This interview took place in November 2001, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #222, March / April 2002) the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.
TB: Liz Williams is the author of several short stories, which have appeared in Interzone and elsewhere - online and in print. Her first novel, The Ghost Sister, was recently published by Bantam in the US, and has been shortlisted for the Philip K Dick Award. What made you start writing? What were you doing before?
LW: I was a philosopher for about ten years. I went into academic philosophy, but basically there just aren’t that many jobs for philosophers around. I did a whole range of other things, including reading tarot cards and selling flowers in restaurants: the usual boring list of things that writers do when they haven't actually written anything yet, and have to pay the bills. When I was in my mid-twenties I got a proper job, working for a big educational concern in England that recruited students from the central Asian countries - places like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan. That culminated in us going out to live in Kazakhstan for the summer of '96. The subsequent four years were spent going back and forth between central Asia and this country, recruiting students and trying to persuade people to come to universities in Britain: it was basically educational marketing. Then the Soviet economy collapsed and took most of the central Asian economies with it. I got made redundant, and started writing more or less full time. I got a small part-time job to pay the bills, but now the part-time job has given me up, so I'm a full-time writer.
TB: What made you decide to become a writer?
LW: I always wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. My mother was a writer: she wrote a series of Gothic horror novels and Gothic romance novels in the 1970s. The impression that I got was that it was perfectly normal for women to sit and write, at the end of the day or at odd hours in the day. When I was eleven, she brought back a copy of Jack Vance's Planet of Adventure series from the local library, and that was it, I was lost! I fell completely in love with Jack Vance and everything he wrote, and when I get round to it I'm going to write him a proper fan letter. Partly because of that, and partly because of my wanting to travel - I wanted to travel to places on this world, but this world's getting smaller all the time - I wanted to create my own world, so I could travel on the cheap.
TB: You've certainly managed the travel on this world: how have your travels affected what you write?
LW: It's affected it a lot, in the sense of luring me to particular places because I think they're like the planets I've invented. I was very keen to go to central Asia because it's like the image of the world in The Ghost Sister, the world Monde d'Isle, that I had from about fourteen or so. I wanted to go to the Gobi Desert (which I haven't actually been to yet): I wanted to go to the steppes. The region of Kazakhstan in which we were living is a mountainous area, and once you get out of town it’s very wild and deserted - that's the sort of place I want to go to. I never set out to be in central Asian marketing, but by a rather bizarre set of coincidences, that's where I got.
Place is very important to me. I grew up having been imbued with this sense of landscape. I think that the land is important, and that places have an intrinsic importance in terms of the effect that they have upon the mythology and legends of a society. That's something that I can't really stop coming out in the writing.
TB: Several of your short stories have a strong sense of place. 'The Blood Thieves', for example, is set in Iceland: did you actually get to go there?
LW: No. Writing is a bit manipulative, because when I write about something I can take the choice to write about somewhere completely imaginary, or about somewhere I've been - which is fairly straightforward. Or I can write about somewhere that I hope to go to some day, and then turn up on the one Interzone Icelandic subscriber's doorstep with a copy of the magazine. "You don't know me, but I've written a story set in Iceland! Want to go out for a drink?" My forthcoming novel, Empire of Bones, gave me a reason to go to India, which we did. It's partly that the travel comes first, and partly that it's an excuse.
TB: One of the more interesting settings of a short story is 'Adventures in the Ghost Trade', which was shortlisted for the BSFA Award in 2000. It's a future Singapore, or rather a future franchise of Singapore.
LW: Yes, it's a franchise of Singapore. It's actually Hong Kong, which I do know.
TB: It has a Blade Runner, film noir feel to it.
LW: That's Hong Kong: it just has that anyway. It doesn't really have to try: it's a futuristic, peculiar place. The reason it was described in the story as a Singaporean franchise was because there actually was a plan by the Singaporean government, a couple of years ago, to franchise out the city plan of Singapore to under-developed areas so they could build Singapore in the middle of Africa, for example. This isn't something that I came up with, it's something that they came up with! They ought to be writing science fiction, because the people in charge of Singapore are clearly the horrifying way that the future is going to go. I've never figured out what the franchise consists of. I don't know if it's the whole ‘ecosystem’, the police force and the rules about not spitting in lifts and the general city plan. I never got as far as figuring it out, because by that time I was up and running, writing my story.
TB: Singapore Three has a spatial correlation with Hell. It reminds me of that old axiom, 'As above, so below'.
