When Tad’s lovely and wonderful wife Deborah approached me about reviewing The Dirty Streets of Heaven, I was thrilled. Then, I decided I better grow a pair and ask if I could interview the man himself. A year ago I never would have done that. Never. Tad Williams is one of my all time favorite authors. He’s one of the first authors I read in speculative fiction, and one of the first I fully enjoyed. Well, when Deborah emailed me back and said that I could interview Tad, I literally called my husband and screamed into the phone, “I’M INTERVIEWING TAD-EFFING-WILLIAMS!” before I emailed Deborah back with a thank you and holy-crap-I’m-so-excited letter.
It took me quite a while to think of questions, because Tad has such a long, prolific, iconic writing career. What can you possibly ask someone who has written tons of incredibly loved books and done more interviews than I could shake a stick at? When it came down to the wire, I decided I just had to ask him whatever I felt like asking. When it’s all said and done, Tad is a hell of a nice guy, with a successful career most people envy. His books are top notch, and his fans and following keeps growing.
Tad really doesn’t need an introduction. I honestly have yet to run across someone who reads speculative fiction who doesn’t at least know who Tad is. That probably says more about him and his career than I ever could.
(I nabbed this picture off of Goodreads).
About the Author
Tad Williams has held more jobs than any sane person should admit to—singing in a band, selling shoes, managing a financial institution, throwing newspapers, and designing military manuals, to name just a few. He also hosted a syndicated radio show for ten years, worked in theater and television production, taught both grade-school and college classes, and worked in multimedia for a major computer firm. He is co-founder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.
Tad and his wife, Deborah Beale, live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their children and far more cats, dogs, turtles, pet ants and banana slugs than they can count.
Onto the Interview…
Question: Your first book was released in 1985. Since then, technology is advanced quite a bit. How has the internet, better computers and etc impacted your writing, if at all?
I got one of the early Macs when I was writing DRAGONBONE CHAIR, and in fact later went to work at Apple at the end of the ’80s, my last “normal” job. I’ve never looked back. I can’t imagine going back to typing, and computers are a huge help with complicated books, because you can search so easily. (This didn’t stop me losing your first set of interview answers, though.) I am a big believer at getting the process out of the way of the thinking, so computers and Tad were a natural fit.
Question: Your first novel, Tailcatcher’s Song, is going to be an animated film. That must be quite exciting for you. Are you nervous about how it will turn out? A lot of actors have a hard time watching their own films. Do you think that, as an author, it will be difficult to watch an animated adaptation of one of your novels? Why/why not?
I would have been more nervous a decade or two ago. Now I’m mostly just interested. I know that a film based on one of my books is a collaboration between me and others, so I expect to be surprised and even occasionally frustrated. I’ve also learned that even with the coolest projects I need to discipline myself to leave them alone and keep on with my own stuff — writing new stories and books. That’s what I can control, at least to an extent, and it also is how I earn my living. But, yes, I’m pleased and looking forward to it, and Animetropolis has done a great job so far from what I’ve seen.
Question: Your biography says that after high school you worked some hideous jobs (stacking tiles, taco maker, etc.) to support yourself. How have these jobs impacted your writing, if at all?
I think the main effect my many dreadful jobs has had is 1) I am more patient with my work, because I love it so much more than that other stuff I had to do, 2) I met a lot of cool people during those days, including one of my best friends, whom we lost this year and to whom the first Bobby Dollar book is dedicated.
Question: You and your wife are both authors. Do you think it’s a dynasty thing, as in, do you think your children will be authors as well? Would you want them to be or do/will you encourage them to explore other careers?
Both of our kids are creative and good with words. (There’s a shock!) I could see either of them writing if they choose to — I think our son would be a good reviewer of games and popular culture, and our daughter has her own style and insights that would carry over well into writing. But it’s a tough row to hoe even if you’re as lucky as I’ve been, so Deb and I’ll just support them whatever they choose to do. I can’t offer much advice to someone like my daughter who plans to be a veterinarian — which may be part of the appeal to her of veterinary medicine…
Question: It’s obvious from your biography that your creativity was nurtured by your parents, and you value it quite a bit. I assume you try to nurture the creativity of your children. What are some of the ways you do that?
