An interview with Jen Williams

1. I have to ask. Can you tell us what the title Dog Rose Dirt means, or do we have to wait and see?

Well the thing about titles, is that when a book is announced very early – as Dog Rose Dirt was – there’s a good chance the title might change. When it’s being published in a few different territories as well, that can mean it might have different titles in different places. However, I can tell you that dogs, dog roses, and dirt do all turn up in the book, and are symbolic of a number of things. Which is a neat way of telling you not very much at all, I suppose!

2. Peter Jackson just called you, said he is directing The Winnowing Flame trilogy movies and needs your input on who to cast as Tor, Noon & Vintage. Shoot! 

What a dream! I’ve always struggled to put together ‘dream casts’, because the faces in your head are both incredibly specific and difficult to pin down, but with the Winnowing Flame I’ve had a few suggestions from readers that have really been spot on. When I was first sketching out the bones of Vintage’s character, I very much pictured her as looking a lot like Gina Torres (her costume in Firefly probably helped with that – you can see her in a wide-brimmed hat, can’t you?), and as the books made their way out into the world, people have suggested Thandie Newton, which I think is a tremendous choice (her character in Westworld has a similar vibe) and recently I watched The Outsider, the brilliant TV series based on Stephen King’s book, and Cynthia Erivo, who plays Holly Gibney, would absolutely nail it I think. For Tormalin, I’ve always thought that Daniel Henney has exactly the right look of ethereal beauty with a hint of snark. Noon is a much harder prospect, but Claudia Kim, who played Khutulan in the much-missed Netflix tv series Marco Polo, has the right mixture of fierce and capable. 

3. I wanted to ask if Marty locks you in a room full of peanut butter kitkats until you’ve put words on a page, but I remembered you like to write in places that are not your home, such as pubs and cafes. And it’s fully understandable as I imagine Pyra’s judgmental glare. Tell us a bit more about your writing ritual.

Haha! Well of course these questions were written before we were all stuck in lockdown, but it’s true that I do like to treat myself with writing sessions at cafes and pubs – it’s nice to remove yourself from all the distractions of home, and get a bit of people-watching done as well (remember being outside? Remember pubs??). My writing routine at the moment is a little all over the place, but usually I try to write between 1000-2000 words a day, or if I’m not able to sit down for that long, I at least try to get a few thoughts down in a notebook. I’m a big believer in the idea that it helps to keep your head in the book every day, even if you’re not able to get the words down. It helps to maintain the world and the characters so it’s easier when you go back to it.

4. Wydrin, Sebastian, Frith, Tor, Noon and Vintage are thrown into a battle royale. Who is the last person standing, and why?

This is an interesting one, because the two characters with the worst tempers are also the two magic users, so this could be disastrous. I hope that they’re having this smackdown in the middle of a very remote and not especially flammable stretch of land. In terms of sheer wiles, Vintage will probably have formulated some sort of ingenious plan to defeat the Black Feather Three, but won’t have taken into account Wydrin’s tendency to just throw herself into the middle of things and hope for the best. Ultimately, I suspect Wydrin and Vintage would end up in a tavern somewhere swapping stories, while Sebastian watches the endless firefight between Frith and Noon whilst pinching the bridge of his noise and sighing. Tor is probably with him, having found an instant friend in a man who also has a fondness for large swords.

5. Both of your completed trilogies fall under the fantasy umbrella. How different are you finding it to write a real world thriller?

I always like to challenge myself with each new project, a tendency that I curse myself for every now and then. I expected a thriller to be difficult to write because it would involve a lot of ‘real world’ research, and that is true, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be tricky simply because of how different fantasy novels and thrillers are in terms of how you communicate with the reader. With a fantasy book, you are trying to get the reader to believe in an entire world that is clearly made up. There are lots of ways to do this, but one is to give them entirely believable characters – once they have those characters in their hearts, they will accept an awful lot of weirdness from the larger landscape. And I did that largely by having a very ‘close’ third person PoV; that is to say, although the novel isn’t told by the characters, you are in their heads for the journey. I am telling you everything about them, exposing all their secrets and fears so you come to love them. A thriller, however, is almost the opposite. You are deliberately keeping secrets back from the reader, only giving them enough information to draw them on through the book. It’s such a radically different approach to character that it was a very steep learning curve (but one I enjoyed a lot).

6. Tell us a fun fact about yourself that most fans won’t know.

Gosh. Hmm. I deliberately wear odd socks – I feel like it’s unlucky to wear matching ones.

7. Your books have won a couple of awards. How much does it mean to win those awards and does the “award-winning” tag make life easier in any way?

I’ve won the British Fantasy Award for best fantasy novel twice now, and it means an awful lot to me. I still pick the awards up from the bookshelf every now and then and boggle at them. When I won the first one, for The Ninth Rain, I was lucky enough to be at the awards ceremony to collect it, and I tried to explain then in my speech how much it meant, but I was also so nervous it was very difficult to speak without throwing up. When I was a kid I loved writing stories but it was always made quite clear to me that writing as a career was very much out of my reach – when you are small, adults want to give you ‘sensible advice’ when it comes to jobs and such, which is fine, but if the advice is telling you not to try to do the thing you love, you can safely ignore it. The fact that I’d had books published, and that people had loved one of them so much they gave it an award, was and still is incredible to me.

8. If you had to recommend only three crime thrillers to read, which would you pick?

Oh this is tough! I’m going to be selfish and just recommend my favourites. Firstly, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, which is just so deliciously addictive and deeply, deeply messed up. Secondly, The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder, which is completely bananas and very, very frightening. And last of all, I love John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, and my personal favourite is The Killing Kind. It features death by lots and lots of spiders. What’s not to love? 

9. What part of the Winnowing Flame world was the most fun to create and why was it the War Beasts? (Clearly I'm not remotely biased)

Hahaha! I’m not ashamed to say that the war beasts at least partly came from a strong desire to have something in the Winnowing Flame series that would make a really excellent Saturday morning cartoon… Although they caused their own unique headaches (having around six PoV characters is complicated enough, without adding another load of characters who take up a lot of room and are capable of flight) writing Vostok, Kirune, Sharrik and Helcate was kind of a dream, because their temperaments and foibles just seemed to leap onto the page without much work on my part. They were all in some way a reflection of, or in contrast to, the character they bonded with, so having them there to play off Vintage, Noon and Tor was just hugely enjoyable.

10. Do you have a character who is particularly close to your heart?

I love all of them. But I suppose I love some of them in different ways, and for different reasons. I am very fond of Hestillion – although she herself is not especially likeable, and all of her decisions are bad (which is a bit of an understatement), she was a very interesting character to write because she was so trapped by her own nature and prejudices. Even when she knew she was dooming herself and her world she couldn’t turn away from the path she’d set herself on. Also, it’s just fun to write a complex female villain, as it’s something that doesn’t turn up all that often. Lord Frith, from the copper cat novels, was a favourite of mine too, because his journey is one of redemption and recovery from trauma, and I have a particular weakness for that.