❉ Fantasy novel The Ninth Rain is the first in an epic new trilogy. We chat with its author, Jen Williams.
British Fantasy Awards Best Newcomer nominee, fantasy writer Jen Williams, is the author of The Copper Cat Trilogy and her latest book, The Ninth Rain – the first book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy– was published by Headline last month.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was born in Woolwich and grew up in that weird bit of outer southeast London that isn’t sure whether it’s London or not. I went to Art College in Maidstone and briefly played around with the idea of being an illustrator for children’s picture books (despite being largely terrible with children) but eventually accepted that I preferred writing stories to illustrating them. My childhood could perhaps be summed up with images of caravan holidays on the coast, wearing my cousin’s handed-down jumpers, refusing to eat vegetables of any sort and reading endless books. These days I live in glorious Camberwell, which is very definitely London.
So, what have you written so far?
I wrote a trilogy of sword and sorcery books called The Copper Cat series. They are both a love letter to the sort of fantasy involving taverns and dragons and grubby magic, and a deliberate attempt to mess about with those tropes. The word that appears most often in reviews of The Copper Cat trilogy is ‘romp’. They’re fun books, with snappy dialogue and a secret dark heart. I’ve also written a few short stories, which have popped up here and there, and I often write blogs about videogames and cartoons – two of my favourite things.
Can you tell us about your latest book, The Ninth Rain?
The Ninth Rain is the first book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy. It’s about a world that has been poisoned and ravaged by an implacable alien force. Well, mostly it’s about the people who are trying to live through it: Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon is a scholar with a vested interest in solving the mystery of the invasions; Tormalin the Oathless is one of the last members of a dying race called the Eborans, who are the only warriors capable of defeating the alien enemy; Noon is an escaped convict and a witch with a tendency to blow things up. They all argue a lot.
Give us an insight into the book’s main characters. What do they do that is so special?
Vintage is the character most readers latch on to, I think. She’s a woman in her forties who has spent much of her life running her family’s vineyard (Vintage is a nickname) and when she’s not doing that she’s researching the alien threat and their abandoned ships. Vintage is funny, independent, and kind, with a ruthless streak that means she can be unpredictable. Tormalin on the other hand is vain, self-centred, exquisitely handsome and deadly with a sword – as Vintage’s hired muscle, his job is to keep them alive whilst travelling through the dangerous landscapes of Sarn. Of course, there’s more to Tor than preening and drinking, and he is in many ways much more likeable than he’d like you to think. Noon is the character who doesn’t know who she is yet – she’s spent the last ten years of her life imprisoned in an institution called the Winnowry. She knows that she’s dangerous, and she knows that she doesn’t want to feel guilty about it anymore.
What genre are your books?
They are fantasy – sitting somewhere between sword and sorcery and epic fantasy. We like our subsections in fantasy.
What draws you to this genre?
I love the freedom to create my own worlds, and the opportunity that gives you for spectacle. I always want to be taken somewhere new when I’m reading a book.
Which actors would you like to see playing the lead characters from The Ninth Rain?
Usually, this is something I would avoid like a plague – they exist very clearly in my head and it’s almost impossible to pin those images to flesh-and-blood actors. However, I did post about this once and was surprised at how accurately I managed to cast it. Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon would be played by Simmone Missick (although she is technically a decade too young), and Tormalin by Daniel Henney. Noon I find much harder to pin down. Claudia Kim maybe? Although that could just be because I love her in Marco Polo.
When did you decide to become a writer? What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?
I’ve always written bits and pieces – the first birthday present I remember asking for was a typewriter – but I only really started to take it seriously when I realised that I felt actively better when I was writing. One day I had an especially crap day at work (I was a bookseller at the time) and I came home and decided to cheer myself up by writing a short scene that had been knocking around in my head all day. When I’d finished that, I wanted to find out what had led to that scene, and over the course of about two years I wrote my first novel. It was rubbish, but when it was done I immediately started another one. I had found the thing that made me happy.
Do you write full-time or part-time?
I am a copywriter in my day job, so technically I am writing all the time… Ideally, I would be the sort of writer who spends all day every day working on her novel, but I live in London and not having a regular wage that turns up every month to pay the rent is the sort of hair-raising experience I am happy to avoid.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just see where an idea takes you?
I’ve experimented with both approaches, and these days I have a very rough plan, detailed character notes, and a willingness to follow where the story leads. For me, planning too much kills the story dead and turns the writing into a chore, whereas completely making it up as you go along can leave you stalled with nowhere to go 60,000 words in – and that is no fun at all, believe me.
How do you think you’ve evolved creatively?
I think the problem with the evolution of your writing is that it’s changing so gradually you can’t really see it happening on a day-to-day basis. I am more confident than when I started, and I am more conscious of the themes I want to convey. Ultimately, every book is such an enormous learning process that you can’t help but be changed each time.
What struggles have you overcome as a writer?
