Edward Willett is an American ex-pat living in the Great White North. He is the author of several YA books which are mentioned in the interview. We talk about support from your family when you tell ‘em you want to pursue this crazy field for a living. We discuss the Bible and science fiction and why YA is so popular even among adults. Check him out on gab.ai/ewillett
- Tell me a little about how you were raised. What was your family like? Did they encourage reading, writing and artistic pursuits from a young age or we’re you the odd kid of the family always with a book?
I was born in Silver City, New Mexico (Billy the Kid territory)—my father was preaching for the church of Christ in the small town of Bayard at the time. When I was two we moved to Lubbock, Texas, where my Dad taught at Lubbock Christian High School. We moved to Tulia, Texas, when I was six: I started school there (and skipped Grade 1 because I’d learned to read in kindergarten—which, combined with a summer birthday, meant I was usually a year and a half younger than everyone else in my class through the rest of my school years). In 1967 we moved to Canada, but it had nothing to do with the draft: my father had been teaching in the public school system and wanted to teach in a Christian school again, and an old college friend of his came through Tulia and recruited him to come to Western Christian College in North Weyburn, Saskatchewan. My parents had moved a lot since they were first married, but they finally settled at Western, and so that’s where I really grew up.
My parents were readers and my two older brothers were readers, so our house was full of books. My mother, who worked as a secretary, never wrote fiction, but for decades she wrote hundreds of letters a year to friends and family and missionaries—she probably wrote more words in her life than I will in mine. My father was a preacher and teacher (his bachelor’s degree was in English), and good writer in his own right. He also directed choruses (his master’s degree was in Music Education) and coached the school’s boys’ basketball team to multiple provincial championships. I was only the odd one out of us three brothers in that I never really took to athletics very much—we all read, but they played sports and I rarely did, although I did play one year of high school football and actually enjoyed it very much. I was also interested in art (I took correspondence art classes in high school) and music (I sang in my Dad’s choir, and also played French horn, trumpet, electric bass and piano) and acting (I was in my first play in junior high and took every opportunity to be on stage I could get), but writing became my first love. I had a friend named (honestly) John Smith, and we would get together in an empty classroom after school and write, then read to each other what we had written, alternating sentences for the occasional humorous effect. I wrote longer and longer stories, and in Grades 10, 11 and 12 wrote a novel every year—and shared them with my classmates, which revealed to me that I could tell stories other people would enjoy reading.
- Every writer I know was a reader first, and probably still is. What were some of the books that influenced you as a young man? What types of stories did you gravitate to?
Both of my older brothers read science fiction, so those were the kinds of books around the house and I gravitated to them very early on. I read tons of other stuff, too, of course: animal stories (Call of the Wild, White Fang, the Black Stallion books), ghost stories, adventure stories (The Incredible Journey), and so forth, but the writers who really influenced me the most were science fiction and fantasy writers: Robert A. Heinlein (his juveniles—Have Space Suit Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, etc.), Isaac Asimov (especially I, Robot), Robert Silverberg (his very early novel Revolt on Alpha C was one I read over and over), Marion Zimmer Bradley (specifically a very early book called The Colors of Space), everything by Andre Norton (Moon of Three Rings was one I read multiple times), Madeleine L’Engle. The other book I was thoroughly steeped in because of being the son of a preacher man was The Bible. I found sermons boring, so I read the Bible while the preacher was droning on (well, probably not when my father was preaching), start to finish. And of course I studied it at church, in high school at Western Christian College, and at university (Harding University in Searcy, AR, where my parents went to college and met, and which, like Western, is affiliated with the churches of Christ.)
- Were your parents nervous or worried for you when you told them you wanted to be an author? Or did they support your decision without hesitation?
