Writing Journeys – Jen Williams
Jen Williams Copper Cat Trilogy charmed the UK and is currently working its spell over fresh US audiences. Those fantasy enthusiasts who are in the London area will also know Jen as the co-founder(conspirator?) of the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club (SRFC… for those in the know). Her partner in crime in this club is Den Patrick, and together they’ve created a haven for fantasy nerds to flock to once a month. It’s where I’ve met many of the authors in this series. Indeed much of my growing confidence and love of writing has come from meeting so many like minded and friendly people at the SRFC. Jen herself is always a good laugh – I believe we had a longish chat discussing the merits of old Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cartoons at FantasyCon last year. Anyway, you’re here for the post, so here you go.
How did I come to be writing my current project?
It’s a question I have asked myself before, many times, usually when grinding my teeth at a blank page, or sifting through a dusty mountain of post-it notes looking for the one piece of scribble that explains what this chapter was actually supposed to be about. To truly answer the question, I have to go back into the distant mists of memory. Come with me now on a journey through time, space, erratic decision-making and heavy drinking.
I first realised I wanted to write stories when I was very small indeed. One of my earliest memories, hazy with sherbet dip-dabs and My Little Pony, is of asking for a desk for Christmas. A desk seemed to me to be the genesis of all creative things, a sort of magical touchstone. With a desk, I reasoned, stories must just spontaneously generate themselves. Mostly I remember that desk being covered with glitter and prit-stick, but it was a start. Skip forward a few years and we will witness small me asking for a typewriter for my birthday (I can imagine my parents gently consigning themselves to the reality that they had somehow raised an incredibly nerdy kid) and I suppose this was where my love for telling stories really took off. The epics created at this time included the rousing classic ‘Captain Smelly Socks and his Smelly Socks’, about a pirate with a foot odour problem. If you have read my Copper Cat trilogy, you will know I’m still quite fond of pirates, although mostly they don’t smell quite so bad.
At school I developed into the sort of kid who wrote short stories where everyone died horribly at the end, or got eaten by cats (I wrote at least two of those) and to my surprise, my teachers usually loved them, even reading a couple aloud to the rest of the class – a remarkably horrifying experience for 14-year-old me, who was painfully shy. And this is where we introduce some unexpected conflict into the story, because around about this time I began to talk to the adults in my life about taking up writing as a career. Looking back, perhaps I should have spoken to the English teachers who liked my stories so much, because the response I got from everyone else was largely ‘don’t be daft’, ‘it’s too competitive’, and the slightly baffling ‘everyone wants to write books, why should you be allowed to do it?’ The thing is, when you are a young person – particularly a shy young person who prefers reading to talking to other human beings – you tend to listen to what adults tell you, and to take their advice very seriously. The problem with that of course is that a) the people I spoke to didn’t really know anything about writing, and b) adults are secretly making everything up as they go along. In conclusion, my advice to young people now wanting to be writers would be: don’t listen to anything adults tell you. There. I’m sure that advice cannot possibly backfire in any way.
Being almost subconsciously stubborn, when I left school I went to art college, where I studied the equally competitive and difficult-to-make-a-living-at business of illustration. I was reasonably good at it, but perhaps unsurprisingly, I found that what I really enjoyed was making up the stories that I then needed to illustrate… This is probably the other big lesson I learned in these formative years: writing isn’t something you choose to do, it’s something that chooses you. My degree in hand, I left art college and worked for a time in a bookshop. I fiddled about with various projects, bouncing from sketching out children’s picture books to writing the occasional grisly horror story (not as unrelated as you might think). One day, after a particularly abysmal day at work, I decided to write something to cheer myself up – rather than a short story, it was a little scene, unrelated to anything I’d written before, and to my surprise, it was part of a book. I spent the next two years finding out what the rest of that book was about.
I hope you are still with me on this slightly meandering accidental life story. For your sake I have edited out much of the heavy drinking and the Farscape marathons, and you’ll be glad to hear I’m going to skip us ahead even further – six unpublished books further, in fact. By the time The Copper Promise came into being, I had realised that writing books was indeed exactly what I wanted to do with my life (it turns out that six year old me was wise) and before I really knew where I was or how I’d managed it, I had an excellent agent and a book deal with a tremendous publisher. The Copper Promise evolved into a trilogy of sword and sorcery books where I could explore all the things I really loved about traditional fantasy – the magic, the monsters, the dungeons and the mayhem – while also having a bit of a poke at the things I often felt the genre needed to have a closer look at; gender politics and inclusivity, for example. Above all, I had a lot of fun with the Copper Cat, but I also knew that three books would be enough to tell the central stories of Wydrin, Frith, and Sebastian. I am not a fan of things outstaying their welcome, and I didn’t want to drag the trio on endless adventures when all opportunity for reasonable character development had long since bled away into the sand. Instead, I wanted to give them a cinematic, emotionally impactful finale, and with The Silver Tide, I think I just about managed it.
So what next? It’s a beast of a question. I had a blast writing the Copper Cat books, but I knew I didn’t want to write the same thing again with the character names filed off. Instead, I wanted to challenge myself… (I would think about this thought process often over the coming months, as I sweated blood over the copy edits, often laughing in a slightly unhinged manner). And so the Winnowing Flame trilogy was born, a series that is still so new I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about it yet. I always feel it’s tricky to follow the journey back to find the seeds of a book, to locate the exact moment that kicked off the creative drive, but there were a handful of key moments: a passage in a history book describing a glorious city, now falling apart and infested with wolves; the thought that if elves were a bit more human, they’d likely be very terrible people; the image of a young woman with a handful of emerald flames. In many ways the roots of the book are the same ones that nourished the Copper Cat – character driven epic fantasy full of snark and monsters – only with this trilogy I wanted to build a bigger, stranger world, and have the fates of the characters inextricably linked to it. The first book, The Ninth Rain, will be published on the 23rd of February and I’m in the middle of writing the second book, The Bitter Twins, right now. It’s an odd story, full of complicated relationships, alarming beasts and things exploding, and I think the six year old me who first sat down at her desk, glitter glue in hand, would be very proud of it – or at least amazed at its sheer length. I know I am.
Jen Williams lives in London with her partner and their cat. A fan of pirates and dragons from an early age, these days she writes character-driven sword and sorcery novels with plenty of banter and magic, and in 2015 she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the British Fantasy Awards. The Copper Cat trilogy, consisting of The Copper Promise, The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide, are available now in the UK and the Netherlands, and the first book in the trilogy is now available in the US and Canada. The Iron Ghost was nominated for Best Fantasy Novel in the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, and she is also partially responsible for Super Relaxed Fantasy Club. The Ninth Rain, the first book in her new trilogy, is due to be published in 2017, and she is partial to mead, if you’re buying.
…right let’s see who’s on the list for tomorrow. Oh god – it’s that Dyrk Ashton fellow. Well if you like quirky authors who are big children at heart and who like silly jokes, I guess you should come back.
copper cat, fantasy authors, jen williams, ninth rain, writing journeys