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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Interview with Phil Williams

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself. 

I’m a writer based on the South Coast of England; before settling here I went through a restless gamut of jobs including teacher, media researcher, start up exec and freelancer (which covers a hundred other things). I’ve always written, and imagined getting published was inevitable, so I took on jobs for interest rather than strategy. Once I was knee deep in the world of high-net-worth business shenanigans, I realised this was actually not leading to a publishing contract and packed it in (without massive success) to live on dust and dreams. 

Do you have a day job? If so, what is it? 

I’m a full-time writer, currently with non-fiction as my bread-and-butter (English guides for foreign learners). I also still freelance occasionally as a copywriter, copyeditor (I’m a member of CIEP), private tutor or web designer, as you do. 

You’ve lived in few countries – which one (not counting UK) felt most like home? 

It’d probably be Poland now; my wife’s from there and we frequently visit Krakow, so it has charmed me. But during my travels I mostly judged places on their drinking cultures and found few really like the UK. Russia came close, but they still considered me a big drinker (a former life now, I insist!). Boston felt familiar, but I was only there briefly after 6 months of wandering, so it’s possible I was merely delusional with exhaustion. 

How does your writing about English language help you in crafting fiction? On the one hand you teach the rules, on the other hand, in fiction, you’re tempted to break them. 

Actually I’ve got some stick from English teachers for encouraging students to question the rules! What I find most interesting in languages is asking why. Sometimes there’s a good reason for rules, other times there isn’t and that’s where things get interesting. That can inform fiction writing – knowing which rules affect understanding and which can be bent and how. I’ve actually written a whole book on using an understanding of language rules to improve writing skills. And vice versa sowed a few Ordshaw Easter eggs into some of my exercises. 

How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale? 

Around the time I learnt to write, I started on fantasy stories. So probably around five. My first saga was A Quest For A Ninja, circa age 7 or 8. It had a tighter, truer hero’s journey than most of what I’ve written since. 

My first professional sale in fiction was for the opening chapter of dark-humoured zombie-post-apocalypse, around age … 27? That was for a now defunct serial site called JukePop. I got something like $50, and another $20 or so for “top chapters”, but released something like 75 chapters, making it a relatively poor ratio in the end. I’ve been meaning to re-release that sometime, it was a lot of fun – a colony of football hooligans, a wheelchair-bound steam train engineer, a protagonist convinced he was already dead, lots of craziness. 

Serious writing takes not only a story to tell, but the craft of writing to tell it well—can you comment on your journey as a writer? 

It was a slow one – when I was young, my tactic was to keep writing new novels until an agent or publisher accepted one. I eschewed English at uni because I figured I already knew how to write and took History to learn of interesting stories. Eventually I got professional feedback on a book and the message slowly sunk in that maybe my writing could be better. Then a little while later I got into screenwriting and copywriting. 

Screenwriting helped a lot because it’s run more like a business and every single word has to be held accountable. We did table reads so I got feedback, and I started getting crazy ideas about meeting audience expectations and such. I returned to fiction a changed man, seeking out community insights and professional help to improve my books. 

What do you think characterizes your writing style? 

Not sure if readers would agree, but I go for quirky (surreal?) detail, tight prose and sharp dialogue. That and shades of grey; I generally obsess over the idea that nothing is ever as simple as it seems. There’s a rather specific sense of humour to them, too, I think. I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is, I just know it when I see it… 

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule for writing, or are you one of those who write only when they feel inspired? Do you aim to complete a set number of pages or words each day? 

I usually write fiction in the mornings and do other work after lunch. But if I’m really into a story I’ll just go for it whenever I’ve got a spare moment. I don’t set targets – I’ve never had a problem writing huge reams of nonsense. It’s choosing which words to keep that’s the challenge. 

What made you decide to self-publish Under Ordshaw as opposed to traditional publishing? 

Impatience, more than anything. I sent dozens of novels to agents over the years and got tired of waiting to release my books. It’s the same reason I didn’t get far with screenwriting; I couldn’t just get on and make my films without a lot of help, but I could complete my books. With Under Ordshaw, I got feedback from an agent who I had a lot of respect for; he really liked the book but wasn’t sure how to sell it to a publisher. I wasn’t sure either, but I had some ideas of how to sell it to readers, so I figured that was the easier route to take. 

Sometimes I wonder about that. 

What do you think the greatest advantage of self-publishing is? 

Control. I can set my own pace, and I have a hand in the whole business. I’ve helped run other businesses, so I like seeing how everything fits together, and applying it to books. 

On the other hand, is there anything you feel self-published authors may miss out on? 

