LIVES: Liz Williams, novelist

"[He] told me that facing death had been 'nothing like he supposed.'I asked him what it was like and he said he would tell me later, but shortly after this, he died. So it will have to be later. I'm still counting on him telling me. He's not getting out of it just because he happens to be dead."


I often start with images; dreams, impressions, and occasionally characters, but those tend to come later, after the setting has developed.

For example, I've just written a short story that started life as an image of a unicorn in Kew Gardens in London -- from that developed a far-future SF story. I also quite often misread things, and that sparks off ideas as well.

But I also go looking for story ideas -- I read a lot of mythology, and things like “Fortean Times” magazine, which is full of weirdness. And I travel a great deal, too.

Completing a new work takes about nine months to a year. I have a nine-month contract with Bantam, so that has to be the gestation period, like it or not. But I'm quite a quick writer.


Rituals or routines? No, not really, apart from gallons of mint tea and a lot of vacuous gazing into space. I find I write better in winter. I seem to have the opposite of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

I have a very close friend who inspires me and I bounce ideas off him a great deal.


Writers: born or created? Hard to say. In my own case, my mother was a writer, so it seemed an entirely natural thing to do, but I know a lot of writers who come from very unliterary backgrounds and are yet driven to write.

My mother was a writer and artist, and my father worked in a bank but was an amateur stage magician.

They certainly tolerated eccentricity and still do -- I suspect they would have done had they both been chartered accountants. But I was certainly encouraged, and they still are incredibly encouraging.

I just think of myself as Liz, who does what she does. I kind of think of myself as a writer, but who knows, that might change and it's not wise to pin down your identity to something that's essentially external.


My doctorate was in the history and philosophy of science, so I became used to looking at scientific enquiry and seeing how it influenced, and was influenced by, the history of ideas.

Philosophy underpins science -- questions about the nature of existence and the nature of consciousness, for example, but scientists don't like to admit that.

AI has philosophy as its basis; as mentioned above, if you want to have some idea about the problems encountered in developing artificial consciousness, you need to consider what consciousness actually is, and that's primarily a philosophical question.

So, the separation between them is actually illusory.

What’s more important: hard science or philosophy? Both - hard science to provide the power sources and the rockets and the IT, and philosophy/psychology to provide the warnings about all of the above.


The opening scenes of "Nine Layers of Sky", in which there's a traffic queue on the Kazakh steppe and people freeze to death, is based on a true story.

I used to read the tarot on Brighton Pier and a short story came out of that. And working for an educational consultancy got me to Central Asia, so I suppose you could say that this was a job which generated a story idea.

Otherwise, not generally [used to folding real-life events into fictional stories].

Real-life vs. fantasy worlds: It depends on the world. The world of "Nine Layers of Sky" is highly similar. Other worlds are similar in that they have humanoid life forms, but the social structures tend to be radically different - e.g. the world in "The Ghost Sister," where people put their children on the mountainside to fend for themselves until puberty.

The major difference between fiction and real life: real life is much weirder.


I've always been lucky enough to be surrounded by highly original people, and they are constantly saying things to me that make me think or make me laugh.

The one missed opportunity was that my partner, who had recently been operated on for a brain tumor, told me that facing death had been “nothing like he supposed.”

I asked him what it was like and he said he would tell me later, but shortly after this, he died. So it will have to be later.

I'm still counting on him telling me. He's not getting out of it just because he happens to be dead.


How I chose the title for my first book: actually, I didn't -- my friend, the writer Peter Garratt, gave me that one.

I'm much better at finding titles for short stories than I am for novels. Usually the novel title is a panicking last-minute process between myself and my editor. I think "The Poison Master" is the only one that survived from start to finish.


“Dancing Day” is about a demon who accidentally possesses someone in an alternative version of Constantinople. It's the only story I've ever written that started life in a workshop and serves me right, because I was very cynical about the workshop process up until then.

“Banner of Souls” started out as a story about Martian princesses, but since my partner died in the middle of my writing it, it gradually turned into a work that was more and more about death and the boundaries between life and death.


Themes that appear in my work: death, transformation, the importance of myths...

I think I'm trying to work out what I think. It's a long process but probably saves me a fortune in therapist's fees.

Things I think about: Fundamentally, the nature of the soul and its continuation. I have no answers. The more you study philosophy, the fewer answers you get and the more any initial certainty is eroded away.


What drives me crazy: Political stupidity. Fanaticism makes me furious and so does intolerance. I'm completely intolerant of intolerance.

Also puzzling: Why so many people pride themselves on being stupid.


I don't suffer from it, but that doesn't mean I never will. If I run into a block with a story, I tend to go off and do something else until it resolves itself.


Books: LeGuin, Aiken, Bradbury, Vance, Wilkie Collins, the Beats....

Music: I listen to a lot of Celtic stuff and a lot of women's music, but I'm not sure whether it influences me.

The one book I wish I’d written: "The Left Hand of Darkness."


I met a fascinating man on a boat on a Czech lake: he was a lecturer in psychology at the local university and we ended up having a conversation about hypnagogic imagery.


What interests me: The occult, herbalism, hallucinogenic drugs, spirituality, SF and fantasy (I'm still a fan as well as a writer), yoga, poetry, the Celtic countries and travel generally, other people...

Eyes: Ronald Hutton's history of British witchcraft, "The Triumph of the Moon." It's a fascinating read and has a great deal of scholarly rigor (as indeed does Ron, who is a friend of mine).

Ears: A Breton group called Gwalarn and Lisa Loeb's “Firecracker” are being alternated right now...


The biggest myth about being a creative: That you have to be literally mad.

The hardest thing about being a writer: The money is usually terrible.

What I wish someone had told me when I first started out: They told me everything, several times. I ignored most of it, though.

Musical motto: Patti Smith's "Babelogue": "I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future."

Necessary things: In my case, a reasonably ordered environment, a supportive other person, and Wales.

If I wasn’t a writer, I’d definitely be: Terry Pratchett's chief witch Granny Weatherwax. I'm heading that way, anyway.

Bio: Novelist Liz Williams has degrees in philosophy and artificial intelligence. She has taught English as a Second Language in Kazakhstan. She is the author of "The Ghost Sister" (2001) and "Empire of Bones" (2002), both of which were Philip K. Dick Award finalists, "The Poison Master" (2003), "Nine Layers of Sky" (2003), "Banner of Souls" (2004) and numerous short stories.

Her book of collected short stories, "The Banquet of the Lords of Night," has just been released. Williams is currently at work on a sequel to "The Snake Agent" (Nightshade), called "The Demon and the City."

Visit official site: Liz Williams

Read blog: Liz Williams