LW: Hell has the same street plan, more or less, and similar buildings. Again, this is not something that I can take credit for: the Chinese version of Hell is unbelievably bureaucratic. You have to fill out forms to get into it. You have to go through an immigration procedure when you die. If you don't have the right forms, you don't get there. You don't get into heaven, either. There is a Ministry of Epidemics, in Chinese mythology. There is a Ministry of Diseases, and a Ministry of War. I think there's a Ministry of Lust, but I haven't quite got to grips with that one yet! It's all bureaucratically based, and the structure is like the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century structure of Chinese bureaucracy. Burning money so that it goes to your relatives, burning little replicas of cars or little replicas of microwaves so that they manifest in Hell, is something that the Chinese do a lot of - because, you know, you don't want them to be without these things. You can marry your dead relatives off. When I was in Hong Kong, I knew somebody whose dead daughter was getting married to the dead son of a neighbour. The families were saying, "OK, we can't actually have them here, but we know they're getting married because we've set it up."
TB: Modern, or future, science coming into contact with ancient myth is another theme you revisit in several different stories. Science and myth don’t inevitably clash but they highlight aspects of each other. Are they opposites, or are they complementary?
LW: Ultimately, they're parts of the same thing. Mythology is based on an empirical understanding of the world around you. You screw up, and the volcano erupts. You have a poor idea of causal relationship, so you think you've done it. It happens again - and repeatability is the hallmark of a scientific experiment - so you think this time you've definitely done it. That's in a very primitive state where you don't have technology. You're working with what you see, and the beliefs that you have are drawn out of natural events, and usually a mistaken causal relationship between yourself and those events. It starts to get murkier later on, when you get people like Newton (who saw himself as an alchemist), and Doctor John Dee. I've just been researching Dr. Dee for a third novel: he claimed to have invented flying machines and to have discovered a method of communicating across vast distances by means of fire, which he wouldn't talk about.
In Elizabethan times, the mythological world and the religious world and the scientific world really start to go head-to-head, whereas previously they jogged along on parallel lines, sometimes mixing, sometimes colliding, sometimes working in harmony. I think it's in the Elizabethan period and the Renaissance period that the scientific and the occult worlds really start to mesh, and I think the mesh is where people like me start writing science fantasy. That's what I write: I think it's a label that you don't see very much now, but I do write science fantasy, not science fiction or fantasy.
TB: You don’t build your plots around hard science.
LW: I can't bluff the background: my background is in philosophy, and I don’t need to bluff that.
TB: Was 'The Unthinkables' the first epistemological thriller that Interzone had published?
LW: Almost certainly it wasn't. These ideas are so central to science fiction. People want to know about how people know things, and where people get their knowledge. Alien societies are built on people having different knowledge and a different way of treating knowledge, and a different way of conceptualising it.
TB: That story deals with a caste-based alien society, where the undercaste - like India’s Untouchables, but these are the Unthinkables - subvert the dominant caste by coming up with a thought paradox.
LW: it's a world where you can actually, literally, infect people with a meme, not just by the ideas that you give them but also by hormones and viruses. It's the world in Empire of Bones, and it's interesting you mention the Untouchables because that novel is based on the British in India, and the heroine is, an Untouchable.
TB: You've said elsewhere that the world of The Ghost Sister has been with you for a very long time. How did it feel to finally write it down? How much has it all changed?
LW: It was like suddenly being a teenager. These characters have been with me since I was about thirteen or fourteen. It was a bit like being a thirteen-year-old again and saying, "Hey! Come and investigate my bedroom! Turn out the drawers!" It was very embarrassing. It's like inviting people into your head: but it's not the fairly rational, compos mentis person that you are now, but the fourteen-year-old, angst-ridden self that we all were. It's very strange having your private teenage hero on the page for people to read and relate to.
The characters haven't changed; they're pretty much as they were. The world certainly hasn't changed a lot, and neither has the geography of the world. And I am going to enthuse with adolescent passion, because the map in the front of the book is the map that I was drawing in my bedroom when I was fourteen. There's hope for teenage geeks everywhere! The plot has changed a lot. I'm very much one for bolting the plot on afterwards, which is an embarrassing confession really, and it probably shows.
TB: If you have the scenario and you have the characters, then maybe the longer you live with them the better you know them. You know that what they do isn't so important, because you know who they are.
LW: You know what they would do. In any circumstance, I know what they'd do, and it's usually not the right thing.
TB: According to the cover, ‘The fate of a planet lies with an outcast woman and a mysterious visitor’ - but The Ghost Sister is not quite the novel you might expect from that description. The action takes place on a lost colony world, Monde d’Isle: the ‘natives’, who are descended from the original colonists, are visited by an all-female anthropological mission from Irie St Syre, that colony’s source. How much have the Mondhaith changed in the meantime? Are they still human?