It’s difficult to build support networks and often feels like you don’t have clout. I had a book plagiarised last year and nothing I could do would get Amazon to act on it, despite how blatant it was. It would’ve been nice for someone to have my back – Amazon are actually still profiting off these fraudsters, because I ran out of energy to chase it down. Also, much as I enjoy doing everything, I’d rather be writing, and there are heaps of hugely talented people in publishing that could do the rest of the stuff better than me. 

One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience? 

Most definitely. When I released my debut, Wixon’s Day, I worked feverishly to build an audience. I sold somewhere around 100 copies. I had a break before trying to sell the next novel, a few year later, and was left thinking, “Haha, how the hell did I ever get 100 people to buy Wixon’s Day?” 

But there’s nothing more rewarding than picking up dedicated fans along the way, and some of those early 100 remain my most enthusiastic fans. 

For those that haven’t read Under Ordshaw, can you tell us a bit about it? 

It’s an urban fantasy thriller set in a fictional UK city where there are tunnels hiding nasty secrets and a shady government agency keeping it all hush hush. Cue Pax, a quick-witted card sharp who stumbles upon this mystery and has to solve it before it kills her. 

I’ve previously avoided mentioning a big fantasy component, but the cat’s out of the bag that there are also fairies. Little, vulgar, violent fairies. 

What was your initial inspiration for Under Ordshaw? How long have you been working on it? Has it evolved from its original idea? 

It’s an idea that blossomed over about ten years – I wrote a longer exploration of its origins on Lynn’s Books. It came from pondering ‘what if’s while urban exploring. I teased a few novel ideas over the years before writing a screenplay roughly similar to the current book (minus Pax or the Ministry, but a similar plot…). That evolved into an animated feature where an army of penguins was at war with minotaurs. We allegedly had Whoopi Goldberg attached (it was tenuous). 

Something clicked around 2016, when I realised I could combine some unrelated early novels with my original screenplay and make a cohesive series. Then Pax just kind of appeared and took over. 

Could you briefly tell us a little about your main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers will sympathize with them? 

Pax is a card player, so she lives in a fairly different world, brushing shoulders with criminals and lowlifes. She’s got a quick, jokey wit but is otherwise a bit of a recluse trying to keep to herself – which isn’t always easy as she comes off as quite companionable. 

Probably worth mentioning Letty too, as she’s a reader favourite – she’s brash, violent and has a penchant for creative insults. But it’s best to meet her for yourself. 

What was your favorite part about writing Under Ordshaw? 

The relationship between Pax and Letty. They have a dynamic I could watch all day. (And many thousands of words have been trimmed because of that!) 

You’ve created rich world with unique species. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work? 

Oh my. The great challenge of my life. I’ve always got a problem expecting people to understand stuff that makes sense to me; big credit is due to my editor, Carrie O’Grady, for helping. She flags where more information is needed or (more likely!) where things get too complicated. 

In all three books in the opening trilogy, there were stages when I had more characters and twists than needed, and conversations about past events that got maddeningly complex. A lot of tweaking and trimming and pruning and tweaking and trimming and – oh my. 

The world you’ve created and developed gives you plenty of space for future spin-offs (more Tova please) and explorations. Do you plan to focus on developing it or to try something new? 

I’m definitely expanding on it; there are spin-offs on the way. I’ve got a contained tower block horror story, a 21st century dungeons & dragons style adventure and a couple of different eras of historical fantasy to tie in. If anyone’s following carefully, watch out for everything Rufaizu says, because every reference he makes is a potential novel. 

I’ve written half of Tova’s next novel but I’ve left it to mature while I complete the next chapter in the series – an international adventure with all new characters. It follows a thieving gang of Louisiana jazz musicians trying to protect a kid with freaky red eyes, while a vagrant manic-depressive assassin and a British spy explore the Congo. 

It’ll all connect eventually – that madcap romp and Under Ordshaw and all else. If I can weave it together before I die. And I’m writing a few new things, too – at least two other series, phew! 

Writing the sequel to a well-received book can be stressful :) How was writing A Blue Angel and The Violent Fae different from Under Ordhsaw? Did the final versions of these books differ from how you envisioned it as you were completing Under Ordshaw and looking ahead to the series as a whole? 

The sequels were so much harder to write. I didn’t have much concept for Blue Angel beyond knowing how it would end; its final twist was originally revealed in a comment in Under Ordshaw, which my editor pointed out was too interesting to blithely toss into a conversation. Bam, another book to write. With The Violent Fae I had a solid idea of the story from the outset, but it was fiendishly complex to piece together, having been limited by the previous two stories (always so much easier to start something than end it!). And the chief characters of all three books weren’t exactly planned, but emerged as the story did. 