They were fully supportive of my decision to write, although Mom never read very many of my books—she was a very down-to-earth person and she found SF and fantasy a little too weird for her taste. My Dad read some, although he died before most of my novels were published. Also, I didn’t just launch into being an author: I knew, even in high school, how difficult it is to be a fulltime writer and that that didn’t happen just because you wanted it to happen. I deliberately went into journalism (which is what my B.A. is in) because I figured at least it would be writing, and would pay the bills while I wrote novels on the side. I think my folks were a little worried when I decided to become a fulltime freelancer, quitting my job at the Saskatchewan Science Centre (where I was communications officer for five years after spending the first eight years out of college as a reporter/photographer/columnist/cartoonist at, and eventually news editor of, the weekly Weyburn Review), but they supported me even then—including financially, loaning me money so I didn’t have to sell my car when funds were very short in my first year or two freelancing. Actually, Dad was more worried about my continued interest in acting and singing—he didn’t think much of the typical actor’s lifestyle or morals, and didn’t want me to get sucked into that world.
- You write in the YA (Young Adult) fantasy/sci-fi genre. What is the most challenging part of writing for younger (teens and young adults) people? Do you think that young people today are being sufficiently challenged by most of the books aimed at them?
I think the biggest challenge for any adult writing for younger readers is creating characters that are believably kids and not just adults in kid suits. In a story set in the here-and-now (like my Shards of Excalibur series) you’ve also go to worry about things like how kids interact in the world of smartphones and constant text messaging (I cheated and came up with good solid magic-related reasons why they couldn’t use smartphones), slang, current pop culture, and so on, but that’s all just a matter of research (and if you go too heavily in that direction your book will be dated before it’s published). The real challenge is to remember what it’s like to be young and to capture that in your characters.
Are young people being sufficiently challenged? The books written for young people today are way more challenging than the books written for young people when I was growing up, in terms of language, situations, sophistication of language, and on and on. It’s a golden age of young adult fiction. Which is not to say that a lot of it isn’t all that great, but then, remember Sturgeon’s Law about science fiction, paraphrased as, “Sure, ninety percent of science fiction is crap, but ninety percent of everything is crap!”
- So what makes a book YA? Is YA a genre or a demographic, possibly both? How does an author or potential author, know their idea is best suited to a YA novel instead of say a “literary” novel?
If it’s a demographic, it’s not about the age of the readers, but of the characters. Many, many adults like to read YA books (I do myself, and not just because I also write them), so it’s not that YA is only read by the young. There are very few books considered YA in which the main characters aren’t teenagers, and I think that’s the most defining characteristic of the genre: young adult stories are all, ultimately, coming-of-age stories—stories about young people encountering the world, coming to grips (or failing to come to grips) with their world, creating (or destroying or crippling) their futures and their future adult selves.
Young adult characters are malleable and vulnerable in a way adult characters rarely are. We become set in our ways as we get older; just today I was talking to a retired university professor who gets together with other retired university professors for lunch on a regular basis. He said their conversations usually turn into shouting matches because none of them will change their minds. Teens will change their minds—and the way they dress, the way they talk, and everything else about themselves—far more readily. Which makes stories about teenagers, from both a reader’s and a writer’s viewpoint, fraught with suspense and possibility—and it’s that sense of possibility that sets YA fiction apart, and makes it appealing not only to young readers who are living that reality but to older readers who perhaps wish their worlds still offered the unlimited possibilities of the young.
- You’re an indie author, but your books are published by Coteau and DAW. What tips or advice do you have for writers who want to go with a publisher over self-publishing? And is self-publishing something you would consider in the future?
I’m not really an indie author: I’ve only done two books that way (both YA, The Haunted Horn and The Chosen), to precisely no fanfare or interest. I’ve also re-released a book from a defunct publisher (Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star) as an ebook, along with its never-published sequel (Andy Nebula: Double Trouble). Otherwise, everything I’ve written has been traditionally published.
