Neil Williamson

Neil Williamson lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he works as a technical writer, hangs out with the Glasgow SF Writers Circle and plays loud music with his band, Murnie. In 2005, Neil edited Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction with Andrew J Wilson to wide acclaim. His first collection of bittersweet tales, The Ephemera, features fourteen stories of impermanence: from the ends of love affairs and the brief sanity of wartime convalescence, to the fading away of old languages and the dying of humanity itself. Charles Packer caught up with him as The Ephemera was released by Elastic Press...

Charles Packer: What made you want to be a writer apart from the obvious attractions of social isolation, poverty, hard work and little reward?

Neil Williamson: Those were certainly temptations, but I think I started writing simply because it looked like fun.

Of course, having a bash at putting together a story isn't the same as deciding to become "a writer". That step came after attending Duncan Lunan's SF writing evening class at Glasgow University, which in turn led to being introduced to the incredible people of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle [], whose encouragement and critique helped me realise I should probably take the whole thing a bit more seriously.

CP: What would be your two best pieces of advice for the millions of budding authors who have read your book and felt befouled and hopeless by just how good it is?

NW: Firstly, that feeling of befoulment goes away the more copies you buy of the book. Try it!

And be hopeful, not hopeless. If you read something that you admire, try and find inspiration in it. Jonathan Carroll's collection The Panic Hand contains a story called Learning To Leave which is the epitome of everything I want my stories to be, so I reread it every six months or so for inspiration. Don't worry that someone else has achieved the same thing what you were attempting. Keep on writing your own stories - they'll be unique.

CP: Your short story collection seems to draw on many diverse influences. What was the first story that you read that made you think, not only do I want to do that but I could do it just as well?

NW: I've got wide tastes and have always read many different kinds of stories - which was why editing last year's Nova Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction with Andrew J Wilson was such a blast.

At school I read a lot of the Pan and Fontana ghost story anthologies, as well as collections by the likes of Bradbury and Saki. But it wasn't until I discovered Interzone in the late 1980's that the bug really bit me. There was one particular story by Ian R MacLeod called Well Loved that was so beautifully written it had me retyping it and breaking it down to analyse how it was done. I was like Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas trying to understand how Christmas is made. I'm not sure there was a notion of "I could do it just as well" as such though, but certainly: "I want to try to do this just as well."

CP: You chose the short story as your initial medium, one of the most difficult to get right, was this informed choice or a form of personal masochism?

NW: It was a semi-informed choice I suppose, and there were two reasons for it. The first relates to the last question. I was hooked on Interzone at the time. They were publishing some incredible stuff then, and it was almost exclusively short fiction. So that was what I wanted to write.

The second reason is that I was conned by an old writing adage that it's easier to learn to write by starting short and working up to longer works when you've got the hang of it. Which is total rubbish. Getting a short story right is an infinite process. It's never completely and utterly finished to your satisfaction. A novel, though, does require more commitment over a longer period of time. And, I guess, a supplementary answer to that question is that until relatively recently, I wasn't prepared to make that commitment.

CP: Okay, admit it, how many times did you really dance around the room when your first story was published?

NW: My first publication came very early, in Territories magazine, and since I didn't know any better I have to admit I was fairly laid back about it. Pleased, but laid back. I knew better, though, some years later when I first sold to Interzone (after many years of trying). That was a thirty-laps-of-the-living-room night, that was.

CP: Do you think that it's more important that writing should make the audience think or just entertain?

NW: Both. The vast majority of fiction readers do so for entertainment. It's what I read fiction for too. People love a good yarn. But at the same time, one of the things that science fiction has always done is get people thinking about the world and the times we live in; and really good science fiction manages to do both absolutely seamlessly.

CD: Do you think that the recent glut of sci-fi and fantasy films has belittled the art of this genre and further deteriorated reader's idea of its potential importance as an art form?

NW: Not really. The main reason for the glut I suppose is that it's the in vogue way to give the audience the action-adventure extravaganzas that have always been the biggest box office.

Way back, I guess it was Westerns that filled that niche, or Gangster movies or what have you. There were gluts of all of those too, but each of those genres spawned a The Searchers or The Godfather, for example. Same with the current SF crop - in amongst all the (highly entertaining) high action fodder you get an Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, don't you?

With movies, I think people are able to distinguish that Blockbuster is a super-genre of its own, that doesn't really impinge on what else is possible within the recognised genres. Unfortunately, I don't think too many of those non-SF fans who cram into the multiplexes even consider the possibility of reading a thought-provoking SF book, but we can but hope.

CP: Why do you think that science fiction and fantasy writing gets less respect than a novel about an aged wino contemplating his existential navel, with a monkey on his knee?

NW: There are long-standing reasons for why realist fiction is currently seen as more worthy than generic, but one take on it relates to that earlier question about entertainment vs thought provoking. There seems to be this really odd - and masochistic - academic idea that something that entertains must be worthless. Which is just ludicrous.

Don't knock monkeys, though. Very fine creatures, monkeys. There are monkeys in my novel, you know.

CP: It seems that in the last ten years a lot of the new vitality in science fiction and fantasy writing seems to be coming from the independent sector. Do you think that the larger publishers have lost track of this market?

NW: The interest and expertise is still there in the major SF imprints to publish the very best SF they can find, but the business of publishing has become so competitive at that level that the large houses can no longer carry what used to be called "the midlist" - writers whose books sell in okay, but not huge, quantities. People still want to read these writers, and it seems to me that the role of the independent presses have taken up is to provide those books, as well as other sorts of books that the majors find themselves unable to publish - like short story collections.

A couple of the things have happened in recent years that have made the upsurge of the independents possible. Firstly digital printing has made small print runs affordable, reducing the risk and cost of production, and secondly the Internet means that small publishers can now market all over the world. And they are doing so with gusto. Go and look up some of the independent presses - for example, Elastic Press, PS Publishing, Pendragon Press or Mercat Press in the UK, or NightShade Books, Small Beer Press, Prime Books or Pyr in the USA - they're publishing some incredible work right now and presenting it in the form of beautiful books.

CP: Your about to finish writing your first novel, what made you commit to such a large project?

NW: I think I finally had an idea that was big enough to explore in four or five hundred pages instead of fifteen. The Moon King is about life in a city that has trapped the moon within its own horizon, about the madness of the king that rules it and about how things change when the ancient machinery that holds it there starts to degrade - with monkeys - so there's been lots to write about, and a short story just wouldn't have done it justice. And there was peer pressure too - many of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle guys were starting to work on novels, so it seemed like the right time to give it a bash myself.

To be honest, it's been brilliant fun. Frustrating at times, and occasionally seemingly never-ending, but a great experience. I'm pretty sure I'll do another one once this is out of the way, but I won't give up the short fiction. That's where my heart lies.

CP: Thank you for your time.

The Ephemera is released through Elastic Press from 01 May 2006.
Order this book for £4.79 (RRP: £5.99) by clicking here

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