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Interview with Mazarkis Williams

Mazarkis Williams is a brand new SFF writer, who burst onto the shelves in late October, with his début The Emperor’s Knife, the first of a smashing new trilogy—The Tower and the Knife. Williams is an excellent and emotive writer, who perfectly blends exposition, abstract monologues, and deep character development, with riveting and relentlessly paced story. Splitting himself between the United States (Boston) and the UK (Bristol), besides wishing for a teleportation booth for Christmas and whipping up delights in the kitchen for six kids, cats and friends, Williams is bringing something new to the current market, and precisely as the review here at Fantasy Factions reveals—we like it!

His début novel released (UK) on October 27th by Jo Fletcher Books and is definitely a new flavour of fantasy that those with plain palettes, and connoisseurs alike will find they have a taste for.

Mazarkis

  1. As a brand new SFF writer, with your début still very young and fresh, who is “Mazarkis Williams” and what’s he all about, both as a writer and a person?

There’s nothing very gripping about Mazarkis Williams—hopefully the book interests people more.

I’ll make an attempt. As both a writer and a person, I’m interested in what’s inside people. I want to know what others are thinking about, make sense of seemingly inexplicable actions, find common ground with those who on the surface seem so different.

Some of the author bios out there mention that I’ve been a gamer for over fifteen years. Being that nerdy is a huge help. I’ve been the game master and one of the players, and both roles give me great ideas for heroic or villainous behaviour. Motivations are key. When you become the villain to such an extent that you decide it makes sense to burn down an entire village, you have reached the immersion point an author needs to reach.

Also, when you design a campaign for six players, you have to decide how to keep each person engaged in the story. That can be a challenge.

Unfortunately gaming doesn’t translate directly into book writing. In gaming, the story is interactive. I play with a great group of people and we end up with crazy, intricate storylines.

  1. a) It’s intriguing that roleplay-gaming and gaming in general inspire your writing where it (arguably) matters most: the plot and story. Is this an indication that the plot is the most important part in your writing, and the world and setting come second? If so, how easy do you find worldbuilding and how important is it for you?

I do find worldbuilding easy, though I don’t go into as much as some other authors. I highlight salient points of the culture and let the reader go from there. I have read a great deal of history and know how to do that, or at least, I like to think so.

I do not find plot so easy. I keep spreading out and involving too many issues. I’ll start with, say, the beginnings of a war. But then I’m thinking they need supplies, and how many wagons would that be, and what if the weather or bandits affect the supply route—what then? Before long I’m wrapped up in some inconsequential detail. It is hard for me to separate plot from realistic complications.

Especially character-driven complications: if I have a character who would slow down the plot while he deals with something from his own development arc, then he will, which draws everything out too much. I am always faithful to the characters, and one day I will be skilful enough to do that without slowing down the action.

  1. The Emperor’s Knife is part of a trilogy (The Tower and the Knife Trilogy): what’s this first book all about?

That’s a hard one. A terrible thing was done in the years before the story begins, and it haunts everyone in the palace in different ways. To some extent, The Emperor’s Knife is about how each person deals with the legacy of this event.

Two people have arguably suffered the most: Sarmin, imprisoned in his tower room since childhood, and Eyul, the assassin who committed the act in the first place. Sarmin wants revenge, but more than that, he wants companionship. He wants to talk to others, to participate in daily life—to be a person—while Eyul wants to be forgiven.

But then it is also a story about scrappy heroes fighting a seemingly all-powerful foe. Standard fantasy fare.

  1. a) Brilliant. I like your “standard fantasy fare”. In a number of interviews, both upcoming and already live on Fantasy Faction, I’ve been addressing the issue of Neoclassical fantasy, or a Renaissance in SFF, as Blake Charlton put it. How do you feel about a would-be renaissance in SFF? Is it a positive thing alongside the newer approaches of GRRM and co.?

I have looked back at the interviews you referenced, and must admit I’m not well-read enough in the genre to answer the question.

Here’s what I will say. I was attracted to fantasy in the first place because it is perfect for human stories. When you put a person in a tight spot, their true self is revealed, and it can be surprising. In real life, for example, when someone collapses at the subway station the first person to begin CPR might not be the one you expect. It might be the guy you just saw throwing an empty paper cup on the ground—the guy you were thinking was a jerk. Fantasy allows us to create that kind of an emergency times ten, and it is guaranteed the characters will show their true colours.

  1. Your début, The Emperor’s Knife, is a brand new fantasy with a different setting and a clean, modern approach to craft: how do you feel it fits in with the current SFF market?

Thank you for calling it a ‘clean, modern approach.’ I’m not sure what it means, but it sounds good!

I don’t know how The Emperor’s Knife fits into the SFF market. I only hope that it does. It offers a bit of story beyond the magic and the fighting—a story of human strength and hope, if that doesn’t sound too sappy. These people have a lot to lose, but they don’t give up, at least, not permanently. For all the grief and sadness it can be interpreted as a positive tale. It’s gritty, but doesn’t present a dark view of humanity. I like that about it.