I lie to them constantly, and have since they were tiny. The first big word our son learned, I think, was “sarcastic”, although he said it “starcastic” — “Daddy, you’re being starcastic again, aren’t you?” I fabulize, exaggerate, and make up silly songs, just like my mom used to. I make jokes that are so surreal sometimes they just stare at me. And of course Deb and I both live and breathe the creator’s life, so we’re always talking about stories, point-of-view, subtext. Also, we love visual art and I play music, so they’re exposed to a lot of that as well. In fact, there’s so much of it in our house that we’re probably walking the line just this side of turning them off creativity forever.
Question: Your biography says: He is co-founder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels. – How is writing novels different from writing film and television scripts? Is one more rewarding than another? Why/why not?
Writing in any other form but multivolume, million-word stories is, for me, an exercise in brevity and concision. They also, like short fiction, give me a chance to try out different kinds of ideas, styles, characters. And any writing is good writing, really. I intend to be still challenging myself to learn new things on the day I drop dead. And after, if possible…!
Question: You are hugely successful. It seems like anyone remotely interested in speculative fiction knows who Tad Williams is. You have written a ton of books and you have a game coming out, as well as a movie. Does your incredible success ever surprise you? Does releasing books and other projects get easier over time, or are there always some nervous energy?
“Hugely successful” is of course relative. Compared to the big guns like Stephen King, or even to people in my own field like Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin, I’m just kind of paddling along. But I’ve been lucky enough to make a good living doing what I love for most of my working life now, and think I’ll be able to get away with it a while longer. That, of course, IS a huge success. But every new book or project is another chance to find out nobody gives a damn about you anymore, so the tension is always there. But do I feel bad about that? Not really. But even if I had a success that gave me something like real financial security — sell a book that became a really successful film or something — I’d still keep doing the same thing, making stories. It’s just what I need to do and want to do.
Question: If you had any advice to give new authors, what would it be?
My standard response is threefold — read extensively outside the genre (if you want to be genre writer), write regularly, even if you don’t write much at a sitting, and finish things. Too many writers rewrite from the beginning every time they have a new idea or feel they’ve matured as writers, and as a result sometimes people’s cherished projects turn into a tighter and tighter spiral of trying to make the beginning perfect. Finish it, THEN go back and change it to fit your later conception of yourself as a writer and the story. Learning how to plan, begin, and actually finish a project is a huge part of being a pro.
The Dirty Streets of Heaven Questions
Question: Usually, if you ask a bunch of fantasy fans who the best epic fantasy authors are, your name is near the top of the list. You are a very well-known epic fantasy author. However, The Dirty Streets of Heaven is a different animal altogether. It’s more urban fantasy than epic fantasy. How was writing an urban fantasy novel different from writing epic fantasy?
All projects are different, and considering I’m known for epic fantasy, I’m pretty wide-ranging even there, with animal fantasy, modern Faerie, science-fiction epics, Shakespeare, and other stuff. It’s just hard to tell sometimes because my long books are SO long they tend to dominate people’s imaginations. The main difference with DIRTY STREETS is that I set out to write something fast, with a first-person narrator, modern, and (at least intermittently) funny. So that was my checklist: fast, funny, first-person. Otherwise, it’s a normal Tad book in a lot of way, weird secondary characters, tons of plot uncertainty (on the characters’ part) and a lot of worldbuilding. Yep, I love worldbuilding.
Question: Bobby Dollar is an interesting character because he’s an angel, but he’s not the kind of person you’d expect to be an angel. He’s a very human sort of angel. He swears, he drinks, he makes mistakes and struggles just like everyone else. This is part of his appeal. He’s not holier than thou but shockingly human. A lot of his traits aren’t things you’d equate to an angel. In my opinion, that’s incredibly refreshing. Was there a reason you made an angel so wonderfully human?
I can’t imagine writing about an angel who wasn’t pretty human, at least not as a main character. You can get away with it in a short story (I’m writing one now about lifeforms so advanced from our own that they hardly understand us) or as a secondary character, but readers want to ride through a story with someone they can understand, if not identify with. Plus, Bobby has a lot of me in him, at least as far as how he looks at the world. (He’s not as much of a blatherer as I am, or as much of a trivia freak or a history freak, but there are tons of similarities.)
