Jen Williams, fantasy writer and Dragon Age obsessive, is the author of The Copper Cat Trilogy and The Winnowing Flame series. Our editor Olivia Hofer talked with her about living in London, how and when she started writing, working in Grimdark niche, not repeating herself, and Super Relaxed Book Club.
by Olivia Hofer
What’s your favourite part of London?
I live in southeast London, and unsurprisingly it’s my favourite bit. The particular area where I live is lively, odd, arty, and smells continually of fried chicken. I love it. Other highlights include Hyde Park, the Natural History Museum, Borough Market (the best doughnuts), and lovely, lively South Bank. My other favourite places are all pubs, and there are too many to mention.
Let’s talk about you and your new book – The Poison Song concludes The Winnowing Flame trilogy, and the reviews are filled with praise. Would you mind telling our readers a little bit about yourself and The Winnowing Flame?
Well, like most writers I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – the first birthday presents I remember asking for was a desk, and then a bit later, a typewriter – but I mostly wrote short stories for a long time, believing that an entire book would be beyond my abilities. Eventually though, in my early twenties, I wrote a few scenes that began to loosely tie together, and from there I wrote my first full novel. It was dreadful, a kind of Terry Pratchett knock off where I couldn’t decide who the main character was, but I did at least get to the end of it, and it turned out to be the key to everything. From there I wrote several ‘learning’ books until I wrote The Copper Promise, which got me an agent (the brilliant Juliet Mushens) and eventually, a publishing deal.
The Winnowing Flame trilogy is my second series with Headline. It is best described, I think, as weird epic fantasy with SF elements. The world of Sarn is periodically invaded by terrible insectoid creatures called the Jure’lia, and the scholar and adventurer Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon wants to find out what they bloody well want, and just possibly, how she can stop it. Aiding her on her quest is Tormalin the Oathless, one of the last of a dying race of near immortals, and Noon, an escaped prisoner with some explosive secrets of her own. There are giant bats, oodles of mythical creatures and a lot of things being set on fire.
What you would say is the biggest change in your approach to writing when comparing The Copper Cat and The Winnowing Flame?
The Copper Cat books were mostly stand-alone adventures. The characters had their own arcs and such across the series, but each book had its own plots and settings. With the Winnowing Flame, I wanted to do something that truly was a three-book arc – mostly just to challenge myself, because I’m stupid like that. In terms of writing, this mostly meant that I had to have a reasonably good idea of how the whole thing ended, and how the various plot beats hung together. I’m not strictly a planner when it comes to writing, so I still kept a lot of the plotting open-ended as I wrote The Ninth Rain and The Bitter Twins. I like to keep things reasonably organic. I also very deliberately tied a lot of the worldbuilding directly into the characters, as this is something I’ve always admired greatly about Robin Hobb’s writing. So for example, Tor’s character is very tied to the history of his people and the trauma he suffered watching them all die out, and Noon’s magic, and how it’s regarded by the world, is key to a lot of the themes in the book.
Where do you draw your ideas and inspiration from?
Always a tricky question. Sometimes ideas will have a very obvious catalyst, but most of the time, stuff just sort of floats up from the subconscious and coalesces. I’ve always been a little bit of a history nerd, so I suspect a lot of that informs my writing. When I was kicking ideas around for the book that would eventually be The Ninth Rain, I was reading a book about ancient China. In it, the author described how one of the great cities had been abandoned as invading forces swept down from the north, and I was really taken with the image of this extraordinary city – probably one of the most sophisticated places in the world at the time – completely given over to weeds and wolves. That was the seed that led to Ebora, the city at the heart of The Ninth Rain, which Tormalin leaves at the beginning of the book.
Do politics and current events influence what you’re writing about or would you say writing fiction is an escape from this world?
I suspect that it’s impossible to avoid current events flavouring your work – certainly I think a lot of my own anger went into some of the story strands in the Winnowing Flame. It’s also always very important to me that my books are inclusive and diverse, so I suppose that is a result of my own personal ‘politics’.
Grimdark experienced a surge in popularity in recent years. Do you feel this trend is set to continue? Do you actively attempt to convey positive themes in your writing, or does it just happen?
You could write entire essays on what grimdark is, and why it’s been popular lately. I’ve certainly been on enough convention panels about the sub-genre, and what I do know is it’s very difficult to pin down its exact definition. I tend to think of grimdark as fantasy with an inherently cynical outlook; so people generally are rubbish, things tend to end worse than they started, etc.
My own work, I think, is inherently optimistic; I want to believe that people generally are good. When The Copper Promise was published, there was a lot of talk at the time about a push back against grimdark, and I’m not sure how that has worked out. There certainly still seems to be a lot of grimdark around, and publishers seem keener than ever to market books with that term, yet I think from my own experience there is an appetite for books that are more optimistic (and I should point out, a lot of very terrible things do happen in my books too, and the body count is high – but because the characters tend to be people you would want to spend time with, they don’t get classed as grimdark).
What do you think people in the publishing industry can do to make sure women, POC, LGBT, and other minorities become more visible, more important both as characters, but most importantly as writers?
I’m certainly no expert, but I think it’s about listening and sharing. Listen to voices that don’t get heard as often, and amplify them as much as you can.
Following you, on Twitter it has become clear that you love video games, television, and reading. Do you consume media as a writer (always looking for inspiration, always trying to improve) or are you able to sit back and take your writer hat off?
I don’t think you can ever really take your writer hat off entirely (or at least, I can’t). But I have a huge appetite for stories, and a strong willingness to suspend my disbelief. There are times when the writing in something will annoy the shit out of me, and mostly I will have a rant to my partner (he is very tolerant) and get over it. We’re really living in a golden age of television and video games at the moment, so there is a lot to get excited about, and ultimately I want my social media feeds to point people towards great stuff. I know several people now are watching She-Ra and Voltron because I bang on about it so much, and I am singlehandedly responsible for a few replays of Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Your original plan was to release The Copper Cat as a monthly self-published serial before it got the attention of an editor. Why did you consider that route? Would you consider self-publishing in the future?
Honestly, I wish I had a sensible reason for you, but at the time I just thought it would be fun. My plan was to write the Copper Cat in little bite-sized chunks, letting the story go wherever it wanted to, and I always meant to carry on working on the more ‘serious’ novels in the background, with a mind to being published traditionally. As it was, people reacted very positively to the first part of the Copper Cat I put up, and the rest is history. In one way I learned a very important lesson: concentrate on the project that is the most fun – if you’re enjoying it, other people will too.
Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
I have a couple of things in the works, one of which isn’t SFF at all, and I can’t say very much about that just yet. Otherwise, I can never really leave fantasy alone entirely, so I am working on another book. It’s another new world entirely, with new magic and new monsters. So far it’s a lot of fun.
And last but not least, tell us a bit about SRFC in London?
Super Relaxed Fantasy Club is a monthly social meet-up in London for fans of SFF. The author Den Patrick and I set it up years ago because we really liked the ‘hanging out in a bar’ bit of conventions and thought it would be nice to do that more regularly. It turned out to be a popular concept, and although Den and I have stepped away from it now, SRFC is still going strong. It’s best to check the facebook group for author guests and locations, as it tends to move around a bit at the moment.
You can buy The Poison Song on Amazon and anywhere where they sell books.