Emperors Knife

  1. It sounds as though The Emperor’s Knife was written to please you and you alone in the first instance, writing about what you felt was important and liked, instead of a “target audience” or market. Elspeth Cooper admits that she wrote Songs of the Earth for one person initially—herself. How much can you identify with this and does this affect the writing process?

I do identify with that. I don’t have the skill to feign passion, so I have to reach inside myself and find what drives me. That makes the story particular to Mazarkis Williams, which could present a problem in regards to marketing, I suppose.

  1. It sounds as though you’re a guy who wrote a story: you had no market in mind, no audience in mind, and just felt you had to write down the story in your head. I think this is fantastic and in part builds one of the many foundations of the SFF Renaissance; instead of trying to fit into current or popular trends, or break every mould, you just write. For aspiring authors of the same ilk as yourself, what would your advice be in regards to staying true to your story, and not trying to cut, snip and change it to make it more “publishable”? Surely simply a “good story” is publishable enough? Is there ever any middle-ground between the two?

I’ve been in a lot of critique groups, both face-to-face and online, and I’ve never met an author who changed his or her story to make it marketable. My sense is that we all tell the story we want to tell. Granted, we are all influenced by what we read, and I am no exception to that. Perhaps the books that are currently popular have an influence on what gets written next.

On the other hand, perhaps trends are more of a societal thing. Myke Cole had an interesting post on the Qwillery about why military fantasy is so popular right now.  He posits that as citizens encounter fewer and fewer uniformed military personnel, those military personnel become the stuff of legend.

Anyway, to any author who wants to write a book, marketable or not, I would say go for the gut. Reach inside for that pain and dread and put it out on the page. It is difficult to do, since after that, someone is going to read it and not like it—guaranteed—but it’s the only way to write a piece of work that rings true, at least for beginners (and I consider myself a beginner).

Emperors Knife Cover

  1. a) Interesting that you consider yourself a beginner with a published book on the shelves—achieving great reviews and publicity and with a further two complete the Tower and the Knife trilogy. Why do you consider yourself a beginner as a published writer and does it imply you feel writing is always a learning process and an evolution of craft and style?

I am a beginner! This is the first book I ever finished, the first book I ever submitted, and the first book I ever had published. Talk about luck! But it has thrown me into the deep end. There’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do, both from the writing standpoint and from the standpoint of a new author surrounded by all these other talented people—it can be overwhelming. Especially when you’re talking about Night Shade’s group of people. There’s so much talent there that sometimes I just want to hide under my computer desk.

But, writing. Writing can always be improved. So from that standpoint, yes, everyone is on that journey to perfection, and perfection is very difficult to reach. For most of us, it never happens, but there’s nothing wrong with looking at what you’ve done wrong and doing better next time. One day someone will (hopefully) pick up TEK and say, ‘This was Mazarkis’ first book. The second was better and the third totally rocked.’ That’s a goal I’d like to reach.

  1. Jo Fletcher Books is a new SFF imprint of Quercus books and The Emperor’s Knife was one of the first books published. How does it feel being a new writer and seeing your début novel acting as almost an advertisement for the new imprint—as though your book is spreading the word about the new imprint?

I believe The Emperor’s Knife was the third book to come out from JFB. It was exciting, but also scary, because if everyone hated it, not just Mazarkis Williams was on the line but also Jo Fletcher Books.  But I knew that Jo was a professional at the top of her field and I had faith in what she was doing. If she thought the book was good enough, then it must have been good enough.

It was a great honour for Jo to give us that spot in her launch. Certainly something I will never forget.

  1. Let’s talk about setting: The Emperor’s Knife has an undeniable Arabian/Persian vibe which, when compared with the current host of settings and worlds presented in SFF, is pretty different and definitely exotic—it’s one of the things that makes the book so moreish, like escaping somewhere totally different, even in a fantasy world sense. Was it a conscious decision to forge this setting, or rather, that world is simply “where the story was set”?

To some extent it was just ‘where the story was set.’ Half of book 2 is in a more European setting, because that’s just where some other characters are.

But also, my history degree was largely focused on the Middle East, so there’s that.

It’s fun to write about a setting that’s different to where I sit. I like to talk about mosaics and fountains because honestly, I’d like to be there, too. The palace I’ve envisioned in Nooria is beautiful, but so is Mesema’s home in the grasslands. Plains, surrounded by mountains. Even the desert has its own charm. All these things are more fun for me to write about than castles and villages. So in some sense I suppose I was excited about sharing these locations with the reader.

  1. How long have you been writing and what got you started? Was it a decision, or more a impulse? Some writers admit they write because they would go crazy if they didn’t—how is it for you?

I’ve been making up stories since I was a little kid. I would entertain the other kids with my sagas. Occasionally we put on plays.

I do have a lot of stories in my head and as I described, gaming is an outlet for some of that. However, gaming-stories never come to a satisfying conclusion. The only way to do that was to write my own.

