Saturday, 20 August 2011

Writers Talk About Writing - Neil Williamson

(Once you've finished reading what Neil's got to say, check out the whole series of interviews here.)

Neil Williamson’s short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA. His work has been shortlisted for the British Fantasy Award, British Science Fiction Award and World Fantasy Award (with Andrew J Wilson). Neil lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he takes part in the savage critical ballet known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle.

We're in a lift, I'm someone important (come on, pretend), you've got thirty seconds (tall building, slow lift) to tell me about your latest book.

The very good people at Infinity Plus have just released an ebook edition of my short story collection, The Ephemera (Amazon UK | US). It contains all of the stories in the original Elastic Press edition plus four new stories, story notes, a foreword by myself, an introduction by Hal Duncan, and beautiful cover art by Vincent Chong.

Uh-oh. Not sure lifts are meant to stop suddenly between floors like this. Guess we've got a bit more time. Ignore the flickering lights and creaking sounds above us. Would you like to tell me about other books or stories that you have available?

You might still be able to get hold of Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction (Amazon UK | US), which I edited with Andrew J Wilson a few years ago. My most recent story in print was the British Science Fiction Association award-nominated, Arrhythmia, which you can find in an excellent anthology called Music For Another World (Amazon UK), published by Mutation Press.

Please stop repeatedly pressing the emergency button. The comment about building a ladder of bones to reach the ceiling hatch and get out of here was just blue-skies thinking. So, what are you working on now?

Right now, this minute now, I'm working on a short story about sheep in space - Space Sheep, if you prefer - for a forthcoming anthology; but I'm also redrafting a novel called Queen Of Clouds - a tale of meritocracy, wooden men and sentient weather - which I hope to deliver to my agent soon.

You co-edited the World Fantasy Award nominated Nova Scotia, an anthology of new Scottish speculative fiction. Did you enjoy the process of being editor, rather than writer, and do you have plans to do it again?

Yes, I loved it. It's entirely different from being a writer. The two are both creative processes, but there's no real overlap. Reading the stories as they came in was pretty exciting, and choosing between them excruciating, but I was very pleased with the result. It was an especially interesting experience working with Andrew J Wilson. We found a fair amount of overlap in our tastes, but some differences as well, so I think that resulted in a really nice spread of styles. I'd love to do it again, and Andrew and I have plans for another book which we hope to push on with at some point when both our schedules allow.

Lift's not moving. I've got a stylophone in my pocket (yeah, yeah, tell it to the judge). You can give us a tune to pass the time, and while you're doing it, tell us about your adventures in music.

Okay, yes. The music. I play piano in a couple of bands in the Glasgow area. I write and record with my own band, Murnie, but also play with an outfit called San Fran And The Siscos. And then there's the cabaret stuff. I'm one half of Markee de Saw and Bert Finkle (I'll leave it to readers to guess which half), a kinda weird piano and vocal duo (with occasional musical saw). People can catch us at variety nights around Scotland, and we've been spotted at the Edinburgh Fringe for the last few years too.

So, yes, I'm quite involved musically. And, I've recently started experimenting with short stories that are essentially musicals - there is music in the world and the characters sing to each other instead of speaking. It's opened up some interesting avenues in terms of exploring fate/predestination versus story narrative. But making all the dialogue rhyme is hard work.

Come to think of it, I have another one planned...and there may be room for a Stylophone in it.

In your own writing, what do you think you do well, and what do you wish you could do better?

I like my prose, and my dialogue. But I wish I could plot better. This wasn't so obvious a failing in the short stories, but now I've written two novels I'm realising I've a lot to learn in that regard. Still, practice makes perfect...

Can you remember what made you sit down to write your first book or story?

Very clearly. There was an Ian R McLeod story in Interzone around about 1991. It was called Well Loved, and it completely blew me away. So I copied it out word for word in an attempt to work out how it was done. Not really sure the exercise really taught me anything, but that was the start.

