Interview with Tad Williams on The Dirty Streets of Heaven

Tad Williams is one of my fantasy heroes.  Every book is different and his new series, starting with The Dirty Streets of Heaven, is no different.  I have read it and loved it.  I know that Tad has just finished writing book 2 but I want it already.  I cannot tell you how awesome the book really is, you need to read it.  But it is!  The early reviews are amazing.  Publisher’s Weekly, the big trade publication, gave it a starred review.  There is also this from, which is very pertinent:

Williams has managed to create something really special with The Dirty Streets of Heaven that manages to breathe new life into the urban fantasy genre while at the same time retaining that magic of his earlier novels, an incredible start to a promising series.

I was lucky enough to ask Tad some questions on the writing process for The Dirty Streets of Heaven, but have saved it for the release date of the book.  So here it is:

This is very different for you.  Why the change in direction?

I’ve had the story (and character) in my mind for a while, plus I wanted to work shorter and simpler.  I’ve changed directions almost every time I’ve started something new.  I generally consider myself to be more in the Zelazny or Sturgeon or Le Guin camp (ie, follow the idea) than strictly a writer of any genre or style.

Is Bobby Dollar just a trilogy or an ongoing concept?

I’d love for Bobby to be popular enough that I can regularly add to his adventures.

Bobby is quite an out-there (pardon the pun) character.  Where did he come from?  Is there a person  or persons that are influences on this character?

No one person in particular.  It contains more of my own sense of humor than a lot of my other work, so I guess in part he’s based on me.  Basically, he’s a modern -noir- crime-solver — one guy with a little integrity, against the world.

How easy has it been having just one character to concentrate on?

Like dessert.  It’s tougher sometimes, in that you don’t have other viewpoints to push the story forward, but it’s glorious not to have to plan like a military commander fighting on several fronts just to move the plot forward.

Simply, where did the idea come from?

I was thinking several years ago about how much the Heaven and Hell paradigm is like the Cold War of my childhood.  It began to develop from there.  Bobby’s name comes from my real first name (Robert — never use it) and a connection between money and my last name that I’ve now forgotten, but it’s the same one I used for my semi-autobiographical character Pogo Cashman, who shows up in a few humorous stories of mine.

The language is grittier, most intense than your fantasy writing.  Was that intentional?

If you mean there’s more swearing, yes.  I wanted this to be closer to my natural, modern voice.  Bobby talks the way I talk.  (Actually, he swears less.)

Heaven and Hell – why tackle them?

Because I want to offend as many people as possible.  I’m aiming for the Westboro Baptist Church (a group of horrid fanatics) to picket my funeral.  Actually, just because I think it’s as interesting a myth structure as any other.

What do you read?  How does it influence you?

I read tons of non-fiction, to begin with, these days more of that than anything else.  (Currently on the go: books on Cleopatra, Delta blues, serial killers, funny essays by S. J. Perleman — which, like Thurber and Wodehouse, I go back to all the time — and two or three books on cosmology.)  But I also read SF and F, crime, modern fiction, and lots of classic stuff.  (Just finished a re-read of Great Expectations.)  I’m all over the shop, really.

When you read, what happens?

I’m alive and I’m me.  I realized that my only real ambition (other than family ones) for the rest of my life is to try to get better at writing and to learn more things.

What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?

I’d love to write more children’s fiction.  It’s a question of time.

When you start a new story, do you have a title for it?  Does that trigger the story?

Usually for me the trigger is an idea more than a character or a title.  The Bobby Dollar book idea was “cold war”, the Otherland idea was “river that links different virtual worlds together”, the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn idea was “After a King-Arthur-type Great King dies.”  Then they sort of find their own characters and titles.  (Well, I help.)

Do you see the future of fantasy and science fiction as bright?  If so, which authors are driving it?

I’m too busy fiddling in the glove compartment, trying to find my own road map.  But yes, speculative fiction has a bright future no matter what happens with the delivery mechanisms.

What themes are being overused?

Zombies.  Vampires.  Probably werewolves.  On the plus side, all the horror-romance stuff has cut down on epic fantasy retreads, I think.

Are movies of books ruining the book?

Don’t think so.  Not as a general rule.  But a bad movie version of a book can definitely discourage someone from trying a book they might otherwise like.

Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?

Doesn’t matter.  If traditional publishing wants to survive, they’ll have to adapt.  That age is ending and we’re in the transition.  Publishing will continue to exist, no doubt, so the only question is who will be doing it, new or established publishers.

Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?

There are too many books to read.  There are too many GOOD books to read.  Thus, like most people, I have to rely on word of mouth, reviews, etc.  And when I do pick up a new writer, it’s usually because I’ve heard good things.  (Although I still do impulse buy based on catalogue descriptions, esp. with non-fiction.

Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?

My two publishers, my wife, and my agent (if he has time.)  At this stage of my career, most of the readers have to agree before I will change much that I don’t see as a problem myself.

Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?

No, but I try to shape the stories so that they more or less fit in a target size.

Do you have a target each day?

Five pages if I’m working slow for some reason (or working on something else as well.)  Ten pages or more means I’m working well.

Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?

I haven’t been able to afford to take long stretches off, especially when I was writing big, long books that took more than a year to write.  In fact, even if I had time, I’d probably just use it to do other projects and tell other stories.  I’m sort of addicted.

Do you have characters running around your head?  Do they dictate events and their histories to you?

Semi.  Not literally — I don’t see my characters as separate from me, like some writers seem to — but I do have to give them a certain respect, and let them show me what they would and wouldn’t do, because giving them the chance to be unexpected is part of making them seem real.

After so many books, how do you keep them unique?

I don’t write a book unless I’m in love with the idea, and soon thereafter, the characters.  The characters consider themselves unique, so I write about them that way, and try to support that idea.

What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?

Thinking about stories I don’t have time to write.

Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?

Pretty much.  It was damned exciting.  Fact is, it’s still pretty exciting.

Do you read other people’s writing?

If you mean unpublished stuff, not any more.  Simply not enough time.  It’s the same reason I don’t answer every single message and email and letter I get, either.  At a certain point one comes to realize you have to start making choices, and that you can’t make everyone happy.

Would you read mine?

In another life, I’d be happy to, but I have to put up walls so I can get work done and feed my family.  (There are a lot of them, including all the pets.)  But I wish you the best of luck with it.

There it is.  Look for Tad’s new book called The Dirty Streets of Heaven.  A hell of a read, to give you a bad pun to end with!!

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