LW: They are basically human beings, but they're a long way down the genetic line. They turn their kids out when the kids are very small, to fend for themselves (like the ancient Spartans did, but for much longer than one night) until they're about thirteen. During their childhood they're not actually conscious: they're like little animals. That should tell you where I'm coming from in terms of the maternal instinct! When they hit puberty, consciousness comes upon them and they return, rather like migrating birds, to the place where they were born. They start developing interesting thoughts and civilised customs. They do revert from time to time, and the reversion is to their base nature rather than their civilised nature.
TB: One of the characters says about another, "He's not an animal. At least, not all the time." In a sense, it’s a werewolf story.
LW: It's certainly, basically, a werewolf story. They don't turn into animals, but they are animals within. They are what we are, effectively, but it's a sharper distinction. We aren't animals, except when we are. They're much more extreme because that's what science fiction highlights. It brings out certain behavioural aspects and sharpens things so that you can see the light and the shadow.
TB: The anthropologists are absolutely horrified by the Mondhaith treatment of children: "Oh, these poor children! Look, they've been turned out of their homes - what terrible neglect and abuse!" The Mondhaith, meanwhile, are saying, "Yes, we turned them out, but they'll be back eventually." They don’t understand the problem. I was reminded of Philip Pullman's comment about children being ignorant little savages.
LW: I do think he has a point! When I was on my way to the station today, a small child made a creditable and serious attempt to shove his sister in front of a bus. That kind of thing gets glossed over as 'oh, they're only playing'. Are they hell! They’re more than ignoble little savages, obviously, but that is an element of their behaviour. Childhood is a violent and disturbing time. It gets sentimentalised in this culture, and over-brutalised in other cultures.
TB: In the language of Monde d’Isle, the word for 'child' translates as 'human-to-be'... You mentioned the maternal instinct, it’s not really a feature of their society. This is not a book that upholds stereotypical gender roles.
LW: No. One of the ways that you get rid of stereotypical gender roles, for women, is to take the kids away from them. Then there's no reason to stay home, do the cleaning, and look after the children. I don't mean that this is an excuse for getting out of something else, but that has often been the role in which women are put because they have no choice. In our world they have a choice, because they can choose whether or not to have children. We have adequate contraception in most countries, though not all. On Monde d'Isle they have a choice because the kids are sent out into the wilderness. In a sense they have less of a choice than we do, because they can't choose to bring up their children even if they want to, and some of them do want to.
TB: It's difficult to find maternal characters in any of your writing.
LW: I can't write from the perspective of a mother because I'm not a mother. That's something that I think is the great divide, and I know that people who are parents say that when you have children your entire worldview changes. In effect your consciousness changes. Suddenly your children are the focus. Because I haven't had that, I don't think I can write about it convincingly, so I don't write about it at all.
TB: One of several strong women in the novel is a grandmother who's a quantum anthropologist. Grandmothers seem to crop up in your fiction quite frequently: it reminds me of all those Chinese stories about children and grandparents, where the grandparents are wise and the wisdom seems to have skipped a generation.
LW: Grandmothers are very important. I had both my grandmothers alive at the time when I was growing up: one grandmother lived with us. Grandmothers are important in many cultures, because they're the repositories of what people know: it’s the same with grandfathers. The older people in societies tend to get respect, because they know more than the young. They have knowledge of history - I don't think they get enough credit for that - and they have knowledge of change, which a child does not have.
TB: Having an older woman as a major character sidesteps the trap of it becoming just another love story, a planetary romance. Instead, Shu Gho - the grandmother anthropologist - becomes a friend of the primary male character. That must have affected the way the relationships developed in the book.
LW: Yes, it did. I have a lot of friends who are a lot older than myself. I also have a lot of friends who are younger than myself. I don't see that portrayed in a lot of fiction, that you can value somebody for how much experience they've had, and for how much experience you've had in relation to them. The ‘grandmother’ thing, I think, came originally out of that quote from Ursula le Guin about how it's never Mrs. Brown, the little old lady, who goes off to the alien planet. The strapping young hero does, the mad scientist and his daughter do, but the little old grandmother doesn't. Why can’t she go to another planet?
TB: Your ‘little old grandmother’, Shu, is also a quantum anthropologist. What’s a quantum anthropologist?
