Legendary Fantasy and Science Fiction author Tad Williams talks about Empire of Grass and several additional Osten Ard novels
e at Treacherous Paths are proud to bring readers another exclusive interview with storyteller Tad Williams, bestselling author of the “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” and “The Last King of Osten Ard” series of books. Tad’s publisher, DAW Books, has recently released Empire of Grass, volume two of “The Last King” series.
In this interview, we asked Williams about details of Empire of Grass, how his work on The Navigator’s Children is going, and asked for details about The Lady of the Woods, The Shadow of Things to Come, Brothers of the Sky, and The Veils of Heaven. The answers we received were often quite surprising!
Questions that have no spoilers for EoG:
Treacherous Paths: Tad, you’ve cited several authors (Tolkien, Zelazny, Peake, Moorcock, Baum, and many others) as well as world mythology and history as being influences on your writing. What other sources, such as film, television, or radio, have influenced the writing of your Osten Ard books?
Tad Williams: Hard to say, because so many of my written influences began early, and I only remember them all because I still have the books.
The Addams Family, New Yorker cartoons and then the television show, definitely had an effect on my lifestyle if not my writing. Get Smart as a reflection of the spy genre probably activated some of my absurdist tendencies, as did Monty Python and other English comedy later. I admired the early Universal monster movies, and I was scared to death by Godzilla when I was super-young.
Treacherous Paths: In 2017, The Witchwood Crown was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in the category Best Fantasy Novel, and in 2018 it was nominated for a Gemmell Award. This year, you’ll be the Writer Guest of Honor at the World Fantasy Convention in Los Angeles. Were you surprised to receive so much recognition in the States for The Witchwood Crown and your return to Osten Ard?
Tad Williams: Always surprised by ANY recognition, but it’s true that I was a bit startled to see all the kind words people showered on the original trilogy when I announced the new books. As I’ve said elsewhere, it also made me nervous about the project for the first time, because I realized if I screwed up I wouldn’t just be writing a bad book, I’d be souring people’s memory of a series they had enjoyed. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case and I finally stopped worrying about it after the second volume, Empire of Grass.
Treacherous Paths: You drop by the Tad Williams Message Board, which you founded in 2001 as part of your “Shadowmarch” project, from time to time to discuss your work with avid readers. What do you like (or dislike) about that interaction with your readers?
Tad Williams: I love any interaction with readers, but it’s sometimes difficult to discuss ongoing work because 1) the readers are usually a year or two behind what I’m actually doing, which makes me want to spill all the beans, and 2) whenever someone says anything even mildly critical, I begin weeping and cursing the heavens. So it’s best for me only to discuss things I’ve already written, because it’s too late (because they’re already published) for me to quit writing them in a huff because someone says a series I’m working on is “not as riveting” as the previous books, or that they “like his fantasy more than his science fiction” or whatever.
Treacherous Paths: You’re now writing The Navigator’s Children, the conclusion to “The Last King of Osten Ard”. How is the writing going? Do you still believe this series will be a trilogy? Long-time Tad readers are skeptical because it has never actually happened.
Tad Williams: Long-time readers better not get too snippy, because I’ve actually managed to hit my mark on all my books except Shadowmarch. Yes, the original Osten And volume three is…well, long. And Shadowmarch needed an extra book. But on the others, I’ve actually done what I said. Otherland was always a tetralogy, and the Bobby Dollar books were cites as three and finished in three. So there. Nyah, nyah, and I repeat, nyah.
Anyway, The Navigator’s Children will certainly be shorter than To Green Angel Tower, and I frankly don’t expect it to be too much longer than The Witchwood Crown. But talk is cheap, so we’ll have to check in again when it gets published.
Treacherous Paths: You’ve mentioned in several interviews a number of additional Osten Ard book projects, including The Shadow of Things to Come, and, in a Reddit interview, The Lady of the Wood. Can you tell us a little more about these two projects?
Tad Williams: I wrote The Lady of the Wood for an anthology that was to be edited by the late and very much missed Gardner Dozois, but his death meant that the story had no home. I haven’t published it yet because between the (already sold) other short novel to go with the current trilogy, I intend to write at least one other Osten-Ard-related short novel, and so I’m going to wait and discuss with my American publishers how they’d like to handle such a bundle of Osten-Ardia.
Treacherous Paths: Recently, your wife, fellow author Deborah Beale, shared with us a recording where you talk about another previously-unmentioned Osten Ard novel, called The Veils of Heaven. Can you tell us more about this project? (And will we finally discover why Initri has a beard?)
