Genre Chick Interview: Sean Williams

Ever the world traveler, Genre Chick Alethea Kontis takes us into the Australian Outback for this month’s interview with New York Times bestselling author Sean Williams. Find out what a cool place Australia is, how fascinating twins can be, and whether or not writing a book is harder than becoming someone’s other half.


The dashing Sean Williams is a world-renowned fantasy and science fiction writer, a New York Times bestselling author, and an award-winning Haikuist. By the time you read this interview, he’ll be someone’s for-better-or-worse half as well. (Cheers, Sean!)

He’s played in the Star Wars universe and the hard science fiction world of Geodesica, but for the Books of the Cataclysm, he returns to his eloquent epic fantasy roots. The Hanging Mountains, book three in the series, comes out in hardcover this month from Pyr Books.

Alethea Kontis: You’ll be hitched by the time this interview hits the virtual stands, so what’s more difficult: writing a book or planning a wedding?

Sean Williams: Definitely the wedding. Writing a book may take longer, but I don’t have 100 people watching me while I do it. And I get to edit, afterwards. One wrong word during the vows could be disastrous!

But seriously, getting married has turned out to be one of the easiest things I’ve ever done. It’s amazing how simple it all is when you’ve met the right person.

AK: The Hanging Mountains is third in the Books of the Cataclysm series. How many more books will there be?

SW: There are four Books of the Cataclysm in all. The Devoured Earth is done and dusted and has, I humbly think, the best ending to any of the series I’ve written to date.

When I finished the companion trilogy, The Books of the Change, I knew I had to write more. The characters had left so many things unsaid. But now their story is complete. I feel incredibly happy about it, which is how I know that I’m all done there, at last.

If you add the two series together, that makes seven books and nigh on a million words. It seems absurd that it could take so long to say anything, but life is like that. Really profound truths have to be crept up on; they take time to sink in. When it comes to the human heart, there’s no such thing as a quick fix.

AK: What was the inspiration for the Books of the Cataclysm?

SW: This series is, in part, a conscious attempt to bring out my romantic side, having been challenged by a friend down here to have more mushy stuff in my books. Books of the Cataclysm and the hard-SF Geodesica series of a couple of years ago were the result. (I am a big softy, underneath the big spaceships and apocalypses.)

AK: How different was writing this series from writing the Geodesica books?

SW: Writing books featuring spaceships and a million-year romance should be different to writing ones with inside-out afterlives and post-apocalyptic magic-users, but in actual fact, it wasn’t, really. Fundamentally, every novel is about people. All the characters in both these series tap deeply into issues I was working through at the time: family and fatherhood, relationships ending or beginning, one’s relationship to home, and so on. I love science fiction and fantasy, but at the end of the day, each story had to be about the main characters’ intimate journeys. My love for them kept me writing. After that point, it’s just a matter of sitting down every day until it’s done. Easy!

AK: The “mirror twin” is a fantastic concept–do you know of that ever happening in real life?

SW: Oh, they’re out there. Here’s a link:
Perhaps as many as a quarter of all identical twins are mirror twins, meaning that they are reflections of each other–right down to internal organs and hair-whorls. Only brains are never reversed. Cool, huh?

AK: Why do you think we’re so fascinated with twins?

SW: About half my stories explore the notion of individual identity–where one person stops and another starts–via copies, clones, and what have you. Twins provide a real-world example of this kind of idea really being put to the test. I went to school with a set of identical twins, and their similarities (and differences) were a constant talking point. I was particularly drawn to the notion of Mirror Twins in The Crooked Letter. How would it be to see your sibling’s face every time you look in the mirror? What would that do to your head? Strange things, I’m sure.

I think our fascination stems from the possibly over-rated illusion we all generate–that our conscious selves are discrete, self-aware, unique beings that can be defined and understood. The reality is, as always, much more complicated. Twinship hammers home just how rickety our assumptions actually are. If someone shares the same genetic code as you and has the same upbringing as you, what makes him or her different from you? Why aren’t they you? Who are you, anyway? Impossible to answer, possibly, but impossible not to ask the questions.

AK: Do you have any siblings?

SW: I have a younger sister who lives in a different city. She’s just started writing herself, which is a very exciting thing. Not fiction, but a nonfiction piece exploring one aspect of military culture. It sounds fascinating. I hope she finishes it soon. (Get cracking, sis! I know you’ll be reading this ‘cos I’ll send you the link.)

AK: How cool is it to live in Australia?

SW: I’m not a big fan of our government down here, so sometimes I have mixed feelings about being an Australian, but the culture and the locale are terrific. We’re very spoiled here, by the weather, our lifestyle, our multiculturalism, and our relationship with the arts. More people read books here, per capita, than most other western countries. I think that’s cool. Our wine is fantastic (especially where I come from, down the bottom and in the middle). And we have terrific food. I shouldn’t really say this, since we’re over the continent’s carrying capacity already, but I reckon everyone should move here. This really is the lucky country.

AK: Have you ever been on a whirlwind, multi-country European vacation?

SW: You’ve forced me to expose the reason why I can’t write fantasy in the Tolkein mode. Apart from a brief trip to London, I’ve never been to Europe. Ever. And you can only write what you know, so that leaves me with only a few choices: write what I do know (South Australian landscapes), do lots of research (which doesn’t sit well with my inherent laziness), or actually get off my butt and travel.

I do actually travel a lot, but I’m not really a whirlwind kind of person. I’d much rather pick one spot, stay there until I’ve absorbed it, and then move on. The twins in The Crooked Letter are pursuing all the things I didn’t do at their age: back-packing, sleeping in hostels, doing it rough, having crazy love affairs. I was too busy writing and failing university to afford that kind of adventure.

AK: Where have you never been that you would most love to visit?

SW: That’s an easy one: Antarctica. It’s more like Mars than anywhere else on Earth. What could be cooler than that? (Pardon the pun.)

AK: How did you check your Swedish?

SW: Very lazily (of course). I was living with a girl at the time whose father was from Sweden, so she had a conversational fluency that hopefully came out in the dialogue. But for her, I reckon I would’ve been stuck with dictionaries and an online translator–which is never entirely convincing. I still live in fear, though, of a Swedish reader e-mailing me to say, “You know that line ‘Sluta det nu‘? That so doesn’t mean what you think it means.”

AK: What was your favorite book as a child?

SW: Hmmm. Either Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising or Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Or both. Can I call a tie?

AK: How have libraries helped you and/or your career?

SW: Libraries and librarians have had a huge influence on me. I spent years of my life inside libraries, reading my way through various sections of the catalogue. My father’s best friend was a librarian; I even dated one for a while. So I view the profession with great affection. Here’s a link to a speech I gave at the launch of a fundraising drive for Adelaide Universty’s Barr-Smith Library to prove it.

A couple of years ago, I visited the famous library in Seattle, Washington, where the books are organized in a giant spiral so you can walk uninterrupted from one end of the Dewey Decimal System to the other. I can’t begin to describe how cool I think that is.

AK: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?

SW: The Flash or Peter Petrelli from Heroes–although that one’s kind of like the Three Wishes trick answer. What super-power would you like to have? The power to absorb all super-powers, of course. That’s cheating. <grin>