LW: Quantum mechanics posits that you change what you see. Anthropology is all about observation, looking at cultures and studying them. When you participate in a culture as an anthropologist, you necessarily bring your own preconditions to it. Your relationship to the people that you see is structured by the fact that you’re an outside observer. So how far does it have an effect at the social level? How far do you change what you observe, just by observing it? These people, the visitors, don’t really interact with the society: they just look at it. What effect does looking have? There’s a story coming out in Asimov’s called ‘Quantum Anthropology’, which is set on Monde d’Isle, and it’s about two very stroppy young women and an anthropologist, and what they do to him inadvertently, and what he does to them by being an observer.
TB: The women of the Mission follow the Gaian path, a sort of green feminism.
LW: It’s bog-standard Gaian goddess-worship. I’m a pagan. I get very hacked off with the kind of ‘we’re here to save the world’ mentality. We’re screwing up the ecosphere, and anything unfortunate enough to share it with us. But the planet itself goes on. Planets don’t care. They irradiate themselves; they blow themselves up at regular intervals. If humans managed to set off every atomic device on this planet, it would be pretty much a blip compared to what the planet has done to itself in its history. The idea that the goddess of the planet is some sort of human figure is comforting for us, but completely wrong with relationship to the world itself.
TB: One of the themes of the novel is the contrast between the terraforming mentality with which the original colonists set out - let’s make this world into a nice, safe, weather-controlled place for us to live - and the geoforming- let’s make ourselves fit this world. The first viewpoint can be typified by the phrase ‘the world in harmony with us’: the second, by a Mondhaith tale of the first ancestor, who ‘thought it best to put humans in harmony with the world’.
LW: I used to do a lot of amateur archaeology. After one particularly stressful meeting with English Heritage or the National Trust, the site director said, “it’s now my job to keep the public away from sharp things”. The British Druid Order won’t be celebrating at Stonehenge this year because last year somebody fell over: it’s dark and it’s muddy in the middle of winter. And English Heritage are now terrified of being sued. This is the Gaian mentality: keep ‘em away from sharp things. But life is about risk, and about finding your own way to do things. And that often involves danger. And sharp objects.
Terry Pratchett writes somewhere that sin starts when you start treating other people as things. And the Gaians do treat other people as things. They’re inconvenient. Their mentality is inconvenient. It doesn’t follow the patterns that they’ve come to believe are the One True Way. And so they’ve got to change, haven’t they?
TB: The Irians arrive and immediately begin to make judgements about what they perceive as a less advanced culture - even though it’s more flexible than the society they’re used to. That contrast is like two worlds colliding, metaphorically as well as literally - it’s like a clash between science fiction and fantasy. Which do you prefer writing?
LW: I have ideas for stories, and I’m not too bothered about what plots they fit into. It can be a problem knowing where to send the stories. Some places are very flexible: Interzone is very forgiving, and Asimov’s has actually proved quite forgiving too. I have stories that I don’t know where to send, because they’re too cross-genre. I send them to slipstream anthologies, but they’re not right for that either. Then again, if they want them rewritten, I’ll rewrite them.
TB: That must be difficult with something like The Ghost Sister, where the scenario and the characters have been with you for so long. There are limits to what you would change, surely.
LW: I don’t think I would have made it into a fantasy because I don’t think it would have worked. But given enough time, and enough money, I probably could have done it.
TB: In The Ghost Sister, you use four different first-person voices. Most of your short stories are first person narratives too. What’s so appealing about writing in the first person?
LW: It just comes out that way. It’s a cheap narrative trick, as well; it’s easier to get people engaged. I notice the first-person ones - and psychologists everywhere will have a field day - tend to be blokes. I tend to write a first-person narrative more easily as a man than I do as a woman. I’m not prepared to spend thousands of pounds on therapy finding out why. Eleres [the male protagonist] was very easy: Eleres is pretty close to me.
TB: What prompted you to write it from different viewpoints?
LW: I’d written it all as Eleres, and then I decided that I needed to get different perspectives on him. Originally, the anthropologists weren’t there at all. They came later, and those bits were written a lot faster than the rest of the book, so I don’t know how successful those other voices were.
TB: What’s coming up?
LW: What’s coming up in April is Empire of Bones, which is set in India. The basis is the British in India, but they’re alien civil servants, not British civil servants. After that, there are two more novels for Bantam, one of which has just been delivered. That’s called The Poison Master, and it’s about Elizabethans in space with drugs. This is the one in which John Dee appears.
TB: Alchemy in space?
LW: Alchemy and drugs (and Elizabethans), in fact, because alchemy and drugs are related quite heavily, certainly in many societies.