It’s hard for me to offer tips or advice; it’s just the way my career has worked out. I like traditional publishing because, at least with larger publishers, I get money up front, and even with smaller publishers, don’t have to put any funds of my own into the publishing side of things (barring perhaps a bit of marketing or buying copies for resale at conventions); but indie publishing has allowed/will allow me to put out stories that have never found a home with a traditional publisher. I’m quite sure I’ll do more self-publishing in the future—I want to bring out an illustrated collection of a couple of dozen science fiction/fantasy/horror poems I wrote, for example, and there are other possibilities as well—but at the same time, I have two novels under contract to DAW I have yet to write which could launch an open-ended series, and I’m working on a new middle-grade novel on spec for my agent, and there are only so many hours in a life, so we’ll see.
- Lots of people want to write. How do you go from wanting to be a writer, to actually writing? Is it courage, is it discipline, tenacity, a good idea and a good bit of luck?
The only way to go from wanting to be a writer to being a writer is to write. A lot. Constantly. All the other things you mention play into it, sure, but to be a writer you have to write.
Courage? Well, it takes courage to let people read what you write, so yeah.
Discipline? Apply seat of pants to chair, write. Finish what you write (that’s the tougher part). Revise and polish, submit and forget (if you’re going the traditional route), rinse and repeat.
Tenacity? I believe Stephen King said, “Anyone who CAN be discouraged from writing SHOULD be.” The biggest difference between published writers and unpublished writers is that the published writers didn’t quit while they were still unpublished writers.
A good idea? Ideas are a dime a dozen and a mediocre idea can still result in a great story. Give me an hour and I’ll give you a dozen ideas.
A bit of luck? Becoming wildly successful usually means a lot of luck. Otherwise…well, sure, you’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time when someone needs something written, and you’re able to provide it. But you make that luck by all that discipline and tenacity stuff: by writing, writing, writing.
Having said all of that, and somewhat controversially, I must say this: I strongly believe there is a genetic component to the ability to use words effectively. As someone who has worked with a lot of wannabe writers as a writer-in-residence and instructor, I know there are plenty of people who write and write and write, who are as disciplined and courageous and tenacious as you please, and yet their prose never advances to the point where anyone much is going to want to read it—while there are others whose writing flows and fascinates from a very young age (my teenage daughter, if I may offer a small brag, already writes better than many of the adults whose work I saw as writer-in-residence, some of whom had been writing for years).
- Where do ideas come from? What is your process for thinking things up and writing them down, as Neil Gaiman might say? And how does one know when they’ve got an idea worth chasing?
Ideas can come from anything. Idea-generation is a muscle you exercise by generating ideas. It can be an image, a news story, a scientific breakthrough, an overheard phrase, a person you pass on the street—literally anything. If it doesn’t give you a story right away, you might need another idea to rub up against it, creating story sparks. My process of developing an idea into a story is one of asking questions. So, for my Shards of Excalibur series, the inciting image was the mysterious look of our local lake on a foggy morning. It looked like something out of a fantasy novel. “Anything could be in that lake,” I thought. As it happens, I’ve always been a fan of Arthurian stories, and so the word “lake” triggered in my mind a particular character: the Lady of the Lake. There was the starting point: the Lady of the Lake shows up in Wascana Lake in Regina, Saskatchewan. I began asking myself questions, the first one of which was, of course, “Why?” I was already thinking in terms of fantasies and quests, so I thought, “What quest might she send some local kids on? Of course, to find the pieces of Excalibur!” Then still more questions: “Why is Excalibur broken? What kids? Who’s trying to stop them (because you a need an antagonist as well as a protagonist)?” Etc., etc. The end result: a five-book series about a teenage girl who is heir to the magical power of the Lady of the Lake, and a boy who has his own unsuspected connection to Arthur, who must find the scattered shards of Excalibur before Merlin, freed from his long magical confinement and now in the guise of a Steve Jobs/Bill Gates-like computer magnate, can reassemble the blade and use it to take over the world and launch an invasion of his own world of Faerie. But it all started with me walking around the lake on a foggy morning.
An idea is worth pursuing if I think it will hold my interest (and hopefully that of readers) to the end of a novel; or it’s worth pursuing if my editor says, “I’ll buy that” or my agent says “I could try selling that.” Not very artsy, those last two, but that’s the reality of being a professional writer.