All that said, the latter two books were also much more rewarding than the first. I surprised myself with how well The Violent Fae brought everything together – so much so I kind of want to scream at people just venturing into Under Ordshaw that it gets better as it goes. 

Now I just need to maintain that trajectory for a dozen more books until I create something that’s too incredible to look at. 

How many books have you planned for the series? 

I’ve estimated roughly 15 so far, though it could go on indefinitely if there’s readers out there. I have three separate arcs to combine into a final trilogy, with some standalones in between, but The City Screams was never supposed to come along when it did (originally planned as Book 7), and as Q.18 hopefully made clear there’s potential for all sorts of wild new directions. 

What sort of research did you do for the series? 

I read into underground spaces and the history of metros, but that doesn’t come out in the books (there was a whole section in Blue Angel exploring it, but it wasn’t very relevant and only survived as a sentence or two). I’ve also done lots of bits and pieces of research into businesses and cities to inform Ordshaw – canvasing parks, museums, road and district naming conventions; really mundane stuff to make it feel more alive. Otherwise, a lot of it’s based on observation or experience - Pax’s card-playing is based on my own (less exciting) gambling. 

Would you say that Ordshaw series follows tropes or kicks them? 

It kicks some urban fantasy tropes, with atypical monsters and no romance so far. And our ‘kickass’ heroine is unfit, wears loose clothes and can’t fight. But we do have the shady government agency and a fantasy world hidden alongside our own, with neon lights, dark alleys and mysterious books. And it follows tropes borrowed from elsewhere: it is essentially an ‘everywoman-unravelling-a-mystery-to-survive’ thriller, with a few femme fatales and some good old-fashioned British gangster drama. 

Cover art is always an important factor in book sales. Can you tell us about the idea behind the cover of Under Ordshaw? 

Again I’d refer to a more detailed account, this one on Bibliosanctum, but in brief, I felt the conventional genre norms didn’t fit the story, and I could never find a satisfactory way to portray Pax. So I tried to do something like a thriller cover with an abstracted monster element, which is what we have. 

It was much easier for the later books, once I had a style to fit ideas into, but honestly I’m always left wondering if Under Ordshaw’s cover is quite the right fit! 

Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it! 

I’m quite capable of spewing out tons of detail about my books, regardless the question asked, so it’s not really a problem – but I’d like to see is readers noticing the little details. This’ll become more important as I hit Book 100 or so and wonder if anyone will spot a hint at something someone said in Wixon’s Day or whatnot. (Hot tip: one of the plot twists in The City Screams is revealed in a throwaway comment in Blue Angel. First person to find it wins a round of cheese.) 

What’s your publishing Schedule for 2020/2021? 

My plan was to have two new Ordshaw books out this year, along with the Under Ordshaw audiobook and a non-fiction book at the end of the year. I also intended to release a book from the backburner - I’ve got a complete epic portal fantasy and a dystopian/cyberpunk action thriller both waiting for editing. And two more volumes of Ordshaw Vignettes, my short accompanying stories, are on the way. 

But as Burns wrote, the best-laid schemes gang aft agley afore coronavirus. I’ve had to slow things down to work on my non-fiction, but that overall plan will stretch into 2021. On the plus side, we’ll probably see the Blue Angel audiobook sooner than expected. 

I’ve also started on a new epic fantasy series that looks more or less like Great-War-era feminist grimdark. And some crime thrillers set in Ordshaw. They’ll probably crop up soon, too. 

Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about? 

Part of the reason my releases have been slow this year is that I’ve been querying traditional publishers. I’d still really like to get a foot in the traditional door, and that grimdark mentioned above might be the opener. But we’ll see! 

Otherwise, I had big plans on visiting all the conventions this year, after I attended DublinCon and BristolCon last year and met the most wonderful people. The coronavirus squatted upon these plans with vile excremental glee. But when the gates reopen, I’ll be mingling! 

Can you name three books you adore as reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer/in awe of the craft? 

Only three?! There’s so very many … but: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban (I could write whole essays on what makes this book exceptional); Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (an utterly captivating nightmare, which no else could ever write quite the same way); and let’s say Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (so perfectly realised and worthy of its length). All three are books I consider really exceptional, which I could die happy having written. Otherwise I’ll never stop, knowing I’ve not achieved something like that. 

Though there’s about a hundred more I could list (anything by Shirley Jackson, Catch-22, Alfred Bester’s early – no, no I must stop). 

Thank you for taking the time to answer all the questions. In closing, do you have any parting thoughts or comments you would like to share with our readers? 

Thanks tremendously for having me, this has been a really detailed and insightful interview! I feel like I should end with something frightfully witty by instead I’ll just wish your readers to discover their next book deeply entertains and fulfils them. And that their next book is one of mine.


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