Question: The Bobby Dollar novels are shorter than your epic fantasy books and each can be read as a stand-alone or part of the series. Was it harder to write shorter books? How is it different writing stand-alones rather than books that need to be read as part of a series and why did you make the decision to write the Bobby Dollar novels in this fashion?
Part of the decision was very practical — I’ve been scaring a lot of people away from my work with size and subject matter, so I thought I’d do something different. (Also, I don’t write well unless I feel challenged by something new.) But all my stories are single stories — the length just varies — as opposed to true series fiction, so it’s mainly a question of just shrinking everything down, the scope, the secondary focal-points, the number of plot-strands. I think in some ways it’s easier to write these books, but that might just be because Bobby’s voice comes pretty easily to me, both as prose and as a way to describe the world: I don’t have to spend a lot of time figuring out how he’d react.
Question: The Dirty Streets of Heaven is definitely more adult in tone and feel than your other novels. There were quite a few passages where I thought, “Wow, he’s really not holding back here.” Was it different to write a more adult toned novel? If so, how?
Because my first book (TAILCHASER’S SONG) was an animal fantasy, and I had lots of readers of nine and ten (it’s still used in a lot of schools) I’ve always had a large portion of my audience that were not yet adults. I’ve let that shape how “adult” my books have been, especially in my epic fantasies. I certainly haven’t avoided sex or violence, but they’ve definitely been played down a bit because I was conscious of those younger readers. DIRTY STREETS was always intended to be a book for grownups and so it’s closer to the way I really think, I guess.
Question: Heaven and Hell are big ideas in reality, and you took these big ideas and somewhat twisted them to fit into Bobby Dollar’s world perfectly. Was it intimidating or difficult to take Heaven and Hell and Tad Williams-ize them? Do you have any inspiration or processes that helps you take reality and twist it just enough to make it fantasy?
First step is always, “Does it make sense?” I have to begin figuring out how things work (at least in a pseudo-scientific way) before I spend too much time in that world. But I also want these books to go on past the first three (perhaps as more traditional standalone series adventures) so I also needed a world that can be a character — that is, a milieu in which thing can continue to happen, but also in which the truth behind the world itself is an unfolding mystery. As far as inspiration, I find the words “What if…?” infinitely valuable. But you have to keep re-rolling those particular dice over and over until you get an answer that works for the story. It’s one of the reasons I like quiet: I do most of this in my head, running different simulations, almost, to see which possibilities will lead to the best outcomes.
Question: I have to ask about the name Bobby Dollar. It’s short and incredibly normal, but the “Dollar” last name stands out to me for some reason. Why did you choose the name Bobby Dollar?
Most of the characters in Bobby’s world, at least the angels, have their Heaven names (“Doloriel” in Bobby’s case) and their Earth names, which are often raffish nicknames, sort of Damon Runyon-esque, based on their angel names and putatively given to them by their Earthbound fellow angels. But also Robert is my real original name (never use it voluntarily) and I used to know some connection between the name “Williams” and money — hence Pogo Cashman, another Tad stand-in, and Theo Vilmos, the same — so it wound up Bobby Dollar as the most likely Runyon-like version of Doloriel, while also demonstrating that Bobby is partly me. But of course I can no longer remember the money connection, which I bumped into twenty years ago or so while doing research.
Question: The Dirty Streets of Heaven is interesting because, on the one hand it’s a fast paced detective-ish urban fantasy romp. On the other hand you are dealing with some complex more layered problems like a continuous almost cold-war styled battle between Heaven and Hell. Bobby Dollar has a love interest from the other side and the list could go on. These points make me think that this book isn’t just a really fun ride through the mind of Tad Williams, but that you might actually be trying to explore some deeper, more complex issues here. Are you, or am I just reading into things (I’ve been known to do that)?
Oh, there are always other levels to this stuff, lots of them. If I get to continue beyond book three, I can promise you’ll see lots of deeper and more complex human (and bigger) issues pop up. In fact, you’ll see some of them in the second book when Bobby goes to Hell (which I’m editing now.) Because if that doesn’t start a guy philosophizing, I don’t know what will.
Question: I think I’ll leave the interview here. Thanks so much for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that I’m still pissed off I managed to lose the first set of answers (Sarah’s note: Tad actually is such a gem. The first interview was lost so he filled this out and sent it twice. What a guy!). I was sparkling, witty, and devilishly handsome in those responses, but you’ll just have to take my word for it.