Author Interview with Walter Williams
March 15, 2014 Leave a comment
With spring just around the corner, I bring you an interview with fellow alumni of the Online Writer’s Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror, Walter Williams. I remember seeing chapters of his novel on site, and to know it’s finished and found a home is wonderful to see.
So let’s begin…
1. Let’s get to know you a bit. Where are you from, and what genre do you write?
I currently live in the town of Sharon, Massachusetts, but I’m from New York. We moved to Sharon to follow my career, and to live in a place where differences are celebrated rather than feared. I mostly write speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, cyberpunk and fiction set in the near future. I like to cross genres, and my first novel was a historical fantasy romance. I also am a poet.
2. With all the risks and uncertainty around publishing, what was it that drew you to a career in writing?
I’m writing stories that matter, stories that challenge the reader to reconsider the world and their place in it, to think anew about what it is to love in an age that is lost in an obsession with death and destruction. These are stories that will not wait for the publishing industry to sort itself out, and from the reviews I’ve gotten, stories that are resonating with the readers.
3. That sounds like a very tall order to fill. What about your novels would inspire people?
The Garden at the Roof of the World is about women who will risk everything to save the life of something innocent. It is about women who must over come fear, doubt and bigotry. It is about people of different faiths putting aside their differences to work towards a common goal. It is about the striving to do something good when all you’ve done with your life is wrong. It is about women overcoming the prejudices of the age of what a woman can and should be, and about striving to help those who can’t help themselves. It is about love in its many forms, and the need for forgiveness for love to survive.
4. As an author of romance novels, what do you think of this latest craze of mainstreaming erotica?
Sex is a powerful thing. Throughout history it has driven people to do desperate things. Sex is still something people are afraid of while being fascinated. It can kill, it can redeem. It can provide meaning to life or strip life of all meaning. And sex is wrapped with love to the point that throughout history many have confused the two or upheld that you should never have sex without love. Sex is essential to the creation of life.
Erotica has been mainstream for ages in other cultures, whether in story cycles such as The Golden Lotus or guides to lovers such as the Kama Sutra, or just part of good stories as in the Arabian Nights cycle and the Decameron. It is good to see that the ground breaking efforts of Henry Miller and others have encouraged people stop being ashamed to read stories that contain sex.
I put some sex into The Garden at the Roof of the World, but sex as it was understood in the thirteenth century. Probably my most risqué scene is in the temple in Khajuraho where Tantric Hinduism was still in practice. I also have two rather graphic depictions of sexual assault, and the relationship between two characters can only be understood in the context of a back story of the sexual abuse by the Lady Elise of her maid servant Garscenda. There is also a scene Irefer to as “Elise and her demon lover” which is rather graphic.
To keep sex out of the story would have been to deny something that is very real in everyone’s life, especially as the story has the women traveling in the company of a unicorn. The myth of the unicorn, after all, was always about the need to remain sexually pure. Avoiding sex
would therefore have been ignoring the elephant in the room. I tried to be honest about sex, showing how the sexual assault of the one character destroyed her ability to trust all men, including the man she loved, showing how devastated Galiana is after a life of prostitution, but also showing how sex can both heal and bring joy.
However, romance is so much more than sex. There is love. There is trust. Love and trust play a stronger role in my novel than sex, as they do in most people’s lives.
5. As you’ve written a sexual assault scene in your novel, are you concerned some people might feel that it was un-necessary?
I was very concerned about this, and repeatedly asked my editor and my publisher about these scenes. The hard truth is that sexual violence happens too often. In the case of this story, none of the violence, sexual or otherwise was gratuitous. When Elise was assaulted on the open highway, she’d encountered an attitude about peasants that many knight had at the time. When Gwen is abducted and assaulted, she’d also encountered a situation too many women had had to deal with in history. Though I only hint at it, the sexual abuse Elise did to her servant was also typical of the aristocracy’s treatment of their servants. I’m trying to be honest about what life as a woman was like 800 years ago, even though I am writing a fantasy.
What was important to the story was to get what happened after the assaults right. Too often authors don’t pay proper attention to the very real damage suffered by those who are sexually assaulted. I tried very hard to show the loss of self-confidence, of trust in others, even those they love. I tried to show the confusion and the raw pain in my characters as they tried to move beyond what had happened to them. Elise, Gwen, and even Garscenda try hard to grow beyond what happened to them, to not let their lives be defined by those acts.