After that there’s a novel set in Kazakhstan, about a seven hundred year old hero who doesn’t know why he’s lived so long, and a failed cosmonaut. That hasn’t been written yet, and I don’t know when it’s coming out.
TB: And what about your travel writing?
LW: I plan to do more of that now that I’m unemployed. I need a way of generating more money, and I like doing it!
TB: You contributed a chapter to the Rough Guide to Women’s Travel, didn’t you?
LW: Yes, the chapter on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. I know both areas so I want to do more on that. Another project I’ve been working on is a series of interviews with women in the former Soviet republics. There are interviews with women in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and a bunch of Afghan refugees in Tajikistan - somebody did those last interviews for me, in Russian, so I need to sit down and translate them.
TB: How about more short stories? There was a cluster of stories published in Interzone. Do you write in batches?
LW: I sent them to Interzone as a batch, which you shouldn’t really do. I did apologise for it. I’ve been sending them single pieces since. I have a Kazakhstani / Uzbekistani one about genetic modification coming up in Interzone in January or February: two coming up in Asimov’s: two coming up in Realms of Fantasy: and I think there’s one in The Third Alternative.
[Audience]: In The Ghost Sister, the society depends very heavily on their biology, and the biology very much informs the society. Which came first - the biology or the society?
LW: The biology. I knew the characters had a problem, and when you have a problem the social constraints are going to come out of that. I don’t think all our problems are biological, but a lot of them are. This is a bunch of people whose main problem happens to be biological, so their society reflects that.
[Audience]: You said you were influenced early on by Jack Vance. Who else has been an influence, and who do you wish you could write like?
LW: The Poison Master started off being very Vancian, so when that comes out you will notice a few familiar elements. Le Guin I love, Tanith Lee I love: and people like Arthur Machen who was writing at the turn of the century - who weren’t, obviously, science fiction writers, but gothic writers. I was very into that whole gothic strand, though I don’t try to emulate it. I love Ray Bradbury. There’s a trend emerging here of people whose prose is better than their plots. Although their plots are pretty good, I think their real strengths are in their writing. I liked Isaac Asimov when I was growing up; I read all the Clarke and Asimov books. The prose didn’t grab me but I thought the plots, the stories, were great. Vance’s prose grabbed me because it’s so idiosyncratic. I wasn’t too keen on some of the 1970s feminist authors. I was too young and intolerant of what was actually going on to take people like Suzy McKee Charnas on board. I’m reading Lois McMaster Bujold at the moment, which is a lot of fun. She’s not a great stylist, and I wish she’d do something with her bloody planets: they’re terribly bog standard. But I like her plots, and I love her characters.
TB: How about current British writers?
LW: I think a lot of the small press authors are very good, the people who write for The Third Alternative and Visionary Tongue. I love Perdido Street Station: I thought that was a cracking book. Another person who I rate is Graham Joyce - again, because he’s a good storyteller, a good stylist, and I like his take on things. He’s very cross-genre. There are people outside the mainstream press who I rate enormously highly, and people on the mainstream shelves who I just don’t bother with. There’s an awful lot of pedestrian stuff out there. I couldn’t be bothered to read it if I was ill.
[Audience]: We’re sat here in the middle of this great burgeoning of British SF, fantasy and science fiction - but you’re only getting published in the United States. Is this by accident or design?
LW: My agent is in the States. I went to her, cap in hand, through an announcement in Locus: she’s Shawna McCarthy, and she’d moved from her literary agency and was setting up on her own. I sent her the stuff, she took me on, and because she’s primarily an American agent she sells to American publishing houses. We can’t sell The Ghost Sister over here, and we’re still trying, though it may be now coming out with Big Engine. It was too slow in pace for most of the British publishers: that’s what they said.
[Audience]: What about Russian science fiction?
LW: I love Chinghiz Atmaitov, who is very much a ‘sense of place’ man, with a bit of science fiction bolted on: he’s Kyrgyz, and not very well known over here, but I have seen some of his science fiction in English translation. And Mikhail Zinoniev, who was a philosophy professor at Moscow University until he defected, and he wrote a series of very bitter novels, with some fantasy elements, (“The Glorious Future,” “The Yawning Heights”) about what it was like to live in Moscow during the 1960s and 1970s. I like his stuff a lot but it’s harrowing. Harrowing in a very funny way, though. I’d like to read more science fiction from Russia. They are very into it. You say you’re a science fiction writer and they say “Oh yes, I’ve read Dostoyevsky too”. You think, “hang on a minute!” - they don’t make any distinction between literary stuff and science fiction. Instant respect for science fiction writers!