We featured author Tad Williams recently, and promised you a guest post. There was a schedule mixup, and so things got delayed. However, trust us, this guest post was worth the wait. We asked Tad to chat about what it’s like crossing into so many different genres over a lifetime’s career as a professional writer. We figured it anyone had good insights, it would have to be Tad. And so without further ado, here’s Tad!
Another minority getting zero respect.
One of the most common questions I get is, “Hey, Tad, what’s with you and this changing genres stuff? One day you’re doing epic fantasy, furry animals, science fiction, the next day you’re doing angels and devils. You’re confusing us? What’s the dealio?”
(Yes, people say “What’s the dealio?” to me all the time. It’s one of the reasons that most mornings I wake up screaming. The other is that I sleep with several pet hedgehogs, who are sharp and spiny and pokey.)
Now, the obvious answer is that as long as I keep changing genres, I will confuse readers and publishers and thus stay one step ahead of the big bucks. Writing the same thing over and over again would lead to steadier sales, more recognition in market, and my wife and children not looking so gray and hungry — a bohemian’s nightmare. But I have always had the courage to say “no” to consistency and good financial planning.
If I can be a bit more serious, though, it’s mostly a matter of perspective.
Perhaps because I have always read widely both inside and outside the world of science fiction and fantasy, I always find the idea that there are distinct genres of fantastic fiction somewhat confusing, or at least irritating. Most of my favorite SF writers when I was growing up — Bradbury, Sturgeon, Le Guin, Zelazny, Ellison, Moorcock, and Leiber, to name a few — never seemed to care much about what sub-genre they were working. Bradbury wandered back and forth between low-science, high-concept stories about Mars and outer space, and magical tales based in his small-town Illinois childhood. If you’ve read work by the rest of that list, you’ll know they were all much the same. They went after ideas, and the publishing industry of their era didn’t distinguish hugely between SF and Fantasy. In fact, one of the earlier reviewers of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings called it “super Science Fiction!”
That’s because the division of the genre into two distinct sub-genres, SF and F, occurred mostly because of Tolkien himself and his phenomenal success. It was essentially a commercial designation. In that same era, the 60s and 70s, the influence of Robert E. Howard’s revived Conan stories brought on a third somewhat arbitrary sub-genre, “Sword and Sorcery”. Later, the success of Stephen King encouraged a hard delineation between Horror and the rest of the field. The common denominator was and is, “When something becomes popular, let’s publish a lot of it and mark it clearly as such, so readers don’t have to try different things.” Makes perfect sense from a commercial point of view, I guess. Not so much from the writer’s side.
Heck, the distinction of Science Fiction itself from fantastic fiction as a whole is quite recent. Science Fiction barely existed until the early part of the 20th Century.
But there’s more to this problem than simply history and the narrowing, separating effect of modern marketing. When you examine it closely enough, the entire genre of the fantastic, or speculative, or whatever you want to call it, is really all one genre anyway, a single continuous surface with folds that come and go, and are labeled according to the customs of the era. Magic Realism? It’s fantastic fiction. Anything based around ideas that we think are unreal or extremely unlikely is a form of fantastic fiction.
(Some of us, the non-religious types, would include sources as far apart as the Iliad and Dante’s Paradiso, Purgatorio, and Inferno, but I don’t want to get into an argument about which myth-structures are really real, and which are just make-believe.)
The ancient Greeks loved superheroes like Hercules, and superheroes fight monsters. The acknowledged Greatest Ever Writer of the English Language, Shakespeare, used fairies, witches, wizards, and the occasional monster himself, not to mention all the other tricks of genre fiction — mistaken identity, sword fights, gender confusion, and the race-against-the-clock.
This stuff has always been part of our literature, and Dickens’ ghosts are not a lot different than Poe’s Telltale Heart. It’s all out there already, and it’s all part of the history of fiction.
So how could a guy like me who grew up with Rat and Mole on the river, and Eeyore and Pooh discussing birthdays, and even the Cowardly Lion, not want to write a book about talking cats?
How could a guy like me who read Tolkien and William Morris and Eddison and Fletcher Pratt not want to write epic fantasies?
Similarly, I grew up reading Poe and Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson and M. R. James. How could I not love horror? I put it in all my work, and have even written a few short stories that are as pure examples of the (sub)genre as you can find.
And a guy like me who also grew up on Wells and Verne, on Asimov, Pohl, Heinlein and many others who were exploring the great outer frontiers of the future . . . of COURSE I’m going to want to write some science-fiction.
So to me, the latest foray into weirdness — angels and devils and the torments of Hell and whatnot in the Bobby Dollar books — is only a part of the larger world, a world too large to fit into any single genre, but which is nevertheless a genre itself: that is, the fantastic, the weird, the imaginary.
ALL fiction is imagination. In our genre, we just admit that we’re making things up from the very beginning. I love that freedom. I love the many trails that have already been blazed, and but I also love trying to find places no one’s been yet.
To my publishers, my family, my frustrated readers who wish I’d just settle down and do one thing, I render my apologies. I can’t: there’s too much to imagine, too many places to go. I don’t want to be a science fiction writer, or a horror writer, or any other single thing. I want to be a WRITER, and this writer likes to write about imaginary things. When an idea comes, I have to follow it. When a story wants to be written, well, even my editors and my hungry children have to be a bit patient with me sometimes. I just tell the stories that make themselves known to me, I don’t decide which ones shove their way to the front of the line.
And if a reader of mine worriedly dips into a science fiction story by me, even though they normally don’t read science fiction, what’s the worst that can happen? If they don’t like it, they can always put it down. But if they do give it a try, maybe afterward they’ll want to try some other new stuff, and not just by me. Maybe they’ll discover an entire universe of new ideas and great writers, half on accident.
There are worse ways to confuse people.