- What is your process like? Do you wait for the muse to descend or do you take matters into your own hands trusting she’ll show up when you do?
No muse has ever descended upon me. Sounds uncomfortable. I suspect muses are rather heavy, and I wouldn’t want one looking over my shoulder while I write, anyway.
I write a rough synopsis of a few pages, start at the beginning, and write to the end, often departing my own synopsis as characters and situations evolve or pop up out of nothing. (I usually get to something like the end I foresaw, though, or close enough.) Once the book is written, I go back to the beginning and revise it, then I send it to my editor, and then I revise it again based on her/his comments. Then it goes off to be published and I’m working on the next thing.
When things are going well, I can write quite fast—the fastest I’ve ever written was during a self-guided residency at the Banff Centre, where I wrote 50,000 words of my fantasy novel Magebane (written as Lee Arthur Chane) in a week. I wrote the 100,000-word first draft of Shadows, Book 2 in The Masks of Aygrima, in a month; and the 60,000-word final book in The Shards of Excalibur, Door into Faerie, in about two weeks. It seems to work out to about 1,000 to 1,500 words an hour, but the number of hours I put into it in a day can vary enormously depending on how many different projects I’m working on at once.
- Your novels are often praised for their characters. In your opinion what makes a good character, and what advice do you have to others about creating good characters?
A good character is one that does interesting things for interesting reasons, in a manner consistent with the way actual living people do things. The reader may not have anything in common with the character, but if the character is well-written, the reader should be able to imagine being that character, and find the character’s actions both believable and justifiable—perhaps not justifiable in the larger moral sense, but justifiable within the mind of the character.
I have no advice to offer about creating good characters beyond read lots and pay attention to what people do and the reasons they give for doing it. Oh, and you might try actually meeting and perhaps even socializing with some real people now and then, no matter how much you might prefer the ones that live inside your head.
- I often ask people about their faith, and the role of faith (or unbelief) in their work and in their lives. Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you came to where you are in a religious sense? And how do your views on faith manifest themselves in your work?
I was raised in the church of Christ, which arose out of a movement known as the Restoration, which grew out of the Enlightenment and the focus on rationality it engendered. A core principle I heard often when I was growing up (and I went to church three times a week, Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night) was “We speak where the Bible speaks, and where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” The movement was based on the idea that any rational human being could read the Bible and understand it, and that a straightforward reading of the Bible provided clear and unambiguous guidance on matters of church organization, worship practices, the plan of salvation, etc. (Essentially, the same approach to the Bible that staunch Constitutionalists apply to the Constitution.) In practice, that meant self-governing churches, with no hierarchy beyond the individual congregation, led by elders and deacons. Worship was simple: congregational a cappella singing, the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, a sermon, prayers, giving. Both adults and children attended Sunday classes focused on Bible study; Wednesday night services, in fact, were usually called Bible Study. We read the Bible, discussed the Bible, memorized the Bible.
The finest people I have ever known were the Christians I grew up with and were raised by, and while I’m not attending church regularly today, and my personal beliefs are too complicated and occasionally self-contradictory to even attempt to explain here, there is no question that my upbringing in the church of Christ has been an enormous influence on who I am today as a person and a writer. I value honesty and integrity. I believe in right and wrong. I believe in simplicity. I believe in personal responsibility. And I believe, as I was taught from the very beginning, that a person can use their own intellect to reason a way to an understanding of anything.
Religion has played an overt role in some of my books (I’ve created some quite nasty false religions). I’ve made a point in other books set in the far future of making it clear that religion hasn’t gone away, that even within a spacefaring society the ancient beliefs continue to bind people together. But on the non-overt side, I believe the themes of my books reflect a Christian mindset: that we each must make decisions, day by day, about doing the right thing, or the wrong thing; that as often as not, we will choose poorly, but that does not mean we cannot choose better the next time and make right our mistakes; and that ultimately, even though we can never be perfect, striving to be perfect—as Christians are all sinners, yet strive to be as like the perfect Christ as possible—is the only way to make our world a better place. My protagonists fail a lot, and make stupid mistakes, but they’re always striving to do the right thing, and that, I think, bears the unmistakable stamp of my Christian upbringing.