I’m not sure that I could term my experience a struggle, particularly not with what other people have gone through. It did take me a while to accept that I was a writer, because writing was certainly not a career presented as an option to young people where I’m from. Whenever I brought it up as a teenager I was firmly told that ‘writing is too competitive’ or ‘you can do that in your own time’, and then gently steered towards something more practical. A career in the arts wasn’t especially supported at the time – I hope it’s different now. Publishing still isn’t as welcoming as it could be to people from working class backgrounds, but it is gradually changing.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I suppose it’s roughly a year all in all, with around nine months for the first draft, and then a few months of frantic editing.
Which writers inspire you?
I have lots of favourite authors (what writer doesn’t?) but there are also those writers who make me excited to work in the fantasy genre, or to be telling stories at all. Robin Hobb is a huge inspiration to me – I think her books are unmatched for emotional depth – and Terry Pratchett wrote the sort of books that made you a better person for reading them. I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and I’ve no doubt he had a big impact on my formative years. I am always geared up to write action after reading Bernard Cornwell’s Alfred the Great books, and he, along with the amazing Hilary Mantel, are my inspirations in the parallel universe where I write historical fiction.
What is your favourite book and why?
This is a terrible and evil question, but it’s probably Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb. In fact I’ll take that entire trilogy – the whole thing is perfection. Hobb does an incredible job of weaving the magic and the history of a world with the histories and struggles of her characters. It’s also a master class in character development.
For your own reading, do you prefer ebooks or traditional paper/hard back books?
I was very sceptical about the idea of ebooks until my boyfriend bought me a kindle for my birthday, and within 30 seconds I was won over. I love physical books of course (I trained to be an illustrator for four years, after all) and our flat is packed to the gills with them, but ultimately the most important bit of a book is its words, and those can be carried around easily and conveniently on an e-reader. My kindle goes with me everywhere.
There is a weird species of snobbery about ebooks which I cannot be having with at all – perhaps it’s because I refuse to be especially precious about physical books. It’s true that I own some lovely signed editions and illustrated volumes that are treated with care, but the old paperback that gets shoved in my bag will have its spine broken and it’s pages folded back (behaviour that I know summons shrieks of horror from most book lovers). Books are made to be read, and I happen to think there are few things more lovely than a paperback that has clearly been read to pieces.
What are you reading at present?
I’ve just finished Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, which has been a revelation. I love historical fiction, but for some reason always assumed that the Aubrey/Maturin series would be too dry and creaky for me. I’m not sure where I got that impression from, but I was very wrong – they are gloriously fun books, full of excellent characters and jokes. Now I’m reading In the Woods by Tana French, which is about a pair of detectives in Dublin investigating a murder that could have links to a pair of child disappearances in the ’80s. I have a fascination with true crime (I spend a lot of time reading about serial killers, don’t judge me) and consequently I read quite a bit of crime fiction too.
What would you say are the main advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing against being published or the other way around?
Oh it’s tough. I self-published the very first section of The Copper Promise when it was just a novella. I thought it would be fun, and I wanted to see what I could do with the process. As it happened, enough people were intrigued by that opening section that I was convinced to write the rest of it all in one go, and I was encouraged by a friend to send it to an agent who happened to be looking for epic fantasy – the rest is history.
However, I suspect the truth is that I wouldn’t have had the time, money or skills to be really successful at self-publishing. All the things that are taken care of by the publisher – the editing, the cover, the marketing, sending out review copies etc – have to be done by you, and along with actually writing the book, that’s a lot of work. I have heard lots of self-publishing fans say that is the heart of the attraction, because it gives you complete independence.
In the end, it depends on what suits you best. Personally I am over the moon to be traditionally published, and would fight a horde of angry bears before being parted from my editor and agent. A couple of things I would advise: don’t chuck the first thing you write out there on Amazon, and don’t self-publish just because your first book gets a couple of rejections. Writing is a long game.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
It’s the most obvious advice in the world, but keep writing and finish the things you start. There’s always a period during the writing of a book when you desperately want to start something else, but this is almost always a bad idea. Actually finishing a book teaches you an enormous amount about how stories are put together and that’s often more valuable than starting a shiny new project which you’ll probably be tempted to ditch halfway through (again). Also, don’t expect your first book to be amazing. If anything I would recommend putting it away and starting another as soon as it’s finished.
What are you working on at the minute? Do you have any upcoming projects?
I’m currently working on the sequel to The Ninth Rain, which is called The Bitter Twins. The middle book is always the hardest, so I’m more or less sweating blood over it at the moment, and I can’t say much for fear of spoilers, but some big and scary stuff is going down in book two.
How can readers discover more about you and you work?
I intermittently remember to update my website at sennydreadful.co.uk, but mostly the best way to see what I’m up to is to follow me on twitter, via the handle @sennydreadful. I am on there all the time and although I tweet a lot of nonsense, there are occasional posts about my work, too.
Where can one buy your books?
In any good bookshop, hopefully, and through the usual online sellers.
Thank you very much, for taking the time to take part in this interview.
Thank you for all the questions!
❉ ‘The Ninth Rain’ was published on 23 February 2017 by Hodder Headline, RRP £14.99 (hardback).