According to her blog, Jen Williams is “a fantasy writer and Lego obsessive who spends much of her time frowning at notebooks in cafes and fiddling with maps of imaginary places.” GS has swiped this because we can’t think of any better introduction to our interview with the author of the Copper Cat trilogy and BFS Best Newcomer nominee.
GS: What can you tell us about the third book in the Copper Cat trilogy, The Silver Tide?
Jen: Well, you get to meet Wydrin’s mum, Devinia the Red, who as we’ve heard from previous books is a famous pirate in her own right. In true sword-and-sorcery fashion, she has a map of an island that tells of hidden treasure, and inevitably, the island is cursed, so she needs the help of the Black Feather Three. Wydrin’s mum was so much fun to write – the chapter where we first meet her was one of my favourite parts of the whole trilogy. I also got to play around a little with Wydrin and Frith’s relationship now it’s sort of established, which was interesting. In The Silver Tide you can expect lots of pirates, and weird magic, and more romance, and it’s probably the most god-centric book of the three – lots of god weirdness going on. It is the last in the series and I have done my best to give them a proper ending (I like closure!) but I’d definitely be open to coming back to this universe in the future.
GS: It’s common for fantasy novels to help readers to keep track of various characters and their whereabouts with family trees and maps, but although The Copper Cat trilogy doesn’t include anything like that, it’s always very easy to keep track of everything. Was this something you deliberately worked at?
Jen: I had my own map to help me, especially at the end of The Copper Promise, and the truth is there are lots of notes and sketches that will never be seen by anyone else because they are so incredibly untidy. In terms of keeping track, I think it helps that the genre is really sword and sorcery rather than epic fantasy: epic fantasy tends to be all about the aristocracy, their sprawling families and all their blood ties – the Copper Cat books have a more working class vibe, with just three main characters – it’s a lot easier to keep track of everyone and helps to keep the pace up. I read a piece of writing advice once that stated: if you are bored by what you are writing, then other people will be too. As someone who finds writing long travel montages quite boring I was keen to avoid them! That’s why I’m always finding ways to move my characters around very quickly, with magic or by griffin or werken. Plus, travel by mythological beast is much cooler!
GS: Was there any real world inspiration for the character of Wydrin and is she the kind of character you wanted to read about in fantasy yourself?
Jen: I don’t think she’s based on anyone. She’s definitely not based on me! She’s really your archetypal rogue who happens to be a woman, and that’s the seed of her character. I would like to see more characters like Wydrin in fantasy in general: not just because she’s a woman, but also because she’s a woman who’s not a princess. Wydrin has her own life, and I hope that comes through in the books. She’s not defined by her role in the group or her relationship to another person, and she often takes the lead, driving Frith and Sebastian forward. I’ve always had an aversion to the trope of a strong female character only being strong because something terrible has happened to her in her past – Wydrin just happens to be very capable. All three of the main characters are modern versions of sword and sorcery tropes, so there’s Wydrin the rogue, Sebastian the physically imposing warrior who is sensitive to a fault, and Frith, who’s not physically imposing at all but has other means of causing trouble.
GS: In which RPG do you think Wydrin would be most at home?
Jen: Dragon Age! The Copper Promise basically exists because of Dragon Age. We’d just got an Xbox and randomly chose a game because it had a dragon on the front, and I became horribly obsessed with it. At its heart Dragon Age is a traditional fantasy story but with a very modern edge; it’s funny and dramatic and dark, and consequently it got me back into traditional fantasy in a big way. Wydrin would definitely fit right in there as a rogue. She’d be one of the romanceable characters who dumps you. I have a terrible attraction to the ones who just end up dumping you.
GS: Do you have a favourite dragon in fantasy, and if so why?
Jen: I am a huge fan of Robin Hobb, and in her Liveship Traders books there is a dragon called Tintaglia. Tintaglia is incredibly powerful and strong, and rather arrogant; she sees humans as largely pointless creatures because our life spans are so short compared to hers, and so she spends a lot of time getting the hump with the human characters who won’t bend to her will. She is brilliant.
GS: If you could go back and offer yourself advice at the start of the publishing process, what would it be?
Jen: Keep track of your receipts. Don’t buy that Windows 8 laptop, you will hate it. Don’t freak out about writing the second book, it will be fine. Get more sleep. And don’t read bad reviews! I have been very lucky in that there have been a lot of lovely reviews, which really boost your confidence, but if it’s remotely possible, try to avoid the bad ones. You can’t listen to every point of view (not if you don’t want to end up hopelessly confused, anyway) and they do tend derail your entire day.
GS: Was there ever a moment where you felt like a “proper author”?
Jen: I think like most writers I still have Imposter Syndrome to some extent, but it does gradually get better. When your first book comes out, you don’t really understand why you’ve been allowed to set your books loose in the world – surely someone has made a mistake somewhere? Then the second book arrives and you start to think perhaps it wasn’t all a massive misunderstanding… Publishing is such an incremental process I think there have been lots of little moments, really. Like seeing my book in a bookshop, or having people I don’t know telling me that they enjoyed it, or fan art – fan art is very surreal, because you’re seeing another person’s vision of your character. Oh, and being nominated for Best Newcomer at BFS awards! In truth I don’t think you ever really get used to it though.
GS: Together with author Den Patrick, you organise the Super Relaxed Fantasy Club. Can you tell us about it and how it came about?
Jen: Basically, we wanted to do that bit of conventions where you all hang out in a bar. The idea kicked around on Twitter for a while, and eventually Den suggested we should just do it and see who turns up. The first meeting was at the Royal Festival Hall, and I managed to miss it as I had a chest infection! Good timing. But we had about 15 people at the second meeting and it just grew from there. Now we’ve moved venues to the Grange Hotel in Holborn and meet on the last Tuesday of every month. We had about 60 people at the last one. It’s very casual, a place for us all to hang out and chat, but I think the takeup suggests that there was a need for something like it.
GS: Have you got any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
Jen: Yes! Headline have bought a new trilogy from me. The first book is called The Ninth Rain, and it’s a separate series to the Copper Cat books, set in a new fantasy world, with all new characters and nonsense. I can’t say too much about it right now as it’s still very much in the planning stages, but it features a dying empire, a reluctant hero, and witches blowing things up. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
Thanks for talking to us, Jen!
The Silver Tide will be available from Headline on 25 February 2016.
Interviewer: Michaela Gray