Do you have a book or story that you're very fond of, but you think should get more attention from the world than it has.

Yes. I was mentioning my "musical stories" earlier. The second one, Arrhythmia, has done well but its predecessor, The Last Note Of The Song, kinda sunk without trace. It was originally published in a slightly strange venue (on a Pirates Of The Caribbean website to help promote the Vandermeer's pirate anthology, Fast Ships, Black Sails), but I've never heard from one person who read it and liked it, and personally I love it. It's a pirate story, but - as described above - it's also a musical. I've included it in the new ebook edition of The Ephemera to try and get it some more visibility.

Print publishing is a doomed but still predatory dinosaur rotting from the feet up. Ebook publishing is the vomiting out of the world's slushpiles onto the market. In the ongoing war of words and hyperbole, where's the happy medium to be found? Where do you think the publishing business is heading over the next few years, and what are you doing to be ready for it?

I think print books will be around for a while yet - at least until the cost of producing them makes it completely prohibitive. People still enjoy reading from a printed book. I think the mass market will move towards e-editions faster and faster, but the independents will balance between both. There are a lot of good presses out there making very lovely books, and while there's enough of a market for them to make it worth their while I hope they'll continue to do so. Meanwhile we can only hope that the in the huge sea of self published ebooks the cream will rise.

What book do you most wish that you had written?

Jonathan Carroll's Outside The Dog Museum. A masterful piece of contemporary fantasy.

You're publishing ebooks now - have you learned anything in that process?

What's been interesting is the ability to repackage an existing book in a new way and get it to market with comparatively little effort. I like that immediacy and reactivity, but I worry that it's perhaps too easy and that a lot of the ebooks that appear will perhaps not have the same standards of care over their content and presentation as you would expect.

Do you do much promotion for your books? What do you think is the most effective thing you've done?

I'm trying. I did a whack of things at publication, but you have to keep it going, don't you? Tools like blog stats and Amazon's sales graphs give you an impression of what produces results though, and I think that appearing in as many places as you can (for example, this interview) is the key to getting your name out there. Infinity Plus ebooks are priced fairly cheaply and I hope it's not too difficult to get people to take a punt on your product if you make it sound interesting enough.

What is it that really pushes your buttons as a reader?

Everything! I love style and voice, but not to the extent that it obscures the story. I love good characterisation too, but don't want to wallow in finely observed detail. Pacewise a story doesn't have to rocket along, but I prefer it to keep moving. But in general, a good story has to do everything well, and perhaps one or two things brilliantly.

If you could give an aspiring writer one piece of advice, what would it be?

Seek absolutely honest opinions of your writing.

If you could tell an aspiring writer to ignore one commonly given piece of advice, what would it be?

I guess most people will answer this question with: 'write what you know'. It's such patent tosh, that it doesn't even bear consideration.

Are you 'out' as a writer of fiction with work colleagues/family, and if so, what reaction did you get?

Yes, I'm fairly openly outed. The reaction varies from genuine and ongoing interest to polite indifference (believe it or not, not everyone rates writing as a creative undertaking). But no scorn, not even when I admit that my field of endeavour is in the fantastical genres.

Gibbons or tigers? (NB this question is to help me in compiling my List of People Who Are Wrong).

Gibbons. They're proper, full on hard cases. Ever seen a child cuddling a cutesy Disneyfied stuffed gibbon? Nuff said.

Meticulous research is both enjoyable and important / what's the point in writing fiction if you can't just make stuff up - discuss.

I'm a big fan of digging up enough nuggets to convince the reader of verisimilitude, but more research than that (while potentially interesting on a personal level) is distracting you from what you should be focusing on - writing the story.

Any question you wished you'd been asked?

What's your favourite Iain Rowan story? I'd say The Chain, from Rowan's collection Nowhere To Go. It's the kind of crime story that unfolds with such brilliant logic that you simply can't believe that it's not been done before. As a major Hollywood movie.

(Aw, shucks. Yr blushing Ed.)

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