The hardest character to write had much of her personality defined by being constantly assaulted by men who presumed that being a prostitute removed her right to say no. Galiana’s despair and journey to health, love and ability to sacrifice is one of the most important character arcs of my novel. Her choices were those of a strong woman who would not become a victim nor let what was done to her become who she is.
6. There are aspects about females that many men wouldn’t understand, and vice-versa. Was it difficult, for you to write about such strong female characters?
It was difficult, but I’m glad that I wrote The Garden at the Roof of the World that way. Women’s stories are too often not told, and too often told badly when men write them. I am blessed by having a wife and two daughters, so I’m immersed in the struggle to understand women as part of my daily life. I also was blessed that so many of those who read early drafts and provided me with both criticism and guidance were women. They all helped me to get this right.
Women are much more emotionally complex than men, and face challenges that men don’t. I struggled to show that emotional complexity, and am glad that I tried. Not only do the women in my story come across as real people to those women who have been kind enough to give my novel reviews, but it allowed me to grow my own emotional depth, becoming a better husband and father.
People often confuse strong women with women who can kick butt. That is a kind of strength, the shallowest kind. When that is the only strength we give our women, we are letting women being defined by violence. There are so many things more important than violence, so many more important stories to tell than those of war.
Strong women are people who don’t let their lives be determined by others, but set their own paths. That path might be that of a mystic like Kavundi in my story, or the very real Lalleshwari. That path might be a musician like Elise in my novel, or the very real Hildegard von Bingen. Or that path may be that of a warrior like Adelie in my story, or the very real Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd or the many members of the orden de la Hacha in Catalonia. While I don’t intend to glorify violence in my novel, women were fierce warriors in the historical past, as they are in today’s military.
We’ve a very convenient fiction about women in the past being only mothers, wives or whores, and too often write in ways to denigrate the importance of fatherhood & motherhood and the strength to raise children. It is important to tell stories of women who chose other ways to live. It is also important to show that even choosing to be a wife, as Gwen chooses, could be a choice that requires both strength and courage.
7. What are you hoping your readers will take away from this story?
I’d love for my readers to reflect more deeply on the nature of forgiveness, and the need to forgive one’s self. This is the theme I buried deeply within every aspect of the story, the need for forgiveness, as it is a foundation of love which is too often lacking from our lives, too often missing from our interactions. We all have an alarming tendency to expect too much of ourselves, and eviscerate ourselves when we fail of our aspirations. Sometimes we still hold on to our self anger at these failings as we go to our graves. To love requires forgiveness. To love others, you must also love yourself.
8. Is there a genre that you would like to write? Something you would find a challenge?
I would love to write a comedy. Comedies provide such joy, but good comedic books are very rare. I’ve always wanted to write one, and would find it a challenge.
9. It’s been said that writers must be readers, with that thought in mind, what are some things that attract you to a story?
I’m attracted to stories that have everyday people facing extraordinary situations. Stories such as The Inn Keeper’s Song wherein Tikat watches his beloved tragically fall to her death when a bridge railing gives way, and then shortly thereafter is raised from the dead by a passing sorceress. However she has no recollection of who she is, nor of Tikat, who chases after the sorceress and his lost beloved. This is not a story where the world doesn’t end if Tikat doesn’t succeed, but his world will.
I’m not interested in stories which send the farm boy to save the universe from the evil overlord. Nor am I interested in stories about prophecies from the dark past being fulfilled as the chosen one rises to defeat the evil overlord.
This is why Gwenaella, the central character of the Garden at the Roof of the World is just a student in a convent school. She’s not the chosen one, she’s just an average person who needs to make some hard choices. She chooses to do something to save the life of something innocent, and keeps making that choice, no matter how hard it gets.
10. What books (if any) have influenced you or your writing over the years?
I’ve been heavily influenced by Peter Beagle’s The Inn Keeper’s Song, by Patricia McKillip’s Winter Rose, by Ursala LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, The Mirror of her Dreams by Stephen Douglas, and of course by by J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings which got me reading fantasy and looking for more.