Tad Williams: The Veils of Heaven? I must have been half-asleep and dreaming when I told her, because I have no memory. The short story (Lady of the Wood) is a Camaris story. The original short-novel-that-goes-with-the-new-trilogy was going to be about the fall of Asu’a and Ineluki becoming the Storm King, but I think now I’m going to write that as a separate and slightly longer standalone book, leaving Brothers of the Sky —the tale of how Hakatri and Ineluki slew the dragon Hidohebhi and what happened because of it — as the other connected short novel.
Treacherous Paths: Any other Osten Ard books you’re considering writing? Why the change from not writing in the world for so many years, to suddenly writing, like, 20 new books? Not talking specifically about your conversation with Deborah about there not being any more story to tell, but how this evolved into you writing what seems to be three or four additional novels that aren’t part of the new series.
Tad Williams: The main thing that’s changed is that I found out I enjoy fleshing out Osten Ard. Before I was more worried about being seen to deliberately write long series, sequel after sequel. Also, I always had more ideas than time. But I realized while working on The Witchwood Crown that it felt just as exciting and engaging and genuine as writing a new story, so I thought, well, if more story ideas come, why not? And since I’ve been working in Osten Ard for like five years now, the ideas keep popping up for other tales.
Treacherous Paths: A number of fantasy authors have cited you as an influence on their works. Did you ever think, when you were writing “Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn” that you would influence the next generation of writers?
Tad Williams: I wanted to, yes. That was why there was a metafictional layer of criticism in it about the current state of epic fantasy, and a reflection on some differences between me (Tolkien lover but not, I hoped, Tolkien imitator) and a lot of other work going on at that time. But then nobody seemed to notice that part, treating it as just another (if better than some) “Tolkienesque big fantasy”. Apparently some did notice, they just didn’t write about it in reviews. So I’m pleased that in some ways it WAS influential, because I was a bit despairing at the time. To be frank, I wanted to write what Game of Thrones became — the next milestone in epic fantasy. Apparently it was closer to that than I knew, if still nowhere near as well-known as George’s epic.
Treacherous Paths: You’ve previously mentioned that when you were first writing The Dragonbone Chair, Sir Camaris was called Casimir, Simon was called Martin, Cadrach was a one-off character who you didn’t plan to continue, and the series was to be called “The Sons of Presbyter John”. What other changes or alterations did you make which avid readers might be interested to know?
Tad Williams: The problem with questions about the origins of Osten Ard is that it feels like it was another lifetime ago. I never take that many notes — you and another friend/reader have seen the only notebook I retain from back then — and so I have to rely on my memory. I remember Hernystir was originally called “Hernegyn”, that Binabik was “Bilabil”. “Elias” as a name goes back to the caption on a drawing I made when I was about fifteen — some dramatic fantasy-looking villain character called “Black Elias” — and the reason Prester John was Prester John was because the story was going to take place in “the real world” — our own world, but in some imaginary version of the past where magic worked.
Questions that have spoilers, or potential spoilers, for Empire of Grass:
Treacherous Paths: In Empire of Grass, some characters visit the ancient Sithi city of Da’ai Chikiza, allowing you as a writer to return to one of the most beloved lost cities in fiction. What surprised you the writer, if anything, about returning to this site specifically?
Tad Williams: The surprising thing is how little I actually described in the first books, and having to kind of start from scratch imagining its layout and its history. This means a great deal of freedom but also a great deal more work than if I had actually made it a bit more concrete. (In the adjectival rather than the nominative sense.)
Treacherous Paths: What was the most difficult element of writing Empire of Grass?
Tad Williams: The difficulty in any middle book of a trilogy or tetralogy is keeping it all relevant and exciting when the reader knows it’s not going to have a real beginning or a real ending. You sort of admit at the start that nothing’s going to change so much that the story will end soon, so you have to give the reader other things instead. The characters must begin changing, the mysteries deepen, and new but interesting factors must come into play. As far as EoG in particular, just having to make certain the new characters and situations are truly engaging and not merely new is probably the most difficult bit. Also giving the readers a sense of some of what will happen at the end of the whole story without spoiling it, since you want to build momentum.
Treacherous Paths: Which characters have been your favorites to write in these new books? Or does an author not allow himself favorites? Would it be like choosing a favorite child?