All day long–if I am not reading, or physically writing–I am mentally writing. Whether I am driving, making toast, or trying to go to sleep at night, there’s some kind of story winding its way along my neurons. Writing them down is harder than I always think. It’s just right there in my brain, right? Wrong. It’s teeth-grindingly awful to get those words up on the page. But at least I know what the story is before I start.

I wouldn’t go crazy if I didn’t write. Those stories would just be in my head and frankly, I’d be sparing myself the pain of coming up with the right words. I guess it’s the idea that someone might be interested in the stories that forces me to do it, and now, I’m contractually obligated. 🙂

  1. Have any books in particular ever inspired you to the point that without those books, the stories you write would not have been the same? Any unlikely sources of inspiration that simply stuck with you until you made them fit the genre/your story? Any books you might revisit simply because of their effect on you?

Well, I’d have to say George R. R. Martin, for certain. He’s written a grown-up story with complicated emotional relationships. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the one guy/one girl dynamic I often see, and A Song of Ice and Fire lets me know that’s OK. Romance can be a strong element in fantasy, but unfortunately for my character Mesema, there’s very little romance in being sent off to marry some stranger. She meets two brothers, and she feels for both, but not love—not yet. She does the best she can given the task her father has set her.

Besides that, there is the realism that infects Martin’s stories, though he’s certainly not the only one. If someone gets hurt, they feel pain. Nobody’s a superman. I feel that Eyul moans enough about his various aches and injuries to show that he’s human.

I’d also call out Robin Hobb for her Fool, someone who never reveals his/her gender throughout an entire series. While I don’t have any gender-bending in The Emperor’s Knife, it’s an inspiration to imagine that nobody is stuck being one thing or another, that you can defy readers’ expectations. Also, she has a great PTSD character in Captain Kennit. While my characters are also traumatized, I don’t think I did nearly as good a job portraying it.

I don’t know how long you want this answer to be, as I could go on and on. I admire Neil Gaiman’s prose and try to make my own as simple and shiny as that (and fail). I love Dickens for his characters. I come back to him again and again throughout my life. I love Carol Berg’s subtlety, but maybe too much, as I’m often accused of being too subtle. For example, I was afraid it was horribly obvious who the bad guy was in TEK, but apparently, it was not.

Finally, an unlikely source of inspiration. If you consider random historical people an unlikely inspiration, then there is that. I might read a history  book and find one woman, a footnote really, and think, hey, what’s her story? What did she think about all these goings-on?

  1. When it comes to writing and technique, do you craft stories the same way every time, or have you dabbled in other writing techniques? Would you say you’re an Architect or a Gardener: do you plan the whole thing down to the wiring, or rather, plant a few seeds and watch them grow?

I hate questions like this. 🙂 I do not get into nearly enough conversations about the craft, so I lack the self-knowledge and vocabulary for a good answer.

I suppose I would say gardener. At the end of a story, I’m usually scrambling to pull all my crops together and make a decent meal out of them.  With TEK I had an eggplant, two carrots, and a pumpkin. It was not easy. Knifesworn is a bit more planned.

By the way, my real-life garden is also not well planned. Luckily the tomatoes have given up on me, and volunteer to grow wherever they like–usually next to the compost bin. My squash spare me the trouble and die off early. The rabbits eat the lettuce. Not sure what kind of a metaphor that makes.

  1. Without giving away too much, what can readers expect from the Tower and the Knife trilogy as a whole?

It started out as a story of people trapped—Sarmin in his room, Mesema in her fate, Beyon in his disease, and Eyul in his job. As the story goes on you will see people attempting to change the things that constrain them. Some will be successful, and others will fail. The empire is a machine and you can’t just switch out the parts. Even the emperor will find it difficult.

The story is always about how people deal with the hand they’re dealt, and how they balance ambition, duty, and love. The Old Emperor, Tahal, was willing to give up most of his sons for the sake of the empire. How far is this emperor willing to go? What would be the effects of a kinder, gentler rule?  How safe would that leave them?

But I don’t want there to be a negative message. I try to focus on the hope for a better future, for all of them. There will be great difficulty and great sacrifice, but always hope.

You Can Read A Review For Emperors Knife Here:  http://fantasy-faction.com/2011/the-emperors-knife

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4 Comments

  1. […] the sense of foreboding throughout the book and the quick pacing which made it so enjoyable. I read an interview today where Mazakis Williams said the next book in the series will be half focused in a more […]

  2. Avatar Gail Hipkins says:

    I’m waiting, not very patiently, to see TEK made into a movie — it will be fabulous! I have a movie in my head, but it’s probably not nearly as good as one made by a professional director. TEK makes it easy to visualize. Great characters, great plot, great setting, great balance!

  3. […] Unfortunately gaming doesn’t translate directly into book writing. In gaming, the story is interactive. I play with a great group of people and we end up with crazy, intricate storylines.” Check out the full interview at Fantasy Faction. […]

  4. […] Fantasy Faction interviews Mazarkis Williams. […]

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