- Since you’re Canadian I’ll not ask you about specific American policies, instead I’ll ask you about the tone of politics in the West in general. What do you think of the mass Islamic immigration into Europe and now into Canada?
It all comes down individuals, for me. I try very hard not to judge people based on whatever demographic group they might belong to: after all, I’m me, not a generic expatriate American in Canada, and I, too, am a first-generation immigrant to a country not of my birth. So I’m thrilled people from war-torn regions are finding a safe haven in the west, and often moved by their individual stories. Any individuals who want to build a new life in the West based on freedom and security are welcome additions.
But at the same time, there is a reason, rooted in centuries of religion and philosophy, that western countries are more peaceful and free and thus the destination of choice for refugees, and we must guard against losing both peace and freedom by allowing them to be wiped away by those who violently reject those ideals even as they take advantage of them. So by all means, let us continue to welcome refugees—but let us also be very careful about the attitudes and cultural and religious practices, or dangerous hidden agendas, some individuals among those refugees bring with them, and stand strong against any erosion of our freedoms in a vain effort to accommodate philosophies that will never change to try to accommodate ours.
- How would you define yourself politically? Liberal, libertarian, conservative, other? Complex a la carte politics? What issues are most important to you now?
I’m conservative-ish when it comes to matters of culture; libertarian-ish when it comes to individual rights and morality; leftish-ish when it comes to health care (without Canada’s government-run health care, my parents would have either been financially ruined or suffered far more healthy issues than they did; on the other hand, lots of Canadians take advantage of the U.S. system, if they can afford it, when they’re stuck on a waiting list or want the latest and greatest technology); and authoritarian-ish when it comes to certain specific things, like smoking. (We hates it, my precious, and the further into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth smoking can be banished from anywhere I have to breath the air, the better.) Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously said.
The one issue that is always of the most importance to me is freedom of speech: the idiocy on display on college campuses everywhere, the shouting down or de-platforming of speakers, the trigger warnings, all of that stuff, drives me up the wall.
- What are you working on next?
At the moment, these are my projects:
The 60th-anniversary history of J.D. Mollard and Associates, a local engineering firm founded by a very early pioneer in the use of aerial photography (and later satellite images and other remote sensing systems) for engineering purposes (road routing, dam siting, terrain analysis, etc.). It’s fascinating and I’m enjoying it a lot.
So Much More We Can Be. This is retrospective on Saskatchewan politics in the decade from 1981 to 1991, when the province was governed by the Progressive Conservatives under Grant Devine, a startling lurch to the right at the time for the birthplace of democratic socialism in North America. The book will also include several academic papers. It’s being published by a conservative think-tank, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
The Cityborn. This is my next (eighth!) novel for DAW Books, out in hardcover July 4, 2017. It’s a science fiction novel under set in a giant self-contained multi-tiered City, which has crouched for centuries above a canyon now choked to the brim with its rubbish and garbage. The story gets rolling when a girl from the elite Twelfth Tier suddenly finds herself in the Middens, the giant garbage heap beneath the City, thrown into the company of a young man who has far more in common with her than either of them guess, a secret that will determine the fate of The City and everyone who lives there.
After The Cityborn, I’ll be working on the first two books in a new series for DAW, called Worldshapers. It’s a fantasy series that will take place in many different sorts of worlds. I imagine we’re looking at 2018 for the first one.
I’m also going to be writing, on spec, a middle-grade horror/suspense novel, tentatively titled Fireboy, for my agent, Ethan Ellenberg, to offer to major publishers.
On the self-publishing side, there’s the poetry collection I mentioned; I’ve also got a couple of old YA novels I hope to polish up and put out myself.
I’m keeping busy.
- What inspires you?
Science, human achievement, nature, great art, great music, and my amazing daughter, Alice.