Tad Williams: Sometimes, yes. But in these books, my favorites really change depending on their situation. Sometimes it’s great fun writing Snenneq. Other times I’ve enjoyed the interactions between Jarnulf and Nezeru, or the backgrounding of the Norn civilization. But it’s also been fun to see my young characters from MS&T grown — middle-aged, in fact, like me — and still being the same people, only more so. Watching Miri kick ass, for instance, or Simon baffled by politics because common sense never seems to come into it. And it’s always fun to write villains, and I have a few good ones (I think) in these books.
Treacherous Paths: During the writing of The Witchwood Crown, you mentioned all the research you were doing for the novel. What topics of research have you been doing for The Navigator’s Children?
Tad Williams: These books, dating back to Dragonbone Chair, have always been research-intensive. I like to write pseudo-medieval worlds that actually feel like they existed before the story and will exist after it as well, places where most people are NOT part of the story but going about their lives, where the economies actually work and the things that are different from the “real world” fit in and make sense. So as usual I’m up to my bra-straps (okay, not really — I’m a go-natural dude) in medieval life and history, in the folklore of dozens of other cultures, in books about geology and botany and ecology, and a dozen other things. Actually, that’s the fun part. Making it into a story is work, but learning things is fun.
Treacherous Paths: In Empire of Grass, you have a Sitha character, Tanahaya, try to warn other Sithi of imminent danger, using a Witness. The communication breaks down, and the masked face of the gloating, evil Norn Akhenabi appears, mocking Tanahaya. The city is then attacked by Norns. This scene is quite reminiscent of a similar scene in Stone of Farewell, where the Sitha woman Amerasu uses the Mist Lamp, a Master Witness, to warn other Sithi of the danger of the Norns. The communication is intercepted by the evil Norn Queen Utuk’ku, who mocks Amerasu and then has her assassinated. I guess this was an intentional shout-out to the scene written 30 years earlier?
Tad Williams: Never assume with me that something is just a shout-out. Sometimes it’s a trick. Of course, in order to trick people effectively, I have to sometimes do things that are exactly what they look like. I guess you have to make your own suppositions on this. Or wait until the last volume.
Treacherous Paths: Book Three of the new series is called The Navigator’s Children. Based on that title, we’ll learn more about Ruyan Ve’s people, the Tinukeda’ya or Vao. In the previous four volumes, the Tinukeda’ya were quite literally tertiary figures: the third group of non-mortals that nobody ever talked about. What made you decide the story of the Vao was central to the story of “The Last King of Osten Ard”?
Tad Williams: A number of things, but primarily that I had hinted at the painful history between them and the Sithi and Norns in the first books, and so it was a fertile area to explore. I knew, for instance, that many of the “monsters” and other strange creatures of Osten Ard had Tinukeda’ya blood — to use the ancient word: we’d probably call it DNA — since way back in MS&T, but never discussed it. (I may have hinted in a few places, but I’d have to go back and look for specific instances.) Also, the debt owed to exploited peoples is kind of a current topic, so it seemed like useful subject matter. And it all fitted in with various things about the history of Osten Ard and the Garden that I wanted to expand.
Ree Ree, a Chikri; one of the new creatures seen in Osten Ard. Drawing by Tad Williams.
Treacherous Paths: In this volume, we see a faction of Sithi called The Pure, and a group of Vao, or part-Vao creatures, called The Hidden. We also see creatures called Pengi, Qallipuk, Chikri, etc. When you were writing “MS&T”, did you have an inkling that these groups existed, or was this something that took many years to develop in your writerly brain?
Tad Williams: As mentioned above, I knew from early on in the MS&T days that many of these creatures were related by connection to the Vao and the Garden, and that there were probably others not mentioned in the first series. The Qallipuk are new to this series, but I’ve been thinking of a river-equivalent of kilpa for a while, and when I saw some programs about Welsh catfish and the Indian goonch, I knew what I wanted to use as the basis for the new critter. But, yes, I always knew that there were creatures in Osten Ard that were more human — or at least humanoid — than they first appeared, and that the reason was a crossover of the Garden into various Osten Ard biomes (to use a science-word as a shortcut). Almost all my monsters and non-human creatures in my fiction, from the Sithi to the dragons and unicorns in Ordinary Farm, start out as me trying to figure out how such a monster or unusual animal would survive and how it would actually function in a “real” world.
The trick, of course, is to make it fit into a fantasy setting and feel like a fantasy trope, not science-fiction.
If the trick fails, then the next trick is to leave town before the readers can get online to denounce you.
[End of interview. We’d like to thank Tad and Deborah, as always, for their time.]