Club was set up by Den Patrick and I when we realised that the bit of SFF conventions we really enjoyed was hanging out in the bar. We thought it would be fun to have a very casual get together once a month in London, where fans and writers of SFF could hang out and chat about genre things. Each month we have two writers who read an excerpt from their books, followed by a Q&A, and then a lot of relaxed mooching about. We always have parity with our guests (this is very important to us) and we encourage everyone to introduce themselves; there are no fees, no politics, just a lot of super relaxed chat.
SRFC takes place usually on the last Tuesday of every month at around 6.30pm, although the venue can occasionally change. Everyone is welcome, and the best thing to do is check the twitter feed (@SRFantasyclub) or our Facebook page for details.
10. Can you share some of your favourite books and movies of the last few years?
Film wise I have become a bit of a Marvel fangirl over the last few years. Avengers Assemble, Thor, Iron Man, The Guardians of the Galaxy – Marvel really are knocking it out of the park lately. And as a fan of Lego, The Lego Movie was an absolute joy. Last year I also really enjoyed The Babadook and Snowpiercer, two visually amazing films.
In terms of books, my favourite book of last year was Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb, which has got me back reading all her books again – she really does character-driven fantasy like no one else. I also loved Horns by Joe Hill, which was gripping, funny, and had a genuinely unnerving baddie.
11. What are your plans for your next book?
I’m currently in the midst of writing the last book in The Copper Promise trilogy, which is proving to be both a lot of fun and uniquely nerve-wracking; saying goodbye to these characters is going to leave me a pool of sobbing goo, I suspect. After that I’m working on a new epic fantasy series, which I’ve been slowing planning in bits and pieces across several notebooks.
You can find Jen on Twitter as @sennydreadful
Or on her website – http://sennydreadful.co.uk/
You can buy The Copper Promise on Amazon.
Thanks to Jen for being such a charming and interesting interviewee!