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First Drafts, Genre, and Fictional Reality: A Conversation with Tad Williams

The Portalist recently sat down for a discussion with the acclaimed author of the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series.

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  • Photo Credit: Image of Tad Williams by Jindřich Nosek (NoJin) via Wikimedia Commons

Author Tad Williams is a titan in the fantasy and science fiction genres. Since his debut novel, Tailchaser’s Song, was first published in 1985, Williams’ work has cumulatively sold more than 17 million copies worldwide. Though he has several impressive series and standalone books in his catalogue, Williams is best known for the beloved Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series.

Part of the expansive Osten Ard universe, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn begins with the 1988 novel The Dragonbone Chair. In this tale, the tranquil land of Osten Ard is under threat as the High King, Prester John, inches closer to death, ushering in a war driven by dark sorcery. When he passes, the undead Storm King and his elf-like Sithi jump on the opportunity to make a deal with the new king to reclaim their lost realm. Fearing the ramifications of this deal, the king’s younger brother teams up with the League of the Scroll, a collection of scholars, to protect Osten Ard from the coming danger. Kitchen boy Simon, unwittingly apprenticed to a League member, is sent off on a perilous quest that will decide the very fate of the kingdom.

The rich worldbuilding of Osten Ard inspired many writers, from Patrick Rothfuss to George R.R. Martin. The Navigator’s Children, the final book in the Last King of Osten Ard series, is set to release November 7th, 2023, followed by an Osten Ard prequel, The Splintered Sun, coming Fall 2024. As Williams continues to thrill readers with his remarkable storytelling, The Portalist reached out to chat about his own inspirations and process.

You've done work with DC in the past—has the comic genre and format informed your novel writing at all?

Almost certainly, although that influence far predates any work for DC.  I grew up a comic book fan, very much a Marvel Silver/Bronze-ager, and I think a lot of my approach to storytelling comes from that youthful wonder, that “What’s going to happen next?” the classic age of Marvel inspired in me.  (This doesn’t mean I’m not a DC fan too, but it took me a little longer to get in synch with those characters, whereas I was introduced to the world of Stan and Jack, et al, at a very young age.)

I think a case could be made that my love of the comics medium has a lot to do with how visually evocative my writing is — people have called it “cinematic”.  I think it all comes down to wanting the reader to have a compelling visual image of what’s happening, especially if it's about something that we don't get to see in the real world, and that’s almost certainly from my early comic reading

Though you have quite a few popular book series under your belt, your standalone novels are just as captivating. Do you prefer a long-form story, or these contained works? Does one come more naturally to you?

Mostly the length is compelled by the amount of stuff there is in the nascent story when it first occurs to me.  But I also enjoy the byproducts of making long works, namely the emergent order, the things that surface from the complexity of really huge tales, the characters that appear unexpectedly and then become crucial, and the way that the fictional reality develops its own resonances.  That said, wrestling such huge beasts can also be exhausting, and it’s nice to work in shorter forms, too.  Sometimes working shorter forms also allows me to be "purer" too, in the sense of a more clear-cut approach to a story or a character.

Some story ideas are clearly short-form when they occur to me, others I’m not certain about at first, and a few are “Oh my God another long one” from their inception.  So even if I swore off either long or short stories, I’m pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to stick to it.  As soon as one of the forbidden lengths became alluring because I liked the idea, I’d turn my back on my own promise.

Your work lives primarily in the realms of fantasy and science fiction, but you've utilized elements from horror, noir, and beyond in your writing. Is there a genre that you're eager to weave in next, or perhaps a dream project you're hoping to explore?

I often tell young or beginning writers that you have to read outside of genre — particularly if they want to write genre fiction.  Otherwise (if you only read in the genre you're writing) you have an ever-narrowing circle of influence that quickly becomes incestuous.  Plus, a big part of developing an authorial voice is what you bring to the party, so the more broadly you read and the wider your array of resources and influences, the more individual your writer’s voice is going to be.

I have a few non-SFF types of stories I’d like to write, including a novel about the time and place I grew up, but I always have to balance that with the need to make a living: late capitalism can be a cruel taskmaster.  But I will also bring in all the things that move me to all my work, from science and history to comedy, and stylistically from Dickens and Jane Austen to Hunter S. Thompson.  As writers, we are what we eat.

The last novel in your Last King of Osten Ard series comes out next year. How does bringing this saga to an end compare to taking things back with a prequel, as you did twice with your Osten Ard books?

What’s been most interesting about this project is that it has turned my best-known work (at least in America), the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books, into a full-scale world and history that now exist as more than just one story.  I’ve had to fill in so many details of the world that I’m now going to want to keep playing in this sandbox just to justify all the work I’ve put in.  But worldbuilding is perhaps my favorite part of the whole fictive exercise, so I’m not complaining.  And while this book will definitely have an ending that I think will satisfy readers, Osten Ard remains an ongoing story, with its history and many of its characters intact, so I won’t have to feel so much like I’m re-starting if I write more stuff set there.  (Which I almost certainly will.)  

I know that your writing process was temporarily derailed by shoulder problems, and then by the lagging publication pace brought about by Covid. You've spoken a bit about how your process for the project of this period shifted due to this extended timeline, but do you think this experience has permanently changed anything about your writing process moving forward?

I think the main difference is that I’ve become a little more casual about first drafts, because I’ve had to let people see them earlier in the process than in the past.  That’s because there are people out there who know Osten Ard better than I do — at least the first set of books — because they kept reading and re-reading them while I was working on other stuff since the 1980s.  So to derive the benefit of their superior familiarity, I have had to let these kind, helpful people look at my first drafts in a less finished state (very difficult for a perfectionist/obsessive!) so I can incorporate what they know (that I’ve almost always utterly forgotten) into the story to keep it "canon".  This has forced me to be more cavalier with my first drafts, whereas I used to do about ninety percent of my work or more in that first pass and you probably could have published them as-is without anyone noticing.  I still need to be careful with important stuff, because these big books are very intricately tied together and it’s hell trying to unpick something you get wrong, but I’m more likely now to say, “That can just stay like that for now and I’ll fix it in a later draft.”

Dive into the wide worlds of Tad Williams with the first entry of his most iconic series, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn!

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